Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Atonement - Ian McEwan

This book has been described as "a symphonic novel of love and war, childhood and class, guilt and forgiveness [which] provides all the satisfaction of a brilliant narrative and the provocation we have come to expect from this master of English prose."

On a hot summer day in 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses a moment's flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant and Cecilia's childhood friend. But Briony's incomplete grasp of adult motives - together with her precocious literary gifts - brings about a crime that will change all of their lives. Atonement follows that crime's repercussions through the chaos and carnage of World War II and into the close of the twentieth century.

I can't wait to find out if this book lives up to its amazing hype. Our next meeting will be on Tuesday 13 January. See you then!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

¿Abuela loca, no?

So, did you like the book?

The start of the story, set in Miami during Ana and Carlos' childhood, I found very unpleasant to read and a real struggle to get through.  

I don't know about you, but I personally did not relish reading about a family of refugees who had chosen to take a chance on a new life in America, but who were not making the most of their chance.  I thought the characters should just get over themselves.  I thought they should stop blaming each other for their unhappiness.  

The only thing that kept me reading was the fact that I had chosen this book from the CAE Catalogue, and everyone was going through this unpleasant reading experience because of me!

Repeatedly, Ana blames her grandmother Dolores for being the poison at the heart of the family.  However, while reading that first section I did not feel any sympathy for Ana or for Consuelo (especially when she got out of Dolores' way to allow her to beat Ana more thoroughly).  At that point I didn't believe that the family's unhappiness was more Dolores' fault than anyone else's.

But once I got past that section, and got to reading more about what happened before they left Cuba, I began to understand the reasons why the family were so unhappy in Miami.  

Consuelo's Lost Love

If you didn't make it all the way through the book (Natalia I'm talking to you) you might not have caught up with the fact that when she was young and astoundingly beautiful, Consuelo fell in love with a rich music student by the name of Daniel.  Daniel was the love of Consuelo's life, and when Dolores violently broke them up, incidentally ruining Daniel's music career by damaging the tendons in his hands, Consuelo decided to forget Daniel.  Instead, she turned to Pedro, a man of her own social class and approved of by Dolores.  However, Consuelo never could  forget Daniel.  She was never happy with Pedro, even in the early years of their marriage when they lived in La Habana before the revolution.

Daniel is the man Ana sees around the place in Miami, the good looking stranger who she wonders about.  (**spoiler alert**) He is, in fact, her father.  At the end of the book, Ana tries to describe what it must have been like for her mother to meet up again with the love of her life after fifteen years apart; to make love to him and become pregnant, and yet decide not to leave her husband for him.  Ana says that Consuelo had no choice but to stay with Pedro because of  Daniel's dangerous life fighting the counter-revolution.

Throughout the book, Ana describes her mother as having 'inertia' and paints her as quite a helpless person, yet it was Consuelo's decision to leave Cuba in the first place, against the revolution and knowing that they would leave at great personal cost.  So she couldn't have been completely helpless, could she?  Do you think Ana makes excuses for her mother?

An Immigrant Story

In the book notes, this story is described as an important 'immigrant story'.  By the end of the book I could understand it best in those terms.   I thought to myself that it was important to tell the stories, even the sad hopeless stories, of what happens when a country is wracked by revolution and its people are given the choice to either stay and suffer or leave and suffer somewhere else.  I appreciated that it was not the purpose of this book to say whether the revolution was right or wrong; it just showed what happened to one family in its aftermath.

Did you think of this most as a story about immigrants?  Or about child abuse?  or mothering? or a story about a political situation?

Do you think it is important to read the unhappy stories as well as the happy ones?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Rooms in My Mother's House - Olga Lorenzo

Driven from Cuba after the revolution, three generations of women - Dolores, Consuelo and Ana - settle in an old farmhouse near Miami's Little Havana.  With Consuelo's gambling husband, and son Carlos, they rebuild their lives from the foundations up.  But the floors are shifting beneath their feet, shaky as their pasts.  In that hot strange place they do battle from room to room - with each other, with their history, with the ghosts that linger in the space between their hearts.

And from the CAE Catalogue:
...The spirit world blends fabulously with their material one in this vibrant novel.  Some content may upset readers.  Several groups have commented on the 'ugliness' and human cruelty portrayed in this book.

Click here to read an article (from the Miami Herald in 1998) which mentions Olga Lorenzo and among other emigrants who left Cuba after the revolution.  The article describes Miami as "the official waiting room of exile, where Cubans dream, wait and plot the end of Castro's rule."  

Our next meeting
will be on Tuesday 9 December
Venue to be confirmed

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Dressmaker - Rosalie Ham

After twenty years away, Myrtle Dunnage returns to Dungatar - a small country town whose people's eccentricities are many and varied.  From Sergeant Farrat's predilection for cross-dressing, to pharmacist Almanac's retributive scheme of potion dispensing, not forgetting extra-marital affairs and assorted dark secrets, it seems that everyone in town has a seamier side. But none of these can compare to the sin of Tilly and her mother: to have come from somewhere else.  At first ostracised, the townspeople gradually accept her in order to make use of her extraordinary dressmaking skills and, at last, Tilly feels that she might have found home.

But small towns are strange places where vanity rules, and, once again reviled, Tilly sets out to teach the town a lesson. In the process she faces the ghosts of her past, and wreaks a havoc that provides a most satisfying revenge.

This is a story of love, hate and haute couture. A warm and nasty book, The Dressmaker evokes Drysdale's 'Drover's Wife' dressed in Chanel. 

The above blurb is from the publisher's website.  I think it's more insightful and accurate than the one on the back of the book.  I particularly like the description 'warm and nasty'.  One thing I've wondered is:  for a town so vain and so obsessed with appearances, how come they don't have a beauty parlour?  It could have been a really good setting for vanity, bad taste and bitchiness of the town's inhabitants - not to mention visits on the sly by Sergeant Farrat.

What do you think of the book so far?

Do you know, or have you lived in, a town like Dungatar?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

Discussion questions

1 Is there a hero in The Orchid Thief? An anti-hero?

2 Which of the characters in the book most attracted or entertained you? Why?

3 John Laroche would not describe himself as an orchid person. To him the orchid is a temporary but very intense passion, a means to an end, not an end in itself. How would you analyze the difference between Laroche's motives in collecting orchids and the regular orchid collectors visited in the course of the book? Or is there no difference?

4 Laroche believes that his actions are ultimately an act of selflessness. That his rape of the Fakahatchee would force the law to be changed and close the loophole that allowed him to poach rare and wild orchids from an Indian reservation, thus protecting the species in the wild, and securing it for the marketplace at the same time. Is this the thought process of an amoral character? Or is he just an everyday charlatan?

5 Laroche makes a very telling statement: "When I had my own nursery I sometimes felt like all the people swarming around were going to eat me alive. I felt like they were that gigantic parasitic plant and I was the dying host tree." Is he playing the role of the victim, the martyr to a (preferably lost, but grand) cause or is he in control of his life by making a living off other people's weaknesses, whether it be a passion for orchids or pornography?

6 The Native Americans on the reservation are entitled by one law to remove protected species from their land. Is this law justified? For any indigenous people?

7 What is the real core, the central character, of the book: Laroche? Florida? Orchids? Native Americans? Darwin? Orlean?

8 As a reader, what did you expect from a book about orchids? How did your experience of reading The Orchid Thief compare to what you expected?

9 The working title of The Orchid Thief was "Passion." What does that suggest about the themes in the book?

10 This story is one of a passion for collecting, one that has become an obsession. Do you have an obsession (that you're willing to share with the group?) And at what point do you think an obsession gets out of hand and turn into clutter that interferes with every life? ARe there different perceptions of passion v obsession v clutter

Romulus My Father by Raimond Gaita

Questions for discussion

1. This story has a very dramatic plot, featuring love affairs, betrayal, fighting, madness and more than one suicide. If the book was fiction, it might seem like over the top melodrama. Yet it is categorised as biography. Did you find it difficult to believe that it was all true? Why? or why not?

2. While reading this book, I was reminded of similar ‘deprived childhood’ autobiographies A Fortunate Life by AB Facey and Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. Did Romulus My Father remind you of any other books you’ve read? Do you enjoy reading this type of true story?

3. The book paints the picture of a very unusual and eccentric man: Romulus Gaita. What did you think of Romulus? Do you think he was a good man? Do you think he was an interesting character? Do you think he was a good father to Raimond?

3. The story opens with a very young Romulus behind the door of his Grandfather’s house, desperate and ready to kill his drunken uncle if his uncle broke the door down. At several points in the story, Romulus seems ready to kill or be killed - for example, when he takes Raimond to Sydney in order to kill Lydia’s husband, and then on the way home considers killing himself instead. Why were things always so life-or-death for Romulus? Did he create and cause all the drama himself? Or was he pushed to extremes by the circumstances?

4. Romulus and Hora were great friends for nearly their whole lives. They met because of shared circumstances, but their friendship was sustained through a shared set of principles which formed the basis for their way of living in Australia as immigrants, their way of caring for their families and their joy in conversing with each other and with Raimond. Did their principles - hard work, honesty, friendship etc - resonate with you? Or did Romulus and Hora seem like strange, inflexible people? Should they have done more to fit in with the Australian way of life in the 1950s and 60s?

5. For Romulus, the principle of truthfulness was all important - not simply that ‘honesty is the best policy’ to keep oneself out of trouble. How important is it to be truthful? Do you ever tell ‘white’ lies?

6. Raimond mentions that as a child he was used to seeing unusual incidents, and that he wasn’t shocked when his mother tried repeatedly to commit suicide, his ‘step-father’ Mitru did, and even his own father attempted it. Do you think that the dramas in this book reflect the broader experience of immigrants in Australia in the at that time? or do you think that it was to do with the situation only within Gaita family?

7. The people of Maryborough seemed to either love Raimond’s mother Christina or despise her. On the one hand, she was beautiful, engaging and charming. On the other hand, she was depressed and troubled mentally, and seemed completely unable to care for her own children. What did you think of Christina?

8. Did you see the movie Romulus, My Father? Was it as good as the book?

The Brush Off by Shane Maloney

Discussion questions

For those interested, Shane Maloney has a website http://www.shanemaloney.com/ (it gave me a few laughs!)

1. Was anyone previously familiar with the author (Shane Maloney) or lead character (Murray Whelan)? (I wasn’t, but where have I been?? He has written 6 novels and 2 of them have been made into telemovies starring David Wenham).

2. At our last meeting, I told you all that Peter could not read the book because it was “too pornographic”. Was anyone disappointed?

3. This is the second art-based book that we have read this year, the first being “Theft: a love story” by Peter Carey. Compare this book to “Theft”. What are the similarities? What are the differences? Which did you prefer? (See below for a few paragraphs to jog your memories)

4. Would you classify this book as a “who-dun-it” / detective novel? Why or why not? What elements are necessary for a detective story?

5. There were a lot of “one-liners” in this book. Discuss your favourites.

6. Did this book offer you any insight into the world of politics? Of the arts? Of Melbourne?

7. Would you read another Murray Whelan thriller?

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Discussion questions

1. Discuss your impressions of the book.

2. Do you think that things would have worked out better for Edward and Florence if they had been friends with Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson (Portrait of a Marriage)?

3. Many stories end with a wedding and “happily ever after”. This story starts there. Are we conditioned to expect the “happily ever after”? Why do we tell our children fairy tales? Do you think that fairy tales will evolve / have evolved to consider more modern concepts (eg feminism)?

4. Incest is a largely taboo topic. Compare McEwan’s tacit exploration of this topic with other examples in literature that are more explicit (Some examples include “Lilian’s Story” / “Dark Places” which are 2 separate Australian novels by Kate Grenville with a pivotal incestuous event told from both the daughter and the father’s point of view…Toni Collette played the daughter’s part in the movie. “Down by the River” by Edna O’Brien tells the story of a 12 year old Irish girl who becomes pregnant by her father and the response of the Irish public to this event. “Mouthing the words” by Camilla Gibb is a dark story of one girl’s incestuous relationship with her father and the effects on her life ever after…actually, there seems to be quite a few books on my bookshelf addressing this topic…perhaps it is not so taboo after all…anyone want to borrow some? Or perhaps we could just talk about something cheerier?)

5. The style of this book is a very detailed discussion of one night. It is then followed up by a rapid summary of their lives ever after. Did you like this sum-up or would you have preferred it to be left to the imagination? Do you think the story of their lives after this event was realistic? Why do you think they never made contact with each other again?

6. The fact of Edward’s mother being brain-damaged seems like an over-the-top character for a book with so few supporting characters. Why has the author done this? (I think it is just to show Edward as a tolerant and kind person.) What other mechanisms has the author used to sway our interpretation of the events? Does he want us to “take sides”?

7. I have just read several reviews of this book that do not mention incest at all…did I get is wrong, or did they miss something? Do I need psychoanalysis or do they just not want to give the plot away? It seems that they think the book is all about sexual repression / freedom in the 60’s (all these reviewers were male). Do you think sexual liberation in the 60’s is one of the themes of this book, or just a backdrop?

Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

Discussion questions

1. Why do you think a sheep was chosen as the main symbol of this novel? Think of some of the characteristics we attribute to sheep, as depicted by the following quotations;

“ A wolf in sheep’s clothing”

To be a “black sheep”

I saw all Israel scattered upon the hills, as sheep that have not a shepherd.
Bible, 1 Kings 22:17

"Every man can tell how many goats or sheep he possesses, but not how many friends." (Marcus Tullius Cicero)
"The American people are sheep. They're comfortable, rich, working. It's like the Romans, they're happy with bread and their spectator sports. The Super Bowl means more to them than any right." (Jack Kevorkian)
We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.
Book of Common Prayer 1662: Morning Prayer

The conception of two people living together for twenty-five years without having a cross word suggests a lack of spirit only to be admired in sheep.
Alan Patrick Herbert

2. What do you think were some of the major themes of the novel?

3. This book was translated from Japanese. Did knowing this change your reading of the novel?

4. There were many references to Western pop-culture throughout the book. Did you notice this? Did it contribute to your enjoyment of the novel?

5. Why do you think the narrator was forever telling us what he was eating? Did you notice this?

6. The narrator meets a woman with magically seductive ears and a strange man who dresses as a sheep and talks in slurs; in this way there are elements of Japanese animism or Shinto. Did you enjoy these characters, or did you dismiss them as silly? Which was your favourite character and why?

From Wikpedia…..In religion, the term "Animism" is used in a number of ways.
Animism (from animus, or anima, mind or soul), originally means the doctrine of spiritual beings.
It is often extended to include the belief that personalized, supernatural beings (or souls) endowed with reason, intelligence and volition inhabit ordinary objects as well as animate beings, and govern their existence (pantheism or animatism). More simply, the belief is that "everything is alive", "everything is conscious" or "everything has a soul".
It has been further extended to mean a belief that the world is a community of living persons, only some of whom are human. It also refers to the culture or philosophy which these types of Animists live by, that is, to attempt to relate respectfully with the persons (human, rock, plant, animal, bird, ancestral, etc.) who are also members of the wider community of life.

7. The narration was a combination of the everyday ordinary and deeply phlisophical? Were there any everyday observations that resonated with you? Were there any events that captured your imagination? Were any of the philosophies meaningful to you?

8. Would you describe this as a mystery / detective novel? A journey / quest? Other?

9. Did you like the ending?

10. Did you enjoy the novel?

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.

Discussion questions

1. Hands up, who found the book
a. A little bit fascinating
b. A whole lot fascinating
c. Not at all fascinating……..ditto for boring / scary

2. Which bits of the story did not make sense? Discuss & clarify.
3. Who was your favourite character, and why?
4. This story was told largely through letters. Was this an effective way to communicate the story?
5. This novel entwined a number of different symbols and superstitions, many of which are almost caricatured today. Can you think of any symbols, ancient or otherwise, that remain potent today?
6. In an interview, the author has said that she did not want to spill more than a cup of blood in this story (or words to that effect??). Would you classify this book as a thriller? Was it suspenseful? Would a little more blood lost have improved the storyline?
7. The love stories seem to dilute with each generation. Does this reflect reality? Is it too easy to fall in love these days, with many religious and cultural barriers to relationships removed?
8. I read a review of this book where the reviewer said that she would not want this pair put on the case to find her if she went missing…they hardly seemed in a hurry and they didn’t miss a single meal for the duration of the story! Did you notice this? Did you enjoy the descriptions of food?
9. What did you think of the ending?

Old Filth by Jane Gardam

Our discussion questions

1. What is your overall impression of the book? What did you like / dislike about the book?
2. There are large gaps in Filth’s story (eg meeting Betty, establishing himself in Hong Kong). Why is it that childhood features heavily in many memoirs? Are they truly our formative years? Or just the most interesting?
3. Was Filth as meaningful to Betty as she was to him? Or did she just stay with him for his money / respectability / convenience?
4. Filth’s relationship with Veneering changes from adversary to dreaded encounter (after knowledge of Betty’s affair) to companion and confidante. Can you describe a relationship of your own that has changed form?
5. “If you’ve not been loved as a child, you don’t know how to love a child” (p.159). Do you think Betty & Filth’s marriage was childless by choice, by barrenness or lack of sexual activity?
6. Whilst Filth is described as unknowable, unemotional and inhibited in love, he has the capacity to form close friendships (eg with Betty, Pat Ingoldby, Albert Ross). And yet, he experiences loneliness in his old age. Can we protect ourselves from loneliness? Is loneliness something you fear?
7. Jane Gardam was in her seventies when she wrote this story, featuring a character in his seventies and eighties. Did the story provide you with any insights to the process or condition of aging?
8. The author skips about in both location and time. Did this contribute to the suspense of the novel, or did you find it confusing? Did you feel that the story was climaxing towards Filth’s confession of his childhood events?
9. Parts of this novel are set in WWII. Some of Filth’s experiences of the war are rather unusual (eg as an older evacuee, guarding Queen Mary). Did you come away with a greater (or different) understanding of this time and place?
10. There are many characters in this book. Did they seem real to you? Did you form an attachment with any of them? Were there any that you particularly liked or disliked?
11. Betty has her famous pearls and her guilty pearls. Are you hanging onto any “guilty” items?

“You gotta have balls” by Lily Brett

Our discussion questions

1. This novel has been described as a celebration of old-age, where old people are enjoying life, forming relationships and having great sex. Living, as we do, in a culture that values youth and beauty, did you find this aspect of the story refreshing? Confronting? Realistic / unrealistic? Other?

2. The characters in Lily Brett’s life share a number of similarities with those in Lily’s own life, although she maintains that the book is not autobiographical. Does it matter whether the story is autobiographical or not? What responsibilities do authors have to ensure that their works of fiction are completely fictional? (similarities…Lily Brett’s parents are survivors of the Holocaust, she has a close relationship with her father, her husband is an Australian painter, she has 2 daughters and a son who is a doctor, she currently lives in New York, she has a journalistic background.)

3. The Holocaust serves as a backdrop in each of Brett’s novels. Discuss. (Obviously, I couldn’t quite think of a question here…)

4. Ruth is trying to set up a group of women who will support each other. Brett says (in “New York”) that “A myth has developed about women’s closeness, women’s bonds, women’s friendships, and it has covered up our hostility to each other, and our mean-spiritedness. Women will be supportive to each other in certain situations. We will commiserate over a miserable love affair. We’ll be sympathetic about illness and other ailments. We’ll swap child-rearing tips and diet aids. But we won’t share anything that might help to put another female ahead of us….Men don’t act this way. Men understand that it is in their own interests to help other men. Even if they hate them.” Do you agree? Why do you think Ruth couldn’t get the support group off the ground. (Perhaps consider the media reaction when Julia Goddard was touted as a possibility for leader of the Labor party).

5. Ruth is a worrier. She tells Max (her assistant) that she never ‘mastered the category of concern. She had always slipped straight into worry.’ In an interview, Lily Brett quotes one of her favourite Jewish jokes “Start worrying – details to follow”. Do you find this characteristic endearing or irritating in the novel? Do you find it an endearing or irritating characteristic in people you know? Are you a worrier?

6. Each of the characters in this novel has a different relationship with food. Ruth is concerned about her weight, and takes her own steamed vegetables to a restaurant. Edek appears to have an insatiable appetite and is always comparing a meal to that cooked by his Rooshka. Zofia is the robust and capable cook. Ruth thinks that her friend Sonia (an Australian) is one of the few women in New York without an eating disorder. Lily Brett was an overweight child pushed into diets by her slim, beautiful mother. Does our relationship with food (what we eat, when we eat, whether or not we cook, whether or not we diet) form part of who we are (or vice versa?). As a society, have we become obsessed with food? If so, why?

7. Who was your favourite character and why?

8. Ruth Rothwax has a successful letter writing business and is branching out into greeting cards. Do you think a letter writing business could be successful in Australia? Would you buy one of her greeting cards? After the condolence letter where the names of the late dog and his owner are mixed up, the owner thanks Ruth for the sentiments expressed in the letter, rather than the client who requested the letter. Should the client have written his own letter?

9. Brett is quite frank in her discussions about sex in the novel; however, in her own life she says that it isn’t something she usually discusses with friends and admits to blushing when the topic is raised. Why do you think she feels more able to broach the topic in a book that will be read by thousands of people, than she is with a few friends (who could read the book anyway)?

10. Did anyone try the recipes at the back of the book? Does anyone ever try recipes written in a novel?