Alix Kates Shulman's black feminist comedy Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen still has the power to shock, fifty years after it was first published.
It's 1950s America. Sasha Davis is beautiful, smart and not short on boyfriends. Despite having it all, she's on an anxiety spiral. Twenty-four years of age, it won't be long until she's thirty when she's sure she will have lost her looks. As a woman, she knows all the cards are stacked against her. It's either marry, have children, play second fiddle to a second-rate husband, or face economic ruin and social ostracism. Sasha marries Frank, an academic, and agrees to work mundane jobs to support his burgeoning career. Eventually she can stand it no longer, travels through Europe, has an affair and decides to leave Frank, only to end up in more financial, romantic and reproductive jeopardy.
First published in 1972, the blackly comic Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen was a runaway hit, clearly hitting a nerve with readers. The story is told in a convoluted way, the novel opening with Sasha leaving her husband, then describing her childhood, growing up and finally becoming prom queen, with all its resultant problems with boys. Sasha does hit the dreaded age of 30 and finds life doesn't get easier, especially if you're a woman.
Alix Kates Shulman doesn't hold back in describing all the inequities and horrors facing women and young girls. (One memorable scene has a group of young boys virtually abduct a young Sasha and pull her underwear off in a ritual humiliation). For women in the 1950s and 60s, there are limited job opportunities, sexual harassment, the drudgery of bringing up children and financial insecurity. Women's reproductive issues are brought up in some of the novel's most confronting scenes, with language so coarse (and funny) it can't be repeated here. The depiction of an abortion, and its aftermath, is a true horror, with images that will stay in the mind forever.
Both rancid comedy and feminist call-to-arms, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen may not be to everyone's taste. It's dark, brutal, caustic and funny. It's also a rollicking ride of a book, a take-no-prisoners account of 1950s womanhood and still reads as remarkably modern. An important document of the times and a marker of how much progress still needs to be made.
Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, by Alix Kates Shulman. Published by Serpent's Tail. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Marg Piercy's feminist classic A Woman on the Edge of Time critiques our dominant capitalist, patriarchal model, and offers the reader an alternative future.
It's the 1970s. Consuelo (Connie) Ramos, a Mexican-American woman in her mid-thirties, has been unfairly incarcerated at a New York mental institution. She has had some drug use issues in her past, some domestic problems, but nothing warranting this extreme treatment. In hospital, she is subjected to all sorts of cruelties and indignities. Bureaucracy and form filling permeate everything; the doctors and nurses are self-centred career professionals, interested only in self-promotion and moving up the hierarchy. As mental health care experts they may profess to be governed by the principles of rationality and best practice, but in reality they're highly unstable themselves, plagued with a litany of personal problems.
Connie is in serious trouble. The doctors want to perform an operation on her brain that will allow them to control her moods. She's seen the results on other patients – one committed suicide and another was left but a shell of her former self – and has determined she must escape the hospital. But how?
During her tumultuous detention, Connie has been visited by a being from the future. Luciente, an androgynous woman from the year 2137, makes contact and persuades Connie to visit the future, a better place by far. They time travel to Mattapoisett, an agrarian community that has eliminated most forms of oppressive hierarchy, patriarchy and big government. This future civilisation is gender-neutral, classless and racially diverse. Technology is used conservatively, decision making is consultative and democratic, in a grass roots kind of way, and society is by and large much more feminised. The same old human problems remain – jealousy, impatience, violent impulses – but they are dealt with in a more open and honest manner. Neither has war been eliminated. The people of Mattapoisett are involved in a conflict with an ultra-capitalist, environmentally rapacious enemy – the last remnants of our own society.
Connie learns much from Luciente and her people. The biggest lesson is that, in her own time, in a New York mental hospital, she's involved in a war herself. A war against terrible social and economic forces that keep women like her locked up and tortured. She decides to fight back – to at least try to resist – with devastating results.
First published in 1976, Marg Piercy's feminist, sci-fi classic is a mind bending novel of utopian possibilities. The sections that deal with the mental hospital – its grim wards, defeated patients and sadistic doctors – are rivetting for their sense of realism. Piercy makes a compelling critique of our rational, expert dominated world, which can lack empathy and common sense. (Interestingly, the future world of Mattapoisett has no time for big titled professionals, seeing house work as just as important as neurosurgery.)
Readers may find the utopian world of Mattapoisett a bit of a throwback to the seventies, with its hippie-like eschewal of property, its nature cult and gender fluidity. Nevertheless, Piercy does write a philosophically detailed alternate future, one that provides an illuminating contrast to the mad world of 70s New York. Mattapoisett is a breath of fresh air, an idealistic alternative to our current brutal capitalist model.
A Woman on the Edge of Time will challenge and shock. The world looks different having read it.
A Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marg Piercy. Published by Penguin. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
When a young girl is sent to work at a sea admiral's house, she discovers a bizarre boy-monster hiding under the bed in a secret room.
Young Emilia (affectionately known as Lampie) lives with her father Augustus in a lighthouse. It is part of her job to light the lamp in the lighthouse to warn ships, but one night she forgets the matches and disaster strikes. A ship crashes and all hell breaks loose. Lampie's father, who is also a drunk, strikes her on the cheek and she is sent away to work at Black House. Black House belongs to the often absent Admiral and Lampie must labour under the orders of Martha, the housekeeper. Lampie starts to hear rumours about a horrible monster that lives in a mysterious room at the top of the house. Curiosity drives her on, despite the possible dangers, and what she discovers is both amazing and shocking. A boy, the Admiral's son, is hiding under the bed. His name is Edward, although Lampie calls him fish because of certain physical attributes he has. Edward has difficulty walking due to what he describes as his “deformity” and would dearly like to walk like a normal boy, not so much for himself but to impress his distant father.
Lampie and the Children of the Sea, a first novel from Dutch illustrator and writer Annet Schaap, reads in many ways like a seafaring version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. The novel's central struggle centres around an orphaned girl trying to help a crippled boy regain his sense of self and belonging, and hence curing him. Whereas The Secret Garden is more realistic and psychological, Lampie and the Children of the Sea is an out and out fantasy, whimsical and otherworldly. There are some great set pieces – especially Lampie's visit to the fair and meeting with the "phenomenal freaks". Annet Schaap's visceral description of the freakshow mermaid, sitting in her dirty tub of water, is genuinely hair raising. It is this mixture of constant invention and playfulness, along with the novel's undertow of melancholy, its themes of displacement and abandonment, that makes Lampie and the Children of the Sea emotionally resonant but also an unabashed entertainment.
A thrilling, soaring adventure with a cast of idiosyncratic, if not bizarre, characters that captures the imagination.
9+ years old
Lampie and the Children of the Sea, by Annet Schaap. Published by Pushkin Children's. $16.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Osbert the family dog is considered too scruffy to attend Aunt Cathy's wedding. Can the children make him presentable in time?
It's the day before Aunt Cathy's wedding. Father has decided the family dog, Osbert, cannot attend. He's too scruffy looking. The family has had Osbert since he was one month old, and they'd hoped he'd turn into a terrier, but they've had to settle instead for a black poodle with limp fur. The children – Ann, Peter, Jane and Andrew – are terribly upset. They decide to take Osbert to Monsieur Toto, a popular ladies' hairdresser. Monsieur Toto is very busy with appointments, but decides to take on this urgent job. When the children pick Osbert up they are delighted with the transformation. Osbert has had a permanent wave, his fur is shampooed, his legs shaved into cowboy trousers and his head topped off with a spray of orange blossom. He's the hit of the wedding!
Noel Streatfeild, famous for her children's novel Ballet Shoes, first published Osbert in 1950. It fell out of print immediately after and has only now been revived, almost seventy years later. It's a charming, funny, quirky story, with delightful illustrations by Susanne Suba and sure to appeal to children and adults of all ages. A re-discovered gem that shouldn't be missed.
Osbert, by Noel Streatfeild. Published by Scholastic. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Edna O'Brien paints an unforgettable portrait of the lives of African women.
A group of Nigerian girls are abducted from their school by a militant jihadi group. They are taken to a secret camp and undergo all sorts of horrors, including genital mutilation and pack rape. To show the girls their possible fate should they not submit to the militants' authority, they are made to witness a woman's public stoning.
The focus of the novel is Maryam, who narrates her story. She has been through so much trauma and hardship that she is not even sure of her age. Married off to a jihadi soldier, she has a baby girl, but manages to escape the camp. Finally reunited with her mother after much danger, it would seem her ordeal has ended, but it's only really just begun.
Irish novelist Edna O'Brien's new novel is a work of great courage, integrity and artistic risk-taking. Taking on the voice of a young African woman (the story is based on the Boko Haram abductions) is a brave step, but in such skilled hands it pays off. O'Brien's novel has urgency, fire and anger. Written with consummate skill, even grace, it's an unforgettable portrait of the shocking abuses of girls and women.
Girl, by Edna O'Brien. Published by Faber. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A young woman goes on a journey of self-discovery in this intimate, understated debut from Chinese author, An Yu.
Jia Jia lives in her Beijing apartment with her husband, Chen Hang, a successful businessman. It's more a marriage of convenience than love, and there are suggestions that not all his business dealings are above board. One morning Jia Jia walks into the bathroom of their apartment to find her husband in the bath, his head submerged. Nearby is a strange, enigmatic drawing he has made of a man with a fish's body, what comes to be called “the fish man”. Was it suicide, or accidental death? Maybe something more sinister?
Left alone in the world with a large, four-bedroom apartment, Jia Jia embarks on an uncertain new life, one of self re-creation. She strikes up a friendship with Leo, who runs a bar near her apartment, and takes on some freelance work as an artist. The idea then strikes her to take a trip to Tibet, replicating the exact journey her husband had taken before his untimely death.
In Tibet Jia Jia meets some new people who help her unlock the mystery of “the fish man”, the strange picture her husband had drawn before he died. In the process, new information is also revealed about her troubled mother, who died young.
Braised Pork is the first novel by 26-year-old An Yu. She was born and raised in Beijing, moved to New York as a teenager and now lives between Paris and Hong Kong. She writes her fiction in English. This is an engaging and elusive debut - elusive in a good way. The story is set out in clear and simple prose – it’s a dream to read – and is rich in ambience, describing city life and its feelings of isolation. As the story progresses, it becomes more evocative and contains many dream passages where Jia Jia falls into what is described as a “world of water” that is linked to “the fish man”. This world of water could be described as a state of being, almost a state of nothingness, that offers relief from Jia Jia's grief and depression. In the world of water, Jia Jia doesn't have to be anything, but can be happy to simply exist. It's a dark, yet meditative place.
Some readers may find Braised Pork too abstract and intangible. The more evocative dream sequences can leave you scratching your head as to what it all really means. But too much explanation could have tipped this sensitive and delicate story, with its strong vein of magic realism, into something more blunt and prosaic.
A highly enjoyable debut and an author to watch.
Release date 21st January, 2020
Braised Pork, by An Yu. Published by Harvill/Secker. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Jarrett Kobek explains what’s wrong with the world in this cathartic, darkly comic novel.
It's impossible to place the novels of Turkish-American writer Jarett Kobek in any kind of category: they seem written in complete opposition to contemporary literary fiction. His anarchic style, which eschews story arcs and character development, has strong overtones of Kurt Vonnegut, and even Charles Bukowski. Kobek’s books are part razor sharp diatribe against the capitalist system, part riff on modern mass media and technology and part biting satire on just about everything. All this is loosely held together with mercurial plots and zany characters, picking their way through the debris of modern life.
Only Americans Burn in Hell begins by introducing the reader to the work of Elizabethan hack writer, Richard Johnson, and his 1599 Arthurian romance, Tom a Lincoln. That work features an island inhabited entirely by women called Fairy Land, with its reigning queen, Celia. Jarett takes some of the characters from Tom a Lincoln and revives them as supranatural beings who live for centuries, ending up in modern day California. Only Americans Burn in Hell spins madly out of control as a myriad of different elements are thrown in: a rich Saudi, a cult film-maker, Guns and Roses concerts, rants about Donald Trump and a blistering, thoroughgoing attack on the publishing industry. Indeed, the book is a major j'accuse against the liberal media, seen as nothing more than a money making machine for its amoral corporate masters. Kobek does a great job of following the money, explaining who pays for liberal opinion and reportage. (There are paradoxes aplenty in this: tax dodging, anti-union Jeff Bezos owns the left-leaning Washington Post, while the liberal entertainment industry created Donald Trump.)
Kobek's book won't be for everyone. It's acerbic and often full of profanity. One thing is sure: you won't read it in a state of torpor. It will keep you eyes pinned open in shock to the very end.
Only Americans Burn in Hell, by Jarett Kobek. Published by Serpent's Tail. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Garry Linnell’s portrait of escaped convict William Buckley is a stunning triumph.
William Buckley (1780 – 1856) is surely one of the most intriguing and enigmatic characters of Australian history. He fought Napoleon as a soldier in the King's Own Regiment in 1799, but later came undone for receiving stolen goods - a bolt of cloth. He was given 14 years and sent to New South Wales, arriving upon the Calcutta in 1803. Exhausted and terrified, Buckley soon bolted with three other prisoners. The group separated and Buckley spent weeks on his own, living off shellfish. He probably would have expired, if not for the contact he made with the local Aboriginal people who thought he was a ghost, one of their ancestors who had died, then “jumped up” again as a white man.
Buckley spent the following 32 years living with the Wadawurrung people. He was respected by the Wadawurrung and was influential in trying to preserve the peace between different clans and groups. In 1835, Buckley re-entered European society. He was given a pardon by Governor Arthur and worked as an interpreter. This role as intermediary took its toll on Buckley, who saw many abuses of First Nations people and moved to Van Diemen's Land for the rest of his life.
Garry Linnell takes an interesting approach in Buckley's Chance, presenting the narrative in an almost fictional form. In some ways the structure of the book is like an 18th century epistolatory novel, with Linnell addressing himself to an imaginary Buckley, posing questions about his emotional state and responses to key events. Almost like speculative fiction, this style of writing gives the book a tone of intimacy and humanity, asking the reader to imagine Buckley's personal conflicts and psychological states of being. The narrative is interweaved with thorough research and quotes from key contemporaries, making the book invaluable as an early history of New South Wales, Tasmania and most notably, Victoria.
The portrait that emerges of Buckley himself is of a sad and tortured soul, caught between two cultures, one exterminating the other. His two years working with the Port Phillip Association, most notably with John Batman, was extremely painful as he assisted the land grab that saw widespread dispossession of the Wadawurrung and other peoples. Yet for all that we have on the record, plus Buckley's own memoir, The Life and Adventures of William Buckley written by journalist John Morgan (Buckley was illiterate), the man himself remains frustratingly distant and mysterious. He was often portrayed as a dolt, but surely knew more than he let on.
Buckley's Chance is a tremendous achievement. Engaging, passionate and fascinating it's a book that invited the reader to re-imagine Australia's formative years, a time that was harsh and often horrific.
Buckley's Chance, by Garry Linnell. Published by Michael Joseph. $34.99
Review by Chris Saliba
China business expert Rebecca A. Fannin explains how China's tech sector is fast catching up to the West.
China's pursuit of technology dominance has progressed through three stages, according to business writer and China expert Rebecca A. Fannin. The period between 2003 – 2010 saw the flourishing of internet start-ups, phase two saw a boom in mobile phone-centric start-ups and today China is putting up stiff competition in artificial intelligence, biotech, self-driving cars, robotics, mobile payments and more.
At first China was a quick and effective imitator, but is now pulling ahead in key areas. While there are pitfalls for China's tech titans – a repressive government that could close shop on any business that gets too powerful, a lack of profitability for many emerging start-ups, despite large market share – the overall picture is of an emerging tech dragon to rival the West.
The way Fannin paints it, China could be on the cusp of global tech dominance, leading to economic dominance and a shake-up in the world order. Nothing is assured in this cut-throat world, but the sheer speed with which China has caught up with the West is no doubt ringing alarm bells in government and policy circles.
A fast paced overview of a quickly evolving tech sector with enormous potential for global disruption.
Tech Titans of China: How China's Tech Sector is Challenging the World by Innovating Faster, Working Harder and Going Global, by Rebecca A. Fannin. Nicholas Brealey Publishing. $29.99
Siberian bears, ruthless oligarchs, crashing ice sheets and corrupt officials come together in this splendid contemporary thriller.
Investigator Arkady Renko is worried about his girlfriend, Tatiana Petrovna. She's a journalist and often disappears for dangerous assignments. When she abruptly leaves for Siberia, with only a few clues as to her whereabouts, Arkady takes on an assignment that allows him to follow and check up on her. He discovers that Tatiana has been working with oligarch, ex-political prisoner and now presidential aspirant, Mikhail Kuznetsov. She's doing what she believes is the right thing, supporting Kuznetsov's anti-corruption platform, but it's a murky world of money, politics and terrorism.
Arkady, too, has his hands full. Sent to Siberia by Prosecutor Zurin, he's tasked with investigating suspected Chechen terrorist, Aba Makhmud. He also starts inquiries into another oligarch, Boris Benz, which takes him deep into Siberia, to the city of Irkutsk, where he sustains some serious injuries. When two politically motivated murders are uncovered, Arkady is given orders by Zurin to perform some nasty – and illegal – business. If he doesn't follow through, Zurin threatens dire consequences. Caught on the horns of a dilemma, Arkady doesn't know what to do, until fate provides some spectacular twists of its own.
The ninth in the Arkady Renko series of thrillers, which began with Gorky Park, Martin Cruz Smith's latest is a sophisticated, neatly organised and well paced mystery with enjoyable characters, crisp dialogue and moody atmospherics. For those interested in the politics of modern Russia, there is plenty to satisfy, with brief discussions of Putin, corruption and the murderous oil economy. And just when you think the story may be running out of puff, the last fifty pages delivers a breathtaking finale.
Classy and enjoyable stuff.
The Siberian Dilemma, by Martin Cruz Smith. Simon and Schuster. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books