Friday, 1 October 2021

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

Another zoom meeting during lockdown this month. We are getting more familiar with the technology but all of us still prefer to meet in person.  

Hamnet is the story of the wife and children of an unnamed playwright of the sixteenth century living in the small village of Stratford, Warwickshire, England. It concerns Agnes (pronounced in the French way Ar-nes) and her children, Hamnet and Judith who are young twins and their older sister Susanna. We hear about Agnes’ early life and her courtship with the future playwright and the daily life of the village people. The crux of the novel is the very sad death of Hamnet from the pestilence at the age of 11 and the reactions by his mother and sisters. 


Maggie O’Farrell is a prize winning UK author who has written 8 novels and the autobiography : I am, I am, I am.


All members enjoyed this novel and some even loved it and we were all very pleased to have read it.


First impressions:

  • It inspired me to look into Shakespeare’s early life by reading a book by John Bell (of Bell Shakespeare company fame) called On Shakespeare. I have visited Stratford and Ann Hathaway’s cottage, a short walk out of Stratford and it was enjoyable to remember the scenery in reading this novel.
  • I particularly appreciated the evocation of grief which was written so movingly. I have a few questions about this book though, so not totally won over by it.
  • I really wanted to read it.
  • I found it very moving, evocation of time showed that the author had researched the life of the villagers well. It was very dense at times and hard to penetrate the intensity but O’Farrell nailed it so well. The courtship scenes with Agnes and the playwright were good and the book was worthwhile.
  • Reading about the sixteenth century plague during our pandemic was amazingly pertinent and the book was an incredible feat of the imagination and research.
  • The grief struck me. I thought Agnes was a great character.
  • It was a relief to read after having read Shuggie Bain, last month’s novel. I admired the way the author expressed the tenderness and the emotions of the characters. I wondered about the language at times as it seemed too much. I skipped over some passages. I loved the structure going backwards and forwards in the story.
  •  Immersive novel, a little dense but with evocative and beautiful language. It was about love and motherhood and grief. I wondered why not write about Shakespeare’s wife? The novelist nailed it.
  • The portrayal of grief over the death of Hamnet was the ‘worst thing’. I felt that when the child died there was a loss of momentum in the second part. 
  • How did it get tied into the play of Hamlet? I am not clear on that aspect.
  • I was won over on the second page with the sentence “ the smell of his grandparents’ house is always the same : …’ I can remember experiencing a similar sensation as a child. I loved all the details of the way people lived, it was fabulous detail. Including talking about the menstrual rags that had to be counted by the older women.
  • I liked the structure of the child dying and the romance being interwoven through different time frames.
  • I was lost on the mystical ‘stuff’. Hamlet is nothing like Hamnet. (It was pointed out that Shakespeare in the novel trained the actor to have similar mannerisms to his son.) The book is not about Hamlet or Hamnet. It is about motherhood and Agnes.
  • I found it very readable and felt I got into the 16th century household. It was a poignant story and it starts off with a lot about emotion. Reminded me of The year of wonders by Geraldine Brooks. I found the story of the flea amazing, coming from Venice or in other stories from the Black sea.




Does the structure work ? 

 One member liked the weaving in and out of the stories and it seemed to her like two curves meeting at the end. The novelist pulls it off. It is not over-complicated and we enjoyed the dual storyline.


Why did O’Farrell write the book about this death? 

Would it have had the same impact if it had just been chronological? We decided that the impact and tension would be harder to achieve with a different structure. The death takes such a short time to describe whereas the whole novel is over many years – in fact the whole of Agnes’ life up to that point. It engaged us. It also concentrated the story around Hamnet rather than him being a minor character. It portrays an intense look at Hamnet and his environment. It also shows Agnes’ undoing. Agnes is a strong character so her grief is like a ‘well’ around which her story is told. 


Our next topic of discussion was about the different portrayal of Shakespeare’s wife shown in this book from the norm in popular culture such as in the English program Upstart Crow. In this comedy, the wife is a dullard not the strong woman we read about in Hamnet. One member mentioned that she particularly liked that O’Farrell picked up on Germaine Greer’s interpretation of Ann Hathaway. Does O’Farrell want to rewrite history?  


Another member discussed the snippets of the relationship between Agnes and her husband and how she saw their life together and apart. When he came home from London it took a while for them to become close again. This lead to a short discussion on how many men have to work away from home for long periods even in the 20th and 21st centuries.


We also discussed that many women of the time were healers. It was fascinating that Agnes wanted to give proper medicine to Judith whereas the so-called doctor in his scary mask wanted to put a dried toad on the stomach of the child. (p. 148). Witches dealt in toads supposedly so was it ironic that the doctor did too?


How does the death and Hamnet relate to Hamlet?  

This question is difficult. One member suggested that the quotation on a separate page and at the beginning of the second part of the book (page 255) from the play Hamlet (Act 5, Scene 2) quoted by O’Farrell was a clue. The quote is : 

‘I am dead’ (line 330)/’Thou livest ;’ (line 331) … ‘draw thy breath in pain,’ (line 340)/’to tell my story’ (line 341).   


Agnes sees the father and son characters in the play where the father is a ghost and the son is alive. The play relates to the son – has Shakespeare given life to his boy? Is that too big a stretch ? 


Did Hamnet's death have an effect on Shakespeare’s plays?

Did it bring a greater understanding of grief – we decided it had a huge impact on the way he saw the world. He wrote his major tragedies after Hamnet's death.  


He was inspired or needed to express something to evoke his son. However, Hamlet is not about Hamnet. Is it understandable that Shakespeare wrote the comedy Merry Wives of Windsor soon after the death, as it shows he couldn’t cope ? 


How do you live with grief? 

Agnes’ grief was extreme which lead to a sense of unreality. She lost her gifts to heal and tell the future. This section of the novel was the most moving, and as mothers we all felt for her. Some members thought that the novel lost a bit of tension in this last part as you felt drained and exhausted by reading it. It was a visceral feeling one member commented.


The birth of Susanna in the woods raised some interest. We also noted that Agnes wasn’t allowed to do it again. A nice touch was the planting of the Rowan Tree at the backdoor of ‘her’ house. The rowan tree is the tree of life. It symbolises courage and wisdom. Agnes learnt about it from her the Celtic tradition and her Mother. One member noted that the tree symbolises her mother's presence for Agnes.


We liked that Shakespeare appeared less knowledgeable about herbs than Agnes and wondered whether he wrote about them. In the famous witches scene in Macbeth it is toads in the cauldron. It is a nice idea that Agnes could teach him something. (John Bell says that Shakespeare talks more about herbs and flowers in his plays than any other playwright he knows.)  


What about the psychic business – pressing of the hand and thumb? 

Could Agnes foretell things? It was part of her early identity. Or was it something that O’Farrell thought appropriate for this character? Agnes was an observer and listener and had a sense of how people understand the world so maybe that helps to explains her ‘gift’. She was also intuitive. One member has faith in people being intelligent.  Also often illiterate folk have excellent memories as did Agnes for all her herbs and their names and uses.  Albert Facey is an excellent example of a person with this gift.


Another member reported on a book by William Dalrymple called Nine lives,  about a group of Indian storytellers who had these gifts.  


Other characters were discussed briefly. We all liked the lovely Bartholomew, Agnes’ brother. Such a good man. Some of the older women were not so pleasant, particularly Joan, Agnes’ stepmother. 


Judith, Agnes’ younger daughter was like her mother, not like her more business-oriented father and sister. She didn’t want to learn from Hamnet who tried to teach her. She wasn’t interested in learning to read and write but she was an observer and intelligent nevertheless. Her sister, Susanna, thought she was useless.


John, Shakespeare’s father thought Will was useless as did Agnes’ family. We all noticed the description of John's face, when he thought he was getting a good deal by his son marrying a girl who had a reasonable dowry.


We thought O’Farrell handled the difficulty of having such a famous character in the novel extremely cleverly. He is never mentioned by name and had very little to say. She made it about Hamnet and Agnes. History made it easy too as there are no letters to clarify.


Some members particularly liked the way the author handled the first sex scene. It was fascinating and showed true feeling.


Various other scenes attracted attention including the description of Mary sewing, (p. 199) and the references to knot gardens. 


We were pleased that the couple reconciles at the end of the novel when Agnes finally realises that Will did grieve for his son for many years just as she had. One member recommended seeing the movie called All is true. (This is available through a streaming service).


We thought life for everyday women of the time was pretty busy in the household having to do so much, just to eat and live. 


Present : 10 members

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain

With Canberra back in lockdown for the first time since the middle of last year, Minerva pivoted (to use current Covid-19 jargon) to meeting via Zoom again. Fortunately, having now experienced Zoom meetings in various aspects of our lives for well over a year, and under the expert chairing of Kate, the meeting ran smoothly. This is just as well, because we had plenty to say about our book, Douglas Bain's Booker prize-winning, Shuggie Bain.

The novel tells the story of a young working class boy and his mother in struggling working class Glasgow during the 1980s. It's about what happens when love and dreams of a better life meet poverty and alcoholism.

As always, we started with our ...

First impressions

  • Struggled with the story, because of its bleakness and brutality, and could only read it when the sun was shining. But appreciated the humour, liked the highly visual descriptions, and thought it explored well themes like violence versus tenderness and love.  
  • Found it an impressive account of many issues and ideas. Found it bleak at first, but it became unputdownable. Thought it was very much about love, and liked Stuart's comment in his ABC interview that "Art is meant to move you".
  • Chose not to read it because of its potential to trigger vicarious trauma, but was interested to hear our discussion. 
  • Having experienced female alcoholics in her family is unsympathetic to alcoholics, and wished Agnes had "tossed in the towel earlier"! But, loved the writing. 
  • Had to put it down often because the evocation of poverty is so sad, but loved the interview with Stuart as he came across as such a positive man. Liked that the ending was somewhat positive.  
  • Was initially hesitant, because feared vicarious trauma, but thinks the novel is a masterpiece. Couldn't put it down. Liked that it was peppered with humour, and its portrayal of children's love for parents. 
  • Found it both devastating and brilliant (even though had just read another devastating story, Educated). Felt it was accurate about the period (1980s Glasgow). Was really moved. 
  • Greatly enjoyed it for its descriptive writing, the humour, and the warmth and respect towards its characters. It was bleak, but heart sank most when Shuggie and his mother arrived back in the city, and Shuggie, watching young children play, wonders “what it must feel like ... to be so carefree”. It was so clear that Shuggie had never had that.  
  • A tricky novel, but mesmerising, immersive, and made you feel as though you were there. Some reviews suggested it could have done with more editing, but doesn't agree because the detail is important to our understanding of the life. The novel redefines love. 
  • Agrees with everyone else. Loved that it started with Shuggie at nearly 16 because you knew he was going to survive. Masterful management of darkness and light, and loved all the Scottish terms. A very visual book. Shuggie kept you going. Thought Eugene was mean and nasty in encouraging Agnes to have a drink. 
  • So glad she read it. Brought up important issues, and its truth to domestic violence and alcoholism were spot on. 

Further discussion

The discussion that followed was lively, with many ideas being explored:


We explored the different types of humour in the novel, with some finding more humour in it than others. One saw the "cackling" laughter of the Pithead women as a distancing mechanism. Another felt there were many humorous scenes, such as Leek teaching Shuggie how to walk.

Alcoholism and addiction

We discussed many issues regarding alcoholism. Regarding Eugene and the question of whether he was better than Shug, one member argued that Eugene wasn't mean when he encouraged Agnes to have a drink. She suggested that he didn't understand and genuinely believed that in a stable loving relationship, Agnes would be able to drink, like a "normal" person. Another confirmed that the encouragement to drink is a very common challenge that recovering alcoholics have to face. One member commented that Eugene felt badly about what he'd done and tried hard to support the family with food for some time after.

Another member wondered how an alcoholic like Agnes managed to maintain a nice house, but another suggested that Agnes and her family had a high degree of "emotional intelligence". Some of us weren't sure that emotional intelligence is the relevant term, but we did note that Agnes and family came from Wullie and Lizzie who seemed to have a good handle on life. 

Where, we wondered, did the alcoholism come from?

We also discussed the references to Valium, and the fact that it was mentioned but not really developed in the novel.

A member mentioned Jimmy Barnes' memoir Working class boy, which starts in Glasgow and describes a life surrounded by drink and drunkenness. As we all agreed, the Thatcher era was a grim time in Glasgow, particularly for men with mines closing down resulting in loss of work and their roles in life.


Of course, we talked a lot about Agnes and why she was the way she was. She "wanted and wanted and wanted". Why? She had aspirations for a better life. Was this simply because she was spoilt, as her father Wullie came to think she was?

One member suggested that the book is partly about dreams and aspirations. Both mother and daughter had aspirations. So, really, did Leek. For all her faults, Agnes was admirable for her resourcefulness and her ongoing attempts against so many odds to maintain face against a harsh world. Her story was heartbreaking.

We also noted how neither of her two husbands - Bernard and Shug - wanted her to work, and yet her work at the petrol station, when she was in recovering mode, gave her pleasure and self-worth. She was happy when she was working. Another of the book's themes is gender, and the lack of power and opportunity for women.

We discussed Agnes' relocation with her family to Pithead, a dying mining town where few had jobs, and how desolate the place was. Shug, we agreed, was truly cruel in taking her there with every intention of leaving her. One member did say however that alcoholics do move, that they are "geographic", believing things will be better when they move.


Our conversation about Shuggie roamed around a bit. We talked about his life, and his dedication to saving his mother. One member commented on the scene near the end where he undresses his mother, and also where he fixes Leanne's mother's dress. These felt very real, as though Douglas had experienced it. As this novel has strong autobiographical elements, we felt he had.

One member raised the death scene, Chapter 31, and wondered whether there's a suggestion that Shuggie could have saved Agnes but chose not to. Most of us, however, didn't read it that way.

Shuggie Bain is, in part, a coming-of-age novel, but he's also queer. From the beginning, there is an underlying idea that he's "no right", and he is mercilessly teased for his difference from a very young age. When he is 10, he asks his mother, "What's wrong with me Mammy?" From her answer, it's not clear to us that she knows, but he does realise at the end of the novel that his brother Leek has always known. We suspected that his father Shug also knew which is why he never appeared to like him.

One member, thinking of Raimond Gaita's memoir, Romulus my father, wondered what gave Shuggie his resilience. We didn't have many answers, but wondered whether his grandfather Wullie's early love and support, and Leek's being there, contributed. Some felt he'd inherited his mother's propensity to dream.

It was interesting, we though, that, despite their upbringing with Agnes, none of the children seemed to become alcoholics.

Some mentioned feeling sorry for Shuggie living alone in the boarding house at the end. It was helpful, we thought, that he didn't have overweening confidence, because it meant that he listened to others, such as Leek, unlike his mother who took little advice. We liked that the book ended with Shuggie having a friend, in Leanne, who also had an alcoholic mother. It enables the book to close on a sense of hope.

The novel is semi-autobiographical, or "autofiction", and we saw some similarities with Trent Dalton's Boy swallows universe (our review). We suspected that Stuart's story can be found in both Leek (both Stuart and Leek were accepted into a Fine Arts course) and Shuggie (Stuart, like Shuggie, did do his best to care for his mother until she died.)

Bibs and bobs

Besides the above issues, we talked about several other topics too. Our book trade member commented on how lucky Stuart was to get his Scottish dialect past the editors, as publishers tend to dislike language that might challenge readers. (In his ABC interview, Stuart talked about how important it was for him to use the language of people who rarely find themselves in literature, partly so that they might read it.

One member who had listened to Stuart reading excerpts from his book, said he made it sound like poetry.

We wondered about Shuggie's older siblings, Catherine and Leek, having no contact with their father.

One member commented that debut Booker prize winners, like Keri Hulme's The bone people and DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little, tend to be gritty. She wondered where they go next.

We talked about the impact of winning prizes on sales. Our booktrade person said that the Booker and Miles Franklin are the biggest awards in Australia in terms of generating sales, but this rarely means they will sell better than popular writers like Liane Moriarty. 


In the end we thought Shuggie Bain was a visceral but deeply moving novel about industrial Glasgow and region during Thatcher's 1980s, about alcoholism and the ravages it visits upon sufferers and their families, and about the deep love and loyalty children have for their parents and that siblings can have for each other.

Present: 11 members

Thursday, 19 August 2021

Nardi Simpson, The song of the crocodile


July is our Indigenous book month and we chose the much acclaimed first novel by the singer and songwriter, Nardi Simpson, called Song of the crocodile. This novel has been shortlisted for 3 awards in early 2021 and Simpson won the black&write! Writing fellowship in 2018.

It tells the story of four generations of an Indigenous family living in the outskirts of the river town of Darnmoor in northern outback NSW. The town is linked to the Indigenous settlement of the Campground by the Old Black Road. This road of four miles has to be walked daily by the main characters in this novel. They are parallel settlements except that Darnmoor tries to deny the existence of the Indigenous workers living in poverty and injustice. This story tracks parts of the lives of three very strong and resilient women, Margaret, (Mili’s grandmother) Celie (or Ceil) (Mili’s mother) and Mili and her boys, Paddy and Yarri. The landscape of the area is all-pervasive in this novel.

First impressions:


  • Hard challenging read, as it tracks racism, injustice and black and white prejudice. However, listening to an interview with the author she has an uplifting take on her creation – she admires the entrepreneurship of the women and their ability to cope with such injustices as wage theft. Many features of the character’s lives were never fully explained but clearly suggested in the novel.
  • Hard to get into after just finishing Hilary Mantel’s The mirror and the light. Very tragic, but also shows strength and resilience which are positive features of the characters.
  • Liked the merging of the living and the dead.
  • EPIC and harrowing and impending things are going to happen. (We returned to ‘EPIC’ many times during the conversation).
  • Glossary would have been good. 
  • Irritating book, loved the characters but frustrated by certain features eg in the ending, the water didn’t travel over the levee (but others felt we are not told are not told whether it did or didn’t). Didn't like that all the good characters got killed or died eg Tom and Wil. Was Wil’s death because he consumed so much sugar ? Was Tom run over by a semi-trailer?
  • Can’t believe all white people are shits – thought that was overdone. Found it an extremely challenging novel and didn’t like the writing style. Felt bashed over the head by the same point and felt it needed a good edit. Even felt it alienating.
  • Really liked it and enjoyed it. Felt it was more a fable than a ‘real’ story. Gave a sense of what life is like for Indigenous people rather than reflecting exact reality. There were deaths like Wil and Yarri’s but there was also joy. For example, the communal life at the Campground before the levee broke up the community. There was so much sadness but also much love between the characters. Liked the interplay between the spirit world and the human world.
  • Found it engrossing, but the feeling of doom pervaded. Admired Celie setting up the laundry shed which was positive and the relationships with the other women workers. Reminded me of Pachinko and the relationships between those isolated Korean women living in Japan.
  • I am not into magic realism but I liked the spiritual world Simpson created. Her language and expression was wonderful. For example, when Mili was raped by the Mayor it wasn’t spelt out but inferred with metaphors. Also, there was one good Greek man – Angelou who helped Celie. (This was questionable according to another who felt he may have been ‘bothering’ the women.)
  • Is this book a bit like works by Isabelle Allende? Another member disputed that claim. The author does not like the term ‘magic realism’. 
  • Simpson comes from a very talented family of creative people and I am really glad I read it.
  • She is a supersmart woman who was not able to finish a formal education at school but is now doing further tertiary studies. 
  • The deaths were shocking but the author blended them into the cycle of the character’s lives. 
  • Strong resilient people who were not able to realise their potential. 
  • The book felt like a tribute to these people she has created even though they were apparently a mixture of people she has known. 
  • How do people keep going when struck by such adversity?
  • I don’t understand why people died – a bit romanticised.
  • The campground was community even though it was 4 miles out of town. Injustice upon injustice. 
  • I found it quite uplifting. I was expecting a dramatic climax – for example, a water spout or the war memorial monument rising up!
  • Fabulous book, ambitious and very rewarding – very different way of seeing the world.




We began by discussing the main characters, Celie and Mili. We all felt very sad that they were unable to love Paddy who was the result of a rape of a very young and vulnerable Mili by the Mayor. As one reader said, Rape and its consequences are hard to make anything good out of. Mick Murphy knew that Mili was a treasure and some felt she was set up with the acquiescence of Vera, Mick’s wife. One member would have liked more about Vera and others felt sorry for her. Darnmoor was male-dominated and Mrs Murphy was definitely under the thumb of her husband.

One reader thought there might be a way of understanding the talk about Mili’s eyes – an unusual shade of green. The baby’s (Mili’s) eye colour changed when her father was killed by the truck. The idea had been that Tom would get a house for him and Celie and baby Mili. This also involved with the sad story of Mili’s friends, Trilpa and Eadie.

However, we decided that for us as white people it is hard to read and fully comprehend an Indigenous resolution to problems.

We thought Celie was a successful character who demanded a job from the Mayor’s wife and then worked very hard doing the town’s laundry. However, we couldn't be sure that they were receiving correct wages for the labour. We all admired Bess, Celie’s sister, who was not romanticised and who also worked very hard and sewed so beautifully.

Wil was a strong character who cared for his boys and Mili. He had threatened the mayor in order to obtain their promised house. This house, we felt, was a blessing but also a curse for Milie as it isolated her when she most needed friends and family.

For the family, life after the rape was very difficult. It was even harder after the birth of Paddy. Mili is unable to relate to her child. Her mother and aunt also retreat. Yarri loves his brother, in fact idolises him.

We all appreciated Celie's mother, Margaret Lightning, who like the others was at the coal face of prejudice. She worked so hard in the hospital but was then dismissed crudely. All these characters face prejudice each day.

Mick Murphy is proud of his grandfather and so he explained it to Mili. One reader found his interest in talking to her unbelievable.

Nardi Simpson is reflecting stories she has been told and her perspective on town folk arises from holidays she spent up near Walgett visiting friends and family. Her characters are an amalgam of various people and her imagination. This is an Indigenous story and we as white women can never fully comprehend the full ramifications of their difficulties.

Nardi is keen to share her language in the novel and did not provide a dictionary. She doesn’t want readers too worried about individual meanings but go with the flow.

An excellent interview with the author is by Daniel Browning from ABC Radio National. 

We discussed the language of the spirits, such as the crocodile. Is the crocodile only a negative spirit? He is part of the environment so it is not black and white (no pun intended).

It seems an evil spirit but it is nuanced – not in a Judeo-Christian way.

There is also the question of how to live as a good person – which is often posed by people at the end of their life.

There is a spiritual view of the world in this novel. The stories are not didactic but create ways to think. It was reminiscent of Greek tragedy for one of our members. In that, there are similar larger than life characters between the divine and human.

We thought there was some humour in the novel, which slightly eased the sense of tragedy. A good example was the funny scene in the laundry where Celie and Mili compare their hand done washing to the quality achieved by the new appliances. They do it by washing one handkerchief. Our member who grew up in South Africa said she remembered similar hesitancy by her mother’s staff when washing machines became available.

The style of the novel was not discussed widely, although one reader said she thought it was in the ‘middle’ of the recent novels by First Nations’ writers. We also thought that various other Indigenous writers didn’t like the term ‘magical realism’, as it doesn't properly reflect their spirituality, which is unique to Australia's First Nations peoples.

A member advised us of a south coast festival which may be on, depending on Covid in NSW, the October version of Giiyong Festival.


Present: 10 members

Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Steven Conte, The Tolstoy Estate

Our group's June book was Australian author Steven Conte's second novel, The Tolstoy Estate, which takes place over six weeks - November-December 1941 - of Germany's World War 2 campaign in Russia. The specific setting is a German medical unit that was based in Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy's estate, near Tula, south of Moscow. 

The novel is told through the perspective of German military doctor, Paul Bauer, who is based there with a medical unit led by Julius Metz. At the estate is the curator of the site, Katerina Trubetzkaya, who is, not surprisingly, hostile. A relationship develops between Paul and Katerina, but against a backdrop of deteriorating conditions both on the war-front and in the unit, as commanding officer Metz's behaviour becomes increasingly erratic.

The book has been shortlisted for the 2021 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, and longlisted for the 2021 Colin Roderick award.

We started of course with our ...

First impressions

  • Enjoyed it because of its setting in a German army hospital in Russia, its exploration of love (particularly of love in difficult times), its discussion of writing and literature with wry reflections on Conte’s own book, and its structure with its sudden change of tack partway through. 
  • Loved it, couldn't put it down, because of its details which suggested it was well-researched. The harrowing details felt convincing, and the ending didn't let me down. 
  • Loved it, though got tired of all the operations, so loved it when the first set of letters appeared, because this kept me going. Haven't read War and peace and felt it might have added some layers. Loved the description of the house. 
  • Really enjoyed it, found the historical context very interesting, including that Tolstoy was a pacifist, as this novel is. It's a little romanticised, but reality wasn't romanticised. Hitler and many in the army used drugs during war, which may have resulted in some madness or deluded behaviour. There were great characters in the medical team, some feeling real, others more "hyper-real".
  • All of the above. As with Overstory, this is a book I'd love to write an essay about to draw out all the paths. Enjoyed the themes about love and writing (such as its discussion of "the usual reasons one values a novel"). Thought the book was particularly about Katrina, and the many facets of her as a person. Was interested in the reference to the Kreutzer sonata
  • A bit "iffy" at the start but ended up enjoying the book; it won me over. 
  • Liked it but didn't love it. Thought A gentlemen in Moscow was a better novel (says the member who recommended this one!) The references to the use of drugs during war are real. The surgery scenes felt like they'd come straight out of a textbook. Thought the Caesarean scene by candlelight was a bit far-fetched but "it probably did happen sometimes". Made me want to read Tolstoy again. 
  • Enjoyed it, particularly all the different characters. Found it a gentle book, considering the topic. Liked the descriptions of the snow, trees, countryside. 
  • Really enjoyed it, though doesn't think it's a great book. 
  • Really enjoyed it too, found it a visceral read with the descriptions of the icy cold conditions on the dressing station, in particular. The surgery scenes were very real. Thought it a political story, about a good man in a bad army. Katerina, also, was a good person in a bad regime. 

Further discussion

We talked about the novel's exploration of the past and the future. Metz saw himself as a man of the future, a d criticised Bauer for wallowing in the past (in Tolstoy). In one of his letters, Bauer talks about old people wanting to "wallow in memory, when clearly the healthier thing to do was to stride into the future". However, it's a complicated issue as Bauer seems to realise. In his letters, he wants to pick up the past and stride into the future with Katerina.

We talked about Nazism's master race theory, which posited the German race as the heroes of the future. But, as one member said, Bauer's life on the front is immersed in the consequences of aiming for this future. The gay dentist/anaesthetist Hirsch is an example of Nazism's vision riding roughshod over individuals. 

Bauer, on the other hand, saw people as individuals. War and peace, he tells Katerina, restored his faith in

doing good in the world; because if, as Tolstoy argued, we are all specks in a vast world-historical drama, including those who think they’re in charge, it follows that everyone’s actions are potentially significant, that the humblest person can influence events as much as any general, emperor of tsar. (p. 218)
One member reminded us of Bauer's recognition of the future in Demchak, 

It was good to be reminded of the talents of the young, who in time would run the world and, one hoped, make a better fist of it than those who were currently in charge.

Ironically, though, the black-and-white Hiwi Demchak is perhaps not the best of the young to achieve this!

One member commented that war is ethically confronting, which we Australians are seeing played out now in the SAS Officer Ben Roberts-Smith court case.

We also talked about the links with War and peace re Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. As one member said, both Napoleon and Hitler's armies had confronted unseasonably cold winters.

We looked at some of the questions from Steven Conte's website

One question is, "Is Julius Metz a bad person? What about Hermann Molineux? Norbert Ritter? ‘Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner,’ goes a French proverb: to understand all is to forgive all. How true is this?"

We talked about Metz being mercurial, unreliable, and able to be "played" by Katerina. Bauer believed the drugs being given experimentally to Metz affected his mental ability. We talked about their being value in "understanding" bad behaviour but where is the line? At what point can you forgive? Also, how do you empower people to stand up for their own beliefs? One member noted that Metz was good at his job, and did save lives.

One person wondered whether Bauer is a somewhat idealised character? Some thought perhaps he was, while others thought that he falls within the range of "real" people. As a surgeon, Bauer didn't have to be involved in the politics, one member suggested, though others felt that being a doctor in the regime, he couldn't avoid it.  

Considering the discussion this question engendered, one member suggest that it was a sign of a good novelist that we could get so much into the skin of his characters.


Another question concerned the structure and plotting: "What did you think when the first letter was introduced into the narrative? Did it shock you? Did it change your mind about the novel or change the way you read it? Did it reduce the tension for you or increase it?" 

One member had already mentioned in her first impression that it kept her reading, as she had become worn down by the extended chapter on the surgeries. Another member commented that it told us that Bauer and Katerina had survived the war, and wondered why he had decided to tell us this? What did he want us to focus on if it wasn't that plot issue?

We discussed how Conte explores a relationship coping with the stress of competing regimes, and that it showed what a strong bond they'd formed. One member hadn't got the feeling that Katerina was "into" Paul (Bauer). However, as others said, the novel is told from his third person subjective point of view, so, until the letters, we only see the relationship from his point-of-view - and he is uncertain about her interest. Another noted that Katerina's reference to not ruining his looks in the frostbite scene suggested her attraction to him! 

A member complimented Conte on his insight into human feelings, finding particularly real Katerina's description of how she missed Paul.

The final question we considered was: "Siegfried Weidemann advises Bauer to ‘Focus on your own job. Don’t look left or right. Obey orders and let someone else fret about the rest.’ What do you think of this advice? In your family, your workplace, your locality or your nation, is it unethical, necessary or reckless to disregard politics?"

Being Canberrans, we immediately thought of the challenges currently faced by public servants whom we feel are not encourage to give "frank and fearless advice" but to follow party lines. We talked about other works which explore personal responsibility, including Bernard Schlink's The reader, and Christopher Hampton's play, A German life, about Brunhilde Pomsel who worked in Joseph Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry. 

One member talked about the Government's being invested in creating heroes because we need people to go to war. Conte, we agreed, makes us think about making decisions. We can get caught up in the heroic stories. 

We liked that Conte has covered here a story that hasn't been told before - the 41 days of German occupation of Yasnaya Polyana. (Though, as one said, the book was inspired by Marie Curie's daughter, Eve Curie's Journey among warriors, 1943, which includes her description of a visit to Yasnaya Polyana, three weeks after its liberation from invading German forces.)

This was a book that engaged us all and generated a wonderful and wide-ranging conversation. A great choice, even if the person who recommended it didn't love it!

Present: 9 members

Sunday, 6 June 2021

Where the crawdads sing by Delia Owens

We began our discussion of Delia Owens' very popular novel, Where the crawdads sing, by talking about the title. ‘Crawdads’ are a type of yabby or crayfish.

This American book was inspired by some of the events in the life of the author, Delia Owens. She was a ‘wildlife scientist in Africa’ for some years. It was highly recommended to one of our members by an eminent scientist and environmentalist which helped to persuade us to read it.

It tells the story of Kya Clark, who was left by her family to live in the marshes of North Carolina at a very young age. After being sexually abused by a so-called admirer she is accused of his murder and so the novel revolves around her early life in nature and the subsequent court case.



First impressions:


  • I found it very readable although emotionally draining at first. 
  • Engaging, readable, a bit Mills and Boon like -- about the downtrodden girl. I didn’t believe many parts of it especially how a young person could be published and earn so much money from one book on shells. I liked the engagement with the natural world and the main character’s isolation from society. It was endearing but it was also curious. 
  • Why did she write this novel ?
  • I wasn’t sure about it. I heard some of it on ‘audible’. Last bit was too contrived. It had sad parts, eg when the character ‘Jumpin’ died. I engaged with the characters and enjoyed it.   
  • I got angry with the unrealistic story but I admired the structure of the book revolving around the court case and the police investigation and the time jumps between the story and the murder case. I thought the writing was beautiful about the characters.
  • I loved it and was engrossed by the story. I also found it very readable and liked the vivid writing about nature. I did not like the small town prejudices but having lived in America in the 1980s could understand the tone. It was also annoying at times.
  • I got used to the devices of time jumps. I also found an anachronism in it – she talks about Kya and Tate going on a picnic and using plastic cutlery in the late 1950s. I don’t think they would have had plastic cutlery even in the US at this time. It would have been metal cutlery I think? 
  • I saw flaws in this book, for instance, its sentimentality, but I was moved emotionally. It reminded me of a book I read when young called The girl of the Limberlost. ‘I thought the book was a bit suss. I didn’t like the poetry by Amanda Hamilton but it was important to the resolution’. Intellectually there were too many stereotypes – good African Americans and ‘bad’ white Americans with prejudices against the poor ‘white trash’ living in the marshes. 
  • I found it contrived but it had a good sense of place. I felt the murder was a bit out of character for Kya and the poetry ‘drove me batty’.
  • From an absent member –  a sense of Kya's gentle, almost secretive gliding around the water in the marshlands; she would look out for Tate, or birds or animals, disappear or hide on so many occasions. The language lent this feeling to the book. Loved how we didn't really know what she did through the years except survive remarkably, and occasionally see people, and somehow the story flowed such that I didn't wonder what she did. But then we find later in the book that she painted, recorded, observed, with the precision of a 'trained scientist' but using innate knowledge and feeling for the marsh and all nature there. It became her life, and it seemed so fitting. And the knowledge of what she did provided background that I found comforting and satisfying.


Further discussion


The other main characters in this novel are Tate, who was a good man and Chase who was not a good man or good lover. Kya was taken in by both boys (men) due to her loneliness and wanting so desperately to be in a relationship with another human. Kya knew that living alone with nature for company and stimulation for so long had changed her.

Chase was an ordinary lover and was fascinated by the exotic Kya. He was a tool for the author to show that Kya was able to surmount her difficulties of her early life. She was able to protect herself pretty well.

Kya was a lonely girl who somehow managed to survive. We then discussed how there was a sense that Kya’s loneliness and love of the marshes related to Owens' life trying to protect wildlife in Africa. We all wondered why she wrote this book? Was it to explore isolation and loneliness ?

We liked the light touches such as the ‘love’ game between Tate and Kya when they were exchanging feathers and other natural items found in the marsh. One member was frustrated that there were not many insects to bother Kya, which was a jarring note in her opinion. Another member commented that Kya was fortunate to look good after such a poor diet and lack of medical facilities and toiletries for many years.

The police were commented upon as leading quite a good investigation. They didn’t immediately jump to conclusions as they might have been suspected to do considering the lowly status of Kya. Some people in the town actually supported her too which was surprising considering they had not done so earlier.

It was surprising that Kya was able to acquire her father’s holding so easily. It was a little too neat.

The author wants the reader to believe that someone else eg Tate murdered Chase. But the last chapter convinces the reader that Kya got her revenge on Chase with the help of her friendly and kind lawyer. The lawyer could be a latter day ‘Atticus Finch’. The author is not a subtle writer.

We admired the writing in many places. For instance

Loved her magical descriptions eg the skunk family 

"Them scurrying behind [the mother], running into and over one another in black and white confusions." (page 296)

"The microscope's light (reflected in her dark pupils), and she drew in a breath as a Mardi Gras of costumed players pirouetted and careened into view. Unimaginable headdresses adorned astonishing bodies so eager for more life, they frolicked as though caught in a circus tent, not a single bead of water." (page 279)

And some very succinct descriptions eg:

"Life had made her an expert at mashing feelings into a storable size."(page 151)
"Sleep avoided her, slinking around the edges, then darting away."(page 277)

This novel is really an allegory or fairy story with many stereotypes – for example Jumpin and his wife Mabel are Kya’s only friends and moral supporters. The rest of the town are against her as she is poor white trash and considered dirty by many people such as the minister’s wife and Chase’s mother. Although a few people advocated for her most didn’t. Barkly Cove served their religion ‘deep fried’.

Most of the action in this novel is through Kya’s eyes so it is a very biased viewpoint. It was not depicting social realities of the 1950s and 1960s in North Carolina.

It was on the best seller list for 2 years and is being made into a movie.

Present: 7 members

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. 



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