A 10 for the title alone. Hilary Mantel’s collection of short stories will be our February book.
Sylvie Simmons’ biography of Leonard Cohen is one half of our annual January double-header.
There’s a review here from the Guardian. I only include it because it’s written by a person called Kitty Empire. Why didn’t I have a name like that?
Steve Earle’s debut novel, which borrows its title from the final recording of the late great Hank Williams, is one half of our annual January double-header. Guardian review here.
Another fun night of reading, talking, debating and laughing.
Ian McEwan’s The Children Act got a mixed response, and was marked accordingly. McEwan isn’t so much a polarising author – no one actively hated him – but he does have a habit of annoying people.
In this case, it was his palling up to High Court judges, swanning around the Inner Temple with a glass of champagne in one hand and a fat cigar in the other, blatantly stealing the details of actual cases, and topping it all off with the kind of forelock-tugging approach to privilege that typifies those outsiders who’ve squirmed their way inside.
So we started with a fairly lengthy assassination of McEwan and his modus operandi before we’d even discussed Fiona and Adam and the events of the book. Which sounds like it got a hard time; it didn’t, there were at least as many who enjoyed it as those who were less impressed, and even that latter group did not actively hate the book.
The general agreement was that it was very typical McEwan: person of steady, professional background is T-boned by bizarre eccentric character from a world far removed from that of the protagonist. So there were no real surprises. A couple of people commented on McEwan’s poor form in finishing books in a satisfying manner; Jo and Charles pointed to his short stories as being better resolved, and The Children Act’s length (NOT a novella!) perhaps worked in its favour.
It threw up some lively debate about choice, autonomy, the rule of law (or at least collective respect for law) in a society of widely disparate values. As far as the writing was concerned (and at times it was hard to divide our judgement on the book, or on the author) we generally agreed that it was (as Howard Jacobson would NOT say) an “easy read”; that is, it was clear and clean with a straightforward, driving narrative. Helen thought that Fiona was well drawn, certainly one of the better female characters from a male author, though interestingly the Ken Doll husband was considered by everyone to be a two-dimensional flop.
Our marks: Wendy 6, Jo 8, Karen 7, Charles 5, Simon 7, Judith 6, Helen 7, Mark 7. Average = 6.625
John Williams’s book Stoner gave us plenty to talk about. First published in 1965, Stoner failed to achieve any level of success until its reissue in 2003. Now considered “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of”, it’s gone on to become UK bookseller Waterstone’s Book of the Year and an international bestseller.
But what did WE think of it?
Well, it lived up to its reputation and was (almost) universally loved by the group. Stoner’s quiet stoicism and resilience – qualities inherited from generations of unambitious, dirt-poor farm workers – see him through endless trials by ordeal. These trials come at him from all directions: from Edith, his wife; from Lomax, his colleague; and from Grace, his daughter. Through all of them Stoner maintains a sense of dignity and forbearance.
Stoner is not entirely passive. His moment of awakening, when he realises that he has what it takes to be a good (rather than pedestrian) teacher, is well realised, as is his sexual awakening with Driscoll. But more often than not, any moment of sunshine in his life is brief, and quickly blotted out.
This relentlessly grim tone divided us a little. For some, it was a case of “that’s life”. For others, it became stultifying. Was Stoner stoic or passive? Who, at some point, did not want to take him by the lapels and give him a good shake?
The characters around him drew plenty of analysis too. What drove Edith’s poisonous and vindictive behaviour? Was it, as some inferred, rooted in abuse at the hands of her father? The characters of Lomax and Walker were uncomfortably familiar to those who had worked in education and academia, as was the Kafkaesque value inversion in which the glib succeed at the expense of those with a moral compass. And what drove Sloane’s breakdown?
There was something in Williams’s spare style that gave added power to the emotional issues he dealt with. Everyone agreed that it was a deceptively easy book to read, one that you could race through almost too quickly.
Having said all that, I didn’t like it at all. But that’s just me.
Our marks: Judith 8, Marion 7, Karen 6, Simon 6, Suzanne 8, Charles 8, Helen 7, Jane 8, Wendy 8, Mark 4. Average = 8
The last word was touted as Hanif Kureishi’s “… outrageous, clever and very funny story of sex, lies, art and what defines a life.” It is alleged to be a thinly veiled account of the real-life attempt by biographer Patrick French to reflect the life of V. S. Naipaul. Whatever the truth the book group expressed a fairly narrow range of opinions about the book.
None of the group gathered at Suzanne’s would say that there weren’t some interesting moments in Kureishi’s work. Most felt that Kureishi’s mix of bitchy humour and one-liners was enough to sustain them over the first 100 pages or so. Alas general opinion was that the book lost its momentum from that point and thence moved inexorably toward a slow death. Maybe this was because of Kureishi’s cartoonish characters and maybe it was due to the author over-extending himself. Many of us found the main characters to be somewhat remote and unsympathetic.
Not everyone harboured dark thoughts. Marion, God bless her, really liked The last word and found her interest sustained by the structure and the book and the character development. Similarly Jane found enjoyment in the book. There was certainly a strong central character in Mamoon and his relationships with his muses and also with Harry and Alice were complex.
Scores; Judith 5; Wendy- did not score this book; Karen 3; Helen- did not score this book; Simon 4; Suzanne 5; Joanne 5; Jane 6; Marion 7; Charles 4. Average = 4.9.
David Almond’s Skellig was published in 1998 and was immediately successful. In fact, according to Wikipedia:
It was the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year and it won the Carnegie Medal from the Library Association, recognising the year’s outstanding children’s book by a British author. In the U.S. it was a runner up for the Michael L. Printz Award, which recognizes one work of young adult fiction annually. Since publication, it has also been adapted into a play, an opera, and a film.
Skellig got us talking, which was good fun.
I feel that, in general, we backed off with our criticism and allowed ourselves to experience the story both for and in itself, and as a mnemonic to remind us of books and reading experiences that we’d had as children or teens.
Skellig has won numerous awards … but is it that good? We agreed that, well, no it wasn’t. Some of the characters were particularly thin (the parents spring to mind) while others were robust and had worlds of their own. The story had loose ends, holes and question marks and yet … and yet … something in the writing (or in our preparedness to suspend disbelief and criticism) kept us turning the pages. And, in the end, the sum was greater than its parts.
Not everyone was swept away. Marion felt it stood poorly in comparison with, for example, Australian teen fiction of a similar vintage by John Marsden and Melina Marchetta. The Tomorrow series and Looking for Alibrandi meet all the requirements of Skellig whilst also developing powerful characters and believable worlds. But Skellig somehow charmed us; perhaps it was the hint of magic or other-worldliness.
And then we all got onto books that we’d read as children, and onto the whole “what on earth is teen / young adult fiction anyway?” discussion.
Our marks: Marion 5; Wendy 7; Mark 7; Jane 6; Karen 7; Helen 6; Simon 8; Charles 7; Suzanne 7. Average = 6.9.
Here’s a link to the trailer for the film starring Tim Roth.
Alice Munro’s collection of short stories, Dear Life.
I can’t even find the scores for this!
Everything’s falling to pieces!