Thursday, 8 December 2011

Andrew O'Hagan's The life and opinions of Maf the dog and of his friend Marilyn Monroe

It was a dark and stormy night ... no, really, it was ... but nonetheless around 8 Minervans forded the hail, lightning and thunder to go to Kate's to discuss our November book, The life and opinions of Maf the dog and of his friend Marilyn Monroe, by Scottish writer, Andrew O'Hagan.

Why, asked a member to start proceedings, was it told by a dog? Couldn't it have been just as easily written as a third person story? Perhaps, others of us said, but the dog adds another perspective. And, in fact, O'Hagan suggests in the book that the animal world has it more together than the human of the species. At one point Maf talks of spouses, and how some can be competitive, can even want to destroy what they love. He suggests
Poor married people: perhaps they could learn something from dogs about how to settle the business of oneself before setting up shop with another.

There's a sense in fact that dogs are more moral, more sensible, that they can see the moral problems while humans get themselves tied up over such issues fame and celebrity. In a footnote, of which there are many ("a dog is bound to like footnotes. We spend our lives down here"), Maf tells us that dogs speaking of humans has a long tradition, starting in prose with Cervantes.

But, before I continue, a quick rundown of what is a pretty slim plot. Maf (short for Mafia Honey) is a Maltese Terrier who was given (in reality as well as in fiction) to Marilyn Monroe by Frank Sinatra. In the first few chapters Maf moves from Scotland, where he is born, to the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (of the Bloomsbury set), to the Los Angeles home of Natalie Woods’ parents, to Frank Sinatra to Marilyn. In the rest of the book we follow Maf as he lives with Marilyn Monroe, in New York and Los Angeles, in the last couple of years of her life.

Maf meets LOTS of people, moving as he does in the rarefied air of Hollywood and New York - and this brought out another criticism/comment. Some members felt the book was a little too clever or smart-alecky. There IS a good degree of name-dropping and if you don't know all the references (as I admit I didn't) then you're sure to miss something. Is this a flaw? Some felt it was, but we all agrees that O'Hagan's years of research resulted in the era being well described. And this was part of the theme or topic we thought, that is a description of the 1960s. The hope, in particular, with the election of John F Kennedy and the country being on the verge of the Civil Rights Movement. They were exciting times. At one point Marilyn and Maf take a tour to Ellis Island, the historical arrival point for many immigrants to America, and where the universal cry was "Let me start again".

Trotsky appears regularly in the novel, as he's Maf's hero. Maf seems to see him as an ideal man - a potential world leader, an interior decorator, and a literary critic. Towards the end is this:
In the society of the future, Trotsky wrote, all art would dissolve into life. That is how the world would know good philosophy had triumphed. No needs for dancers and painters and writers and actors. Everyone would become part of a great living mural of talent and harmony.

Oh yes!

We also talked a little about the humour, such as the various party scenes where Marilyn talks with the likes of Carson McCullers or the Trillings, or where Maf nips a literary critic he doesn't like. It's a pretty funny book and contains (of course it does) a discussion of tragedy versus comedy.

One of our members had done some research on O'Hagan and reported that when he was a teenager he saw Marilyn Monroe as representing what human beings can do with their lives. She became an exemplary life that spurred him on. Some, though, wondered whether he had idealised her. The book's ending, given that it's about the last couple of years of her life, was not the expected one - and a couple of members felt it was a somewhat schmaltzy movie-style ending.

By the end of the discussion, some of those who had not finished it and had been unsure whether they wanted to, felt that it might be worth keeping on going! What better assessment could there be of a good discussion ...

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Howard Jacobson's The Finkler question

Written by Sylvia ...

Howard Jacobson's The Finkler question,
Courtesy: Bloomsbury.
A very pleasant evening at Helen's was had discussing a book which intrigued and challenged many of us not 'in the club'.  The level of ignorance about all things Jewish ranged from complete ignorance to full knowledge. Thank goodness for our wonderful members who have a more cosmopolitan background!

The Finkler question, by English writer Howard Jacobson, is the story of an Englishman, Julian Treslove (Fr. 'very love' ?) who lives in London.  He wants to be Jewish and find true love and the girl of his dreams. He is utterly obsessed by his two Jewish friends, Sam Finkler  and Libor Sevcik (a Czech Jew) and their whole way of looking at the world and their culture. Later in the book he falls in love with Hephzibah, Libor's neice, but although she is perfect he wants more -- too much more even for her. He wants to 'consume' her and in fact ends up making her completely miserable. He is a pathetic character (to some of us ) in that his endeavours to join in the life of his friends always ends in disaster and makes him more miserable and egocentric. He is a terrible father with little or no interest in his sons and even less empathy. He is a terrible de facto husband to the mothers of his sons for the same reasons.  

There is a lot of philosophy and polemic in this novel. However, the tone is lifted by the clever and repetitive repartee from the main antagonists. According to our 'knowledgeable one' the book is true to Jewish dialogue, and thought patterns and humour. And it contains masses of humour if you read it carefully. Jacobson knows what he is describing and knows the long and winding conversations which can be very funny and very typical. The use of Yiddish is good because there are some Yiddish words which are not translatable into English, and they add to the sense of craziness or hilarity at times (eg Nebissh.)

The talk also ranged over some of the topics discussed by the main characters -- sex (a constant thread), the Palestinian state and the ASHamed Jews' viewpoint.

It was not decided what the main point of the book is -- is it just a chance to laugh with and at Jews or is it a spoof of their interminable conversations. Or is it something else entirely? It is ironic and it is a fabulous comedy for those who understand it. Did it deserve to win the Man Booker -- we didn't decide ?

... and then Sylvia throws down the gauntlet: "Maybe others can add to this, contest or whatever!", she says. So, go for it Minervans.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Hazel Rowley's Franklin and Eleanor: An extraordinary marriage

It was pretty much a full house when Minervans met this week to discuss Australian biographer Hazel Rowley's last book, Franklin and Eleanor: An extraordinary marriage. Ten members turned up - with the only absentee being the person who first suggested it. We're not complaining though, because everyone, it appears, enjoyed the book. One, in fact, admitted secretly to preferring biography to fiction; some were surprised by how much they enjoyed it. The overall comment was that it was readable, engaging.

We started our discussion with our absent member's comment on our Facebook event page. She wrote that:
It is a beautiful piece of writing which shows just what an extraordinary period of change that first half of the 20th century proved. However, I did miss some of that Janet Malcolm style of careful consideration of where the biographer fits in with the story...

None of us had read Janet Malcolm (though we checked her on Wikipedia) and so were not quite sure exactly what Helen meant. Helen, if you read this post, please tell us in a comment!

Eleanor Roosevelt's White House Portrait
(Public Domain,  courtesy US Government via Wikipedia)
Being women, we probably focused more of our discussion on Eleanor. Reasons we liked the book included the description of the rich (not as in "wealthy" though they were that too) lives they led, and the fact the Eleanor was a multi-dimensional, sophisticated person who could interact with many peoples on many levels. We discussed how driven she was by her mission - which mostly related to social justice issues such as equality and respect for black Americans.

We of course commiserated with Eleanor over Franklin's betrayal of her with Lucy Mercer in 1918 and discussed why they stayed together. Rowley gives pragmatic reasons - his mother threatened disinheritance, his political advisers said it would be the end of his political aspirations - but also suggests that there was love and affection between them, and that Franklin "still loved Eleanor; he knew how much he needed her". In the preface Rowley describes their marriage as "a joint endeavour, a partnership". It certainly seems it must have been that, as they stayed together for 40 years, until Franklin's death in 1945. However, we also wondered whether Eleanor's insistence on retaining Mrs Nesbitt as the White House housekeeper - the White House during their unusually long occupation was renowned for its indifferent cuisine - was a passive-aggressive act on her part, though others suggested it was simply that Eleanor didn't care much about food.

One member admitted that Eleanor had the life she would like to lead. Others weren't quite so sure.

We liked the description quoted near the end of Eleanor's blend of "naiveté and cunning".

We touched on some issues relating to the writing of biography, such as the challenge Rowley had in teasing out fact from mythmaking, particularly given some of the primary sources were written with a view to future public use. We felt Rowley was not judgemental but maintained an even-handed tone throughout, despite appearing to be more interested in Eleanor. Perhaps this focus is due to the fact that there are more primary records for Eleanor's part of the marriage. She, for example, kept a diary and wrote her "My Day" column for the newspaper, while Franklin kept no journal. I felt that while it was well-researched, and well-written, there was something missing, something Rowley probably didn't (couldn't) know regarding just what was the "glue" that kept them together. How much was real affection and how much pragmatism? That's something we'll never really know though the evidence Rowley presents tends to suggest mostly the former despite the myriad other romantic friendships and relationships each had. It really was an extraordinary marriage.

Being Australians, many felt they did not fully comprehend the history of the period. We recognised though that Rowley's book was not intended to be a history but an analysis of the marriage. Having lived in the USA, I said that there is still evidence today of Franklin's New Deal, and particularly the work of the CCC and WPA programs in and around the National Parks and some of the major scenic roads. Susan said she had visited Hyde Park, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. She said it was beautiful and fascinating, though also carefully curated (if you know what she means!).

A couple of us commented on the lovely accolades given on FDR's death. We particularly liked this one:
'His face was the very image of happiness,' Albert Camus wrote in the French Resistance newspaper, Combat. 'History's powerful men are not generally men of such good humour ... There is not a single free human being who does not regret his loss and who would not have wished his destiny to have continued a little longer. World peace, that boundless good, ought to be planned by men with happy faces rather than by sad-eyed politicians.'
And that seems as good a place as any to end this report. Comments anyone?

Friday, 2 September 2011

Caleb's Crossing or Bethia's Borders?

Our lively discussion about Geraldine Brooks' latest novel was sparked by Sue quoting a controversial review by Jocelyn McLurg in USA Today, whose irreverent review claimed 'it reads like a puritanical mash-up of Avatar meets Dances With Wolves'.

The story is based loosely on the story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, who in 1665 became the first Native American Harvard graduate, and is set in what is now called Martha's vineyard, (Wampanoag: Noepe) an island off the coast of Massachusetts, USA where Geraldine Brooks lives. The Minerva group found the book to be very readable and the story engaging.

We talked about her use of the female protagonist Bethia, and whether she spoke with a 21st century voice, or indeed Geraldine's voice. Other members argued that there was evidence of outspoken women at the time, and her feminist attitude while unusual was not unbelievable. She was the most fleshed out character, although her fate took a number of twists and turns, sometimes it seemed only to serve Brooks' narrative needs - eg in being indentured to the school, and then falling for Samuel.
We talked about the romance in the book, and whether Bethia and Caleb had a romantic attraction. Most agreed that the romance was a let down, and we didn't feel a strong emotional engagement with the characters. Caleb especially was seen as a shadowy character, particularly as the book progressed, so that we don't really get to know him.

We agreed that her capturing the sense of place was very successful, that she knew that environment well, and had as usual researched her background and characters well. Her understanding of the Indian dwelling Bethia went to and 'sank into the furs' was very believable, and we found out based on Geraldine's own experience. She certainly is inspired by places she lives to delve into the background to find the stories.

We talked of her use of language in using words from Wiltshire dialect, like 'shakedown' ... Sue commented that she was not entirely consistent, and thought her use of the term 'going forward' had a modern jargon association.

We touched on religion and it's constraints and the references to Satan and evil in relation to the pawaw's activities and seeming command of the forces of nature. However Bethia's father had his own reputation for magic healing when it seemed he could save the Indian sonquen Nahnoso from illness, a reputation shortlived when the sonquen succumbed to smallpox.

We explored the use of the title Caleb's Crossing...what was being crossed and what the significance was. Some thought Geraldine had a more straightforward motivation in simply telling a story that intrigued her. Others felt that she was examining the notion of crossing cultures, and the cost and difficulty of such a crossing, both by Caleb..who paid for it in his death, and by Bethia and her family who had a tough life in coming to a new country. Geraldine's own experience in having adopted a son from Ethiopia had also sensitized her to the needs to adapt and learn language and ways of a new culture. She refers to the importance of retaining the association with her son's original culture. In Caleb's case he really had to choose to abandon much of his Wampanoag life in order to be accepted in white society.

A stimulating discussion. A number of the group had heard Brooks interviewed and admired and enjoyed her tales about how she finds and researches the stories she writes...almost more engaging than her actual novel??

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Kim Scott's That deadman dance

Written by Sylvia: 

On July 26 Minerva met to discuss That deadman dance by the Indigenous writer Kim Scott. All present had read most if not all of the book and although there were a couple of people who thought it was a little long and needed a good edit we all gained an insight into life of a Noongar  man in the first few decades of white settlement in SW Western Australia.  It is the same old story of exploitation of the sea and the land by white Europeans but it has many twists and turns which made it most agreeable and enjoyable to many of us. It is also more poignant because you get to feel the loss of status and hope experienced by many of the Noongar people during this time.

A surprisingly good feature is that it is not sequential in the life story of Bobby Wabalanginy (how do you pronounce that?). It covers the years from 1826 to 1844. We hear about when Bobby was very young and experiencing the sea and the whaling industry which arrived and left all in the space of a few years, the settlement, the exploration, the agriculture and the town growing up and his elderly life when he is telling tourists some of the stories told to him by his surrogate dad Menak as well as his own stories and songs. The Prologue is fascinating as it links Bobby not only to whales but also to European education -- learning to write English as well as work out his connection and love of whales and their presence in the sea.     

The whaling scenes were considered by some to be distressing and too long but others thought they were good in that you really felt that the story had not been told so graphically before. And Scott captures the feeling of strangeness that his ancestors must have felt when going on board a big ship and experiencing the sea in a very different way from the way. 

Another very good feature of this novel is that Scott makes a European reader a little bit more aware of the subtleties of Indigenous life -- for instance the lack of amity between tribes.  Another example is that the Europeans thought they were trading for good 'things' from the local people but sometimes the Indigenous people gave them 'shonky axes, or 'a spear that wouldn't fly' (page 73).          

There are many great characters in this book as well as Bobby. Menak is a powerful force in the novel -- 'a wise man' who suspects all Europeans. Dr Cross is one of the few good settlers who takes great interest in the local people and of course he is not popular with the others. Some of the others try but as time passes the opportunities for friendship disappear and so does the goodwill between the nationalities. James and Jeffrey are two Indigenous men who are killed by Chaine who is one of the most greedy of the settlers, but James and Jeffrey are not without their faults too.

The language is excellent -- some Indigenous words -- not always explained and lots of different words used to explain Indigenous culture. It does not have the cliche words such as 'dreamtime' but Scott talks about men from the horizon (for the white settlers).

Scott is a very clever writer as he is telling history as well as writing many memorable passages which add to his novel giving it resonance for all readers  -- a very good example is the passage about reading:
 you can dive deep into a book and not know just how deep until you return gasping to the surface...  (page 86)  
The whaling imagery is quite wonderful and very evocative. Another very good passage is Scot's raw view of the bush as seen by the explorers -
Leaves were like needles, or small saws. Candlestick-shaped flowers blossomed or were dry and wooden... (page 46)
- which is so much more graphic than using the modern botanical names. 

I think many of us think this book could easily take a second reading as there is much to interest and understand.

Thanks, Sylvia ... and next time we'll do it together so it can be posted under your account.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

M.J. Hyland, This is How

Book cover courtesy
Text Publishing
We were envious of our absent travelling members as about seven of us gathered on a wintry evening to discuss this thought provoking novel. One of our travellers had emailed her response to the book - that lives can change catastrophically in a moment, as happened to the doomed, naive young Oxtoby, unloved by his family as being too "different".

We remarked on the very spare style of writing, with short, simple sentences using few adjectives so that it was difficult to tell exactly when it was set (maybe the sixties?). Some of us really liked the writing, and even though some normally prefer more lushly detailed prose with a rich sense of time and place (OK, me!), in this case we agreed that the lack of descriptive language and other digressions, along with the almost constant use of the present tense, helped the reader to be "in the head" of a character who would otherwise have been very difficult to understand. We remarked on the way the author created a sense of impending doom, building up tension with very few words, but odd, so you think there's something going on.

It was remarked that Oxtoby was a naive and dissociated person, lacking social skills and like an observer in his own life, almost mildly autistic. His parents, especially his father didn't understand him, saying that he "lacked the knack for happiness". He presumptuously assumed that his new landlady might be interested in him on first acquaintance. We noted the telling contradictions and repressed feelings around his response to the break-up with his girlfriend:

"She said she was breaking up with me because I didn't know how to express my emotions. The thing is, I didn't have that many. As far as I was concerned it was pretty simple. I was in love with her and I liked our life and we laughed a lot and it felt good to be in bed with her and have her touching me"...
"I wanted to push her down the stairs, make the kind of impression I didn't know how to make with words. But I didn't, and when she'd closed the front door I said 'OK then', and 'Goodbye, then.' Afterwards I played the scene over and over, imagined how I planted my hands in the middle of her back and pushed hard enough to send her flying.
And I got this sentence in my head, over and over, 'You broke my heart and now I've broken your spine'"...

We discussed the actual murder of his sleeping housemate, wondering to what extent the death was intentional.

"I take the adjustable wrench and go to his room... I step forward, lift the wrench in my right hand and bring it down. Only once, a good, certain blow to his temple, not heavy, and the wrench bounces..."

Yet in his own mind later it seemed to be a mere accident ("I only hit him once"). When asked in court, his acquaintances agreed with him that "he is not a murderer". As the author no doubt intended, this prompted us to wonder what a murderer was supposed to be like. We noticed that while Oxtoby seems to feel shame and embarrassment, he feels no actual guilt over the death. The guard remarked that everybody in the prison is innocent.

Oxtoby's response to the harsh, degrading reality of prison life was discussed. He had loved his Grandmother who had been able to get him to articulate what he most wanted to do with his life and was able to validate that for him. In prison he talks to a psychologist who is also able to connect with him. He is able to hug her, and use some of that good feeling to help his unappealing cellmate. It was remarked that the book's last scene also touched on the theme of male sexuality including homosexuality which recurs through the book. We didn't agree about the extent to which he had grown and changed through the experience of prison, or whether it was only that, once he was used to it, he was more comfortable in the controlled world of prison than he had been in the overstimulating outside world.

Apparently the author interviewed a few murderers before writing "This is How". It made a big impression on us and we agreed that it was a chillingly convincing window into the mind of a murderer, maybe especially chilling as the reader is able to understand and even like him, and almost come to share his view that it was merely a forgivable mistake.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Eva Hornung, Dogboy (or, is it Dog boy)

Image courtesy Text Publishing
Six Minervans met on the last night in May to discuss Eva Hornung's intriguing and sometimes confronting novel, Dogboy. We were a small group with some of our number gallivanting OS taking advantage of the northern summer.

Anyhow, back to Dogboy. In April we discussed Alan Gould's The lakewoman. It was shortlisted for last year's Prime Minister's Literary Awards - and we were impressed with it. Dogboy is the book that won. We all thought it was a pretty close call (not having discussed the other contenders). Some thought Hornung's book had the edge in tightness and originality, but we generally agreed that either would have been a worthy recipient. This is, in fact, the group's second Hornung novel. We read, a few years ago, her City of sealions which was published under her married name, Eva Sallis.

The discussion started with a brief report from one of our travelling members who said she'd enjoyed it, though she didn't expect to at the start. Another member was also not expecting to like it as she "hates dogs", but she too was impressed with the writing and originality of the story. 

The plot is pretty straightforward. It tells the story of Romochka who, at the beginning of the novel, is 4 years old and alone in an apartment in Moscow. He hasn’t seen his mother for a week or more and suddenly his uncle does not return. After a couple of days alone and sensing that the apartment building is being abandoned, he heads out and manages to get himself adopted by a dog, Mamochka, who lives with her four young puppies and two older offspring. The novel tells the story of his life with the dogs and of what happens when he, four years later, comes to the attention of humans, specifically two scientists/doctors working in a children’s rehabilitation centre.

The descriptions of life in the lair are pretty visceral: 
This [a rat] was, he decided, his favourite food. He chewed through the slippery ribcage to its soft centre, keeping its head in his fist to make sure Black Sister didn't crunch through it and eat his treasure.
If you don't like dogs (and even if you do), these and similar descriptions can be particularly confronting - but, the characters are so strongly drawn and the story so compelling that we all, regardless of our attitude to dogs, found we wanted to keep reading.

Our main questions, in the end, focused on the scientists - their characterisation, their role in the novel. Some felt they were more successfully realised and integrated into the novel than others. But, they do of course raise the central question: 
Would Romochka have been "better off living with dogs than with humans”?
The novel, then, teases out what it means to be human and, overall, humans (humanity) do not come out of it well, though of course there are humans who show love and care. Without Mamochka, however,  Romochka is unlikely to have survived and this is a sobering thing for us to consider.

It was an interesting discussion but that's about all I'll report. It's a month since we met and I can't put my hands on my notes. I'm sure I've misrepresented some of the tenor of the discussion and would love to be corrected by those who remember more or something different. Go on, you can do it!

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Schedule for the second half of 2011

Our schedule for the second half of 2011 as decided at our May meeting is now listed under Current Schedule in the blog sidebar. Those of us who decided it hope the rest of you like it!

Please note that three members have not hosted this year. At the meeting we allocated the last two meetings to two of those members, but later heard that the third member had offered to host one meeting. So, I've decided to let you fight it out! Please look at October and November and let me know whether you're happy to do one of those and which one. I'll update the schedule when I hear from you.

Note: I have also updated the Schedule suggestions based on our discussions at the May meeting. Let me know if you have anything else to add, or change

Monday, 30 May 2011

Some schedule ideas for second half of 2011

I will add these to the Schedule Suggestions list in the sidebar but am adding them here with a little reasoning.

There are only three books on the Miles Franklin shortlist for this year and all look interesting for one reason or another:
  • Kim Scott's That deadman dance. This book has been getting great reviews, and he's an indigenous writer who has won the award before. I'm very keen to read this.
  • Roger McDonald's When colts ran. He's from around here, he provided advice to Alan Gould and he's won before. I'd like to read this too!
  • Chris Womersley's Bereft. This has been getting great reviews too, and has already garnered some prizes. It's not his first novel but he is up and coming. Kate has read (or is reading) this in eBook version. Maybe if she can tear herself away from her river cruise she might comment here on whether she concurs with this for us to read.
But, what about some women writers? Cate Kennedy's The world beneath made a bit of splash last year. It's set in Tasmania. Or, a book by Gail Jones. I have yet to read her and would love to give her a go.

There are also some great books in those nice cheap Penguins, including books by Aussies Randolph Stow, Helen Garner, Robert Drewe.

Any other ideas?

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Alan Gould, The Lake Woman

About 10 Minervans plus the author found somewhere to sit in my living room last night to discuss this, to quote Les Murray, "strange and compelling book". Appropriately for Anzac day reading, the book begins with the moment that an Australian soldier in British service parachutes into the chaos of D-Day Normandy. It was good to have Alan confirm that the book was intentionally set in, but not actually about the war. Also, as it has a most arresting first few sentences, we weren't surprised to hear that for him, a novel begins with a sentence. Luckily his was a more fruitful beginning than that of a character in Camus's "The Plague" who, we remembered, endlessly rewrote the first sentence of his novel but got no further.
Alan, who started out as a poet, explained that for him, poetry is like music while fiction is like history, and that he can only work in one mode or the other and not both at once. We were struck by the beauty of his prose throughout the book though, written as only a poet could write. We felt that it helped create the sense of unreality and dislocation that overtakes Alec, the main character, as his purpose is shaken after his rescue by a strange and unforgettable woman, in a way shifting his mind to a timeless, legendary dimension. His subsequent lack of focus caused distress to his loyal, practical sister who hated to see him fail in his promise. Alan confirmed that he had used clocks and watches as symbols of Alec's removal from time, and the different languages, French, English, German, including music ("doodling") as different channels of communication to create a sense of confusion between two dimensions. Cannon fire, the chaos of war and and the surreal devastation of the formerly peaceful Norman countryside heightened the sense of unreality.
We were struck by the authentic, period feel of the spoken interaction between the characters, particularly the military and the Australian country people. It was interesting to hear how Alan absorbed and adapted the experiences and expertise of the friends and acquaintances credited in the Acknowledgements section, and no-one was surprised to hear of hours spent examining various maps of Normandy.
Alan was queried about the role of coincidence in the novel, for example the constantly reappearing Sergeant Ferris. He explained that Ferris is the death figure, appearing when others die, but himself unkillable, and that for Alan as a novellist "coincidence makes a story other than bland, both at the level of history and at a plane outside natural causality". In response to another query he explained why he took us through the whole of Alec's life - so that, through the response of the students at his retirement, he could see that his life had had some value after all. Some of us were very moved by the last couple of paragraphs, which clarified something that had remained ambiguous through the whole story.
We also heard about the highs and lows of life as a poet-novellist, the impact of changing literary fashions and the sad reality that the marketing manager now decides what gets published.
I've left out such a lot that was covered in a wide ranging conversation that I really enjoyed. I also really loved the book, which I think is Alan's best so far, but as an old friend of his I'm rather biased. Did anyone disagree though when someone said "We should have the author here every time"?

Monday, 25 April 2011

Lloyd Jones, Hand me down world

Courtesy Text Publishing
All 8 (or so) Minervans who attended our meeting at the end of March to discuss Lloyd Jones' latest novel, Hand me down world, liked it. Some loved it, some liked it, but no-one disliked it. That says something about the quality of this book, methinks.

This is a multiple point of view novel chronicling the story of a young African woman who leaves Africa, by boat as an illegal immigrant, to find her son (who had been illegally taken from her when he was a baby) in Berlin. The first chapters of the book are presented as witness accounts by those who saw or helped her on her way. The rest of the book is told in larger chunks with, near the end, Ines (as we come to know her, though this is not her "real" name) telling us her (version of) her story. All these stories, except the Inspector's near the beginning, are told first person.

What Ines does to achieve her end is not - shall we say - always ethical. For her, the ends justifies the means in her desperation to make contact with her child. There's a death, and there's quite a bit of thieving and lying. For some Minervans this made her an unappealing character with whom they could not relate. For all of us, though, it certainly challenged us to think about what we might do - how far we might go - in similar circumstances. Another criticism of the novel was that it got a little bogged down in the central Berlin section ... did we need the full Defoe section some thought?

We discussed at some length the meaning of the title. Some ideas (including from reviews/interviews) included that:
  • the world, our world, is a rather arbitrary one
  • the son was, in a sense, "handed down"
  • people inhabit different worlds
  • Ines wore, symbolically, a hand-me-down coat, rather reflecting her status in the world as a "used" person because, for all her faults, she sure was "used"
  • versions - of things, people - are a theme of the novel (just as, really, the world has different "versions" depending on who we are and where we live)
Jones, it appears from the two novels we've read of him, keenly interested in the marginalised and dispossessed. His views are perhaps most encompassed by Bernard (or Millennium Three), the French character who most supports Ines, no questions asked. He talks of his politicisation in Berlin:
...we abhorred the state-inspired delineations and definitions of difference. Borders. Citizenship. Rich. Poor. Entitlement.
Another witness, the Film Researcher, talks of "other":
Until then she was, black, African, other. But now I saw a young woman who looked about the same age as my sister Alison. I could have been looking at Ali, apart from the obvious differences. Now I knew what I must do.
How to meet and react to "Other" is a powerful challenge for us all ... and Jones, in this novel, tackles it head on ... it's a powerful tale.

And there I'll leave it. Our discussion was a month ago so I can't remember the finer detail. Minervans, if I've misrepresented us, here's your chance. Comment away!

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Albert Camus, The plague ... Why did he write it?

Camus 1957 (Public domain, from the New York-World Telegram
 and Sun Newspaper Telegraph Newspaper Collection)

A lively discussion ensued when 8 Minervans met this week to discuss Albert Camus' The plague. There were those who loved it, those who were surprised by how easy it was to read, and those who wished he'd written something different. If he wanted to write about the Nazi occupation of France, one member cried, why didn't he? With a discussion opener like that, it was on for one and all (more or less).

For those who don't know what the book is about, here is a quick plot. It is set in the town of Oran, on the Algerian coast, in the late 1940s. The town is 'visited' by the plague, and so closes itself off for the duration of the disease. The novel then follows the progress of the disease and how the citizens cope with such a pestilence and the resultant "exile" and "separation". There is a narrator, who is not revealed until the end, but we see the story through the actions and conversations of several characters including Dr Rieux, Tarrou (a "strange" visitor to the town), and Rambert (a visiting journalist). Secondary characters include the Priest Paneloux, a minor government official Grand, and a man with a past Cottard.

That's the basis of the literal story ... but this is a book that can be read on other levels. It can also be seen as an allegory about the French occupation in World War 2 (with a member suggesting that he took this approach because the French may not have been comfortable with a direct exploration of the occupation), or more broadly as a metaphorical story about how to live in an "absurd" world. It is these allegorical/metaphorical levels which engaged some of us, but frustrated others. Regardless though of what we thought was (or should be) the intent of the book, we enjoyed talking about the characters and how they behaved and reacted:

  • we thought about Tarrou's idea that we all have the plague in us. One member suggested that this idea is present in our 21st century consciousness - that is, that we are complicit in some way in the things that happen.
  • we discussed Fr Paneloux and his reactions: first, his fire and brimstone speech that people's sins had brought God's wrath upon them; and then later, in response to the death of an innocent child, his argument that whatever God willed, we should will too, that "the Christian should yield himself wholly to the divine will". 
  • we felt we could understand Rambert's initial determination to escape. After all, it wasn't his town.
  • we admired Dr Rieux getting on with his duty.
  • we wondered about Grand and his seemingly trivial obsession with the first sentence of his novel, but a member suggested that he might be the true hero of the novel, and quoted the narrator:
... if it is a fact that people like to have examples given them, men of the type they call heroic, and if it is absolutely necessary that this narrative should include a 'hero', the narrator commends to his readers, with, to his thinking perfect justice, this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal.
Grand in other words is a decent, ordinary everyman. No intellectualising for him, just a belief in doing the decent thing.

Of course, we discussed Cottard and his seemingly incomprehensibly happy reaction to the plague.

We enjoyed the language. One member commented that you could open the book anywhere and spot a beautifully written phrase. And this brought us to the translations. We all had Penguin editions, some old ones from the 1960s and 70s which used the 1948 Stuart Gilbert translation, and some the recent classic orange and white edition which uses the 2001 Robin Buss translation. We read the last paragraph in each translation and were surprised by the differences. For example, the "happy town" in 1948 becomes "contented" in 2001, the "linen-chests" of 1948 become "clothing", and "years and years" become "dozens of years". It felt very much like the language had been updated for more modern audience, but not being French experts we are not to say!

Finally, one member noted that an article she read described Camus as a "moraliste" but not a "moraliser", and that he had identified the central moral problems of the age. Many of us agreed with that, and felt that Camus was more humanist than existentialist.

I'm afraid, though, that the discussion was so vigorous that I have not recalled all that was said. I would be most happy if Minervans present picked me up in the comments on anything I've missed or, shock horror, anything that I've misrepresented! And, of course, for anyone else interested to chime in.

Monday, 28 February 2011

Freedom....what's it all about?

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen was our Summer read, and first discussion for 2011. A long saga of a novel, by the author of Corrections, it follows the lives of Patty and Walter Berglund, their experience in American suburbia, their stumbling student days, reflections on their dysfunctional families, and the unwinding of their lives as their children head into adulthood.

Franzen certainly chooses a large canvas, and contains some satirical reflection on American life. Patty's reflection on her family where she always felt an outsider, is both humorous and moving: eg 'Patty's father, Ray Emerson, was a lawyer and amateur humorist whose repertory included fart jokes and mean parodies of his children's teachers, neighbours and friends' It also becomes tragic, where her parents don't want to dwell on her rape as it would disturb the status quo, 'Coach Nagel says I should go to the police ' 'Coach Nagel should stick to her dribbling,' her dad said. 'Softball', Patty said. 'It's softball season now'. Which Patty sees as a betrayal of herself, and a reflection of her parents lack of understanding of her life as a sports 'jock'.

Patty and Walter are both rather naive players in their lives, subject to the power and games of others. They are both drawn to the cynical, rock singing Richard, who has a power over them, but who in turn is drawn to their idealism and zeal. Perhaps Walter and Richard are two sides of the coin, and Patty is attracted to both, which forms a large part of the novel's plot.

I felt very engaged in the main characters, and could empathise with the pain and indecision of their courtship, the challenges of raising children, and the tensions of marriage over the long terms. Patty and Walter tried so hard to move away from their own dysfunctional family life, but succeeded in creating a son with completely opposite values to them, and in losing each other. He does however manage to create a very lovable screwed up couple who, we were pleased to see, ended the book happily.

We enjoyed the dialogue in the book, and considered Franzen at his best in some of the dialogue between characters. He gives the main characters fairly comprehensively realised psychologies, so that we really take a journey with them as they make mistakes, follow their hearts, and make new discoveries about themselves. He does also use the book as something of a soap box, talking about the effects of capitalism, war, environmental destruction, and at times the book seems mired in this preachiness, which is less successful than the realism and journey with many of his characters. Walter's interlude with Lalitha and the subsequent accident, did not work for some group members, seeing it as rather melodramatic.

Franzen describes his approach as 'tragic realism' and 'an antidote to the rhetoric of optimism that pervades our culture', which I thought an apt label. We discussed the title 'Freedom' and thought that the concept of 'Freedom and Liberty were much more significant in US culture. Franzen does question the value of freedom, and the rampant materialism, abuse of power, and impact on the environment that valuing freedom above else had. The characters too have their own quest to free themselves from their past, and to create new lives, to have the freedom to be individuals. Perhaps Walter was the character most prepared to work communally, but in the end he becomes a mouthpiece for capitalism and environmental rape. For some the title did not work. I came away thinking Franzen saw Forgiveness as a more necessary quality than Freedom, such that the characters in the book needed to forgive themselves and each other, to really be free to move on.

But I'll move off my soap box ... The group as a whole enjoyed the book, the characters and his humour, despite some meandering and overdoing the 'message' elements.