Wow: what a start to the year. First our Jesus/Mary double-header to get us talking, then Carson McCullers’ Southern gothic novel.
When this book was suggested I remember thinking that the title was familiar but I hadn’t read it, and didn’t know whether Carson was a man or a woman, young or old, east coast or west coast. I deliberately avoided Googling until after I’d read the book, and so I was astonished to learn that Carson was a 20-year-old female (23 at time of publication).
As with our previous two books, this novel generated a lively discussion that got everyone involved. We roamed from topic to topic, from racism and inter-war politics to class and cross-dressing. Some enjoyed McCullers’ writing style more than others; what came across as clipped or detached for one reader was raw and visceral to the next.
One thread that got us all going was the author’s extraordinary maturity when dealing with her characters’ values and aspirations. The person we probably discussed the least was Singer himself. He really did work as the perfect foil for the cast of characters around him to confess or dream or debate. This in turn led to a thread on when a book (or film or TV show or piece of music) is “right” (that is, when it resonates perfectly with the way the reader feels at the time) and when it is “wrong” (that is, when it creates feelings of dread or nausea or anxiety or antipathy). McCullers’ book was both a “right” and a “wrong” book for all of us, but was universally enjoyed.
For anyone struggling with the themes, motifs and symbols in the book, here’s a link to the Sparks Notes website.
Our marks: Helen 8, Karen 8, Charles 9, Suzanne 7, Marion 7, Wendy 8, Simon 7, Mark 8, Judith 8, Jane 8, Jo 8. Average = 7.8.
I’ve given Jo’s mark even though she wasn’t there. I actually received the “text of shame” halfway through, just as we were tucking into the last Portuguese tart. (Jane: you have raised the catering benchmark!) She managed to struggle through, though, helped by a bottle of saki.
Part I of our Christmas / New Year double header, along with Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus.
I read this on a Kindle and didn’t get a grip on its scale, though it did feel more like a novella. (At what point in the word count does a novella become a novel?)
The story takes place some years after the crucifixion (should I capitalise that? Sorry, being C of E I’m not really up on that kind of thing). Mary is effectively under house arrest, observed and interrogated by the delusion fanatics (my words) intent on building the myth of Jesus through a process of historical reinvention and attempted mind control. Which sounds rather conspiracy theorist but, in the hands of Toibin’s Mary, is simply told as the story of woman whose son fell in with the “wrong” sort of company: “men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye”.
We’ve had books ten times longer that have generated less than a tenth of the discussion. Were our readings affected by our own religious or non-religious backgrounds? What did we bring to the book? Was there any kind of Catholic / Protestant / Nonconformist / von Danikenist divide in our readings?
It turns out that the book has its origins as a monologue for the Dublin Theatre Festival, eventually going on to be staged on Broadway. It was so widely appreciated there that it was nominated for three Tony Awards; in response, the producer closed it down six weeks short of its run. Go figure. Wendy heard the Streep-narrated version, which has also had glowing reviews. Here’s a snippet.
Wendy 7; Karen 8, Judith 8; Marion 5; Simon 7; Helen 8; Charles 8; Suzanne 8; Jo 8; Jane 7; Mark 7. Average = 7.4.
Another year over, and our 171st book took its ritual flogging from the Disciples of the Purple Book.
Anne de Courcy’s history of match-making in the Raj got a pretty weak reception. It was certainly an interesting period in colonial British history but the general agreement was that de Courcy handled her material poorly. The main criticism was that every journal, letter and diary that came into her possession was wrung dry for the last morsel of possible interest, or not, as the case may be.
Suzanne noted that de Courcy was her deb herself, which may help explain the breathless tone in which all the chaps were dashing and handsome and all the girls were dashing and beautiful. Her theory that the chapters may originally have been written for a periodical (Tatler? Horse and Hounds?) could also explain the higgledy-piggledy structure, in which characters are introduced and then, two chapters later, re-introduced.
We were all irritated by the redundant asides (“Jessica stayed with her brother-in-law, Topsy Kentwell, cousin of Stiffy von Buttrose, third Viscount of Mayfield, upon whose 22′ sloop Stinker Waugh set the inter-war coits record in spite of his tiger injury”). As young people might say these days, “WTF?”
I was prepared to forgive a fair bit of this nonsense simply because it told me a bit about India that I didn’t know, and my ignorance of India is almost as big as India itself. And for some reason I always feel guilty about this ignorance (and my similar ignorance of central and southern Africa) in a way that I don’t feel guilty about my ignorance of, say, South-East Asia or Central America. Go figure. Maybe I should have put that in a footnote.
Then we all fell upon the splendid, Raj-style feast prepared in sultry, Madras-style conditions by a team of unpaid coolies. Wonderful tucker. Marion, we thought of you, in your horned helmet and waist-length plaits, into your 39th straight hour of the Nibelungen.
Oops, nearly forgot our marks: Wendy 6; Charlie 6; Karen 6; Suzanne 4; Jane 5; Simon 3; Jo 5; Helen 4; Judith 5; Mark 6. Average = 5.
And how could I possibly forget the quiz?! It took on a decidedly informal tone this year. In the interests of the environment, Judith carefully recycled her cat questions from previous years. Suzanne raced away to an early lead but was pegged back in final furlong by Helen, but no one actually kept count and, as they say on the back pages, literature was the winner on the day.
In the spirit of our earlier enthusiasm and desire for “challenging” reads we’ve chosen Will Self’s Umbrella, which even devotees of the London Perambulator consider to be, well, challenging.
Update: this was going to be Book 167 but got moved to accommodate (a) the book’s general bigness and (b) Helen and Simon’s tour of Schleswig-Holstein. What a bunch we are!
Update 2: I couldn’t make it on the night due to in-law hospital dramas. However, Judith sent me this report:
“Well, a wide range of views on Umbrella.
“Helen thought it was ground-breaking, beautiful, and possibly his best book so far, although she agreed it was challenging. Wendy, however, said that she failed to connect with any of the characters, a judgement reflected in her score, and Marion agreed with this: both failed to finish the book.
“Charlie, although he prefers a more character-driven book, found much to like – the language and the descriptive writing especially. Simon is a Will Self nut, so, although he accepted much of what was said, thought it was a book which would probably improve on second reading, and that it had ‘a weird charm’.
“I thought much of the language was evocative (especially the bit about the machine gun) and beautiful, but generally found it too irritating and that there was a narrative in it trying (and failing) to get out. Also the italics all over the place were annoying, and this change of time/place could have been achieved by a paragraph break (and made it easier to read). I might try and read it again.
“Another thing was that much of the characters’ backstory was established in earlier books, and if you hadn’t read them it was rather difficult [to follow].”
Scores: Helen 6; Wendy 0; Marion 1; Charlie 6; Karen 5; Simon 7; Mark 1; Judith 3. Average = 3.6
Our non-fiction read for the year is His Grumpiness, Paul Theroux, heading through Africa and bringing his unsparing, curmudgeonly gaze on all that he sees. And what he sees he does not like.
Once again, slackness abounds and there’s no proper write up. I do remember that we “liked” it in the way that you like something that’s about something unpleasant. Wendy made the good point that when he wrote about people he wrote with a complete lack of judgement, which was something I hadn’t noticed. Thank goodness for reading groups! Personally I found the overall tone to be despondent or fatigued or something (I can’t think of the right word, though I’m sure I did on the night. Not). I seem to remember Judith digging out an SMH review in which the critic said “hopelessness gathers like a noxious gas”. Hmm! Charlie disagreed and made a spirited case for the book, but not enough to make me change my mark.
Charles 7, Marion 7, Karen 6, Mark 6, Wendy 6, Judith 7, Jane 6, Jo ["had only read 15% of it so couldn't mark it"]. Average = 6.4.
Well, every other book group in Australia’s picked it, so why shouldn’t we? Yes, it’s Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, the latest in that new genre “autism lit”. What will those publishers think of next?
OK, it’s some time later and I’m struggling to remember what we said about it. Anyone else prepared to chip in with a 250-word summary? (I do remember that I was late as I’d had to go and watch my daughter being a witch in Merewether High School’s Macbeth, so I was well prepared for some light relief.)
I do remember our marks though!
Judith 5, Simon 4, Charles 6, Karen 7, Helen 5, Mark 7, Marion 9, Suzanne 7, Jane 6 (postal vote). Average = 6.2.
Mr Sponge is currently unavailable, so our stop-gap book is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. If this film poster’s anything to go by, it should be a saucy read!
Update: I was swanning around in the oppressive heat of a spectacular, Wimbledon-winning, British Lions-smashing, Ashes-spectacularing British summer and so didn’t go. But Christine did.