Author Archive


Not many of us got very far with this one. I am not 100% sure why as it wasn’t written badly. Everyone seemed to agree it was ok, quite well written, not offensive, but nevertheless it did not grab our attention or make us want to read more. I felt it was yet another version of the familiar story about WW2 era Jewish émigrés to the US. Obviously that is an important and interesting aspect of 20th century history, but it has been told so many times in every medium of popular and high brow culture that its impossible to say anything new about it.

One bookgrouper, the only one who actually completed the book, said it was a book about men for men. In particular Jewish men who lived in New York in the 30s and 40s and 50s, or men that have an interest in the stage magic of that time, or the comic books of that time. So if you fit any of those categories it might be just right for you.

He said it was about men and for men in two senses. Firstly there are no women characters in the book, so its clearly about men. Secondly the physical action and emotional action arises from typical male inabilities to communicate and so on.

I did read a small part of it which was mostly set in Prague just before the war. That bit was good reading i thought because life in Prague seemed so normal. Nothing described was obviously part of the eastern bloc. It felt like you could’ve been in any European city at that time of the 20th century. I have no way of knowing if that’s a true reflection of how life really was there and then, or just something in head of the writer, but it was interesting.

Given so few of us read it I thought I should refer you to some people who hopefully have. This is wiki‘s take of the story. Both the guardian and the independent were impressed.


December 29, 2018 at 6:36 am Leave a comment


We finally got around to reading a book from a country we haven’t covered yet in book group. It was to be the 1992 novel sleepwalking land by mozambican writer mia couto. Which has been described as ‘an exceptionally beautiful nightmare’, it was translated in to english in 2006 and he won the neustadt prize for literature in 2014.

However, it proved very hard to come by. So some of us ended up reading the wrong book, mainly (only) me. From what others said however, it appears The Blind Fisherman, which i read, was very similar to Sleepwalking Land

They both had the same sort of impact on readers, taking us to a very unfamiliar place, and generating a strong feeling that: I am in a foreign land; this is a culture I know nothing about; dont understand; and may never.

The stories were very strange. They probably could be called magic realism. They were set in rural Mozambique, during the war with the Renamo when it was raiding throughout the countryside, with the aid of apartheid era South Africa. As a result there is lots of violence, and uncertainty for all the characters and communities described.

However the disconcerting otherworldlyness is not from the violence. Its because the stories are full of characters, both human and animal, with strange beliefs and strange powers. At least the characters believe they, other characters, or particular animals, have strange powers. The stories weave these beliefs and together with the characters’ understanding of the detailed racial and class hierarchies of post-colonial Mozambique; and their efforts to survive in a war smashed economy.

The effect of all this on the reader is to clearly communicate the feeling that the characters have no clue what has been happening to them, the people they love, and their communities; or what might happen next. I felt it gave me some insight in to that life, just trying to get by however you can. How part of that might be developing strange beliefs about magic; both as some kind of hope, but also to explain the inexplicable and the inexcusable.

I felt it was super interesting for that reason. Even though everything described was so strange and alien, especially the magic, it did give you a feeling for what it might have been like to live in those communities at that time. It certainly didn’t make you want to do that. So it was a real window in another world, which was exactly what we wanted with the idea of reading a book from the country we knew very little about.

There is a very good, short and much more literary review of the blind fisherman at this blog.

December 29, 2018 at 6:26 am Leave a comment


Bookgroupers loved Peter Carey’s new one A Long Way from Home. Although they felt the first of the second half were quite different.

The first half was a rollicking easy-going story set in 50s Australia. In particular people with good memories of 50s and 60s Australia said it had lots of iconic imagery from that era such as the radio quiz shows, and the Redex Trial (a round Australia car race run between 1953 and 1998) that the book’s plot it’s based around. So it’s a lot of fun, particularly for people from that era.

While bookgroupers found the second half to be less fun, a different book according to one bookgrouper, you could also say its more interesting. It gets into the difficulties that are as integral to that era of Australia as the fun iconic images of the first half. It covers in a very interesting and human, and well researched way, indigenous issues. It puts gender and relationship issues in clear focus and even gives plenty of space to the shysters, showmen and ‘colourful racing identities’ that were so a part of those years.

These are all the things that we Australians, at least left leaning ones anyway, now criticise the 50s for in hindsight. So in that sense the first half is the good parts to the 50s and the second half is all the stuff that 50s Australia swept under the carpet.

In addition to the politics i really felt the characters were marvellous. I hope it’s made into a movie as they are big entertaining characters, with great visual aspects corresponding with their personalities and roles in the story. I felt they were really archetypal characters from that time. They managed to represent and incorporate all the big themes and stories of that period within their personal histories, but in a way that did not feel forced or cliched. In particular the main character, Willy. His life story was very cleverly constructed to encapsulate the 50s, in all their complexity.

The book is presumably also quite autobiographical, as it is set in Bacchus March where Carey is actually from, and he is a baby boomer so it is set in the period in which he grew up. In addition to this personal background he does appear to have researched very thoroughly all the content in relation to the Redex Trial, cars of the period, and the indigenous side of the book. So it’s very interesting from that point of view.

The only criticism that the group could agree on was that the ending seemed quite sudden and contrived. As if Carey had run out of time on his contract or reached his word limit, so he just needed to conclude the book. We felt the ending isn’t satisfying and doesn’t really fit with the rest of the book. However he might argue, accurately, that life is like that, and so is 21st century Australia. We are still struggling with these issues. An unfinished work, like the book.

There were also great moments in beauty in the book; the description of the romance between Willy and fellow quiz contestant, Miss Clover, is gorgeous especially their first night together; and there are some great observations; along with all the serious matters. When it does deal with big issues, i felt it brought them to the page in a new fresh way. The prime example being Australia’s frontier war history. Carey finds a way to tell the story of how that war history continues right down into very recent decades, and does it in a very accessible way. There is also very strong female side to the book. All the the women have a lot of ‘agency’ as French philosophers might say, while also being heavily trapped by the attitudes of the time.

So overall, while it is a very worthy book, as you might expect from a Booker Prize winner, it is also unexpectedly interesting and a lot of fun to.

I strongly recommend it.

October 24, 2018 at 7:55 am Leave a comment


This was a very divisive book for bookgroup. A couple of bookgroupers really loved it whilst the rest of us hated it.

The main issue was the violence. I only read the first chapter, which is about five pages. In that short time the main character manages to kill two people and rape one of them – a young boy. After that I decided I did not need any more of this in my life. From what others said the violence continues throughout, with no let up, and includes violence against animals as well as men.

The question bookgroup asked was – is there any point to all of this violence? Is there any difference between it and pop culture books and movies that are full of violence for violence sake, except perhaps the violence here is much worse in every way? Does the violence serve any purpose?

Those of us who hated the book felt it served no purpose. The book appears to be set in the early 1800s (according to The Guardian its actually the 1850s), briefly in whaling communities, but mostly a group of men on a whaling boat. We felt we knew what those communities were like. Intensely poverty stricken and unequal. Most people were powerless and therefore both subject to violence and perpetrators of violence – nothing new there.

Some of those who liked the book felt it was a useful thing for the book to point out just how violent those times were. Others who liked the book felt the violence was beautifully described- poetic.

Interestingly the two reviews I glanced at, The Guardian and the London Review of Books, reacted much the same way as bookgroup. They both agreed it is intensely dark and relentlessly violent. But the LRB wanted to point out that the writing was interesting, while the Guardian said it was unredeemably bleak.

Personally I would suggest there are much more profitable things you can do with you time than read this book, but apparently some people do enjoy it.

September 1, 2018 at 8:58 am 1 comment


The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby- see the Guardian’s Review – Was a very detailed and moving portrayal of North African boat people being shipwrecked in the Mediterranean, and some of them being rescued by italian passersby – one being the optician of the title.

The book details the impact on the optician and his friends across a full year after the rescue. In this way it gives some insight into what the actual story is behind the news headlines.

The bookgroup was very split on it. One half of the group, predominantly the women, thought it was great. A great insight into one persons experience of a tragic event and an insight into refugee issues. The other half of the group mostly men felt it didn’t deal with the issues at all. They also questioned whether it was actually non-fiction. Feeling imstead that really it was fictional in the sense that it was the journalist imagining what was going on in the head of the optician. Whereas the pro group felt it was the journalist describing what the optician had said to her, and it was real. It was actually what the optician was thinking.

I confess to being in the anti group. My problem was that I’m not sure what the point of it was. We have all seen the headlines a lot and I don’t think it takes much imagination to imagine what the events are really like behind those headlines. What impact it has on the people on the scene. I guess maybe some people don’t make the effort to do that, so maybe for them it will really help imagine what it is like to be involved.

For me I didn’t think it added anything. It certainly doesn’t change the political response, so I’m not sure what the point is of spending time wallowing in the pain and sorrow of tragic events like this, which you do reading this book. It does nothing to really change anything.

To me it feels a little bit self-indulgent to wallow in the sorrow of it when there’s nothing we can really do anyway. There are so many other tragic events in the world every day, many on a much larger scale than the migrant boat wrecks in the Mediterranean. You could easily write a book like this on the sorrow of malaria, diarrhoea, TB, or one of the various wars going on around the world, or just just any neighbourhood of extreme poverty. so why wallow in this particular tragedy in this particular place. it doesn’t seem to serve any particular purpose.

However, it is really well written and it does really take you there in a vivid way and gives you stories about the background and the lives of people involved, and their responses. It’s good to get that level of detail behind a headline.

My reaction to the optician himself was similar to my reaction to the book. I was a bit annoyed at his focus on the individuals. he seemed almost incapable really of seeing the bigger picture and seeing the complexity. Instead he was constantly complaining about ‘europe’ not doing something as if it’s obvious what could be done. The best example of this really was his desire to go back and rescue more when told they are all dead. he seemed vey naive, wilfully so.

A good thing though about the book was the description of post-traumatic stress, the impact on the lives of the optician and his wife, their sleep and so on. Although it was a bit frustrating. They didn’t seem like they sought help for all of that which was the obvious thing to do

Another thing that i found annoying about the book was its focus on the optician and the Italians. it really didn’t say much about what the African survivors went through in the 12 months after the rescue covered by the book. It did not go into at all the reasons why they left Eritrea. it really could’ve said a lot about this issue. It really is interesting and makes the Mediterranean boat people a completely different issue from the Syrians coming into eastern Europe and from the boat people in Australia and elsewhere.

However I think in the end the pro group probably won me over. I think a lot of my issues are criticising the book or something it was not trying to be. In particular it says on the cover that it is a novella. That is the author admitting that it’s a work of fiction. Also inside the front cover it says the book talks about the optician and not about all the other issues, that’s its goal. Those are the answers to me and the other people who criticised it. So I think i could recommend it to people who want an eyewitness account of what it’s like to be involved in those very tragic scenes that you see on the nightly news, but not to someone wanting a broad account of the issues behind those tragic scenes.

July 20, 2018 at 3:59 am Leave a comment


A Woman in Berlin is a first person account of one woman’s experiences, and the women she knew, of men in Berlin as WW2 ends.

A line used in the first couple of pages of the book sums up the view of these women – ‘better a Ruskie on top then an American overhead’. The line is essentially saying that when a women has only two choices, rape is better than death. The more of the book you read the better you understand the detail and meaning of that line, and how in some cases it wasn’t true.

Its a diary covering a few months in mid ’45 as Russian men take over Berlin street by street from the east, while allied forces continue bombing from the west.

As the Russians invaded thousands and thousands of women were raped repeatedly. We now know there was nothing unusual about these Russians. This is what all ‘conquering’ armies do everywhere and have done throughout history. But the book is unusual. It places the reader in the position of the women, a woman, experiencing this. It gives names and faces and feelings and life histories to the women dealing with these events, and tells you what they are thinking as it happens.

And deal with it they do. If you have to, how do you decide rape is better than death? how can you make such a decision? How much pain is bearable, will it be possible to live with the pain afterwards, and if so how? What are the consequences, will life just go on? The book is an amazing first person, written at the time, account of this scenario. One that has occurred in so many places, and so many times, in history, but is really if ever described, especially from a woman’s perspective.

However it is not limited to that one issue. It touches on gender politics more broadly. More correctly, it doesn’t just touch on it, it goes into a lot of detail and provides great insight into the the construction of the role of women. It also touches on all the questions that arise at the end of wars, including justice in relation to war atrocities, reconstruction after war, the role of the victors and the vanquished, the impacts on the defeated population, in particular the relationship between genders with the defeat.

One of the key reasons that the book is fabulous, and everybody in bookgroup enjoyed reading it despite the difficult subject matter, is that it seems incredibly 21st-century. Although it was written in 1945, by a woman who had grown up in the first half of the twentieth century, many of the attitudes in it seem very sophisticated and 21st-century. As if it was written today in 2018. The way she talks about war, women, politics, education and class all seem entirely contemporary to 2018.

The other reason we all loved it is that the author has such a clear voice. I think the best way to illustrate this, and just how 21st-century she is on all of these issues, is to provide a series of quotes.

Any minute I expect sublieutenant Anatol to show up as arranged. I’m worried because I suspect there will be a fight. Petka is strong as an ox, of course, and clean, but he’s primitive, uncouth – no protection. A sublieutenant on the other hand, ought to guarantee a kind of taboo, or so I imagine. My mind is firmly made up. I’ll think of something when the time comes. I grin to myself in secret, feel as if I’m performing on the stage. I couldn’t care less about the lot of them. I’ve never been so removed from myself so alienated. all my feelings seem dead, except for the drive to live. they shall not destroy me.

I have this repulsive sense of being passed from hand to hand; I feel humiliated and insulted, degraded into a sexual thing.

And this mass rape is something we are overcoming collectively as well. All the women help each other, by speaking about it, hearing their pain and allowing others to and spit out.

All I can do is touch my small circle and be a good friend. What’s left is just to wait for the end. Still, the dark and amazing adventure of life beckons. I’ll stick around, out of curiosity and because I enjoy breathing and stretching my healthy limbs.

Are there differences? Yes, substantial ones. But from what I can tell these distinctions are mostly ones of form and colouration, of the rules of play, not differences in the greater or lesser fortunes of the common people, which candy was so concerned about. And the individuals I encountered who were meek, subservient and utterly uninterested in any existence other than the one they were born into didn’t seem any unhappier in Moscow than they did in Paris for Berlin – all of them lived by adjusting their souls to the prevailing conditions. No my current gauge is an utterly subjective one: Personal taste. I simply wouldn’t want to live in Moscow. What oppressed me most there was the relentless ideological schooling, the fact that people were not allowed to travel freely, the absolute lack of any erotic aura. The way of life just wouldn’t suit me.

A man in the rathaus lobby was chiseling away at the relief of Adolf. I watched the nose come splintering off. What is stone, what are monuments? An iconoclastic wave such as we have never seen is surging through Germany. The new twilight of the gods – is it remotely possible that the big Nazis could ever rise again after this? As soon as I have freed my mind a little I really have to turn my attention to Napoleon; after all, he too was banished in his day, only to be brought back and glorified once more.

Incidentally Nikolai doesn’t think there will be inflation or a new currency – I asked this morning. He thinks the money we been using will stay in circulation for the time being, but that the banking industry will be overhauled and drastically simplified. ‘Probably socialised right’? I asked. No, he said ‘not that. These are completely different conditions’. And he changed the subject.

We took advantage of Herr R’s absence for a little female gossip. Ilse is a worldly, discriminating woman, very stylish. She’s travelled all over the globe. What’s her opinion on the Russian Cavaliers? ‘Pathetic’, she said, wrinkling her nose. ‘No imagination whatsoever. Simple minded and vulgar every last one, from everything I’ve heard around the building. But perhaps you had better experiences with your officers?’. No not in that regard’. ‘Maybe they have the latest in socialist planned economies but when it comes to matters erotic this still with Adam and eve. I told my husband that too, to cheer him up’. Then she says with a wink, ‘with food so scarce a poor husband doesn’t count for much. Mine is already getting a complex about it; he thinks that the red army with all its Lady killers really has a chance with us women’. We laughed and agreed that under normal conditions, 99 out of 100 of our worthy enemies wouldn’t have the slightest chance with us. At most this hundredth might be worth a try.

As I’m writing this I’m back in the widow’s apartment, where on spending the last night. It’s an orphans lot to wander, I suppose. The most better thing in the life of a single woman is that every time she answers some kind of family life, after a while she ends up causing trouble: she is one too many many, someone doesn’t like her because someone else does, and in the end they kick her out to preserve the precious peace. And still this page is smudged with a tear.

As you can see its just marvellous. Nevertheless because its so modern sounding questions about the authenticity of the diary have been raised.

I certainly understand the questioning. It seems hard to imagine a woman in that situation being able to abstract from her own situation to generalise so insightfully and articulately as she does. However its also impossible to imagine anyone inventing it. In any case, apparently these questions about authenticity have been dismissed by people who know other diaries of the era well – according to Antony Beevor’s intro to the edition i read – and he appears to be on such expert.

The fact that rape on a mass scale happens in war is not at all surprising. It’s repeatedly referred to in every account of every war that’s ever happened. What is novel about the book is that it’s the first hand account from a woman’s perspective. Normally these accounts are written by male historians years later so they are much less immediate, much less real in their impact on the reader, and really give no details at all of the women’s reactions – how they manage the situation. So the book is a new and interesting take on a really well known situation.

The other thing that’s interesting about it is that this woman’s perspective on mass rape is not just relevant to complete war and conflict scenarios it’s really the situation women have been in for most of history, in particular poor women.

If you imagine the life of a poor woman in the Roman Empire whether they be slaves or Roman they would’ve had no rights and the wealthy man in their lives could do whatever they like with them. Similarly in the Viking times, similarly mediaeval Europe, similarly with the aristocrats and peasants right through history. In the early days of the industrial revolution i imagine women having to resort to similar tactics as those described in the book to manage their landlords and the factory owners, and their rent collectors and foreman. Likewise in many hunter gatherer or other traditional societies i imagine the chiefs, priests and elders in many cases had little on no accountability and used that to rape whoever they wanted whenever they wanted.

The heart of the issue really is that in any scenario where there is no rule of law as we now call it, where there is no accountability, people will do appalling things as there are no consequences. People, specifically men, do appalling things if there is no figure of power figure that has the ability to impose consequences on the perpetrator. And if there is a power figure, or if that figure cannot be held to account, then he will do appalling things. So women throughout time have to find a way to manage that, as the author, and her neighbours, in the book did. Women have to do this whenever the social, cultural or legal barriers that impose consequences on the behaviour of men are weak.

I also think you can take a wider lesson from the story. There are no good people and no monsters. Someone can be good one minute and a monster the next, or good in one situation and a monster in another, and that applies to all of us. We should not be so arrogant to think that if we were unfortunate enough to find ourselves in a lawless situation that we would not be a monster.

One of the questions raised by the book is how did the author, how did anyone, survive these experiences and carry on. The book seems to answer that question with the quote I’d like to finish on. This quote seems to sum up the attitude of the author, and also of the whole war generation on both sides of the war. It perhaps provides part of the answer to how they were able to survive the war and go on to build the world as we know it.

‘Let’s just declare the whole thing over and start a new chapter.’

June 11, 2018 at 7:51 am Leave a comment


Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and Sophies world provided a really interesting way in to philosophy. They provided a way of answering the question asked by one bookgrouper which is – what is philosophy?

Sophie‘s world is a novel but it’s essentially a 101 on philosophy disguised as a novel, a young adult or teen novel at that. So it’s an easy read but at the same time a very scholarly and comprehensive history of ideas. Admittedly it is limited to the history of western ideas but as another bookgrouper said it even acknowledges that it’s a history of Western ideas not the rest of the world.

Interestingly, even though it was written back in the nineties and was a best seller back then it seemed quite up-to-date to me in terms of recent philosophy. For example it has a good attitude to the role the Arab world played in bringing Greek and Roman ideas back into the western world after a 1000 years. This is a common view amongst scholars today but i thought it had only become common very recently.

Similarly its a very clever example of meta-writing, a book about a book, which is definitely a much more recent phenomenon than the 90s. Unlike practically all the recent examples of meta-writing, such as recent bookgroup read Commonwealth, it uses that device for a purpose, not just to confuse/entertain. It uses it to illustrate one of the most fundamental questions in philosophy – which is how do we know what we know? How do we know we are not living in a virtual reality matrix like Keanu Reeves.

It is one of the oldest philosophical ideas out there – that we are just dreams, or characters in a computer simulation. In this book the example used is that we may all be characters in the book written by somebody else. Half way through the book when you are well and truly bought in and identifying with the main characters they turn out to be exactly that – characters in another book. This has been an underlying theme in philosophy for thousands of years. So its very clever to find a clear and effective way to communicate it.

Overall i thought it was fantastic. Comprehensive and scholarly, while also being very brief. It covered a number of the schools of thought in the history of philosophy that I haven’t read much about and seemed to do a great job on them. It also covered the ones i did know and did them very well. It was also really interesting the order it put things in and the selections it made of which aspects of each big thinker it chose to pick out and focus on.

The most impressive thing about it was the way it used the novel form to illustrate the most difficult ideas. I have mentioned how it uses what critics now call meta writing to illustrate the idea popularised by the movie the matrix. That was a great way to illustrate a difficult idea but its not the only example. Marxism is also beautifully illustrated in a similar way and quite a few others.

I have to confess though, perhaps one of the reasons i liked it was that it confirmed my prejudices about different types of philosophy: 20 century French philosophy was a waste of space; as was 19th century German philosophy; and really Hume and Locke back in the Scottish and English enlightenments were the ones that got it right.

I was also very pleased, and surprised, to find that the book finished with modern physics and cosmology, and also that it included a lot of Darwin. It is not obvious that this would be the case in a philosophy book but it is very impressive that it was and more philosophy writers should follow the author’s lead in this.

Science has taken over a great deal of the work for that was done by philosophy. This was beautifully illustrated in the final few pages of the book where it talked about modern cosmology directly replacing and removing the idea of alienation due to the Copernican revolution. Philosophers for centuries have been saying we are all lost and angst ridden since Copernicus told us we were not the centre of the universe. Modern cosmology tells us we are literally made of stardust. The book argues that this told us we are part of the universe again. I also thought that chapter was really up to date even though it was written along time ago now back the 90s.

If updated today it could add a chapter on neuroscience. The book spends a lot of time talking about rationalist v materialist philosophers. This could be augmented by a chapter on the new neuroscience, with the idea of the biological brain. This science really does away with Descartes Freud Plato and all the other non-materialists.

If I had a disappointment with the book it was that it included quite a few pages on Freud which was completely unnecessary and pointless given what we now know about Freud. But perhaps in the ‘90s Freud still had some currency so maybe we should give the author some slack on that front.

Another quibble you could have with the book relates to the ending. Alberto and Sophie are the two main characters, the book takes us on the full journey through philosophy with them, and in the final chapters they embark on an epic existential struggle to become real, to escape from just being figments of the imagination of the author. But in the end they just seem to give that up and accept that they belong to an imaginary world of other famous literary characters – red riding hood, mother Hubbard, Batman etc.

As i read this it seemed like a cop out. It seemed like the ending was pure fantasy and step away from the philosophical journey that was the whole book up to that point. However on reflection it’s perhaps the perfect ending for the book. We began in Greek antiquity with Plato and his ideal forms that supposedly existed in a separate world, and our world just contains echoes or reflections of the perfect chair, the perfect tree etc. A world of iconic literary characters living in a non-material plane is literary Platonism. So you could argue it was really the perfect way to conclude the book – bringing it full circle.

Marcus Aurealius’ meditations were very much the opposite end of the spectrum of philosophy. This type of philosophy is not concerned with big questions like who are we or how do we know something is true, but with how we should live.

It was all about doing the right thing in deed and thought. In that sense it was much more practical than Sophie’s world. I was surprised how practical and familiar its ideas were. We were saying in the group that everything in it is quite recognisable from the era of our parents, the depression generation born in the ‘20s and ‘30s. It was full of the things that they would say – like everything in moderation; be nice to one another; be a good citizen; be thankful; dont boast or abuse people.

All very sensible and obvious you might say but it is remarkable to see that they were all written down so clearly over 2000 years ago. And not only that but by a Roman Emperor. The Roman Emperor has no reason to treat people well or behave well in any way, and most of them didn’t. That this guy chose to not only think about it, but write about, and presumably live it, is both mysterious and extremely impressive.

March 23, 2018 at 11:41 am Leave a comment

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