Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene

Many Minerva members gathered to discuss this novel. It was a happy meeting after an enjoyable read.

The story revolves around a middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry who meets his Aunt Augusta at his mother’s funeral.  His father died 40 years earlier.  Henry cultivates dahlias but has little else in his life. Aunt Augusta tells Henry that his father ‘needed bedrooms for more than sleep’ so many of us guessed that Aunt Augusta was more than she let on. (At 7% Henry says ‘My poor stepmother … I shall never be able to think of anyone else as my mother’.)

They both wanted to see more of each other after a walk at the cemetery so began their visits to various places, including Paris and Brighton. The Aunt has never married either but has had many relationships. Wordsworth is the current man in love with Henry’s Aunt and he floats in and out of the story. Henry and Augusta visit Boulogne and meet a lonely old woman still pining for his father. This shocks Henry and Aunt Augusta. The story gets complicated with comings and goings and they end up in South America surprisingly. Augusta has returned to one of her elderly former lovers and Henry is about to wed a 16 year old and be involved in a smuggling racket.  And finally there is confirmation that Aunt Augusta is Henry’s Mum.

The main point of this book we thought was its treatment of Love. Love comes in all shapes and sizes. There are so many types of love described – aunt’s love, mother’s love, romantic love, romantic fantasies, and love for objects (eg dahlias and money). There is also Aunt Augusta’s love for all men. There is also the love of travel and variety.

It is a very funny novel and this was even more obvious in the audio version according to one of our members. The two dominant voices are Henry and Aunt Augusta. They are great characters and we enjoyed the funny situations and the funny language such as ‘Pekinese eyes’. Aunt Augusta smuggling gold ingots in the base of candles across Europe is both shocking and funny. The idea that a staid bank manager couldn’t propose to a young woman, Miss Keane, even if she basically asked for it was probably strange rather than funny. The house of multiple rooms is also funny where an elderly man could live out his last few years, spending a week in each different room, pretending he is travelling. Greene claimed that this book was written for a laugh even though it has some darker tones.

Other funny things include Henry’s love of dahlias and his concern for his mower in the rain. Most of us like dahlias but one member put them in the same category as gladioli, which are inherently funny (post-Dame Edna). We laugh at Henry rather than with him but he does evoke sympathy for his innocence and silliness. Henry’s naiveté is amusing in a sad way – was he a closet homosexual? Probably not, we decided later when discussing the unusual ending.

The book portrays England in the 60’s (it was published in 1969/70). Wordsworth, the only black man in the book, is treated with some contempt we felt. For instance, his language is strange, quite different from everyone else. He is also treated badly by Aunt Augusta. One critic said that it is typical 1960’s stereotyping, whereas another critic said that he was treated humanely.
We had a general discussion about ‘Aunts’ in literature with Lady Catherine de Burgh being the supreme example. We decided that this aunt was right in deciding to hand over the baby. She would not have been a good mother.  She was a free spirit and an outrageous character in comparison to her very conforming and moral ‘nephew’. The comparison of the characters led to a discussion about nature versus nurture.

Graham Greene himself has strong links to this book in that his first name is Henry and he lived quite a wild life not dissimilar to that of Aunt Augusta. He had been a spy and a friend of spies as is the character of Tooley’s dad (O’Toole) whom Henry meets briefly on board a vessel in South America.

There is also a dark side to this story. There is the contrary conclusion, which shows Henry’s morals have certainly changed under the influence of his rather lawless relative. Aunt Augusta though is a survivor and helps Henry to survive and gain a family, which presumably he wants. There are comments about American imperialism, which shows Greene’s antipathy to the CIA and American ‘ways’. Greene also shows great cynicism towards the ordinary Catholic and their beliefs.  Aunt Augusta’s faith is portrayed as being very shallow, but useful when necessary. Life in England at that time was also shown to be pretty awful. For instance, Henry’s mother does not have true freedom, she is very constrained and makes Henry equally restrained so he cannot enjoy life as a young man. The message seems to be that a good life could be had only if you were rich, like Henry’s former bank customers, and maybe flouting the law like Aunt Augusta.

There were many unanswered questions. Does Henry choose the new life in South America? Is he creating a real family for himself after all his years of loneliness?  Is Aunt Augusta a survivor versus the boring and mundane Henry? How does he accommodate her lack of moral fibre?

We all thought that Henry was an unreliable narrator in that he tells us some of his innermost thoughts but doesn’t know as much as the reader does in some circumstances. He is very dependent person, firstly on his mother and then his Aunt. This contrasts with Augusta’s dependence on men, who invariably are criminals.  

We finished our discussion with mention of product placement – in this case Omo, which is probably one of the first times such advertisements had been placed in a novel. Also, we pondered on the questions of the morally corrupt inheriting the world. It certainly seems so in politics in 2017.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Jane Fletcher Geniesse's Passionate nomad: The life of Freya Stark

Bravely departing from past practice, we started this year with a biography rather than a chunky novel - and it was a success, perhaps because being women of a certain age we were ready a story about an intrepid woman traveller! The book was Jane Fletcher Geniesse's biography, Passionate nomad: The life of Freya Stark. Stark (1893-1993) was a British-Italian travel writer, explorer/adventurer and historian, specialising in Arabic studies. She was one of the first non-Arabians to travel through the southern Arabian deserts.

Several members were reminded of their early love of Lawrence of Arabia, and one was inspired to go on to read a history of the Middle East, James Barr's A line in the sand: Britain, France and the struggle that shaped the Middle East. There was one nay-sayer though, who wasn't "loving" it, partly because biography is not her thing, but she said she was enjoying it because she was fascinated by Stark.

Who was Freya Stark?

Active in the Middle East from the late 1920s to the mid 1940s, and moving among her era's movers and shakers, Stark was a strong, spirited woman - one who worked very hard and took significant risks to achieve some remarkable things, particularly in those very gendered times when women had to fight for independence and recognition. She was "amazingly resourceful" said one member. We all enjoyed this story from the book:
She reentered Luristan on a donkey, draped in native clothing, three Lurs at her side as guides. She bluffed her way past the border guards. (“The great and almost only comfort about being a woman,” she said, “is that one can always pretend to be more stupid than one is and no one is surprised”). (Ch. 8)
And so, on she went, navigating truly dangerous places and handling tricky wartime projects. She was fearless said one member pointing out that this means she wasn't afraid, versus being "courageous" which means taking action even though you are afraid.

Stark was, though, paradoxical. She made long-standing friends, and yet would also use people (and her health) to get what she wanted. She would drop friends if they offended her or were no longer useful. She was "a bit of a princess" we agreed and was surprisingly anti-feminist, like some other strong women before her, including (her predecessor and self-imposed rival) Gertrude Bell. Stark preferred male company, and was keen to have male bosses (in preference even to being the boss herself, though she still fought for, and won, equal pay for herself from the British government). She was competitive and could be venomous, something that her publisher, in particular, tried to tone down (and sometimes succeeded in doing so), when she wrote up her experiences.

Geniesse argues that much of her paradoxical behaviour came from growing up within an unhappy marriage that broke up by the time she was 10 years old. She adored her self-centred mother, and yearned for her approval. She finally got it with her successes as an adult but that was long after the die was cast.

She felt insecure about her appearance, and wished always that she was beautiful. She was also apparently naive about some things, being unaware for example, of the gay men in her midst and, disastrously, accepting, later in life, a marriage proposal from one of them.

We were surprised to discover that some editions of the book had an epilog which explained that Freya was probably not her father's daughter but the result of an affair. It is possible that Freya never knew this, however.

Other issues that interested us

Stark was of course the main focus of our interest, but there were other aspects of the book that we enjoyed. Our GP member was interested in the medical aspects. Geniesse provides quite a bit of detail about the many illnesses Freya suffered and the medications she took. It's amazing, we thought, that she survived until she was 100 years old, given the maladies that befell her through her life. Early on Geniesse tells us that both her parents "placed a strong emphasis on stoicism". She clearly learnt that lesson well.

Stark's main claim to fame was being her time's "most respected experts on the Arab world". We all enjoyed the descriptions of her travels there - but, given the Middle East's subsequent history, we were particularly interested in her theory about how the region should be "handled", a theory she developed over time and promulgated to the British and, in 1944 on a lecture tour, to the mostly pro-Zionist Americans. Respecting people's sovereignty, she believed that any decisions must be made with the Arabs’ consent. "We musn’t impose solutions,” was her mantra. As we all know now, her view didn't prevail.

The biographer's craft

While a biographer's task is half done if the subject is interesting, it still needs to be written skilfully - and this, we thought, was. We particularly liked that it wasn't hagiographic: the Freya we saw could be charming and petulant, wise and imperious, intelligent and petty. Geniesse managed to present all that with an even hand, recognising what Stark achieved but also seeing her failings and sorrowing for their impact on her.

The book is cleverly structured. Geniesse captures our attention in Chapter 1, showing us who Stark was to become by describing her first arrival in Baghdad. Chapter 2 then takes us back to her birth and her story is then told chronologically.

One member also pointed out the lovely quotes which start every chapter, most if not all from Stark's writings. We felt that, although we'd decided to read a biography of Stark rather than a work by her, Geniesse  had included enough excerpts of Stark's writing to give us a good feel for her style and tone. Here, for example, is Stark commenting in The valleys of the Assassins on Elders refusing to show interest in her, a strange white woman who appeared out of nowhere:
It is a remarkable thing, when one comes to consider it, that indifference should be so generally considered a sign of superiority the world over; dignity or age, it is implied, so fill the mind with matter that other people’s indiscriminate affairs glide unperceived off that profound abstraction: that at any rate is the impression given not only by village mullahs, but by ministers, bishops, dowagers and well-bred people all over the world, and the village of Shahristan was no exception, except that the assembled dignitaries found it more difficult to conceal the strain which a total absence of curiosity entails.
We discussed much more - such as the Yemen expedition fiasco with archaeologist Gertrude Caton Thompson - but I've written enough, I reckon. In the end, we loved that she was one of those larger-than-life grand dames that we all love to read or hear about. A great read to start off our year.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The great swindle by Pierre Lemaitre

This novel, The great swindle, by an acclaimed French writer won us over completely. It is a war story showing us a microcosm of human nature with real drama and violence and exploitation of people. It also is visceral and smelly at times. There are eccentric characters who are slightly larger than life and reminded us of characters from other novels and plays such as in works by Camus and Stendahl. Even similarity to the play Les Miserables was mentioned. We think that Lemaitre plays with you as a reader too for instance there is a reference to Austen’s Pride and prejudice in Chapter 2 when he is talking about Pradelle:

Anyone will tell you that a man in possession of such good looks and such a name must be in want of a fortune. (6% ).

Celeste suggested it and we all complimented her for it. It was written in French and the translation by Frank Wynne was good. It is entitled Au revoir la-haut (Goodbye until we meet in heaven). Lemaitre has won 3 awards with this novel including the 2013 Prix Goncourt.  He is a former literature teacher and now writes fulltime. This novel in film version is to be released in 2017.

This story is complex. Albert Maillard and Edouard Pericourt are very young French soldiers in the last few days of WW1. Albert is rescued by Edouard after being buried alive and then Albert befriends Edouard and looks after him when they are demobbed.  Edouard has been very badly disfigured in a final act of war by their mutual enemy, Lieutenant Pradelle. Edouard refuses to undergo surgery to alleviate some of his injuries. So he suffers terribly and Albert suffers too in trying to help him.

Albert discovers that Lieutenant Pradelle has been involved in both of their lives basically trying to kill each of them. D’Aulnay-Pradelle is an aristocrat who after the war defrauds French soldiers and their families by ‘managing’ the cemeteries and not respecting the dead soldiers. He finally ends up being caught and loses everything. He is a cold-blooded killer, which is evident in the first few pages of the novel. Edouard and Albert concoct a massive fraud too but Albert is successful in running away with the money. Edouard is accidentally killed by his father.  

We talked about the factual events which are related in this story such as the exhumations, harassment  of ex-soldiers and loss of identity of corpses. One of the many shocking scenes involves exhumations which happened in France after WW1. See this site for further information. Pradelle’s fraud was so disrespectful of the soldiers and so typical of his character that we were not surprised about the mess he got himself involved in.

We also talked about the main characters, Albert, Edouard and Edouard’s father who is the one character who grows through this story. Albert is the classic anti-hero and somewhat reckless after being initially timid. He is the typical bourgeoisie and good Samaritan type, and extremely loyal to his friend. Edouard  is an artist and disdains the rich and the bourgeoisie and has the original idea of the swindle carried out by them. The senior Pericourt began his life like Pradelle, in being money hungry but changes slowly through his career especially driven by the supposed loss of his son. We also explored some of the more minor characters such as Albert’s mother  (who we never meet but hear her words through Albert’s musings) and Madeleine Pericourt, Edouard’s sister.  She is a strong character who falls in love with Pradelle when she is grieving for her brother. However she realises early on that he is a fraud in many ways. She is plain but aware of her status as the daughter of very wealthy man who she alone can manage. She loves dumping Pradelle and sees him destroyed. Pauline Albert’s girlfriend is also a great character, just getting on with life and trying to get the most out of it. And she doesn’t take long to work out that life with Albert and money is her way out of domestic service.

There is a lot of sarcasm and irony and some humour in this story – for instance, in the tensions between Pradelle and his father-in-law. The same man was also Edouard’s father. M.Pericourt is told by Albert that Edouard was killed. He had not been a good father but realises this slowly through the novel and just as he is about to meet his son (unbeknowing to him) he runs over him (literally). Black comedy and farce all in one moment. Edouard’s costumes after he discovers masks brings a certain humour as does the angel outfit he wears leaving the hotel at the end of the novel.

We didn’t quite understand the ending and fully expected a different scenario. Maybe Lemaitre’s crime detective novels have taught him to leave a conclusion till the very last pages.

We really liked the characters of Albert and Edouard and sympathized with them despite their behaviour. They are very vivid descriptions and encouraged the reader to continue reading to work out the plot. Will the two swindles be successful?  We were amazed by Albert’s loyalty to Edouard despite the trials he had to suffer, especially when he had to buy drugs for Edouard and the carrying out of the swindle in the bank. Edouard was so disfigured and it is hard to imagine his face. We were all aghast at the thought of Albert putting his fist into Edouard’s missing face. There is also a lot of talk about soldiers with only one arm. Just after the war, France was a society who had forgotten to look after its living soldiers but wants to honour only the dead ones. It shows how people can so easily exploit each other given the opportunity.

It is a farce but a well meaning one and cleverly written. We thought the title was excellent for the English version as it sums up beautifully the crux of the story.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Schedule ideas for the first half of 2017

Here are some ideas for 2017. Most of these are in our suggestions list, but I thought it would be interesting to categorise them to help us get an overview of how we might like to plan our reading diversity.

  • CLASSIC: George Gissing's The odd women OR something by Trollope
  • DEBUT NOVEL by MARIE'S TOM'S PARTNER!: Madelaine Dickie's Troppo
  • 2016 PRIME MINISTER'S LITERARY AWARD WINNER: Lisa Gorton's The life of houses
  • 2016 MILES FRANKLIN WINNER: AS Patrić's Black rock white city
  • NOVEL REFLECTING DIVERSITY: Rabih Alameddine's An unnecessary woman (see Wikipedia, though I believe that the theme is more about older women than Wiki's description) OR an indigenous Australian writer
  • MEMOIR: Barbara Blackman's All my Januaries or Magda Szubanski's Reckoning or Kim Mahood's Position doubtful

Just putting ideas together folks to get the thought processes going...

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Dark emu, by Bruce Pascoe

For our October meeting we decided to meet at the now one-year-old Canberra restaurant, Muse (Food Wine Books), which is located in the East Hotel, Kingston. It's a cosy cafe/restaurant which includes a stylish independent bookshop selling new books and a selection of nicely presented second-hand books. Now, being women who like to eat well and chat, we decided the order of business would be a drink and main course, followed by our book discussion, followed by dessert and coffee/tea. The plan worked well and we spent a very enjoyable three hours, with the Muse staff looking after us well.

But now, let's get to the book, Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu: Black seeds: Agriculture or accident. In it he presents a case for "a reconsideration of the 'hunter-gatherer' tag for pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians" and "suggests that systems of food production and land management have been blatantly understated in modern retellings of early Aboriginal history". For these reasons, he says, we should re-look at our conceptions of Australia's history.

Overall, we enjoyed the book - of course. It's important for us all to learn more about Australia's history and origins, and as more research is done by a wide variety of professionals, we are learning more about our pre- and early colonial history. Bruce Pascoe's book contributes to this knowledge. 

We enjoyed his use of explorers' journals - particularly Charles Sturt and Thomas Mitchell - to show that Aboriginals (the term he used in the book) were developing a sedentary culture based on intensification of agriculture and aquaculture. They managed the land in such a way as to corral animals for hunting, trap fish for capturing and spearing, and produce crops for harvesting. They built dwellings and lived in village groups. They practised a sustainable style of agriculture using various techniques including what archaeologist Rhys Jones called "firestick farming". Pascoe argues that there's much about Aboriginal practices that we could learn and use today, and that modern agriculture would be more sustainable in Australia if we focused on Australian plants and animals. 

However, we also felt that the book needed a close edit. Some found his style, which fluctuated between formal and chatty, disconcerting. While the book is heavily footnoted, and includes an extensive bibliography, we felt some claims were not well supported (or, at least, his evidence was not provided.) For example, he argues that Aboriginal people "did construct a system of pan-continental government that generated peace and prosperity" (p. 129) but he doesn't cite specific sources for this claim. Pascoe promoted the positives about Aboriginal governance, and while he made a brief reference to the fact that there was also violence, some of it "enshrined in the execution of law", he didn't explore this in any detail, particularly in relation to (most) Western societies' rejection of violence as a form of punishment.

One member who is currently reading Jared Diamond (Collapse) says that he argues that small societies tend, by nature, to be democratic. Diamond also refutes the commonly held view that smaller societies were peaceful, arguing that while they may not have had wars of conquest, they did have wars, such as for revenge. In other words, we felt that at times Pascoe draws a long bow and doesn't always take context into consideration.

Nonetheless, we liked much about the book. The detail about Aboriginal life - particularly from explorers' journals and photos - was generally eye-opening to us. Pascoe's arguments about their practices regarding agriculture and aquaculture, particularly in terms of sustainability, was well-supported, although we wondered if he was being a little disingenuous about the fact that the same practices and sustainability can be achieved when scaled up for mass production. We understood his criticism of European arrogance regarding their "divine right" to the land, and we also accepted his overall thesis regarding non-Aboriginal Australia ignoring Aboriginal achievement.

It was intriguing though that this thesis seemed to be that we should respect Aboriginal people's right to land because they were not "hunter-gatherers", as they've historically been seen, but a culture on the move, a culture progressing. Yet, we also understood that he might see this argument as one that Western cultures would understand and accept.

As a wonderful treat, one member brought along a piece of "show and tell", a grinding stone found by her father on the family property in the Grenfell region. Her parents, she said, thought it was a "throwing stone" and agreed that this idea probably stemmed from a lack of understanding of Aboriginal agricultural knowledge and practices.

So, we all found the book a provocative read. We completely understood Pascoe's somewhat defensive tone. There is, we know, much to learn and much to correct in terms of non-Aboriginal Australia's knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal life and culture. We felt though that the evidence is strong enough that he didn't need to push his arguments beyond what this evidence could support in order to convince us of his main thesis.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

All the light we cannot see by Anthony Doerr

Novels set during World War 2 are usually a huge challenge to read however we all found All the light we cannot see a real page-turner, despite the horrendous incidents portrayed. The young character’s lives and moral dilemmas are so engaging they make the reader keen to know what happens. Someone even wanted a happy ending! Interwoven with their lives are themes of luck, curses and superstition.  There are also the themes of logic and light (and its opposite).  There is also mention of numerous books through the text which play an important role in the lives of the main characters.

This novel traverses 1934 to 2014 in Germany and France, but the main action occurs in 1934 and 1940-1944.  The central characters are Werner Pfennig, a German orphan born in 1926, who is a gifted radio technician and mathematician and a courageous and blind French girl called Marie-Laure LeBlanc, born in 1928.

Werner has grown up with his younger sister Jutta in Zollverein in a Children’s House in Germany and Marie-Laure has grown up in Paris with her Papa, a museum locksmith. It is the story of their lives during the war and how they come together for a very brief few hours in Saint Malo in Brittany in 1944.  

Werner despite being very young is drafted into the army to work as a radio technician and travels from Germany into France and finally to Saint Malo trying to intercept enemy radio transmissions. Marie-Laure at the same time escapes from Paris and ends up in Saint Malo with her great uncle, Etienne. When her father is captured and taken prisoner in Germany she is looked after by Madame Manec, Etienne’s housekeeper, and she changes Etienne’s life. The link between the characters is through the radio broadcasts from Marie-Laure's grandfather and uncle, heard in Germany prewar and during the war by Werner in France.

The story’s structure is not continuous but flits around in time and place and most chapters deal with Werner or Marie-Laure separately. They are all short and punchy.

One of our members likened this novel to a ‘big baggy 19th century one’, in the way it has lots of stories within the work as well as lots of minor characters impinging on the main characters. There are some wonderful portrayals of people – such as Madame Manec who is a great cook and has looked after the reclusive Etienne LeBlanc for years but immediately warms to Marie-Laure and becomes a great support for her as well as dealing with practical matters. One member loved Jutta, for her wisdom and conscience helping her brother to work out deep moral concerns, even though she is stuck in Germany in the orphanage. We all admired Antony Doerr’s different perspective on war through these characters – he makes them very appealing despite the horrors they witness and experience.

Frederick, Werner’s sensitive friend is another person we found appealing, despite his tragic destiny.  While at the army training camp Werner learns from Frederick’s strength of character and morality and how to be human and survive the war.  He realised that picking on the weaker person was not going to help him. Frederick’s mother seemed to be so uncaring and nasty before the army inflicted the torture on the boy. This experience disables him. His mother felt guilty afterwards and showed her love by caring for him for the rest of his life.

Frau Elena, the matron of the orphanage is not a stereotype matron in that she is compassionate and caring and a good cook. She also recognizes Werner’s brilliance. As well she is feisty with the authorities. We all hated the rape scene in Berlin and were shocked by the girls’ submissiveness.

A different sort of person is the German army officer, von Rumpel, looking for the Sea of Flames jewel. We thought he was a stereotypical personality with his prostate cancer and his psychotic behaviour. He created huge fear for Marie-Laure and for the reader. In contrast we really liked the gentle giant, Frank Volkheimer who cares for little Werner through much of the war. 

The Sea of Flames, a precious stone owned by the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle impacts upon the lives of Marie-Laure, her father and eventually Werner. It is crux of the superstition and luck themes. The key from this museum also traverses the novel and turns up in unusual places.  

Logic helps Werner work out the radio frequencies so vital to the German war offensive as well as tracking down Marie-Laure. Marie-Laure and her papa use logic to get her around Paris and around Saint Malo after learning the streetscape through the wooden models. Logic has a calming influence too when trying to cope with living in a time when things are out of control.

Light in the title has to do not only with Marie Laure’s blindness but also with the state of the countries during the war and peace afterwards. Light is also an analogy for doing the right ‘thing’ which is a concern for both young people. Werner also experiences a period stuck in the basement of the bombed hotel when all is dark for him. When he escapes to the light he meets Marie-Laure. When Werner was very young he heard Marie-Laure’s grandfather talking on the radio saying ‘open your eyes … and see what you can with them before they close for ever’. (p. 86, Fourth estate edition). His father also dies in the coal mine in the dark, a memory which haunts Werner. 

Books are also important markers in this novel – for instance Frederick shows Werner the magnificent Birds of America  by Audubon. And Werner sees another copy but less splendid at Marie-Laure’s house. Her uncle gives her Twenty thousand leagues under the sea by Jules Verne which they read together and which gives her added strength when she is very frightened. While growing up she reads Around the world in 80 days.  Also Werner’s earliest book is The principles of mechanics, which he likes as much as Marie-Laure likes her novels. We were not sure of the purpose of the books except to highlight their importance in the lives of these young ones.  We also admitted many of us hadn’t read the French classics.

Bees are also another theme – the Bees hotel for instance and the crests of bees carved into the oak.

We appreciated the language as well – it is clear, concise and lyrical at times. One reader noticed that there were many descriptions of the environment. I must admit they escaped me completely. The language is very evocative and not overblown.

Only one member has been to Brittany and she loved it. She saw little villages and nuns in traditional garb and elderly ladies wearing traditional costume. It had great charm.

There were a few less complimentary comments about this novel, such as some members were not convinced by the ending and could not see the point of carrying the story up to 2014. It didn’t really achieve much they felt. One reader was disappointed that the children spoke like modern young Americans, ‘doing math’ for instance. She also felt that Frederick was weird. We were also a little confused about the destiny of the Sea of Flames – was it really gathering moss in the sea grotto or was it with Werner and that was why he had to die ?

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Best Australian Science Writing 2015, edited by Bianca Nogrady

We've done essay collections before - by Peter Singer and Oliver Sacks, for a start - and we've done short story anthologies including our very first book, Room to move, but an anthology of science essays is new territory for us. It proved, however, to be a very successful choice, for a number of reasons, as you'll read below. The book, Best Australian science writing 2015, was edited by science journalist/communicator Bianca Nogrady, and contains articles or essays "celebrating the finest Australian science writing of the year".

While most hadn't finished the book by the meeting, all enjoyed it, for various reasons, including that:

  • it could be read in "small snippets";
  • several of the articles linked to radio and TV programs we'd heard or watched in recent years;
  • many of the articles challenge popular conceptions (or misconceptions) regarding, for example, cane toads, managing endangered species, placebos, and statins.

One member commented that there aren't always clear ethical standards by which the work of scientists can be evaluated. Another enjoyed Adam Spencer's introduction, and liked the links at the end of each article to related articles. In fact, one member read the book by following these links, whereas most of us read it in table-of-contents order.

To discuss it, we asked each person to name her favourite article. Following are our choices. We could have gone on much longer, except that Kate's delicious "healthy" banofee pie started to call:

Uncharted waters, by Daniel Stacey
Our member nominated this article about the search for Malaysian Airlines MH370 because it's an example of those events or activities that can have unintended spin-offs, that lead to the development of further knowledge or new technologies, the way, for example, that wars and space research do. One member, though, suggested that there's an opposite argument which is to keep this apparently unexplored area of the Indian Ocean pristine or free from interference.

Field guide to the future, by Ian Lunt
The member choosing this gorgeous article, which compares old printed field guides with their new digital counterparts, loved its tone and language. She shared a couple of quotes, including this one on how printed field guides (unlike digital ones with their audio features) must use words to describe bird calls:

With a budget for paint – one illustration per species – but none for sound, cheerful ornithologists turned to onomatopoeia: ‘Pee-pee-pee-peeooo, Wee-willy-weet-weet, It-wooa-weet-sip, Zzzt zzzt zzzt. Cher-cher-cherry-cherry, Wah-i-wah-i-wah-oo, Twitchy tweedle, Kupa-ko-ko, Lik-lik-lik’. Less cheerful colleagues followed suit: ‘Chop-chop, Four o’clock, Wide-a-wake, Walk to work. Want a whip? It’s for teacher. Tweet-your-juice, Sweet pretty creature’. (All real calls, I assure you.)

All dressed up for Mars and nowhere to go, by Elmo Keep AND Messages from Mungo, by John Pickerel
The member nominating these liked the jump from exploration in the future to research into Australia's deep past. She liked the way the Lake Mungo "story" was written,  and quoted from its last paragraph:

'Aboriginal people have an intense commitment to country even today. Europeans have lost that connection. Country to us is something you dig up and export to China', Jim says.

How I rescued my brain, by David Roland
Not surprisingly, one of our medical members picked one of the medical articles, this one about a man retraining his brain after suffering a stroke. She enjoyed thinking about it from a medical point of view. She liked that by telling it first person, the author took us on his journey with him. We all liked how this one provided a wonderful practical example of reports we've been hearing about plasticity of the brain. It also led to a discussion about ageing, memory and keeping our brains active! (You can tell we are all of a certain age!).

She shared an example of the writing:

As he talks, his words appear in my mind slowly. They often disappear before I can get hold of them, as if they are in line, each being jostled along by the next.

Aliens versus predators: The toxic toad invasion, by Michael Slezak
The member chose this one because it counteracts what we have been told about the devastating effects of the cane toad invasion. She shared this quote:

The toads are spreading further and faster than anyone expected, and they do have a devastating impact when they first arrive in a region. But most animals are adapting to their presence surprisingly quickly, and some even benefit. 

‘If you’re a frog, the toad is your superhero,’ says Shine. ‘You’ve got its picture up on the wall. This guy is coming in, he looks like a frog and is killing everything that attacks frogs. If you’re a green tree frog, what more could you hope for in life?’
 ‘I’ve gone to thinking it’s a good-news story about the resilience of ecosystem.

The past may not make you feel better, by Christine Kenneally
The member who chose Kenneally's article about Huntington's chorea and genetic counselling was fascinated by the fact that the gene can be found way back in time in the slime mould. She felt that the gene must have (had) some benefits to have survived through evolution to humans. We discussed how research into DNA sequencing opens up our understanding of genes. We also discussed the ethics of DNA testing services, and how some people, who are at a risk of carrying or suffering from genetic conditions, choose not to be tested. It can be tricky to know what to do with information about health.

(Kenneally won the Stella Prize in 2015 for her book The invisible history of the human race).

Other articles named in the second round free-for-all:
  • Honest placebos, by Jane McCredie: we loved the word nocebo.
  • How dust affects climate, health and … everything, by Tim Low: we were fascinated by how far in place and time dust can extend and the information it therefore provides.
  • All dressed up for Mars and nowhere to go, by Elmo Keep: the idea of choosing to buy a one-way ticket to Mars to be part of experimental community sounded a bit "whacky" until someone suggested that this could be our equivalent of those 16th century seafaring explorers who set off not knowing what they would find, where they would end up, and whether they would come back.
  • The women who fell through the cracks of the Universe, by Lauren Fuge: of course, we liked the story of the unsung late 19th to early 20th century women astronomers of "Pickering's harem".
All in all, a very engaged discussion that didn't let up until we absolutely had to ...