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THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY by MICHAEL CHABON

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.

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

SLEEPWALKING LAND by MIA COUTO

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

A LONG WAY FROM HOME

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

THE NORTH WATER by IAN McGUIRE

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

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 1 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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