Tuesday, 12 June 2018

First person by Richard Flanagan

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

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

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

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

Our round of comments include :

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Schedule Ideas for Second Half of 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

A Helen Garner Festival (of sorts)

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

So, what did we read?

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

What common threads did we find?

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

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

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

Our personal comments

Monkey Grip (Sylvia)

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

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

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

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

Monkey grip (Denise)

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

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

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

The children's Bach (Judith)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The feel of steel (Sue B)

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

I couldn't stop reading.

Everywhere I look (Janet)

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

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

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

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

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

Love it.

True stories (Gerda)

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

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

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

Our conclusion

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

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

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

PRESENT: 9 members

Monday, 16 April 2018

Terra Nullius by Claire G. Colman

Claire Coleman is a young Western Australian writer who is a great fan of science fiction and loved Lord of the Rings as a child. She read it when just 8 years old. This first novel, written while travelling around Australia, has been very well received, winning her a black&write! fellowship from the State Library of Queensland as well as being listed for the Stella Prize and 5 other awards 2017-18.  The novel is a story for our time according to her publisher Hachette.

Terra Nullius is a challenging work by an author who ‘identifies as a South Coast (WA) Noongar' woman.  Many of the nine participants at our recent meeting thought it was a very clever and innovative novel however some of us had some reservations. It was suggested by one of our members, encouraging us to read more by Australian Aboriginal writers. We all agree with that idea.  

For the first half of the novel we are lead to believe that the story is of groups of people who are living primitively and nomadically and trying to stay away from the ‘squatters’ or ‘settlers’ (also known as toads) colonizing their country. There are also single people trying to escape captivity or re-arrest. There are also girls in a convent being abused. The colonizers treat all these people appallingly.  The children are taken away from their families. There are also massacres of people.  The ‘Natives’ try to fight but are without many weapons and manpower so they try to retreat further into the desert. Coleman appears to be telling the story of our Australian Aboriginal people in the nineteenth century. However in the middle of the novel the twist occurs and we find ourselves in the future and these ‘Natives’ are actually the human race of the world and the colonizers are from outer space. It becomes a dystopian/sci-fi or speculative fiction depending on your interpretation. It ends with the two main villains being killed and with some hope of the humans surviving. The colonizers actually want the art of the humans so that may help save them.

One of our members who is knowledgeable about films thought there were similarities with movies such as: The Moon is a harsh mistressBlade runner and Total recall.

Comments from our members :
  • glad to read it, premise is good but novel is less than engaging
  • loved it and loved the story
  • premise is worth discussing but it would be enhanced by editing, maybe to even a short story length
  • enjoyed it but harrowing
  • 1860s to 1960s (possibly) is a clever flip
  • hard to get into and the flip was a surprise
  • there were indications in the beginning that everything was not as it seemed
  • second half seemed to be in Margaret Atwood type scenario
  • reasonably well written especially for a first novel
  • intellectual book
  • good read in parts but a bit repetitive and didactic
Many of us have not read much science fiction so found the book a surprise. One member pointed out that sci-fi although about the future often is speculative fiction reflecting on our past. Dystopian novels often make moral judgements such as in Oryx and crake or the Handmaid’s tale by Margaret Atwood. There are certainly moral similarities in this novel with The Handmaid's tale.

The characters were difficult to like – one really ‘bad’ person was Sister Bagra. One of our members was sorry for Bagra as she was the main villain with no redeeming features. We thought she was a bit one-dimensional as was the policeman – Sergeant Rohan.  We discussed the scene where he and the troopers are searching for Jacky and are desperate for water. 

They visit a farmhouse and demand water from the settlers but have no success. His only thought is that ‘appeals to settlers’ better natures, informing them that giving visitors water was simple hospitality, were met with blank stares; maybe they had no better natures’ (Chapter 6) so he ends up threatening them with arrest. There are no shades of grey for the Sergeant. But we need to remember that he is an alien too. That feature about some characters is not always known until well into their story so it can be confusing.

It was also difficult to differentiate between some of the characters especially Jacky and Johnny, also between the two main ‘Native’ characters – Esperance and Jacky. Jacky is an Indigenous man whilst Johnny is the only ‘squatter or settler’ who defects from his fellow colonisers to live with the Natives, being fed and befriended by them. 

We did appreciate Esperance, who is a struggler and fighter. She is a clever character and the ending seems to suggest that she may survive.

The Toads are seemingly repugnant physically. European settlers in Australia in the nineteenth century were often seen as ghosts by Indigenous people, which possibly equates to ugly. However, we were careful not to describe too many similarities to Australian history. 

The Environment was a real presence throughout this novel. There are many graphic descriptions of difficult places to live for both the ‘Natives’ and for the settlers. It can be read as an analogy to the European view of Australia at the time – they didn’t like Australian landscape and animals, many of which were considered to be pests. 

Coleman tries to show that there wasn’t a single response from the Toads to Australia and the Natives but a variety of reactions --  ranging from sympathy (by Grark) to hatred for Sergeant Rohan and Sister Bagra.

The device of quotes at the beginning of chapters was clever and really emphasized the nineteenth century feel of the novel as a semi-documentary one. All the quotes are fictitious, as stated by Coleman, but do seem real in the context of the work. The one which we really appreciated is at the beginning of Chapter 16. 

It was a quote from Julas Salis, Chief executive officer at the Louvre art Centre and Gallery in Paris. 

Art is potentially the most valuable commodity this planet can produce, and we can get more. … Seemingly the human tendency to produce Art is innate and cannot be eliminated, even if we now wanted to. … We must bring these humans together and give them nothing to do, no task other than to produce the Art that is, as far as we know, the unique talent of the humans.

The settlers can’t produce Art, which makes the point even stronger.

This lead to a discussion about Albert Namatjira (1902-1959) and his civic rights -- a much maligned artist in his day but one who is gradually being recognized as a great Australian Aboriginal artist. We also discussed the larger question concerning Aboriginal art and whether Australians appreciate this art (or just ‘use it’ (to show off ?) as evidenced in the recent opening of the Commonwealth Games).   We talked about the various large Aboriginal exhibitions we have recently viewed in Canberra.  We are very privileged to see these works in many different venues and interpreted through many different eyes.

The title is controversial. Terra Nullius is a cheap shot by Coleman  according to one member – this was also not the assumption of British colonisers in the opinion of some members. It was generally agreed that the title doesn’t work. It is too generic and lacks specific references. Other possible titles we suggested could be: Johnny Star or The settlers.

It is the voice of Aboriginal writers and film makers such as Warwick Thornton we need to listen to in order to learn more about their present problems, issues and personal histories. A very pertinent film many of us have seen is: A rabbit proof fence. It is ‘based on a true story of 3 Aboriginal girls, Molly, Gracie and Dolly Pilkington who in 1931 were forcibly removed from their mothers and their home in Jigalong and moved 1500 miles away, as part of official ‘White Australia’ Government policy.’ (From SBS On Demand)

Language is another part of Aboriginal culture which is now being recognized to some extent after a shocking failure to acknowledge. The way children were removed from their homes and forbidden to speak their language is worthy of present day condemnation.

The Noongar background of the author is important in this novel and a good source of information about the Noongar language is their website

The conclusion from this discussion was that Claire Coleman is trying to educate white Australians in what it feels like to be colonised. On a personal level it also reminded me of my inadequate knowledge of Aboriginal history. 

PRESENT: 9 members

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The sympathizer

Our February book was Viet Thanh Nguyen's debut novel, The sympathizer, which won the Pulitzer Prize, among other awards. While not everyone had quite finished the book by the meeting, most enjoyed it.

As usual we started with first impressions:

  • funny, amazingly well-written, playful but also intense. Fabulous to read about the Vietnam era, something which feels like unfinished business (in terms of our understanding/reconciling what was done in the name of humanity, the way nations did, and still do, "bash up against each other", killing citizens along the way.) 
  • dense, graphic, evocative, and packed with ideas. The language is great, but the dictionary was needed for many words. 
  • captivated from the first page, because it was so alive and real. The title puzzled at first, but its multiple meanings became clear. The opening description of the day of the Fall of Saigon was so graphic. The book is as much personal as political, and is about America not listening to Vietnamese voices, just as we are not listening to indigenous voices here! So, this member said, she listened! 
  • sad, bleak, but also witty and stirred up this member's way of looking at things. It's about the refugee experience, showing how refugees feel like aliens. The narrator himself represents this alienness through his mixed race background. This member also liked that the book presents multiple points of view, rather than just one perspective. 
  • hard to read, with the sentences being complex and sometimes "over-the-top" 
  • the voice was great from the beginning, and beautifully sustained. The satire was effective, making us laugh and grimace at the same time. It was good to see a Vietnamese viewpoint about the War (like another recent book about the war, written from a Vietnamese perspective, Hoa Pham's The lady of the realm.) 
  • the audiobook version brought the book's stunning language to life and made it easier for this member to engage with the book after she couldn't initially get into it. The descriptions are effective, and there are so many wonderful and emotive scenes. 
  • a complex book, that was perplexing at beginning, but the language, irony, metaphors, alliteration won this member over. It has pathos, particularly about the refugee experience, one that's not unique to those in the book. This member had recently read Jane Fonda's autobiography, My life till now, in which she talks about how many American lives were lost while they were destroying Vietnamese lives.

We then talked a little about the author, who is a professor at USC in Los Angeles. He arrived in the USA as a refugee with his parents when he was about 4 years old. He said in an interview that he had chosen to not "live" with two languages but to "master" English. However, in doing so he'd been exposed "too well to how Americans viewed the Vietnamese". It was seeing films like Apocalypse now and Platoon which encouraged him to want to tell the story from a Vietnamese perspective. He makes this point explicitly at the end of the movie-set section of the novel, when he says that "not to own the means of representation", that is, of telling your own story, is "a kind of death".

He had three main aims for the book: to expose what America did in Vietnam, to express Vietnamese anger at what America did (something he feels Asians have been reluctant to do), and to expose what the Vietnamese did to themselves. (They were not just victims, he said, but also victimisers.) In other words, while his main target was America's actions, he recognises the universality of corrupt, self-serving behaviour.

 "moth-eaten moral covers"

Our discussion proper then started with the fact that the book is presented as a "confession", which we later learn is part of a "re-education" program. The discussion then went rather free-range, but never strayed far from Nguyen's language and his satirical exploration of the Vietnam/American War from multiple angles. We noted Nguyen's desire to represent different voices and experiences, and that our "bastard"-Eurasian-divided narrator was an excellent vehicle for this representational aim. (Several of us enjoyed how this narrator, this divided-I, became "we" at the end.) Many of the characters represent groups of people and/or ideas and/or parts of society. This is typical, we suggested, of satire. So, for example, the narrator's father reflects the colonial story/the missionary role, while his mother, the colonised/the victim.

We talked about politics, about the fact that the Vietnamese wanted American money but not American imperialism, that America continued the war long after they knew they couldn't win. (And we digressed to the war in Cambodia, and Vietnam's role there.)

We shared many examples of the language, particularly in terms of how it reflected Nguyen's themes. The book is replete with irony and paradox, which is embodied in the never-named narrator himself. He is the ultimate paradox - the son of a Vietnamese maid and a missionary, a North Vietnamese mole working for a South Vietnamese general, a philosopher who is not above acting against his philosophy. So, for example, he says, after the squid masturbation scene:
Massacre is obscene. Torture is obscene. Three million dead is obscene. Masturbation, even with an admittedly nonconsensual squid? Not so much. I, for one, am a person who believes the world would be a better place if the word "murder" made us mumble as much as the word "masturbation".
While we'd agree, this is ironic, because he himself murders, and in rather egregious circumstances. Frequently in the book, an idea is presented, only to be turned on its head in another situation.

Members shared other examples of language they liked: a description of the refugee experience as the "metasising cancer called assimilation", and this of our "moth-eaten moral covers".

"we too could abuse grand ideals"

And we talked about the satire - sharing many examples from the book, such as:
The Chinese might have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in lasciviousness, he was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb 'to cleave,' which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman's cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity. The double meaning was also present in how cleavage separated a woman from a man and yet drew him to her with the irresistible force of sliding down a slippery slope. Man had no equivalent, except, perhaps, for the only kind of male cleavage most women truly cared for, the open and closing of a well stuffed billfold.
And this, on the General's plan to mount an attack from America:
The General's men, by preparing themselves to invade our communist homeland, were in fact turning themselves into new Americans. After all, nothing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else's freedom and independence.
The satire is also conveyed through names. The raped/tortured agent says her name is Viet Nam, and the narrator refers to many characters by description rather than name, including the crapulent major, the baby-faced guard, the grizzled captain, the affectless lieutenant.

Related to the satire is the humour. Some of us called it black humour while others preferred to call it bleak. Whatever we called it, we agreed that the book has many "comic" scenes. We shared some of them, including the "country club" dinner party with the General, the Congressman and the "Asian expert" Richard Hedd.

But what did we make of the ending? We discussed variousideas, including the idea of nihilism (particularly represented by Man); the hypocrisy of fighting for "independence and freedom" (a regular catchcry during the book) only to have it taken away upon victory; and the fact that at the end our narrator is en route back to the USA, this time as a "real" refugee. He implies that he (that they, on the boat with him) might still be looking for a "just cause", but right now they just want to live. He's finally liberated from his old life, as free, we decided, as you can be in the circumstances, which doesn't necessarily say a lot! So, is it a cynical ending, a realistic ending, a hopeful one?

Finally, we briefly commented on some of Australia's writers from immigrant backgrounds, including Nam Le, Anh Do and Alice Pung.

PRESENT: 8 members

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Rabih Alameddine's An unnecessary woman

For our first meeting of the year, we read a book that was probably a little different to our usual fare, Lebanese-American author Rabih Alameddine's novel, An unnecessary woman, which is told first person in the voice of a 72-year-old woman, Aaliyah Saleh, who spends her life reading and translating books. Set in Beirut in the 2000s, the novel has a minimal plot, focusing more on the thoughts and ideas of this reclusive woman.

Following usual practice, we started by asking all present for initial impressions. Most loved it, one didn't and a couple had mixed feelings. The member who didn't like it felt it didn't go anywhere, that not enough happened, and that it was too erudite. Those with mixed feelings liked much of it - especially the ending - but found it a bit tedious in places, particularly in the middle. They didn't like the name-dropping of authors or the overuse of quotes. However, there were mainly positives, which were:

  • it's a beautifully written, though sad book about loss and feelings of guilt
  • it's a fascinating exploration of what it means to be unnecessary (as Alameddine says on a YouTube video)
  • the language is beautiful, which surprised this member who usually likes more spare writing. She learnt some new words! She also enjoyed the exploration of the narrator's relationship with her mother
  • the beginning was interesting, and the ending was great, despite being a little tedious in the middle. One member who felt this never thought she'd be reading a book about someone living in Beirut and translating translations into Arabic. Put that way, it it does sound odd! Another who felt this disagreed with the idea that the narrator felt guilty. She felt that the narrator had built a life for herself that suited her.
  • it is somewhat erudite, but the name dropping, the ideas, made it fun to read.
  • it's a funny, engaging, but also sad exploration of a woman's rich inner life, and is great for keen readers because it shares a joy in literature. It is multi-layered, exploring such ideas as ageing, culture, living under siege, being reclusive. This member felt these ideas were handled well, never becoming laboured. She admitted, though, that she started out being prepared not to like it, that she was on her feminist high-horse because the book is by a man writing in an older woman's voice. However, she was won over by Alameddine's writing
  • it explores the woman's life very well
  • it is a fun, clever fiction about fiction. This member loved the humour of the book, such as the narrator's statement that "Most of the books published these days consist of a series of whines followed by an epiphany. I call these memoirs and confessional novels happy tragedies. We shall overcome and all that. I find them sentimental and boring" because, in fact, this is what the narrator herself has written. 
  • it's a beautiful tribute to Beirut, but this member did have a little "sex identity" crisis in the middle of the book when she suddenly realised the author was a man. However, she got over this and loved the book.
We shared some favourite scenes. We all liked the ending in which the three women helped the narrator and praised her translations, and the scene in which the narrator washes her mother's feet (in a Christ-like action.) We also liked the grand-niece in this feet-washing scene.

Why unnecessary?

We discussed this question in some depth, particularly regarding the gender implications. What does unnecessary mean? Is Aaliyah unnecessary because she's a woman with no role (she has no husband or children, and is occupying an apartment which her family felt she has no right to.) We discussed the fact that older women are often invisible to others, and that men and young people can have a sense of entitlement they don't accord to older women. (Early in the novel, in fact, Aaliyah comments that "My half brothers, like so many men and boys, have the impatience of the entitled")

It was also suggested that she could be seen as unnecessary because her existence didn't seem to matter to anyone. However, we agreed that she was strong, determined to retain her apartment and to not be forced to care for her mother (who had never, it appeared, cared for her.)

A member mentioned Lebanese author Hanan al-Shaykh's biography of her mother, The locust and the bird: My mother's story, which also exposes the vulnerability of women in the same era that An unnecessary woman is set.

We noted the story Aaliyah shares in the novel about a Nazi officer trying to protect a Jewish artist, because he's "a necessary Jew". Necessary, here, meant "useful" to the Nazi. In other words, are you only "necessary" if you perform some valuable role in society?

In some ways, Aaliyah had made herself "unnecessary" by withdrawing, by isolating herself, from others.

What does reading do for us?

At one point in the novel, Aaliyah says:
Nothing is working. Nothing in my life is working. Giants of literature, philosophy, and the arts have influenced my life, but what have I done with this life?
We discussed what reading does for us, why we read. And our reasons were many - for fun, escape, time-out; to widen our horizons and explore times and places unknown to us; for the beauty of how things are said, how ideas (old and new) are expressed; to reassure us that we are not alone or odd.

We briefly discussed Aaliyah's discussion of the role of causality in fiction and in life. She argued that our desire for a cause encourages us to separate ourselves from others. For example, she says:
If you read these pages and think I’m the way I am because I lived through a civil war, you can’t feel my pain. If you believe you’re not like me because one woman, and only one, Hannah, chose to be my friend, then you’re unable to empathize.
On practical matters, Aaliyah says about reading that "my books show me what it's like to live in a reliable country".

Other discussion ...

As always, our thoughts roamed far and wide. We noted that Aaliyah makes several negative comments about Lebanese people's lack of interest in literature and history.

Several members mentioned the gorgeous language in the book, such as this description of a derelict building:
Amid the proliferation of unsightly buildings, this crumbling Ottoman house with its triple arcade and red tile roof stands out as starkly as a woman in parliament. There are a few of these houses here and there in the city, but none is as decrepit or as defeated as this one, none as beautiful.
And this, which could be a metaphor for Aaliyah herself as an ageing woman:
The rim of the saucer’s depression is lightly discoloured – a dusting of rust and red and brown, remnants of teas gone by that did not wish to be washed away, refused to be forgotten, the age rings of a small plate.  
She "did not wish to be washed away", she "refused to be forgotten" despite her "age rings".

We talked about marriage. Aaliyah was briefly married, unhappily, to an impotent man, and prefers being alone to such marriage. She quotes Chekhov's statement that "If you are afraid of loneliness don't marry".

We also talked about translation (and that for Aaliyah it was as much about the process as the end-product); about the use of defilement as an act of control during war; and about how our lives can be as much defined by the paths we don't take, the decisions we don't make, as those we do.

... and finally

Given this book is about the love of literature and that the narrator references many books, a member asked whether we were inspired to read any book as a result? Some of us were, and named:

  • Junot Diaz
  • WG Sebald's Austerlitz
  • Marguerite Youcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian

One member, intrigued by Aaliyah's discussion of the art of translation, suggested that we schedule a book that's been translated multiple times and organise for different members to read different translations.

And, given Ursula LeGuin's recent death, it was suggested that we could read one of her books, although it was remembered that we've read her before.

PRESENT: 11 members

Monday, 18 December 2017

Minerva's top picks for 2017

In what may become a new tradition, Minerva, in its 30th year, decided to try something different at the end of the year - ask each member to vote on her top three picks of the books we read as a group this year. Would there be definite winners we wondered? Well yes, there are, so read on...

All eleven of our currently active members voted, resulting in 32 votes cast. (One person nominated only 2). Here are the results:

1. Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee (our review) (7 votes)
2. The museum of modern love, by Heather Rose (our review) (6 votes)
3. Black rock white city, by AS Patrić (our review) (5 votes)

Highly commended were Nutshell, by Ian McEwan (our review) (3 votes), and Our souls at night, by Kent Haruf (our review) (3 votes).

Of course, this is not a scientific survey. Votes were all given equal weight, even where people indicated an order of preference, and not everyone read every book, which means different people voted from different "pools". If we'd all read every book Pachinko may have had even more votes!! (Seriously, because my suspicion is that every one, or almost everyone, who read it voted for it.)

Some observations on our votes:

Kate voted for the three books which ended up being our winners, while several of us voted for two of the top three, suggesting a high level of accord in our reading likes?

A few, including yours truly, tried to sneak in some extra "votes" but they were rejected by yours truly! The extra "votes" proposed were for Stan Grant's Talking to my country, Kent Haruf's Our souls at night, Kim Mahood's Position doubtful and AS Patrić's Black rock white city.

A few commented that there wasn't one book in our schedule that they didn't enjoy! Now, that's an achievement!

Some comments on our top five choices:

"the history of Korea and Japan and their people was so interesting and so unknown to me. The story was told so very well without pathos but with sympathy for the victims. Excellent read." (Sylvia)
"fascinating cultural stuff" (Celeste)
"I really enjoyed learning about the Korean/Japanese history" (Anne)
"for the insight into South Korea and Japanese history" (Kate)
"for the background into the Korean experience in Japan, so engagingly written" (Sue T)

"specially coupled with the movie which was rivetting" (Celeste)
"it was almost perfect. It satisfied on so many levels" (Deb) 
"A revealing look at Abramovic the artist and the relationship with her audience" (Kate)
"for so thoughtfully exploring the meaning of art, love and home" (Sue T)

"I wasn't really expecting to enjoy it but found I was totally absorbed very quickly" (Anne)
"a fabulous and quirky story related to the migrant experience" (Kate)
"I started with low expectations and his beautiful writing won me over" (Deb)

"beautiful writing and a very innovative theme, makes me look at foetuses in a different way" (Denise)
"clever, quirky and a lot of fun" (Sue B)

"a real gem" (Celeste)
"very moved" (Janet)
"deceptively simple with big themes and big heart" (Deb)

Let us know what you think, in the comments!