Saturday, 31 May 2014

Schedule for the second half of 2014

Well, a Minervan committee of six (the five who attended the meeting, and the one who put in her bid previously) chose the books for the second half of this year. Since several couldn't make it to the meeting, I thought I'd provide the reasoning for the choices made, so here goes.

  • Amy Tan's The valley of amazement: Sylvia, Gerda and Sue had heard Tan speak about the novel (live at the NLA or in her RN interview), and at least one member (Helen) had never read an Amy Tan.
  • Simone de Beauvoir's Memoirs of a dutiful daughter: Our absent member, Kate, had suggested that we do one book this year to align with RN's European Classics Bookclub, and proposed this as a good fit. Anne suggested that we do a classic so was happy with this. Helen had read it back in her university days and was happy to read it again.
  • Richard Flanagan's The narrow road to the deep north: Helen who's already read this has been waiting patiently all year for it to be scheduled, and Sue who was given it for Christmas was hoping it would be scheduled. Anyhow, it's probably the front runner for this year's Miles Franklin!
  • Clare Wright's The forgotten rebels of Eureka: Helen wondered about a non-fiction book, Alain de Boton's newest called News, but Sue suggested that if we think non-fiction, why not one closer to home i.e. Clare Wright's book about women at Eureka. Sylvia piped up that she was given it for her birthday and so planned to read it. And, it was this year's Stella Prize winner!
  • Eimear McBride's A girl is a half-formed thing: Gerda liked the sound of this from the interview she'd heard on RN (from the Sydney Writers Festival) and Sue agreed. It won the Goldsmiths Prize for "new" or "creative" writing. It's short! (June 4 Postscript: It won the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction - the old Orange Prize - for 2014).
So, there you have it ... the schedule is in the right sidebar (organised so that books recommended by people going away will be done when they are in town.) We still need houses for the meetings as all who were present have already hosted this year. Please let me know if you can host.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Adam Johnson's The orphan master's son

It must be getting to winter because, as seems to happen in these our older years, our numbers at this month's meeting were down. There were just five of us ... And, interestingly, four of us liked the novel, Adam Johnson's The orphan master's son, despite its confronting, distasteful subject matter. For those of you who don't know, the novel is set in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and explores life under the repressive regime of Kim Jong-il.

It's a hard life

Early on, we discussed the fact that the book was written by an American, which, we thought, could be viewed a little suspiciously given the USA's negative relationship with North Korea. Several comparisons are made in the book between the two countries and not all flatter the USA - but you can't avoid seeing the lies behind North Korea's self-congratulation. Our sense was that this relationship didn't drive Johnson, and we didn't see it impinging upon his achievement.

Later in the discussion, one of us quoted a line from the book about life - "life is transient and subject to hardships" - which resulted in another's quick response, "not life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" then! Whose propaganda is most effective do you think?

Is it believable?

The novel is pretty wild in places, and can be quite surreal at some times, absurd at others. One member found it so much so that she didn't like the book and couldn't finish it. Others, however, likened it to the writing of David Mitchell and Haruki Murakami. It's not surprising we thought that David Mitchell is quoted on the front cover of some editions.

We agreed that the exploits of our hero - Jun Do who later assumes the identity of Commander Ga - are scarcely believable but most of us understood that he is, in a way, Everyman taking us on a journey through life in North Korea.

There are many bizarre scenes in the novel, such as that involving the North Korean fishing boat meeting an American interceptor at sea. And there are scenes invoking torture and inhumane treatment that are scarcely believable. However, in an interview, Johnson said that pretty well all the events that occur in the novel were drawn from his research, which included writings by defectors, but that he had "toned down" the darkness! We were almost embarrassed to admit that at times the bizarreness was funny - but it was!

Characters and their relationships

We talked about some of the secondary characters. One, for example, is the first person narrator who appears in the second part of the novel. We wondered why his story is first person and thought it might be that he is supposed to be our guide through this section, but we didn't resolve this question fully. We also talked about his relationship with his parents, and how their fear and determination to believe whatever they were told via the propaganda machine (the loudspeaker broadcasts) seriously affected their relationship with their son.

We also discussed Sun Moon, Commander Ga's wife who becomes imposter Commander Ga aka Jun Do's wife in the second part of the novel. She is an actress, and it's clear that there's no distinction between her work and personal life - she is, she says, "pure actress" - until near the end when she finally decides to be "intimate" with Ga/Do, but which she means sharing her inner self, who she is.

Another character we briefly discussed is Mongman, the photographer inmate in Prison 33 who takes Jun Do under her wing. We didn't quite understand her motivation. Perhaps just decent humanity?

We discussed the idealised view of and reverence for pain. Johnson uses white flower imagery to typify or represent pain. Using such a beautiful (pure?) image seems to suggest that withstanding pain, learning to face and manage it is a good thing, and almost a duty of North Korean citizens.

What can you trust?

A main theme of the novel is the precariousness of existence under a totalitarian regime. We were interested in the discrepancies between the official or propaganda story of imposter Commander Ga and Sun Moon, but we also noted how people were brainwashed to believe what they were told. We discussed how the structure, with its different versions of the story, mirrors the uncertainty of living under such a regime. It pays, we realised, to be cautious if you want to survive unscathed in such a society.

One member who has visited South Korea fairly recently spoke of her accompanied visit to the DMZ, and how she saw large groups of young boys riding their bicycles round and round with placards promoting reunification. She commented too that South Koreans are fed propaganda about their northern cousins.

Overall, we found it a challenging but worthwhile novel that engaged us well and truly for our allotted discussion time. It was, really, only the promise of cake that drew us away in the end!

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Eyrie by Tim Winton

Minervans' April treat was a rather grim read by this major Australian author set in Fremantle in about 2008 (banking crisis time) and ‘starring’ Tom Keely, Gemma Buck and her grandson Kai and Keely’s well-drawn mother, Doris.  The book was not universally liked but some of us were ‘sucked in’ as Winton captures the overwhelming heat of Fremantle as well as the atmosphere and the substance of the poor environment.

The hangover in chapter one was very powerful we felt and as one member said you felt it! From this moment on, all is dysfunctional. Keely’s life is going downhill and we really are not told why he is such a failure. The full details are not clear till much later.

We discussed the ending next – and there was some contention about whether it was a death or not. Main conclusion was that it wasn’t a death but it was possibly a new beginning or a feeling of empowerment?  Winton is also cagey about this in interviews. One member thought that this book had similarities with ‘The Riders’, which is also inconclusive at the end. One idea was that Keely had a brain tumour, or was he just too exhausted or too drug overdosed?

One of Keely’s many problems was his feeling of inadequacy -- not being able to live up the ideals set by his parents.  We all felt this.

Gemma, the main female character is probably a prostitute as well as a worker at night in a supermarket. She is constantly trying to survive and keep her grandson safe. Doris is a good character too and understands Gemma better than Tom Keely does. She is also the sort of person children adore. 

There are some really good reviews including this one by Lyn McCredden called The quality of mercy.

Many of the reviews discuss how well Winton describes Fremantle and its many differences from Perth. Some of us have friends or family who live in Perth but we feel many of them wouldn’t like this book. It has a certain working class feel which may not be appreciated.

We discussed the humour in this book – such as the tramp taking Keely’s bike. We also liked the way Winton has the ability to sum up places and people eg
Port of Fremantle, gateway to the booming state of Western Australia. Which was, you could say, like Texas. Only it was big. Not to mention thin-skinned. And rich beyond dreaming. .. A philistine giant eager to pass off its good fortune as quick to explain its shortcomings as east-coast conspiracies, always at the point of seeding from the Federation. Leviathan with an irritable bowel. (page 5) 
You’re trying to do the right thing, I know. It’s how we raised you, the both of you. But you save yourself first, Tom. That’s something I do know, it’s what I’ve learnt. You save yourself, then you look to the others. (Doris talking to Tom, page 289)
The lack of quotation marks was reflected upon and was certainly not a hindrance in our comprehension.

There were some comments about the input of Winton’s own personality in some characters in this book – especially visible in Kai and Keely.  Kai is an unusual child – his interest in Scrabble, his dyslexia and his strange dreams. Is Winton reflecting on the past?

We talked a lot about Winton’s other novels – many of us felt we needed to read more of them although we have read 3 or 4 with Minerva. Even his children’s books are worth reading especially one called Blueback.

The themes in Eyrie (pronounced airey by the author) are: redemption and overcoming disappointment, legacies of childhood and guilt. Loss of beauty is also a strong theme. Another idea is that Keely is trying to find his inner good person – is it reminiscent of Barracuda? Both men looked up to their fathers and tried desperately to be like them but felt they failed.

One review says the book is about family – Keely’s versus Gemma’s I presume. Gemma’s life is so constrained by her poor upbringing and her helplessness.  Winton doesn’t care that his novels are so partisan – he makes us middle class people feel very uncomfortable at times.

This book was published just before Christmas 2013 and didn’t attract the attention Winton’s stories justly receive, as so many other notable books were published and released at the same time.  It is a pity because it is a good read and also enjoyable as an audio book.