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Archive for the ‘book group reads’ Category

October was a busy month.  Reading and blogging hours curtailed not only by long working hours but also by more pleasant things too.  In particular the North Lanarkshire Libraries Words 2010 festival. I attended 4 events – all with no entrance price.  Long live my library and all the Words festival sponsors!

I listened to Booker long-listed author Alan Warner read from The Stars in The Sky and tell of the hell that was being locked up in a study with his female protagonists for the best-part of 12 months.  Liz Jensen talked of how fiction is all about conflict and how much she enjoys piling the pressure on her characters.  W David Woods described How Apollo flew to the Moon complete with scaled models and computer simulations.  And finally, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a very special book, the novel I actually accredit with sowing the seeds of my lifelong love of literature, Richard Holloway joined about 40 of us in Motherwell Library to discuss Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill A Mockingbird.

The discussion was fascinating.  So too was watching a master at work.  How do you control a reading group of 40, making sure that everyone gets a chance to join in.  I picked up some tips, I tell you.  Well-Read in Motherwell won’t know what’s hit them next week!

I took a note of the questions he asked us.  I’m posting them now, just in case you want to start an online rerun.  Why not?  Let’s all celebrate the  50th anniversary of one of the best novels of the twentieth century.

Q1: It has been said that goodness is hard to make interesting in literature, but in Atticus Finch, Harper Lee seems to pull it off.  How does she do it?

Q2: It has been said that the African American characters in the book lack the depth of characterisation of the White Americans, that they are symbolic rather than fully realised figures.  Do you agree?

Q3: How do you think the text would be felt/read by an African American:

a) when it was written, in 1960, at the beginning of the struggle for Civil Rights in America;

b) today when racism in America wears a different but no less ugly face?

Q4: Dill is based on Truman Capote and Scout on Harper Lee herself.  Both were outsiders in very closed, conservative communities, Capote gay and Lee a woman of independent mind. What do you think their status as outsiders had to do with their work as artists?

Q5: Have you seen the movie of the book?  If so, what did you think of it?

Q6:  Can you think of a contemporary novel that takes on society’s big issues as successfully as To Kill A Mockingbird?

Richard Holloway suggested James Robertson’s And The Land Lay Still.  A recommendation that was of particular interest to the Scottish audience.  I admit I couldn’t think of anything on the night.  Two weeks later, I’ve read something that qualifies.  More on that later this week.

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Yes, my book group is 5 years old this week. Over the years we have read 62 books together. We’ve loved some and we’ve hated others. Unfortunately I suspect that our current read is likely to be added to the latter type.

I’m fortunate to belong to a library book group. North Lanarkshire Council started these – I think there are about 12 of them now – as part of their reader development program. The upside is that the library provides the reading material. The downside that choices are often restricted to books in paperbacks for obvious budgetary reasons. This it is a small price to pay – better that than no bookgroup at all and you know, some of us – actually me – need all the help we can get with the virtue of patience!

Motherwell Library Entrance

My group meets on the second Monday of the month and average attendance is 15-20. We meet in Motherwell Library, a fine victorian building, the entrance of which bears testimony to its raison d’etre. With increasing space in libraries being devoted to film and music, and book budgets being slashed, it’s heartwarming to see North Lanarkshire Council continuing to promote and support reading with its book groups and even its own literary festival! (The Words 2009 program is here.)

We like to vary things with extraordinary meetings. October 2006 saw us celebrate Motherwell Library’s 100th anniversary. We did that by reading 3 classics published in 1906. In October 2008 Janice Galloway entranced us while talking about her novel Clara, a book we had read a couple of months previously. In October 2008, Charles Cumming delighted us all with his tales of espionage. Another highlight was a trip to the theatre in Edinburgh to see To Kill A Mockingbird . The lowlight occurred during the fire alarm that sounded on one cold blustery evening. Typical! One year we entered the Penguin/Orange Reader’s Group Prize and for that we had to give ourselves an identity and a vision. We christened ourselves Well-Read in Motherwell.

The question is are we?  What does our reading list say about us?  What do you think? What should we read that we haven’t? The time is right to ask as we are about to choose a new batch of books. Suggestions in comments, please,  and if your book makes its way through the selection process you can be sure that I’ll report back in full.

In the meantime let me express my personal thanks to North Lanarkshire Council for the last five years of reading pleasures and the occasional displeasure. (Reading poor books isn’t all bad. It helps appreciate good books all the more!). Thanks also to the librarians for coping with my obsessions! Keep up the good work. Here’s to the next 5!

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There’s nothing more annoying than knowing the book you’re reading is a work of genius and that your antennae are simply not attuned; Rushdie’s magmun opus feeling like incoherent nonsense; sublime humour, magical realism and historical allegory notwithstanding.   I was struggling to read  a chapter a day by the end of chapter 3.  Normally I’d bail out but this is allegedly the best Booker winner of the last 40 years – a must-read book is ever there was one.

Then there was the upcoming book group – how could I possibly contribute if I hadn’t a clue about what was contained between the covers.  So I ploughed on through 647 excruciating pages.  Three weeks later, as I turn the final page, the sense of achievement in having read the Booker of Bookers is small, minimised by the fact that  a) my literary blindspot has not been healed and b) amidst all that verbosity, the author has cheated me by omitting the most satisfying phrase of all … an error, which I promptly rectified.

1/2

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I’ve been leading a real-life book group for 5 years now and we’ve just read our 50th novel together! During that time it’s become clear that to be a success the book must have some or all of the following qualities:

1) It must divide opinion.  This is something that really ignites the discussion and ensures that all (in my case 15-20 group participants per session) can pitch in.

2) There must be strong characterisation whereby a dastardly villain is much more interesting that an saintly heroine.

3) There must be hooks to extraneous discussion – we quite like to digress into related news events or other reading.

 Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair  ticked  (tickled?) all three of those boxes. 

Box 1 – Following on from last month’s read Mrs Gaskell’s North and South, it retained the C19th century theme but in an absolutely mind-boggling way for those who hadn’t known what to expect.  There were those who failed to complete the course because it was so radically different, those who went along with the ride and enjoyed it and those evangelical converts to Fforde’s wacky universe who now want us to read the whole series!  We compromised on that and decided that we’ll take on The Big Over Easy  during December – something light and frothy and not too challenging during that time of year when everything lies heavily on the stomach.  And they’ll need something light to follow Karen Connelly’s magnificent but emotionally devastating The Lizard Cage

Box 2 – not one but two dastardly villains.  Acheron Hades and Jack Schitt (how can you not smile at that?).  Thursday Next, the heroine, not so saintly either.

Box 3 –  Fforde’s plot contains a plethora of literary allusions and an alternative ending to Jane Eyre.  There are hooks to further conversation on every page.  Some obvious allusions, some more obscure but you can be sure that a group of 15 spotted more than I’d clocked in two readings.  It was also a good excuse to get out the poetry anthology  and “wander lonely as a cloud” with Wordsworth while beating off Poe’s ominous raven.    Fforde proving that literature can be fun.  

January’s group will be interesting.  In 90 minutes we’ll solve the mystery of Humpty Dumpty’s death, deconstruct crime fiction and discuss the etymology of our favourite nursery rhymes.  I can’t wait.

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As my book group is approaching its 5th year and its 50th book, a review of past reads shows that the overwhelming majority have had unhappy, nay downright miserable endings.  One group member has been pleading for a happy book.  So it was that Stuck-In-A-Book’s mention of unremitting cheeriness led to the swift inclusion of this 2005 Richard and Judy Book Club choice onto our list.

Now I try not to indulge in inveterate literary snobbery and so I do enjoy a smattering of chicklit here and there.  The cover in itself was no turnoff.  However, the addition of candy floss pink edged pages was one saccharine-tablet too many and I began to read with a firm determination not to enjoy this book. 

Neither did I for about 120 pages.  The candy floss allusion proving more than apt.  Very sweet, dissolving to substancelessness after the initial taste.  But just as suddenly I found myself charmed.  It is quite an enjoyable read taken on its own terms.  A cheerful (Stuck-In-A-Book was right!) book about newly-formed friendships, the girlishness of the late teens, the innocence of the 50’s, pop idolatry in the days before Elvis, mismatched couples.  As a romantic comedy, it would make quite a good film.  The more serious social history element, the declining wealth of the upper middle classes as war and death duties take their toll on both people and property, is wrapped in an absurd humour, effectively removing much of the pain if not the sharpened point.

The group finally categorised the read as a happy fairy-tale for grownups and the book averaged a respectable rating.

I hope the group enjoyed the respite from mislit  because we have The Lizard Cage coming up ….. and I can’t wait!

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I have loved the hatchets wielded on Vulpes Libris this week – someone invent an award quickly!  I haven’t always agreed with them. In fact, I felt downright defensive during the attack on Tolstoy.  However,  as I haven’t yet read The Kreutzer Sonata, I’ll let it pass …  Mark well, my  pretty little book foxes, I shall be compelled to return to this at a later date.

Attention turned to Thomas Hardy and Jude the Obscure – a book I have always found therapeutic.  Hardy has to be the king of mislit and no matter how tough reality gets, Jude’s experiences make it feel better!

Quite by chance I was preparing for my book group, the next title being Tess of the D’Urbervilles.  To be honest, I’ve avoided Tess like the plague.  I saw the film – the Roman Polanski one – a few years ago and always felt that I couldn’t approach the novel.  My blood would boil.  Imagine my surprise when I found myself falling asleep … day after day after day …..

***** Spoiler alert *****

My problem is a major one.  Tess’s sob story doesn’t convince me.  She’s too pretty, too bland, sweetly dairy and milk-maidy … and so utterly fixated on being a victim that she is unable to free herself from her circumstances.  And she had opportunity aplenty.  Why was noone on hand to administer a good shaking/kick up the posterior and drive some sense in her head.   Too honest to keep silent?  Too proud to accept charity from your in-laws?  Good grief girl –  whine all you wish but all that achieved was an appointment with the gallows! Actions have consequences and you landed exactly where your own choices put you.

I would have applauded you, however,  had you turned on that hypocritical guttersnipe that you called Angel.  Oh no, his halo didn’t slip.    But to use as a pretext for your crime a statement which only you could interpret as a lie.  That’s completely dishonourable and  I have no sympathy!

***** End of spoilers *****

All of the above making the plot sound like a ménage-à-trois of the highly dramatic kind and a darned sight more interesting to read than it was.  How so?  In a word, pacing. A leisurely amble through the countryside – landscape prefiguring drama ad nauseam. In addition, we know that Tess and Angel will marry, we also know that Tess will tell her secret but do we really need 120 pages of romantic idyll and belly-aching to get us to that point?  Particularly as the pivotal scenes with Alec are so obscured – the first discretely smothered in fog, the second hidden behind closed doors.  Is this inconsistency or genius?  Don’t know.  Don’t care.  I was just relieved to get to the end.

 1/2

I’ve written the above before I start a thorough investigation of the novel.  I do like to know my way around the book group reads especially as I lead the discussion.  The novel may well rise in my estimation when I start reading the critiques and appreciating Hardy’s stylistic devices – use of landscapes, foreshadowing and omens.  I already appreciate the subtlety in the characterisations of Alec and Angel – lots of blurring boundaries there.  The most enjoyable part of the novel, in fact, and a heady mix for a book group blood-bath discussion.

As for the question Is Alec a rapist? , I found an excellent essay on this in The Folio Book of Literary Puzzles.   If you’re not a Folio Society enthusiast like me, the same essay can be found in John Sutherland’s Was Heathcliffe A Murderer? 

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Governor General’s Award for English Language Fiction 1993 / Pulitzer Prize 1995

The Stone Diaries is Carol Shields’ most famous novel.  Famous because it is the only novel ever to have won both of the awards noted above –  Shields was an American-born naturalised Canadian and thus, eligible for both prizes.  Famous also because it is Shields’ masterpiece.

Daisy Goodwill’s life spans the 20th century.  Born during the first decade, she dies in the last.  Her fictional autobiography is paced to match.  One chapter per decade.  Her life is that of a commonplace woman – a woman who never claims her own life but blends into the background during the normal life arc of childhood, marriage, motherhood, widowhood, old age, death.

So how does Daisy manage to retain the reader’s interest in her ordinary, everyday existence?  With a rich and varied cast of secondary characters observed and imagined in a vivid and entertaining way.  Chapter 1 holds a humourous but wholly imagined account of her mother and father’s marriage, cut tragically short by her mother’s death in childbirth.  Chapter 2 holds the account of her childhood – adopted by her Aunt Clementine, a feisty woman who leaves her husband because he refuses to foot the bill for a trip to the dentist.  Chapter 3 the history of her courtship and first marriage, which ends unconsummated on honeymoon when hubby meets a premature end.  Thus is the pattern set – Daisy’s “normal” life is punctuated by not-so-normal events and a cast of colourful characters.

Narrative texture is added by the use of multiple techniques.  The voice shifts from first person to third person and back again.  Sections of the novel are written in epistolary form.  Adding authenticity to the autobiographical tone, the book contains  a series of photographs in the centre.  Shields once spoke of her delight in “the freedom to create”, a freedom she uses to the max in this novel.

In this series of snapshots Daisy tells us only what she wants us to know.  The group discussion uncovered a number of hidden subtexts – particularly with regard to her two husbands! 

Amazingly the discussion turned to dispute when considering whether The Stone Diaries is a sad book.  It wasn’t the inevitability of life ending in death but the image of an old lady in a turquoise tracksuit living out her days in Florida, her family scattered to the four corners of the earth.   Daisy, still refusing to assert herself, remains uncomplaining but leaves life as she entered it – alone. It’s not until her grown children are clearing away her possessions that they find evidence of the woman they did not know. 

True to life it may be.  But I find that sad …. and tragic that they choose the wrong flowers for her funeral.

 

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Is it coincidence,  a subconscious at work or simply a symptom of the modern world? But a seemingly random selection of novels return me again and again to the faith vs atheism debate and last month’s book group choice felt like climbing to the top of that particular mountain.

Graham Greene’s widely-acclaimed masterpiece, The Power and The Glory, is set in the Mexico of the 1930’s – a time when the Catholic church was viciously persecuted by an atheistic government.  This seems, these days, to be a little known facet of history – of the 15 book group members, noone knew of it before reading the novel.

At the time of Greene’s novel the catholic clergy have fled, been forced to marry, or executed.  Only one priest remains – he has no name as befits his symbolic status.  Yet he’s also individual, a deeply flawed and extremely unsaintly priest.  A “whisky” priest who has fathered, in a drunken moment, a daughter, at once the cause of his greatest joy and sorrow.  To obtain salvation, he must repent.  But how can he repent, when his sin has produced the greatest love of his life?  Not that he spends much time with her.  He is on the run and has been for eight years.  Yet, while he can escape, he chooses not to.  Because the people need him – for confession, to administer the sacraments.  There is no doubting the sincerity of his belief, the seriousness with which he takes his vocation.  Time and again, instead of making his escape, he turns around to administer to the spiritual need of a fellow human being.  The analogy with Jesus Christ is clear.  “No greater love hath a man that he lay down his own life in behalf of another” Yet the whisky priest is in a state of mortal sin and, if he is to die a saint, he must die in a state of grace ….

New Testament analogies appear throughout.  Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Judas and Barabbas figures all make their appearance.  The Judas mestizo figure is particularly unpleasant.  The lieutenant, the atheistic counterpart of the priest, is also finely drawn.  He is acting according to his principles – wanting to rid his country of the church, which luxuriates in its own glory, never providing for the physical welfare of the starving masses.  Yet, while his motives may be sincere, he too is imperfect.  His zeal leads to impatience and frustration at the lack of cooperation from the populace.  This eventually leads him to murder.  The lesson worldly power corrupts?

The complexity of the characterisation, the paradoxical nature of the proponents on both sides of the religious divide, unforgettable key scenes (black comedy while wine purchasing, the world in microcosm in the prison cell, the half-world or limbo of the deserted village, the final ideological showdown between priest and atheist), and the irony inherent in the history of the traditional saint are all elements that showcase the skills of a great author.

As a whole, though, this was not an entirely pleasurable reading experience.  As the priest progressed in circles through the countryside,  the narrative pull was slow and agonising and repetitive.  Absolutely intentional.  As hard on the reader as on the priest?  And I was relieved to reach the end.  But thinking about the novel is an entirely different experience – there is much to dissect and analyse.  Layers and layers of paradox to tease out, discuss and debate.  The similarities of the two main characters.  The positives and negatives of alcohol. And the title …. where is the power and the glory in this novel?  Determine that and you’ve understood the heart of the matter.

Group rating: 1/2

Personal rating:  

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It was once possible to commit difficult, rebellious and unconventional women to the asylum with only a GP’s signature. Not way back in the distant past either. This was Britain and it was practice until the 1950’s.  The women, thus interred, were released only when the institutions closed down in the 1990’s. Regrettable social history which Maggie O’Farrell uses to great effect in her 4th novel. (Her 1st written by the way – she spent 10 years perfecting it!)

Esme is institutionalised in the 1930’s for …. no, for that would be giving it away …. is released in the 1990’s when her asylum is closed. A series of (un)fortunate events brings her to the home of her grandniece, Iris; a businesswoman with a complicated love life; a woman who, had she lived in Esme’s time would without a shadow of a doubt have met the same fate. Iris’s story isn’t the fascinating one, however, and, at times, the contrast between her opportunities and Esme’s is just too obvious. The real strength of the novel lies in the layers of Esme’s story which gradually unfolds through the narrative voices of both Esme and her sister, Kitty. Kitty, now suffering from advanced Alzheimers, can’t remember what she had for her last meal, although she does remember, with startling clarity, the events of 60 years ago, which led her to betray her sister …. The secrets are revealed, slowly but surely, in Kitty’s fractured and disjointed voice, although she only tells us the details which portray her in a light softer than harsh reality …. Esme provides the bitter detail.

And yet I found myself wondering whether Esme’s narration too is unreliable – not in a way which detracts from the injustice served her, but enough to wonder whether she really did have bipolar tendencies, which would have been recognised and treated in a different age. There are enough dubious incidents throughout her childhood to merit the question. Her surprising self-possession and focus upon release are also quite disturbing.  Evidence of a real problem or a self-fulfilling prophecy?

There’s no doubt that Maggie O’Farrell has written a powerful, outrage-inspiring and disturbing book. Esme’s stolen life is upsetting. So too, the society of the 1930’s. As is the cavalier attitude of the 1990’s social services. These threads of outrage and sadness run throughout the novel, from the first page to the last. And that ending achieves something I would have thought impossible. It’s poignant and manages to upset me even more than before!

This is an excellent book group read. It’s not often that a page-turner inspires such a wealth of discussion. My group members also related the stories of those they knew who had been similarly affected by these draconian social policies. (And not all the victims were female ….) A number of group members took the book away for a reread. Now that they know what happens, they want to reread and savour …. which is as good as recommendation as there can be and an endorsement that O’Farrell’s 10 years were years well-spent!

 

P.S  Let’s hear it for the 2007 Good Housekeeping Novel of the Year!

P.P.S  Recommended for those who loved this, Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture.

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In the month the shortlists for Costa 2007 are to be announced, my reading group finally read the Costa 2006 Novel of the Year winner.

The novel made for both an interesting read and an entertaining discussion.

Boyd’s novel interweaves two tales:  the first is one of espionage and counterespionage during the second world war and the second is of the winding-up of the loose ends during the 1970’s. 

Sally Gilmartin has lived quietly since WWII with her husband and daughter.  Suddenly she begins to act in a strange, paranoid fashion and decides to write down her war-time experiences and reveal her past in installments to her daughter.  As the chapters go by, the tale Eva Delectorskaya (for Sally is a Russian emigree) tells of her recruitment into the secret services and the activities of the British, particularly in America become increasingly fascinating and complex.

Sally/Eva is convinced that someone from the past has discovered her new identity and wishes to assassinate her, a plot she wishes to preempt.  To do this, she requires the aid of her daughter, Ruth, whose story is told in alternate chapters until the two timeframes merge into the climactic moment of reckoning.

Much discussion centred round the purpose of Ruth’s story, which runs contemporaneously to the Bader-Meinhof trial of the 70’s.  There are obvious parallels to Eva’s story.  Ruth has a child by a German father and her past comes back to haunt her during the long hot summer of 1976.  She earns her living teaching English to foreign students and one of them may be working for the Persian secret services.  Ruth appears to be oblivious to the intrigues surrounding her and, a marked contrast to her mother, completely transparent and open, incapable of keeping a secret for longer than 5 minutes!

Her story suffers by comparison with Eva’s, undoubtedly the one that keeps the pages turning. Based on real incidents such as the Venlo incident and the wartime activities of the British Security Coordination service in New York, it provides insight into less well-known elements of intelligence operations during WWII. Dirty tricks, media manipulation, double and triple crossing form a complex and admittedly confusing plot with multiple interpretations – all good fodder for a book group discussion.

The plot becomes clear on a second reading – I was reading it far too quickly the first time round to pick up on all the inferences but I did get it second time through!

The group did find the book weak on personal motivations. Eva’s recruitment into the services is rapid. Her father’s enthusiasm for it is mysterious as his son has just been killed. (Was the cachet of a British passport really so great in those days?) Similarly the mind of the arch villain remains in many ways closed to the reader and the ending for some is anti-climactic.

Boydites in the group (or those of us who had read other Boyd novels) didn’t rate it as highly as his earlier novels. Not that it matters, it’s still a recommended and revelatory read.

1/2

Reading group guide 
Supplementary question: Ask if anyone has been approached by the security services. The answers may well be very, very surprising!

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