Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Griffith Review 68, Getting on

Our August book, issue no 68 of the literary journal, Griffith Review, was a departure from our usual fare, and yet, although only a third of us read it all, its selection was unanimously approved. Why? Because this issue's topic, Getting on, or aging, was right up our alley. We started, of course, with our ...

First impressions

  • Enjoyed it, albeit was sometimes confronting, sometimes heartwarming, a sometimes a bit over the head.
  • Also enjoyed it overall, and also found it confronting in places. Liked that it opened with Garner, and enjoyed some of the poems.
  • Liked that it offered much to think about .
  • Thought that Sarah Holland-Batt's essay "Magical thinking and the aged-care crisis" set the scene well. Was interested in topics like the failure of the health care system, genetics and the definition of ageing. Enjoyed learning new information. Some pieces were very moving, but not all were specifically about ageing. 
  • Loved it all. Every piece had something intellectually interesting to offer about "getting on"; enjoyed the less scientific ones most. 
  • Read most of it but found some too depressing and others too scientific. Liked the Vicki Laveau-Harvie piece, having heard her at the Canberra Writers Festival.
  • Felt it was apposite for us to read, but found it a challenge. However, liked that it challenges our thinking about what sort of aged care we'd like, and thought it offered much food for thought.
  • Read all but last piece, and found it very profound, very moving, overall. So many good articles. Was particularly interested in the Mark Aarons piece about his long road to diagnosis, and could empathise, from her own experience of being an intern, with Melanie Cheng. 
  • Is a Griffith Review subscriber. Found the Garner opening piece a bit mystifying until she got to the end. Enjoyed Kathy Marks "A life in books" and Caroline Baum's "The hungry years". Was interested that many of the pieces were from people in the 60s, with nothing really from 80-somethings to provide an aged perspective. 
  • Read it all and really liked it. Particularly liked Sarah Holland-Batt and Beth Mohle's essays on the aged care system. Amused that one of the unrealistic fantasies described by Holland-Batt - "a geriatric co-op" style plan - was proposed by Burkitt for Gen Xers!


Some of us nominated our favourites. One really liked Ailsa Piper's "Old Growth", because Piper is happy to admit to being old, saying "I like saying I'm old!" Our member sees so many people being "in denial". Other favourites included Sarah Holland-Batt's "Magical thinking and the aged care crisis" (3), Kathy Marks' "A life in books" (2) and Beth Mohle's "System failure". Honourable mentions included Helen Garner's "The invisible arrow" and Frank Brennan's "Contemporary loss". One member named Glenn A Albrecht's "One hundred years of sumbiotude"the most obscure article. 

Specific "stories" that individual members liked included that about the grand-daughter who was surprised by how forward-thinking her grandmother was, and the one (in Frank Brennan, "Contemporary loss") about the dying man whose family brought in his paintings to hang on the wall which resulted in conversations that helped personalise relationships between patient, family and staff.


With such a diverse set of essays/memoirs/reports/fiction/poems, it was hard to have a coherent discussion, so this report will be a bit "scatty" ...

Of course we talked mostly about aged care in general, referencing in particular Holland-Batt and Mohle for their excellent analyses of the current situation, including how we got here, and for their thoughts about where to next. One member particularly liked Mohle's discussion of the new role of Nurse Navigator that's been created in Queensland and which seen significant reductions in Emergency presentations and overall hospitalisation. Both authors decried the Aged Care Act (1997) which contains no standards, no requirements for transparency or accountability.

We discussed the fact that some articles, such as Jane R Goodall's, discussed the idea of developing the role of "elders" and what this might mean. A couple of us liked Goodall's statement that:

The call of the elders is not to dwell on the past, but to renew awareness of our roots in it, and our place in a longer time scheme.
We also talked a little, though not in great depth, about euthanasia and assisted dying. We liked Blatt's idea of "magical thinking", such as the idea some people have that they will be in a position to take themselves out. We also noted the discussion in Andrew Stafford's "Dying wish" regarding the fine line between euthanasia/assisted dying and palliative care.

Dementia naturally came up a few times during the discussion. Several were interested in the articles which described the different types of dementia. We all felt that dementia would make a big difference to the experience of aging and the sort of care we might need or accept. All bets could be off in terms of our self-determination!

Other takeaways (or things learned) from the book, included:
  • Mohle's extortion not to catastrophise old age.
  • The idea that being young is positive and being old negative.
  • Charlotte Wood's finding that you die as you live: if you are angry or grumpy during your life you are likely to be like that in your final years. We laughed at her concern about when you should reset your default position!
  • The problems of food and eating in old age due to swallowing problems.
In terms of our own feelings about aging, we were generally positive. We felt overall that that there are big advantages to being an older person, that when you are old you can speak your mind more. Most of us seem to enjoy being old, appreciating the opportunity it offers us to express our ideas, the increased time we have to follow our passions. We noted, concurring with Holland-Batt, that our generation is more focused on self-determination versus previous generations which tended to accept authority and do what they were told.

Of course, we shared our various experiences of the aged care system, mostly through our parents. A couple commented that what they looked like loss of agency, from their point of view, wasn't how their parent felt. In other words, it's hard to know how we will feel, how we will perceive the world when we are much older and more frail. One talked about how her mother, who had dementia, initially ended up in a psychiatric facility rather than an aged care one. Another remembered her father's comment that growing old involves having to accept loss, which is expressed in Piper's article as ageing being a continual process of letting go. 

There was some discussion about the volume overall. One commented on the order of the pieces, how it started with 77-year-old established author Helen Garner, and closed with a 70-something debut author, Vicki Laveau-Harvie. She also liked the segues, or links, between the pieces. Another commented that the voices contained in the volume were primarily middle-aged or 60-somethings, and that there were no real aged voices. (We admitted, though, that not too long ago people in their 60s were seen as aged). It sent her back to a book published in 1979, Ellen Newton's This bed my centre, which chronicles the experiences of a 70-something woman with angina who spent 6 years in a nursing home.

Other works/activities we were reminded of, included:
  • Lisa Genova's Still Alice (book/movie)
  • Kate Grenville's One life: My mother's story
  • Ellen Newton's This bed my centre (mentioned above)
  • Webinars being run by Dementia Australia
In conclusion we agreed that it's hard to see how current trends in aged care will pan out given the significant aging of the population. We noted the lessons, that we all know already, such as that exercise, social interaction and good diet are factors that can help us have a good old age. Returning, as we often did during the discussion, to Sarah Holland-Batt we considered her comment that current aged care practice demonstrates a failure of imagination. We'd love to see more imagination - such as along the lines presented by writers like Mohle and Burkitt - applied to the problem. We wondered what impact COVID might have on policies and practices in the future. Will the return to being more people and community-focused that we are currently experiencing carry through to all sorts of people-related policies.  

Finally, one member said she loved the ending of Helen Garner's piece "The invisible arrow". Faced with the idea that his grandmother might stop writing, Garner's grandson said he wouldn't like her to do that.

"Why not?"
"Because," butts in his twelve-year-old brother, bouncing his football in a forceful rhythm, "it shows we exist"

Present: 10 members

Saturday, 1 August 2020

Chris Flynn's Mammoth

For the second COVID month in a row, we were able to meet in person - appropriately socially distanced of course. How nice it was - and now full it was. With none of us able to travel, our usual depleted winter turnout was again not in evidence!

Our chosen book was the recently published novel, Mammoth, by Irish-born Australian writer, Chris Flynn. It's a surprising novel, narrated by a mammoth fossil, telling his story to a bunch of other, mostly incomplete, fossils, as they await going on sale at an auction. As usual, we started with our First impressions.

First impressions

While no-one disliked the book, our first impressions fell into two camps, those who loved or really liked it, and those who enjoyed it but didn't love it.

Those who loved, or really liked it, said:
  • Loved it, quirky, humorous. 
  • Enjoyed it, comic.
  • Ripping yarn, great imagination. 
  • Very interesting read, loved being reminded of her knowledge of old/prehistoric history; found the encounters between ancient and modern civilisation interesting; felt the novel was too short to get sick of it; and liked the ending.
  • Didn't like beginning, because the humour felt too corny but grew to like it; liked how it looked at human brutality; loved his commentary on writing (including such issues as veracity and believability, tone) and loved Mammut's statement that "No story’s gold from beginning to end", suggesting that this is the novelist fending off in advance criticisms of the boring parts of his novel.
  • Enjoyed the book, an easy read and an interesting diversion in COVID-infested Melbourne (emailed in.)
Those who liked it, but were more luke-warm, said:
  • Enjoyed it, but the banter was too disneyesque, and the narrative was confusing. 
  • Started with a bang, but got sick of it at the end.
  • Enjoyed the start, but got tired as it progressed, some of it was intriguing, but other parts were laboured.
  • Found it a clever concept, but got tired of the banter; however did enjoy Googling some of the historical information; felt Mammut went on a bit and didn't like T. bataar’s contemporary voice. 
  • Strange, cartoonesque, fragmentary 

Subsequent discussion

Our discussion was rather fragmentary, a bit like some found the book was! It was interrupted by a lively discussion about Blue Cornflower Corningware, which one member had discovered now has vintage status. It was a case of ancient Corningware facing off against ancient fossils!

In terms of the writing, we all agreed that the two epilogues were wonderful, and we also liked the book's opening with Thomas Jefferson's letter. In terms of criticism, besides the style of humour, various members felt there were some unnecessary digressions and some over-explication (such as in the Cuvier section.) 

A member commented that the novel felt like an Irish tale, and noted Palaeo's comment that

"this tale of the Irish siblings is damn fine storytelling. I'm pretty confident none of it is true, but, hey, I'm past that now" (p. 206)

She commented that this reflects the old idea of never letting the facts get in the way of a good story, but, she said, Flynn did weave a story around facts. 

Another member commented that the idea of collecting "memories", of exploring the idea "if these bones could talk", was inspired. And one proffered that Flynn was brave to write about America the way he does.

Of course, we discussed his exploration of environmental degradation, species extinction, and climate change. Some felt it was hard to believe that some of the ideas are true, such as the impact of mammoths (and their stamping on the ground) on climate change. However, others pointed to research, such as this and an Economist article shared by a member, which gives the idea some credence. One member shared the mammoth's comment early in the novel:

“Our world was changing and there was nothing we could do about it.” (p. 44)

She suggested this helplessness is exactly how our animals and land would be "feeling" today. 

We couldn't help turning to Australia, with one member noting the impact of introduced hooved animals on the Australian environment. We also discussed recent forecasts that the koala could be extinct in under 50 years. And what are we doing about it, one member asked? Still allowing development to continue in a rare koala habitat area! Unbelievable!

We also noted the reference in the novel to people in the 19th century not believing scientists, such as Cuvier's theory of extinction, just as there are people now who don't believe climate scientists. 

One member quoted the statement made late in the book - “Relentless growth is not sustainable” (p. 252) - and asked how do we find the balance between destructive "relentless growth" and human desire to imagine, create, improve? 

We talked about other contemporary concerns Flynn weaves in through the story, such as racism, speciesism, and the idea of history being in the hands of the survivors.

Related to this is another of the novel's concerns - trophy mentality, or, the idea of self-aggrandisement through big animals. This idea is introduced in the novel's opening - Thomas Jefferson's letter enquiring about the availability of mammoth bones. The fossils talk about the equation of large animals with men and power. Pterodactyl tells the group of being using in Hitler Youth training: 

We were presented to the eager teens as proof that Germany had once been the centre of might in Europe and the origin point for life on earth. Your mastodon friend in particular was elevated as a symbol of strength … I was referred to as the Reptilian Eagle, an apex predator who dominated the skies. It would have been a compliment, had it not come from the mouths of maniacs. (p. 159/160)

The novel was, in fact, inspired by a 2007 auction in Manhattan of fossils - those represented in the novel - that Flynn had read about. One of the novel's two epilogues chronicles some of the outcomes of that auction, at which celebrities like Nicolas Cage and Leonardo Di Caprio vied for big fossils! As Pterodactyl continued from the above:

Yet again the hominid males appropriate motifs of power from the natural world in order to make themselves seem strong. (p. 160)

The novel also provides a potted view of human history through selected - fragmented as some in the group thought - events. The focus, in particular, was human brutality, which is something Flynn himself has seen in Ireland. He has had guns pointed at him, and he has heard nightmarish stories, he has said. In the novel, he chooses historical events/times like British suppression of Irish rebels, the Nazis, the decimation of Native Americans to make his point about the way humans behave and treat others, about their relationship to power.

The novel also represents are rather fun roll call of some of the 19th century's top palaeontologists and naturalists. Many of us enjoyed reading about them, and researching them in Wikipedia and elsewhere.

In the end, this book that garnered mixed responses generated quite a wide-ranging discussion.

Present: 10 members