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.