• Welcome to Toni and thank you to Gillian Shenfield for moderating In The Darkroom by Susan Faludi. Faludi is a successful New York-based feminist journalist and author. In 1991 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism.

    Out of the blue in 2004, Faludi receives an email from her father, living in Budapest, from whom she has been estranged for 25 years. He tells her he has undergone reassignment surgery in  Thailand and now identifies herself as a complete woman changing her name from Steven to Stefanie. Curious, Faludi travels to Hungary to try to unravel the enigma her father has always presented to her.

    The subsequent memoir explores issues of identity be they religious, cultural or gender. Faludi takes us through the current medical literature by renowned physiologists and psychiatrists. Are there clearly two distinct genders or is sexuality more fluid with stages along a spectrum? Set against the personal interactions is an intensely researched history of Hungary. This makes sober reading. The WW2 years were appalling even by the standards of the time. The Hungarian Government sent 100,000s of its own citizens to the deaths camps without Hitler needing to intervene. Modern day Hungary remains very grim.

    On her initial visit Stefanie has no intention of opening herself up and stonewalls every attempt by Faludi to investigate Stefanie’s past. However as the memoir progresses we learn about her lonely childhood ignored by her rich Jewish parents who lost everything in the war, living on the streets as a teenager escaping transportation to the death camps, often by impersonating the fascist police, leaving Hungary to become an entrepreneur in Brazil and then a controlling, violent, husband in America. So many different identities……..did this influence making the ultimate change? The title In The Darkroom reflects her profession as a photographer and film developer subtly altering fashion photos for premier magazines where her skills were held in high regard.

    The discussion kicked off with Faludi’s motivation for writing the book. As one member pointed out, as a journalist receiving that initial email it probably triggered a professional reaction of “there’s a good story here, let’s get it”. All agreed her accomplished journalistic style meant a fluid “easy” read of often harrowing subject matter.

    Several members felt that while they shared her initial frustration with her father’s stonewalling, seemly denying any existence before she identified as a woman, they found Faludi was equally closed, taking the role of the “objective journalist”.  Many wanted more of her emotional reactions though clearly his brutish behaviour as a father had made her wary. However, as the visits progressed over the years Faludi did soften particularly when she learnt about Stefanie acts of great bravery during the war.

    The whole issue of full physical gender reassignment cannot fail to provoke conversation. We were fortunate in having several members who professionally, socially and within their own family have supported people transitioning. They were able to share some great insights.

    We had been intrigued with Stefanie’s obsession with makeup and clothes, selecting outfits more suited to a younger, even adolescent, woman. Apparently, this is a common reaction to the newly transitioned. One member likened it to “a rebirth” starting at puberty. This, of course, makes it even harder to “pass” leading to greater social isolation rather than less. To have any real success in this area puberty needs to be avoided through hormone therapy ……a very challenging decision for any family.

    While OBGers are certainly long term feminists, most of us had no idea on the current thinking over this issue…..which is, as we eagerly quizzed one member……if you have lived for 40 years in the privileged male world altering your body does not alter your mind, and so you have no right to comment on the female condition/oppression etc. You have no experience of it.

    This argument took us back to the book. At first Stefanie tried to block out all her past. New gender, new person. Maybe the success of the visits was getting Stefanie to acknowledge her past and so by their last interaction in 2014, just before Stefanie’s death, both had become more open, more content and even reconciled.

    Faludi was definitely in her comfort zone with her detailed account of Hungary’s history. We all learnt a huge amount here. One member opined that maybe it would have been better as two shorter books -a Susan/Stefanie story and a Hungarian history. Others thought, no, you needed the “lighter” relief of the personal journey to allow you to regroup for the next chapter in Hungary’s.

    In the same way as I am having difficulties condensing the wide ranging discussion, so we had problems concluding the discussion, running over time until, with no logical break in sight, time was called!


  • Thank you to Chris for moderating Lincoln in the Bardo, the 2017 Man Booker Prize winner, by George Saunders.

    Well, wow, was this an original Post-Modern novel or what? Chris noted she had chosen the book because she had really wanted to “talk to someone about it”. The feeling was obviously mutual as a large group gathered getting straight down to a discussion before we were all sitting comfortably.

    Set against the height of the American Civil War President Lincoln’s favourite son, 11-year-old Willie, has died and the President and his wife are crippled with grief. Willie is placed in a mausoleum and the novel describes the night Lincoln visits Willie’s coffin to hold him for one last time. A true historical event.

    The Bardo is a Tibetan Buddhism term for the transitional state between death and reincarnation where the soul is not connected to the body. Saunders imagines the Bardo in the cemetery with numerous ghosts/spirits flying around talking to themselves and to each other. They describe their lives, regrets and concern for Lincoln who they watch over guiding Willie’s spirit to meet him.

    There are two main protaganists leading us through this netherworld; Hans Vollman who was killed by a falling support beam as he was about to consummate his marriage and so flies round sporty a huge erection—and Roger Bevins III a gay man who, suffering from unrequited love, committed suicide. As he died he had a moment of clarity about the beauty of the world. In the Bardo, he is a mass of ears, eyes and noses engaging the senses. There are literally 160 other spirits white, black, straight, gay, rich, poor chattering about their lives in mid 19th century America. The impression is a crazy circus of characters. Contrasted to his imaginary world Saunders tells of real events, describing Lincoln as the man, physically and emotionally, the night Willie died of thyroid and the Civil War raging in the Country.

    All this would be a lot to consume, but it is the structure of the novel which creates the reading challenge. There is no real plot. In the Bardo, only the dialogue of the spirits is recorded with their name written beneath. In the real world, Lincoln and historical events are described using extracts from original sources which often conflict in their recollection. Saunders patchworks these together on the page and, like the spirit names, he records the source underneath. He does not attempt to interrupt or rewrite these quotes……….genius originality or the ultimate act of plagiarism?

    The discussion erupted. Many did not enjoy it at all. The lack of plot and the confusion of voices in the Bardo led to a frustrating, almost impossible read. Many had had enough by page 70 and those who preserved didn’t feel adequately rewarded. Yes, it was an original approach to the historical novel form which was to be commended, but the form had been poorly executed and therein was its downfall.

    Others were disappointed there was not enough about Lincoln. Given the title and their interest in that period of history, they felt short-changed that most of the novel was in the Bardo. The conflicting sources (what colour were Lincoln’s eyes? Are they green or they’re blue?) did reinforce the point that history is only ever subjective. Then someone dropped a bomb-shell. Apparently Saunders had made up some of the “sources” ……….playing with the reader on many levels.

    The glumness was broken by a resounding cry from one member “I loved it”. The refrain was repeated by others, all eager to share why.

    These members had enjoyed the spirits, just “going with the flow” and entering into their world. Certainly, the names beneath was an initial distraction, but once they were in the Bardo they were hooked. They found was great humour there with bawdry Vollman and the banter of other spirits, as well as some wonderful poetic passages on the beauty of the natural world which they shared with the group. The description of Lincoln does holding Willie for the final farewell was particularly moving.

    One member felt the spirits were visceral beings, their neuroses being reflections of physiological trauma experienced in their real lives.

    Saunders is a practising Buddhist. Unfortunately there were no Buddhists in the group and we felt this loss. We strongly suspected we had missed many references and really should give The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol) a go sometime! One member gave us a rundown on Purgatory the closest comparison our Western religious traditions can provide.

    We all came to hear what others thought and we certainly did. Did it change minds? Probably not, but the afternoon made us all think and consider. A perfect Open Book Group Book.


  • 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!


  • Happy New Year from everyone at FOBL!

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

Back to top