Damn! Damn! Damn! Every year he forgot. Well, no. He never forgot. He just put the memories away, like old silverware that you didn’t want to tarnish. And every year they came back, sharp and sparkling, and stabbed him in the heart.
Night Watch, Terry Pratchett, 2002
The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a few things to say on the subject of towels.
A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitch hiker can have[…] a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc, etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have ‘lost’. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still know where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, 1979
Vetinari [said:] “As one man to another, commander, I must ask you: did you ever wonder why I wore the lilac?”
“Yeah, I wondered,” said Vimes.
“But you never asked.”
“No, I never asked,” said Vimes shortly. “It’s a flower. Anyone can wear a flower.”
“At this time? In this place?”
Night Watch, Terry Pratchett, 2002
Remembering Douglas Adams (1952–2001) and Terry Pratchett (1948–2015), both of whose work meant a lot to me at various times.
I was aware of Pratchett for as long as I can remember, because I was a teenager in the 1990s and he had a good amount of shelf space in my local mainstream book store, but the Josh Kirby cover era was always instinctively offputting to me as a teenager and into adulthood. I never got so far as consciously thinking “should I read Pratchett?” I thought it was clear from the covers that it was bawdy humour aimed to men, not one of my genres. So it took two pushes to read him: the first was a recommendation from a friend and the second was a recommendation from a friend that happened to take place on a camping trip in 2000 to which I hadn’t brought enough books. (I love me some ebook era, but I think transmission of Pratchett fandom would now be less likely in such circumstances.)
The book in question, because it happened to be there in someone’s bag, was Hogfather, which as I wrote in 2012 is not a bad introduction to Discworld in that it’s fairly self-contained and has a pretty comprehensive drill into the way magic and divinity work on the Disc. Its main failing was that it meant I hoped for a while that Susan Sto Helit was the main character in all the novels. (I didn’t end up really liking any of her other novels, eg the writer M is correct about Susan in Soul Music, although I think the portrayal of the immature rationality-supremacist geek girl was intentional!)
I then read many of the Discworld books in whatever order I came across them in my friends’ libraries (the ebook era would win here!), so I met the witches about halfway through in Lords and Ladies and was perpetually disappointed that it turned out to be about halfway through. I always wanted to know the end of Magrat’s story, when she finally, inevitably (in my opinion!) outgrows Granny and they both know it. (Apparently I always trust the designated irritating woman to grow up to win.) And what will Esmerelda the Younger become?
But, despite being a Hoyden, my heart ended up in Ankh-Morpork, in the Watch subseries which I happily read in more or less publication order. Honestly, partly this is because Vetinari is a ridiculous trope who just happens to be one of my very favourite ridiculous tropes in the entire world, but it’s also because Pratchett took his frustrating and increasingly sidelined comic sidekicks, went back in time, wrote a novel largely about men doing heroic man things with one of his favourite creations in the rescuer role, niggled at me politically a couple of times in a way he normally doesn’t, and made it the heart of the series for me anyway: Night Watch, the first Pratchett I believe I bought in hardback, and what a good choice that was.
It isn’t yet the glorious 25th of May, I’m in the wrong hemisphere, and there’s no lilac anywhere near me in any case. But it will always be the image that comes to mind when I remember the heart of Terry Pratchett’s work to me.
Here’s a few Pratchett links worth visiting today:
Penknife’s Modern Love, my favourite fanfic, taking the ongoing thread of dwarf gender to somewhere I had wondered repeatedly if Pratchett was headed.
I first heard of the Australian speculative fiction podcast Galactic Suburbia here at Hoyden About Town in 2011 and then promptly didn’t listen to it for a further three years, until I found myself doing just enough driving and sitting around watching children’s swimming lessons to make podcasts worthwhile, at which point I promptly subscribed and it became a fave.
And a great time it was to subscribe too, because they were in the countdown to their 100th episode, which has been up on their site for nearly a week. I probably will never count as a real Galactic Suburbia fan, because I don’t intend to go back and listen from episode 1 as many new fans apparently still do, and I am not making an actual Galactic Suburbia-themed cake for their contest (but perhaps you should! entries close 27th May), but here’s the next best thing.
First, a picture of a cake! Not my cake! But a cake!
And second, a note that you can pick up the Galactic Suburbia Scrapbook at Twelfth Planet Press, including several interview transcripts. (Accessibility note: as Lauredhel noted in 2011, Galactic Suburbia is not regularly transcribed.)
Welcome! This post is the 62nd monthly Down Under Feminists Carnival. This edition of the carnival gathers together June 2013 feminist posts from writers living in Australia and New Zealand. Thanks to all the writers and submitters for making this carnival outstanding, amazing, sad, outraging and uplifting.
Highlighted new(er) Down Under voices
I’ve highlightede posts that come from people who began been blogging at their current home in June 2012 or later, such posts are marked with (new blog) after the link. I know this is a very imperfect guide to new writers, since some may have simply started new blogs or switched URLs, or be well-known as writers in other media, but hopefully this may be a quick guide to feeds you may not be following yet.
This is part of Tansy Rayner Roberts’s Blog Book Week challenge, about favourite childhood reading, how we read these books, and why we remember them.
I haven’t forgotten that I promised to do Ruth Park’s My Sister Sif and I still intend to, but while I’m tracking it down for a re-read, I’ve another Sydney novel in the interim: Melina Marchetta’s Looking For Alibrandi.
Spoilers for Looking For Alibrandi abound!
Warning: self-harm is a plot element in this novel, and it’s discussed in this entry.
Background/plot summary: Looking For Alibrandi is a 1992 young adult book by Australian author Melina Marchetta. Seventeen year old Josephine Alibrandi is in her final year of a expensive private Catholic high school, preparing for the HSC (the Higher School Certificate, which is the statewide final school exams in NSW). She is a scholarship student, the daughter of Christina Alibrandi, a single mother who had a child at sixteen and was exiled from her Italian-Australian family until her father died, in the recent past from the novel’s point of view.
Christina insists that Josie has a relationship with Christina’s mother, Josie’s Nonna Katia, but Christina’s own relationship with Katia is strained due to their long estrangement and Katia’s coolness to her throughout her childhood. At the beginning of the novel Josie is more concerned with school problems in any case: her quartet of outsider friends fight for recognition in their upper class Anglo-dominated school. Josie is school vice-captain to her mortal enemy, perfect blond Ivy, daughter of a wealthy surgeon, as captain.
But Josie’s home life suddenly undergoes another change. Josie’s father, Michael Andretti — son of Christina’s childhood next door neighbours, now a barrister — moves back to Sydney for a year to be welcomed briefly into unknowing Katia’s home as one of the family. Josie confronts him and they agree to have no contact, only to ring him from school frantically to extricate herself from a legal threat by a classmate’s father. After this they have an initially uneasy but gradually warmer relationship. In the meantime, Katia begins telling Josie stories of her immigration to Australia and her married life in rural Queensland in total social isolation, until the arrival of her sister from Sicily. Josie begins to see Katia as more of a person and less of an oppressively tradition-bound stereotypical grandmother.
Events at school also demonstrate to Josie that she’s not as much of a complete outsider as she thought, including a revelation by the principal after some irresponsibility towards younger students on Josie’s part that she was in fact voted school captain at the beginning of the year but that it was awarded to Ivy, who the principal felt was more responsible. While at the beginning of the novel Josie wants nothing more than a relationship with John Barton, her solidly upper-class debating friend, she ends up with Jacob Coote, captain of a nearby public school, as a boyfriend, and has to navigate being middle class to his working class.
It eventually becomes clear to Josie as Katia’s stories of her past continue that Katia’s Anglo-Australian friend Marcus Sandford was in love with her, and eventually Katia slips up and Josie works out her grandmother’s secret: Marcus and Katia were lovers and Marcus was in fact Christina’s biological father, which accounted both for Christina’s father’s loathing of her and of his swift condemnation of her when she became pregnant as a teenager.
Josie very briefly reaches a feeling of peace with herself and her story before her tranquillity is suddenly destroyed again: her friend John Barton commits suicide the night before the HSC exams begin, and she is told this by Ivy, who was even closer to John, crying out the front of the school. In the aftermath of this Jacob Coote breaks up with Josie, not sure what he wants from his future himself in the wake of knowing Josie’s relative class privilege and John’s death in spite of his class privilege. The novel ends with Josie about to find out her university entrance ranking, still relatively at peace with herself, but less sure of her place in the world and her ambitions.
I think I read Looking For Alibrandi a couple of years after it was published: definitely when I was in high school. I recall it being a book that you had to wait some time for at the school library. (It gets assigned as an English text now, but I never read it in that context.) It has crushes and alcohol and uneasy relationships with friends and a pretty intent focus on high school academic achievement, all of which were pretty familiar to me, even if the rich competitive Sydney folk weren’t so much. (At some point John Barton despairs over his poor ranking in a mathematics competition compared to Sydney Grammar, a reference I understood better when I knew former Maths Olympians from Grammar while at uni!)
Again, it’s very evocative of Sydney: I in fact live now pretty close to where Christina and Josie lived in Sydney. There’s a speech day in Martin Place, truanting at the Sebel and a few other landmarks although it’s not quite as firmly inner west as Saving Francesca and The Piper’s Son (the latter of which is about twentysomethings, and with which I identify even more closely as someone who went to Sydney Uni).
To be honest, as a result of this book I even have a sneaking fascination with Stanmore Maccas, where Josie gets a part-time job briefly, and I felt rather betrayed when the movie version changed it to Oporto!
John Barton’s death was “that bit” in the book, as in “have you got to that bit yet? Oh, you’ll know what I mean when you get to it.” It was my main frame of reference in the aftermath of the actual suicide of someone I knew at school, while of course not fitting exactly.
Again with the fanon style questions: this is the twentieth anniversary of Looking For Alibrandi‘s publication. If we took 1992 as the year Josie was seventeen, she is now thirty-seven. Did she end up doing a law degree like her father, but which she had begun to doubt she was as interested in as she’d thought? Did Christina and Michael reunite, as the novel implies they are considering? Did Josie and Ivy end up with an unexpected friendship, as they are stumbling towards? Did Josie, who would have won Least Likely To Leave Well Enough Alone if Australian schools did yearbooks, attempt to track down Marcus Sandford?
I don’t have as strong a fanon in my head for this as for Playing Beatie Bow but if I had to guess, Josie did Arts/Law and dropped out after the Arts component (quite a lot of people in combined law degrees do this). I have no idea what she’d do instead though. I think there’s too much hurt between Christina and Michael to reunite, although probably Josie and Katia both pushed strongly for it. I don’t know what to make of Josie and Ivy! And I would put money on Josie telling herself that she doesn’t mean anything by nosing around in the S section of the phonebook and so on, and of course meaning something by it, finding out that, as always, people’s lives aren’t as simple as she thought.
This is part of Tansy Rayner Roberts’s Blog Book Week challenge, about favourite childhood reading, how we read these books, and why we remember them.
I’m going to write about two Ruth Park books this week, Playing Beatie Bow and My Sister Sif.
Spoilers for Playing Beatie Bow ahoy!
Background/plot summary: Playing Beatie Bow is a 1980 older children’s book by New Zealand/Australian author Ruth Park. In it, fourteen year old Abigail sees a strange young girl (thin, wearing odd clothes, “furry” shorn head) watching her babysitting charges play, especially when they play “Beatie Bow”, a ghost game. One day she gives chase to the girl and finds herself in Sydney in the same area, only in 1873. She quickly incurs a head injury after being knocked down in the street by Samuel Bow, a war veteran who himself has a brain injury and “takes spells” (flashbacks) as a result. It emerges that the strange girl is his daughter, Beatie, who had found herself several times in the twentieth century watching a game featuring her own ghost.
While both parties hide their knowledge from each other for a while, the Bow and Tallisker (Beatie’s mother’s name) families who share a house in the Rocks know that Abigail is from a different time and will not help her return to the twentieth century. It emerges that some of the women in their family have a psychic Gift as a result of their Orkney heritage, and that every fifth generation it is imperiled, with a prophecy that of the adults in that generation, one is to be barren and one to die, risking there not being another generation. When this happens, the family is visited across time by The Stranger, in this case Abigail, who is destined to save enough of them to continue the Gift. The family has recently had scarlet fever and only a few members of the fifth generation survive: Beatie; her older brother Jonah; and her younger brother, Gilbert, yet to recover his health after the fever; and their cousin Dorcas (“Dovey”). Abigail is initially desperate to return home, but falls in love with Jonah, a sailor, when he has shore leave, and is more conflicted, especially since Jonah is betrothed to Dovey.
Eventually Samuel Bow causes a house fire, from which Abigail saves Dovey and Gilbert. She returns to the twentieth century that same day, under the care of Beatie, still cross with Abigail for pursuing Jonah. Shortly after returning she researches the family history in the newspapers, which suggests that Jonah probably died at sea shortly after she left. She then has a vision which shows that Beatie became a scholar, and that Jonah married Dovey but indeed died young at sea. She tries and fails to warn the family across time. Abigail is overwhelmed with grief that she cannot speak of.
Before long her own parents reunite after years of separation and move with her to Norway. In the final pages of the novel, she returns to Sydney five years later to discover by chance that the Crowns, her former babysitting charges, are descendants of Gilbert Bow through their mother, and (it is heavily implied) Abigail begins a relationship with their uncle Robert Bow after the novel ends. She realises that instead of her role as The Stranger being to save Dovey from the fire for Jonah as the family had believed, it was to save Gilbert.
I think I received Playing Beatie Bow as a gift from a book-loving relative. I wasn’t born when it was written, and probably read it in about 1992 or a bit later, when I was slightly younger than Abigail is for most of the novel. I remember finding the twentieth century portions rather strange for a while: this relative was in the habit of giving me high quality very recent books, and I didn’t realise for a while that the book was more than a decade old and the portrayals of Abigail’s high school experience (secondhand, as she thinks of them with contempt over summer) were using slang and events from the late 1970s! At the time I knew almost nothing about the 1970s, so it sounded rather as if Park had made up a bunch of plausible sounding teenage slang.
Abigail’s teenage alienation was a bit of a foreign country to me at the time. The novel begins with her spending the summer being angry about all sorts of things: her father leaving her mother for another woman, which has alienated Abigail so much she has changed her given name to one that isn’t connected with her father’s affection; her peers at school and their teenage crushes; her mother’s decision to re-partner with her father after his long-lived relationship with another woman. Interestingly, a big part of the novel is Abigail, via falling in love with someone else’s fiancé, coming to a realisation that there’s more going on with love than people falling in love to spite her. The coda at the end in which Abigail has demonstrably grown up emotionally in her nine-odd months in 1873 and then her five years in Norway was also important to me: the Norway part of the arc, being realism, maybe more important than the time-travelling.
It was probably also one of the first encounters I had with a critique of the idea that history is a uniform progression from worse conditions to better conditions (yeah I know, a pretty obvious misconception in hindsight): this critique is put into the mouth of Jonah who is utterly uninterested in the magic that awaits his world in the twentieth century.
Sydney always makes novels memorable for me, too. I didn’t grow up in Sydney, but rather in regional NSW, and as a teenager it tended to signify freedom to me. I was always very excited to have a book with a strong Sydney-centric sense of place: besides Playing Beatie Bow I think only Melina Marchetta’s novels were as evocative for me. (Only Looking For Alibrandi was actually published when I was a child, I was 22 and already lived in Sydney when she published Saving Francesca, and a new mother in my late twenties when The Piper’s Son came out.) Playing Beatie Bow is very thoroughly set in The Rocks around Argyle Street, and grounded in the local geography to the point where I believe it’s possible to identify the set of stairs that led Beatie into the twentieth century and Abigail into 1873.
Fan service insight for other dedicated Beatie Bow readers: there’s very brief speculation by Robert Bow at the end of the novel that his niece Natalie Crown, Abigail’s former babysitting charge and the only other person who could see Beatie watching them play, has the Gift, but otherwise the form the Gift takes in Gilbert’s descendants and what it means to have it with very little cultural connection to the Orkneys and its supernatural origins there, is totally unexplored.
I worked this over several times when I was younger: if I was counting the generations correctly, the fifth generation of Talliskers/Bows/Crowns after Gilbert ought to be Natalie and her brother Vincent, which should make them subject to the “one to be barren, one to die” curse (by the way, the inevitable “cursedness” of being childless is called out in the novel, by Beatie who deeply wants to be, and ends up being, the childfree one). If Abigail and Robert had children, the fifth generation would contain their children also. This last is of course a stretch given that about the first week of Abigail and Robert’s relationship is shown in the novel, but hey, fanon calling.
In addition, in the novel, Granny Tallisker, who had the strongest Gift, spends some time trying and failing to work out why on earth Abigail is their Stranger, since they expected someone with a family relationship. Neither of them at that point knows about the relationship with the Crown children, or for that matter that Gilbert is to live. But if a family relationship is required, Abigail doesn’t have this it unless she goes on to partner with Robert Bow.
In any event, whatever happens to Robert and Abigail, it seems that the Crowns are due a Stranger at some point in their lives. I was always surprised that Park didn’t write a sequel, given this (although as an adult, I can see why it would be difficult to preserve the tone with one novel set in 1873 and the other in the late twentieth century). In my fanon, a somewhat older Beatie ends up being their Stranger, in a reciprocal relationship to that Abigail had with her family.
My overall favourite is Night Watch, but I think it would be a terrible place to start reading: you need the context of the earlier Night Watch sub-series for background. Night Watch follows Guards! Guards!, Men At Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo and The Fifth Elephant. You could possibly skip Feet of Clay and Jingo and have most of the background, but that’s still a fair commitment. You want The Fifth Elephant because it introduces the major characters in an ongoing multinational inter-species political struggle (Monstrous Regiment, Thud!, Unseen Academicals, Snuff), but it’s also probably not strictly necessary as background to Night Watch.
The Night Watch sub-series is also interesting technically, as Pratchett has created two absurdly powerful political characters in this series (Vimes, the head of police, and Vetinari, the ruler of Ankh-Morpork), and has to come up with increasingly aggressive scenarios to actually challenge them. He has written elsewhere about finding this annoying when he wants to write interesting stories in Ankh-Morpork without Vimes sticking his nose into them.
It’s worth warning that Night Watch is one of the darker novels, with offscreen torture and onscreen immediate-aftermath-of-torture. Small Gods has similar warnings (religiously inspired torture), if you’re OK with that it is good and very self-contained, and has also served as an entry point for a number of people.
The first Discworld I ever read was Hogfather and I think it’s actually not a bad starting point, since it’s a fairly self-contained story and contains a bunch of core Discworld themes concerning how magic and divinity work. It also has a great heroine who unfortunately, in my opinion, otherwise appears in pretty mediocre Discworld novels.
Probably for most Hoyden readers I’d recommend starting with Equal Rites or Wyrd Sisters and reading through the Witches novels, which is where I went after Hogfather. The Tiffany Aching books didn’t exist at the time, but they’re very much in the spirit of the Witches novels, except that the Witches seem much more organised in them: Pratchett can’t leave well enough alone when it comes to creating power structures. See tigtog’s post about the Witches for more.
Edited to add: there is a well-known reading order guide, which lays out the various sub-series in a flowchart style, but I cannot find an accessible version. Hence this post refers directly to the sub-series wiki pages.
tigtog asked if someone could do a Friday Hoyden piece on Ursula K. Le Guin for her 80th birthday… last year. Le Guin’s 81st birthday was yesterday on the 21st October 2010: this is going up in time for it to still be her birthday in her hometown of Portland, Oregon.
A little capsule summary for people who haven’t read her work: Le Guin is a novelist, poet and essayist. She is best known for science fiction and fantasy, particularly the six Earthsea books (five novels and a collection of stories) set in an archipelago world with advanced magic and pre-industrial tech; and various books set in her Hainish universe, which is a future series in which Earth, among other planets among relatively nearby stars, turn out to have all have hominid species on them, established some millions of years ago by a still existing ancestral species the Hainish, in a series of biological/sociological experiments. This has allowed her to write, for example, The Left Hand of Darkness, Winter’s King and Coming of Age in Karhide, set in a world of primates with a sort of oestrous cycle in which their bodies can become either male or female, and who have otherwise no gender or sexuality; and The Matter of Seggri, about a world on which there are about sixteen women born for every man, and men are kept apart with their role in society being purely exhibition of strength, sex, and providing sperm.
Le Guin is something of a goto name for someone who wants to make sure their list of Great Science Fiction includes something, anything, by a woman: she’s white, she has by now become a big name and is award-winning and Taken Seriously (see Guest Post by Alisa Krasnostein: The Invisibility of Women in Science Fiction from June). I… do think she’s worth reading anyway! But don’t stop there, I doubt she’d want you to.
I’ve enjoyed Le Guin’s writing for years, but here is her crowning Hoyden moment for me, in a 2001 interview by Nick Gevers, a science fiction editor and critic:
[Gevers asks] Who, for you, are the finest SF authors now writing — both your fellow feminist writers and more generally?
[Le Guin answers] First I am to list fellow feminists and then… non-fellow anti-feminists? Come on, Nick, let’s get out of the pigeonholes. If feminism is the idea that differences between the genders, beyond the strictly physiological, are an interesting subject of study, but have not been determined, and so are not a sound basis for society to use in prescribing or proscribing any proclivity or activity — which is what I think it is — then I probably don’t read any non-feminist SF writers, these days. Do you?
Here’s a few selected pieces of Le Guin’s writing:
If I had to recommend a single piece of writing of hers, I would say that its the short story The Day Before the Revolution (probably easiest to find in the collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters), which probably benefits a lot if you read The Dispossessed for context first (The Dispossessed is a fine novel, so not just for context). The Day Before the Revolution was published when Le Guin was 45 years old. She wasn’t old at the time, and I am not old yet, but it is the closest I come to understanding how it might be.