Monday, 13 January 2020

Tim Winton’s The shepherd’s hut

The shepherd's hut, the latest addition to Tim Winton’s oeuvre, is considered one of his best for many years according to many of our Minerva members.

This novel has a very minor plot – violent Dad is found dead and teenage son is extremely worried that he will be suspected of killing him. The boy leaves home and walks away not caring or knowing where he is going. He almost dies in the Western Australian desert until he finds a hut where an elderly former priest lives as a hermit. They develop a bond and the young boy starts to recover from the abuse and difficulties of his life.

[SPOILER ALERT] Inevitably the priest is killed by 2 guys who think the priest has discovered their marijuana plantation. It is the characters' relationships that carry this work and make it so distinctive and so memorable.

First impressions

  • Very clever
  • Found the language very challenging and distasteful
  • Personalities are fantastic
  • Compelling reading
  • Atmosphere – slow and moody – would be great as a movie with music complimenting the slow pace
  • Some language is a bit jargonistic – Tim Winton moves in the circles of people who swear constantly
  • Description of nature and love of WA landscape wonderful
  • A religious story – with a biblical feel
  • Reminded one member of Voss by Patrick White with the descriptions of the landscape
  • Loved the last 2 sentences – ‘And peace is on its way. It fucking better be.’ (p. 267) Felt that summed up that at heart Jaxie Clackton was a good guy – although he was continually worried that he wasn’t.
  • Winton really gets the landscape, drew me in
  • What was he trying to say? Was it about a cynical priest trying to redeem a young person?
  • Very masculine novel – fascinating and tough – males in extremis?
  • Very impressive opening passage – hinting at trials ahead or to put it another way – something ending and something beginning
  • Jaxie feels he is a scapegoat as he has been outcast most of his life by his family and by school and his peers – this becomes almost biblical
  • He has been a violent young man – ‘I have been a dirty goat’ and ‘I’m no type of beast anymore’
  • One member realised that there is no sea or surf in this Winton novel which is most unusual
  • Couldn’t understand why the priest Fintan was stuck in the desert as it isn’t explained – he is a flawed wise man and not a paedophile 
  • Implausible scenario but that does not detract from the biblical allusions – Jesus in the desert -- 40 days etc


There were differing opinions about the language – the majority of members did not mind it as it seemed appropriate – the others found it disturbing but it did not detract from their admiration for the novel. The swearing includes all words commonly used as well as some which are not used so often. Jaxie is a boy of little education so the sentences are short and blunt and raw but very understandable, even when he uses lots of slang.

We found the names of the characters quite Dickensenian – and they also reminded one reader of Terry Prachett’s names.

The two main characters speak in their own languages which at times are totally authentic and natural.



Jaxie is a traumatised young man, probably suffering from PTSD caused by his abusive, butcher father. Jaxie recognises early on that he is full of pent up anger at the world and with himself.

We discussed how he was ‘driven’ to love his first cousin Lee as he was so lacking in love from his parents. It is often the way that abused children find succour in relationships which cannot be approved.

Jaxie’s mother didn’t protect him and he was bullied at school and he didn’t have any friends due to his bad behaviour.

We admired Jaxie’s strong drive to survive and go forward despite the numerous trials with objects eg the binoculars in particular. He wanted to learn and he listened to the priest and they developed a bond.

His view of himself was as an outcast thrown out by Capt Wankbag (his father).

As Jaxie is the narrator we only hear his side of the story so we only see his experiences from his point of view.

There is a lot of slaughter in this novel – especially of kangaroos and goats in order for humans to survive. Another aspect of his violence was illustrated graphically in the story of the killing of the cats. It was confronting but he did it when his father was too lazy or dissolute to assist the cat owner. It was brutal but in context.

We briefly discussed the issue of small towns keeping secrets about family life and others not willing to be involved even though the young ones and the mothers often were regularly in danger. This was also an issue in Karen Viggers’ recent novel – The orchardist’s daughter.

In contrast we also talked about his happy times when the extended family got together and he became friends with Lee. These are the only bright times in his short life.

Jaxie also did not have big goals in life – he just wants peace – which is completely understandable considering his upbringing.


Fintan the priest was ministering to Jaxie – trying to create a space for him. He was also mentoring him and trying to assist him. He recognised that Jaxie was a battered boy and did not have a heart of gold. Fintan wants peace too but is happy to share his peace with the boy.


One member who grew up in the country felt that Winton captured the reality of country life beautifully and very specifically in the killing of animals to survive. This is despite the author’s different upbringing near the sea.

Another member felt that Winton is as good as Elizabeth Jolley in capturing the landscape of WA. It was interesting, this member said, that Winton is ‘allowed’ to call the native trees by their WA names,  so we get ‘Yorkies’ for instance, when other writers have to conform to the Australian terminology .


The point of the novel is the making of a man – will his girl friend be happy to meet him at the end of his adventure? Why did it take Jaxie so long to shoot the Fintan’s torturers? It was a very difficult situation for anybody let alone a teenager who had never shot anyone before.

Present: 9 members

Friday, 13 December 2019

Minerva's Top Picks for 2019

In what has now become a tradition - if three years in a row can be called a tradition - we Minervans once again voted for our Top Picks of the year. As before, each member was asked to nominate her three top picks of the books we read as a group this year ... and here is the outcome ...

Twelve of our thirteen currently active members took part. Eleven nominated three books, and one chose just one, resulting in 34 "votes" cast. 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, hmm, authoritative, but it's all meant to be fun and it does convey some sense of what we all liked.

Unlike, last year which was pretty close, this year the winners were clearer. Four books occupied the top three positions, and did so by using 27 of the 34 votes cast, or 80% of the votes cast. Last year, the top three used 75%, and the previous year just 56%. What does this say? No idea really!

Anyhow, here are the results:

  1. Boy swallows universe, by Trent Dalton (our review) (8 votes)
  2. A gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles (our review); and The shepherd’s hut, by Tim Winton (our review) (7 votes each)
  3. Convenience store woman, by Sayaka Murata (our review) (6 votes)

Highly commended: The bridge, by Enza Gandolfo (our review).

These results are less varied than last year, as the first three books are novels by men! However, the third place-getter is not only by a woman, but is a translated novel proving that there is some diversity in our mix!

One member, Sue B, voted for the three most voted for books (as did past member and parallel reader, Marie, whose vote came in late and was not included in the count, but still she deserves a mention!)

All but two of the books we read last year - Anita Heiss's Growing up Aboriginal in Australia and Anton Chekhov's The lady and the dog - received votes or special mentions. These two exceptions, produced good discussions but, being an anthology and a short story, they were probably handicapped! Interestingly, though, one member voted for our Les Murray night.

Some comments on our top picks

Note that not everyone commented on their choices ...

  • "Such an energetic, raw, observant, funny book, not like anything I’ve read." (Kate)
  • "A brave new novel by a gifted new novelist." (Denise)
  • "It captures a difficult childhood with such verve and generosity for its flawed characters." (Sue T)
  • "Edgy, unusual, funny, sad and of course bizarre." (Janet)

  • "Beautifully written, fascinating premise, and thoroughly engaging, while hinting at the dramas around." (Kate)
  • "I became totally immersed in the gracious world of the hotel in another era on a background of communist horror. Beautiful writing." (Denise)
  • "Playful, different, great character and unusual." (Sylvia)
  • "It was intriguing I thought, and amongst other things I enjoyed the glimpses of a disappearing lifestyle (for some)." (Judith) 
  • "A classy read. Sometimes hilarious whilst also full of dignity and the unexpected. And for its historical interest." (Janet)

  • "It sustains such a tricky first person voice so convincingly, and deals so uncompromisingly with the implications of a violent upbringing for a young men." (Sue T)
  •  "Despite the language I am amazed at how Tim Winton can make so much from so little -- and with wonderful landscape descriptions." (Sylvia) 
  • "What a tale ...  Characters are strongly drawn." (Judith)

  • "A quirky different novel." (Denise)
  • "I love Japanese literature; I love the unusual voice; and I love its questioning of the drive for homogeniety and meeting societal expectations." (Sue T)
  • "Quirky, also with glimpses, this time, of Japanese life." (Judith)
  • "Gives a voice to someone who is normally excluded. Love the relentless logic of the narrator." (Helen)

  • "Absolutely riveting, poignant, compelling, well written and a gripping story and thoroughly believable and human characters." (Sylvia)

Members (Janet, Anne and Celeste, respectively) also commented on Gilead ("for something different"), The group ("a surprise that it was such a good read") and The orchardist's daughter ("a tight contender"). Our member, Kate, who voted for the Les Murray night, said it was "so great to find out more about possibly Australia’s best poet, and to read a few of his evocative, confronting, amazing poems".

Other recommendations

This year, several members took up the request to share some other favourite books from their reading year. Here are their suggestions (alphabetically by author), for those looking for other recommendations:

  • Maxine Beneba Clarke's The hate race (Kate)
  • Louise Erdrich's The bingo palace (Sue T)
  • Robert Galbraith's (aka J K Rowling) Lethal white (Syliva)
  • Gail Honeyman's Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine (Marie)
  • Melissa Lucashenko's Too much lip (Sue T)
  • Ian McEwan's Machines like me (Anne)
  • Liane Moriarty's The husband’s secret (Sue B)
  • Liane Moriarty's Truly madly guilty (Sue B)
  • Liane Moriarty's Big little lies (Sue B)
  • Michelle Obama's Becoming (Sylvia)
  • Henry Handel Richardson's The getting of wisdom (Anne)
  • Jock Serong's On the Java Ridge (Marie)
  • Jock Serong's Preservation (Marie)
  • Jock Serong's Quota (Marie) 
  • Tara Westover's Educated (Anne)

Let us know what you think, in the comments!

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Karen Viggers' The orchardist’s daughter

Karen Viggers is a local author, but one we hadn't read before. We were thrilled when she accepted our invitation to attend our meeting, but unfortunately, she had to cancel at late notice due to a serious health problem in her family. Of course we understood. Families, after all, must come before reading groups - but it was too late to reschedule the book to another month, so we soldiered on ... (We were pleased to hear at the meeting that her family member was on the recovery path, after quite a touch and go situation.)

Fortunately, our host had worked professionally with Karen in the publishing industry, and so was able to provide us with some insights into her career and writing life. The orchardist's daughter is Viggers' fourth novel, her others being The stranding (2008), The grass castle (2011) and The lightkeeper's wife (2014). Her novels are bestsellers in France, so much so that one commentator has suggested that she would be responsible for a surge in French tourism to Australia!

Viggers is published by the successful Jane Palfreyman at Allen & Unwin. Viggers trained as a vet, and is specially skilled in wildlife management. Her husband is an ecologist. While we would not normally consider a husband's work important while discussing a woman writer (!), in this case it's relevant because of Viggers' focus on landscape and environnmental issues. It's clear that she and her husband, to whom the book is dedicated, are deeply knowledgeable in and passionate about these subjects.

Viggers, said our host, works hard on her books, writing draft after draft to get her stories right. We discussed the problematic jacketing of her novels, which places them squarely in the commercial fiction/genre side of publishing. Most of us see Viggers as straddling the commercial/literary fiction line, and felt that the jacketing doesn't encourage a wider readership for her. Titles using "wife" and "daughter" also tend to suggest more commercial fiction.

Before we started our discussion proper, another member told us that in interviews she'd heard, Viggers had said the gorgeous character of Geraldine in The orchardist's daughter was inspired by our host! Appropriate and well-deserved we all thought!

First impressions

As is our practice, but rather later in the meeting than usual, we did our first impressions run around the group!

  • Everyone agreed that the novel was readable, engaging, compelling, un-put-down-able -different members using different words to say the same thing!
  • Most commented on the wonderful sense of place Viggers evokes in the book. She takes you right there, said one member, while our twitcher commented that it's clear that Viggers knows her way around the bush!
  • A couple commented on the cleverness of opening the book with a fire and the burning of a house, with one commenting that from then on she kept trying to anticipate what dramas might happen. She was relieved that the book ended reasonably well!
  • One member felt that Viggers paints a bleak picture of life in Tasmanian villages, though others argued that Viggers intended it to be small towns in general, rather than Tasmanian ones in particular. 
  • Several commented that the issues raised in the novel were compelling - including the Tasmanian devil facial cancer, the forestry/timbertown/environmental politics, the different types of violence/bullying/abuse.
  • Most felt the characters, overall, could be deeper or more complex, that they can be a little one-sided or dichotomous, but all agreed that, despite this, the characters are engaging, and compel us to read on.
  • One member - and not a doggie one at that! - said her favourite character was Rosie the dog. Rosie, she argued, epitomises what the book is about.   
  • A couple of members commented on Leon, and the fact that he'd been a major inspiration for the book. One member would have asked Viggers, had she been present, about "how that works", that is, "how does a fictional character get in your head to the extent that they insist being written about!" One member felt that the book was more about Leon, than Miki (the titular "orchardist's daughter") . 
  • One suggested that the chase at the end was too long, though we all thought it was very well written - and that it would be great in a movie.
  • Several commented on the writing, and how beautifully it flows. We liked its mix of short sentences, long sentences, and half-sentences. As one member said, it's not stilted.
From here the discussion became a bit of a free-for-all with not a lot of direction. It's that sort of book - or, maybe, it was that sort of night! Mostly though, it's that sort of book, because it offers so many different things to talk about.

One member shared one of the two epigraphs, which she liked:

Only the unnamed forest
is home to that silence which
is union with the divine. And only
the forest creatures grasp that
being in the single moment is all.
(Jane Baker, 'Church', Unpublished)

And another shared a piece of writing from the book which she felt exemplified our comments on Viggers' style:

Miki loved the trees and the birds, but what she loved most couldn’t be seen. The way she felt in the forest. The scent of the bush after the rain. The sound of bark crackling. Branches squeaking. The feeling of patience and agelessness, growth and renewal. The aura of trees. The sense of connectedness. Of everything having its place. She could stay here all day, breathing with the tree, drawing its life into her lungs.

So, what else did we talk about? We talked more about the characters. We liked the relationship between Leon and Max - and we liked seeing the world through Max's naive eyes. We also liked the way Max's Mum was cautious about Leon at first but warmed to him through his kindness to her son. We thought Miki was pretty spunky, given how controlled she was by her brother. We liked her treatment of the shop's customers and felt she made that shop the success it was. We loved her interactions with Geraldine. One member loved the idea of discussions about books happening within a book, though another, who hates Thomas Hardy, wasn't so keen on Geraldine's choice of books! Another member was surprised that Leon stuck with the football team, but we countered, he loved football (and knew he could bring them around!)

More seriously, we noted that the book represents a political commentary on contemporary Australia, ticking quite a few boxes regarding current issues, particularly environment, violence and power. We liked that Viggers touches on mechanisation, and how this, more than the environment issue, is likely to be the greatest cause of job loss in the timber industry. We noted and loved the inclusion of Bob Brown!

One member quoted Miki's realisation at the end:

That was life, wasn't it? Tears and then laughter. Knocks and recovery. Injury and healing. Loneliness and then friends.

Finally, we talked a little about the four parts of the novel: Seeds, Germination, Growth, Understory. Do these have a metaphoric meaning as well as literal one, and if so do they refer to Leon, or the town, or to Miki? What does Understory, in particular, mean? Understory, we thought, can describe the network that grows beneath a forest and supports what's above. Could it relate to the support network that has developed in the town for, say, Miki?

All in all, a lively, engaged meeting about an engaging book ...

 Present: 10 members

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Les Murray and his poetry

This will be a different sort of blog – we all read some Les Murray but not the same material. Also it is not possible to differentiate Les Murray from his poetry. He wrote it all his life and the subjects are his life and his environment.

We began the discussion with his obituaries. He died on 29 April 2019 and there were numerous obituaries in the press. The Economist obituary called him the ‘bard for the left-out’. 

This is a well-written obit and we felt the writer was trying to emulate the poetry of the subject.

Les Murray was a child of very impoverished parents who had settled ‘on’ Bunyah as dairy farmers. The district is inland from Taree, on the mid north coast of New South Wales. His parents were always poor. So his early childhood was hard but the death of his mother when he was 10 made it even harder. His father was not equipped to bring up a child who had different aspirations and ideas from the folk around him. Murray was bullied from a young age due to his physical characteristics and his intelligence. Cecil Murray his father, was a very hard man who had had a difficult childhood himself.

Some years ago a number of members heard Murray read at ANU when he was accompanied by our local poet Geoff Page and were surprised by how ordinary and low key he presented himself. However there was an intensity in his elocution which comes through in many of his poems.

 His religiosity was something that was important to discuss as it affected his life from the time of his marriage to his Catholic wife, Valerie. He had met her at Sydney University and she was ‘saintly’ and kept him for much of his life. She was a teacher and she allowed him to devote himself to his ‘calling’.

According to ‘On Bunyah’ (a small non-fiction collection of his poems) the area he lived in was largely Protestant but in the strictest sense of the Uniting Church (Methodism?) So becoming a Catholic at a fairly young age was a radical step in the 1960s. As an older man he became interested in ‘transcendence in doctrine’ in his search for meaning?

At University, Murray was friendly with the famous intellectuals – Clive James, Germaine Greer and Bob Ellis - although he was only on the edge of that grouping. Murray was not a ‘joiner’ and didn’t want to be part of any group or elite as he always felt on the outer. Girls were attracted to him as he was brainy and had a great presence. But Valerie was different as she was European. She was also very long-suffering we believe.

Murray was rewarded with many prizes for his poetry during his lifetime but was not successful in winning the Nobel in 1994. Murray won a T S Eliot prize and we felt that there were some similarities in their approach to Christianity as they became older and wiser – looking for a similar pathway and a clear doctrine. Murray was not looking at rituals or god though. He was influenced by the English religious poet, Gerald Manley Hopkins. They both had a passion for the natural world and hated the establishment and the elites. Curiously, Murray hated the Australia Council even though he had received grants from them.

Three members had read a very sympathetic biography of Murray entitled Les Murray by Peter Alexander. There were differing opinions on whether this biography was authorized or not.  In this book there is mention of the ongoing guilt Murray felt (for most of his life) because his mother died due to a lack of treatment for a miscarriage. 

This guilt and the lack of love and attention from his father could have ground down a young person but Murray was exceptionally talented. He did however, suffer severe depression sporadically through his life, partially attributable to his early years. These mental problems showed in his treatment of his own children. He and Valerie had 5 children. He also did not relate to other people well and that was partly due to his severely restricted childhood and his school experiences. Possibly also due to autism?

Murray was always a vulnerable person but had amazing survival skills. He was exceptionally talented but also fraught.

He also had a fear of sex due to his mother’s tragic death and his internalising of the reasons for her passing. This wound could never really heal. Many of these vulnerabilities are written about in an article called : Killing the black dog. There is more information about this publication at Black Inc.

We were all impressed to hear that he spoke numerous European languages and actually worked as a translator at ANU for a period after having taught himself these skills. Quite an astonishing talent. (Murray didn’t like Canberra, he found it a boring place.)

One member was reticent to read Murray although she had had the exceptional luck to meet him and have a meal with him. They were both children of dairy farmers so had something in common to talk about. This member found him unpretentious. One other member has a very good friend whose mother had taught Les Murray at school and recognized his talents. She had promoted the radical idea of Murray attending university.

Les Murray has been considered one of Australia’s greatest poets for many years and this shows not only in the number of awards he received but also in the number of poems printed in Australian anthologies. Judith Wright is the only other poet who comes near in quantity of publication.

We read and discussed some of his poems, for example:

She gave me her factual tone,her facial bones, her will,
not her beautiful voice …  (From ‘Weights’ which was written as a memorial to his mother – Miriam Murray 1915-1951)
Archie was a gun to shoot at biplanes
and an uncle I missed meeting …(From 'The blame')
Poor Auntie Mary was dying and frail ……Lived ten more years…From ‘The Iron Kitchens’

(These poems and many more can be found in On Bunyah (Collingwood, Black Inc, 2017).

Another notable poem is ‘Dog, fox, field’. These words were devised to assist teachers in assessing children for school, that is, if they could make a sentence out of them or not.

One member thought a poem called ‘A torturer’s apprentice’ went to the core of what he was trying to say with his poetry. And, unusually this poem has rhyme unlike many of the others we read.

We realised that Murray had many styles and many ways of writing poetry -- from the set stanza to lines with gaps in the middle eg in ‘Layers of Pregnancy’ so it is hard to know if you are reading it correctly. He also used Gaelic at times such as in ‘The Iron Kitchens’ and he also wrote as a cow in one memorable and poignant poem – ‘The Cows on Killing Day’ – ‘All me are standing on feed
All me have just been milked…’

Murray himself felt poets should not be slavish to the norms of poetry. So he wasn’t.

His poetry was the opposite of platitudes – too complex and covering difficult subjects such as dealing with the underdog, the personality most like Murray himself ?

Murray worked as an editor for Quadrant for a time and performed his works overseas. He always had a strong political voice and spoke about the situation of Australia’s First Nation people. He was probably appreciated more overseas than he has been in Australia. We still have some cultural cringe.

This inspired night has encouraged members to research Les Murray and find out about this well known but not well read poet. Everyone had done considerable work to add to our enjoyment and knowledge of Murray. One member even went to the NLA to do her research. It was a learning curve for all of us but well worth the education.

For more information about Les Murray’s life see Manning Community News.

Present : 8 members

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Enza Gandolfo's The bridge

Our August book was Enza Gandolfo's second novel, The bridge, a powerful book inspired by the 1970 collapse of Melbourne's Westgate Bridge.

The novel is told in two parts - the first surrounding the 1970 bridge collapse, and the second being set in 2009 and telling the story of another tragedy involving the bridge, this time a fatal car-crash in which the young driver survives. Eventually, the two stories are linked.

First impressions

These include two from members who didn't make it to the meeting. Rarely for us, there were no naysayers.
  • enjoyed reading the book but it's very sad; engaged more with the story of Jo, the young car-driver, empathising with her lack of confidence; and
    loved the humanity of the legal aid lawyer.
  • found the story and writing style very engaging.
  • was crying at the end; a really good novel though devastating at times; enjoyed the way it delves into different lives.
  • engaged very quickly with the book; the characters are well-drawn.
  • brilliant book; engaged most with the story of Antonello, the bridge-worker traumatised by his experience of the collapse; loved how he finally came to terms with his trauma, and liked his relationship with his wife; also liked the relationship between Jo's mother and legal aid lawyer Sarah.
  • very powerful novel, particularly as she had a similar experience when young. (She was being driven in a car by a drunk driver who crashed, resulting in the death of one of the passengers. died. We were stunned.) Gandolfo got the grief right, the different ways people respond to grief. 
  • loved it; exquisite and deserving of its Stella Prize shortlisting; engages you immediately; powerful, authentic, empathetic.
  • beautifully crafted novel which presents flawed characters with whom we can engage and empathise; loved the the bridge title because it plays both literally and metaphorically.

See? We were all very impressed.

Rest of the conversation

As often happens when there's no dissension, the conversation was quieter, but we did still find a few things to talk about!

We talked about the writing. We were impressed with how quickly Gandolfo engaged us in the story, and how well constructed the novel is. Gandolfo developed the links between the families well without making it feel contrived. One member commented on the scene where the police wake Mandy up to tell her about the accident (p. 110) and she tries to tell herself it's a dream. Clever, and believable.

We also loved her evocation of place. Melbournites felt she got Melbourne right, particularly the Yarraville area (albeit Yarraville is gentrified and very different now.) This helped the novel's authenticity.

A major strength of the novel is its characters. We all had our favourites, but overall we found the characters believable and relatable, even minor characters like the couple at Port Arlington with whom Jo stays when she runs away.

We all felt sorry for Jo, recognising that there but for the grace of God ... most people get away with their mistakes, but every now and then it all goes awry. We agreed that Jo was not completely to blame, that her mother, the adults at the party, the friends who insisted they stay for one more drink, all had a hand in what happened. Of course, we also accepted that Jo took the wheel and carries the final responsibility.

We thought Jo was a strongly drawn character. We loved her vulnerability, her sense of feeling unloved and of losing her friendship with Ashley as their lives started to diverge. It's classic "teen stuff" but real as well. We felt the description of her not wanting to open her eyes after accident was real. Her rejection of her friends and Ashleigh's boyfriend who tried to contact her was also understandable, but sad.

The other main character is Antonello/Nello who physically survives the bridge crash but suffers PTSD which affects the next decades of his life, his relationship with his gorgeous wife Paolina, and  his whole family. At one point in the novel, he hears his daughter saying to Paolina, "Don't you dare die first and leave us with Dad." Heartbreaking, but understandable given his remoteness. It's not until after Ashleigh's death that he starts to fully realise the choices he's made and their impact. He says:

For years, the most persistent impulse was towards death; a desire to stop living … But life didn’t stop. It went on whether you lived it or not. You have to choose life. This is what he needed to tell them – if you stop living, you may as well die. If you stop living, you aren’t going to be able to love again, and everyone you know will pay for that, everyone.

Nello's wife, Paolina, is the most empathetic person in the families. She grieves her grand-daughter but she also feels for Jo.

Most of us were disappointed in the mothers - in Jo's mother for not being able to reach out to her daughter, and Ashleigh's mother, a high school principal after all, for having no empathy for Jo. And yet, Gandolfo encourages us, with her writing, to understand and not judge these women.

Sarah, the legal aid lawyer, was also mentioned by several of us. She has her own difficult back story, but is committed to social justice and empathetic to Jo's mother Mandy with whom she works to develop a rapport, initially in order to understand Jo more so she can defend her in court. Sarah works hard to be a lawyer with integrity but recognises how easy it is to twist justice:

That was the danger of a good story: you could elicit pity and empathy for even the worst sociopath … Sarah believed telling good stories, the ones people listened to and were swayed by, was a responsibility. It worried her that some people did not take it seriously enough.

One of the novel's themes concerns social mobility, for which the bridge functions as an effective metaphor. Not only do bridges symbolise progress, but Westgate was also going to play a role in reducing class distinction by making it easy for movement in the city. There wasn't necessarily a lot of support for this: "'We don’t want those rich bastards coming over to the west', was the general sentiment". Gandolfo gives wonderful life to the migrant community of the time, conveying the respect that developed between migrants and Australians (as well as the more commonly portrayed antagonism.) We liked Antonello's reciprocated love for his non-migrant boss. As the book progresses, the social mobility often found in migrant families, occurs in Nello's family with his children moving into comfortable middle class lives.

One member commented that the word "love" keeps popping up in the novel, and yet it never feels cloying. Love - parental, marital, between friends - is an important part of the novel, and its resolution. Other themes relate to forgiveness, revenge and responsibility.

We also briefly discussed the ending. We thought the novel finished well, resolving many issues, but realistically. Jo's sentence is right, and she takes the right attitude to it. We see her accepting responsibility and developing resilience.

We agreed that this would be a good book for year 11/12 reading lists. It shows that nice people make mistakes, that bad things can happen to good people. It's a book imbued with a deep understanding of humanity, that forces us to look beneath the surface of people, their actions and feelings.

A member shared an ABC Radio National interview with the author.

Finally, for some light relief, we shared stories about our own kids' brushes with the police, including two called by the police to pick up their inebriated, butter-wouldn't-melt-in-their-mouths teenage daughters from the police station! Amazing how, after all these years together, we can still learn new things about each other!

Present: 6 members

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Anton Chekhov's The lady with the little dog

When organising our meeting schedules, we like to mix it up every now and then. It keeps us fresh and on the ball! And so it was that in July, we did something a little different - a classic short story recommended by a member because it had been referenced in a Quarterly Essay! The short story was Anton Chekhov's classic, "The lady with the little dog", which, as we discovered in our various editions, goes by various names, such as "The lady with the lap dog", "The lady with the dog", "The lady with the pet dog". The Quarterly Essay that inspired our member was Issue 72, published earlier this year, and written by Sebastian Smee. Its title is Net loss: The inner life in the digital age. This was not obligatory reading for the meeting, and there had been an initial mix-up about which work had inspired the Chekhov recommendation, but some did manage to read (or listen to) all or some of it.

Many of us read the Chekhov's story in different editions - including different Penguin editions, and a Pushkin one - which comprised different collections of stories, not to mention different translations.

First impressions

As always we started with some first impressions:

  • Enjoyed Chekhov's writing, particularly his understated style.
  • Found the link with Smee's article concerning the idea of the "self" and how we define the "self" interesting.
  • Read several of the stories, and found many to be funny, about behaving badly; liked the story "Grief"
  • Agreed with the emailed comment by one of the absent members regarding Chekhov's use of irony.
  • Enjoyed the short concise vignettes of Russian life contained in the stories.
  • Not generally a big fan of short stories, but did enjoy these.
  • Enjoyed the Conversations podcast in which Richard Fidler interviewed David Gillespie on "How the iPhone rewrote the teenage brain" (which, in the above-mentioned mix-up, had been initially noted as the work referencing Chekhov!)
  • Read several short stories, and found them good to read in her post-broken limb "drugged state"! Loved how Chekhov gets us immediately into the stories, establishing his characters with just a few words. Enjoyed the humour in "A misfortune", for example.
  • Doesn't really like short stories, but did read this, and watched some of the Russian adaptation of the story via You Tube.
  • Was interested in the idea of the "inner" and "outer" life, as expressed by the character Gurov, and taken up by Smee in his essay.

More discussion

The story concerns an adulterous affair between a 40-year-old man, Gurov, and a younger woman, Anna, who meet while holidaying, without their respective spouses, in Yalta. Given the story was recommended because it had been referenced in an essay about social media and the Internet, one member pointed out how much harder it would have been to have such an affair in the pre-digital age, particularly to continue it after both had returned to their home cities. It would be much easier now, said our member, to organise assignations via social media than it would have been then when letters, for example, could fall into the wrong hands!

We wondered about the significance of the dog, given it plays no significant part in the story. One member suggested it symbolised Gurov becoming her lap dog? That seemed a reasonable idea.

The story is about love, and boredom. Gurov and Anna seek to feel alive, both being dissatisfied with their spouses. Gurov's marriage was an arranged one to someone who sees herself as "a thinking woman" but who "makes love insincerely", while Anna sees her husband as "no more than a lackey" or "flunky" (depending on your translation!). She wants "to live". Gurov initially sees his seduction of and relationship with Anna as a bit of a fling, not expecting to care when she returns home to St Petersburg, but after he returns to Moscow, he realises that he's been touched by her. He finds that his outer life is constraining him, that:

Those pointless business affairs and perpetual conversations – always on the same theme – were commandeering the best part of his time, his best strength, so that in the end there remained only a limited, humdrum life, just trivial nonsense.
At this point, we listened to the opening minutes of the audio version of Smee's essay, which led us to talk about this "inner life", from several angles.

Smee's article is about the incursions of social media into our lives. He starts by suggesting that these apps only know "superficial stuff" about him, that they can't know his "inner life", which leads him to wonder what, in fact, this inner life is - and he turns to a Chekhov quote from his notebooks:
He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth - such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club... his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities - all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night. (? translator)
One member asked whether we thought we had "inner lives" to which the majority of us said, yes. We all have inner lives, we thought, and further, we also felt that we can never really understand another person's inner life.

We expect to learn about inner lives in literature. We talked about true cores and sham exteriors. One member liked Smee's discussion that the self exists in relation to others:

... domestic life is like, isn’t it? Inner lives rubbing up against one another, for better or for worse.

And so, of course, we talked about social media apps, and how much they really know about who we are from the information we make available to them (that they gather from us by various, sometimes nefarious, means.) We talked about Smee's question regarding whether we are becoming habituated to providing information about, or creating performances of, ourselves, on social media, and whether this will change, fundamentally, who we are, who our "selves" are.  This led also to some discussion of Gillespie's ideas on how social media is impacting the teenage brain.  One shared some research done in which some participants did not access Facebook for some time, while the others did. The outcome was that those NOT on Facebook were happier because they didn't know what they were missing.

We returned to an issue mentioned during First Impressions, which was whether we like short stories?A couple said they don't particularly because they feel that just when they've got into a story, it's over, although one made some exceptions (like Alice Munro's short stories). Others of us liked them for various reasons: for their ability to encapsulate an idea or feeling succinctly and often with real punch; for the fact that they are easy to slot into busy lives with minimal reading time and yet provide that readerly lift that we all like!

A couple of members would have liked to have talked more about the Smee article, and we thought that, in fact, we could consider scheduling a Quarterly Essay sometime, because they can offer a lot of meat for discussion.

The evening started with a delicious vegan meal cooked and served by member Janet, who is soon to leave us for that state south of us. We'll miss her engaged discussions, but it's never bad to have friends scattered over the continent! Thanks Janet, anyhow, for a lovely treat. It was special.

Present: 7 members (with winter escapees and colds, taking their respective toll)

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Mary McCarthy's The group

Prepared by Sylvia

Mary MacCarthy’s The group  was a controversial novel published in 1963. It was on the American best seller list for almost 2 years according to Wikipedia. Our ‘group’ of 9 older women (older than the characters, that is) mostly enjoyed it and were pleased to either read it again or for the first time.


Mary McCarthy (1912-89) was a Vassar girl who graduated in 1933. She wrote more than 20 books and The group was her fifth. It tells the story of 8 girls who have just graduated from Vassar College in 1933 and are all excited to start their adult lives. It begins with Kay and Harald’s wedding which they all attend. Each girl is discussed for a short period of her life (mostly dealing with their sex lives and their hopes and opportunities) before moving onto another girl. It ends with Kay’s tragic death and her funeral, which the other seven also attend, as does her profligate ex-husband. These girls are dealing with the middle-class problems of their generation – unfaithful men, work, babies, parents. Many of these issues have hardly improved, we felt.

As is our practice, we started with our …

First impressions

  • Read it when I was 13 or 14 and didn’t understand it, but now I do
  • Loved it
  • Characters so precisely done 
  • Some difficult prose and unusual words – needed a dictionary  
  • Loved the stories coming together with the beginning wedding and closing funeral providing the structure
  • Loved the precise grammar
  • Loved the episodic nature of the book showing lives of the women
  • Very modern in style
  • Didn’t expect it to be so witty, even evident in the tragic scenes such as when Kay was being committed to a mental institution by her husband
  • Loved the humour
  • Didn’t mind that there wasn’t a plot – Kay was the linking character throughout the stories
  • Has wonderful characters such as Mrs Davison, and Polly’s father
  • Marvellous novel, thought it would be salacious but it was satiric 
  • A bit tedious but I really liked a few of the characters such as Lakey
  • Some men miss the point in women’s novels, such as Norman Mailer’s criticism of Mary McCarthy

Mary McCarthy’s memoirs are good reads too: Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, How I Grew, and Intellectual Memoirs .


The eight women in the group are Kay, Polly, Dottie, Lakey (Elinor), Libby, Pokey (Mary), Priss and Helena. They are based on McCarthy’s own classmates and she claims that she ‘suffered’ for the rest of her life for ‘using’ them. 

These girls were romantic but also naïve.

‘… they had something to contribute to our emergent America …they could see the good that Roosevelt was doing despite what Mother and Dad said;’ (loc 241 in Kindle).

They strove for a path for themselves but sometimes we only see them through their partner’s eyes.

Harald (Kay's husband): an awful character so we loved that he was put in his place at Kay’s funeral. We felt he deserved it. 

Kay: didn’t have talent but she liked to be superior and couldn’t let go. She believed in Harald and thought that he would have a stellar career in theatre. ‘She loved Harald’s risus sardonicus, as Helena Davison’s mother called it.’ (1192 Kindle)

Libby: we felt sorry for Libby when she had an awkward interview with a publisher.  She couldn’t take the hint that she couldn’t write well enough. She was a gossip, and unkind about her friends, such as Dottie, and was also cruel about the lovely Polly. A cold person. We felt she was the shallowest character. However, we were also distressed for her when she was assaulted by a boyfriend. 

Dottie: her deflowering sex scene in chapter 2 caused most of the book's controversy in the 1960s, but was much less shocking when reading it today. McCarthy handles the scene with humour and wit.  

Polly: we all liked Polly best. She is described "a sympathetic soul". We weren't impressed by Polly’s mother offloading her sick and elderly husband onto her daughter, and just sending an occasional box of eggs. 

Lakey: develops confidence in her years in Europe and ‘the group’ also grow to accept her and her evident sexual divergence from them.

Priss: rears a child according to the theories being developed by her paediatrician husband Sloan who uses her as an experiment. We all remembered the horrendous, rigid, methods suggested – only picking up a baby at a set time.

Norine: a Vassar 33 girl too, who is not a part of the group but is friendly with some of them. She is a counterpoint for some of the other characters, such as Kay, and Priss, who discovers their child-rearing practices are diametrically opposed.

We also discussed Helena Davison’s family, particularly Mrs Davison and the butler Hatton who would read the newspaper so he could give the news to Mrs Davison. It reminded one member of passages in Jane Austen.

We discussed how their Vassar education encouraged them to think but society did not allow them to operate as intelligent people. There were a couple of scholarship girls but most of them didn’t have to make a living, so they did volunteer work. Some characters felt that they were ruined by the college education, with Norine saying "our Vassar education made it tough for me to accept my womanly role". We noted how, in Australia at least, women were often not allowed to work once they were married.  

Were the girls as different from their parents as they had hoped when they left Vassar in 1933? They varied in their politics, some being more Democrat and some more Republican.

The American poet Robert Lowell thought that these Vassar girls were ‘pastoral girls’ and ‘cloistered’. He wrote to Mary McCarthy that 

“we were dependable little machines made to mow the lawn, then suddenly turned out to clear wilderness”. Leave it to the poet to know an elegy when he sees it. Flowers of the culture, these young women, but shot from a gun.’ (Vanity Fair review, 2013)  

Some felt that the main "group" in the book was Polly’s "group" – one of her communities - and that the eight were only the Vassar group when it suited them? Was there a lot of contact outside of the wedding and the funeral? It wasn't completely clear.

Some of the characters exist to be counterpoint to others, like Norine, who isn’t part of the group. This shows how people are multi-faceted.

McCarthy deals with universal themes – jobs, love, marriage - so that although it's an old book now, it doesn't appear dated.

Similarities with other novels

A comparison was made with Edith Wharton who wrote about young women living in New York in the late nineteenth-early twentieth century. Her young women, like McCarthy's, were striving for satisfying lives but were constricted.

Another member saw a similarity with Frank Moorhouse’s Grand days - the idealism of the Roosevelt days versus the idealism of the creation of the League of Nations.

Other comments

We noted the smoking scenes – even in hospital! So much change in half a century!

One member particularly liked the ‘bagging’ of the Freudian analysis done on Kay. McCarthy was also admitted to hospital by her partner, Edmund Wilson, in a similar way to Kay’s admission. 

Mary McCarthy had a tough childhood living with her grandparents. She developed a close relationship with her female Latin teacher. Mary was an intensely bright girl and tried relentlessly to do well. She was inspired by her teacher to compete and became very driven. (This is shown by her amazing output of novels and of literary criticism). She made money from her novel The Group, and in fact made more money than Norman Mailer, her fierce critic.

In one review McCarthy was praised as an acute novelist, like Doris Lessing, but others criticised the book for not having a plot and attempting too much. 

One reader also commented that the author reminded her of the Australian academic Jill Kerr Conway who worked at Smith College in mid 20th century and wrote the revealing memoir Road from Coorain.

It was recommended that we watch the Mary McCarthy program, Vassar Girl 1933-74 on YouTube.

Present: 9 members