Book Reading 2

We meet on the second Thursday of the month at 10.00 - 12.00 at Willow Court Community Room, (between numbers 11 and 12 Willow Court), Off Wilton Ave, Franche, Kidderminster DY11 5AU.  See Map

We try to choose books that are interesting and perhaps a bit controversial so there is generally a great deal of informal discussion over coffee and (very nice) biscuits.

For further details contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Where possible we try to source our books from sets available from the library, but recently, as this was proving quite limiting, we decided to set out a future programme so members could obtain their own copies where possible.

As a guide here are the books we have read so far and a synopsis of our discussions is further down below.

 

Date

Book

Author

 

2012

 

 

1

April  

Introductory meeting

 

2

May 

Various Alexander McCall Smith

Mc Call Smith

3

June

The Slap

Christos Tsiolkas

4

July 

The Long Song

Andrea Levy

5

August 

Northern Clemency

Philip Hensher

6

Sept

The Siege,  + Betrayal + House of Orphans

Helen Dunmore

7

Oct

Birdsong + A Week in December

Sebastian Faulkes  

8

Nov

The Great Gatsby

Scott Fitzgerald

9

Dec 

Love in a Cold Climate.+ The Pursuit of Love

Nancy Mitford

 

2013

 

 

10

Jan

The Rotters Club

Jonathon Coe

11

Feb

Oranges Are not the Only Fruit

Jeanette Winterson

12

March

Cutting For Stone

Abraham Verghese

13

April

Any Margaret Drabble

Margaret Drabble

14

May

Sarcophagus +Tom Bryson Talk

Tom Bryson

15

June

The Book Thief

Markus Zusak

16

July

Suite Francais

Irene Nemirovsky

17

August

My Sister’s Keeper

Jodi Picoult

18

October

A Fine Balance

Rohinton Mistry

19

November

The Incredible Journey of Harold Fry

Rachel Joyce

20

December

Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price etc

Wendy Jones

 

2014

 

 

21

Jan

Remains of the Day + Never let me go

Kazuo  Ishiguro

22

Feb

The curious incident of the dog in the night time

Mark Haddon.

23

March

Solar

Ian McEwan

24

April

Bel Canto

Ann Patchett

25

May

All Quiet on the Western Front

Erich Remarque

26

June

The Poisonwood Bible

B  Kingsolver

27

July

A Casual Vacancy

J K Rowling

28

August

The Rosie Project

Graeme Simsion

29

September

Stoner

John Williams

30

October

 

 

31

November

 

 

32

December

 

 

 

Book Group Two

Summary of Book reviews June 2015-July 2016

38

June

The Garden of Evening Mists

Tan Twan Eng

39

July

Us

David Nicholls

40

August

Out of Such Darkness (Talk)

Robert Ronsson

41

September

The Help

Kathryn Stockett

42

October

Americanah

C Ngozi Adichie

43

November

The Dalai Lama’s Cat

David Michie

44

December

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

Hilary Mantel

 

2016

 

 

45

Jan

The Maid of Buttermere

Melvyn Bragg

46

Feb

Brooklyn

Colm Toibin

47

March

Longbourn

Jo Baker

48

April

The Versions of Us

Laura Bennet

49

May

A Man Called Ove

Frederik Backman

50

June

The Miniaturist

Jessie Burton

51

July

Euphoria

Lily King

           

 

38 June 2015

 The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

 

Ann Pullen recommended this book because she loved its lyrical use of language and the wonderful images conjured up. We all agreed that there were some wonderful poetic descriptions throughout this book and deep insights into Japanese culture generally, and garden creation specifically.

Some however, felt this was at the expense of warm, or engaging characterisation, finding it difficult to relate to the emotionally repressed first person narrator, Judge Teoh Yung Ling. Possibly the abundance of foreign names and phrases was a bit distancing, as was the multi-layered plot and time frame.

However everyone felt they had, once again, learned a lot about an aspect of WWII they knew little about, and an unknown area of the world. Along the way we also learned much about Japanese art, woodblocks, the art of the floating world and tattooing.

Some aspects of the story echoed Empire of the Sun, and there was a fascinating diversion into the motivation of kamikaze pilots, and an unexpected and touching love story.

One of the main themes at the heart of the story was how to reconcile the highly aesthetic culture of Japan with its barbarous treatment of captured people during the war. And how the central character of the gardener Aritomo, could place love for the Emperor above his love for Yung Ling.

There was a haunting theme of remembering and forgetting, symbolised by the two statues in the garden. Indeed there were many symbolic resonances in the structure and composition of the garden as well as clues to a central mystery.

There were also many nationalities in the book, all inhabiting a lush landscape and, like the jungle that surrounds them, all the characters have dark secret places, some of which are gradually revealed and some just alluded to.

Thank you Ann, for recommending this complex, beautifully written book, which, while it divided opinion a bit, provoked the usual deep discussion  

 

39 July 2015

 

Usby David Nicholls

 

Just brief notes this month. One of best books but a bit formulaic

The start and the ending both brilliant and clever. The men could identify with Douglas, and the Art Gallery aspect very enjoyable. Some enjoyed the travel details, others thought they were boring. The book shows how when a marriage breaks down not necessarily anyone's fault. Douglas and Connie were just so very different.

Good on gender differences- men want less from a relationship than women and certainly women talk about it more! Some felt angry at how they couldn't understand each other's point of view. Lots of emotions stirred by the story, anger, laughter and sadness. It brings up our old chestnut about Art v Science. Some could identify with one character, some two, some all.

 

40 August 2015

 

 Out of Such Darknessby Robert Ronsson

 

This month we had a talk from local author, Robert Ronsson .Robert firstly outlined his three main inspirations for his dual narrative, time-slip novel set in 1930’s Berlin and 9/11 New York. He had always been fascinated by the Tomorrow Belongs to Me song in Cabaret, a supposedly innocent song with chilling overtones as the camera pans out. Also the dual narrative in William Goldman’s Marathon Man had inspired him to try a similar narrative device where the reader is not sure at just what point the two stories will overlap. And finally he himself had been in America on 9/11 and, like Jay in the story, his wife hadn’t known if he had been a victim of the bombings. Certainly his stay in America during that period gave those scenes the authenticity of first-hand experience which was evident to all.

The idea of escaping your fate, like Jay seemed to have done, but not your destiny was intriguing. Jay was a dead man walking but didn’t know it.

Robert also discussed his writing process, especially the inclusion of the MC character who seems to be an interior instigator of many of Jay’s actions and thoughts, notably his less good ones. The research process, especially into the Jewish faith and pre-war Berlin, had been engrossing and he had enjoyed getting the locations as accurate as possible. Many people had noted the resonances between the Jewish holocaust and the trauma of the 9/11 experience but had failed to spot the pre-figuring of the arm and the swastika.

There was an interesting discussion of many aspects of character and story and Robert was pleased that we were talking about these figures from his imagination as if they were real people. Although, after some comments from members, he conceded that perhaps his female characters could have been more rounded and hoped to do better next time.

Sue praised the carefully crafted structure of the book and everyone had been gripped by the interweaving stories and been shocked by the ending.  

We thanked Robert for his intrepid attendance at what must have been one of his more boisterous gigs, and wished him good luck in his future writing career. 

 

41 September 2015

 

 The Helpby Kathryn Stockett

 

Elaine had chosen this book for discussion and began by enthusing about the author’s portrayal of these troubled times and events which, amazingly, happened so recently during our lifetimes. Many agreed and felt guilty that all this was going on unbeknownst to us in this country. Many remembered the true incidents in the book such as the killing of Medgar Evans, the Woolworth sit-ins and the bravery shown by black students in the attempted school desegregation battles.

Most of us enjoyed the first person patois of Minny and Aibileen as it gave a distinctive voice and character to these protagonists and added much to the verisimilitude and humour. However a few had found it off-putting and even obstructive in entering the mood of the book.

Many in the group had  read the book before but all felt just as involved on the second reading, if not more so. So vivid and real was the situation that we had all been caught up again with the fear the characters felt in writing down their experiences, and rightly so given the recriminations meted out by ‘white folk’ for any minor transgressions.

In the book, the author has vividly re-created the Old South, stuck in a time warp in its claustrophobic backward looking society with the women especially trapped and suffocated by its conventions. And this book was overwhelmingly about the women’s relationships, good and bad. Could/ should the men have been more represented? Did this make the novel a ‘women’s only’ book?    

Some questioned some of the plausibilities of the plot, and felt the redemptive ending was a bit too pat. They disliked the fact that Skeeter abandoned the ‘helpers’ at the end to pursue her own life in New York. This led on to a discussion about whether the white author herself had exploited the black help in writing the book at all. Were the blacks being used all over again? It’s a contentious issue about whether one race can ever truly represent another.

However most of the group had truly loved the book and many felt that the characters would live in their minds and hearts for a long time to come.

Thank you Elaine for choosing this book for us to discuss.

 

42 October 2015

 

  Americanahby Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 

 

Janet had chosen this book as she found this multi-faceted study of race most thought-provoking. And we all agreed. Reading this challenged many of our thoughts and attitudes about what it means to be black. How can any of us know unless we have walked in her shoes? But as a result of this book we can glimpse what it must be like to be ‘other’ in a white country like America or Britain. We all noted the fact that the two main protagonists, Ifemelu and Obinze, didn’t feel black as such in their native Nigeria, although they were very aware of the tribal differences. It was only when they moved into white communities that their colour became their main identifying feature. Ifemelu’s search for her identity became bound up with her hair.

 What was really fascinating for everyone was to see America and Britain through other eyes. Everyone found Ifemelu’s blogs particularly enlightening. And Obinze’s point about so-called ‘economic migrants, was noted as particularly apposite in the current refugee situation.

Paul recounted some of his experiences as a naïve 18 year old in Nigeria and how he became aware of the tribal differences in their culture and how his ‘education’ was equalled/ surpassed by their native intelligence.  Some people said it made them feel ashamed of Britain’s colonial past

Other major themes in the book were the importance of roots and alienation. And a few who had lived in other countries identified with the underlying home-sickness that draws you back every time.

We all liked the rich cast of well-drawn characters and were surprised by the inter-racial prejudice displayed within what, to outside eyes, was a homogenised black culture.

Some were glad that this book about black culture, unlike The Help, was written by a black person.

For a few, the book was too long and too slow moving, more interesting than actually enjoyable. But others loved this extended detailed immersion into another world and culture.

Thank you Janet, a stimulating and challenging book to discuss, especially appropriate at this time.

 

43 November 2015

 

The Dalai Lama’s Catby David Michie

 

Steve had been drawn to this book when he saw it (not on a bedside cabinet) at a friend’s and had been charmed both by the insight into Buddhism and the character of the cat. This view was echoed by everybody else, especially the cat owners who really appreciated the truth of the portrayal of the unpredictability of a cat’s nature.

 

The simplicity of the style and the sly humour were enjoyed by all. And we all felt we had learned a lot about the central tenets of the Buddhist faith, some had even been interested enough into researching further. Another had downloaded Buddhist chants to accompany her reading.

 

The book reminded some of the poems of Thich Nhat Hahn which have the same calm, thought-provoking spiritual quality.

 

Two people were less charmed, one felt it was too simplistic, and another had been disenchanted when she discovered the profit –making side to the author’s books.

 

Nevertheless the overall feeling was one of peace and harmony, so thank you Steve for recommending this book. 

 

44 December 2015

 

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and other storiesby Hilary Mantel

 

Jan had chosen this collection of stories and agreed it was slightly difficult to know where to start on such a range of short stories. However, she plunged bravely in with her views on the titular story which she felt was the least satisfactory and plausible of the whole collection. Many agreed with her. Would a gunman have allowed her to walk freely around? Would she have aided and abetted a stranger to do this? However, this story was probably the least unsettling one in the whole collection.

The autobiographical (?) tale Sorry To Disturb provoked much discussion about the restricted way of life for women in Saudi, and Mantel’s obviously disturbed state of mind whilst living there.

Also autobiographical was How Shall I Know You? with its depiction of the seedy guest house and the small crooked uncomplaining girl sentenced to work there. And Mantel’s realisation that the pity she had felt for the girl, was echoed by someone’s pity for her.

Many felt her tales were bleak, with a pervading sense of menace just round the corner. Winter Break with its play of words on ‘kid’ was one such, as wasComma.

The Heart Fails Without Warningwas also harrowing in showing the relentless decline into anorexia of one sister There were many conjectures as to what had provoked this illness.

Some stories just baffled and no-one was quite sure what they meant, but all were shot through with Mantel’s acute observations, telling memorable details and ability to create atmosphere and character in a few choice sentences.

 

So this book certainly stretched us and provided us with much to think about. Thank you Jan for expanding our reading horizons.

 

 

 

Steve conducted his end of year poll for the most liked book of the year, and it showed a good spread of favourites. It’s been a good reading year, thanks to everyone selecting such interesting books.  

 

Americanah

1

Help

1

Us

2

The Goldfinch

2

Light between Oceans

3

To Kill a Mockingbird

4

 

 

2016

45 January 2016

The Maid of Buttermereby Melvyn Bragg

We then discussed the book for this month - "The Mail of Buttermere" by Melvyn Bragg.  All agreed that he is a very good writer - and a very clever man - who researched his material thoroughly, producing a believable account of Mary Robinson and John Hatfield's romance and marriage.  Carole kicked off with her thoughts on the subject, saying that she warmed to him as a person despite his obvious shortcomings - robbery, bigamy, lying, womanising, fortune hunting etc - because he was a charmer, knew what he was but was fallible.  He had a remarkable talent for inspiring loyalty from those he had most hurt and wronged, and even when in prison, awaiting his hanging, helped out other prisoners - so he can't have been all bad!

One or two of us found some of the interspersion of fact and fiction a bit confusing, especially when the researched parts read like data, and it was a bit wordy at times.  

Elaine likened Mary to Princess Diana, a beauty and iconic figure who was wronged by her man, though in a different way, and saw the story as of our time as well.

All agreed that the descriptions of the Lake District were very vivid and we could picture the places mentioned.  Anne P told us how she has walked across Morecambe Bay for charity and that it is a scary place, to be treated with respect, and relating it to the description at the beginning where he is rehearsing a plan, observed at a distance by Anne Tyson.

 

Another comment was that the language used is of its time, cleverly written in the style of the era.

 

We discussed how Mary attracted attention, but was this merely for her beauty, or did people see her for herself?  Perhaps she felt the latter.  Also commented on was the way people are attracted to charmers, getting pulled in because they give the appearance of being wealthy and men of substance, obtaining credit with ease because of whom they are believed to be.  His religious faith was important to him, especially at the end, when he made his peace with God and himself, and we felt that his time in prison and death sentence was actually a relief to him - all the pretence was over, and he was free of Newton.  We believe that he genuinely loved Mary, and she him, and that even when she knew what he was, she continued to love him, whereas, for John, she was the best person in his life. We felt he had a noble death, going calmly to his execution, and at peace.

Three people had not read this book, but having heard the discussion, said they would, and the rest of us mostly enjoyed it.

We also digressed to the appalling and heart-breaking devastation wrought by the floods in the area where the book is set, some members describing their experiences of loss and problems incurred in their own lives.

 

46 February 2016  

4Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

 

Although she had chosen it for discussion, Kay introduced this book and confessed to mixed feelings. It was well written and some passages, such as the boat trip to New York, and Eilis’s feelings of alienation when she arrives there, were very well described. Also the period details of the shops, the Irish small town claustrophobia, the power of the Catholic Church were all realistically evoked. But Kay, and many others, couldn’t really empathise with the ‘heroine’. To many she seemed passive, and even weak, submitting always to the will of others, and we never know what she actually feels.

Others disagreed. They found it sensitively and truthfully portrayed a young sheltered girl of her period and background where feelings are repressed and you just get on with whatever life throws at you.

Some loved the lyrical Irishness of the writing and strongly defended Eilis against accusations of passivity, citing many occasions where she had acted decisively.

We all tried to interpret the enigmatic ending. Was she glad to go back or just accepting of her fate?

There was a real split between those who found the central story simple and honest, and others who thought it slight and uninvolving.

The author’s use of the more objective third person technique, known as ‘deep third’, where we view everything through the protagonist’s eyes but without the subjectivity of the first person, may have contributed to some readers’ lack of involvement, whereas for others it increased the universality of the story.

So thanks Kay.  We all agreed it was a ‘good book’ but it was fascinating to discuss why some people thought it was ‘gooder’ than others.

 

48 April 2016

 

Versions Of Us by Laura Barnett

 

As this was Rosemary’s choice she introduced it by saying she found the premise of three alternative lives emanating from a single incident really fascinating. She also though it would divide opinion …and she was right.  

Many liked the idea of exploring the consequences of a single incident throughout the three different lives of Eva and Jim. It resulted in a fascinating discussion about the influence of choice and fate in all our lives … the ‘what ifs’. We also explored the idea of whether there is just one person, a soul mate, you are supposed to be with all your lives and, without them everything else is somehow unreal or not the life you are supposed to be leading… Dante’s via smarrita, or ‘the right road lost’, as it says in the book.  And how much do we learn from our experiences? Does this learning process make us the people we are? Looking back did some of the ‘wrong’ choices turn out right in the end?

Some found the intermingling of stories cleverly handled, others found them confusing and had to take pages of notes to differentiate between them. It has to be said that Kindle is not kind to these sort of books where you have to flip backwards and forwards a bit.

And, not for the first time, there was a fascinating split between male and female viewpoints on the book.  

At times the discussion took a somewhat existential turn with two polarised views of the story. In one corner someone likened it to a poorly written computer programme, in the other it was likened to a metaphysical dialectic on time akin to T S Elliott’s Four Quartets.

So thank you Rosemary. Your prediction on the possible division of opinions proved correct and it led (yet again) to a very wide ranging discussion and caused us all to reflect a little on our version of our lives.

 

49 May 2016

 

A Man Called Ove  by Frederik Backman

 

As Alan had chosen this, he began by saying why he had liked this seemingly simple tale of a grumpy ‘old’ man so much, although at 59 most people objected to Ove being considered ‘old’. As a man, Alan identified with many of Ove’s characteristics, especially turning down radiators. Bernard agreed with this identification and confessed to always tugging at door handles more than once to check them. (Much nodding accompanied both these confessions.)

As there were only two men present, these observations were welcomed and Steve had also said something similar in his email. But they were not alone.  When put to the vote, an overwhelming number of female members recognised many of Ove’s characteristics in men they knew. And many examples were given.

However, as everyone gave their opinions of the story, it became clear this book was much loved, as was the main character himself. We all found parts of the story extremely moving, even confessing to weeping at times,  and each person had their own special scene or quote from the book. We also found many sections equally funny, especially the attitude of the cat (who perhaps personified his wife Sonja) Once again everyone had a favourite bit.

We discussed all the other characters in the book who came alive and played their part as the story unfolded from Rune, to Jimmy, to Anita, Parvaneh, Sonja of course, and the little girl who always drew him in colour.

The writing throughout, although in translation, was simple and memorable. We all loved the clever construction of the story as we discover Ove’s background and delve deeper into what made him the person he became. Then, as readers, the gradual realisation dawns about what the hook was for, the tire tracks on the kitchen floor, the identity of Jimmy, and poignantly why Sonja never answered him when he talked to her.

All this led into a discussion of the central theme of the book ‘What is the value of a man?’ According to Ove ‘Men are what they are because of what they do, not what they say.’ A thought-provoking statement in these times when men are perhaps feeling their inherent skills and masculinity are becoming undervalued.  These ideas were explored as much as time allowed, with obviously no conclusion.

Thanks Alan for choosing such a loved book. We thought, as it was so universally liked, there would be nothing much to say. How wrong we were.

 

 

50 June 2016

 

 

 The Miniaturistby Jessie Burton

 

Carol began by saying she chose this book without prior reading from its reputation, but really enjoyed it.

     The book begins with an illustration of the actual Petronella Oortman’s house and then plunges into events at the end of the story with a death, an observed girl, and a mysterious observer. Who are they all?

    To answer these questions the story goes back three months to the arrival of a naïve young bride, Nella, to the Amsterdam house of her rich merchant husband, Johannes Brandt.  From the start, the house gives an uneasy feeling and it hides many secrets. Perhaps to assuage his guilt at the non-consummation of his marriage, Johannes gives Nella a very expensive miniature replica of their house, and, in attempting to furnish this, Nella orders items from a miniaturist. These items are creepily realistic and each unwanted delivery presages or reflects events in the household in a disturbing way. The plot twists and turns as secrets are revealed and, sometimes, shockingly described.

    There is a strong sense of place and the atmosphere, trading practices and religion of 17th century Holland are captured in a style reminiscent of Girl with a Pearl Earring. All agreed that there were some wonderful lyrical descriptions of food, interiors, clothes, Amsterdam itself and weather especially the biting cold, There are good strong characters, especially the women, straining against their ordained place in a restricted society, much as Johannes strains against the marital role he is expected to play.

Many felt mystified by the Miniaturist herself, who was she? Kay wondered if she symbolised something rotten in the state and likened it to Dutch art of the period with its lush still life paintings always depicting something to show the transience of life. Many readers were dissatisfied in not discovering definitively how she knew so much about Nella’s life. And, like Nella herself, wondered if these figures reflect, presage or cause the happenings. Perhaps it’s the longing for a cut and dried explanation that leads to this dissatisfaction. Might we just have to accept the fantastical element in the book and something indefinable in life?

Some felt the book was too feminist and modern in its portrayal of the women, but others felt that some women, like Marin, must have chafed at the restrictions placed on them merely because they were women and strong females must have existed in all periods of history. Many felt the bond that existed between Johannes and Nella was believable and, while not that of a conventional husband and wife, was

Nevertheless, a kind of loving.

Thanks Carole for choosing, perhaps unwittingly, a controversial but unusual and gripping read.

 

51 July 2016

 

 EuphoriaBy Lily King

 

Kay said she was alerted to this book by her daughter and a review in the New York Times. Although fictional, it is based on the true interaction between three anthropologists in New Guinea in the 1930’s, the most prominent of them being Margaret Meade who wrote several eye-opening and famous books about her experiences studying the lives of ‘primitive’ tribes.

Euphoria has a complex construction, some of it a third person unflinching retrospection from an older Bankson reflecting on his heady days of collaboration with the other two protagonists, Nell Stone and her abusive husband Fen. Some of it is also Bankon’s first person feelings at the time centring on his intense despair and then interaction and love for Nell. We also get Nell’s viewpoint and thoughts from some found notes given to him after her death by one of her female lovers.

Some found the book tough going, perhaps because of this multi-stranded construction which could be confusing and off-putting.

Others loved the beauty of the language in conjuring up the heat, the insects, the tribes, their customs and jungle setting and quoted some beautiful passages about the moon and the smells of the ground once the rains came.

There was also much to think about in the book. The ethics and even the feasibility of studying these native tribes was much discussed and the differing approaches of the three characters, Nell intuitive and imaginatively emotional. Fen through living experiences and Bankson trying to look at it scientifically where possible. There were fascinating discussions about Fen’s character and motivation, the patriarchal and matriarchal tribes, the symbolism of dead babies, the irony of thinking western culture was superior to other cultures and the misguided belief you could study without interfering.

 But most felt the excitement, the ‘euphoria’ of these pioneers into anthropology was intensely conveyed by the author.

Thanks Kay for choosing a different and thought-provoking book that kept us talking well after 12.00. Once again these individual choices are proving to be an excellent way of pushing our reading boundaries.   

 

 

 

 

Book Reading 2 Summary of Reviews July 2014 to May 2015

Summary of Reviews from July 2014 to May 2015

 

July 2014 The Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling

At the outset, everyone agreed that they were a little daunted by the rapid introduction of such a large cast of characters, and most had made a list, or even in one case, a mind map of all the inhabitants of Pagford and the Fields .Some felt it was a bit of a slog at first but everyone eventually got drawn into the multi-faceted story and became very involved in several of the characters. One member thought the people in the book fell into two categories, much as in real life, the ‘doers’ and the ‘sit-backers.’ Several felt that some characters were perhaps larger than life, almost cartoonish. It was suggested that there was a Dickensian aspect to the book, in the richly drawn cast of characters with many interlocking stories and a strong social theme satirising smugness and hypocrisy whilst highlighting the plight of the have-nots in society.

One member with experience of parish councils could well believe the machinations and pettiness at the heart of the story.

 We all felt that the author wore her heart on her sleeve and was trying to deliver a message about the importance of life-chances on subsequent hopes and dreams. With excellent writing some painful scenes were very strongly evoked e.g. Sukhvinder’s bullying and self-harming, the terrified atmosphere in the Price household, the story of why Terri turned into the ineffectual drug-addicted mother she was, the total desperation of Krystal’s life and the final moving scenes at her funeral. The author is very good at portraying the angst of youth but also the adults provoked strong reactions in us, from the disgust at Howard Mollinson’s reeking, mouldering obesity, to the spontaneous collective groan at the mention of Gavin’s name.

The only caveats we had were whether someone as flawed as Cubby Walls could have really been a deputy head (some felt unfortunately it was very likely) and whether a rowing eight could really have practised on a canal.

But overall a very engrossing book and well worth the initial effort. 

 

August 2014 The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Everyone enjoyed this and we tried to work out why it was so funny. Was it the mismatch between Don’s first person observations and perception of the world, and the reader’s awareness of the conventions of the real world? There was a long discussion on whether someone with Asperger’s could eventually become ‘more normal’ and fit in, and how much of the real person is displayed by their behaviour. Ann pointed out how appropriate it was that Gene was called ‘gene’ as it was his slapdash approach to the genetics of eye colour that caused all the confusion in the first place. Fun moments from the book were recalled and semi-seriously analysed but in the end the book was enjoyed as an unusual and light hearted but perceptive read.

Sept 2014 Stoner by John Williams

This book was deeply loved by all who had read it, so much of the discussion centred round why it had struck such a deep chord with everyone. Janet thought it was because it spoke to our generation and the sadness lurking at the edges of his life was profoundly moving, as was his endurance of this sadness and his refusal to ever actually despair. Many felt that this seemingly simple story of a life was like the story of everyman and the author’s objective style helped give it universality. All agreed that it was beautifully written and everyone could pick out profound passages of extreme simplicity of language which were yet deeply moving to them. It was pointed out ‘No word was wasted’. The description of his death was outstandingly difficult to read through the tears.

Why did we care so much about Stoner? The author tells us at the beginning of the book that Stoner’s life was very ordinary and few who knew him would remember him for long after his death. We discussed that perhaps it was because, like many of us, his education had lifted him out of his class and changed his destiny. Others loved him for his stoicism, his integrity, his modesty, his unworldliness and the driving force of his love of literature which illuminated his life. When it was suggested that he was a failed father, a failed husband, a failed son and a failed teacher, everyone leapt to his defence.

So it proved very difficult to identify precisely why this book captured our emotions so much, but it just did. The only mystery was why it wasn’t more widely known.

 

October 2014 And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

There were mixed opinions on this book. Some felt that the interweaving of many different stories all linked to the initial brutal act of the separation of a brother and sister in Afghanistan, was a slightly cumbersome read. Each section was told in a different narrative form and went into great detail about a specific person related, sometimes distantly, to this central theme. It was thought at times there was a danger of losing the plot.  However all agreed these individuals from many different parts of the world were fascinating and well-rounded characters. But it was an ambitious structure and the reader had to work hard at the beginning of each new chapter in order to get involved with each new person. Some characters were more successfully delineated than others. 

Other members  loved this multifaceted approach and felt it showed that ‘no-one was unimportant‘ and, as in life, everyone you meet has a story, a background and  worthwhile experiences of life.

There was much discussion about the central themes of the novel.  It seemed to be about the many different types of love, sibling rivalry and love, father / daughter, mothers and adopted daughters, homosexual and caring loves, protective loves in spite of / because of disability and the initial heart-rending, sacrificial, selfless love that cuts off a finger to save the hand. Through all these stories we got a multi-dimensional picture of over 50 years of Afghanistan lives, conflicts and culture.

On the whole everyone felt it was an interesting book, although people who had read his previous books The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns thought it was the weakest of the three.

 Nov 2014  Dominion by C J Sansom

Whatever anyone’s doubts about some aspects of the central story, everyone agreed they were hooked on this carefully researched version of 1950’s England under Nazi rule. The inclusion of real names from the period, Richard Dimbleby, Bob Danvers Walker etc.  and such real events as the famous smogs of the time, made it especially interesting to our generation; as did the references to the class attitudes of the time and the details of the drabness of everyday life. Some members were also intrigued by the references to a supposedly fictitious mental asylum, which locals tried to pinpoint to one of the real ones in the area. This gave rise to an examination of the different treatments of mental illness then and now

The ‘what if’ aspect of the book also provoked much discussion, including the far-from-flattering depiction of how well known people and politicians might have acted in the circumstances.  As did the sobering issue of what might we individually have done about the deportation of the Jews?

The different ways group members approached the central story also proved to be a fascinating topic of debate. These seemed to split down gender lines and stimulated a lively exploration about whether men were more analytical/critical in their reading than women, who seemed more likely to accept poetic licences in a plot.

The issue of Scottish Nationalism could not be avoided given the book’s (and Sansom’s) exploration of the dangers and evils of politics based on nationalism and race. So the afterword section of the book, written before the outcome of the Scottish referendum, was most interesting.

Many of us were extremely sceptical about the plausibility of the Frank Muncaster plot device, (Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘McGuffin’, i.e. the hook on which the whole fictitious edifice hangs). So perhaps, in conclusion, this is a flawed book in that aspect, but it was certainly thought-provoking about the effects of chance on historical outcomes for everyone. Profundities were uttered, were they not?

December  2014 Alys Always by Harriet Lane

A good book to discuss as we were all divided about the degree of cunning the first person narrator, Frances, displayed. Some felt she was basically a nice person who just took advantage of the opportunities offered to better herself. Others felt she was extremely manipulative and devious. In between opinions were that she was mainly an opportunist making the most of her situation and ensuring she did no actual harm along the way, and in fact placating and soothing situations, much as Alys herself might have done. We discussed her motivation to gain the envied lifestyle, and indeed husband, of the deceased Alys. Perhaps her cold social climbing mother may have influenced her.

Certainly the author has a keen eye for capturing the subtle differences in class and contemporary social mores. As does her creation, Frances Thorpe. We all noticed her acute detached observations of her environment and people and the gradual build-up of unease as we tried to work out what she was scheming about. The unsettling atmosphere was well depicted by the author, as was the clever use of the present tense to involve the reader in the events as they unfolded. It was noted there were no chapters so you were almost compelled to read on.

Many disliked the cover and also the description of ‘psychological thriller’ and felt this was very misleading. Quite a few were disappointed by the absence of a big twist at the end and felt the book just fizzled out. However some found the simple almost idyllic scene at the end with the implication that Frances was pregnant, much more chilling. And one person thought this was leading to a really good, if disturbing sequel revealing exactly what happens to the baby and to the whole family.

So the motives and character of the enigmatic protagonist proved to be a rich source of debate and analysis. A compelling read whether you liked her or not.

 

January 2015 .The Light Between Oceans by M. L Steadman

This was universally liked, even loved, by all members, even one who had initial misgivings was eventually won over. Some found it incredibly moving, in tears at the end, and one of the passages about forgiveness was read out as profoundly wise, especially from a first time writer. All were caught up in the central struggles between right and wrong, love and duty and the pressure put upon a marriage by extreme events and isolation. Many identified with Isabel’s suffering and her desire for motherhood and felt they, too, would have acted as she did in taking in the baby as her own.  Tom’s dilemma was equally heart-rending, especially as he clearly adored Lucy but his innate sense of morality forced him in the end to do the right thing ,in spite of the terrible consequences and the seemingly irreparable damage to his marriage.

 It was noted that everyone in the book was very human, slightly flawed but trying to do the best they could. Lucy’s grandfather was especially endearing in his attempts to entice her out of her bewildered grief, and even suggesting the compromise name Lucy Grace.

There was a very well-evoked sense of place and we could all picture the small isolated town on the edge of the continent and the even more isolated lighthouse island hanging like a button off the edge. (And yes, the overuse of similes was a little annoying)

Lighthouse fans loved the descriptions of its working and mechanisms and noted that the lenses were made by the local Oldbury firm of Chance.

Symbolism fans noted the use of the lighthouse as a metaphor for the moral light shining between the two turbulent oceans of love and duty, perhaps epitomised in the tall steadfast figure of Tom.

All were caught up with the strong suspense of not knowing whether Isabel would forgive Tom or not and all loved the final redemptive ending.

 

Feb 2015 The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I’m a little daunted in trying to summarise all the various opinions about this book, much as some of you were by the sheer length of the book and the amount of dense detail it contains on so many subjects. Quite a few had felt the pressure to finish it before the Book Club deadline of 10.00 (Alan finishing it at 9.30 that morning …is that the closet to the wire yet?), and wondered if this had influenced a little impatience with certain perhaps overlong passages, for example the drug taking scenes in Las Vegas. The drug taking in fact split opinion. It turned some away from the book completely, but many readers were really involved with the character of Theo and worried about this addiction and felt tense until he escaped back to Hobie’s in New York and sad at his continuing dependence.

 

Everyone agreed that the authors’ depiction of place (e.g. New York, Las Vegas, Amsterdam, Hobie’s workshop etc.) was superb as was all the antique furniture details, the appreciation of paintings etc.  Kay brought a beautiful, actual size reprint of the painting of the goldfinch which illuminated our understanding of Theo’s ‘addiction’ to the painting, and she wondered if he was as chained to this painting by the association with his mother, as the goldfinch was chained to the perch by the artist.

Wenda, who hadn’t read it, wondered from the discussion if the women liked it more than the men. Most of the women did love it especially certain scenes, such as the initial explosion which grabbed you into the book at the beginning and didn’t let you go. The final chapter tried to make sense of it all and indeed life itself.

Most thought that although it required a certain mental effort to read it, the book deserved it. We didn’t really explore the characters in detail, such as Boris and I felt that it was such a rich multi-layered tour de force of a book that our discussion (perhaps because of time constraints) only touched the surface.

  (There was really fascinating side discussion that I wished we’d had more time to explore, about how people read, in small bite-sized chunks or big blocks of time, in bed or on the loo!. Would love to go back to discuss it one day)

 

March 2015 We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

 

With plenty of time for discussion this book was explored from many angles and in great depth by us all.

Janet began by saying that, just as the English are obsessed by class, so the Americans are forever analysing families. And what a family to analyse. Although she found the book fascinating, she was also vaguely repulsed by it. This unease was echoed by some others who found they were disturbed by it and couldn’t warm to Rosemary, or indeed any of the characters in one case. Many though really enjoyed the book and found it thought –provoking and gripping.

 

Most readers had been unaware of the twist on page 73 and, having discovered it, several went back to re-read the first few chapters, or the whole book, in the light of this knowledge. (NB I’m being very careful not to ‘spoil’ the twist in case Wenda hasn’t read it and wants to.) Some felt the writing leading up to this was very clever, others felt slightly manipulated. But once the identity of the sister was revealed, the book really grabbed everyone.

We were all  were horrified that this sort of thing ever happened so there was much discussion as to how far children’s rights had progressed since our childhood, as well as those of animals. The motivations of Rosemary’s parents were analysed and to what extent they were misled, uncaring or arrogant in their psychological experimentations. (Some had low opinions of psychologists anyway which this book reinforced.)

Rosemary certainly had an ‘extraordinary life’ as her mother wanted, but was it happy?  She seems to grow up examining other people, and herself, as subjects in the experiment of life and always feels ‘other’ or  part of the ‘ uncanny valley’ tribe.

Although the structure wasn’t easy in parts, this was necessary so that our view of Fern was as the author wanted it to be.  

And it broadened our minds about animal rights and experimentation and we had to contemplate the dilemmas involved in trying to achieve cures for humans at the possible expense of animals

But whatever our feelings about the central plot of the book, we all agreed it was written in an intriguing and witty style and the author had the power to make us feel angry, sad, bewildered and a whole range of emotions. And it provoked us to think afresh about the human condition. So a good choice then.

 

April 2015 Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard

Rosemary recommended this to us and, on re-reading it, she found it just as absorbing but confessed it was more brutal than she remembered.

For most of us this was an eye-opener into an unknown aspect of our colonial history in Shanghai and unfamiliar area of WW11.  Although it was a fictionalised account, Ballard had actually been incarcerated in Lunghua camp as a young boy so much of the book was based on real experience. And many were shocked at the depiction of the brutal treatment of the Chinese by the Japanese, and, to a lesser extent by the uncaring and snobbish British.

Some members had been reluctant to read yet another tale of horror from this theatre of war but were drawn in by the style of the book. Others found it compulsive but disliked the disjointed and episodic nature of the account especially at the end, where it’s not clear at what points Jim is hallucinating through lack of food and water and so his, and our, grasp on reality is very tenuous.

The characters in the book, e g the unscrupulous Basie, the caring and careworn Dr Ransome are well drawn, as is the hyperactive, self-absorbed and complex character of Jim himself. To what extent is he knowing, or naïve? How much have all the deaths and horrors he has seen both before the war and then during it, desensitised him? He recounts scenes of the utmost brutality in a detailed yet curiously uninvolved way. And many in the book find it difficult to come to terms with his obvious fascination with ‘the empire of the sun’ and its pilots.

The geography and poor maps provided in the front, bothered some readers who couldn’t make sense of the discrepancies in the times /distances of journeys undertaken by road or foot. And some prefer their history to be told in a more factual way, disliking this mixture of truth and fiction.   

In fact the interviews at the back of the book giving the real background to Ballard’s war are, in some ways, as fascinating and revealing as the book itself.

So although this was at times an infuriating book, it was also gripping, informative, and compelling.

May 2015 To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee

Everyone had heard of this book. Many people had read it before, and even more had seen Gregory Peck’s Oscar winning performance of Atticus in the 1962 film. So this book came trailing clouds of glory. .

So perhaps, knowing its fame, raised expectations too high for this seemingly simple tale of a boy and girl growing up in small town Alabama in the 1930’s. Thus several members who had never read it before, were a bit disappointed by it. Some thought the tale dragged a bit before the trial scene. Others felt that Scout was too articulate for her age, although it was written retrospectively by an older Scout looking back over the events of those few childhood years.

But many, even those who had read it before, were gripped and entranced by the characters and the depiction of life in this ‘tired old town’

There was some discussion of the perhaps racist language of the book, which was after all a product of its time. Although written in the 1960’s, the events took place much earlier when the unequal treatment of blacks was a fact of life, as shown by the outcome of the trial.

The various characters were examined especially the strong female roles of Calpurnia, Miss Maudie etc., the school children, each reflecting the expected familial  trait  known to all the inhabitants of the town. We discussed whether Atticus was too good to be true, the Ewell’s, especially Mayella and the reasons behind Boo Radley’s incarceration for all those years.

Fans of the book also loved the humour, especially the ‘ham’ scene. And in the end it was agreed that everyone was glad they had read it, for the first time or the umpteenth.  

Book Reading 2 Programme - 2014

Remains of the Day by Kazuo  Ishiguro

Mixed opinions on this book. One person said when he read it the first time he thought it was the best book he had ever read, but this time it really irritated him and he could barely finish it. This lead tangentially into a discussion of the subject of re-reading and whether it’s the reader that has changed or the climate in which we read. Some who had read authors like Dickens happily when younger, now found them difficult/old fashioned /unengaging.
The main focus under consideration with this book was the style in which it was written to reflect the character of Stevens, the overly formal, slightly pompous, unemotional Butler. His main pre-occupation, indeed occupation, was the attaining and retention of dignity in the face of anything life had to throw at him, such as the death of his father, the anti-Semitism of his employer, the belittling interrogation by Lord Darlington’s friends and the suppression of all feelings for the housekeeper, Miss Kenton.
The book evoked much contemplation of the class system in England and the ongoing fascination with the servant /master relationship as still explored in Downton Abbey for example. Some wondered if the sort of servitude as portrayed in this book was akin to slavery as you were subject to whims and vagaries of your master and were totally reliant on them for your livelihood.
We all marvelled at Ishiguro’s amazing evocation of the attitudes and times of a bygone era, especially as he didn’t come to this country till he was five years old. Perhaps his objective eye found it easier to capture the language and mores of another culture. 
Many were moved by the regret and sense of a wasted life at the end of the book. Some felt the whole repression of his instincts throughout his life was really poignant and all the way through the book we were willing him to lower his defences and let his obviously deep emotions surface.
Some members observed that their perception of the book was heavily influenced by the film which was also true of the next book we discussed briefly;-

Never Let Me Go.

This deeply chilling book is also told through one pair of eyes in the meticulously adopted style of the young protagonist Kathy B. Once again readers were deeply moved by the book and admired Ishiguro’s chameleon-like ability to take on the persona of someone so different from himself.
Although totally different from each other, both books share the idea of someone retrospectively trying to make sense of their lives, both main characters repress their true feelings throughout, both seem to be learning how to fit in and watch others for clues on how to live, and in both books there is a pervading sense of loss, regret and the waste of a life. Both books also build up to a powerful wither –wringing ending.

Both evoked fascinating and wide-ranging discussions.

 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon.

Before we started discussing Curious several people pointed out that the National Theatre’s acclaimed stage version of this was being broadcast live at cinemas in May (?) and by going on the NT website you could see where and when it was being transmitted locally.
Once again the general consensus about Curious Incident was that this was a very different book and everyone felt it offered an amazing insight, not only into a troubled and unique personality, but also the general condition of autism itself. Most members said they learnt a lot from this book and felt it should be compulsory reading for teachers …and in fact, everybody.
Being told from Christopher’s point of view meant you could enter his mind and feel the same tensions as he does when he steps out of his strictly controlled comfort zone. His overwhelming anxiety during his visit to London, and especially his tube experiences, were keenly felt.  It was noted that his response to uncertainty and stress was to escape in his head to numbers and logical puzzles. These chapters irritated some and they confessed to skipping them completely. Most of us were unfamiliar with the prime numbering chapter sequences but accepted it as an essential part of Christopher’s life and coping mechanisms.
As the story reflects Christopher’s pre-occupations, it means many of the big human events are hardly touched on so the reader has to work out the underlying meaning themselves, and something seemingly trivial, such as the number of red cars, looms large in his life. A member who had worked with people on the autistic spectrum felt this was a very true reflection of the condition. Indeed many of Christopher’s actions, and reactions, rang true to them. Some who had worked with the condition during their professional lives, wished this book had been available then for them to read as it would have offered an invaluable insight and given them much needed knowledge and assistance.
Some members noted that raising children could be a stressful experience at the best of times but as the book progressed they could really empathise with his parents who had to deal with this condition every single day and all normal activities like shopping trips became not only fraught but virtually impossible.
There was much discussion generally about the ramifications of autism and a much increased awareness of its prevalence in the community at each ends of the spectrum which evoked many personal experiences.
So in summary there seemed to be a slight split between the majority who really engaged with the book, its characters and its subject matter, and a minority, who while appreciating the informative aspects, didn’t really enjoy it.  

Perhaps in the end Christopher was just trying to understand life and create order out of chaos. Aren’t we all?

But as always much food for thought and a fascinating discussion.

 

Solar by Ian MC Ewan 

As this book had been recommended by Jan, she led the discussion with an in- depth and perspicacious review of its fascinations. She loved the dark humour of the book centring round the dissolute activities of Michael Beard and she relished his many amoral exploits in furthering himself with the ladies and promoting his languishing career. Jan saw him as a tragic hero with all too many fatal flaws. Her discerning examination of all the main themes of the book, to her great embarrassment, was met with appreciative applause.

Everyone was very impressed by the author’s grasp of Physics and his ability to make it interesting, if not always understandable, to the layman. Were his theories to save the planet feasible? No-one knew.

 This led to a discussion about the art / science divide, prompted by Beard’s disparagement of art students and his ease in mugging up on Milton sufficient to impress his English student wife-to-be. The debate got some what heated as the scientists in the room defended the difficulty of their subjects and course of study compared with the ‘softer ‘humanity studies. All good debating fodder.

One member confessed that as a life-long people- pleaser she found Beard’s total disregard of other people delightfully refreshing and totally engaging. Others wondered if he was a sociopath. And indeed many found Beard to be totally reprehensible so we discussed at length whether it was possible to like a book with an unlikeable hero.  

And yet this squalid man was ostensibly trying to save the planet by harnessing solar power. Some felt the book’s message was too obvious and the irony too unsubtle.

But there were many arresting descriptions, images and individual lines which caught members’ attention .And many of us confessed we had to look up some of his more abstruse vocabulary.

 It was also pointed out the author was very good at writing vignette scenes, like the hilarious visit to the Arctic where he thought a vital part of his anatomy had frozen off, the crisp scene on the train, the sly humour of his wife’s retaliation for his affairs and all cumulating with the final, almost farcical, gathering together of all his misdemeanours in the Mexican desert showdown. And where perhaps at last …and too late, he feels the first pangs of love.

In the end all his schemes for supposedly saving the planet were undermined by his gross appetites and selfish personal habits, clearly symbolic of the way mankind is also dealing with the situation.

All in all, a contentious book but mainly enjoyed and giving much food for debate 

 

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett 

Most members had really enjoyed this book and become sucked in slowly to this tale of the interaction between hostages and captors. The book was inspired by a real life situation in Peru where hundreds of diplomats were seized in the Japanese embassy in Lima. 

However Bel Canto has its own world, a vague impressionistic location, which becomes its own microcosm of many different cultures. Although we are told at the beginning that none of the captors survive, such is the mesmeric quality of the writing and the slow emergence of the captors as likeable individuals, that we forget this and gradually learn to care about them all. 

We all enjoyed seeing the emergence of talents and potential from the young poverty stricken guerrillas as they see their first working television, get hooked on soap operas, have regular meals, see bathrooms, pianos and hear opera for the first time. And the high-powered captives have time on their hands for the first time and gradually get in touch with their inner selves away from their onerous duties. It is ironic that they are all liberated by their captivity.

We discussed in depth the dream-like aspect of this hostage time, enveloped in an all-encompassing fog, and the major theme of communications between the various nationalities as the hardworking Gen has to translate for everyone. 

And it was noted that everyone was in thrall, and thus a hostage, to the voice of Roxane, the opera singer. At times the descriptions of her singing had a similar effect on the reader as on the characters in the book.  

We all had our favourites in the characters and it was noted that they all changed in the strange close-knit little community that emerges and like the garden that surrounds them, they all go back to their own nature and blossom. 

Which is why the siege ending, though inevitable and forewarned, was such a shock to everyone.

Apart from one member of the group, who thought the book was implausible and boring , most people were unanimous in their enjoyment of the atmosphere, the characters, the unusual lyrical quality of the writing and the major themes of music and communications. However the marriage at the end was not liked by many. It felt wrong to most, although some could see why these two people would cleave to each other, and the memories of love they embodied.   

Perhaps because this was mainly liked, there was less to discuss in this book, but more to appreciate. 

 

All Quiet On the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Without exception everyone had been moved, enraged and thought-provoked by this intense account of daily life, and daily death, in the trenches in W W 1. One member knew of its reputation and had expected a weighty tome and was amazed at how much profundity could be encompassed in such a slim volume. 

There were so many striking images and quotable passages, each of us had highlighted many extracts and had memorable sections of the book that would remain with us. The fact that the main characters were German soldiers, as opposed to British ones, was irrelevant. We all felt the suffering, the noise of bombardment, the hunger, the fear, the rats and the ‘family’ camaraderie was common to both entrenched armies.  And above all the book makes clear the utter futility of the huge carnage of young lives as one by one they succumb to death by shells, gassing, hospital infections, and homesickness, which was common to both front lines. Everyone knew of the impact of this war on all the nations involved and we all had difficulty comprehending the sheer numbers of the deaths involved in each battle,  and the overall totals for the whole war. Utterly unbelievable.

 All the boys who enlisted from school felt they were, and would be, the lost generation, betrayed by their teachers, the high command and all their so-called elders and betters. They all developed a carapace of insensitivity as a means of survival and it was only when they admitted some element of the outside world, some cherry blossom, for instance, or a home visit, that the protective shell began to crumble .It is striking that the descriptions of the deaths of Paul’s comrades become less descriptive, less detailed and seemingly more off-hand as the war progresses till the last straw of the final death which is summed up in in three words ‘Kat is dead.’ and is all the more moving for this simplicity and finality. 

The beauty of the writing, and the wonderful descriptions of nature were made even more striking when they contrasted with the barbaric conditions in the trenches where men were reduced to animals clawing into the earth trying to survive. And you know that this has been written by a man who actually saw all this, was actually there, a living witness to these terrible times. 

In between the fighting all the men ponder on the reasons for war and the meaning of it all and it is these musing that give the book its universality to all wars.

Everyone agreed the ironically, but poetically, titled All Quiet on the Western Front, well deserves its reputation as the definitive war book. So universal were the thoughts expressed in it that it led to a wide- ranging discussion of many other conflicts both past and present e.g. World War 11, Vietnam, Afghanistan, India . Paul’s description of his fellow soldiers as the ‘lost generation’ struck a chord and members told accounts of the poor treatment of survivors of conflict such as Australian fighters after Vietnam or Irish solders vilified for their part in fighting for the English.

 As WW1 was supposedly the war to end all wars, we discussed was there such a thing as a’ just’ war which led inevitably into W W 2 and other more modern dilemmas.

Once again as this book was universally admired, it provoked a very thoughtful response, restrained emotion and much deep reflection. 

 

Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Several member remembered collecting for missionaries in their youth so this book was a real eye-opener about a supposed missionary in the Congo. Everyone was fascinated and appalled by the character of Nathan price whose bigotry and selfish messianic zeal was the cause of all the woe and adventures that happen to his family, transported totally unprepared into the middle of the jungle in 1959 Congo.  We all found the four girls cleverly differentiated and loved Rachel’s malapropisms, sometimes a welcome gleam of amusement in an otherwise dark book. 

We all admitted how little we knew about the Congo in that period, or even Africa as a whole, and realised we too had been brain washed by American/ European  propaganda about the dark content. Several members lived in parts of Africa for a while and told us of the privations, shortages and all –pervading patronisation of the local people which was considered normal at the time. And they also felt they had a greater insight into the language and tribal ideas as a result of this book.

Most of us were especially gripped as the pace hotted up after the horrifying ant invasion. We grew to appreciate the tolerance and unassuming helpfulness of the villagers in spite of Nathan’s arrogance and pride. 

There was a wide ranging discussion of Africa generally and the difference in attitudes between then and now. Some enjoyed the end chapters which updated the history of the Congo till the 1960’s, others felt the writer became too polemical and lost some her narrative drive in her eagerness to discuss the perfidy of the west’s involvement in African affairs. Similarly some found the final summarising chapter very moving and philosophical, others did not.

All agreed that this was a powerful thought-provoking, unusual book and 

Barbara Kingsolver’s other books, especially Lacuna, were also recommended 

Book Reading 2 Programme - 2013

January 2013

 "The Rotters Club" by Jonathan Coe,

A small but select group of six people attended the meeting on Thursday morning.  Two had been unable to read the chosen book of "The Rotters Club" by Jonathan Coe, due to lack of copies but said they felt they wanted to read it having heard our reviews and comments, so I hope you both find it worthwhile!

Of those who had read it, all enjoyed it - Janet said it was an excellent social commentary on people moving from working class to middle class life, while Paul also thought it was excellent but he wouldn't have liked the boys because they were "swots!"  Cynthia and I also enjoyed the novel but found it less convincing and somewhat confusing at times, particularly with the large number of characters introduced at the beginning, the religious experience which didn't seem to go anywhere and the ends left hanging - Miriam for instance.  Most of us felt the prologue and epilogue (if that isn't too grand a word for them!) were unnecessary and didn't add anything to the the story, except as an introductiont to the sequel - possibly.

We discussed the various themes used in the story and came up with social mobility, growing up - love, the power of the trades unions, racism, police brutality and industrial relations and quoted reviews saying it demonstrated a microcosm of society in setting, location and time.  Jonathan Coe himself says it was not particularly autobiographical but that he was a pupil at King Edward's School in Birmingham, which correlates with King William's, so all the background detail and settings are taken from his own life, but that everyting else is fictitious.  Having thought we wouldn't have a lot to say about this novel we spent a lively 75 minutes discussing it. 

February

Oranges are not the only fruit by Jeanette Winterson

This provoked much discussion. Everyone found her style and arresting use of language very compelling. We were all fascinated (horrified?)  by the larger-than-life figure of Mrs Winterson (what an apt name) who dominates the book, much as she dominated the lives of all that knew her, to the clear detriment of her adopted daughter Jeanette.

 Our discussions explored the many extraordinary aspects of the book, the precepts of the stern old testament religion, the uncaring attitude to child rearing, the cipher of the husband, the bleak northerness of the upbringing, the lack of outside awareness of what was going on even in the 1970’s, Jeannette’s curiosity about sexuality and how her adopted mother had blighted Jeanette’s life. But everyone kept coming back to the fact that all this bizarreness was leavened by humour and Jeanette’s’ memorable phrasing and juxtaposition of words. Everyone had examples of arresting phrases that they loved.

One aspect of the book  that perplexed, irritated, bored or annoyed some people was the frequent ‘flights of fantasy’, the ‘fairy stories’, the allegorical passages  where Jeanette seeks to explore or  illustrate some of her hopes and longings through her imagination. Perhaps these can be explained by her long and frequent incarcerations in the coal shed as a child where she had to rely on her own inner world to escape the awfulness of her actual existence. Being brought up on Biblical parables and the legends of King Arthur, she seems to think in dreams and symbols. Nevertheless these passages were not liked by most of the group.

We all tried to imagine what it must have been like for the young Jeanette at school, so odd yet trying desperately to fit in, yet coming from her home background having no idea how to do this.  So there was an underlying poignancy and sadness in the book which many found heart wrenching.

We also discussed how much of it was true or was it infused with poetic licence?

This question could be partly answered by reading her other biographical book. It’s very title Why be happy when you could be normal (another of Mrs Winterson’s searing comments ) indicates her continuing search for normality as a result of her singular childhood. It charts her longing for love, for acceptance, for all the things denied her by Mrs. Winterson as a child. This book also fills in many of the gaps in the more elliptical  ‘Oranges ‘ and reveals that the true story of her youth was far more terrible than she revealed in the earlier book. Those that had read it recommended it for further reading.

Other Jeanette Winterson’s books were discussed but most found them to be mystifyingly unreadable.  

And many had seen TV programmes about her and her life and she seemed to be a fierce, articulate, compelling little figure. Much like her book.

 

March

Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese

Perhaps this is a bit of a ‘marmite’ book, depending how keen you were on medical procedures. One member gave up early on for this reason and also because of the slightly ornate ‘Indian’ style of writing. Others loved it for these very qualities.

The story begins in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in the 1950’s when twin boys, Shiva and Marion, are born to a nun (who dies) and a surgeon, Thomas Stone, (who runs away). The birth scene is graphically described and the babies, conjoined at the head, are eventually successfully separated immediately after birth. They are lovingly raised by Hema and Ghosh, two Indian doctors, and have a relatively peaceful childhood within the environment of a mission hospital, nicknamed Missing. Among a host of memorable characters are Matron (head of the hospital), Almaz and Rosina (two servants), Rosina's daughter, Genet (born shortly after the boys) and destined to drive the twins apart. This original conjoinment and separation of the boys becomes one of major themes of the novel and we are given situation after situation in which to consider the concepts of fusion and partition.

All of us felt we learnt a lot about the history and culture of Ethiopia, a country and region we knew nothing about previously. The story was a fascinating one, with unexpected twists and turns as you became more involved with the central characters, all of whom were richly drawn and gave rise to much discussion. The work of a mission hospital in Africa had been seen first hand by some members and this was felt to be a fair depiction of their work.

Some thought the plot’s intricacies were a touch improbable but perhaps necessary to move the central character of Marian to New York so he (and we) could experience the poorer side of American medicine, and of course so Marion could at last meet his surgeon father.

The title Cutting for Stone was based on this phrase in the Hippocratic Oath and was obviously multilayered in meaning, but some of us were not sure of what it actually meant in the oath itself.

As the book features doctors and surgeons, and indeed was written by a surgeon, it is full of very detailed (and presumably accurate) operations. Indeed one member felt she herself could probably perform a liver transplant after reading it. Some loved this, but the rather more squeamish amongst us were not so keen.

So as I say a ‘marmite’ book, but those that loved it, really loved it and  reckoned it to be one of the best they had ever read. A compelling endorsement.

April

Margaret Drabble

As everyone had read different books it was decided to approach the reviews chronologically  according to the publishing date of her novels and see if any general themes emerged, which they did.

Jerusalem the Golden reviewed by Wenda.

Wenda was particularly interested in the book’s theme of how much we are influenced genetically and emotionally by our parents. The story concerns the attempts of the main character to escape from her background and have a separate existence based on who she really is. She does eventually find herself and become more than the sum of her parts.

This theme of the (adverse) influences of parents had a lot of resonances for many of the group. And there was a deep discussion of how parents of a certain generation seemed to be totally unaware of the needs and emotional development of their children and how long-lasting the affects of this could be. Certainly parenting seems to have become much more child centred since then.

Wenda felt the book was very insightful, if a little dated in its pre-occupations, and found it absorbing and thought provoking.

A Natural Curiosity reviewed by Paul

Paul was little mystified by all the characters in this book especially as many of them seemed to have little relevance to the plot. Although he enjoyed many of the smaller stories in the book, he felt he hadn’t really got to grips with it as he had only been able to read it in small snatches. He also hadn’t been able to find time to finish it. He was enlightened to discover that this book was the middle one of a trilogy and followed on from The Radiant Way which accounted for some of the non-sequitors in the characters. It leads into the third book of the trilogy which was ……  

Gates of Ivory reviewed by Alan

This continues the stories of the three main characters of the trilogy but, in what seems a radical departure from M D’s usual examinations of the inner lives of women, the opening of this book centres on a parcel from Cambodia containing two severed fingers. The book contrasts the trio’s rather middle class preoccupations in London with that experienced by their well- known author friend, Stephen Cox, in his adventures in Cambodia. This is the era of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields and Stephen gets caught up in all this. He then seems to disappear. Liz, one of the main characters of the trilogy, mounts an operation to try and discover what has happened to him. For Alan there could have been more about these adventures and we don’t really discover whether they result in the death of Stephen or not, although the suspicion is that he has in fact died.  But it ends with his ‘funeral’ in London and Alan thought it just sort of fizzled out.

There was a general discussion about whether M D appeals more to female readers than male, and it was felt that she did.

Sea Lady reviewed by Janet and Ann

Janet confessed to being a big fan of M D and she has seen her talk and was impressed by how down to earth she was. Also having read most of her books over the years, Janet felt they mirrored her concerns at each stage of her life and captured the zeitgeist of the moment.

And thus it is with this book that centres on the stories of three childhood friends who meet up again in their 60’s when they are about to receive honorary degrees . Janet and Ann exchanged queries about the relationships of some of the characters, but felt the book had great characterisations, perceptive insights and was overall very absorbing. Ann quoted some passages she found particularly well phrased. Janet was slightly disappointed in the book, perhaps expecting more wisdom in it than she found. But both enjoyed it and found its views very interesting.

Seven Sisters reviewed by Cynthia and Lynn

The most recent of her novels, this too reflects on the process of coming to terms, or not, with the ageing process. Part one is initially recounted in diary form by Candida, the lonely, bitter divorced wife of a successful middle-class headmaster who has moved on to a younger wife. Both reviewers felt Candida was a bit passive in the beginning and it was difficult to relate to a woman who has no interest in her own daughters and seemed estranged from all her family. At first it was difficult to warm to her, but as her new circle of friends grows, so does the interest. And in Part Two the eventual journey in the steps of Aeneas undertaken by six mismatched people, joined by their very different guide to make the seven sisters of the title, was engaging. It was especially good in the depiction of the fluid nature of alliances and friendships. The novel then flips to a very different Part Three, about which we daren’t divulge too much for fear of giving the plot away to those members who wanted to read it for themselves.

In conclusion we pulled together several recurring themes. Each of M D’s books seems to mirror the zeitgeist of its period, especially in exploring the inner thoughts and feelings of women. Incidentally many of her characters seem to be prison visitors (is she in real life?)  Her style throughout all the books is highly, and unashamedly, academic, with, at times abstruse vocabulary and untranslated foreign passages, e.g. she assumes knowledge of Virgil’s Aeneid in Seven Sisters. However her characters spring to life on the page and many commented that they felt they ‘knew ‘the people. Other strengths are the many moments of great insight and perception in her awareness of people’s motivation and interactions.

So in spite of fears that she might be too dated and her concerns too ‘female’, everyone, to some degree, was glad to have encountered her work.

And to clear up the mystery of Margaret’s marriages I have copied an entry from the ‘reliable’ source of Wikipedia …

Drabble was married to actor Clive Swiftbetween 1960 and 1975; they have three children, including the gardener and TV personality Joe Swiftand the academic Adam Swift. In 1982, she married the writer and biographer Sir Michael Holroyd; they live in London and Somerset.

 

Discussion and Talk by Tom Bryson

By a show of hands, many of us had read at least one of Tom’s three books, The Zeppelin of Kinver Edge, Too Smart to Die, and Sarcophagus ….and enjoyed them.

Tom began by examining the differences, advantages and future of e-books pointing forward to all the possibilities technology could bring to the reading experience, from hybrid techniques to possible film clip illustrations. This latter idea intrigued members, although most of us preferred to use our own imaginations when reading. There was a lively discussion about physical books versus e-books and unsurprisingly, while conceding some benefits to modern technology, most agreed that having lasted for many centuries already, the printed book would probably be around for a good while yet.

Generously then Tom gave out a booklet he has written to show the writing members of the group how easy it now is to publish your own books on the internet. He answered many questions and referred us all to this step-by-step guide to publishing and marketing.

Finally Tom gave us an insight into how he writes his books. He illustrated this by showing how the germ of an idea, such as the supposed landing of a German zeppelin on Kinver Edge in WW1, gave rise to his book. And it could be that his imaginary treatment of this event could well end up as a piece of local folk lore and his hero, Harry Foley, could become a well- known historical figure. Who knows?

Then, using a scene from his forth-coming Matt Procter book In it for the Money, Tom demonstrated all the factors he considers as he builds up a scene layer by layer. Fascinating stuff.

Throughout the meeting many of us asked about details in Tom’s books. How did he know so much about Kiev and the Ukraine? About explosives and bomb making? About police procedures etc? Tom revealed some was because of his first-hand experiences and contacts but much was from research. In fact quite few people felt Tom was too modest about his own books and they all wished we had had more time at the end to ask more about them.

This was a very different meeting but all members found the discussions stimulating and absorbing and Tom’s style (and accent) engaging.  And, at the end, it’s testament to the interest aroused by the talk that the only two copies of


The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

One member opened the proceedings by stating simply that it was the best book he had ever read; it had taught him something about humanity. It has also made him less fearful of death. This was an astonishing claim for a book but there were nods of assent all round the table at all three statements. Which proved one of the major themes of the book, the power of ‘mere’ words for good (as in Liesel) or ill (as in Hitler), to reach deep into human souls. And the words in this book were especially powerful.  Many members had stickers and notes littered throughout their copies highlighting many wonderful words and phrases which we just had to quote. In fact many of us had to stop half way through the book because there were just too many memorable moments. What caught everyone’s attention were the author’s imaginative use of colours, and his vivid visual descriptions of abstract thoughts, concepts and emotions.
There was much praise for the author’s bold structure and inventive use of the main character of Death as a narrator. Amazingly we all felt empathy /sympathy for him and his onerous task of gently lifting the souls of the dead from their earthly bodies. Often this act was done so tenderly we all felt moved to tears. Even those who declared that they never cried when reading, confessed to weeping a little.
The book tackles the deep topics of anti-Semitism, concentration camps, ‘man’s inhumanity to man’, and all the small evils and privations of Hitler’s Germany. But there is also an earthy humour in the book, especially in the exploits of the children and around the foul-mouthed Rosa Hubermann. The relationship between Hans and Rosa and their ‘family’ of Max, the hidden Jewish refugee, and Liesel, their foster ‘book- thief’ daughter, is poignant, gripping and moving. As is the growing affection between Liesel and candle-haired Rudi.
We all loved these people so, even though Death had warned us about their demise several times , we still found the ending unbearably  heart-breaking … Rudi’s unkissed death, Rosa Huberman’s wardrobe-sized mid-snore death and, oh the soft soul of silver-eyed Hans,  who like all good people sits up to meet his fate. Sob.
I admit, as did many others, to weeping when I read this….to weeping every time I have read it

A wonderful discussion of a wonderful book.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

Once again a powerful book which dealt with people’s responses to being catapulted into the extraordinary circumstances of World War Two. But the characters and style of this book are very different from those in The Book Thief. Throughout our discussion everyone was very aware of the circumstances in which Irene N actually wrote this book.
It begins with several vignettes of how people reacted to the imminent invasion of the German army onto Paris in June 1940. As Ann P wrote in her notes, ‘You could feel the panic of people having to leave their homes taking what they could.’  Irene N (I N) was not very sympathetic to many of them showing their hypocrisy, selfishness and materialism. Some members disliked the disjointed nature of this part of the book, waiting for there to be a definite link between all these disparate stories. But all agreed that this was fascinating as a first-hand account written at the time by a dispassionate observer and enjoyed the humour of the grandfather being left behind. We all noted how brilliantly the author conveyed the sights, sounds and smells of nature throughout both books, especially the chapter on the night time prowls of the cat where the beauty and peace of the night was shattered in the final sentence by the local arsenal blowing up. Anne B thought this was very symbolic (duly noted Anne!).
Many preferred the second book better and observed how the occupying German army was assimilated into village life surprisingly quickly, becoming ‘their Germans’. Once again everyone noted the amazing circumstances in which the book was written which made the author’s generally sympathetic treatment of the Germans, especially Bruno, all the more surprising. There was much discussion of the author’s clear-eyed, almost cynical, view of the classes in French society
The appendices were felt to be deeply poignant, showing all Irene Nemirovsky’s friends, publisher, and especially her similarly doomed husband, trying in vain to retrieve her from the anti-Semitic clutches of the German extermination programme.

So once again, thank you for a wide-ranging and perceptive discussion of an absorbing book, (although the goose-pimple ratio was lower than The Book Thief, which seems to be the benchmark so far) 

 

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

This was a real ‘What would you do?’ book. It was very cleverly written to give the reader all the conflicting viewpoints and thus, as someone said, ‘to understand all, is to forgive all’. Should Anna keep giving her body parts to keep her sister Kate alive? There was a very wide-ranging discussion of the both the content of the book and the way it was written.
The central issue of a sick child, and the devastating impact on the rest of the family, had many resonances for some people. As did the dilemma of to what lengths would parents go to keep their child alive
Other issues concerned the ethics of ‘designer babies’ and role of the law and courts in medical issues. There was felt to be some differences between American and English practices in places. And whether someone with epilepsy, especially someone who had just had a ‘grand mal’ episode, would be allowed to drive a car was very controversial. (Some vowed to research further and let us know)
The ending took us all by surprise, some liked it, some were very moved by it and some felt vaguely dissatisfied by it. (Apparently the film has a very different ending so perhaps someone could watch it and let us know.)
Some also felt a little uneasy at the slight ‘Americanisation’ of sentiment in the book, and the love affair between Kate and Taylor was felt by some to be unnecessary. But all liked the flashes of wit and humour which alleviated the heaviness of the subject matter and felt great empathy with most of the characters, most of the time.
One very perceptive member saw similarities between the ending of this book and the ending of Cutting for Stone which nobody else had seen, (but as she is famous for understanding the more abstruse Jeanette Winterson’s,  we weren’t too surprised by the acuity of her observation.)
Another member said it was the most thought-provoking book he had ever read, and judging from the depth of the nearly two hour discussion it provoked, I think many agreed with him.

 

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Janet opened the proceedings as she was the one who recommended this book. She had read it at least twice and found more in it each time. The ‘Fine Balance’ of the title was between hope and despair and there was a fair bit of the latter in this portrait of India during Indira Ghandi’s Emergency during the 1970’s.   Janet thought the characterisation was brilliant and although the book was bleak and dispiriting in many aspects, she felt that the acceptance of their fate by three of the main protagonists at the end was a very Indian concept.
Among other members it raised mixed feelings, and ‘feelings’ is the operative word.  Some felt the balance of hope was a good counteraction to all the despair, some felt the despair more acutely and felt that this predominated.
All agreed on the power of the writing to evoke empathy with the main characters. We cared what happened to them in all their adventures through the many and varied aspects of the poorer margins of Indian life. Mistry’s satire in places is savage, and clearly he is angered by the whole situation. Because of his skill we were all horrified by the queasy details of poverty, the worm-ridden bathrooms, the lack of sanitation, the caste system, the all-pervading corruption, the ‘professional modification’ of beggars, the rampant  injustices and the medical procedures (especially the enforced castrations). Everyone was intrigued by the larger than life secondary characters and a bit like Dickens, and the fact that they all eventually played their parts in the final dénouement. 
Many noticed some of the wonderful imagery in the book, especially the early description of the people swelling out from the sides of the train ‘like a soap bubble at its limit.’
It was an interesting book to discuss as often there is a consensus of opinion about our books, for example everyone loved The Book Thief, but here it wasn’t so clear cut. Ann Pullen in her notes enjoyed it and wanted to read more by Mistry, others probably wouldn’t.
However, we were all glad we had read it although it had made for uncomfortable reading…but we agreed it is only right to be forced out of our comfort zones. Someone remarked that we should read books like these because, although we are powerless to do anything about these situations, at least we are now  aware they exist And indeed  we all felt we had learned a lot about the Emergency period and what it actually meant on the ground for the bulk of the population. And we had had a profound insight into India and we thanked Janet for her recommending it.

PS White Tiger by Avarind Avegah is perhaps an updated insight into modern India.

 

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Steve opened the proceedings by saying it was the ‘nicest’ book he had ever read. It was easy to read, not grim like many we have read recently, yet also deeply meaningful. And also, unlike many other recent reads, he also felt he could identify with it in many ways, as could many members. The central theme of regret about past mistakes and things we wish we had done differently had resonances for all of us.
We noted the great skill in the way the author gradually revealed Harold’s past and also that of his wife Maureen. And there was also great skill in keeping us guessing about many aspects of the book till the end.
We all felt that this was a literal and metaphorical journey for Harold and along the way, a bit like Canterbury Tales, he learns the stories of many other characters most of them, like him, concealing lives of pain and regret. Most of these characters came briefly and vividly to life, although some thought the ‘joiners’ were less well realised.
It was pointed out that Harold was not only walking towards Queenie but also away from his bitter recriminatory marriage. And the central theme of the effects of a disturbed child, or indeed any tragedy, on a marriage was discussed.
Some disliked the interruption of commercialism into his journey when other characters join him and divert him from his purpose. Others felt this was a good contrast to Harold’s simple unworldly ways. And everyone felt the tension when he lost his way at the end and even didn’t ring the doorbell. Would Queenie still be alive or not, waiting for him? The author pulled no punches in her description of the ravages brought about by Queenie’s cancer, perhaps symbolically of her face, which she had never liked anyway.
There was much symbolism throughout the book and many allusions to Bunyan’s Pilgrim Progress with the Slough of Despond, Giant Despair, the Vanity Fair of commercialism and his Faithful companion, in this case not a person, but a dog. The fact that the dog leaves him when he loses his way and faith was a deeply poignant moment for some.
But all the way through there were memorable moments, thoughts and descriptions, especially of nature, some of which Cynthia had impressively book- marked on her Kindle so she could read them out to us.
Obviously there was some scepticism at the feasibility of his journey. He was clearly so ill-equipped, practically and physically. Could you do it with no map? Could you find springs to drink from? Could you jettison all your possessions and be totally reliant of the kindness of strangers? Could his wife find out where he was from a phone call and would a hotel accept him in his grubby, bearded, smelly state?
But the book ends with redemptive laughter and a renewal of the moment when Harold and Maureen first met and fell in love.
There was so much life- wisdom expressed in the book that many were in awe that a relatively young author could feel her way into the thoughts and emotions of people  as ‘old’ as Harold and Maureen. And all told in such a deceptively simple style.
The overall opinion was of an uplifting, thought-provoking gentle book, well worth reading.

 

The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals by Wendy Jones

Surprisingly, as we all thought the book was relatively lightweight compared to most books we have read recently, we all found quite a lot to say about it. Discussions began rather heatedly about whether or not Grace had deliberately provoked Wilfred into proposing because she knew she was pregnant. We agreed to disagree on this point.  The men admitted that they hadn’t picked up on the hint that she might be, whereas all the woman had.
Elaine thought this novel set in the real Welsh village of Narberth, had echoes of Dylan Thomas and its fatalistic approach to life reminded her of Thomas Hardy. She could still remember one of her A level questions on Thomas Hardy. Janet remarked ruefully that studying the fatalism of Thomas Hardy at A level had marked her thinking for life.
Some members were more gripped by the book than others. Most remarked on the Welshness of the book and Paul felt he read it with a Welsh accent in his head. Some of the humorous scenes and observations showed the good and bad of small village life and mentality.  Although Jan liked some of the more lyrical passages and even read out portions in a lovely lilting Welsh accent, in fact she disliked the memories the book evoked of the stultifying narrowness of the small bigoted Welsh communities of her childhood.
Some members who knew this area of Wales enjoyed the placing of events into a known landscape and felt it had a good evocation of place and the social mores and lack of opportunities of the time….although Alan and Steve   questioned the existence of such a thing as a portable radio in 1924.
Everyone felt the character of Da was wonderfully portrayed and the relationship between him and his son grew in complexity but was always full of unspoken love. We warmed to the naïve honesty of Wilfred, his conscientious pride in his job, and felt his anger at being trapped into an unwelcome marriage for the sake of his Da and his livelihood.  We were also engaged by both of the main female characters, Flora and Grace. The scene where Wilfred and Flora are trapped by the incoming tide was especially powerful as was their blackberry picking reunion, both of which had shades of D.H Lawrence about their intensity.
Everyone was concerned about what would happen to the unfortunate Grace as she left heroically for her new life without divulging her shattering secret to her parents. Elaine said she had in fact read the sequel called The World is a Wedding but wouldn’t reveal what it said about Grace’s life.
So what at first seemed to be a charming, if slight, story and a modest evocation of a certain time and place, in fact prompted a lot of deep discussion.

Book Reading 2 Programme - 2012

July

In July we read Andrea Levy The Long Song, a book about slavery in Jamaica which we all found shed new light on the subject. It is supposedly narrated by July a slave and her writing style is contradictory and elusive at times. Most members felt they learned a lot about conditions both before and after the slaves were freed. This promoted a wide-ranging conversation on life, the universe and everything that book reading stimulates.

 

August

In August we discussed The Northern Clemency  by Philip Hensher

This was once again a good meaty read as it formed the basis for a stimulating and insightful discussion and two hours was barely long enough to expound on all the intricacies of plotting and characters.  Most loved this chronicle of our lifetimes and found the characters at times intriguing, infuriating, moving and baffling ...much as one would in real life. Some  members disliked this chronicling aspect of the book, feeling they wanted to read something more interesting than a re-hash of modern times. Others loved the way the author caught the zeitgeist with a few deft touches here and there. Most found recognisable aspects of their own lives, and many members read out passages of beautiful descriptions and witty analogies. However it was acknowledged that the book could irritate with its inclusion of minor characters who seemed to have no further significance than to illustrate a sign of the times and many characters were left as loose endings which some felt should have been tidied up. But the really powerful scenes, such as the snake stamping and the confrontation in Australia were vivid and gripping.  The self- referential ending, drawing the reader back to the beginning, was also controversial. Was this written by one of the characters in the book? In which case which one? And how much are we influenced by place. And was it about forgiveness or not? Most interesting.

 

September

For the September meeting we  read three possible choices by Helen Dunmore They were  'The Siege , followed by The Betrayal or House of Orphans .They certainly all kept us cool during the summer as they all featured cold landscapes.The Seige was set during the dreadful siege of Leningrad during WW11 and The Betrayal continued with the same characters during Stalin’s repressive fear-filled regime. The House of Orphans also concerned Russia, this time its involvement in Finland. In spite of the depressing nature of all three books I think we all appreciated Helen Dunmore's ability to create characters we cared about and  an atmosphere which gripped (and chilled.)  Many also appreciated the poetic quality of her writing so we were often arrested by her visual and sensual descriptions. After reading these I think we all felt a little guilty at living in a time when we could feel warm, safe and hunger-free.

 

October

Once again two books by one author Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks and his later book   A Week in December were chosen for the October meeting.

Everyone found Birdsong to be a powerful and gripping book. What a tour de force to be able to convey so powerfully the conditions of the trenches in the Great War. It provoked much discussion about the nature of war and everyone admired S F’s ability to get inside the minds of the men at the front and capture what they must have been feeling and thinking in such an indescribable situation. Generally it wasn’t patriotism or love for those back home, who had no idea what was going on, it was simple love for their companions in war. This was what sustained them in the face of such barbaric conditions and the complete ineptitude and indifference to their suffering and death from higher command. And until this book many of us hadn’t known anything at all about the existence of the tunnellers in the war, who they were, and what they did. And many of us physically felt claustrophobia while reading about them especially at the end when Jack Firebrace and Stephen were incarcerated for days in the collapsed tunnels.

When discussing the structure, some found the chapters set in modern days a relief from the harrowing nature of the trenches; some found them a unwelcome intrusion into the main narrative.

The TV adaptation was also discussed but was felt to be a pale imitation of the book. .Other books on WW1 were mentioned e.g. the Pat Barker Regeneration Trilogy , plus My Dear I wanted to tell you,  All quiet on the Western Front and  Robert Graves ‘ Goodbye to all that …but most agreed that Birdsong was the best evocation of what it must have been like. This book had actually been able to describe the indescribable.

A Week in December was a major contrast in style and subject matter, and no way near as absorbing. The writing, structure and content  was much less refined, such as the crude device of the dinner party list at the beginning, to which we all nevertheless had to refer  in order to remember who the large cast of characters were . It was difficult often to get to grips with these characters as, just as you were becoming interested in their lives, Faulks would switch his attention to somebody else. Some even seemed to be superfluous e.g. the footballer.  Many members confessed to skipping over the long explanations of the banking scam that the main character Veals was perpetrating. And we all agreed that the subjects of Faulks’ ire, e.g. book reviewers, reality game shows, education, modern art, politicians, game worlds, banking practices were too many and too bluntly satirised. Eventually we all warmed to some characters and were interested enough to finish it, but what a disappointment after the power of Birdsong

 

November

We read The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald and a lively and thought-provoking debate ensued, and could probably have gone on longer had tea, biscuits and business not claimed our attention. The book concerned such issues as the moral decay of society in 1920s America, how people became rich from nothing as a result of bootlegging and financial shenanigans, and then assumed sophistication (as they thought).  Some of us clearly loved the book and felt an affection for Gatsby, who was mystery figure, both in his origins and in his present, but the tragedy in the story was inevitable if shocking, when it came.  We also talked about the description of Dr Eckleburg's advert for spectacles which could be interpreted as all-seeing, and the valley of ashes where everything is grey and could be a metaphor for the hollowness of the lives of the characters.  Altogether a most interesting and enjoyable morning.