Here’s the blurb from publisher Text’s web page:
“Arthur Wheeler is haunted by his infatuation with a Japanese youth he encountered in the enemy alien camp where he worked as a guard during WW2. Abandoning his wife and baby son, Arthur sets out on a doomed mission to rescue his lover from forced deportation back to Japan, a country in ruins.
“Thus begins the secret history of a soldier at war with his own sexuality and dangerously at odds with the racism that underpins the crumbling British Empire.
“Four decades later Arthur is still obsessed with the traumatic events of his youth. He proposes a last reunion with his lost lover, in the hope of laying his ghosts to rest, but this mission too seems doomed to failure.
Like Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and Snow Falling On Cedars, My Beautiful Enemy explores questions of desire and redemption against the background of a savage racial war. In this context, Arthur’s private battles against his own nature, and against the conventions of his time, can only end in heartache.”
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.
Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds has been getting lots of big reviews and onto lots of shortlists, but it’s not the kind of book we normally go for.
The book is centred on the war in Iraq and follows two lowly US soldiers, Bartle and Murph, both from America’s South, who become bonded during their training and look to one another to make it, intact, to the end of their tour of duty. But, while Bartle learns to disengage emotionally and get through the days, Murph struggles, eventually collapsing and [not a spoiler alert] dies in horrible circumstances.
Much of the book’s structure and story is set away from the field of conflict and occurs in the Virginia to which Bartle returns, and into which he fails completely to settle. The story propels towards the moment of Murph’s death and the events that follow: a cover up, and a letter that Bartle sends to Murph’s mother. But this is where, structurally, the book tended to lose its way.
It was still a great read, though All Quiet on the Western Front it is not. Its strengths are its themes of craziness and alienation and the author’s ability to articulate the young soldiers’ lost-ness, both in Iraq and after. Its weakness is in the writing, which occasionally become too clever for its own good. Those of the group with a professional background in mental health also questioned some of the actions and motives of people in the midst of PTSD. Truth schmooth!
I haven’t mentioned the Army Automaton that is Sergeant Sterling. A great character who reminded me of Robert Duvall’s “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” nutter from Apocalypse Now and a similarly psychotic NCO forcing cowering conscripts from their foxholes in Band of Brothers. Wars apparently need these guys, or maybe books about wars do.
There’s a Guardian interview with Powers [here] that provides a few answers, regarding the author’s background, that we wondered about.
And, of course, welcome to Jane, our newest member!
Our scores: Helen 9; Suzanne 9; Judith 8; Simon 8, Charles 6; Jane 7; Jo 7; Karen 6; Mark 7; Wendy 6; Marion 8. Average = 7.4.
John Banville’s The Sea divided opinion among the group, and the second of his novels to fall under our scrutiny did the same.
Ancient Light stands alone but also features characters from a previous Banville novel, Eclipse, and there are many references to the events and people from that earlier work. In fact Ancient Light is two stories: the first is that of a nearly retired actor looking back on the events of a summer and his sexual relationship with the older Mrs Grey; the second is the same actor suddenly thrust back into work, though now on screen rather than stage.
For a book that is centred on the sexual relations between an adult and a fifteen year old we talked very little about the ethics of the situation. Rather, as with The Sea, it was Banville’s writing and language and rambling, almost plotless, style that dominated much of the evening. We fell into two camps: those who loved it and couldn’t wait to open it, and those who “hit the wall” and really struggled, particularly with the second half. (Interestingly, the “strugglers” almost all reached for a good ol’ detective novel after finishing Ancient Light. Gimme a plot!!!)
Was the language of the story soaring and transcendent or artful and self-conscious? Was the narrator’s descriptions of Mrs Grey’s body sensual or overdone and sordid? The answer is yes. It really comes down to whether you went with it or not.
It could have been a book 20 pages long or 2,000. But, most importantly, it was a book that generated lively, polarised discussion. It was a great night, I thought, a gorgeous February evening with a light breeze. The only down side was that we missed Helen and Simon, who I’m sure could have given us great background detail on the events in Eclipse, and Wendy, slumming it in her Fifth Avenue apartment.
Thanks to everyone who brought cake, cheese, figs, crackers, Ferrero Rocher chocolates (it really did feel like Christmas for a moment).
Suzanne 8; Karen 5; Judith 4; Charles 5; Jo 8; Marion 7; Mark 8; Wendy 9. Average = 6.75
New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani was less confronting than our other January double-header book, Trieste, but still gave us a lot to discuss.
Those present with a medical background gave us non-medical types plenty to think about with the way that medicos can (apparently) transfer expectations, hopes and aspirations onto their patients. Several people commented positively on the author’s (and, again, the translator’s) ability to describe the period and the landscape.
Father Koskela’s lessons on Finnish mythology divided opinion. For some, they offered insights into the Finnish psyche, for others … But all agreed that the setting was fascinating and, as with Trieste, most of us at some point found ourselves on Google, wanting to learn more about this sparsely populated but bigger-than-you-think nation squeezed between Scandinavia and Russia.
Our marks: Marion 7; Wendy 7; Karen 7; Helen 7; Charles 7; Judith 6; Jo 6; Simon 4; Mark 3; Suzanne 7. Average = 6.1