Thursday, 23 November 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

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

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

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

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

"The Walworth Beauty" by Michéle Roberts - August 2017

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

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

By May Milton

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 2 June 2017

"Mr. Loverman" by Bernardine Evaristo - June 2017

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

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

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

Thursday, 18 May 2017

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

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

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

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

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

With good reason in this case.

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

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

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

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

Friday, 28 April 2017

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 9 February 2017

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

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

Thursday, 2 February 2017

"The Night Watch" by Sarah Waters - January 2017

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

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

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

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

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