Any story which can combine top level espionage in wartime France, with a triangular love story at the heart of the action must be a winner, and so it is with The Lavender Keeper, written by Fiona McIntosh. Vichy France is a dangerous place to be for Luc Bonet, a member of the French resistance, and Lisette Forestier who has been parachuted into France, and instructed by SO6 to seduce Markus Killian,a senior German officer and find out the plans of the German High Command. The problem for Lisette, is that she discovers that she can love two men, Luc and Markus, simultaneously, and is, therefore, in danger of compromising her mission. Fiona McIntosh does a fine job of keeping us in suspense, and her meticulous research into every aspect of the resistance has resulted in an authentic, and atmospheric novel.
What should have been the powerful and moving story of an unlikely romance between Lale, the tattooist of Auschwitz, and Gita, the young woman he falls in love with, fails utterly to impress. The narrative is simple to the point of banal, and glosses over the horror of camp life, the fear, the hunger, and the misery, so that a sugar coated love affair can take centre stage. Now, more than ever, when there are so few survivors left of the holocaust, it's important to tell their stories to new generations who may not know much, if anything about this period of history. So that, even if this novel is flawed, it has some merit for that reason alone.
A light-hearted start to the discussion of Shakespeare’s novel was in the form of a quick quiz. This served well to jog memories about characters and particular details.
Nicholas Shakespeare is a versatile English writer who spent much of his childhood in South America and the Far East due to his father’s role as a diplomat. This text draws from Peruvian political history about Abimael Guzman (named Ezequiel here), the 1980s to 90s revolutionary leader of a Marxist movement, Shining Path.
The author softens disturbing accounts of violent repression and brutality by including a love triangle which, though a little contrived, makes the sequence of events real and decidedly human. This also allows Shakespeare to explore, to a degree, the life and emotions of the key character, a well-educated police officer Colonel Rejas, whose determined pursuit takes twelve years before Ezequiel’s eventual capture.
Despite an awkward structural framework - yet satisfyingly circular - and perhaps some lost opportunities to develop increased tension, this novel stimulated a lively discussion and some interest in reading Shakespeare’s other works.
The Fireflies of Autumn: And Other Tales of San Ginese, by Moreno Giovannoni, took us to the olive groves and piazzas of San Ginese, a small village in Tuscany inhabited by some memorable and larger than life characters. Their stories of hardship through famine, feast, and war were touching, funny, sometimes bawdy and irreverent, but never dull. Even when they migrated, they dreamed of home, only to be disillusioned when they did return. This collection of stories is a wonderful tribute to the author's father Ugo, and a moving testament to a way of life that has now disappeared for ever.
The next book on our list was Women in Love, by DH Lawrence. This has variously been described as lacking momentum, too wordy, and vague about the aspirations and desires of its central characters Gudrun, Ursula, Rupert and Gerald. While these criticisms are valid up to a point, they in no way detract from the power and sensuality of this twentieth century classic. Lawrence achieves his effect not so much by a logical sequencing of events, but by the creation of a series of tableaux which depict the struggles of the protagonists to understand each other and the world around them. The novel reaches a climax with the death of Gerald in the Bavarian Alps and Gudrun, Ursula and Rupert are left to resolve the issues of love and life in their own inimitable ways.
Our literary season kicked off with A World Of Other People, by Steven Carroll. To link the story of a love affair with the poetry of T.S. Eliot was certainly a challenge, but, I think a successful one. A day after the Blitz in London, three people stood on a rooftop acting as fire spotters, when they saw a British plane go down. One of these watchers was Iris, a would-be novelist, and another was the acclaimed poet T.S. Eliot. A year later, quite by chance, Iris meets Jim, an airman sitting on a park bench who is clearly distressed. She speaks to him, and their love affair begins, but later cools due to a misunderstanding. Hoping to see Iris, Jim goes to a reading of Little Gidding by the poet, but the evocative and powerful imagery of a plane going down triggers a memory of his rear gunner trapped in the burning aircraft. He wanders off into freezing weather, and dies of hypothermia. It's only later that Iris and T.S. Eliot realise the doomed airman was Jim. If anything, this novel, made us aware of the power of love, the power of words, and the meaning of hope and inspiration.
Cup Day in November falls on the first Tuesday – so there is no report for e-Books this month. The group will meet at the Library from 10 to 12 on Tuesday 4 December.
Free Food For Millionaires by Min Jin Lee, about Korean Americans in New York in the 1990's has all the ingredients of a soapy - a large cast, and some high drama. The story opens with a slap, given by an irate traditionalist Korean father when his feisty daughter Casey refuses to take up an offer from the prestigious Columbia University. This is followed by the confrontation when Casey finds her current boyfriend Jay in bed with two other women. Finally, there's the discovery when our heroine finds out that her new beau Chul is a compulsive gambler. In the meantime her bestie's marriage ends, and her mother is raped by the choir director. However, like any soap opera, Free Food For Millionaires is superficial, and when Casey decides not to pursue a business career with her Ivy League friends, and make hats instead, we are are not surprised, and, indeed, we don't care. PS: Just a reminder that we meet again on Dec 4th, and please bring a plate for our usual end of year celebration. Also, could those with KIndles please remember to bring them so that the 2019 list can be added.
The Way Back (Kylie Ladd), the story of the abduction of a teenaged girl, is described as a 'gripping psychological drama.' Sadly, few in our group would have thought this was accurate description. This modern day family, consisting of a workaholic mother, a stay at home put upon father, and a lonely, uncommunicative son, appeared just a tad dysfunctional. If anything the daughter Charlie seemed the most normal--horse mad, keen on netball and her new friend Liam. The defining event of her 13 year old life, is her kidnapping by a misunderstood recluse, and its emotional impact on her and her family. This should be the crux of the novel, but doesn't have the impact it should, because the circumstances surrounding her disappearance and eventual discovery lack a certain credibility. We agreed that younger readers may find some of the issues discussed relevant to their lives.
Our last book was a very extensive biography of an English Spy - Daphne Park - for some of us it was fascinating, for others it was far too wordy!! However for those of us who could meet for the discussion of Park's life and work it was made all the more interesting because we had lived through the news reports of the political troubles of the Congo in the early 1960's and the Vietnam War - the times when this spy had been part of the English team that manipulated the outcomes of the times. Quite frightening!
Our reading group meets in a cosy corner of our Library from 10 a.m. on the 1st Tuesday of the month. If you are looking for a good reading group to join, why don't you "check us out!" You would be made most welcome.
Our latest novel, The Gulf, by Anna Spargo-Ryan, is an all too common story of domestic violence and child neglect, but in the hands of this author, is fresh, poignant, and entirely convincing.
The most compelling character, is undoubtedly, six year old Ben, a walking encyclopaedia, appreciated by few except his adored sixteen year old sister Skye who understands only too well how vulnerable he is. Both are exposed to the continuing neglect of their flighty mother Linda, and the random brutality of her latest boyfriend, a thug and a petty crook. They have little choice but to escape from this toxic environment, but their flight doesn't end quite as they imagined, and indeed, their future may be as uncertain as their past.
Spargo-Ryan writes beautifully, with a natural ear for dialogue, essential to the atmosphere of realism she wants to create.
Again our group met in the cosy corner of the library to discuss Hannah Kent’s new novel ‘The Good People’.
Kent is probably one of the best new novelists to emerge recently in Australia, but her books are far from an easy read. She confronts the dark side of the human psyche again with this narrative set in Ireland in the 1820s in a remote village where dire poverty, superstition and hopelessness confront the unlucky inhabitants. A disabled child is cruelly tortured by people who believe he is a changeling stolen by the fairies, a case of infanticide, women who struggle to survive in this harsh environment and one who does escape – but to what? Is anywhere better in this grim place?
Does it have any relevance for us today apart from reminding us of what human nature can descend to if diminished by lack of education and hope?
Kent creates a believable but unpleasant picture of this time but softens it with her lyrical descriptions of the countryside in Western Ireland. If you enjoyed her first book “Burial Rights’ you will want to read this.
Every year around about June, we begin to think about our book list for the year ahead. Since we withdrew from the CAE book groups, we no longer have access to their catalogue, hence we compile our own list mostly from reviews.
Members of the group submit their selections, and then a final annotated list is drawn up. Our choices are not confined by period or theme, and can be contemporary fiction or classic favourites.
Whatever is chosen, we can usually look forward to titles which promote lively discussion, and sometimes the unexpected pleasure of reading a book we not have considered before.
Robert Drewe’s recent novel Whipbird provided our group with a lot of fun and animated conversations.
The Irish-Australian Cleary family from all over Australia is invited to the 160th anniversary of Conor Cleary’s arrival at the Ballarat goldfields in the 1850s. Around 2000 of this prolific family arrive at Hugh Cleary’s vineyard near Ballarat for the celebration. Hugh, a successful barrister, regards himself as the family’s leader since his elder brother, Sly, a former rock muso, addled by too much booze and drugs, believes he is dead and wanders around seemingly mute.
Drewe pokes fun at all the middle class stereotypes in this satire on middle class manners. Thea the unmarried vegetarian doctor, two former bank managers now retired, and Father Ryan all contribute their bitter-sweet stories. Mining workers, film producers, grasping wives; mocking youngsters, Indonesian brides and Chinese husbands all add to the rich mix of this huge family. The pretenders, the disappointed, the pretentious and the mad: they are all here.
We recommend this book as an amusing read to dip into on a winter’s afternoon.
Manal al-Sharif challenges the prohibition on Saudi Arabian women driving vehicles, aware that she is merely breaching custom, not the law. Nevertheless, she is arrested, treated like a criminal and gaoled for a few days in appalling conditions.
Her initial rebellion may be regarded as unwitting because, born in 1979 at the beginning of fundamentalism in Saudi Arabia, she becomes devoutly religious and fanatical about observance of all the rules, harassing her family to do likewise. However, al-Sharif breaks the rules herself when she feels stymied in her drawing, sport and academic endeavours and ultimately relaxes her extreme views.
One salient point that emerges from her account of growing up in a segregated, oppressive society is the power of education. The author’s passion for learning combines with her Libyan mother’s adamant insistence on schooling to ensure success. She is the first female Saudi to be employed in technological information security and, working in the Western enclave of the Saudi-Aramco Oil Company, she earns a good income, works alongside males and is free to drive.
Despite some apparent inconsistencies that group members attributed to the use of a ghost writer, the memoir is incisive and compelling. The violent beatings by parents, teachers and husbands and the emulation of this behaviour by the young, her disfiguring circumcision and the brutality of the religious police are related succinctly and dispassionately, resulting in a searing impact on the reader.
Al-Sharif asserts that, ‘The rain begins with a single drop’ - and it does appear that rights for women in Saudi Arabia are advancing, albeit slowly.
Gaita writes a heartfelt tribute to his father, a Yugoslavian migrant who established his family in a bush shack near Maryborough Victoria. Romulus, the blacksmith, is seen as a peasant saint by his son who, as a child, absorbed the hard lessons of his father’s stiff morality. Gaita’s German mother, Christine, was a deeply troubled woman who suffered periods of mental instability punctuated by her unfaithfulness to her husband and child.
Gaita blames neither of his parents for his harsh upbringing but instead claims he learnt both compassion and self-sufficiency from his parents who lived life more intensely than their Australian neighbours. The bush around Frogmore is beautifully described and a solace to the boy.
“Does any child truly know his father?” was one of discussions the group followed as we tried to understand the complex family relationships Gaita explores. Some group members found their empathy for this type of child rearing sorely tested as the novel progressed, but no-one can doubt Gaita’s sincerity to this panegyric to his childhood.
We had no meeting in November, but just a reminder to bring your kindles, and a plate to our next meeting on December 5th.
The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1⁄4 Years Old is published anonymously and translated from the Dutch by Hester Velmans. Hendrik, an octogenarian in a care home in Amsterdam, has no intention of doing as he’s told, or dying quietly. He creates The-Old-But-Not-Dead-Club with a select group of friends who set about living their final years with careless abandon, trips outside the home, fun and hijinks.
Along the way he meets Eefje, the love of his (age limited) life, deals with the care home director whose authority is threatened by these insubordinate oldies and details his exploits in a diary.
This book generated a lot of discussion in terms of aging, friendship and care of the elderly. It was witty and relevant but also challenging in having us think about age related issues we’d rather not contemplate, none of us being spring chickens! The comic situations were interspersed with segments of darkness and poignancy; you could find yourself laughing and crying at the same time.
The translation by Hester Velmans was excellent.
Hendrik came across as an inspirational character. Look out for the follow up title, “As Long As There Is Life” - The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 85 Years Old.
The following trailer of 'The Secret Life of Hendrik Groen' is very engaging, despite the lack of subtitles. Hopefully a subtitled version becomes available and Hendrik Groen can be screened at Swanpool Cinema program. and/or our Film and Literature group.
Tobias Hill is a poet of some distinction in Britain, and also a fine writer. What Was Promised, is a beautifully constructed trip down memory lane, beginning in post war London, and ending in a somewhat different world in 1988. This quote 'Six years of war, nine of rationing, and everywhere feels the pinch', is the authentic voice of the East End, and accurately represents the lives of three costers, Solly, Michael, and Clarence, and their families who struggle to survive in poor accommodation and crowded conditions. The children, however, create their own imaginary lives on bomb sites. The one constant in all their lives is change, and some adapt better than others. Not all the endings are happy, yet Tobias Hill demonstrates very convincingly, the resilience of the human spirit and our need to belong in a place we can call home.
The Natural Way of Things, by Charlotte Woods, has been variously described by critics, as a 'masterpiece of feminist horror, and a 'virtuoso performance'. We disagreed. The novel is supposed to be an exploration of contemporary misogyny and corporate control, in which ten women are imprisoned in a remote area, and subjected to every kind of abuse, as punishment for perceived sins. Yolande and Verla, the two main protagonists, are sympathetically and sensitively portrayed, and develop new personas to cope with a hostile environment, but the others remain deliberately shadowy. One horror follows another, but the writer's remorselessly angry tone means the novel loses clarity and focus. She is just too angry, and this is a pity, as she is a fine writer.
Magda Szubanski is well known as one of Australia's top comediennes, but A Reckoning: A Memoir, establishes her reputation as a gifted writer. Words leap from the page as she describes in intimate detail, her often fraught relationship with her father, and the emotional turmoil she experiences as she struggles with her sexual identity. Her very best writing stems from her vulnerability as she attempts to fit into new environments. We can laugh as she becomes a 'sharpie', sympathise when her tennis career fails, and then rejoice when she finds her niche as an actress. This autobiography, tender, funny, brave, and compassionate, we hope, will not be her only work.
PS: Don't forget to bring along your ideas for new titles for next year's list at our next meeting on Tuesday, July 4.
Lucy Treloar's Salt Creek is an impressive first novel. She has succeeded in creating an authentic colonial voice in her description of the Finch family, who, in 1855, are forced to move from Adelaide to distant wetlands with few resources, and surrounded by Indigenous people who regarded them as intruders. If there is a stand out theme, it is struggle: Hester struggles to preserve her independence; her father fights to make a living and ensure a future for the family, while Addie and Tully battle to keep their child and have a life together. It may well be that the past and its people are unknowable, but the author's respect for history, and her fine interpretation of one particular family, allow us at least a partial glimpse of the past.
We were captivated by Our Souls At Night, by Kent Haruf. Above all, this novel was an exploration of the possibilities of life, and a celebration of the everyday small events which can shape and transform us. Our ordinary heroes Addie and Louis, live in the perfectly, unremarkable fictional town of Holt in the American mid- west. Mutual loneliness brings them together, until town gossips and their own families, almost succeed in driving them apart. This doesn't happen, and therein lies the success of this wonderful novel. Their tenacity, bravery in the face of obstacles, and memories of shared tender moments, ensure a future, maybe not quite as they envisaged, but a quiet happiness nevertheless.
Eat, Pray, Love, our March book, is an account of Elizabeth Gilbert's struggle to resurrect her life in the aftermath of a marriage breakdown, supposedly providing inspiration for many women in a similar predicament. It became an immediate bestseller, but we were not impressed. If the object of her forays into Italy, India and Indonesia was to encourage physical and spiritual regeneration, then evidence of this kind of progress wasn't apparent to the reader. Ultimately, it all became a competition: how much food she could devour in Italy; how long she could endure the discipline of meditation in India, and, finally, how she could be the very best lover in Indonesia. If there's a moral here, it is to avoid best sellers. Helen
About the E-Book Group
Our E-book group is a forum for discussion of books, ranging from classic to contemporary fiction. To access the monthly book choice, participants are welcome to use their own E-readers/tablets, or borrow books from the library (when available). New members are always welcome, and will enjoy the atmosphere of lively debate, morning tea, and a general get together.
10 am to 12 noon
Convenor and contact details
Developed and maintained by members, this website showcases U3A Benalla & District.
Photographs - acknowledgment to U3A members;
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State Library of Victoria