Thursday, 27 September 2018

Sofie Laguna's The choke

Sofie Laguna's latest novel The choke proved to be a popular book with our group, even though subject is not a cheery one. It's about a young impoverished, dyslexic girl, Justine, living with her war-damaged grandfather, Pop, on the edge of the Murray.

As usual we started with a whip around for first impressions:
  • a fantastic read; couldn't put it down; hard to put down; loved it; engaged from the start and couldn't stop
  • grim; gut-wrenching; harrowing; riveting but horrendous; enjoyed it but was traumatised; loved it but had to read it during the day; struggled because it's so harrowing, but kept going because another member said the ending offered some hope
  • loved the naive narrator, and how Laguna was able to present the perspective of a child while enabling adult readers to see what was really going on
  • the main character is incredibly endearing; the main character was vulnerable but brave
  • loved the Murray River setting; the description of the river and country-side were great
  • incredibly well-written
This just about says it all! However, we did tease out some of these points a bit more.


We discussed how effectively Laguna got into the head of this neglected young girl, though whose first-person voice the story is told. She's unaware of just how impoverished and neglected she is, and is as resourceful as she can be in managing the life she's been dealt. She is such an isolated character - with the only person really able to help and understand her being her Aunt Rita, but the war-damaged Pop, with whom Justine lives, will not accept his lesbian daughter, thus depriving Justine of this life-line. (We all liked Aunt Rita.) Some members felt the book had the bleak hopelessness of Frank McCourt's memoir, Angela's ashes.

We liked how Laguna portrayed her friendship with Michael, and how, being an outsider herself she understood him.

We talked about her tricky relationship with her half-brothers, about the way her father, Ray, behaved erratically with his children, not providing them with love and stability they need. Here is Justine about her father and half-brother Steve:

When I looked at Steve it was as if there was a ditch all around him too wide to jump. If you shone a torch into it, you’d never see the bottom. Steve couldn’t get across by himself; it was only Dad who could help him.

We discussed Ray's cruelty in teaching Justine to shoot instead of big brother Kirk who so wanted his father to teach him. Here's Justine on Kirk's reaction when their father takes her for a ride on his birthday:

I watched as Kirk turned and walked back into the house. His head was down. It was his birthday, one month late. But it was his birthday. As he walked, the half that was the same in us shrunk to nothing. (p. 100)

We also noted how Laguna sets us up through a playing scene at the beginning of the novel for the brothers' desertion of Justine at the choke when she's vulnerable and at risk. One member commented on how beautifully plotted the book is, how everything that happens points to something later.


A member asked what we thought of Pop. Had he caused his wife's death, she asked? The consensus was that he had, though it's clear he loved her nonetheless. He is war-traumatised - the Thai-Burma Railway. We all felt he loved Justine, and that although he's pathetic, he's the only real constant in her life. He's a complicated character whom we sometimes like, and sometimes not!

One member noted the chain of violent behaviours in the family, from Pop to Ray to Justine's brothers.

The writing

We were impressed by how Laguna engenders dread, and implies the horrors that happen, without resorting to explicit description.

We loved the vivid description of the setting and the river, and discussed the title and its meaning. The choke is a real place on the Murray River, a bottleneck through which the water must squeeze. It's a place of escape and tranquility for Justine. However, it also has a metaphorical role in the novel, symbolising the things that threaten to choke her life and conversely her ability "to push through and keep going."

One member shared the following quote:
When Dad was home Pop's Three was charged, as if Aunty Rita had put her electrical pads to the roof and pulled the lever. Kirk and Steve never wanted to leave. If Relle hadn't made them go home they would have hung around the yard all day, waiting for Dad to see them or speak to them or shoot the air with a pistol and say, Bullseye, boys. (p. 71)
She liked it because this one paragraph contains so many issues: the influence of Ray, the boys' need for him, and perhaps his potential for tenderness/kindness (towards them) never to be realised. The author captures so much - the environment, the family connections and influences - in just a few sentences.

We wondered why Laguna set this in the 1970s rather than more contemporaneously. Maybe it's because in current times a character like Justine would be picked up by education and welfare systems (we hope) so would not be as believable as she is in the 1970s.

One member commented that it's very Australian writing.

Final comments

We liked that it's ultimately positive - or, at least, looks more positive for Justine at the point it ends. Laguna, we understand, believes that hope is important.

Given that essentially all of us liked the novel, we wondered about the negative reviews some members had read. One was by James Ley in the Australian Book Review. Among other things, he said it was melodramatic, stereotypical, and lacks the vitality of Gillian Mears and Tim Winton.

We, however, were surprised it was not listed for the Miles Franklin award, and was only longlisted for the Stella Prize and Nita B Kibble Literary Awards!

PRESENT: 10 members

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Austerlitz by W G Sebald

Six of us hardy souls gathered on a cold night before a fire to talk about Austerlitz by the German English author W G Sebald.

This book is a fictional biography of a war refugee called Jacques Austerlitz. Rather surprisingly it includes black and white documentary photographs. It tells the story of a child, born in Prague, who escapes the Nazis as a 4 ½ year old and grows up in a Welsh village with an unhappy religious couple. He becomes an art historian with a passion for architecture. However he is also passionate about his origins and only finds out his real name as a young man of 18. He researches his mother and father, and his mother’s tragic end and while doing so meets the narrator – supposedly W G Sebald. He is also reunited with his nanny in Prague and this helps him to discover more about his parents.

The story is told over many years with a monologue occasionally assisted by the narrator.  Austerlitz suffers a breakdown from the stress of learning about the effect of the Holocaust on his mother. The story concludes with a visit to a cemetery and the narrator reading a book given to him by Austerlitz of a man looking down into a diamond mine in South Africa:
terrifying to see such emptiness… to realize that there is transition , only this dividing line, with ordinary life on one side and its unimaginable opposite on the other’. (p414)  

Our initial reactions to the novel include:

  • Stunned by it
  • Loved the fact that he wove ‘things’
  • Impressed by it
  • Struggled with it
  • Found the long sentences difficult/structure
  • Very gloomy and sad
  • Intellectual, complex
  • Talks about time, water and memories – mentioned in a Guardian review
  • Loved it – reminded her of Sebald's The Emigrants, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (because of the theme of "beating back the past")
We talked about the author W G Sebald. He was born in 1944 in Germany and died from a brain tumor in 2001 in Britain. The introduction by James Wood was helpful in advancing our knowledge of the effects of WW2 on people living in Central Europe and the transportation of children from there to England. It helps the book make sense.

Sebald’s style was discussed in some depth. There are so many different aspects in this novel. The long sentences, no chapters and no paragraphs were hard for some of us to cope with although the chronology of the story helped. Sebald was very clever in the way he included peripheral stories without giving the full story eg of his childhood friend Gerald. We are just supplied with ‘crumbs’.

We were astonished at the way Sebald discusses the effects of the Holocaust without actually going into details.  It made us think we can understand how some people reacted. One member reminded us that in An Unnecessary Woman the main character loved this novel because it dealt with the Holocaust but by only mentioning it indirectly. (We chose to read Austerlitz in fact because we were intrigued by its mentions in An Unnecessary Woman.) 

We wondered about our own journey in finding out about the Holocaust. Many of us were first exposed to it by reading Anne Frank’s autobiography, which has lingered in our heads since we first read it – many years ago. However our generation grew up with the effects of the Second World War. We grew up with war stories.

We also discussed the language, remembering that it was written in German and translated, although the author spoke English. One member noted that the unnecessary woman (mentioned above), who translated into Arabic, said that the elongating of the sentences with little punctuation was ideal for Arabic. Another point was the use of French and German in the novel. These sentences are fine for readers who have the language but difficult for others of us. One member has knowledge of Czech so she enjoyed the few words in that language. She also explained that the Czechs have a keen sense of humour which she felt was revealed in the novel.

We noticed that Austerlitz’s love of architecture was evident through the novel in descriptions eg the Bibliotheque Nationale – as ‘light faded more like moss’. Architecture ‘affects the human spirit with plays of light on materials and shapes’ as seen in his descriptions of the new Library. He also made us laugh about the well-known foibles of French bureaucracy.

The gloominess of the novel and intensity was a feature we all felt. The black and white tiny photographs compel the reader to accept the sad and grim conclusion on the character and life of Austerlitz. Austerlitz’s brief romantic liaisons are also very sad and give little reprieve to this man. Austerlitz and his life are gloomy and very grey.  In comparison Prague is bright and light because Austerlitz is given clues which can help him solve some of the questions he is battling.

There is an intense sense of place – wherever he happened to be. Austerlitz’s trauma even as a mature man is overshadowed by his displacement from his mother and being sent to Wales. The narrator often met Austerlitz in gloomy places too to hear more of the story so that didn’t help, such as cafes in railway stations.

Bleakness in Wales for the young boy living with two very religious and unstable people was disturbing and only lightened by hearing about his friendship with the boy at school and his acceptance into Gerald’s family or the weekly visit to the church to sing hymns.

One member told us about an extraordinary woman she recently heard about called Dame ‘Steve’ Stephanie Shirley who was born in Germany and ended up in Wales as a child having escaped from the Holocaust. She too travelled on the Kindertransport as a very young child. She was brilliant at maths but had to attend a boy’s school to study it. She learnt about computers at the beginning of the computer age and changed her name so she could apply for relevant jobs. She went on to say that she thought it was all worthwhile because ‘my life was worth saving’.

The narrator was an excellent way to tell the story we felt and we were bemused by the fact that the narrator had internalized the story so that he could remind Austerlitz of the facts at times.

Towards the end of the novel we learn of Austerlitz’s mental state from his years of research about his parents and WW2  (page 322 Penguin 2011 edition).
I had discovered the sources of my distress… looking back over the last few years ... as that child suddenly cast out of his familiar surroundings : reason was powerless against the rejection and annihilation which I had always suppressed…. 

It is terribly sad and must have been a common reaction from those displaced people.

Time is a common thread and the thought that inanimate objects can tell a story as they know things. 
The dead are outside time, the dying and all the sick at home … for a certain degree of personal misfortune is enough to cut us off from the past and the future… A clock has always struck me as something ridiculous, a thoroughly mendacious object, perhaps because I have resisted the power of time’ …( pp143-4)  

(This is very telling of Austerlitz’s character – trying to fathom one of life’s great puzzles).

Some members thought Napoleon’s battle scenes were memorable.

Music is also a theme we discussed in this book, from Austerlitz singing hymns in the Welsh chapel with his adopted parents, to later in life when viewing a circus performance near the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris. (See pp 382-4)
seemed to hear a long forgotten Welsh hymn … a waltz, or the slow sound of a funeral march ... nor could I have said at the time whether my heart was contracting in pain or expanding with happiness for the first time in my life. ( pp 382-3).

An excellent review of the novel is presented in this review written in 2001.
PRESENT: 6 members

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Michelle de Kretser's The life to come

We chose Michelle de Kretser's The life to come as our July book for a couple of reasons. One is that it had just been longlisted for this year's Miles Franklin Award (it has now been shortlisted), but mostly it was because we like her work.

It's an intriguing book. It comprises five parts, each telling the story of a different set of characters. However, one character, the novelist Pippa, appears in each part, providing a narrative thread that holds the book together. The main characters are Australian, Sri Lankan, English and French.

First impressions

As always, we started with first impressions from the meeting attendees, which, to summarise were:
  • it was slow to get into, but became more interesting, more enjoyable, as the book progressed
  • it engrossed from the start but tailed off a bit in the middle
  • it went on a bit in places but was enjoyable overall
  • the last part featuring Christabel was particularly sad
  • Pippa was an irritating character, which spoilt the book
  • Pippa was a well-drawn character even if she wasn't the nicest one!
  • de Kretser gets into her characters' heads very well
  • de Kretser has a wonderful sense of place, particularly of Sydney
  • the book's non-linear narrative was interesting. It felt impressionistic, a bit like a painter throwing strong colours around, but Pippa worked well as a connecting link between the separate stories
  • the humour was good, though de Kretser's targeting of left-wing middle-class people sometimes came a bit close to home!
  • the "life to come" theme was interestingly explored through the various characters, such as Cassie who wondered how she was to live; Celeste who saw her future shrinking to a lonely old age; Christabel who was looking for the moment when her life would be transformed; and Pippa who, initially at least, saw her future as bright and positive.
We then discussed some of the meanings we gleaned from the book, and decided that one of the main themes was that of dashed expectations. This, said one member, was very Beckett - as was heralded by the opening epigram from his Endgame. Christabel's father, another reminded us, philosophised to her that "what isn't done, isn't done".

Culture and nationality

Another over-riding theme in the book relates to culture and nationality, to the way we view other cultures, the way we stereotype each other, the assumptions we make about each other. While the theme of dashed expectations provided some of the book's most poignant or sad moments, this one underpinned much of its satire - and thus provided much of the humour. (Even if sometimes that humour became uncomfortably close to home!)

Our discussion flitted around somewhat, but we did discuss each of the main parts of the book during the evening: Part 2 "The Ashfield Tamil" about Ash and Cassie; Part 3 "The museum of romantic life" about Celeste and Sabine; Part 4 "Pippa Passes" about Pippa and her in-laws; and Part 5 "Olly Faithful" about Christabel and Bunty. We found some of these stories very sad, particularly Christabel's.

We all felt that Pippa's mother-in-law, Eva, was a wonderfully drawn character. She "likes rescuing things", says her husband. For example, she employs refugees from a "not-for-profit catering group" to serve food at her parties, while wearing "garments stiffened with embroidery and beads. At throat and wrists she wore silver set with gems, some the colour of butter, others the colour of blood. These tribal ornaments lit Eva's face, and proclaimed her solidarity with the wretched of the earth."

In another example, Eva's osteopath Rashida, who is also a Muslim Indian immigrant, is dining with Eva and her family. They quiz her about her background:

'My parents thought that India wasn't the best place for Muslims,' said Rashida. 'I love these potato pancakes, Eva. Could I have the recipe?
'Were you persecuted for your faith?' Eva asked, hushed and hopeful.
'Not really.'
Keith [Eva's husband] said, 'So you were privileged migrants.'
Rashida said nothing. She seemed to be turning the sentence over in her mind, trying to work out its shape.

Story or history

Another issue that runs through the book relates to history and the past, and to the idea of stories. For some, history and story are very different concepts, but to Pippa the line is very faint. It's all story to her. She's the novelist mining other people's stories for her novels.

Ash (in Part 2, The Ashfield Tamil), however, born of a Scottish mother and Sir Lankan father, knows the difference between history and story. Partner Cassie, who is "postmodernly tutored", thinks history is "just a set of competing stories" but Ash understands exactly "the historical sequence that ... brought a Tamil civil servant to the counter of a shop in the west of Sydney."

Our cultural confusion is mocked frequently in the novel. We enjoyed Pippa's comment to Christabel on dining out with her literary agent:

We went to this amazing new Asian place at Darling Harbour. It's been quite controversial because they do live sashimi. But Gloria and I talked about it, the cruelty aspect, and we decided it was Japanese cultural tradition so it was OK.

Somewhat related to the idea of stories is the role played by social media in modern lives. De Kretser skewers the curated self of modern life though her sharing of Pippa's activity on Twitter.


Not surprisingly, the character we talked most about was Pippa. Most felt that at the beginning she was young, a little naive, and likeable, but that as the novel progressed, as she "used" and/or was insensitive to character after character, particularly to Céleste and Christabel, she became the character who stood for the worst aspects of modern Australian life and culture.

Here, however, is her, still young and getting to know the man she married, Matt:

Sydney before Matt was the view from a car speeding through fog. By the time he and Pippa had been together a year, even that memory had faded and vanished from the sky.  It amazed her how quickly everything had fled into the past. ... It was as if, not having much common history to carry into the future, they needed to stock up fast.

 A novel or a collection of stories?

We also discussed briefly the form of the "novel". Is it a novel, one member asked, or a collection of stories. Except for Pippa's appearance in every part, each part is self-contained. We commented that we were sorry when each part ended, but fortunately, it seemed that we enjoyed each part equally well. At least, I don't recollect any discussion about preference for one part over another. They were all strong - as was de Kretser's writing. We admired her ability to capture people, places and ideas, so expressively but so succinctly too.

We didn't necessarily resolve the "is it a novel" question, but most of us felt it didn't matter. Whatever it was, we had enjoyed the novel.

Present: 8 (with three apologies)

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea by Randolph Stow

Tuesday 26 June 2018

Nine of us, a surprisingly large number for mid-winter, gathered for this discussion. The book, Randolph Stow's The merry-go-round in the sea, is semi-autobiographical, and concerns an extended family on sheep stations, especially in Geraldton, Western Australia. Rob is just six years old in 1941 when his adored cousin Rick leaves to join the army. Rick returns from the war much changed, and Rob is changing too. Most of us had read the whole book, and almost all of us loved it. Our initial responses included: “Delightful, fantastic, immersive”; ”Old fashioned, Rob seems too aware for his age”; “Beautifully structured”; “felt very alive – good read”; “All your senses are engaged”. It certainly gave us a great deal to talk about.

Some of us found the use of racist language disturbing. The book was published in 1965, many years after the Second World War, and language and attitudes to Aborigines and people of other races were already changing. We wondered if Stow put the harsh words in the mouths of his characters repeatedly to contrast them with Rob’s more sympathetic attitude to some Aborigines he knew, for example older children that he admired. They talk about the “Hand Cave”, and on questioning, even Rob’s Mother’s attitude seems much more moderate than the language she uses to describe Aborigines. While necessarily reflecting the language used at the time, is the author subtly calling the racism to account? Stow, and Rob, seem to love the landscape of Australia while deploring some of the values. “If I had Convict or Aboriginal blood I’d be related to everyone in Australia” “Except the Italians!” There seems to be a similar subtle questioning around the casual killing of animals which was very much part of rural life at the time.

We all loved the poetic writing and detailed descriptions and felt that the landscape was part of the emotional language of the book, giving a vividly strong sense of place. One of us was reminded of Camus’s The outsider - at one with the environment and with a deep sense of the person. The way that the description of landscape underlies the mood of the book was described as masterly, for example the landscape is very bleak when the family wonders whether Rick has been killed in the war. We were grateful for the brilliant, detailed, involving description of the droving trip, an iconic Australian experience which seems distant now.  We also loved the quotes of poetry from the school books and the popular music of the time which really grounded it in the period.

The humour was appreciated. Auntie Kay is knitting socks, and is “aware of the sock situation in outlying parts of the family”.

The book was felt to be satisfying as a coming-of-age story, but seemed much more complex. Rob, a precociously aware six-year-old, certainly matures considerably and along the way we get many insights into the maturing process. We discussed the relationship between Rob and Rick. One commented that Rick was all the more important as a role model for Rob as Rob’s own father seemed to suffer from Depression and was emotionally distant, except for one powerful scene. Rob agonises over the criticisms aimed at Rick when he returns, damaged, from the War, almost as though they are criticisms of Rob himself. Is Rob the young Randolph or is it Rick? It was decided that they are two parts of the author’s self. Rick seems to be in a dark place towards the end of the book, and Randolph Stow had a nervous breakdown while in New Guinea.

Why was Rob often described as “the boy” and his mother as “the mother”? Was this a way of universalising their experience?  In Tourmaline the narrator is known simply as “the law”.
One of us found the scenes between Rick and his girlfriend unconvincing, but then the relationship didn’t survive. Randolph Stow was gay, which usually wasn't talked about in the 60's any more than during the war.

We noticed the relatively restrained descriptions of the prisoner of war experience by today’s standards, and wondered whether this reflected the characteristic reticence of returned prisoners at the time. Maybe there was less understanding of what they had experienced than came out later? At the time POWs were not considered heroes, one of many things which seem to eat at Rick.  As the second son he was not needed to run the farm, and his decision to leave the country, while it came as a shock to Rob, was not uncommon among tertiary educated youth at the time who found Australia stifling.

Was the Merry-Go-Round a symbol of no change? Rob wanted things to stay the same even as he could see that things were changing. Is the Merry-Go-Round metaphor echoed in the quote from Donne which Rick wrote in Rob’s autograph book when he returned home after the War? He had been much affected by the post card which Rob had sent him, the only post that he received at all during his imprisonment:
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I began

By the end of the book Rob’s imagined Merry-go-Round in the Sea has crumbled into the sea. One commented that the ending was a bit clunky compared to the rest of the book. Many of us felt that Randolph Stow is underrated these days, and want to read Tourmaline now.

PRESENT: 10 members (the tenth arriving late!)

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

First person by Richard Flanagan

Eight Minervans read this novel with varying degrees of enjoyment.  Briefly it is novel as fake memoir based on a real life experience endured by Richard Flanagan. The novel has various levels of subtlety.  On one level it is a curious mixture of tirade against present day society and the problems brought on by a lack of morals and evil.

The story is about a young writer with a wife and child living in Tasmania who is asked to write a biography of a fraudster, Ziggy Heidl in six weeks. So there is great urgency and tension from the beginning. It is set just before his court case. It is thought that Heidl will probably be sent to jail for the rest of his life.  Heidl is accused of swindling the banks of $700 million. The acknowledged criminal is reluctant to tell the young writer his story and obfuscates. The writer is totally frustrated by his subject. ‘First person’ is also trying to control the situation at home in Hobart where his wife is shortly expecting twins. They desperately need the money for this first book and to complicate the situation the writer has to go to Melbourne to write it. Heidl is killed (but by whom?) and the book becomes a total fiction and is not accepted by the publisher. Then the story skips to the current day and we learn that the writer now middle aged has had a second unhappy marriage and worked in television. However he is still haunted by Heidl and his weird and dangerous theories and stories, and the events of the short time he spent with this character.

The story is loosely based upon the fact that in 1991 Richard Flanagan helped Australia’s most notorious conman John Friedrich write his autobiography. However there are few other similarities of the ‘First person’ writer to Flanagan. Flanagan has a happy marriage and no career in TV. Friedrich killed himself 3 weeks before the trial. Friedrich had received an OAM. He was executive director of the National Safety Council of Australia during the 1980s. He was a West German national who arrived in Melbourne in 1975.

See the Wiki entry on John Friedrich – it is quite fascinating. 

Our round of comments include :

  • Well written but not his best novel
  • Could do with a good edit as it is too repetitious
  • No empathy with any of the characters except the writer’s wife, Suzy
  • Clever and funny in places
  • Critical of Tasmania – why is that?
  • Ray is based on a real guy but actually very different in many ways (one member knew of the real guy)
  • Found it hard to keep going, listening to the audio read by Flanagan was good
  • Loved the irony that Flanagan ghost-wrote John Friedrich’s memoir, and then wrote a pseudo-memoir.
  • Bleak view of society eg the writer mentioning that his daughter Bo was dead in a very offhand manner and his lack of fatherly feelings for his twin boys, who had separated themselves from him too
  • Self indulgent, very cynical and a bit smarty pants
  • Birth scene of the twins was brilliant – we could relate to this scene
Very quickly in the conversation other books were mentioned that Flanagan’s book reminded people about. Reminiscences of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad in the end (is this a 3rd memoir?) I haven’t read Conrad so can’t comment. Another member thought that Flanagan was channelling Dostoyevsky.

In discussing these books we also talked about the words of philosophers in this story – some true like Nietzsche but Heidl’s Thomas Tebbe  we could not validate. Other thinkers mentioned were Socrates and Albert Camus.

We discussed the main character at some length – Siegfried Heidl. Is he a sign of the present with public characters such as politicians like Trump? Why doesn’t Heidl understand what is important in life, with a wife and family? He continually plays games so that there is no certainty about any details. He is also tantalizing the writer and influencing him in subtle ways. Not everyone accepted the writer’s reactions to Heidl but many of us were convinced. Friedrich was a charmer and probably Heidl was too but it was not easily conveyed in the novel. 

Some members thought the story was metaphorical – society faced with the situation that money is the main aim of most people at the expense of intimacy and normal life. Life is always more complicated than that though.

Heidl also had a long term impact on the writer – does Friedrich exert such power over Flanagan? I don’t think so but obviously he does worry Flanagan and so maybe this book is cathartic? A lack of moral fibre is a terrible characteristic and both criminals, the real and the imagined, seemed to be so inclined. But Heidl is more than a lack of ethics, his is a powerful anti-moral stance.  It gets to the core of trust in institutions and organisations by the public. We didn’t delve into Trump similarities but they are pretty self-evident we felt. Truth is another issue we briefly discussed. How can I keep myself in control?

The writer’s frustration at losing connection with family was sad. It meant he lost goodness in his life and couldn’t regain it. So consequently he had had a dysfunctional life in some ways, losing contact with his children and his 2 wives, and ending up with nothing much to live for?

The death scene caused some comments – some felt that the writer had killed Heidl but others were not sure. Flanagan writes it with a light touch. It is clever how he makes it slightly ambiguous. We also mentioned how Heidl’s last day was so calm despite all the fanfare of the weeks before.

We thought the writer was so naïve and funny when asking the publisher for a small sum to cover his living expenses in Melbourne. The writer talks a lot about publishers, and this is unusual and quite a diversion from the family story. We thought some of the sayings were comical – ‘roger that’ and ‘hold that thought’ were two which stood out.

The opening of the novel was a fascinating comment on modern literature we thought – that is: The excerpts from the Minutes of evidence of the Select Committee on Transportation of convicts London 5 May 1837. A little bizarre !

One member asked what a non-Australian would make of this novel. It is hard to know.

There are many interesting aspects of the place dichotomies raised by Flanagan eg Tasmania versus mainland, and Melbourne versus Hobart (are they like Melbourne versus New York?).

A final point was the cover of the hard text which shows a black jay and a white jay.  

PRESENT: 8 members

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Schedule Ideas for Second Half of 2018

Here are some ideas for our July to November books, 2018

IDEAS FROM our BLOG Sidebar:
I've copied here most of the books in the sidebar. The two asterisked titles, have been specifically mentioned by a few members during the first half of this year.

  • Britt Bennett's The mothers 
  • Robyn Cadwallader's Book of colours (local author)
  • Michelle de Kretser's The life to come 
  • ** EM Forster's Howard's End 
  • Tom Griffiths' The art of time travel 
  • Rodney Hall's Love without hope 
  • Elizabeth Jane Howard (One by her) 
  • Sam Kean's The disappearing spoon 
  • Sofie Laguna's The choke 
  • Mary McCarthy's The group 
  • ** WG Sebald's Austerlitz 
  • Anthony Trollope (One by him) 
  • John Williams' Stoner

Just in case there's anything here of particular interest.

  • Peter Carey’s The long way home (Penguin Random House) 
  • Felicity Castagna’s No more boats (Giramondo)
  • Michelle de Kretser’s The life to come (Allen & Unwin) 
  • Lia Hills’ The crying place (Allen & Unwin) 
  • Eva Hornung’s The last garden (Text) 
  • Wayne Macauley’s Some tests (Text) 
  • Catherine McKinnon’s Storyland (HarperCollins) 
  • Gerald Murnane’s Border districts (Giramondo) 
  • Jane Rawson’s From the wreck (Transit Lounge) 
  • Michael Sala’s The restorer (Text) 
  • Kim Scott’s Taboo (Picador Australia) 

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

A Helen Garner Festival (of sorts)

We tried something we've never done before for our April meeting, which was that we could all choose our own book to read, with one proviso - it had to be by (or about) Helen Garner. This is not something you could do with many authors, but with the longevity of Garner's career, and the spread of her writing over novels, short stories, screenplays, essays, and longform non-fiction, we felt it could work - and it did. We did something else new, too, suggesting that attendees write a brief comment on their choice for the blog. Those contributions are included in this post.

So, what did we read?

  • Monkey grip (1977) (x2)
  • The children’s Bach (1984) (x2)
  • The last days of Chez Nous and Two friends (1992)
  • The feel of steel (2001)
  • Everywhere I look (2016) (x2)
  • True stories (2017)
  • A writing life: Helen Garner and her work, by Bernadette Brennan (2017)
We chose these for various reasons. One chose Monkey grip because it's "in our culture" and she hadn't read it, while the other read it because she'd read it before and hadn't liked it, so wanted to reassess it from her later years! One found two at Lifeline, and didn't want to read Joe Cinque's consolation, so read the other, The feel of steel. A few of us chose our books because we had them on our shelves, just waiting to be read (or re-read.) One chose The children's Bach because the title suggested there'd be references to music in it, while another read True stories because it's a compilation of 50 years of her writing. And one chose the literary portrait because she'd read many of Garner's books and wanted to find out more about her.

What common threads did we find?

The overriding thread was that she draws heavily from her life, even for works that aren't strongly autobiographical. She is present in most of her writing, one way or another, including her long non-fiction works, such as Joe Cinque's consolation.

Another thread was that she is "searingly honest", "will have a go at everything", "is not afraid of looking an idiot".  This can apply both to the topics she chooses and her way of exploring them.

The third main thread that most of us commented on was her writing. She's a wonderful stylist, and a spare writer. But spare, we agreed, doesn't mean plain. One put it beautifully by praising Garner's "word pictures".

Our personal comments

Monkey Grip (Sylvia)

This is a story about drugs and the effects on young lives, not only of the people taking them but also their inner Melbourne community. We see the story through Nora’s eyes, who is a woman in her early thirties living in a shared house with a young child and she is in love with a drug addicted fellow called Javo. Javo comes and goes with her and with the drugs. He doesn’t like what the drugs do to him, neither does Nora like him on drugs, but he can’t seem to stay clean. He treats her badly by loving her sometimes and then going on to other relationships. As the blurb on the back of the book says "they are unable to let go – the harder they pull away from each other, the tighter the monkey grip."

They do very little work but seem to have money to spend on drugs and meals. It is a pretty difficult way to live and I found it hard to appreciate their inner conflicts. The struggle to love Javo concludes with Nora realising that she can’t change him and she needs to make her own life away from him.

It is a very well written book with very convincing characters. It is a book which is applicable to today’s young people who live in a similar state of lack of self worth and depression. Overall it is a very sad book.

I lay awake beside him through the nights full of groaning and half-sleep. Once he saved me some coke, and brought it round. I snorted it and it got me through his worst night: I lay there serenely, observing dispassionately his contortions as he came down. I would have done anything I could to help him, but nothing could be done, so I lay next to him while he sweated and heaved, and the night passed. (Penguin edition, p. 19).

Monkey grip (Denise)

I re-read Monkey Grip which I read 40 years ago and thought at the time it was a much hyped novel about people I disliked and who really annoyed me. I could not remember the details of the novel, just lots of hippies moving between share houses, behaving irresponsibly and I remembered the negative response it left in me.

Re-reading it, I enjoyed it much more because I could appreciate the good writing and character development, even as it does portray self centred people overdoing the drug and free and easy sex. As a more mature reader I can now reflect how easily otherwise bright people get enmeshed in a dope scene wit hopeless partners.

Helen's detail in describing conversations, interiors, outings to the beach, playing with her daughter takes the reader right into the heart of the characters life. She builds a tension in you, and you turn the page wanting to read the next disaster

The children's Bach (Judith)

I read “The Children’s Bach”, a novella. One of the appeal factors was its potential connection to music. It did not disappoint. Music references in various forms – classical, popular, dancing, playing piano, guitar, piano lessons and practice – were sprinkled throughout the writing, linked to many of the characters. However, I have to admit that these became more obvious as I reflected on the book as a whole, and weren’t especially prominent during my initial reading.

Early on, the reader finds that in Athena’s kitchen in the house at Merri Creek was a piano – curiously, the writing did not explain why it was in the kitchen. Subsequent descriptions referred to her sporadic playing, the quality of it and how she felt about it. Our group noted how Garner herself learnt to play piano in her middle years.

I particularly loved the description (which brought back fond memories for me) of going into a music shop with rows of grand pianos on display. It presented yet another example of Garner’s wonderful ability to sketch and capture a scene.

‘Let’s go to Allans. I feel like playing the pianos.’ The house of music was lumbered with grands, a noble line of them, each fluttering a many-digited price tag. Their lids were propped open as if to catch a breath of air. Their perfect teeth, their glossy flanks, their sumptuous smell caused customers to tiptoe past them on their way to the secondhand uprights at the back ...

Then follows a delightful description of Poppy at one piano and a young sales assistant at another playing the same piece in snatches. 

‘Their game was clever: the man teased, the girl echoed him, they were flirting with each other, laughing; they played three slow chords in unison. People stopped and listened, pretending not to, because it was so intimate.’

More observations on Garner’s ability to effortlessly describe scenes and situations:

‘The waiter had a face like an unchipped statue.’ 
‘He waltzed the car from lane to lane with big flourishes of the steering wheel.’ (on Dexter)
“They lay wide awake…, restless, involved in their separate travellings, longing to slip off the edge into real sleep.
'Are you still awake?' said Athena.
'Stop thinking. How can I drop off next to a head full of thoughts?'”

The last days of Chez Nous and Two friends (Sue T)

Helen Garner’s two screenplays, The last days of Chez Nous and Two friends, make for great reading, surprisingly (given they're meant to be seen not read.) They fit neatly within her oeuvre of novels and short stories about families and relationship breakdowns. She is highly skilled in her prose at identifying the little but important expressions and reactions that help illuminate what is happening on the surface. She does this in the screenplays, partly through descriptions which are presumably intended as directions to the actors.

This example is from Last days of Chez Nous, just before JP admits his betrayal to wife Beth, who has already intuited something is up:
Everyone looks at her, surprised. She has quietly dropped her bundle.

The feel of steel (Sue B)

This is a nonfiction collection of essays - more like fragments from a diary. All are typically deeply personal, keenly observed - honest, fearless and absorbing. Includes a trip among icebergs in Antarctica ("Always this urge to  anthropomorphise grips us as if the awe – or panic, or even deep down rage – provoked in us by a landscape without human meaning were too deep to bear"); on being a reader ("I knew I couldn't be the only person in the world who's capable of forgetting the contents of a novel only minutes after having closed it"); her experience of colonic irrigation at a Spa resort on Koh Samui – admitting that she enjoyed it; the divisive effect on the family as her mother slipped into Alzheimer's; and becoming a grandmother ("At my age you do not expect to be consumed by a passion so intense ... I could turn into a monster Nanna".)

I couldn't stop reading.

Everywhere I look (Janet)

I chose this book because it had been on my bedside table for about a year, having been lent to me by a friend when I was in hospital. What I liked about it is that Garner doesn’t mince words; I think she’s very direct and honest about herself. At the very least, she’s as hard on herself as she is on those she critiques. I’m sure I know her better for having read this book.

Although Garner is 14 years older than me which, now that I think about it, means she finished school before I started, I enjoyed her take on things I’ve experienced; living in inner Melbourne, going to Melbourne Uni and her spiel on suburbia (Moonie Ponds). Like Garner, I was born in Geelong. I grew up on the other side of Melbourne but it was similar (although it escaped directly, the mocking humour of Barry Humphries) and like her, I went to an exclusive girls’ high school. I liked it when she said “I wanted to speak up, now that it’s too late [It’s too late for me too.], for my parents and for my parents’ friends – those shy, modest, public spirited people……These people were kind to their neighbour’s children.” It made me remember my Mother having been the President of my primary school’s Mothers’ Club and how she ran the annual school fete and that my Father was a scout leader. I remembered Ernie next door, my friends’ Dad who was the station master at the local train station and rode his bike to work. Ernie taught me how to mend a puncture on the second hand bike I bought for $10, using several weeks of my earnings from working in the corner milk bar on Sunday afternoons. I don’t write so I’m grateful that Garner thought to write about small things in her life that made me remember and appreciate some of my own forgotten sweet small things.

As for the chapter called 'The Insults of Age', all I can say is “I know!” About 2 years ago, so before my 60th, I went to Hoyts Woden and was sold, unsolicited, a seniors ticket. I didn’t know whether to swat him or thank him for the saving, so I just walked off, pondering looking over 60, until I decided that the four-year-old who sold me the ticket was ill-qualified to presume to judge my age and so to focus on the money he saved me. This is confronting for we (tail-end in my case, I hasten to add) baby boomers who all think we’re ten years younger than our chronological ages.

As I shared at the meeting, I though the chapter 'How to Marry Your Daughters’ was an hilarious precis of our beloved Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The final sentence:

And long live the Lydias of this world, the slack molls who provide the grit in the engine of the marriage plot; for without them it would run so smoothly that the rest of us would fall into despair.

Love it.

True stories (Gerda)

I chose True stories as it covers 50 years of her non-fiction short pieces, covering a huge variety of topics. I enjoyed reading this - easy to dip into, hard to put down. I loved the way she observes and listens to what is going on around her.

I found her writing honest, compassionate, evocative, attentive to small details and the  pleasures/hardships of everyday life - joy, love, loss, fear, longing, grief. Some pieces are so funny, others heart-wrenching

Hard to pick any favourite pieces, though I particularly enjoyed "My child in the world", "Mr Tiarapu", "Regions of thick-ribbed Ice", "Labour Ward, Penrith", "On turning Fifty", and "Woman in a Green Mantle".

Our conclusion

Our discussion ranged rather widely - too widely to include it all here - but we did try to draw it all together at the end, particularly regarding her relevance and longevity. Is she too Melbourne-focused? Does she only appeal to people around our age? Will she still be relevant for future readers?

One member reported that her daughter, who's a keen reader, couldn't get into Everywhere I look. The Melbournites loved her ability to describe Melbourne, but wondered if that limited her appeal.

Our conclusion, though, was that she has carved out a niche that's unlike anyone else, and that despite her focused setting, her subject matter is universal. And, in addition to all this is her writing. It's worth reading for itself.

PRESENT: 9 members