Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Best Australian Science Writing 2020

Back in 2016, our group went a bit left field and scheduled the 2015 edition of Best Australian Science Writing. We thoroughly enjoyed it and the discussion, and so decided it was time to do it again with the current edition. This one, Best Australian Science Writing 2020, was edited by Sara Phillips, and is the 10th Anniversary edition.

In a slight variation of our usual start where we go around the room giving our first impressions, we decided for this meeting, as we did for the 2015 edition, to start with each person naming a favourite or standout article, and describing why they'd chosen it.

This is how it went ...

Dyani Lewis' An identity crisis for the Australian dingo: the ecological importance of the dingo, the taxonomy issues involved, and the politicisation of science. This was a thread through the collection but is reflected here in how different taxonomic decisions can affect policy regarding the dingo (native or domestic?)

Ceridwen Dovey's True grit: an elderly scientist has his day, finally. Also liked the sense of human warmth in the story, and found the science itself regarding moon dust interesting

Jo Chandler's The Murray-Darling's dry mouth: the politicisation of science is saddening; also sad about the ongoing deterioration of the beautiful Coorong and its impact on the whole Murray-Darling system.

Peter Meredith's Underwater and underrated and Rebecca Giggs' Bovine friends forever: this member snuck in two favourites! Grew up around cows, and loved reading about something she'd seen and experienced.

Cameron Stewart's Brain wave and Konrad Marshall's Jeepers creepers: another member who snuck in two favourites. Loved the medical ones in general; was particularly interested in the brain research involved in "Brain wave" and the work of the woman driving the research described in the article.

Lesley Hughes' The milk of human genius: really liked Jo Chandler's Coorong one too, but that had been taken, so nominated "the milk one" because of the environmental issues and the research involved in finding alternatives.

Bianca Nogrady's Meet the families; Jen Martin's Listening to Antarctica and Jane Cadzow's Sixteen zoo staff. More than 200 animals. An encroaching fire. The rescue operation that became the pride of Mogo: Another cheeky member, this one nominating three! Each one spoke to topics or places of specific interest to her (taxonomy, Antarctica and Mogo Zoo).

Ricky French's The case of the missing frogs: really liked the evocative opening paragraph about a frog suddenly giving birth through its mouth, while it was in a cage on the passenger seat of the car a ranger was driving. This member had chosen Ceridwen Dovey's True grit, but it had been taken already, so French's article was her back-up choice! She really liked Dovey's writing.

Arwyn Stone's Not-so-smart technology: The science (or lack thereof) behind period and fertility trackers: she was impressed by the journalistic style, the science, and the fact that it dealt with apps. (This article won the Bragg Student Prize, and was added at the end of the book, after the after-matter.) 

This last member, as some did with the 2015 edition, read the book by following the links of like articles at the end of the article she was reading.

Then the free-for-all ...

We then talked about other articles we enjoyed, and some of the issues the volume raised for us:

Michelle Starr's The repeating signals from deep space are extremely unlikely to be aliens - here's why: partly because of what it says about scientific method.

Peter Doherty's Foreword: Science writing for normal and not-so-normal times and editor Sara Phillips' Introduction: Seeing the world with fresh eyes: enjoyed reading Doherty's perspective on COVID-19 (written very early in the pandemic), and liked the effortless way Phillips covered the volume's contents. One commented on Doherty's statement that "the reason that COVID-19 can be so bad is that it is both a respiratory infection and a blood clotting disorder", although a medical member of our group didn't fully agree that it was "a blood clotting disorder".


Andrew Wear's Gone with the wind: the description of how Denmark, over 40 years ago, started addressing the "energy" issue, and its ongoing innovative social, scientific and economic approach versus Scott Morrison's lack of vision (still). We particularly liked that Denmark has only two TV stations, both government, which means Danes trust the news. We did note that Denmark had been quick to stop AstraZeneca immunisation which seemed a paradoxically emotional rather than rational response.

COVID-19: We commented on the three articles on the pandemic - noting that the choice of articles for the edition had been made in March 2020, which was very early in the pandemic. Nonetheless, the three articles were illuminating: Felicity Nelson's What is pathogen sovereignty, Liam Mannix's The perfect virus - two gene tweaks that turned COVID-19 into a killer, and Tessa Charles' Synchotrons on the coronavirus frontline. Regarding pathogen sovereignty, we discussed the issue of sharing science with the world (which is also covered in Smriti Mallapaty's article on protists). One member was particularly interested in the synchrotron article. It filled in some holes in her understanding of things she'd read.

We talked about Wilson da Silva's The good earth and its message about improving mircodiversity in the city. One member was interested in the issue of animal ethics, and the view, as explored a little in Peter Meredith's Underwater and underrated, that animal "intelligence" provides arguments for treating them ethically. We agreed that the fact that they are living, regardless of human notions of "intelligence", should warrant ethical care and treatment of all creatures. One member then talked of her awareness of a stick of celery's "will to live" in her fridge!

In terms of the overall volume, we noted that most of the articles - probably not surprisingly - are about cutting edge developments, and also that the majority are written by science journalists rather than practising scientists. The journalists translate the science for lay readers, but they also tend to use a journalistic formula to do so - anecdote, explication of the science, conclusion. 

This led us to talk about research in general and the dire situation in Australian universities. We teased it out from personal, political and economic angles, the poor support, in particular, provided research and researchers. Universities have moved from a salary-based research system to a grant-based one. One academic in the group noted that you tend to have to "have the results" before you apply for the grant to prove the grant is worth being awarded! Smriti Mallapaty's article on protists, For risky research with great potential, dive deep, looks at other research, looks funding models, particularly for risky or longterm research.

We briefly discussed the early 20th century Australia father and son scientists and Nobel Laureates, William and Lawrence Bragg. They are too little known in Australia, but they are commemorated in the Bragg Science Writing Prize which is associated with this anthology. The 2020 winner was Ceridwen Dovey's True grit, and the runners up were Ricky French's Case of the missing frogs and Konrad Marshall's Jeepers creepers. Lesley Hughes' The milk of human genius, Donna Lu's Stranger things, and Nicky Phillips' Bringing home the ancestors, were the other shortlisted articles.

Finally, we talked about the two poems in the collection, Jenny Blackford's Black ice, frogmouth and Alicia Sometimes' Gravitational waves.

Present: 9

Friday, 9 April 2021

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo


Our March book club novel was the 2019 Booker Prize winning text by the British novelist Bernardine Evaristo.
 

 

This novel is set in England, mainly London and northern counties from the 1970s to the present day. It tells many stories relating to twelve main characters who mostly identify as female. Sometimes Evaristo follows just one character such as Dominque and her journey and life in the USA or a family saga of 2 generations as with Hattie and her daughter Penelope. It is a snapshot of their lives, highlighting the way people are living in different relationships in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

 

First impressions:

 

  • I liked it very much. The characters are wonderful, so warm and human. The punctuation or lack of it didn’t bother me at all. It was fascinating to see the different lives these women lead to the lives of the Punjabi widows also living in London (see our review of Balli Kaur Jaswal's Erotic stories for Punjabi widows). It was pertinent to read this book this month in Australia where we are discussing at all levels of society, women’s roles, safety and level of freedom.
  • Both my children recommended it to me. I loved the energy of it, all the interesting characters, but I did feel a bit overloaded.
  • It offers an aspect of English society that many of us don’t see.
  • I found it pleasant and with great characters. I was sucked into working out the connections. I felt it needed a chart. I wanted a denouement. The After Party was not the answer as I had expected. I thought it was risky taking on so many voices at once. 
  • I loved the rhythm of the writing. The novelist skewers the assumptions people make about others. She also shows the ‘accommodations’ people make to manage their lives. Evaristo shows many different aspects of racism in the UK in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
  • I loved it and felt that the writing just flowed, like an energetic river. I preferred that to structured punctuation.
  • I loved journeying through time. 
  • I found the character of Megan/Morgan very confronting. The use of the plural pronoun was confusing.
  • I found it hard to know at times if I was reading about a black or white person. For example, I thought that Penelope was a white woman for a while but it was clear by the time I read the Epilogue.
  • It was clever how the novelist makes the connections seamlessly.
  • I loved the fact that the writer is telling stories for people whose stories are very rarely told.
  • I was shocked to hear that Evaristo won the Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood and this was the first time that the prize had been shared. However Evaristo was treated rudely (and probably racially slurring) by at least one commentator who is reported to have said something like: The Booker was won by Margaret Atwood and another.
  • There are many subjects in this book including sexism, racism, domestic violence and family life. I was so pleased to read it. 
  • I loved the structure and didn’t notice the lack of punctuation. I think the novelist handled the changing events of the time and the character’s interactions very well. Evaristo didn’t pass judgements from our day on the doings of the past. 
  • It was the best book I have read in ages. I felt it was like poetry – there are poetic passages throughout. It wasn’t didactic. It was very funny and fresh. 
  • Sometimes when writers change direction with a new character there can appear to be a ‘jump’ but this was not evident in this book. It was all connected. For instance when Bummi popped up as a cleaner after appearing earlier as Carole’s mother.  
  • I found the ending very moving and it highlighted the mother-daughter relationships which are a main feature of this novel.
  • I loved the ‘little’ touches in this book such as the inheritance and also the numerous marriages and different types of people discussed. It appears that lots of the characters are based upon Evaristo’s friends. 


While discussing our first impressions, we discussed the ending and how it tied up loose ends, without resolving the major issues because these can only be moderated through time and societal changes. The After Party reflected that all the main political issues are not resolved. There was some dovetailing in this chapter – between Yazz and her father, and Carole saying thank you to her former teacher Shirley. Revelations for the characters were pertinent. The Epilogue showed that on a personal level people can find happiness – especially mother and daughter connections. This is illustrated by the unconventional family of Amma and Yazz. There is an understanding of linkages even when we don’t expect it. 


Evaristo herself, we understand, venerated her grandmother. She never met her, but ‘used’ her as an elder in her texts. Maybe her grandmother was the basis for the elder Hattie, who was largely invisible. It was ironic that Hattie was making Morgan/Megan her heir, rather than her son or grandson. 

 

Discussion:


The majority of our conversation centred on the characters in this novel.

 

We began by discussing one of the few male characters in this work, Roland who loved his daughter Yazz and wanted her to appreciate him. Roland expressed the racism even for him as a University professor in his statement that he was ‘sick of being a representative of a whole race’.  


Grace was an orphan who won the heart of Joseph. He was a good man until Grace suffered postnatal depression which Joseph didn’t understand, and which wasn't known at the time, but that was resolved. It was difficult reading as there was a lot of racism in the village for Grace. At that time there were relatively few black people living outside large cities in the UK. The black migrants were from the Caribbean and Africa. 

 

We enjoyed Shirley’s mother Winsome, now in her 80s and back in Barbados where she is part of a reading group. Evaristo quotes from the British ‘Guyanese lady’ poet Grace Nichols. Grace Nichols has lived in the UK since 1977 and her first book of poetry, I is a Long Memoried Woman, won a Commonwealth poetry prize in 1983. The line quoted is so apt for this novel:


‘we the women/whose praises go unsung/whose voices go unheard’. (page 254)

 

As a reading group, we loved Winsome's comment about how her reading group ‘had a debate … about whether a poem was good because they related to it, or whether it was good in and of itself’ (p. 254). We appreciated many of these added facts about the characters. 

 

We also discussed how Evaristo ‘nails' talking about women’s appearance and confidence, and how these are essential to being considered a good worker by modern society. This is especially shown in Carole's section talking about her appearance and her lack of confidence in her high-powered job at a bank despite being exceptionally bright and intelligent. (See page 140 where she states her morning mantra before the mirror.)

 

Evaristo is so insightful and not scared to cut through the ‘crap’. The writing is so sharp and funny at the same time.

 

Morgan formerly Megan is a character many of us found challenging. A person wanting to be neither sex is something many of us have not come across before. The pronoun question is so hard. We discussed gender fluidity and cross-dressing, which is becoming more socially acceptable but is still confronting. Other readers thought Morgan was a bit stereotypical. One reader said she was not convinced by this character. We agreed that gender in the present day can or should become irrelevant in many circumstances. We also discussed gender, reproduction, and the challenges faced by trans-people and those close to, or working with, them. 

 

One member shared Yazz's friend Waris's list of questions and comments that people think they can ask racially diversified youngsters : 


... as Waris continues talking, says that she's learned to give as good as she gets if anyone says any of the following: 

that terrorism is synonymous with Islam

that she’s oppressed and they feel her pain

if anyone tells her she’s responsible for them being unemployed … (p. 60)

 

We commented on how some people think they have a right to question others about the most intimate matters. Evaristo highlights the reaction of the person being questioned so succinctly and so cleverly.

 

We also briefly discussed Shirley and Amma and their relationship, and how Shirley is considered dull and boring and Amma an intellectual snob. 

 

So it was a great discussion and I think most of us thought the book added new aspects to the present and continuing controversy over women of all races, our role in society and how we should be treated by men. It was wonderful to read.  

 

Present : 7

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Tsitsi Dangarembga's This mournable body


Our second book of the year was Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga's third novel, This mournable body, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2020. It proved to be a challenging but ultimately worthwhile choice. 

When we say This mournable body was Dangarembga's third novel, we should also say that it's the third in her trilogy, the first two being Nervous conditions (1988) and The book of not (2006).  None of us have read these, but we understand that they were more positive than This mournable body, by which time protagonist Tambudzai is out of work and struggling to survive. She's desperate to be the success she has alway wanted - and believed herself able - to be.

As always, we started with our ...

First impressions 

One of us loved the novel from the start. She engaged with the second person voice and enjoyed the novel's exploration of "the personal is the political" through its protagonist. She liked how the voice conveyed the character's remoteness or dissociation from her "self", versus a third person voice which tends to provide a more objective commentary or first person voices which tend to be more intimately confessional. 

Most of the rest of the group did not immediately engage with the novel, though they came to like or, even, appreciate and enjoy, it somewhere along the way:

  • initially thrown by the voice, largely due to the narrator's fluctuating state of mind, the scenario-style, and the story's focus on cruelty, but started to get into it by part two, and ended up loving it. 
  • found the beginning hard and confronting, but then began to appreciate it.
  • struggled early on, but found reading some background about the book was helpful in giving her the boost she needed to find stimulation in the story.
  • found its disjointed nature off-putting, but liked aspects such as the little kindnesses Tambu meets along the way and how Dangarembga conveyed Tambu's paranoia. Suggested that it's refreshing to read a book by a black female author.
  • found it difficult get into, but was interested in its discussion of ecotourism and poverty interesting. Came to enjoy the writing style, and appreciated the wide variety of issues the book explores. 
  • also found it hard at the start, but suggested that it's a good example of why we read books, which is to experience the lives of others that we would otherwise know nothing about. Was interested to see what happened to this once rich African country, and particularly the impact of the West, of Mugabe, the sexism, violence, racism. 
  • was surprised to find it hard to get into because is sympathetic to Zimbabwe. Put it aside and picked it up again too late to finish, but found that it started to make sense in part 2 when Tambu is in the mental institution. 

Discussion

We confirmed that the book is primarily set around the turn of the millennium, and that Tambudzai at this time is around 40 years old.

Our discussion roamed over the place a bit, but we talked about how Tambudzai embodies the nation's post-Independence trauma and sense of false hope. We liked that the novel is not black and white, and that most characters are complex.

One member initially saw the book as being about metal illness and paranoia, but decided that it is more political, exploring issues like the impact on the individual of national trauma. 

We discussed various issues to do with Zimbabwe and Africa, including how white Tracey would try to exoticise "Africa" for the tourism trade, and how the West is portrayed as generalising Africa, lumping all countries into one. We talked about the compromises and bribes Tracey had to make to get her ecotourism business going. 

We also talked about gender, about women being expected to dress modestly, about women being beaten (of which there are several examples in the book, by strangers, sons, husbands, etc.) We also noted the competition between people - such as Tambu and Pedzi - in their desperation to succeed in a tough world.

We talked about the language, with several members sharing favourite quotes. Several of us commented on the ant and hyena imagery used to convey Tambu's emotions, the ants seeming to convey her anxiety in various situations and the hyena her lack of control:

The hyena laughs as you enter the gate. It has slunk once more as close to you as your skin, ready to drag away the last scraps of certainty you have preserved the moment you falter ...
A member liked this description of a woman who'd been beaten:

Evening light drips shadows onto her skin, thickening the knots of swelling, deepening lacerations.
Tambu's sister, Netsai, had lost one of her legs in the war, something we are reminded of regularly in the novel, suggesting that it symbolises the country's trauma, and the fact that many of its people do not, as a result of their experiences, feel whole. One member liked Tambu's description of watching Christine, who had also been to war, working in the garden:

You have seen this manner before, this being where the body is and not being there, in your sister Netsai, who went to war, who lost a leg, and who said to you when they said there was peace, “Yes, I went and I am here but I never came back. Most of the time I’m still out there wandering through the grass and sand, looking for my leg.”

Blood and womb are recurring images in the novel, referring, we felt, to the vulnerable position of women in Zimbabwean society as well as, more broadly, to the war and violence the country had experienced. There is quite a bit of description in the book about the impact of war on those who fought in it:

The women from war are like that, a new kind of being that no one knew before, not exactly male but no longer female.
One member mentioned the many references to Tambu's determination to smile in various uncomfortable or vulnerable circumstances, such as:

Your smile attaches itself to your face more tenaciously as your anxiety increases.
One member thought the denouement came too quickly, while another felt that once we'd got to that point the book would become boring if it were drawn out.

Throughout the discussion we needed to clarify various events in the novel, because at times the language is intense resulting in the actual action being described not always being clear. An example is what had led to Tambu ending up a mental patient in hospital, in part 2.

One member had circulated, prior to the meeting, a link to writer Teju Cole's article "Unmournable bodies", which Dangarembga acknowledges at the end of her novel as "putting many matters into perspective" and inspiring the novel's title. The essay talks about how the West tends to be selective about which bodies it is prepared to mourn (such as the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre) and which it tends to ignore (such as many Muslim victims of violence.) We discussed what we thought the title meant, and decided it could be an assertion that "I am worthy, I am worth mourning", something that is hard for people to feel in a place where everyone is struggling.

The question was asked whether we would recommend this book to others. Most said yes, but would accompany it with a warning or some preparation.  

We also considered Dangarembga's intention. We understand that the first two books in the trilogy are more positive, so wondered whether this book reflects increasing concerns about the country's political challenges and also, perhaps, about how life becomes harder for older women. But, we also felt that the epigraph, that "There is always something left to love" suggests an ultimately positive, or, at least, hopeful reading for the novel? 

Present: 8 members

Thursday, 11 February 2021

Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

Prepared by Sue B

Our first novel of the year was "our" classic for the year, though, you never know, we may do another! It was Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers, which was published in 1857and is the second book in The Chronicles of Barsetshire series, aka The Barchester Chronicles. It is set in an imaginary English Cathedral town. As always, we started with our ...

First impressions


  • Loved it. Couldn’t resist also rewatching the 1982 BBC TV series filmed in Peterborough, whose excellent cast did full justice to Trollope’s wonderful characters
  • Didn’t finish it because read The warden first. The church background was very complex. It was wordy but witty. The deliberately heavy-handed naming of people was fun.
  • Loved the engagement with the reader and the ironic tone but preferred The warden which was sweeter.
  • Really enjoyed it. The characters were vivid and entertaining. It was hard to find a Kindle version in English.
  • Hadn’t previously read it and found it different to anything else we have read. After reading most of it, listened to the last 25% of an audio play which “coloured” the characters. Preferred the “black and white” of the printed text. Loved it, and felt there was much to unpack.
  • Only half-way through and enjoying it.
  • Loved the wry comments. Not much plot, and the whole thing revolves around very little. Imagined Salisbury Cathedral. Found it hard to get into at first and glossed over the first few chapters. Grew up in High Church Sydney – it brought back memories.
  • Love Hardy, but just getting into this when family events interrupted reading.
  • Had read it in the 70s. Different to Hardy is more wordy in his landscape description. Liked the authorial voice in Trollope. Loved the satire and comments on life at the time.

Further discussion

Our conversation ranged widely and jumped around, including the following:

  • Why write six novels set in a Cathedral Close? Because it is close to government? The politics of the Anglican Church are prominent in the novel, so it was suggested that a guide to Anglican church hierarchy might help us to understand the structure. Dr. Grantly missed out on being made Bishop because of a change of government. 
  • The novel was written not long after the Oxford Movement, which was a religious movement in the Anglican Church which focused on High Church, emphasising its Catholic heritage. It led to Newman and others becoming Catholics. In the novel the High Church faction is represented by Dr Grantly, who recruits Mr. Arabin (who had been a follower of Newman) for support against the Low Church or Evangelical faction represented by Mr. Slope and Mrs. Proudie. There’s not much theology in the book, but much poking fun at the Church politics. We discussed that at that time the church tended to be a career rather than a calling. Mr. Harding’s principles were often amusingly in the way of Dr. Grantly’s pragmatism. 
  • The warden and Barchester Towers also comment on the role played by newspapers in manipulating public opinion.

As you’d expect the novel reflects the attitudes of its time. There was some degree of sexism, for example Mrs. Bold being referred to as “a delicate creeper [which] has found its strong wall”, and we felt that Dr. Grantly had been highly mysoginistic in his treatment of her. Yet, the novel also has many strong women such as Mrs Grantly, Mary Bold, Signora Neroni, not to mention the formidable Mrs. Proudie and even Mrs Quiverful. It was clear that while the men held the official positions, their wives worked unpaid at the Sunday Schools and held a lot of power behind the scenes. It was noted that in the Trollope family the author’s mother (the highly successful novelist Fanny Trollope) had earned most of the money.

We also noted some occasional antisemitism.

We enjoyed the humorous descriptions of life at the time. An example is Mrs. Thorne’s garden party where she tries to keep some Feudal traditions going, such as the quintain for jousting practice where Harry Greenacre came to grief. The social hierarchy at the time meant that everyone fitted in their appropriate place, except the appropriately named Lookalofts who were dressed up and determined to dine with the gentry instead of in the field with the other farmers. They're mocked by the Greenacres for being “half nekid’ and wasting money on pianos and silk instead of stock for their farm. Mrs. Bold’s widow’s cap became less obvious over time. A sign that she was ready to get back into life again? Mrs. Clantantram wears a Rocquelore. So much was made of it that we googled to find out that it was an 18th century man’s cloak. Characters were really amusingly described, e.g. Miss Thorne: “Had she not been made throughout of the very finest whalebone, rivetted with the best Yorkshire steel..”

We discussed Trollope as an author. He was wordy, as were other Victorian authors. One example shared was: "Should the bishop now be re-petticoated, his thraldom would be complete and forever".

He assumed that his audience had a classical education. He also took the audience into his confidence, for example with the plot spoiler that Eleanor would not, in the end, marry Mr. Slope or Bertie Stanhope. Would we have enjoyed the story more if we had not known this? We thought not. One member said “I love it when the author talks to me”. It was commented that Jane Austen did it too while Dickens did not. Trollope references Fielding in the novel. Did he see himself in that tradition? Fielding had larger-than-life characters but Trollope's are more subtle? Did he kill off John Bold so that Eleanor’s relationship with her father could be the focus?

What did Trollope believe?


We wondered what Trollope himself really believed. Most of the characters are reasonably well-rounded and shrewdly observed. Mr. Quiverful, for example, is torn between being offered the much-needed Wardenship, and feeling bad about Mr. Harding. Mr. Slope and Mrs. Proudie are mostly presented in a very unsympathetic light, but they were right about the Wardenship. Mr. Harding did not need it as much as Mr. Quiverful did.

We were told when they first came back from Italy that the Stanhopes were cold, manipulative people. But they were fun, and in the end behaved with honesty and even kindliness. Did Trollope change his mind about them?

In the last paragraph we celebrate Mr. Harding, “a good man without guile, believing humbly in the religion which he has striven to teach”. Maybe that’s the answer?

Present: 9 Minervans

Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Minerva's Top Picks for 2020

As for all groups, 2020 was a challenging year for Minervans, but it was nothing we couldn't handle. First, we had Canberra's smoky air and then of course COVID-19. In March we met - fast and furiously - by texting through WhatsApp. This was much appreciated by the blog writer - but, most others wanted something a little more personal, a little closer to meeting in person! So, not being sheep, we researched several video-online conferencing platforms, and set up times to field-test Skype and Zoom. After our exhaustive process, Zoom won out, and our April and May meetings were conducted on-line. Then, hallelujah, COVID-19 rules started to relax in the ACT, and for the rest of the year we met again in members' homes, at first very carefully socially-distanced, gradually relaxing as the ACT's rules eased. We sure were ready for our traditional pot-luck Christmas party in December. 

But now, onto the real business of this post ... For the fourth year now, we Minervans voted for our Top Picks of the year. As before, each member was asked to nominate her three top picks from the books we read as a group this year ... and here is the outcome ...

All twelve currently active members took part, and all nominated the maximum three books, resulting in 36 "votes". Just to reiterate what we've said before: this is not a "proper" survey. Votes were all given equal weight, as was advised in the email request, even if some members ranked their choices. Also, not everyone read every book, meaning different people voted from different "pools". So, the results are indicative rather than authoritative, but it's fun and it does convey some sense of what we all liked.

Unlike the last couple of years in which several books were bunched together, this year one book absolutely romped it in, with the tied second place books being clearly ahead of the next bunch. 


Here are the results:

  1. Too much lip, by Melissa Lucashenko (our review) (10 votes)
  2. Overstory, by Richard Powers (our review); and Griffith Review 68: Getting on  (our review) (5 votes each)
  3. One hundred years of dirt, by Rick Morton (our review), Mammoth, by Chris Flynn (our review), and Phosphorescence, by Julia Baird (our review) (3 votes each)

So, an interesting mix: three novels, a memoir, a sort of memoir-cum-philosophical book, and an anthology on a theme. All are Australian, except for American author, Richard Powers. 

Every book, except Anna Goldsworthy's Melting moments, received a vote, but Melting moments did earn a speial mention, as did many of the books which received one or two votes. In other words, it was, despite Too much lip's runaway win, another good year of reading.

The inaugural Zeitgeist Award for the member who voted for the top three books went to Sylvia. (This "award" was won by Sue B last year, but it now has a name!) 

Some comments on our top picks

Note that not everyone commented on their choices ...

TOO MUCH LIP:
  • "Such authentic seeming characters, stories and language. Humourous and nuanced window into a challenging world." (Sue B)
  • "A piece of very readable fast moving fiction by an exciting indigenous writer, but I could have nominated others too." (Denise)
  • "A perfect example of how to create engaging but flawed characters, and how to fearlessly tackle deeply political issues with both humour and passion." (Sue T)
  • "Wonderful story -- the life on the north coast of NSW still lives with me months after reading it; vibrant, energetic, fresh and original." (Sylvia)
  • "Filled with humour, insight and engaging writing." (Judith)
  • "Lucashenko is inventing a new language for Australian story telling - slang and rhythm from indigenous dialect and language integrated into a very structured definite novel form. Her characters continually reveal new facets and parts of themselves in the story adding to its richness. No simple stereotypes or cyphers here but real, flawed people struggling with the aftermaths of dispossession and family secrets - and sharing a sense of humour while they do.  Lucashenko was generously inviting the reader into the rich world she has created in the story and asking us to connect that story to our own understanding and experience of life in Australia." (Helen)
  • "I LOVED it." (Deb)

OVERSTORY:
  • "I was really carried along by his passion for trees, I learnt heaps, and I found the range of characters had amazing journeys and stories." (Kate)
  • "Massive story with an unsatisfactory ending but with some great passages about what wildlife activists have tried to do from the time of our youth (1960s) onwards -- ultimately depressing about the future of forests in the world." (Sylvia)
  • "It took me in to the world of trees and nature (although not a lot of pulling required!) at a time when I particularly needed to be there - wonderful moments." (Judith) 
  • "My favourite by a country mile: Another BIG story done so well by a US author. They’re in a class of their own for this style of writing." (Deb) 
(Our coast-observer Marie also named this book in her top three)

GRIFFITH REVIEW 68: GETTING ON:
  • "For the number of excellent writers and thoughtful ideas on a depressing subject." (Denise)
  • "Scholarly and essential reading for us oldies; so much relevant information and a feeling that although getting on can be a terrible experience for some people there are still moments of joy and quiet pleasure in advancing age and being with your 'children'." (Sylvia) 
  • "Such an informative, eye-opening, moving discussion of aging from almost every angle you could think." (Sue T)
ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF DIRT:
  • "A heart rending family story which reflected on characteristics of pioneers, and living in remote areas, as well as ricks personal family challenges, and a tribute to his mum." (Kate)
  • "Rick Morton is writing a memoir and polemic rich in his own story showing that colonisation has some devastating effects on the colonisers as well as indigenous people: secrets and hurt carried into children's lives with healing and recovery hard to find." (Helen)
MAMMOTH:
  • "So quirky, interesting and original. You get to hear about the Ice Age and other epochs of prehistory from someone who was there!" (Sue B)
  • "A real work of imaginative and stimulating writing." (Denise)
PHOSPHORESCENCE:
  • "Adored. It was a thought-provoking and thoughtful reflection on life, friendship, children, getting old, nature... a book to keep dipping in to." (Kate)
  • "An interesting journey and collection of observations, enjoyed more fully as it came to life through the reflections of our group." (Judith)
  • "Julia helped me find some truths." (Denise)

Other comments included Sue B describing Charlotte Wood's The weekend as "Very easy to relate to in many ways; interesting insights into the dynamics of long friendships", while Kate found it "disappointing". Sue T called Carmel Bird's Field of poppies "a clever, satiric story", while Helen said that Balli Kaur Jaswal's Erotic stories for Punjabi widows "was just fun to read [with] some undercurrents of deep hurt and family secrets". Celeste found Melting moments "very enjoyable".


Other recommendations

Again, several (including our coast-observer Marie) took up the option to share some other favourite books from their reading year. Here are their suggestions (alphabetically by author), for those looking for other reading ideas. Dare I say that, among last year's recommendations, was mine for Too much lip, so, you know, take these recommendations seriously!

  • Robbie Arnott's Flame (Marie, who named this book her favourite of the year "by a long shot")
  • Thea Astley's An item from the late news (Sue)
  • Elisabeth Tova Bailey's The sound of a wild snail eating (Judith)
  • John Clanchy's In whom we trust (Sue)
  • Jeanine Cummins' American dirt (Anne)
  • Trent Dalton's All our shimmering skies (Marie)
  • Bernadine Evaristo's Girl woman other (Anne)
  • Robert Galbraith's Troubled blood (Marie)
  • Vicki Hastrich's Night fishing (Marie)
  • Christy Lefteri's The beekeeper of Aleppo (Anne)
  • David Mitchell's Utopia Avenue (Marie)
  • Sharon Pincott’s Elephant tracks (Kate)
  • Lucy Treloar's Wolfe Island (Marie)
  • Edith Wharton's The custom of the country (Anne)
  • Tara June Winch's The yield (Sue and Marie)
Any comments? (And it's not too late to add to this list if you become inspired after seeing it!)

Monday, 30 November 2020

Melting Moments by Anna Goldsworthy


Opinions varied about this ‘domestic’ work of fiction from dissatisfaction to thoroughly enjoying it. Some of us thought there were hidden depths to the story while others just wanted more about the characters and less episodic moments.

Anna Goldsworthy is a concert pianist and teacher as well as an accomplished writer. Melting moments is her third published work, but her first novel. She is 46 and the daughter of well-known and much published writer and medical doctor Peter Goldsworthy. Adelaide is her home town and it is the major background to the story. 

 

The story begins in 1941 when Ruby travels to Sydney to reunite with her new husband Arthur, who has been in New Guinea. The story flows on from this point concentrating on Ruby and her mother and mother-in-law, her daughter Eva and her granddaughter Amy.  There are numerous short episodes or glimpses of her long marriage to Arthur and their relationship in the big house in a suburb of Adelaide. 

 

First impressions 

  • Partly enjoyed it but not a book I would recommend
  • Little vignettes were good to read
  • No literary overlay to it
  • Enjoyed reading about the roles of men and women from the forties onwards and especially the idea of the perfect housewife
  • Very funny in places and possibly ironic
  • Well written and quirky
  • Episodic which I found a bit prosaic, liked the setting of Adelaide
  • Found that Ruby’s life was similar to my Mum’s life – ie no career except in the home – and father’s dominance as breadwinner
  • Didn’t hear much of Ruby’s interior life, worried that Ruby and Arthur didn’t know each other even after many years of co-habitation
  • Issue of the returned soldier and their common refusal to talk about their war experiences and how that changed them irrevocably and the subsequent effect upon their marriages, especially if wed before going off to war. They came back different people. (Later in our discussion we were surprised that Ruby did not want to hear about Arthur’s experiences when he finally wanted to tell her.) 
  • I was annoyed that there was not more detail about Arthur’s war in New Guinea (but others argued that that was not the point of the book)
  • Not well written because too much repetition
  • Frustrating and dissatisfying novel
  • Would have liked more about music – had no idea the author is a concert pianist
  • Read it twice and loved it
  • The author was exploring the path of many women in Australia and how their lives changed by the influences of 1960s/1970s Feminism – working outside the home after many years and possibly enjoying another romantic relationship?
  • Melting momentst itle is good because that is what the book captures – pinpointing aspects of Ruby’s life which explains the episodic structure
  • Gentle pace and would have liked more about the relationship between Ruby and Arthur 

Discussion

 

It has been suggested that this work is a little like works by Jane Austen but we didn’t agree. It is a study of women and their threads through life. (Some of the story is based on Goldsworthy’s Grandmother’s life.) It only has a little satire. Some of the characters are a little stereotypical such as Arthur’s mother, the rather sad Granny Jenkins, but some of us liked the contrast with Ruby’s Mother who seems so normal. 

 

Ruby’s affair after Arthur’s death was much discussed. We liked the fact that Eva, Ruby’s daughter, told her that she had done her duty as far as Arthur was concerned and it was fine to have another relationship. We wondered where the character of Eva, a baby boomer, came from as she seemed so different from Ruby and the other older women. (Maybe Goldsworthy was inspired to highlight the difference from the older generation). We calculated that Ruby was born about 1919 or 1920 when a few of our mothers were also born, which was considered the Great Generation (1901-1927). The next generation was called the Silent Generation (born between 1928-1945). 

 

We spent considerable time discussing Arthur and his characteristics. He was supportive of his daughter getting an education to become a doctor and showed that he was quietly wise.  We admired the fact that he allowed his wife Ruby to take her mother on a holiday to Mildura quite a few times. There were also echoes of family life experienced by us or by our relatives eg hasty marriages before heading off to the war. This was often done by couples as the man felt that if he didn’t come back the woman had an income from a war widow’s pension. Arthur even mentions this reason. Arthur also was tolerant of having two mothers living with them which must have been hard for both of them. Arthur’s book on sex, (caused much hilarity), which he and Ruby enjoyed for a while at least. 

 

This is a very suburban novel. The suburb Glenside, where Ruby lived had an asylum so it was tainted by that institution for many Adelaide people. Ruby and Arthur had a pleasant home there, and she obviously loved it. She made choices and had a husband who allowed her to garden and work around the home. She even worked out of the home, later in life. In comparison, she was angry with her father who treated her mother badly, until her Mother finally left him on the farm and moved to Adelaide to live with Ruby and the family in the big house. Her father was a charmer but not reliable. 

 

Ruby could have had an affair when she was still young but the opportunity disappeared and she was often wistful about what might have been! Ruby lead an ordinary life, not one filled with drama. Things might have happened but did not. 

 

We were sad that there was not more about Ruby’s son who seemed to just fade away in the story. 

 

Three current shows were mentioned which are related to some of the issues raised in this novel :

 

Mum:  a comedy on television which one member likes

Women of steel: a very good documentary about migrant women in Wollongong in 1980 who took BHP to court over discrimination by not allowing them to work in the steel industry.

Brazen Hussies: a documentary film which is on at the Palace Cinema until Wednesday.  

It is about the Women’s movement between 1968-1975 and the issue of choice for women with what they do with their lives.

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Julia Baird's Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark


We are having bumper meetings these days, because due to COVID-19 we retirees are not travelling the way we usually do through the cooler months. It's lovely actually, though with 10 or more at meetings, the enthusiastic discussions can be hard to follow! I apologise to members whose ideas I've missed, in other words.

This month's book was by Aussie journalist and biographer, Julia Baird, who has had a very tough cancer journey over the last few years. Her book, Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark, ostensibly contains the lessons she has learnt to help herself and others through such times. Some of the essays were written (in some form) before her illness, which suggests that these ideas have been swilling around her head for a longer time.

As usual, we started with ...

First impressions


We basically broke into two camps, those who loved the book, and those who liked it but with reservations.

Those who loved it found the writing wonderful, commenting on the way she draws the reader in by observation and experience, and on the personalised, moving way she shared her ideas. They liked the way she drew different threads together. One listened to Julia Baird, herself, reading it on Audible, and found it excellent, so much so that it made her want to buy a print copy to refer back to.

Those with reservations all liked much of the content, and didn't disagree in any major way with what she had to say. Like those who loved it, they found her a bright, intelligent woman, and thought her writing excellent. The reservations varied a little but boiled down to feeling that the book:

  • contained many ideas we could relate to, but offered nothing new;
  • felt disjointed, or as some said, the "phosphorescence" theme didn't play through the book as clearly as was expected;
  • was tedious at the beginning, but liked it more when it became apparent that it was a book of essays; and/or
  • felt a bit glib, and repetitive, which made it somewhat unsatisfying.

The discussion


The discussion, just like some felt the book was, was somewhat disjointed!

Members identified aspects of the book that particularly struck them, which included (excuse the lazy dotpointing!):
  • Baird's looking for nurturing experience from the natural world
  • much of the language and her descriptions 
  • the memoir aspects
  • her encounters with a wide range of interesting people, which we felt was partly due to her journalist career bringing her into contact with such a variety of people (like the millionaire financier in New York)
  • the way she seizes the day
  • the book's beautiful cover
We also talked a little about Baird's discussion of faith and doubt. One admired her being one of those women of faith who can relate to/reach a broad audience. We shared a couple of her comments about doubt:

The mark of a civilised woman, too, is to doubt the wisdom received from men for so long...

Another that several of us liked came during her discussion about its being ok to doubt scientists, who, themselves, recognise that things can change and that they need to "embrace doubt, and see shades of grey...". She says scientists have been wrong in the past "as have politicians, teachers, priests, principals, CEOs and all sorts of authority figures". And then, she adds in parentheses:

(Although, seriously, if you can't accept what the vast majority of scientists have to say about climate change, it's not doubt that is your problem.)

We all loved that.

We talked about the various references to Japanese aesthetics and philosophy. The prevalence of Japanese thought was interesting given she talks about visiting various places, but not Japan. The ideas, which are hard to express in Western words, are Shinrin-yoku (or forest-bathing, about the physiological/psychological benefits of being in the forest); YĆ«gen (about grace and mysterious experiences that are hard to explain); Wabi sabi (about imperfect or transient beauty); Kintsugi/Kintsukuroi (about repairing broken pottery in ways that the repair can be seen, making the damage part of its history and beauty); and Moai (about the groups created among newborns in Okinawa which provide social support through life).
Moai was discussed in the section on friendship which is beautifully called "We are walking each other home" (Ram Dass). One member loved the concept introduced in this section of Freudenfreude, which is a term coined, Baird says, by psychologists to describe the opposite of Schadenfreude

Another wonderfully named section that we discussed a little is "We are all wiggly" where she talks about accepting and/or embracing failure and imperfection. She describes her own spectacular failure as an activist for the ordination of women in Sydney's Anglican church. She argues that we should appreciate and recognise failed activist action, that we should honour the effort and the commitment. We should also recognise that quite often the issue keeps building and is eventually achieved. 

We also enjoyed her discussion in this section of the pressure on women's appearance - their dress, their hair, etc. We loved that the term "mutton dressed as lamb" was initially positively intended. (Oh, and most of us were surprised to hear that she has a big nose! We hadn't noticed!)

We laughed at some of the stories, such as her son's delightful hoarding of his underpants for the memories they are associated with, and her sock-chewing groodle, Charlie. Other stories that interested us included the story of hope as exemplified by Jim Stockdale who spent over 7 years in Vietnam's most notorious and brutal POW prison, and the subsequent concept of "The Stockdale Paradox".

Some of the other messages we took away included living life deliberately (by paying attention), the (counterintuitive) idea that the clue to happiness is to have low expectations, the value of awe (including "the overview effect"), and the importance of searching for our "ert" (a term coined by marine biologist Lisa-Ann Gershwin to oppose "inertia").

One commented, gratefully (ha!), that Baird didn't talk about the current "in" idea that she's hearing everywhere, gratitude!

The book provoked much thought among many of us about our own lives and values, but what was shared in the room will stay in the room. Let's just say that in the end we decided that, whether we agreed that the work was fully coherent or not, it was a book in which Baird was able to share many of the things she wanted to say and pass on, and that the book can work as "a salve for the weary".

Present: 11 members