• Bruce is a scholar from Tasmania with an aboriginal heritage.

    I suggested this book for the group after a number of friends told me it was a ‘must read’. I am very pleased that I took their advice because for me and I think the OBG group, it was a real eye-opener.

    Pascoe’s thesis, in summary, is that aboriginal people had a much more highly evolved civilisation than was ever acknowledged by the first colonial settlers and those of us who came after.

    He gave evidence of the fact that aboriginal people built sustainable houses, constructed dams, altered the course of rivers, sewed clothes, had an evolved system of agriculture which included cultivating and harvesting cops, mosaic burning to encourage growth, and storage of food. At a less tangible level they had systems of government, belief systems, and ancestral laws as well as a complex of languages which may have come from the same original root.

    The impact of white settlement was, as we now acknowledge, devastating to aboriginal lives and culture. They were said to be ‘stone-age man’, hunters and gatherers, people who were very primitive and thus very easy to drive off their lands. The fact that they had a highly evolved culture was either ignored, not recognised or deliberately extinguished. It was then very easy to claim the country as terra nullius.

    Our discussion ranged over many areas: the impact of the idea of private property and the fencing of areas; Western population and its need to expand; the lack of a formal written aboriginal language; the lack of resistance by aboriginal people to settler incursions compared to the resistance put up by NZ Maori people in similar circumstances; the fact that the parklike impressions of parts of Australia painted by early artists were possibly accurate – not so much the romantic eye of UK and French painters but an actual cultivated landscape; the fact it is only recently that aboriginal belief systems have been given proper acknowledgement; that aboriginal occupation may be as much as 65,000 years old and there may have been one language root.

    Possibly the most telling part is Pascoe’s contention that the aboriginal populations had a system of pan-continental government that generated peace and prosperity. However he did not explore the fact of violence between tribes, cannibalism and other less peaceful aspects of their culture.

    Most of our group were surprised at how much we had been sold the hunter-gatherer story (or the noble savage idea) and some of were interested in revisiting writings of some of the old writers – Daisy Bates, Violet Teague, W Stanner, Olive Pink, Mrs Aeneas Gunn etc as well as the recent books by Kim Scott, Billy Griffith and Nick Brodie. One area of interest was the way – often sentimental – that aboriginal people were treated in children’s books , and the fact that many Australians, especially in cities, had never seen much if anything of aboriginal people.

    Thanks to our group of sixteen for a very lively discussion. And welcome to two new readers: Alisa Halkyard and Diana Bagnall. Notes by Jan Aitkin.

  • Welcome to Dorothy and thank you to Sylvia for moderating The Easy Way Out by Steven Amsterdam.

    The novel is set sometime in the near further. Section 961 has been passed allowing registered nurses to attend patients wishing to end their life voluntarily by taking a dose of Nembutal. The patients must qualify with a terminal illness to access the program. Attendants prepare the dosage but are not allowed to physically administer it. The patient must do that themselves. The whole process is filmed to ensure the legal boundaries have been adhered to and to allow authorities to debrief the attendant on their performance.

    We meet Evan an itinerant contract nurse who has recently applied the become an attendant. We follow him as he attends several deaths. Each case is different and Amsterdam, who himself worked as a palliative care nurse, uses them to draw out different practical and emotional conundrums eg the patient wants to go but the family resists. Evan faces a challenge when he does intervene to help. This leads to his dismissal and he enters the nether unregulated world of Jaspers Path. Here Volunteers attend people who do not qualify for Section 961. In his private life, Evan partakes in, graphically described, threesome gay sex with Simon and Lon. While he is physically engaged Evan does not give much away emotionally to the disappointment of his two partners. Evan is also caring for his mother Viv who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

    The discussion commenced with comments on the writing style. Many found it very effective. Amsterdam was straightforward in his descriptions of the dying process, with welcome smatterings of humour. Nothing was sensationalised nor did he proselytize the case for Evan’s work. He simply described the process pressing the reader to ask themselves “What would I want?”

    A vigorous debate ensued. OBGers were very open about their own experiences of friends and parents’ journeys in trying to access such help when the process currently remains illegal. It was agreed that it will be interesting to see where the debate leads as Baby Boomers, who have led charmed lives, come face to face with protracted illness.

    We are fortunate to have Medical Doctors in the group. “Doing harm” very understandably challenges the strongly held ethics of their profession. They were able to highlight and reassure us that Palliative Care is very advanced and no one needs to suffer. While the group had total respect for this stance, many still felt personal control over their life was an important principle.

    No one underestimated nightmare scenarios where the elderly start feeling pressurised not to be a burden as grasping relatives eye up the inheritance. How else can they buy property in Sydney?

    It is a testament to the respect and trust that has built up over the years at OBG that such personal experiences, and diverse views, could be shared so openly.

    A call went out to get back to the book!………the juxtaposition of his sex life verses professional was questioned. Did it really need to be quite so graphic……for what end? Others were fine with it. Amsterdam was clinical in the description of death as part of life so he was simply dealing with sex in the same way.

    The group enjoyed Viv as she escaped from the Nursing Home to regain her independence only to be tracked down by Evan because the Nursing Home had micro chipped her. Clearly, Evan and Viv had a feisty but close relationship and we wondered early on would Evan assist her? In the end, Viv chose to let nature take its course and we all, though not sure why given the rest of the book, found that her and the book’s ending to be the right one

    Summing up, a long-standing member declared this was “the best OBG discussion I have ever attended”, while another felt the book had seriously challenged, and even changed, her views on the subject. A Tuesday afternoon well spent!


  • Thank you to Tina for moderating Commonwealth by Ann Patchett.

    The novel opens with a powerful chapter. Fix and his wife Beverley are holding a lively Christening party for their second daughter Franny, a sister for Caroline. Bert, a near neighbour, decides to crash the party with a large bottle of gin, any excuse to escape the domestic tyranny of a Sunday afternoon surrounded by his three young children Cal, Holly and Jeanette, and wife Theresa pregnant with Albie. In the heady swirl of the party, he kisses Beverley and the die is cast.

    Divorces follow. Bert marries Beverly moving to Virginia with her two daughters. Theresa remains in California, a single mother raising four children. Every summer she sends them to Virginia to stay with Bert and Beverly. Fix happily remarries Marjory. With all the characters set in place, Patchett produces an ambitious sprawling novel of the two families intertwined lives over the next 50 years.

    Notwithstanding its wide scope, we all agreed Patchett is a master of minute observations. We laughed aloud at their recall – Theresa sending the children to Virginia with no luggage knowing Bert and Beverley’s total disinterest in the whole parenting process, Franny having to cook and wait on Leon and his house guests, the children jostling for car seats.

    For those of us from large families, we concurred Patchett absolutely nailed the experience of growing up with numerous siblings – the politics of the hierarchy, the bossy one, the ignored one, the delinquent one and then the revelations in adulthood when a shared upbringing results in bonds never imagined in the early years. The shifting sands of Albie relationships through the years rang so true.

    Discussion moved onto her plotting. The six children spent every summer together running wild with Bert’s handgun strapped to Cal’s leg and stolen bottles of gin. Bert and Beverly were truly neglectful parents even in the “hands-off ” days of the 70s. Patchett skillfully built up the tension of the children’s escapades and we felt relief when miraculously they got home safely………until one summer they didn’t. Cal’s death changed everything reverberating through the following decades.

    We enjoyed the way the decades were covered out of sequence and using different voices….almost a series of short stories. Her beautiful writing carrying us through, though several members noted they would have welcomed a family tree. Certainly, in the first half of the book, you were constantly checking back with yourself as to whose kid belonged to whom breaking the flow of the reading experience.

    A couple of members did reluctantly admit that by the end they were left feeling a bit flat, wondering what was the overall point she was looking to make with the saga………if indeed she was.

    I had an issue with the reality of Franny, a law school dropout and avid reader (Patchett constantly name-dropped the books Franny devoured) earning her living as a Cocktail Waitress picking up barfly Leon Posen, a renowned author 30 years her senior. To my amusement, the whole group vehemently disagreed. It’s totally plausible Gillian, what have you done with your life? You really should get out more.

    Unfortunately, no one could satisfactorily explain the title Commonwealth. What did it have to do with the novel, other than being the title of the book written subsequent published by Leon, inspired by Franny’s childhood? One member read a reviewer’s explanation; something to do with Virginia being a Commonwealth State, but we were none the wiser. We concluded there was a cultural divide and hopefully the reference was obvious to an American reader. Slight disappointment in the room as OBGers like a full explanation!



    Thank you to Pat for moderating The Colour by Rose Tremain. An excited buzz was in the air as we gathered, eager to get back into book discussion, after our summer break.

    The Colour had proved to be perfect holiday reading. From opening chapters you knew you were in safe hands with the promise of a page turning, well written, well researched book set around The Gold (The Colour) Rush in 19th century New Zealand.

    The novel ‘s main protagonists, deeply flawed Joseph Blackstone, his wife Harriet and mother Lillian, emigrated from England, escaping various tragic pasts, for a new start in the alien hinterland near Christchurch. Joseph throws everything into building a cob house ignoring local advice on where to set its foundations. The first severe winter snow brings huge deprivations for the family though they battle on with the fortitude of true pioneers. OBGers doubted we were made of such stern stuff!

    One morning, going down to the river, Joseph spots flecks of gold and quickly becomes consumed with making his fortune an easier way. He leaves the farm alone, sails north around the South Island to the gold fields on the West Coast. Later Harriet, after Lillian’s death, follows him, though they never meet again.

    There is a sweeping cast of believable characters including generous neighbours Toby and Dorothy Orchard, successful sheep farmers who in contrast have tamed their environment, their ailing son Edwin with his Maori nurse Pare, Pao Yi, the gentle Chinese gardener supplying vegetables to the miners with whom Harriet develops a fulfilling relationship, and camp followers rent boy Will Sefton, and Mrs Dinsdale, the respectable landlady turned brothel owner. While there were mixed views on the degree of our emotional attachment to some of characters, the majority of members were absorbed in their different stories, particularly Harriet’s, praising Tremain’s poignant observations.

    Pare was voted the least convincing. Presumably, Tremain had introduced Pare to add a layer of Maori spiritually to the grasping world of the immigrants. One member reminded us that Pare had no interest in gold searching instead for culturally significant Greenstone. This was an effective jolt for the group to question the meaning of intrinsic value.

    There was unanimous agreement that the strength of the book was her vivid descriptions of the landscape, particularly the workings of the gold fields with its complicated contraptions to mine the seams hidden in the riverbed. We all got caught up in the gold fever debasing men and women into creatures with one aim to find gold or take advantage of those who had.

    Jane Campion’s film The Piano was referenced………the mud, the clothes, the new settlers alienation from the landscape. Another member compared Tremain’s storytelling style to Thomas Hardy novels where unsympathetic leading men and fate, symbolised by the weather, are always strong themes ……The Mayor of Casterbridge sprung to mind.

    Minor criticisms were the Mills and Boon description of the physical relationship that developed between Harriet and Pao Yi, the death of Lillian’s husband by an Ostrich seemed rather odd and tying up all the loose ends in closing chapters may have been a bit twee, but, hey, lots of us were pleased to know they were mostly going to be OK after everything.

    Rose Tremain is a new author to many, but certainly one we will revisit when the mood calls for a strong story well told.


  • Happy New Year from everyone at FOBL!

    We are currently working on an exciting program of Speaker Events for 2018…………so watch this space!

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