Friday, 21 December 2012

The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracey Chevalier

The November meeting found the group crowded round a laptop, closely examining the paintings of Vermeer. That is probably a very common reaction for readers of this book - we felt we'd been given an intense lesson in art, and all wanted to know more. 'How do you write a book about a painting?' we may have asked ourselves. Well, this is how - we were all drawn in and totally captivated by this wonderful story. The writing was deceptively simple, but there was an awful lot in it - a bit like Vermeer's paintings. We loved the maturity of Griet, and her internal battle between her Protestant uprightness and growing infatuation with Vermeer. Her lack of choices - forced by family poverty to either enter service or marry - was commented on. Kenneth pointed out it was social class more than gender that caused restrictions.

The place and time were beautifully evoked - Marghie said she felt she'd gone back and spent time there. The everyday domestic detail like doing laundry were great, and it was the close domestic setting which particularly allowed the tensions and jealousy to burn, as the women of the household were eaten up with resentment and jealously of Griet. Andy commented with some understatement "this was the sort of familiy that didn't get everything out in the open". Vermeer's wife Catharina was an interesting character - impossible to like, yet you could understand her insecurities. The feisty mother-in-law Maria, the lynchpin of the house, had real depth of character; the child Cornelia was a hateful brat; Griet's patiently cheerful suitor, Pieter the butcher, was a godsend, as events conspired to destroy her.

We debated long over Vermeer himself, whether he was callous and abusive of Griet, or just so self-absorbed and driven by his art that he couldn't appreciate the emotional battlefield he was creating. We agreed the depth of the relationship between them was mainly in Griet's head. They found a connection in their appreciation of perfect form, and although yes, she was taken advantage of by Vermeer, she did gain from him the chance to fulfil her artistic sense.

We liked the ending of the story - several of us confessed to anxiety that it wouldn't get tied up in as satisfying way. A lesser author might have left us hanging, but Tracey Chevalier gave us a fulfilling read right till the end.

Sorry the book group hasn't been blogging much lately - we have still been reading and meeting once a month, we've just let our reporting standards slip. Will try harder in 2013!

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Dark Matter

Michelle Paver's icy horror story was given a thumbs up by the group and many thought it truly terrifying. It was well-researched and did a good job of evoking that period of gung-ho British expeditionary zeal found at the start of the last century (bone china tea service included).

Of course, the total darkness of winter was a key element to the story and we pondered how we would fare in a similar situation. Shetland is bad enough on a wild and dark winter's day, where you might only get six hours of light. Most felt they couldn't have forced themselves to walk round the outside of the expedition cabin in total darkness - turning those blind corners as Jack did would have been too much!

The group talked about the siting of the cabin and we all agreed that placing it next to the old 'shed' was asking for trouble. But of course that allowed the creepy pole, outside the front door, to become a really nasty, brooding element throughout the story.

Jack's desire to tough it out was discussed at length: Was it his desire to prove himself to his upper class companions or was it more a desire to be seen in a good light by Gus?

The group thought that Paver must be a dog owner as Jack's relationship with Isaac, the last husky to survive, was well drawn. He certainly stopped Jack going mad with fear.

Personally, I would have liked a more gruesome, scarier ending and felt the novel needed to be longer and more detailed at key points. Maybe the novel reflected the author's Y.A. background...

Monday, 2 July 2012

Ella Minnow Pea and The Woman in Black

The group took a trip out for their June meeting, to the stately surroundings of Busta House. Over a meal followed by coffee in the Library, discussion flowed as we'd read two books this month.

The first was Andy's choice, Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. He explained that it first attracted him as he's keen on cryptic crosswords and word games. The story: a strange island society worships Nollop, the man who created the pangram 'The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog'. Their shrine to him includes the phrase picked out in tiles, but after a hundred or so years the letters start to drop off, one by one. The island Council sees this as a divine sign and bans use of the letters that fall off. First of all it's not a big deal, but as more letters go, the affect on the language and the draconian powers used to enforce the rules lead to a gradual breakdown of society. 

The book is told as a series of letters, which are lipograms, avoiding use of more and more letters as the story proceeds. It's fascinating to see how the characters cope with the new limits on their expression. It gets to a point where the Council has to allow very inventive phonetic spellings, and they are great fun - Andy as a teacher particularly enjoyed them. By the time that the only letters still allowed are LMNOP, though, things are getting really desperate.

Although the book is clever, quirky and funny, group members agreed that it was surprisingly dark, and a strong depiction of totalitarianism. Janet said she felt angry at language being taken away: if you love language you will find it very oppressive. Marghie pointed out that it was published not long after 9/11, to a background of concerns about freedom of speech in the USA. Interestingly, Diana observed, as the language gets harder the story gets more gripping. A good read, highly recommended by the group.

For our second book we returned to a story the group first read in 2006 - the ultimate ghost story, Susan Hill's The Woman in Black. The reason for this choice: Busta House is famously haunted, plus we'd recently seen the new film of the book and wanted to go back to the far superior book.

There were many new members of the group so most people hadn't read it before and loved the 'gothic trappings laid on with a trowel'. The description was highly atmospheric - Hill really is a splendid writer - and, as our newest member observed, every chapter is perfectly-turned and draws you in. Me, I was both satisfied and desperately frustrated that, as in every good horror story, a character chooses to spend the night in an obviously unwise place, letting us scream 'No, you fool!' at the screen/page.

Andy chose to criticize it because on the journey to the dreaded Eel Marsh 'they would never have changed at Crewe to go to the East coast' - but the generally-female membership of our group were not impressed by such train-spotterly remarks. We still don't recommend the film, but we do the stage play, and certainly the book.

Friday, 4 May 2012

And then forever

June's choice for the group to read last month was And Then Forever by Christine De Luca. The novel contains two love stories, one current and one historical. The latter tale centres on Gilbert Jamieson,who emigrates to Winnipeg and embarks on a romance which is doomed due to religious differences. The current story involves the discovery of an old photograph and a journey to learn more about its origins. Those of the group who had finished the book enjoyed it and liked the format. The historical story proved more intriguing than the modern one,which some of the group felt lacked drama. There were themes which could have been developed, whereas the historical tale had several beautiful passages of description. The issues of emigration were the same for both generations - having to start afresh and embrace an alien culture, plus the concerns over those left behind. There were parts of the book which appealed to individual readers -Kathleen liked the story of the brooch and Karen like the way the story began in Australia and moved to Canada.
All in all, the group agreed this was a book to recommend, especially as it is by a "weel kent" author who is aware of how many of her readers will find a personal connection with the theme of emigration.

Monday, 19 March 2012


Catch-22 is a satirical WWII novel about USAF Bombardier Yossarian and his desperate attempts to get grounded. The book's title is the name of a rule that stops Doc Daneeka signing Yossarian off as unfit for duty: if you think you're mad then you can't be mad (you're only really mad if you think you're sane and everyone else thinks you're mad).

It was a big read with parallel plot lines, chronology issues and fantasy sections that weren't everyone's cup of tea. In fact the majority of the group failed to finish either because of the time needed to crack the book or difficulties with the problems outlined above. It was definitely a Marmite experience; you loved it or hated it.

Our discussion centred on whether Yossarian was a mad man in a rational and logical war machine or the only sane man in a mad warmongering world. Heller certainly leaves it open to your own interpretation with Yossarian's disorganised rambling story.

Maybe the clincher is Yossarian's assertion that if someone's going to get killed why does it have to be him? A logical response maybe...

Click to read Shortlist magazine's review of 50 years of Catch-22

Click to listen to BBC Radio 4 Bookclub discuss Catch-22 with Joseph Heller (from 1999)

Friday, 20 January 2012

Peace is about war. It is about the moral choices which are made in horrible split seconds and about the men who are called on to make those decisions. In very spare but evocative prose Richard Bausch tells the story of four men who are on a scouting mission after an incident involving a German soldier shot at close range after he was discovered hiding with a prostitute in cart. The German shoots dead two American GIs before being shot dead himself. The sergeant summarily shoots the prostitute in the head.

Three of the men are young American GIs and one is an old Italian man who has been pressed into leading them into unknown territory. The young men from disparate backgrounds are thrust together and squabble, jeer and needle each other as they climb a seemingly endless hill in a deadly cold, winter. Can they trust their guide? Can they trust each other or even themselves to do what is right…or if not right at least what is necessary to survive their mission?

The setting is bleak and is so well rendered that you can feel the bone chilling cold as it saps the strength of the men. The weather and the prose are stark but the moral decisions the men must make are not. Where the right path lies is left an open question but the ending I found surprisingly hopeful, reaffirming a young man ability to do what is necessary to keep hold of his humanity in the face of the insanity of war.

The book group all agreed the book was an excellent depiction of men at war. The prose was described as “Hemingwayesque”. There was not much back story given about the characters but just enough to get a sense of their disparate background. The men “treat each other like many other men do” in the words of one member. They are rough and insulting but in the end committed to each other. Another member saw in the books the distillation of many war movies from the 1940’s and 50s.
The book made this reader and others in the group, interested in reading other books by Richard Bausch. Who is a well respected writer in the USA but not well known in the UK. .

Monday, 21 November 2011

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

On my first visit to Lerwick Book Group I got myself in a fankle: I thought we were reading 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall', by Anne Brontë, in portions, but arrived to find that everyone else had finished the book. It's a testament to the novel and the discussion that despite the big spoiler, I was still really keen to read it, and spent the following weekend glued to it.

June introduced her choice, describing the two narratives that structure the novel. These are a letter from Gilbert to his brother-in-law Jack Halford in which he introduces the 'Tenant', Helen Graham, and his burgeoning 'regard' for her, which encapsulates the journal extract that forms the heart of the book, in which the Helen Graham describes her abuse at the hands of her dissolute husband. June also summarised the central themes – the independence of women, alcoholism and psychological abuse.

We agreed that Helen was a strong protagonist making the best of her unenviable lot, and noted that, like the heroine of 'Jane Eyre', written by Anne Brontë's sister, Charlotte, she addressed her plight with impressive pragmatism, in contrast to the young men in the novel, who largely seemed unable to entertain themselves if not drinking heavily or hunting.

Many of us were shocked – as was the audience of the time – that the darker side of the social life of the time was described so graphically, in particular disturbing scenes in which Helen's young son is taught to take hard drink with the men, and one in which the alcoholic Lord Lowborough, struggling to reform, is likewise forced to drink by dint of peer pressure and outright violence. Of the male characters, even the more sympathetic individuals, including the 'hero' Gilbert, were shown in an ambivalent light.

Whilst we all found the narrative structure slightly contrived, most of us got swept up in the book, and felt that it was a remarkable achievement for a writer of 28. It's heartbreaking to discover that Brontë succumbed to T.B. the year after it was published. Janet said that, compared to 'The Sea, The Sea', she felt refreshed after reading it. Most of us felt that we'd like to read more work by the Brontë sisters after 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall': their novels, daring for their time, and often suppressed because of it, continue to have relevance to our modern lives.