A 10 for the title alone. Hilary Mantel’s collection of short stories will be our February book.
What do we want from a reading group book? Hopefully we want something that’s interesting and entertaining and informative, engages us, opens us up to a new world or place, perhaps polarises opinions but definitely triggers a discussion that’s broad and free-ranging.
We got that in spades with Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North last night. Our marks ranged from 4 to 9, and opinion ranged from “near perfect” to “boring”.
There were I think some key issues that influenced our enjoyment (or otherwise) of Narrow Road.
If this was your first experience of reading about this corner of the war then Flanagan’s descriptions of the camp, the work, the appalling conditions, the hierarchy between prisoners and their captors and within the captors’ ranks may have been revelatory.
If you or a family member had a direct connection with those who experienced The Line then this too could be a factor.
If you’d heard the author speaking so eloquently about the process of writing and rewriting the novel, his relationship with his POW father, his journey to meet former camp guards in Japan, then this might have influenced how you read the book and thought about it.
But all of us, to some extent, had the same difficulty: how to judge this work apart from its context. Its subject matter was so gut-wrenchingly awful that it seemed churlish or disrespectful to not like it.
Those who did like it loved it. The story of Dorrigo Evans’s rise from rural poverty to Establishment pillar beautifully evoked a period in Australian history when secular and class divisions ran deep. Dorrigo came across as a very real person, one who for some readers was a character from their own lived experience.
Those who did not like it varied in their reasons. Some disliked the “tell don’t show” writing style (“He was a womaniser because …”). Some found Dorrigo to be an unsympathetic, two-dimensional character. Others found the switch between point of view and character to be clunky and poorly executed.
All of us felt that Flanagan’s attempt to provide a Japanese perspective was a major strength of the book. Similarly, we all felt that the bushfire scene at the book’s conclusion was its weakest element.
But it certainly inspired a lively conversation that covered society’s changing attitude to servicemen in all conflicts, the concept of a “just” war (and what constitutes a just war, or call to arms, in the modern era), the huge gulf between the Australia of our grandparents’ and parents’ generation to that of our children and grandchildren.
Wendy 9 (postal vote)
[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? Review from CH.]
According to Rolling Stone the Sylvie Simmons biography of Leonard Cohen “makes every prior Cohen book practically obsolete”. It’s fair to say that those gathered at Marion’s for our first meeting of 2015 agreed that this was a complete, not to say exhaustive, account of the life of Leonard. And therein lies the rub; with most saying that they enjoyed the author’s excellent scholarship but that they were peeved, to some extent, that our Leonard was lost in the minutiae. Indeed Sylvie’s attention for detail was too much for Mark who emailed “the human element was crushed beneath the weight of the detail that the author had so proudly amassed”.
That said, I’m your man certainly created a lot of discussion about the life of Leonard and his formative experiences in the sixties and seventies. There was so much to discuss including: the performers and personalities associated with Leonard: (Judy Collins, Dylan, Jackson Browne, Jennifer Warnes, Andy Warhol – the list is endless); and the many events and causes that Leonard became identified with (from the struggles in the Middle East to his many spiritual obsessions). Indeed Simon commented that, as a group, we may have reached the point where individual opinions of the book were clouded by our respect for Leonard and his remarkable life. In any case the reminiscences, anecdotes and observations made for a good night and a promising launch for our book group into the New Year.
Scores: Judith 7; Karen 6; Helen 8; Simon 6; Suzanne (emailed) 7; Jane (emailed) 4; Marion 7; Charles 7; Mark 3. Average = 6.1.
[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. Report from CH.]
The reaction to Steve Earle’s debut effort I’ll never get out of this world alive was fairly uniform: fortunately no-one was particularly offended by it but praise was muted. It is likely that the book echoes Earle’s previous battles with opiate addiction as well as a chronically low self-esteem. It may be that the book’s redemptive elements – introduced primarily via Graciela and Manny – are representative of a new optimism in the author’s life.
The initial comments were that the book was amusing and a quick read. This was not a book to test the intellect too much with Mark (via email) likening it to a good old Zane Gray pot boiler. Although most felt that Earle’s writing is somewhat prosaic there were comments appreciative of the interesting characters and the plot development. Judith bemoaned the introduction of the priest (Father Padraic Killen) as a clunky afterthought to enliven a waning plot. Consensus was that Steve Earle has some work to do before his next novel but, despite shortcomings as a writer, he has an engaging capacity as a story-teller.
Scores: Judith 4; Karen 5; Helen 5; Simon 5; Marion 7; Charles 5; Jane (via email) 7 Mark (via email) 5. Average = 5.4.
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!