Friday, 14 December 2018

The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This book was recommended highly by one of our members. That was a good start for the discussion.

This text concerns the true story of how cancer cells belonging to Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman, are still alive and are greatly responsible for amazing scientific breakthroughs in America and elsewhere for almost 70 years.

Henrietta died of cervical cancer in 1951 and Rebecca Skloot is a young American, who became fascinated by this story and so it is also her journey into the background of this remarkable episode in American medical work and her tenacity in tracing and interviewing Henrietta’s family.  Skloot was trying to bring attention to her for recognition of her service to science for future generations. Henrietta’s cells, known as HeLa were obtained by a researcher, who was successful in keeping them alive and in reproducing them. The researcher found them unique in their ability to be cultured. The family who were and are still very poor, received nothing for their mother’s (and grandmother’s) ‘donation’. Henrietta did not know about the future use of these cells nor did the family consent to their use after her death.  So there are many questions of moral rights as well as recognition and respect.

The book relates not only to the scientific aspects of the research done by George Gey and many others as well as the social /societal effects of poverty upon Henrietta’s family and community. Until very recently they had not received any recognition of the use of her cells for scientific research or their worth. The family have had very different reactions to the writing of Henrietta’s life but all seemed impressed by Skloot’s devotion to the subject.

Our general comments included:

  • Amazing, shocking stuff, fascinating, sad, gruelling.
  • The HeLa cells were mentioned in the professional training of two of our members but only briefly. They were well known by medical students until recently but with no attribution or recognition of Henrietta’s role.
  • Our resident medico couldn’t help remembering some horror stories from her medical training especially in relation to the treatment of Black people in America.
  • Should be compulsory reading for a great range of students.
  • Really well done.
  • Loved the mixture of science and discussion of ethics. Great juxtaposition.
  • Very impressed by Skloot’s personal skills dealing with the family and her skilful narrative.
The conversation largely related to two factors : the personalities involved and the medical ethics or lack of them. 

Important people and the HeLa cells:

George Gey, researcher, who worked at John Hopkins Hospital, and who initiated the research in 1951 and gave her cells away for free to any interested laboratory (without receiving any extra compensation).

Deborah Lacks, one of Henrietta’s five children. She was an uneducated but very intelligent woman with a warm heart who just wanted to know about her mother and was continually trying to understand all the things that Rebecca and others were telling her.  Rebecca had great difficulties in convincing Deborah to talk to her initially but once she did Deborah became the main person in learning about the cells and in persuading the family to be resigned to their story being told.

Elsie, Deborah’s sister. She suffered terrible abuse as a teenager by a mental institution and Rebecca was able to obtain a little extra information about her for her siblings. 

Scientists who apologised to Deborah and her brothers for the way the medical profession had treated them. This included Susan Hsu who was director of medical genetics at the American Red Cross. Also Christoph Lengauer, a young researcher from John Hopkins who showed 2 members of the family some of Henrietta’s cells and actually explained for the first time that Henrietta’s cells are not alive just her cancer cells. He also explained that a person’s colour does not show up in these cells. (see pages 263-267). Susan Hsu said :

‘I feel very bad…people should have told them. You know, we never thought at the time they did not understand’. (Page 189)  

HeLa cells. This indestructible human material that once they left Henrietta’s body did not belong to her and she did not know they would be of interest to mankind!

Zakariyya, the brother who suffered so badly from his stepmother’s abusive treatment was given space to appear as a concerned person who wanted to know about his mother.

(We were very impressed by Skloot’s ability to relate to the family and allow them room to speak and wrestle with the questions she was raising.)

Rebecca Skloot herself, the author and medical scholar who at times describes her trials and tribulations. She was drawn into the family gradually over a long period and also felt their trauma. She began researching for the book in 1990 and it was published in 2009 and a movie was made staring Oprah Winfrey.


It was not unusual for patients in the 1950s to not be informed about cells when biopsies were taken. The issue of cells taken from one’s body is still current. One member related that she gave permission for her cells to be used just recently. The Nuremberg Code is very important with this issue. Although this code was written just after WW2,  it has not been adopted as law in any country but it underpins many of our modern medical regulations.

One member feels some sympathy for doctors trying to research medical issues like cancer. They need to experiment on patients but now it is largely prohibited. This wasn’t the case 60-70 years ago when Henrietta Lacks was alive.

Further Information about cervical cancer from Wikipedia:

Henrietta’s family see the HeLa cells through the prism of religion and science and we were asked how we respond to this. Deborah in particular kept thinking that her mother had been cloned. This is highly emotive language and sad that the family so misunderstand the science or are so mislead by the lack of information that they can assume such a terrible conclusion. It is very sobering thought in this day and age.

The question of race was obvious all through the text. Henrietta’s family thought that the white scientists were making lots of money through Henrietta’s cells and they naturally felt that they should have inherited some of the money obtained. They are still a family who can’t afford medical insurance in the very over-priced American medical system.

We briefly discussed commercialism of scientific research and patenting of such things as the human genome.

We also discussed the non-judgemental attitude of Rebecca Skloot in that she does not criticize the scientists who researched Henrietta’s cells. ‘It is what it is!’

Skloot has set up a foundation to assist Henrietta’s family and others who donate to science without receiving any gratitude or gratuity.

Present: 9 members 

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Minerva's Top Picks for 2018

We so enjoyed doing our Top Picks last year that we decided repeat the exercise this year. Each member was asked to nominate her three top picks of the books we read as a group this year ... and this is what happened ...

Eleven of our twelve currently active members took part. Ten nominated three books, and one chose just one, resulting in 31 "votes" cast. This is not a scientific survey, however. Votes were all given equal weight, as was advised in the email request. And not everyone read every book, meaning different people voted from different "pools". Consequently, the results are indicative at best, but it's all meant to be fun and it does convey some sense of what we all liked.

The results were a bit tighter this year than last: the "top" book received 6 (not last year's 7 votes) and three books vied for third (whereas last year there was a clear top three, followed by two sharing "highly commended" honours.) In other words, the top three positions this year used 23 of the 31 votes cast, whereas last year they used 18 of the 32 votes. Does this say anything? Probably not.

Anyhow, here are the results:

1. The choke, by Sofie Laguna (our review) (6 votes)
2. The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot (our review) (5 votes)
3. The sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen (our review); The merry-go-round in the sea, by Randolph Stow (our review); and Austerlitz, by WG Sebald (our review) (4 votes each)

Highly commended: An unnecessary woman, by Rabih Alameddine (our review).

A varied list which includes a classic, a translated novel, and a non-fiction work. What open-minded readers we are!

Some general comments:

Judith commented that she "enjoyed the styles of writing, so different in each, and the story that each author told with such skill"; Kate thought that "all in all [it was] a top year".

Meanwhile, Anne was so inspired by reading EM Forster's Howard's End that she has since listened to the book he called his favourite, The longest journey. She said: "It hasn't stood the test of time like Howard's End and reminds me that authors aren't always the best judges of their work." 

Some comments on our top picks:

  • "Rivetting read and clever use of naïve narrator." (Sue B)
  • "Was so moved by Justine. Loved how Laguna managed the naïve narrator in such a way as to make it clear to us what was going on while the child didn't. I also loved the Murray river setting and the choke metaphor." (Sue T)
  • "Harrowing but brilliant and insightful." (Janet)

  • "What a marvellous account of a scientific breakthrough, within the real challenges of black lives, and this family in particular. A nuanced account of a continuing ethical dilemma." (Kate)
  • "Every medico should read this." (Denise)
  • "Love a bit of science ethics (or in this case, the lack thereof) in the mix. Sorry to have missed the discussion." (Janet)

  • "Such an important perspective on a war we all know about as an American war, when ten times as many Vietnamese were affected and still suffer the consequences." (Denise)
  • "Loved the unique, distinct voice, the play on the idea of 'sympathizer', and the fearless telling of a story of the Vietnam War from a different perspective." (Sue T)
  • "The bleak humor and cleverness of the writing showed why it won the Pulitzer, but it was the extraordinary character leading through a war and revolution that really made it something new and challenging. Since reading it I have watched the Ken burns series on Vietnam which is brilliant but almost exclusively from the American view and therefore underlined the book's point about US not noticing the people they were fighting beside." (Helen)

  • "Sophisticated, layered autobiographical novel; lovely, involving descriptions of rural Australian life;  beautifully developed complex characters; humour." (Sue B)
  • "So glad to have read this superb Australian author, whose depiction of landscape, and his torn relationship with Australia and his family was truly beautiful." (Kate)

  • "A great feat of imagination, and excellent dense writing, even in translation." (Denise)
  • "Another book with an unusual voice, and an amazingly sustained mesmeric tone. Couldn't believe what a page turner this dense book was." (Sue T)

  • "Was a wonderful portrait of the tragedy of Beirut, as well as this disenfranchised woman, and an insight into translation." (Kate)
  • "So good at capturing the atmosphere of the woman in her apartment with all her books and the erudite way she talked about all those famous and not so famous texts; also loved the descriptions of Beirut -- a place I would love to visit -- such a mixture of cultures -- great characters too." (Sylvia)

Let us know what you think, in the comments!

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Schedule Ideas for 2019

Here are some books (from our "Schedule suggestions" side-bar with a couple of additions) sorted into categories, with some explanatory background:


  • DALTON, Trent Boy swallows universe (new Queensland novel, recommended by Marie Z, and others)
  • HALL, Rodney Love without hope (dedicated to Julian Burnside)
  • LIANKE, Yan The day the sun died (translated Chinese novel, published by Text, under 400pp.)
  • MILLER, Alex The passage of love (his latest, 584pp.) or Coal Creek (won Victorian Premier's Literary Award 2014, under 300pp.)
  • OLSSON, Kristina Shell (new out in second half of 2018)
  • SERONG, Jock On the Java Ridge (won the inaugural UK-based Staunch Prize "for a novel in the thriller genre where no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered".)
  • SMITH, Zadie On beauty (retelling of Howards End)
  • TOWLES, Amor A gentleman in Moscow
  • WILSON, Josephine Extinctions (Miles Franklin winner)
  • WINTON, Tim The shepherd's hut (his latest)

Classics (or nearly so!)

  • GISSING, George The odd women
  • McCARTHY, Mary The group
  • ROBINSON, Marilynne (one by her: Housekeeping or Gilead or Home or Lila)
  • TROLLOPE, Anthony (one by him)
  • WILLIAMS, John Stoner


  • EHRENREICH, Barbara Natural causes: An epidemic of wellness, the certainty of dying, and killing ourselves to live longer
  • GERGIS, Joelle Sunburnt country (climate change)
  • GRIFFITHS, Tom The art of time travel: Historians and their craft (award-winning book surveying Australian historians)
  • HEISS, Anita (ed) Growing up Aboriginal in Australia (recently given by the University of Melbourne to 600 members of staff)
  • HOOPER, Chloe The arsonist (new out in second half of 2018, author of The tall man)
  • KEAN, Sam The disappearing spoon (the periodic table)
  • KRASNOSTEIN, Sarah The trauma cleaner (won or was shortlisted for several awards in 2018)
  • TUMARKIN, Maria Axiomatic (Russian-Australian cultural historian, 250pp.)
But, please do bring others to the meeting ...

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Howards end by E M Forster

Nine of us gathered to talk about the classic for 2018 – Howard’s End by the English writer E. M. Forster. This book was televised in 2017 and has been in print since its first publication in 1910.

The story concerns a family of siblings, Margaret and Helen and brother Tibby, whose parents are deceased but the children are fortunate to have independent means. They live in London. The novel revolves around their relationships with a rich family, the Wilcoxes and a young poor man, Leonard Bast.  It is the Schlegel’s connectedness with various strata of middle class society that interests the author. The main characters treat the young man with varying degrees of care and acceptance. They treat the rich family as inferiors in intellect but learn over time to accept them as they are and Margaret, the eldest sibling eventually marries the widowed Henry Wilcox and lives with him and her younger sister, Helen at Howard’s end. It is not a usual romance but comments on Edwardian society. There is a lot more going on than just the story of the romance.

The general opinion from our group was of enjoyment but with reservations for some readers. One felt it was quite stodgy. One member felt it was like looking at the society from the top. Another reader was disappointed that she had watched the TV serial first before reading it as that influenced her images of the settings and the characters. Some members believed that their expectations were so high that the relationships didn’t seem convincing. This was particularly the relationship of Margaret to Henry Wilcox. What did she see in him ?

The discussion mainly revolved around two main subjects – the involvement of the period in the text and similarities with other novels.

The Edwardian period

Forster is truly insightful in regard to class in England pre World War 1 and how regimented it was even in the halcyon days of the Edwardian period.  For instance, the very formal (somewhat tortured ) relationship between Mr Bast and Helen and Margaret. He just wants a bit of romance in his life -- to think about books and to take his mind off the daily grind of work while they keep wanting to talk to him about the practical realities of his life.  They don’t have to experience mundane work as they are wealthy women. There is an inherent conflict between the parties from the moment Helen absentmindedly picks up his umbrella at a concert. It starts the fractured relationship. Strangely the relationship with the Wilcoxes also gets off to a rocky start with Helen again starting it by visiting this family and doing the wrong thing by falling in love very suddenly with the young son. All too quick and too spontaneous and without due regard for society’s norms. She is lucky though to have an elderly aunt to spring to her defence. Although that ends in humiliation for all concerned.

Women’s suffrage was a current obsession in the early 1900s and the two main women were not actually involved but were aspiring young women, keen to have an opinion on matters. Margaret in particular is often credited with being intellectual. We all appreciated the handling of gender in this tome. Women were beginning to run their own lives and the young Schlegel women certainly did. They had agency as they had money unlike the girls in Sense and Sensibility.

One member thought the new developments in art and culture at the time such as the Art Nouveau movement affected middle class culture and sensibilities. People were beginning to express themselves in new ways.

The rich could have various houses and an arrogance to live their lives as they pleased, including treating their kids harshly.  The historic world of England with very set classes was vanishing.

Another feature of life at the time was the love of all things German – particularly music and philosophy and for Germany itself. The main characters are the children of a German army officer who migrated to England and they first meet the Wilcoxes during a visit to Germany. Their main interests seem to be German music and an intellectual life through reading and discussions with like-minded people. Helen lives in Germany for a period while she is estranged from her family.

The issue of class is of prime interest through the novel. Some of us felt it was tongue-in-cheek at times, especially in regard to the lower class:

We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only approachable by the statistician or the poet. This story deals with gentlefolk, or those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk. (Chapter 6, p. 46)

The issue of homosexuality is also in this novel. Forster was a gay writer but of course it was hidden from public view. Now we can see it more clearly. Apparently he was a virgin until he was 34, living with his mother. We decided that Tibby was not gay but that is debatable. There is little evidence either way.

One member was knowledgeable about the origin of the house in Howard’s end – it is based on a house called Rooksnest in Hertfordshire where Forster lived from 1883 to 1893, which was owned by a family called Howard.

More information can be found in Wikipedia

Similarities with other novels and helpful texts on the period

E M Forster was part of the Bloomsbury set and understood his characters well.  One Minervan was keen for us to know about a couple of books about this group of authors and intellectuals. One useful text is A S Byatt’s The children’s book and the another is: The world broke in two by B Goldstein (and published by Bloomsbury).

We discussed the way intellectuals and people in this period were often very formal in their relationships, even with their children, and often neglected them and their care was left to nannies or boarding schools. At least two of us had fathers who were treated in this fashion in their youth. This reminded one member of the new film Vita and Virginia (2018)
Similarities with other writers were seen with Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Marianne does share traits with Helen Schlegel – both flighty, romantic and dreamy while Margaret Schlegel is the practical one somewhat similar to Elinor Dashwood. There are some silly co-incidences too which also occur in Austen’s novel. These explain some of Margaret’s motivations.

Forster was criticizing the ‘intellectual class’ in a subtle way. Leonard Bast was the most problematic character reflecting changes of attitude. He is a result of urbanization and the lack of access to education by people living on the edge of the middle class. We concluded that Bast is a case study. His untimely death was symbolic. England needed to deal with these people. We were astonished that Charles Wilcox thought he could get away with the killing but his father realized that would not be the case.

This novel reflects England and the changes happening. Bast and his wife are not fully developed as characters. We thought it was ironic that Helen Schlegel made money from her shares after offering the money to Lionel Bas who refused to accept it.

The treatment of Helen’s baby reminded us of The strays by Emily Bitto based on the lives of John and Sunday Reed in Melbourne and their property called Heide. Here artists lived selfish lives and allowed children to be neglected. Forster is not interested in Helen’s child, it is just symbolic. He concentrates on the Schlegels and Wilcoxes. Margaret and Helen are delightfully English in their slight eccentricities, intellectually arty and creative. So there are many aspects of Forster’s own life in this novel.

Other features

There are long passages about the English countryside. Forster contrasts the Wilcoxes who bought property without much care versus the romantic environment as shown by Howards End, a house originally owned by the first Mrs Wilcox. This house was picturesque and romantic and attracted the Schlegel girls with its big wych-elm tree. Here is a lovely description of the country:

Margaret was fascinated by Oniton … the rivers hurrying down ... the carelessly modelled masses of the lower hills, thrilled her with poetry. The house was insignificant, but the prospect from it would be an eternal joy… (Chapter 26, p. 227)

Margaret is the romantic who loves poetry and connects country living with that concept while the Wilcoxes are prose oriented and more oriented to the town. It also has to do with emotions – prose versus pastoral poetry. Although Forster was sympathetic to the Schlegel’s view of cultural life he is also disenchanted with it. Someone has to do business so it is the more practical Wilcox family who supply the money and the stability provided. So Forster humanizes Business.  

We also talked about the original Mrs Wilcox – did she know about Henry’s affair with Jacky who later became Mrs Bast. In the film production Mrs Bast is depicted as a black woman.

This reminded us of Aunt Juley and her arrival at Howards End at the beginning of the novel which turned out to be embarrassing for all concerned, but especially for Helen Schlegel. The timing was exciting.

During this train trip we get a glimpse of the countryside and how it was just on the edge of the urbanization of London. 

She traversed the immense viaduct whose arches span untroubled meadows and the dreamy flow of Tewin Water. She skirted the parks of politicians. At times the Great North Road accompanied her more suggestive of infinity than any railway awakening after a nap of a hundred years, to such life as is conferred by the stench of motor-cars… (Chapter 3, p13).

The Wilcox family were the pragmatic developers of nations – as evidenced by Henry’s wealth coming from rubber in Africa.  At the end of the novel Margaret takes control of the terrible situation – Charles’ murderous action and Henry’s collapse. Margaret had played the submissive wife until that point. The younger generation were taking over.  We felt that Charles had always been bullied by his father and so was not a true representative of his generation. His father had constantly asserted his authority over him. His wife Dolly though was a great character and was the surprising one who told the Schlegel women the truth about Howards End and how it had been bequeathed to Margaret.

We were charmed by the fairy-like nature of Miss Avery and how she set up the house with the Schlegel books and furniture and the sword which proved so dangerous. We felt that Howards End house gave the book a sense of place and was a connection to place, whereas life was in flux for the Schlegels in all the other places they lived. They were very sad to leave their London house in Wickham Place as they had been raised there.  It was also a sign that London was changing. 

One member was keen for us to see all the references to grey in the novel – grey skies, grey economic future and grey showing spiritual poverty – metaphorical of course.

We all appreciated Forster’s succinct and masterful language. He was extremely good at ‘nailing a point’. One prime example was when he is talking about moving house in chapter 17. 'The age of property holds bitter moments even for a proprietor...' (p 156)  

We completed our discussion by talking about Margaret and Henry and their relationship. She turned out to be the strong one and very loving and she could also be uplifting. He was the decisionmaker and grounded her.  

PRESENT: 9 members

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Sofie Laguna's The choke

Sofie Laguna's latest novel The choke proved to be a popular book with our group, even though subject is not a cheery one. It's about a young impoverished, dyslexic girl, Justine, living with her war-damaged grandfather, Pop, on the edge of the Murray.

As usual we started with a whip around for first impressions:
  • a fantastic read; couldn't put it down; hard to put down; loved it; engaged from the start and couldn't stop
  • grim; gut-wrenching; harrowing; riveting but horrendous; enjoyed it but was traumatised; loved it but had to read it during the day; struggled because it's so harrowing, but kept going because another member said the ending offered some hope
  • loved the naive narrator, and how Laguna was able to present the perspective of a child while enabling adult readers to see what was really going on
  • the main character is incredibly endearing; the main character was vulnerable but brave
  • loved the Murray River setting; the description of the river and country-side were great
  • incredibly well-written
This just about says it all! However, we did tease out some of these points a bit more.


We discussed how effectively Laguna got into the head of this neglected young girl, though whose first-person voice the story is told. She's unaware of just how impoverished and neglected she is, and is as resourceful as she can be in managing the life she's been dealt. She is such an isolated character - with the only person really able to help and understand her being her Aunt Rita, but the war-damaged Pop, with whom Justine lives, will not accept his lesbian daughter, thus depriving Justine of this life-line. (We all liked Aunt Rita.) Some members felt the book had the bleak hopelessness of Frank McCourt's memoir, Angela's ashes.

We liked how Laguna portrayed her friendship with Michael, and how, being an outsider herself she understood him.

We talked about her tricky relationship with her half-brothers, about the way her father, Ray, behaved erratically with his children, not providing them with love and stability they need. Here is Justine about her father and half-brother Steve:

When I looked at Steve it was as if there was a ditch all around him too wide to jump. If you shone a torch into it, you’d never see the bottom. Steve couldn’t get across by himself; it was only Dad who could help him.

We discussed Ray's cruelty in teaching Justine to shoot instead of big brother Kirk who so wanted his father to teach him. Here's Justine on Kirk's reaction when their father takes her for a ride on his birthday:

I watched as Kirk turned and walked back into the house. His head was down. It was his birthday, one month late. But it was his birthday. As he walked, the half that was the same in us shrunk to nothing. (p. 100)

We also noted how Laguna sets us up through a playing scene at the beginning of the novel for the brothers' desertion of Justine at the choke when she's vulnerable and at risk. One member commented on how beautifully plotted the book is, how everything that happens points to something later.


A member asked what we thought of Pop. Had he caused his wife's death, she asked? The consensus was that he had, though it's clear he loved her nonetheless. He is war-traumatised - the Thai-Burma Railway. We all felt he loved Justine, and that although he's pathetic, he's the only real constant in her life. He's a complicated character whom we sometimes like, and sometimes not!

One member noted the chain of violent behaviours in the family, from Pop to Ray to Justine's brothers.

The writing

We were impressed by how Laguna engenders dread, and implies the horrors that happen, without resorting to explicit description.

We loved the vivid description of the setting and the river, and discussed the title and its meaning. The choke is a real place on the Murray River, a bottleneck through which the water must squeeze. It's a place of escape and tranquility for Justine. However, it also has a metaphorical role in the novel, symbolising the things that threaten to choke her life and conversely her ability "to push through and keep going."

One member shared the following quote:
When Dad was home Pop's Three was charged, as if Aunty Rita had put her electrical pads to the roof and pulled the lever. Kirk and Steve never wanted to leave. If Relle hadn't made them go home they would have hung around the yard all day, waiting for Dad to see them or speak to them or shoot the air with a pistol and say, Bullseye, boys. (p. 71)
She liked it because this one paragraph contains so many issues: the influence of Ray, the boys' need for him, and perhaps his potential for tenderness/kindness (towards them) never to be realised. The author captures so much - the environment, the family connections and influences - in just a few sentences.

We wondered why Laguna set this in the 1970s rather than more contemporaneously. Maybe it's because in current times a character like Justine would be picked up by education and welfare systems (we hope) so would not be as believable as she is in the 1970s.

One member commented that it's very Australian writing.

Final comments

We liked that it's ultimately positive - or, at least, looks more positive for Justine at the point it ends. Laguna, we understand, believes that hope is important.

Given that essentially all of us liked the novel, we wondered about the negative reviews some members had read. One was by James Ley in the Australian Book Review. Among other things, he said it was melodramatic, stereotypical, and lacks the vitality of Gillian Mears and Tim Winton.

We, however, were surprised it was not listed for the Miles Franklin award, and was only longlisted for the Stella Prize and Nita B Kibble Literary Awards!

PRESENT: 10 members

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Austerlitz by W G Sebald

Six of us hardy souls gathered on a cold night before a fire to talk about Austerlitz by the German English author W G Sebald.

This book is a fictional biography of a war refugee called Jacques Austerlitz. Rather surprisingly it includes black and white documentary photographs. It tells the story of a child, born in Prague, who escapes the Nazis as a 4 ½ year old and grows up in a Welsh village with an unhappy religious couple. He becomes an art historian with a passion for architecture. However he is also passionate about his origins and only finds out his real name as a young man of 18. He researches his mother and father, and his mother’s tragic end and while doing so meets the narrator – supposedly W G Sebald. He is also reunited with his nanny in Prague and this helps him to discover more about his parents.

The story is told over many years with a monologue occasionally assisted by the narrator.  Austerlitz suffers a breakdown from the stress of learning about the effect of the Holocaust on his mother. The story concludes with a visit to a cemetery and the narrator reading a book given to him by Austerlitz of a man looking down into a diamond mine in South Africa:
terrifying to see such emptiness… to realize that there is transition , only this dividing line, with ordinary life on one side and its unimaginable opposite on the other’. (p414)  

Our initial reactions to the novel include:

  • Stunned by it
  • Loved the fact that he wove ‘things’
  • Impressed by it
  • Struggled with it
  • Found the long sentences difficult/structure
  • Very gloomy and sad
  • Intellectual, complex
  • Talks about time, water and memories – mentioned in a Guardian review
  • Loved it – reminded her of Sebald's The Emigrants, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (because of the theme of "beating back the past")
We talked about the author W G Sebald. He was born in 1944 in Germany and died from a brain tumor in 2001 in Britain. The introduction by James Wood was helpful in advancing our knowledge of the effects of WW2 on people living in Central Europe and the transportation of children from there to England. It helps the book make sense.

Sebald’s style was discussed in some depth. There are so many different aspects in this novel. The long sentences, no chapters and no paragraphs were hard for some of us to cope with although the chronology of the story helped. Sebald was very clever in the way he included peripheral stories without giving the full story eg of his childhood friend Gerald. We are just supplied with ‘crumbs’.

We were astonished at the way Sebald discusses the effects of the Holocaust without actually going into details.  It made us think we can understand how some people reacted. One member reminded us that in An Unnecessary Woman the main character loved this novel because it dealt with the Holocaust but by only mentioning it indirectly. (We chose to read Austerlitz in fact because we were intrigued by its mentions in An Unnecessary Woman.) 

We wondered about our own journey in finding out about the Holocaust. Many of us were first exposed to it by reading Anne Frank’s autobiography, which has lingered in our heads since we first read it – many years ago. However our generation grew up with the effects of the Second World War. We grew up with war stories.

We also discussed the language, remembering that it was written in German and translated, although the author spoke English. One member noted that the unnecessary woman (mentioned above), who translated into Arabic, said that the elongating of the sentences with little punctuation was ideal for Arabic. Another point was the use of French and German in the novel. These sentences are fine for readers who have the language but difficult for others of us. One member has knowledge of Czech so she enjoyed the few words in that language. She also explained that the Czechs have a keen sense of humour which she felt was revealed in the novel.

We noticed that Austerlitz’s love of architecture was evident through the novel in descriptions eg the Bibliotheque Nationale – as ‘light faded more like moss’. Architecture ‘affects the human spirit with plays of light on materials and shapes’ as seen in his descriptions of the new Library. He also made us laugh about the well-known foibles of French bureaucracy.

The gloominess of the novel and intensity was a feature we all felt. The black and white tiny photographs compel the reader to accept the sad and grim conclusion on the character and life of Austerlitz. Austerlitz’s brief romantic liaisons are also very sad and give little reprieve to this man. Austerlitz and his life are gloomy and very grey.  In comparison Prague is bright and light because Austerlitz is given clues which can help him solve some of the questions he is battling.

There is an intense sense of place – wherever he happened to be. Austerlitz’s trauma even as a mature man is overshadowed by his displacement from his mother and being sent to Wales. The narrator often met Austerlitz in gloomy places too to hear more of the story so that didn’t help, such as cafes in railway stations.

Bleakness in Wales for the young boy living with two very religious and unstable people was disturbing and only lightened by hearing about his friendship with the boy at school and his acceptance into Gerald’s family or the weekly visit to the church to sing hymns.

One member told us about an extraordinary woman she recently heard about called Dame ‘Steve’ Stephanie Shirley who was born in Germany and ended up in Wales as a child having escaped from the Holocaust. She too travelled on the Kindertransport as a very young child. She was brilliant at maths but had to attend a boy’s school to study it. She learnt about computers at the beginning of the computer age and changed her name so she could apply for relevant jobs. She went on to say that she thought it was all worthwhile because ‘my life was worth saving’.

The narrator was an excellent way to tell the story we felt and we were bemused by the fact that the narrator had internalized the story so that he could remind Austerlitz of the facts at times.

Towards the end of the novel we learn of Austerlitz’s mental state from his years of research about his parents and WW2  (page 322 Penguin 2011 edition).
I had discovered the sources of my distress… looking back over the last few years ... as that child suddenly cast out of his familiar surroundings : reason was powerless against the rejection and annihilation which I had always suppressed…. 

It is terribly sad and must have been a common reaction from those displaced people.

Time is a common thread and the thought that inanimate objects can tell a story as they know things. 
The dead are outside time, the dying and all the sick at home … for a certain degree of personal misfortune is enough to cut us off from the past and the future… A clock has always struck me as something ridiculous, a thoroughly mendacious object, perhaps because I have resisted the power of time’ …( pp143-4)  

(This is very telling of Austerlitz’s character – trying to fathom one of life’s great puzzles).

Some members thought Napoleon’s battle scenes were memorable.

Music is also a theme we discussed in this book, from Austerlitz singing hymns in the Welsh chapel with his adopted parents, to later in life when viewing a circus performance near the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris. (See pp 382-4)
seemed to hear a long forgotten Welsh hymn … a waltz, or the slow sound of a funeral march ... nor could I have said at the time whether my heart was contracting in pain or expanding with happiness for the first time in my life. ( pp 382-3).

An excellent review of the novel is presented in this review written in 2001.
PRESENT: 6 members

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Michelle de Kretser's The life to come

We chose Michelle de Kretser's The life to come as our July book for a couple of reasons. One is that it had just been longlisted for this year's Miles Franklin Award (it has now been shortlisted), but mostly it was because we like her work.

It's an intriguing book. It comprises five parts, each telling the story of a different set of characters. However, one character, the novelist Pippa, appears in each part, providing a narrative thread that holds the book together. The main characters are Australian, Sri Lankan, English and French.

First impressions

As always, we started with first impressions from the meeting attendees, which, to summarise were:
  • it was slow to get into, but became more interesting, more enjoyable, as the book progressed
  • it engrossed from the start but tailed off a bit in the middle
  • it went on a bit in places but was enjoyable overall
  • the last part featuring Christabel was particularly sad
  • Pippa was an irritating character, which spoilt the book
  • Pippa was a well-drawn character even if she wasn't the nicest one!
  • de Kretser gets into her characters' heads very well
  • de Kretser has a wonderful sense of place, particularly of Sydney
  • the book's non-linear narrative was interesting. It felt impressionistic, a bit like a painter throwing strong colours around, but Pippa worked well as a connecting link between the separate stories
  • the humour was good, though de Kretser's targeting of left-wing middle-class people sometimes came a bit close to home!
  • the "life to come" theme was interestingly explored through the various characters, such as Cassie who wondered how she was to live; Celeste who saw her future shrinking to a lonely old age; Christabel who was looking for the moment when her life would be transformed; and Pippa who, initially at least, saw her future as bright and positive.
We then discussed some of the meanings we gleaned from the book, and decided that one of the main themes was that of dashed expectations. This, said one member, was very Beckett - as was heralded by the opening epigram from his Endgame. Christabel's father, another reminded us, philosophised to her that "what isn't done, isn't done".

Culture and nationality

Another over-riding theme in the book relates to culture and nationality, to the way we view other cultures, the way we stereotype each other, the assumptions we make about each other. While the theme of dashed expectations provided some of the book's most poignant or sad moments, this one underpinned much of its satire - and thus provided much of the humour. (Even if sometimes that humour became uncomfortably close to home!)

Our discussion flitted around somewhat, but we did discuss each of the main parts of the book during the evening: Part 2 "The Ashfield Tamil" about Ash and Cassie; Part 3 "The museum of romantic life" about Celeste and Sabine; Part 4 "Pippa Passes" about Pippa and her in-laws; and Part 5 "Olly Faithful" about Christabel and Bunty. We found some of these stories very sad, particularly Christabel's.

We all felt that Pippa's mother-in-law, Eva, was a wonderfully drawn character. She "likes rescuing things", says her husband. For example, she employs refugees from a "not-for-profit catering group" to serve food at her parties, while wearing "garments stiffened with embroidery and beads. At throat and wrists she wore silver set with gems, some the colour of butter, others the colour of blood. These tribal ornaments lit Eva's face, and proclaimed her solidarity with the wretched of the earth."

In another example, Eva's osteopath Rashida, who is also a Muslim Indian immigrant, is dining with Eva and her family. They quiz her about her background:

'My parents thought that India wasn't the best place for Muslims,' said Rashida. 'I love these potato pancakes, Eva. Could I have the recipe?
'Were you persecuted for your faith?' Eva asked, hushed and hopeful.
'Not really.'
Keith [Eva's husband] said, 'So you were privileged migrants.'
Rashida said nothing. She seemed to be turning the sentence over in her mind, trying to work out its shape.

Story or history

Another issue that runs through the book relates to history and the past, and to the idea of stories. For some, history and story are very different concepts, but to Pippa the line is very faint. It's all story to her. She's the novelist mining other people's stories for her novels.

Ash (in Part 2, The Ashfield Tamil), however, born of a Scottish mother and Sir Lankan father, knows the difference between history and story. Partner Cassie, who is "postmodernly tutored", thinks history is "just a set of competing stories" but Ash understands exactly "the historical sequence that ... brought a Tamil civil servant to the counter of a shop in the west of Sydney."

Our cultural confusion is mocked frequently in the novel. We enjoyed Pippa's comment to Christabel on dining out with her literary agent:

We went to this amazing new Asian place at Darling Harbour. It's been quite controversial because they do live sashimi. But Gloria and I talked about it, the cruelty aspect, and we decided it was Japanese cultural tradition so it was OK.

Somewhat related to the idea of stories is the role played by social media in modern lives. De Kretser skewers the curated self of modern life though her sharing of Pippa's activity on Twitter.


Not surprisingly, the character we talked most about was Pippa. Most felt that at the beginning she was young, a little naive, and likeable, but that as the novel progressed, as she "used" and/or was insensitive to character after character, particularly to Céleste and Christabel, she became the character who stood for the worst aspects of modern Australian life and culture.

Here, however, is her, still young and getting to know the man she married, Matt:

Sydney before Matt was the view from a car speeding through fog. By the time he and Pippa had been together a year, even that memory had faded and vanished from the sky.  It amazed her how quickly everything had fled into the past. ... It was as if, not having much common history to carry into the future, they needed to stock up fast.

 A novel or a collection of stories?

We also discussed briefly the form of the "novel". Is it a novel, one member asked, or a collection of stories. Except for Pippa's appearance in every part, each part is self-contained. We commented that we were sorry when each part ended, but fortunately, it seemed that we enjoyed each part equally well. At least, I don't recollect any discussion about preference for one part over another. They were all strong - as was de Kretser's writing. We admired her ability to capture people, places and ideas, so expressively but so succinctly too.

We didn't necessarily resolve the "is it a novel" question, but most of us felt it didn't matter. Whatever it was, we had enjoyed the novel.

Present: 8 (with three apologies)

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea by Randolph Stow

Tuesday 26 June 2018

Nine of us, a surprisingly large number for mid-winter, gathered for this discussion. The book, Randolph Stow's The merry-go-round in the sea, is semi-autobiographical, and concerns an extended family on sheep stations, especially in Geraldton, Western Australia. Rob is just six years old in 1941 when his adored cousin Rick leaves to join the army. Rick returns from the war much changed, and Rob is changing too. Most of us had read the whole book, and almost all of us loved it. Our initial responses included: “Delightful, fantastic, immersive”; ”Old fashioned, Rob seems too aware for his age”; “Beautifully structured”; “felt very alive – good read”; “All your senses are engaged”. It certainly gave us a great deal to talk about.

Some of us found the use of racist language disturbing. The book was published in 1965, many years after the Second World War, and language and attitudes to Aborigines and people of other races were already changing. We wondered if Stow put the harsh words in the mouths of his characters repeatedly to contrast them with Rob’s more sympathetic attitude to some Aborigines he knew, for example older children that he admired. They talk about the “Hand Cave”, and on questioning, even Rob’s Mother’s attitude seems much more moderate than the language she uses to describe Aborigines. While necessarily reflecting the language used at the time, is the author subtly calling the racism to account? Stow, and Rob, seem to love the landscape of Australia while deploring some of the values. “If I had Convict or Aboriginal blood I’d be related to everyone in Australia” “Except the Italians!” There seems to be a similar subtle questioning around the casual killing of animals which was very much part of rural life at the time.

We all loved the poetic writing and detailed descriptions and felt that the landscape was part of the emotional language of the book, giving a vividly strong sense of place. One of us was reminded of Camus’s The outsider - at one with the environment and with a deep sense of the person. The way that the description of landscape underlies the mood of the book was described as masterly, for example the landscape is very bleak when the family wonders whether Rick has been killed in the war. We were grateful for the brilliant, detailed, involving description of the droving trip, an iconic Australian experience which seems distant now.  We also loved the quotes of poetry from the school books and the popular music of the time which really grounded it in the period.

The humour was appreciated. Auntie Kay is knitting socks, and is “aware of the sock situation in outlying parts of the family”.

The book was felt to be satisfying as a coming-of-age story, but seemed much more complex. Rob, a precociously aware six-year-old, certainly matures considerably and along the way we get many insights into the maturing process. We discussed the relationship between Rob and Rick. One commented that Rick was all the more important as a role model for Rob as Rob’s own father seemed to suffer from Depression and was emotionally distant, except for one powerful scene. Rob agonises over the criticisms aimed at Rick when he returns, damaged, from the War, almost as though they are criticisms of Rob himself. Is Rob the young Randolph or is it Rick? It was decided that they are two parts of the author’s self. Rick seems to be in a dark place towards the end of the book, and Randolph Stow had a nervous breakdown while in New Guinea.

Why was Rob often described as “the boy” and his mother as “the mother”? Was this a way of universalising their experience?  In Tourmaline the narrator is known simply as “the law”.
One of us found the scenes between Rick and his girlfriend unconvincing, but then the relationship didn’t survive. Randolph Stow was gay, which usually wasn't talked about in the 60's any more than during the war.

We noticed the relatively restrained descriptions of the prisoner of war experience by today’s standards, and wondered whether this reflected the characteristic reticence of returned prisoners at the time. Maybe there was less understanding of what they had experienced than came out later? At the time POWs were not considered heroes, one of many things which seem to eat at Rick.  As the second son he was not needed to run the farm, and his decision to leave the country, while it came as a shock to Rob, was not uncommon among tertiary educated youth at the time who found Australia stifling.

Was the Merry-Go-Round a symbol of no change? Rob wanted things to stay the same even as he could see that things were changing. Is the Merry-Go-Round metaphor echoed in the quote from Donne which Rick wrote in Rob’s autograph book when he returned home after the War? He had been much affected by the post card which Rob had sent him, the only post that he received at all during his imprisonment:
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I began

By the end of the book Rob’s imagined Merry-go-Round in the Sea has crumbled into the sea. One commented that the ending was a bit clunky compared to the rest of the book. Many of us felt that Randolph Stow is underrated these days, and want to read Tourmaline now.

PRESENT: 10 members (the tenth arriving late!)

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

First person by Richard Flanagan

Eight Minervans read this novel with varying degrees of enjoyment.  Briefly it is novel as fake memoir based on a real life experience endured by Richard Flanagan. The novel has various levels of subtlety.  On one level it is a curious mixture of tirade against present day society and the problems brought on by a lack of morals and evil.

The story is about a young writer with a wife and child living in Tasmania who is asked to write a biography of a fraudster, Ziggy Heidl in six weeks. So there is great urgency and tension from the beginning. It is set just before his court case. It is thought that Heidl will probably be sent to jail for the rest of his life.  Heidl is accused of swindling the banks of $700 million. The acknowledged criminal is reluctant to tell the young writer his story and obfuscates. The writer is totally frustrated by his subject. ‘First person’ is also trying to control the situation at home in Hobart where his wife is shortly expecting twins. They desperately need the money for this first book and to complicate the situation the writer has to go to Melbourne to write it. Heidl is killed (but by whom?) and the book becomes a total fiction and is not accepted by the publisher. Then the story skips to the current day and we learn that the writer now middle aged has had a second unhappy marriage and worked in television. However he is still haunted by Heidl and his weird and dangerous theories and stories, and the events of the short time he spent with this character.

The story is loosely based upon the fact that in 1991 Richard Flanagan helped Australia’s most notorious conman John Friedrich write his autobiography. However there are few other similarities of the ‘First person’ writer to Flanagan. Flanagan has a happy marriage and no career in TV. Friedrich killed himself 3 weeks before the trial. Friedrich had received an OAM. He was executive director of the National Safety Council of Australia during the 1980s. He was a West German national who arrived in Melbourne in 1975.

See the Wiki entry on John Friedrich – it is quite fascinating. 

Our round of comments include :

  • Well written but not his best novel
  • Could do with a good edit as it is too repetitious
  • No empathy with any of the characters except the writer’s wife, Suzy
  • Clever and funny in places
  • Critical of Tasmania – why is that?
  • Ray is based on a real guy but actually very different in many ways (one member knew of the real guy)
  • Found it hard to keep going, listening to the audio read by Flanagan was good
  • Loved the irony that Flanagan ghost-wrote John Friedrich’s memoir, and then wrote a pseudo-memoir.
  • Bleak view of society eg the writer mentioning that his daughter Bo was dead in a very offhand manner and his lack of fatherly feelings for his twin boys, who had separated themselves from him too
  • Self indulgent, very cynical and a bit smarty pants
  • Birth scene of the twins was brilliant – we could relate to this scene
Very quickly in the conversation other books were mentioned that Flanagan’s book reminded people about. Reminiscences of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad in the end (is this a 3rd memoir?) I haven’t read Conrad so can’t comment. Another member thought that Flanagan was channelling Dostoyevsky.

In discussing these books we also talked about the words of philosophers in this story – some true like Nietzsche but Heidl’s Thomas Tebbe  we could not validate. Other thinkers mentioned were Socrates and Albert Camus.

We discussed the main character at some length – Siegfried Heidl. Is he a sign of the present with public characters such as politicians like Trump? Why doesn’t Heidl understand what is important in life, with a wife and family? He continually plays games so that there is no certainty about any details. He is also tantalizing the writer and influencing him in subtle ways. Not everyone accepted the writer’s reactions to Heidl but many of us were convinced. Friedrich was a charmer and probably Heidl was too but it was not easily conveyed in the novel. 

Some members thought the story was metaphorical – society faced with the situation that money is the main aim of most people at the expense of intimacy and normal life. Life is always more complicated than that though.

Heidl also had a long term impact on the writer – does Friedrich exert such power over Flanagan? I don’t think so but obviously he does worry Flanagan and so maybe this book is cathartic? A lack of moral fibre is a terrible characteristic and both criminals, the real and the imagined, seemed to be so inclined. But Heidl is more than a lack of ethics, his is a powerful anti-moral stance.  It gets to the core of trust in institutions and organisations by the public. We didn’t delve into Trump similarities but they are pretty self-evident we felt. Truth is another issue we briefly discussed. How can I keep myself in control?

The writer’s frustration at losing connection with family was sad. It meant he lost goodness in his life and couldn’t regain it. So consequently he had had a dysfunctional life in some ways, losing contact with his children and his 2 wives, and ending up with nothing much to live for?

The death scene caused some comments – some felt that the writer had killed Heidl but others were not sure. Flanagan writes it with a light touch. It is clever how he makes it slightly ambiguous. We also mentioned how Heidl’s last day was so calm despite all the fanfare of the weeks before.

We thought the writer was so naïve and funny when asking the publisher for a small sum to cover his living expenses in Melbourne. The writer talks a lot about publishers, and this is unusual and quite a diversion from the family story. We thought some of the sayings were comical – ‘roger that’ and ‘hold that thought’ were two which stood out.

The opening of the novel was a fascinating comment on modern literature we thought – that is: The excerpts from the Minutes of evidence of the Select Committee on Transportation of convicts London 5 May 1837. A little bizarre !

One member asked what a non-Australian would make of this novel. It is hard to know.

There are many interesting aspects of the place dichotomies raised by Flanagan eg Tasmania versus mainland, and Melbourne versus Hobart (are they like Melbourne versus New York?).

A final point was the cover of the hard text which shows a black jay and a white jay.  

PRESENT: 8 members