Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Schedule ideas for 2014

As we will be deciding our books for the first half of 2014 at our November meeting, here are some suggestions to consider (including recommendations added after this was initially published):

New books from some of our BIG authors:
  • Richard Flanagan's The narrow road to the deep north
  • Roger McDonald's The following
  • Alex Miller's Coal creek
  • Christos Tsiolkas' Barracuda
  • Alexis Wright's The swan book
  • Tim Winton's Eyrie
Booker Prize Winner for 2013:
Debut novels:
  • Hannah Kent's Burial rites
Other novels:
  • Aminatta Forna's The Hired Man (set in modern Croatia with an English family renovating a house in a village previously affected by the recent war) or The Memory of Love (set in Sierra Leone, the birthplace of the author's father)
  • Mohsin Hamad's The reluctant fundamentalist
  • Lloyd Jones' A history of silence
  • Anthony Marra's A constellation of vital phenomena
  • Ann Patchett's Bel Canto (won the 2002 Orange Prize)
  • JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy (dark modern Britain, deeply insightful) 
  • Amy Waldman's The submission
Classics: Do we want to do a classic?
  • Wallace Stegner's Crossing to safety 
Translated book (or book in English from a non-English background writer): I think it would be good to try to do at least one non-anglo book each year - but that may just be me
  • Jonas Jonasson's The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window and Disappeared
  • Janet Butler's Kitty's war
  • Nicholas Carr's The shallows 
  • Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad
And of course there are some books under Suggestions in the sidebar.

    Wednesday, 30 October 2013

    Christina Stead's For love alone

    It would be fair to say that Christina Stead has not bowled over Minervans. This is the second time the group has read her - the first being The man who loved children when I was overseas. It apparently did not go down well. And her second outing with us this month, For love alone, didn't change minds. Nonetheless, we had a lively discussion: we appreciated that she had something to say, and that she's a significant name in Australian literature. I'll 'fess up here though, before I go any further, and say I loved the book. I felt myself wanting to get back to it ... but that wasn't the universal experience.

    Why is this? The book was published in 1945, and set in Sydney and London between 1933 and 1937. It tells the story of 19-year-old Teresa (Tessa) Hawkins, and her determination to find love, and to find it on her terms. She's determined not going to be an "old maid" like her teacher colleagues, but neither will she marry a boy just out of long pants. Enter the aptly named Jonathan Crow, her 23-year-old Latin tutor and, to Teresa, a sophisticated man of the world. Most of the book concerns her desire to get to know him and develop a deeper relationship with him. Her plan is complicated - physically - by the fact that he moves to England to undertake further studies a few months after the book opens and - emotionally - by Jonathan's slippery, to say the least, behaviour. That's the basic story. There's not a lot of plot and the book is long. Most present found it pretty repetitive - and therefore tedious - as the two go on and on about their ideas on life and love. Some felt the writing old-fashioned, and didn't find the major characters engaging.

    However, we found lots of things to talk about, such as that the book has an autobiographical element. We also talked about what people liked, such as the wonderful description of a wedding at the opening of the novel: the messiness of the extended family, the silly bouquet throwing scene, the unhappy bride who is marrying because she needs to and not because she's "in love", the discussion about wedding presents (including chamber pots). We liked lively Aunt Bea who's fond of Teresa and tries to take her under her wing, not recognising that Teresa's goals for herself were rather different. We also liked Stead's descriptions of Teresa and James' (the truly loving man she eventually finds) trips into the English countryside, and we thought that Stead had a lovely facility with dialogue. The dialogue sections had real energy.

    We discussed Teresa's naivete and her inability to see into Jonathan's real nature, which, as became pretty clear by the second half of the book, is misogynistic and sadistic. He is psychologically cruel to Teresa and cynical about love, but he is also weak, lonely and needy. We wondered whether we were supposed to feel sorry for him, as Teresa does for much of the novel (alongside admiring what she believe is his superior intellect). Some felt in fact that Jonathan is a bit caricatured. Teresa on the other hand might be naive, but she's courageous, loyal and intelligent. Eventually she works out that her love for Jonathan has no future, and that in fact she never really loved him. What a relief. One of the clever things about the book, although its plot isn't its strong point, is that we are kept guessing right until the end about how things will turn out for Teresa. For much of the book, it doesn't look good!

    We talked about the novel being a psychological novel, rather than a plot-driven novel or one with a strong narrative. Stead is exploring the self and how it can construct itself, even mould itself, in the face of a tricky world. She talks of social controls on male-female relationships -
    Why do men make the laws, say, about marriage, decency and the like, to shackle themselves?
    - but her interest is more on the psychological impact of those laws. This made us think of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles (and we wondered whether Teresa - Tess's name had this intention) and Edith Wharton's novels, like The house of mirth. But Stead's book is different to both of these, while owing something to them. Stead recognises the economic imperative for women to marry, and explores social conventions which control how people find mates, but her real interest is the psychology.

    Consequently, her characters aren't simplistic and Stead doesn't appear to think there is an easy resolution to the human drive to find love. Teresa's maturation is not a simple process. She becomes obsessive in her plan to go to England to see Jonathan again, and almost destroys herself in the process. She becomes gaunt and haggard, and starts fading away. She develops a cough like the tubercular heroines of 19th century novels. As her relationship with Crow reaches its conclusion she returns to this self-destructive behaviour, preferring to die - a martyr for love - than live without love:
    But it's not in the conversion of Jonathan that she believed now, but in her coming martyrdom.
    One member noted that while the second half of the novel is set in England, two of the main characters are Australian and the other American. The issue of national sensibility and identity is, she said, one of Stead's themes in the book. We could see this, but didn't explore it in detail.

    The Miegunyah Modern Library Edition quotes Patrick White as saying: "it's a remarkable book. I feel elated to know it's there". We agreed that Stead's intensity would appeal to White - as would her rebellion against unthinking social mores.

    Overall, a good discussion of a challenging book, but methinks it will be our last Stead!

    Monday, 21 October 2013

    We gamely take on Gaiman

    American Gods (by Neil Gaiman)

    Six of us met to discuss one of our most controversial book choices: Neil Gaiman's American Gods. A book outside our usual choices. After some initial negative feedback we agreed on an alernative choice: The Ocean at the End of the Road, Gaiman's most recent book. So 3 of us had read American Gods or some of it, and the rest of the group the newer one.

    We considered the range of  his writing from graphic novels: The Sandman, short stories and children's books such as the Blueberry Girl and the Wolves in the Walls.

    We discussed the rambling novel American Gods, which had a blend of styles from noir to fantasy, sci fi, gothic and maybe even a little David Lynch thrown in. Some of the group found the novel boring, and had trouble finishing it. Others found it confusing and hard to follow. I found it readable, and intriguing, with a few slow patches, and perhaps a bit of confusion of ideas. The concept of the historical gods and mythological figures being personified by a group of characters living shady lives in contemporary society is quite an appealing one. These gods, based on Greek, Norse and similar gods are capricious, powerful but vulmerable, and dependant on people believing in them for their existence. Gaiman was i think contrasting these traditional gods, which have come with the arrival of the Europeans to the continent of America, with the new gods of media, and the somewhat shady CIA agents, which was an interesting but inconsistently developed part of the book.

    The main character the Shadow, who gets caught up in all of this, is a typical noir character, a tough guy who goes along with the dark forces around him, while retaining a certain moral heroism, and an ultimate vulnerability. The ghoulish figure of his dead wife appearing as a decaying zombie, was a surreal element which also contained an element of black humour. Likewise the reference to Christian beliefs with Shadow's final sacrifice, death and resurrection was a little heavyhanded. So a fascinating book, somewhat flawed, and obviously not to everyone's taste.

    Those who read the Ocean at the End of the Road enjoyed the story, finding it a fairly straightforward narrative, with a real fantasy element, but rather charming nonetheless. As I didn't read this book, I can't comment in depth on it, but it is another side to Gaiman's storytelling, where he tells rather dark fairy tales, exploring parallel realities, and a journey into people's magical alternative lives.

    It was a lovely discussion, with wonderful hospitality by Deb, and I think stimulating to read genres outside our usual gamut!

    Friday, 30 August 2013

    Poetry by Canberra poets

    The poetry night went surprisingly well – well attended, well enjoyed and all contributed.

    We started our discussion on Canberra poets and poetry with Professor A D Hope – who could be better ! The chosen poem was about the ancient battle at Thermopylae with the moving line: ‘linger stranger, shed no tear….’

    (Wikipedia says: ‘Thermopylae was a battle between the alliance of Greek city states led by King Leonides of Sparta and the Persian Empire of Xerxes 1 over 3 days during the second Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BC’).

     In an unscripted but interesting juxtaposition we had Geoff Page’s sad poem ‘Perfect day in July’ next about the Canberra Hospital implosion which occurred in front of about 100,000 people on 13 July 1997.

     Moya Pacey was introduced to many of us  – well known to a member through being her children’s English teacher. (According to the ACT writers showcase – she was born in the UK in 1950 and has lived in Canberra since 1978. She has published widely both here and overseas and her first collection called the wardrobe was runner-up for the ACT Poetry prize in 2010. Her poetry has also featured on ACTION buses !.) We heard the poem entitled : The wardrobe.

     We were then treated to ‘Dog day’ about an old dog on a walk. As the member concerned and I both have old dogs it rang loud bells of recognition for us – quite tender and special.  

    Another member has just spent 3 months overseas and remarked on the appearance of poetry in public spaces from Italy to Scotland; for example, on the outside of buildings – the Scottish Parliament House, Canongate wall being a particularly vivid and expressive example. There are 24 examples of quotations on this wall and the architect, Enric Miralles designed it that way to show a ‘poetic union between Scottish landscape, people, culture and Edinburgh city’.  (Wikipedia is excellent for info about this exciting building.) The poem chosen was by Edwin Morgan.

     A beautiful Italian poem about the ‘Angelo del mare’ in the town of Lerici was read to us in both Italian and English – quite wonderful !  The poem appears on a plaque at the base of a fortress.  (This town is on the Italian Riviera, connected by ferry to the Cinque Terre).  A very different poem followed about the mental health facilities at the Canberra Hospital called ‘The ward is new’  another by Geoff Page.

    Action buses have ‘poetry in action’ this year – 270 entries and 10 finalists. We heard a short poem from this series by Geoff Page.

    Rosemary Dobson, (1920-2012), Canberra poet and intellectual was highlighted by 2 poems from her ‘Rosemary Dobson Collected’ volume. This collection was published shortly before she died.  The poems read were : ‘Jack’ and ‘The tempest’.   

    John Stokes’ (another new name for some of us) poem entitled: ‘Remembrance of Roseanne Fitzgibbon’, was a very sad poem about the night before Roseanne died.   Roseanne was a senior editor with UQP for many years and also Marion Halligan’s sister.

    ‘Dancing on the drain board’ 1993 collection of poems by the American poet (but long time resident in Canberra) Lynn Hard was presented to us by a member who knew Lynn well as a boss.  The poem chosen was about Dorothy Green. Dorothy Green, 1915-91 was Scottish born but spent her life in Australia from the age of 12 and was both an academic and champion of Australian literature, especially the early twentieth century writers such as Henry Handel Richardson and Patrick White and Christina Stead.  

    Geoff Page ‘s v  box and ‘The tempest’ (an early very short poem which conjures up Shakespeare and tales of wrecked ships and seamen).      

    Geoff Page ‘s very apposite poem ‘At the polls’ was a fitting work to be read in this election season. Was Geoff Page the poet of the evening ?

     The concluding event was seeing a performance by Omar Musa, the young Malaysian -Australian poet from Queanbeyan performing at the recent 'TedxSydney' at the Opera House, 4 May 2013. Tedx is a fantastic talkfest about ‘Australian ideas worth spreading’ and a real honour for Musa to be involved. The performance was brilliant .  See :

    Interestingly we didn't have any poems about Canberra landscape or people !