Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The lives of others, by Neel Mukherjee

Before I launch into a report of our discussion, I need to 'fess up that I didn't manage to finish the book in time so if this report doesn't make sense in places I hope others will expand on their ideas in the Comments.

The lives of others is a long book - around 550 pages - and proved to be a challenging read, although not so challenging that we didn't appreciate it. One member "kind of read it twice", while a couple of us didn't quite finish it, not because we didn't want to, we hastened to explain but because we'd misjudged the time we'd need to do it justice.

However, before I elaborate more on our discussion, it might be useful to say a little about its content. The book is set in Bengal in the mid to late 1960s and is essentially the saga of a once well-to-do family. As the novel opens, they live in a four-storey house in South Calcutta. The family comprises the patriarch and matriarch, their five sons/daughters and their respective families. Location in the house is hierarchical, with Purba, the widow of the youngest son, occupying the worst position in the house and treated accordingly. I say "once well-to-do", as the family had made a good living out of business, but things are not going so well by the time the novel opens, which of course adds to the stress in their lives.

A big Indian saga

Most of us enjoyed the book but, as already said, we all admitted to being challenged, though not always for exactly the same reasons. It's not that it's a hard read in terms of language or style, but:

  • we all found it hard to keep all the characters, whose names were not familiar to us, clear in our heads. Some of us didn't find the family tree until part way through the novel, or even until the end. This is what resulted in one of us turning right around and reading it again!
  • the novel is told in two parallel, alternating sequences - a third person story about the family as a whole, and a first person story told by a son of the family who joins a group of socialist activists working to improve the lot of poor farmers. These two sequences are differentiated by font - in the print and kindle versions, but not in the iPad version. Hmm!
  • it contains a LOT of detail, which made it dense reading for some - so much so that a few wondered, briefly at least, whether ALL the detail was necessary.
  • it is harrowing, in parts, particularly in the last 100 pages.

Like most sagas, the novel covers a lot of ground - hierarchical relationships between people (within the family, family and servants, workers and their employers, and so on); gender; religion; political rebellion; the role of education; the increasing distance between the haves and have-nots.

What we liked

We enjoyed the detailed depiction of family life and relationships, and felt that this reminded us of some of the big Russian and English novels of the nineteenth century.

We were impressed by Mukherjee's language and extensive (impressive) vocabulary.

One member shared a favourite quote:

not for the first time it struck Adi that clichés were clichés because they were truths that had been lived out by generation after generation of people before him. By the time those lived truths were inherited by him, they had become foxed, crumpled, brown and brittle with age.

We all liked this description of what happens when cliches, which spring from some sort of truth, outlive their usefulness and in, fact, outlive the truth upon which they were initially built. 

One member found the scenes describing the young socialist men working with farmers in the villages to be among the book's most powerful.

The novel's prologue effectively establishes the idea of inhumanity and inequality as main themes. 

What is it about, or, why did Mukherjee write the novel

We spent a lot of time discussing what we thought the novel was about. Some members felt it offers a pessimistic view of life and that, while it is primarily set in the 1960s, the 2012 epilogue suggests that things have not changed. Others saw it as being more fatalistic, that life is a roll of the dice, with good and bad "chances" or outcomes over which people may not always have a lot of control. While some looked for a "message" or, at least, to understand why Mukherjee wanted to tell the tale, others were happy to see it as a novel which asks questions without attempting to answer them.

We wondered how Indian readers understand the novel. A member shared an Indian critic's review which expressed concern that Mukherjee treated the escape of one "miracle boy" to America through his impressive maths ability as a one-off whereas India, and Bengal in particular, has a long tradition of intellectual achievement in mathematical thinking. What did Mukherjee mean to convey by his two epilogues - one about this escape and the other about a violent terrorist act - in terms of the meaning of the novel?

Another member shared a reviewer's summation that the book is about "the limits of empathy and the nature of political action". This resulted in quite a discussion about empathy in the book, particularly in terms of lack of empathy occurring in many of the characters, including even the so-called more enlightened ones. Political rebel Supratik, for example, showed little empathy for his family. (Is this what political idealism and action can do to people?)

We concluded by discussing this book's shortlisting in 2014 for the Man Booker prize, and that it lost to Richard Flanagan's The narrow road to the deep north (our report). Some felt that Mukherjee was by far the more worthy winner due to "flaws" in Flanagan's book, but others argued that both books have their flaws. Whatever the case, I can confirm that our discussion was lively and not always quiet - surely a sign that this was a very good choice for us to read. Now, all I and a couple of others need to do, is finish it!

Saturday, 14 November 2015

The strays by Emily Bitto

After a lovely tour of a gorgeous new home we settled down to discuss this month’s read of the debut and award winning novel by Australian author, Emily Bitto,  entitled The strays. 

Discussion began with our opinions of the book. The fairly unanimous opinion was that everyone enjoyed the read. The style of writing and turn of phrase was applauded. However, one or two members thought it was not up to the standard of an award. A couple of us felt it was a ‘little flat’. Too many things were not fully explained.  For instance, why did Lily explore the art scene in later life. (Afterwards I thought it was obvious – Lily associated art with glamour, intelligence and excitement.)

The novel is loosely based on the Bohemian lifestyle of John and Sunday Reed at Heide (a former dairy farm on the outskirts of Melbourne), in the 1930s. The strays novel begins in the thirties.  Sidney Nolan could be the model for Jerome?  Heide is now the Museum of Modern Art of Australia and is a beautiful place to visit.

One of the problems with this book was the implausibility of some of the characters. Lily’s parents were particularly hard to fathom or believe even for the times. They seemed to have a sense of relief that their daughter was not their responsibility. They were very conservative so it was surprising that they could allow their only daughter to live with an artist and his family. We discussed Lily and her feeling of being an outsider. Members of the group could relate to that feeling. One member related her experience of meeting people who she thought were extremely wealthy. They had intelligent  conversation and lots of house guests, and to her it was exciting to be in their company. This was very similar to Lily’s experience with the Trentham family. Lily was only an observer living with these people.  This becomes even more obvious at the end of the book when she was talking to Bea and the others about writing a memoir.

Living with the Trenthams was a life of possibility for Lily.  The house and the huge meals all seemed effortless so different from her lonely boring life with her parents.

One member enjoyed the book but had reservations.   It reminded her of hippie life in Byron Bay where life was full of strays.  Another member was wondering what it was really about – angst of an artistic life or a clash between sensible suburbia and bohemian life.

Another member was very enthusiastic about this book – it reminded her of ‘Brideshead revisited’ and also ‘Atonement’.  She thought it was about family and desire and connection to people, parental responsibility and friendship between girls. One of the good facets of the novel was the way the author describes the cultural isolation (in art terms especially) of Melbourne at the time. The family were living in a bubble.

The Prologue is very important. Here the author talks about the:
heart’s magnetic field …the body’s silent communications with other bodies are unmapped and mysterious …Who knows, what we call instant attraction may be as random as the momentary synchrony of two hearts’ magnetic pulses.
Does this explain Eva and Lily’s friendship, or Lily’s attraction to the whole Trentham family?

Eva’s mother is another interesting character – she is not a sympathetic character and hopeless as a parent. Evan is a bad father. The dinner party conversations (with the extra members of the ‘family’) and their behavior shows how dysfunctional the family really is. No-one is interested in the children.
Bitto explains the relationships between the family members really well and how they are all under stress, and not healthy.

We discussed the girls' relationships – Lily and Bea, the sad and unloved Heloise, and Lily herself –and Jerome, the ‘devil’ in the ‘mix’?  These relationships reminded one reader of a relationship between Jack Thompson and 2 sisters. Apparently there is also an instance of the poet Shelley ‘having’ two young women. According to the Oxford Handbook online Shelley was possibly one of the ‘pro-feminist of the male writers’ of the time. 

Jerome is totally unremorseful, a good artist who was expected to make money. Why did society allow him to get away with ‘taking’ young girls? Why did the family not object sooner? Even if Lily had told would the family have acted sooner? These questions cannot be answered.

The whole episode of Jerome absconding with the girls reminded us of incidents concerning supposed obscene art and photographs of children by Bill Henson which were censored in 2008 by the Labor government. (The exhibition was at the Roslyn Oxley Gallery in Paddington.) Interestingly, none of us thought that Jerome kidnapped Eva and Heloise, but they presumably went of their own volition. Jerome was 24 and the girls were 15 and 13. This sort of behavior happens. Evan and Helena wanted to keep the community intact and wanted to believe that their life was possible longterm. (It didn’t work for the Reeds for very long either.)

Central to the community idea is that this lifestyle upsets lives – relationships happen which are not meant to happen – Jerome and the girls, especially Heloise. I suppose this is reinforced by Lily’s first marriage to her romantic artist husband which didn’t succeed.  Life was better with her more boring second partner, an economist.

The life of the Trenthams is not a good model for society we decided. It is good to have challenging people around but you had better lock up your daughters. So is the meaning of this book about coming to terms with the past? Lily’s parents’ behavior is inexplicable. The three Trentham daughters lacked boundaries which ruined their lives ultimately.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Hanif Kureishi's The buddha of suburbia

Unusually, all Minervans who attended this month's meeting enjoyed the book, Hanif Kureishi's debut novel The buddha of suburbia. Despite the overall agreement, however, we managed to find things to discuss and even to disagree, a little anyhow, about.

We all agreed that we'd recommend it to others, though one member said she took a little while to get into it. She started to enjoy it, she said, when she "clicked" into the irony and satire.

Being women of a certain age, many of us had visited England in the 1960s or 1970s. We thought Kureishi's picture of London at that time was authentic, that he beautifully captured things like the mix of ethnic cultures, the rise of the punk culture, and the fashion (which he describes in some detail). We enjoyed the many cultural references to music, books, and London locations - and we used these to help pinpoint exact timings for the story. One member said that Kureishi captured the "seediness" of the England of the TV series, Till death do us part (1965-1975), thereby adding her own little cultural allusion. Sex features heavily in the novel, representing broad human experience and behaviour, some loving, some raunchy, some exploratory, some exploitative. The sex could be confronting at times, but is part of the liberated period in which it is set.

While the book is a coming-of-age novel for 17-year-old Karim (as he is when the novel opens), we felt that it is also about the fact that we are always "coming-of-age" or, shape-shifting or transforming. The title character, the buddha of suburbia (aka Haroon or Harry, Karim's father), is an example. He is experiencing a mid-life crisis in which he is searching for meaning, for being something more than a Civil Service clerk who will never be promoted above an Englishman. So, he sets himself up as a "buddha", as a "visionary" who will provide wisdom from the east. We enjoyed the humour of a Pakistani Muslim setting himself up as a Buddha.

It's also about culture and class, stereotyping and racism. Although Indians and Pakistanis had been living in London and England for a long time, they were still marginalised. Kureishi depicts this with humour, showing their marginalisation but sending it up at the same time. He shows the ignorance of English people who repeatedly called Karim "black", but he's more "beige" he says!

The thing was, we were supposed to be English, but to the English we were always wogs and nigs and Pakis and the rest of it.

We discussed how the book is also about people assuming the mantle of their culture and working out what they can do with it. One member shared a story from China in the 1980s. Chinese people, would ask, she said, for help to get to the USA. When asked what they'd do in America, they'd say, "We're Chinese, we can teach Tai Chi", regardless of whether they had the skills. Muslim Haroon subverts this idea of racial expectations/stereotyping by assuming the mantle of Buddha!

Another theme we discussed related to escaping suburbia for the excitement of the city where you might have a "new life". Suburbia is seen as dull, the place of the "miserable undead", where "people rarely dreamed of striking out for happiness". It's where kids from other cultures expected to be bullied. And yet, the suburb-city dichotomy is not seen as a simple one. Karim has some of his most meaningful engagements with family and friends in the suburbs. And the city has its challenges. It's not "the real world" according to his childhood friend Jamila. It has its poseurs, and racism can be just as rife.

We discussed the role of the arts. There's a certain cynicism about art and the entertainment industry, and yet there's also a sense that there could be salvation through literature and the arts. Charlie reinvents himself as punk star, Charlie Hero, though like most issues in the book there are two sides to this.
There were aspects which different members questioned or didn't like. One member, for example, found Shinko, Changez's Japanese whore/friend/partner to be unrealistic. Another found the section set in New York to be less interesting and wondered about its relevance, but others of us felt that this is where Karim started to really learn about himself and what he wanted. Yet another member was disappointed that Jamila married Changez, the man "arranged" for her from India, while others suggested that while she made her decision based on convention, that is, on obeying her father, she subverts the convention by the way she managed this marriage. One member asked why Changez, a Muslim man with certain expectations, accepted Jamil's conditions. We put forward a few possibilities, one being that Changez is not presented as a powerful, confident man, but one his Indian family would have been pleased to have got rid of.

Jamila, some thought, is a rather idealised character. She's "human" but not "real". Is this a fault of the novel, or a valid part of the satire and Kureishi's social agenda? She stands for confident, second generation, liberated immigrant womanhood.

We briefly discussed other characters. We felt for Karim's abandoned Mum - a quiet, undemanding, woman - and were glad when she'd found a toy-boy by the end. We thought Karim's actor friend, Terry, was genuine in his humanity. We worried about Eleanor who seemed to have no sense of self, one member likening her to Marianne Faithful!  We thought Anwar, Jamila's father and Karim's father's best friend, was the saddest character. He was resistant to change, and he's the character who doesn't end well, which perhaps suggests one of the messages of the book - if it can be said to have a message! We liked Karim's exuberance, though felt he often walked a fine line between charm and callousness.

Overall, we found this a funny, engaging book. We enjoyed the way Kureishi regularly subverted expected outcomes or challenged our expectations. We thought the ending was nicely ironic. Karim, we agreed had come to some self-growth, but his expectation that life will be less messy in the future is perhaps a vain hope (given the adults we've seen in the novel).

Thursday, 3 September 2015

The snow kimono by Mark Henshaw

This month’s novel was read by all the participants at our monthly meeting and many decided that it was much more fun than last time’s rather unusual book.

We began the night with some insights into the author – Kate heard him talk at a local bookshop recently about his work. The first chapter originated in 1990 and was published in an anthology. He was fortunate to spend 2 years in France on a scholarship, but he has not visited Japan.

When he retired from the National Gallery in 2012 he began writing from the first chapter until he got to the end and later dropped the ‘Algerian chapter’ into the sequence. A Japanese friend did fact-checking for him and many of us were surprised how well he can write about Japan. However, he has worked with Japanese prints for many years at the Gallery as a curator for prints and drawings. His visual orientation is in evidence in this novel – a reader can easily ‘see’ the landscape he describes so well. Those of us who have visited Japan thought he captured it beautifully.

Some members agreed that the Algerian chapter felt out of place but agreed that it was necessary as it added a complexity to the French detective Jovert, as we wouldn’t have known the importance of the first chapter without it. We commented also upon the fact that Jovert’s name is so similar to Javert from Les Miserables.  (Javert is 'the police inspector who becomes obsessed with the pursuit and punishment of the escaped convict Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Miserables. From Wikipedia)

As we often do, we spent the evening trying to talk about scenes and characters as well as major themes and subtexts. One member felt ‘it’ was about the different ways the East and West perceive 'things'.

Other themes:

  • Lies and truths: what is truth?
  • Memories: story-telling is moderated by memories, we doubt our storytellers? Henshaw is not documenting geography.
  • Meaning of life: can you understand your life as seen by another person?  This is mixed up with identity, especially in relation to the confession by Omura/Katsuo? (see chapter on Katsuo – ‘he used to entertain us with his impersonations’, loc 834, 23% on Kindle)
  • Tension between the sexes: Role of women, in Japan, subjugated role of Geishas as well as women in ordinary society juxtaposed with Jovert’s wife’s post natal depression and her rejection of Jovert. Sachiko’s foster mother and her role in trying to find out what happened to her husband is in strong contrast to the usual role of women in this patriarchal society.
  • Identity: Role of father/grandfather; shifting roles, including incest by Katsuo.


The twist at the end of the book was one of the most fascinating parts of our conversation this month. Was Tadashi Omura real or was he actually Katsuo Ikeda?  One member was not convinced that they were actually 2 people.  In many ways they seem like two sides of personalities – good versus bad. The passport found by Jovert after the death must be evidence that the inspector was misled all the time as was the reader?  Was the real Omura still living in Japan unaware that he was being portrayed yet again? Or had he met a sticky end?

There was also mention that Katsuo and Jovert had similarities and were not complementary characters. Both had killed people and had affairs, and felt guilty for their actions. Both had loved and lost too.

The scene on the bus driving in the terrible storm and snow was a very powerful one and we discussed it at some length. The knowledge gained later that Katsuo was on the bus seeing the accident when the boy was killed is vital for the story.

Sue had investigated the Text Publishing notes and questions and these were thought provoking. For instance:  What red herrings are put in to mislead the reader ? One clue which we picked up was the continual typing of ‘Omura’ heard by Jovert late into the night – more pertaining to a novelist such as Katsuo than a retired legal person – debatable? And this ‘Omura’ was always taking notes. Another clue was that this ‘Omura’ was not always complimentary about Katsuo but is this just part of the confidence trick being played on Jovert?  The brutal scene of the death of Hideo, was more believable coming from the true Omura?

Sue likened the writing to Ishiguro. She believes Henshaw conveys the same sort of sensibility. For instance, Henshaw describes the environment in a matter of fact way even though the scene may be horrific eg Sachiko’s death in the snow. He is lyrical and beautifully descriptive without being flowery.
Interestingly, some members felt it was such a complicated book that it was important to reread the first few chapters. One member did a descriptive list of the characters in order to keep the names and scenes - in a logical way - in her head. Others of us just ran with it -- fiction after all!

Another mention was the ‘hoax’ perpetrated by Katsuo. Apparently there was a poetry hoax in the 1990s in Japan? This is contrasted with the humiliation of Katsuo’s former teacher, Todo. His re-appearance towards the end may or may not be true – he could have been dead?

We all liked the language – succinct and meaningful in short direct sentences. I think you can feel that a lot of thought has gone into this aspect of the novel, probably as much as the plot.

Old fashioned letters play a part in this novel – we considered the one in the beginning to Jovert and the consequences of letters.

Is the snow kimono the central story of the novel? It is certainly one of them, but there is so much more. That particular story has to do with women being groomed as well as wearing a creation of her grandmother’s (ancestral worship?) and the Japanese love of exquisite beauty. Women as commodity? Is Sachiko a sacrificial virgin?  We were not sure.     
A final comment was most complimentary that this was the best book we have read for a long time!

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

All quotes are from the Folio society publication, 1975.

A group of five Minervans enjoyed discussing this classic novel written in 1798. The discussion rambled around all of Jane Austen’s works. Sue, our resident Jane Austen expert, was able to expand on many of the wonderful aspects of the novels and the many interweavings. Although Northanger Abbey was written when Jane was just 23 it was edited and revised when she was dying and only published in 1817. In a way it reminds Sue of Austen’s juvenilia but more controlled and with exuberance – it is a real hoot!

It is considered a Gothic spoof by some and the concept of ‘Gothic’ intrigued us. A definition includes the idea of suspense, old ruins, high emotion and ‘over-the-top-ness’ or exaggeration. For instance, during the journey to the Abbey, Henry Tilney describes the abbey to Catherine in melodramatic language, so she is at an unusual level of high emotion when she investigates a ‘large high chest’ in her bedroom

the sight of it made her start; and, forgetting every thing else, she stood gazing on it in motionless wonder, while these thoughts crossed her: This is strange indeed!’ (page 142)

Even the mention of this type of Renaissance furniture alludes to Gothic novels.

The more serious reflection and ‘true Gothic moment’ is Henry's realization that Catherine has surmised that his mother was murdered by the General. However, this is not a Gothic novel, he tells her, this is England. Nationalistic feelings were important.

The literary influences on this book were the Gothic novels of Anne Radcliffe including The mysteries of Udolpho which was also a favourite novel for the young female characters in Northanger Abbey.

In artistic terms Austen straddles the Regency period (classical – late eighteenth century) and the highly Romantic period (beginning of the nineteenth century). In this novel Austen uses irony and observations to clearly point out satiric moments and provide the reader with much enjoyment. Sue also noticed how often the colour red was important – for example red poppy and frequent blushing by the girls.

Catherine’s education in the world's ways is the central crux and this ‘coming of age’ is tested when she is forced to leave Northanger Abbey, literally turfed out by General Tilney. Can she cope with the trip? Yes she does. In a ‘Gothic’ novel she may not have coped so well, but this is realism.

We all enjoyed the pleasure of reading this book. Four really enjoyed the reread. It made Denise giggle and we all loved the funny scenes. Sandy didn’t like Northanger Abbey at first but gradually it grew on her. She is a big fan of Thomas Hardy.

The setting of Bath is glorious – it was just beginning to become the town it still is today when Jane Austen was writing this novel. The pump room was just becoming popular.

The central character of Catherine Morland moves from boyish child (ie tomboy?) playing ‘base ball’ (page 13 ) to a very naïve young woman of seventeen to a wiser girl over the period of the novel. The experiences and the men she meets do teach her some lessons in adult behaviour. John Thorpe teaches her how not to behave and Henry Tilney acts like an older brother, caring but also playful. For example, John was not reliable and left her at a dance. We appreciated that Catherine held her own opinions quite often and did not waver easily. Maybe more than we did at the same age?

The other main character is Henry Tilney and we remarked how patronizing and sarcastic Henry is towards Catherine. He is considerably older and she is young and silly – he is satirical and reminiscent of other characters in Austen’s novels, such as Mr Knightley in Emma and Edmund in Mansfield Park. He also teases Catherine and she falls for it often.

Mrs Allen is an empty head – not unlike Mrs Bennet we decided - interested in gowns and gossip and not much else. General Tilney’s behaviour is shocking and it was clever writing that he was tricked by John Thorpe twice. John Thorpe is an unreliable person and deserves his reputation.

Another feature we discussed was the word ‘nice’. As in the speech from Eleanor Tilney to Catherine:

‘The word “nicest”, as you used it, did not suit him (ie Henry Tilney) ; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.’ (page 95).

Many of us have had similar discussions with relations about 'nice' words.

This novel is wonderful social history even though Austen doesn’t mention politics and isn’t writing history. It shows the power of the aristocracy and the newly wealthy having such power over everyone who wanted to be upwardly mobile. The Thorpe family are prime examples of the genteel poor trying to acquire money through marriage. It also shows that some things never change -- people are still influenced by money and status.

CE Brock illustration, c 1909, from
The other aspect of this novel is Austen’s own defence of the novel. This is in chapter 5 when Catherine is beginning to form her first friendship in Bath. Her new friend Isabella also liked to read novels. It is over a page of strong language from Austen which is alluded to later by Catherine and Henry when discussing young men reading novels. Sue told us this passage is famous, for Austen’s arguments have carried weight ever since. Liking novels is also a commendable personal attribute in this novel – Henry does and John Thorpe does not.

“Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another , from whom can we expect protection and regard ? … And what are you reading , Miss, --------- ?’ ‘Oh! It is only a novel !’ replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame.” (page 32).

Haven’t we all been there !! And more …

“ liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language”. (page 32)

The aspect of the Romantic picturesque is also found in this novel – “The whole building enclosed a court; and two sides of the quadrangle, rich in Gothic ornaments, stood forward for admiration.” (page 154). You have the foreground and the background and features in between -- just like a painting.

Austen also enjoyed poking fun at the General allowing him to speculate on further developments of the estate just because it was fashionable to do so, and trying to keep up with others he thinks are of the same status.

A great read.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Peter Carey's Amnesia

Peter Carey is one of those writers readers rarely agree on. That's certainly been the case with our group in the past, and nothing changed this month when we discussed Carey's latest novel Amnesia. Consequently, the discussion was lively. Most people had finished or nearly finished it, but a couple gave up, finding it not to their liking. One found she was fighting her twenty-something son to read it - he kept picking it up when she wanted to read it. He didn't think his mum's group read books "like this"!

What we liked

Most, even those who didn't finish it, liked something. For some the beginning was engaging but they got tired of the "1970s political stuff". Others, particularly those who grew up in Melbourne, really enjoyed the middle part telling the story of the family - Sando, Celine and Gaby - and their lives in artsy Carlton and working class Coburg.

Another commented on Peter Carey's writing and his wonderful sentences, such as the description of the protagonist making a toilet for himself in the bush:
No-one saw him. No-one knew his aching knees. He was Felix Moore and he was aware of his position in his country's history and thus saw himself from a slightly elevated perspective, deriving some dour satisfaction from his similarity to Dürer's portrait of the hermit Saint Jerome.

Some enjoyed the humour, such as the story of Celine's grandmother, who, during World War 2, offered to entertain American soldiers, "except no Jews". She's sent a black GI. She tells him there must be a mistake, and he politely replies, "we are sorry to have inconvenienced you ... but it wasn't a mistake. Our Captain Cohen, he don't make no mistakes". Loved it!

Another enjoyed the satire, and particularly liked the second part of the novel. And one said that her husband thought it was a ripping yarn. (Never let it be said we don't involve men in our group!)

What we didn't like so much

For some the story was just a little too over-the-top and hard to follow. There was too much going on, and some of it, such as the computer-worm-and-hacking thread didn't fully hang together. A few felt that perhaps the story needed to be read in longer stints than last thing at night before bed!

One was a little irritated by the language at the beginning. Why did the character say "m'lud" in court rather than the more common Australian "your honour".  She also felt there were some anachronisms, such as the use of WTF. (However, later research revealed that WTF was first used on the Internet in 1985, which makes Carey's use okay.)

One felt the characters weren't easy to visualise.

We wondered whether Carey tried to satirise too many "things". And we all found Woody Townes a little mystifying. One described him as "shape-shifting". We knew he was an old university friend of the main protagonists, but who was he really and why was he doing what he was doing? Without spoiling too much, it was generally felt that he deserved what he got at the end!

Other questions and comments

This was a big, somewhat rambling book, and so our discussion was big and rambling too! One reader said it reminded her a little of Tim Winton's Eyrie which we read last year, because it too was about a journalist who got himself into trouble.

Given the political nature of the novel, a couple found themselves wondering whether characters in the book were meant to represent specific people. For example, the main character, leftie journalist Felix Moore. Was he supposed to be Mungo McCallum, or Bob Ellis, or even John Pilger? Others weren't sure, and one felt that Peter Carey who, like his character was born in Bacchus Marsh, may, at times, have been sending himself up. She quoted a sentence on the second last page:
For the crime of expressing pleasure that my book would be available to future generations, I was judged not only immoral but vain and preening ...
Why did smells and birds feature so much in the novel?

So what was it about?

We didn't come to a complete resolution on this, but we came up with several ideas:
  • how the young radicals of the 1960s/1970s brought up their own children and the ways in which they "sold out"
  • that modern activists now work with hacking and computer worms/viruses whereas their parents marched and leafletted, lobbied, etc.
  • cybersecurity, perhaps inspired by Julian Assange and Edward Snowdon
  • independence and/or interference in journalism, how "true" it is (or is not), pernicious "editing"
  • the importance of maintaining the rage, of not forgetting (hence the title "amnesia") what's happened in the past, of the need to be aware of the ways in which the USA has not been Australia's friend.
Not bad for a discussion which started out with more of us not liking the book than liking it. 

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Aminatta Forna's The hired man

Aminatta Forna was strongly recommended to us by one of our original members, who now joins us only in spirit from her coast abode. We chose The hired man, Forna's most recent novel, and it proved a good choice - we had a fascinating discussion.

The language was spare, the setting sparse

As we usually do, we started by asking if everyone had read it, and had we all liked it. A couple said that it had taken them a while to get into it. For one, it was because of the spare language and sparse setting. She usually likes the opposite she said. But, when she picked it up to give it a second go, she said, she loved it, partly because Forna is good at building up a sense that "something big will happen". Similarly, another said the beginning was slow-going, though she noticed "words" and "little clues" hinting at where it was going. She really enjoyed the second half.

Which war?

So, to get to the nub. The novel is set in Croatia. Our first person narrator Duro tells us about his life in the town of Gost from his youth, through the Croatian War of Independence and up to 2007. While war frames the story, the issues that drive the plot start pre-war, when Duro falls out with his best friend Krešimir who shows himself to be cruel, and full of hatred. This turns out to be just a precursor for what happens during the civil war when "men started hunting each other" and neighbour turned against neighbour, particularly as "ethnic cleansing" started to happen. It's a macho, chauvinistic world, one that Duro belongs to but doesn't condone.

We discussed the relevance of reading this book just as we've commemorated the 100th anniversary of ANZAC Day which has made us think about the definition of heroism, what we understand about conflict and its causes, and the whole randomness of who survives and who doesn't. While these aren't Forna's main themes, they are present. One horrific scene, for example, occurs when Duro describes the death of his father and sister, caught by a shell because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What sort of narrator?

We spent quite a bit of time discussing Duro. A few of us wondered at first whether he might be an unreliable narrator, but we all agreed that while he didn't always tell us the whole truth when we'd expect it, he was reliable. As our psychotherapist member said, many who have experienced traumatic war often don't tell the full story - some never, others not straightaway.

The novel opens in 2007 with Duro telling us that "at the time of writing I am forty-six years old". Later we realise he is writing it for a future reader, after he dies:
They will go through my papers and when they do they will find this. 
Maybe that person is you. Or, at least, I have to tell this story and I must tell it to somebody, so it may as well be you, come to sort through my belongings.
So, here we have it in Chapter 3, his need to tell us a story - and what a story it is. Given all Duro had experienced and lost, we wondered why he'd stayed. We decided there were probably two reasons: he wanted to be the thorn in the side of those men who betrayed their neighbours, and perhaps he hoped that his first love, Anka, who had "disappeared", might return. We also felt that while his life seemed "small", he knows himself and what he is doing, he's self-sufficient and in control of who he is.

What have the English got to do with it?

Duro is prompted to write his story by the arrival of an English woman, Laura, with her teenage son and daughter, Matthew and Grace. Laura and her husband have bought a house and plan to do it up, sell it, and move on. This house is the "blue" house which had been Krešimir and Anka's home. Duro, a handyman, becomes Laura's "hired man", to help renovate the house. As he does so, he becomes friendly with them - but, surprisingly to us, despite sexual tension, he never "makes a pass" at this married woman.

There is an underlying theme here of the British moving into Europe, oblivious of history and inherent dangers:
The way the English saw it, the past was always better. But in this country our love of the past is a great deal less, unless it is a very distant past indeed, the kind nobody alive can remember, a past transformed into a song or a poem. We tolerate the present, but what we love is the future, which is about as far away from the past as it is possible to be
Laura acts as a catalyst for Duro's memory, and for the resolution of the novel. She reminds him of Anka. (Interestingly, her favouring of her son and rather dismissive treatment of her daughter parallels the way Krešimir and Anka's mother had treated them.)

We are all implicated

We spent some time discussing the conclusion. We had various theories about what it meant. Why would Laura want to return after being intimidated by the town bully? Who was doing the graffiti, and why? Whatever the answers, we agreed that the ending was intended to be positive - as positive as it could be, anyhow - and that Forna's "message" is that the only way towns like this can survive is for their people to learn to live together.

We concluded the night with a lovely Croatian Cherry and Walnut Cake made by our host Kate. It was yum.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

In My Mother's Hands by Biff Ward

In My MOTHER’S HANDS: A disturbing memoir of family life by Biff Ward

This month Minerva book club was very pleased and honoured to welcome Biff (Elizabeth) Ward to our meeting.  It is not often we are able to talk to an author and it was very pleasing to meet her and be able to ask her questions. This book largely concerns Biff’s mother and her difficult life suffering from severe mental illness. Naturally, it is also about the young Biff and her brother Mark and their father, the academic historian, Russel Ward.

Biff Ward is a ‘writer, poet and human resources consultant’. She is also a former teacher and women’s activist. (More information about her is available through the National Library – they hold an interview with her done by Sara Dowse.)  

To begin Ms Ward explained a little about her writing experience: she has always been a writer and has conducted courses in writing fiction and has always loved fiction, both the reading and the writing.  She published her first book in London thirty years ago, called Father-daughter rape, published by the Women’s Press. She contributed to Different Lives, in 1987, which is a book of ‘reflections on the women’s movement and visions for its future’. Ms Ward won the FAW Donald Stuart Short Story Award in 1991, for the unpublished story, 'Leaving Tennant Creek', and in 1992 she and two other women poets wrote, Three’s Company.

Biff Ward explained to us that she was expected to write a biography of her Dad. However, she decided to write a memoir about her Mother instead, as she didn’t want to write a conventional biography. She chose to write it according to themes – each chapter with a different title and focus. For instance the first chapter is entitled ‘Alison’, ‘The Mother’ is chapter 2 followed by ‘The Father’. The themes become more unusual later with such titles as : The tower, the pills and the cobweb.

Ms Ward was asked about the research involved.  Letters by her father and her grandfather held in the National Library of Australia were a good source of information as well as oral memories from her brother and friends.  It was not traumatic for Biff to write this memoir she stated as she had been in therapy for 25 years before she started. Mark’s stories of their childhood helped them both to analyse the family complexities.

One of the many themes in the memoir is their father’s strong love for his wife and women in general. She is very open about his flaws as well as his good characteristics.

(My comment :
I like the description of her parents :
‘Dad was never beige. If he were a colour it would be rich maroon…’
‘Mum …inhabited the soft end of the yellow spectrum, ranging from a faint cream through the pastels …’ (Chapter 1))

Biff Ward enjoyed ‘finding the words’ to explain the family dynamics. One member found it ‘endearing ‘ and thanked her for explaining the ‘journey’ and how Russel had to ‘do his thing’.

Another member mentioned that she found the book ‘profoundly moving’.  She felt that Biff and her family suffered so deeply because of their mother’s illness, and it was profoundly sad that the drugs were not available to help Margaret Ward.  

Biff Ward brought along the beautiful painting of her mother by the artist Paddy Taylor, reproduced in the memoir. This oil painting was painted in 1946 and shows a young, good-looking woman staring off into the distance while her hands are busy with knitting.  It was lovely to see the original.

One member felt that the memoir was resonant for her as she had grown up in Adelaide in the 1960s and did many of the things enjoyed by Biff and her brother, such as riding bikes around until dusk and having one’s hair washed over a basin. This was quite a sensual experience and enjoyable when one didn’t have much sensory stimulation, growing up in a family which didn’t touch much!

Another member said how much she liked the book as Biff Ward mentions ‘things’ that families didn’t talk about in that era.  We have to be careful not to judge people by today’s standards. 

The newest member of our group is a psychologist and she acknowledged to Ms Ward that her memoir is having an impact with some of her clients. It is already proving useful for people in therapy.

Maybe one of the features which appeals is that it is a ‘kind’ book – there is very little anger or blame. Biff stated that she ‘didn’t grow up in a blaming culture’.  Her father really tried to do the best for his wife even after they separated.

Another member commented that it was a ‘harrowing’ read. Margaret Ward’s mental illness was known about by many friends but there were no words for it in the Australia of the mid twentieth century. Also we were told that the friends didn’t know how to help. Margaret Ward lived with schizophrenia for 55 years  with no ‘real’ treatment. It was sad too that Margaret’s family never really recognized her illness or had sufficient empathy with Russel and the children.

We also discussed Russel Ward’s problems with his ASIO file and the fact that the authorities thought he was a Communist and didn’t want him employed at UNSW. Luckily he was able to be employed at UNE with other ‘radicals’ of the time.  

At the conclusion of a good discussion we talked more generally about ‘memoirs’ and how they ‘reflect moments in life’ – as if for a rehearsal.  The change in thinking makes this memoir stand out from the ‘ordinary’ ones. Biff also acknowledged that the biography started out very large but was greatly reduced by the publisher.  It became more focused on her mother and less about Biff.
This book is a very courageous memoir about a very troubled relationship and a sad woman. There is a sense of loss through it – memory and grief of what might have been. It was good to hear that Biff and her father could talk about their wife and mother towards the end of Russel’s life.  It is a very moving book and we all appreciated the opportunity to read about Biff Ward’s early life.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Tiger tiger burning bright

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane is a very clever first novel and a real page turner.

However there are lots of questions arising from this story many of which we couldn't answer during our very pleasant evening discussing it. We also tried to answer some online questions from the Penguin website which was a first for our group.

Basically the story is about Ruth, a lady in her seventies living independently in her own home, probably on the south coast and beginning to contend with mental issues associated with getting older. The appearance of the tiger is a 'mechanism' for showing Ruth's stress levels. Also her early swearing is indicative of a problem for this well brought up woman. She is after all a daughter of a missionary doctor who would not have sworn at all during her early life.

Early on in the novel a carer appears in the guise of Frida and the story takes off. Some of us were suspicious of Frida from this moment on while others were not so quick to judge. We were all aware that there were 'age' issues for Ruth from the beginning. The author jumps into the story immediately showing how vulnerable Ruth is and how lacking in assistance and family companionship. One of her sons living in New Zealand is an early character but is totally devoid of real input into the life of his mother from such a distance. A phone call is hardly sufficient for an old lady's welfare. We felt he should have done more.

So much occurs in Ruth's head that the boundaries of real and imagined are difficult to work out. About half way through the book Frida starts to make extra demands and it is also the time when Ruth's friend Richard starts to dominate her thinking.

Ruth's house is also important. Is it a prison or a sanctuary? This is a hard question as we don't know what is happening exactly. Was Ruth locked in or was she bananas? This is shown particularly when Ruth thinks Frida has locked her in.

The landscape is an important factor in Ruth's life as she is so isolated from friends and family -- but enjoys the view when she can and expects others to enjoy it. Many of us felt we knew parts of the coast where the story could be set.

How much can Ruth rely on Frida? Very little we decided but Ruth is not really given the opportunity to think the situation through until it is too late. We also agreed that the story is typical of what can really happen to the elderly.

Frida shows that she is lacking in compassion although she is somewhat sympathetic at times -- for example, washing Ruth's hair before Richard visits. We thought Frida probably had narcissistic personality disorder.

Does the tiger 'prefigure' the future guests? Frida and Richard? I don't think so as it is more to show how Ruth is feeling at the time when these people are about to intrude into her life.

We saw similarities in the novel --  The life of Pi -- Richard Parker is the name of the tiger! In this earlier novel the tiger is a presence -- with a love/hate relationship with the main character. Both this character and Ruth try hard to 'survive' the tiger.

Was Frida's hairstyle changes indicative of anything? Could it be part of the conspiracy?  Or was it innocent? Frida's appearance as a partly Maori woman -- certainly a person from the Islands was a happy co-incidence as far as Ruth was concerned as it brought back happy memories for her. It also reinforced her desire to see her first 'love' -- the young doctor Richard. Some of us didn't like the young Richard finding him insipid and lacking humility. For instance, he showed very Protestant values in not liking Ruth's father's washing of feet on Good Friday. He also thought he could do a lot of good with the Indian women but we didn't hear any more about that.

We felt that Ruth's current relationship with Richard was overall positive for her and it was a great pity that his letters were not delivered to her. She was greatly cheated of a good old age with him if Frida hadn't intervened.

We also discussed the ending --  Frida is an unusual character in that she is not only guilt ridden by her behaviour to Ruth but she does something about it.

Did Frida leave Ruth in the tiger trap? How could she do this after being her carer?  The clever writing leaves the reader undecided whether it is Ruth who is unclear about her position; or whether Frida was planning that Ruth would be OK.  Did Ruth die of exposure? Was Frida a victim? She was George's victim but she did have a choice whereas Ruth did not have a choice. Frida was a 'con artist'. Why did the bank allow Ruth's money be taken out by someone else ?  

The book is exquisitely crafted and really makes you feel what it must be like to have some level of dementia. Fiona McFarlane is very clever using the third person subjective.

How did we come to read it? Sue had heard that it was awarded great accolades so it was worthy of our attention. We agreed it was very worthy. It also brought up memories of another novel about old age -- Reunion by Andrea Goldsmith.

Friday, 30 January 2015

My crime, your punishment?

Crime and punishment

Our first reading group for 2015, and I had persuaded our group to read Crime and Punishment over summer, and to discuss! A select group met, with a number having read it as young adults at University, and others reading for the first time, with one keen member re-reading it and another deciding to read The Idiot instead. Those who had read it in their youth were quite affected by it, with the re reader declaring it did not quite have the same emotional impact for her as a later reader.

It was written in 1866, the year after Alice in Wonderland was written, and the same year as Dickens' last book, Our Mutual Friend. It was written in 12 parts in a magazine. 

I reported that I related Raskolnikov to my experience with psychosis and schizophrenia, with many similar symptoms displayed, including: Impulsiveness, delusion, paranoia, disorganisation, passive aggressive, self centred, unable to manage money. We agreed though that mental illness was not Dostoevsky's intention in writing the book, but the  book is described as a psychological drama, as it describes the action quite often from inside the head of the main character, describing his mood changes, uncertainties and irrational behaviour. 

We discussed the significance of the Superman idea, where there are those in the world to whom normal mores do not apply, and who can exert their superiority by their power over others, including the ultimate power, to murder others of less value. This was Raskolnikov's avowed reason for murdering the old pawnbroker, and he compared himself with Napoleon and others. However is Dostoevsky supporting this idea? Perhaps as the consequences of Raskolnikov's action unfolds, we see the flaws in this ideology. He was punished ultimately after he finally confessed, and then finally came to repent in the epilogue, under the influence of the saintly Sonia. Another reader suggested that his punishment was also in evidence throughout the book, as he was racked with anxiety, and fear of being uncovered, while still maintaining he was quite justified in the murder.

We compared Dostoevsky with Dickens, seeing them both as writing on a large scale, with a complex intertwining of characters, focussing on the lower classes, and revealing a lot about the social ills of the time. Dostoevsky wrote at a time when the impact of the emancipation of the serfs, flooding into the cities, but often living in great poverty was being felt. The impact of alcoholism was also clearly revealed through the Marmeladov family, where the father had been sacked twice from a well paid position, leaving his family in poverty, and forcing his daughter to become a prostitute. There was some debate about whether Dostoevsky was writing about the social times, and trying to raise awareness of some of the inequities and suffering of those who fall into poverty. He had a strong focus on ideas, and discussion about morals and religious ideas. 

We talked about Dostoevsky's portrayal of women, and his use of the saintly whore (Sonia), and the sacrificing sister and mother, whose role seems to be to take care of Raskolnikov as the son in the family.

Did we empathise with Raskolnikov? Most of us not totally. We are inside his head, and we see his mood changes, and his frailty, and his generosity. However in the end the murder served to alienate us as readers, and some of us were not convinced by his speedy redemption at the end. One member compared him with Macbeth, as he unravels following the murder.

The use of religious metaphors and the significance of religion in the book was shown as important, and in the end the hero is redeemed by the love of a good woman, and finally repents. However, the sense of nihilism, the chaos in society, the superman ideology indicate Dostoevsky was very affected by ideologies running at the time, including Darwinism and capitalism, which were challenging the dominance of religion. Dostoevsky was a Russian Orthodox, and in one of his later books: The Brothers Karamazov, he explores a range of religious questions, and seems in favour of Courts run by the Church rather than the state.

We looked at some of the challenges of the language, often in keeping track of the names, and their derivative forms. We also compared translations of the books we had, some reading the traditional translation by Constance Garnett, and others quite modern translations, which may have given the text more flow in reading, but in the sample we looked at did not greatly vary many of the words used. 

So most members were pleased to have read this significant work from world literature, even though we could spend a lifetime unravelling the many aspects of this great novel. Thanks Minerva members for indulging me, as I now continue my reading of The Brothers Karamazov! And there's much I have left out, so happy to take other input!