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?