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

Monday, 5 October 2015

"A Song from Dead Lips" by William Shaw - October 2015

This was another bookset we won from the Reading Agency: http://readinggroups.org./

This first instalment of a trilogy of crime novels set in 1960's London with detectives Breen and Tozer had most of the reading group members pretty hooked. It was an easy read, and provided several social and political themes that were really interesting to debate. As a result, we didn't focus so much on the murder story, the 'whodunnit' aspect, but more on the novel's depiction of the racism, sexism, and the political and social norms of 1968's London as well as (later on in the novel) the contrast with life in the countryside.

It was so interesting to hear the group members' personal experiences of the times. People agreed that especially sexism was exactly as widespread and normative as the novel describes, with some saying it was usually more subtle, more pervasive, than the novel's dialogue suggested. The younger, female character, Tozer, is pretty blatantly verbally abused within the male-dominated police department, and gives as good as she gets; people remembered a slightly more unspoken (and less comical) enforcement of the social code at the times. We discussed how much attitudes have changed especially with regards to sexism, but also recalled instances of ignorance that are still observed today, for exqample police vans being called "Paddywaggons" even recently, without people realising that this is a remnant of a slight to Irish people. We discussed examples of sexism and people's personal observations then and now - one group member's father told her never to learn to type, because he feared that people would too quickly assume and expect her to take on secretarial duties. A member cited a -contemporary- report by people in the medical profession that stated that tea-making is still first and foremost expected from women within a group. But we also marvelled at the changes between then and now - people in the group vividly remembered TV programmes such as the Black Minstrel Show, and comedians such as Jim Davidson and Bernhard Manning being mainstream entertainment. We commented that the novel is set even before the Equal Pay Act came into force. People remembered social changes being driven by things like new magazines and TV programmes, eg. "The Bill", but also said that things like "The Bill" could also change people's attitudes to be more sexist rather than less, depicting women as much more "easy" than they had previously been allowed to be (or to be portrayed).

The racism experienced by the Irish detective Breen, and by the African family in the novel, was shocking in its accepted normality, and we agreed with the author on the depiction, and we enjoyed how strongly the author brought all of these aspects to the novel. Some members did remark that the dialogue wasn't always satisfying - a lot of characters and some places appear and disappear quickly in the plot, without contributing much atmosphere or interest, like the pathologist in the novel, and the Bagel cafe that Breen frequents. Was this planned by the author from the start, as he set up his trilogy? Some of the group members had gone straight on and read the second novel in the series, "A House of Knives", and did report that some characters and situations are indeed picked back up and treated to a bit more exposition. However, it did leave the first novel a bit frustrating. Also, the dialogue felt to some to be a bit more stuck in the 50's - again, was that deliberate, to show that in a lot of ways 1968 didn't touch the majority of England so much, but concentrated on a minority bubble of 20-somethings in London (of which Tozer is a part, but Breen is not)?

A member commented that Breen is a great new serial detective, as he's just a normal bloke, not an alcoholic, schizophrenic, or burdened with any other extraordinary character traits. We liked his quiet character, a bit apart from the rest of the blokes, trying to deal wiht his own normal-life tragedies. We enjoyed his partner Tozer a lot as well, as an incredibly fearless, outspoken female character who dares to be very direct with Breen and her superiors. We appreciated that she is a fresh breeze, a counterpoint to a musty and backwards system and way of thinking, but it did make her character act in some very stark, brazen ways (driving off in the car without informing her partner, for example) that seemed a bit improbable. But overall we really enjoyed the novel for its characters, its plot, but mostly the depiction of 1968 London society.
By Cordula

Monday, 7 September 2015

"All Together Now" by Gill Hornby - September 2015

This was another bookset we won from the Reading Agency: http://readinggroups.org./

One member, who couldn't make it to the group, emailed her thoughts about "All Together Now", and it turned out that the rest of the group agreed with pretty much everything she had said! Here's JAsmina's email:

"I enjoyed the book in that it was a very easy, undemanding read. It didn't require any reflective thinking or real thought and, after some of the bleak views of humanity we have read, was life affirming.
I found it well written and, in parts, funny. My main "complaint" about the read was that it was totally predictable; one knew how the characters would "develop" at the beginning of the story. There were no real surprises, even though one got the feeling that the writer was trying to provide them - the death of Constance, for example. You knew that once Tracey's life had meaning (the choir) she would become less brittle & a nice person & the same with Jazzy. Bennett would also develop & have a role because of the choir and the reader knew, from the outset, that he and Tracey would end up together.
The book could be turned into one of those British feel good films like the No 1 Best Marigold Hotel (think that's its title), giving one a warm glow, whilst watching, but quickly forgotten.

A pleasant, gentle and easy read."

At our group meeting, we compared the plot of the novel to a Richard Curtis romantic comedy/drama movie, rather than the Marigold Hotel movie, but that was the only difference! We all had a very similar view of the novel. However, we picked out a lot of details that we did really like, for example the characters of Annie and BEnnett seemed very real and relatable; one member confessed that she is a bit of an Annie, always helping and sorting out everyone else at the expense of time for herself. We liked how Bennett came out of his shell. But we found most of the other characters very thinly drawn, and not very nicely treated - why does Jazzy (Jasmine) have to be slagged off so, only for dreaming of going on the X-Factor? Are Sue and Pat (the Statler and Waldorf of the novel, heckling and cackling menacingly from the sidelines) capable of anything but spite? IS it realistic that Squat and Curly regularly break into Tracey's flat to steal money out of her safe, but are still, underneath, perfectly lovely, trustworthy, wonderful boys?

So, the characters and plotlines were a bit thin, a bit romantic/unbelievable, and it was all tied up in a pretty bow in the end, with nary a loose end. Realism was left on the sidelines, and it made us not care very much what happened to most of the characters.

One member commented that the episodes / vignettes that the novel was comprised of might have worked better as short stories.

However, having said all that, we enjoyed a lot of the funny bits, laughing out loud at some of the dialogue, and were moved by Annie's plight, by her lovely reaction to the group losing the Choir contest, and the loveliness of them all coming together in the town square for a flashmob-singalong in the end, which apparently was something that Gill Hornby experienced herself, so we wondered if the power of that experience brought the novel into motion.

Friday, 14 August 2015

"Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen - August 2015

The novel is advertised as a bestseller, has won several awards, and has been made into a movie with Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon, and yet, somehow, none of us in the group had ever heard of "Water for Elephants", nor of Sara Gruen. It was a very pleasant discovery to read her book about Jacob Jankowski, a Polish-American vet in 1930's Great Depression - era USA, who loses his parents to a car accident just as he is about to sit his veterinary exams at Cornell University, and in his despair (and his money-lessness) jumps on a random train at night, which turns out to be a travelling circus. Here he establishes himself as a capable working hand and animal handler as well as a vet, falls in love with Marlena, the star of the horseshow, makes unlikely friends among the "roustabouts", circus performers, and most notably becomes the only friend of the circus's new attraction, a seemingly stubborn Elephant dame named Rosie, who everybody assumes is untrainable and dumb, until Jankowski discovers that she will listen to his commands if he says them to her in Polish.

All of this rousing, moving, nicely paced circus lore, based on Sara Gruen's research of the big and small travelling circus's of the era, is satisfyingly told from the perspective of present-day Jankowski, now 93 years old and holed up in a nursing home, where the patronising manner of the staff and the mental absence of many of its inmates drive him absolutely crazy, until a lovely and humane nurse, Rosemary, starts to actually listen to him and respect him. The story is thus told in a two-level way that worked very well, we all thought; it's nice to get his perspective as a 90 or 93-year-old (he can't quite remember which but points out that, actually, who cares about 3 years' difference at this stage?) as well as his experiences as a young man of falling in love with a married circus performer with an unpredictable, abusive, possibly mentally ill (definitely mentally unstable) husband August, navigating the brutality of every day life on the large scale, when he finds out about the uncompromising circus leader, Big Al, throwing people off the train at night when he can't pay them any longer ("redlighting"), and on the small scale, when he refuses to share his nursing home dinner table with a braggart who claims he carried water for elephants as a youngster in the circus. Old age Jacob has a fit at him ("You never carried any water for any elephants! Do you know how much an elephant drinks?") and Rosemary talks him back into joining the dinner table eventually, rather than eating alone. It was also nice to know from the beginning that our protagonist has a lovely long life with a wife, five children, and many grandchildren; even though these days they don't really engage with him all that much when visiting him.

When he finds out that Rosemary is leaving her job in his home, on the very day his relatives have forgotten whose turn it was to visit him and take him to the circus that has come into his town, present-day Jacob sneakily shuffles out of the home with his walker and makes it to the gates of the circus by himself. Here he eventually meets the manager, CHarlie, who invites him for a drink and listens to Jacob's recollections. Charlie ends up pretending to the police that Jacob is his father, not the runaway that the nursing home is looking for, and promises to take Jacob on to man the ticket booth, which makes for a lovely ending.

Of course the woman he ends up marrying is MArlena, star attraction, and the drama of how she battles her abusive husband, August, is the centre of the book, and very well written; we were gripped by the story, the quirky and dramatic turns alike, the characters were believable and entertaining, and we really liked finding out details of what goes on behind the scenes at a travelling circus under duress. It was interesting to find out that when one circus goes bankrupt, the animals, performers, and workers get picked up for low prices by other circusses coming to raid the leftovers; the brutality of dealing with desperate times ("redlighting", beatings, not paying the roustabouts for weeks at a time) and just the normal day to day life of a circus - having to put sick animals down, feeding lions, clubbing the men on the head that are trying to sneak underneath the striptease-tent without paying. We enjoyed the warily budding friendship between Jacob and Walter the performing dwarf who's forced to share his wagon with Jacob, and with Camel, who falls ill with Jake Leg from illegal alcohol, and most of all with Rosie the elephant, who Jacob has to save again and again from the violent outbursts of Marlena's husband. We laughed at old Jacob declaring to the reader that aging is definitely not for sissies. If there was one complaint, we thought that maybe Marlena didn't really possess much of a personality beyond caring for the animals; however, she had to deal with an unpredictably brutal husband, so we gave the author the benefit of the doubt of maybe sketching Marlena in a very restrained, subdued way on purpose. All in all we really enjoyed the ride.
By Cordula

Friday, 3 July 2015

"Labyrinth" by Kate Mosse - July 2015

One reader sent her comments in per email because she couldn't make it to the group, and the rest of the group totally agreed with it when I read it out loud:

"My initial reaction, from the first page or two, was oh, no, chick lit disguised as something else. I was immediately irritated by the need to describe what Alice was wearing. I have never read any Kate Mosse before and knew that she was a founder of the Orange Prize for fiction, so I expected something more.

It seems clear that she wrote this as entertainment rather than literature. It is a real summer holiday read. The story has you turning the pages but you never stop to marvel at a wonderful turn of phrase or clever metaphor. The only descriptions that worked for me were of the landscape. I think she got that right and it shows that she both knows and loves the area.

I found the history interesting and I did learn things; the origins of the Inquisition for example. It seems that she did her research and there were frequent fascinating details about the way of life in the thirteenth century Pays d’Oc. I liked the fact that in both stories the hero and the villain were women. I don’t think either story really worked as a mystery but there was enough tension to keep me reading.

One thing that really annoyed me was the lack of explanation about Grace Tanner. Why was she interested in Alice? Why did she leave everything to her? How did she know Baillard? It is all too coincidental that she ends up living near Carcassonne and has a niece she never meets who has the same name as the person Baillard has been fixated by.

I don’t have a feeling for whether Mosse is a good writer. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, I wish she had written her story as a literary novel rather than a beach read. I would need a recommendation from someone whose judgement I trusted to try another book by Kate Mosse."

We discussed the parallel stories of Alais' and Alice's worlds, that were a bit flatly comparable one-to-one (Will in 2005 was Guilhem in 1207, etc), and the sheer idiocy of giving the villains dark hair and making the heroines blonde... there wasn't much intrigue or difficulty, or beauty of prose, to really engage the mind enough, it was more of an easy evening (beach) read. The group members were interested in the history, and didnt' necessarily mind the easy-to-read quality of the book, despite the length, but it didn't have us yearning for more or appreciating the book on a literary level.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

"The Country of Ice Cream Star" by Sandra Newman - June 2015

This was another bookset we won from the Reading Agency: http://readinggroups.org./

Well the first thing one member of our group said to me was: "Read Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban instead. He does it much better!", so that gives you an idea how this book was perceived in our group! Our judgements and opinions veered wildly, from excellent to terrible, and sometimes both judgements even came from the same person! Everybody had something strong to say about this novel. Most of us agreed that the language Newman employs is something special, and liked or even loved the fabulous poetic quality, and loved "decoding" the patois Ice Cream speaks in. A couple of us were in awe of the sing-song quality, dream-like inventiveness and beauty of the prose. One person commented that it was hard to get into it, however, which then made most others agree: When leaving the book for a couple of days and then going back to it, it was hard to readjust, get your head back into the space. Also, one member said "It's just a bit of French thrown in", so not everyone found it that inventive!

After mostly complimenting the language though, the real "thrashing" of the novel started. Everyone had something bad to say about the plot (with the exception of myself), first and foremost that it was going on for far too long. Only 3 out of 8 members managed to finish the book. But I believe the strongest complaint (which I can't totally disagree with) was that later on in the novel, when the group travels to New York and then Washington, the reader has to suspend far too much disbelief in order to go along with the notion that cities of teenage children, 80 years after the total breakdown of society, are able to maintain a well functioning industrial and agricultural society: They keep factories running, they drive cars (how do they source petrol? Petrol goes bad after a couple of years), they have a quasi-vatican religious society fully running, they maintain working elevators, and they perform abortions and even fit the heroine of the novel with an IUD coil.

The ending of the book also seemed weird to us: After a novel of such length, the author just dispenses with the rest of the story in one short paragraph, sending Ice Cream off to Europe to find the cure for the (bio-engineered?) sickness they all die from. That's it!

I was personally able to enjoy the fiction without feeling too disturbed by these logical discrepancies, but they really bothered the other group members, and I totally see why - it's pretty ludicrous, and would never fly in a TV series for example. (We did all agree that if those problems were fixed, it would make a good movie or even a series).

Now I was rather hoping, especially as I absolutely loved this novel, that we would get to discuss the tragic stories that befall the heroine Ice Cream Star, the politics of dystopia, her views on relationships / sex / homosexuality, her friendship with Crow and her relationships with El Mayor and New King Mamadou (it's pretty much Mr. Big - Aidan - Stanford Blatch I thought at one point, but thought it benevolently ;-), what the novel would look like from the perspecitive of Pasha (and all the other adult characters, i.e. the Russians) in comparison to this teenage-centered view, what everyone thought of the muslim slave camp, and much much more... but because most people hadn't even got halfway through the book, we never got all that far with those issues! (We spent the last half hour very happily planning visits to the yearly Stoke Newington Literary Festival instead: http://www.stokenewingtonliteraryfestival.com/ ) Although one more good thing that a couple of members mentioned: It was pretty enjoyable how thoroughly the author takes down religion, especially catholic religion, later on in the book when the heroine is made into "the new virgin Mary". There is a quote I loved; when Ice Cream Star has the concept of immaculate conception explained to her she sums it up thus: "Papa Joseph standing by, got no sex to do". Funny!

But overall, not a great endorsement by the group except by myself... but since I'm the one writing this, I'll say it as loud as I can: I loved this book, I think the writing and the story and the attitudes displayed were extraordinary, I sailed dream-like through this book, marvelling at the beauty; and its language, characters, and stories stayed and still stay with me now. I can't recommend it enough.

So... mixed reviews, is probably the shortest way to put it?
By Cordula

"Rivers of London" by Ben Aaronovitch - May 2015

Every year in April, our group takes part in the London-wide "CityRead London" initiative! Our review of Rivers of London to come very soon.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

"Arthur & George" by Julian Barnes - April 2015

Although levels of interest in the content of the book differed in the group, everyone agreed that it was well written. Part of the blurb on the back cover stated that this “was perhaps his (Barnes’) best book yet”. Members who had read other texts by the author did not agree.

One member felt that the author was constrained by the factual subject matter, but two others felt that the book only became really interesting with George’s court case, which both agreed was riveting. Whilst most of the group liked the book, two members loved it and felt that Barnes had been very successful in describing and developing characters, minor as well as major, in particular, a very sympathetic development of Maud, sister to George and Jean Leckie, Conan Doyle’s second wife.

Readers found that the author was extremely able in building up atmosphere and revealing the intricacies and prejudices of the British class system. Throughout the book George, of Anglo Indian heritage, refused to see the attacks on himself, and his family, as having anything to do with race. It was Conan Doyle who was convinced that this was the case, but his own attitude to race is shown to be less than liberal

It was felt that Barnes’ main success had been in not writing a hagiography of Conan Doyle, but rather had shown him to be a decent but deeply flawed man; as much attention had been placed on the development of character of the unknown George Edalji as on the very famous Conan Doyle. Through George’s often witty unspoken thoughts, Conan Doyle was shown to be no Sherlock Holmes. However, Conan Doyle’s determination, along with that of others, to get justice for the innocent George Edalji was partially responsible for the establishment of the British Court of Criminal Appeal. Julian Barnes’ book, based on authentic material, revealed why that creation was vitally important.
By Jasmina

Monday, 23 March 2015

"The Untouchable" by John Banville - March 2015

John Banville - The Untouchable – Review from Clapton Book Club, Hackney.

§ A surprising amount of wit was utilised throughout the book, built mostly out of irony and sarcasm and often self deprecating in style. Was Victor self conscious about his writing? The group was divided in opinion on this, and around several other subjects; some believed Victor to be overly in love with language as if to say “look how clever I am”. On the other hand one member of the group exclaimed how alike the language was in the book to those from Oxford and Cambridge at that time, and how clever of him to style the change in prose and language throughout the periods so eloquently. Words the group particularly enjoyed – embonpoint, bedizened.

§ It was suggested that half a page descriptions of people and the in-depth pictures created were often too detailed and distracting from the story i.e. down to the white and blue smoke and light, was just too much. When we consider the important point that Victors first and real love is painting, should this surprise us? It is considered by several in the book club to be a rather clever approach as it is Victor painting a picture with each scene and reflects the frustrated artist within him. The descriptions left you no mould to develop your own imaginative take on characters, they were prescribed to you in detail. It was questioned if this was done on purpose or not.

§ One member of the group found some of the language particularly unsavoury and often catty prejudiced comments such as that on page 384 in regard to Hackney did not add anything to the book, whereas others found this part of Victor’s charm and it amused them greatly. This tends to sum up the majority of conversations involving Victor during our meeting, he was like Marmite – you either love or hate him!

§ The book is not one you can skim read, it requires dedication and concentration and it was felt that it reflected the changes in Britain occurring during the periods successfully. It was noted that those of a younger generation could often find it harder to digest and, rather than making comparisons to the real life story it was based on, read it more at face value as a novel. Comparisons included Boy Bannister as Burgess, Querell based on Graham Greene and Victor as Anthony Blunt.

§ The writing style, when compared, is similar to that of author William Boyd. The way Victor addresses points in his head worked as a reflection to bounce ideas off, and made it easier to follow through the lightness stemming from this. Most felt it was cleverly done and enjoyed this tactic employed by Banville.

§ The group discussed the homosexuality alluded to throughout the book, it was very decadent and also touched on very similar stories in the news at the time. It was felt marriage was commonly a safe option during this era, due to the illegalities involving homosexuality. The group agreed on Victor marrying “Baby” as she was a substitute for his true love Nick, her brother. Often parallel stories of being a spy and being gay were told, as he compared it to acting all the time in life.

§ The family dynamic was interesting, with a brother with disabilities and clear class divisions within the family. Victor appears human at infrequent times, but only when with his own children and his relationships with his family does this really come into effect. Banville writes so intellectually about his life, but then includes humour with “he he” when Victor teases his son, and the comment “there’s always spies about, whoops!”.

§ One member felt that by telling you the plot in snippets i.e. Baby, I will marry her later, it was a rush to get to the next point covering this part of the story, and there wasn’t a need to tell you the plot that is coming as in some ways it spoilt the storytelling element.

§ Overall the book adds context to history and gives a very authentic coverage of the eras and the differences in society. It highlights the slapdash style of spying back in this era, whilst covering several other topics which were handled well such as sexuality, class and disability. It would make a great book for someone reading it to get a sense of history and Britain during this time but also makes a marvellous read for those who lived during this time and can relate to the real life counterparts described.
By Virginia

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

"The Shining" by Stephen King - February 2015

Only one person in the group had read any Stephen King before and the others had always avoided the “horror” genre so approached this book with some trepidation. The first surprise was how different the novel was to the well-known film version. The film was a straightforward horror movie with no back-story for the characters whereas reading the novel we discovered a psychological drama.
We admitted that some of us were biased and thought the novel would be dreadful but we were pleased to encounter “real” characters. One reader commented on how she enjoyed Dick Halloran’s Florida story – a wonderful vignette of a man who is disdainful of his bosses yet able to get on with his job and life.

We agreed that the drama builds very well at first and the depiction of Jack’s deterioration is absorbing and credible. However this is not maintained throughout and we are forced to start suspending disbelief. We felt that the device of the scrap book was not enough to explain the rapid change in Jack. Too many mystical elements are introduced and not joined together well enough. There is a sudden and, to our mind, unnecessary change from Jack wrestling with his internal demons to “possession” by external demons. We are no longer witnessing the sad decline of a man, rather the malign influence of the hotel itself.

The story made more sense before Wendy heard and saw ghosts. Up until that point all the strangeness was in Jack’s mind with Danny able to see it because of his ability to read minds. Once this change of tone occurred the story became less gripping and started to drag. The endless repetition of “take your medicine” was irritating. The ending was not believable, how did a badly wounded man get Danny and a badly wounded Wendy out of the hotel? We definitely felt it was a novel of two halves.

There was concern over the depiction of Halloran and the constant reference to his colour. There was no justification for the stereotypical portrait of the single black character. If the intention was to expose racism it back-fired.

The group felt that the depiction of Jack was a very sympathetic portrait of alcoholism showing real respect for those on the wagon. His fall from grace was well handled and I was a nice touch having an educated man, an academic, go through this rather than the usual poor manual worker.

We also discussed how real a character Jack’s mother was; would anyone put up with all the abuse she suffered at her husband’s hand? We agreed that it was a disturbingly accurate portrayal of domestic violence. This led to discussion of whether Jack had chosen Wendy because she was like his mother and the issues that Wendy had with her own mother. These relationships, Jack and Wendy’s marriage and the jealousy she felt when looking at her son and husband’s interaction all rang true. In summary we found Stephen King a far more skilled writer than we had given him credit for even if we weren’t happy with where he took The Shining.

Monday, 12 January 2015

"Butterflies in November" by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir - January 2015

This was yet another free bookset we won from The Reading Agency: http://readinggroups.org./

We had mixed reactions to reading this novel! It was hard to get into it for some members of the group. The characters (especially the narrator, she's never named) react in such an unemotional, detached, slightly off-topic way to each major event that happens, that it's difficult to form any emotional bond to them. We thought that they were all over the place, not reacting in any way that you would expect them to; therefore it was hard to start caring for them. Some of us felt that we were waiting for the action, or the emotional connection, to begin, only to find three quarters into the book that it never does. However, we had very positive reactions as well: the quirkiness of the characters' responses is intriguing, and does propel the story forward in unusual ways, it's just maybe not as successfully done as we would have liked! This might be due to the translation (or the fact that it is translated at all). Or is it an Icelandic thing? Members of the group who've been to Iceland definitely attested to a quirkiness of character, inspired by the quirkiness of landscape, light and dark, and isolation, perhaps! It's interesting that the jaggedness / dottiness / flitting about of the story and the characters' actions and reactions mimic the flight of a butterfly; butterflies pop up every once in a while throughout the story.

One thing that we all agreed on was that the landscape of Iceland is very richly and satisfyingly portrayed, even though the entire journey the protagonists undertake would, in fact, take place in utter darkness (a bit of poetic licence there, as admitted by the author herself in an interview); however, that didn't mar our enjoyment of the author's descriptions. We thought that the novel might be designed to give a snapshot of Iceland itself, rather than an individual character; both because we never learn the protagonist's name, and also because her actions are so off the well-trodden path, a bit like Iceland itself maybe. She's a bit icy, she's all about survival, practical and matter-of-fact, but a little bit lost in her own world as well. She has a fanciful counterpoint in Audur, her best friend (and pretty much the wackiest character in this book), maybe as a warm, chaotic, colourful energy to balance the heroine's slightly robotic demeanour. However, every person in the book acts so wackily, that we thought that if anybody's only information on Iceland was this novel, they'd get a very weird impression of its citizens!

We really appreciated the backstory in the novel; the dream-like memories and reflections that interject the plot, written in italics, reveal her having a son while she's a teenager, and having to give him up for adoption (we never find out how/why). She meets him later, during her road-trip, and she does want to know about him, but still reacts with her typical stone-cold manner; she's being told by the boy's father to let sleeping dogs lie, and we read no more about it.

Another wonderful thing was the character of Tumi, the partially deaf four-year-old that the narrator goes on her trip with, and their evolving relationship; we did enjoy him and her together. We also talked about feminism and male and female roles in the novel; how accepting the women seem to men's dominating and dependent behaviour throughout, and how it goes uncommented by everyone! A novel to stimulate a lot of debate, for sure.
By Cordula

One member of our group couldn't make it to the meeting, but emailed her comments to me. Here they are:

- Choosing the boy to have hearing and sight impediments and not be a "normal" boy was a very interesting concept given the minority of children being affected by both. It added dimensions to each part of the story that changed the focus completely, I felt it really opened up what can be a difficult and sensitive subject when it comes to writing about it and the author really conveyed this very well.

- The descriptions of Iceland were so vivid to me, having been there I could really imagine the roads as they drove across the vast expanses and the volcanic barren terrain, for those who haven't been some descriptions may have seemed quite uninteresting or unimaginative - but having been amongst it I could really feel it.

- I found the plot a bit wishy washy in places, it was obvious what they were doing, where they were going etc, but there was no big song or dance about anything that happened along the way - it was almost natural to have a bird of prey in a box as it was to hit a sheep, or buy chocolate or petrol, or win the lottery, or end a relationship. Maybe this was down to the translation, I felt it lacked highs and lows and emotions which I wanted to feel when reading the story and these things happening.

- The ending was a real disappointment to me, I felt we were mid novel and I wasn't prepared for it to be over. It did have me hooked and I wanted more from it, but I was left feeling confused and wondering. Maybe this was the aim, or maybe this was the translation I dont know but I felt we got the first half of the story and wanted the rest...maybe part two will come soon!

- Adding in some dimensions like the side track when hitting the sheep, the bird of prey being with the vet, never finding out her name (i dont think we did?) the choir following them around and the butterflies were all very quirky; they made no sense yet the story needed them and I found the author's imagination incredible and in the way they linked into the tale.

- This is exactly the sort of book I would choose to read, it made me laugh, question, made me re-read sections and challenged my thinking about a lot of subjects from winning the lottery, to random encounters, to eating roadkill - it successfully covered a lot of unusual thought provoking items.

- As I write about this I recall so many amusing parts of the story, but it left me with both a feeling of having read a wonderful book and frustration at not getting as much out of it as I would have liked.

December 2014 - "I Was Here" by Gayle Forman - blog post to come

We really enjoyed Gayle Forman's "I Was Here", a Young Adult novel about a 18-year old girl coping with the suicide of her best friend. Review to come soon!

This novel was given to us for free by The Reading Agency: http://readinggroups.org./

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

"Half of a Yellow Sun" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - November 2014

The reading group all agreed that this is a very well written book with one member calling the writing “silky”. Descriptions are so well formed that readers can almost taste the food and smell the surroundings, and characters are believable, minor as well as the major ones. The book’s title refers to the half of a yellow sun on the flag of the Republic of Biafra, a secessionist state in south-eastern Nigeria that existed from May 1967 to January 1970. The symbolism of the flag is explained in the text.
Through the lives of two economically privileged sisters, Olanna and Kainene, their respective partners, the revolutionary academic Odenigbo and the rather insipid English would-be writer Richard, and, in particular, Odenigbo’s peasant houseboy Ugwu, the author reveals the horrors of war. Readers are given an understanding of why the civil war took place and the role of the colonialists in fermenting tribal unrest, but the core of the story is what happens to people in war. The characters are well rounded and complex: Olanna is kind, caring and forgiving (she brings up her partner’s child as her own, she forgives his transgression) but she betrays her own sister in an unforgivable way. Ugwu, who could be seen as representing outmoded superstitious values of pre-industrial Nigeria, is kind too, but he also commits an appalling act that will disturb readers.
The book is an intelligent read; one comes away knowing something about Nigeria in the 1960s, the failure of the Biafran state and the tremendous cost of the civil war.
Although the narrative is clear, a glossary of all the non-English words used in the text and an historic timeline showing major events would have been a help to readers who had very limited or no knowledge of Nigerian languages and history.
By Jasmina

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

"The Kitchen House" by Kathleen Grissom, from our group in June 2014

We won this title from the Reading Agency: http://readinggroups.org./

Most of our reading group agreed that ‘The Kitchen House’ by Kathleen Grissom was a good story and a good read.

The main setting is in the ‘Kitchen House ‘on a cotton plantation in the Southern states of America.
The story features black slavery, but is about multiple types of entrapment that physically, emotionally and mentally enslave most of the white characters and all of those that are black. It illustrates the stark difference between good and evil and exposes an age that had little regard for personal respect, human dignity and sexual choice. An age that was afraid to lose control and was motivated by feudal power to its own enragement.

The main character is Lavinia. She is introduced to the reader as a white, Irish seven year old. A child traumatised by the loss of her parents and by witnessing a slave hanging.

The lot of the Irish in this era isn’t clear. The reading group would have appreciated more information about indentured servitude as Lavinia is the character that we follow throughout the novel.

The owner of the wealthy plantation is called the ‘Captain’. Lavinia is transported to the plantation to work and is put into the kitchen house under the care of two black slaves: Belle and her mother Mama Mae. Belle is a favoured slave as she is the captain’s illegitimate daughter. Throughout the novel Belle and Lavinia’s lives become increasingly more entwined. Both women care for children who are jointly dependent on each of them. Two of their children are conceived by the Captain’s legitimate son Marshal; Belle’s as a result of rape and Lavinia’s within her marriage to Marshal. Both women were forced by circumstance into their pre-marital and marital roles. Both were in love with other men.

Lavinia considers her black family her kin. She struggles in a conservative white world to assert her identity. Members of the reading group found some of the other characters in Lavinias ‘family‘ story came across as stereotypical, and it was difficult for the reader to make them real. Some found the complexity of the relationships hard to follow. However, it was felt that the life of the plantation owner’s wife Miss Martha was more believable and that her descent into drug dependency and insanity served as a dynamic illustration of social entrapment.

Ben, a black slave at the plantation, is Belle’s true love. Lavinia loves and trusts Will Stephens, a white plantation owner. Will is a practising Christian and treats slaves with comparative respect. This makes him the natural enemy of Rankin, the Captain’s overseer. Rankin is the all-time white ‘Bad guy!’

The actions of Ben and Rankin affect the lives of all main characters. Rankin’s credibility with the Captain causes the monstrous side of Marshal to develop. In the early stages of the story, Rankin encourages Waters, a paedophile tutor, in his abuse of the child Marshal. There is no communication beyond formality in the ‘Big Plantation House,’ it’s only in the ‘Kitchen House’ that there is awareness of what is happening.

A dynamic tension of values arises as Ben chooses crime to prevent Rankin’s cruelty to both fellow slaves and Miss Martha’s children. Will Stephens is the only white person who displays integrity and refutes Rankin and his methods of control.

The tension between good and evil continues to escalate and towards the end, similar to how the story starts, Lavinia’s young daughter Elly is a witness to the hanging of innocent Mama Mae. Following this, Elly also loses her father Marshall to an early violent death.

Members of the group agreed we would like to read the sequel as we need to know what happens to the children.

Ann . Clapton reader.


Monday, 6 October 2014

"The Blind Assassin" by Margaret Atwood - October 2014

All of us were tremendously impressed by the writing, the story, and the history in “The Blind Assassin”. One member said that the story “grabbed her straightaway” from the opening sentence, and we all agreed that the writing was intriguing and beautiful, with inventive turns of phrases and cleverly constructed ambiguity. We readers were never sure if the narrator was reliable (and we learn later on that she has led us down the garden path in several ways), but despite switching between different ages and perspectives, Margaret Atwood always manages to make it perfectly clear where we are, and manages it elegantly and seamlessly, with no clunky constructions or other possible pitfalls a lesser author could have stumbled into. An amazing novel.

We felt that we got a good overview of the history of the 20th Century; politics, feminism, and fashion included: one member commented that she “could practically see the hemlines rising” in the descriptions of changing fashion, and that the portrayal of women’s clothing, the sister-in-law Winifred’s in particular, was deliciously detailed. (Speaking of Winifred, we thought she was a perfect beast – well, we used a stronger b-word, actually – a wonderfully hateable and horrible character!). Atwood describes the impact WW1 (and 2) had on both the soldiers and the women left behind; the helplessness of all involved, the unprepared-ness for the trauma of loss, the resulting isolation and disconnection people felt.

We loved the individual characters; beastly Winifred, the strangeness of Iris’s sister Laura, the sound aphorisms and resolute no-nonsense commentary of wonderful Reenie, who brought warmth, comic relief, and something concrete to hold on to in the midst of the emotional turmoil Iris went through. The class contempt Laura feels towards Iris's hard-headed industrialist husband is cleverly expressed in snide, aside remarks - with few words we get a complete picture. We also loved the powerful similes, and expressions like "baleful weather" expressed perfectly a dreary November or February day.

One group member commented that she did not enjoy the novel within the novel (the excerpts of Laura’s “The Blind Assassin”; technically a novel within a novel within this novel) at all, but that that fact did not hamper her enjoyment of the book one little bit – it fit the story overall.

It was impressive how all the different strands of the book pulled together perfectly in the end. We witnessed the changes in the narrator with awe – Iris develops from her initial naivety to a mature character without losing any of her unique voice, and all the ambiguous bits of information come together in a finale that is the opposite of rushed. In fact, one group member commented that as far as 50-100 pages from the end, the big revelation that turns the entire book on its head is casually, confidently, dropped into the text, and the reader is left to work out the implications in her own time; this shows a respect for the reader’s intelligence, and is a sensational feat exactly because the casual reveal so far from the end looks like the opposite of sensational.

However, some of us thought that the novel was getting repetitive and overlong, especially towards the end when Iris elaborates on her ailments and bad moods - we thought that it might have been a deliberate attempt at conveying her feelings by making the reader feel as weary and bored as the narrator, but more likely the reason was lack of rigorous editing!

Overall however, we praised the confident handling of the dramatic aspects of the story, a nonchalance that shows that, in one of our group member's words, Margaret Atwood is a "mistress of her own material", confident in the manner and pace of her narrator's revelations, and her narrator's lack of sentimentality. We all came away impressed with Ms Atwood, and eager to read more of her books - for most members this was their first Atwood book, and everyone was intent to read more. We finished the group chatting about holidays in Canada: its bitter winters, entertaining/frightening encounters with bears, wolves, and moose, and examples of some other writers the country has produced that are among our member's favourites, namely Saul Bellow and Steven Pinker. Margaret Atwood has provided us with a great group meeting all round.