Sunday, 19 December 2010

Small islands

For the December meeting a suitably Christmas feeling was provided by mulled wine, pumpkin cake, home made mince pies, vegetarian crisps, etc. Thank you everyone who baked and brewed!

Chosen by Helen, this month's read was Andrea Levy's award winning novel Small Island . It tells the story of Caribbeans coming to Britain during WWII to help defend the 'Mother Country' and their subsequent migration here in 1948 on the S.S. Empire Windrush. Told by four voices (two black and two white) the book has many themes: new beginnings; casual, and not so casual, racism; the British Empire; duty; and love.

Although a little slow to start, everyone in the group enjoyed the book. I found the war time experiences of Gilbert especially enlightening. The notion that the U.S. army's segregation applied to black G.I.s even though they were in Britain was maddening. As a black Caribbean Gilbert's treatment was in many ways much better (and maybe that was the reason he chose to return).

Karen judged Hortense snooty, high minded and naive; and found her experience with the interview and the broom cupboard both amusing and saddening. Possibly this was the point when the reader started to empathise with her...

Queenie was liked by June and Jen. Some thought the description of pork pie making too much, but it did introduce Queenie as a 'salt of the earth' no nonsense character who treats Gilbert without prejudice. Marghie enjoyed the vignette provided by the sweet shop owning auntie who encourages Queenie to talk to the respectable, reserved, Bernard.

Janet and Margaret felt Bernard cold and unfeeling; many in the group had no sympathy for the character or his adventures in the war. I surmised he was a vehicle for the feelings of returning soldiers who wanted their country and jobs back. Morag thought his story added little to the plot at that late stage and the reason for his stay in Brighton was amusing to say the least...

Helen said that the ending, with Queenie giving birth to Michael Robert's black child, was predictable. Maybe a twist too many, but overall the group felt it had been another in a series of highly edifying and pleasurable book group choices for 2010.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

The Girl on the Landing

In November, the group read Paul Torday's The Girl on the Landing. This was a novel we found to share comparisons with 19th Century sensationalism/ghost story novels. It was written in a style akin to that where we thought it may be set during an earlier time not that of a more contemporary time. The novel is original, not plot prescriptive and is suspense story more than a thriller, with a touch of Rebecca and Turn of the Screw to it.

To begin with we all found the characters to be unlikeable but then as time went on we did start to feel sorry for them. With the narration of the novel alternating between Michael and Elizabeth Gascoigne, it certainly aided in the character development throughout the novel as well as creating an atmosphere of suspense.

The novel covered very topical subjects including racism, schizophrenia/mental health issues and genetics. Issues that raised a lot of debate and discussion over them.

The novel sparked a great deal of discussion amongst all the members in terms of whether Michael Gascoigne was suffering from schizophrenia or was it the supernatural. It was a bit 'muddy' at times and, looking at it from a critical viewpoint, we felt it had to be more plausible at times. With the dog sensing the supernatural, it really was left open to the reader's own interpretation.

We debated the relevance of certain things, e.g. the linen press and the dog disappearing. Again, it seems to be left open to the reader's own interpretation.

The nature of the story led naturally into a discussion on mental health in the community and the question of how far do you go to medicate someone and change them completely? We also discussed the possibility of there being people who operate on a different level of sensitivity. There was varying opinion in the group on whether Michael was on a different level of extra-sensory sensitivity, mentally ill or just plain bad.

Several members of the group were disappointed with the somewhat rushed ending of the book. Overall, the general consensus was that this was an enjoyable novel with many of us considering reading more of Paul Torday's work.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

On the Beach

In September the group read Neville Shute's sombre fifties classic On the Beach. Janet, who suggested the book, explained that she had been prompted to go back to this book after recently reading another post-apocalypse story, Cormac McCarthy's The Road. She noted there are a great many tales of Armageddon, but On the Beach is the only one where all the characters die. Despite the odd glimmer of hope (a radio signal from the blighted northern hemisphere, a failed theory that the radiation is lessening) this is just a story of the people of Australia waiting, pretty calmly, to die of the inevitable radiation poisoning from a disasterous nuclear war in the North. Quite a brave thing for the author to do, to write something so bleak (get so scarily possible). This must have summed up pretty well the fears of people during the early Cold War, and fed into the consciousness that generation.

This was a book we all found fascinating and it gave us a lot to speak about. The submarine journey to North America is a compelling storyline, especially the moment when a crew member jumps ship to die in his home city - the only living being alive in that hemisphere for the few days he will last. There is the very occasional humourous detail, like the determined gentlemen in the club determinedly drinking their way through all the best port.

The group discussed how some of the characters were pretty wooden, but that this didn't detract from the book. It's power lies in the ordered suburban society being juxtaposed with the approaching nightmare, and since this was set in the conservative 195os in conservative Melbourne among a naval community, the stilted stiff-upper-lip behaviour of many of the characters is believable. People continue to go to work, to plant crops, to plan the future - and it's not as crazy as it seems. If you only have a few days to live, you may panic and go mad, but if you have months to wait you can't keep that kind of behaviour up for long. And if you must go, why not on a nice beach with a government-issue suicide pill and a bottle of brandy? Better -surely? - than the savage struggle for survival depicted in The Road? It is both seductive and terrifying how people in On the Beach accept the inevitable. A very powerful book.

Monday, 27 September 2010

The Book Thief

Would you choose to read a story told by Death? Many of us in the book group were unsure until we were gripped by the story itself.
Death narrator of The Book Thief tells the story of a girl, Liesel, sent away from her family to be fostered during the rise of the Third Reich and the small town where she and her foster parents live. In many ways, given the prevalence of death during this period of Germany’s history, Death's a central voice in the novel makes perfect sense. What was surprising to the group was the fact that Death’s voice was both poetic and sympathetic. Death loves colour both the dark and the light. The story he tells is about both the vitality of life and love and the brutality of war and oppression.

Liesel is the book thief of the title and it is her relationship to words, particularly written words, which shape her understanding of the world. She picks up a handbook for grave-diggers at the gravesite of her brother and as she uses it to learn to read, builds a relationship with the foster father. Books become entwined in her life even though they are difficult to acquire. Liesel “steals” books from the mayor’s wife who not only turns a blind eye but aids the “theft”. When Liesel’s family hide a young Jewish man, he makes her a book by using the over painted pages of “Mein Kampf” a nod towards the destructive power of words.

The group particularly enjoyed the rich characters of Rudy (Liesel's rebellious and loving friend), Hans (her mench of a foster father), Rosa (acid tongued but loving foster mother) and Max (the Jewish fist-fighter who teaches Liesel how to write her own story).

The book led the group into a discussion of how ordinary people who lived in Germany during World War II have been depicted in the aftermath of the war and the discovery of the death camps. The Book Thief gives an even handed view of how the inhabitants of a German town might have reacted to Hitler’s master plan. Some bought into the plan and some resisted in various ways but all were affected.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Ferry across to Bressay

A slight hitch in accessing our blog has meant that, in true librarian spirit, we have been silent for over a month, but all is well now! It has been left up to me to recall our annual night out on the 9th of July, when six of us braved the unseasonal cold and wet weather and headed to the Maryfield in Bressay to discuss Stieg Larsson's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
The book was my choice -mainly because I had recently read it and was onto the third book of the trilogy.
The location of our meeting may or may not have been influenced by the island theme of the book, but at least noone mysteriously disappeared! Over our starters of calamari and garlic stuffed mushrooms, we mused on how the lack of editing in the book meant that parts of it were overly long and in places there were sub-plots which were never fully developed.
As we moved onto our grilled steak and halibut courses, we debated some of the situations, primarily the disappearance of Harriet Vanger and the characters of Blomkvist and Berger.
Karen thought much of the violence was overdone, but was more upset about what happened to the cat! Everyone however,was intrigued by the character of Salander, finding her plausible and unique , and not be easily forgotten.
All in all,despite its length,we found this to be a good enjoyable read. After a couple of glasses of wine and an Ameretto and coffee, we headed off to catch the ferry home.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

High stakes!

I read this riveting book when it first came out, so I was a little worried that some of the magic would have worn off in the following 20-odd years.

Back then I was living in North Wales, working and climbing in Snowdonia. I remember how the book was begged, borrowed and stolen by everyone in the climbing community and how the main issues were discussed long into the night.

So to the present and the climbing terminology didn't seem to dissuade the members of the book group. In fact the feeling was that the climbing was almost secondary to Simpson's epic struggle to get off the mountain.

There was a long discussion centered around the defining incident: would you cut the rope on your climbing partner as Simon Yates did? The feeling being a definite 'In the same situation...yes. He had tried to get Simpson down from the summit, knowing all the time that it was going to be a long shot'.

The author's description of his crawl back to base camp after the rope cutting incident and his escape from the crevasse is truly remarkable for an autobiography. June said it has the feel of a piece fiction where you don't know the outcome... you can't believe he is going to survive the ordeal. Could he surmount everything the mountain had thrown at him only to miss safety and reunion by minutes?

The group chewed over the nature of adventure, the need to find challenges and how people often invite danger by stacking the odds against themselves. Janet mentioned Simpson's own story of his horrifying bivouac in the Alps as a case in point. The group felt 'Touching The Void' had been a good 'Boys Own' choice for the group.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Another journey East - to Burma with a piano

May's choice of book was The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason, the story of the journey (both physical and spiritual?) that an unassuming piano tuner makes to the remote Shan hills of Burma in the late 19th century. His mission is to tune a piano for a charismatic British military doctor who has created his own little kingdom up the Salween river - some parallels with Heart of Darkness here perhaps. The tuner becomes bewitched with the orient - and with a local woman - becoming almost fatalistically entwined in the colonial conflict.

The book is beautifully written with good characterisation, it's enticing and intriguing and the group all enjoyed it. But that's not to say we felt we understood it! What was all that about the Man With One Story? What exactly was the enigmatic Carroll up to? The book was at it's weakest when it trotted out the detail of the politics, and at it's best when it explored the hidden depths of the characters. More questions than answers, but we enjoyed the journey.

Fascinating look at a lost Afghanistan

In April the group read my choice - Full Tilt by Dervla Murphy, the story of her cycle trip from Ireland to India in the 196os. I first read this book when I was a teenager and Dervla has been a favourite author ever since. She takes to the road with the minimum of baggage (well, she'll happily carry a load of books, and on this trip took a gun as well, but she takes so little clothes that she ends up with her backside literally hanging out of her threadbare breeks after awhile.

This journey took her through a lot of countries, but Afghanistan is the star of the book - Dervla falls in love with this magical and timeless place. It has to be said that she tends to be treated as an honorary male on her travels (barring some unfortunate tussles with dodgy pervs in Azerbajan) so she notices but perhaps doesn't fully appreciate the awful situation of women in Afghanistan. The author's cheery no-nonsense determination to go wherever she pleases, putting up with the most uncomfortable and hair-raising situations, make this an entertaining read. She is also a writer of great intellect and, I'm glad to say, is still going strong today - still travelling parts of the world that are strictly off the tourist trail, and getting ever angrier about the way we're screwing places up.

Monday, 15 March 2010

The Vanishing of Katharina Linden - my two cents (oops, I mean "pence")

The book The Vanishing of Katharina Linden is very engaging read and I'm sorry to be missing the discussion.
Some things about the book which caught my attention:
  • I am fascinated by the way the author has created a sense that the book has been translated from German (as far as I know it was written in English and the author is English). The cadence of the language seems to me to be German rather than English.
  • The relationships are very well drawn particularly the friendship between Pia and Stefan. Pia's sometimes irritation with, but dependence upon Stefan reminds me of friendships I had at her age.
  • I will never forget the exploding Oma, a horrible image but somehow blackly humorous. I will use hair spray with caution from now on.
  • Great interweaving of German folktales and daily life in the book. As I write this I wonder if there isn't a flavour of magic realism instilled in the novel by the stories Herr Schiller tells and the actual events as they unfold.

I haven't quite finished the book but am looking forward to getting home tonight to read the ending. What did happen to the girls and what did Stefan see the night he went to castle on his own?....

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The Poisonwood Bible

A deep and dark novel set in a remote jungle village in Congo (at the time of the country's independence from Belgium in 1960). The story is told by the wife and four daughters of an evangelist minister sent out to convert the locals to Christianity.

The family arrives ignorant of local customs and finds a very, very different way of life to theirs back home in the states. The minister is rigid, ham-fisted, and over bearing (his keeness to baptise people in the crocodile infested river being a case in point). This sets the family apart and ostracises them - eventually leading them on a collision course with the local witch doctor...

The book was chosen by Janet, who commented on the natural division that occurs in the book when the minister is eventually left behind by the rest of the family. She felt that she would have liked this to be the end, feeling that the story stopped and the author took over. There was some sympathy for this point of view.

Everybody enjoyed the book. June liked the (extended) ending and felt she had learnt alot about the plight of Congo/Zaire since independence. Karen brought in an atlas and the group poured over the details: it is a third of the size of the USA, etc.

Marghie turned up and although she hadn't quite finished it was looking forward to doing so. She commented on the backward writing of Adah and wondered if the girls weren't a little bit stereotypical.

I put forward the point that all the family had lost their Christian faith, and that the bible had no relevance to the people of the Congo. In fact I surmised that it was losing relevance in this country. A heated debate followed... Although at home a quick search on Google (sorry to use a computer Janet) produced an article in The Independent 29.6.09 under the heading 'Britain knows little about Bible', stating "The National Biblical Literacy Survey has found that as few as 10 per cent of people understood the main characters in the Bible and their relevance".

Another thought provoking read, entertaining and enlightening in equal measures, although the meeting did remind me of that old saying "don't discuss politics and religion"...

North and South - Innocence Lost,Humanity Found

We discussed Elizabeth Gaskell's novel North and South in January. As the title indicates, a major theme of the novel is the contrast between the way of life of the industrial north and the agricultural south of England in the early to mid-nineteenth century.

There was a mixed response to the book. June, who selected the book for the group, has read the novel several times and originally choose to read it after viewing the excellent BBC TV series. She likes the way Gaskell weaves philosophy and political and social commentary into the narrative. Many in the group felt the characters were well drawn and the sense of place in the novel was very evocative.
Some of us did not find the novel completely satisfying. The ending seemed a bit weak. I also felt that there was tension between Gaskell's desire to write a novel of ideas and to spin a romantic yarn. The forays into philosophical and religious commentary did not enhance the flow of the story for me. One of the reading group said that the novels of Jane Austen "seem frivolous in comparison"; Yet to me, Austen's social satire seems more finely crafted and piercing because it is not freighted with philosophical discourse and politics. Having said that the strong characters in the book, particularly the women have left an impression on me, as has Gaskell's descriptions of the English countryside.
A member of the group summed the book up in the following phrase "Innocence lost, humanity found" which neatly summarizes the spirit of the book.