Posts filed under ‘australian’

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

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

DARK EMU by BRUCE PASCOE

dark emu

Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu – Black seeds: agriculture or accident? makes a claim on all Australians. It wants us to reimagine pre-colonial Australia. It wants us to look again and see something new. On the basis of the words in the first white explorers diaries, it wants us to acknowledge that our landscape, ‘the bush’, is a cultural artefact, a product manufactured and maintained by the oldest culture on earth. It is a strong claim and convincingly made. It argues that what the explorers report is clear. There was no ‘wilderness’ here in 1788, and there hasn’t been one here for 60,000 years. Instead there was a group of cooperating nations applying a shared technology and law, to meet their economic and cultural needs.

In a way it throws white Australia’s words back in our face. It seems to say, in a very polite way, we don’t know why but you seem to thinks its important to believe we were nomadic hunter gatherers that didn’t plant crops, build houses or use pottery. The problem with that is that on many occasions the descriptions of us written by your own people at the time of first contact describe us planting and harvesting crops, and living in villages with houses, cemeteries and food storage facilities. So why is it that you have paid no attention to the words of your own people? Is there a reason you want to think of us as hunter gatherers only? if it was to help you justify taking our land and murdering us – where does that leave you now?

The message and the method of the book can be illustrated by an example from pages 204 and 205. They contain a quote and a drawing from Major Mitchell describing an Aboriginal cemetery he saw on the Darling River. Both the description and picture of the cemetery make it sound absolutely beautiful, and extremely familiar to european eyes of either the 19th or 21st century. After describing it and drawing it he says

With all our art, we could do no more for the dead, than these poor savages had done

This quote sums up the book’s message, and method, because it uses one unedited sentence, directly from a famous explorer (in this case Mitchell), to show us:

  • Aboriginal people had cemeteries, of a kind we would recognise
  • they were constructed with paths and gardens and therefore Aboriginal society had all technical the skills and the organisational power needed to produce a manicured landscape on a large scale for a ceremonial purpose
  • the explorers knew of them, recorded them, and recognised the technology and organisation required to make them but managed to maintain their belief in the ‘primitiveness’ of Aboriginal Australians
  • historians, and anyone else that has read the explorers diaries, must have known about these observations and knowingly chose not to tell anybody else about them
  • there must be reason for this selective and wilful forgetting.

All the book groupers loved the book. We were amazed we had never heard of all these observations before. The existence of the diaries and writings of all the famous white ‘exploerers’ was very well known to bookgroupers, as it is to all Australians because we have heard of people like Mitchell and Sturt, and read their quotes, our whole lives. But until now we were never told these writings included detailed descriptions, even drawings, of Aboriginal houses, crops, cemetaries, and large scale permanent fishing and and farming enterprises. Bookgroupers felt it was embarrassing and extraordinary that we didn’t know about any of this.

The book is very short and easy to read, which is a good thing, but in my case I found it a bit frustrating. Its argument is so convincing and so important i would have liked a lot more. Often it refers to other books and academic parers, just giving the reference and saying, ‘it reported this or that..’ but i often wanted the detail because i was so interested. However, I have to acknowledge the book is fully referenced, like an academic article, so i can go and look up all the references if i want to.

The first chapter deals with agriculture. Like the rest of the book, its full of quotes from the explorers. What these quotes clearly demonstrate is that Aboriginal people in a large part of Australia (a map of this region is provided on page 63) cultivated grain for processing, manufacturing and storage, while in other regions they cultivated various root crops generically called yams.

One of the quotes about grain crops is from Major Mitchell (p39)

the seed is made by the natives into a kind of paste or bread. Dry heaps of this grass, that has been pulled expressly for this purpose of gathering the seed, lay along our path for many miles. I counted nine miles along the river, in which we rode through this grass only, reaching to our saddle-girths, and the same grass seemed to grow back from the river, at least as far as the eye could reach through a very open forest, 

One of the quotes about yams is from George Grey in Western Australia in 1839

We now crossed the dry bed of a stream, and from that emerged upon a tract of light fertile soil quite overrun with warran plants [the yam plant, Dioscorea hastifolia], the root of which is a favourite article of food with the natives. This was the first time we had seen this plant on our journey and now for three and a half consecutive miles [5.6 kilometres] traversed a piece of land, literally perforated with holes the natives made to dig this root; indeed we could with difficulty walk across it on that account whilst the tract extended east and west as far as we could see.

A key point to make about this chapter is the difference between it and what we have heard from other previous authors about Aboriginal land management. Tim Flannery talked about firestick farming in ‘the future eaters’ and Bill Gammage got a lot of press for the ‘the biggest estate on earth’ which made a similar argument to Flannery. That argument is referred to in this book and summed up with a quote it uses from Gammage saying ‘people farmed in 1788 but were not farmers’.

In my view though the quotes above, which are just a fraction of those in the book, seem to show that such a distinction is worthless. Whether you call them farmers or not, it seems clear that these people were doing agriculture, and that is not what we have been told.

The next few chapters of the book move on to what archaeologists call material culture – the stuff people make.

Remarkably, for those of us that grew up being told Aboriginal people did not build anything or live in one place, one of these chapters deals with housing. Two quotes from Major Mitchell illustrate its point in relation to housing

some huts… being large, circular; and made of straight rods meeting at an upright pole in the centre; the outside had first been covered with bark and grass, and the entirety coated over with clay. The fire appeared to have been made nearly in the centre; and a hole at the top had been left as a chimney.14

In crossing one hollow we passed among the huts of a native tribe. They were tastefully distributed amongst drooping acacias and casuarinae; some resembled bowers under yellow fragrant mimosae; some were isolated under the deeper shades of casuarinae; while others were placed more socially, three or four together, fronting to one and the same hearth. Each hut was semicircular, or circular, the roof conical, and from one side a flat roof stood forward like a portico, supported by two sticks. Most of them were close to the trunk of a tree, and they were covered, not as in many other parts, by sheets of bark, but with a variety of materials, such as reeds, grass and boughs. The interior of each looked clean, and to us passing in the rain, gave some idea, not only of shelter, but even of comfort and happiness. They afforded a favourable specimen of the taste of the gins, whose business it is to construct the huts.141page 83

Another quote talks about stone houses big enough and strong enough to ride a horse over, which sounds extraordinary – and a little dangerous.

The book includes a lot of examples of material manufacture other than housing such as fish traps, wells, irrigation systems for harvesting water, and battues for harvesting wildlife, and food storage such as granaries.

Page 84 talks about the remains of a battue in Euroa in Victoria

This particular drive brought kangaroos from a huge flat area to the foot of the range and then shuted them into a series of holding pens where narrow apertures could direct animals designated for slaughter one way and those to be released in another.

The stone works and nearby housing associated with these drives represents an incredible labour investment and a move towards sedentism comparable to that represented by the fish traps at Lake Condah and Brewarrina. Sites such as these are begging for further investigation.

And on page 87 another quote from Mitchell talks about fishing nets

the net, which, even in quality, as well as the mode of the knotting, can scarcely be distinguished from those made in Europe

The final three chapters move on to what these observations mean. The discussion covers two issues:

  • what it says about white society that these observations have been ignored; and
  • what these observations say about the nature of pre-colonial Australian society.

On the first issue the book makes a number of hugely important points. Firstly it says we need to rewrite our history (p144)

the observations of the first explorers and settlers provides an enormous body of material. In this book I am drawing on only a small sample of what is available to any Australian with a computer mouse or a library card. The reason I have provided so many examples, however, is to emphasise the depth of the available material and the desperate need for a revision of our history.

As a natural resources person i think it also means we need to rewrite our science because it means the landscape we are seeing is not ‘nature’ its a farm. It reinforces the point Tim Flannery made 20 years ago that the idea of ‘wilderness’ is nonsense. This book reinforces the message. There has been no wilderness here for 60,000 years

Most importantly though, as the last chapter points out, we need to admit the obvious reason why the writers of white Australian history have wilfully ignored these specific passages of texts that they have analysed and reanalysed. All over the world colonisers have found it to be in their interests to present the people and the places they colonise as ‘primitive’. Its the ‘warping of history and archaeology…to justify extermination..’ (p348) and dispossession. That is what has gone on here. Its obvious and we need to admit it.

To his great credit Pascoe also acknowledges that an additional reason that we have not heard more of Aboriginal agriculture and material culture (beyond racism, colonialism, war and dispossession) maybe that it was women doing the agriculture and the building. All Pascoe’s quotes have the explorers saying it was the women building the houses, harvesting the grain and digging the yams.

I think he could have been much stronger on this point, but he does cite someone writing on a similar situation in North America and says

One of the further impediments to the revelation of this aspect ,,,was that the gardens were constructed and farmed by women and children — and such knowledge was never revealed to male archaeologists. Even after the engineering of the gardens had been examined by independent scientists, there was enormous reluctance to accept the results

On the second issue, of what these observations say about pre-colonial Australia, the book does get a little romantic at times, but less so than i expected. On page 144 he even anticipates the romanticism problem I was worried about

You can read other theories of Aboriginal culture, spirituality and economy in New Age texts or the books of over-enthusiastic researchers, but often they are making guesses to bridge the gaps in knowledge. Too often they ascribe all sorts of mystical wisdom to their subjects but their earnest romanticism is unnecessary

True to his word he does largely avoid it although not entirely. For example there is a lengthy quote from Bill Stanner on page 283 that paints pre-colonial life in utopian terms.

However he absolutely nails the key message and the key way forward – that is -what do these revelations mean for post-colonial Australia?

Restoring Aboriginal pride in the past and allowing that past to inform the future will remove the yoke of despair from Aboriginal people. Despair is reinforced every day an Aboriginal person has to argue for her pride in the past, for his determination to honour the achievements of the ancestors

In case you think my take on the book might be idiosyncratic. this blog compiles a lot of reviews of the book in the one place, and the quote below which echoes my view is from here

Dark Emu argues for a reconsideration of the ‘hunter-gatherer’ tag for pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians and attempts to rebut the colonial myths that have worked to justify dispossession. Accomplished author Bruce Pascoe provides compelling evidence from the diaries of early explorers that suggests that systems of food production and land management have been blatantly understated in modern retellings of early Aboriginal history, and that a new look at Australia’s past is required.

As book grouper Trish put it – In addition to saying sorry we need to say thank you.

April 26, 2016 at 11:43 am Leave a comment

TREMBLE by TOBSHA LEARNER

 

tremble

I guess it should be no surprise that I really liked Tremble. The book is billed as erotic fantasy, and I am both a keen participant in Sydney’s burlesque scene and long term reader of fantasy novels. So its a match made in heaven me.

Unfortunately no one else in the bookgroup has this combination of interests so Tremble did nothing for them, not even a weakness of the knees, let alone trembling all over.

I thought it was a long shot but I thought maybe they’d go for it in a guilty pleasure sort of a way. I thought it had a chance with them because it was written by a woman, so the sex was all from the woman’s perspective; also a lot of the stories were set in Australia; some were funny; some political; some informed by ancient myths and legends; the perfect brew for my taste so I thought maybe Bookgroupers would find something to enjoy.

Alas I was alone on that island. Badly written, not erotic, weird, too much, some book groupers even complained the sex was stereotypically male oriented . So unhappy were they, that very few read more than couple of stories.

So I guess I cannot recommend it to anyone other than people like me – long term fans of fantasy and burlesque. If you happen to be in that group, quite possibly a group of two, just you and me, this may be the book for you and, maybe you should call me.

Otherwise, based on the reaction of other book groupers i’d have to say stay away – unless you really want to push your boundaries with stories of magical sex, revenge and enchantment set in Sydney, Brisbane, the English countryside and in one case the Falklands war.

March 20, 2016 at 4:06 am Leave a comment

THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF by HELEN GARNER

house of grief

Helen Garner is one of the most respected literary figures in Australia, mostly because she writes books like this one. Very precisely written and minutely observed books, about very unpleasant situations, that draw out all kinds of extreme emotional responses from onlookers.

Based on this book it seems her purpose in doing this is to make us question those responses, and look at them from multiple points of view. What she seems to want us to understand is the diversity of human experience, that none of us can really know how we will behave in any given situation until it happens.

For that purpose her target in this case is well chosen. It is a murder trial that was big news for many years in Australia. A father was accused of murdering his three young boys by driving his car into a dam and drowning them. One of the more appalling things a human could be accused of doing, and an act that elicits strong emotional reactions.

Garner chose to sit through every moment of months and months of trials and appeals over several years. The book reports her observations of the participants and onlookers throughout this process, particularly her observations of herself.

In this process she makes you think about what it means to be a man and a father, what really is a ‘good’ life or relationship, and what should we be prepared to do to get them, or keep them, and how to respond when we lose them.

It’s magnificently written in a technical sense. The sentences are perfectly structured and punctuated. Their meaning is almost never in doubt, despite the complexity of the emotions she is trying to communicate. If you want to learn how to write clearly for professional purposes, you could do worse than copy her style.

Despite the worthiness of the project and its execution, for me it wasn’t worth my while to finish it. I read about a 100 pages then flicked to the end, to make sure the court verdict was as expected. To me it’s not news to learn that perfectly normal people, mostly men, sometimes do perfectly evil things, even in perfectly banal situations. Life is complicated and people can be strange. I didn’t feel I needed to read a whole book, a whole harrowing book, to confirm that.

However bookgroupers felt differently. They were very engaged by the book. They were particularly fascinated by the detail she gave of the court process, how expensive it is, and how difficult it is for the witnesses, even in what seemed like a rather open and shut case. I think Garner would be happy with this reaction as the book title refers to the court system, not the family in the story as you might assume. Bookgroupers were also very impressed by the way she brought all the various participants into the story, and reported on their reactions and feelings.

I agree the book is a spectacular display of empathy. She really makes an effort to take the reader inside the heads of the people involved: the mother; the barristers; the investigating police; the jurors; the grandparents; the accused; and even the journalists such as herself covering the trial. At times she does this with insightful flair like when she describes the effect of the testimony of mother’s lover on the jury, and the watching audience, saying ‘he had that certain glamour that hangs around Australian tradies’.

In conclusion I’d say this is a book for people fascinated with the psychology of crime. If you really want to know why people kill. If you can’t get enough of crime dramas that take you into the world of the accused, the victims, and the justice system this is probably for you. It could be described as a literary equivalent of high quality crime docu-drama, but that would miss a central core of the book, which is garner’s eye-witness account of proceedings. To make the analogy complete you would have to imagine such a docu-drama with a narration by the film maker, describing their feelings and impressions as the footage unfolds.

It’s difficult material, but covered from every angle and so precisely written you feel like you are watching it rather than reading about it.

August 4, 2015 at 8:22 am Leave a comment

THE ROSIE PROJECT by GRAEME SIMSION

rosie p

The Rosie Project was light hearted and a lot of fun. As I read it I thought, this will definitely be made into a Hollywood rom-com. It is therefore a great tribute to the book to say that I really enjoyed it. I am not someone who would ever willingly sit through a rom-com, so for me the read it all, and enjoy it, was a great effort by the author.

It has all the traditional elements of the rom-com: a nerdy guy, with a Casanova friend; the unlikely couple; a misunderstanding; a joint quest that forces them to be together; various hijnks en-route to the quest; and of course a happy ending.

What made it fun for me was the Australian setting and the characters particularly the lead character don, and the leading lady Rosie.

The book is written in the first person by don. Its this that gives the book pretty much all of its freshness and humour. Don is an academic, a genetics professor, and like a lot of academics he is a long way along the Aspergers spectrum. The book’s humour comes from both his social ineptness, and from him pointing out how silly, from a purely rational standpoint, a lot of the behaviour us ‘normals’ expect.

As good as the don character is, it was the Rosie character that allowed to me to enjoy it despite its rom-comyness. Rosie is not the standard leading lady for this genre. She is confident, unpretentious, practical, has low expectations of men, but is willing to reserve judgement. In many ways she is an Australian woman. In short, she would be a challenge for a Hollywood rom-com to recreate. If the movie stayed true to the book they could not cast a Cameron Diaz or Julia Roberts type character. Rosie is much more Sharon Stone or Halle Berry or even Carrie-Anne Moss from the matrix.

After I finished the book I learnt it had originally been written as a screenplay for a rom-com. It only turned in to a book because the author couldn’t get the movie made. The success of the book however got the attention of the movie industry, and its recently been announced that a movie will be made. Apparently it will be a big time hollywood number and Jennifer Lawrence has been cast in the role of Rosie. It will be interesting to see if screen Rosie bears any resemblance to book Rosie, and also whether they relocate it entirely from Melbourne in to a US setting.

There are lots of great scenes in the book as our unlikely couple roam around Melbourne and New York on the quest. They are trying to furtively obtain DNA samples from each of the men that may be Rosie’s father. As the quest goes on and each candidate is eliminated, the suspense builds nicely. You really want to know the answer. Better still the end result is a big surprise.

So all told i thought it was great light hearted read, and well worth the effort. Surprisingly bookgroupers had little to say about it. All basically agreed it was fun and that’s about as much as we discussed it. Nearly everyone said it prompted some laugh out loud moments. Whenever a book can get you to laugh out loud it’s doing pretty well in my view, so if you are looking for a light hearted read – it’s a great option.

As Bookgrouper Annie put it:

…a great book… Haven’t laughed out loud like this while reading a book for years; finished it in two days; couldn’t put the book down. The story is about a nerdy geneticist who has Aspergers, but doesn’t know he has….. Despite his odd behaviour, strict routines and lack of friends, he seems unaware he’s an Aspie. He embarks on a project to find a partner / wife, which becomes the Rosie Project. The book highlights the strengths and unique personality of this 40 year old likeable man. Highly recommended.

August 4, 2015 at 7:59 am Leave a comment

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