Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Eimear McBride's A girl is a half-formed thing

Courtesy; Faber and Faber
Eimear McBride's girl might be half-formed but Minerva's discussion of this challenging book sure wasn't. It. Was. A. Lively. Discussion. Read on as I "trup trup" through it ...

Around the table

As we sometimes do, we went around the table asking Minervans for their overall impression or response. Listen in to what we said:

  • I recommended it because I heard the author interviewed and she sounded interesting, but I couldn't finish it.
  • I loved this book. I loved how the style and the language mirrored the girl's emotions. I cried.
  • It's the worst book I've ever read. I saw it as "verbal impressionism".
  • It was challenging to read but the style was interesting. I felt if I stopped to analyse what I was reading I'd lose it. It was painful, gorgeous, tenderly done but I wasn't sure about maintaining that style all the way through.
  • It was tough going but the style was interesting. Is there an Irish story that isn't tragic?
  • I couldn't read it but I read a few reviews.
  • This is how traumatised people think and talk. I think the language did develop, did become more coherent.

  • Then the discussion proper

    The round-table was then followed by a pretty unformed free-for-all discussion that your correspondent found hard to capture but will give it her best shot. This means I'll be grabbing the scattered ideas which I jotted down as I was engaging in the discussion myself and will try to form it into some sort of whole!

    The book, for anyone who hasn't read it, is about a highly religious mother, her son and the younger daughter. The novel opens with the son, a toddler, afflicted with a brain tumour from which he recovers, only just, and which leaves him with some brain damage:
    There's good news and bad news. It's shrunk. He's saved. He's not. He'll never be.
    But, of course, it returns.

    We saw the book as a classic Irish story about victims and suffering. It depicts the tensions involved in practising strict Catholicism, in trying to meet expectations, but all of it little tempered by love. It describes, one member said, faith practised without love.

    In this environment is the girl - loving her brother, loving her mother, but too often pushed aside by the mother's pain and focus on the son. As she hits puberty she is abused - raped - by an uncle and learns to use sex, first as power over others and later as punishment for herself. She is, we agreed, complicit in her own decline, letting it happen when she could have made - but with whose guidance? - other choices. Sex is her mechanism of self-harm, of replacing emotional pain. One member suggested that the only thing that can soothe a human being is another human being, but soothing human beings were in short supply in this book.

    We discussed the topsy-turvy nature of parental relationships in the book, in which children were expected to soothe the parent rather than vice-versa. In an early scene, the brother and sister tenderly place soup outside their mother's door after she'd physically abused them for not meeting their grandfather's religious expectations. (Who's fault was that, the reader asks!). One member felt that it was very likely that the mother had also been expected to soothe her father.

    The girl then is not the only "half-formed" thing in the book. We felt, in fact, that no-one in the book is fully-formed in the sense of being "mature" human beings in control of themselves. One member also wondered whether the sibling love could be seen as half-formed, unable to fully develop due to the tensions in the family and the restrictions caused by the boy's tumour and the repressive religious environment. 

    The mother does not come off well in the novel. She's more harsh than loving to her daughter - though there are moments of tenderness. She is not a good role model, evoking suffering rather than coping. However, many of us felt for the mother - abandoned by her husband who couldn't handle his son's situation: "I'd give my eyes to fix him but. The heart cannot be wrung and wrung". She deserved some sympathy. And, as one member said, the story is told through the daughter's eyes. We do not get the mother's perspective.

    So, the novel is painful to read - emotional, confronting, raw - but its language also makes it difficult to read. It is this that, primarily, defeated those who didn't finish it. McBride has said in interviews that she was inspired by James Joyce, which shows in the novel, though it's by no means a copy. The story is told first person through the daughter. It rarely follows the rules of grammar, nor of syntax. The language is fragmented - and becomes more so when the girl is distressed. There are new words, and old words used differently, and a lot of allusions, including to beautiful prayers (or novenas). Those who read it agreed that you had to go with the flow, not stop to try to understand every word. 

    There are rewards though for those who persevered. There is humour, such as some of the scenes at the grandfather's wake, and some gorgeous or pointed descriptions, such as this of the grandfather (again), "a right hook of a look in his eye all the time". A loving grandfather? Not so much! Not, that is, if you don't meet his strict expectations. No "forward rolls in a skirt" allowed! For one member, the beauty of the book is that this language contains the stress, the emotions. There's no mediating narratorial voice here - the feelings are right there in the language. Here she is, returning to college in the city, having seen the impact of the now-grown brother's brain damage:
    I make off from it. I make my escape. Leave you cough it up fight it out amongst yourselves. Get away from it oh god. And don't. No. Answer the calls. Fill my ear up. Fill my mouth instead. Man drink do what you like to me. I am safe. I am free. In my own way I am but it weighs me, beats me when I'm not doing the rounds. Split and splatter my heart head. So I get cold in the mouth on answering her bring bring. 
    So what, some asked, did we learn from the book? Well, there's the visceral understanding of the drive to self-harm, self-abuse, for one. There's also the beautiful tenderness in the sibling relationship.  And there's seeing a writer use language so differently and with such skill. All in all a powerful story, even if it's one that most wouldn't care to repeat!

    Tuesday, 25 November 2014

    5-word Reviews from 2008's books

    Here are some of the 5-word reviews we prepared for our 2008 Xmas do - drafted way back then but forgot to publish it!

    Great expectations

    • This classic fufills them all
    • All that and plenty more
    • And they are certainly fulfilled

    On Chesil Beach

    • Poignantly observed young sex foundering
    • Gritty and isolated, cold book

    The diving bell and the butterfly

    • A blink says it all
    • Be moved by his immobility

    The book thief

    • Let it steal your heart


    • Take one, you'll need it
    • Surprisingly good read, not frothy
    • But we are left breathless

    Thursday, 30 October 2014

    Clare Wright's The forgotten rebels of Eureka

    October's meeting was more adventurous than usual with a last minute venue failure that saw us, adaptable like the women of Eureka, retiring to Tilley's Cafe in Lyneham. We settled into a capacious booth, purchased the necessary comestibles, and hunkered down to a good old round table discussion of this month's book, Clare Wright's Stella Prize winning The forgotten rebels of Eureka. We discovered that while Victorians had studied this event in some depth throughout their education, those of us from other states had studied it more cursorily, mostly in primary school, so our memories and knowledge were not necessarily strong.

    Our reading and her writing

    We started by discussing the different experience of reading history versus historical fiction. We've read several historical fiction novels over the years, including Eleanor Catton's The luminaries (of which we were reminded as it is set in the goldfields of New Zealand in the same period) and Hilary Mantel's two Cromwell novels. Members were aware of having to consciously change their mindset from reading a story framed around a defined set of characters to a book in which multiple people appear who may or may not carry through to the end of the book. The opening chapters of Wright's book introduces a large number of people and some worried about managing to remember them all. The need to remember a lot of "stuff" was what turned some off history at school! Others decided to go with the flow, and focus on the "story" or thesis Wright was presenting. We'll remember what we can, we thought - and, there was always the extensive index to refer to if needed.

    We liked the expressiveness of Wright's writing, such as this description of George Black:
    Black represented diggers who would no longer submit to tyranny; men who were desperate to asset their legitimacy after months of humiliation. The new codes smacked up against the old like waves against a cliff face. (p. 398)
    Her writing beautifully captures life on the diggings. We felt we were there - living in tents in the cold, the wet, and the dusty dry. In addition to expanding our understanding of the Eureka Stockade, we saw the book as good social history. Our members in the medical professions were particularly impressed by the realistic (and horrifying) description of childbirth in those times.

    One member commented on the new (old) words Wright used, and liked the fact that she often explained their meaning and derivations. "Masher" is one example:
    But at night, some men cast off their utilitarian duds and slipped into evening clothes: black pants, white shirt, a red sash, patent leather boots and a black plush hat. John Deegan describes such men as swells or mashers, and says they took their sartorial cues from the Californians in their midst. The outmoded term masher is a real gem. It derives from the Romani gypsy word masha, meaning to entice, allure, delude or fascinate, and was originally used in the theatre, although it is unclear who these diggers were setting out to delude. (p. 256)
    However, we did have some concerns about the writing. We felt that at times Wright resorts to clichéd or "slogan" type writing. One example concerns the police on the goldfields. She writes:
    The Victorian Government paid peanuts and got the inevitable monkeys". (p. 218) 
    This comment irritated at least one member as a cheap shot. Although pay is often a valid concern, the real issue, she argued, usually involves factors like training, leadership and the appropriate support. Wright frequently uses throwaway lines - like "sometimes no news is the best news" - and aphorisms. Sometimes they work, but other times we felt they impeded real communication.

    It's a long book and is sometimes repetitive. For example, Wright tells us several times that Jane and Stephen Cuming named their daughter Martineau for "women's rights campaigner, Harriet Martineau". Repetition can be useful to ensure readers get a point, but we didn't feel that this point was germane to Wright's main argument.

    Good history

    We felt the book exemplified well-written history. We appreciated Wright's evocative, narrative-oriented style and felt that she was targeting a general audience. One member commented on the Chapter titles - such as "The winter of their discontent" and "Parting with my sex" - describing them as "hip" and sometimes "raunchy". Her aim, we thought, was to enliven history as well as to present a new way of looking at things. We liked that the work is carefully footnoted, but that it's presented in a way that did not obstruct our reading. In other words, the evidence is there if the reader wants it.

    Our member who had taught history her youth, admired Wright's good historical practice in the book, which involved always starting from the primary sources. When these sources are contradictory, Wright makes this clear, as she does in her reporting of the Bentleys and the fire that destroyed their hotel. We liked Wright's effective use of statistics to support her arguments. The book draws constantly on letters, diaries, newspaper articles, and Wright regularly quotes directly from these sources, identifying them through italics.

    Wright also looks at the wider global environment and how actions in other parts of the world may have played a role in what happened at Eureka, such as the Chartists, the 1848 revolutions, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton's stand with other women at Seneca Falls in 1851. She provided evidence in most of these to show a direct relationship between them and people on the Ballarat goldfields.

    However, several members said that Wright "lost me" when she gave the full moon, and the likelihood that women were ovulating, as a reason for why many men left the stockade on the fateful night! This pushed the group's credulity a little too far but was, most agreed, the only point where a conclusion wasn't effectively supported by good historical evidence (albeit Wright gave reasons for her theory).

    Wright's thesis

    We, of course, discussed Wright's thesis which involves demonstrating that women were there on the fields and they played a significant role in the Stockade (and all that led up to it). Wright's purpose, in other words, was to uncover the role of women and to give them a presence. This means that the book is not a comprehensive history of Eureka - but the title tells us that.

    Wright is strong in her opinions, but we didn't see that as a negative. It's time, after all, that women's stories are told, and it's clear from her analysis that women were involved in the goldfields at all levels, besides the traditional domestic sphere. Some worked as diggers, some ran businesses which essentially supported their families while their husbands looked for the elusive strike. Many chronicled their experiences, either privately in letters and diaries or more publicly through newspaper articles and poetry. Wright names many women - such as the doctor-cum-digger-cum-doctor's wife Martha Clendinning, the poet Ellen Young, the publican Catherine Bentley, to name just a few. Their stories are fascinating.

    We also touched on other ideas and themes Wright explores, including:
    • the philosophical difference between the British and their belief in law and order for the common good, and the Americans with their focus on individualism.
    • the fact that, unlike the Californian goldfields, women were actively encouraged to go to Ballarat (for their civilising influence!)
    • the idea that the Eureka rebellion was primarily a young people's movement, with most of the activists being 35 years or younger
    • the presence of indigenous people and their relationship with the diggers (though this wasn't fully developed, as it was not her focus)
    We considered the term "digger" and whether there is a direct connection between its use for miners and its adoption in the First World War as a slang term for Australian soldiers. We felt that it probably did, both in terms of resenting inappropriate authority and belief in mateship and equality.

    Finally, some wondered whether Wright had another, agenda in the book. Was she making a plea for a new Australian flag. We all agreed that Australia's flag is unfinished business.

    Thursday, 2 October 2014

    Richard Flanagan's The narrow road to the deep north

    We have had a lot of very lively discussions this year - perhaps we always do! Regardless, our discussion of Richard Flanagan's Booker Prize shortlisted novel about the Thai-Burma Railway, The narrow road to the deep north, was another such discussion. I hope my report does it justice: there were so many conversations going on that it was a challenge to get all the ideas down! One member wondered whether Flanagan was emulating Patrick White with the "bigness" of the themes - love, war, mateship - and another suggested that it was reminiscent, in concept if not style, of the big 19th century novels with its multiple themes and many characters. Whatever it is, we all agreed that it was a good read.

    This is not to say that we didn't have questions. We started by discussing its style and structure. Why, some wondered, did Flanagan time-shift so frequently, particularly in the beginning - before we'd worked out who everyone was. Others suggested that this is part of how we tell stories, that we often, in reality, don't tell stories in a simple linear fashion, but digress, jump forward and backwards in time as we try to explain not only what happened but why. Nonetheless, this structure did make it a complex read and most of us felt it could bear reading again in order to make sure we really did get all the connections between characters and events. A couple of members wondered whether it is a little "too" big, perhaps a little "over-stated", to win the Booker. Some thought the bush-fire scene pushed their credibility somewhat, reminding them of what they didn't like about Flanagan's The unknown terrorist.

    Although it is written in third person, many felt it read a bit like a first-person novel. This could be because Flanagan uses a subjective (rather than omnipotent) third person voice. He also shifts the point-of-view between characters' "heads", making us feel we were "with" Dorrigo, Nakamura, Amy, etc.

    We were interested in Flanagan's sources for the novel: Weary Dunlop's diaries, the knowledge and experience of Flanagan's POW father, Flanagan's trips to the site of the railway and to Japan. Flanagan has written about writing the novel, about how he'd been writing it for 12 years and had tried several different approaches before finally settling on "a love story", with a focus on the doctor in the POW camp. This doctor is not, he says, his father.

    We thought the novel was well constructed - and enjoyed the parallels and paradoxes he uses to tell the story. We could see them - such as Amy being told by her husband that Dorrigo had died, and Dorrigo being told by his fiancé that Amy had died; the paralleling of Dorrigo who led the prisoners with Nakamura who ran the POW camp - but they didn't feel contrived.

    "Powerful descriptions" (Minervan)

    We all enjoyed Flanagan's writing. One member loved his description of dust motes in the bookshop where Dorrigo meets Amy:
    He pulled out a book here and there, but what kept catching his attention were the diagonal tunnels of sunlight rolling in through the dormer windows. All around him dust motes rose and fell, shimmering, quivering in those shafts of roiling light ...
    She was also deeply moved by the post-war scene in Hobart in which several of the ex-POWs end up spending an evening, eating and drinking with Nikitaris, the Greek owner of the fish shop that they had, the previous night, damaged in order to free fish imprisoned in a tank. A lovely scene about human connection and understanding.

    Another member was moved by the profound ideas - and insights - Flanagan expresses about/into the relationships between men and women, particularly in terms of the meaning of intimacy, and of what love really is.

    We discussed characterisation, and how well Flanagan individualises the different soldiers by their coping mechanisms - Darky Gardiner's choosing to look for the positive, Rooster McNiece's memorising Mein Kampf, Jimmy Bigelow's cheery "Rightio" and bugle playing. The Japanese are similarly individuated, such as Nakamura by his lice and desperation for shabu, and Colonel Kota by his fascination with necks. Later, post-war, we recognise Kota before he is named because he touches a character's neck.

    We liked that Dorrigo is a complex, and paradoxical character. A strong leader in war and in crisis (as shown in a bushfire scene), he was also weak in allowing himself to go ahead with a marriage to a woman he knew he didn't love. Flanagan writes that "for the rest of his life he would yield to circumstance and expectation, coming to call these strange weights duty".

    "A world of struggle" (Issa, cited in the novel)

    Flanagan beautifully demonstrates the illogicality of the inhumane treatment of the prisoners, that is, the fact that not caring for the welfare of the prisoners meant more would die which meant there would be fewer to work on the railway. But, Flanagan also shows very clearly the very different mindsets of the western versus Japanese soldiers. The Japanese didn't treat their own soldiers well, beating them severely for even minor failings, so their treatment of prisoners was not, to them, particularly cruel. We liked that Flanagan was prepared to understand the cultural differences that resulted in the Japanese soldiers behaving as they did.

    One member suggested Flanagan was making a point about the sublimation of one into many. For the POWs, identifying as a group gave them strength, despite the tragedies and deaths of many individuals. As Dorrigo considers (Book 3, ch 5):
    For if the living let go of the dead their own life ceases to matter. The fact of their own survival somehow demands that they are one, now and forever.

    The Japanese, on the other hand, sublimated their individuality to the orders of the Emperor: it was only as part of that whole that they had meaning and honour. The honour of serving the emperor and their country, enabled them to justify horrendous cruelty to the POW’s. She wondered whether at the bottom of great heroism and great cruelty lies this notion of sublimating your individuality for the sake of the greater group.

    We were intrigued by how an unpleasant truth can damage a relationship. In his post-war life, Nakamura works with Dr Sato who admits that during the war he'd taken part in vivisection experiments. After this confession, their previously amicable relationship gradually, though not dramatically, fades away. Nakamura, troubled, starts to find Sato "who had formerly seemed such an interesting and genial companion - somehow dull and tedious". It's interesting that he's not repelled, he understands Satos' drive to do his duty, but he just loses interest in the man!

    We also discussed the inequitable treatment of "war criminals" - of how the Korean guard, Goanna, was hanged, while many of the commanders were not charged. This we understood was largely due to General Macarthur's reconstruction policy and his desire to keep Japan strong. Flanagan makes points like these by showing, rather than by lecturing, to the reader.

    "Love letter to literature" (Romy Ash's review in The Guardian)

    A member read out parts of Ash's review in which she said the novel has a second love story - that of literature. We liked the haiku that Flanagan commences each "book" with. (Note: the e-version called the sections "books", but the print version didn't number or name them at all.)

    Flanagan establishes both Dorrigo and the two most senior Japanese officers, Nakamura and Kota, as lovers of traditional/classical poetry. For Dorrigo, this includes Catullus, Dante and, particularly, Tennyson's poem, "Ulysses". For the Japanese soldiers, it's the traditional haiku poets like Bashō. The novel's title, in fact, comes from Bashō's haibun, The narrow road to the deep north.

    Ash writes that the novel "does turn on the power of a poem or letter". Ella's letter, for example, tells Dorrigo that Amy was dead, which has a major impact on the course of his life.

    There is a moving scene in which the bodies of prisoners who've died from cholera are being burnt on a pyre, along with their possessions. POW Bonox Baker suggests that the sketchbook of a prisoner not be burnt because it contains an important record of their experience so "the world would know". Dorrigo is not convinced, and quotes a Kipling poem about forgetting. Bonox replies:
    A poem is not a law. It's not fate, Sir.
    No, Dorrigo Evans said, though for him, he realised with a shock, it more or less was.
    We didn't explore this idea in detail - because we were running out of time! - but we did like Flanagan's use of haiku, and other poetry, to link experiences/characters in the book, to draw parallels between Australian and Japanese lives. We also discussed how elusive haiku can be, how we feel that as soon as we catch a glimmer of meaning, it disappears again.

    Finally, we talked a little about the "memory industry" to which Flanagan refers a few times in the book. Several of us have certain reservations about how it's been playing out in Australia over the last decade or so, as it seems, does Flanagan. Yet we all enjoyed his contribution to it with this book! Just goes to show the power of literature!

    Tuesday, 2 September 2014

    Memoirs of a dutiful daughter by Simone de Beauvoir

    We had a lively and at times nostalgic discussion about Simone de Beauvoir's autobiography, Memoirs of a dutiful daughter, published in 1959. It is a dense read and cannot be quickly read.

    Three of us had previously read this book whilst in our twenties and reminded the group that it was the first in a series of four written by de Beauvoir during her fifties.  Did we enjoy it differently now from when we were younger ?  Who can say ? We are such different people.  But this time we  appreciated her writing on friendships and relationships with close relatives (especially our mothers and fathers).  One member studied French literature at university and this book influenced her to read major French authors such as Proust.

    Simone’s life from birth to early twenties is ‘given’ to the reader in great detail, lots of incidents, emotions and inner most thoughts are revealed  – for instance discussion in great depth of her feelings and thoughts as a very young child.  One member thought this was too precocious for a young child but others disagreed and noted that she was an exceptional and observant child.  She ‘liked reality’ and she was generally a happy person.  She did have some very dark religious times when she was twelve to fourteen though. Was she writing it for herself or for readers ?  She let ‘it’ all out we concluded.

    Her relationship with her father and mother was discussed in some detail -- her father loved her and she him but as she grew up he had less hold on her especially as he drifted away from the family emotionally.  His failed career helped lead to his depression so he was not able to provide for his daughters  adequately and he felt they would never marry as they were not beautiful.  We all appreciated her description of her inner life during her teenage-hood.  

    Another interesting facet of de Beauvoir’s character was her love for all things French.  Is it a characteristic of being French ? Or was it common in the early part of the twentieth century ? 

    In discussing Sartre and his role in de Beauvoir’s life we noted her confession of remorse for not having had children. (She is tantalizingly brief about her relationship with him even though she discusses in great depth her other boy friends and lovers.) Her role as a teacher was enjoyed and she was a mentor to her students but that was a still a poor substitute for motherhood she realised later.

    One member had thought of writing her own autobiography. She even came up with numerous titles. Another member could relate to de Beauvoir’s Catholic upbringing as she had ‘suffered’ and endured similarly.   

    The most insightful perception of this autobiography came from our Whispering Gums member who commented that this book reads like a novel with tragic tales for the two people who are most important in the life of the young Simone de Beauvoir. These characters are her childhood sweetheart, Jacques and her school friend Zaza.  Zaza’s life is not only a tragedy for being too dutiful to her mother’s wishes, she is also an alternative reality for Simone.

    In contrast to being truly dutiful, Simone rejected religion and became an atheist but she also experimented on the edge of danger morally whilst a young teenager. She was very lucky that nothing terrible happened.  It was a way of escaping her ‘prison’. She was naïve but was trying to kick free of her childhood.  She felt she was invincible as many young people do. As she didn’t have brothers, her parents didn't give her any sense of inferiority. See Hazel Rowley’s biography, Tête-à-tête, for further information on her life.

    Other interesting topics this discussion raised were about biographies and their truthfulness and also the date of the first autobiography?  The term ‘autobiography’ was coined in 1797 by William Taylor who thought it was rather ‘pedantic’ but the form dates from ancient times according to the Wiki.

    De Beauvoir’s biography is very self-reflective and honest and you really get to know her. We also appreciated her descriptions and responses to landscape. Her language is clear and expressive.

    This autobiography is magnificent – my comment – one of our best reads. It has also stood the test of time. It is definitely a book to recommend.

    Wednesday, 25 June 2014

    Wallace Stegner's Crossing to safety

    It's a shame that the member who recommended Wallace Stegner's Crossing to safety didn't make it to the meeting because everyone loved it, so much so that many said they'd read it again. One member, in fact, said it's about the best book she's ever read. In other words, this is a book we would all happily recommend to others.

    Why? Well, first it is about a subject that is probably dear to our hearts - amicitia, or a longterm friendship between two couples, one that doesn't involve infidelity, but just getting on with the normal joys, tensions, and challenges of living. The book, set mostly in Wisconsin and Vermont, primarily takes place over 35 years from 1937 to 1972, and is told first person by the one of the husbands.

    Next is the writing. It's stylish with not a wasted word. The physical descriptions are beautiful and make you feel as though you are there. One member suggested that his restraint and precision is reminiscent of Helen Garner (or, perhaps we should say vice versa, given Stegner's dates are 1909-1993).

    And then there's the subject matter. Stegner discusses a lot of issues - of which friendship is a major one - that we enjoyed reading about and discussing. Regarding friendship, we enjoyed seeing how two couples maintained a friendship over such a long time, despite the challenges they faced in their personal and professional lives, and despite very different personalities. The two couples are Sid and Charity, a well-to-do couple from the east, and Larry and Sally, a poor (at the start) couple from the west. They are warm, believable characters who have fun, are generous, loyal and supportive, but who also argue with each other from time to time.

    Another subject is academia. In 1937, the two men are young (around 29 years old) academics on contract in an English Department in Madison, Wisconsin. Our academic member was intrigued to see that many of the issues they faced in the 1930s - such as the "publish or perish" demand, and the somewhat arbitrary way in which tenure is often granted - are similar to those faced here (now!).

    A significant theme concerns the desire for order versus chaos. Early in the novel, Larry quotes American historian Henry Adams who said that "Chaos is the law of nature; order is the dream of man". Throughout the novel Charity does her darnedest to order everyone's lives - she plans, keeps notebooks of her plans, and organises careers, houses, picnics, people. Larry, on the other hand sees it differently, and tells us so throughout the novel, saying, on one occasion, that
    chaos, which is only another word for dumb, blind, witless chance, is still the law of nature.
    It will and does intercede in their lives - as he shows again and again. Charity doesn't accept this and, with the best of intentions, right to the end tries to mould Sid and all around her to fit her view of how life should be. We liked the fact that these characters felt real and that, like us, their aspirations and ideals are modified or tempered by real life:
    Leave a mark on the world. Instead the world has left a mark on us.
    Another issue discussed in the novel concerns the making of "art" (in its wider meaning). At one stage the four, with children grown up, or nearly so, spend a sabbatical year in Italy. Is art only about "sin and suffering", they discuss, or can you, as Charity asserts, "make great art out of happiness and goodness"? Related to this is the question posed by Larry late in the novel:
    How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these? Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect? Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish?
    Well, we thought, Stegner has done just that - as have other writers, such as Jane Austen.

    We spent a little time puzzling over the epigram which inspired the novel's title. It comprises a few lines from a poem by Robert Frost, but none of us could fully explain its meaning. We felt it referred to Time and Death, and to hanging onto things that are precious to us, like love, loyalty, friendship, as we pass through life to death. But why are those "things forbidden"?

    Regardless, this is a great book ... and those who haven't read Stegner before expressed keenness to read more (and those who have, likewise!).

    Saturday, 31 May 2014

    Schedule for the second half of 2014

    Well, a Minervan committee of six (the five who attended the meeting, and the one who put in her bid previously) chose the books for the second half of this year. Since several couldn't make it to the meeting, I thought I'd provide the reasoning for the choices made, so here goes.

    • Amy Tan's The valley of amazement: Sylvia, Gerda and Sue had heard Tan speak about the novel (live at the NLA or in her RN interview), and at least one member (Helen) had never read an Amy Tan.
    • Simone de Beauvoir's Memoirs of a dutiful daughter: Our absent member, Kate, had suggested that we do one book this year to align with RN's European Classics Bookclub, and proposed this as a good fit. Anne suggested that we do a classic so was happy with this. Helen had read it back in her university days and was happy to read it again.
    • Richard Flanagan's The narrow road to the deep north: Helen who's already read this has been waiting patiently all year for it to be scheduled, and Sue who was given it for Christmas was hoping it would be scheduled. Anyhow, it's probably the front runner for this year's Miles Franklin!
    • Clare Wright's The forgotten rebels of Eureka: Helen wondered about a non-fiction book, Alain de Boton's newest called News, but Sue suggested that if we think non-fiction, why not one closer to home i.e. Clare Wright's book about women at Eureka. Sylvia piped up that she was given it for her birthday and so planned to read it. And, it was this year's Stella Prize winner!
    • Eimear McBride's A girl is a half-formed thing: Gerda liked the sound of this from the interview she'd heard on RN (from the Sydney Writers Festival) and Sue agreed. It won the Goldsmiths Prize for "new" or "creative" writing. It's short! (June 4 Postscript: It won the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction - the old Orange Prize - for 2014).
    So, there you have it ... the schedule is in the right sidebar (organised so that books recommended by people going away will be done when they are in town.) We still need houses for the meetings as all who were present have already hosted this year. Please let me know if you can host.

    Wednesday, 28 May 2014

    Adam Johnson's The orphan master's son

    It must be getting to winter because, as seems to happen in these our older years, our numbers at this month's meeting were down. There were just five of us ... And, interestingly, four of us liked the novel, Adam Johnson's The orphan master's son, despite its confronting, distasteful subject matter. For those of you who don't know, the novel is set in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and explores life under the repressive regime of Kim Jong-il.

    It's a hard life

    Early on, we discussed the fact that the book was written by an American, which, we thought, could be viewed a little suspiciously given the USA's negative relationship with North Korea. Several comparisons are made in the book between the two countries and not all flatter the USA - but you can't avoid seeing the lies behind North Korea's self-congratulation. Our sense was that this relationship didn't drive Johnson, and we didn't see it impinging upon his achievement.

    Later in the discussion, one of us quoted a line from the book about life - "life is transient and subject to hardships" - which resulted in another's quick response, "not life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" then! Whose propaganda is most effective do you think?

    Is it believable?

    The novel is pretty wild in places, and can be quite surreal at some times, absurd at others. One member found it so much so that she didn't like the book and couldn't finish it. Others, however, likened it to the writing of David Mitchell and Haruki Murakami. It's not surprising we thought that David Mitchell is quoted on the front cover of some editions.

    We agreed that the exploits of our hero - Jun Do who later assumes the identity of Commander Ga - are scarcely believable but most of us understood that he is, in a way, Everyman taking us on a journey through life in North Korea.

    There are many bizarre scenes in the novel, such as that involving the North Korean fishing boat meeting an American interceptor at sea. And there are scenes invoking torture and inhumane treatment that are scarcely believable. However, in an interview, Johnson said that pretty well all the events that occur in the novel were drawn from his research, which included writings by defectors, but that he had "toned down" the darkness! We were almost embarrassed to admit that at times the bizarreness was funny - but it was!

    Characters and their relationships

    We talked about some of the secondary characters. One, for example, is the first person narrator who appears in the second part of the novel. We wondered why his story is first person and thought it might be that he is supposed to be our guide through this section, but we didn't resolve this question fully. We also talked about his relationship with his parents, and how their fear and determination to believe whatever they were told via the propaganda machine (the loudspeaker broadcasts) seriously affected their relationship with their son.

    We also discussed Sun Moon, Commander Ga's wife who becomes imposter Commander Ga aka Jun Do's wife in the second part of the novel. She is an actress, and it's clear that there's no distinction between her work and personal life - she is, she says, "pure actress" - until near the end when she finally decides to be "intimate" with Ga/Do, but which she means sharing her inner self, who she is.

    Another character we briefly discussed is Mongman, the photographer inmate in Prison 33 who takes Jun Do under her wing. We didn't quite understand her motivation. Perhaps just decent humanity?

    We discussed the idealised view of and reverence for pain. Johnson uses white flower imagery to typify or represent pain. Using such a beautiful (pure?) image seems to suggest that withstanding pain, learning to face and manage it is a good thing, and almost a duty of North Korean citizens.

    What can you trust?

    A main theme of the novel is the precariousness of existence under a totalitarian regime. We were interested in the discrepancies between the official or propaganda story of imposter Commander Ga and Sun Moon, but we also noted how people were brainwashed to believe what they were told. We discussed how the structure, with its different versions of the story, mirrors the uncertainty of living under such a regime. It pays, we realised, to be cautious if you want to survive unscathed in such a society.

    One member who has visited South Korea fairly recently spoke of her accompanied visit to the DMZ, and how she saw large groups of young boys riding their bicycles round and round with placards promoting reunification. She commented too that South Koreans are fed propaganda about their northern cousins.

    Overall, we found it a challenging but worthwhile novel that engaged us well and truly for our allotted discussion time. It was, really, only the promise of cake that drew us away in the end!

    Saturday, 3 May 2014

    Eyrie by Tim Winton

    Minervans' April treat was a rather grim read by this major Australian author set in Fremantle in about 2008 (banking crisis time) and ‘starring’ Tom Keely, Gemma Buck and her grandson Kai and Keely’s well-drawn mother, Doris.  The book was not universally liked but some of us were ‘sucked in’ as Winton captures the overwhelming heat of Fremantle as well as the atmosphere and the substance of the poor environment.

    The hangover in chapter one was very powerful we felt and as one member said you felt it! From this moment on, all is dysfunctional. Keely’s life is going downhill and we really are not told why he is such a failure. The full details are not clear till much later.

    We discussed the ending next – and there was some contention about whether it was a death or not. Main conclusion was that it wasn’t a death but it was possibly a new beginning or a feeling of empowerment?  Winton is also cagey about this in interviews. One member thought that this book had similarities with ‘The Riders’, which is also inconclusive at the end. One idea was that Keely had a brain tumour, or was he just too exhausted or too drug overdosed?

    One of Keely’s many problems was his feeling of inadequacy -- not being able to live up the ideals set by his parents.  We all felt this.

    Gemma, the main female character is probably a prostitute as well as a worker at night in a supermarket. She is constantly trying to survive and keep her grandson safe. Doris is a good character too and understands Gemma better than Tom Keely does. She is also the sort of person children adore. 

    There are some really good reviews including this one by Lyn McCredden called The quality of mercy.

    Many of the reviews discuss how well Winton describes Fremantle and its many differences from Perth. Some of us have friends or family who live in Perth but we feel many of them wouldn’t like this book. It has a certain working class feel which may not be appreciated.

    We discussed the humour in this book – such as the tramp taking Keely’s bike. We also liked the way Winton has the ability to sum up places and people eg
    Port of Fremantle, gateway to the booming state of Western Australia. Which was, you could say, like Texas. Only it was big. Not to mention thin-skinned. And rich beyond dreaming. .. A philistine giant eager to pass off its good fortune as quick to explain its shortcomings as east-coast conspiracies, always at the point of seeding from the Federation. Leviathan with an irritable bowel. (page 5) 
    You’re trying to do the right thing, I know. It’s how we raised you, the both of you. But you save yourself first, Tom. That’s something I do know, it’s what I’ve learnt. You save yourself, then you look to the others. (Doris talking to Tom, page 289)
    The lack of quotation marks was reflected upon and was certainly not a hindrance in our comprehension.

    There were some comments about the input of Winton’s own personality in some characters in this book – especially visible in Kai and Keely.  Kai is an unusual child – his interest in Scrabble, his dyslexia and his strange dreams. Is Winton reflecting on the past?

    We talked a lot about Winton’s other novels – many of us felt we needed to read more of them although we have read 3 or 4 with Minerva. Even his children’s books are worth reading especially one called Blueback.

    The themes in Eyrie (pronounced airey by the author) are: redemption and overcoming disappointment, legacies of childhood and guilt. Loss of beauty is also a strong theme. Another idea is that Keely is trying to find his inner good person – is it reminiscent of Barracuda? Both men looked up to their fathers and tried desperately to be like them but felt they failed.

    One review says the book is about family – Keely’s versus Gemma’s I presume. Gemma’s life is so constrained by her poor upbringing and her helplessness.  Winton doesn’t care that his novels are so partisan – he makes us middle class people feel very uncomfortable at times.

    This book was published just before Christmas 2013 and didn’t attract the attention Winton’s stories justly receive, as so many other notable books were published and released at the same time.  It is a pity because it is a good read and also enjoyable as an audio book.

    Wednesday, 26 March 2014

    Hannah Kent, Burial rites

    Courtesy: Picador
    Eight enthusiastic Minervans met this week to discuss Hannah Kent's debut novel, Burial rites. We've had, we agreed, a rip-roaring start to the year with all three books so far - Eleanor Catton's The luminaries, Christos Tsiolkas' Barracuda, and Hannah Kent's Burial rites - challenging and exciting us.

    For those who don't know, Burial rites is based on the real story of Agnes Magnusdottir who, with two others, was convicted in 1828 of killing two men and setting fire to the house in order to cover their crime. Agnes and the male, Fridrick, were executed in January 1830.

    You were there in Iceland, in that house (Minervan)

    We all enjoyed the book and found it utterly compelling even though we all knew, of course, that she was the last person to be executed in Iceland*. How did it all happen? Some found the book so satisfying, so beautiful, they read it slowly, one even eking it out over 6 months because she didn't want to finish it! Many of us found it an emotional read.

    We loved Kent's evocation of the environment - the poverty, the struggle for food, the dirt. It reminded one member of Halldór Laxness's Independent people, which, while set a century later, evokes the same sense of a hard land to live in. As one member commented, the phrase "as the weather allows" is repeated for a reason!

    We talked a little about Iceland's long history, of the various invaders, of the plague and volcanoes - and of the more recent bank collapse calamity. We also discussed the servant-master social structure that allowed a young child like Agnes to be "tossed around" from person to person, with no real support structure, though we agreed that Iceland wouldn't have been unique in this regard at that time.

    We enjoyed learning about 19th century Iceland. We learnt about the wide role of ministers which included keeping records about their parishioners, including their characters. We learnt that servants needed their masters' permission to marry. And we noted the poverty of the homes - except for District Commissioner Björn Blöndal's home which had glass windows, wooden walls.

    Unbalanced portrayal of men and women (Minervan/Critics)

    One of the criticisms levelled at the book concerns uneven portrayal of male and female characters. The male characters tend to be less "rounded" and mostly negatively portrayed, while a few of the female characters, including of course Agnes, have more depth. Some members agreed with this and felt it was a weakness in the book - although not a big enough one to stop their liking it - while others felt it's largely a consequence of the type of book it is and the society it is set in. This is a book about Agnes, and in this story, at this point in her life, her main access to people would have been women, with the exception of Tóti, the Assistant Reverend sent to be her religious adviser. Not surprisingly he's somewhat more rounded, more complex, than most of the other men. We liked the fact that he ignored Blöndal's instructions regarding his "work" with Agnes and conducted his sessions with her according to his sense of her needs. We felt that being an Assistant rather than a full Reverend, meant he was less steeped in (or could break from) the dogma/traditions of his job.

    One member felt some of the best parts of the book were when Agnes was talking with the farmer's wife, Margrét. She enjoyed the woman-to-woman, almost mother-daughter talk, that drew out more of Agnes' inner feelings.

    Another member commented on the fact that Blöndal was prepared to accept that Fridrick's behaviour could be explained by his poor upbringing, whilst Agnes was merely a spinster spurned!

    I smell a device (Minervan)

    Our biggest dissensions occurred over style. One member, despite enjoying the book, felt it was too "21st century". She felt Tóti and Margrét used modern counsellor language in their discussions with Agnes. Others didn't see such language in the book and found Tóti credible for his time. Another agreed that it was a 21st century book, saying that Kent had purposefully given a voice to Agnes that she didn't have, and probably couldn't have had, in her lifetime. Doing this made it a 21st century book.

    We discussed the criticism that the historical sources introducing the chapters interrupted the flow. We didn't agree, feeling rather that they added credibility to the story.

    We briefly discussed the role of sagas in the novel. An excerpt from a saga in which a women incites her bothers to kill for revenge opens the chapter after Fridrick's mother has incited him. Sagas, the member said, are often about "blokes killing" and rarely include much about women.

    A member quoted a few lines as an example of lovely writing:
    At first I did not know why these people stood about, men and women alike, each still and staring at me in silence. Then I understood that it was not me they stared at. I understood that these people did not see me. I was two dead men. I was a burning farm. I was a knife. I was blood.
    We particularly liked the ending, the language, the change in pace, the almost stream of consciousness in Agnes' voice.

    One member said she took a while "to get the hang of it". Another questioned whether the 1st to 3rd person shifts were always necessary, pointing to a couple of examples where the import wasn't clear. And a couple questioned an historical "fact". Did the women really need a man to help them "swing" newborn lambs? A calf they could believe, but lambs being small could surely be "swung" by healthy women if needed. They felt this was a device to get the male, Fridrick, on the scene - though the rest of the farm depictions seemed authentic.

    We discussed Kent's description of the novel as "speculative biography" rather than as "historical fiction".

    "We'll remember you" (Margrét to Agnes)

    Kent's aim we felt was to give Agnes a voice that she didn't have at the time - or at least not that Kent could find in the historical record. The book is more, then, about Agnes than the crime, about the role of low-status women in society, and about their lack of power and options. It reminds us that we don't want to go back. One member reminded us that women weren't blameless in the novel, pointing to Poet Rosa and the baby she had with Natan (the victim) while married to someone else.

    We discussed Ben Etherington's rather negative description of the novel in the Sydney Review of Books. He called it a "death row novel, Gothic romance and feminist revisionism". We didn't agree or, if we did, we didn't see this as negative! Kent's Agnes feels discriminated against because she was a thinking woman. Is this revisionism? Or is this a believable reading of Agnes?

    The book is a powerful story about the desire to live. For all the misery of her life, Agnes still wanted to live. The novel's ending, her fear and distress, was visceral - and believable.

    All in all, it was an excellent meeting which covered a lot of ground and yet involved some in-depth discussion of several issues.

    * According to Wikipedia, the last Icelander executed occurred four years later in Denmark.

    Friday, 7 March 2014

    Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

    Courtesy: Allen & Unwin
    This very compelling and confronting novel was ‘appreciated’ by the Minervan reading group during February 2014. Some liked Barracuda more than The Slap, others less so.  One comment was that ‘it sang clearer’.  There were various views about the structure of the The Slap versus the complicated structure of Barracuda.  The critics are equally diverse in their opinions on this matter.  What is undeniable for most of us though is that both books grab your attention and hold it until the end.

    The underlying message of this book is: what is a good man ?  It is the story of a young man, Danny Kelly, from his teenage years to about 30 and his desire to be the best swimmer in Australia. This theme is often repeated in the book – his Dad is considered a ‘good man’ for instance as is his lover, Clyde, but it is a hard journey for Danny Kelly to find out if he can attain this trait too.  Danny (or Dan as the adult) suffers considerable and long lasting anger, shame, class restrictions and class confrontation, and racism as well as many other high emotional states in order to achieve redemption and some self-awareness. 

    Many of the reviews for this novel pick up on Australia’s national obsession with sport but that is not the essence of the book. Swimming is only the vehicle for relating Danny’s journey. The difficulties for swimmer Nick D'Arcy was possibly a catalyst for Tsiolkas’ original idea. Danny is a working class boy who wins a swimming scholarship to an elite private school in Melbourne.  (The school we decided is based on Wesley College.) He suffers all the trauma of a poor Greek kid dealing with and eventually winning over some of the ‘golden boys’ by his behaviour – firstly winning in the pool and then acting psycho after his failure.  So much of the story is told through his thoughts and his pain. He lacks communication skills and confidence and no adult seems to be aware of this except the coach. However even the coach does not help him sufficiently and feels guilty.  Danny wouldn’t let anyone, including his beloved family get too close to him incase they might pity him, and that was to be avoided most of all.

    There was some discussion about the use of first and third person in the novel in order to show chronological periods. However these changes flowed and were not difficult to comprehend.  Tsiolkas also cleverly provides some dates to assist the reader with the story line as he jumps about. These devices provide the reader with a ready understanding of Dan’s personality and difficulties, which would not be so apparent if the book was straightly chronological. 

    This story is very physical and violent and so is true to the character of a male teenager and young adult, not only in the climactic scene of the fight with Martin Taylor but also in the love scenes and in his interactions with other boys at school.  Tsiolkas has described the sensation of swimming in a race superbly and ‘our’ swimmers especially related well to these descriptions – for instance, how the water sometimes works with you and other days how it doesn’t!  Anger made Danny swim well but it also made him a raging bull when he couldn’t control it.  Maybe his mild mannered persona most of the time made him slip through the cracks for anger management lessons.  Anther very vivid scene was that of the grandmother’s party and her manipulation of her children at the Taylors' beach house which was most unpleasant.  The grandmother also put the shy young Danny on the spot where he didn’t know the rules. Tsiolkas captures Danny’s insecurity so well.
    We highlighted the number of ‘real’ swimmers mentioned too, notably Kieran Perkins and Ian Thorpe. This led to one member commenting on the psychological problems suffered by many elite athletes.

    Also ‘real’ books are mentioned by Tsiolkas which had an impact upon the boy.  On the way to Adelaide to see his dying grandmother Dan could not tell his mother that books had helped him.  
    He'd found a voice that made sense of time and space as he was experiencing it. (page 339)  
    We also liked the joke that he enjoyed classics more than more modern novels!

    We thought the author captured Melbourne’s atmosphere so well too, this was particularly noticed by the former Melbournians.  For instance, the travel on trains across the city and the beautiful grounds of the school or the architecture of Taylor’s house in comparison with the ordinary Kelly house. The comments about beach houses and their position on the peninsula brought some humour – is Sorrento better or worse than Portsea?

    Again Tsiolkas has produced a complex and exciting novel of 21st century Australia. He is one of the few novelists who have really ‘got’ the present age.