Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Hannah Kent, Burial rites

Courtesy: Picador
Eight enthusiastic Minervans met this week to discuss Hannah Kent's debut novel, Burial rites. We've had, we agreed, a rip-roaring start to the year with all three books so far - Eleanor Catton's The luminaries, Christos Tsiolkas' Barracuda, and Hannah Kent's Burial rites - challenging and exciting us.

For those who don't know, Burial rites is based on the real story of Agnes Magnusdottir who, with two others, was convicted in 1828 of killing two men and setting fire to the house in order to cover their crime. Agnes and the male, Fridrick, were executed in January 1830.

You were there in Iceland, in that house (Minervan)

We all enjoyed the book and found it utterly compelling even though we all knew, of course, that she was the last person to be executed in Iceland*. How did it all happen? Some found the book so satisfying, so beautiful, they read it slowly, one even eking it out over 6 months because she didn't want to finish it! Many of us found it an emotional read.

We loved Kent's evocation of the environment - the poverty, the struggle for food, the dirt. It reminded one member of Halldór Laxness's Independent people, which, while set a century later, evokes the same sense of a hard land to live in. As one member commented, the phrase "as the weather allows" is repeated for a reason!

We talked a little about Iceland's long history, of the various invaders, of the plague and volcanoes - and of the more recent bank collapse calamity. We also discussed the servant-master social structure that allowed a young child like Agnes to be "tossed around" from person to person, with no real support structure, though we agreed that Iceland wouldn't have been unique in this regard at that time.

We enjoyed learning about 19th century Iceland. We learnt about the wide role of ministers which included keeping records about their parishioners, including their characters. We learnt that servants needed their masters' permission to marry. And we noted the poverty of the homes - except for District Commissioner Björn Blöndal's home which had glass windows, wooden walls.

Unbalanced portrayal of men and women (Minervan/Critics)

One of the criticisms levelled at the book concerns uneven portrayal of male and female characters. The male characters tend to be less "rounded" and mostly negatively portrayed, while a few of the female characters, including of course Agnes, have more depth. Some members agreed with this and felt it was a weakness in the book - although not a big enough one to stop their liking it - while others felt it's largely a consequence of the type of book it is and the society it is set in. This is a book about Agnes, and in this story, at this point in her life, her main access to people would have been women, with the exception of Tóti, the Assistant Reverend sent to be her religious adviser. Not surprisingly he's somewhat more rounded, more complex, than most of the other men. We liked the fact that he ignored Blöndal's instructions regarding his "work" with Agnes and conducted his sessions with her according to his sense of her needs. We felt that being an Assistant rather than a full Reverend, meant he was less steeped in (or could break from) the dogma/traditions of his job.

One member felt some of the best parts of the book were when Agnes was talking with the farmer's wife, Margrét. She enjoyed the woman-to-woman, almost mother-daughter talk, that drew out more of Agnes' inner feelings.

Another member commented on the fact that Blöndal was prepared to accept that Fridrick's behaviour could be explained by his poor upbringing, whilst Agnes was merely a spinster spurned!

I smell a device (Minervan)

Our biggest dissensions occurred over style. One member, despite enjoying the book, felt it was too "21st century". She felt Tóti and Margrét used modern counsellor language in their discussions with Agnes. Others didn't see such language in the book and found Tóti credible for his time. Another agreed that it was a 21st century book, saying that Kent had purposefully given a voice to Agnes that she didn't have, and probably couldn't have had, in her lifetime. Doing this made it a 21st century book.

We discussed the criticism that the historical sources introducing the chapters interrupted the flow. We didn't agree, feeling rather that they added credibility to the story.

We briefly discussed the role of sagas in the novel. An excerpt from a saga in which a women incites her bothers to kill for revenge opens the chapter after Fridrick's mother has incited him. Sagas, the member said, are often about "blokes killing" and rarely include much about women.

A member quoted a few lines as an example of lovely writing:
At first I did not know why these people stood about, men and women alike, each still and staring at me in silence. Then I understood that it was not me they stared at. I understood that these people did not see me. I was two dead men. I was a burning farm. I was a knife. I was blood.
We particularly liked the ending, the language, the change in pace, the almost stream of consciousness in Agnes' voice.

One member said she took a while "to get the hang of it". Another questioned whether the 1st to 3rd person shifts were always necessary, pointing to a couple of examples where the import wasn't clear. And a couple questioned an historical "fact". Did the women really need a man to help them "swing" newborn lambs? A calf they could believe, but lambs being small could surely be "swung" by healthy women if needed. They felt this was a device to get the male, Fridrick, on the scene - though the rest of the farm depictions seemed authentic.

We discussed Kent's description of the novel as "speculative biography" rather than as "historical fiction".

"We'll remember you" (Margrét to Agnes)

Kent's aim we felt was to give Agnes a voice that she didn't have at the time - or at least not that Kent could find in the historical record. The book is more, then, about Agnes than the crime, about the role of low-status women in society, and about their lack of power and options. It reminds us that we don't want to go back. One member reminded us that women weren't blameless in the novel, pointing to Poet Rosa and the baby she had with Natan (the victim) while married to someone else.

We discussed Ben Etherington's rather negative description of the novel in the Sydney Review of Books. He called it a "death row novel, Gothic romance and feminist revisionism". We didn't agree or, if we did, we didn't see this as negative! Kent's Agnes feels discriminated against because she was a thinking woman. Is this revisionism? Or is this a believable reading of Agnes?

The book is a powerful story about the desire to live. For all the misery of her life, Agnes still wanted to live. The novel's ending, her fear and distress, was visceral - and believable.

All in all, it was an excellent meeting which covered a lot of ground and yet involved some in-depth discussion of several issues.

* According to Wikipedia, the last Icelander executed occurred four years later in Denmark.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin
This very compelling and confronting novel was ‘appreciated’ by the Minervan reading group during February 2014. Some liked Barracuda more than The Slap, others less so.  One comment was that ‘it sang clearer’.  There were various views about the structure of the The Slap versus the complicated structure of Barracuda.  The critics are equally diverse in their opinions on this matter.  What is undeniable for most of us though is that both books grab your attention and hold it until the end.

The underlying message of this book is: what is a good man ?  It is the story of a young man, Danny Kelly, from his teenage years to about 30 and his desire to be the best swimmer in Australia. This theme is often repeated in the book – his Dad is considered a ‘good man’ for instance as is his lover, Clyde, but it is a hard journey for Danny Kelly to find out if he can attain this trait too.  Danny (or Dan as the adult) suffers considerable and long lasting anger, shame, class restrictions and class confrontation, and racism as well as many other high emotional states in order to achieve redemption and some self-awareness. 

Many of the reviews for this novel pick up on Australia’s national obsession with sport but that is not the essence of the book. Swimming is only the vehicle for relating Danny’s journey. The difficulties for swimmer Nick D'Arcy was possibly a catalyst for Tsiolkas’ original idea. Danny is a working class boy who wins a swimming scholarship to an elite private school in Melbourne.  (The school we decided is based on Wesley College.) He suffers all the trauma of a poor Greek kid dealing with and eventually winning over some of the ‘golden boys’ by his behaviour – firstly winning in the pool and then acting psycho after his failure.  So much of the story is told through his thoughts and his pain. He lacks communication skills and confidence and no adult seems to be aware of this except the coach. However even the coach does not help him sufficiently and feels guilty.  Danny wouldn’t let anyone, including his beloved family get too close to him incase they might pity him, and that was to be avoided most of all.

There was some discussion about the use of first and third person in the novel in order to show chronological periods. However these changes flowed and were not difficult to comprehend.  Tsiolkas also cleverly provides some dates to assist the reader with the story line as he jumps about. These devices provide the reader with a ready understanding of Dan’s personality and difficulties, which would not be so apparent if the book was straightly chronological. 

This story is very physical and violent and so is true to the character of a male teenager and young adult, not only in the climactic scene of the fight with Martin Taylor but also in the love scenes and in his interactions with other boys at school.  Tsiolkas has described the sensation of swimming in a race superbly and ‘our’ swimmers especially related well to these descriptions – for instance, how the water sometimes works with you and other days how it doesn’t!  Anger made Danny swim well but it also made him a raging bull when he couldn’t control it.  Maybe his mild mannered persona most of the time made him slip through the cracks for anger management lessons.  Anther very vivid scene was that of the grandmother’s party and her manipulation of her children at the Taylors' beach house which was most unpleasant.  The grandmother also put the shy young Danny on the spot where he didn’t know the rules. Tsiolkas captures Danny’s insecurity so well.
We highlighted the number of ‘real’ swimmers mentioned too, notably Kieran Perkins and Ian Thorpe. This led to one member commenting on the psychological problems suffered by many elite athletes.

Also ‘real’ books are mentioned by Tsiolkas which had an impact upon the boy.  On the way to Adelaide to see his dying grandmother Dan could not tell his mother that books had helped him.  
He'd found a voice that made sense of time and space as he was experiencing it. (page 339)  
We also liked the joke that he enjoyed classics more than more modern novels!

We thought the author captured Melbourne’s atmosphere so well too, this was particularly noticed by the former Melbournians.  For instance, the travel on trains across the city and the beautiful grounds of the school or the architecture of Taylor’s house in comparison with the ordinary Kelly house. The comments about beach houses and their position on the peninsula brought some humour – is Sorrento better or worse than Portsea?

Again Tsiolkas has produced a complex and exciting novel of 21st century Australia. He is one of the few novelists who have really ‘got’ the present age. 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

Prepared by Sue B

Eleanor Catton's Booker prize-winning novel, The Luminaries.

About 8 members gathered to discuss this very large novel set in the New Zealand goldfields in the nineteenth century. Not all of us had read all 832 pages, and as usual our reactions varied. Some liked it and others were disappointed. Some found it a very good read just as a mystery, others felt that after all the complexity the book was “hollow”.

The first 200 pages took some concentration as many characters were introduced. We found the recapitulation of the plot at about page 320 very useful as all the jumping about in time and different points of view took some getting used to. We discussed the complexity of the plot for some time, wondering if the author had an enormous flow chart on her wall as she wrote, some of us feeling that there were considerable holes in the plot and others querying whether we were supposed to care about that.

The characters were well drawn and interesting, including “shady characters like the Wild West”. We found the interactions between the characters were often very perceptive, one of us commenting that the young author seemed “emotionally precocious”.  We couldn’t agree whether the two main characters underwent any real character development though, and wondered whether they were even meant to?

The book had a nineteenth century feel to it in some ways. One of us was reminded of Thomas Hardy and another of Dickens. Each character was introduced in a quite theatrical nineteenth century way, and each chapter had an introductory summary. We enjoyed the joke that in the later chapters the summaries became the actual story and if we had made the mistake of skipping them we then had to backtrack. There was some racism and other nods towards nineteenth century attitudes. However the book does not moralise as do many period novels. We enjoyed the sense of place created, for example by the description of the rain in Hokitika. We noticed the humour, for example when Nillson inadvertently ended up as the generous donor.

We wondered what the book was actually about. Truth and lies? That there are many sides to a story? “Some things are never done” so once set in train things don’t get resolved? The deceptiveness of appearances – for example in the séance? The structure of the book was surprising. There was a lot of build up to the court scene but it was not the climax.  Each chapter was half the length of the preceding one.

We noticed that the whole book was structured around the zodiac, and each character in it represented a different force. Some of us felt that this distorted the story and made it and the characters less believable and meaningful. For some it was largely just decoration. Others found that astrology worked as an interesting way to interpret the world.

Everyone agreed that this book gave us a lot to talk about.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani

Minervans found Diego Marani's The last of the Vostyachs both enjoyable, unpredictable, very funny and a linguistic puzzle.

It was published ten years ago in Italian and only recently translated into English. How much do we like reading translations? One member raised the question of trusting translators and the possibility of feeling disconnected with the author. Most of us liked this novel and we were not bothered about its origins.

 Is it satirical? Is it a myth? Why did an Italian write a story about Finns and their language? We discovered that Marani is obsessed by language and has even written his own called Europanto. His "primary concern is how international understanding rests with a shared language". (Luke May in review, 30/4/13)

This story's background is the longterm antipathy between the Finns and the Russians and all that that connotes. This antagonism is clearly highlighted in the characters of the Finnish scholar Professor Aurtova and the Russian scholar Olga.  She says to him:

your language has never known the dizzying heights of universality. No one studies it and all you can do is repeat it among yourselves because it tells of a tiny country no-one knows ... 

The professor tries to counter this with statements such as  'long live Finland long live ignorance'.

Marani surprises the reader by making the Finn the bad guy (actually, truly evil) hero' and the Russian woman being of outstanding character, foresight and exemplary behaviour (for most of the novel).

The 'Vostyach' is a 'strange' fellow whose language develops with time and we were interested that 'things that had not been named for years emerged sluggishly from their long sleep, realizing they still existed'.  The happy ending for Ivan (the Vostyach) was a little incomprehensible for some readers in our group.

We endeavoured to talk about the 'big picture' too -- how does language define culture and nationality? In order to have a nation do we need to have a common language? Big questions but few answers !


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Schedule ideas for 2014

As we will be deciding our books for the first half of 2014 at our November meeting, here are some suggestions to consider (including recommendations added after this was initially published):

New books from some of our BIG authors:
  • Richard Flanagan's The narrow road to the deep north
  • Roger McDonald's The following
  • Alex Miller's Coal creek
  • Christos Tsiolkas' Barracuda
  • Alexis Wright's The swan book
  • Tim Winton's Eyrie
Booker Prize Winner for 2013:
Debut novels:
  • Hannah Kent's Burial rites
Other novels:
  • Aminatta Forna's The Hired Man (set in modern Croatia with an English family renovating a house in a village previously affected by the recent war) or The Memory of Love (set in Sierra Leone, the birthplace of the author's father)
  • Mohsin Hamad's The reluctant fundamentalist
  • Lloyd Jones' A history of silence
  • Anthony Marra's A constellation of vital phenomena
  • Ann Patchett's Bel Canto (won the 2002 Orange Prize)
  • JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy (dark modern Britain, deeply insightful) 
  • Amy Waldman's The submission
Classics: Do we want to do a classic?
  • Wallace Stegner's Crossing to safety 
Translated book (or book in English from a non-English background writer): I think it would be good to try to do at least one non-anglo book each year - but that may just be me
  • Jonas Jonasson's The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window and Disappeared
  • Janet Butler's Kitty's war
  • Nicholas Carr's The shallows 
  • Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad
And of course there are some books under Suggestions in the sidebar.

    Wednesday, October 30, 2013

    Christina Stead's For love alone

    It would be fair to say that Christina Stead has not bowled over Minervans. This is the second time the group has read her - the first being The man who loved children when I was overseas. It apparently did not go down well. And her second outing with us this month, For love alone, didn't change minds. Nonetheless, we had a lively discussion: we appreciated that she had something to say, and that she's a significant name in Australian literature. I'll 'fess up here though, before I go any further, and say I loved the book. I felt myself wanting to get back to it ... but that wasn't the universal experience.

    Why is this? The book was published in 1945, and set in Sydney and London between 1933 and 1937. It tells the story of 19-year-old Teresa (Tessa) Hawkins, and her determination to find love, and to find it on her terms. She's determined not going to be an "old maid" like her teacher colleagues, but neither will she marry a boy just out of long pants. Enter the aptly named Jonathan Crow, her 23-year-old Latin tutor and, to Teresa, a sophisticated man of the world. Most of the book concerns her desire to get to know him and develop a deeper relationship with him. Her plan is complicated - physically - by the fact that he moves to England to undertake further studies a few months after the book opens and - emotionally - by Jonathan's slippery, to say the least, behaviour. That's the basic story. There's not a lot of plot and the book is long. Most present found it pretty repetitive - and therefore tedious - as the two go on and on about their ideas on life and love. Some felt the writing old-fashioned, and didn't find the major characters engaging.

    However, we found lots of things to talk about, such as that the book has an autobiographical element. We also talked about what people liked, such as the wonderful description of a wedding at the opening of the novel: the messiness of the extended family, the silly bouquet throwing scene, the unhappy bride who is marrying because she needs to and not because she's "in love", the discussion about wedding presents (including chamber pots). We liked lively Aunt Bea who's fond of Teresa and tries to take her under her wing, not recognising that Teresa's goals for herself were rather different. We also liked Stead's descriptions of Teresa and James' (the truly loving man she eventually finds) trips into the English countryside, and we thought that Stead had a lovely facility with dialogue. The dialogue sections had real energy.

    We discussed Teresa's naivete and her inability to see into Jonathan's real nature, which, as became pretty clear by the second half of the book, is misogynistic and sadistic. He is psychologically cruel to Teresa and cynical about love, but he is also weak, lonely and needy. We wondered whether we were supposed to feel sorry for him, as Teresa does for much of the novel (alongside admiring what she believe is his superior intellect). Some felt in fact that Jonathan is a bit caricatured. Teresa on the other hand might be naive, but she's courageous, loyal and intelligent. Eventually she works out that her love for Jonathan has no future, and that in fact she never really loved him. What a relief. One of the clever things about the book, although its plot isn't its strong point, is that we are kept guessing right until the end about how things will turn out for Teresa. For much of the book, it doesn't look good!

    We talked about the novel being a psychological novel, rather than a plot-driven novel or one with a strong narrative. Stead is exploring the self and how it can construct itself, even mould itself, in the face of a tricky world. She talks of social controls on male-female relationships -
    Why do men make the laws, say, about marriage, decency and the like, to shackle themselves?
    - but her interest is more on the psychological impact of those laws. This made us think of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles (and we wondered whether Teresa - Tess's name had this intention) and Edith Wharton's novels, like The house of mirth. But Stead's book is different to both of these, while owing something to them. Stead recognises the economic imperative for women to marry, and explores social conventions which control how people find mates, but her real interest is the psychology.

    Consequently, her characters aren't simplistic and Stead doesn't appear to think there is an easy resolution to the human drive to find love. Teresa's maturation is not a simple process. She becomes obsessive in her plan to go to England to see Jonathan again, and almost destroys herself in the process. She becomes gaunt and haggard, and starts fading away. She develops a cough like the tubercular heroines of 19th century novels. As her relationship with Crow reaches its conclusion she returns to this self-destructive behaviour, preferring to die - a martyr for love - than live without love:
    But it's not in the conversion of Jonathan that she believed now, but in her coming martyrdom.
    One member noted that while the second half of the novel is set in England, two of the main characters are Australian and the other American. The issue of national sensibility and identity is, she said, one of Stead's themes in the book. We could see this, but didn't explore it in detail.

    The Miegunyah Modern Library Edition quotes Patrick White as saying: "it's a remarkable book. I feel elated to know it's there". We agreed that Stead's intensity would appeal to White - as would her rebellion against unthinking social mores.

    Overall, a good discussion of a challenging book, but methinks it will be our last Stead!

    Monday, October 21, 2013

    We gamely take on Gaiman

    American Gods (by Neil Gaiman)

    Six of us met to discuss one of our most controversial book choices: Neil Gaiman's American Gods. A book outside our usual choices. After some initial negative feedback we agreed on an alernative choice: The Ocean at the End of the Road, Gaiman's most recent book. So 3 of us had read American Gods or some of it, and the rest of the group the newer one.

    We considered the range of  his writing from graphic novels: The Sandman, short stories and children's books such as the Blueberry Girl and the Wolves in the Walls.

    We discussed the rambling novel American Gods, which had a blend of styles from noir to fantasy, sci fi, gothic and maybe even a little David Lynch thrown in. Some of the group found the novel boring, and had trouble finishing it. Others found it confusing and hard to follow. I found it readable, and intriguing, with a few slow patches, and perhaps a bit of confusion of ideas. The concept of the historical gods and mythological figures being personified by a group of characters living shady lives in contemporary society is quite an appealing one. These gods, based on Greek, Norse and similar gods are capricious, powerful but vulmerable, and dependant on people believing in them for their existence. Gaiman was i think contrasting these traditional gods, which have come with the arrival of the Europeans to the continent of America, with the new gods of media, and the somewhat shady CIA agents, which was an interesting but inconsistently developed part of the book.

    The main character the Shadow, who gets caught up in all of this, is a typical noir character, a tough guy who goes along with the dark forces around him, while retaining a certain moral heroism, and an ultimate vulnerability. The ghoulish figure of his dead wife appearing as a decaying zombie, was a surreal element which also contained an element of black humour. Likewise the reference to Christian beliefs with Shadow's final sacrifice, death and resurrection was a little heavyhanded. So a fascinating book, somewhat flawed, and obviously not to everyone's taste.

    Those who read the Ocean at the End of the Road enjoyed the story, finding it a fairly straightforward narrative, with a real fantasy element, but rather charming nonetheless. As I didn't read this book, I can't comment in depth on it, but it is another side to Gaiman's storytelling, where he tells rather dark fairy tales, exploring parallel realities, and a journey into people's magical alternative lives.

    It was a lovely discussion, with wonderful hospitality by Deb, and I think stimulating to read genres outside our usual gamut!