Wednesday, 15 December 2021

Minerva's Top Picks for 2021

 As for all groups, 2021 was another challenging year for Minervans, but on the back of 2020 we knew what to do, so it was Zoom for our August and September meetings, and then in October, when rules relaxed but n to enough to have a house-full of people, we tried a late afternoon picnic. The Spring weather gods were kind and we had an excellent and enjoyable meeting. 

But now, onto the real business of this post ... For the fifth year now, we Minervans voted for our Top Picks of the year. As before, each member was asked to nominate her three top picks from the books we read as a group this year ... and here is the outcome ...

All twelve currently active members took part, and all nominated the maximum three books, resulting in 36 "votes". Just to reiterate what we've said before: this is not a "proper" survey. Votes were all given equal weight, as was advised in the email request, even if some members ranked their choices. Also, not everyone read every book, meaning different people voted from different "pools". So, the results are indicative rather than authoritative, but it's fun and it does convey some sense of what we all liked.

Last year we had a runaway winner with Melissa Lucashenko's Too much lip garnering 10 of the 36 votes, and the tied runners-up receiving 5 votes each. This year was completely different, with the vote being very close. The was just one vote between each book and the pacesetter behind it. It was a year in which it was very hard to make a choice.

Here are the results:
  1. Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart (our review) (8 votes)
  2. Song of the crocodile, by Nardi Simpson (our review) (7 votes)
  3. Girl, woman, other, by Bernadine Evaristo (our review) (6 votes)
With highly commendeds going to Where the crawdads sing, by Delia Owens (our review) (5 votes) and Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell (our review) (4 votes).

Another difference from last year is that no nonfiction books appeared in out top picks. Indeed, although they generated excellent discussions eight of them earned a vote at all. The remaining books all received at least one vote. 

Continuing our Zeitgeist Award for the member who voted for the top three books, there were two winners this year: Anne and Helen.

Some comments on our top picks

Note that not everyone commented on their choices ...

  • "I loved Shuggie Bain, for its perceptive story of a young boy struggling with poverty and a disfunctional family, and Agnes trapped by her dreams and addiction." (Kate)
  • "really powerful story (ie very well written) that will stay with me for a long time." (Sylvia)
  • "Wouldn't have read it without the Minervans keeping me company, but brilliant evocative writing." (Helen)

  • "punchy, truth-telling story about First Nations' lives in rural Australia." (Sue T)
  • "fantastic women characters who faced horrendous challenges with guts -- I loved the 'fantastic aspects' of it too (eg the crocodile totem's presence)" (Sylvia)
  • "Edgy and important" (Paula) 
  • "a saga of a story close to Country. Full of beauty and I think I understand intergenerational trauma more as a result of reading this book." (Helen) 

  • "I loved Girl Woman Other for its fabulous evocation of women in complicated relationships, exploration of gender and colour." (Kate)
  • "satirical, insightful exploration of the lives of diverse women in contemporary England." (Sue T) 
  • "because it made me feel like I was almost there in London. A great book to read while the borders stopped travel." (Helen)

  • "Evocative and compelling" (Paula)

  • "Engaging, well plotted and historically plausible depiction of little known historical characters while famous character is kept in the background." (Sue B)
  • "I loved entering this world of 16th century life in Stratford for the powerful story of an invisible woman, and the impact of grief." (Kate)
  • "Powerful imagined history. Beautiful descriptive writing." (Paula) 

Other comments included Sue B describing Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers as a "clever, witty old favourite", and Sylvia calling it "a different world in which to escape". Kate described Steven Conte's Tolstoy Estate as "such a powerful story about war and love and loyalty and futility", and Sue T was impressed by Tsitsi Dangarembga's This mournable body, calling it a "remarkable novel about how the interplay of race, gender and colonialism continues to impede the country’s growth."

Other recommendations

Again, several (including our coast-observer Marie) took up the option to share some other favourite books from their reading year. Here are their suggestions (alphabetically by author), for those looking for other reading ideas. Dare I say that, among last year's recommendations, was mine for Too much lip, so, you know, take these recommendations seriously!
  • Irma Gold, The breaking (Sue)
  • Eddie Jaku, The happiest man on earth (Celeste)
  • Helen Meany, Every day is Gertie Day (Sue)
  • Rohinton Mistry, Family matters (such a beautiful writer) (Kate)
  • Kate Moore, The woman they could not silence (Kate)
  • Heather Morris, The tattooist of Auschwitz (Celeste)
  • Jonica Newby, Beyond climate grief (very emotional memoir of her time on the south coast during the 2019/2020 bushfires) (Sylvia)
  • Archie Roach, Tell me why (Kate)
  • Trevor Shearston, Hare's fur (Sue)

And, then, there were picks from ex-Reading Group members in Sydney and the South Coast:

  • Bernadine Evaristo, Girl, woman, other 
  • Sarah Winman, Still life
  • Ingrid Persaud, Love after love

Susan (From the Moruya Heads sub-branch!)
  • Brit Bennet, The vanishing half
  • Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain
  • Pip Williams, The dictionary of lost words

I very much enjoyed:
  1. Ariel Lawton, Code Name Helene ... for fast action and pure enjoyment
  2. Anne Tyler, The redhead by the side of the road ... for a lengthy and interesting discussion, and a reflection on self
  3. Sarah Winman, When God was a rabbit ... still going with this, however so far it is dealing with serious childhood issues with whimsy and humour, and is quite beguiling.

  • Ayad Akhtar, Homeland elegies ... exploration of what it is to be a Muslim in New York in a mix of memoir, novel and essay. Plus fascinating father/son relationship)
  • Colm Toibin, The magician ... dramatised portrait of Thomas Mann
  • Christian Kiefer, The animals ... ‘Kiefer’s second novel contrasts wildness and civilization through the story of a man who runs an animal refuge to escape from his criminal past.’

My three are hopeful books for difficult times:
  • Sarah Winman, Still life ... I’ve read it twice already!
  • Pip Williams, The dictionary of lost words 
  • Rutger Bregman, Humankind

Any comments? (And it's not too late to add to this list if you become inspired after seeing it!)

Sunday, 5 December 2021

The Believer by Sarah Krasnostein

 Encounters with love, death and faith.


Our final book of the year, for our November meeting, was Sarah Krasnostein's The believer. The meeting was well attended, and included one of our former members, which was a lovely surprise.


This non-fiction work is another example of her exploring people’s lives who live on the ‘boundaries’ of the general public. In her award-winning previous book, The Trauma Cleaner she told us about Australians who have very complicated and dangerous lives due to poverty and domestic abuse, and issues with gender and mental health. In this book she investigates people in Australia and in America who are challenged by their faith in God through unusual faith ‘paths’ and by their beliefs in ghosts and UFOs, cancer sufferers with huge issues, and a woman who faced terrible domestic abuse and the legal consequences of her actions. 


There are 6 stories of believers interwoven into 53 chapters so the reader is constantly having to recognise and ‘accept’ the character and the circumstance of the person or people being written about. There were many ‘light bulb’ moments too where the author showed her brilliant intelligence and respect and compassion for these people and gave us insights. Most of us enjoyed it more than we expected.


‘In each case (ie the 6 stories), I needed to understand them, these people I found unfathomable, holding fast to faith in ideas that went against the grain of more accepted realities’. (page 2)


First impressions 

  • I admire her writing but I found the characters challenging as I do not understand how they can believe some of the ideas expressed.
  • It is well written, lots of anecdotes rather than science and the question of ‘why’, which intrigues me more. I enjoyed the autobiographical moments.
  • I was not sure whether it was short stories or a monograph but thought the structure was better that way, otherwise it would have dragged if each story was sequential.
  • Krasnostein is a wonderful story teller about slightly painful people such as Freddy and Rhonda. Annie, the Death Doula, is a beautiful portrayal of a woman where Krasnostein is engaging with the characters.
  • The whole topic is an emotional one and we admire Krasnostein for those portrayals. There are particular characters, mainly women, who stand out, such as Lynn, who was incarcerated for many years after killing her abusive husband. Her sentence was extended unnecessarily and unfairly. The Mennonites are another interesting thread. The creation scientist, Georgia Purdom was interesting in the audio book version, as she was deaf and the reader sounded as if she was deaf reading her narrative. 
  • As a former Life Line councillor I found it intensely interesting as Krasnostein has incredible insights into the philosophy and psychology of these people. I would have preferred more analysis at the conclusion (which was a preference from many of us).  
  • Her observations of the human condition were excellent and her fairness and respect for some of these odd characters is admirable. 
  • I found it hard going as there was no structure. I expected a thesis with examples to illustrate with an essay at the end but it wasn’t there. I liked some of the characters such as Annie and Lynn but not the creationists. One can only be amazed by people who think the Ark had little dinosaurs on it who could be vegetarian for the duration. 
  • I found the book annoying but engaging. I was struck by the tragedy of Lynn, her life sentence in gaol and her resilience. Also drawn to the characters of the lost pilot, Fred, and Annie, the Death Doula. I was struck by the dissonance with the Brian Cox show which is presently being shown on ABC TV where he discounts any form of life on other planets. 
  • I like to read to ‘get into’ other worlds and I found the 6 worlds completely different from mine. It was a bit patchy but I enjoyed it. The 6 subjects could be divided into 2 personal, 2 religious and 2 ‘other world’ stories. I also liked her exploration of how some people crave certainty and control, and how these ‘needs’ lead people to believe in conspiracy stories. This helped explain, for me, how some people have become susceptible to anti-vaccination propaganda etc during the pandemic. I love books which end up with questions.
  • I was interested in the stories but I didn’t engage with it. I have just read the book: The tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris which is an excellent read. 
  • Having recently suffered a bereavement I found this book was talking to me with some of the characters, especially Katrina who is dying from cancer. I was particularly drawn to the sad story of Krasnostein’s grandmother living as a Jewish child and barely surviving the second world war. Her difficult childhood had an effect upon her daughter (Sarah’s mother) and those difficulties influenced Sarah. Sarah realises, as she's writing this book, that she 

‘… had been born into a line of missing mothers’.  (page 74). 




There were certain characters who were amazing as we have said in our first impressions, such as Annie and Lynn. They were leading complex lives but showed resilience and strength of character in the rough and tumble. They were empowering themselves and others by their strengths and being ‘rocks’. 


Sarah Krasnostein’s own searching for ‘belief’ comes through. ‘If I could only ask the right questions I could understand’. You need answers but the questions are more interesting.

She gives beautiful personal insights, ‘finding a psychologist worked for me’.  So in some ways this book is a personal journey. As the author is a Jewish woman the Christians/Mennonites did not try to convert her we felt. 


The choir was interesting as they were united by emotions.


The people are so variant in the ways they see the world. I can see my own childhood in Loisann’s childhood, said one member. So there is common humanity that unites us and which is empowering. 


We admired the way the author is so respectful of the people she interviewed such as: Freddy’s fiancĂ©e even though the sentiments expressed by Rhonda ‘got to her’ at times; we laughed about the Buddhist monk living as a lodger in Annie’s garden; and we were amazed at the dignity of Lynn, the ex-prisoner who had suffered so much and was still so selfless. The injustices perpetrated on Lynn were concealed under disorder according to one of our members, especially see ch. 42. In 1970s America when Lynn was convicted of killing her husband, self-defence was not a permissible legal claim by a woman but it was allowed for men convicted of a murder. This was a lightbulb moment for some members.


We discussed the fear Mennonites expressed of education, especially higher education. It poses a threat to their understanding of the world, and particularly of the Bible. See especially chapter 40.


‘Anthony’s conflict comes from the fact that the certainties he received instead of education are poor tools for daily living …’ (page 258).




‘Theology always scares me because it takes the things that seem simple and makes them complex.’ (page 259)


Ms Krasnostein also comments on the Mennonite’s naivety such as exhibited by the Krieder family. They had no idea that families could be homeless in New York so easily. It is as if they are living on a separate planet. They have no concept of the people’s lives living nearby and  no understanding of the structural inequities faced by these folk. See particularly pages 313-314.


We talked at some length about the structure of this book. The criss-cross of the stories made it harder to get into but we also wondered whether it would have been boring or at least not as interesting if each story was written straight through. One reader found the spook parts less integrating than the ‘ufologists’. 


We all admired her writing style, with one member describing it as quite poetic in places.


The stories are based on fact as shown by the story of Fred, the young pilot who went missing. Internet searches will produce the details just as Krasnostein relates them.


We decided that the apparent alien spacecraft was probably just an illusion created by the light or some other banal explanation.


Human beings seek meaning in life and sometimes we look for patterns, which is why the US government has just announced a new UFO office to be set up to examine various sightings of unexplained objects in the sky.   


We decided that if Sarah Krasnostein had analysed the characters according to psychology, it would have been a very different type of book from the one we read. In this work the reader takes a journey and respects the characters no matter what we think of their ideas and life styles.


One member mentioned Roger Ailes who worked for Fox news and was influential in their portrayal of ‘facts’ for many years. Some of the people in this book want certainty, which suggests they would be influenced by news channels such as Fox which portray the world in simplistic black and white terms. 


We also talked a little about seances and how people can be convinced of things which are not true – eg moving of the board or trying to find answers. People want certainty. 


Belief is fascinating – such as a belief in ufos and aliens. 


We found Krasnostein’s account of her grandmother’s and mother’s relationship and her own connection to these women so affected by being Jewish and living through the second world war revealing. The author herself is searching for answers just like her interviewees  (pp. 71-73).


In talking about the Creation Museum we liked the quoting of Hannah Arendt – knowledge for thought, converting fact into meaning, but truth isn’t meaning. 


‘To sit in the lecture is to experience a great untethering from what Hannah Arendt called the “human world”. …shared world of stable processes, laws and institutions which create the conditions for social negotiations and the pursuit of common goals…’ (pp. 43- 45)


An unusual book but quite pertinent to our present times.

Book recommendations

Just one book came up this month: The believing brain by Dr Michael Shermer.  The recommender felt it was an excellent book which explains how beliefs are born. It sounds very pertinent to our times. 


Present: 10 plus our special guest.