Forthcoming books

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:38 am by Mark MacLean

27 March 2018, Home Fire, Kamila Samsie
24 April 2018, Mid-winter Break, Bernard Maclaverty
Giuseppe di Lampedusa: The Leopard
Sebastian Barry: Days Without End
Michelle de Kretser: The Life to Come
Jennifer Egan: Manhattan Beach
Ryan O’Neill Their Brilliant Careers
Ali Smith: Winter
Reni Eddo-Lodge: Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race


Book 222: Lincoln in the bardo

Posted in Uncategorized at 2:08 pm by Mark MacLean

Lincoln in the bardo27 February 2018, Judith’s

George Saunders is an American writer who has gained a reputation for his ability as a short story writer. It’s what he does best, apparently. Along the way he has written essays and children’s stories as well as the odd novel. He has penned articles for The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar and the Guardian, et al., and has won numerous prizes – including the 2017 Man-Booker Prize for Lincoln in the bardo. Otherwise George Saunders is a professor at Syracuse University in New York State.

In Lincoln in the bardo the author explores the death of eleven-year-old Willie (William Wallace) Lincoln ( 1850-1862) and, more specifically, the grieving of (16th President of the US) Abraham Lincoln as he struggled to deal with his son’s death at a time when many other young Americans were being slaughtered at Bull Run, Lexington and Fort Donelson (the latter battle ending just several days before Willie’s death). Essentially the story hinges around Abraham Lincoln’s visits to the crypt in which his son’s body was interred, where he is alleged to have taken his son out of his coffin to hug him and grieve for him.

The story is told from the perspectives of the ‘spirits’ who inhabited the Oak Hill Cemetery grounds – all of whom were, at the time, in an intermediary state between death and the next world (hence the Tibetan concept of the bardo) – and from the perspectives of people (allegedly) living at the time. The spirits appear to have varying degrees of awareness about their moribund state (indeed many of them believe that they are merely “sick” and will have the capacity to return to their living loved ones at some future juncture). The three main spirit-story-tellers are Hans Vollman (who manifests as a man who is naked as the day he was born and sporting a huge erection), Roger Bevins III (who manifests as a many-limbed, many-eyed man a la Shiva on a busy day) and the mysteriously damned Reverend Everly Thomas. In truth, however, there are over a hundred other spirits who inhabit the cemetery and each has a story, whether slave (such as Thomas Havens), ‘Indian killer’ (Lt. Cecil Stone), woman of virtue (Jane Ellis) or bawdy white trash (such as the Barons). There are even visiting angels who arrived to take the spirits unto heaven (maybe?) and there are dark forces at work which our three main spirits are bound to protect young Willie from. All of the spirits are somehow drawn to Willie who, alarmingly, develops the insight that he is dead and needs to move on, creating awareness and debate amongst the other spirits who must also make decisions about their future.

You might think that all of the above sounds pretty fascinating. What could possibly go wrong? But the first three speakers at our book group meeting were, in turn: Helen (who hated the book); Marion (who grew to hate it;) and Judith (who hated it off and on- opining that the book provided): no real insight into Lincoln; no real narrative arc; a text which sprawled with lengthy quotes which the speaker referenced at the end of the transcript (something that annoyed, especially when the quotes spilled over the page); and that there was a requirement of the reader to accept far too much (like the tendrils which tried to anchor Willie to the crypt [it’s a long tale!]).

Christine tried to “go with” the story despite what she saw as parallels between the Oak Hill Cemetery tableaux and a theme park. Christine also lamented an uneven, poorly edited story which, ultimately, failed to hold her gaze while Simon agreed that the book needed a good edit (“far too much blank paper”). To say that most were underwhelmed may appear as an understatement.

More positive comments came from Jane, who reminded us that History books are all populated by ghosts. Karen felt that the spirits may have been a metaphor for the remembrances and faith of the families who will not let their loved ones fade away. Jane observed that there may be parallels between the presidency of Lincoln (as a very unpopular, and divisive, man – especially at the start of his presidential term) and the current reign of Trump (I’m not going there!). Suzanne was more glowing in her praise, declaring that she was entranced with some of the book’s imagery, such as Lincoln with Willie in his arms paralleling Michelangelo’s Pieta; its metaphysical aspects (indeed if most religions are silent on the details of their proposals on the afterlife- why should we make demands on Professor Saunders?); and declared that she found some of the vignettes between the spirits to be enormously funny. Moreover there was an appreciation that the voices, both of the spirits and the living (such as Maunders, the cemetery watchman) were somehow authentic and of their time.

Maybe we might have been more sympathetic if Lincoln in the bardo was a short story? Could we see the book as a sort of novella that overstayed its welcome? In the end, maybe topics as weighty as Abraham Lincoln and the metaphysical echoes from the Tibetan Book of the Dead bound the author to extend the word count? At least some of us were content with the outcome. Others, well …

Scores were as follows:

Simon 3; Christine 6; Helen (did not, could not!, read this book); Marion 6; Judith 4; Suzanne 7; Jane 7; Karen 5; Charles 5. Average: 5.6.

Thanks to Judith and the ever-vigilant Priscilla for being such gracious hosts.

We meet again at Marion’s to discuss the Kamila Shamsie novel Home Fire.



Book 220: The God of Small Things

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:43 am by Mark MacLean

God_of_Small_Things23 January 2018, Helen and Simon’s

The God of small things* tells the story of a Keralan family living in Ayemenem, a small town. Shri Benaan John Ipe, known as Pappachi, is an entomologist given to profound regrets, especially after his discovery of a rare moth species goes unrecognised. He and Mammachi have two children, Ammu and Chacko, who survive (just) tumultuous relationships, with Ammu and her husband Baba having first produced the twins: Esthappen (Estha) and Rachel. The book ‘starts’ (although not really at the beginning) in 1969, when the twins are seven, and ‘ends’ in the 90s- but there are a number of flash back-&-forths which, most of us agreed, worked well as a story-telling device for this book.

Book group members, those who read the book anyway, positively purred their delight. All felt that Arundhati Roy got things right, especially in the development of the main characters. There was a special appreciation for the way that the characters of Pappachi and Mammachi were drawn by the author. Of course there were many issues addressed including: left wing politics in Kerala; the private language of children and, more particularly, twins (which reminded Simon of Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible); caste relationships and the plight of the ‘other’ in modern India (enter Velutha who later becomes Ammu’s lover); forbidden love (… begging the rhetorical questions: who should be loved? … how? and … how much?); child abuse (enter the egregious orange-lemon drink man) and the subsequent trauma felt by poor Estha; death and grieving -following the death of Sophie Moi– and further devastation for the family; police brutality, Indian-style; and, ultimately, family betrayal (enter Baby Kochamma and her dastardly accusations against Velutha). There was general agreement, however, that the author “struck the right balance” in this sprawling first novel.

Further comments came from Helen and Suzanne who liked the book’s structure while Marion appreciated that she had engaged emotionally with the book (with lots of agreement coming from around the table). Suzanne (I think?) liked the way that the Gods were woven into the story- especially the God of Small Things.

*Mea Culpa– I have drawn on a couple of cribs on The God of small things to augment my cob-webby knowledge. It is twenty-ish years since I read bits of this novel so I apologies, especially to the author, if I have got things wrong.    

Scores were as follows:

Suzanne 8; Karen 8; Helen 8; Mark (did not score this book); Simon 9; Christine (did not score this book) Marion 8; Charles (did not score this book). Average: 8.2

Thanks to Helen & Simon for being such gracious hosts. Welcome back, also, to Mark and Christine –fresh from the UK with Mark shortly returning to the Ridge. A good night was had by all- aided and abetted by some gorgeous cakey things.


Book 221: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:42 am by Mark MacLean

Ministry_of_Utmost_Happiness23 January 2018, Helen and Simon’s

Arundhati Roy is a well-known Keralan activist and author. She has championed a number of causes over the years including: independence movements in Kerala and Jammu & Kashmir; the rights of the Malayali people (more or less the indigenous people of Kerala); and various independence and insurgent groups in east and northern India. She is a staunch opponent of the Indian Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi and his government and has been criticised for writing ‘indecent’ fiction as well as facing accusations of ‘sedition’. Arundhati Roy won the Booker prize for The God of small things in 1997.

In The ministry of utmost happiness the author explores a number of ‘big ticket’ issues: the life of Hiijras in central Delhi and Shahjahanabad; the plight of the ‘freedom fighters’/ insurgents in Kashmir; aspects of the Indo-Pak stand-off; and forbidden love. Along the way she also touches on the Moaist insurgency in Bastar and rails against ‘film makers’ and questions (to put things mildly) the utility of NGOs in India. Phew! In many ways this is, first and foremost, a political novel/ exposé.

The book begins well with the description of Aftab’s birth and his progress in becoming the woman and Hiijra, Anjum- living in the Khwabgah with her housemates and their Ustad. Shortly after, however we are introduced to the eccentric, not to say chaotic, world of Tilo and her passions (architecture, her lovers, and, later, the Azad Kashmir movement and thence to the inhabitants of the Jannat Guest House).

The story delves/explodes into an exploration of the many issues mentioned above and a vast number of characters appear, along with numerous sub-plots: some relevant to the book while others are vaguely tangential. The book fragments (not helped by the odd, clumsy, flashback- &-forward) and the characters become less well-drawn.

Discussion from the group was generally less than enthusiastic. We lamented that the book tries to become everything and falls well short (this in response to the author’s hyperbole: “How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody? No, by slowly becoming everything.”) At least some of us were happy to be treated to the odd morsel of prose al a Arundhati Roy- but the criticism prevailed: while the prose was richly descriptive the author failed- or maybe just refused- to draw sympathetic characters and nor did she create a firm narrative.

Scores were as follows:

Suzanne (did not score this book); Karen 2; Helen 5; Mark (did not score this book); Simon 5; Christine (did not score this book) Marion 5; Judith 3; Charles 3. Average: 3.8.



Book 219: The Art of Travel

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:22 am by Mark MacLean

The_Art_of_TravelDecember 2017: at Karen and Charles’s

According to his blurb, Alain de Botton is a humanist philosopher and writer of both fiction and non-fiction novels – quite apart from numerous newspaper articles and essays. Much of his writing follows the basic philosopher’s credo – to show us how to live a ‘good’ life – albeit that the term ‘good’ might need some explanation given the vagaries of relativism. Moreover he was awarded, in recent years, the Fellowship of Schopenhauer – an annual writer’s award – at the Melbourne writer’s festival.

In The art of Travel the author explores, through a series of essays, aspects of the travel experience. His assistants in this endeavour are artists, travellers and polymaths from the past whose explorations, commentary and artistic skills provide guidance to the modern traveller. So: the anticipation of what the experience of travel might bring is explored with the assistance of characters such as J. E. Huysmans (who recounted an odd tale concerning the stay-at-home Duc des Esseintes); & the exotic is explored through the experiences of Victor Hugo and Eugene Delacroix, who travelled to the Orient, as well as Gustave Flaubert – who travelled to Egypt, fell in love with the place and spent the next 30 years decoding his experiences and their effects upon his thinking in his Dictionary of received ideas. In all there are nine essays with a list of ‘assistants’ that includes Charles Baudelaire, Edward Hopper, Alexander von Humbolt(with a lovely print of a painting featuring the Prussian explorer/ naturalist beside his companion Aime Bonpland by Eduard Ender), William Wordsworth, … ah, the list goes on. Finally we arrive back at the de Botton residence in Hammersmith for the final journey- around the author’s bedroom.

As with most essay collections, there are stories which were enjoyed by just about all of the book club members (the story Alexander von Humbolt contained in the section ‘On curiosity’ comes readily to mind. Then there is the lovely story of Vincent van Gogh and his journey to Provence … ). Some of us liked the entire book – impressed by the way the author was able to prosecute a “deeply intellectual” – not to say “deeply philosophical” – examination of the field. Others liked the book but found that some stories didn’t work all that well for them. Some lamented that the author was: somewhat patronising; failed to elucidate a personal perspective on travel; and, irritatingly, provided a fair old wad of detail that was unnecessary.

There were those among us who thought that the author had expressed a distinct personal lack of enjoyment for travel (noting, for starters, the story of his ennui in Barbados). There was a bit of to-ing and fro-ing about this topic with some sticking to the rather fundamentalist notion that book was about the art related to travel and no more. There is, of course, another view which posits that de Botton had much to say about the experience of others (Edmund Burke, John Ruskin etc.) without really demonstrating a practical understanding about how his lived experience of travel might assist him, and others, to lead good life. Except, maybe, for some examples of what one might avoid: like being preoccupied with extraneous stuff and arguing with one’s companion (the man needs a good travel agent and a couple of stiff gin-&-tonics for starters).

Apart from all the to-ing and fro-ing a good night was had by all. Thank you all for the wonderful company, lively discussion, and the food- don’t forget the food! Christmas will soon be upon us and it is time to wish all book club members a safe and happy Season!

Scores were as follows:

Suzanne 8; Helen 6; Marion 9; Jane 7; Jo (did not score the book); Judith 5; Karen 6; Charles 6. Average = 6.9.



Book 218: To The Islands

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:26 am by Mark MacLean

To_The_Islands_hb31 October 2017, Wendy’s

Stowe was born in Western Australia in 1935. His collection of poems – Act One – produced while he was still at university, won the Australian Literature Society’s gold medal in 1957. To the Islands – his third novel – won the gold medal the following year, along with the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

He was a prolific author, whose works included: The Girl Green as Elderflower; Visitants; The Suburbs of Hell; Tourmaline; and The Merry-Go-Round in The Sea. He has been described as “the least visible figure of that great twentieth-century triumvirate of Australian novelists whose other members are Patrick White and Christina Stead”. Stowe died in 2010, aged 74.

We met at Wendy’s house, amongst boxes and the paraphernalia of moving (well, sort of). This was a perfect opportunity to wish her well before she moves to Sydney, celebrate her birthday and … talk about a book!

To the Islands tells the story of Stephen Heriot, an Anglican missionary, based on a mission somewhere in north-western Australia. Disillusioned with his lot and questioning his faith, he takes off in search of the Aboriginal islands of the dead after attacking Rex, an Aboriginal man. Comparisons with King Lear come thick and fast as we see the Australian outback through Heriot’s eyes.

I have to admit that I approached this book with some trepidation, not having read any of Stowe’s other works and being somewhat wary of the “classic” label. With only a few pages under my belt, I was drawn in by the poetic writing and sense of place. I did wonder if the author was showing off his arts education at times, as the central character quoted liberally from the classics.

This was a second reading for Judith, who didn’t connect with it the first time around, but found it profoundly moving this time. Most were surprised to hear that Stowe had produced so many books; To the Islands and The Merry-Go-Round in The Sea are those familiar to most readers.

There was general agreement that the narrative really came to life once Heriot had left the mission. The white characters were somewhat poorly drawn and easy to confuse, compared to the Aboriginal characters. Charles (in absentia) suggested (as did Karen – collusion?) that this might have been a deliberate ploy on the author’s part, as part of the outback setting for the book. Jane reminded us that Stowe was a mere twenty-two years old when he wrote this story and that this might have caused him to describe many of the characters as older than their years. This is an interesting point: today, most twenty-somethings seem to think that anybody who survives to forty should be euthanased. I’m sure that young persons’ thinking wasn’t a lot different back in the nineteen fifties. Mind you, Stephen Heriot was sixty-seven…

Helen agreed that the writing was outstanding, avoiding patronising the Aboriginal characters in any way. Many expressed confusion regarding Heriot’s daughter, referred to many times throughout the narrative. Was she his white, biological child? Was she an Aboriginal girl, adopted by Heriot and his wife? Was she his goddaughter? Answers on a postcard please!

Everybody enjoyed the book and agreed that it was a revolutionary treatment of Aboriginal people at the time, with an easy and poetic style that evoked a vivid sense of place (or something). The marks reflect this:

Judith 8; Marion 8; Jane  9; Helen 8; Jo 8; Charles 8; Karen 8; Simon 7. (To offset Jane’s 9, and maintain an average of 8)

#  Wendy … hadn’t read the book (why??? Just because she was selling her house, packing up, etc..)

Thanks to Wendy for hosting the evening and thanks to Marion for producing a stunning (literally) choccy cake!


Book 217: The Golden Legend

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:30 pm by Mark MacLean

Golden_Legend26 September 2017, at Suzanne’s

What follows is a review of reviews: as a guest of the reading group I had not actually read Nadeem Aslam’s novel, so please bear that in mind as you read on.

The Golden Legend is set in contemporary Pakistan, a nation riven by conflict and division, both internal and external. Politics and religion (not necessarily in that order) provide the backdrop to the seemingly random, barbarous and oftentimes plain stupid actions that throw the characters’ lives in tumult. The book opens with an accidental shooting of architect Massud, whose death sets in train a sequence of events that are catastrophic for his wife, Nargis, and their extended family.

A common theme emerged among the readers: this was a story that was ‘enlightening’ (HB), ‘fast-paced’ and ‘well drawn’ (SM), and full of ‘magnificent imagery’ (JW). But, for some, the book was endured rather than enjoyed. HB read it with ‘horrified fascination’, while MB skipped some parts that felt like ‘the stuff of nightmares’.

Structurally, KH felt that it flagged midpoint, while CB felt that there were two or three books competing to fit inside the one novel. (KH commented that this was something of an issue in Aslam’s previous novel, The Blind Man’s Garden.) CH commented, by post, on some ‘overly romantic’ plot elements, and there was a general sense of occasional clunkiness in character. Having said, that everyone, I felt, agreed with Lara Feigel, who says in her Guardian review:

If character is secondary to archetype, this reflects the reality of a world in which the individual is frequently secondary to collective ideology.

The book certainly inspired lots (lots) of discussion. We roamed from the West’s historical impact on Middle Eastern politics to the processes and motivations of radicalisation, women’s (and girls’) education and – ultimately – the sense that this was a world we do not, and may not ever, clearly understand.

Our thanks go to Suzanne for hosting at short notice. Also, our marks:

Karen 7; Jane 8; Suzanne 7; Helen 8; Christine 7; Simon 7; Charles 8 (post); Marion 8 (by post); Wendy 8 (by post); Jo 8 (provided later). Average = 7.6.



Book 216: Autumn

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:03 am by Mark MacLean

Autumn_smith29 August 2017: Christine’s

Ali Smith is an author whom most of us are familiar with, perhaps through reading How to be both (or others of her 14-or-so books) or, maybe, because her name has been mentioned in relation to the Booker prize in recent times. In any case, Autumn is her latest offering and, if The Guardian is to be believed, we will expect three more books in her ‘seasonal’ series.

Autumn is set in post-Brexit England where two former neighbours have reunited in difficult circumstances as the century-old Daniel Gluck lies in a deep sleep (just resting apparently) while his former mentee, Elisabeth Demand, is a regular visitor at his bedside. There are flashbacks to Daniel’s earlier days as well as to scenes which marked the development of his charming relationship with the very young and bright Elisabeth. Into this mix are thrown elements such: as Elisabeth’s present-day anger (rage, even) over Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and the polarisation that this has caused / exposed; her ongoing battle with bureaucracy to gain a British passport; & (Elisabeth’s mother) Wendy’s infatuation with a TV game show (The Golden Gavel) and her subsequent relationship with (is anyone owning up to being a) psychoanalyst (anymore) Zoe. Other, more juicy, narratives are explored as we are: introduced to Daniel’s ex-lover (and real-life character), Pauline Boty, and a whole world of art and tragedy associated with her short but brilliant career; & reminded of the chaos and wonder of the Profumo Affair.

This is a novel in which Smith tries to evoke the recollection of strong memories by Elisabeth and Daniel. Each of these memories is offered up to the reader not as an even narrative but as a bright re-experiencing by the character, stripped of a certain amount of detail and context as happens with the passing of time and with the protection of selectivity. Most of the book group members thought that the author had succeeded rather well on this score – but we were generally more interested in (80-year-old) Daniel’s gentle management of his relationship with the child Elisabeth, which Jane described as a “… love affair (platonic at that) between curiosity and wisdom”. At this point Suzanne recalled an extraordinary part of the book (around p. 201) when Daniel counselled a troubled Elisabeth about the benefits of forgetting in times of distress.

Book group members generally liked this offering. Smith’s treatment of memory worked for most of us but a few found that the sudden flashes of narrative infused the book with a clunky unevenness. A few of us were put off by Elisabeth’s jousts with bureaucracy in her attempts to secure a passport and some found that Wendy’s character lacked credibility. On the whole, however, there was a strong appreciation of what Ali Smith has achieved with this book. Moreover, we are all searching the archives for traces of the incandescent Pauline Boty and her ground-breaking art.

The scores were: Marian 6; Suzanne 8; Simon 7; Helen 9; Jane 7; Jo 7; Christine abstained; Judith 8; Karen 7; Charles 7; Wendy 6. Average = 7.2

Thanks to Christine for being a gracious host on a cold evening (winter’s last gasp?). Bring on Nadeem Aslam’s The golden legend.



Book 215: Island Home

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:16 pm by Mark MacLean

Island_Home25 July 2017, Wendy’s

As the marks for tonight’s book attest, the group was divided in its opinion of Island Home.

On the plus side, many of the group members really enjoyed the book, with particular enjoyment of the prose. Marion described the language as “impressive”. Suzanne felt he made “word pictures”, while Wendy felt the prose was “symphonic”! Even the non-fans e.g. Charlie, felt it was “good descriptive writing”.

There were mixed reactions to his attitudes to the land, ranging from finding him sincere and honest in his love of the landscape and its “sacredness”, to Judith’s belief that he is too precious about it and Charlie feeling there was too much emphasis on the “unknowable”. Not having been a fan of Winton’s in the past, Simon thought his writing had matured and he now had a new-found respect for him. He particularly liked (echoed by Helen and Suzanne), his critical stance on some of the “holy cows” of Australian culture such as Anzac Day. Also, his criticism of the actions of figures such as Lang Hancock and Campbell Newman. However, it must be said, that in this instance he was preaching to the converted in many of us!

On the subject of preaching . .  a criticism levelled at Winton by some of the group was that the writing felt like preaching. Karen reported (from Sri Lanka!) that she found it repetitive and she did not engage with the book. Jo thinks his fiction writing is better. Despite the sad and tragic history he recounts, Winton did find some optimism at the conclusion, in that there appears to be the stirrings of a burgeoning respect for the land among many Australians.

Most of those present agreed that the book gave us all a longing to go to W.A., though Wendy thought the writing felt true for all of Australia, despite being about W.A .

Christine added that Winton articulated ideas she had not been able to put into words before.

A very interesting and thought-provoking discussion.

Marks: Jo 7; Judith 6; Marion  9; Simon 8; Wendy 8; Helen 9; Jane 8; Charlie 5; Suzanne 9; Karen 5; Christine 9.

Avg: 7.6 (rounded up)

Review by HB


Book 214: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:26 pm by Mark MacLean

Hitchhikers_Guide4 July 2017, at Judith’s

Don’t panic! A sneaky extra book in the middle of the month! Something short, something light-hearted, something considered a classic: Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (Though I note no possessive apostrophe in the retro UK first-edition cover, at right.)

It seems like a million years ago when Adams first appeared, but he seemed to go from zero to ubiquitous on about 15 seconds flat. As is often the case with ‘classics’, it was a very difficult book to judge. If one enjoys the experience of (re)reading it, is it because the book is indeed a classic, or is it invoking the warm fuzzies of youth? If one does not enjoy it, does that in any way devalue its ‘classic’ status? A couple of people hadn’t read the book but most had; this did not seem to affect our overall response.

It was, we all agreed, a rather pedestrian read. It invoked the feeling you get when you accidentally catch an episode of Dad’s Army or Some Mother’s Do Have ‘Em on midday TV. Did we really laugh at this shit, back in the day?

Apparently we did. Lots of us. Or perhaps ‘them’, not ‘us’, the ‘them’ being the kinds of people who could recite entire Monty Python skits on the school bus, the kinds of people who have beards and drink real ale and always win at quiz night. This brought up an interesting thread: Is it a blokes’ book? (And, subthread, what is a ‘blokes’ book’?)

And another subthread: what constitutes a good funny book? Judith pointed out that Howard Jacobson has written extensively on the way in which the comic novel is seriously undervalued. (‘Show me a novel that’s not comic and I’ll show you a novel that’s not doing its job,’ says Jacobson.) Among the suggestions for classic comic novels were Catch 22, Candide and even Slaughterhouse 5, but we all agreed that the pickings were slim. Bill Bryson was nominated as an outstanding comic writer, but of non-fiction. Subsubthread 42 for the night (see what I did there?): is it easier to write comic non-fiction than comic fiction? If so, why?

You’ll guess from the above that the conversation was wide-ranging, discursive and a lot of fun. In other words, the Guide was one of those books that inspires conversation rather than analysis. Charles brought us back to the book by pointing out, before we started to become too dismissive, that it was in fact a collection of radio skits, bound together by strong and easily recognisable characters. At times Adams seemed to be doing no more than meeting word-count quotas; at other times he could come up with lines such as “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t”, a line that’s appeared in almost every writer’s guide I’ve ever read.

There are dozens of quotes from Adams that have entered popular culture, so many that the Guide can’t simply be a pedestrian collection of thrown-together radio skits. No-one might keep a copy in their back pocket as a way of attracting and connecting with fellow travellers, but if you asked a tribesman in the darkest Amazon what is the meaning of life, the world and everything, he’d be able to provide you with That Number.

We didn’t mark it. How could we? But we did have a great night. Or, as Arthur Dent might have said, “I’d far rather be happy than right any day.”


Book 213: The Diary of a Nobody

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:12 pm by Mark MacLean

Diary_of_a_nobody27 June 2017, at Jane’s

Diary of a nobody by George & Weedon Grossmith, first Published in 1892.

A bit of context is always useful. George Grossmith was, amongst other things, an English comedian and writer of sketches and comic operas. He was also a leading man in Gilbert & Sullivan Operettas and even created characters and contributed to some of the many G & S songs- arguably the most famous being the (very model of a modern) Major General in The pirates of Penzance. Brother Walter Weedon Grossmith (better known as Weedon) was an English writer, playwright and painter who provided the illustrations for Diary of a nobody.

The diary is that of Mr Charles Pooter: an ‘ordinary’ man; resident of Brickfield Terrace in Holloway in the borough of Islington; husband of Carrie; a lowly bank clerk by profession; and as self-righteous, bumbling and accident-prone as any man has a right to be. Mr Pooter is at once pompous and humble, respectable and disrespected, sensible and ridiculous. He is the archetype for so many comic creations to follow. Doubtless characters from Ralph Kramdon to Homer Simpson owe much to Charlie Pooter. Notably, Evelyn Waugh described the diary as “the funniest book in the world”.

Not much happens in Mr Pooter’s life. Typically he goes to work for his employer, Mr Perkupp, and then returns to his wife Carrie and their freeloading friends Cummings and Gowings. Son Lupin (he of the Holloway comedians) comes to stay for a while before forging links with luminaries such as Murray and Daisy Posh (Murray being the manufacturer responsible for a brand of cheap hats) and launching his career upon the unsuspecting financial community of London. Meanwhile there are cameos involving: adventures in spiritualism with Mrs James Sutton; meetings with ‘hilarious’ impersonators of stage characters such as Mr Burwin-Fosselton; and encounters with old school chums such as Teddy Farnsworth. Otherwise Mr Pooter grudgingly takes on the chore of dealing with the lower classes: maids, butchers, house-painters and junior clerks, and the like, who seem to take every opportunity to bring him down a peg or two. Added to all this is Mr Pooter’s dreadful sense of humour –viz:

He said he wouldn’t stay, as he didn’t care much for the smell of the paint, and fell over the scraper as he went out. Must get the scraper removed, or else I shall get into a scrape. I don’t often make jokes.

This is a satire on being ‘ordinary’, with Charles and Carrie being the lower middle class targets. Still, they are happy and take every opportunity to celebrate their tiny blessings with a bottle or two of Jackson-Freres champagne- at 2/6 each.

The book group members were pretty happy with this little book and no-one had any major misgivings. The book was described as gently humorous and there was much comment about the book as a forerunner to other diaries about other ‘ordinary’ characters such as Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones. Most loved the way that Mr Pooter’s precious dignity was brought to heal – such as the time that he and Carrie were ‘honoured’ to be invited to the Mayoral Ball only to find ‘common tradesmen’ also in attendance.

Marian described the book as funny and delightful – especially in the way that it poked at the English class structure. Suzanne saw parallels with modern British humour – especially in the depictions of upper class, middle class and lower/working class characters by the Monty Python team and the Two Ronnies. Added to this we all liked the banter between Charlie and Lupin – a clear indication that the entitlement of youth and the exasperation of parents is something that we share with our predecessors. Helen commented that she would have liked to have heard from at least one of the other diary characters. Generally, however, all agreed that the Grossmiths had achieved something rare: a comic novella which was, especially for its time, original and humorous.

After all the hoopla the scores were:

Judith 8; Wendy 6.5; Simon 6; Suzanne 7; Karen 6; Jane 6; Helen 6.5; Charles 7; Marian 6. Average = 6.6

Thanks to Jane for being such a gracious host!


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