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

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Sayaka Murata's Convenience store woman

For our May meeting we ventured into rare territory for us - Japanese literature.

The novel, Convenience store woman by Sayaka Murata, is about 36-year-old Keiko Furukura who isn't "normal". Her family worries she will never fit in. However, at 18 years old, she obtains work at a newly opened convenience store where she finds a comfortable role in undertaking routine daily tasks, but 18 years later, this is not seen as a valid job for a woman of Keiko's now mature age. Then she meets another convenience store worker, the also, but differently, nonconformist Shiraha, and she thinks she can solve both their problems!

As is our practice, we started with our ...

First impressions

  • Eerie, strange, off-beat and yet flat, took a while to get into the different voice.
  • Started off thinking it was funny, then quirky, then weird and then sad. It offers a reflection of Japanese culture - patriarchal, the pressure on women. It was almost satirical.
  • Quirky, sad. An odd book, didn't know what to make of it.
  • A good thing is that it was short. Didn't really didn't like it, though it had fabulous details about how shops like that work.
  • Not been to Japan, and didn't like it at first, but the confines of the convenience store was fascinating.
  • A flat read, sparse (a bit like Sally Rooney's Normal people), quirky, well-written.
  • About a non-conforming autistic spectrum person. Has been to Japan three times, and while it has a reputation for being conformist, has met varied, interesting people.
  • Interesting read, but wondered whether she was autistic; thought her preference for living in a safe environment was a comment on Japanese society.
  • Loved it, likes this sort of dispassionate tone, which feels a little typical of Japanese literature, reminiscent of works by Murakami, Kirino, Yoshimoto and even Ishiguro. Loved the juggling of the real and the fantastic as though it's all "normal". 
  • Liked this curious little book, but was it a parody about Japanese society? However it had a wider appeal too (from absent member).
  • Loved it, one of the best books we've read this year (from another absent member).

We then explored in more detail some of the issues raised in first impressions.

We talked quite a bit about the character, and whether we empathised with her or not. We talked about rules, and the role rules play in human relationships. We all confront this - being in a new situation and trying to work out the rules by which we need to act. Our convenience store woman, Keiko, had trouble understanding life's rules, but the convenience store's rules were clear for her and enabled her to be "a cog in society".

When I first started here, there was a detailed manual that taught me how to be a store worker, and I still don’t have a clue how to be a normal person outside that manual.
Keiko's behaviour is strange to most people - sometimes even verging on the psychopathic. When a young child she hits another child over the head with a shovel in the school playground, thinking she was doing the right thing to stop a fight; she muses to herself, looking at a sharp kitchen knife, that it would be easy to stop her nephew crying. Many of us wondered whether she was on the autism spectrum. However, while there is a sense that her family wants to "cure" her, there are no references to a particular diagnosis so most of us felt that we should not treat this as critical to our understanding of the book.

The main theme concerns society's pressure for people to conform. This is particularly Japanese, we understand, but we recognised that many cultures, including our own, aren't good at accepting difference. So, when Keiko and ex-convenience store worker, Shiraha, decide to live together - in a convenient, not romantic, relationship - their families and acquaintances are happy, and start assuming their "story" (the story, that is, of the traditional marriage-children-job course of life.)  People/society are happy that they are (seem to be) conforming to the usual story. Keiko is both amused and mystified by this.

It’s a bit of a hassle, but it’s convenient having him here. Everyone’s really happy for me. They’re all congratulating me. They’ve all convinced themselves my new situation is great, and they’ve stopped poking their nose into my business. So he’s useful.

However, it is then expected that she will no longer work at the convenience store, and her life starts to disintegrate when she loses her norm!

Shiraha is not an appealing character. Unlike Keiko he has no desire to work - preferring to be "kept" by Keiko. He takes advantage of her need to appear "normal" (even though it satisfies his need for the same) and he excuses his laziness by criticising society and its unfair gender expectations on men (even since the Stone Age). 

“Naturally, your job in a convenience store isn’t enough to support me. With you working there and me jobless, I’m the one they’ll criticize. Society hasn’t dragged itself out of the Stone Age yet, and they’ll always blame the man. But if you could just get a proper job, Furukura, they won’t victimize me anymore and it’ll be good for you, too, so we’d be killing two birds with one stone.”

One member discussed a review which suggested that the book is, in a way, a love story between a convenience store and a woman. Indeed, there are many references in the novel to her "bodily" reaction to the store - "I automatically read the customer’s minutest movements and gaze, and my body acts reflexively in response" She suggested that, with our Rocky Horror Picture Show hat on, we can comprehend her feeling comfortable in the store. After all, in modern society, we are seeing all sorts of things, particularly technology, replacing human relationships". While some members thought the story was a sad one, most of us thought it had a happy ending, because Keiko had worked out the right life for her.

We also discussed the idea of ambition. Keiko and Shiraha feel the pressure to have ambition, to progress in their jobs and their lives, but as one of our members who emailed in her comments wrote "There are lots of us who are happy in our lives and don’t have large ambitions." Amen to that!

The book is also about the need to have empathy for people who are different, the need to recognise that people who don't fit the norm are "human" too.

We discussed the unusual style, with one member wondering whether the strange stiltedness was the writing itself or the quality of the translation. Most of us felt it was the writing itself, that Murata intended the strange, flat, stilted style. It is also very funny in places. We all enjoyed the humour.

Overall, it was a book that may have mystified some of us to start with but it stimulated a fascinating, lively discussion about the book and its author, about Japan itself, and about some universal truths as well. Can't ask more than that.

Present: 9 members (plus input from two other members)

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Amor Towles' A gentleman in Moscow

There's nothing like a bit of dissension to liven up a meeting! And so it was that our April meeting of Amor Towles' novel A gentleman in Moscow was a lively one given there were some questions raised amongst the overall positive responses to the book.

The novel spans over three decades, and chronicles the life of the aristocrat Count Alexander Rostov under house arrest in Moscow's grand Metropol Hotel.

First impressions

  • Delightfully written, containing irony delivered with grace and wit rather than with bitterness.
  • Loved it, hilarious and well-written, enjoyed the humour, such as the "wine label" story, so clever.
  • Loved the literary and historical allusions, its description of communist Russia without the horrors, its portrayal of gentle manners, a masterpiece.
  • Read it while travelling to Russia last year, and enjoyed reading it in context. 
  • Enjoyed the hermetic life, though found the idea a bit of a stretch: would Stalin really have let such a person live under house arrest like that.
  • Loved the tone, and how the Count could put a positive spin on the things that happened to him. Liked his optimism and "can do" attitude. Enjoyed the cultural allusions, and the historical setting.
  • Didn't like it, because it's intellectually dishonest; doesn't believe aristocrats thought the way the Count does, and didn't like the references to 21st century corporate language like "facilitate"; was able to go with it as the story of someone forced to live in a grand hotel. (Reminded her of the Grand Budapest Hotel film.)
  • Really enjoyed reading it, but had some disquiet about Towles' intention: why did he write it? Saw it as a construct, rather than something meant to be believable. 
  • Enjoyed the book, and felt that each chapter could be a mini-book.
  • Wondered about Towles intentions, but thought it had lovely Austen-like observation and commentary on human nature.

Our member's concern about the book being "intellectually dishonest" got our discussion off to a strong start. 

Several argued that Towles does reference the "ghastliness" of life at the time. There are references, for example, to starvation, and characters are shown as disappearing (Nina) or suffering (Mishka). One member suggested that the fact that the book doesn't hit its readers with a sledge-hammer makes it more powerful.

It was also suggested that the interest in American culture - including films like Casablanca - is believable, that there was in Stalin's days a gap between public rhetoric and private behaviour. Stalin, for example, loved watching Western films.

Part of our discussion revolved around its form and tone. Is it a realistic book (like Dickens and Tolstoy) or more like an Austen or Henry James book of manners or, even, more of a fable or fairy tale? It does not hang together well as a realistic story, many of us felt, and so should not, perhaps, be judged on the basis of realism.

Our main naysayer raised the issue of the Count's shooting the Hussar and his fleeing to Paris. She felt this held some clue to him and his role. This resulted in our discussing whether the Russian aristocracy had made a practice of visiting Paris, or whether this was something unusual for the Count to have done.

We also spent quite a bit of time discussing the ending - what it meant, whether we liked it, whether it made sense, why the Count would do what he did. How we viewed the ending depended somewhat on how realistic we thought the book was!

We also talked about what we enjoyed about the book: the humour, the easy-reading style, its cleverness (including fun names like Anna Urbanova), the satiric footnotes, the characters, and its depiction of life in a grand hotel.

The Count and manners

We spent some time discussing the Count, and whether he had changed during the course of the novel. Most felt he did, though was it more in degree than substance? One mentioned his discussion of convenience versus inconvenience, and his recognition that inconveniences were more meaningful:

“I’ll tell you what is convenient,” he said after a moment. “To sleep until noon and have someone bring you your breakfast on a tray. To cancel an appointment at the very last minute. To keep a carriage waiting at the door of one party, so that on a moment’s notice it can whisk you away to another. To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest of conveniences, Anushka—and at one time, I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.”

Another commented on his momentary slip, resulting in his friends calling him Count Blabbermouth and the Bishop joining the Triumvirate's daily meeting.

We did note that the Count was adaptable, enabling him to make a life for himself in the face of loss of freedom, position and possessions. One member commented on "his unwavering classiness".

Talking about the Count raised the idea of manners, given the Count's focus on good manners. How important are manners, a member asked? What role do manners play in the idea of being "a civilised person"? Good manners, politeness, can be superficial, and divisive, but do they also have a positive role in human relationships? We were amused that the Count's knowledge of and focus on food - how it's cooked, what wine goes with what, etc - closely matches today's foodie trends!

We thought that the book had an element of the comedy-of-manners genre, more than the social realism of Tolstoy and Dickens to whom the Count occasionally refers or alludes.

Towles' intentions

Some members had checked Towles' website where he writes that it was inspired by his noticing during his travels that some people spend long times in grand hotels. Hence he had

the idea of a novel in which a man is stuck in a grand hotel. Thinking that he should be there by force, rather than by choice, my mind immediately leapt to Russia—where house arrest has existed since the time of the Tsars.

A member shared Towles' description of the structure of the novel. He says that the book

takes the shape of a diamond on its side. From the moment the Count passes through the hotel’s revolving doors, the narrative begins opening steadily outward. Over the next two hundred pages detailed descriptions accumulate of people, rooms, objects, memories, and minor events, many of which seem almost incidental. But then, as the book shifts into its second half, the narrative begins to narrow and all of the disparate elements from the first half converge. Bit characters, passing remarks, incidental objects come swirling together and play essential roles in bringing the narrative to its sharply pointed conclusion.

This aspect of a number of "things" appearing ("people, rooms, objects, memories, and minor events"), which all come together to mean something later, is a feature of the novel that one member loved.

Another member shared a quote from the novel that intrigued her. The Count says:
I suddenly understood that this propensity for self-destruction was not an abomination, not something to be ashamed of or abhorred; it was our greatest strength. We turn the gun on ourselves not because we are more indifferent and less cultured than the British, or the French, or the Italians. On the contrary. We are prepared to destroy that which we have created because we believe more than any of them in the power of the picture, the poem, the prayer, or the person.

We discussed what we felt this meant. Is he saying that, for Russians, it's their essence, their culture, that is more important than concrete objects? How does this idea fit into the novel's overall theme/meaning?

Whatever Towles' intentions were, we saw several themes, including the ability to adapt to your circumstances, the power of friendship, the dangers of ideology. 

Finally, whatever it was about, the novel proved to be a great one to discuss.

Other works

As often happens during our discussions, other works popped into our minds, including:
  • CS Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia: because of going through the cupboard
  • George Orwell's Animal farm: its depiction of communism
  • George Orwell's Down and out in Paris and London: his description of hotel kitchens.
  • Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago: its response to the Russian Revolution
  • Death of Stalin film: its evocation of Stalin's death

Present: 10 members (plus some input from an absent member who sent some notes in!)

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

This novel was suggested by a couple of members who had either read it or wanted to read it. Marilynne Robinson had been on our reading list for a long time.

Robinson’s first novel Housekeeping was published in 1981. Gilead, her second novel, was published in  2004, and focuses in John Ames. There are 2 others in this series, Lila and Home, which tell the stories, respectively, of Ames' wife and of his friends the Boughtons. In 2005 Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for Gilead. Robinson has won many awards for her novels and for her many non-fiction writings, and has been honoured by Oxford University as well as by many American Universities.

Gilead is a most unusual novel. It is set in a small town called Gilead in Iowa, USA in 1956. Its format is a long rambling letter by an elderly (late 70s) Congregationalist minister, John Ames, to his young son. There are no chapter divisions. He talks about the present, the recent past (how he met his child’s mother), and his friends, especially his near neighbour, Reverend Boughton and his son John (Jack) Ames Boughton. John Ames’ past is included, including stories about his father and grandfather who were also ministers. As the central character is religious by nature, ethical questions pervade the whole novel but there are also discussions of a more simple and domestic feel.  Questions are explored such as ‘what is a good man’ and ‘how can I forgive’.  It is all written in a very calm and introspective way.

Initial responses

  • Hard to get into – rambling and retrospective
  • Liked the rhythm of words – some beautiful prose
  • Family history and US potted history intertwined
  • John Brown in Virginia – still going in the 1950s (see the Wikipedia entry for those of you who know little of this history)
  • Quite enjoyed it
  • Layers of religious ideas – hard to work out what he (ie John Ames) is actually saying
  • Interesting how religion affects families and causes tensions
  • I heard it while driving and liked the voice – sounded very plausible
  • Really liked to hear that the pastor shared struggles and doubts with his religion
  • Two sides of restoring self – forgiving others and stop blaming oneself
  • The theology was too old-fashioned for modern Christian thought
  • Surprised that Ames is not fussed about heaven
  • Slow melancholic novel which I liked – got into the voice
  • Some funny scenes such as the town digging the tunnel for escaping slaves, and then giving the guy another horse when his horse fell into the tunnel
  • Theology went over my head – and an amazing number of religions are mentioned in this novel (why?)
  • Warm hearted novel

Reverend John Ames

We decided that Ames was a good man but flawed. He was deluded in some ways. He was also aware of his limitations. He was very fond of his friend Reverend Boughton.

He was a very generous guy. He gave his money away while he was single for many years after the tragic loss of his first wife and child. He often stated that he was sad he couldn’t give more earthly goods to his second wife and child.

He had a passion for his young wife and not for his first wife which we thought was interesting.  Why was that? Maybe too religious when he was young?

He brought up issues on how to live a good life. Had he been a good man in his seventy plus years. He also wants his son to live a good life and enjoy it. Ames didn’t have much fun.

He often talks about grace and forgiveness. There is also a lot of talk about father and sons and Ames feels lucky that he was able to have a young son at his advanced age. He talks about his own youth and that of his father. He particularly wants his son to know about the trek that Ames and his father went on to find the grave of his grandfather who had walked out of their lives when quite elderly and ended his days in Kansas.

It was fascinating to see that Ames placed very little value on his old sermons even though he had kept them. His wife, Lila, thought they were very special. Was he saying that his life’s work was not important. He was an old fashioned pastor. He accepted the help of the community but also helped them at times, such as fixing a tap. His life’s work was love. One member objected to our acceptance of the character so easily. She thought he was irritating.

The New York Times review of Gilead (28/11/2004) discusses clergymen as characters in novels, the reviewer stating that ‘Robinson’s pastor (is) that most difficult narrator from a novelist’s point of view, a truly good and virtuous man, and occasionally you may wish he possessed a bit more malice…" 

He felt that his son would be in good hands after his death as his wife was fabulous. She had had no education but learnt to live a good live with her elderly husband in the few years they lived together.

As Ames was an elderly dad he did not place restrictions on his son like other parents – such as allowing his son to watch a cartoon on television while Tobias (a friend) had to stay outside.

The book whimpers out at the end with Ames’ quiet death.

John Ames (Jack) Boughton

John Ames (Jack) Boughton, the profligate or prodigal son of his good friend, we decided was a foil for Reverend John Ames. His appearance was a test for the evangelist. He tested Ames’ beliefs and his ability to forgive the young man. When young, Jack had had sex with an underage girl who had become pregnant. He abandoned both the mother and the child and the child died. Ames was challenged to forgive the younger man’s dishonourable actions and stay true to his religion.

We also discussed how the Boughton family had got involved with this poor family abused by their son. Some felt they could have done more for the mother and child.

We admired Lila and were curious about her relationship with Jack. Had she known him when they both lived in St Louis ? If so, what was she doing there ?

Lila was very empathetic with this younger man. Why was she in that town? Many of us were interested to read Lila to find out. (I think she just liked having a young man around to talk to as she was still a young woman?)

Jack Boughton is the prodigal son, and Ames reflects on his brother Edward who also left the small town.  (As an aside, there seems to be a plethora of stories about prodigal sons at the moment, for instance the new film called, Sometimes, always, never.)

Ames forgave Jack but he didn’t really believe it. Jack was a good man and John Ames’ blessing meant something to him near the end of the novel.

The novel explores all these father and son relationships. But Jack also wanted to be forgiven by his father. This didn’t seem to happen.

We also decided that it was a good idea to read Gilead slowly and maybe absorb some of the thoughts or meditations.

We concluded with the idea that we might write a letter to our children? One family recorded their elderly grandmother and the grandchildren really like hearing her stories long after she had passed.

Attendance: 9 members

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Anita Heiss' Growing up Aboriginal in Australia

This challenging book highlights the racism prevalent in Australia both in the past and the present. It is the stories of 50 people who have had it ‘tough’ by non-Indigenous standards.  The writings are by young and old as well as males and females from all across Australia. Some of the writers are well known but many are not. It includes anecdotes, experiences, childhood fears and a few happy times. It also includes the story of a young woman, Alice Either (only 29), who suicided. The book is dedicated to her and others ‘who were lost too soon’.

Many of the stories talk about identity and not fitting into Australian society; they also talk about education and recognition of their otherness and their Aboriginality. They share a great pride in being Indigenous and having access to such a long lasting culture.

As always, we started with …

First impressions

  • Lots of themes, but feelings of sadness and grief
  • Very glad to have read it.
  • Repetitive stories, and even boring at times
  • Feelings of positive strength expressed by many contributors.
  • Triumph against the odds.
  • Questions of whether you are Indigenous or Australian – too white in some circumstances and too dark at other times or venues – frequent mention of this problem
  • Comments made about colour by both non-Indigenous people and Indigenous people themselves.
  • Genuine humility felt by some.
  • Not everything that happens relates to someone’s race, sometimes it is just ‘stuff’ about kids growing up and especially through their teenage years – it can be good and bad for any child, eg parents passing, domestic violence or poverty.
  • Some stories very ‘touching’.
  • Certain earnestness to many of the stories.
  • ‘I melted’ when the author talked about country and how they appreciated their custodianship of country rather than ownership.
  • Quite a small group of people contributed – all highly articulate and these were selected from 120 submissions sent in – only a small selection of views but lots of common elements.
  • Stolen generation stories particularly sad and challenging
  • Happy childhoods relatively eg Adam Goodes and Patrick Johnson

General discussion

There was a lot of discussion of colour. During their childhoods some writers were accused of being too white to be Aboriginal. These people felt hurt by comments like that.  Many of the writers have one parent non-Indigenous and one Indigenous.  Interestingly, many of the white parents were Irish. There is a lovely story by Miranda Tapsell about being a Spice girl fan. She was designated by others to be Scary Spice for a dress up party but her favourite was Baby Spice.  However Miranda is amazingly tolerant by saying :

‘Poor Sissy, she was conditioned like all of us to believe brown people could only be Scary’. (page 235)

Tolerance is a common thread through these texts.

We were saddened by the poem by Alice Eather. It is so sad that she died.

We were impressed that many contributors were willing to share their stories, trying to overcome stereotyping of Aboriginal people who have to contend with drugs and domestic violence. There is a realisation that they are similar people to us but they often have to make a conscious effort to find out where they come from. Dislocation was a common theme and it has had a very physical and emotional toll upon many of the writers. The question of handouts received by these people was often very insensitive. They are Australians but they have complicated lives. We questioned ourselves and other non-Indigenous people about our reactions to these stories. Ignorance and lack of empathy is behind much of the racism. Also people not choosing to find out more. 

There are stories of some positive discrimination too. A few writers were awarded scholarships to schools, universities and a sporting academy.

There is a terrifying story by Kerry Reed-Gilbert entitled: "The little town on the railway track". The crux of the story is quite horrific. At night a group of non-Indigenous men try to frighten and intimidate Kerry’s mother and siblings, but the town policeman is about the most racist person present. Fortunately, Kerry’s Mum is strong and forthright; she contacts the policeman’s boss and he is sent elsewhere.

The stories by stolen generation people or their descendants were very sad and very moving. So we relished the good stories such as that told by Adam Goodes highlighting simple pleasures such as trying out different types of sport. He is a marvellous role model, in mentioning hard work and a good work ethic, as well as loving what you do and having fun. (p103)

Pride in being Aboriginal is a strength of this book. Much pride is shown of parents and grandparents in many families who were leaders in their communities. Many also value highly their mothers and grandmothers who often were their sole parent. These women were wonderful role models.

We were impressed by the different perspectives as they came from many backgrounds including those of domestic abuse, drugs and violence. The writers' willingness to share their perspective is admirable.  Some of their backgrounds were disjointed but this also happens in the non-Indigenous community. White society is still too ready to rely on stereotyping Indigenous people.

Overall it seems that for younger Indigenous people, life is getting better than it was for their forbears. 

Deborah Cheetham’s story was fascinating. She was brought up in a white family. We really liked her story about trying to make the national anthem more applicable to all Australians.

Another common theme is resilience. It is a character feature that writers felt was essential for living in Australia. The parents often stressed it and emphasised that you just have to keep going and be brave. Developing a ‘shell’ helps.   

Another thread was knowing you are Indigenous but hiding it because it is embarrassing, but as you age accepting it so maturity helps. This is happens in migrant lives in Australia too.

There was one ‘story’ many of us found very difficult to understand – Alison Whittacker’s  Aboriginemo. Alison is a Gomeroi poet and lawyer from the Tamworth Gunnedah region of NSW. She writes in this manner as she wants readers to ponder her words. See her interview by Suburban review, April 28, 2016.

A couple of members had Aboriginal children in their classes at school, in Mt Isa and in country Victoria.  One member has worked with groups assisting Indigenous people with their financial issues. But the majority of us have had little contact.

This book was suggested by a member who wanted to read it. We were all pleased that we had read it too.

There is an audible version of this book newly available.

Present: 9 members

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Trent Dalton's Boy swallows universe

Our first book for 2019, Trent Dalton's debut autobiographical novel Boy swallows universe, was recommended by a past member and proved to be a very popular choice, with everyone liking it and some loving it. It's set in Brisbane over about 7 years, starting in the mid 1980s, and is told first person by adolescent Eli Bell, whose babysitter is an ex-con and whose stepfather is a heroin dealer. 

As always, we started with ...

First impressions

  • Most, though not all, found the book hard to get into at first, fearing it was "yet another" gritty, social realist novel about a dysfunctional Australian family, a "life-is-a-drudge" novel.
  • Some loved it from the start, one saying she "devoured" it.
  • All, however, liked the novel, some suggesting it was the best Australian novel they'd read, a topic we discussed further later (so see below!)
  • What we liked included: lovely descriptive writing with a satisfying suspense thriller ending; a page-turner; great phrases; the "efficient" writing style; the positive "glass half-full", brave, loyal character of the protagonist; the humour; the larger than life often over-the-top characters who were nonetheless believable; the come-uppance ending for the bad guys; the love.
  • Some found it a page-turner while others (who nonetheless liked it) found it so intense at times that they had to have a break.
  • One felt she liked it more after discovering it was autobiographical.
  • One listened on audio and, while she liked the book very much, felt that the audio didn't do it justice
  • One was a little sceptical about the level of love Eli Bell had for his parents who were clearly flawed, while another liked that "he was very sweet about his family".
  • One summarised it as having "lots of humour, tension, tears and wisdom".
  • A Queenslander wondered whether the book would work as well for those who don't know the setting, but no-one felt this was an issue any more than for other books set in unfamiliar territory - though we agreed that familiarity can add something to our reading.

It's fascinating - once again - to see the variety of our opinions even when we all like a book!

Themes and style

We saw many themes and subjects in the novel, including the definition of "a good man" - the question the protagonist Eli Bell asks regularly throughout the novel. We wondered whether there was a final definition, and felt that the following from late in the novel is probably the closest we got:

This is what a good man does, Slim. Good men are brash and brave and fly by the seat of their pants that are held up by suspenders made of choice. This is my choice, Slim. Do what is right, not what is easy ... Do what is human.
Other themes and subjects we discussed included that it provides "an insight into the lives of battlers, and that it shows that life isn’t always what it seems. It is also about childhood trauma and coping with that". And there's quite a bit of discussion about managing time - with word plays on the notion of "doing time".

What made all these themes work was the writing. We thought Eli and his family were excellent characters. Eli is a great observer, and a great questioner; he's brave and ready to defend his mother. We liked that the authorial voice was a kind one that looked for the best in people.

We liked how carefully the book was constructed, how things mentioned in one place are picked up in another. Late in the book, the Courier Mail editor asks Eli to tell his life in three words - and we realised that all the chapter headings (before and after) were, in fact, three words, eg "Boy writes words", "Boy steals ocean", "Boy masters time", and so on.

We loved the descriptive writing, such as this of Sister Patricia meeting Eli and his brother August for the first time:

She looks deep into our eyes. 'I've heard all about you two,' she says. She nods at me. 'Eli, the talker and the storyteller.' She nods at August. 'And August, our dear wise and quiet man. Ohhhh, what rare fire and ice we have here, hey."

Or this, from the Vietnamese restaurant scene:

There's two more tanks dedicated to the crayfish and mud crabs who always seem to resigned to the fact they'll form tonight's signature dish. They sit beneath their tank rocks and their cheap stone underwater novelty castle decorations, so breezy bayou casual all they're missing is a harmonica and a piece of straw to chew on. They're so unaware of their importance, so oblivious to the fact they are the reason people drive from as far away as the Sunshine Coast to come taste their insides baked in salt and pepper and chill paste.

We did have a few questions. At least one didn't much like the magical bits, though others saw these as Dalton's way of reflecting and perhaps deflecting, of resolving, the childhood trauma aspects of the novel. A couple weren't convinced that the final clock-tower scene was needed, while others loved this bit of page-turning excitement and resolution. 


We liked its "Australianness" - from Australian details like references to iced vovos to the very Australian way the characters live and talk.

We also talked - perhaps more than usual - about how it relates to other Australian novels and also where it might fit in terms of "the great" or "best" Australian novel.

Relationship with other Australian novels

Some feared it was going to be gritty and dysfunctional like Sofie Laguna's The choke (which in fact was our top pick last year!), but one suggested a closer comparison could be Craig Silvey's Jasper Jones.

One talked about Andrew McGahan's Last drinks which deals with police corruption in Queensland. She hoped this book might go there, but we discussed that this book is a first person narrative by a teenage boy so had a different goal.

One said it reminded her of two books - Steve Toltz's A fraction of the whole, a rather over-the-top father-son story, and Tim Winton's Breath, which explores what it means to be a good man.

And, not Australian, but worth mentioning ... One member suggested that it could be Australia's answer on the world stage to Stieg Larsson's The girl with the dragon tattoo. And one or two said it reminded them a little of Frank McCourt's Angela's ashes

Best Australian novel

The suggestion by one that this was the best Australian novel she'd ever read resulted in a discussion about "the best" Australian novel. We didn't come to any conclusions - not surprisingly given the subjectivity involved. Consequently, for almost every suggestion there was a counter-suggestion, if not an all out "oh no, not that one" - but we gave it our best shot: 
  • Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda
  • Norman Lindsay's The magic pudding
  • Andrew McGahan's White earth
  • Alex Miller's Coal Creek
  • Henry Handel Richardson's The fortunes of Richard Mahony
  • Christos Tsiolkas' The slap OR Barracuda
  • Patrick White's The eye of the storm OR Voss
  • Tim Winton's Cloudstreet

Other writers suggested included Miles Franklin and Christina Stead.

Present: 9 people

Friday, 14 December 2018

The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This book was recommended highly by one of our members. That was a good start for the discussion.

This text concerns the true story of how cancer cells belonging to Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman, are still alive and are greatly responsible for amazing scientific breakthroughs in America and elsewhere for almost 70 years.

Henrietta died of cervical cancer in 1951 and Rebecca Skloot is a young American, who became fascinated by this story and so it is also her journey into the background of this remarkable episode in American medical work and her tenacity in tracing and interviewing Henrietta’s family.  Skloot was trying to bring attention to her for recognition of her service to science for future generations. Henrietta’s cells, known as HeLa were obtained by a researcher, who was successful in keeping them alive and in reproducing them. The researcher found them unique in their ability to be cultured. The family who were and are still very poor, received nothing for their mother’s (and grandmother’s) ‘donation’. Henrietta did not know about the future use of these cells nor did the family consent to their use after her death.  So there are many questions of moral rights as well as recognition and respect.

The book relates not only to the scientific aspects of the research done by George Gey and many others as well as the social /societal effects of poverty upon Henrietta’s family and community. Until very recently they had not received any recognition of the use of her cells for scientific research or their worth. The family have had very different reactions to the writing of Henrietta’s life but all seemed impressed by Skloot’s devotion to the subject.

Our general comments included:

  • Amazing, shocking stuff, fascinating, sad, gruelling.
  • The HeLa cells were mentioned in the professional training of two of our members but only briefly. They were well known by medical students until recently but with no attribution or recognition of Henrietta’s role.
  • Our resident medico couldn’t help remembering some horror stories from her medical training especially in relation to the treatment of Black people in America.
  • Should be compulsory reading for a great range of students.
  • Really well done.
  • Loved the mixture of science and discussion of ethics. Great juxtaposition.
  • Very impressed by Skloot’s personal skills dealing with the family and her skilful narrative.
The conversation largely related to two factors : the personalities involved and the medical ethics or lack of them. 

Important people and the HeLa cells:

George Gey, researcher, who worked at John Hopkins Hospital, and who initiated the research in 1951 and gave her cells away for free to any interested laboratory (without receiving any extra compensation).

Deborah Lacks, one of Henrietta’s five children. She was an uneducated but very intelligent woman with a warm heart who just wanted to know about her mother and was continually trying to understand all the things that Rebecca and others were telling her.  Rebecca had great difficulties in convincing Deborah to talk to her initially but once she did Deborah became the main person in learning about the cells and in persuading the family to be resigned to their story being told.

Elsie, Deborah’s sister. She suffered terrible abuse as a teenager by a mental institution and Rebecca was able to obtain a little extra information about her for her siblings. 

Scientists who apologised to Deborah and her brothers for the way the medical profession had treated them. This included Susan Hsu who was director of medical genetics at the American Red Cross. Also Christoph Lengauer, a young researcher from John Hopkins who showed 2 members of the family some of Henrietta’s cells and actually explained for the first time that Henrietta’s cells are not alive just her cancer cells. He also explained that a person’s colour does not show up in these cells. (see pages 263-267). Susan Hsu said :

‘I feel very bad…people should have told them. You know, we never thought at the time they did not understand’. (Page 189)  

HeLa cells. This indestructible human material that once they left Henrietta’s body did not belong to her and she did not know they would be of interest to mankind!

Zakariyya, the brother who suffered so badly from his stepmother’s abusive treatment was given space to appear as a concerned person who wanted to know about his mother.

(We were very impressed by Skloot’s ability to relate to the family and allow them room to speak and wrestle with the questions she was raising.)

Rebecca Skloot herself, the author and medical scholar who at times describes her trials and tribulations. She was drawn into the family gradually over a long period and also felt their trauma. She began researching for the book in 1990 and it was published in 2009 and a movie was made staring Oprah Winfrey.


It was not unusual for patients in the 1950s to not be informed about cells when biopsies were taken. The issue of cells taken from one’s body is still current. One member related that she gave permission for her cells to be used just recently. The Nuremberg Code is very important with this issue. Although this code was written just after WW2,  it has not been adopted as law in any country but it underpins many of our modern medical regulations.

One member feels some sympathy for doctors trying to research medical issues like cancer. They need to experiment on patients but now it is largely prohibited. This wasn’t the case 60-70 years ago when Henrietta Lacks was alive.

Further Information about cervical cancer from Wikipedia:

Henrietta’s family see the HeLa cells through the prism of religion and science and we were asked how we respond to this. Deborah in particular kept thinking that her mother had been cloned. This is highly emotive language and sad that the family so misunderstand the science or are so mislead by the lack of information that they can assume such a terrible conclusion. It is very sobering thought in this day and age.

The question of race was obvious all through the text. Henrietta’s family thought that the white scientists were making lots of money through Henrietta’s cells and they naturally felt that they should have inherited some of the money obtained. They are still a family who can’t afford medical insurance in the very over-priced American medical system.

We briefly discussed commercialism of scientific research and patenting of such things as the human genome.

We also discussed the non-judgemental attitude of Rebecca Skloot in that she does not criticize the scientists who researched Henrietta’s cells. ‘It is what it is!’

Skloot has set up a foundation to assist Henrietta’s family and others who donate to science without receiving any gratitude or gratuity.

Present: 9 members