Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Too much lip by Melissa Lucashenko

Another Covid 19 meeting conducted through Zoom from our living rooms.

Too much lip won the Miles Franklin Literary Award for Literature 2019 and was a Queensland Literary Awards Winner. It was also shortlisted in 2019 for the Stella Prize, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, the NSW Premier’s Literary Award and the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.  

**CONTAINS SPOILERS**

This novel by indigenous Australian writer Melissa Lucashenko is the story of Kerry Salter and her dysfunctional family set in the fictional town of Durrongo, a place in northeast New South Wales (near Lismore or Casino). Kerry has stolen a Harley Davidson bike and travels from Brisbane to see her family because her grandfather is dying. Kerry’s life is turbulent as her girlfriend has recently thrown her out of their accommodation too. When she arrives she discovers that part of ‘their’ country is going to be sold to a developer to build a prison. This is an area considered sacred to their Bundjalung culture. It is also an area they have spent a lot of time in during their childhood. Kerry is determined to stop this development proceeding. There are many other issues being dealt with by the family, such as poverty, child abuse and neglect. Her sister Donna has been missing for many years and they are still grieving for her. We later discover that Donna suffered terrible child abuse from her grandfather and set up a new life for herself in Sydney. Accidentally Kerry discovers that Donna is working in the town and encourages her to reconcile with the family. The book ends on a positive note.   

First impressions

  • Immensely readable, enjoyable, got into lingo although I don’t know about Indigenous languages; very colourful and passionate people.
  • Language interesting, and wonderful characters although I only got half way through it
  • Terrific book with 3D characters, not all doom and gloom; confronting issues, domestic violence, drinking, dispossession, humour but with a positive feel.
  • Felt like a Bundjalung version of the film Muriel’s wedding
  • Black humour despite the terrible backstories.
  • Excellent story which flowed, enjoyed the twists and turns, warm emphasis on kinship.
  • Very engaging and larger than life characters, humour carried you along, though having read other books by Lucashenko found this one a little predictable and a little jarring. Felt also that Steve who adores Kerry was a little bit of ‘Chick fantasy’. The whole book is underpinned by experience but the happy ending was a little contrived.
  • Well-written, gritty, compelling, very realistic, probably? Didn’t really ‘enjoy’ it and found it a tough read.
  • Raw and confronting, realism so amazing.
  • Really compelling black humour, but didn’t actually laugh. Window on a culture outside my frame of reference.
  • Lots of horrible episodes but Lucashenko ties up the loose ends. Heard it on audible with an Indigenous reader which made it authentic.
  • A plot-driven issues novel, which makes a contribution to truthtelling. Fiction can tell stories which white people can hear and understand more, perhaps, than by learning about Indigenous lives from political conversations or by reading historical works. Loved the roundness of the characters, most flawed but engaging.

Fiction can help explain why indigenous people behave like they do. Melissa lays bare some of their problems. She was worried about writing this revelation because she thought she might receive criticism from her mob and others but apparently this has not happened. ‘I loved that she was brave enough to show dysfunction within Indigenous communities while also showing the causes of the dysfuntion.’  

Ensuing discussion


Melissa Lucashenko appeared at the Canberra Writer’s Festival in 2019 and talked about carrying a heavy weight writing for her mob. She is trying to explain some fundamental differences in thought systems and culture to white Australians. This novelist is fundamentally a storyteller and is quite fierce and scary. (Her long years working on public policy and with women prisoners has made her very strong.)

All descriptions are from her real experiences or those of others she knows. The scenes are all very grounded.

Did we like the title?  Yes, we loved it and felt it was most appropriate not only for Kerry but also about other characters in the novel too, especially some of the children. One member also thought that it was cheeky. 

Kerry’s honesty is brilliantly stated:

'too much lip, her old problem from way back. And the older she got, the harder it seemed to get to swallow her opinions. The avalanche of bullshit in the world would drown her if she let it…’ (page 206).

One member talked about her discomfort at the way her Indigenous friends ‘talked' to their children. She was shocked by their yelling and the way everybody stood up to each other in a loud way, so different from the way she behaved with her kids.

We discussed the issue of anger and how it is related to poverty and race. In the novel there is mention of living on a mission and having nothing, no job and not being allowed to retain Aboriginal culture. The poverty is very real in this book.

Larrakin behaviour combined with poverty and dislocation and drunkenness are all issues for this family.

Love, Steve and whitefellas in the book


The question of a love interest and Steve, a good white fellow was one we debated at some length. Some members thought the ‘love affair’ was a little overblown as Kerry was so rude to him and so dismissive of his opinions. One member wondered if the publisher had suggested this romance angle as a selling point. Steve, Kerry’s friend, is also required for the steamy sex scenes. He is the one good whitefella who is accepted into the family and even invited to go with the other men for a ‘Men’s camp’ and men’s business. Steve learns to stand up for himself against Kerry when their relationship is strong and starts to treat her a bit more like her family does by criticising her for being so rude. 

There is a sense in which we should be able to hear what life is like for people like Kerry. It is better to listen, and that is what Steve does to large extent. 

There are very few other white men in the novel apart from him and the main ‘baddie’, Mayor Buckley. Mayor Buckley is the man everyone hates and who suffers at the conclusion of the novel. 

Humour


Humour is dispensed throughout the novel, and a welcome antidote to the ‘heavy’ issues tackled. We appreciated the way Lucashenko makes fun of Indigenous culture. For instance, about totems as shown in the scene when Brandon is playing on his computer and his uncle encourages him to go and play outside and climb a tree.

Brandon looked at Black Superman like he had two heads.
'What for ? I’m an eel. Eels don’t climb trees’. …
'Eels don’t use iPads, either’. (page 76) 

Indigenous people, just like any people, use their culture in any way they can. This is shown on television in the last few years with all the new Indigenous comedy shows especially. 

There are many scenes of great comedy – the exorcism, the scene when Ken is terrifying everyone with the rifle and Kerry thinks that Steve might have called the cops.

‘No other excuse needed : bang bang, bang.
Oh my God, they killed Kenny’. (p274) 

This is a reference to the TV show South Park

Style and culture, and characterisation


We also discussed the ‘magical realism’ present or not in the novel. One member noted that Indigenous people don’t necessarily see it that way. Alexis Wright was quoted as saying that that description refers to white attitudes, whereas for indigenous people it is all real. What is concrete after all?

We also commented on the amazing names for characters, for example Dr No, Shark, Black Superman. We also liked Pretty Mary (Kerry’s Mum) and Tall Mary. The people at the mission where these older folk grew up were to blame for the lack of imagination with names.  

One reader mentioned that birds for First Nations people are very important too – they bring messages and play a big role in their culture. This member has seen indigenous guides in the Northern Territory talking to birds. The birds can be totems or ancestral beings. 

In the first chapter, Kerry converses with some birds. It is very funny but also is indicative of her relationship with the natural world and totems of the local people. 

Three waark flapped down on the road beside her, drawn to the flattened remains of a king brown which looked to have lost a fight with Scruffy McCarthy’s cattle truck. 
The birds stared at Kerry, cawing obnoxiously before they turned to their snake… the eaters and the eaten of Durrongo, having it out at the crossroads. You don’t see old mate Freddy McCubbin painting that, do ya? .. 
I’m not the only one in Durrongo plagued by arseholes then, Kerry noted. (pp. 7,8)

The scene where Kerry is trying to encourage Brandon to be an enthusiast of the outdoors is hilarious. 

'You ever set a chook shed off?' ... Kerry crowed again.
‘You try!’ she urged. Sulky at first Brandon gradually got into it. … (p77)

Language is a big part of this novel. We all felt the way Lucashenko wrote it was very well done. It seemed forbidding at first to some of us but her use of indigenous words made it authentic. We all understood what she was saying despite no translations. 

Another aspect of the novel is the resolution of the problem of Donna. Uncle Richard is the main mediator between the family and Donna. He is also the first to believe her story of the abuse she suffered from her grandfather and how she protected Kerry. The novel is excellent in explaining that the family doesn’t do forgiveness as that is not the issue for Indigenous people. That is a white person’s concept. It is more a concept of truth-telling. We all thought of the Truth and Justice courts held in various countries in order to cope with past injustices. Ken is required to apologise and there might be punishment. 

Donna behaved in the way many real victims do. They want to control their lives after the violation. She felt alienated from her family. 

Ken, her brother, is the other side of the equation. He had stayed and kept all the anger and hurt inside himself. Everybody deals with trauma differently. Kerry was different again as she had run away (or been pushed by her mother) and often through the book she wants to run back to Brisbane. But there is nothing for her there now. She is also bound to her family and to her country. 

Some of us thought it was a weird plot element that Kerry didn’t try harder to retrieve the stolen money from Mayor Buckley. But would that have made the ending less convincing? Due comeuppance for the white crook?    

We all liked the character of Uncle Richard. He is the strong wise man of the mob. He gives us insight into the hierarchies of the culture. He was a law man and had great authority. But he was also gentle and they respected him. He wasn’t ‘shouty’. His saying that it was all about ‘love’ resonated with everybody. 

Pretty Mary was another wonderful character. She was an alcoholic but also a very 3-D personality. We liked the scenes of her telling fortunes in her tepee. She also loved Pop and wanted to explain to Donna that he was a victim too.

‘Pop told me when he was dying, cos it was eating away at him, worse’n the cancer was', he said. 'Three coppers grabbed him in Brisbane as a kid. Fourteen-year-old. Locked him in the cells and took turns at him all night for winning the Silver Gloves when he was supposed to lose. … But now, if Donna don’t mind, we’ve said we’re sorry, and I’d like to put me old friend in the ground.’ …” (p 295)  

There is a lot of intergenerational trauma in this novel – and it reminded many of us of the memoir we read last month, Rick Morton's One hundred years of dirt, about his white family and their trauma to do with poverty and dislocation. Epigenetics applies in both instances but in different ways of course. Brutal behaviour on an older generation can greatly effect subsequent generations. This is highlighted at the beginning of this novel by the recounting of the boxing match and consequences meted to Kerry’s grandfather when as a young Indigenous man he wins a boxing match in Brisbane. It is then mentioned again at the end of the novel in relation to Donna as quoted above.

We all agreed that the novel’s real strength is her diversity of characters. The complex weaving of men and women, and the leadership by many of the women. This is so true in Indigenous communities today in Australia. One member heard an interview with Melissa Lucashenko about her daughter’s struggle with mental illness and the difficulty of dealing with it. The novelist has had a tough life herself so can write from first hand experiences.

The ending with Donny almost stranded on the island was a funny scene. It was a real island but also possibly a ghost of an island?

‘Nobody to keep him company all night but the ghost of Elvis, and the ancestors he’d never met; an idea that gave him horrors.’ (p. 314) 

Possibly there is a parallel to the scene with Pop in the morgue. 

Kerry later thinks  : ‘it was good to see some spirit returning to the boy. That whale on his arm must be doing him a power of good.’ (p. 315) 

 The scene of the burial of Elvis, the dog was an act of reconciliation – sorry business. One member wondered if it there was something else going on. 

Robbery and criminal behaviour is another strong theme throughout the novel. Bike stealing, Kerry pinching the items from the Town Hall, and the drugs shows an engagement with people on the wrong side of the law and the police. But the sense in which people steal to keep the family going is so insignificant to the larger question of white people’s theft of the whole of Australia. (This is still an issue 250 years to the day that Cook first arrived. Very pertinent.) This is eye opening and confronting to people like us. 

We all felt that the dialogue is well written. It's quite clipped and certainly not flowery. 

This is a great story told with energy and humour. It covers really tough themes in a complex and nuanced way. The characters and stories felt very real. A really worthwhile read. We briefly talked about how different books by Indigenous people are now, from 30 years ago. This novel has been praised by literary judges and awarded many prizes in Australia. You are rewarded too by reading it twice as one mmber managed to do. It contrasts strongly with novels of the past such as Sally Morgan’s My place. The group thinks we have moved a long way in our understanding of our First Nations people but there is still a long way to go. 

Members present : 12

  

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

One hundred years of dirt by Rick Morton

With COVID-19 social isolation in force, Minervans decided to meet via WhatsApp. Our discussion was therefore a ‘written’ one, and so is unlike any other normal bookclub meeting we have had.

Our book was Rick Morton's memoir One hundred years of dirt, which included essays on life in the Australian outback and our society’s attitudes to poverty, class, equality and family. As one member said ‘he used his life to explore ideas that he thinks are important.’

This ‘genre-bending’ memoir was published in 2018. Morton spent his early years on a cattle station near Mount Hewitt, Queensland. He and his older brother Toby and their parents lived a reasonable life for a few years until an awful accident occurred when Toby was severely burnt all over his body.

Deborah Morton and baby daughter flew with Toby to hospital in Brisbane and from that day on their family life was never the same. Rick and his father were left behind, and as their relationship was not caring before this accident, they both suffered great trauma being separated from Rick’s Mum. Rick’s Dad, Rodney was a product of a destructive father-son relationship.

Subsequently Rick and his siblings left the property and lived with their impoverished mother in a small town (Gympie?) outside Brisbane. Rick won a scholarship to Bond University and a cadetship at The Australian newspaper and eventually he has made a life for himself as a gay man happily living in Sydney working as a journalist. He is still racked by trauma and guilt about his early life and the life of his brother and mother. He also suffers guilt because his life is relatively well-endowed with money, education and promise.

The memoir not only includes details of family life but also Rick’s thinking and analysis of Australian society. It includes his thoughts on living in poverty, class attitudes, loneliness and questions of equality.

First impressions from our group


  • Gritty, uncompromising, honest, lots to ponder
  • Energetic discussion of big issues
  • Tough, raw, painful but compassionate, some funny bits
  • Searing moving memoir, hard scrabble, class and gender divides
  • Violent toxic masculinity, raw female perseverance, analytical
  • Intergenerational poverty and violence
  • Bit chaotic, needs edit
  • Fierce, compassionate, clear sighted, engrossing, loved its myth shattering themes
  • Destroys bush resilience stereotyping
  • Bravely written, shocking, sad, illuminating, loved it
  • Too many themes all jumbled together
  • Loved the language


The ensuing discussion


Structure

It has an interesting structure reflecting where he was in 2018 when it was published (aged 32). Some members didn’t like the way Morton jumps around but others liked it once they understood what he was doing. Others felt it was in a reflection and essay convention rather than a true memoir.

One member said, ‘This memoir in essay form isn’t linear but tight within that form. I think he had a great way of writing with digressions and it is basically chronological. I loved how each chapter had a theme.’

Another member disagreed ‘What we read could be a first draft for an even more powerful book – it jumped around too much.’ ‘It went off on tangents but all related to specific topics at the time’. One member felt some of the diversions detracted from the strength of his story.


Masculinity

Rick wrote well about the intergenerational trauma from father and son down three generations at least which his family has experienced and is still experiencing.

We all agreed that Rick is a hero. He is same age as many of our spoilt ‘children’ but one who has had to live through so much in comparison to our kids.

There is a horrifying level of "machismo" shown by his father and grandfather. It ruined their lives and the lives of their children ultimately. For instance, Toby is very like father Rodney and shows similar characteristics and self-destructiveness. Rick also went through a suicidal period in his life and took drugs to help kill the pain.

We had a short discussion about epigenetics. For more discussion of epigenetics see Wikipedia.

Nature and nurture are both vitally important in the life of a child.

So Rick’s idea of the outback Queenslander guy is not Crocodile Dundee – there is no softness in their violence. These guys are still bullying and killing women and gay men even in the 21st century.

The trauma of their childhoods and ongoing effects live with them throughout their lives and this environment made Rick escape. He is not like them. He is not like his father or his brother or his extended family. He is gay and educated and sensitive and caring about the females in his life. He would also like to be loved. This is closely linked to his sexuality too.


Gay and trans people

Sadly, gay and trans people have a record of self loathing and self harm when coming out. This is especially true for country kids. So Rick’s suicidal actions may have been partly due to being gay as well as everything else going on in his young life.


Poverty and class

There are lots of US studies on brain development of poor kids. They are measured from age 1, and show that they are behind from the beginning of their lives.

One member felt that the novel's main theme was a question of equality. So many people believe hard work will still get you rewards, but near the end of chapter 1, Morton states

the single experience of my sister’s road to this point detonates the argument that equality of opportunity is stitched into our nationhood. (Page 10)

Another member said he was strong about equality but was not sure where he was going with it.

Rick Morton challenges his readers to care about the poor and the disadvantaged.

Deborah, his mother

We discussed her for quite a while. Most members admired her resilience and her strength. ‘I thought she was amazing and gave her full credit’ for bringing up the children. They also thought she was long-suffering, heroic and loving. They loved her story that Rick is an alien and one day he would be recalled to the mother ship. One member quoted Rick's comment that Deb used the alien story as a way of not taking credit for the love and support she had given Rick.

Rick is caring and loyal to his mother. One member disagreed that his mother was quite so wonderful. She felt that Deborah was jealous of Rick’s life and education, and that she was sad that she had made wrong decisions about her life and was/is unable to grow as Rick has done.

Rick is very protective of his mother’s opinions, for example, about climate change. He feels that she is too busy putting food on the table to worry about such esoteric matters. Many members agreed with this proposition and felt for her. Poor people don’t have time to be ‘woke’. This is just so important to realise. I liked his Mum’s pragmatic approach to politics.

(I don’t agree – rich and poor alike can educate themselves if they want to in the 21st century.)

It was also felt that Rick’s Mum is similar to the women in Pachinko (see our review).


Toby

Rick’s older brother. He has always challenged life. He would not listen to Rick‘s sensible advice even when he was much younger and it was as if the two boys came from different families. We agreed that many of our kids are different too but maybe not quite so much.

Toby processes trauma differently from Rick. We felt that Rick’s depiction of the spur of the moment decisions that some young men make was good. ‘These guys skate close to disaster and sometimes it works and sometimes it does not’. Rick writers:

It’s the Faustian drama that punctures the lives of anybody who loves. (page 79)


Rick

Is he slightly autistic? The general opinion is that he isn’t but he certainly likes analysis and statistics. One member thought he is just being an old-style journalist using evidence.

Rick also doesn’t have any inhibitions about asking questions and stepping into traumatic situations because he doesn’t have any middle class ‘manners’. He isn’t preachy. He is also very honest.

He did suffer mental health issues. We thought that his reflections on memory were very apt. He is very open about the process he is going through to reconstruct the memories of his family history and his understanding of it.

Some members thought there were some funny stories in there amidst the other, such as the stories about the horse’s teeth and the attitudes to shooting pigs, and also the fence fight between Rick's grandfather and his brother.

We felt he was angry writing this book but he still had lots of compassion towards his family. One member said that ‘He still needed his Dad’s approval even though he was unlikely to achieve it. It’s an elemental thing needing a parent’s love.’


Bond University

When I went to University in 2005 I was the first of 21 cousins on my father’s side and a third of 10 on my mother’s side. As the nation moved towards a knowledge class, the Mortons doubled down in their suspicion of it. (page 156)

One member thought that Uni life was the equivalent for Rick to Toby’s struggles with drugs. They both bore a different cross. The University life separated him from his family and mother in particular but then it became an important thread in their relationship. Rick is still grief-stricken over his brother and mother.

The question of what separates my brother and I has haunted me for the better part of a decade. (page 96)

One member admired his courage (while still at Uni) nicking off to Singapore to witness the hanging of the young Vietnamese Australian.’


Journalism

Having a member who was a journalist gave us insights into this career. Rick was lucky to win a cadetship at The Australian. Our member who also worked there said it was a really tough place and ‘felt sorry for the news hacks’. The Commentariat elites got all the attention.

Most journalists are middle class now and don’t understand those from poor or violent backgrounds. We felt there was a similarity here with the author Trent Dalton (Boy swallows universe - see our review), who is also a young Queenslander working for The Australian. Dalton is still there but Morton has moved on to a decidedly left-wing paper now (The Saturday paper). He is also an occasional guest on The Drum on ABC Television.

One member thought Rick’s analysis of journalists is spot on. There are quotas for women, Catholics and private school types in the employ of the media. Most are now graduates from educated families. ‘Poor bloke working at The Oz surrounded by the right-wing elite. He must have been angry enough to write a book. He needed to redeem his mother.’

Conclusion

We wondered how his family felt about the book. In an interview Morton said that his brother hadn’t read it but his mother liked it.

We all agreed that Rick Morton is incredibly open and honest in this ‘memoir’.

Rick explodes a number of myths about the great outdoor bloke.  As one member concluded, ‘Trent and Rick have given us a peek into what many kids live with that we have no idea about’.

Members present: 10

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Carmel Bird's Field of poppies


Our second book for 2020 was something completely different, Carmel Bird's latest novel, Field of poppies. A story about a tree-changing middle-aged, middle-class couple, who retreat back to the city a few years later when the tree-change doesn't meet expectations, it bemused many in our group. Here, as usual, are our first impressions.

First impressions

Overall, not everyone finished it. Several enjoyed the book but didn't love it, while others greatly liked it. It was variously described as quirky, funny, weird, strange, odd. Many enjoyed the dialogues/conversations in the book - particularly between Marsali and William, and within the reading group.
  • the digressions became tiring after a while. A couple particularly didn't like William's mansplaining, while others liked his WWWs (and laughed at the word play on World Wide Web).
  • too much description of the painting, Field of Poppies at Argenteuil 1873; but another really enjoyed the art descriptions in the novel.
  • irritating to start with, and didn't like the digressions, but as more deaths started to occur, it became more interesting.
  • loved the really lush descriptions, and enjoyed the references to other books, like Virginia Woolf's Jacob's room.
  • liked the description of country town Victoria, and life there.
  • it read like a conversation. Another, though, commented on the "strange diary format".
  • enjoyed it, but wasn't sure of the message.
  • it took a while to get into it, but then started to feel it was like a conversation with a quirky, artistic, intelligent friend
  • really enjoyed reading the book, though the tone tricky, and not quite sure Bird pulled off her goal.
  • really enjoyed it, loving Bird's tone, and her satire on contemporary life with her darker message, a bit like "Nero fiddled while Rome burned".

The ensuing discussion


One member suggested that the message was in the first epigram:

We are within measurable, or imaginable distance of real Armageddon. Happily there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators. (Henry Asquith, Secretary of State for War, July 24 1914)
And another member shared a quote from the book that she felt summed it up for her:

Life's a sort of jigsaw, and the pieces of the picture have their own ways of drifting to the surface of the mind, of fitting together, sometimes in surprising ways.

We discussed irony and satire. We felt it was ironic that the tree-changers had returned to the city to live on the 42nd floor of an apartment, in Eureka Tower. Some felt the irony - Eureka being the name of a large gold nugget from the Victorian goldfields - was a bit heavy-handed. One member suggested that it was also ironic that Marsali's commune-living arty parents left their commune - this was during her childhood - to live in suburban Box Hill in Melbourne.

Some enjoyed the Preface with its commentary of contemporary life and society and vision of what's coming? As word lovers, we were inspired by "People forgot how to punctuate or spell" to share some anecdotes! We briefly discussed the line "Cinderella died in the end", a line which is picked up later in the novel in a reference to Beauty and the Beast, and fairy tales:

Beauty always falls in love with the Beast, who always turns out to be the Prince, but that's only the end of the telling, not the end of the lives of Beauty and her Beast-Prince. Life goes on until it doesn't. Cinderella died in the end, and so did Snow White.

We teased out the tree-changing satire, how the tree-changing life hadn't turned out to be as idyllic as out protagonists hoped - they were robbed, and a townsperson, Alice, disappeared. One member recounted her own childhood with a mother seeking romantic old houses which in fact really needed servants to maintain properly. She wonders why there's an attitude that you've "sold out" if you move to an apartment. Another shared a quote from late in the book which she felt explained much about the book:

When I go there for Mirrabooka nights I drive past the gate to Listowel and catch a glimpse of the house itself behind the trees. It's really so very like the house in the distance in the Monet, the dangerous fool's gold of the old lost dream house.

Early in the novel, Marsali talks about dream-houses in literature and her own uncertainty about the idea of "dream".

Anyhow, we enjoyed Bird's descriptions of modern life in a successful rural town, with the cafes and hair salons, reading groups and churches, greenie credentials (including green funerals), music groups and often self-consciously political or earnest artistic pursuits. It was all too real! And then, of course, there was the return of a mine to this historic mining community.

We discussed Alice and how Bird uses Alice in Wonderland as a foil for Alice Dooley. Without spoiling the ending too much, both disappear into the deep, but Alice in Wonderland survives while Alice Dooley doesn't. One member also suggested that Bird's use of foils or parallels, such as this one, isn't black and white, because the world Alice in Wonderland goes into is chaotic (reflecting, perhaps, the world of the 21st century world Marsali lives in.)

We discussed Hanging Rock, Joan Lindsay's Picnic at Hanging Rock book, and the place of lost children stories in Australian literature. There are missing children in this novel, though the main missing character in this novel, Alice Dooley, is not a child.

We discussed the importance of Monet's painting and the poppies. We noted that while the poppies are pretty on the surface, they also convey something sinister, something that starts, in particular, with WW1 and the poppies of Flanders. Some members, though, found it hard to accept the idea of the gun pointing from the house - but that's just the point. Our dreamhouses are not what they seem at all. They contain the seeds of destruction.

One member commented that Bird was also playing with the idea of fiction. Marsali kept reminding us that this was her memoir, so coincidences etc that are not accepted in fiction are OK. For example, Marsali tells us that it's perfectly fine that the two road accidents that more or less start and end the book's drama both involve kangaroos, as this is not fiction where such artifices are not accepted. (Bird adds salt to this wound by having the driver involved in the second accident spending time at a pub called The Kangaroo before he sets off on his fateful drive!)

We briefly touched on the allusions to Jonathan Swift (Marsali Swift, and her brother Gulliver), and that Gulliver's travels is also a satire on the state of society.

Late in the meeting, we returned to the meaning of the book, and the first epigram - the issue that the world is going wrong but we are not doing anything. As one member said, the book is about our current existential crisis - the fact that there's a disconnect in our lives between knowing that climate change, in particular, is a critical issue but our lives are too comfortable to act seriously upon it. How many will give up their overseas trips for example? Not many, we ruefully laughed. There was some discussion about what difference individuals can make. There was no resolution to this one!

Overall, most agreed that this is a book in which you can enjoy the ride rather than try to follow all the threads. Not all found it easy to glean its full meaning and intent.

Present: 9 members

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Charlotte Wood's The weekend

It was a full house when Minervans met for the first time in 2020 to discuss our first book of the year, Charlotte Wood's The weekend. It seemed a fitting book for a group that has been meeting for over 30 years, several of whom have known each other for those 30 years and more.

The book is about three women (Jude, Wendy and Adele), now in their 70s, who have been friends for around 40 years and have come together for a weekend to clean out the house of the fourth friend (Sylvie) who had died about a year previously. During the weekend, various cracks in their friendship are revealed, but so is their love and loyalty.

First impressions


As usual, we started by asking everyone for their first impressions, which fell into two rather clear camps:

  • alright; ambivalent; characters are types; liked it at the start but then started to feel ho-hum about it; too long
  • loved it; it captured women's friendships well, particularly the agonies and ecstasies over long periods of time and the dynamics of friendship groups; enjoyed the humour

Interestingly, none of those who didn't like it mentioned the humour, while several of those who did like it specifically mentioned the humour! However, everyone did enjoy something about the evocation of friendships, with most people relating to the book personally in one way or another. For some it resonated closely with experiences they had had.

One of those who liked it didn't like the melodramatic "party" scene near the end. One who didn't like it commented that the death near the end of one woman's lover helped Wood create an ending for her book but didn't actually resolve anything.

Several commented on different aspects of the writing, such as the wonderful opening scene in which Wendy is in her broken-down car on the highway, the description of the inclinator, the wave metaphor at the end, and other descriptions and images.

The rest of the discussion


With 12 in attendance, the discussion then scampered all over the place, from idea to idea, point to point, but I'll try to bring it together. We discussed the role of Finn the ageing dog, who, we learnt, was not in the original story. Most of us liked Finn, but one member found it difficult to accept a dog who really should have been euthanised. The women's reactions to Finn tell us something about their characters. Also, Finn's simply "being"  (his "simple creatureliness") provides a foil for the women's ideas about life's meaning or goals, and his ageing body reflects, if not symbolises, the ageing bodies of the women (and their fear of ageing, not to mention death and dying.)

In a lesser way, the inclinator also works as a useful device for conveying information about the women's characters, from Adele's not using it because of her "use it or lose it" philosophy to overweight Wendy with the frail dog having no choice really.

We didn't talk as much about ageing as we might but one member was interested in the idea of when have you "finished". Wendy and Adele, for example, both feel they have more to achieve - Wendy, the intellectual idea she feels she's moving towards, and Adele, her big role - while Jude's goal seems to be finding things to talk about/share/offer up when her married lover (of forty years) sees her. When you no longer have formal, professional goals, what goals do you have, where do they come from, and what happens when you, perhaps, no longer have goals or purpose?

We also briefly discussed children - and the point when the power balance shifts from parents being parents of their children to being parented by their children! Wendy experiences this in the book.

Wood, we felt, is clearly up on the contemporary problem of homeless older women, as by the end, two of the three are, or potentially are, without a home.

Regarding friendships, we talked about how people can know each other for a long time but still not know each other (see Quote of the night below, perhaps!) One member pondered whether friends made when young (even those sustained over a long time) would in fact become friends if you met them much later. Another member commented how it was Adele, the one the others frequently saw as "the child" of the group, is the one who takes control when a major crisis comes. We felt that Wood had captured well the complexity of friendships, and the individual baggages that people bring to friendships.

A member commented that the women never reminisce about Sylvie, which you might expect. This resulted in a discussion about the women's self-absorption. One member felt they lacked warmth.

In terms of the writing, we talked about the alternating points of view as we moved between the women's heads, and the fact that book is more one of vignettes than a single narrative, which might explain why we don't hear the women sitting down and reminiscing about their late friend. One member wasn't convinced about the set-up, that is, the women coming together to clean out their friend's house when there was a partner who could have done it.

We also talked about the "house-party" genre of books/fiction, into which this fits. Some members immediately recalled the film The big chill and one referred to John Clanchy's novel The sisters.

We shared some favourite pieces of writing, such as:

this description of Wendy by Adele:

the planes of her mighty cheekbones and jaw had tilted somehow, inwards and down, so that to Adele it seemed she'd begun, impossibly but surely, to look really very much like Patrick White.

this by Jude on sister-in-law Catherine's reading group:

Catherine's bookclub worked doggedly through the Booker shortlist, coming down on the side of the winner if they knew the author already, against if they didn't.

and this by Wendy of young Australians, who

now spoke with American accents, pronouncing their r's at the end of words, and saying "afterr", the "a" like in apple. Why was this? The Western world had blurred itself into one jellied cultural mess. 
We talked about about Wood, the fact that she's in her 50s and has no children. We thought she had well captured women who are 20 years older than she, and that she must know and have observed carefully such women, their changing friendships, bodies and perceptions.

Finally, we felt the novel touched on rather a lot of "stuff". Some of us felt we identified with one or two of the three women, while others saw all three women in themselves at different times. At the end of the discussion, we all agreed that, whether we individually liked the book or not, it offered a good description of what happens between friends, and that therefore, in fact, it is a "good" book!

Quote of the night


One member reminded us of the saying that everyone has three lives - a public life, a private life, and a secret life - and suggested that this book is very much about the secret life.


Present: 12 members

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

Language

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.

Characters

Jaxie

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

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.

Landscape

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 .

Finally


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 ...

BOY SWALLOWS UNIVERSE:
  • "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)

A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW:
  • "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)

THE SHEPHERD'S HUT
  • "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)

CONVENIENCE STORE WOMAN:
  • "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)

THE BRIDGE:
  • "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