Wednesday, 9 October 2019

"The City & The City" by China Mieville - October 2019

The City and the City – China Mieville - 3 October

Starting positively the book throws you straight into the fantastic, and highly original, idea of two cities existing coincidently both side by side and in places overlying each other. The two cities share characteristics and can be seen by each others citizens but those citizens must endeavour to “unsee” the other city. There is the ever present threat that if they fail to do this, they will commit “Breach” and Breach will come for and take them. Breach along with the debatable nature of the cities existence – is this a physical reality that there are two cities, existing in the same time and space, or is it more of a psychological Berlin Wall situation, are unexplained and un-understood, even by the citizens of the cities. These ideas are not over explained or deeply investigated. They are accepted as the phenomena of everyday life, while the cities themselves have distinct identities and different economies.

Within this setup, which perhaps surprisingly is located within a recognisable wider modern world, the reader is then taken into a classic murder mystery, the answers to which hinge on the premise of a supposed third city, existing between or even before the current two. The murder is investigated by the upright, fundamentally decent police inspector, Borlu, and is complicated by the fact that the victim appears to have been murdered in one city but left in the other one. The victim, a foreign student, was also investigating the myth of the third city. Borlu is an inspector in Bezel, which is portrayed as the shabbier, less advanced, poorer and more exotic city – its atmosphere is a mix of run-down ex communist eastern European, while its twin Ul-Quma is shinier, more up to date, modern and better resourced.

The consensus of the group was that the first part of the book which introduces us to these ideas and themes was nicely done and atmospheric, setting the scene well. However, we further agreed that after that the book became rather laboured, and not a particularly good thriller. Although we were grateful for the character of Borlu, a decent jobbing copper without any of the usual hang-ups which so many of fictional police seem to be burdened with. +We wanted to like it better than we did. But the police procedural wasn’t engaging enough, and the information about how the cities cross over and interlink were repetitively over explained deadening the impact of the novelty, while failing to explore these concepts in more depth.

There were a lot of ideas to consider about these ambivalent, ambiguous, co-located cities – themes of identity for citizens, immigrants, and refugees; political and national identities, and how these are established and maintained through culture, architecture, language, religion, alphabet/writing and food. However, the novel does not follow these up after the introduction of these possibilities in favour of the detective noir trope. Following the zesty introduction to this world the novel became laboured and even to a certain extent bogged down with the need to progress the investigation. To us this suggested a lack of confidence in the ideas, and a certain amount of caution which we wished had been thrown to the wind. We also felt that the story became over burdened by description and explanations about the duller aspects of the narrative, when we wanted to explore more of the esoteric, weird, even sci-fi aspects than those of the crime novel. However, while we were somewhat disappointed by this book, which many of us had looked forward to reading, we also agreed that one of the great strengths of the reading group is that we all read books that we would otherwise not have picked up. Even when a book may not live up to anticipated expectations, it is well worth reading different writers. And in respect of this read, more than one of us intends to try other works by this author.

"Nights at the Circus" by Angela Carter - September 2019

--- The group met, but I don't think anyone wrote a review... ---

Thursday, 15 August 2019

"The Reader" by Bernhard Schlink - August 2019

The Reader – Bernard Schlink - 1 August
This was a stimulating read which gave the group such a lot to discuss that we concentrated on discussing the book and the issues it raises for the whole session and could probably have continued for longer. Once again we had to take into consideration the issue of translation, and in this instance the film of the book which some readers had seen, and felt set out some of the aspects of the novel more explicitly and effectively than the book itself.

Although not especially long the book touches on a lot of big issues; its primary theme, astutely identified and summarised by one of our group, being how the rising generation address the legacy of WWII and the Holocaust on both the national and personal level at a time before the need for remembrance and responsibility were officially recognised and taught. We did not necessarily wholly agree that the author succeeds in what he appears to be attempting

We began by considering the initial relationship between the narrator and his lover Hanna. Hanna is 21 years his senior when they begin a sexual relationship, he is 15 (although she assumes that he is 17). While recognising that attitudes to sexual liaisons between adults and young adults would have been considerably different at the time this is set, the early 1950’s, and especially if the genders were reversed, many of us felt that this was an abusive relationship which damaged both participants, as the war has damaged both those who took an active part and the next generation. However, as we only ever have the narrator’s view point about the relationship it was unclear to us whether the author was implying that this was the case or leaving it for the reader to draw their own conclusions. The boy’s involvement with the older woman isn’t so much of a surprise, sex, and adolescent intensity of feeling – he thinks that he loves her – Hanna’s involvement with him is somewhat harder to fathom. Although Hanna is living a lonely and circumscribed life, as a result of both her (secret) illiteracy and her work as a camp guard, she has more to lose by getting involved with this boy and she struggled to cope with the intimacy of the relationship because she was hiding so much. Because of the rather emotionally bland tone of the narrator it sometimes seems as if both participants were at a similar level of emotional development even though at times there are signs of her attempting to retain a more adult role such as through the use of belittling pet names for him. However, we also recognised that people don’t necessarily behave rationally in relationships, and pet names may often seem disparaging, so it might be unreasonable to label this behaviour abusive. The metaphor being that while he was the rising generation who lived through the war years as children, and not as active participants, she is of the active and guilty generation who need to take responsibility and shoulder the blame for their actions.

Many of us struggled to entirely understand why Hanna continued to hide her biggest secret, illiteracy, so completely. She took on the role of a camp guard rather than reveal it, and left her job, as a tram conductor, and home when once again promotion would have revealed this, and ultimately takes the blame and a lengthy prison sentence because she can’t read. However, people are ashamed of such things and can be driven to extremes by attempts to cover up. This is also in keeping with the metaphorical nature of the story. Lack of acknowledgement and awareness of war crimes at the time, followed by attempts to disown and distance responsibility for them following the war, follows a similar pattern to Hanna’s dissimulation about her illiteracy. In failing to use the only defensive she might have she is also seen as beginning to take responsibility for the guilt which she bears both personally and metaphorically. Her journey to literacy during her time in prison, and her end also indicate her recognition, and by default her generation’s recognition of their responsibilities for the holocaust. The dead are always with her. The key question which Hanna asks at her trial is “What would you have done?” but we did feel that perhaps not enough was made of that.

The book left many of us somewhat disappointed by the lack of emotional depth, yet this deliberate tone can empower the reader to approach to the issues of guilt and responsibility, and complicity, remembrance and reparation with greater sensitivity and understanding than a more emotive approach might have allowed.

Reading is obviously a theme throughout this novel, self-referentially for us as readers, for Hanna, who had prisoners read to her when she was a camp guard, and for Michael who reads to her both when they are lovers and later on tape. Reading to someone is often associated with parents and children, reversing role perceptions in Michael and Hanna’s initial relationship where she is significantly older. Hanna’s comments about her listening show her to be an intelligently critical woman, as does her own reading when she finally overcomes her resistance to learning. Interestingly, many of the group had experiences beyond childhood of either being read to or reading to someone and all felt it was an interesting and enjoyable experience.
By Karen

"The Tottenham Outrage" by M.H.Baylis - July 2019

We didn't write a review for this one... I think the heat was eating our brains

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

"Sofia Khan is not obliged" by Ayisha Malik - CityReads London (every year) - June 2019

Clapton’s reading group members were positively inclined towards this year’s issue of the “CITY READS LONDON” initiative, where London’s reading groups receive free copies of a London-based novel. But we weren’t overly convinced by it! Some thought it was repetitive in places, and could have done with more editing – a common theme in our group, when it comes to the more recently published novels we read. (Is the art of editing in crisis? Or is it just us??)

With Ayisha Malik’s “Sofia Khan is not obliged”, the advertising (“a Muslim Bridget Jones’ Diary”) seemed spot on – a light read, easily and flowingly written, easy to digest, slightly fluffy romanticism with a couple of deeper topics thrown in, especially regarding the protagonist’s attempt to find balance between two cultures. But whereas Bridget Jones’ Diary was an exciting innovation at the time, “Sofia Khan...” couldn’t completely live up to the hype. In the feedback forms that we sent back to the CityReads charity, nobody ticked the box that asked: “I feel inspired to read more books by writers like her”! But at least two (of four) respondents said that they “learned something new about living in London as a Muslim” and about Muslim women’s experiences, so I would call that a success, in terms of what the book set out to do, at least partly.

The content of the book was interesting, but maybe the most telling comment by one of our members was that in romance, no matter what culture you’re from, or living in, everyone has the same human problems.

I’ll add more comments regarding content if I receive any from our members!
By Cordula

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

"The Master and Margarita" by Mikhail Bulgakov - May 2019

The Master and Margarita – 2 May
This somewhat challenging read gave us much to think about, and in some cases great amusement. A modern classic, this has been called one of the great books of the 20th century, and is often included on lists of must read books before you are whatever age/die (take your pick). However, like so many books which we’re all supposed to have read, or know, this is no easy read, but it is all the better for that. It is a treasure house of incident, story, joyful absurdity, spiteful self interest and greed, regrets and cowardice, self awareness and recognition, philosophical and religious query, full of vivid images and symbolism. Although several of us struggled with it, following our discussion at least two members determined that they would now go back and finish it.

Written in a 1930’s modernist style reminiscent of work by Pirandello , Ionesco and Brecht, the book, which was not published until the late 1960’s, has three main story elements. One, a satire of society in post revolutionary Moscow, with its favoured elites being taken to task, in ridiculous and sometimes tragic ways by the Devil, here called Woland, and his appalling and comedic sidekicks, in the form of, primarily, Behemoth – very large talking cat who walks on two legs, and Koroviev a sinister clown/entrepreneur. Another, the seemingly affectless depiction of, primarily artistic and entertainment, society presents fascinating glimpses into and observations on life in post revolutionary Russia which is seen to still contain many different classes of citizens. The third, the story of Pontius Pilate and Yeshua (Jesus), told by both the Devil and the Master. The former relating it as lived experience, the latter as a writer whose work is rejected as entirely out of keeping with the sensibilities and values of an officially atheist culture.

The different stories, numerous characters, and avant-garde style can make it tricky to get to grips with. The introduction and notes on the text where helpful here. However it is intriguing, and for some the Pilate story provided the way into the book, presenting interesting historical points and an empathetic character which many of the Muscovites were not. Despite this many of the episodes with the Devil and his sidekicks are full of a frenetic idiocy and joy, and scenes such as after the clothes exchange at the theatre, Margarita smashing up the apartment, the riot in the foreign food shop, and money changing can be laugh out loud funny. There is also a wealth of realistic and interesting detail about daily life, from the Bunsen burners of shared kitchens and the accommodation shortage, to the realistic responses of the doctors and nurses in the mental hospital to their patients' apparently fantastical reports.

The somewhat detached, even matter of fact, tone makes discerning the author’s position on the many issues the book raises easier said than done. Bulgakov does not offer us a clear view about religion, the nature of goodness, and its opposite, and the relationships between these themes and atheism, communism and morality, nor for that matter does the devil. Are the readers being asked to defend religion, or is this a philosophical exercise in what happens when you banish it? Interestingly, despite these questions there is no sense of nostalgia for pre-revolutionary Russia; people just want things to work better. There is anger that elite groups continue to get favourable treatment, which is expressed in the fact that it is the places where these groups gather, and their members which are the main targets for come-uppance at the hands of the Devil’s sidekicks. Nearly all the others who suffer as a result of money grabbing are the greedy, and the hoarders, very much in keeping with the soviet viewpoint and also a high degree of morality. The reader must make up their own mind.
By Karen

Monday, 29 April 2019

"To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee - April 2019

To Kill A Mockingbird by Lee Harper published 1960

Without exception, we all thought this book stands the test of time, despite its complex topics which include racial injustice, violence, rape and sexual prejudice.

Lee combines the narrator's voice of a child (Scout) aged between 6-9 observing her small town life, but with a grown woman's reflection on her childhood. This narrative method allows us to read a "delightfully deceptive" story that mixes the simplicity of childlike (not childish) observation with adult situations, which are full of hidden motivations, prejudice and unquestioned tradition.

The detailed, but compact and simple observations of people, places and situations bring all the characters to life and with very little imagination we can see the places, people and situations so clearly that the group felt that it made the story more personal and therefore more engaging.

Within the seriousness of the subjects are hidden gems of humour, satire and irony, which lift the reader away from the temptation to judge and moralise as things are seen through the eyes of the children, and makes you laugh, so the story moves along with ease.

The main character of the lawyer Atticus Finch is of course the moral compass of the novel, as he teaches his children, and indeed the whole town, lessons of courage, honesty and honourable behaviour. Two of the members of the group said they knew people who had read the book and decided to follow the legal profession as a direct result of reading it, and being inspired by the strength and veracity of the character.

The book certainly deals with tragedy and injustice, heartache and loss, (rather like a Greek tragedy) but it also includes a strong sense nobility, courage, compassion, selflessness, and an awareness of how we can become better human beings, which is inspiring and thoughtful.

The book still rouses feelings of indignation and disgust, particularly in the way individuals are degraded, but also forces readers to question current issues about race, class, and society, and this is probably why we felt that it was still a relevant and challenging book for today.

Friday, 8 March 2019

"Map of Love" by Ahdaf Soueif - March 2019

"My thoughts -

Irritating and fundamental flaw in construction of story. Where did Anna's letter come from? Did she keep copies of all her correspondence? did she go around collecting all the letters she had written? it makes no sense that the letters wrote are the ones in the trunk rather than the ones she received.

Found the history fascinating and horribly poignant. Next time any European complains about waves of migrants from Africa they need to be reminded of past behaviour. Spent a great deal of time gnashing my teeth and feeling very cross, ashamed and downright furious that matters have got worse instead of better.

Central love story charming but somewhat Mills and Boon. Anna just a bit too perfect, Sharif a cliched tall, dark handsome hero."

Thursday, 28 February 2019

"Loyalties" by Delphine de Vigan - February 2019

"I found the book really quite engaging. It's a very easy read, and has a wealth of social issues which keep up the momentum, but I felt the ending left things a bit high and dry, and I wanted more so that's probably a good thing! I'm not so sure the idea of loyalty was the best concept, I felt it was more fear (of loss, being found out, change etc) which is a very common childhood thing, and the desire to climb inside the bottle of forgetfullness was well presented."

"Delphine de Vigan's LOYALTIES was a short and easy read; undemanding in length, but not in content and that was the major problem that most members of the book group had with it.
It was too short to deal with its serious content in any meaningful depth and the interconnected stories, of the four main protagonists, were not fully believable. The main story of twelve year old Theo's self destructive drinking needed greater explanation. How did no one, in or out of school, notice his drunken state and take action? How was Helene, his teacher, not aware that his problem was intoxication and not physical abuse, that he was not suffering from the same plight as she, as a child, had? Couldn't she smell him? Theo's father may have been made almost catatonic by depression, but why was his mother so blind to his situation? The adults in this book behaved like unthinking children, it was the two children, and particularly Mathis, who showed mature loyalty.

The problems of this book were not limited to the main characters and the storyline, but also applied to the lack of development of secondary characters, for example, Cecile's patronising husband and the awful cardboard character gym teacher.

The majority verdict on this brief novel was that it was an unsatisfactory read and the particular translation may have played a part in that."

Friday, 4 January 2019

"Lady Worsley's Whim" by Hallie Rubenhold - January 2019

This account of a true divorce scandal of late 18th Century Britain was also very interesting to discuss. What counts as infidelity in a marriage, what motives did the husband have for divorcing her, how did this woman remain financially fluent when her property was in her husband's hands, how did the media influence public opinion. Many interesting topics.

"Brighton Rock" by Graham Greene - December 2018

A great thriller, engagingly written, believable characters.. a lot of plot points, social observations and character development to discuss. We had a lively group session about Brighton Rock.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

"Blood Sister" by Dreda Say Mitchell (or is it?) - November 2018

I would like to write this blog post as a letter to Ms Mitchell, because I feel terrible about the bad things we will have to say about "Blood Sister"! Dear author, please believe that we meant well! But it might be that we were slightly misled, anyway - more on that later.

The group, I believe, was ready to give this Hackney author, who has been nationally lauded, who has received literary awards, who has been consulted by political and social panels dealing with crime, housing issues, politics etc., her fair due, and we were looking forward to a crime story that would let us peek into the criminal underworld of a local council estate, and to the astute psychological analysis the author is supposedly capable of. However, having either read the entire book or tried very hard to get through it, most group members' impressions and comments were, I'm sorry to say, devastating. The hyperbolic commentary on the book's jacket, possibly mostly referencing the author's previous works instead of "Blood Sister", didn't prepare us for the slightly unbelievable, formulaic, and stodgy story (and not enough editing) on this fictitious and seemingly unrealistic criminal East End estate near the Roman Road. Now, there were enough plot points to keep us on track to discuss the content of the book for a while, but to be honest, it was mostly to debate how believable (mostly: not very) the plot was. Specifically, a lot of the action didn't match up with the characters and their evolution - we found that scenes were written not organically happening out of the actors' development, but rather, the personalities of the characters were shoehorned into the story to fit the required action. Except for the younger of the two sisters, Tiffany, most characters were so undefined as to seem blurry; no clear picture of them could form in our minds.

We were puzzled at the portrayal of the only black character of the book, who seemed to a) not be much more than a collection of shallow stereotypes, and b) undergoes a baffling, disappionting character change which kind of lets her life drift into nothing and nowhere, which enhanced the feel of formulaic writing. Where was the cleverness that was mentioned in the beginning, where did it lead her? The lives described felt that we were reading a very stretched out episode of EastEnders! We didn't like the way that we were apparently supposed to like John as a "lovable rogue", even though he's literally a murdering drug lord. We didn't feel that we got an in-depth character picture of any of the actors, that would have enabled us to care about them enough. And we had been looking forward to learning something, gaining some perspective on a world that is so near yet so far for us - it would have been exciting to gain some real knowledge about a criminal scene, albeit fictitious, in Hackney. Instead, we felt pelted by shallow stereotypes and dreary repetition.

Not that every comment about this book was bad, or that we couldn't find any enjoyment in reading. Despite the repetition, it's written smoothly enough that you can kind of keep zipping along. But the discrepancy between the hype and the result was so vast, that we felt almost baffled. What was going on?

Then, at the end of the group, one of our members made a seemingly small discovery. What was written there, in the editorial section at the beginning of the book? The rights of *who* to be identified as the authors of this work - Emma Joseph and Anthony Mason? Hmmm...

We didn't know what to think - we were intrigued how and by whom this book was written, and whether that had anything to do with our critical thoughts about it? Dear Ms Mitchell, we would have loved to discuss this in person! All I can do is apologise that we didn't like the book better, and hope it won't put any of us off trying out more of her work in the future.
By Cordula

Friday, 5 October 2018

"Kafka on the Shore" by Haruki Murakami - October 2018

This Murakami book was charming, compelling, surreal, unputdownable. The characters were interesting, the detailed descriptions created a wonderful atmosphere, and the ending wasn’t done in a trite way, but pleasantly and realistic, with plenty of loose ends, which felt right to our readers, more realistic and subtle. We appreciated that Murakami is awlays interested in food, and writes in loving detail about it. We discussed the unpleasant bits – a boy who cuts the heads of cats, urgh; the Americanisms in the translation (“Jeez, Louise!”) – but didn’t have much worse to say about the book for it. Some of us started reading it with low expectations, and were pleasantly surprised. The books atmosphere was very meditative and like sitting in a Japanese Zen garden. The surrealism (talking to cats, UFOs) didn’t detract from the novel, as Murakami has the ability to render it so realistically, charmingly, and make it so naturally part of the story, that it enhances the message /the plot, without distorting it. It seems one of this author’s great gifts to be able to integrate magic and surrealism without grating on the reader. People were amazed by the incredible kindness and caring of strangers in Japan, and contrasted it with the harsh embarrassment felt by families towards their own outcasts. We also appreciated how the main character, despite being underage, seems to be treated with the kind of respect by the people he meets that grants him his autonomous life choices, he isn’t questioned on where he’s going or if he belongs to anyone. We talked about the character of Crow, and whether he functions as an imaginary talking buddy to Kafka, or if he’s a symbol of a schizophrenic alter ego, or quite who he really symbolizes. He seems to disappear when other people are with Kafka, so the group members thought of him as a shadow image or just an inventive inner reflection. Overall, the group was left with the impression that anything can happen in a Murakami novel, and found this partivular one “bizarrely charming”!

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

"Suite Francaise" by Irene Nemirovsky - September 2018

General Feel and comments about the book:

- Presented a horrible story; horrible characters and horrible scenes of war
- There are many vignettes of different characters; it was so hard to remember all of them
- Everyone behaves differently because of the difficult situation
- It seemed excessive in some places
- It was a very detached writing of a story, there was no emotional involvement of characters
- It was almost written as if a picture is moving in front of you
- It was very French, an obvious standard translation with only slight changes
- When I read this book many years ago, it did not engaged me so much but now, I had a different feel of the stories and details

Specific comments:

- The focus on Fr. Philippe presents so much violence on its own
- It was so violent to kill a priest
- There were specific vignettes about the aristocratic French families
- The author had more negative details about the French than the Germans
- The German lieutenant was presented as an upper class German with a good family background and attractive physical appearance
- The love affair between Lucille and the German lieutenant was not credible; even how desperate that woman was, would she fall in love for him?
- Lucille was a strange character, she did not have a life; everything she did was controlled
- On the other hand, the love affair presented a “sense of oasis” in a desert
- I like the vignettes of people because you learn more about their character, especially the Mischaunds, the Perricands, the Perrins,etc.

- I feel sorry for Madeleine because Bennoit is someone who can run into a fistfight any time
- The author conveyed well about what happened to the dancer and the young man
- There was not much details about how WWII came to France. It seemed to show how France did not put up so much resistance to the Germans and instead just entered into terms of surrender with them to gain peace
- Towards the end, the book presented details of the intense rivalry between the farmers in the village and the towns people

Comments and feelings about how the author ended her book:

- It presents the challenge and reality that life has to go on
- It suggested that the country life would assert itself
- It describes how the ordinary people suffered from war and how it impacts them
- People involved in war are actually people
- One scene of the German lieutenant and Lucille seemed to suggest the relationship will go on; there was hope expressed to see each other again and to be together to enjoy life
- The ending was nice and likeable
- I like the ending as it suggests that the rural life should go on.
By May

By Lesley:
I did enjoy Suite Francaise although I must admit, I did not warm to some of the characters at first, despite them being well described and cleverly observed so that I felt that I knew some of them from personal experience(!). Then I read the really interesting Appendices, which pulled it all together and I was able to go back and appreciate the subtleties and conflicts much more clearly. I found it to be a book which made me ask more questions than I normally expect, and was tantalisingly understated in the face of such upheaval and destruction which is its background. For me, it was definitely a good read with depth and understanding of the fickleness of the human condition!

"H is for Hawk" by Helen Macdonald - August 2018

Members found this autobiographical work quite difficult to read, but it seemed appropriate, since it reflected a personality going through a mentally difficult time. The writing, and the characters that appear, felt disjointed. Some people didn't feel sympathy for what she was going through, so it was difficult to establish sympathy for the author herself, and made it quite hard to enjoy the book. Also, because the author was using her hawk to hunt, and got into the hunting process, made it harder to enjoy or commiserate with her. However, other group members were able to feel for the author's loss (the book is about her dealing with the sudden death of her father) and felt for her sinking into depression. It was lovely that she had learned patience from her father when bird-watching, for example. But it was difficult to follow the time scale of the book, no dates were mentioned, which corresponded with her state of grief and the feeling that her identity was dissolving after her loss. The hawk gave her back a focus to hold on to. The violence of hunting, and her use of hunting practices that were controversial, made it hard to fully be on her side, though, as it had too many aspects of cruelty.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

"Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - July 2018

"Americanah", like the author’s "Half Of A Yellow Sun", is a love story, but like the other book it is also much more. Through the story of Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gives the reader a layered view of the political situation in Nigeria and of what it is like to be a non-American black in America. It is a book of descriptions, attitudes and episodic experiences.

It is also a book about race and identity and it is very well written. Adichie is a skilled writer, she has a light touch, but she writes about serious issues and she can often be very amusing – the opening chapter at the hair braiders and Ifemelu’s clever and frequently caustic blog offerings being examples.

Adichie never bores in her writing, but for this reviewer Ifemelu lacked empathy and treated her lovers in too cavalier an attitude. She simply leaves Blaine, her black Yale lecturer boyfriend and seems to deliberately sabotage her relationship with Curt, the "Hot White Ex” of her blog, and (spoiler alert) whilst she does get back together again with Obinze/Ceiling, there is no thought about the wife and child he leaves behind to be with her. Such a narcissistic character was difficult to care for and, whilst the rest of the reading group did, this reader didn’t.
By Jasmina

Thursday, 14 June 2018

"A History of the World in 100 Objects" (Neil MacGregor) and "The Muse" by Jessie Burton - June 2018

Our Group read one of our rare(r) non-fiction books for the May meeting, A History of the World in 100 Objects, but the May group had to be cancelled, as Clapton library was closed that evening for the 3rd May elections. So we decided to discuss two books together in our June meeting, which was also the yearly "CityReadLondon" event, featuring Jessie Burton's "The Muse".

All group members were very impressed with the gorgeous "History of the World.." . The objects were all beautiful and interesting, the articles well informed, the format lent itself well to reading in increments, and reading it out loud to others made you sound like a BBC radio presenter. Some group members had already admired the book on the Radio 4 programme. Going through history in chronological fashion via the diverse objects was fascinating. It was a book that you would be glad to keep on your permanent shelf and read again and agian.

We mentioned some objects that we found especially gorgeous or interesting: the feathered helmet from Hawaii, and the swimming reindeer sculpture. They represented the intensity and complexity with which humans
from much earlier eras and very different cultures analysed and interpreted the world, and taught us something about the serious investment that human cultures have always given to creating art, thus connecting with the world and its meaning for human life. Enormous time and effort was invested even thousands of years ago in order to represent artistically, with no immediate function for survival, animals, objects and ways of life. It showed that even early humans thought about meaning and engaged in deep thought about the world aroudn them.

In our second half of the meeting, we turned our attention to this year's CityReadLondon book "The Muse". It had been hyped in the press as a "Captivating" and "dazzling" second novel from the author of "The Miniaturist". Set in London in 1967, and in Civil War Spain in 1936, the reviews promised superlatives that the book could hardly live up to! Again, readers commented that it was a book that could have used a better editor, and that the language of the 1960's represented in it was anachronistic. We seem to have read several books now that deserved both these criticisms. A young English shopkeeper, for example, would not have called a black person "black". In the 60's, the custom was to say "coloured" person, and using "black" would have been seen as unforgivably rude. These kind of mistakes become grating and take you out of the flow of reading.

The content didn't fare much better. Although the premise of the story was interesting, the "dual timeline" ploy seemed a bit forced, and the characters bent into shape to fit the narrative, making them a bit flat and unbelievable. Some of the plot points were too predictable, and also too reliant on outrageous coincidences. All of this prevented readers from properly immersing themselves in the storyline, which in itself had interesting points, from the Spanish Civil War to women's struggle in the 1960's art world (and world of work).

The most annoying point seemed to be the slightly incongruous character of Olive, the painter in Spain in the 1930's, who selflessly gives up her own masterpiece painting (and a place at a prestigious art school) for her boyfriend to claim ownership of it. This just didn't gel, in the group's opinion, with any great artist's character. If the painting really was that forceful, it would have been created by someone with an equally forceful nature, drive to succeed, or ego; it seemed unrealistic for her to let go of her work so easily. However, the plot points were interesting and sparked a lively discussion.
By Cordula

Friday, 6 April 2018

"The Lonely Londoners" by Sam Selvon - April 2018

The novel, about Jamaican immigrants in 1950's London, was very readable with a clear voice written in authentic dialect. The group members found the language was well crafted and authentic, and one could hear the characters' voices really well. The author made the scenes come to life, and group members could imagine the novel very well visually. They felt that the author really knew the characters he was talking about, and depicted them richly. Yoiu could hear the sadness, loneliness, and being stuck inbetween two places at once - immigrants always missed their home country and home life, but were not really in a position to ever return home again unless they had "made it" in London. Our readers enjoyed the rich different characters in the novel; some whose attitude was to bring their home village life to the streets of London, and some who got stuck in low paying job and having their high expectations dashed, making it even more impossible to return to Jamaica. Some readers felt that it was a shame that the attitudes and experiences of women weren't explored more in the novel, and commented on the misogyny of a lot of the male characters, but also noted that this absence of women was partly the reason the men in the novel experienced isolation, and felt that the attitudes to the women felt very true to the time and the situation. Immigrants in 50's London wouldn't have had many female friends around them, and were also struggling to reconcile different societal structures between men and women back home and in the "Mother Country".

It was interesting to hear our group members' own experiences of London / Jamaica and immigrants in the 60's, and parents first generation experiences coming to the UK, and how shocking the contrast between the cultures was, and what racist attitudes immigrants experienced in Enlgand. The ones who didn't have a chance to read the book yet were definitely looking forward to giving it a go.
By Cordula

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

March Group had to be cancelled...

... due to the bad weather! Cold and snow prevented the group from discussing "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian" by Marina Lewycka. Maybe we can talk about it another time...

Monday, 19 February 2018

"Indian Takeaway" by Hardeep Singh Kohli - February 2018

INDIAN TAKEAWAY is the tale of British Indian Hardeep Singh Kohli's attempt to "find" the real India through travelling the subcontinent and cooking British meals for bemused natives. The author doesn't find what he is looking for, but he does discover more about himself and his relationship with his family, particularly his father.

The book was often funny, mostly entertaining and a light read. It would, in fact, be a good read on a journey. Some members of the reading group found it rather repetitive and agreed that it would have been a much better read had it had a good edit.

One of the two main areas where the author did score praise was in his evocation of place, railway stations in particular. One member of the group said that she saw and smelt the environment, so well was it described. Another said she could clearly see all the characters that were written about.

The other area of praise was in the author's honesty. He was honest about his relationship with his family: he did not gloss over the difficulties he had had with a sibling. He also made no excuses for his own failures, but recognised them and wrote about them. He knew himself well enough to know that, although he wanted to experience "genuine" India, if the choice was between living as the majority of Indians, or staying in nice hotels and resorts, he'd take the latter.
By Jasmina

Thursday, 11 January 2018

"A Passage to India" by E.M. Forster - January 2018

Our group didn't seem roused to much emotion in reaction to reading "A Passage to India". The book seemed to be "of its time", in that it was probably shocking in its honest descriptions of the life of the British in colonial India when first published; however, to read it in the 21st century there didnt' seem to be too much happening. It was written in a bit of a flowery way, although some members enjoyed the writing style and found the sentences challenging but interesting. The book dealt with attitudes between men and women, which was interesting. Especially the fact that the British women seemed to be more interested in the actual way of life of India, its customs and social life, than the men were. We discussed a few individual incidents in the book, but weren't overly excited by it.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

"The Hounding of David Oluwale" by Kester Aspden - November 2017

Two of our group members wrote their responses to this non-fiction book by historian Kester Aspden:

I have not finished reading this book, I don't really like its theme ( death)...but after reading 3 chapters, I thought it has good points: a historical revelation of black discrimination in UK which is a delicate issue but current and very real. It gave me an idea of Leeds and how the early black Carribeans and Africans who knew that they are part of the British empire were made to feel they are not part of it once they reached Britain.
By May

I found this a powerful book. It was both easy and hard to read. Hard because the subject matter was painful and some of the passages which threw light on the virtual apartheid system that existed in 50's, 60's Leeds made me feel sick. It is one thing to "know" that they were less enlightened times, altogether different to be confronted with the reality. The raw story of the fate of David Oluwale made weep and shout with with anger.

It was easy to read in the way Apsden presented the story, the social context, the insights from his friends etc. I found the history of the footballer particularly affecting and relevant. I do not read a great deal of non-fiction and even less sociology or social history but I found this engrossing. I could almost see and feel the Britain I visited in my childhood.

In the end I found it was less about the police or a search for justice and more a reflection of society as a whole. How on earth did we manage to construct a system whereby someone could fall so low and no one help him? What was the point in repeatedly prosecuting him without putting any support mechanism in place? Oluwale's treatment by the medical profession was as harrowing and distressing as that meted out by the police and justice system.

The current sexual harassment scandals echo some of the language of this book. Michael Fallon claiming that things were different then, that things that were acceptable in the past are no loner to be tolerated. Those behaviours were NEVER acceptable but victims felt they couldn't speak up or if they did they would not be believed. All those police officers who said how uncomfortable they were with what was going on but not one of them lifted a finger to help Oluwale.

I am very glad we read this book even if it made me grind my teeth.

"This Book will save your Life" by A.M. Homes - October 2017

The author wrote "This book will save your life", to entertain the readers and to inform them about the American lifestyle. The scenes and events mentioned were hilarious but the plot was really simple: It is about a divorced man who had not come to terms with what happened to his life; still reflecting about his journey, and he was trying to make amends with his son who grew up with his mother or ex- wife. The author was not so clear about what "save your life"... meant. I could guess it could be about being down to earth, realistic and being giving to people which Richard had done as he related with the doughnut businessman and his friends. As a whole, there were surprising twists in the story that you never expect and made me not believe it should happen...the sink hole, right next to Richard's home, the t.v. coverage of the lifting of the horse from the sink hole, Richard's internist (doctor) unqualified and unlisted but was in practice( in America???really??), until towards the end at the Malibu beach, where Richard was suddenly on top of a table in the ocean! The author reveals big events which you never expect, sometimes unrealistic twists in the story.
By May

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

"All He Ever Wanted" by Anita Shreve - September 2017

All He Ever Wanted is a confessional novel: during a long train journey to attend the funeral of his sister, Meritable, Professor Nicholas Van Tassel dissects his relationship with the object of his obsession, Etna Bliss. The reader sees the couple's courtship, marriage and parting through Van Tassel's eye: Etna is an enigma.

All members of the reading group agreed that Anita Shreve had, in Nicholas Van Tassel, presented a very believable portrait of a three dimensional male character who did not hide his flaws from himself. Possessive, jealous and incapable of accepting that his wife had had a love life before he met her, readers learn, as both memoir and journey progress, of the unpardonable deeds done by Van Tassel. These deeds cause him to lose both his wife and daughter, and probably would result in the loss of his son once he read his father's memoirs. But although Van Tassel is guilty of atrocious actions, Anita Shreve is such a good writer that the reader can feel for the man. Van Tassel is not evil: he is obsessed.

The novel is set in the early twentieth century and the author's elegant prose led this reader to feel that it was of that period. All He Ever Wanted is a very well crafted book about (amongst other themes) the danger of jealousy. It is also a call for women's liberation and independence.
By Jasmina

"The Walworth Beauty" by Michéle Roberts - August 2017

A creatively written book about human love in a family context but more so, in the context of love and lust in the lives of prostitutes. It was interesting to read how the author categorised prostitutes from the high class who is maintained by one rich person, to those who are working and serving any client daily for their daily needs. In addition, the author creatively reflect back the story about the different characters in the story which can be confusing at the start of reading but later on will actually hold your interest to read more to the end of the book.

In this book the author reveals the old city of London which still exist to the present, she creatively presents the secret mews in London where the trade of the flesh lurks, the role of a brothel owner in the flesh industry and the tragedy that comes with the life of a prostitute and a prostitute user. Excellently descriptive in words and imageries.

By May Milton

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

"The Narrow Road to the Deep North" by Richard Flanagan - July 2017

For our July meeting, we read “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, the 2014 Man Booker Prize winner by Richard Flanagan. The author dedicates the book to his father, or “Prisoner san byaku san jú go (335)”, which we’re assuming is the prisoner number his father was given by the Japanese military. This was a tough book to read. The main character, Dorrigo Evans, is a Tasmanian (Australian) working class kid risen up to the ranks of doctor, joining the military during the second World War, when he ends up (after fighting in Syria, North Africa, and other places) as a POW of the Japanese Army in Burma, building the Bangkok – Burma railway. We hear his story from youth to old age, but the vast majority of the book takes place in the prisoner camps under unimaginable conditions.
I’m copying the first paragraph from Wikipedia here to give some context, because I can’t really describe adequately the horrors we read about:

"The Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway, the Burma–Siam Railway, the Thailand–Burma Railway and similar names, was a 415-kilometre (258 mi) railway between Ban Pong, Thailand, and Thanbyuzayat, Burma, built by the Empire of Japan in 1943 to support its forces in the Burma campaign of World War II. This railway completed the rail link between Bangkok, Thailand and Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon). The line was closed in 1947, but the section between Nong Pla Duk and Nam Tok was reopened ten years later in 1957.[1]
Forced labour was used in its construction. More than 180,000—possibly many more—Southeast Asian civilian labourers (Romusha) and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) worked on the railway. Javanese, Malayan Tamils of Indian origin, Burmese, Chinese, Thai and other Southeast Asians, forcibly drafted by the Imperial Japanese Army to work on the railway, died in its construction — including 100,000 Tamils alone.[better source needed][2][3] 12,621 Allied POWs died during the construction. The dead POWs included 6,904 British personnel, 2,802 Australians, 2,782 Dutch, and 133 Americans.[4]
After the end of World War II, 111 Japanese military officials were tried for war crimes because of their brutalization of POWs during the construction of the railway, with 32 of these sentenced to death.[5] No compensation or reparations have been provided to Southeast Asian victims.[3]"

Dorrigo Evans is the main person, but Flanagan lets us see this horrific experience through the eyes of many of his comrades and contemporaries, such as some cruel, bullying fellow soldiers, some of the Japanese officers and soldiers that were commanding and torturing the Australian prisoners, as well as his unfulfilled love interest Amy, and even his long-suffering wife, Ella. The book is a masterful kaleidoscope of all of their perspectives, touching the horrendous war experiences from inside the minds of all of these people, which gives a fascinating glimpse into torturer and tortured, the cheating unhappy husband, the uncomprehending steadfast wife, and the also unhappily married lover Amy… I feel ill-equipped to repeat any of the plot and the details because the book is just so well written, it would be a shame not to experience it for oneself.

We were all touched by the many stories and the amazing style in which they are written. We talked about the incredibly different imperial attitude the Japanese had, completely ignoring an individual human’s worth in the service to the almost God-like emperor; we talked about the dangers of this mind-set and the incredible horrors it produced; we talked about the closeness the Australian soldiers felt with each other and that for most of them, nothing in their later civilian life could compare to this connection forged in the midst of all the loss and horror; we pondered how much the author, as a son of a survivor of these camps, must have hated imagining himself in the mind-set of the Japanese officers, to make them human…

We discussed a lot of the individual scenes in the book, which are many, and they’re all amazing. Too many to mention! We mostly discussed what effect all the intense experiences of Dorrigo’s life had on his ability or rather disability to love. We debated whether the intense lust he had in his affair with Amy could be love, or could have developed into love, but mostly concluded that his internal status conflict in combination with the damage that the war did to him probably precluded him from building a true connection to her. Or maybe it was only ever lust and nothing deeper was ever able to connect them, leaving him incredibly lonely in his life without Amy, in his unhappy marriage, in his endless affairs.

We marvelled at the descriptive power of the entire book, but especially about the long, drawn out scene at the end where Dorrigo’s family is trapped in an enormous fire (the details of which I couldn’t find on Wiki, not sure which of the many Australian fires it was) and he drives around in an old car looking for them. The scene goes on for pages and pages and is endlessly fascinating in its pace and descriptive power.

Thius book made us feel the sadness, enormousness, loneliness and all the horrors that its characters went through and it was an enriching experience to read it.
By Cordula

Friday, 2 June 2017

"Mr. Loverman" by Bernardine Evaristo - June 2017

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book – it was not a chore, but a pleasure. I liked the way a very serious issue, people living untrue to self and the damage that that can do, was handled so lightly, but deeply. The book never preached about intolerance, but revealed just how deep it went and how frightened people were of challenging it, even seemingly confident characters like Barrington.

Bernardine Evaristo is, in my view, a very good writer. Every character was believable and vivid; one could “hear” them speak in her writing. And she is a writer that can make readers laugh out loud. I found the scenes between Maxine and her father particularly funny; I could see them taking place and hear them.

The ending was a joy – Carmel turned the tables, Morris was just determined to live his life in a truthful way and Barrington found the courage to do so too. On the strength of this read I’m going to order other novels by Bernardine Evaristo from Clapton Library. I hope they are as good a read as Mr Loverman has been.
By Jasmina

Thursday, 18 May 2017

"Prophecy" by S.J. Parris - May 2017

Every April, London's reading groups have the chance to participate in CityReadsLondon, to get everybody reading the same book for one month. We've been doing this from the very beginning and have worked our way through a London-themed book each April for 5 years now, so thank you to CityRead for providing us with Oliver Twist (2012), A Week in December (2013), My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You (2014, for the centennial of WWI), Rivers of London (2015), Ten Days (2016) and now "Prophecy" by S.J. Parris. We had wildly differing opinions about all of these London books over the years, and the tradition stands! "Prophecy" seemed to be especially divisive for some reason - one can glimpse some real hatred, or at least some enormous exasperation, in this feedback I received from Craig:

"My quick thoughts on the book....or at least the first 30 pages thereof.

If one absolutely has to explain exactly who everyone is and their relationship to everyone else the very moment they enter the narrative then just tear the first 50 pages out and type up a cast list. That much relentless exposition is tiresome even when done well. Having it all delivered in the first person was painful.

As for the narrative style. Please god leave something to the imagination. The relentless stream of adjectives suggested the author was auditioning for a job ghost-writing for Dan Brown. I always suspect writers who assume all their readers are idiots must be consumed by self loathing.

With good reason in this case.

I didn't get very far into the book. It may well have been brilliant and I am probably a complete a*** with no taste.."

Other reading group members were impatient with the book as well, and I completely understand the reasons everyone had, but I personally really liked it. I thought that this is exactly the way that Kate Mosse should have written Labyrinth, which exasperated me way more than Prophecy! I get that the exposition and repetitive style are grating, but for a book that wants to bring Elizabethan politics to a wider audience (which is always good) and generally wants to bring political machinations down to a more human level of one step, one coincidence, one thought leading to the next, I thought it was really well done. Wrapping it in a murder mystery doesn't hurt either. I loved the snarky comments Bruno (and some others) get to make, I thougth the characters were very well drawn, and most of all enjoyed the reasoning Bruno gives when he analyses other people's motives. I thought especially the relationship with his host's wife, who tries to seduce him, and who he must keep at bay without rejecting her too harshly and risking her angry revenge, was really convincing. The power-plays generally between all the different players at the Elizabethan court were interesting as well, and the style was smooth and easy to read.

The only thing that really annoyed me was that Giordano Bruno, whose detailed exposition we're listening to, is made by the author to keep the wool held firmly in front of his eyes and not see who the murderer / betrayer must surely be. The author could have trusted her character and her readership a little bit more than that! Maybe she was scared it would spoil the suspense if he'd figured it out, but I don't think so.

I appreciated being walked through history, even if we were being walked through it like we still needed a bit of hand-holding.
By Cordula and Craig

Friday, 28 April 2017

"Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" by Douglas Adams - April 2017

The group thought that "Dirk Gently" was typical Douglas Adams fare: Witty, knowledgeable, quick on his feet, entertainingly random. A lot of our members had read the book a long time ago, and rediscovered it with joy. People remembered it very differently from their teenage or college years.

Some of us felt that it was of its time and that they had left that particular teen-age humour behind in their teens and weren't as entertained by the author now as they were then. We still appreciated his knowledge, especially about science. The stream-of-consciousness writing reminded us of Adams' stand-up comedy routine, similar to Spike Milligan or the TV show Red Dwarf - again, the humour is not for everyone!

The actual story of the book does have a plot line, a central mystery, but we all agreed that that is hardly the point of a Douglas Adams book. The characters are well drawn, and at times the writing is pleasingly straightforward as well and not exclusively comedic. A good read to immerse yourself in.
By Cordula

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

"Madame Bovary" by Gustave Flaubert - Oxford World’s Classics’ Translation by Margaret Mauldon - March 2016

It was the translation of this book that united all the members of the Reading Group: we all found it to be unsatisfactory, and the word “clunky” was used a number of times to describe it. It is a testament to the power of the narrative that we were able to see beyond the translation and to understand why it is, rightly, considered a classic.

Madame Bovary is a complex, three dimensional portrait of a young woman, who moved from her single state to being a wife and mother, and who felt trapped in her female body. Fed on romantic novels and tales, scathingly attacked by Flaubert, Emma Bovary’s actions destroyed not only herself, but her husband and daughter too.

Written in 1857 the novel, with its tale of adultery and selfishness, has a very modern feel. The author’s description of Emma’s very active and predatory sexuality must have been shocking when it was first published; for Flaubert had surgical precision when he dissected Emma’s extra marital “love” affairs. Her desire to feel what she imagined she would feel from the novels she read, meant that she never experienced genuine affection and love and was incapable of giving either. Her relationships were always doomed to be disappointing. This was in contrast to the loving relationship between the apothecary Homais (whom Flaubert portrayed as a buffoon) and his wife.

One member of the group felt that Emma’s behaviour indicated that she may have been bi-polar. Others disagreed, but all felt that she did suffer from mental instability due to being so stifled by the rigidity of society’s expectations of her sex.

In Madame Bovary, the reader can find a powerful case for the emancipation of women.
By Jasmina

Thursday, 9 February 2017

"The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend" by Katarina Bivald - February 2017

We had a unanimous view of the book: It would make a very nice, light-hearted, feel-good comedy movie or TV series. It was a pleasant read, similar to Gill Hornby’s “All Together Now” (the book about a community choir we read in September 2015). Several of our group members were reminded of Bridget Jones. It was light-hearted, but well thought out and well written, and the general view was that it was a lovely book – if you were in the mood for a light and lovely book. If you needed more nourishing literature, maybe don’t pick up this one – it’s too long to commit to if you aren’t in the mood for “light”! Having said that, we did praise the book for how spot on it was in many ways; in the characterisation of the townspeople of Broken Wheel (and the neighbouring city, Hope) and in the book recommendations specific to each character. Also, the main character Sarah was working with people who were only being introduced to a book club and to reading, so it wouldn’t have been feasible to start them off with high literature. We admired how she could see the specific goodness in each of the townspeople when she made her recommendations to them, for example giving George, who has a secret soft spot for women, the book “Bridget Jones” to read – this might explain why everybody thought this book would make a good Bridget-Jones-y movie. We wondered whether we might be missing exactly how many homages to other books the author might have hidden in her text, and also if we might be missing some nuance due to this being a translated work, but we still found it a clever and lovely book, with vivid characters and language. The main focus seemed to be to strengthen the community, bring everybody together, accept the stranger in their midst. Sometimes you just want a soothing, life-enhancing read, and this book gives you exactly that.
By Cordula

Thursday, 2 February 2017

"The Night Watch" by Sarah Waters - January 2017

The reading group generally agreed that this is a good story well written but opinion was divided on how engaging it is.

The novel begins in 1947 but works its way back to 1944 and then 1941 so that we come to understand why the characters are the way they are. Kay, one of the central characters, describes how she enjoys going to the cinema and watching a film which is halfway through and that is what Waters has done with this novel. We have to wait until the film starts again to fully understand what is happening. Not everyone liked this structure feeling that the 1947 section lacked tension. Another reader commented that she could feel the planning of the novel, it was too overt and engineered.

Everyone however felt that the period details were excellent, that it was a great evocation of the time. The dialogue was fantastic and most of the characters very real. Helen’s irrational jealousy was particularly well portrayed and believable.

The damage done by the war to London and its people was palpable. Descriptions of the ash which covered everything after a bomb blast or what it was like emerging from an air raid shelter to inspect the remains of your home were very moving. There is also humour, notably the injured man who comes to the marriage bureau with very clear ideas of how perfect a woman he is after.

Waters captures very well the ordinariness of the dislike felt for the routine of war, how it grinds people down. She focuses in on her damaged characters, all of whom have been troubled by the war, then pans out to give us an understanding of the wider world at the time and general suffering. For this reason it was felt that this is a book that everyone who has not experienced war should read.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

"The Bloody Chamber" by Angela Carter - December 2016

The members of the book group were in total agreement that Angela Carter was an talented writer. A very filmic writer, she was able to conjure up place and character. One could see & hear the characters, in her stories, clearly. It came as no surprise that a number of her works had been made into films.

The Bloody Chamber is a collection of the retelling of traditional fairy tales from a feminist perspective. Carter makes her female characters active & not passive players who are acted upon. That was welcomed & must have been very much so by readers when the tales were first published in the late 1970s.

All the group agreed that not only was Angela Carter an atmospheric writer, she was also witty & funny. Her wit came through clearly, for example, in her retelling of Puss-in-Boots. Puss is crafty, clever and with a very witty turn of phrase. He is very unlike the traditional sidekick to Dick that we are used to.

Where the group split was on whether they actually liked her writing or not. The majority of the group did. For one member she was too dark, too cruel - even more so than the original fairy tales, which are full of darkness. Because she was such an excellent visual writer, one had to be in the right frame of mind & with a strong stomach to read her. For this one reader Angela Carter was too shocking and uncomfortably to be an enjoyable reader. If she intended to shock her readers, with this reader she succeeded.
By Jasmina

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

"The Black Madonna of Derby" by Joanna Czechowska - November 2016

The group agreed that this book could have been better written. However it does deal with important issues such as identity and belonging which is still very relevant today in these days of globalisation and shifting cultures. The book does shine a spotlight on life in the 1960's which was a time of great excitement and cultural awakening with the emergence of musical bands like the Beatles and Rolling Stones. There are some amusing references to these bands as Wanda waits outside Paul McCartney's house in St John's Wood just to catch sight of him when he arrives home.

There is the unfair education system of the secondary modern and grammar school which selected children at the age of 11 and caused emotional damage to some children who failed to obtain a grammar school place at that time. This featured in this book and also the bullying that happened in schools. There are some amusing anecdotes as the naive Northerner Wanda accidentally plunges the sophisticated trendy London gathering into darkness throwing satire on the pompous sophistication of the in-crowd. There are allusions to the north, south divide as people from the provinces were discriminated against and marginalised because of their accents.

This book was very readable with short chapters but it cannot be considered to be great literature.
By Lydia

Thursday, 13 October 2016

"The Amateur Marriage" by Anne Tyler - October 2016

We found the book excellently written, really flowing along, with crystal clear characterisations. Anne Tyler has such a great style that we were all interested to read more works by her (it was the first Anne Tyler for all of us, I think). The story itself was quite calm and minimal, so not all of us would necessarily recommend this particular book to friends, but it was exciting to discover such a good writer. With the fewest words and scenes - a piece of clothing, a look, a line of dialogue - she captured each character vividly. The same with the decades she takes us through in the story (from the stifled 50's to the 70's and 80's), which she evoked clearly with just a few comments. For example the main (or maybe just the most colourful) character Pauline had what one group member described as this "wonderful slap-dash cooking style", where she enthusiastically advocated this recipe for "chinese" meatloaf by adding tins of chinese vegetables, which is such a typical 50's cookbook thing to do - add some tins, and call it something exotic!

We really appreciated the fast pace at which each chapter jumped ahead in time, dropping us a decade ahead without warning. It showed the evolution and then deterioration of Pauline and Michael's marriage, these two very mis-matched people who after 35 years together finally break it off, with the calm, introverted Michael then marrying Anna, a woman of his own temperament. At the end of the book, after Pauline's funeral, we hear how from this distance he can finally appreciate all the liveliness, goodness, excitement, the colour and life that Pauline brought to their relationship and family, how devotedly she looked after the kids, after his mother, and then after their grandchild, and not just the crazy and enervating fights that resulted from her antics, her quick temper, and the mismatch between the two of them.

Their oldest daughter Lindy rebels strongly against their home - both because of the restrictive family atmosphere so typical of a respectable 1950's family living in suburbia, and because of the fundamental dishonesty she senses between her mother and her father. When 7 years old, Lindy witnesses her mother excitedly receiving flirty phone calls from a neighbour, who Pauline then goes to meet and ends up sharing a kiss with, and even in the short scenes of Lindy walking in on Pauline on the phone, the sense that she feels something is wrong there is palpable. At 17, Lindy runs away from home, and doesn't re-enter the family life until over 20 years later. PAuline and Michael eventually find out Lindy is living in a drug rehab commune, which refuses them entry; they collect Lindy's son Pagan from Lindy's landlady, and adopt this scared and silent boy. When the family comes together later, and Lindy eventually makes contact again and joins them, we found that the adult Lindy's character wasn't as convincingly sketched as all the others - we found ourselves wondering whether a grown up Lindy, now married to a man with 2 daughters that Lindy helped raise from childhood, wouldn't have tried to make contact with Pagan sooner, and didn't really find good enough reaasons for her behaviour. However, her interactions with her family struck us as so real, again due to the minimal but vivid descriptions the author is so good at, that it was a pleasure to read every scene- at one point at the wake after Pauline's funeral, one of the other grandchildren tells the story of Pauline backing the car into a neighbour walking by, apologises, puts the car back in gear, and then runs right back into the same man. When everybody laughs, Lindy's brother protests that "that wasn't really what Pauline was like", even though the facts were accurate enough, everyone keeps laughing anyway, and he exchanges one look with his long lost sister Lindy, who glances back, and it's clear they understand each other - that doesn't really tell the whole story of Pauline. Another well told scene, again a calm and minimal one, was the melancholy of Michael when he drives through his old neighbourhood decades later; the changes, the stores and families that disappeared; he remembers the families who lost sons in the war, and Anne Tyler describes all of this without sentimentality, and without glossing over or sensationalising anything. A really enjoyably written book.
By Cordula

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

"The Custom of the Country" by Edith Wharton - September 2016

Everyone who attended the reading group meeting thought that The Custom of the Country was a highly accessible read and very well written. It was witty and incisive with all of the characters clearly defined. It was agreed that Undine Spragg, the main character in the book, had no redeeming qualities whatsoever: utterly selfish and self- serving, her only “positive” attribute was her beauty.

One member of the group considered it a very brave move, by the writer, to make her leading lady so unremittingly unattractive in character. Most main characters in a novel learn something through the narrative, reflect on or moderate their behaviour (Jane Austen’s Emma would be an archetypal example). Undine, at the beginning of the novel, was incapable of reflecting on her behaviour. She remained incapable throughout seeing herself as victim and deprived. Through clinically dissecting her social climbing, Edith Wharton satirised the mores of a society in which a creature like Undine Spragg could “develop”, thrive and damage those around her.

The group felt that Charles Bowen’s critical observations on the relationship between men and women in the novel were really those of Edith Wharton’s and that if the author were alive today there would be much material for her acerbic pen. A member of the group pointed out that the novel was over 100 years old, but was depressingly pertinent today. Having no wit, intelligent conversation or interests, Undine’s sole aim was to mix in fashionable society, being noticed for her beauty whilst wearing the most fashionable outfits. In our age of “celebrity”, the Kardashians, Paris Hilton, Jordan etc, what has changed?
By Jasmina

Friday, 15 July 2016

"The Plague" by Albert Camus - July 2016

There is a lovely quote about football and life by Albert Camus which a group member had seen on a “Philosophy Football” T-shirt: “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football”. With Camus such a football enthusiast, we kept bringing it up! Also, we noted that the book picked up speed and action in the second half – just like a good game.

The book’s main character, and, as it turns out in the end, also its narrator, says that all that he has learned about life, decent human behaviour, and morality, he has learned from suffering. We noted that the writer keeps bringing our attention back to the necessity to act decently and humbly. At many points, he discourages the readers from seeing him or the other main character, Tarrou, as heroes, but instead focuses on keeping the job going and doing what is decent and right, and not giving in to the temptation of making one person the hero, or emphasising one’s own deeds. He points to one of the minor characters, an older gentleman, as the embodiment of a true hero; someone who keeps doing his day job, and gives as much time and energy as he can spare in the evenings (2 hours each night) reliably and consistently to helping the doctor and the administration deal with the plague. The authors says that this is who we should regard as heroic instead.

We couldn’t help, of course, but read the book as an allegory to Nazi occupation of France, and Camus’s critique of, for example, hero worship, as a critique on the behaviour of some of the members of the resistance. This was so well done, it was possible to read the book both ways – as a straightforward tale of what happens to a city cut off from the world whose inhabitatns are dying, or as an occupied France reacting to a terrorising oppressive force. But as a straightforward story, it reminded us of the Ebola crisis, how people came to help, images of the bodies of victims being carried away.
We found the book impressive, truly absorbing, elegantly and stylistically simply written, and we enjoyed reading it as both the allegory and the straightforward story. The characters were not very fleshed out, but the action made up for that.
By Cordula

One of our members couldn’t make it to the meeting but emailed her comments:

I did read The Plague, which I found challenging. I found the story both interesting and depressing, but I found the way the story was written alienating. I don't know if it had to do with the particular translation, but I could not visualise any of the characters and that made it very difficult to feel anything for them. The death of the priest, in the final section of the book, was an example of this. He just didn't appear "real" to me, so his death had no effect on me. The characters didn't speak like ordinary people who found themselves in extraordinary circumstances: for me, they were not fully rounded characters speaking in a stilted manner. Page 189 where Tarrou is talking "at" & not with Rieux is an example of what I mean.

Friday, 3 June 2016

"Hope Farm" by Peggy Frew - June 2016

HOPE FARM by Peggy Frew

A very interesting discussion of this book’s characters, plot and writing took place in our meeting. Some members of the group felt that the plot was predictable with one finding it a stunted storyline and boring. All agreed that the book was well written with some flashes of excellent description: our introduction to Jindi, the physicality of Miller and his initial hold over Ishtar and the Ruth Rendellesque depiction of Silver’s clandestine observation of Ian at his “trap” being some examples of this excellence. Certain characters and environments, it was agreed, were very well developed so that readers had clear images of dimensionality. Ian and the commune, at the ironically named Hope Farm, were particularly well evoked.

The major contentions within the group were: was Ishtar a good mother and why didn’t she take up Dan’s offer to leave the commune and go with him to America? It was interesting that the men in the group thought Ishtar was a bad mother, with one finding her behaviour toward Silver to border on child abuse. The females in the group were more forgiving, defending Ishtar, finding that the author had shown, through the coldness of Ishtar’s own parents’ style of parenting, why she behaved as she did.

Not leaving with Dan also divided members, with a man seeing it as a foolish act as leaving would have given her and her daughter a better life. The women felt that, by not going with Dan, Ishtar was breaking the habits of her past and seeking independence, something that she claimed to want.

Hope Farm may have had an ending that was a little too obvious – something bad would happen readers knew and it was too easy to guess what, but the book was an easy read (indicative of good writing, for one member of the group) and, for most group members, an entertaining read.
By Jasmina

Initially I thought it was quite an average read going a little slow but so very beautifully written, some of the words and phrasings were wonderful. Then I really got into it and finished it in a few days, there were so many angles and elements covered it was hard to put down and it flowed so well, with lots of action in the middle part of the book.

The characters I felt were wonderfully developed, I really felt for her being told to give up her child by the harsh parents. Reading the book from Silver’s view was a brilliant twist on a novel, the way the author included snippets from Ishtar also dropped in told a full tale of hope, sorrow, times of happiness and despair – I really felt I moved through all emotions with the book as it developed.

The bit I felt was a bit of a disappointment is the way the relationship between Ishtar and Silver was handled as she got older but then surprise elements like the scene at the fire blew me away with good old Ian whose character I absolutely loved.

Miller’s character was quite predictable, but then she threw in the wife to keep us on our toes, and I loved how the relationship with Silver and Ian developed. The end of the book just kind of finished, I guess there was so much drama throughout it was natural to slowly peter out but it did leave me wanting a more finished ending I suppose.
By Virginia

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

"Ten Days" by Gillian Slovo - May 2016

We read this book as part of CityReadLondon - every year in April, London's reading groups can take part.

Mixed reactions to this book! It was advertised as a thriller, and endorsed on its cover as "A Cracker", and while a lot of us liked the book and had a lot of good things to say, I don't think we agreed with that praise. (Of course, we did lament that advertising for books and movies - and endorsements from other writers in particular - have by now spilled over into not much more than hyperbole, generally!) Let's start with the praise: We liked the fluent writing, some of the political analyses, and generally the fact that a book that takes what happened beofre and during the London Riots from 2011, and writes a sort of parallel-future-scenario that develops along many of the same lines, will get us all talking about the riots, our recollections, the parallels and differences, and that conversation is a good thing.

We especially liked the character of Joshua Yares, he was more complex than most of the others in the book, and his thoughts and actions were interesting to follow. We also would have liked to read a lot more about police procedure in general, and the character of Bill in particular, as those political movements, police action, and the human ways to cope with that action (and the public's and the rioters' reaction) were the most compelling parts. Bill sweating in full on riot gear and being told to "duck!" by his minder every few minutes as rioters threw whatever stuff at them was one example. Who knew riot gear police had to have minders? Probably because the shield limits visibility? I would have liked to read more action like that. Likewise, the political movements were interesting. The Home Secretary acted out of nothing but egocentric interest both in his political standing, in order to rise to the position of prime minister, and personally, in order to keep his mistress and keep hiding the affiar from his wife. Police Commissioner Yares had more backbone, as his interests included rooting out corruption and using the police force effectively and in the interest of the public.

We drew parallels between the undercover policeman who had a family in the housing estate where the riots break out, and the case of the spy Bob Lambert (and others) who had relationships and even children with members of groups they were secretly infiltrating, causing a scandal in 2012. That topic is interesting, but again, we could have used a more in-depth treatment (how could Lyndall (and the entire estate!) not have a clue he was her dad, for example?)

It was really interesting to talk about the riots, and we were happy the book sparked this discussion. But a lot of the characters in it left us unimpressed! They were a bit shallow and contradictory and we couldn't invest in them as they didn't seem real enough. Also, some relationships didn't seem plausible - the Home Secretary and his aristocratic wife for example, although their reactions to each other were very well observed I thought. Patricia, his secretary and mistress, didn't seem like a fleshed-out character though. But maybe that's because it was written from his perspective!
By Cordula

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

"Oryx and Crake" by Margaret Atwood - April 2016

Some impressions from our discussion:
* A dystopian novel depicting a future following global warming, flooding of coastal cities in the US and untoward genetic developments that have led to global catastrophe.
*well thought out future scientific developments by the author who comes from family of scientists who she likely discussed this with.
* this book completely different from other Atwood novels such as the ' Handmaid's Tale'.
Members thought book written cleverly from Jimmy's juvenile sense of humour, very funny in parts where women are drawn as emotionally distant. Perhaps in keeping with Jimmy's loss of his mother and his subsequent difficulty in making meaningful relationships.
* members thought book written with strong sense of good and evil, evoking a genesis myth with Crake remaking life on Earth through a new genetic order of animals.
* members thought the character of Oryx difficult to grasp was she real or fantasy. Although she had strong back story in terms of sexual exploitation in South East Asia her manipulative character left Jimmy and the reader at a loss to her meaning. Was she manufactured by Crake to confuse Jimmy / reader.
* Jimmy's "words" which gave him sense of identity were enjoyed by the group as a interesting device by the author to perhaps anchor him in a literary tradition.

Virginia added to this:
My thoughts on Oryx and Crake…

I found I both loved it and found the approaching realism simply terrifying, the way the world is going with GMO and cloning I can well see this as a world of the future in some respects. I found it staggering that 10 years after writing it so many of our scientific discoveries are indicating a route down the same path – “can pigs' hearts soon replace humans' when needed” an article I saw recently! The bit I most thought likely was the chicken blob things and animal cross breeding, horrifically fascinating as long as it doesn’t become a reality. I really enjoyed the character Snowman and his blasts from the past as we delved back in time throughout the story, his emotions were so well written I was involved from the start. I found the links really well written and it seamlessly moved between the past and the here and now using the character Jimmy/Snowman. I like the end of a book to have a definitive ending, and this left it quite open giving me lots of questions to ponder, which is both good and bad depending on your preference. I thought Crake’s killing section was poorly written, or maybe the rest was so detailed and wonderful in my imagination that bit was a little underwhelming. Either way I highly recommend reading this book, it is thought provoking, intense, humourous and questions all our morals in a world we are so intent on destroying.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

"Alone in Berlin" by Hans Fallada - March 2016

Some reactions to Hans Fallada's "Alone in Berlin":

• It was written in a straightforward, unemotional style, but evoked a very emotional response: it made me anxious and tearful.
• The characters were so similar to British working class people, as for example described in "The Road to Wigan Pier" (Orwell), that this book was the perfect answer to anyone who dismissed the whole of the German people as different, after the war.
• Despite maybe not being able to influence what's happening around you much, it might be enough that you stay decent, that you don't just meekly and blindly go along with indecency, even if it's futile and you can't affect the outcome
• The biggest thing in the novel was the constancy of fear. How everybody in Germany under the Nazis was in absolute terror at all times; it pervaded the novel as well. Even just holding a postcard became such a scary thing that people were running straight to the police with them, in order to show "I've been good"
• There are parallels to modern day terrorism, and ultra-conservative politics, like Donald Trump proposing a wall between the USA and Mexico. Reading this book is a timely reminder that evil can develop any time.
• One group member had just visited North Korea and seen for herself the oppressive power states can have over people. She travelled in the same group as Otto Warmbier who has been sentenced to 15 years in a North Korean labour camp.
• This reminded another group member of Jeremiah Denton, the American prisoner of North Vietnamese soldiers, who blinked the word "Torture" in morse code with his eyes while being forced to participate in a press conference
• It was amazing that Fallada could make such astute jokes about the character of Judge Feisler (baseed on the real judge in the real case) as early as 1947. The judge was also a good example of the ambivalence of each character in the book. Nobody was just simply portrayed as all good or all bad. The judge had great intentions, and a good heart, but he did "imprison" Frau Rosenthal, trying to save her, and doing so drove her close to insanity
• The last 100 pages of the book were a crazy rollercoaster, so much so that it made people wonder if Fallada was on drugs when he wrote them. there were so many crazy stories and characters: THe cellmate who lives as a dog, licking Otto Hampel from head to toe; the musician Reichhardt who was a brief, wonderful interlude (a moment of sanity in a sea of madness).. /
• It seemed so crazy that there was a pet shop still operating and thrivin in Berlin amid the madness of the war. It was surreal and entertaining to read, that people were buying birds and feeding their dogs while the war was going on.
• Somehow, we seemed to find a lot of humourous mometns in this book.Despite the incredible bleakness they kept popping out at us - one of the first scenes where all the different uniformed people are strutting around showing off their respecitve rank in the dancehall, the dog-impersonator of course, the trial of the couple when Anna Hampel snaps and tells the judge she's had 84 lovers, thereby temporarily shutting him up...
• It would have been nice to be able to read the book in German. (I DID read the first 2 chapters in German and I can attest that there is nothing translateable about that wonderful "Berlinerisch" dialect, it adds an immense amount of local colour and is a treat for the ear (even reading it). However, I did think that the translation was absolutely faultless.)
• This is one of those important books that it does you good every now and then to read, to be reminded of some very basic truths about the banality of greed, humanity in general, power, states, life...

Thursday, 11 February 2016

"The Line of Beauty" by Alan Hollinghurst - February 2016

This Booker Prize winner (2004) was very intriguing. Most of our group members lived in England in the 1980's, and vividly remembered "how vile the times were": How Thatcherism was gripping the country, how gay men died of AIDS - and got blamed for it by the media, how the rich got richer. In this novel, we only got to see the rich side of things. Nick, the main character, is unconcerned with any of the social unrest, the miners' struggle, unemployment, the protests against Thatcher... in short, the other side of the divide. He has inserted himself into an upper-class family like a parasite, nursing his crush on the son of the family, trying to make himself useful to them in order to enjoy his secret longing as well as the privileged life, which he calculatedly uses for his success. He was strongly disliked by almost all of our group's members. In fact, some people said that there wasn't a single likable character in the entire book.

As a gay man from a bourgeois background, Nick isn't really integrated into his host family however, and the differences between them come to a crashing separation at the end of the book - which we kind of felt would happen from the start. He was for some reminiscent of Jeremy Irons in "Brideshead Revisited", a social climber who is patronised by wealthy people, remaining very distant from them in his feeling and thinking, but never expressing his differing opinions to them. We got to read some wonderfully sharp, inventive, satirical comments on the upper classes through Nick's thoughts. His first boyfriend, Leo, from a working class background, also gets to say some very funny put-downs about his lover's posh affiliations. I particularly enjoyed his snarky imitation of Lady Partridge, the grandmother, who was like a caricature personified. However, some group members felt that the working-class characters of the book, Leo and his family, were very simplistically portrayed and that, for example, Leo's mother's religiosity was written in a cliched way, not allowing the character to come across as multi-faceted and real as the posh counterparts - although we acknowledged that her simple religious fervour was clearly intended to be her way of denying that her son was gay.

We all said that the writing style was utterly brilliant. Hollinghurst writes in such a sophisticated, inventive way. His satire was great - the welly-whanging contest stood out as a highlight. We thought that the class divide was perfectly portrayed, and that it was utterly real for the times that someone like Nick would remain totally unconcerned with anything that was wrong, until it comes crashing down on him. He was the great aesthete of the book, shallowly concerned with beauty, facade, and his own advancement, and disgustingly oblivious to most of the social struggle. We also enjoyed that the perspective of the book stays with Nick, and doesn't switch around characters as so many books seem to do now. We thought that the portrayal of Nick's sexual relations and fantasies was very real, and thus rewarding for some, but others found it overdone, and distasteful - not for being gay, but for being too glaringly detailed.

A brilliant book, describing people and events that were pretty disgusting to us, therefore maybe not too easy to digest, despite the great writing!
By Cordula

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

"Stoner" by John Williams - January 2016

One member of our group started our discussion by saying that she bought her own copy of the novel a couple of years ago after hearing about it on the radio. Everyone was going on about how marvellous it was. She started it but found it too depressing so put it aside. As a result she groaned on discovering that this was our book for the month. However, this time she not only stuck with it but really liked it. She found it a good portrait of someone sleepwalking through life; someone who was more acted upon than acting.
The group as a whole concurred with this view. Many wondered if people would or could really live as Stoner has done. Would they have continued with the marriage, how would they put up with the wife?

Another reader commented that he so loved the first few pages that they made him want to dive right into the novel. He loved the clean writing, no wasted words, no unnecessary description. Everyone was impressed by William’s ability to create startling, vivid and believable images of people, places and relationships with few words. Nothing was wasted, every word counts. Descriptions of the view from a window were perfectly done; faces came alive.

We had a lively discussion over whether Stoner’s life should be seen as tragic. Most regarded him as a failure of a man. Why did he not stand up for himself? It was also a portrait of the time. Stoner’s affair with Katherine would not raise an eyebrow now. Should Stoner have fought harder to keep her in his life? The same question was raised about Grace. Hers is the most tragic decline. Stoner had such a close relationship with his young daughter yet he allowed that to be taken from him. He allowed his wife to take over just as he allowed her to evict him from his own study.

The submissive pattern continued with his work. Stoner allowed Lomax to marginalise him, to overload him with more junior teaching, keeping him too busy to pursue further research. Stoner only stands up to Lomax at the end of the novel, when it is almost too late.
This however is the key to Stoner. His true love was the academia, the university. His role as a teacher was absolutely core to his being. Even with Katherine he remained a teacher, as evidenced by the dedication of her book to him. He was always happy and fulfilled in that role, academia, books, English literature did not betray him. A shy, unconfident farm hand managed to find a true love and passion that sustained all his life. From that perspective his tale is less tragic. Ultimately however it remains a tale of a life not (fully) lived.

The male readers found themselves annoyed with Stoner’s failure to stand up for himself. It is interesting that despite the huge popularity of Stoner across Europe when it was “rediscovered” recently and rave reviews by journals such as the New York Times, the book did not achieve great success in the USA either first or second time around. Was Stoner seen as too much of a failure as a man to be popular with an American audience?

Thursday, 10 December 2015

"At Home: A Short History of Private Life" by Bill Bryson - December 2015

In "At Home", Bill Bryson takes his readers on a tour of his Victorian, ex-vicarage, Norfolk home. Taking them from room to room, readers learned about the history of the specific room they found themselves in, and the everyday items within it. The reading of any random chapter revealed the depth and width of research that the author had undertaken, which he offered readers in a clear, often amusing and never patronising way: Bill Bryson wears his knowledge lightly, but transmits it in an entertaining style.

Particularly enjoyed was the way that the author seemed to, in an Eddie Izzard manner, “wander off-theme”. In the chapter headed The Passage, one learned that by “the early twentieth century, 10 per cent of all British aristocrat marriages were to (wealthy) Americans”. Why should that snippet of information be there? There was a link and it was fun following it as it was learning the origins of certain words; read this book and one will learn, amongst a myriad of things, the origin of "curfew" (from "couvre-feu", covering up the fire for the night).

The reading group all agreed that this book was an interesting, informative and well written read. One member found the book fascinating and insightful on life and the way people lived it. Everyone enjoyed the book, even if a few found it rather long. This particular reader, however, could have had a larger helping of the book, so pleasurable and erudite did she find it.
By Jasmina

"Humboldt's Gift" by Saul Bellow - November 2015

This was a brilliant, exuberant book, stuffed to the gills with literary references and all sorts of knowledge. This wasn’t a light fluffy meal to digest quickly, this was like chomping on a nutrient-rich power bar that packs every element you need to survive. It took most members of the group weeks to read it, and it also wasn’t easy to read it for long periods of time, because you had to give your brain a rest!! Saul Bellow’s brain gives us this extraordinary collection of information, almost as if he was wordily chronicling every thought his great head churned out during a mental breakdown – on speed. He stayed witty and funny and with a twinkle in his eye throughout his sprawling story of Charlie Citrine (himself) trying to love, to live, to write, to be left alone, to be entertained, to live up to his ideals, to come to terms with his shortcomings; to cope with love, money, and the thought of death. It was a wonderful ride just to listen to the author seemingly randomly rambling on. (Of course it wasn't random at all). The story of Charlie Citrine’s life was almost incidental to his musings on eternal life, life after death, the love he feels for his girlfriend Renata and several other women, his soul, his attraction to unsavoury characters (Chicaco criminals, shady lawyers…), his admiration for his mentor Von Humboldt’s work – and his concern for his friend’s descent into poverty and madness. Bellow manages to pack so much into his book: critiquing and analysing of capitalism in America… sending up and dismantling religion, criminality, and American culture (in literary circles and otherwise) with his wit…

A couple of things stuck with members of our group: The lively description and sheer hilarity of Citrine’s dealing with the gangster Cantabile, who basically kidnaps Citrine, abuses and ridicules him, while Citrine seems to be willingly following his lead – out of curiosity and maybe boredom more than fear, it seems. Another scene was the casual brutality of a husband punching his wife at a party, suspecting her to cheat on him, without anybody at the party reacting to this.

We felt that Bellow’s characters were always slightly embellished, caricatured, to make a point, but always so wonderfully and lively described, that we couldn’t help be enchanted by them. A great literary feast.
By Cordula