Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Gerald Murnane's The plains

Courtesy: Text Publishing
Gerald Murnane's The plains was a fascinating novel for we Minervans to finish our reading year on. It was our third Text Classics book of the year, though we enjoyed looking at the wide range of editions the members who attended the meeting had read.

I use "fascinating" somewhat loosely because most of us found it a challenging read, with some of us enjoying it more than others. One member said that she felt she wasn't getting anywhere, like she "was wading through treacle"! Another said it was "mercifully short"! One member had read several reviews but found they did not really explain the book any more to her. We agreed that that's probably because it's an elusive book and one that's not easy to explain ... which may in fact be part of Murnane's intention.

So, I won't really try to explain it except to say that it's told first person by a narrator who, at the beginning, is a young man who travels to the plains with the intention of making a film about them and the plainspeople. The plains are not defined in specific detail other than being, perhaps, Other Australia. (They are probably inspired, though, by the plains of northwest Victoria). The rest of the novel (novella?) comprises this character's discussions, meditations, ruminations on life among the plains people, mostly from the home of the landowner who has become his patron. The novel starts:
Twenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains, I kept my eyes open. I looked for anything in the landscape that seemed to hint at some elaborate meaning behind appearances.
Our discussion started with one member suggesting that the novel felt a bit like academic life. She elaborated by saying that it's about a group of people beavering away in their own arbitrarily defined worlds with their own set of assumptions. These people pursue their ideas in their own way, and follow and follow and follow those ideas, not worrying if along the way the ideas they are pursuing become disconnected from life. The obscure wars between Horizonites and Haremen seemed also to fit in with this idea. How many obscure academic disputes - wars even - have happened over the centuries?

One member in particular found it a frustrating read and was infuriated by the secondary role women play in the novel, stating that this dated the novel. She also felt that its focus on wealthy landowners dated it. Others argued that it's a timeless, mythical sort of book and that therefore these things that might bother them in a realistic novel did not bother them here.

What made the book hardest to read, we felt, is the fact that it has no real characterisation or plot, making it quite an alternative sort of literature. This reminded us of Samuel Beckett - and one reader said that her introduction by the American poet, Zawacki, noted that Murnane is closest to writers like Proust, Beckett, and Kafka. The scene in the pub where the artists are waiting to be called into their interviews with the landowners was somewhat reminiscent, a member said, of the characters waiting for the trial in Kafka.

We talked about the beauty of the sentences. Many were long, and some were hard to grasp, but they were generally beautifully formed and lovely to read. It was suggested that you could take almost any sentence and have a philosophical discussion about it. Some felt the first part of the three-part book was the easiest to read and comprehend, while others found the last two parts more readable. Some of us found the book funny, and at times satiric or ironic. It seems often to deal in paradoxes. We wondered whether Murnane is also a poet, as the writing feels a bit like poetry, particularly in the abstract way it explores ideas.

We discussed the idea that our reaction to this book says perhaps more about us as readers than about the book - an interesting idea to contemplate because perhaps, more than most books we've read, this book made us think about the reading process and what we like and don't like, what we look for. We learnt a little more about each other as readers as a result!

As to what the book is about, we threw up many ideas, such as:
  • Time, and how we understand time.
  • Possibilities and not wanting to achieve them or pin them down but rather to always have them ahead, undefined and unresolved. 
  • The idea of secret lives happening, of culture going on elsewhere that we know nothing about.
  • History and the desire to make sense of records from the past that might in fact be quite arbitrary.
Another issue we explored was whether we might be able to draw any conclusions from when it was written. It was published in 1982, the Fraser era, a pre-modern (our current modern anyhow!) Australia when, although we were highly urbanised, we still had a sense of being defined by the bush, by the interior. One member saw shades of Patrick White's Voss in the sense of looking inwards, though said they are very different books. Another said it felt a little like Cormac McCarthy's Blood meridian and the mythic sense he conveys with larger than life characters, though again said they are very different books.

Finally we discussed the fact that the narrator plans to make a film - though he never does. We considered Australian films like The proposition and The tracker (in which the characters aren't named). These films focus somewhat on how we deal with landscape, with place. We wondered whether Murnane is creating in this novel a filmic view of ourselves, a chimera perhaps? There's a sense of exploring the nexus between illusion and reality and not being sure, or not wanting to define, where one ends and the other begins. Without giving anything away, the novel closes on an image of the narrator with his "eye pressed against the lens" of his camera. One member thought was a perfect image - in and, perhaps, for the book.

Please, Minervans, add your comments below because this was a hard discussion to write up!

Monday, 5 November 2012

The street sweeper by Elliot Perlman

This month everybody who read this book liked (or loved) it and those still reading wanted to finish it. However, the contrived nature of the story spoilt it for some people.

This novel shows the importance of history and telling stories -- 'tell everyone what happened here ' is the main refrain through the story.  Dr Adam Zignelik, one of the main characters gives a lecture to his students at Columbia University early in the novel which is pivotal to the story. The lecture's topic is 'What is History ?'  Is something told to you, true or false and how much information do you need to know to be able to tell the difference ? We envied those students ! Can we use history to predict the future ?

The refrain is about the holocaust and what happened to the millions of Jews in the Nazi death camps during the Second World War. It is truly shocking in the graphic scenes !

The story of a death camp is told by a survivor, Henryk Mandelbrot, who was forced to work for the Nazis in the Sonderkommando. This factual 'tale' is told to poor Lamont Williams, the street sweeper and ex-con and 'innocent' main character. At the same time there is the fascinating and factual life of Dr Border (David Boder in real life), another University professor, who visited the death camps and concentration camps just after the War, capturing the stories of the survivors. Concurrently we hear about Adam Zignelik's life, an Australian/American intellectual, experiencing his own problems and getting involved with Dr Border's research.

It was felt that the characters were totally real and we loved Lamont -- he was such a battler. We also loved the scene where Lamont's cousin's daughter, Sonia is accused by her Mum, Michelle of saying the  'n' word.  Charlie, Michelle's husband is studying 'reconstruction' -- in other words, post civil war reconstruction (late 19th century) -- which was crucial in leading to the Civil Rights movement. He was an academic caught up in research and had little family life or even time for his friends, such as Adam. Was Adam clinically depressed ? Or was he just a wimp about his life with Diana, fathering a child and his career prospects ?

This novel is a great mixture of the real with the imagined 'history' and this lead to a discussion on history and imagination and how Kate Grenville was controversial in her depiction of early Sydney and the lives of the convicts. Likewise 'appropriation' could also be considered an issue in this novel -- we didn't really answer this -- Kate Grenville for instance, didn't tell her story from the Indigenous view point.  'The Street Sweeper' is such an amazing combination of stories about Jewish people and factual world history interwoven with the exploits of African Americans, real and fictional,  in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The resistance movement in the concentration camp surprised and horrified us, particularly for Rosa.  The Jewish Union officials were true to type -- their love of chicken soup was a slightly comic scene in amongst the seriousness.

Perlman's message is about every action having a consequence and life is about making ethical choices and how we must take small steps --realising that there are many dimensions to a problem.  Perlman engages us in narrating these stories -- third person narration most often with a melancholic tone throughout. A complex book which was apparently panned by 'The Guardian'. In our opinion it was a great novel -- certainly the best for the year so far.


Monday, 22 October 2012

Some books to consider for 2013

Potential Stella Prize contenders

The following books have been suggested by novelist Chris Flynn as possibilities for the (inaugural) 2012 Stella Prize:

  • Carrie Tiffany, Mateship with Birds
  • Deborah Robertson, Sweet Old World
  • Paddy O’Reilly, The Fine Colour of Rust
  • Susan Johnson, My Hundred Lovers
  • Josephine Rowe, Tarcutta Wake
  • Toni Jordan, Nine Days
  • Chloe Hooper, The Engagement
  • Michele DeKretser, Questions of Travel
  • Drusilla Modjeska, The Mountain
  • Romy Ash, Floundering

I've only read a couple of these so far (the Toni Jordan and Deborah Robertson), but they are probably all worth considering.

Canberra region books

We've talked about having a bit of a focus on Canberra next year given the centenary. Here are some ideas for that too:

  • Irma Gold (ed), The Invisible Thread (an anthology of works by writers with a Canberra association)
  • Alan Gould, The Seaglass Spiral
  • Anita Heiss, Paris Dreaming (indigenous chicklit, deals with Aboriginal art and set in Canberra and Paris)
  • Frank Moorhouse, Cold light (the third in his Edith trilogy and set in the Canberra public service)
  • Kel Robertson, Smoke and mirrors (a crime book, and the book voted to represent Canberra in this year's National Year of Reading)

And of course

Hilary Mantel, Bring up the bodies (sequel to Wolf Hall and this year's Booker winner)

If you have other ideas, let me know in the comments and I'll add them to this post. We'll be discussing our schedule at our November meeting.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

A difficult young man, by Martin Boyd

Courtesy Sydney University Press
It was a rather unruly discussion when Minervans met this month to discuss the Australian classic, A difficult young man by Martin Boyd. A difficult young man is the second of what is now known as the Langton tetralogy and has an autobiographical element but, as the narrator tells us:
... the reader must take certain wild statements as intended for fun, though they contain an element of truth too subtle to be confined within the limits of accurate definition. One can make exact statements of fact, but not of truth, which is why the scientist is forever inferior to the artist.
Ha, there's a lot packed in there but the main point is that the book contains, we thought, a lot of truths about the Boyd family while the facts of their lives diverge.

Our discussion started with two members talking about their close encounters with the Boyds. One member's father knew Arthur Boyd, Martin's nephew, and could have had a Boyd portrait of her father in the family if only her father had foreseen the future! The other member lived near the Boyds in Melbourne. She was friendly with Martin Boyd's great niece and visited their home. How many degrees of separation do the rest of us get from these!

Most finished the book, and most liked it, but a couple found the style hard-going. We discussed the long rambling sentences and suggested that in some ways the style is "old-fashioned". Yet, many of us also felt the self-analytical, self-deprecating tone had a modern feel. One member liked the fact that the characters felt like real rather than fictional people - they'd come and go in the story like real people she said. Another member felt that the wit, irony and satire reminded her of Jane Austen, even though his narrative voice (first person) and plot (more family saga than romance) are not at all like Austen. Several members spoke of the great descriptions in the novel, such as this description of a young woman:
She spoiled her appearance by a peevish manner, and her exquisite fragility had little correspondence with her inner nature, which was as hard as the enamel on a snuff box.
We liked the satire and Boyd's astute observations about people.

The plot focuses on the eldest brother (well, promoted to eldest after the tragic death of his older brother), Dominic, and is about Guy's attempts to understand him. We felt that while the story is ostensibly about Dominic (loosely based on Merric Boyd), the novel is in many ways about Guy himself. Guy describes a well-to-do family, pre-world war 1, in which paid employment has not been the expected thing. The result is some level of class snobbery, but one borne of their family circumstances than of any active desire to denigrate others. In fact, the family finds itself at the wrong end of snobbery when they spend time in England where they are seen rather as New World upstarts. It was suggested that these books would make a great miniseries, à la Downton Abbey or The Forsyte Saga.

While we didn't spend a lot of time discussing theme (or what the book is about), we did discuss it a little. We felt that one theme was to explain why his family was the way it was. Other themes we noticed included promoting a humane way of viewing the world (one that abhors cruelty like war), and the value of living a creative life. The Boyds have certainly emulated the latter through several generations now. There is also, in the book, a sense of the end of an era - particularly for the leisured class - something that the father, Steven in the book, sees coming but which they are not necessarily well prepared for.

There was much more discussed and quotes shared but the conversation was so animated that I didn't manage to capture anywhere near all the points raised and talked about - so I hope members whose points have not been properly represented here will add them in the comments!

Near the end of the discussion, one member bemoaned the fact that she hadn't heard of this novel before and wondered why, suggesting that Martin Boyd had been overlooked by the Australian literary establishment because of his "English-ness". Others weren't so sure of her thesis, particularly those who had heard of Boyd and his novels. There are so many novels out there, it's not surprising we haven't all heard of them all, even the significant ones! We appreciate the work of publishers like Text bringing these books to the fore again.

And now I will close on a mundane point. Two members read the book in e-versions (one on a Kindle and one using the Book-ish service). Both complained that their books were presented with a skewed chronology: their books went something like chs. 1, 2, 3, 9, 5, 6, 7 ... to the "real" last chapter, followed by ch. 4. How disconcerting. These were not free versions ... seems like rather sloppy quality control to us!

Monday, 3 September 2012

Stasiland by Anna Funder

In the happy and relaxed environment of Janet's lounge recently we discussed the tortuous, weird and scary world of East Germany during the rule by the Stasi, 1949 - 1989, (the secret police of the Communist state).  Overall assessment of the book was admiration for Anna Funder's writing style and also for her ability to honour the stories told to her without introducing her own agenda. Honesty and seediness is present -- it is left to the reader to draw her own conclusions.

It was noticed that most victims were women and mostly men were the perpetrators and Anna Funder managed to interview both, being sensitive and patient and tolerant no matter what was told to her. Truth was stranger than fiction in this time in Germany. The structure of the book is well thought out -- with a mix of victims and 'firm' recruits/employees stories being told. We even hear about how people were recruited and how one independent woman blew her cover at her factory -- if only more had been as brave and intelligent as her ! However not all were treated so kindly.

Some stories stand out, such as Miriam's, which begins and ends the book. 'She could have been responsible for the outbreak of civil war' (page 29) and yet she is willing to tell Anna about her involvement with the Stasi including having to make up stories in order to survive.  There are the people who like to have an authoritarian ruler so they don't have to think and just do their job, it made them feel safe and everyone knew their place eg Hagen Koch.  However even for him the resentment grew and he was able to grab some evidence of the craziness.

We felt amazement that people still could get on with their lives despite the conditions and the lack of information they had to cope with. The story of Julia and her Italian boyfriend is sad in lots of ways and the devastating effect on her, so she couldn't relate to men or authority or commitment later in life. The story of brave Frau Paul and her son removed to West Germany as a tiny baby only to be reunited a long time later with his parents. Frau Paul is keen to tell Anna the story so writes it down for her calling it 'The wall went straight through my heart'. How poignant ! Anna was a very empathetic listener.

 This book is a great read, oral history with great substance.  

Friday, 3 August 2012

Fergus Hume's The mystery of a hansom cab

Six of us gathered to discuss this 19th century Australian detective novel and unanimously enjoyed it. It was surprising to some of us that we had not read it before as we found it such a good read with quite a modern tone in some ways. It was mentioned that this had been the best selling detective novel of Victorian times, outselling even Conan Doyle.

A striking feature of the book is the lively evocation of Melbourne of the 1880s, where the author lived for some years. It details the landmarks, streetscapes, society both high and low, and particularly the low-life of Little Bourke Street full of vivid characters showing more than a nod to Dickens. We loved the many references to the culture of the times, for example the responses to the piano pieces being played by the young ladies, the books they are reading and what is on at the opera. There were many quotes from literature, and we thought the author was enjoying showing off with this literary name dropping. We enjoyed the book's sly humour, for example the character Felix and his new wife who is determined that she will get him into parliament, and references to the English attempting to adapt to the Australian climate.

It was mentioned that the author had set out to write a popular novel, modelling the book on those of Émile Gaboriau who was very popular at the time. We felt that is was much more than just a formulaic novel though. As a crime novel or "whodunnit" we thought it was quite complex and interesting, the plot having many twists and turns with gradual revelation of more clues and an unexpected ending. We noted that there was no single detective taking us through the solution but competition between the detectives involved who each took us in a different direction, as well as Calton the "lawyer as detective". We felt that it succeeded well as a melodrama with tongue firmly in cheek, having plenty of fainting girls, Dantesque slums, noble self sacrifice, sinister dark nights and such. As "literature" we had to acknowledge some failings though, many characters being rather stereotypical, some "clunkiness" as well as some plot points being laboured.

We felt that it was the humour that gave the book a light and relatively modern tone, as well as the point of view which moved from character to character throughout the book. The attitudes of the author, while inevitably being very Victorian, seemed relatively modern and liberal for his times we thought. For example his heroine was much more feisty than those of Dickens, having a "steely determination" and the female characters were no mere victims. Another character goes to live with a "Chinaman" who treats her much better than her earlier lovers. This reminded us that Australia always has been a mixture of cultures. As well as English, Irish and Chinese there is also mention of "street arabs" in 1880s Melbourne. While the people of the slums are depicted as lesser people there is some acknowledgement that they are human and disadvantaged. We noted evidence of Victorian morality, for example many Biblical references. Another comment was on the importance and fragility of social position as revealed in this novel, where one dark secret can undo you, and the layers of society and the importance of knowing where you fit in, but how all the same there was a fluidity in the society of the new world of Melbourne.

A main theme of the novel is the role of Fate in human affairs; to what extent people (both men and women) are puppets of fate or master of their destinies. Chapter 30 "Nemesis" begins: "Men according to the old Greek "are the sport of the gods""

Finally we noted that in this pre-ANZAC society there is already a consciousness of being Australians as well as British, and we loved these predictions:

In spite of the dismal prognostications of Marcus Clarke regarding the future Australian, whom he describes as being "a tall, coarse, strong-jawed, greedy, pushing, talented man, excelling in swimming and horsemanship," it is more likely that he will be a cultured, indolent individual with an intense appreciation of the arts and sciences, and a dislike to hard work and utilitarian principles. Climatic influence should be taken into account with regard to the future Australian, and our posterity will no more resemble us than the luxurious Venetians resembled their hardy forefathers, who first started to build on those lonely sandy islands of the Adriatic.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Orhan Pamuk's The museum of innocence

This book was a challenge to us --  the realm of the book is large and the details provided are minute. This passionate love story is set in Pamuk's beloved Istanbul and the city's history and streets are described in some detail and it is really more than just background in the novel. The way people from different social classes interacted and lived was also important and impacted upon the story. Maybe it was a story of 3 loves? (Kemal and Fusan and Istanbul?)

The general feeling was that the book was enthralling on a certain level but needed a good edit. However it did engage with us. Those of us who hadn't finished the 700 pages probably will not bother to finish however now we know the denouement and the details to be overcome. One reader was adamant that the sentence that summed up her feeling about the book was : 'it was like being caught in a suffocating dream...' (page 576 in the Faber edition). He was actually describing his feeling of watching Hitchcock's 'Rear Window' on television with the Keskin family.     

We couldn't believe that the author was so obsessed himself to create an actual museum in Istanbul -- not just virtual but a reality -- how weird and obsessed! Was the reality which opened in April 2012 a way of capturing the Turkey of Pamuk's youth? 

The characters were not generally liked -- we thought Kemal was a spoilt wimp and even glib and superficial (and even a bastard) and Fusan wasn't really fleshed out sufficiently. Why did she suddenly assert herself after 8 long years of being the housewife?  We felt we didn't see enough of her side of the story. The character most admired was Sibel as she was the mature woman even though her life was badly affected by Kemal. We were pleased that she ended up well.           

The engagement party was a pivotal moment in the story. Up to that point the pace was good, after that we felt that the story slowed down and became more introspective just like Kemal himself. 

Despite the difficulties with this book we did agree that it was beautifully written and was a real page turner. His writing is very heavily influenced by European writers such as Proust and Flaubert among others. Also Nabakov's Lolita was mentioned as a parallel? And maybe the nostalgia and melancholy felt by Kemal and Pamuk were directly linked to these writers and their take on the world?  

What was it really about ? Was it just obsession or was there more?  Was it highlighting the changes being made in Turkey in the last quarter of the 20th century from a relatively poor country to one trying to become more Westernised and improve the economy for all of its population? Was it tracking the mood of melancholy as it lost some of the old ways and its acceptance of all things European? This was evidenced by one of the few mildly amusing features when Kemal is talking about the housewives buying the latest gadgets for their kitchens but not knowing how to use them properly. Or the little china dogs etc which were made and sold universally. Also the love of Paris in particular for all the rich girls.

 We also commented on the secular state established after the First World War and the admiration in the West for these changes. Pamuk artfully conveyed the feeling of the ordinary people (as shown by Fusan's Mum and Dad) that Turkey is neither West nor East but a mixture and will always be at the crossroads. The amount of traffic increased on the Bosphorus from the cold war days when 'Soviet ships passed through the Bosphorus at night and the American submarines plied the Marmara'. (pg 547) to big oil tankers etc in the latter part of the story, no detail is neglected.   The rise of the Turkish cinema was another interesting side issue. The sitting around the television endlessly reminded us of old fashioned English TV shows such as Til death us do part.      

It is an extremely complex book and we would probably benefit from a reread but there is no way any of us are going to bother! It was fascinating to see that Turkish readers generally gave him excellent reviews but Westerners were less keen. The original could be better than the translation? It does happen. 
 We suggest that we draw a line under Pamuk for quite a few years -- we have had enough!  

Friday, 8 June 2012

Susan Johnson's Life in seven mistakes

Written by Sylvia ...

Only a few people in our group had read Susan Johnson's Life in 7 mistakes so it was a limited conversation with quite a few questions more than answers. Such as, what was the title about? What are the 7 mistakes?  Why is it considered 'ironic'? Is Bob a believable character or just over the top? Is it just middle-age chick lit? What are the titles of the chapters relating to? Was the love between Bob and Nancy the only model? Was it all about Bob?  

However the book was reasonably enjoyed by the majority although one reader felt it was puerile and irritating. I liked the feeling of being unable to talk about matters of importance. This was something that rang true for me. It was also a quick read. 

The balance of the present day -- a Christmas vacation (or stressful period with the oldies) for the adult children and their families at the penthouse apartment of their elderly parents in Surfer's Paradise -- is compared chapter by chapter with the story of the marriage of Bob and Nancy and the early lives of their 3 children. The parents are Australians of the 1960s with many conservative attitudes. They have limited education and limited expectations for their children's lives. Business and self control are the dominant features of their lives. Although Nancy would like to sing in musicals, even this activity is strictly curtailed by Bob. Johnson draws a Bob who is a raw Australian -- a man with little tolerance and no empathy. For instance, it was only when the children were seen as part of his background for an American boss to appreciate that he realised that they were his and he would be forever their father. He had loved them when they were really young but something changed as they became individuals. I think he is quite believable, very similar to many men of my father's generation.  

When 2 of the 3 children don't live up to these expectations, the parents find it impossible to understand and behave accordingly. The present day story is told through Elizabeth, the eldest child (now 49),  who often feels that she reverts to being a child the moment she enters her parent's environment. They even call her by her childish nickname, Lizzybub!!! There is little love between Elizabeth and her parents and no overt displays of affection, and that is one of the few character developments that occurs towards the end of the holiday and the story. Also her marriage seems to enter a better phase as her third husband rallies around when he sees her so unhappy about her father's serious illness. 

The group liked the descriptions of Bob and Nancy's life in Cooma and the work on the Snowy Mountains, and the holiday in a caravan at Lake Eucumbene.  We also liked the symbolism of the Great Dividing Range with Bob at the top and the prisoner son, Nick, at the bottom. 

It is not great literature but it does relate to the condition of many Australian families -- trying to cope with different generations and different beliefs and life experiences. This book has a hopeful ending so life does look more positive and more loving for some of the characters.



Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Schedule for the second half of 2012

The schedule for the second half of 2012 has been added to the Current Schedule (2012) section in the sidebar.

Note that three of the books - A difficult young man, The mystery of a Hansom Cab and The Plains - have recently been published in the new Text Classics series. They have new introductions and are only $12.95 each. If you are a Friend of the NLA you get a discount - and the NLA Bookshop is carrying the full range. These classics are also available as eBooks. Let's support Aussie classics!

We agreed that we would do Hilary Mantel's Bring up the bodies next year, when it is in paperback, and that we would consider Frank Moorhouse's epic Cold light for our summer read.

We hope those who weren't present approve. You missed a great dinner to farewell Susan, too!

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Miles Franklin Award 2012 shortlist

Posting the shortlist for this year's Miles Franklin award just in case it might provide more options for our schedule deliberations:

  • Tony Birch's Blood
  • Anna Funder's All that I am
  • Gillian Mears' Foal's bread
  • Frank Moorhouse's Cold light
  • Favel Parrett's Past the shallows
Click on this link for a page linking to a description of the books and the judges' comments.

We've read one already - woo too. Go us! And at least one of us has read Anna Funder I believe.

Do any strike your fancy for us?

Text Australian Classics

This month, Text Publishing has published a collection of 30 Australian classics.

You can check them out by clicking this link. The collection is the brainchild of Text's Pubisher, Michael Heyward, who has said, among other things, that
... it takes just a generation or two, sometimes less, for us to lose the plot . We put our books and writers on the high shelf of the past, where we forget about them. Imagine if our art galleries decided to banish the works of Brett Whiteley or Fred Williams to their darkened basements for a decade or two. That’s what we routinely do to so many significant writers whose books are out of print.
Hmmm ... hadn't thought of it this way, but he has a point.

Anyhow, these new editions all have new introductions, lovely bright yellow coloured covers, and are all on sale for, I think, $12.95 each. A steal, really! The National Library Bookshop has them - and hopefully other shops around town too.

You know where this is leading ... I'm thinking we might like to choose one or two for our second half of 2012 schedule, that we will be deciding at our May meeting.

So, have a look at the link above and see if any grab your attention ... and let us know what you think.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending

For its size, this short novel provoked a surprisingly wide variety of strong responses from the seven of us who met to discuss it. While a couple really enjoyed it, quite a few of us found it either mundane, over intellectual or downright annoying, with one of us wanting to dropkick the characters off the page! We were nearly all startled by the book's ending where we were left wondering what the heck had actually happened. For some this was further annoyance while others had enjoyed rereading from the beginning looking for the clues.

The feeling that we must have all read different books made more sense as we discussed the novel further. One of the main themes is foreshadowed even before we first meet Tony as a schoolboy along with the intellectually precocious Adrian who joins his group of friends. Our narratives about ourselves and our lives change with each telling so that our memories become a construct. This makes Tony an unreliable narrator and he has forgotten and omits crucially important things from the story, such as a viciously cruel letter he wrote to Adrian not long before his suicide. Was his university girlfriend Veronica really the heartless snob he remembered, or an insecure, inhibited girl, undermined by her own mother, who had relaxed enough with him one evening to be able to dance for the first time in her life? No wonder we were confused.

We found much to admire. The novel is beautifully plotted, compactly and cleverly written so that every idea expressed is there for a purpose, even the poem about barn owls and mention of the theme from "A man and a woman". It was noted that the author is skilled at "bringing together threads using small moments". The book is full of pithily worded  and profound ideas and we enjoyed reading out several memorable quotes which I can't reproduce here as my copy had to go back to the Library. Schooldays and the pretentions and insouciance of youth were beautifully evoked, some of the later reflections on ageing all too recognisably true. We noted that Julian Barnes is about our age and thought this helped us to relate to Tony. We wondered how much wiser Tony really was at the end of the book.

We tried to work out exactly what had happened and why. Why had Veronica's mother wanted to will Adrian's diary to Tony? Why did she even have his diary? Why did Adrian kill himself? Some of us felt that no matter how carefully we reread the book we might never be sure. Adrian had remarked with typical precosity “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”  By the end of the book it seems that Tony's memories are seriously flawed, maybe even the opposite of the truth, and we never get to see Adrian's diary (except for a tantalising fragment) to evaluate its adequacy as documentation. But what exactly was the "history" here? Or is that the point? You could easily talk about this book all night.

 "Instead of telling Tony that he'd never "get it", why couldn't Veronica just explain!" was the exasperated exclamation as we moved on to our well-earned and delicious supper.

I got too involved to take proper notes, but this is my (naturally unreliable) memory of the discussion. Please add corrections or whole important points that I've omitted etc.

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Izzeldin Abuelaish's I shall not hate

Written by Sylvia ...

'I shall not hate' takes the reader on a journey through the life of Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish. He is a Palestinian fertility specialist who has always believed that Palestinians and Israelis have many similarities and they have to live peacefully together. For instance he says that they are both forthright and emotional people who love talking.

This book talks about the author's childhood in a Palestinian refugee camp and his experiences studying and working in foreign countries.  The central core is the description of the tragic deaths of his wife from cancer and his three elder daughters from an Israeli bomb, all of which happened in 2008 and 2009.  Dr Abuelaish relates the death details right in the beginning of the book so the reader is aware of the situation in which he is writing and feeling. We did not find that this diminished our interest in completing the book however as we all felt that it was compelling reading. The repetition could be explained through Dr Abuelaish's training as a scientist or he may have felt it was necessary from a cultural perspective.  

The section in the book describing his hardships of working to support his family and study very hard was really powerfully written and without indulging in sentimentality. The oppression of the Palestinians by the Israeli state is very hard for Australians to fathom. Many of us felt that we did not know enough about the various wars between the countries and their reasons for such hatred to understand the complexity of life which Dr Abuelaish was describing.

Another area we felt handicapped through lack of knowledge was in the ways that Arab states have helped or hindered the Palestinians in their quest for a state. When Dr Abuelaish was writing this book the various areas of Palestine (Gaza and the West Bank) had barriers between them in their negotiations. It is good that in 2012 they are now talking.
The details of his wife's final hours and Dr Abuelaish's physical and emotional trials in order to see her was excruciating reading  -- these passages will stay in our memories for a long time.    
There are no words for the sadness of the bombing of innocent children. Was Dr Abuelaish's house targetted ? It is impossible to say but he does seem to think so. Even so he will not seek revenge and plunge into hatred. What a wonderful person!! 

There was a feeling that education was a possible although long term solution. There needs to be huge shifts in attitudes on both sides of the fence. It seems too that ordinary people are much more willing to understand and respect each other than are their politicians.

I think we all believe that Dr Abuelaish is a saint-like person on the level with Nelson Mandela and Dr Martin Luther King.  This is a book which should be recommended reading for anyone interested in the Middle East and in fact in world politics.    

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Gillian Mears' Foal's bread

Courtesy Allen & Unwin
Foal's bread is the second novel by Gillian Mears that we've read in our group. The first was her first novel, The mint lawn, which those of us around back then remember enjoying (though we don't remember the details). We were not sorry we decided to read this, her third novel and first after 16 years, because we had a humdinger of a discussion! Such a humdinger, in fact, that I barely know where to start.

Let's start with the plot. The novel tells the story of the extended Nancarrow family from around 1926 to the early 21st century, though most of it takes place in the 1940s-1940s, tough years. It's set in the area Mears knows best, the dairy country of northeast New South Wales, around Grafton. The main characters are Noey, and the man Roley whom she marries. As well as being dairying people, they are horse people, high-jumpers in fact, and they have a dream - to establish their own high-jumping team to take around the show circuit. The story chronicles what happens to this dream as life's vicissitudes - some natural, some human, in origin - confront them. Some of the vicissitudes faced in this book include incest, lightning strikes, bearing a disabled child, and war.

So, what made it a great discussion? Particularly since most people liked it, and some loved it? Well, despite the general approval, there were queries and concerns. And there were those who didn't like it - was it "those" or just one? But she or they wasn't/weren't totally negative. In other words, this is a great book for readers to get their discussion teeth into!

First the positives. We liked the characterisation. We thought she controlled the story well ensuring that the drama didn't amok into overblown emotions. We liked her careful plotting, and the way she set up situations through parallels - two incest stories, two spaying stories, for example. We appreciated the way she conveyed complicated emotions, such as those of Noey for her incestuous Uncle Nip. We liked her evocation of the place and period, and the way she so viscerally conveyed the show jumping scene and the passions it engendered in those who took part. Overall, we felt she was a convincing, immersing writer.

What, then, about the negatives? Well, as you'd expect there was less consensus here. Some found the language/style problematic in places, pointing to long sentences which piled image upon image without giving the reader a chance to breathe. Others didn't notice such sentences! Some found the dialogue challenging and wondered whether it was true to the people of the period. Others felt it was authentic or, at least, evocative enough to feel authentic. Some felt she overused foreshadowing, foreboding. Others felt that she controlled this well, sometimes implying events that didn't eventuate such as an extramarital affair. Some felt the ending - particularly the "add-on" coda - was a little disappointing, while others thought it was very effective. And so the discussion raged (politely of course!) ...

However, rather than go on to detail all the specific things we picked up, I'll end on the discussion the novel sparked at the end of the night. It was about shame. Where does shame come from? What creates it? One member suggested that shame continues to be a strong emotion in rural communities. There are many feelings of shame in this book, but I'll just give a few examples. Roley feels shame about his illness. It prevents his going to war (compounding his shame), affects the achievement of their dream, hurts their marriage. Noey carries shame about her illegitimately born baby from a pre-marriage incestuous relationship. Shame, we discussed, is closely related to failure and guilt but is often not "rational". It is often related to not doing or being able to do the things society expects, the things that make for social cohesion. Things like marry and have children (which Roley's sisters don't do), go to war with your mates, and so on. If we all renege on these expectations, society could fall apart. But why is that when, through no fault of one's own a person can't meet society's expectations, they feel such shame? Shame and guilt ... nature or nurture?

Well, I think that's enough, so I'll close on one parting question. Gothic or elegiac? How would you describe this novel?

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Jane Austen's Pride and prejudice

Selection of members' editions including iPad and Kindle 
In 1905 William James Dawson wrote, in a book titled Makers of English fiction, that Jane Austen was born into a "world of unredeemed dulness. Everything around her was prim and trim and proper", and

Yet it was from this material that Jane Austen has contrived to extract stories which have survived for a century and seem likely to endure quite unprophesied generations. (Ch. IV, Jane Austen, and the Novel of Social Comedy)

How right he was ... because here we were in January 2012 discussing, yes, Jane Austen's Pride and prejudice.

Eleven members turned up for our first meeting of the year, and the discussion got off to such a fast and furious start that we had to draw ourselves to order so all could hear what each other had to say:

  • "I read the book and watched the DVD four times but I'm not sure I have anything new to say."
  • "I only read it in deference to you but I loved it. I loved the language, vocabulary, turns of phrase, the eloquence."
  • "I listened to the audio book and I was bereft when it ended."
  • "This was the first time I read it and I really liked it".

... and on went the opening exclamations.

There's something about Pride and prejudice that gets us in every time. I wish I could write a thorough analysis of the group's discussion but so much was covered there's no way I could do it justice. So, what did we talk about? Well, we discussed, in no particular order:

  • the quality of Mr and Mrs Bennet's parenting. There were some differences of opinion - in degree rather than absolutely - regarding Mr Bennet's failure to take bringing up his children seriously, his treatment of his wife, and Mrs Bennet's silly behaviour. We all agreed though that Mrs Bennet correctly recognised the financial imperative and social importance of getting her daughters married. It was briefly discussed that there aren't many great parents in Austen's books.
  • how one family can produce such a wide variety of children in terms of their sense. One reason, suggested in the book, is that by the third child the parents had lost interest in/had less time for attending to the education of the children which could explain the increased silliness of the younger girls.
  • the degree to which Mr Wickham worked as a believable character as well as being an important plot device. Why, for example, did he take up with Lydia? Some argued that he saw it as a fling and that he did not seriously intend to marry her. They found this consistent with his character while others felt he is the flaw in the novel.
  • that Mr Collins is more one-dimensional than other characters. Some of us still found him believable, for all his over-the-top sycophancy.
  • that Charlotte Lucas made a rational decision for her situation and seemed to manage to make it work for her.
  • that Jane Austen transitions between the societal emphasis of the 18th century and the more individual romanticism of the 19th century.
  • that a major issue/theme explored in the novel is that of appearance, as reflected in the way Elizabeth jumps to conclusions about Darcy and Wickham based on pretty superficial observations regarding their appearance and manner. A member reminded us that the novel's original title was First impressions, which rather suggests the significance of this theme.
  • that beneath the wit and humour, the comedy, are philosophical discussions about life and how to live it, about "virtue" even.
  • how carefully plotted the novel is; how, knowing the story, it is possible to see this careful plotting and enjoy the language. 
  • the value of reading Jane Austen for social history of the period as well as for the more universal truths/values she conveys about human behaviour. We discussed the role of dance in courtship of the period and how Austen describes it; the importance of trimming bonnets and how Austen uses it to pass comment on the characters (such as Lydia's rather careless purchase of an ugly bonnet)
  • the importance of the art of conversation in Austen's era and how modern technology means that we don't practice it anywhere near as well today!
  • the comparative indolence of the well-to-do, and the amount of walking done by the middle classes (at least)
  • whether any of us could remember how we felt, what we expected, on our first reading. Most of us couldn't, really, though a couple remembered not enjoying it, finding it boring.
  • Fanny Burney's role as a precursor to and perhaps influence on Jane Austen. Should we read a Fanny Burney?
  • how tight and sparkly Austen's language is compared to that of another 19th century favourite, Thomas Hardy.
  • whether Pride and prejudice might have inspired Louisa May Alcott's Little women. We agreed that the latter lacks the wit and irony of Austen but does contain a lively, independent-minded heroine (the second of four sisters)

We covered a wide range of subjects ... but there's a lot, as you can see, that we didn't cover too. It's likely also that I haven't remembered all that we discussed. Please, Minervans, add your comments!