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.

Friday, 28 October 2011

The Sea, The Sea

Chosen by Karen, October's book of the month was Iris Murdoch's monumental story of love, jealousy and mystic powers "The Sea, The Sea".

The main character, Charles, decides to retire to the English coast and write his memoirs. Little does he know what a Pandora's box he's about to open... as the serpent foretells. There are many layers to the book; philosophical and classical references feature at various points (overwhelming the plot occasionally). Obviously a book of its time, Murdoch's theatre types make the dialogue seem dated - something that June thought was unlikely to improve with age.

Marghie liked Charles' humorous cooking insights: "We had ham cooked in brown sugar to a recipe of Gilbert's, with a salad of tinned tomatoes and herbs. (These excellent tomatoes are best eaten cold. They may be warmed but never boiled as this destroys the distinctive flavour.)"

Maybe Charles' insights on relationships were the cause of many of his troubles. In fact The Sea, The Sea could be viewed as the story of an insensitive and opinionated man coming to terms with the way he has treated his friends and lovers.

Murdoch's description of the sea was admired by Kathleen and June. Praised indeed from Shetland folk!

Overall, the group liked the book. Karen, who had read it before, found it harder work a second time: Janet and myself thought it too long. I skimmed many paragraphs of navel gazing and didn't seem to lose too much when it came to Tuesday's discussion. Jen, who was still reading and enjoying it felt she would definitely finish the book after the meeting.

A desert island choice, perhaps. But maybe you'd be too busy with your own demons?

Friday, 14 October 2011

Muriel Spark

Radio 4 Book Club interview with Muriel Spark, from 2004, talking about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Monday, 26 September 2011

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Miss Jean Brodie is a short book, which - the group members agreed - seemed a lot longer. That's meant in a good sense - there just seemed to be so much in it, so much to discuss, and so much more to discover for the many of us who'd gone back and re-read it. This is in happy contrast to many a book we read, where often things could have been much improved by editting out at least 20% of a work.

This book was selected by Morag, who explained that it had made a big impact on her in her youth. One formidable teacher had actually used the phrase 'Creme de la Creme' to her and her A-stream classmates, and she suspected the teacher identified with the book. Morag said, interestingly, that she was more shocked now at the things Jean Brodie said to her pupils than she had been on reading it in the sixties. This perhaps illustrates a change in our culture - the Sixties was about experiment, rebellion and the pushing of moral boundaries. In the 2010s we are steeped in caution and procedure to the point of paranoia about what kind of behaviour is appropriate towards children.

What struck all the members was the interesting way Muriel Spark's narrative jumped back and forth in time. Another writer may have kept the revelation of which girl betrayed Jean Brodie as a climax, but we thought the curious structure was because she wanted to concentrate on the characters more than the plot.

My favourite bits of Jean Brodie are always her imperious, deliciously snooty, put-downs and remarks. I think there are a few similarities with Notes on a Scandal, one of my all-time favourite books. As the story progesses she becomes a less and less likeable character, manipulative and living life vicariously through her girls, but you still rather admire her, up until she starts to show her weaknesses and becomes rather an object of pity. Her treatment of Mary is cruel - its seems she picked her as one of the set merely as she thought it useful to have a 'whipping b0y' in the group.

We admired Jean Brodie's individualism, and her encouragement of her girls to dare to be different, but this was in marked contrast to her admiration of fascism. Frances pointed out that she admired merely the shallow glamour of fascism, and that in many ways she was all about style over substance.

There were many themes and characters to discuss: the excellent protrayal of Edinburgh, the love affairs, jealousies and subterfuge and the varied paths of all the girls. It did indeed seem like a much longer story. Finely honed writing at it's best, packing a fascinating and enduring story into 100 pages.

Monday, 19 September 2011


The group's read for August was Islanders by Margaret Elphinstone who visited the Shetland's book festival Word Play this year. The book is set in the Shetland islands during the medieval period although no date is stated. The community depicted in the story is on what is now Fair Isle. A girl arrives on the island as the only survivor of a ship wreck. The story revolves around her integration into a tight knit group of islanders over the course of a year.

While some of us found the book slow we felt the sense of history was good. As islanders ourselves, although not so cut off as those in the book, we enjoyed identifying places that were depicted in the book. The journey to Papa Stour and then back to Fair Island crossing the main island of Shetland by foot was very evocative. (I still look at the mountians to the west of Cunningsburgh as I drive by and wonder if there are "wild tribes" living up there.)

Some of us felt that certain issues and narative threads were introduced and then never really really went anywhere. For instance one of our group spent time investigating homosexuality in Shetland at the time of the books. She felt that it would not have been stigmatized as was depicted in the book. Others felt the priest was interesting as a character and lent another "outsider" perspective to the community but was introduced and then dropped out of the narrative. The group felt the characters were "flat" and hard to get to know.

We also read John Boyne's first novel The Thief of Time and found if to be a relatively good read although some found the bouncing back and forth across time in the narrative an annoying device. Mathieu, the 256 year old narrator was criticized for being an aloof and not particularly sympathetic character. The book has been described as a "picaresque hopscotch through time" by it's reviewer in Publisher's Weekly - a phrase I believe the group would endorse. As one of our group also said "it's a daft idea but does make you think about how people learn (or do not learn) through living." The book was published in the lead up to the turn of the millennium so perhpas gained some narrative traction from being read during that time period.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Room by Emma Donoghue

Jen's choice for this month was Emma Donoghue's much acclaimed Room, which she had picked up in the local bookshop because it looked like an interesting read. The book is narrated by Jack, in his own words, with vivid descriptions of the room and it's contents. Jack lives by routine and rules despite his bizarre situation, and uses counting as a coping stategy.

June thought initially she wouldn't like the book but really enjoyed it. Janet loved the way Jack's mother maintained his innocence. Marghie pointed out that the book could have become bogged down in darker realms had it been narrated by the mother. Kathleen took a while to get into the story as there was little indication on the cover as to what the book was about. Denise observed that Jack only had one other person to share his experiences with. Morag found the escape plan alarming reading -so many things could have gone wrong. There was some discussion on how the book was based on several hostage situations rather than any particular one. Denise had come across a floor plan of Room when reading reviews. Janet and Karen loved the mother/child relationship -Jack gave his mother the will to survive. Jack's vocabulary shows a lack of outside influence and is very believable. Some discussion followed on life outside Room and the issues which interaction with other people raised. All in all, a good read and a book worth recommending to others.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Bel Canto

Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto was Janet’s choice of book for May and she felt it was a love it or hate it book. Janet chose this book because she liked the idea of opposing interests and cultures and seeing what happened when the characters were isolated together.

‘Bel Canto’ means ‘beautiful song’ and it is opera that draws all of the characters together. With opera, kidnap and romance being the main themes of the book, the general consensus is that the entire group enjoyed it, with June enjoying all of the Spanish bits. The book has definite parallels to Big Brother with funny behaviours and the forming of relationships that would not normally have done so.

The book is written in an omniscient third person narrative which most of the group liked. However Morag and I have both recently read a lot of books with just a couple of central characters and this could explain our initial difficulties in getting into the book.

With no graphic details of violence it became a rather girly account. Karen said it appeared to enter a dream-like state with inept terrorists and their demands over time were just for the sake of going through the motions. Morag could imagine the rescue scene in a film being accompanied by loud and striking opera music and sweeping camera shots.

Generally, we felt the book was very improbable in the sense that they all eventually turned to culture, be it chess or music, and feelings of altruism dissipated. Their passions came across rather than their differences. Janet felt the terrorists died at their peak; none of them would ever become a top chess player or world-class opera singer. What was interesting to note was that all of the characters actually blossomed, with the exception of the Red Cross man. In terms of the love story between Roxanne and Mr Hosokawa, Morag did not find this plausible whereas Karen did.
Most of the group did not like the epilogue. Personally, I felt it showed the two characters were trying to maintain a connection to their captivity and those that they had loved and lost.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

April's book was The Secret Scripture,which was chosen by Marghie. She chose this book because the blurb intrigued her -a 100 year old woman looking back on a past which contained scandal and mystery. Also the Irish setting appealed,as Marghie had spent some time in Sligo. She enjoyed the book although she felt the ending had been "a bit too neat".

Karen enjoyed the language and the dual narrative but found the book depressing. The fire in the orphanage was a strange episode! Comparisons were made to the Magdelen Sisters, in particular the suspicion of the clergy regarding a pretty girl in a small community. June has a good knowledge of 20th century Irish history and for this reason tends to avoid Irish fiction, because, like Karen, she finds it quite depessing. Jen wondered how correct the old lady's version of events was, when often we had conflicting accounts from other characters.

The complexities of Irish politics and religion shaped much of the story, and parallels were drawn with other cultures and religions. Morag was intrigued by the doctor -the author sometimes seemed to forget that this character had lived most of his life in England and at times he came across as "too Irish". Was his strange behaviour due to some hereditary form of madness? There was some discussion of the fact that the book's characters appear in other novels by the author, and the assumption that the reader will be aware of events which are touched upon but not explained. All in all, though, it was felt that this was a good read, with some beautiful passages of prose and a storyline which kept everyone guessing to the end.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The Power of One

In Feburary the group enjoyed dicussing Andy's choice of book, The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay. That's not the same as saying everyone enjoyed the book, but clashing opinions always enliven the discussion. Andy's the long-suffering 'token male' in the group and so we look forward to his 'man-book' choices as something outside our usual reading.

The Power of One is a big South Africa saga, the tale of one man's progression from a terrified and bullied bed-wetter in boarding school, to a young man of almost Messiah-like qualities. The early death of his only friend -a scraggy chicken called Granpa Chook - at the hands of the bullies seems to be a vengeful driving force. It could seem a bit odd for the death of a chicken to guide your life, but the life and death of Granpa Chook was genuinely powerful and touching, emphasising the loneliness of our hero, Peekay.

Peekay's life then proceeds, from a chance encounter with a boxer on a train, through a chain of events spurred on by his ambition to be Welterweight Champion of the World. He's a remarkable boy - excels at everything he does (well, at music he's merely 'good') - and people begin to be drawn to him. This high-achieving caused some dissension in the group - some found it unnatural and unbelievable, reckoned nobody is so good both physically and intellectually. Others though, found the story inspiring and epic - it was the story of a hero, a future leader perhaps, and of what you can do if you really try, body and soul. Apparently this is the favourite book of Ben Fogle, and of some of our top sportsmen, and you can see why it would be a memorable read for young men.

The book is set in South Africa in the 1940s and 50s, so race plays a big part in the story, and there are many powerful and upsetting scenes. The author doesn't shirk from showing the inbuilt racism of even the generally positive characters. On the other hand there is a lot of humour in the book too. At his best Peekay is a very engaging character. There are some very vivid descriptions - of a mining community for example - and a lot of the background seems to come from the author's own life.

The story is told in a completely linear style, and it's a long book. For some of the group, it dragged. For others, it was completely engaging from start to finish. Andy had gone on to read the 900-page sequel, Tandia. For some of the group this seemed like a form of self-torture, but on the whole Power of One was an enjoyable read leading to a robust and interesting discussion.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

One Day

The group read David Nicholls book One Day for the January meeting. Janet,who chose the book,bought it a few months ago without realising it had already developed something of a cult following. The influence of Thomas Hardy was apparent-missed chances, fate, the letter which is never received etc. The characters were believable and the dialogue sharp and witty. Nicholls has captured the feel of the era perfectly. The ending is quite devestating, but everything seemed to fall into place as the book came full circle.

Kathleen found it an easy read and Helen found the plot plausible, while Karen liked the fact that there weren't too many flashbacks. Marghie and Morag loved the book and found it impossible to put down. The Larkin influence was also apparent. The group were devided on the character of Ian, but felt he was memorable , as were all the other minor characters. Helen liked Emma's referral to Dex as being like a two piece jigsaw. Karen liked the way the final description of what happened at the beginning of the book made everything clear. The humour was what kept the book alive for everyone. All in all, a fantastic read. Some discussion took place of the forthcoming film and we all agreed that Jim Sturgess makes a perfect Dex!