Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Tsitsi Dangarembga's This mournable body

Our second book of the year was Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga's third novel, This mournable body, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2020. It proved to be a challenging but ultimately worthwhile choice. 

When we say This mournable body was Dangarembga's third novel, we should also say that it's the third in her trilogy, the first two being Nervous conditions (1988) and The book of not (2006).  None of us have read these, but we understand that they were more positive than This mournable body, by which time protagonist Tambudzai is out of work and struggling to survive. She's desperate to be the success she has alway wanted - and believed herself able - to be.

As always, we started with our ...

First impressions 

One of us loved the novel from the start. She engaged with the second person voice and enjoyed the novel's exploration of "the personal is the political" through its protagonist. She liked how the voice conveyed the character's remoteness or dissociation from her "self", versus a third person voice which tends to provide a more objective commentary or first person voices which tend to be more intimately confessional. 

Most of the rest of the group did not immediately engage with the novel, though they came to like or, even, appreciate and enjoy, somewhere along the way:

  • initially thrown by the voice, largely due to the narrator's fluctuating state of mind, the scenario-style, and the story's focus on cruelty, but started to get into it by part two, and ended up loving it. 
  • found the beginning hard and confronting, but then began to appreciate it.
  • struggled early on, but found reading some background about the book was helpful in giving her the boost she needed to find stimulation in the story.
  • found its disjointed nature off-putting, but liked aspects such as the little kindnesses Tambu meets along the way and how Dangarembga conveyed Tambu's paranoia. Suggested that it's refreshing to read a book by a black female author.
  • found it difficult get into, but was interested in its discussion of ecotourism and poverty interesting. Came to enjoy the writing style, and appreciated the wide variety of issues the book explores. 
  • also found it hard at the start, but suggested that it's a good example of why we read books, which is to experience the lives of others that we would otherwise know nothing about. Was interested to see what happened to this once rich African country, and particularly the impact of the West, of Mugabe, the sexism, violence, racism. 
  • was surprised to find it hard to get into because is sympathetic to Zimbabwe. Put it aside and picked it up again too late to finish, but found that it started to make sense in part 2 when Tambu is in the mental institution. 


We confirmed that the book is primarily set around the turn of the millennium, and that Tambudzai at this time is around 40 years old.

Our discussion roamed over the place a bit, but we talked about how Tambudzai embodies the nation's post-Independence trauma and sense of false hope. We liked that the novel is not black and white, and that most characters are complex.

One member initially saw the book as being about metal illness and paranoia, but decided that it is more political, exploring issues like the impact on the individual of national trauma. 

We discussed various issues to do with Zimbabwe and Africa, including how white Tracey would try to exoticise "Africa" for the tourism trade, and how the West is portrayed as generalising Africa, lumping all countries into one. We talked about the compromises and bribes Tracey had to make to get her ecotourism business going. 

We also talked about gender, about women being expected to dress modestly, about women being beaten (of which there are several examples in the book, by strangers, sons, husbands, etc.) We also noted the competition between people - such as Tambu and Pedzi - in their desperation to succeed in a tough world.

We talked about the language, with several members sharing favourite quotes. Several of us commented on the ant and hyena imagery used to convey Tambu's emotions, the ants seeming to convey her anxiety in various situations and the hyena her lack of control:

The hyena laughs as you enter the gate. It has slunk once more as close to you as your skin, ready to drag away the last scraps of certainty you have preserved the moment you falter ...
A member liked this description of a woman who'd been beaten:

Evening light drips shadows onto her skin, thickening the knots of swelling, deepening lacerations.
Tambu's sister, Netsai, had lost one of her legs in the war, something we are reminded of regularly in the novel, suggesting that it symbolises the country's trauma, and the fact that many of its people do not, as a result of their experiences, feel whole. One member liked Tambu's description of watching Christine, who had also been to war, working in the garden:

You have seen this manner before, this being where the body is and not being there, in your sister Netsai, who went to war, who lost a leg, and who said to you when they said there was peace, “Yes, I went and I am here but I never came back. Most of the time I’m still out there wandering through the grass and sand, looking for my leg.”

Blood and womb are recurring images in the novel, referring, we felt, to the vulnerable position of women in Zimbabwean society as well as, more broadly, to the war and violence the country had experienced. There is quite a bit of description in the book about the impact of war on those who fought in it:

The women from war are like that, a new kind of being that no one knew before, not exactly male but no longer female.
One member mentioned the many references to Tambu's determination to smile in various uncomfortable or vulnerable circumstances, such as:

Your smile attaches itself to your face more tenaciously as your anxiety increases.
One member thought the denouement came too quickly, while another felt that once we'd got to that point the book would become boring if it were drawn out.

Throughout the discussion we needed to clarify various events in the novel, because at times the language is intense resulting in the actual action being described not always being clear. An example is what had led to Tambu ending up a mental patient in hospital, in part 2.

One member had circulated, prior to the meeting, a link to writer Teju Cole's article "Unmournable bodies", which Dangarembga acknowledges at the end of her novel as "putting many matters into perspective" and inspiring the novel's title. The essay talks about how the West tends to be selective about which bodies it is prepared to mourn (such as the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre) and which it tends to ignore (such as many Muslim victims of violence.) We discussed what we thought the title meant, and decided it could be an assertion that "I am worthy, I am worth mourning", something that is hard for people to feel in a place where everyone is struggling.

The question was asked whether we would recommend this book to others. Most said yes, but would accompany it with a warning or some preparation.  

We also considered Dangarembga's intention. We understand that the first two books in the trilogy are more positive, so wondered whether this book reflects increasing concerns about the country's political challenges and also, perhaps, about how life becomes harder for older women. But, we also felt that the epigraph, that "There is always something left to love" suggests an ultimately positive, or, at least, hopeful reading for the novel? 

Present: 8 members

Thursday, 11 February 2021

Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

Prepared by Sue B

Our first novel of the year was "our" classic for the year, though, you never know, we may do another! It was Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers, which was published in 1857and is the second book in The Chronicles of Barsetshire series, aka The Barchester Chronicles. It is set in an imaginary English Cathedral town. As always, we started with our ...

First impressions

  • Loved it. Couldn’t resist also rewatching the 1982 BBC TV series filmed in Peterborough, whose excellent cast did full justice to Trollope’s wonderful characters
  • Didn’t finish it because read The warden first. The church background was very complex. It was wordy but witty. The deliberately heavy-handed naming of people was fun.
  • Loved the engagement with the reader and the ironic tone but preferred The warden which was sweeter.
  • Really enjoyed it. The characters were vivid and entertaining. It was hard to find a Kindle version in English.
  • Hadn’t previously read it and found it different to anything else we have read. After reading most of it, listened to the last 25% of an audio play which “coloured” the characters. Preferred the “black and white” of the printed text. Loved it, and felt there was much to unpack.
  • Only half-way through and enjoying it.
  • Loved the wry comments. Not much plot, and the whole thing revolves around very little. Imagined Salisbury Cathedral. Found it hard to get into at first and glossed over the first few chapters. Grew up in High Church Sydney – it brought back memories.
  • Love Hardy, but just getting into this when family events interrupted reading.
  • Had read it in the 70s. Different to Hardy is more wordy in his landscape description. Liked the authorial voice in Trollope. Loved the satire and comments on life at the time.

Further discussion

Our conversation ranged widely and jumped around, including the following:

  • Why write six novels set in a Cathedral Close? Because it is close to government? The politics of the Anglican Church are prominent in the novel, so it was suggested that a guide to Anglican church hierarchy might help us to understand the structure. Dr. Grantly missed out on being made Bishop because of a change of government. 
  • The novel was written not long after the Oxford Movement, which was a religious movement in the Anglican Church which focused on High Church, emphasising its Catholic heritage. It led to Newman and others becoming Catholics. In the novel the High Church faction is represented by Dr Grantly, who recruits Mr. Arabin (who had been a follower of Newman) for support against the Low Church or Evangelical faction represented by Mr. Slope and Mrs. Proudie. There’s not much theology in the book, but much poking fun at the Church politics. We discussed that at that time the church tended to be a career rather than a calling. Mr. Harding’s principles were often amusingly in the way of Dr. Grantly’s pragmatism. 
  • The warden and Barchester Towers also comment on the role played by newspapers in manipulating public opinion.

As you’d expect the novel reflects the attitudes of its time. There was some degree of sexism, for example Mrs. Bold being referred to as “a delicate creeper [which] has found its strong wall”, and we felt that Dr. Grantly had been highly mysoginistic in his treatment of her. Yet, the novel also has many strong women such as Mrs Grantly, Mary Bold, Signora Neroni, not to mention the formidable Mrs. Proudie and even Mrs Quiverful. It was clear that while the men held the official positions, their wives worked unpaid at the Sunday Schools and held a lot of power behind the scenes. It was noted that in the Trollope family the author’s mother (the highly successful novelist Fanny Trollope) had earned most of the money.

We also noted some occasional antisemitism.

We enjoyed the humorous descriptions of life at the time. An example is Mrs. Thorne’s garden party where she tries to keep some Feudal traditions going, such as the quintain for jousting practice where Harry Greenacre came to grief. The social hierarchy at the time meant that everyone fitted in their appropriate place, except the appropriately named Lookalofts who were dressed up and determined to dine with the gentry instead of in the field with the other farmers. They're mocked by the Greenacres for being “half nekid’ and wasting money on pianos and silk instead of stock for their farm. Mrs. Bold’s widow’s cap became less obvious over time. A sign that she was ready to get back into life again? Mrs. Clantantram wears a Rocquelore. So much was made of it that we googled to find out that it was an 18th century man’s cloak. Characters were really amusingly described, e.g. Miss Thorne: “Had she not been made throughout of the very finest whalebone, rivetted with the best Yorkshire steel..”

We discussed Trollope as an author. He was wordy, as were other Victorian authors. One example shared was: "Should the bishop now be re-petticoated, his thraldom would be complete and forever".

He assumed that his audience had a classical education. He also took the audience into his confidence, for example with the plot spoiler that Eleanor would not, in the end, marry Mr. Slope or Bertie Stanhope. Would we have enjoyed the story more if we had not known this? We thought not. One member said “I love it when the author talks to me”. It was commented that Jane Austen did it too while Dickens did not. Trollope references Fielding in the novel. Did he see himself in that tradition? Fielding had larger-than-life characters but Trollope's are more subtle? Did he kill off John Bold so that Eleanor’s relationship with her father could be the focus?

What did Trollope believe?

We wondered what Trollope himself really believed. Most of the characters are reasonably well-rounded and shrewdly observed. Mr. Quiverful, for example, is torn between being offered the much-needed Wardenship, and feeling bad about Mr. Harding. Mr. Slope and Mrs. Proudie are mostly presented in a very unsympathetic light, but they were right about the Wardenship. Mr. Harding did not need it as much as Mr. Quiverful did.

We were told when they first came back from Italy that the Stanhopes were cold, manipulative people. But they were fun, and in the end behaved with honesty and even kindliness. Did Trollope change his mind about them?

In the last paragraph we celebrate Mr. Harding, “a good man without guile, believing humbly in the religion which he has striven to teach”. Maybe that’s the answer?

Present: 9 Minervans

Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Minerva's Top Picks for 2020

As for all groups, 2020 was a challenging year for Minervans, but it was nothing we couldn't handle. First, we had Canberra's smoky air and then of course COVID-19. In March we met - fast and furiously - by texting through WhatsApp. This was much appreciated by the blog writer - but, most others wanted something a little more personal, a little closer to meeting in person! So, not being sheep, we researched several video-online conferencing platforms, and set up times to field-test Skype and Zoom. After our exhaustive process, Zoom won out, and our April and May meetings were conducted on-line. Then, hallelujah, COVID-19 rules started to relax in the ACT, and for the rest of the year we met again in members' homes, at first very carefully socially-distanced, gradually relaxing as the ACT's rules eased. We sure were ready for our traditional pot-luck Christmas party in December. 

But now, onto the real business of this post ... For the fourth year now, we Minervans voted for our Top Picks of the year. As before, each member was asked to nominate her three top picks from the books we read as a group this year ... and here is the outcome ...

All twelve currently active members took part, and all nominated the maximum three books, resulting in 36 "votes". Just to reiterate what we've said before: this is not a "proper" survey. Votes were all given equal weight, as was advised in the email request, even if some members ranked their choices. Also, not everyone read every book, meaning different people voted from different "pools". So, the results are indicative rather than authoritative, but it's fun and it does convey some sense of what we all liked.

Unlike the last couple of years in which several books were bunched together, this year one book absolutely romped it in, with the tied second place books being clearly ahead of the next bunch. 

Here are the results:

  1. Too much lip, by Melissa Lucashenko (our review) (10 votes)
  2. Overstory, by Richard Powers (our review); and Griffith Review 68: Getting on  (our review) (5 votes each)
  3. One hundred years of dirt, by Rick Morton (our review), Mammoth, by Chris Flynn (our review), and Phosphorescence, by Julia Baird (our review) (3 votes each)

So, an interesting mix: three novels, a memoir, a sort of memoir-cum-philosophical book, and an anthology on a theme. All are Australian, except for American author, Richard Powers. 

Every book, except Anna Goldsworthy's Melting moments, received a vote, but Melting moments did earn a speial mention, as did many of the books which received one or two votes. In other words, it was, despite Too much lip's runaway win, another good year of reading.

The inaugural Zeitgeist Award for the member who voted for the top three books went to Sylvia. (This "award" was won by Sue B last year, but it now has a name!) 

Some comments on our top picks

Note that not everyone commented on their choices ...

  • "Such authentic seeming characters, stories and language. Humourous and nuanced window into a challenging world." (Sue B)
  • "A piece of very readable fast moving fiction by an exciting indigenous writer, but I could have nominated others too." (Denise)
  • "A perfect example of how to create engaging but flawed characters, and how to fearlessly tackle deeply political issues with both humour and passion." (Sue T)
  • "Wonderful story -- the life on the north coast of NSW still lives with me months after reading it; vibrant, energetic, fresh and original." (Sylvia)
  • "Filled with humour, insight and engaging writing." (Judith)
  • "Lucashenko is inventing a new language for Australian story telling - slang and rhythm from indigenous dialect and language integrated into a very structured definite novel form. Her characters continually reveal new facets and parts of themselves in the story adding to its richness. No simple stereotypes or cyphers here but real, flawed people struggling with the aftermaths of dispossession and family secrets - and sharing a sense of humour while they do.  Lucashenko was generously inviting the reader into the rich world she has created in the story and asking us to connect that story to our own understanding and experience of life in Australia." (Helen)
  • "I LOVED it." (Deb)

  • "I was really carried along by his passion for trees, I learnt heaps, and I found the range of characters had amazing journeys and stories." (Kate)
  • "Massive story with an unsatisfactory ending but with some great passages about what wildlife activists have tried to do from the time of our youth (1960s) onwards -- ultimately depressing about the future of forests in the world." (Sylvia)
  • "It took me in to the world of trees and nature (although not a lot of pulling required!) at a time when I particularly needed to be there - wonderful moments." (Judith) 
  • "My favourite by a country mile: Another BIG story done so well by a US author. They’re in a class of their own for this style of writing." (Deb) 
(Our coast-observer Marie also named this book in her top three)

  • "For the number of excellent writers and thoughtful ideas on a depressing subject." (Denise)
  • "Scholarly and essential reading for us oldies; so much relevant information and a feeling that although getting on can be a terrible experience for some people there are still moments of joy and quiet pleasure in advancing age and being with your 'children'." (Sylvia) 
  • "Such an informative, eye-opening, moving discussion of aging from almost every angle you could think." (Sue T)
  • "A heart rending family story which reflected on characteristics of pioneers, and living in remote areas, as well as ricks personal family challenges, and a tribute to his mum." (Kate)
  • "Rick Morton is writing a memoir and polemic rich in his own story showing that colonisation has some devastating effects on the colonisers as well as indigenous people: secrets and hurt carried into children's lives with healing and recovery hard to find." (Helen)
  • "So quirky, interesting and original. You get to hear about the Ice Age and other epochs of prehistory from someone who was there!" (Sue B)
  • "A real work of imaginative and stimulating writing." (Denise)
  • "Adored. It was a thought-provoking and thoughtful reflection on life, friendship, children, getting old, nature... a book to keep dipping in to." (Kate)
  • "An interesting journey and collection of observations, enjoyed more fully as it came to life through the reflections of our group." (Judith)
  • "Julia helped me find some truths." (Denise)

Other comments included Sue B describing Charlotte Wood's The weekend as "Very easy to relate to in many ways; interesting insights into the dynamics of long friendships", while Kate found it "disappointing". Sue T called Carmel Bird's Field of poppies "a clever, satiric story", while Helen said that Balli Kaur Jaswal's Erotic stories for Punjabi widows "was just fun to read [with] some undercurrents of deep hurt and family secrets". Celeste found Melting moments "very enjoyable".

Other recommendations

Again, several (including our coast-observer Marie) took up the option to share some other favourite books from their reading year. Here are their suggestions (alphabetically by author), for those looking for other reading ideas. Dare I say that, among last year's recommendations, was mine for Too much lip, so, you know, take these recommendations seriously!

  • Robbie Arnott's Flame (Marie, who named this book her favourite of the year "by a long shot")
  • Thea Astley's An item from the late news (Sue)
  • Elisabeth Tova Bailey's The sound of a wild snail eating (Judith)
  • John Clanchy's In whom we trust (Sue)
  • Jeanine Cummins' American dirt (Anne)
  • Trent Dalton's All our shimmering skies (Marie)
  • Bernadine Evaristo's Girl woman other (Anne)
  • Robert Galbraith's Troubled blood (Marie)
  • Vicki Hastrich's Night fishing (Marie)
  • Christy Lefteri's The beekeeper of Aleppo (Anne)
  • David Mitchell's Utopia Avenue (Marie)
  • Sharon Pincott’s Elephant tracks (Kate)
  • Lucy Treloar's Wolfe Island (Marie)
  • Edith Wharton's The custom of the country (Anne)
  • Tara June Winch's The yield (Sue and Marie)
Any comments? (And it's not too late to add to this list if you become inspired after seeing it!)

Monday, 30 November 2020

Melting Moments by Anna Goldsworthy

Opinions varied about this ‘domestic’ work of fiction from dissatisfaction to thoroughly enjoying it. Some of us thought there were hidden depths to the story while others just wanted more about the characters and less episodic moments.

Anna Goldsworthy is a concert pianist and teacher as well as an accomplished writer. Melting moments is her third published work, but her first novel. She is 46 and the daughter of well-known and much published writer and medical doctor Peter Goldsworthy. Adelaide is her home town and it is the major background to the story. 


The story begins in 1941 when Ruby travels to Sydney to reunite with her new husband Arthur, who has been in New Guinea. The story flows on from this point concentrating on Ruby and her mother and mother-in-law, her daughter Eva and her granddaughter Amy.  There are numerous short episodes or glimpses of her long marriage to Arthur and their relationship in the big house in a suburb of Adelaide. 


First impressions 

  • Partly enjoyed it but not a book I would recommend
  • Little vignettes were good to read
  • No literary overlay to it
  • Enjoyed reading about the roles of men and women from the forties onwards and especially the idea of the perfect housewife
  • Very funny in places and possibly ironic
  • Well written and quirky
  • Episodic which I found a bit prosaic, liked the setting of Adelaide
  • Found that Ruby’s life was similar to my Mum’s life – ie no career except in the home – and father’s dominance as breadwinner
  • Didn’t hear much of Ruby’s interior life, worried that Ruby and Arthur didn’t know each other even after many years of co-habitation
  • Issue of the returned soldier and their common refusal to talk about their war experiences and how that changed them irrevocably and the subsequent effect upon their marriages, especially if wed before going off to war. They came back different people. (Later in our discussion we were surprised that Ruby did not want to hear about Arthur’s experiences when he finally wanted to tell her.) 
  • I was annoyed that there was not more detail about Arthur’s war in New Guinea (but others argued that that was not the point of the book)
  • Not well written because too much repetition
  • Frustrating and dissatisfying novel
  • Would have liked more about music – had no idea the author is a concert pianist
  • Read it twice and loved it
  • The author was exploring the path of many women in Australia and how their lives changed by the influences of 1960s/1970s Feminism – working outside the home after many years and possibly enjoying another romantic relationship?
  • Melting momentst itle is good because that is what the book captures – pinpointing aspects of Ruby’s life which explains the episodic structure
  • Gentle pace and would have liked more about the relationship between Ruby and Arthur 



It has been suggested that this work is a little like works by Jane Austen but we didn’t agree. It is a study of women and their threads through life. (Some of the story is based on Goldsworthy’s Grandmother’s life.) It only has a little satire. Some of the characters are a little stereotypical such as Arthur’s mother, the rather sad Granny Jenkins, but some of us liked the contrast with Ruby’s Mother who seems so normal. 


Ruby’s affair after Arthur’s death was much discussed. We liked the fact that Eva, Ruby’s daughter, told her that she had done her duty as far as Arthur was concerned and it was fine to have another relationship. We wondered where the character of Eva, a baby boomer, came from as she seemed so different from Ruby and the other older women. (Maybe Goldsworthy was inspired to highlight the difference from the older generation). We calculated that Ruby was born about 1919 or 1920 when a few of our mothers were also born, which was considered the Great Generation (1901-1927). The next generation was called the Silent Generation (born between 1928-1945). 


We spent considerable time discussing Arthur and his characteristics. He was supportive of his daughter getting an education to become a doctor and showed that he was quietly wise.  We admired the fact that he allowed his wife Ruby to take her mother on a holiday to Mildura quite a few times. There were also echoes of family life experienced by us or by our relatives eg hasty marriages before heading off to the war. This was often done by couples as the man felt that if he didn’t come back the woman had an income from a war widow’s pension. Arthur even mentions this reason. Arthur also was tolerant of having two mothers living with them which must have been hard for both of them. Arthur’s book on sex, (caused much hilarity), which he and Ruby enjoyed for a while at least. 


This is a very suburban novel. The suburb Glenside, where Ruby lived had an asylum so it was tainted by that institution for many Adelaide people. Ruby and Arthur had a pleasant home there, and she obviously loved it. She made choices and had a husband who allowed her to garden and work around the home. She even worked out of the home, later in life. In comparison, she was angry with her father who treated her mother badly, until her Mother finally left him on the farm and moved to Adelaide to live with Ruby and the family in the big house. Her father was a charmer but not reliable. 


Ruby could have had an affair when she was still young but the opportunity disappeared and she was often wistful about what might have been! Ruby lead an ordinary life, not one filled with drama. Things might have happened but did not. 


We were sad that there was not more about Ruby’s son who seemed to just fade away in the story. 


Three current shows were mentioned which are related to some of the issues raised in this novel :


Mum:  a comedy on television which one member likes

Women of steel: a very good documentary about migrant women in Wollongong in 1980 who took BHP to court over discrimination by not allowing them to work in the steel industry.

Brazen Hussies: a documentary film which is on at the Palace Cinema until Wednesday.  

It is about the Women’s movement between 1968-1975 and the issue of choice for women with what they do with their lives.

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Julia Baird's Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark

We are having bumper meetings these days, because due to COVID-19 we retirees are not travelling the way we usually do through the cooler months. It's lovely actually, though with 10 or more at meetings, the enthusiastic discussions can be hard to follow! I apologise to members whose ideas I've missed, in other words.

This month's book was by Aussie journalist and biographer, Julia Baird, who has had a very tough cancer journey over the last few years. Her book, Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark, ostensibly contains the lessons she has learnt to help herself and others through such times. Some of the essays were written (in some form) before her illness, which suggests that these ideas have been swilling around her head for a longer time.

As usual, we started with ...

First impressions

We basically broke into two camps, those who loved the book, and those who liked it but with reservations.

Those who loved it found the writing wonderful, commenting on the way she draws the reader in by observation and experience, and on the personalised, moving way she shared her ideas. They liked the way she drew different threads together. One listened to Julia Baird, herself, reading it on Audible, and found it excellent, so much so that it made her want to buy a print copy to refer back to.

Those with reservations all liked much of the content, and didn't disagree in any major way with what she had to say. Like those who loved it, they found her a bright, intelligent woman, and thought her writing excellent. The reservations varied a little but boiled down to feeling that the book:

  • contained many ideas we could relate to, but offered nothing new;
  • felt disjointed, or as some said, the "phosphorescence" theme didn't play through the book as clearly as was expected;
  • was tedious at the beginning, but liked it more when it became apparent that it was a book of essays; and/or
  • felt a bit glib, and repetitive, which made it somewhat unsatisfying.

The discussion

The discussion, just like some felt the book was, was somewhat disjointed!

Members identified aspects of the book that particularly struck them, which included (excuse the lazy dotpointing!):
  • Baird's looking for nurturing experience from the natural world
  • much of the language and her descriptions 
  • the memoir aspects
  • her encounters with a wide range of interesting people, which we felt was partly due to her journalist career bringing her into contact with such a variety of people (like the millionaire financier in New York)
  • the way she seizes the day
  • the book's beautiful cover
We also talked a little about Baird's discussion of faith and doubt. One admired her being one of those women of faith who can relate to/reach a broad audience. We shared a couple of her comments about doubt:

The mark of a civilised woman, too, is to doubt the wisdom received from men for so long...

Another that several of us liked came during her discussion about its being ok to doubt scientists, who, themselves, recognise that things can change and that they need to "embrace doubt, and see shades of grey...". She says scientists have been wrong in the past "as have politicians, teachers, priests, principals, CEOs and all sorts of authority figures". And then, she adds in parentheses:

(Although, seriously, if you can't accept what the vast majority of scientists have to say about climate change, it's not doubt that is your problem.)

We all loved that.

We talked about the various references to Japanese aesthetics and philosophy. The prevalence of Japanese thought was interesting given she talks about visiting various places, but not Japan. The ideas, which are hard to express in Western words, are Shinrin-yoku (or forest-bathing, about the physiological/psychological benefits of being in the forest); YĆ«gen (about grace and mysterious experiences that are hard to explain); Wabi sabi (about imperfect or transient beauty); Kintsugi/Kintsukuroi (about repairing broken pottery in ways that the repair can be seen, making the damage part of its history and beauty); and Moai (about the groups created among newborns in Okinawa which provide social support through life).
Moai was discussed in the section on friendship which is beautifully called "We are walking each other home" (Ram Dass). One member loved the concept introduced in this section of Freudenfreude, which is a term coined, Baird says, by psychologists to describe the opposite of Schadenfreude

Another wonderfully named section that we discussed a little is "We are all wiggly" where she talks about accepting and/or embracing failure and imperfection. She describes her own spectacular failure as an activist for the ordination of women in Sydney's Anglican church. She argues that we should appreciate and recognise failed activist action, that we should honour the effort and the commitment. We should also recognise that quite often the issue keeps building and is eventually achieved. 

We also enjoyed her discussion in this section of the pressure on women's appearance - their dress, their hair, etc. We loved that the term "mutton dressed as lamb" was initially positively intended. (Oh, and most of us were surprised to hear that she has a big nose! We hadn't noticed!)

We laughed at some of the stories, such as her son's delightful hoarding of his underpants for the memories they are associated with, and her sock-chewing groodle, Charlie. Other stories that interested us included the story of hope as exemplified by Jim Stockdale who spent over 7 years in Vietnam's most notorious and brutal POW prison, and the subsequent concept of "The Stockdale Paradox".

Some of the other messages we took away included living life deliberately (by paying attention), the (counterintuitive) idea that the clue to happiness is to have low expectations, the value of awe (including "the overview effect"), and the importance of searching for our "ert" (a term coined by marine biologist Lisa-Ann Gershwin to oppose "inertia").

One commented, gratefully (ha!), that Baird didn't talk about the current "in" idea that she's hearing everywhere, gratitude!

The book provoked much thought among many of us about our own lives and values, but what was shared in the room will stay in the room. Let's just say that in the end we decided that, whether we agreed that the work was fully coherent or not, it was a book in which Baird was able to share many of the things she wanted to say and pass on, and that the book can work as "a salve for the weary".

Present: 11 members

Friday, 9 October 2020

Erotic stories for Punjabi widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

September’s meeting was very well attended and everyone enjoyed our book, Erotic stories for Punjabi widows.

The story is about a young Punjabi woman called Nikki living in contemporary London who has dropped out of a law degree and is trying to work out what direction her life will go. She knows she does not want to be a lawyer (against her father’s wishes) and she does not want to have an arranged marriage but she is undecided about her future career and life. Her immediate goal is to assist these ladies who want to tell stories to relax and enjoy life.

Balli Kaur Jaswal is a Singaporean born novelist with a Punjabi family background. She has written 4 books to date and Erotic storiesis her third novel. Her first novel, Inheritance, won the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian novelist award in 2014. She spent time in Australia and has an Australian husband.

First impressions

  • It’s about relationships, the migrant experience and expectations— Nikki and her sister Mindi are both wanting a happy life. Nikki desires the freedom to have a choice of partner and career versus Mindi, who is more traditional in her life choices and accepting of an arranged marriage
  • I recommended it as I had heard about it on the radio – interesting juxtaposition of modern and traditional approaches to life by these girls and delving into serious topics at times, especially in talking about the frightening males of the community policing the girls. I had to tell myself it was only fiction but no doubt based on fact.
  • Finished too predictably.
  • Thought it was too frivolous at the beginning but then realised that it is about generational change and people who hold on to traditions.
  • It was not my sort of book because I like books that make you think. It was a little too obvious. However, it covers the migrant experience well.
  • Very funny in some places.
  • Very erotic at times – too much so for me! Easy read and not lasting well in my memory as I read it a while ago.
  • Well written, good cultural insights especially showing women as repository of culture
  • I found it slow to start and couldn’t find any beauty in the language – just a story but it was good escapism in our ‘Covid’ times.
  • Found it engaging but a bit prosaic or formulaic. It was a good exploration of women between two cultures shown by Nikki and her sister and their tensions. Nikki didn’t agree with arranged marriage but family connections were very important for her. 
  • The older women in the group gathered around Nikki telling erotic stories exhibited their freedom in England, which they did not have at home in England or in their home country. The book did make you think about the tough restrictions on some women in this Punjabi community even in a suburb in London.



We started the discussion with a question: Was Jason’s story of an arranged marriage a counterfoil to Mindi’s arranged marriage plot?

Jason’s marriage was very unhappy. Mindi had a view of an arranged marriage where you had time before the ceremony to get to know the partner and eventually develop a good relationship. For Jason there was no chemistry with his arranged marriage (as far as the reader knows) versus chemistry (love) which comes later in Mindi’s idealised interpretation of an arranged marriage.

What did we think of Mindi?

She didn’t like being dressed in the same clothes as her younger sister as a child, although curiously, Nikki didn’t mind it. They were very close and related well with love and respect for each other. Mindi is essentially a practical person and views her life through that lens. She was possibly going to be the ‘child’ left at home to look after the aging parents, especially after their father died.

Would it have been as good a novel without the sexy bits or titillation? 

It was part of empowering the ‘widows’ and proving that they had inner lives and imaginations. Some readers thought it didn’t gel. However, there is the other view that Indian culture is very open to displays of sex through their art, statuary and building decoration especially in connection with their religion, with freizes, and also in written works like the Kama Sutra. Bollywood is a ‘hoot’ or ‘overblown comedy disguising the sex in a fantasy of romance’ according to one of our group. An example is the film Bollywood matchmaker.

Sikhs and Sikh culture

The remainder of the conversation revolved largely around Sikhs and their culture living in London. The author, Jaswal, has based the story in Southall, which is where the largest temple is situated and where there is a significant population of Sikhs. However not all the characters are British. Nikki’s boyfriend is an American Sikh. (Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the UN for the USA is a Sikh, according to one of our members).

One member stated that it is easy to ‘love a man in a turban’ and there was much discussion about the Sikh who is sitting for the Liberals in the current ACT election. There are apparently many items identifying Sikh men, particularly: uncut hair, wearing silver bangles and carrying a ‘figurative’ sword. 

Sikhs often send money ‘home’, and although they have a new life with the move to a western culture, it is often purely for economic reasons. The largest group of Sikh people in Australia live in Victoria. The population in Australia is approximately 132,500. In Victoria, a Sikh man won a court case in the early 1900s to vote as a coloured man living in Australia after Australia had introduced the White Australia policy.

One reader did some research and discovered a thesis which discusses the Sikh heritage and the questions of women’s body identity. It is a patriarchal culture but the women have to negotiate the two cultures when living in a foreign land (such as in England). This is part of Nikki and Mindi’s dilemma and for the all other women too, no matter what age they were.

Nikki’s father in Britain wants his daughters to have a choice in life but then tries to restrict Nikki. There are the many visits back to India too to encourage all the traditional manners and customs in the girls. Honour for the family is vitally important as it is with many other cultures, which makes life extra hard for the young women involved. One member mentioned that the novelist says that Sikh culture can fossilise in a migrant country, whereas back home (in India) the culture moves a bit more with the times.

Kulwinder, the woman who employs Nikki in the novel, was one of the few characters who changes over the length of the story. She didn’t know what she was ‘buying into’ when she interviewed Nikki. She got more than she expected. We thought she was a great character. We liked the fact that there's a wide range of women in this novel ranging from young Nikki at 22 to mature ladies in their 50s and 60s. So there are lots of different opinions, and a push and pull between the generations.

An irony in the story was that Kulwinder moved to Southall thinking that her daughter would be safe there among Sikhs, but sadly that was where she was killed. Southall is a ‘Punjabi on Thames’ where the community lives separately from their English compatriots.

Racism was briefly mentioned. It is a subtle theme in the novel. For example, Steve, Nikki’s boss at the pub, noticed some passing references from English people to Nikki and her status at the bar.

Radicalising of migrant men and boys is also important issue in present day London and often mentioned in this novel. The menacing "Brothers" who patrol the streets of Southall have definitely have been radicalised. The security of young women was also mentioned quite often.

There is violent radicalising through the religion but there is also the radical behaviour of the women wanting to be freer and some learning English. The ladies who joined Nikki’s class were radical in that they were not learning English but telling stories they wanted to hear. It was also radical that they allowed themselves to go to the pub to continue the ‘lessons’.

It is interesting that no woman in this story married outside their community but the author did as she is married to an Australian. It is not an option for many Sikhs. (Because of a ruling from Amritsar, many gurdwaras no longer permit a Sikh to marry a non-Sikh in their premises. The basis of the prohibition is that a non-Sikh does not honour the Guru Granth Sahib as a Guru and so cannot show sufficient respect to the Guru Granth Sahib which presides at the marriage. From Sikhs in Australia.)

Sikhs are often persecuted as they don’t fit into the Moslem or Hindu communities. Sikhs do not proselytize so they need to breed and are very proud of their culture and their good works. They have a wonderful tradition of community service and providing free meals at temples in England, India and Australia.

We thought that this novel would make an excellent movie and the rights have been sold to Scott Free productions and Film4.

Present: 9 socially distanced, and 2 via Jitsi 

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Griffith Review 68, Getting on

Our August book, issue no 68 of the literary journal, Griffith Review, was a departure from our usual fare, and yet, although only a third of us read it all, its selection was unanimously approved. Why? Because this issue's topic, Getting on, or aging, was right up our alley. We started, of course, with our ...

First impressions

  • Enjoyed it, albeit was sometimes confronting, sometimes heartwarming, a sometimes a bit over the head.
  • Also enjoyed it overall, and also found it confronting in places. Liked that it opened with Garner, and enjoyed some of the poems.
  • Liked that it offered much to think about .
  • Thought that Sarah Holland-Batt's essay "Magical thinking and the aged-care crisis" set the scene well. Was interested in topics like the failure of the health care system, genetics and the definition of ageing. Enjoyed learning new information. Some pieces were very moving, but not all were specifically about ageing. 
  • Loved it all. Every piece had something intellectually interesting to offer about "getting on"; enjoyed the less scientific ones most. 
  • Read most of it but found some too depressing and others too scientific. Liked the Vicki Laveau-Harvie piece, having heard her at the Canberra Writers Festival.
  • Felt it was apposite for us to read, but found it a challenge. However, liked that it challenges our thinking about what sort of aged care we'd like, and thought it offered much food for thought.
  • Read all but last piece, and found it very profound, very moving, overall. So many good articles. Was particularly interested in the Mark Aarons piece about his long road to diagnosis, and could empathise, from her own experience of being an intern, with Melanie Cheng. 
  • Is a Griffith Review subscriber. Found the Garner opening piece a bit mystifying until she got to the end. Enjoyed Kathy Marks "A life in books" and Caroline Baum's "The hungry years". Was interested that many of the pieces were from people in the 60s, with nothing really from 80-somethings to provide an aged perspective. 
  • Read it all and really liked it. Particularly liked Sarah Holland-Batt and Beth Mohle's essays on the aged care system. Amused that one of the unrealistic fantasies described by Holland-Batt - "a geriatric co-op" style plan - was proposed by Burkitt for Gen Xers!


Some of us nominated our favourites. One really liked Ailsa Piper's "Old Growth", because Piper is happy to admit to being old, saying "I like saying I'm old!" Our member sees so many people being "in denial". Other favourites included Sarah Holland-Batt's "Magical thinking and the aged care crisis" (3), Kathy Marks' "A life in books" (2) and Beth Mohle's "System failure". Honourable mentions included Helen Garner's "The invisible arrow" and Frank Brennan's "Contemporary loss". One member named Glenn A Albrecht's "One hundred years of sumbiotude"the most obscure article. 

Specific "stories" that individual members liked included that about the grand-daughter who was surprised by how forward-thinking her grandmother was, and the one (in Frank Brennan, "Contemporary loss") about the dying man whose family brought in his paintings to hang on the wall which resulted in conversations that helped personalise relationships between patient, family and staff.


With such a diverse set of essays/memoirs/reports/fiction/poems, it was hard to have a coherent discussion, so this report will be a bit "scatty" ...

Of course we talked mostly about aged care in general, referencing in particular Holland-Batt and Mohle for their excellent analyses of the current situation, including how we got here, and for their thoughts about where to next. One member particularly liked Mohle's discussion of the new role of Nurse Navigator that's been created in Queensland and which seen significant reductions in Emergency presentations and overall hospitalisation. Both authors decried the Aged Care Act (1997) which contains no standards, no requirements for transparency or accountability.

We discussed the fact that some articles, such as Jane R Goodall's, discussed the idea of developing the role of "elders" and what this might mean. A couple of us liked Goodall's statement that:

The call of the elders is not to dwell on the past, but to renew awareness of our roots in it, and our place in a longer time scheme.
We also talked a little, though not in great depth, about euthanasia and assisted dying. We liked Blatt's idea of "magical thinking", such as the idea some people have that they will be in a position to take themselves out. We also noted the discussion in Andrew Stafford's "Dying wish" regarding the fine line between euthanasia/assisted dying and palliative care.

Dementia naturally came up a few times during the discussion. Several were interested in the articles which described the different types of dementia. We all felt that dementia would make a big difference to the experience of aging and the sort of care we might need or accept. All bets could be off in terms of our self-determination!

Other takeaways (or things learned) from the book, included:
  • Mohle's extortion not to catastrophise old age.
  • The idea that being young is positive and being old negative.
  • Charlotte Wood's finding that you die as you live: if you are angry or grumpy during your life you are likely to be like that in your final years. We laughed at her concern about when you should reset your default position!
  • The problems of food and eating in old age due to swallowing problems.
In terms of our own feelings about aging, we were generally positive. We felt overall that that there are big advantages to being an older person, that when you are old you can speak your mind more. Most of us seem to enjoy being old, appreciating the opportunity it offers us to express our ideas, the increased time we have to follow our passions. We noted, concurring with Holland-Batt, that our generation is more focused on self-determination versus previous generations which tended to accept authority and do what they were told.

Of course, we shared our various experiences of the aged care system, mostly through our parents. A couple commented that what they looked like loss of agency, from their point of view, wasn't how their parent felt. In other words, it's hard to know how we will feel, how we will perceive the world when we are much older and more frail. One talked about how her mother, who had dementia, initially ended up in a psychiatric facility rather than an aged care one. Another remembered her father's comment that growing old involves having to accept loss, which is expressed in Piper's article as ageing being a continual process of letting go. 

There was some discussion about the volume overall. One commented on the order of the pieces, how it started with 77-year-old established author Helen Garner, and closed with a 70-something debut author, Vicki Laveau-Harvie. She also liked the segues, or links, between the pieces. Another commented that the voices contained in the volume were primarily middle-aged or 60-somethings, and that there were no real aged voices. (We admitted, though, that not too long ago people in their 60s were seen as aged). It sent her back to a book published in 1979, Ellen Newton's This bed my centre, which chronicles the experiences of a 70-something woman with angina who spent 6 years in a nursing home.

Other works/activities we were reminded of, included:
  • Lisa Genova's Still Alice (book/movie)
  • Kate Grenville's One life: My mother's story
  • Ellen Newton's This bed my centre (mentioned above)
  • Webinars being run by Dementia Australia
In conclusion we agreed that it's hard to see how current trends in aged care will pan out given the significant aging of the population. We noted the lessons, that we all know already, such as that exercise, social interaction and good diet are factors that can help us have a good old age. Returning, as we often did during the discussion, to Sarah Holland-Batt we considered her comment that current aged care practice demonstrates a failure of imagination. We'd love to see more imagination - such as along the lines presented by writers like Mohle and Burkitt - applied to the problem. We wondered what impact COVID might have on policies and practices in the future. Will the return to being more people and community-focused that we are currently experiencing carry through to all sorts of people-related policies.  

Finally, one member said she loved the ending of Helen Garner's piece "The invisible arrow". Faced with the idea that his grandmother might stop writing, Garner's grandson said he wouldn't like her to do that.

"Why not?"
"Because," butts in his twelve-year-old brother, bouncing his football in a forceful rhythm, "it shows we exist"

Present: 10 members