Author Archive

THE GOOD PEOPLE by HANNAH KENT

Hannah Kent’s second novel, ‘the good people‘ is based on court records of a trial that took place at Tralee in the deep south of Ireland in 1826. Two women, Nance Roche and Nora Leahy, were accused of murdering the 4 year old ‘cretinous’ grandchild of Nora by drowning. They were both accused and ultimately acquitted on the testimony of Nora’s maid, Mary Clifford. The defence argued, and the jury agreed, that the accused believed the baby was a changeling, a fairy, and so their intention was not to kill Nora’s grandchild but to have him returned from the fairies in exchange for the changeling. Therefore they were found not guilty of murder.

There was quite a difference opinion about the book in the group. Some thought it was great, even better than the previous one by the same author – burial rites – which we all loved. In addition to those for and against, some were a bit lukewarm.

Something both the for and against agreed on was that it is was very very Irish. To one bookgrouper this appeared to be overly cliched, whereas to those like me that loved it we felt this was very evocative. We felt it really transported you back to that time, and inside the heads, of those people. People that are very strange to us now. People who believe remarkable things.

For me this was the first time i felt i could really understand what it’s like to live life in a complex and confusing world without science to explain how it works.

To me that was the most interesting thing about the book and a sign of great writing. I confess to bias however as this setting is the environment from which my ancestors came. I now feel i have a good grasp of the world from which they came. A world with no science. They had folk tales about plants, some which were partly true, stories about fairies and curses, they had gossip, and they had the church. Only a few generations ago that was all my family had to explain their sorrows and mysteries, and this is how the vast majority of the world still lives – including may in the global north. Looking for explanations of unusual events in all kinds of strange ways because they don’t have science, or choose not use it.

I thought the writing was glorious. It was very florid even though comprised of short sentences. It had inventive verbs and was not scared to use adjectives. It did not fall into the trendy trap of sparseness. Neither was it verbose or overly complicated. Like burial rights it was full of the sights, sounds and smells of both the people and the places. In short it had the literary fireworks that I love. Vivid descriptions formed from unusual words in unusual patterns.

Although the writing was great it was very hard going to read. The life of the characters was so hard. People really did live like that and there are many around the world still struggling in similar ways,. The book really rubs your face in that depressing fact. I found myself shaking my head a lot as i read. Although i knew it was true i found it hard to imagine that people could actually survive in those conditions, on that diet – potatoes – and with no access to any kind of medicine beyond the ‘old ways’ and the church.

If i wanted to criticise it i think my complaint would be political. To spend a whole book detailing the endless grind and struggle of a desperately poor people without even mentioning the reasons for their poverty is unsatisfying to me.

I’m sure the author did not want to get distracted with Irish history and politics but i think there should have been something. A speech from one of the residents for example detailing their hatred for the English. The reason for their hunger and poverty was the way the landlords taxed the poor. Irish history shows the poverty so graphically portrayed in the book was a politically constructed, but all we get in the book is a few mentions of rent. No explanation of what that entailed – everything they produced except potatoes; who it was for – Protestant landlords; or how it was collected – by force.

The absence of this issue is misleading but also a lost opportunity. Her first book deals with an identical community in Iceland. They are equally poor and live much the same way, but iceland was not colonised by the English so the circumstances described in burial rites are very different. As i put it in my review

Its pre-industrial and pre-modern, its pre everything

except the enlightenment,

because its poverty

and religiosity

are washed with democracy,

and the rights and freedoms of John Stewart Mill.

The poverty is still brutal,

but the politics are not feudal:

there are no lords that kill,

it’s the courts and the people’s will;

there are landed farmers with servants,

but all alike can read and write

and everyone sleeps in the one room, though I don’t know how;

there are no landlords and no tenants;

and everyone gets tried in a court, they have that right.

In a sense it’s a stop on the way, to how we live now.

The opposite situation prevails in the colonial Ireland of ‘the good people’ but Kent chooses not to point that out to us. Although disappointing i can understand why an author might not want to go there – she made a safe choice on that issue. However the book would have been much richer with that context added at some point, in some way. Without it, i think its well short of complete.

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December 24, 2017 at 7:26 am Leave a comment

THE GIRL WITH DOGS by ANNA FUNDER

Bookgroupers liked Anna funder’s new one. they said the writing was clear and easy. It was very true to life, an accurate depiction of familiar urban middle class 21st century family life. At the start i felt a little too much so. The opening scene felt quite cliched, like one of the millions New York family sit coms dramas and movies we have all seen. But it soon became more real and interesting.

Partly this was because it turned out to be set in Sydney which made it way more interesting to me as a Sydney resident, but there was a deeper reason. Although it is a middle class family drama, and inevitably the central issue is infidelity, the treatment is novel. It is written from the point of view of the wife so we know what she did and didn’t do, and thought. We dont know what the husband did or did not do, or what he thought, other than how the wife describes his actions.

This approach clearly allows each reader to make their own assumptions about what actually happened, and who is in the wrong or right. Most importantly it allows the reader to choose different endings. Its a short story and ends quite abruptly without detailing the resolution with any certainty, so you can make up your own happily ever after or not ending.

Most of us enjoyed it because although it was going over a well ploughed literary field – relationships and infidelity – it was much more nuanced than most. It was about exploring in your mind other alternatives from the family and the relationship that you choose, but not necessarily acting on those thoughts.

Most enjoyably for me it did not insist that the main characters, or the couple, have ‘issues’ and that they talk about them endlessly. It was very refreshing to read a relationship story in which both characters had enough information to lead to conclusions of infidelity on the part of their partner, although no certainty, but the reader was not forced to wade through lengthy torturous discussions about their ‘issues’.

Instead, the story implies, to me anyway, that they both decided to leave it alone and just get on with life. They both seem to conclude that she/he thought about it but chose me. I thought about but chose him/her. So its all good – as we sydneysiders say.

This outcome was made more satisfying by a passage in the middle of the story which briefly outlined a number of the relationship travails of the other middle aged middle class friends of the couple. To me this seems to provide the context for her choice. She thought about change and uncertainty but chose stability, partly because she had many friends that had gone the other way and it did not necessarily look appealing.

Finally it is supposed to be an homage to, or reflection on, the chekov short story with the a similar, name – the lady with a dog. It is published with that story but none of us read both to compare

December 24, 2017 at 7:18 am Leave a comment

SATURDAY by IAN McEWAN

Firstly lets state the obvious – McEwen is a genius. His books are so easy to read and yet so complex, both the issues they address, and the complexity of the characters they create. Reading this book is like going to the best university you can imagine. Science, philosophy, politics, ethics, literature, psychology – its all here, seamlessly blended and beautifully presented.

He is a master of his art and i think he knows it. In this book he deliberately takes on two of the biggest names in the literary business – James Joyce and Virginia Wolff. Like their acknowledged classics, Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway respectively, Saturday takes place in one 24 hour span, and is largely comprised of internal mental dialogue. To me the blatant choice to use that form is a declaration – I’m as good as them, put me in that category. And as they say in basketball – it ain’t bragging if you can back it up. He does so in spades.

However, there are a couple of key differences from those books. Some things do happen in this one. Meaning there is a plot of sorts. And it is entirely from the perspective of one character, Henry Perowne.

He is a brain surgeon living London with his lawyer wife, and oddly – his jazz/blues guitarist son. They are expecting his left leaning poet daughter to arrive for dinner that evening. They are a little nervous because Henry’s elderly father in law, is coming. He is also a poet, well known, but drunk and egotistical. Last time he and his granddaughter met they had a major falling out. Perowne is hoping for a reconciliation over dinner.

The plot though is not driven by this family drama. Rather the purpose of these very carefully designed family members seems to be to provide Perowne, and McEwen, with excuses throughout the book for lengthy and erudite debates with himself about the merits of various writers, jazz and blues musicians, politics – especially the Iraq war of 2003, and many other issues. In every case McEwen not only shows off his scholarly grasp of these issues but his gift as a writer to show how Perowne’s positions on all these things are influenced by his personal experiences, and current events in his life and that of his family.

The book manages to blend the personal current events of its main character, with both global current affairs and the history of ideas, in a way i found uniquely insightful. For example at one point Henry is in a traffic jam

“He lowers his window to taste the scene in full, the bovine patience of a jam, the abrasive tang of icy fumes, the thunderous idling machinery in six lanes east and west, the yellow street lights bleaching colour from the body work, the jaunty thud from entertainment systems, and red tail lights stretching way ahead into the city, white headlights pouring out of it.”

This is a remarkable description but what makes it genius is what follows

He tries to see it or feel it in historical terms. This moment in the last decades of the petroleum age when a 19th-century device is brought to final perfection in the early years of the 21st. When the unprecedented wealth of masses at serious play in the unforgiving modern city makes for a sight no previous age can have imagined. Ordinary people. Rivers of light. He wants to make himself see it as Newton might – or his contemporaries Boyle, Hooke Wren Willis. Those clever, curious men of the English enlightenment who for a few years held in their minds nearly all the Worlds science. Surely they would be awed. Mentally he shows it off to them. This is what we’ve done, this is commonplace in or time. All this teeming illumination would be wondrous if only he could see it through their eyes. But he can’t quite trick himself into it. He can’t feel his way past the iron weight of the actual to see beyond the boredom of a traffic tail back, or the delay to which he himself is contributing, or the drab commercial hopes of a parade of shops he’s been stuck beside for 15 minutes. He doesn’t have the lyric gift to see beyond it – he’s a realist, and can never escape. But then, perhaps two poets in the family enough.

To take the most ordinary moment – a traffic jam – and turn it into not only a brief history of ideas but also a piece of self help advice about how to remain positive is impressive enough. But to seamlessly conclude the thought by moving to a very personal reflective moment from the character, that ostensibly tells the reader something about the character, but really tells the reader about themself. That is the height of writing.

And there is much more. A great insight about what it was like as a boy to be raised without a father, which i know to be true. A very prescient description of our attitudes to media coverage of war and terrorism. A hot shower in which Perowne muses that this will be seen in future as the height of western achievement. A walk to his car that covers the history of ideas. It’s all beautifully done and nearly always seems to appear naturally from Perowne as a character, rather than McEwen as the show off author giving us lectures about this and that.

Stop now if you dont want spoilers

But the plot is not driven by Perownes musings or his family concerns. It is his encounter with a petty thug called Baxter following a minor traffic incident that keeps things moving. During the incident Baxter threatens and then punches Perowne. But it turns out Baxter has a rare genetic brain disease that Perowne can diagnose from looking at him. The disease will kill him over a period of some years. Perowne uses this knowledge on Baxter to save himself from getting further beaten up, and get out of the situation, but in the process humiliates Baxter in front of his underlings. Later there is a series of events involving Perowne and his family in which Baxter gets a brain injury and is taken to hospital. The hospital then calls in Perowne to operate on Baxter, not knowing of any background between the two.

Bookgroup had a lengthy discussion about whether it was appropriate for Perowne to operate after the night that he had had, including the trauma of a home invasion and quite a few drinks. Obviously the consensus view was that it was not appropriate. There was another view that this operation was an allegory for Western intervention in a Iraq in the sense that Perowne was intervening in this unknown land, the brain of Baxter, in his attempt to do good in this foreign land.

In hindsight I think this discussion maybe missed the obvious motivation for the operation which was revenge. Effectively by operating skilfully Perowne knowingly condemned Baxter to a dreadful death from his pre-existing condition. This is perhaps the most devastating revenge one could take.

After the bookgroup discussion i felt overlooking this was comparable in many ways to the way we search for complicated, and less objectionable more rational, socio economic causes to explain various political phenomena. Often, simple basic offensive human drives like racism explain these phenomena much more coherently, but less comfortably.

However, at the end of the book Perowne denies he acted out of revenge. He even sets out a plan in his mind to get his family not to press charges so Baxter will end his foreshortened life in hospital not jail. He seems to be thinking he is acting humanely by planning in this way. But in the same stream of internal dialogue he also acknowledges that ‘by saving his life in the operating theatre, Henry has committed Baxter to his torture. Revenge enough’.

Whether you believe Perowne on this and whatever view you take on his other actions and motivations, it is a great tribute to McEwen that he has constructed a scenario that is so rich and complex that it can be read in so many ways.

It is a wonderful book and highly recommended.

For this book group many of us read other McEwen books – everyone raved about them all as we did when we read black dogs and the children act.

December 24, 2017 at 7:08 am Leave a comment

SAM’S BEST SHOT by JAMES BEST

This is an autobiographical story of a doctor who took his teenage autistic son, Sam, backpacking through Southern Africa. It is what he describes as an n=1 experiment. That is, an experiment with only one test subject. In this case the subject was Sam and the aim was to test whether ‘forcing him to endure’, or if you prefer ‘exposing him to’, lots of variety and chaos in the would, via brain plasticity, help his brain develop more connections and give Sam his ‘best shot’ at being ‘more normal’ as his dad puts it at one point in their book.

The author came along to the bookgroup so we were able to ask him about the book directly. Unfortunately I could not attend so i asked bookgroupers to send me their thoughts. Although i could not attend i did read the book and i think the bookgroupers have covered most of my thoughts below. I definitely liked the travelogue aspect.

Bookgrouper 1

As another bookgrouper reminded everyone, we normally talk about the book for about 45 minutes before the conversation descends (or in some cases elevates) to the subjects of politics, religion and sex. But having the author present changes that dynamic entirely. We were all very pleased to engage and be engaged by James for three hours straight. Sam was not able to attend but with James’ assistance made a video about his African experience specifically for the bookgroup. This was of special interest to us as it gave the bookgroup something more of a first-hand exposure to the unique way that Sam observes and negotiates the world. Also it provided insights into the dynamic that exists between Sam and James and places the events of the book in a more intimate context.

Fundamentally the book tells the story of James and Sam’s expedition to Africa for the purpose of exposing Sam to high levels of new and unpredictable experiences, without many (but not all) of their daily supports. Their travels took them through many countries over six months and presented them with constant daily challenges to not only simply negotiate their movement through, and experience of, Africa but also to complete a number of neuroplasticity exercises that would increase the flow of traffic across Sam’s corpus callosum (the part of the brain that facilitates communication between the hemispheres). Learning to play chess, boxing, writing, engaging in prolonged conversation with the general public were all exercises that extended Sam through this time. And all the while their experience was being recorded on video to document the project and also to produce a movie that might be broadcast on TV. In fact a month or so ago this video was shown on Australian Story.

It’s interesting that everyone in the group was so engaged with the broad subject of how we interact and work with people who have disabilities. It seems that everyone in the group either had a family member or friend who had a disability of some sort and were eager to discuss the subject of how our perceptions leads us to reach conclusions about what life must be like living with a disability (particularly an intellectual disability in this case) and how we can best interact positively and productively.

Of course travelling through Africa can be quite a challenging experience, and the regime that James set himself and Sam in order to test if Sam’s neuroplasticity could be expanded seemed on the surface like it would make the whole trip so much more difficult. And in many aspects that’s exactly what it did. However they could not have anticipated how generous people they met on route turned out to be, from fellow travellers, to local identities, to just people that they met in the street. Everyone seems to resonate with the effort that Sam and James were putting in to the project and were keen to participate and further the experiment in whatever way they could.

Autism still remains a big mystery for me even though I have met Sam on a few occasions and have also met other autistic children and adults in my daily experience. Someone like Sam seems to have so many capabilities alongside a kind of emotional myopia and the mix leads to a confusion on my part whether to step towards him or away from him. Fundamentally though he as a very friendly boy (nearly a man) even if at times outspoken and lacking in normal social graces. I appreciated the chance to get alongside both Sam and James’ experience and watch how this great experiment unfolded.

Bookgrouper 2

I’m still reading the book in drubs and drabs – ie it hasn’t captivated me but it has amazed me as to what they planned and endured together. Certainly demonstrates a father’s commitment to see if a strategy which has a reasonably strong scientific rationale but not strong evidence might make a difference to his son’s development and independence.

It is hard to imagine the real daily challenges of the minute by minute, hour by hour behavioural and situational challenges they both experienced and then have the energy to keep a diary, take videos, do the regime of physical and mental exercises and sustain this commitment for six months. Quite an achievement. I also have a better understanding of autism on a day to day basis with ongoing examples dotted throughout the book. I am certainly enjoying some of the vivid descriptions of the African countryside, animals and people.

More than just a book for parents of children with children autism.

Bookgrouper 3

One of the questions I asked was about why he chose Africa and could the trip be duplicated locally particularly for people without the resources to travel. James indicated that for him it was useful to have travelled outside Australia because if he had stayed within Australia he might have been tempted to return home when things were tough. Being in Africa encouraged him to deal with the difficult times. That said he was of the view that the tools and interventions he used could be duplicated in other environments.

It was a very enlightening and interesting bookgroup.

Bookgrouper 4

Just a few thoughts as I said yesterday…mostly

-I am a bit inhibited when the author was there

-he explained the there was no intention of a book or film until suggested by patients or friends who had a connection with a film mob and publishing mob

-went to Africa instead of Australia as he would have tossed it in, too easy to give in locally

-offered other sons the trip as well but they didn’t want to go, not because they wanted to have a break from Sam, just had other stuff on.

-he said it was really tough a lot of the time

– Sam did a video for us as he negotiated his way out of coming ” as he does”, very generous of James to come

– met some amazing people especially people like Morton who could look at their situation objectively and have an empathy with Sam

bookgrouper 5

You can¹t really tell the Author what you thought of the writing but it was good to discuss the issues of Autism and travel.

I asked questions relating to the issue of labelling people and what that does to them and everyone else and their relationships.

Also what the concept of NORMAL is. How its a socially constructed human and cultural invention.

Its was interesting to hear The writers research on what Autism might occur and how it develops to affect parts of the brain.

Of course the discussions about Africa and its beauty was also great.

Bookgrouper 6

Sam’s dad is a man of energy and purpose. He was generous in taking about his concern that the book not be read as ‘proof’ or a ‘cure’. We talked about the role of single case studies as building blocks in the long road of research and documentation.

He described how his practice had already focussed on children when Sam came along.

The book was aimed widely at everyone with an interest in and concern for autism. While James had written non-fiction before it was a fresh insight into the writing process; sitting up late any night he could to record the day, happenstance connections leading to the filming and the publication. James knew that his editor was supportive and skilled but I don’t think he knew that Jane Palfreyman is considered by many people I know to be the best in the country.

James must think that Don is (a) his favourite patient and or (b) an excellent cook because he went all out bringing his photos from the trip to share with us and recording a video with Sam specifically for the book group.

Oh and if the soup were to ever be reported to the Nobel academy I reckon its a shoe in!

bookgrouper 7

Sams Best shot was an interesting read for me. To be honest it’s one of those books that but for (a) bookgroup I would not pick up.

That’s because of its assumed intent. Who is this book primarily targeted to? Medical circles? Well the author is a doctor. The “autism community”? Well the author is well and truly inside. The “general population”? How could I consider myself one of these?

Well into the book the author uses and repeats a phrase “this is autism”. If he had produced a thirty page brochure with the same title I reckon fewer people would have read it. A travelogue with some family dynamic and personal struggle is more likely to take a general reader (like me) beyond page 3. So if it’s trying to reach me it worked.

Still it did leave me with questions;

What’s the intent of the book?

Who is the primary target audience

Why choose the format and genre used?

Should he have included more method – academic analysis? If yes why not and if no why?

At the end I did not feel compelled to read or look for more. What does that say about me, us, and maybe the book?

December 24, 2017 at 6:51 am Leave a comment

PRAYERS FOR THE STOLEN by JENNIFER CLEMENT


Prayers for the Stolen is set in Mexico in the 2000s. It's about the narco-traffickers' traffic in young girls, from the point of view of a girl. This review from the guardian raved about it and I agree. I cant usually cope with such awful subject matter, especially when you know its true, these things, or things very like them really happen, but its done so cleverly that i found it was funny and entertaining without at all downplaying the horror of the reality.

It achieves this through a very clever use of point of view. It's written in the first person from the point of view of a young poor rural girl called LadyDi. This enables you to read all the very difficult material about narco-traffickers, people smuggling, guns and drugs and paedophilia more easily because it's from this naive perspective. However, LadyDi is always quoting her mother who is a very world world weary and cynical character, but very smart.

This device allows the author to make all these really funny and interesting observations about what's going on that would otherwise be out of place for a naïve young girl. As she is quoting her mother the author is able to put all these very diary and very funny world weary observations into the mouth of young LadyDi, so its full of remarkable quotes and observations and real insights about what it takes to survive in such a terrible world.

Other bookgroupers also agreed it was very well done, interesting and funny, along with horrific. One bookgrouper used the word dystopian to describe it. That is exactly right – but the book is no made-up fantasy. Clement has lived her whole life in Mexico and produces what The Guardian calls 'the new journalism'

Prayers for the Stolen, (is)…described as a novel, but that's much too simple a description for what Clement is doing with the genre. In this startling tale of a young girl abducted into the Mexican drug trade, the social history – the reality of the world from which the fiction comes – burns away anything on the pages that could feel "made up". This is like the new journalism made newer still……..

Every sentence in Prayers for the Stolen is direct, potent, unexpected; twisting on the page like a knife in the gut. Ladydi tells us about Paula, a pretty girl who, unlike all the others, has been released by her captors and is able to return home, now hollow-eyed and dead inside. Her story is the catalyst for all the girls' stories in this terrifying narrative that exposes the inexorable repetition of lives brutalised by the sovereignty and corruption of the drug cartels.

The writing is electrifying not only because of its subject matter – anyone could report the facts – or because Clement is so strong on the insider viewpoint that gives new journalism its kick, but because she is a consummate stylist who makes sure nothing is wasted. Every scene is related with her trademark concision and fastidious attention to detail, her prose a gorgeous amalgam of spoken Mexican English, prayer, repetitions, incantations and American dreck…..

So there's brightness, too, humour in the darkness of Ladydi's world – a tenderness and love that are glimpsed as possibilities of another life, like the plastic flowers and glittery tinsel decorating a roadside shrine…..

Clement's authority comes from her deep intimacy with the subject matter of her books…… and as a Mexican, the territory of her three novels is her home. For Prayers for the Stolen she spent time with the girls and women in prison whose only real crime was having once been young and pretty. When she writes: "The Santa Marta Jail in the south of Mexico City was the biggest beauty parlour in the world," it rings true because it is true. She hung out with all those daughters and girlfriends and mothers and sisters left behind by the drug barons who kidnapped them from their homes and families. Now they sit around waiting for justice that won't come, doing their hair and painting their nails and telling stories – stories that are real lives.

It was so vivid and so real – it makes you think 'of course this is what happens when might makes right, when money talks and there is no higher authority, no avenue of appeal beyond guns and money'. Its mad max, and every other post apocalyptic movie you have ever seen happening for real in rural Mexico.

August 27, 2017 at 6:42 am Leave a comment

COMMONWEALTH by ANN PATCHETT

Commonwealth is a middle class blended family drama. The custody arrangements mean that every North American summer 6 kids from two families spend several weeks together with couple that created the whole situation, who provide next to no supervision. It's about the long-tail effects of what those kids got up to each summer in 80s on them as adults in the present day, and by implication of the behaviour of the couple. The consequences of their self-absorption.

The Guardian's review begins

Ann Patchett’s seventh novel begins in the early 1960s, at Beverly and Fix Keating’s christening party for their daughter Franny. An unexpected guest turns up, with a large bottle of gin in lieu of an invitation. Bert Cousins is a lawyer in the Los Angeles district attorney’s office; Fix Keating is a local cop. They barely know each other, but Bert wants an excuse to escape a home with three small children and a pregnant wife. With the help of Bert’s gin, everyone gets drunk and many lives are changed. Handsome Bert kisses beautiful Beverly, sparking an affair that splits and reconfigures their families. Eventually Bert and Beverly leave their spouses, marry and move to Virginia, where their six children come together each summer.

Commonwealth crosscuts between the lives of the Keating and Cousins families over the next five decades, as tragedy strikes and life unfolds. In her 20s, Franny Keating begins a relationship with the renowned novelist Leon Posen, a much older man in desperate need of inspiration for a new book. The stories she tells him of her childhood sow the seeds for his bestselling comeback, also entitled “Commonwealth”. The impact of that novel, and the secrets it reveals, spin the threads Patchett uses to stitch together the stories of 10 people: the six Keating-Cousins children and their four parents.

Most bookgroupers liked it. They appreciated that the language did not get in the way. It seemed to narrate events and give insights to behaviours of characters without ever drawing attention to itself. One bookgrouper particularly liked that the dialogue was quite surprising, and everyone agreed. it was like real dialogue in that characters rarely answered the questions they were asked directly, instead making observations triggered by the question or related to it, so their conversations moved from one related thing to the next, as they do in life.

We had an interesting discussion about whether it was a deliberate, pretentious, attempt to turn a pretty ordinary story in to ‘Literature’. It wasn't from the language perspective, as i’ve said the language did its job without being flashy or showy. However, it did do a number of other things that you could argue were deliberate attempts to flag to the prize awarding literarti that this was ‘Literature’: it was non-linear timewise and character wise; and self – reflective or ‘meta’ as some would have it.

It was non-linear time wise because it started from the end, or near it, then jumped to different moments in the history of the family that led to that point. Nearly every book that wants to be ‘Literature’ does this. It often feels quite forced, just adding confusion but no other value. However in this case it did not get in the way. Most of the book was actually in time order, apart from the beginning and the end. And the points chosen were clearly turning points. So you could argue it was ok because it didn't get in the way, it wasn't confusing. but you could also say it was entirely unnecessary, and just included because the author, a former book editor, knows that it is expected for Literature.

Similarly, as a former editor the author would know that all ‘Literature’ these days has to switch point view between different characters to show the author can ‘write’ men and women and whoever. The book is structured this way — with a section from the point of view of one character and then another. But the end most, but not all, of the main characters have had their own section. Again, while you could say its unnecessary and therefore just for show, its also done well, so it doesn't seem to be confusing or distracting. Each section is reasonably long so its not hard to follow, and as you spend time with each character it starts to explain their behaviour as related in other sections by other characters. Although I thought it wasn't entirely successful. For me the men were a little bit stereo typical, without a great depth of character, but the book ids mostly from the point of view of the women characters and they were very good.

It was self reflective in that it featured a book and film about the events described in the book, even with the same name as the book. So it's a book describing a book about itself. As i understand it, this is what some people call meta-narrative, which is very trendy in literary circles. So on this count you can definitely argue that the author was trying hard to be literary. It really wasn't necessary in the story, which is otherwise quite a well-done middle-class family drama with a few surprises here and there; some very interesting lines; and some well observed descriptions of the interactions between people. It is done well enough that it could have stood on its own in that genre without the ‘meta’ bit. Therefore the choice to include it does smack of chasing prizes.

Whether or not it was self-consciously pretentious, i think if you like middle class family dramas, especially about west coast Americans, this would not be a bad choice. However there many many such books. I'm not sure there is anything distinctive about this one.

August 5, 2017 at 7:14 am Leave a comment

KINDRED by OCTAVIA BUTLER

Although it is a study of America in the early 1800s this book could be a vision of the future. It’s apalling central character Rufus was raised in a household with slaves, whom he simultaneously regarded as friends and family, and ordered around to do his every wish and command. His total inability to form genuine relationships may be what is waiting for us all in the era of the robot; when our children have been brought up with electronic child care slaves they are free to use and abuse.
But Rufus is not the core issue. The real story is of African American woman – Dana – from the 1970s.

She gets transported back in time to the slave owning past when the life of her white ancestor – the apalling Rufus – is threatened. She then gets transported back to her time when her own life is threatened. So the book is constructed from the series of dramatic events that lead to her being transported back-and-forth, and how it is for her to survive between these events, either as a black woman in slave era America or back in her own 70s Los Angeles wondering what is going on.

This time travel scenario is set up so that even though she often only stays in her time for a few hours between trips to the past, when she goes back years have passed. Likewise she can be back in the slave times for months, but only gone for a few minutes from her own time.

This set-up is a little complex but it makes for a great book. It’s a very clever at multiple levels. Its main purpose is to allow us to see more clearly the slave owning world because we can see it through modern eyes, but black eyes. However, it also has some practical story telling bonuses. For example, it stops her killing her obnoxious ancestor because she knows has to wait until her ancestor Hagar is born, otherwise she herself might never come to be.

It’s well written in the sense that the writing stays out-of-the-way, and does it’s job of communicating characters and scenes. It does not try to wow you with language fireworks but its certainly not any the less powerful for that.

This more plain writing style is the major real difference with the previous book group novel – Beloved. It was also a very powerful novel about slave America, but the writing was difficult at times and beautiful at others. Either way the writing was constantly, and deliberately, in your face. In contrast this book is very easy to read. It doesn’t shout at you that its a literary novel. Tellingly though everybody in the group finished it for the first time in many years because it was easy to read.

Interestingly both books agreed that in their view the most crucial part of the slave experience is the humiliation, self loathing and self doubt it causes. Both books communicate this same experience, just in different ways.

They both say that self-doubt and humiliation comes from feeling like you have given in to violence, chosen not to resist and fight back, and how this causes ongoing guilt. A feeling that you are allowing this to happen to you; even though you have no choice, it’s clear you will be killed if you do resist; nevertheless self loathing comes from that perception that you have acquiesced, accepted and therefore in some way participated in this abomination.

These books hammer that point, this in their view is the biggest part of the slave experience and why that self loathing has echoes down the generations

Even though it was written in the 70s the book does take the opportunity to deal with many things other than slavery.

The main character is black and in her own time she’s married to a white man, and there is a lot said about that at the beginning. Rightly so. Interracial marriages as they called in the US, even in the 21st century, seem to remain very controversial. The purpose of the story of their families both ostracising them in their own is to show America still has a long way to go. 

There is also a lot of gender issues in the novel because Dana, the main character, arrives back in time with short hair and wearing pants. They dont know what to think of her. 

There is also interesting dynamics amongst the black slaves. There is a hierarchy. Dana is seen as too close to the masters, too educated, so she is called a white nigger. This shows to complexity of humans, and makes the point that just because you are a victim of some terrible doesn’t automatically make you are saint. Victims can also be horrible to their fellow victims.

The other main character, Rufus, is a remarkable psychological creation. He is just appalling in almost every way, but this is done in a way that really shines a light on what it means to live well what it means to have good relationships. 

Everything with Rufus is about punishment and reward; even when he has genuine feelings. He really does seem to love Dana and another woman in the book Alice – the mother of his children. Even so he only deals with them in a punishment and reward way. He wants them to love him and he thinks he can achieve that through punishment, often terrible punishment, and reward. It makes no sense, every reader knows you cant beat someone in to loving you, but in his case its all he knows. It is the only model of relationship he has see, because he has grown up isolated on slave era plantation with his father. As a man of his time this is how his father treated both Rufus as a child and his slaves, so Rufus behaves the same way.

This really tells you something about the the slave-master relationship. It also seems to be saying something about the impact of slavery on the white slave-owners not just about the impact of slavery on the black slaves

And this is where you can argue the study of slavery has great contemporary relevance. We may be entering a new era of slavery, the slavery of robots. So it may be that we are all at risk of becoming Rufus when we all have permanent personal slaves. If we treat them as slaves will they have the same affect on us? Will we all become like Rufus in the way that we deal with people because we are used to dealing with our electronic slaves, so will we treat each other in the same way and be disappointed when people don’t respond like our robots respond? If we get used to treating our robots as slaves will we want to treat humans the same way? Worse still will we look for opportunities to get a ‘real’ slave – a genuine human we can treat like a robot, will that become the new conspicuous consumption?

Even bookgroupers who don’t normally like sci-fi or fantasy managed to cope with the time travel aspect with no problem. I think because of straightforward language and the really clever devices were used to set up the scenario:

  • Making Rufus the ancestor of Dana meant she had she to keep rescuing him until her ancestor Hagar was born even though he was so appalling. 
  • Making the trigger for the time travel a life-threatening situations for either Rufus or Dana because it meant the drama had to keep coming to get them back and forth. It created constant suspense because whatever time she was in you wondered what was going on back in the other time.
  • Having her there from the 70s really made you look at the slave world through her 70s eyes. 
  • Having her there as black woman really brought it home very strongly especially in one instance where she was sent back in time with her white husband so they were there together and how that played out – a black woman and a white man back in that time – and how they had to behave to survive was very revealing.

Highly recommended

July 8, 2017 at 12:15 pm Leave a comment

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