Archive for August, 2016



sum: forty tales from the Afterlives is by david eagle man. He is a famous neuroscientist who has written lots of books about the brain, but this is a curious short book about heaven and hell. In 40 very brief stories he imagines various types of  heavens and/or hells.

Many of them are very insightful and topical. Some use the device of an afterlife to explore issue like cancer, articial intelligence, gender,  religion, and ideology, while others make the reader reflect on much more human day to day issues like relationships, why is it we never speak to the bus driver we see every day, or why do we spend so much of our time watching TV and going to work.

It won book of the year from the guardian and a bunch of other publications in 2009, and in the early going you can see why.

It opens with the title piece – Sum. In this afterlife you relive you life – an old idea – but Eagleman has us relive so we do all the same things in a row, sleeping for thirty years for example. This is a cute idea but Eagleman makes it both profound and funny by the list of activities he chooses to point out: nine days pretending you know what is being talked about; or three weeks realising you are wrong.

Other moments when the book is at its best include spirals and circle of friends. Spirals is a very poetic articulation of ideas about artificial intelligence and machine learning. God is a species of dim witted creature that creature a machine to help it figure out the purpose of life – us. So when we die they are there to read our data banks by asking us questions. But because they are stupid and we are smart they can’t ask meaningful questions or understand us when we talk so they can’t even discover that we don’t know the answer or that we in turn have created our own machines.  In circle of friends the afterlife is just like life except it only includes people you remember, initially you quite like this but eventually you miss the crowds and the strangers and you start to complain. Eagle man concludes ‘but nobody listens to you, this is what you chose when you were alive‘.

All the stories have a little moral at the end like this. It is  both the book’s strength and weakness. They are often very clever. For example in metamorphosis you wait in the afterlife until the moment when you name is spoken for the last time on earth. in this ‘infinite airport waiting area’. This means the place is full of very famous people just waiting, wishing they could be forgotten, eagle man concludes ‘ we live in the heads heads of those who remember us. we lose control of our lives and become what they want us to be’.

Many of these morals are interesting, funny, profound or all three, but after 10 or so of these stories most bookgroupers found hat they start to get a bit trite, or ‘too clever by half’ as one bookgrouper put it.

In the end its a great work of imagination, communication and philosophy and I’m happy to recommend it, but despite all that it feels a bit empty and frothy.

You could even say it was formulaic? If you did say that, and you then applied eagleman’s formula to create an eagleman style afterlife for bookgroup it would go a little bit like this….

The afterlife has a lot in common with life. It’s a mixture of tedium, trepidation and genuine excitement.

When you wake up you find yourself seated at a desk with a big line of people in front of you. You are in an endless hall with rows and rows of desks. Behind each desk is a seated person, and in front is a line just like yours, although the lines do vary in length. Some are much shorter than others.

Of the big line of people in front of you can only see the faces of the first few. Disconcertingly, even though you never met them in life you know exactly who they are, and they are clearly waiting to see to you.

When you look at the lines of neighboring desks you realise each line is almost the same, but not quite. You know most of the people in the other lines but not all of them, unlike your own line, and in each case the seated person is speaking to the first person in the their line.

At this point, probably less than a minute after waking up, you realise what is going on and turn to face the first person in your own line.

They are the authors of every book you have ever read. They appear to be in no particular order, a couple of desks over you can see Dr Seuss waiting in a line beside Tim Winton. It’s clear that you now have to talk to each one in turn. They seem to wait patiently no matter how famous they are. You can see Dan Brown just standing there quietly in line while your neighbour talks at length to Bruce Pascoe and then Roberto Bolano. it seems that no matter what you are saying to the one at the head of the line, or how long it takes, the ones behind never interrupt the one at the front.

And so you begin, trying to be charming. ‘What a surprise, how wonderful to meet you, I loved your book.’ But they are not here for that. They know everything you have ever said about them and their books, and they want you to explain why. It’s no use saying ‘I never said that’, they just quote you time and place and who you said it to.

The first few days are the worst. After that you get a thick skin and you develop some stock lines that seem to keep them happy ‘it wasn’t the writing so much as the characters – I just didn’t like them’.

You develop the knack of stealing glances further up your line so you can start thinking up responses, and planning a strategy for each. Will it be faster if I just to say – ‘well Mr Macarthy I said that about The Road because I really didn’t like book start to finish’? Or would a more diplomatic approach get it done quicker? ‘I know it won the Booker Prize Mr Flanagan, and richly deserved I agree, I just couldn’t finish it because I felt I already knew as much as I needed to about that story. I might have liked it better if it had been about a less well known person, or chapter in the war, or another war?’.

There are great moments: when you get to meet a favourite author like Barbera Kingsolver; or when you find yourself unconsciously apeing their speech. You find yourself sounding like a New York Jew as you explain to Phillip Roth why you didn’t enjoy reading about his teenage masturbations, or suddenly you have a gorgeous French accent as you gently explain to Muriel Barberry why you think there is a question mark over the ending of ‘Hedgehog’.

But even here it can be frustrating. They are not here to answer your questions. Jeff Vandermeer won’t tell you what is really going on in ‘The Tower’ and Doris Lessing won’t tell you how she felt about leaving some of her children in Africa. They are here to ask you questions, and you must reply.

When it gets really bad, like explaining to Proust what you meant by calling him a boring narcissist, you realise no matter how bad it is at least you aren’t a book reviewer. You can see them dotted around the hall, their queues snaking for hundreds of metres off in to the distance. And at the head of their line, animated authors quoting them back to themselves. Some of them sit at their desks weeping.

But the biggest question raised by the afterlife is the people sitting at desks with no lines.

Mostly you look at them enviously, ‘lucky so and so, if have to justify one more time why I said paragraphs made of one sentence are annoying I’ll scream’.

At times though you wonder would that really be a better afterlife – no one to annoy you, no-one to demand you justify yourself – but no-one to delight you either.





August 7, 2016 at 4:57 am Leave a comment



Coming Through Slaughter is a 1976 book by  Michael Ondaatje who went on to be famous for winning the booker prize with his 1992 novel the english patient. Its a fictionalised account of one of the founders of jazz, buddy bolden. Little is known of bolden, beyond that he lived in the seedy side of new orleans at the turn of the 20th century and went mad, so ondaaje makes it up.

The most surprising thing to bookgrpoupers about the novel was when it was written. Presumably for the jazz effect, its comprised of a series of half to one and half page fragments. These fragments jump back and forth in time, they also switch point of view between characters, and change in their writing style. although familiar now, in 1976 this structure and format was very ahead of its time.

The ahead of its time nature is reflected in this savage, and fairly accurate, 1977 new york times review

When asked how he could see his sculptures in a block of stone, Michelangelo is alleged to have said that he simply chipped away everything around the image until it emerged. A novel like “Coming Through Slaughter,” made up of shards of various techniques, works in just the opposite way. The author gives us all the broken pieces and leaves it to us to infer the final form

however to the modern reader this construction of fragments still manages to be coherent. we are now so familiar  with this style we almost expect it, we understand that the author is giving us pieces and that we are to put them together, and we know that over the course of the book the author will give us clues to help us. the 1977 reader didn’t know all that.

i’m afraid i’m envious of that 1977 reader. this style became fashionable in early 90s. so much so that by the late 90s, after the success of pulp fiction, and to some extent still today it seems every novel and movie was done it the same style.

given that, and his booker prize, it is not surprising that more recent reviewers looking back on the book are happy to give it high praise, such as in this 2011 review by nikki gemmell. These modern reviewers say ondaatje chose the book’s form in an effort to recreate in words the improvisatory, incoherent, but hopefully tuneful style of jazz.

Another recent  review calls it a poets novel as a way of excusing the the fragmentsion the NY Times reviewer is complaining of, although its also a reference to the fact that its ondaaje’s first novel after previously publishing only poetry.

Although modern reviewers might love it not all modern readers do. The goodreads page for the book includes wildly varying reviews – lots of one stars and lots of five stars. Book groupers were more in the middle, excited by the writing in places but largely underwhelmed.

In summary, if you like obtuse poetry, or jazz, or better still both, you will probably love this. The style and content will also appeal. However, if you like stories told from beginning to end, you like to know what is fact and fiction, and you don’t like jazz, give this a miss.


August 3, 2016 at 11:27 am Leave a comment



Margaret Drabble’s Jerusalem the Golden is the story of Clara. A smart, beautiful girl from the working class north. Its the 60s. The education policies of the post-war British welfare state are beginning to have real affect in the lives of people like Clara, as the Australian version was, and would continue to, for many of us in bookgroup.

Being smart she realises early that she is good enough at school to get in to university, to become the first, or close to first, in her family to do so. But like all knowledge this is not an unadulterated joy. Knowing she might one day leave she learns to long for that day, spending her childhood preparing for her future leaving, rather than loving her present staying. Nobody from home is good enough, and nothing about home is interesting.

Clara is a baby boomer in England, but her teenage and 20 something feelings reflected my experiences a decade later on the other side of the world. As a country boy I always knew I would leave home as soon as possible; that there were whole worlds I would not see unless I did, and whole categories of people I was desperate to meet, and hopefully become. Reading the book I constantly felt that my 70s/80s genX experience was very like Clara’s 60’s baby boomer story, set to different music with different costumes and set design.

Towards the end of her undergraduate time in London Clara meets Clelia Denham and the Denham family. They are artists, writers, bankers – the type of people she had always dreamed of.

She began to realize that she was in the presence of the kind of thing for which she had been searching for years, some nameless class or quality, some element which she had glimpsed often enough, but which she had rarely at such close quarters encountered.

I remember feeling like this at a similar age, but also many times since. Every time I have developed a new passion or enthusiasm Clara’s experience re-occurs. First there is the idea of how great this new passion is. Then there is the process of eventually meeting, getting to know, and even becoming one of ‘those’ people. And finally, at some point, it occurs to me ‘so this is what they are like’ or ‘so this is what its like to be one of them’. I remember feeling like this at multiple times in my life at different times depending on what I admired at the time – when I started to meet wealthy people, smart people, powerful people, outdoorsy people, or back in the 80s – ‘politically aware’ hippie types.

Clara’s story captures this beautifully. The transition from one place and culture in to another, and the feelings of fraud it causes.

She felt that she was being supported and abetted by fate in some colossal folly: that circumstances were conspiring maliciously to persuade her that her own estimate of herself, that high and grandiose self-assessment of adolescence, was right. She had considered herself too good for such as Walter Ash, and she had got Gabriel. There seemed to be no end to the possibilities of mad aspiration. And yet, she could not feel that this was the way the world should go, she felt that she was breasting, rashly, the marching currents of humanity, and that she would in the end be forced to turn about.

Reading this I remembered feeling as a younger man that this is the fate of we, the not upper class. Forever a stranger, never a native in the new world, but no longer able to fully belong to the old. Like an immigrant in your own country. Not only migrating from one place to another but more importantly from one class to another. Luckily for me that feeling faded – after you meet enough of them you realise everyone is a fraud.

The book is able to extract these complex feelings from the reader because it is so well crafted. It reminded me of Ian McEwen. The point of view and tense is often very complex – ‘imperfect’ – because the point of view is that of a narrator but the narrator is describing Clara’s view. Despite the complexity Drabble pulls it off perfectly, just like Ian McEwan

For the truth was that her first sight of Clelia had not impressed her. In the light of future impressions, she found it hard to credit this disturbing historic recollection: it seemed to convict her of such gross insensitivity. Nor did she like the implications of accident that this initial blindness carried; she felt, looking back, like a lover who had met and passed by, indifferently, without recognition, the one love of his life, distracted from his destiny by the need for a drink, or a fixed intention to have an early night.  

As you would expect from a work of English ‘literature’ there are some funny and astute observations about the north/south, or  working class/middle class divide. My favourites relate to the way they speak.

I particularly enjoyed the way Clara’s wealthy new friends spoke about themselves. They appeared to so concerned about being polite their whole conversations were a series of prevarications. They are so unwilling to be certain that they even speak of themselves in the third person and never commit to or decide anything even about their own experiences or feelings. Everything is might, maybe, or possibly, as if what happens to them is fate not choice.  Clara likes this and adopts their style.

I suppose you will probably get married, will you?’

‘I never seem to feel like getting married,’ said Clara.

We get told later that Clara’s affectation is not an accident, she has consciously noticed this difference. On returning to the north, a doctor tells her very bluntly of her Mother’s impending death and the narrator says.

His lack of circumspection pained her, for she had grown used to the circumspect, and she would have preferred a veneer of sympathy, no matter what indifference it might have covered, for she felt herself forever alienated from this world where brutality presented itself as sincerity. 

In summary, the book is beautifully written and very reflective of the experience of those of us that have moved places and/or classes, or perhaps even just grown up. Female book groupers also felt it did a great job in capturing mother-daughter tensions, and the experiences of being a young woman leaning to head out in to the world. You can see more about that aspect of the story at the totally 4women book group here.

Its not action packed, its not a thriller, its also not a depressing piece of gritty realism. Its characters are all quite nice, reasonably well off, and don’t do anything particularly horrible to one another. I loved it for all these reasons, but readers looking for any or all of that would be better off looking elsewhere.

Bury your dead

and leave the north

what  are you worth

is there a price on your head

do you know what she said

when you left

that you were blessed

even though she was bereft

August 3, 2016 at 8:26 am Leave a comment


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