Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Stan Grant's Talking to my country


It is a particularly pertinent time for Minervans to be reading this challenging work.  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s issues have been much in the news in the last few days: knockback of their idea of a consultative assembly by the Federal government,  their banning of climbing Uluru from 2019, and in the ‘Conversation’ recently an article on a project to correct a huge omission in the Australian Dictionary of Biography by the addition of many articles about prominent Indigenous members of Australian society since 1788.

Before we started discussing Stan’s book we were shown the literary site called: Writing black.  Edited by Ellen van Neerven, this anthology was developed by the black&write! Indigenous writing and editing project at the State Library of Queensland. We were also encouraged to visit the current exhibition at the NMA called Songlines: Tracking the Seven sisters—a journey into the heart of Australia.

Stan Grant’s polemic is that Aboriginal people have faced a very tough life in the last two hundred years and are still finding it extremely difficult in 21st century Australia. He is a proud Wiradjuri man from Western NSW (ie. Canowindra and region). He discusses his life, his parent’s and grandparent’s struggles with poverty, as well as his teachings and thoughts about his own son’s appreciation of his Aboriginal heritage. He discusses the great hardship and discrimination suffered by his father and grandfather in particular. He remembers fondly his paternal grandmother (a white woman) who struggled greatly with poverty but was always very loving. He intersperses his family history with ponderings on Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian history and discusses the many assumptions held by the European society since 1788.

The main assumptions:
  • Aborigines and Torres Strait islanders would die out in the 19th century
  • Modern Aborigines should just ‘move on and forget their history’
  • There was aggression between Aborigines and the invaders from the beginning and his Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi people are still fighting a battle against injustices but it has not been properly recognised by non-Indigenous Australians
  • Aboriginal love of country is a dominating feature in Stan’s life (as it is for most Indigenous people), no matter where he is in the world.  
  • Lack of formal recognition that Indigenous people have lived here for over 60,000 years is still an issue
  • Aborigines have to accept non Indigenous people as they are so few and have no choice (see page 6)

The book is divided into 10 chapters (and unfortunately they are not labelled by theme). There is a structure, however some of us found it hard to categorise. It is not chronological as he has already written a memoir called: The tears of strangers. Here is a review

Grant’s book is a challenge to read as it made many of us very angry with our ancestor’s treatment of Indigenous people. However racism is still active in 2017 Australia and we all felt very emotional when he talks about the shocking incident in 2015 when the footballer Adam Goodes’ suffered constant ‘abuse and humiliation until he could take no more’ (page 5).  We spent a little time discussing this incident and Goodes’ treatment.

Many of the group discussed incidents where they too had seen open displays of racism against Aborigines. One member made us realise that there is a terrible antagonism held by some Australians who cannot tolerate hearing anything about Aborigines or their issues. Overseas, people are more interested in Aboriginal life in modern Australia but there is great resistance here.

Another member working in a government department has recently done a course in cultural awareness of Indigenous issues and she drew our attention to the ‘sorry’ speech by Kevin Rudd and how that was a significant step in reconciliation. Many Aboriginal people are prepared to forgive us – they do not want to blame us. However that is often not the view of some Australians. Canberrans possibly react in a different way about this issue, possibly because we are more educated.

Stan’s book reminded us of the many other books and speeches over the last 25 years which talk about some of these issues. Such as Carmel Bird’s The stolen generation their stories which is based on the report, Bringing them home.  Also we were reminded of John Howard’s refusal to apologise to the stolen generation and Kim Beazley’s approach – for instance see this ABC report.

We also briefly talked about Eddie Mabo and the 1992 decision: ‘The judgments of the High Court in the Mabo case recognised the traditional rights of the Meriam people to their islands in the eastern Torres Strait. The Court also held that native title existed for all Indigenous people in Australia prior to the establishment of the British Colony of New South Wales in 1788.’

One member has recently been reading Robert Hughes’ Fatal shore and the impact of the convicts on Aborigines and their lifestyle. It was pretty devastating to say the least.

I talked about our recent interaction with the Adnyamathanha people of the Flinder’s Ranges and our enjoyment and education from them in the welcome to country ceremonies and the tours we attended. The welcome to country is becoming much more accepted and recognised as part of normal beginnings of meetings at universities and other institutions too.

Many members had stories to tell of their interactions with Aboriginal people. Some of the memories evoked are not good, such as memories of humpies in the 1960s. Others are more positive, such as a lady known by Deb who was a warm and friendly person in Deb’s early life in country New South Wales.

One difficult idea was raised by a member who mentioned that writer Kim Scott is worried about books in Aboriginal languages. He is worried that the languages may be appropriated by non-Indigenous writers, representing another dispossession. However non-Indigenous scholars and researchers have been working in this area since the beginning of white settlement.

We all admired the language used by Grant in this book. He is angry but the language is not unreasonable. He is trying to explain his emotions in the simplest way possible so that all Australians can understand his feelings. On the dust jacket it states: ‘the book that every Australian should read’. That is a difficult aim for any writer.

We particularly discussed some of the points raised by Grant on page 148:
how many times have I heard that we should forget our history and move on ?…Long term conflict may never have been a viable option for us and this country has been spared the internecine warfare of other lands, but the impact on us is no less real ... I grew to understand that conflict doesn’t end when the guns stop, that its legacy is passed through the generations. 

(This is Epigenetics according to one member.)

Such terrible injustices were suffered by some Aborigines, such as losing their families and even their identity through being part of the stolen generations and taken to missionary establishments and other institutions.

We also discussed some of the present day challenges for Aborigines such as poor hearing and how that impacts upon their whole lives – often preventing them from a good education and subsequent jobs and satisfactory lives.

A difficult read because of the subject matter but very worthwhile.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Resources relevant to our discussion of Stan Grant's Talking to my country


Here are some resources - books, songs, film/video - that are relevant to Stan Grant's book Talking to my country:
  • Archie Roach's song, "They took the children away", set to scenes from Rabbit Proof Fence 
  • Bob Randall's song, "My brown skin baby (They take him away)". Randall is a Yankunytjatjara Elder and a traditional owner of Uluru (Ayers Rock). This song from the early 1970's became an anthem for the Stolen Generations. There was a Chequerboard program on Randall and his story in 1970 (the link is to some notes and a couple of clips).
  • Carmel Bird's anthology Stolen children: Their stories 
  • Ellen van Neerven's anthology Writing black
  • Frank Hardy's Unlucky Australians: a story of the 1966 strike at Wave Hill Station by Gurindji stockmen & their families, available on iView (until 1 August 2018)
  • Kanyini: Living Black. Here’s a program about the movie (which seems to be about the above-named Bob Randall)
  • Stan Grant's speech on racism and the Australian dream.
There's a lot more of course ... but these are a start.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Heather Rose's The museum of modern love: What is art, what is love?


We met this month at Muse Restaurant/Bar/Bookshop. As we did last year, we started an hour earlier than usual, dined first, then discussed the book, and followed that with coffee and dessert. Nine attended, and although noise (to which we contributed!) was a concern early on, the evening went well. We appreciated Muse staff's considerate service in organising for us to dine upstairs in the restaurant and then move to a circle of chairs in the bookshop for our discussion.

So now the book, Heather Rose's The museum of modern love. It was inspired by performance artist Marina Abramović, and particularly her 75-day performance piece at MoMA, The artist is present, and its narrative comprises two main parallel strands. One features the real artist Marina, and the other the fictional composer Arky Levin, who is at a crossroads in his professional and personal life.

We started with everyone sharing their overall impressions:
  • Most loved the book, one calling it fabulous.
  • A couple took a while to get into the writing, but enjoyed the different voices, the description of the various sitters, and the characters and their relationships.
  • One launched into reading without having read the blurb, and wondered initially what it was all about: was it about the purpose of art or perhaps about Levin's journey?
  • Those who had seen the documentary film, Marina Abramović: The artist is present, before, during or after reading the book, found that it enhanced understanding. For one it pretty much reversed her assessment from initially seeing performance art, particularly Marina's, as narcissistic, sado-masochistic, exhibitionist, to being something of interest and value.
  • One said that for a book with no real plot, it was fantastic, and enjoyed the way Rose presented the parallel lives of Marina and Arky Levin.
  • Several had little experience of performance art and/or found it confronting, if not stomach-turning, but enjoyed Rose's exploration of art (of all sorts, including music), and her analysis of people's feelings (including the conversations among the observers at The artist is present.)
  • One was fascinated by the whole "business" of art, and the number of people who "feed" off the artist's work.
  • One saw Marina as fragile, until she saw the documentary showing her to be a strong, powerful woman.
  • One commented how privileged we are to be able to spend time discussing such issues as art and love.

What is it about?

Having said all this, was there anything more to discuss? Surprisingly, yes! There were the themes. Is the book is essentially about the meaning of art. Some felt it was a major theme, others less so.

The meaning of art?


We talked about how Marina's performance art pares art down to its very minimum. What does this mean? We shared different ideas about art as presented in the book, including that art:
  • gets to "the heart of life",
  • is about being able to see the world differently, 
  • is about making connections, 
  • needs to be about changing ideology, and
  • explores what it means to be human. 
The book explores all of these, through a wide variety of art forms - performance, music, architecture and of course fiction.

This led, naturally, to some discussion of the artist, which both Marina and Arky Levin represent. For a performance artist, they are the work. In The artist is present, Marina is the connection, the focus. She wants, we felt, to be loved (see next theme!!), has a big ego, which is something we agreed you probably need to be an artist. Artists can't get bogged down in daily life, but need to be selfish. There is an irony here because to create great art you have little time for love, but without love you (and your art) can be empty. Is this the choice Levin must make at the end?

The importance of love?


Given the title, the book is clearly about love. We talked about Arky Levin and his wife Lydia, about how hopeless/weak Levin seemed to be. His daughter Alice is disappointed that he passively accepts Lydia's instruction - her court order - that he not visit her once she enters the final stages of her hereditary blood disease. However, some argued that while he does seem passive, it's also clear that Lydia liked to be in control. Regardless, we agreed that Levin is stalled, and needs to do something.

Romantic love (of which there are several examples in the book) is not the only type of love explored. Other forms include mother love. Marina's mother, Danica, appears in the book in ghost form. We thought Rose was courageous (see next theme!) to throw in a ghost. Rose suggests that this very tough mother did love Marina (in her own way). We also discussed the fact that, while Marina probably got her spiritual/emotional side from her grandmother, Danica's harsh treatment likely gave her the discipline and endurance she needs for her art! (Is the pain of a harsh childhood worth the art though? An age-old question.) 

We discussed the open ending. What does it say about love versus art? Does it mean that love has triumphed over art? Or something more complex about the relationship between love and art? In the final paragraphs Levin, in choosing his love for Lydia, embraces uncertainty and 

his heart responded to the blank canvas.

Courage


Another theme is courage. It is also the subject of Part Six, which starts with the ee cummings epigraph: 

It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.

Many characters display courage, from Marina's doing what she does to Levin's having to make a decision, from those who choose to sit opposite Marina to others, like the warm-hearted Jane who doesn't sit but nonetheless makes her own decision at the end. 

We felt that Rose, the author, was also courageous in choosing to write about a living character, and that Marina was courageous in giving Rose unconditional permission to write about her. (We would expect nothing less of Marina though, having seen the documentary.) 

And the writing

We all enjoyed the writing, from the opening sentence:

He was not my first musician, Arky Levin. 

Not only is it attention-grabbing but it suggests an intriguing narrator, who turns out to be a sort of artist's muse, a "good spirit, whim ... House elf to the artists". Another courageous act on Rose's part, but it works. This narrator is not overdone, becoming less visible through the middle part of the novel, and reappearing near the end to guide us to the conclusion.

The main narrative is carried by the various characters - Arky Levin; the (loved-by-us-all) recently widowed Jane who comes to New York and is quickly captivated by Marina's performance; art critic Healayas; Dutch PhD student Brittika; and a host of others. Between them they tease out ideas about art and love, and they create a vivid picture of The artist is present and what it meant to those who were there. It clearly was something! We all wondered whether we'd have been brave enough to sit (as over 1500 people did, including Heather Rose) or just been one of the 850,000 spectators!

Such a beautiful book - to read and discuss. We all learnt something.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Pachinko: gripping Korean family saga


The book for this month: Pachinko, by Min Jee Lee was recommended by a member who unfortunately couldn't get to the group. The 6 members there all enjoyed it immensely. The story of a Korean family living in Japan, began in 1910 concluding in the 1970's. Initial comments said they could not put the book down, describing it as a superb epic covering the tragedy and heart breaks of Koreans who lived in Japan since the 1920's. The characters were engaging and very believable. It was told in clean simple prose, a lot of the action happened off camera. While it focussed on the resiliance and gutsiness of the characters it was not melodramatic.

Anne told the story of visiting Korea and visiting the demilitarised zone. South Korea has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. There is a lot of prejudice towards North Korea.

A couple of members had read the interview with Min Jee Lee: she was inspired to write the story by hearing a lecture of the story of the Korean diaspora in Japan, and specifically the story of a young Korean student who had suicided following his bullying by his Japanese peers.

The main character in the book is Sunja, a woman from a small village, not a great beauty, but hard working honest family woman. Hansu, the yakuza (Japanese gangster) is attracted to this classic Korean woman. We loved seeing Sunja negotiating with the pawnbroker to sell her watch, and repay the debt for Yoseb. She was tough and determined. Her marriage to Isak saves her, but results in her living in Japan.

There are a number of marriages in the story, and the women play a key role. Parent child relationships are key in this book too, with a lot of emphasis on education for the next generation. The sacrifice of the parents to build a future for their children, is a classic migrant tale. Some of these relationships are challenging, such as Etsuko and her wayward daughter Hana. The challenge of keeping families together grows as the young generation becomes more mobile.

The themes identified by Min Jee Lee are forgiveness, loss, desire, aspiration, failure, duty, faith. Forgiveness was one we could identify. Noa for instance was unable to forgive his mother that his biological father was Hansu. He wanted to be Japanese, to overcome his Korean heritage. However, he could not match his ideals with reality. He was imbued somewhat with the 19th century novels he studied at University. His reading tastes were similar to those identified by the author.

The notion of home was very important in the book. One of the two epigraphs was by Charles Dickens:
'Home is a name, a word, It is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit answered to, in strongest conjuration.'
Home often being a construct, especially for these people who cannot go back to their own country. A number of characters in the book had returned to North Korea, but were not heard off again; the worst was feared. The fate of immigrants is to try and create a home in an alien environment.

We wondered how the Japanese would see the book. In Japan the acknowledgement of Korean comfort women was very controversial, so acknowledgement of the poor treatment of Korean citizens would be unlikely. Citizen registration for 'Koreans' in Japan continued til 1993.

Title : Pachinko: life like the game, looked fixed, but really chance and it's stacked against you. It's interesting that gambling is technically illegal in Japan, but the Pachinko Parlours get around this by offering prizes which can be exchanged elsewhere for cash. Pachinko parlours and associated businesses are one of the few ways Koreans can get ahead. And most of the family end up working or being supported by this shady business. Kim collects rents for Hansu, who describes him as 'clean wrapper for a filthy deed.'

So there was a lot to like about this epic novel, leading us into a world very few of us knew about. It was a life project for its author Min Jee Lee who has crafted a very readable and thoughtful novel, based on her interviews, research and family experience. It has one of the best opening sentences we have come upon:
'History has failed us, but no matter.'
Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Our souls at night by Kent Haruf

Minerva members enjoyed this short American novel, Our souls at night. Many of us read it in one session. Haruf wrote this ‘homage to his wife’ as he was dying – one chapter a day.

The story is seemingly simple but actually concerns many issues pertinent to mature readers. It is also sweet and poignant. An elderly single man and single woman live next door to each other in a fictional town called Holt, Colorado. They are both lonely having lost their long-term partners. One day quite out of the blue Addie decides to change her loneliness for companionship by asking her neighbour Louis if he will spend the nights with her. It begins with friendship and slowly develops into a loving relationship. Along the way they change the life of Addie’s young grandson. However they live in a small town and gossip is their enemy. It ends in tears and secrecy.

A small domestic drama but most enjoyable seeing their friendship develop and how they are able to spread happiness around for at least a short time.

One member likened the tale to a fairy story with a dash of reality at the conclusion. The story is about dealing with pain as we all must and then just get on with life.

Louis and Addie are aware their relationship will cause problems but are not aware it seems that jealousy and backstabbing behavior is so rife in the personalities of their family and friends.  Narrow mindedness and malicious gossiping are still issues in the 21st century.

Addie Moore crumbles under the pressure of her son’s criticism and values. Her health also suffers and her vulnerability in body as well as mind is sad to see after being such a competent person. Her son is more concerned with his inheritance than her welfare. The son has seemingly good reasons for his behaviour but we were not convinced.

One member thought Addie and Louis were too kind to her grandson, a little bit schmaltzy but others disagreed. They were certainly very generous and kind in the amount of time they spent with him in comparison to his parents. It was just what he needed. He blossomed under the love and attention of the two devoted older people. Here Haruf is strongly criticizing the younger generation’s lack of parenting skills in a quite bold way. Haruf is also criticizing their concentration on money rather than the more simple pleasures of life, such as camping and working in the shed.

It is difficult to make such a poignant story out of simple pleasures but Haruf succeeds beautifully. One of the great strengths is the sentence construction. They are very simple and there are no qualifying clauses and phrases. A Minerva member loved the opening sentence – such a simple beginning but it conveys so much – ‘And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call to Louis Waters.’ It delivers the names of the characters and puts them in a setting immediately.  We did comment that Haruf has written numerous other books so he is an experienced writer with an obvious mastery for words and plot.  It could be likened in its straightforwardness to the Australian writer Elizabeth Jolley and the Englishman Ian McEwan.

Louis is a wonderful character who we all liked – one member would like one in her life !  We noticed that Louis is quite hesitant about Addie’s proposal at first – ‘what in the hell, he said’ (to himself). Addie discovers that she is not all dried up despite her mature years but can still have fun and enjoy life. And they give happy times to others such as the older neighbour as well as the child.

After the climax, the end of the sleeping arrangements, both Addie and Louis have regrets which is another reality check. They were fond of one another and of their arrangements as it gave them so much.  It is a novel in which so much is inferred – just enough to allow the reader’s imagination to take over.

The conclusion resulted in us discussing some of these topics such as sleeping arrangements and ourselves and others. As we age these ‘things’ matter more.

What a pity that Haruf didn’t live to know that he wrote a perfect little gem of a book.



Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Position doubtful by Kim Mahood


This month a select group of Minervans read the memoir, Position doubtful. We greatly enjoyed Kim’s writing. It has such fascinating and thoughtful passages on cross-cultural thinking.  We agreed that the general public’s acceptance of Australia’s Indigenous culture is taking a very long time.

We were reminded of a story by Mahood in 'The invisible thread' which …describes herself being in community and being responsible for providing assets/transport/facilities for others. Another book we thought of in relation to this memoir is Bill Gammage’s The biggest estate on Earth, how Aborigines made Australia.

Position doubtful is a combination of memoir, Aboriginal history, European history, Indigenous languages versus English, art of both cultures, geography of north western Australia  (WA and NT) and a story of her relationships with the people she grew up with.  It has many threads and it combines them with lyrical passages of description and philosophy.

Some of the themes discussed by Mahood and by us:
  • maps and landscapes, and interrelationships between the two
  • maps and different perspectives
  • maps and art - for instance with grids overlaying
  • maps and language – abstraction and metaphor  
  • horizon lines and perspectives – First nation people look at the horizon in art very differently from westerners (eg the paintings in the Canning Stock Route exhibition at the NMA some years ago and works from this region held at the NGA)
The mapping impulse was likely one of the drivers of human cultural evolution; and maps, the physical expression of that impulse, come to us freighted with the wonder of burgeoning human consciousness.’ (in chapter (Mapping common ground -- 63% in the kindle) 

(I have never thought about maps in this way—she is quite brilliant!)

As well as learning about these ‘map’ and ‘art’ matters we also learnt a lot about Mahood, herself.

Kim Mahood is very honest by stating her motivation for writing this book is to tell of her experiences working with the local people of the region where she grew up – near the Tanami Desert and the Aboriginal communities of Balgo and Mulan (East Kimberley).

Mahood is an artist in painting terms as well as a writer but can also play the subject occasionally. We discussed her slightly passive aggressive attitude to her friend Pam who ‘used’ Kim as the model in her arty photographs. She had to play a role in the desert as Violet, but she felt that she was a ‘female impersonator …  feminised self who has never existed’ (30%) or as a strange creature (eg covered in red mud). This is not Mahood’s persona at all – completely opposite actually. She much prefers the stockman’s role rather than the farmer’s wife and domesticity.

Mahood has been visiting this region for short sojourns (about 3 months) for over 20 years working, with the local people (especially the elders), offering help with their art or their lives in any way she can. (In her first celebrated book – Craft for a dry lake-- she describes the difficult return to her former home after about 20 years away.) The life up there is in strong contrast to the life we imagine she lives near Canberra as an artist, writer and teacher. Having grown up in this outback community she has certain rights that are advantageous for her work, such as deep knowledge of the culture and a depth in her relationships, including having a genuine skin name from her childhood.  Her skin name of Naparrula is precious for her and the locals. She acquired it as a baby: 'I belong to the skin group with traditional links to Tanami Downs.’ (Chapter Vertigo, 10% ). Such benefits help her navigate the politics of the community. Sometimes the community is very confronting even for a person who grew up nearby and knows the tensions and problems. She is understated in the book about these issues, but it is very clear that there are retribution and violence issues present frequently.

We discussed how Native Title has brought tensions with it, while everybody tries to work out the parameters of ownership. In this Mahood never labours the point. An ongoing issue one of our members mentioned is hearing impairment and the difficulties and problems for children. She has knowledge through her work of this ongoing health, educational and social issue in remote areas of Australia.

Mahood has the right to discuss the environment (in the social sense) because of her affinity with the local people but also because she told them she was writing this book and she actually read out bits of it to them. They obviously trust her and rely on her. (My conclusion is that we can rely on her being accurate in her writing.) We also realized that she is a strong woman – just driving that far by herself in worn out vehicles is testament to that. She is not a pushover in regard to the local larrikins and what they expect of her.

She writes of a visit to Sturt Creek . She initially thinks only a few people will travel with her and it ends up being a huge number. However she copes.

Mahood also talks a lot about tragedies and sadnesses. She mentions the massacre and many deaths of the local people she knows well. She was particularly close to many of the older women and is distressed by the deaths of these friends. Many of these women she knew as a child and she has a deep affection for them. She describes them and their families with great sensitivity, explaining that many of these women are elders in the community and take responsibility for passing on culture and language to the young ones. These women are also the strong ones in the community with a fierce determination to improve lives. White culture needs to own up to the truth of these stories of massacre and violence.

However Mahood does not dwell on these matters for too long but regards them unsentimentally.

We also discussed briefly how Mahood introduces archeology to some of the local people by telling them about the scientific work done by archeologists such as Jim Bowler. She invites him to visit Mulan and ‘to travel gathering and recording both scientific and traditional information’. (31%) Mahood is farsighted in bringing the two views together. Bowler had done some exploring in the seventies in this region so was aware of the possibilities. (See also chapter Dotting the grid, 67%).
 
We also discussed the differences she observes with the properties now being managed by Aboriginal groups in comparison with the old days of white pastoralists.  Her former home is one such place. It is now called Tanami Downs not ‘Mongrel station’. Managing the country depends so much on personal qualities and skills.

We also discussed the irony of the title – it relates to how white people feel in that remote part of Australia, as well as how many of the local inhabitants feel, and as a position on a map. (Its literal geographic meaning is mentioned in her first book in a more mundane way.)

Another comment made was that Mahood experiences landscape at a physiological level. Place can enter one’s psyche. How do we relate to place? Some people love the desert and others love the sea. Do we as white Australians have the right to love a place where other people live and have always lived? We don’t have Indigenous values or the same relationship with the land but many of us love it. Do we have the right to express this?

One white artist who loves this land is Mandy Martin. ‘Martin has built an artistic oeuvre on painting the Australian landscape, depicting it in Romantic Sublime style as a threatened space and an aesthetic resource.’ (Chapter Mapping common ground, 78%)    

Her writing is superb and thought provoking – eg ‘the names have found their way to you along a whispered thread of folklore’ (Chapter 1,The remembered earth, 1% ). Her thinking about place and landscape is very thoughtful, for instance:


I wonder sometimes if the time I’ve spent in the desert has compromised my access to the deep psychology of my own culture – replaced the collective unconscious with the shadowy glimpses of a place-based collective conscious, and sentenced me to wander in the borderlands between Jung and geography. 

(It is a book to be studied in great depth.)

One small objection we all had whether we read it in paperback form or on the kindle was that the illustrations are terrible. You just cannot see the details of the maps or the photographs. This was a great pity for a book which talks so much about place and maps.

I would also like to recommend an interviewwith the historian Darrell Lewis where he talks about the travels of Leichhardt in the far corner of Western Australia. I found this fascinating.


Thursday, 1 June 2017

Ian McEwan's Nutshell

Ian McEwan's latest novel Nutshell, which is a riff on Hamlet complete with a foetus-narrator, provided Minervans with a lot to think about. While it was (almost) universally loved, we didn't necessarily come to a lot of consensus about what it was all about, or why McEwan did what he did, but we did enjoy discussing it.

The plot briefly. The novel commences with:
So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting, waiting and wondering who I'm in, what I'm in for.
The Hamlet motif reveals itself early as he (our foetus that is) starts to realise that "a vile enterprise" is being conspired by his mother and her lover Claude, and when also in the first chapter, our foetus starts to ponder on his existence - "to be" he wonders. What does this "being" mean for him? From this point the plot of this murder-mystery novel develops - with the first half focused on "will they do it?" and the second half on "will they get away with it?" - while at the same time our foetus ponders questions about life in general and the world he is soon to be born into.

The things we enjoyed

We found it clever, twisty, exciting, and thought the language was brilliant. We like McEwan's compact, tight writing. We agree that McEwan is great at openings, and that this book's opening sentence was yet another such opening. We loved McEwan's wordsmithery. It was very funny at times, such as the foetus' attempted suicide by squeezing the cord around his neck, not realising that as he lost consciousness he would let go.

We enjoyed it as a retelling of Hamlet, including the names Trudy (Gertrude), Claude (Claudius), and the ghost appearing.

We found the precocious foetus-narrator fun to read. Even those who were originally sceptical about the idea found themselves drawn in, while others felt it was McEwan playing with that question we all have about what DO foetuses experience of the outside world. We liked that he was not as easily taken in by, say Elodie, his father's possible lover, as Trudy and Claude were. And we laughed at his learning about the world through Radio 4, at how he'd give his mother a kick in the night to encourage insomnia and the turning on of the radio.

We liked that Trudy finally saw Claude for what he was. We thought Claude was a well-drawn character. He's cliche-ridden, dull, a man who

whistles continually, not songs, but TV jingles, ringtones, who brightens a morning with Nokia's mockery of Tárrega [...] Not everyone knows what it is to have your father's rival's penis inches from your nose. But at this late stage they should be refraining on my behalf. Courtesy, if not clinical judgement, demands it.

We wondered why the house in which Trudy and Claude lived was so squalid, but one member suggested it reflects their characters or personalities.

We enjoyed the "Inspector Columbo" or "Vera" style detective who lulled them into thinking she was on their side, before dropping her real ideas.

A member commented on enjoying the pithy statements/questions at the end of every chapter. In other hands, this would signal a potboiler but it worked - it was part of McEwan's game, in a way.

What is it about?

It's a small, but complex book, and we spent quite a bit of time discussing its meaning. Why did McEwan write it, we wondered? One member, in fact, said that when she got to the end, she wondered what it was all about, and then decided she didn't care because "it was fabulous".

It contains much philosophical discussion, another said, about the Enlightenment and the end of rationalism, about the undermining of a scientific understanding of, or approach to, the world.

Other ideas we had about its themes included:
  • the political challenges of the modern world: breakdown of both socialist and capitalist nations; the problem of climate change; the increasing loss of liberty in the face of security; the nuclear threat. Many of these are ongoing McEwan concerns.
  • a discussion of innocence. Our foetus-narrator sees himself as innocent but fears being implicated in a plot he can't avoid. 
  • exploration of acting in anger/haste. Trudy seems to regret pretty immediately, what she's done.
  • the idea that murdering the poet-father represents a triumph of materialism over things of the spirit.
One member liked the following quote, and suggested it links to Hamlet's considerations about life/existence:

It's already clear to me how much of life is forgotten, even as it happens. Most of it. The unregarded present spooling away from us, the soft tumble of unremarkable thoughts, the long-neglected miracle of existence. When she's no longer twenty-eight and pregnant and beautiful, or even free, she won't remember the way she set down the spoon and the sound it made on the slate, the frock she wore today, the touch of her sandal's thong between her toes, the summer's warmth, the white noise of the city beyond the house walls, a short burst of birdsong by a closed window. All gone, already.

Some reservations

One member in particular had some reservations. She became annoyed by voice of foetus, finding him too smart-alecky, particularly with all his wine-talk. She agreed that McEwan is a good story-teller but felt the book became a bit strained in the second half.

Why choose a foetus as a narrator?

This question challenged us quite a bit. Our answers included, that:
  • we are all interested in what foetuses in the womb experience of the outside world and this is McEwan's imaginative exploration of that.
  • it enabled McEwan to have an innocent narrator, "a blank slate", who was able to comment on the state of the world.
  • the disregard shown for the foetus, by both his mother, uncle and father in their behaviour and planning, is ironic - a child is at the centre of the book but the people most responsible for the child aren't child-centred. Does this also reflect our current world's treatment of children? 
  • it presents the idea that the child represents the future, a future that the others don't seem to be interested in, suggesting that society is not responding to the new world.
  • it is an ironic reflection on Hamlet's inaction - our foetal-Hamlet is physically restrained so can't act his mind.
  • it enables the foetus to explore that question of whether we should bring a child into the modern world. (Our foetus says "yes")
We also discussed the reliability of the foetus as a narrator. Is McEwan playing with the idea of an unreliable narrator. Is he unreliable?

Overall, a good read, a good bookgroup book, which provided an entertaining and engaging night's discussion.