Category Archives: Book Group

The Book Group in an Ian McEwan Nutshell

Ian McEwan, Nutshell (Jonathan Cape 2016)

1911214330.jpgThe Meeting: This is the first time I’ve been to a Book group meeting without having read even one page of the book that’s up for discussion. The Emerging Artist asked me what excuse I was going to give. I replied haughtily, and a little disingenuously, that I didn’t need an excuse, because the group is about much more than discussing a book.

There’s food, which this time was excellent: our host had taken a day off work to buy ingredients and cook a fabulous Malaysian meal. (He joked that he had thought of making smoothies but decided against it – a joke which I only got a week later when half way through the book.) And there’s bonhomie: we caught up with each other’s lives, relationships, illnesses and other milestones.

We eventually did discuss the book. I gleaned that it is beautifully written, with many sentences that at least one person was compelled to read more than once. A couple of people laughed so hard at some parts they had to put the book down. The plot had to do with Hamlet, but not obviously. The central conceit, that the narrator is a foetus in the last weeks of gestation who knows an awful lot about the world from listening to podcasts, was either amusing (most of the group), richly metaphorical (one person), or one-joke tedious (the main dissenter who, incidentally, says he is an Ian McEwan fan).

I snuck a quick look at a page close to the end, and was enthralled. Here’s the paragraph I read, without spoiler anxiety, because after all it would have been odd for the narrator not to be born at the book’s end:

A slithering moment of waxy, creaking emergence, and here I am, set naked on the kingdom. Like stout Cortez (I remember a poem my father once recited), I’m amazed. I’m looking down, with what wonder and surmise, at the napped surface of the blue bath towel. Blue. I’ve always known, verbally at least, I’ve always been able to infer what’s blue – sea, sky, lapis lazuli, gentians – mere abstractions. Now I have it at last, I own it, and it possesses me. More gorgeous than I dared  believe. That’s just a beginning, at the indigo end of the spectrum.

In the course of the evening someone read a passage that he particularly enjoyed. To my uninformed ear it was a dry if elegantly constructed list of items such as one hears on the news every night, with nothing particularly clever, pleasant or moving about it.

The discussion must have been enticing enough because when the library emailed that a copy had finally become available, I borrowed it.

After the meeting: It turned out that the main challenge for me as a reader was the requirement that I willingly suspend, not so much disbelief, as my sense of late prenatal awareness as an actual thing, one that bears little or no resemblance to the sophisticated rumination, moral discrimination, wine connoisseurship and intense visualisation that characterise the narration here.

Once you are reconciled to the fact that there’s no attempt to imagine an actual foetus’s mental processes, and have set aside any anxiety about the potential damage from the mother’s copious alcohol consumption or vigorously receptive sexual activity, you can pay attention to the story, in which the narrator listens and feels helplessly while his mother (Trudy/Gertrude) and her lover/brother-in-law (Claude/Claudius) plot the death of his father.

Like a number of recent and forthcoming books, though not part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project (Gillian (Gone Girl) Flynn will be doing Hamlet for that project), this is a novelistic riff on a Shakespeare play. The names and the incest–murder scenario aren’t all that links it to Hamlet. There are plenty of verbal echoes  – ‘To be’, though not ‘not to be’; ‘Seems, nay tis’, and so on. And Hamlet’s indecisiveness is parallelled in the narrator’s vacillations as he is influenced by his mother’s hormonal fluctuations and his own divided loyalties. The narrator toys with the idea of killing himself, with a literal ‘mortal coil’. There’s even a Shakespearean ghost.

The narrative swings along, and the remarkably well-informed foetus’s reflections are engaging, but I kept wondering if the central conceit was really any more interesting than the one in the movie Look Who’s Talking. In an odd way, it was this rather than the narrative question – would the plotters get away with murder? – that kept me in suspense. In the end, it was a passage very like the one that had so failed to impress me at the meeting that brought the narrative’s metaphorical power home for me. The narrator is well informed, like so many of us in the age of social media, about things he is all but powerless to influence. This helplessly informed state is the novel’s equivalent to Hamlet’s indecisiveness. ‘And always, there are problems closer to hand.’ That sentence, banal as it may seem out of context, is actually a call to action, and it’s what in the end made me love the book, though I still could have done without all the alcohol during pregnancy.


The Book Group and Falstaff

When we were discussing possibilities for our next book at the Book Group’s last meeting, one Grouper said he was reading Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human,  and was fascinated by Bloom’s argument that Falstaff, the roistering old man in the Henry IV plays, was one of Shakespeare’s most important creations – ‘a great dream of reality’. He proposed that we read those plays. Perhaps our collective defences were down, but his proposal won the day.

Before the meeting:
Plays are meant for the stage rather than the page. That’s my excuse for not reading them,  but watching two modified versions: the relevant episodes of the BBC’s The Hollow Crown (2012, adapted and directed by Richard Eyre), and Orson Welles’s 1965 Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight). The plot, in case you need it, is that Henry IV, who became king through pretty disgusting machinations in Richard II, now fights off rebels and establishes himself as a legitimate ruler. To his chagrin, his son and heir to the crown, Henry, Hal to his friends, lives a dissolute life under the mentorship of a gross, permanently drunk old man, Sir John Falstaff. It’s no spoiler to say that Hal comes good in the end, defeats the rebel Percy Hotspur, who in the king’s eyes has all the qualities Hal lacks, and is finally reconciled with his father and assumes the crown, rejecting his former life and those who were his companions, most notably and dramatically Falstaff


The Hollow Crown episodes have high production values, with a powerful Falstaff in Simon Russell Beale and a completely charming Tom Hiddleston as Hal. As two of seven episodes in a historical TV series that happens to be largely written by Shakespeare, they necessarily focus on the story of the king (played by Jeremy Irons). There’s a grimy realism to the portrayal of Falstaff and his world, so he comes across as a pathetic drunkard lacking in moral integrity who tries to cover the squalor of his life with witty patter and unconvincing bravado. When Hal insults him (trigger warning: there are a lot of fat jokes), it feels hurtful even at its most playful. Whatever its other strengths, this production is no help in understanding what Harold Bloom was talking about.


Chimes at Midnight is a huge contrast. It looks as if it was scraped together on the smell of an oily rag – possibly the oily rag that was left after John Gielgud, Jeanne Moreau, Ralph Richardson and Margaret Rutherford had been paid (though who knows, maybe they worked for very little). The sound is at times painfully iffy (lots of post-production dubbing), and the acting and mise-en-scène stagey to the nth degree. But the sheer exuberance of Welles’s Falstaff carries all before it.

I loved it when I saw it in the early 1970s, and I loved it again this week.

At one point, in the tavern/brothel where Hal, Falstaff and their fellow-roisterers hang out, Falstaff proposes a play, in which he will be the king. With a cushion on his head for a crown, and his vast bulk hoisted onto a raised chair, he upbraids Hal for his prodigal ways (anticipating a scene not much later when the real king does the same), and sings the praises of the good Sir John Falstaff. The original audience would have recognised, I remember from my university days, the presence of the traditional Lord of Misrule, a peasant crowned ‘king’ in a midwinter festival so that all normal, staid life gave way to riotous living. Falstaff in his tavern, full of life, big of body, delighting in language (including witty insults hurled at his own head), is a an updating of that tradition: a bright, irresponsible double of the calculating king in his forbidding court where every word is consequential and there is very little joy.

Which made me think of Donald Trump. In Part One Act 2 Scene 4, Falstaff is accused of lying. First he denies it:

What, art thou mad? art thou mad? is not the truth the truth?

Challenged to explain the discrepancies in his story, he shifts the ground. Why should he allow himself to be compelled to explain himself?

What, upon compulsion? ‘Zounds, an I were at the strappado, or all the racks in the world, I would not tell you on compulsion. Give you a reason on compulsion! If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion, I.

Then he attacks his accuser:

‘Sblood, you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried  neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stock-fish! O for breath to utter what is like thee! you tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bowcase; you vile standing-tuck —

And at last, confronted with hard evidence, he says he was joking.

In the final scene of the first play, Falstaff claims to have killed Hotspur. When Hal calls him on it, and asserts that he did it himself, Falstaff shakes his head:

Lord, Lord, how this world is given to lying!

We laugh. He is such an ingenious rogue. When Falstaff says, ‘Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world,’ we feel the truth of it, and when at the end of the second play, the newly crowned King Henry V turns to him and says, ‘I know thee not, old man,’ we don’t see the dashed hopes of an unrealistic opportunist (which is pretty much how it comes across in The Hollow Crown) so much as a terrible self-amputation that’s necessary if Hal is to assume political power responsibly. And it is necessary. If Falstaff were to have a position of influence at court, the political system would be in serious trouble.

If only someone could have invented a position of Misrule President, it might have been fun, for a week or so over summer, for a Falstaffian figure who ‘isn’t a politician’ to bully and bluster and joke at the expense of the carefully correct, to make outrageous claims for himself and outrageous threats against other people, to talk of alternative facts and fake news. So long as he did all that with panache we could enjoy the sheer gall of it. We might even laugh at his naughtiness as he robs people blind. For a week or so.

Banish plump Donald and banish all the world. Yes, I get that: we need irreverence. But elect plump Donald and wreck all the world.

The meeting:
Unusually, I came to this meeting with explicit expectations. I wanted to hear more about how Harold Bloom sees Falstaff, and I wanted to hear from a Grouper who has played the role.

It turned out that the latter played Falstaff decades ago in The Merry Wives of Windsor, which he said is a romp churned out by Shakespeare on short order at Queen Elizabeth’s request. The Falstaff in that play is a much less interesting creation, though much more sexually active, and attractive. Our actor had interesting things to say about the way Elizabethan audiences were much more sensitive to verbal subtleties than we are – they would go to hear a play, while we go to see one.

As for Bloom, evidently he goes through the usual perceptions of Falstaff one by one and demolishes them. Not a coward. Not a drunk. Not an opportunist. Not a liar, a thief, a scrounger or a knave. Instead, he is a great refuser of cant, a truth-speaker, a person who puts the joy of living and the joy of relationships above all else. I may be misrepresenting, as of course this discussion happened over barbecued sausages and salad and was far from interjection free. But I was unconvinced. However, we were treated to a reading from Part One, Act V Scene 1. The battle (truly horrendous in the Welles movie) is about to start. Falstaff has asked Hal to protect him and been refused, Hal saying, ‘Thou owest God a death.’ Alone on stage, Falstaff ruminates:

calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.

It’s wrong, according to Bloom (at third hand), to read this as a roguish rationalisation for cowardice. It is actually a deep challenge to the whole code of conduct built around the concept of honour, a code that accounts for an awful lot of violence and death. I was reminded of Israeli writer Etgar Keret on ABC Radio’s Books and Arts recently saying that when he asked his father what he was proudest of in his life, he said, ‘I have been in the front lines of five wars, and as far as I know I’ve never hurt anyone.’ That’s not dishonourable, but – arguably true also of Falstaff – it stands aside from the demands of honour.

My Trump-as-Falstaff thesis cut only a little bit of ice.

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites at the Book Group & November Verse 14

Hannah Kent, Burial Rites (Picador 2013)

burial-rites.jpg Before the meeting: This book is based on the real story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland, an event that happened in 1830. My knowledge of Iceland, which comes mainly from photographs of stark, beautiful, treeless landscapes and Grímur Hákonarson’s movie Rams, led me to expect that any novel set there would be grim. So a novel culminating an execution could only be more so.

Grim or not, I loved it. I’ve raved about it to people met in the park, and barely restrained myself from reading bits aloud to the Emerging Artist (now known as the Heart Lady, but that’s another story).

At the beginning Agnes, convicted of brutally murdering her employer, is being transferred from one place of imprisonment to another. She is filthy, malodorous and barely able to speak. (Interestingly, her condition at the beginning of the novel bears a striking resemblance to that of the women towards the end of Charlottte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, which I imagine was being written at the same time as this.) While awaiting execution, she is sent as a cost-saving measure to live with the family of a local official who lives near the planned place of execution.

The main narrative follows Agnes’ developing relationships with members of the host family: father, mother and two young adult daughters. At first the family are convincingly and reasonably horrified that they will have to share their house with this monster, though right from their first encounter the mother of the household is even more horrified at the way Agnes has been treated. A young trainee clergyman is assigned to attend to Agnes’ spiritual needs. Against the advice and instructions of his superiors, he refrains from preaching sternly at her and instead encourages her to talk to him. Because of the size of their dwelling and the bitter Icelandic winter, the family hear much of what passes between them, and we learn her story along with them. As you’d expect from the set-up, in the process they come to see her not as a monster but as a fellow human – more a servant than a prisoner.

All of that is beautifully done, though the story Agnes tells, a story of love betrayed, is less compelling than the circumstances of its telling. And then there is the narration told direct to the reader from Agnes’ point of view. This is where we learn Agnes’ inner story – the erotic experiences that she can’t speak of, and her emotional life. In these sections Hannah Kent’s writing, never less than elegant elsewhere, is rich and poetic without being hi-falultin, so that I for one was completely drawn in. I don’t remember ever being so caught up by a deft use of similes. Here’s a passage from fairly early on, when Agnes has begun to work again,  trusted to use a scythe:

I let my body fall into a rhythm. I sway back and forth and let gravity bring the scythe down and through the grass, until I rock steadily. Until I feel that I am not moving myself, and that the sun is driving me. Until I am a puppet of the wind, and of the scythe, and of the long, slow strokes that propel my body forward. Until I couldn’t stop if I wanted to.

It’s a good feeling, not quite being in control. Of being gently swung back and forth, until I forget what it is to be still. Like being with Natan in the first months when my heartbeat shuddered through me and I could have died, I was so happy to be desired.

The book’s power has something to do with the strong sense of a particular time and place. The world-building, to borrow a term from SF/F discourse, is extraordinarily convincing. In her acknowledgements, Hannah Kent says she set out to write a ‘dark love letter to Iceland’. She has succeeded in spades.

The meeting: As it was the last meeting of the year, we ate at the new (to most of us) Tramsheds in Glebe, and gave each other gift-wrapped books from our shelves. As always in restaurants, the background noise was a dampener in general conversation. But we all enjoyed the book. Someone compared it unfavourably to Halldór Laxness’s Independent People, saying that at times Burial Rites broke free of its early 19th Century Icelandic setting and resorted to tropes from 20th century romance fiction. Specifically, if I understood him correctly, Agnes’s internalised sense of the master–servant relationship vanished too easily and was replaced by an anachronistic expectation of romantic love and fidelity. In general we could see what he meant. Likewise, we all agreed when someone said that it was obvious what was going to happen from the very beginning: the family would soften towards Agnes, and her story as it emerged would reveal either innocence or major extenuating circumstances. Neither of these criticisms dampened the general enthusiasm for the book.

There were some mostly audible, goosebump-inducing readings of passages our Post-it warrior had marked.

Then we cheerfully turned away from the spartan, claustrophobic and bitterly cold world of the novel and enjoyed a meat-heavy meal in a flash new restaurant whose menu names the farms that provide the animals they serve up to their customers.

The verse, my last for this November: 

November Verse 14: The Book Group Chooses What to Read Next
Ben stands and says he must be going:
‘Shall we decide the next book now?’
‘No time for all the to and fro-ing
before you leave,’ says Ian. That’s how
just seven of us made the vital
choice of our next book group title.
Not Watson’s Bush, that’s far too long,
not more Houellebecq, that’s just wrong.
No to Solnits, Coetzee, Gorton.
Steve says, ‘How about Don Juan?
I mean Quixote. That’s a yarn
I’d like to read.’ That one caught on.
And after complex back and forth
we lit on Shakespeare’s Henry Fourth.

AWW2016Burial Rites is the fourteenth book I’ve read for the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

The Book Group and Paula Hawkins’s Girl on the Train

Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train (Doubleday 2015)

gott.jpgBefore the meeting:
After A Little Life, the book group decided to take on something light, and someone had heard that The Girl on the Train was an interesting thriller.

I’m not a member of this book’s target audience. I’ve been mildly gripped by psychological thriller movies (Gone Girl say, or any number of Hitchcock movies, or Gaslight, though I haven’t seen that movie, just the play performed by the Innisfail Repertory Society in about 1960) or on TV (I think of The Fall). Men are strong, sympathetic and protective, or are they dangerous and manipulative? Women sense they are in danger, or are they just neurotic messes? A loving husband is caught in a lie about talking to his ex-wife. Should we be disturbed by what happens next:

He smiles at me, shaking his head as he steps towards me, his hands still raised in supplication. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry. She wanted to chat in person and I thought it might be best. I’m sorry, OK? We just talked. We met in a crappy coffee shop in Ashbury and talked for twenty minutes – half an hour, tops. OK?’
___He puts his arms around me and pulls me towards his chest. I try to resist him, but he’s stronger than me and anyway he smells great and I don’t want a fight. I want us to be on the same side. ‘I’m sorry,’ he mumbles again, into my hair.
___‘It’s all right,’ I say.

Even on screen these imagined relationships as full of manipulation and lurking threat aren’t my cup of tea. In book form, if this one is any indication, it’s a game a good bit less interesting than Scrabble. I did read the whole book, I suppose it was well done, and I stayed guessing, or at least unsure, until the final revelation, but I didn’t really care, and the main impression I’m left with is of time wasted. Your mileage may vary. The movie is coming out in a month or two – I’ll probably give it a miss.

At the meeting: There were eight of us and everyone had read the whole book, one or two saying that they couldn’t put it down. And while people generally appreciated its tight plotting, and the way information was gradually released to the reader, no one particularly liked it. Those who are more widely read in the genre said it wasn’t a particularly good example. We compared notes on how soon we guessed the ending.

And over chicken and rice and then ice cream we had a terrific conversation about fathers and sons, how boys and young men could do with someone thinking about them in more constructive ways than generally seems to happen these days, about Eton and Queen Victoria’s correspondence, about whether A Little Life is a bildungsroman, about cumquat marmalade, renovations, and the joys of growing old.

Hanya Yanagihara’s Little Life with the Book Group

Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life (Picador 2015)

We keep deciding we’re not going to pick big books for the Book Group, and then we keep picking them. A Little Life runs to 720 pages.

Before the meeting: I’d been warned this was a gruelling read, and I’ll add my own warning: do not read this book if you’re set off by accounts of cruelty, sexual abuse or self-harm.

The ‘little life’ of the title is that of Jude St Francis. His story, which emerges piecemeal throughout the novel, involves systematic sex abuse and physical violence from a very young age until his mid teens. His life turns around, and he finds deep companionship and love, professional success as a lawyer, a family such as he wouldn’t have dreamed  of. But the horrors of the past have left him with serious physical difficulties and a deep sense of his own worthlessness, even grotesquerie. He believes he must hide ‘what he is’ from the people he loves. In his 30s he has his first sexual encounter since the abuse of his childhood, and it leads to unbelievable brutality. From then on, there is a struggle between the demons of the past and the angels of the present, between his belief that somehow he deserves terrible things and the evidence all around him that he is cherished by his friends and adoptive family.

Some readers have seen the book as a kind of suffering porn, particularly in the graphic accounts of self-harm. (The harm inflicted by other people, including sexual harm deliberate and otherwise, is mostly told at a level of abstraction, with an almost fairytale quality.) I know what they mean, but I see it differently. Phrases like ‘mental health’, ‘sex abuse’ and even ‘child sex abuse’ are used a lot these days, and overuse can drain them of some of their meaning. For instance, when discussing the Australian government’s policy on people seeking asylum, leaders of both major parties can discount evidence that the policy results in ‘mental health problems’ and ‘sexual abuse’ for children. The words become political catch-cries, and their human meaning fades. The great strength of A Little Life is that it remorselessly, repetitively, unflinchingly but not (for my money) preachily pounds home the deep damage done to the human spirit by sustained abuse.

I don’t find the stories of abuse completely plausible, and I find the love story/stories saccharine at times. The financial and creative success of all the major characters and their upper-class New York lifestyles may irritate. But it’s a very powerful book. It would be hard to read it thoughtfully and ever again tell someone who had been severely abused to ‘get over it’, or think that there was some easy chemical or behavioural solution. There are moments in the narrative when there seems to be a breakthrough, but again and again we have been misled by hope. I don’t think the book preaches despair [though Hanya Yanigahara sometimes sounds as if that’s what she intends – as in the podcast linked to below], but it does urge us to remember that suffering is a long way from over when its cause is removed, that in some ways the worst that happens to a person isn’t the worst – the worst is not finding a way to recover from it.

A minor point: I’ll sometimes turn to the last page of a book looking for reassurance that things are going to turn out all right. I don’t know if Hanya Yanagihara had people like me in mind, but I can tell you, I hope without giving anything away, that the last paragraph of this book is completely misleading.

When the meeting was postponed because it clashed with the second State of Origin match: One of the chaps flagged that for him the book raises questions of ‘what and why we read’. I listened to the podcast of Hanya Yanigahara’s closing address to the Sydney Writers’ Festival. It’s a brilliant exegesis of her intentions in this novel, but I found myself retrospectively turning against the novel when she said things like:

For anyone who has turned away from a book because it is unbearable I would argue that there is a danger in forsaking a piece of art only because it is unpleasant, because it is destructive. The impulse to do so is human of course, and understandable, but the best that one human can do for another sometimes, the ultimate human act, is to witness, to open our eyes wider and look at what we would rather not, to regard what we think we cannot endure. When we give up seeing, we give up something greater. Once we start limiting what we can tolerate in literature, in art, we also start limiting our ability to see our fellow humans.

This reminded me reactively of the old comedian’s line, delivered in tones of high moral outrage: ‘I don’t want to see violence, incest, torture in films. I get enough of that sort of thing at home.’ That is to say, being a witness for another human being is a very different thing to being a witness for a made-up person.

Then, in another podcast from the festival, Charlotte Wood commented about her novel The Natural Way of Things (currently on my TBR pile):

You couldn’t live in this book as a reader for longer than it is. It’s a short book … It’s important not to leave people in that world for too long. I know there are some big books around at the moment that are very harrowing … and I think, ‘I don’t want to go there as a reader, I don’t want to put people through that.’

The reference to A Little Life was only half-serious, and the audience laughed, but she had a point.

At the meeting: Eventually we met, and it was one of the group’s more intense discussions.

Not everyone had finished the book. There’s nothing unusual about that, but this time the non-finishers all had reasons other than lack of time: one gave up after a mere hundred pages because none of the characters had enough individuality to claim his interest; two gave up close to the two-thirds mark because they realised that they didn’t have to stay trapped in the horrible imaginings of Hanya Yanagihara, and they reported that their lives improved when they closed the book.

Most of us acknowledged the power of the writing, though one said that he remained unmoved (except to anger at being manipulated) even by the graphic descriptions of self harm. Most of us felt that if the book was attempting a portrayal of male friendships, it failed. Shockingly, we realised that we never saw why the other men – friends and adoptive father – were drawn to withholding, self-effacing Jude: surely there was more to it than his beauty?

The most articulate disliker described his sense of being given no room for his own responses: at every turn he was being told how to feel about what he was being shown, and he was being shown only those parts of the characters’ lives that fitted the author’s agenda. Where were the jokes, the casual intimacies, the teasing? And as for sex, in this book it’s about men sticking a sex organ into someone else’s orifice, something you either do or don’t do with (to?) someone, with nothing between those two options, and no place for mutuality or negotiation. Sigh! (We noticed in passing the almost complete absence of women, unless one reads the main characters as really women with a communication disability.)

In short, the book had no passionate defender, but it made a deep impression on most of us.

The Book Group & Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights

Salman Rushdie, Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights (Jonathan Cape 2015)

2yrs.jpgSadly (or not – you be the judge), I missed the book group meeting on Wednesday night. Unusually, though, there was a lot of email discussion of the book in the lead-up to the date. Here are annotated excerpts from the emails, with names changed and identifying detail removed:

3 March 1:35 pm, Alphonse:
Salman Rushdie, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights: ‘From one of the greatest writers of our time: the most spellbinding, entertaining, wildly imaginative novel of his great career, which blends history and myth with tremendous philosophical depth. A masterful, mesmerising modern tale about worlds dangerously colliding, the monsters that are unleashed when reason recedes, and a beautiful testament to the power of love and humanity in chaotic times.’
NEXT DATE: Wednesday 20 April / 7pm
NEXT VENUE: Bill … we voted last night that the next meeting would be at your place. Hope that’s OK with you and that you are able to join us.

That was all until:

15 Apr 2016 2:45 pm, me:
Hi all
I’m assuming our next meeting is confirmed for Wednesday 20th at Bill’s place, as in Alphonse’s last email.
Sadly I won’t be able to make it. I’m about three-quarters through the book, and mostly enjoying it. (I love the description of Obama on p 127.) I’ve read a number of children’s books dealing with similar subject matter and I’m not sure that this is any more engaging than the best of them. If you’re interested you could have a look for the Bartimaeus Sequence by Jonathan Stroud.

Having now finished Rushdie’s book, I would name Sophie Masson’s Snow, Fire, Sword as a more relevant children’s book: Sophie has supernatural beings from Arabic lore wreak havoc in Indonesia, with an implied parallel to real-world Wahhabism – a scenario not a million miles from Rushdie’s book. Here’s the Obama description I mentioned:

… the president of the United States was an unusually intelligent man, eloquent, thoughtful, subtle, measured in word and deed, a good dancer (though not as good as his wife), slow to anger, quick to smile, a religious man who thought of himself as a man of reasoned action, handsome (if a little jug-eared), at ease in his own body like a reborn Sinatra (though reluctant to croon) and colour-blind.

The prospective roll-call began:

15 Apr 4:02 pm, Chrysostom:
Apologies from me too. Am in the bush

15 Apr 5:18 pm, Dionysus:
I’ll be there

And then the opinions started:

15 Apr 10:37 pm, Errol wrote:
I’ll be there, but as a complete bludger I’m afraid. I couldn’t get traction with the book. I tried three times but then I put it down and just couldn’t pick it up again.
Looking forward to other opinions
PS. What’s the address?

17 Apr 8:52 am, Ferdinand:

17 Apr 10:49 am, Dionysus being a little more forthcoming:
Glad to hear I’m not alone.

That’s three people who couldn’t get past the first few pages. I’m guessing that’s because there’s a lot in those pages about 12th century philosophical debates between Ibn Rushd (known to the West until recently as Averroes, and surely not coincidentally sounding a bit like ‘Rushdie’) and Ghazali (said to be the most influential Islamic scholar since Mohammad), mixed in with a lot of lore about jinn, plus some unconvincing sex. For a book that’s going to feature fairies and magic and levitation and comic book monsters, this beginning is perhaps just a little anxious to establish that the author has a serious underlying theme. Surely Salman could hear his readers muttering, ‘Get on with it!’

Back to the correspondence.

17 Apr 4:52 pm, Graham:
Just back this morning from overseas. So far I am enjoying the book but not finished yet. Has Bill said it’s on for Wed?
I am keen to come but may need to cancel at the last minute.
Keen to hear what people thought of the book

Hmm, enjoying it, but not going to move heaven and earth to talk about it with the comrades. And still no word from Bill.

18 Apr 8:17 am, Harald:
I’m on, got half way so far, with a similar lack of interest. Too much jinnying, to too little purpose.

Was ever a book so unenthusiastically greeted?

For my part, the place where I nearly put the book aside was page 107, well before the halfway mark:

… in Times Square … for a period of time variously described by different witnesses as ‘a few seconds’ and ‘several minutes’, the clothes worn by every man in the square disappeared, leaving them shockingly naked, while the contents of their pockets – cellphones, pens, keys, credit cards, currency, condoms, sexual insecurities, inflatable egos, women’s underwear, guns, knives, the phone numbers of unhappily married women, hip flasks, masks, cologne, photographs of angry daughters, photographs of sullen teenage boys, breath-freshening strips, plastic baggies containing white powder, spliffs, lies, harmonicas, spectacles, bullets, and broken, forgotten hopes – tumbled down to the ground. A few seconds (and maybe minutes) later the clothes reappeared but the nakedness of the men’s revealed possessions, weaknesses and indiscretions unleashed a storm of contradictory emotions, including shame, anger and fear. women ran screaming while the men scrambled for their secrets, which could be put back into their revenant pockets but which, having been revealed, could no longer be concealed.

That’s clever, it’s funny in a number of ways, and nicely written, with a touch of surreal silliness (when did you last see a sexual insecurity lying on the footpath?). But I was overwhelmed with a sense that life is short and Two Years, Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights is long. Too much jinnying indeed, and if this is part of what the book calls the War of the Worlds, there’s a serious gap between what the book seems to be claiming to be and what it actually is. Oh Salman, Salman, the readers are still muttering. Still, I went in mildly to bat:

18 Apr 8:42 am, me:
I’ll be interested to know if people think his account of the ‘purpose’ towards the end makes up for all the jinnying.

And then things got all organisational.

18 Apr 09:12 am, Alphonse:
So we have:
*   4 apologies
*   3 yes (2 of whom haven’t got far with the book)
*   3 no reply
*   no confirmed venue
Do we reschedule to a new venue next week ?

18 Apr 1:16 pm, Errol (who, remember, hadn’t got past the first couple of pages):
The way I see it, it’s not our fault that Salman Rushdie is a stuffed shirt with funny ideas and a strange way of saying them.
What if we ignore him? How about those of us that are available just go out for a meal on Wednesday night and hang out?

Bill (who hadn’t read the book) finally surfaced from his heavy other commitments to say that his place wasn’t possible this week, and with a little back and forth it was decided to go ahead, in a restaurant, last night. Harald (of the ‘too much jinnying’ comment) said he’d try to finish the book in time, and Jamahl chimed in:

18 Apr 4:40 pm, Jamahl:
I’ve read the book and enjoyed it.
See you at the restaurant.

By now, I was spoiling for a conversation:

19 Apr 11:22 am, me: 
I’m sorry I can’t be there. Apart from the always excellent company, I would have enjoyed advocating for the book. It’s not as if I enjoyed it hugely. I struggled with the start and was tempted to give up at about page 100 (where the jinnery was getting tedious). Also, the sense that Rushdie was doing stuff that many children’s books had been doing for decades made me kind of resentful by proxy
in the end I was drawn in by the way he expects us to treat Arabic scholars with the same respect as we would western mediaeval ones; and the way he seduces us into seeing the ‘fairy’ world of northern Africa as central, with various more familiar Indian and Greek gods as manifestations of them. There’s a tiny bit where two characters are married at the Auribondo ashram in Pondicherry, by ‘Mother herself’ – an Indian email friend of mine has told me about Mother, who was a huge influence in my friend’s life. I wondered how many other references there were that non-Westerners would pick up on that just float by me. And yet, the book is definitely a novel in the western tradition, even if closer to children’s books and graphic novels than to Bleak House.
That’s my two bits.

Which drew Jamahl out with a perfect counterbalance to my over-seriousness. The book is after all a lot of fun, with goth-girls hurling lightning from their fingers and elderly gardeners floating a couple of millimetres above the ground, and terrible things happening to people’s skin if they tell lies in the presence of a magical baby:

19 Apr 5:06 pm, Jamahl: 
What a fantastic BUT.
Despite the river of references flowing by unnoticed while I read I still enjoyed the book. While I read I would suspend disbelief and wallow in the plasticity of time. There are also moments of ‘couldn’t give a fuck to consequence’ that I wholeheartedly supported.
While as a retiree you may be familiar with these freedoms this book allowed me to drift and swim in them.

No report from the dinner yet.

The book group has Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (Fourth Estate 2014)

0007548672.jpg Before the group: In short chapters that for the most part alternate between their two stories, this novel of the Second World War tells of a German orphan boy with a gift for radio technology (a geek before the word) and a blind French girl who flees Paris with her father when the Germans invade.

They finally meet in the aftermath of the Allied bombing of St Malo on the French coast in the last days of the war.  The two young people’s war experiences are vividly realised. The account of the making of dedicated Hitler Youth is chilling. The story telling is masterful, and motifs of light and darkness, touch and sound, snails and gems are woven intricately into the novel’s fabric.

But it didn’t really touch the sides. At the centre of the plot is a brilliant diamond with a fire at its heart, sought after by the Nazis and guarded unawares by the blind girl. Some readers may respond to the talk of curses and other magic that surround this jewel so that it resonates with rich symbolism, but for me it’s just a maguffin, and the novel as a whole a beautifully crafted, enjoyable diversion set in a period that has been done, and done, and done. If it has fire at its heart, the fire remained invisible to me. Soon there may well be a Spielberg movie, as flawless as Bridge of Spies.

Actually I just told a lie. There is one paragraph that snagged me. Young Werner is deeply into his work with the German armed forces when he hears on his radio receiver some music that he and his sister Jutta used to listen to back on the orphanage:

Now the piano makes a long, familiar run, the pianist playing different scales with each hand – what sounds like three hands, four – the harmonies like steadily thickening pearls on a strand, and Werner sees six-year-old Jutta lean toward him, Frau Elena kneading bread in the background, a crystal radio on his lap, the cords of his soul not yet severed.

That last phrase encapsulates brilliantly the long, corrosive years of Werner’s training to serve the Reich, and strikes a note of deep pathos. It made me glad I’d read the book.

At the meeting: Given that the book won a Pulitzer Prize and received extravagant critical praise, I was prepared to be a minority voice. But we had extraordinarily similar responses to it. Unusually though, we spent most of the evening – over a delicious tuna salad in a room with the walls folded back so we had full benefit of the warm autumn night – actually talking about the book. Spouses’ illnesses, the state of Sydney theatre, advice on how to approach local council all took a back seat.

One man had recently been to St Malo, and the book was a revelation – evidently the old town  has been restored and all signs of the WW2 devastation erased. Another had researched the school young Werner was sent to, and verified that there were many like it. Yet another wondered if the Nazis did search Europe’s natural history museums as well as its art museums. So it did stir our minds. We all agreed that the short chapters made it very easy to read, that with one or two exceptions the characters were well drawn and engaging, that the plot moved along. We all agreed that it was beautifully written: one chap said he reread some chapters just for the pleasure of it, ignoring the onward pull of the narrative. No one was keen on the fiery jewel – only one chap thought we were supposed to take its magical powers seriously.

So we kept coming back to the question: why, if it’s so good in so many ways, does it leave us largely untouched? Perhaps the short alternating chapters worked against immersion in the story. Perhaps telling the story from children’s point of view limited the possibilities for adult engagement. Perhaps the book is overworked, leaving no Leonard Cohenish cracks to let the light come in. Perhaps the relentless action means there’s too little breathing space where a reader could find an emotional way into the story? Perhaps it’s that there is no thesis, no moment where the story comes together in a revelation of some sort, or if there is it’s too subtle for us. Perhaps we’ve all just read too many novels set in the Second World War. All those possibilities were canvassed, none were agreed on.

Sam de Brito’s Lost Boys and the Book Group

Sam de Brito, The Lost Boys (Picador 2008)

lost boysBefore the meeting: Sam de Brito, a Sydney newspaper columnist and blogger, died in October. I don’t know if any of us in the book group had read his columns or his blog, but we decided to read his only novel, The Lost Boys, to honour his passing. It turns out there’s not much honour in it.

It appears to be about a man who, having spent his teenage years drinking, smoking dope and preoccupied with sex and peer-group status, hasn’t changed much in his thirties and hates himself for it. Mysteriously, given the almost total lack of reflectiveness in any of the characters, he also seems to be a writer. For Sam’s sake, I devoutly hope this isn’t substantially autobiographical. I couldn’t bring myself to read the whole thing. I wanted to lay it aside after ten pages but persevered for 60, and seeing no sign of any change, threw in the towel.

Here’s a sample from the post-schoolboy era:

Andrea just watches as we pass the bong around.
– You don’t smoke, Andrea? I ask.
–Not really, not any more, she says. – When I used to live in Indonesia we smoked so much and the stuff you get there, it really had a kick, let me tell you, but the stuff you get here, it’s full of chemicals, it’s not like what we used to get when I lived in Indo.
Fuck, I guess she wants me to ask her about Indonesia, but I can’t be bothered. I’m pretty ripped, so all I can manage is  – Yeah?
– Oh yeah. Once we had this bag of heads, it was like this big.
She makes the shape of it with her hands. Big bag. I nod. She’s got a story to tell. We let her tell it.
– And we smoked joint after joint after joint. No one smokes cones in Indo. And we must have smoked like half of this bag and we were so off our faces we could barely talk.
She starts laughing at the memory. Chong smiles. I wonder if I’m missing something.
–And then we all had these incredible banana smoothies and the next thing we know its morning. All of us fell asleep, just like that. We were so off our faces.
She laughs again. I wait, then realise that’s the story.
Fuck me, chicks really need to go to storytelling school. The first thing they need to learn is it has to have a point of difference: a funny ending, some sort of killer twist. A joke or line. A piece of wisdom.

To be fair, I’m confident that the reader is meant to recognise the sexism there for what it is. To be equally fair, that doesn’t make it any less yukky (or, given the number of excellent books by women I’ve read recently, any less bitterly ironic). But the reason I quote this passage (from page 39) is that it signals that somewhere in the 360-odd pages ‘some sort of killer twist’, even a ‘piece of wisdom’, might emerge from the bleak hedonism of the narrative.

That signal wasn’t enough to keep me reading. Given that the friends who constitute the lost boys of the title are Christian Brothers old boys, perhaps there is an implied piece of wisdom: don’t send your children to Christian Brothers schools if you want them to have any moral compass or cultural ballast. (I spent two unhappy years in a Christian Brothers school myself, but I don’t endorse that message.)

At the meeting:
It was our last meeting for the year. We each brought a wrapped book from our shelves at home and each took one of them home. In addition to this, one chap, who turned 60 this year, brought a number of scrolled slips of paper on which he had printed short poems that, he said, represented the state of his soul this year. We each chose one and then read them out amidst some hilarity and some reflective chat.

We did discuss the book. Not many had finished it. One of the finishers said that he had started out reading it as thinly fictionalised memoir, but about half way through began to think of it as a moral tale: a warning of the dangers of too much drugs and alcohol. Another had been to the same school, drunk when under-age at the same pub, recognised some of the characters. Another said that the book captured for him the way men who have been friends in adolescent sometimes maintain the friendship even though some have gone on to have successful careers while others remain trapped in their adolescent anomie. From each of these I got a sense of the book as almost a tragic documentation of something that’s all too real, a poignant ‘There but for fortune’.

We met in a restaurant, and though we had booked a separate room, water damage from the recent storms meant there were a number of other tables nearby. This meant that any readings from the book had to be bowdlerised. One memorable passage involving a graphic description of coprophagy read by the professional actor kept its power even when bowdlerised, and made me think that perhaps this book would be better heard in company than read on the page: language which on the page is just revolting becomes when read aloud the verbal equivalent of a scene from a Hollywood gross-out comedy.

Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound in the Book Group

Eka Kurniawan, Beauty is a Wound (2002, translation by Annie Tucker, Text Publishing 2015)

9781925240238A while back, we agreed that the Book Group would stick with short books. So we read Of Mice and Men. Then somehow we settled on Beauty Is a Wound, which weighs in at just short of 500 pages.

Not that I’m complaining. The book more than fills the promise implied in its epigraph from Cervantes [note to self: read Don Quixote]:

Having cleaned his armour and made a full helmet out of a simple headpiece, and having given a name to his horse and decided on one for himself, he realised that the only thing left for him to do was to find a lady to love, for the knight errant without a lady-love was a tree without leaves or fruit, a body without a soul.

The book gives us three quarters of a century of Indonesian history seen largely from the perspective of the ‘lady-loves’ of its variously idealistic (or not) warriors. A multitude of stories involving Dutch colonisers, Japanese invaders, guerrilla resistance, nationalists, Communists, anti-Communists, capitalist thugs – all revolve around the central figure of Dewi Ayu, the most famous whore of the fictional city of Halimunda, and her three beautiful daughters. Tender love, passionate mutual obsession, brutal rape, prostitution, high romance, fraternal and intergenerational incest, borderline necrophilia: these are all there, with World War Two, Indonesian Independence, the 1965 massacre of leftists and the 1975 invasion of East Timor as context. More than once the streets of Halimunda are filled with corpses, and then with the unappeased ghosts of the slaughtered.

Eka Kurniawan has been called Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s successor. The latter’s Buru Quartet was also a panoramic account of recent Indonesian history seen through the lens of one man’s life, but as far as my memory goes those earlier novels were strictly realistic and unsensational – the story of their being written without pen and paper while the author was in prison is much more thrilling than the novels themselves. Beauty Is a Wound, on the other hand, is unlikely to land its author in prison,even though writers about the 1965 massacres were banned from this yeas Ubud Writers Festival, but it provokes a visceral response to the history it treats.

The book’s web of relationships is extraordinarily complex. For my own peace of mind, I attempted a diagram showing the main ones. The diagram doesn’t show the revelations of the final chapter which manages the improbable feat of pulling the many threads together into thematic consistency, but it does contain one or two spoilers if you look at it closely. But here it is, small but embiggable, for anyone who’s interested (dotted lines represent anything from concubinage to one-off rape, while deep unfulfilled love is indicated by a dotted line with a cross):

Beauty Is a Wound Chart

Annie Tucker, the translator, has done an awesome job, creating the sense that we are in a world not quite like ours. Partly, I mean by that, we know we are in a non-Western cultural setting. Some words remain untranslated but explained – such as moksa (in Indian philosophy, freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth) or jailangkung (a Javanese game in which the spirits of the dead are summoned). But more interestingly, the translation allows us to feel that we are not just in a different culture, but in a different reality. When characters return from the dead or avoid death altogether, when there are curses, prophetic insights or hauntings, we feel that we are in a weird waking dream of our own rather than listening in with an ethnographer’s ear.

At the meeting: This was not one of those times when we all had similar responses to the book. We had such an engrossing conversation over  soup and salad that we barely got to discuss the removal of Tony Abbott or his embarrassing Lady Thatcher address.

There were eight of us, though one was only there between dropping his daughter off at soccer training and picking her up – the driving time meant he had just about 40 minutes to eat, drink and opine (all of which he did most elegantly). One hadn’t read the book at all. Another ‘declared at tea’ – reading on the Kindle so couldn’t say what page. One pointed to the fact that he’d read the whole book to prove that he didn’t hate it, though he was, well, flamboyant in his account of it as tediously ‘factual’ in its prose and intolerably sexist in its treatment of the women characters (who are there for purposes of sex and nothing much else)

A number of us had grappled with the possibility that there was some kind of allegorical account of Indonesian history at work. One chap, who had been struck by the fact that the central characters, Dewi Ayu and her daughters. were mainly very passive, suggested a reading in which they represented the soul or the spirit or ‘the people’ of Indonesia, and the treatment that had roused the other chap’s ire signified the damage done to the country by each of the groups that their various rapists, and exploiters belonged to. That made a lot of sense to me.  And the prose style has the matter-of-factness of folktale, which fits that reading.

Someone told us that a number of speakers had been banned from the Ubud Writers Festival yesterday because they were scheduled to speak about the 1965 massacre of leftists. I don’t think Eka Kurniawan was one of them, but the news did shed an interesting light on the book’s unflinching account of the massacre.

Oh, and my chart of the relationships was widely admired, possibly with a slight edge of irony.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and the Book Group

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-five (1969, Vintage 2000)

1sh5bookBefore the meeting: I was reading while walking the dog outside the local supermarket when a young woman with fashionable piercings and skin art called to me, ‘That’s a good book!’

So it still has currency.

Do I need to tell you that Slaughterhouse-five presents itself, in its first and last chapters, as Vonnegut’s attempt to wrangle into story form his experience as a prisoner of war who survived the bombing of Dresden in 1945? His way of rising to the challenge is to tell a tale of Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain’s assistant in the war, who was also in Dresden at that time. I say also because once or twice the authorial voice intrudes to tell us that he was there, that the person who did or said something was ‘the author of this book’.

Billy Pilgrim comes unstuck in time, which adds an element of quirk while providing an excuse for the narrative to jump all over the place (evidently excuses were needed back in the 60s), and has some vaguely science-fictional adventures, which aren’t fleshed out to any interesting degree, but allow the novel to present a point of view where none of the terrible events it describes really matter, because according to the little green Tralfamadorians who abduct Billy, every moment in time coexists with every other moment, so there’s no point getting upset about any particular moment.

The main event of the book, as announced in the first chapter, is the bombing of Dresden. We read the whole book with growing dread, waiting for it to happen. A lot of that dread depends on our knowing that it’s not an invented atrocity, and a number of historical sources are quoted to chilling effect. We are told that the fire bombing of Dresden is the biggest massacre ever perpetrated in a single day – bigger than Hiroshima, bigger even than the firebombing of Tokyo.

The power of the story doesn’t stand or fall by that claim, but alarm bells went off for me when the authority Vonnegut quotes is David Irving, the most famous of all Holocaust deniers. A quick look on the internet reveals that Irving’s claim, as repeated by Vonnegut, that 135 000 people were killed in Dresden on one night is almost certainly wildly exaggerated. The actual figure is more like 40 000. I’m a bit shocked that Vintage Books didn’t include a note in the 2000 edition that Vonnegut’s source is notoriously unreliable.

The young woman who called out to me may also have done a quick internet search, but if she didn’t she and all the others who are rediscovering this excellent book will be misled.

Still, it’s the book that gave us ‘So it goes’. This phrase occurs after every mention of a death, whether of parasites in a delousing shower or of the citizens of Hiroshima in an extensive self-exculpatory quote from Harry Truman. After a while this feels annoyingly mechanical, but again a little while and it’s tolling like a funeral bell. Evidently some people read the book as endorsing the Tralfamadorian view that there’s no point getting upset about terrible things. In my reading the unremitting ‘So it goes’ reminds us that every life needs to be mourned.

After the meeting: There were six of us, and we met over an excellent meal in Nithik’s Kitchen, an Indian restaurant in Rozelle. Half of us were revisiting the book; all of us enjoyed it; one numbered it among the best books we’d read in the group.

We differed about whether Billy’s travelling back and forth in time was really happening or whether he was escaping into fantasy. I thought that was crystal clear: Billy is actually unstuck in time. I don’t think the narrative is all that worried about the mechanics of his unstuckness, but within the story it’s real. Since the ‘author’ is part of the story, I’m happy to accept that the time travel is his escape hatch, that is, a way of writing about Dresden without being overwhelmed. But in Billy’s world, it’s real.Clearly other readings are available.

The question arose of how much the US–Vietnam War is a presence. Billy’s son becomes a Green Beret, and though he hardly appears as a character his heroic–patriotic version of war stands in stark contrast to the version signalled in the book’s subtitle, ‘The Children’s Crusade’, and embodied in Billy’s story. Those of us who read it back then certainly embraced it as part of the anti-war movement and would have been shocked to hear that some people read it as advocating a quietist, fatalistic attitude to the horrors of war. For those who were had just read it for the first time, Vietnam was perhaps not so strong a presence, but nor was it irrelevant to their reading.