Wednesday, 14 November 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 5 October 2018

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

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

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

"Suite Francaise" by Irene Nemirovsky - September 2018

General Feel and comments about the book:

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

Specific comments:

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

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

Comments and feelings about how the author ended her book:

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 2 August 2018

"Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - July 2018

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

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

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

Thursday, 14 June 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 6 April 2018

"The Lonely Londoners" by Sam Selvon - April 2018

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

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

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

March Group had to be cancelled...

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

Monday, 19 February 2018

"Indian Takeaway" by Hardeep Singh Kohli - February 2018

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 11 January 2018

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

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