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