Wednesday, 9 October 2019

"The City & The City" by China Mieville - October 2019

The City and the City – China Mieville - 3 October

Starting positively the book throws you straight into the fantastic, and highly original, idea of two cities existing coincidently both side by side and in places overlying each other. The two cities share characteristics and can be seen by each others citizens but those citizens must endeavour to “unsee” the other city. There is the ever present threat that if they fail to do this, they will commit “Breach” and Breach will come for and take them. Breach along with the debatable nature of the cities existence – is this a physical reality that there are two cities, existing in the same time and space, or is it more of a psychological Berlin Wall situation, are unexplained and un-understood, even by the citizens of the cities. These ideas are not over explained or deeply investigated. They are accepted as the phenomena of everyday life, while the cities themselves have distinct identities and different economies.

Within this setup, which perhaps surprisingly is located within a recognisable wider modern world, the reader is then taken into a classic murder mystery, the answers to which hinge on the premise of a supposed third city, existing between or even before the current two. The murder is investigated by the upright, fundamentally decent police inspector, Borlu, and is complicated by the fact that the victim appears to have been murdered in one city but left in the other one. The victim, a foreign student, was also investigating the myth of the third city. Borlu is an inspector in Bezel, which is portrayed as the shabbier, less advanced, poorer and more exotic city – its atmosphere is a mix of run-down ex communist eastern European, while its twin Ul-Quma is shinier, more up to date, modern and better resourced.

The consensus of the group was that the first part of the book which introduces us to these ideas and themes was nicely done and atmospheric, setting the scene well. However, we further agreed that after that the book became rather laboured, and not a particularly good thriller. Although we were grateful for the character of Borlu, a decent jobbing copper without any of the usual hang-ups which so many of fictional police seem to be burdened with. +We wanted to like it better than we did. But the police procedural wasn’t engaging enough, and the information about how the cities cross over and interlink were repetitively over explained deadening the impact of the novelty, while failing to explore these concepts in more depth.

There were a lot of ideas to consider about these ambivalent, ambiguous, co-located cities – themes of identity for citizens, immigrants, and refugees; political and national identities, and how these are established and maintained through culture, architecture, language, religion, alphabet/writing and food. However, the novel does not follow these up after the introduction of these possibilities in favour of the detective noir trope. Following the zesty introduction to this world the novel became laboured and even to a certain extent bogged down with the need to progress the investigation. To us this suggested a lack of confidence in the ideas, and a certain amount of caution which we wished had been thrown to the wind. We also felt that the story became over burdened by description and explanations about the duller aspects of the narrative, when we wanted to explore more of the esoteric, weird, even sci-fi aspects than those of the crime novel. However, while we were somewhat disappointed by this book, which many of us had looked forward to reading, we also agreed that one of the great strengths of the reading group is that we all read books that we would otherwise not have picked up. Even when a book may not live up to anticipated expectations, it is well worth reading different writers. And in respect of this read, more than one of us intends to try other works by this author.

"Nights at the Circus" by Angela Carter - September 2019

--- The group met, but I don't think anyone wrote a review... ---

Thursday, 15 August 2019

"The Reader" by Bernhard Schlink - August 2019

The Reader – Bernard Schlink - 1 August
This was a stimulating read which gave the group such a lot to discuss that we concentrated on discussing the book and the issues it raises for the whole session and could probably have continued for longer. Once again we had to take into consideration the issue of translation, and in this instance the film of the book which some readers had seen, and felt set out some of the aspects of the novel more explicitly and effectively than the book itself.

Although not especially long the book touches on a lot of big issues; its primary theme, astutely identified and summarised by one of our group, being how the rising generation address the legacy of WWII and the Holocaust on both the national and personal level at a time before the need for remembrance and responsibility were officially recognised and taught. We did not necessarily wholly agree that the author succeeds in what he appears to be attempting

We began by considering the initial relationship between the narrator and his lover Hanna. Hanna is 21 years his senior when they begin a sexual relationship, he is 15 (although she assumes that he is 17). While recognising that attitudes to sexual liaisons between adults and young adults would have been considerably different at the time this is set, the early 1950’s, and especially if the genders were reversed, many of us felt that this was an abusive relationship which damaged both participants, as the war has damaged both those who took an active part and the next generation. However, as we only ever have the narrator’s view point about the relationship it was unclear to us whether the author was implying that this was the case or leaving it for the reader to draw their own conclusions. The boy’s involvement with the older woman isn’t so much of a surprise, sex, and adolescent intensity of feeling – he thinks that he loves her – Hanna’s involvement with him is somewhat harder to fathom. Although Hanna is living a lonely and circumscribed life, as a result of both her (secret) illiteracy and her work as a camp guard, she has more to lose by getting involved with this boy and she struggled to cope with the intimacy of the relationship because she was hiding so much. Because of the rather emotionally bland tone of the narrator it sometimes seems as if both participants were at a similar level of emotional development even though at times there are signs of her attempting to retain a more adult role such as through the use of belittling pet names for him. However, we also recognised that people don’t necessarily behave rationally in relationships, and pet names may often seem disparaging, so it might be unreasonable to label this behaviour abusive. The metaphor being that while he was the rising generation who lived through the war years as children, and not as active participants, she is of the active and guilty generation who need to take responsibility and shoulder the blame for their actions.

Many of us struggled to entirely understand why Hanna continued to hide her biggest secret, illiteracy, so completely. She took on the role of a camp guard rather than reveal it, and left her job, as a tram conductor, and home when once again promotion would have revealed this, and ultimately takes the blame and a lengthy prison sentence because she can’t read. However, people are ashamed of such things and can be driven to extremes by attempts to cover up. This is also in keeping with the metaphorical nature of the story. Lack of acknowledgement and awareness of war crimes at the time, followed by attempts to disown and distance responsibility for them following the war, follows a similar pattern to Hanna’s dissimulation about her illiteracy. In failing to use the only defensive she might have she is also seen as beginning to take responsibility for the guilt which she bears both personally and metaphorically. Her journey to literacy during her time in prison, and her end also indicate her recognition, and by default her generation’s recognition of their responsibilities for the holocaust. The dead are always with her. The key question which Hanna asks at her trial is “What would you have done?” but we did feel that perhaps not enough was made of that.

The book left many of us somewhat disappointed by the lack of emotional depth, yet this deliberate tone can empower the reader to approach to the issues of guilt and responsibility, and complicity, remembrance and reparation with greater sensitivity and understanding than a more emotive approach might have allowed.

Reading is obviously a theme throughout this novel, self-referentially for us as readers, for Hanna, who had prisoners read to her when she was a camp guard, and for Michael who reads to her both when they are lovers and later on tape. Reading to someone is often associated with parents and children, reversing role perceptions in Michael and Hanna’s initial relationship where she is significantly older. Hanna’s comments about her listening show her to be an intelligently critical woman, as does her own reading when she finally overcomes her resistance to learning. Interestingly, many of the group had experiences beyond childhood of either being read to or reading to someone and all felt it was an interesting and enjoyable experience.
By Karen

"The Tottenham Outrage" by M.H.Baylis - July 2019

We didn't write a review for this one... I think the heat was eating our brains

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

"Sofia Khan is not obliged" by Ayisha Malik - CityReads London (every year) - June 2019

Clapton’s reading group members were positively inclined towards this year’s issue of the “CITY READS LONDON” initiative, where London’s reading groups receive free copies of a London-based novel. But we weren’t overly convinced by it! Some thought it was repetitive in places, and could have done with more editing – a common theme in our group, when it comes to the more recently published novels we read. (Is the art of editing in crisis? Or is it just us??)

With Ayisha Malik’s “Sofia Khan is not obliged”, the advertising (“a Muslim Bridget Jones’ Diary”) seemed spot on – a light read, easily and flowingly written, easy to digest, slightly fluffy romanticism with a couple of deeper topics thrown in, especially regarding the protagonist’s attempt to find balance between two cultures. But whereas Bridget Jones’ Diary was an exciting innovation at the time, “Sofia Khan...” couldn’t completely live up to the hype. In the feedback forms that we sent back to the CityReads charity, nobody ticked the box that asked: “I feel inspired to read more books by writers like her”! But at least two (of four) respondents said that they “learned something new about living in London as a Muslim” and about Muslim women’s experiences, so I would call that a success, in terms of what the book set out to do, at least partly.

The content of the book was interesting, but maybe the most telling comment by one of our members was that in romance, no matter what culture you’re from, or living in, everyone has the same human problems.

I’ll add more comments regarding content if I receive any from our members!
By Cordula

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

"The Master and Margarita" by Mikhail Bulgakov - May 2019

The Master and Margarita – 2 May
This somewhat challenging read gave us much to think about, and in some cases great amusement. A modern classic, this has been called one of the great books of the 20th century, and is often included on lists of must read books before you are whatever age/die (take your pick). However, like so many books which we’re all supposed to have read, or know, this is no easy read, but it is all the better for that. It is a treasure house of incident, story, joyful absurdity, spiteful self interest and greed, regrets and cowardice, self awareness and recognition, philosophical and religious query, full of vivid images and symbolism. Although several of us struggled with it, following our discussion at least two members determined that they would now go back and finish it.

Written in a 1930’s modernist style reminiscent of work by Pirandello , Ionesco and Brecht, the book, which was not published until the late 1960’s, has three main story elements. One, a satire of society in post revolutionary Moscow, with its favoured elites being taken to task, in ridiculous and sometimes tragic ways by the Devil, here called Woland, and his appalling and comedic sidekicks, in the form of, primarily, Behemoth – very large talking cat who walks on two legs, and Koroviev a sinister clown/entrepreneur. Another, the seemingly affectless depiction of, primarily artistic and entertainment, society presents fascinating glimpses into and observations on life in post revolutionary Russia which is seen to still contain many different classes of citizens. The third, the story of Pontius Pilate and Yeshua (Jesus), told by both the Devil and the Master. The former relating it as lived experience, the latter as a writer whose work is rejected as entirely out of keeping with the sensibilities and values of an officially atheist culture.

The different stories, numerous characters, and avant-garde style can make it tricky to get to grips with. The introduction and notes on the text where helpful here. However it is intriguing, and for some the Pilate story provided the way into the book, presenting interesting historical points and an empathetic character which many of the Muscovites were not. Despite this many of the episodes with the Devil and his sidekicks are full of a frenetic idiocy and joy, and scenes such as after the clothes exchange at the theatre, Margarita smashing up the apartment, the riot in the foreign food shop, and money changing can be laugh out loud funny. There is also a wealth of realistic and interesting detail about daily life, from the Bunsen burners of shared kitchens and the accommodation shortage, to the realistic responses of the doctors and nurses in the mental hospital to their patients' apparently fantastical reports.

The somewhat detached, even matter of fact, tone makes discerning the author’s position on the many issues the book raises easier said than done. Bulgakov does not offer us a clear view about religion, the nature of goodness, and its opposite, and the relationships between these themes and atheism, communism and morality, nor for that matter does the devil. Are the readers being asked to defend religion, or is this a philosophical exercise in what happens when you banish it? Interestingly, despite these questions there is no sense of nostalgia for pre-revolutionary Russia; people just want things to work better. There is anger that elite groups continue to get favourable treatment, which is expressed in the fact that it is the places where these groups gather, and their members which are the main targets for come-uppance at the hands of the Devil’s sidekicks. Nearly all the others who suffer as a result of money grabbing are the greedy, and the hoarders, very much in keeping with the soviet viewpoint and also a high degree of morality. The reader must make up their own mind.
By Karen

Monday, 29 April 2019

"To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee - April 2019

To Kill A Mockingbird by Lee Harper published 1960

Without exception, we all thought this book stands the test of time, despite its complex topics which include racial injustice, violence, rape and sexual prejudice.

Lee combines the narrator's voice of a child (Scout) aged between 6-9 observing her small town life, but with a grown woman's reflection on her childhood. This narrative method allows us to read a "delightfully deceptive" story that mixes the simplicity of childlike (not childish) observation with adult situations, which are full of hidden motivations, prejudice and unquestioned tradition.

The detailed, but compact and simple observations of people, places and situations bring all the characters to life and with very little imagination we can see the places, people and situations so clearly that the group felt that it made the story more personal and therefore more engaging.

Within the seriousness of the subjects are hidden gems of humour, satire and irony, which lift the reader away from the temptation to judge and moralise as things are seen through the eyes of the children, and makes you laugh, so the story moves along with ease.

The main character of the lawyer Atticus Finch is of course the moral compass of the novel, as he teaches his children, and indeed the whole town, lessons of courage, honesty and honourable behaviour. Two of the members of the group said they knew people who had read the book and decided to follow the legal profession as a direct result of reading it, and being inspired by the strength and veracity of the character.

The book certainly deals with tragedy and injustice, heartache and loss, (rather like a Greek tragedy) but it also includes a strong sense nobility, courage, compassion, selflessness, and an awareness of how we can become better human beings, which is inspiring and thoughtful.

The book still rouses feelings of indignation and disgust, particularly in the way individuals are degraded, but also forces readers to question current issues about race, class, and society, and this is probably why we felt that it was still a relevant and challenging book for today.

Friday, 8 March 2019

"Map of Love" by Ahdaf Soueif - March 2019

"My thoughts -

Irritating and fundamental flaw in construction of story. Where did Anna's letter come from? Did she keep copies of all her correspondence? did she go around collecting all the letters she had written? it makes no sense that the letters wrote are the ones in the trunk rather than the ones she received.

Found the history fascinating and horribly poignant. Next time any European complains about waves of migrants from Africa they need to be reminded of past behaviour. Spent a great deal of time gnashing my teeth and feeling very cross, ashamed and downright furious that matters have got worse instead of better.

Central love story charming but somewhat Mills and Boon. Anna just a bit too perfect, Sharif a cliched tall, dark handsome hero."

Thursday, 28 February 2019

"Loyalties" by Delphine de Vigan - February 2019

"I found the book really quite engaging. It's a very easy read, and has a wealth of social issues which keep up the momentum, but I felt the ending left things a bit high and dry, and I wanted more so that's probably a good thing! I'm not so sure the idea of loyalty was the best concept, I felt it was more fear (of loss, being found out, change etc) which is a very common childhood thing, and the desire to climb inside the bottle of forgetfullness was well presented."

"Delphine de Vigan's LOYALTIES was a short and easy read; undemanding in length, but not in content and that was the major problem that most members of the book group had with it.
It was too short to deal with its serious content in any meaningful depth and the interconnected stories, of the four main protagonists, were not fully believable. The main story of twelve year old Theo's self destructive drinking needed greater explanation. How did no one, in or out of school, notice his drunken state and take action? How was Helene, his teacher, not aware that his problem was intoxication and not physical abuse, that he was not suffering from the same plight as she, as a child, had? Couldn't she smell him? Theo's father may have been made almost catatonic by depression, but why was his mother so blind to his situation? The adults in this book behaved like unthinking children, it was the two children, and particularly Mathis, who showed mature loyalty.

The problems of this book were not limited to the main characters and the storyline, but also applied to the lack of development of secondary characters, for example, Cecile's patronising husband and the awful cardboard character gym teacher.

The majority verdict on this brief novel was that it was an unsatisfactory read and the particular translation may have played a part in that."

Friday, 4 January 2019

"Lady Worsley's Whim" by Hallie Rubenhold - January 2019

This account of a true divorce scandal of late 18th Century Britain was also very interesting to discuss. What counts as infidelity in a marriage, what motives did the husband have for divorcing her, how did this woman remain financially fluent when her property was in her husband's hands, how did the media influence public opinion. Many interesting topics.

"Brighton Rock" by Graham Greene - December 2018

A great thriller, engagingly written, believable characters.. a lot of plot points, social observations and character development to discuss. We had a lively group session about Brighton Rock.