Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Schedule suggestions 2009

Here are some of the suggestions tossed around at our meeting last night (together with those previous suggestions in the blog's sidebar):
  • Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (this year's Booker Prize winner. It's long so perhaps our summer read
  • Steven Conte's The zookeeper's war (last year's Prime Minister's Literary Award winner)
  • Rodney Hall (a book by him)
  • Alex Miller (a book by him - perhaps the new Lovesong??)
  • Patrick White's Voss (had been tentatively set for January but maybe Wolf Hall would be better for the summer read)
  • Kazuo Isiguro's Nocturnes (short stories)
  • David Malouf's Ransom
  • Jayne Anne Phillips' Lark and termite
Have I forgotten any that we discusssed?

What do you all think of these - and do you have other ideas? Marie, Susan and other farflung members - even if you can't come we would be happy to hear about any books you've read that you think we'd like to read.

(Free image from - for fun)

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Valley of grace by Marion Halligan

On Tuesday 29 September, 10 of us including the author Marion Halligan sat comfortably in Kate's house mulling over French lives, loves and babies. We started our discussion with comments about the amazing cake -- how does it stay together, had Marion eaten it -- yes but it was in a little bag (!) and she had never made it.

Marion was very generous with her memories of Paris in 1989 living near the Church whose creation is so central to a main theme of women and fertility. Her tale of writing the novel was fascinating -- it started life as a short story which had possibilities. We enjoyed hearing that her act of writing is pen and paper although she writes essays on the computer. She talked a little about writing erotica -- plenty of love in Fanny's life when Gerard appears. We heard about some of the characters including the Philosopher who is based on a Canberra academic and his wife who is so happy with her abandonment of him in preference to the god child. It was good to hear that all the answers are not known even for the author. The wild child was the Professor's offspring possibly and was so sad -- that lead to discussion about such children and Marion revealed that she had researched these children.

We talked of types of families in contemporary life and the growing trend of gay couples having children. Marion admitted that she considered a sad end for Claude and Agnes' baby but decided against it -- I am so pleased. She also talked of endings and the suddenness of this one.
The cover we decided is beautiful and its yellow rays appropriate for the story.

What also came out was Marion's love of Paris and the French and their cultured lives filled with books and good food, wine, chocolates and friends.

Next challenge is Pages -- Marion doesn't want to read it !

(Cover image courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Dreams from my father, by Barack Obama

Somehow our report of our August meeting slipped through the net, so in the interests of comprehensiveness I'm going to do a brief one now. Eight of us (I think!) met at Celeste's to talk about the book everyone's been talking about - Barack Obama's Dreams from my father - though I think we must have been about the last group to get around to doing it!

Not surprisingly, we all enjoyed it, though some admitted to finding the Chicago section slower going than the rest of the book. We liked the nuanced way he explores the issue of racism and racial experience. By this we meant the way he comprehends racism from a number of perspectives, due perhaps to his own unusual background:
  • he was brought up middle-class and by his white mother and grandparents;
  • he spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, and so experienced another set of cultural differences and expectations; and
  • his father, with whom he had some (but not much) contact, was African born (rather than an African American).
These things, together with his personal experiences and, well, his personality, give him a fairly unique basis from which to look at the issue.

Our assessment of Obama was that he is both visionary and compassionate. He is very open on some aspects of his life - such as drinking, smoking and drug-taking in his youth - but pretty reticent about his relationships with women (though clearly he had some - relationships, that is). While we would like to have known more, perhaps it's to his credit that he's discreet!

Finally, we talked a little about the title and the idea that it contains an element of irony. Whose dreams are they? Did his father's dreams carry the seeds of his own destruction? With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that whatever and whosever they are, they have stood him in good stead to date!

(Cover image: Courtesy Text Publishing)

Monday, 3 August 2009

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

On Tuesday 28 July, 7 Minervans met to discuss Christos Tsiolkas controverial book The Slap. Winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize, we all agreed it was a can't put down read, that had engaged us all. There was a lot of discussion of the Greek Australian culture that formed the background for a number of characters, and the role of males within this culture. There was some discussion about the representation of a certain middle-class Australia: the aspirational Australians. There was a very strong representation of consumerism, and the material ascendancy of this second generation of characters.

We all admitted to finding a lot of the characters rather unpleasant, but nonetheless very empathic. It was the younger characters we felt were drawn the most successfully, but who also found themselves reacting to events around them, and caught up in the manipulations of others.
Tsiolkas managed to give all the characters a convincing voice, and to get inside their heads.There was a sense that all characters were portrayed as vulnerable, with the contradiction between their thoughts and deeds highlighted by the author. Different group members had favourite characters, from the tragic Rosie to the attractive and flawed Hugo, and the wicked Hector.

It was a fascinating structure to present the narrative from different perspectives, and to move the story along in a dynamic way, that retained suspense, and continuity.

The regular drug-taking and 'male-oriented' sex was also commented on. The representation of the abuse of power was very realistic and quite chilling in places.

The group discussed the slap or child punishment very little, seeing the book as much more about the relationships, power struggles and family stresses that were revealed as a reult of the incidence. There was also a comment that the book was not 'documentary realism', but more a series of incidences told in a sort of heightened realism to emphasise the drama, and implications of the actions of the characters. There were comments that some of the writing was somewhat melodramatic, and slightly 'TV soap script' in style, but most did not find this off-putting.

A book rich in discussion topics, and somewhat confronting in its depiction of aspects of Australian society. Well worth reading.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Snow, by Orhan Pamuk

"It's good to read a book exploring 'big themes' instead of yet another Australian book about marriage breakups" was one member's comment about our June book, Snow, by Orhan Pamuk. This is the second Orhan Pamuk book that we Minervans have discussed, the first being his memoir-cum-history, Istanbul. Nine members turned up at our June meeting and almost all had attempted the book but only about half of us had finished, partly because, as most of us agreed, it is not one of those books you can read in long stretches. None of us, in fact, found it an easy book to read but we managed to tease out quite a few of the big themes it covers.

Some of the themes we looked at were: the relationship between art and politics, the role of women in Turkish society and particularly the issue of women wearing headscarves, east-west tensions (particularly between Turkey and Europe/Germany), and the tensions within Turkey between secularists, Islamic fundamentalists, and Kurdish nationalists. We didn't really resolve where Pamuk was taking us with most of these but we had fun trying.

We wondered what impact the translator had on our enjoyment of the novel. One member in particular felt it was cliched, contradictory at times, repetitive and weighed down by too much detail. Others of us, though, found it dense but overall an engaging read. Its structure is interesting: it is basically a third person story told by a first person narrator who has researched his friend's story after the events of the book, and much of the plot is foreshadowed before we get to it. There are quite a few pairs of characters who could be "compared and contrasted" to better understand them, including Ka the protagonist and his friend Orhan the narrator; Ipek and Kadife, the sisters; Fazil and Necip, the religious high school boys; and Ka (again) and Blue, the sisters' lovers.

Although the plot is based on a coup and there are some 29 deaths, the novel also has some very funny scenes - such as the scene where competing "rebels" get together to prepare a joint statement for the Western press. It is deeply ironic in places, and in fact we wondered whether the whole book has an ironic edge to it particularly in the way it plays with the art-politics nexus. Not surprisingly, snow - literally and figuratively - underpins the book and is presented somewhat paradoxically, that is, very early in the book it is described as pure but not innocent! The chapter headings are amusing and reminiscent a little of nineteenth century novel style. And the chapters are short - there are 44 chapters in under 440 pages. We do like a book with short chapters!

There were several attempts to sum up the book. One member suggested that it's a bit like a Turkish Wake in Fright, while another suggested that its complexity is rather reminiscent of a Turkish carpet. These are two quite diverse ways of looking at it. It would be great now to hear what others think, so please, comment away...

BREAKING NEWS! I have just learnt that "kar" is snow in Turkish - which rather explains the wordplay on Ka/Kars. The things you miss in translation, eh?

Thursday, 4 June 2009

The limits of Google

Had to share this. You have to feel sorry for the "punters" out there, including ourselves, trying to hone in on the information they/we seek. Recently, our blog was the second result in the hitlist produced on a search for "heroic quotes from Minerva". Well, of course our title is Minerva. And the report of our meeting on The white tiger does mention "hero" and the review of People of the book does include the word "quotes". Google very carefully put two and two together and came up with, well, not four in this case.

The trouble is that Google does not appear to use much in the way of proximity searching. After all, "hero" appeared in one post and "quotes" in another. The poor searcher arriving at our site must have been severely disappointed. You have to hope that if there are sites in which these words are closer together, they would have been listed ahead of us in the hitlist!

All this is to say that as wonderful as Google is (and I would hate to be without it), there is much to be said for good indexing and, more importantly perhaps, sophisticated search tools. Without them, searching the 'net is indeed a heroic activity requiring stamina, patience and perhaps, even, a little bravery...

(Photo:dannysullivan @ flickr)

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Steve Toltz, A fraction of the whole

What to say about a book that only a fraction of the six Minervans who attended this week's meeting had finished, except that despite this fact we had a fine discussion? Steve Toltz's A fraction of the whole is somewhat of a "loose baggy monster" that defeats some while engaging others. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year, and longlisted (but didn't make the cut) for the Miles Franklin this year. It did, however, win the inaugural People's Choice Award at this year's New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards. This is not a bad track record for debut novel by a writer in his early 30s.

What then is it about? It's hard to say except that the plot concerns the life of a father - a weird and wonderful one - as told by his son. It spans Australia, France and Thailand, not to mention several weeks at sea in a people-smuggler's boat. It is told in first person, mainly by the son, Jasper, but with sections told in, Martin's, the father's voice. These sections include the father's bedtime story of his life to the age of 22, his unfinished autobiography covering another section of his life, and parts of his journal. This is not really what it is ABOUT though and we spent some time discussing that - without coming to any major conclusions. We did, however, talk a little about the things he mocks, such as education and middle class Australian goals, and a little about his criticism of Western societies' lack of compassion. One member wondered whether there was a bit of the yin-yang to Martin and his brother Terry, and there could be some mileage in taking that discussion a little further.

We also talked about its style - and had a bit of fun picking out funny bits. You can find a "funny bit" on almost every page. It has some crisp dialogue and great descriptions, though some felt it could have done with a bit of an edit! Several felt it was a "young" book and thought its youthful breathless tone was a little reminiscent of D.B.C. Pierre's award-winning first novel, Vernon God Little. Unlike this book though, we found it harder at times to know exactly where Toltz stands on some of the issues he covers (though at other times it was pretty clear). We also thought that it was perhaps the most male book we'd read for a while - the last being Tim Winton's Breath.

There is a lot to think about and talk about in this book. Perhaps other members will add here some of the issues that particularly interested them.

(Book cover: Courtesy Allen & Unwin Website)

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Patrick White's Voss, and other things

Okay, I know we've done a classic for this year but could we squeeze in another? Kate and I were talking yesterday about the Voss events in town next week and Kate said she's never read it. I love Voss but it's been a long long time since I read it. I would dearly love to read it again. Voss, as I guess most of you know, is White's imagining of Ludwig Leichhardt's experience as he explored northern Queensland. What do you all think?

I have listed some of the books that have been suggested for our next schedule in the side bar on this blog. We should decide on our next schedule at the May meeting so have a think about what you'd like us to read. If you'd like to make some advance suggestions, you can do it in three ways: by adding a comment to this post; if you are an author here, by creating a new post describing your recommendation; by emailing me and I will add it to the list here.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Alan Bennett's The uncommon reader

Light with bite is how I would describe Bennett's delightful novella The uncommon reader. It can be read on several levels from the straight (a sweet story about the current English Queen discovering the thrill of reading late in her life) through the contemplative (a meditation on readers, reading and the value of literature) to the satirical (an expose of life in the palace, and more broadly of politics and those involved in the political process).

Take for example, reading. The Queen (in the book) says that "Books are not about passing the time. They're about other lives. Other worlds". Fair eough, we all agree with that I'd say. But then there's this, again from our newly enlightened reading Queen: "Books generally just confirm you in what you have, perhaps unwittingly, decided to do already. You go to a book to have your convictions corroborated. A book as it were closes the book". Hmmm...Bennett's Queen is one clever (and scary) lady!

Jokes at the expense of palace officials, politics and politicians abound. Nothing really new here but they are proffered with a light touch. The Queen, now talking about writing her own book, says "To enquire into the evidence for something on which you have already decided is the unacknowledged premise of every public enquiry, surely?" on which the Prime Minister thinks to himself "If this was to be the tone of what the Queen was planning to write there was no telling what she was going to say. 'I think you would do better just to tell your story, ma'am'".

This is no sentimental tale, but neither is it completely cynical (though some could see it that way). Sly is perhaps the best word to describe its ability to engage us with the humanity of the characters while skewering them and their (our) world at the same time. However, I won't go on, except to say that the ironies, word play and allusions evident in the title give a clue to what is inside - and yet it can be read and enjoyed whether or not you pick up all, some or none of them. I'm sure I missed my share. But that's okay, as I would be more than happy to read it again.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Michelle de Kretser's The lost dog

Lost was a little bit how the seven Minervans who met to discuss The lost dog felt when approaching a discussion of this novel. All agreed that de Kretser is a wonderful writer but there were mixed feelings about how successful this particular book is. Some felt it was slow to start, a few felt the middle was a little tortuous, while others loved it from go to whoa. In other words, we paralleled the mixed reactions of the critics.

The lost dog is framed by the story of one man, academic Tom Loxley, and his search for the dog he loses while staying in the country to finish his book on the writer Henry James. The story is divided into ten "chapters" titled by the days of the week over which the search is conducted. However, within this simple chronological construct is a complex amalgam of several pasts and the present, as Tom, our point of view in the novel, contemplates where he has come from, where he is now and, perhaps, where he is going. As we read, we start to believe the truth of the Henry James epigram which opens the novel, "The whole of anything can never be told".

De Kretser, we all agreed, can, in a few words, capture the essence of a thing. Take, for example, the different ways the young and the old experience time: "She [Iris] sculptured the past, according to whim, as a child plays with the future; each having an abundance of material". Or, the more banal, "On Saturday nights there was only TV on TV". But this ability can sometimes be counter-productive for de Kretser keeps such comments and observations coming with a frequency that can be mind-blowing. It is hard sometimes to stop and see the forest for the trees, as beautiful as the trees are.

Besides the wonderful language, a major strength of the novel is the characterisation. We felt her characters were well drawn particularly Tom, Nelly, Iris and the dreadful though to a degree understandable Audrey. (We decided not to show "the limits of our understanding" by refusing to "imagine" her properly!) These, and other, characters kept us going when the writing and layering of meaning upon meaning started to bog us down.

But what then, is the novel about and where does Henry James fit in? We have a plot concerning a lost dog - and another one concerning the disappearance of Nelly's husband. We have wonderful characters who fascinate and engage us. We have rich writing full of "aha" moments. The book covers a multitude of topics: literature/narrative versus art/image, west versus east, known versus unknown, not to mention aging, modernity, and migration. Overlaying all this is an ongoing discussion of the past, of history, and how it relates to the present and, perhaps, may inform the future. It is not a simple notion of past and history though that de Kretser explores. Rather it is the sense that we never can fully know what happened and that it may not even be necessary to know. And this is partly where James comes in. He is described by Tom as a novelist who aimed to "break with melodrama and romance and establish himself as the master of the new psychological novel" but who was not quite able to keep the mysterious, the supernatural, that is the unknown, out. For de Kretser this is no bad thing. Tom considers at the end "that knowledge, which had sheltered him round for so long, had been allowed to shrink to a constraint" and concludes that "what he wished ... was that he might yet be graced with courage and loving conduct in the face of everything that can never be known".

And so too, do we Minervans. After a lively and engaging discussion, we agreed that we did not fully know what the book is about but, like Tom, we can learn to "stroll around to the back of knowledge and look at it from the other side". We never know what we might find.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Geraldine Brooks' People of the book

What I do is me. For that I came. I had to start the review with this because it is a favourite line of mine from a favourite Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, "As kingfishers catch fire". However, even though it appears twice in the book, I haven't quite worked out whether it contributes anything significant to the book. Still, it gave me a little fillip of joy, so for that I am grateful.

Back to the book. It comprises two stories, both working in opposite directions. The forwards moving story is a first person one told by Hanna Heath, a book conservator who is brought in to conserve the Sarajevo Haggadah but who also has a rather fraught story of her own. The backwards moving story imagines, through a series of mostly third person tales, how the haggadah was created and made its way from Spain to Sarajevo. It's an interesting structure and makes sense I guess: when telling a person's life suspense and interest - where are we going, what will happen next - tends to increase the more we move forward into the murky future, while for an object, building, event etc the suspense and interest can increase the more we move backwards into the murkier and murkier past (a bit like an archaeological dig in which you move from the known to the less and less known). These two contrasting movements in the book nicely balance each other: the two stories move progressively, in opposite directions, away from the book's starting moment.

It's an enjoyable and readable book with, I think, some worthy goals, the most important of these being "that diverse cultures influence and enrich each other". (p. 400) As Brooks envisages it, the history of the book involves both conflict and co-operation between Jews, Muslims and Christians. Different traditions are involved in both the creation of the haggadah and its survival - and, while many of the people who cross its path suffer badly in its wake, there are others who are enriched by it. And then, Hanna herself, ends up with with a man of another culture and religious background. This point regarding cultures influencing and enriching each other is expanded to include the notion of promoting harmony between them when, near the end of the novel, the Sarajevan librarian who had saved the book says "It was here to test us, to see if there were people who could see that what united us was more than what divided us. That to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox". (p. 451/2) These two quotes sound a little preachy but in fact this heavy-handedness occurs mainly towards the novel's close...and occasionally in Hanna's story.

The stories which imagine the haggadah's creation and survival are well-researched and told, and are linked to Hanna through the various "artefacts" she finds when conserving the book, artefacts such as a butterfly wing, a wine stain mixed with salt, and a white hair. These stories, each one pretty self-contained, start in Sarajevo in 1940, and move back to Seville in 1480. They make rivetting reading, so much so that we want to know what happens to the characters in them when their role in the haggadah ends. Maybe Brooks will come back to them sometime in the future? She does have a skill at evoking historical periods.

But, the book has a weakness, and that is in Hanna's story. Her voice feels forced and her story is rather melodramatic. Brooks packs too many "dramas" into Hanna's story - unsupportive mother, lost father, critically ill child, cross-cultural romance, theft, forgery and a bit of counter-skullduggery - making Hanna a rather cardboard character, which is disappointing as she frames the story and is meant to be its glue.

Despite its faults though, People of the book is an engaging read with a sincere heart. I'd certainly recommend it - there are worse books to read out there.

(Book cover: Thanks to Harper Collins Australia)

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Aravinda Adiga's The white tiger

Adiga's 2008 Booker-prize winning The white tiger generated a lively discussion amongst the nine Minervans who attended the March meeting. All had read it and all essentially enjoyed it. Universal enjoyment is not always a recipe for good discussion we have found but there were differences of opinion about aspects of the novel which enabled us to tease out why we liked it and what we thought it meant.

But first, a quick plot summary! It is a one-sided epistolary novel in which Balram Halwai, a self-confessed entrepreneur, writes to Wen Jiabao, the premier of China who is soon to visit India. His aim is to tell Jiabao the truth about India to counteract the official story that India is "moral and saintly". To do this he recounts his own rise from being a servant driver for a rich family to an entrepreneur running his own "start-up" business, a rise that is brought about by his murdering his employer/master.

It is a deeply cynical, but darkly humorous, book about what it takes to be "a man" in a society where servants are treated like children. He describes the "Rooster Coop" in which servants are trapped because, if they try to escape, their families will be destroyed ("hunted, beaten and burned alive"). One point of discussion was the "choice" Balram made, that is, to murder his master in order to escape the "Coop". Some felt he had a real choice while others felt it was more a case of a Sophie's or Hobson's choice. Many felt there were valid reasons for his decision but questioned its rightness in terms of the cost to his family. Some wondered what he had actually achieved in terms of personal fulfilment while others wondered whether this was the point. Is personal fulfilment or joy what Balram was about?

We found Balram to be a credible voice, despite there being some critical opinion to the contrary, but also recognised that it is very much a one-person point of view. Everything is seen through his eyes...and his eyes are more anti-hero than hero. However, despite this, despite his anti-social behaviour, he manages to engage us; the success of the novel rests upon our ability to accept his voice, and accept it we all did.

A strength of the novel, besides the power of Balram's voice, is its language. Adiga's use of irony and dark humour, and of metaphor, made the book a compelling read from the start for most members, though a couple found it a little hard to get going at the beginning.

We briefly compared the book to the film Slumdog Millionaire which presents a fairy-tale-like response to the poverty of India, and Rohinton Mistry's A fine balance in which the characters survive but remain victims. The white tiger, on the other hand, presents a vision of success and survival that is founded upon very murky waters.

Why the book is framed in terms of letters to the Chinese premier is something we didn't fully resolve. Some critics feel it is a weakness in the novel but we wondered whether Adiga is making a point about the similarities and/or differences between these two Third World countries and their relatively recent economic growth. Is he suggesting China has a better way, or is he simply warning China off following the Indian way? Regardless of the answer to this question, the overall message we decided is one of concern about the foundations of India's success. Adiga has been reported as saying he wanted to "entertain and disturb". We all felt that he achieved his goal.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Obama - a must read

Hi all
Our coast bookclub, Broulee & Beyond, just discussed Barack Obama's Dreams from my Father. I was so reluctant to even begin thinking that it would be schmaltzy. How wrong I was. One of the best reads ever. And we all agreed - even the toughest and most difficult to please amongst us.
It was written in 1994 (or '95) before he even entered mainstream politics, although I count his years as a grass roots organiser in Chicago as politics of the most basic sort. There's a wonderful preface to the second edition which came out in 2001 or so, but all long before any hint of presidency.
So much to discuss.
I highly recommend this book to you all.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Perth International Arts Festival

PIAF, what a great acronym, has published its Top Ten Book Club Reads. It looks to me to be a great list, and contains some titles that we have already suggested or might like to consider for our next round, such as Joan London's The good parents, Sebastian Barry's The secret scripture, Arnold Zable's The sea of many returns, and Kate Grenville's The lieutenant.

Have a look at the full list - there are also books set in the Baltic, Afghanistan and Bosnia - and see what you think...

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Nam Le's The boat

How should a bookgroup discuss a short story collection? Discuss each story in turn? Have each member comment on her favourite? Do a general free-for-all? This week eight Minervans met to discuss Nam Le’s highly lauded collection of seven short stories The boat. We haven’t discussed many short story collections over our long years of existence and so don't have a tried-and-true plan of attack. Our most recent one was Tim Winton’s The turning but it was quite a different book to discuss because of the strong links between the stories.

The group as a whole was bowled over by The boat. We were impressed by his versatility and most of us felt that the language and style were highly differentiated from story to story to suit the particular characters and setting of each. For example, the language and sentence structure of the first somewhat autobiographical story “Love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice” was quite different from that of the second story, “Cartagena”, set in Latin America. The narrative voice varies too from 1st to 3rd person, and from male to female points of view. Several stories though rely on a fairly familiar "present interspersed with flashback" narrative structure. An exception to this is the very different, and more obviously poetic, "Hiroshima".

Besides the language, Nam Le’s versatility is on display in the variety of his protagonists and settings. The subjects range from an 8 year old orphan girl in Hiroshima to a middle-aged painter in New York, from a 14 year old hitman in Colombia to a 35-year old American woman visiting Iran. Despite this diversity, though, we noticed that survival seemed to be a strong underlying theme in the stories. This is probably not surprising in a writer who came to Australia from Vietnam as a boat refugee.

In addition to discussing specific stories in some detail, we also discussed the story endings and their clarity or lack thereof! Some felt they were more oblique than they need be and would have liked a little more clarity. The story that was particularly referenced in this discussion was “Tehran calling”, with many of the group being unsure about what exactly happened, and some feeling that this detracted from it. Others were less concerned about the open-endedness...or perhaps felt they knew what happened! "Meeting Elise" was another whose ending generated some discussion about its intent.

An issue we didn’t discuss but one that I can’t resist raising is that of the autobiographical aspect of the first story. That story is so close to Nam Le’s own life that it is tempting to read it AS his life. A character says to the fictional Nam that “instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires, and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans – and New York painters with haemorrhoids”. One reviewer, Hari Kunzru in The Scotsman, wrote that “Sure enough, The Boat, contains all these stories, minus the lesbian vampires, who presumably got lost in the edit”. Does he know this for a fact? Did the real Nam Le write such a story or is it only the fictional one who did? Is this a case of life getting mixed up with art? In an interview on the ABC’s Bookshow Nam Le admits to a story about lesbians but says “the vampires I needed to leave some interpretive distance, I reckon”. I like to think of it as Nam Le’s little joke – but I may be wrong!

Now, any one else like to comment?

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Edith Wharton's The house of mirth

Six Minervans kicked off 2009 this week with a meeting at Gerda's. It was a hot night, but we stayed cool sitting in her back room, with its open hopper windows, sipping ginger punch and white wine. We also discussed The house of mirth, before adjourning to the lounge-room to watch the last few games of Jelena Dokic's quarter final match against Safina in the Australian Open. She lost, but we were proud of her!

Anyhow, the book. All who read it enjoyed it, some with qualifications. We started off with a discussion of the title - its biblical source, and what the word "mirth" connotes to us today. A couple thought the book was a bit wordy ("enough already" was the actual phrase spoken), and at least one thought it a little melodramatic and felt that its seams showed somewhat (that is, it was clear that it was a serialised novel). However, we all felt that she depicted the impact of the tight social strictures on women very well and that Lily Bart was a sympathetic, complex and well-drawn character. We were all glad we didn't live back then. Some of us were surprised to discover such a rigid society in the USA which has always promoted itself as the land of freedom where all can pursue happiness equally. Clearly this was not the case in early 20th century New York! There was a lively discussion about whether Lily was naive in trusting Gus Trenor or whether she used her wiles one time too many. Regardless of our attitude on this one, we recognised that Lily was in a pretty invidious position in that society and we all agreed that Gus behaved abominably.

We were less sure of Lawrence Seldon. Someone asked whether he was meant to represent the other half of the biblical quote alluded to in the title - the half that praises the serious life, expressed in Ecclesiastes as "the house of mourning" - but we didn't in the end feel that was quite it. Perhaps it is simply that his dual role as character and observer/commentator got in the way of his development as a fully-fledged character. We found Rosedale, the Jewish businessman, to be an interesting character. In this book as in many 19th century novels, it's clear that Jews were generally maligned by "society" and yet, while he never stopped being the businessman, he also showed compassion to Lily when the rest of her so-called friends forsook her. (Edith Wharton has been accused of anti-semitism, but her portrayal of Rosedale in this book doesn't really bear this out.)

Finally, we agreed that it is a "true" tragedy: Lily is a heroic character who, despite her dignity and sense of morality, is brought down by a combination of her own flaws and those of the society she lived in.

And now, perhaps other Minervans might like to add their comments...

Photo: Edith Wharton 1915 (Source:En.Wikipedia)

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Susan Duncan's Salvation Creek

Never fear, this is not another long review. I know Sylvia has read this book as it's been going around our patchwork group - has anyone else? It's a memoir by a woman who lost her husband and only brother to cancer in the SAME week and who, as a result, but over some time, made some major changes to her life including moving to live in a boat-only-access part of Pittwater in Sydney. She's very honest about her feelings - and her failings - and comes across as a pretty spunky warm-hearted and generous woman. She also writes beautifully about life on Pittwater. And, recent reprints contain the recipe for her wonderful-sounding, and apparently easy to make, Lemon Cake.

One of the pieces of advice she imparts - not didactically but as a message to herself - is something she remembers her uncle telling her. He says, "You've got to watch your noodle all the time. Turns on you in a flash, fills you with crabby, unhelpful little ideas if you're not constantly vigilant". It's what I call self-talk but her uncle's way of saying it is so much more poetic.

Her next book is now out, The house at Salvation Creek. Anyhow, if you like memoirs, if you like reading about people who make major changes in their lives, and if you are interested in women who are roughly our age, you'll probably enjoy this (if you haven't read it already).