Junot Diaz: This is how you lose her.
Lisa See: On Gold Mountain.
With this book Anthony Doerr won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Evidently this is worth $10,000 in the hand – plus God knows what else in sales. The prize is supposed to be provided to reward “distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life”. So, with a bit of luck, Doerr receiving a gong for a book which barely mentions America or Americans means that the criteria are being relaxed? A cynic might say, however, that this WAS an American book dressed up in European clothing.
The setting for All the light … is WW2 Europe, where the main characters are either refugees (the blind Marie Laure and her doting father) escaping Paris for the relative calm of San Malo, where brother/uncle Etienne has a large house, or reluctant troops in the Nazi war machine (Werner and his pal Frank Volkheimer) who wander peripatetically around the theatres of war searching out radio signals from ‘resistance fighters’ and other ‘enemy’ soldiers. Essentially Marie-Laure’s dad has been given the enormously valuable Sea of Flames diamond (by his employers at the Paris Museum of Natural History) which he is to smuggle to London so that it doesn’t fall into the hands of the invading Nazis. There are many more characters and quite a few twists to the plot which inexorably draws Marie-Laure and Werner together at a time when San Malo is being dismantled by war and the dastardly SMajor Von Rumpol is desperately seeking the diamond. This meeting resonates particularly because, as the reader knows, Werner used to listen regularly to radio broadcasts, on various topics of wonder, performed by (uncle) Etienne from his San Malo home.
There was agreement that this was a somewhat sentimental sort of book which irked some but only mildly annoyed others. Most agreed that the book featured some well-drawn characters: especially that of Werner. Alas, other characters seemed not quite real with Marie Laure being like some romantic creation (read realism-meets-fantasy). Similarly SMajor Von Rumpel was drawn as an archetypal moustache-twirling baddie. The story lines were quite well constructed – although some found the tiny bites offered up in the endless ‘chapterettes’ got to be a bit tiresome after a while. The writing also got to be a bit stilted, even flowery, which gave the book the feel of a melodrama – or maybe one of Jules Verne’s books.
Doerr certainly knew his stuff and much of the book appears to have been well-researched. It is possible that the author was familiar with every bridge and potential obstacle to blind people in central Paris and San Malo and may well have become an expert on subjects a wide-ranging as early twentieth century locks and indoctrination methods used in the Hitler Youth. And yet there were some clangers: the characters spoke in a sort of American lingo – which was a real turn-off for some of us. Similarly Simon will never forgive the scene where Werner, Frank and company are trapped in the cellar of an ancient hotel with bits of yet-to-be-invented rebar hanging about them.
The combination of myths (Sea of Flames; Smugglers and brutish dogs on the beaches of Britany) and Jules Verne worked for some – albeit in a boys-own sort of way. There were a few plot red herrings – like the one-legged man on the train toward the end of the book- where the author had a bit of a playful ‘lend’ of us by echoing Werner’s unfortunate demise. Ultimately, though, the development and fate of characters such as Werner, uncle Etienne, the people of San Malo, and the people whom Werner had left behind in Germany kept many of us turning the pages with interest.
There was much discussion about the endless number of books about WW-2. Alas it seems that we will never quite digest the horror of that monumental series of horrors – except in the small instalments offered up in the numerous media available to us. There was also discussion about the indoctrination of young and vulnerable people into the Hitler Youth movement: doubtless the same sort of insanity that occurs in recent times with the dreaded ISIS – and other cults.
The book drew a broad range of comments from the rank-&-file. Indeed the two book group people who were not present at the meeting outlined the diversity by commenting, respectively: “… overly sentimental”- 3/10 (Christine); and “… wonderful”- 9/10 (Suzanne). Other scores were as follows: Wendy 7; Helen 6; Marion 7; Judith 5; Karen 7; Helen 6; Simon 5; Joanne 5; Jane 7; Charles 7.
Average = 6.2.
28 June 2016, Helen and Simon’s fancy new place in Big Town
Helen and Simon hosted the book group for the June discussion of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (sic). It was the first book group meeting in their new home in Islington and so was something of a house-warming. Fittingly the book drew a range of comments and quite a deal of hearty discussion.
This book, tagged as a tragi-comedy, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in the ‘fiction’ category. It certainly has a number of fans and the review by Philip Caputo in the New York Times was lavish with its praise.
Essentially this book can be divided up into three bits: The first part deals with the exit of a select band of South Vietnamese troops and their families and the subsequent abandonment of others during the fall of Saigon. Here we meet three close friends: ‘The Captain’ (the book’s narrator), Bon and Man – young men with different political sensibilities who nonetheless have forged strong bonds of friendship.
The second part deals with the settlement of the refugees, including the Captain, Bon and ‘The General’ – who had fled Saigon – and the establishment of a new quasi-military force in exile in the United States. During this stage we learn that The Captain is determined to pursue his role as a ‘sleeper’ in a spy network tasked with keeping an eye on possible insurgents who may return to Vietnam to launch a counter revolution. In this part of the book The Captain participates in the making of a movie (‘The Hamlet’) which is destined to become a typically revisionist Hollywood flick despite his best efforts to infuse an Asian sensibility.
In the book’s third phase The Captain returns with a group of guerrillas, advised by the shady Claude (a CIA operative), who re-enter Vietnam under a vague pretext but are quickly captured and sent to a ‘re-education’ camp by soldiers of the Vietnamese People’s Army. In a plot twist The Captain and Bon become guests of the camp Commandant – who turns out, somewhat conveniently, to be their old friend, Man.
Most book group members liked this book. All agreed that the fall of Saigon was masterfully described and the terror of the fleeing refugees and their subsequent feelings of defeat and alienation had the ring of authenticity. Many appreciated the tension built by the author in the depiction of many traumatic scenes, each explored in increasing detail as the three sections of the book were unveiled. This included the evolving story of the ‘interrogation’ and subsequent rape of a female Vietcong operative with the full terror only being realised in the book’s extended finale in the re-education camp. There was also an appreciation of the author’s exposure of the duality of the main characters, especially The Captain. The portrayal of Claude as a master spook and agent provocateur was also seen as a highlight.
There were also accolades for the constant humour in the book: especially The Captain’s observations and comments. The behaviour of the ‘apparitions’ of the Crapulent Major and Sunny (both executed by The Captain during the book’s second phase) were particularly enjoyed. Finally there was an appreciation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s ability to write with great insight about themes such: as the plight of ‘the other’ (the ‘gook’; the half-caste); the extent of The Captain’s hatred of his father; and this intense love for his mother; and the transcendence of the friendship between The Captain, Bon and Man.
And so there was much to discuss whether you liked the book or not. Of course the book had its detractors. The problem for these folk, me included, was not with the first section: all agreed that the fall of Saigon was dealt with very well indeed. Judith had problems with the author’s dense writing style (lengthy adjectival phrases included) and found his ‘overwriting’, a problem identified by a number of us, to be “all too tedious”. For others the book just banged on a bit, once the second section entered its hundredth-or-so page, with the final section rabbiting on like the drone of some unrelenting wind. For me the main problem was that Thank Nguyen’s wry comments and humour wore thin after the first section and the book became somewhat predictable. Character development was also a little underdone.
The scores were as follows:
Suzanne 7; Marian 9; Helen 8; Jane 7; Karen 6; Simon 8; Wendy 6; Judith 4; Charles 5. Average was 6.7.
31 May 2016, at Jane’s
The scheduled book was The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. However, due to availability issues this was switched to William Boyd’s Sweet Caress. This lovely review by Charles.
T’were a dark and stormy night as we arrived at Jane’s to discuss William Boyd’s Sweet Caress. The average mark for this biographical novel was 6.2 which, quipped one who shall remain nameless (Wendy, I think), was an example of “the damning of faint praise”.
The book has its problems which I will outline in more detail below. Despite valid criticisms the book did have its fans (me included). For other readers, though, it did not meet expectations.
The main character and narrator in the book is the fictional Amory Clay, whose life – from first baby steps to several years before her death- unfolds before us in a series of chronological segments (1912-1934 and so on). Along the way we are introduced to her family, her lovers and her friends with the backdrop of history: Berlin prior to World War II; The Vietnam War; and so on. Daddy, a traumatised survivor of the Great War, is a depressed man who attempts to kill himself and Amory whilst (apparently) in a dissociated state. Siblings Peggy (aka Dido) and Alexander (aka Xan or Marjory) are equally well developed characters as are lovers such as Lockwood Mower, Cleveland Frintzi; Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau and husband Sholto Farr.
Curiously it is the main character, Amory, who lacks credibility. Many of our group commented that she did not ring true and that it is a little too obvious that ‘she’ is a figure of a man’s imagination. It is true, for example, that Amory describes each of her lovers’ penises in some detail; something that, according to the women book club members, a woman would never do. (Discuss!) There were other curious bits to this book which made it somewhat enigmatic. For example Amory is supposed to be a famous photographer but examples of ‘her’ work, which are inserted amongst the story line look, at best, like ‘happy snaps’.
There was, as well, very little consistency in style within Amory’s photographic portfolio. Some of the shots –such as the one of Miss Veronica Presser- are truly awful (not to say weird) while other shots, as Jo reminds us, show subjects in clothing/ situations which do not match the relevant time period. The mingling of fictional characters with real ones also did not always work well. A further problem arose with the under-development of the characters of Amory’s daughters- Blythe and Annie.
And so many of us were caught up with criticism of the Amory character while others found the sometimes odd photos to be utterly distracting. Others said that the book was a bit bland -or even boring- and/or lacked the expertise and humour of other works by the author (i.e. Boyd): it did not, for them, live up to expectations.
There is no way back from such condemnation, you’d think. Time for tea and cake; nothing to see here. There was no-one harbouring a strong dislike for the book though. And, oddly, Amory appeared to have worked her way into the hearts of those gathered like WD-40 into the grooves of a rusted bolt.
I regret that we did not take more time to unpack this mood. What was it that drew us to Amory despite her failings as a character in a book? For some of us, of course, Sweet Caress was a guilty pleasure: well written with great characters. True enough, Amory is a strange bird, but it may be that singular characters have their own charm. Maybe, also, Amory’s near death experience at the hand of her father was the defining moment at which she recognised her mortality and impressed upon her a need for authenticity? As for the photographs … well you’ve got me there.
The scores were either 6s or 7s. Average was 6.2. Thank s to Jane for hosting the group.
Aap kaise ho.
The good people gathered at Jo’s for the April book club meeting discussed Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways. My copy, at least, has a short quote on the cover from Salman Rushdie who enthused “…All you can do is surrender, happily to its power”. I’m sure that all of us would agree that the book had a powerful set of messages and many would agree with the “happy” imperative. As usual there was a lively discussion with a range of opinions being expressed about the book and also the broader subjects of immigration, exploitation, economic slavery, and politics of maintaining the status quo.
Those who were keen on this book agreed that they liked its structure in which the progress of the main characters- three male Indian immigrants to the UK (Avtar, Randeep and Tochi) and a British woman (Narinder)- was regularly paused so that the backstories and other historical elements could be explored. Most felt that this was a rich piece of story-telling in which issues such as stigma, discrimination and the treatment of the “other” were examined. All agreed that this was a rather gut-wrenching novel with the men engaged in the daily grind of finding work and avoiding mistreatment and apathy from others while Narinder was torn between her family and her need to “serve” in the Sikh tradition. The story was made more dramatic because each of the men had dodgy visas and Avtar was in debt to an Indian moneylender with access to ‘enforcers’ in the UK.
There was general agreement that the character of Narinder was well developed although most felt that Tochi was a little underdone. There was also agreement that the characters of Avtar and Randeep were not always clearly differentiated and so it was easy to confuse these two in some parts of the book. Perhaps this was a conscious effort by the author and is a nod to the sea of visa-less immigrants who are all in the same state of flux and desperation. Sahota’s exploration of subjects such as ‘caste’ and ‘class’ was appreciated as was his unrelenting depiction of long-term Indian immigrants as only vaguely sympathetic to their countrymen.
There was some criticism of the writing style used by Sunjeev Sahota which is, more often than not, lacking in prose. For some of us the characters of Avtar and Randeep were unsympathetic; a problem given that their stories occupied so much of the book. Many of us also felt that the ending to the book was abrupt and presented almost as a clumsy afterthought. Basically the narratives of the main characters were suddenly truncated at a point where Narinder’s brother is on the verge of violence (again) and Avtar is about to have his foot amputated, has been prescribed insulin and has some dire medical condition due to earlier surgery to remove a kidney. The book suddenly fast-forwards to the epilogue ten years hence.
The diversity of opinions is reflected in the scores as follows:
Wendy 8; Marion 8; Judith 6; Karen 7; Helen 7; Simon 6; Joanne 6; Jane 7; Charles 6. Average = 6.8.
Sebastian Barry got consistently high praise for his writing from the group, particularly his descriptive passages that captured particular places, events or moods in such a way as to make them entirely real – though they were in fact the addled part-memories of a functioning alcoholic.
Jack McNulty came across as the genial barfly who, through his ability to adapt to almost any situation (as long as he had a pint of whisky inside him). The only situation who couldn’t adapt to was one that involved emotion or empathy or the ability to understand the needs of another person. In the case of his wife and chldren, this was to have catastrophic and lifelong effects on them all.
Barry’s powers of description, which made his writing so powerful, were also (for some) his downfall. Critics felt that, sometimes, the descriptive pieces went just that bit too far, causing some to glaze over a little and speed-certain passages.
Luckily we had some fans of Barry’s work to provide a little background. Knowing that Barry shared a bed with his grandfather, himself a “temporary gentleman” and great storyteller, helped make sense of a lot of the book’s content and narrative style.
And here’s the man himself, reading that extraordinary opening passage. (Wish I’d watched this earlier: it made me rethink Jack as a much more robust character!)
Simon 8, Helen 8, Marion 7, Judith 7, Wendy 8, Karen 8, Jo 7, Suzanne 8, Charles 8, Jane 7, Mark 6. Average = 7.45.
The second part of our double-header, Harper Lee’s “new” book.
Oh dear. I read this “first” book second, and was bitterly disappointed. No other way to put it. The most startling revelation of the night was that the two manuscripts were produced about three years apart. Can that even be possible? Did Lee go to the crossroads and sell her soul to the devil or something?
This was a dull affair: flat characters, turgid dialogue, poor plotting and pace. Obviously not the one that Truman Capote wrote.
Marion 4, Judith 4, Jo 6, Helen 5, Wendy 5, Karen 5, Charles 5, Suzanne 6, Simon 4, Mark 6. Average = 5.
What’s going on with me? I didn’t like it and yet I give it 6? And, scrolling down the blog, I see that I gave We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and 8, and yet this month I couldn’t even remember what it was about?
The first part of our traditional double-header of the Christmas / New Year period: Harper Lee versus Harper Lee.
Which one to read first? We all approached this aspect of the big read differently, and part of the discussion did circulate around how much “order of read” affected the reader’s enjoyment (or not) of the companion volume.
Remarkably, there were a few people present who had made it into late adulthood without ever having read TKAM. Personally, I’ve always been a miserly marker and of the opinion that no book deserves 10 as that leaves you with nowhere to go, but after re-reading Mockingbird I’ve ditched that philosophy. To me, it’s as good as a work of fiction can get.
Marion 8, Judith 8, Jo 8, Helen 8, Wendy 8, Karen 9, Charles 10, Suzanne 9, Simon 8, Mark 10. Average = 8.6