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.