Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Schedule ideas for 2014

As we will be deciding our books for the first half of 2014 at our November meeting, here are some suggestions to consider (including recommendations added after this was initially published):

New books from some of our BIG authors:
  • Richard Flanagan's The narrow road to the deep north
  • Roger McDonald's The following
  • Alex Miller's Coal creek
  • Christos Tsiolkas' Barracuda
  • Alexis Wright's The swan book
  • Tim Winton's Eyrie
Booker Prize Winner for 2013:
Debut novels:
  • Hannah Kent's Burial rites
Other novels:
  • Aminatta Forna's The Hired Man (set in modern Croatia with an English family renovating a house in a village previously affected by the recent war) or The Memory of Love (set in Sierra Leone, the birthplace of the author's father)
  • Mohsin Hamad's The reluctant fundamentalist
  • Lloyd Jones' A history of silence
  • Anthony Marra's A constellation of vital phenomena
  • Ann Patchett's Bel Canto (won the 2002 Orange Prize)
  • JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy (dark modern Britain, deeply insightful) 
  • Amy Waldman's The submission
Classics: Do we want to do a classic?
  • Wallace Stegner's Crossing to safety 
Translated book (or book in English from a non-English background writer): I think it would be good to try to do at least one non-anglo book each year - but that may just be me
  • Jonas Jonasson's The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window and Disappeared
Non-fiction: 
  • Janet Butler's Kitty's war
  • Nicholas Carr's The shallows 
  • Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad
And of course there are some books under Suggestions in the sidebar.

    Wednesday, 30 October 2013

    Christina Stead's For love alone

    It would be fair to say that Christina Stead has not bowled over Minervans. This is the second time the group has read her - the first being The man who loved children when I was overseas. It apparently did not go down well. And her second outing with us this month, For love alone, didn't change minds. Nonetheless, we had a lively discussion: we appreciated that she had something to say, and that she's a significant name in Australian literature. I'll 'fess up here though, before I go any further, and say I loved the book. I felt myself wanting to get back to it ... but that wasn't the universal experience.

    Why is this? The book was published in 1945, and set in Sydney and London between 1933 and 1937. It tells the story of 19-year-old Teresa (Tessa) Hawkins, and her determination to find love, and to find it on her terms. She's determined not going to be an "old maid" like her teacher colleagues, but neither will she marry a boy just out of long pants. Enter the aptly named Jonathan Crow, her 23-year-old Latin tutor and, to Teresa, a sophisticated man of the world. Most of the book concerns her desire to get to know him and develop a deeper relationship with him. Her plan is complicated - physically - by the fact that he moves to England to undertake further studies a few months after the book opens and - emotionally - by Jonathan's slippery, to say the least, behaviour. That's the basic story. There's not a lot of plot and the book is long. Most present found it pretty repetitive - and therefore tedious - as the two go on and on about their ideas on life and love. Some felt the writing old-fashioned, and didn't find the major characters engaging.

    However, we found lots of things to talk about, such as that the book has an autobiographical element. We also talked about what people liked, such as the wonderful description of a wedding at the opening of the novel: the messiness of the extended family, the silly bouquet throwing scene, the unhappy bride who is marrying because she needs to and not because she's "in love", the discussion about wedding presents (including chamber pots). We liked lively Aunt Bea who's fond of Teresa and tries to take her under her wing, not recognising that Teresa's goals for herself were rather different. We also liked Stead's descriptions of Teresa and James' (the truly loving man she eventually finds) trips into the English countryside, and we thought that Stead had a lovely facility with dialogue. The dialogue sections had real energy.

    We discussed Teresa's naivete and her inability to see into Jonathan's real nature, which, as became pretty clear by the second half of the book, is misogynistic and sadistic. He is psychologically cruel to Teresa and cynical about love, but he is also weak, lonely and needy. We wondered whether we were supposed to feel sorry for him, as Teresa does for much of the novel (alongside admiring what she believe is his superior intellect). Some felt in fact that Jonathan is a bit caricatured. Teresa on the other hand might be naive, but she's courageous, loyal and intelligent. Eventually she works out that her love for Jonathan has no future, and that in fact she never really loved him. What a relief. One of the clever things about the book, although its plot isn't its strong point, is that we are kept guessing right until the end about how things will turn out for Teresa. For much of the book, it doesn't look good!

    We talked about the novel being a psychological novel, rather than a plot-driven novel or one with a strong narrative. Stead is exploring the self and how it can construct itself, even mould itself, in the face of a tricky world. She talks of social controls on male-female relationships -
    Why do men make the laws, say, about marriage, decency and the like, to shackle themselves?
    - but her interest is more on the psychological impact of those laws. This made us think of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles (and we wondered whether Teresa - Tess's name had this intention) and Edith Wharton's novels, like The house of mirth. But Stead's book is different to both of these, while owing something to them. Stead recognises the economic imperative for women to marry, and explores social conventions which control how people find mates, but her real interest is the psychology.

    Consequently, her characters aren't simplistic and Stead doesn't appear to think there is an easy resolution to the human drive to find love. Teresa's maturation is not a simple process. She becomes obsessive in her plan to go to England to see Jonathan again, and almost destroys herself in the process. She becomes gaunt and haggard, and starts fading away. She develops a cough like the tubercular heroines of 19th century novels. As her relationship with Crow reaches its conclusion she returns to this self-destructive behaviour, preferring to die - a martyr for love - than live without love:
    But it's not in the conversion of Jonathan that she believed now, but in her coming martyrdom.
    One member noted that while the second half of the novel is set in England, two of the main characters are Australian and the other American. The issue of national sensibility and identity is, she said, one of Stead's themes in the book. We could see this, but didn't explore it in detail.

    The Miegunyah Modern Library Edition quotes Patrick White as saying: "it's a remarkable book. I feel elated to know it's there". We agreed that Stead's intensity would appeal to White - as would her rebellion against unthinking social mores.

    Overall, a good discussion of a challenging book, but methinks it will be our last Stead!


    Monday, 21 October 2013

    We gamely take on Gaiman


    American Gods (by Neil Gaiman)

    Six of us met to discuss one of our most controversial book choices: Neil Gaiman's American Gods. A book outside our usual choices. After some initial negative feedback we agreed on an alernative choice: The Ocean at the End of the Road, Gaiman's most recent book. So 3 of us had read American Gods or some of it, and the rest of the group the newer one.

    We considered the range of  his writing from graphic novels: The Sandman, short stories and children's books such as the Blueberry Girl and the Wolves in the Walls.

    We discussed the rambling novel American Gods, which had a blend of styles from noir to fantasy, sci fi, gothic and maybe even a little David Lynch thrown in. Some of the group found the novel boring, and had trouble finishing it. Others found it confusing and hard to follow. I found it readable, and intriguing, with a few slow patches, and perhaps a bit of confusion of ideas. The concept of the historical gods and mythological figures being personified by a group of characters living shady lives in contemporary society is quite an appealing one. These gods, based on Greek, Norse and similar gods are capricious, powerful but vulmerable, and dependant on people believing in them for their existence. Gaiman was i think contrasting these traditional gods, which have come with the arrival of the Europeans to the continent of America, with the new gods of media, and the somewhat shady CIA agents, which was an interesting but inconsistently developed part of the book.

    The main character the Shadow, who gets caught up in all of this, is a typical noir character, a tough guy who goes along with the dark forces around him, while retaining a certain moral heroism, and an ultimate vulnerability. The ghoulish figure of his dead wife appearing as a decaying zombie, was a surreal element which also contained an element of black humour. Likewise the reference to Christian beliefs with Shadow's final sacrifice, death and resurrection was a little heavyhanded. So a fascinating book, somewhat flawed, and obviously not to everyone's taste.

    Those who read the Ocean at the End of the Road enjoyed the story, finding it a fairly straightforward narrative, with a real fantasy element, but rather charming nonetheless. As I didn't read this book, I can't comment in depth on it, but it is another side to Gaiman's storytelling, where he tells rather dark fairy tales, exploring parallel realities, and a journey into people's magical alternative lives.

    It was a lovely discussion, with wonderful hospitality by Deb, and I think stimulating to read genres outside our usual gamut!

    Friday, 30 August 2013

    Poetry by Canberra poets


    The poetry night went surprisingly well – well attended, well enjoyed and all contributed.

    We started our discussion on Canberra poets and poetry with Professor A D Hope – who could be better! The chosen poem was about the ancient battle at Thermopylae with the moving line: ‘linger stranger, shed no tear….’ (Wikipedia says: ‘Thermopylae was a battle between the alliance of Greek city states led by King Leonides of Sparta and the Persian Empire of Xerxes 1 over 3 days during the second Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BC’).

    In an unscripted but interesting juxtaposition we had Geoff Page’s sad poem ‘Perfect day in July’ next, about the Canberra Hospital implosion which occurred in front of about 100,000 people on 13 July 1997.

    Moya Pacey was introduced to many of us  – well known to a member through being her children’s English teacher. (According to the ACT Writers Showcase – she was born in the UK in 1950 and has lived in Canberra since 1978. She has published widely both here and overseas and her first collection called the wardrobe was runner-up for the ACT Poetry prize in 2010. Her poetry has also featured on ACTION buses!) We heard the poem entitled 'The wardrobe'.

    We were then treated to ‘Dog day’ about an old dog on a walk. As the member concerned and I both have old dogs it rang loud bells of recognition for us – quite tender and special.

    Another member has just spent 3 months overseas and remarked on the appearance of poetry in public spaces from Italy to Scotland; for example, on the outside of buildings – the Scottish Parliament House, Canongate wall being a particularly vivid and expressive example. There are 24 examples of quotations on this wall and the architect, Enric Miralles designed it that way to show a ‘poetic union between Scottish landscape, people, culture and Edinburgh city’.  (Wikipedia is excellent for info about this exciting building.) The poem chosen was by Edwin Morgan.

    A beautiful Italian poem about the ‘Angelo del mare’ in the town of Lerici was read to us in both Italian and English – quite wonderful!  The poem appears on a plaque at the base of a fortress.  (This town is on the Italian Riviera, connected by ferry to the Cinque Terre).  A very different poem followed about the mental health facilities at the Canberra Hospital called ‘The ward is new’  another by Geoff Page.

    Action buses have ‘poetry in action’ this year – 270 entries and 10 finalists. We heard a short poem from this series by Geoff Page.

    Rosemary Dobson (1920-2012), Canberra poet and intellectual was highlighted by 2 poems from her ‘Rosemary Dobson Collected’ volume. This collection was published shortly before she died.  The poems read were ‘Jack’ and ‘The tempest’.

    John Stokes’ (another new name for some of us) poem entitled: ‘Remembrance of Roseanne Fitzgibbon’, was a very sad poem about the night before Roseanne died. Roseanne was a senior editor with UQP for many years and also Marion Halligan’s sister.

    ‘Dancing on the drain board’ 1993 collection of poems by the American poet (but long time resident in Canberra) Lynn Hard was presented to us by a member who knew Lynn well as a boss.  The poem chosen was about Dorothy Green. Dorothy Green (1915-1991) was Scottish born but spent her life in Australia from the age of 12 and was both an academic and champion of Australian literature, especially the early twentieth century writers such as Henry Handel Richardson and Patrick White and Christina Stead.

    Geoff Page's v  box and ‘The tempest’ (an early very short poem which conjures up Shakespeare and tales of wrecked ships and seamen).

    Geoff Page's very apposite poem 'At the polls’ was a fitting work to be read in this election season. 

    Was Geoff Page the poet of the evening?

    The concluding event was seeing a performance by Omar Musa, the young Malaysian-Australian poet from Queanbeyan performing at the recent 'TedxSydney' at the Opera House, 4 May 2013. Tedx is a fantastic talkfest about ‘Australian ideas worth spreading’ and a real honour for Musa to be involved. The performance was brilliant, available here.

    Interestingly we didn't have any poems about Canberra landscape or people!     

    Wednesday, 31 July 2013

    Michelle de Kretser's Questions of travel

    Courtesy: Allen & Unwin
    With most Minervans being in town this month we had a good turn up for our discussion of this year's Miles Franklin Award winner, Questions of travel by Michelle de Kretser.

    While some hadn't finished the book, all enjoyed (or were enjoying) it - so the conversation started with members sharing some favourite "bits". One member, though, admitted that at the beginning she was a little irritated by the clever one-liners but said that, as she continued reading, she became fully engrossed in the characters.

    The novel spans the life of its two main characters - the Australian Laura and the Sri Lankan Ravi - over four decades, from the 1960s to 2004. And, as the title suggests, it encompasses many continents, though the last half of the book is pretty much set in Sydney.

    Members shared aspects of the book that intrigued them the most. One for example loved how the novel describes the evolution of the Internet (remembering Yahoo, Frames, etc) and other digital technologies such as the first camera phones and the move from Discmans to iPods; while others were particularly amused by de Kretser's descriptions of corporate culture. Given that Laura and Ravi were born in the mid-1960s, we could relate pretty closely to the world they experience ... well, to some of it. Ravi's horrendous experience in Sri Lanka, which results in his arrival in Australia as an asylum-seeker, is something quite beyond our personal experiences.

    Our currently-travelling member sent in a brief comment via Facebook:
    I found Michelle's book wonderful, and great reflections on the meaning of travel ... our heroine, someone who followed the random path of meeting people on her journey was a great study, sometimes sad, often inspirational.
    We all liked de Kretser's writing, and agreed with Kerryn Goldsworthy's praise (for The lost dog but included in our paperback versions):
    Her writing is very witty, but it also goes deep, informed at every point by a benign and far-reaching intelligence ... so engaging and thought-provoking and its subject matter so substantial that the reader notices only in passing how funny it is.
    Because it is funny - often excruciatingly, embarrassingly, so. One scene a member mentioned occurs when Laura goes to India and asks a taxi driver to take her to a particular hotel:
    'Oh yes, madam. Number eleven.'
    Thinking he had misunderstood, Laura repeated the name.
    'Yes, madam,' he said over his shoulder. 'Number eleven. Lonely Planet'
    Checking, Laura finds that her hotel is indeed no. 11 on the Lonely Planet map key for the city!

    De Kretser captures, with few words, the little details that characterise certain people, places and times - with a reference to Doc Martens here, or the challenge of opening aerogrammes there, with a mention of pinot grigio (was it really popular way back in 2003 one member wondered?) or of corporate-sponsored gym memberships. And she often makes us squirm in the process. Other times she surprises us with something beautiful. Ravi's wife, Malini, for example, describes the night as rising rather than the sun as setting.

    We talked, of course, about travel - about travelling to see something new (which is what Laura thinks it's about) or travelling to escape (which is what Ravi does). De Kretser suggests that Geography, rather than History, is destiny - though one member took some offence at this, believing that History Is The Thing! However, we left that discussion for another day!

    A member reminded us of the lovely little story when Laura goes to Berkshire and notices an interesting old brick being used as a doorstop. The home-owners are surprised at her query but do some research. They discover that it could date back to the seventeenth-century, but then they simply put it back. It makes Laura think about people's connection to place. This neglected, old brick confirms the family's long connection to the place. By comparison, she sees her own people as
    a vigorous, shallow-rooted plant still adapting itself to alien soil.
    We gave some thought to the main characters, feeling rather sorry for Laura who is repeatedly referred to as "the runt" by her father. No wonder, we felt, she wanted to travel. We wondered about the anonymous phone calls she receives regularly throughout the novel. Were they from her father? We wondered about Ravi's ungrateful treatment of those who try to help him, but felt that it was partly due to a dislike of being obligated to others. We laughed about some of the other characters, such as Laura's truly awful friend Tracy Lacey and the hypocritical, ignorant work colleague Crystal Bowles. Their names tell us, we thought, what de Kretser thinks of them!

    We briefly discussed how the book reminded us of other authors. One member suggested Patrick White, seeing some of his intensity in Laura, while another saw Dickens in the grand satirical sweep of the novel.

    Our booktrade member shared some ideas from the publisher. We particularly liked the idea that the book is about a "search for home - not just where it might be, but what it is". None of us had quite seen it from that angle, but it made sense.

    Life, de Kretser seems to be telling us, is a journey, one we all need to make in our own way. Near the end, Laura still believes
    The magic land existed. It had to - hadn't Laura always known it? She would find it yet: in the depths of a wardrobe, at the top of a faraway tree.
    But, as not all members had finished the book, we decided not to discuss what really did happen to Laura! We agreed, however, that this book merits multiple reading. Next plane flight perhaps?


    Monday, 22 July 2013

    Canberra Poetry

    Click this link for three poems - the winner and two shortlisted - from this year's ACT Poetry Awards ... in preparation for our poetry meeting later this year.

    (This must be the shortest post ever!)

    Monday, 1 July 2013

    Bring up the bones by Hilary Mantel

    A small group of us gathered to extol the virtues of 'Bring up the bones' -- we all loved it.

    Courtesy: HarperCollins
    It is beautifully structured according to time -- a mere 9 months (September 1535 to May/June 1536) in 2 parts -- the building of the case against the Queen (Anne Boleyn) and then the denouement ending with her beheading in the Tower of London.  (Just following the facts, see: BBC History relating to Anne Boleyn -- a very good precis which also talks about how King Henry and the ambitious family of the Howards/Boleyns became acquainted.)

    Mantel has written a construction of royal life in the 1530s. This is not historical fiction as we commonly know it, but it is more literary and probably that is why it won the Man Booker.

    The events take place through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell as in Wolf Hall (see our post on this book) but this time he exhibits some characteristics and actions that are less loveable and more dastardly --  retribution for the action of others to his beloved Cardinal Wolsey but he is also a good 'servant ' of the King.

    The language is wonderful. This is true not only with the chapter names, such as 'falcons', 'crows' and 'angels' which inspire great images but all through it : eg:
    Stock-still in the great hall, a pale presence in the milky light, Jane Seymour is dressed in her stiff finery. '  (page 29 in my edition)
    This is prescient as she remains 'pale' all through the novel. The novel is also 'breath taking ' in the way the case is built up gradually -- men and facts being manipulated. 'Cardinal Wolsey is crucial for the tale -- Cromwell's resentment and grief drives this story' we decided. (He also has a debate with himself about his relationship with his cruel and physical father, see page 160).

    We were fascinated by the lack of equity for the 5 men accused of being the Queen's lovers. Why was Wyatt let off when he may have been the guilty one? He wrote a poem about the queen and he was definitely attracted to her, so a case could have been written against him but he was saved by Cromwell and indirectly, the King.

    The 'animal' allusion fascinated us -- a taste of that is seen on page 159 -- in a paragraph about Truth:
    Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.  
    Later there is talk of the prisoners being 'a paw' of this 'animal'. All these prisoners are hated by Cromwell for their past deeds and he is revengeful although that word is never used by Mantel.  Instead she uses 'grudge' and this shows that Thomas is vulnerable -- a sign of things to come in the third and final novel in this series?

    Thomas Cromwell is a good subject -- he is an enigma of a character -- how did he manage to escape going down with the Boleyns? He is an ambitious man -- a modern/new man. For instance, was he behind the social reforms -- we were not sure.

    It was also interesting to realise that due to fear of the King and his loyal supporters, no exact record was ever made of the death of the Queen, Anne Boleyn. So Mantel's story is only a version of the truth but seems a very believable one. Truth and lies -- a theme all through this novel. It is also deeply ironic and cynical -- Cromwell changes and is becoming a 'man for all seasons'!

    The ending of this novel is pure indulgence for Cromwell. He is getting his own revenge but he is developing a lot of antagonism against himself especially with people like Stephen Gardiner. Another way Mantel is building the plot for the third and final story in this trilogy.

    Thursday, 30 May 2013

    Louis Nowra's Into that forest

    Courtesy: Allen & Unwin
    Prepared by Jenny C.

    A cosy group talked through their views on Louis Nowra's Into that Forest. It tells the story of two young girls, Hannah and Becky, who are taken in by a Tasmanian Tiger couple when they find themselves lost in the bush after their boat capsizes and the adults with them, Hannah's parents, die.

    We had different views on 'getting into the book': some found it compelling storytelling and were absorbed and others found it hard to return to the book. Some found the language a distraction. Another key detractor was credibility. For example, some thought the story itself unbelievable, or that the girls' responses seemed far fetched, or even that there were inexplicable inconsistencies (such as the sophistication of Hannah's thinking and memory, yet her language seemed so affected by her experience).

    In terms of literary style, we noted the similarities between earlier work we have reviewed (Keri Hulme's The bone people) and it was suggested that this book could fit into the category of Young Adult fiction. It was also suggested that this is a highly visual novel, and that it could easily be crafted as a play.

    We also discussed some of the behaviours exhibited by the characters and why they responded to the events. Becky's behavior seemed inconsistent, for example, and this was put down to the fact that her father was alive, and that she therefore had a reason to want to adjust to her human world. Hannah on the other hand knew her parents were dead, and we considered the possibility that her sense of being and emotional security was found through her connections with her thylacine family. It was also noted that there would not have been any counseling for PTSD at the  time of the story, and the difficulty Hannah and Becky must have experienced in overcoming trauma and finding a sense of self back in human society.

    One of the themes we discussed was the animalistic behaviour portrayed by the girls, such as the adrenalin rush that came from the pack hunt, the kill and the fresh blood. Parallels were drawn between this great sense of fulfillment and the thrill that must come from well planned crime or other adrenalin filled adventures. The lure of the hunt (or crime) appears compelling in contrast to our mundane and unadventurous lives. We also wondered whether the author was commenting on the bravery and fearlessness of children, and their capacity to adapt in life threatening circumstances.

    We complimented the author on his description of the bush. Some commented that they could smell and feel the bush, the descriptions were so vivid. The author really immersed the reader in the thylacine's world - we got to know them to some extent, and several of us felt a good deal of empathy for the animals (especially Corinna towards the end).

    We were puzzled about the rationale for the book. Why did the author write this story? Why did he focus on thylacines and that era? Was it because modern children are so spoilt, privileged and unchallenged? We thought it would be good to research these issues and bring back some 'answers' at a future meeting.

    Overall, most attending thought it was an absorbing tale and a compelling piece of story telling. We all agreed that the story line and concepts were thought provoking.

    Sunday, 26 May 2013

    Schedule ideas for second half of 2013

    Ideas to continue the Canberra-and-environs author-or-subject theme (alphabetical by author):
    • Nigel Featherstone's recent novellas Fall on me or I'm ready now: Nigel would come to a meeting if we asked him and he were free; and Blemish Books, his publisher, currently has a "pay-what-you-like" deal for an e-version of Fall on me
    • Irma Gold's Two steps forward (collection of short stories): shortlisted for the inaugural Most Underrated Book Award
    • Alan Gould's The seaglass spiral
    • Marion Halligan's Shooting the fox (collection of short stories)
    • Roger McDonald's When colts ran (or another?): in 2011/2012 shortlisted for the Victorian Premier's Literary Award and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and a long story incorporated in it won the O Henry Prize (short stories) in 2008
    • Alex Miller's Autumn Laing (or another?): in 2012 shortlisted for the Prime Minister's Literary Award, longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, won the Melbourne Prize for Literature
    • Meanjin's special Canberra edition
    • Canberra poets evening: there's a good selection in The invisible thread and Meanjin Canberra edition, for a start
    Other ideas (higgledy piggledy order):
    • Carrie Tiffany's Mateship with birds: won the inaugural Stella Prize and the NSW Premier's Prize for Fiction, and has been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award
    • Michele DeKretser's Questions of Travel: shortlisted for the Stella Prize and the Miles Franklin Award
    • Drusilla Modjeska's The Mountain: shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award
    • Romy Ash's Floundering: shortlisted for the Stella Prize and the Miles Franklin Award
    • Melissa Lucashenko's Mullumbimby : indigenous writer who has won and/or been shortlisted for several awards with previous novels
    • Amanda Curtin's Elemental: Western Australian writer
    • Classic novel: by Trollope or?
    • Non-English author: Hans Fallada or Diego Marani (The last of the Vosyachs and New Finnish Grammar) or ?
    If you send me other ideas, I'll add them to the list ... we have five spots to fill.

    Jean-√Čtienne Liotard [Public domain], Ritratto di Maria Adelaide di Francia vestita alla turca, via Wikimedia Commons

    Wednesday, 1 May 2013

    Andrew Croome's Midnight Empire

    It was a lively meeting when we met to discuss our April book, Midnight Empire, with its author Andrew Croome. There's nothing like having an author present to get discussion going. Midnight Empire, essentially a spy thriller in the Le Carre tradition, is rather outside our usual literary fiction fare, but it fit our decision to focus on Canberra in our reading this Centenary year. Croome currently lives in Canberra, and the main character in the novel, Daniel, comes from Canberra, though the book is set in Las Vegas and Europe.

    Courtesy: Allen & Unwin
    Croome told us that the inspiration for the book was drones. Daniel Carter is a 26-year-old computer programmer whose company's encryption program has been bought by the US government for its drone program. Daniel is sent by his company to Creech Airforce Base, out of Las Vegas, to install the software and make sure it runs properly. Suddenly he finds himself at war, albeit sitting at a computer terminal in the American desert, a long way from Afghanistan where the actual war is being waged. This though is the point Croome wanted to explore: the idea that in modern drone-driven warfare, you can be at war during the day, in your office, killing people, and come home at night to bathe your kids! Unlike the airforce pilots and CIA agents Daniel is working with, he has not been trained for war. He is, in fact, a rather naive young man who, through most of the novel, still feels like "a boy". He's not though, and gradually he becomes mired in some dirty business.

    Running parallel to the political/professional story of Daniel's work is his personal story. He comes to Las Vegas for work against the wishes of his long-term girlfriend Hannah. Their relationship has been floundering and this, to her mind, poor decision of his is the catalyst for her to break up. Daniel is disappointed, but it leaves him free to meet someone new - and he does, of course. He meets Ania at the poker table. This is Vegas after all and Daniel decides to take up poker to fill in some after work hours. Besides his interest in the recent world-wide poker-playing phenomenon, Croome told us that he saw poker as a way for Daniel to define and develop his masculinity.

    In terms of the plot, things start, as you would expect for the genre, to go awry. An agent double-crosses them, and the drones are sent in to Peshawar to take out their targets. At the same time, pilots start dying mysteriously in Vegas. Daniel becomes perturbed about the morality of what he sees and takes some actions that, let us say, the CIA would not like. Meanwhile, his life with Ania becomes complicated when she tells him her brutal husband has come to Vegas looking for her. Daniel is torn between his work and his personal responsibilities, and starts crossing even more lines from which he may not be able to return. As we read on, we are not sure who to trust or believe. Is or isn't Ania the traditional spy-tale Femme Fatale? And are the CIA starting to suspect him? Suffice it to say that Daniel ends up on the run playing poker - off the grid, as Croome described it - throughout Europe. And that's about all I'll say about the plot.

    Our discussion, with Croome, led us down all sorts of paths. We discussed the construction of the book with one Minervan feeling that it was more about plot than character. She wanted to know more about Daniel, wanted his character to be developed further. Another Minervan felt that having Daniel's relationship break up at the beginning was a clever device. It showed that Daniel had been given the chance to change, but hadn't taken it, and it also set him free for new relationships. Most of us felt the set up was plausible, and one member said she felt sorry for Daniel who was too naive to realise that he couldn't "fix" things as easily and simply as he thought. A couple of members talked of how "visual" the book is, and liked the strong transitions between Daniel's loft in Vegas and the airforce base. Croome, we discovered, did spend some time in Vegas researching the book. Several of us found the Poker sections too technical and wondered whether this was more of a "man-thing". Croome responded that he tried to make human points about the play rather than get too carried away with the recording the technical play itself. We could see that, but probably still felt there was a little more play than we needed! And the ending was to most of us more ambiguous than Croome intended - but we gathered that we weren't the only readers to feel this. Hopefully, Croome enjoyed our perspectives and took them in the right spirit. I think he did.

    The discussion then turned back to drones and their military and civilian uses - leading to a discussion about privacy. We of course had no answers, but Croome believes that we need to be aware of the increasing incursions into our right to privacy if we are going to have any chance of controlling/protecting it. Some of us, I suspect, feel it might be a lost cause!

    Croome mentioned a few authors/books that he likes, including Ian McEwan, Don DeLillo (that was intriguing) and Kevin Powers' novel, Yellow birds, about the impact of war on soldiers and those at home.

    It was a good night's discussion. There's nothing better than a book that stimulates discussion about it, itself, and then leads us onto talk about the wider issues it draws from. Midnight empire proved to be such a book and we felt privileged to have the author with us to contribute to both discussions. Thanks Andrew for giving up your time to talk with us.

    Monday, 1 April 2013

    The Invisible Thread, editor Irma Gold

    "The Invisible thread : one hundred years of words" is an anthology of writing from Canberra authors (I counted 75 of them) celebrating local fiction, non-fiction and poetic writing in the year of the centenary of the national capital. Our group was pleased and proud that Irma Gold was able to attend last week's meeting and add her perspective as editor to our discussion of the book. We had lots of questions for her.

    We were interested but not surprised to hear of considerable debate among the Advisory Committee members as to the criteria for inclusion. It was decided that the writing did not need to be about Canberra, though much of it is, but that the author needed to have lived a significant amount of time in the region. This explained the omission of Frank Moorhouse whose "Cold Light" (that we studied recently) was set in Canberra but who has not actually lived here. Another debate was whether there should be more than one piece from some authors. To keep the book a manageable size it was decided to limit authors to one piece each. Thus while some prose authors get five or more pages, someone as eminent as David Campbell is represented by just the eight short (but memorable, we thought) lines of his poem "Mothers and daughters". Some of us felt that the extracts from prose works had created a taste to dip further into works of an author while others felt that the works which were complete in themselves had more impact in the book.

    Irma explained that each member of the committee had studied the works of particular authors and made a shortlist from which she herself had selected the one piece for inclusion. She explained that one objective in the inclusions had been to create a flow from one piece to the next - so that there could be "a conversation" between adjacent pieces and they could inform each other. In our group some had enjoyed this feature while others had preferred to skip to writers they knew or to pieces which caught their attention.

    We all noticed the wide range of genres covered, appreciating, for example: Dorothy Green's scathing review of "Porn birds"; an extract from CEW Bean's war history "Anzac to Amiens"; startling extracts from the science fiction short story "The Glass woman" by Kaaron Warren and from the young adult fantasy novel "Mister Monday : the keys to the kingdom" by Garth Nix". We appreciated the wide range of backgrounds our authors come from, including two indigenous authors. We each had 5 or 6 favourite works from the book too numerous in total to list here, but some appeared on more than one of our lists including the works from Alan Gould, Geoff Page and Marion Halligan. We enjoyed, as one member put it "the breadth of vision of Canberra authors - outward looking and bringing a wealth of experience of other places". 

    Irma said that each member of the committee had enjoyed finding surprising pieces they had never read before. All of us certainly did. One of us said "I thought I knew Canberra writers, but I didn't".

    We were able to thank Irma for her attendance and insights and plan which Canberra writers we were inspired to read more of over tea or coffee and delicious cake with quinces.

    Saturday, 23 March 2013

    The invisible thread - Meeting preparation for those who have time

    Irma Gold, the editor of The invisible thread anthology, has conducted 20 interviews over the last few months with some of the authors included in the anthology. They are well worth listening to - I haven't listened to them all yet, but those I have I've enjoyed.

    Here they are with their links:
    There is also the ACT Writers' Showcase which was launched at the same time as the book. It provides more background on the authors in the book, as well as other ACT-related authors.

    Tuesday, 5 March 2013

    Paris dreaming by Anita Heiss


    This is 'chick, chook or choc lit' for a female readership in the 20-30 age range so it was a little hard for some Minervans to fully appreciate this novel.

    It was considered rather lame and lacking substance however that isn't the purpose of this style of literature.  Rather it entertains, discusses fashion, young men and all to do with male/female relationships with a happy conclusion.

    Anita Heiss is a young and 'proud member of the Wiradjuri nation of New South Wales as well as being Adjunct Professor with Jumbunna Indigenous House of learning at UTS, Sydney'. (Quote from her website).  Heiss is a prolific writer and researcher, writing children's books, novels (eg Manhattan Dreaming) and non-fiction such as Am I black enough.  She seems highly focussed and thereappears to be a touch of Anita in Lauren in Paris dreaming.

    Her choc lit style is incorporated into a novel about a young Indigenous professional woman Lauren who works at the National Aboriginal Gallery in Canberra who has the temerity to push the boundaries. She questions her identity, her single status and her politics. She also extols the wonderful Indigenous artists, writers and poets with possibly an effect upon her reader's knowledge.

    We also spoke about the use of Aboriginal words in the novel. These are a good introduction for readers.  We really appreciated the warmth of her relationships with her 'tiddas' -- both in Canberra and in Europe. These are strong bonds and there is a real feeling of responsibility between these good friends. We also liked the mother/daughter relationship, where Lauren is allowed to grow up strong and independent in contrast to her brothers.

    Some members felt that Heiss degraded Canberra in contrast to Paris however that is often a feeling when one is bored. Another feature we liked was the introduction of an underlying plot about a Gypsy girl. This highlights Lauren's status as well as her compassion.

    Overall an interesting and different novel !      

    (February 2013 meeting)
     

    Sunday, 24 February 2013

    Cold Light: Edith comes to Canberra


    To start off this Centenary of the Naming of Canberra, we read Frank Moorhouse’s Cold Light, the third in his Edith trilogy.

    We had some years before read and discussed Grand Days, the first book, covering his radical heroine Edith’s adventures in Europe and involvement in the League of Nations. He is a witty writer, and Edith a feisty and energetic character. Cold Light was not so warmly received by the group. Many in the group felt it was too long and indulgent, needing some tighter editing, and less labouring of some of the political and personal intrigues. It was obvious Moorhouse had done a lot of research, and wanted to use it in the book!

    It was enjoyable to read the references to Canberra in the fifties: to the Canberra Hotel, Parliament House, the city before the Lake, discussion on planning, their home in Forrest etc. The emphasis on having her own office, and being able to furnish it stylishly, as well as her developing relationships with those whom she could trust, was a little insight into the bureaucracy of the time. Some things don’t change!

    We agreed Moorhouse tells a good story, and creates some appealing and very human characters. Ambrose, the lavender husband  comes across as witty and warm. Janice was a witty and pragmatic foil to Edith’s earnest brother Frederick, an organiser for the Communist Party. And Edith is passionate, a little vain, ambitious, and adventurous. She seems to be playing at various roles: that of wife and stepmother, her drinking and smoking, a potential gay relationship with Janice. She has an encounter with suburban domesticity with her relationship with Richard, which ends rather sadly.

    Sexuality is a continuing thread through the book, as the characters flirt, undertake their own sexual piccadellos, even describing the sensuousness of clothing as Ambrose cross dresses, and Edith herself is open in her sensuality.

    Some described the book as a Comedy of Manners, with its arch, flirtatious tone, the dinner parties, and the ‘crass’ social mores of Australia contrasted with European sensibilities.

    Other themes we teased out: the resignation of aging; we spent some time trying to discern Edith’s age and felt she would have been in her 50’s or 60’s; and we have a sense of her resignation in the face of her possible death at the end. The failure of idealism, or the shortcoming of ideologies, as the demise of the Communist Party, the failure to stop nuclear armament, and even the compromises in the planning of Canberra are portrayed through his mixture of actual and fictitious characters.

    And secrecy: what is known and what is kept secret; we find Ambrose is a spy; Edith is asked to keep secret documents for her brother, Edith and Ambrose are covering up aspects of their relationship … and so on.

    We discussed the significance of the title: Cold Light, partly a reference to Canberra and the cold climate, perhaps the cold light shone on Communism (and the Cold War), perhaps the Cold Light of aging and experience, and beyond the heady and idealistic days of our main characters’ youth.

    Overall, while there was much to enjoy, and to comment on and discuss in this book, many in the group were somewhat disappointed in the volume, and probably pleased that this is the third and final in this series. We will however continue our journey looking at books with relevance to Canberra in the coming months, and are looking forward to that!

    Monday, 21 January 2013

    Novel Sentence Challenge, 2012

    Some years we set a literary challenge for our end of year celebration - and 2012 was one of those years. The challenge was to write a sentence using all the titles of the books read by the group in the year, with as few additional words as possible.

    Here are our contributions, with some rather creative interpretations of the challenge. Who said there's only one way to skin a cat?:


    The street sweeper from the plains of Stasiland visiting the museum of innocence was intrigued by the mystery of a hansom caba life in seven mistakes of a difficult young man. With pride and prejudice, he cried, clutching his foal's bread, 'I shall not hate the sense of an ending!' (Gerda)

    The ending a mystery. A plain life of innocence, no mistakes, street bread and just a little sense of prejudice, some pride and difficulty at the museum, his workplace. So which of the seven cabs in Stasiland swept this hansom young man off the foal? (Jenny C)

    When the street sweeper, a difficult young man whom - no, I shall not hate - took the foal's bread rather than the Hansom cab - no mystery there! - across the plains to Stasiland, was this a life in seven mistakes, pride and prejudice, or the sense of an ending - ah that's for the museum of innocence to file! (Kate)

    So it was the pride of a difficult young man, the mystery of a foal's bread, which led to the prejudice of Stasiland, where a life in seven mistakes gave rise to the sense of an ending, which I shall not hate, but take off with the street sweeper in a hansom cab. (Kate)

    Hate, bread and mystery on the street
    Stasiland mistakes innocence for prejudice
    Life is ending for the young man on the plains (Kate)

    Prejudice is bread to Stasiland
    Hate sweeps in a cab to the plains
    While innocence mistakes the young. (Kate)

    I shall not hate the street sweeper of Stasiland even though he's a difficult young man and his pride and prejudice made me cough up my foal's bread on the plains. What's the sense of ending my life in seven mistakes in the museum of innocence and never solve the mystery of the hansom cab. (Sue B)

    I shall not hate the street sweeper, a difficult young man full of pride and prejudice, because he solved the mystery of a hansom cab, before leaving to work at the museum of innocence on the plains of Stasiland where, researching foal’s bread, he experienced the sense of an ending on seeing his life in seven mistakes. (Sue T)

    The mystery of a hansom cab laden with Foal's bread parked outside The museum of innocence was solved by The street sweeper; he had The sense of ending his Life in seven mistakes but despite his Pride and prejudice he cried “Though I am A difficult young man I shall not hate The plains of Stasiland”. (Susan H)

    The street sweeper watched and listened. The young people talked about the mystery of the hansom cab decayed and abandoned in the yard. They called it quaint. He remembered. Once a difficult young man, full of pride and prejudice had driven it through the dark streets to bury the unwanted out on the plains. The young would soon learn that the cab was not a museum of innocence. He thought and sighed, 'my life in seven mistakes'. He left the room. / A young girl watched an old man walk away muttering nonsense. He had tried to live a quiet and good life, with wishes such as 'I shall not hate' but failed. There was a changing of the guard. It was time to leave Stasiland for the sense of ending.  It was time to think of simple things like foal's bread and leave the dead behind. (Sylvia)

    Enjoy ... and think what you might have done!