Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Steven Conte, The Tolstoy Estate

Our group's June book was Australian author Steven Conte's second novel, The Tolstoy Estate, which takes place over six weeks - November-December 1941 - of Germany's World War 2 campaign in Russia. The specific setting is a German medical unit that was based in Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy's estate, near Tula, south of Moscow. 

The novel is told through the perspective of German military doctor, Paul Bauer, who is based there with a medical unit led by Julius Metz. At the estate is the curator of the site, Katerina Trubetzkaya, who is, not surprisingly, hostile. A relationship develops between Paul and Katerina, but against a backdrop of deteriorating conditions both on the war-front and in the unit, as commanding officer Metz's behaviour becomes increasingly erratic.

The book has been shortlisted for the 2021 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, and longlisted for the 2021 Colin Roderick award.

We started of course with our ...

First impressions

  • Enjoyed it because of its setting in a German army hospital in Russia, its exploration of love (particularly of love in difficult times), its discussion of writing and literature with wry reflections on Conte’s own book, and its structure with its sudden change of tack partway through. 
  • Loved it, couldn't put it down, because of its details which suggested it was well-researched. The harrowing details felt convincing, and the ending didn't let me down. 
  • Loved it, though got tired of all the operations, so loved it when the first set of letters appeared, because this kept me going. Haven't read War and peace and felt it might have added some layers. Loved the description of the house. 
  • Really enjoyed it, found the historical context very interesting, including that Tolstoy was a pacifist, as this novel is. It's a little romanticised, but reality wasn't romanticised. Hitler and many in the army used drugs during war, which may have resulted in some madness or deluded behaviour. There were great characters in the medical team, some feeling real, others more "hyper-real".
  • All of the above. As with Overstory, this is a book I'd love to write an essay about to draw out all the paths. Enjoyed the themes about love and writing (such as its discussion of "the usual reasons one values a novel"). Thought the book was particularly about Katrina, and the many facets of her as a person. Was interested in the reference to the Kreutzer sonata
  • A bit "iffy" at the start but ended up enjoying the book; it won me over. 
  • Liked it but didn't love it. Thought A gentlemen in Moscow was a better novel (says the member who recommended this one!) The references to the use of drugs during war are real. The surgery scenes felt like they'd come straight out of a textbook. Thought the Caesarean scene by candlelight was a bit far-fetched but "it probably did happen sometimes". Made me want to read Tolstoy again. 
  • Enjoyed it, particularly all the different characters. Found it a gentle book, considering the topic. Liked the descriptions of the snow, trees, countryside. 
  • Really enjoyed it, though doesn't think it's a great book. 
  • Really enjoyed it too, found it a visceral read with the descriptions of the icy cold conditions on the dressing station, in particular. The surgery scenes were very real. Thought it a political story, about a good man in a bad army. Katerina, also, was a good person in a bad regime. 

Further discussion

We talked about the novel's exploration of the past and the future. Metz saw himself as a man of the future, a d criticised Bauer for wallowing in the past (in Tolstoy). In one of his letters, Bauer talks about old people wanting to "wallow in memory, when clearly the healthier thing to do was to stride into the future". However, it's a complicated issue as Bauer seems to realise. In his letters, he wants to pick up the past and stride into the future with Katerina.

We talked about Nazism's master race theory, which posited the German race as the heroes of the future. But, as one member said, Bauer's life on the front is immersed in the consequences of aiming for this future. The gay dentist/anaesthetist Hirsch is an example of Nazism's vision riding roughshod over individuals. 

Bauer, on the other hand, saw people as individuals. War and peace, he tells Katerina, restored his faith in

doing good in the world; because if, as Tolstoy argued, we are all specks in a vast world-historical drama, including those who think they’re in charge, it follows that everyone’s actions are potentially significant, that the humblest person can influence events as much as any general, emperor of tsar. (p. 218)
One member reminded us of Bauer's recognition of the future in Demchak, 

It was good to be reminded of the talents of the young, who in time would run the world and, one hoped, make a better fist of it than those who were currently in charge.

Ironically, though, the black-and-white Hiwi Demchak is perhaps not the best of the young to achieve this!

One member commented that war is ethically confronting, which we Australians are seeing played out now in the SAS Officer Ben Roberts-Smith court case.

We also talked about the links with War and peace re Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. As one member said, both Napoleon and Hitler's armies had confronted unseasonably cold winters.

We looked at some of the questions from Steven Conte's website

One question is, "Is Julius Metz a bad person? What about Hermann Molineux? Norbert Ritter? ‘Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner,’ goes a French proverb: to understand all is to forgive all. How true is this?"

We talked about Metz being mercurial, unreliable, and able to be "played" by Katerina. Bauer believed the drugs being given experimentally to Metz affected his mental ability. We talked about their being value in "understanding" bad behaviour but where is the line? At what point can you forgive? Also, how do you empower people to stand up for their own beliefs? One member noted that Metz was good at his job, and did save lives.

One person wondered whether Bauer is a somewhat idealised character? Some thought perhaps he was, while others thought that he falls within the range of "real" people. As a surgeon, Bauer didn't have to be involved in the politics, one member suggested, though others felt that being a doctor in the regime, he couldn't avoid it.  

Considering the discussion this question engendered, one member suggest that it was a sign of a good novelist that we could get so much into the skin of his characters.


Another question concerned the structure and plotting: "What did you think when the first letter was introduced into the narrative? Did it shock you? Did it change your mind about the novel or change the way you read it? Did it reduce the tension for you or increase it?" 

One member had already mentioned in her first impression that it kept her reading, as she had become worn down by the extended chapter on the surgeries. Another member commented that it told us that Bauer and Katerina had survived the war, and wondered why he had decided to tell us this? What did he want us to focus on if it wasn't that plot issue?

We discussed how Conte explores a relationship coping with the stress of competing regimes, and that it showed what a strong bond they'd formed. One member hadn't got the feeling that Katerina was "into" Paul (Bauer). However, as others said, the novel is told from his third person subjective point of view, so, until the letters, we only see the relationship from his point-of-view - and he is uncertain about her interest. Another noted that Katerina's reference to not ruining his looks in the frostbite scene suggested her attraction to him! 

A member complimented Conte on his insight into human feelings, finding particularly real Katerina's description of how she missed Paul.

The final question we considered was: "Siegfried Weidemann advises Bauer to ‘Focus on your own job. Don’t look left or right. Obey orders and let someone else fret about the rest.’ What do you think of this advice? In your family, your workplace, your locality or your nation, is it unethical, necessary or reckless to disregard politics?"

Being Canberrans, we immediately thought of the challenges currently faced by public servants whom we feel are not encourage to give "frank and fearless advice" but to follow party lines. We talked about other works which explore personal responsibility, including Bernard Schlink's The reader, and Christopher Hampton's play, A German life, about Brunhilde Pomsel who worked in Joseph Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry. 

One member talked about the Government's being invested in creating heroes because we need people to go to war. Conte, we agreed, makes us think about making decisions. We can get caught up in the heroic stories. 

We liked that Conte has covered here a story that hasn't been told before - the 41 days of German occupation of Yasnaya Polyana. (Though, as one said, the book was inspired by Marie Curie's daughter, Eve Curie's Journey among warriors, 1943, which includes her description of a visit to Yasnaya Polyana, three weeks after its liberation from invading German forces.)

This was a book that engaged us all and generated a wonderful and wide-ranging conversation. A great choice, even if the person who recommended it didn't love it!

Present: 9 members

Sunday, 6 June 2021

Where the crawdads sing by Delia Owens

We began our discussion of Delia Owens' very popular novel, Where the crawdads sing, by talking about the title. ‘Crawdads’ are a type of yabby or crayfish.

This American book was inspired by some of the events in the life of the author, Delia Owens. She was a ‘wildlife scientist in Africa’ for some years. It was highly recommended to one of our members by an eminent scientist and environmentalist which helped to persuade us to read it.

It tells the story of Kya Clark, who was left by her family to live in the marshes of North Carolina at a very young age. After being sexually abused by a so-called admirer she is accused of his murder and so the novel revolves around her early life in nature and the subsequent court case.



First impressions:


  • I found it very readable although emotionally draining at first. 
  • Engaging, readable, a bit Mills and Boon like -- about the downtrodden girl. I didn’t believe many parts of it especially how a young person could be published and earn so much money from one book on shells. I liked the engagement with the natural world and the main character’s isolation from society. It was endearing but it was also curious. 
  • Why did she write this novel ?
  • I wasn’t sure about it. I heard some of it on ‘audible’. Last bit was too contrived. It had sad parts, eg when the character ‘Jumpin’ died. I engaged with the characters and enjoyed it.   
  • I got angry with the unrealistic story but I admired the structure of the book revolving around the court case and the police investigation and the time jumps between the story and the murder case. I thought the writing was beautiful about the characters.
  • I loved it and was engrossed by the story. I also found it very readable and liked the vivid writing about nature. I did not like the small town prejudices but having lived in America in the 1980s could understand the tone. It was also annoying at times.
  • I got used to the devices of time jumps. I also found an anachronism in it – she talks about Kya and Tate going on a picnic and using plastic cutlery in the late 1950s. I don’t think they would have had plastic cutlery even in the US at this time. It would have been metal cutlery I think? 
  • I saw flaws in this book, for instance, its sentimentality, but I was moved emotionally. It reminded me of a book I read when young called The girl of the Limberlost. ‘I thought the book was a bit suss. I didn’t like the poetry by Amanda Hamilton but it was important to the resolution’. Intellectually there were too many stereotypes – good African Americans and ‘bad’ white Americans with prejudices against the poor ‘white trash’ living in the marshes. 
  • I found it contrived but it had a good sense of place. I felt the murder was a bit out of character for Kya and the poetry ‘drove me batty’.
  • From an absent member –  a sense of Kya's gentle, almost secretive gliding around the water in the marshlands; she would look out for Tate, or birds or animals, disappear or hide on so many occasions. The language lent this feeling to the book. Loved how we didn't really know what she did through the years except survive remarkably, and occasionally see people, and somehow the story flowed such that I didn't wonder what she did. But then we find later in the book that she painted, recorded, observed, with the precision of a 'trained scientist' but using innate knowledge and feeling for the marsh and all nature there. It became her life, and it seemed so fitting. And the knowledge of what she did provided background that I found comforting and satisfying.


Further discussion


The other main characters in this novel are Tate, who was a good man and Chase who was not a good man or good lover. Kya was taken in by both boys (men) due to her loneliness and wanting so desperately to be in a relationship with another human. Kya knew that living alone with nature for company and stimulation for so long had changed her.

Chase was an ordinary lover and was fascinated by the exotic Kya. He was a tool for the author to show that Kya was able to surmount her difficulties of her early life. She was able to protect herself pretty well.

Kya was a lonely girl who somehow managed to survive. We then discussed how there was a sense that Kya’s loneliness and love of the marshes related to Owens' life trying to protect wildlife in Africa. We all wondered why she wrote this book? Was it to explore isolation and loneliness ?

We liked the light touches such as the ‘love’ game between Tate and Kya when they were exchanging feathers and other natural items found in the marsh. One member was frustrated that there were not many insects to bother Kya, which was a jarring note in her opinion. Another member commented that Kya was fortunate to look good after such a poor diet and lack of medical facilities and toiletries for many years.

The police were commented upon as leading quite a good investigation. They didn’t immediately jump to conclusions as they might have been suspected to do considering the lowly status of Kya. Some people in the town actually supported her too which was surprising considering they had not done so earlier.

It was surprising that Kya was able to acquire her father’s holding so easily. It was a little too neat.

The author wants the reader to believe that someone else eg Tate murdered Chase. But the last chapter convinces the reader that Kya got her revenge on Chase with the help of her friendly and kind lawyer. The lawyer could be a latter day ‘Atticus Finch’. The author is not a subtle writer.

We admired the writing in many places. For instance

Loved her magical descriptions eg the skunk family 

"Them scurrying behind [the mother], running into and over one another in black and white confusions." (page 296)

"The microscope's light (reflected in her dark pupils), and she drew in a breath as a Mardi Gras of costumed players pirouetted and careened into view. Unimaginable headdresses adorned astonishing bodies so eager for more life, they frolicked as though caught in a circus tent, not a single bead of water." (page 279)

And some very succinct descriptions eg:

"Life had made her an expert at mashing feelings into a storable size."(page 151)
"Sleep avoided her, slinking around the edges, then darting away."(page 277)

This novel is really an allegory or fairy story with many stereotypes – for example Jumpin and his wife Mabel are Kya’s only friends and moral supporters. The rest of the town are against her as she is poor white trash and considered dirty by many people such as the minister’s wife and Chase’s mother. Although a few people advocated for her most didn’t. Barkly Cove served their religion ‘deep fried’.

Most of the action in this novel is through Kya’s eyes so it is a very biased viewpoint. It was not depicting social realities of the 1950s and 1960s in North Carolina.

It was on the best seller list for 2 years and is being made into a movie.

Present: 7 members