11/04/2017

Forthcoming books

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:38 am by Mark MacLean

25 July 2017: Island Home: A Memoir, by Tim Winton, at Wendy’s.
29 August 2017: Autumn, Ali Smith, venue TBA.
September 2017: yet to be picked
October 2017: yet to be picked
November/December 2017: yet to be picked

08/07/2017

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.”

02/07/2017

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!

CH

12/06/2017

Book 212: Fear

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:53 pm by Mark MacLean

FearTuesday, 20 May 2017, Simon & Helen’s

Dirk Kurbjuweit, a resident of Berlin and Hamburg, is deputy editor-in-chief at Der Spiegel. He has received numerous awards for journalism and has written several novels. Fear (novel number seven, or eight maybe) has drawn acclaim from various sources, including an effusive review from our old friend Herman Koch.

The book group members were of the same mind, pretty much, in our reviews of this book: no-one was terribly offended by it but none was over the moon either. Discussion was lengthy and wide-ranging and we took some time to explore the perils of living in post WW2 Western Europe during the cold war given the proximity of antagonistic militarised states with totalitarian rulers, extreme ideologies and the bomb to back them up. Things have ameliorated somewhat following the fall of the Soviet system and its Warsaw Pact but new tensions accompany the emergence of Putin’s Russia. These tensions are explored as a sort of ambient layer added to the angst experienced by the protagonists in Fear.

Essentially this is the story of an ‘average’ middle-class Berlin family, the Tiefenthaler’s – Randolph, Rebecca and their two children Paul and Fay – who move into a nice apartment in suburban Berlin. Randolph has a successful business as an architect while Rebecca lives a life divided between the happiness that she has with her children and frustrations associated with leaving her career as a scientist and researcher. Randolph and Rebecca have a lot of first-world angst which they offload by sponsoring kiddies in the third-world and fluffy animals in the zoo. They take pride in their righteous lifestyle but reveal their soft underbellies at alcohol-fuelled soirees with their equally successful middle class peers. Their marriage is under strain at the start of the novel and Randolph reacts by sneaking off to Michelin-hatted restaurants where he spends much time and a substantial part the family’s income.

Meanwhile Dieter, the man occupying the apartment below, becomes ever more intrusive, baking cookies and pizza for them at first but then surveilling them and subsequently making (unfounded as it turns out) allegations to the police about child sexual abuse. Dieter also has a crush on Rebecca, leaving her romantic poems which become increasingly sexualised. Things start to happen: Randolph and Rebecca draw closer to each other and their relationship blossoms; meanwhile, Randolph also draws closer to his parents and his brother – although his main motive is to manipulate his gun-obsessed father into taking up arms against Dieter. The Tiefenthalers become not only fearful of Dieter but they begin to objectify him as the Utermensch. Moreover their concerns are amplified when they realise that Dieter is being supported in his accommodation by the kindness of his landlord and the largesse of the German Welfare State. A sense of desperation takes hold as police remain unwilling to deal with Dieter’s behaviour since he has done nothing against the law. The option to have Dieter dealt with becomes more pressing with each passing moment.

As mentioned earlier, Fear has its fans. Lou Murphy, writing for the Newtown Review of Books (posting dated 28 March 2017) opined:

This aptly titled novel is an indelible examination of middle-class values, relationships, masculinity, identity, violence, history and fear that comes full circle to a conclusion as shocking as it is logical. A finely crafted and disturbing psychological thriller.

Alas the general opinion amongst book group members was that Kurbjuweit’s writing was rather wooden. Most agreed that the first 100 pages-or-so offered a promising build-up towards the suspenseful ending which did not eventuate. There was comment that this was a turgid effort and hardly a page-turner- but that this may be a product of poor translation. Ah to be able to read in several languages!

Finally, even the twist at the end was telegraphed to the reader. It was clear that something shocking was about to be revealed and, ta dah, it was. The choices were: were Randolph and Rebecca really child molesters? AND/OR was Randolph or his brother the real killer? No-one, it seems, held their breath.

Scores were as follows: Judith 6; Karen 6; Helen 6; Marian 6; Suzanne 7; Charles 5. Average: you guessed it.

What was that Wendy: something about the damning of faint praise?

CH

26/04/2017

Book 211: His Bloody Project

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:11 pm by Mark MacLean

His_Bloody_Project25 April 2017, at Judith’s

Graeme Macrae-Burnet (GM-B) was nominated for the 2016 Man-
Booker prize for this effort which generated healthy sales, out-selling the other shortlisted authors for a good while there.

Essentially the story outlines the life and times of the fictional Macraes – a family of crofters living in Culdui in the northern highlands of Scotland (which does exist – as do Applecross, Camusterrach, Toscaig etc.). In particular, the story is propelled, if that is the word, by a confession by Roderick Macrae as he awaits trial for the ‘murder’ of his neighbour and nemesis, Laughlin Mackenzie. According to Justine Jordan of the Guardian (August 12th, 2016):

“Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae”, His Bloody Project contains the 17-year-old crofter’s memoir, written while awaiting trial in Inverness in 1869 for three brutal murders, and “discovered” by the author while researching his own Highland roots. This manuscript, we are teasingly informed, divided the Edinburgh literati of the time, who feared a rerun of James Macpherson’s 18th-century literary hoax Ossian and considered it “quite inconceivable that a semi-literate peasant could produce such a sustained and eloquent piece of writing”. The apparently guileless account of how Roderick did indeed enter the house of his overbearing neighbour with croman, flaughter and murderous intent (a glossary is provided) is complicated by witness statements, medical reports and a journalistic account of the trial. It also includes a psychological report on Roderick by the real-life prison doctor James Bruce Thomson, who has firm opinions on the characteristics and proclivities of the “criminal class”.

Discussion at Judith’s bubbled away, with most of us smitten with the book. Those on board “loved the detail” constructed by the author – and some were clearly emotionally involved with some attesting that their “heart was torn out” by the crofter’s tales of hardship. There was much discussion about how the people of Culdui were ensnared by Laughlan Mackenzie and how GM-B was able to crank up the tension as young Roddy became increasingly distressed by a series of injustices against his family until he could see only one way out of his predicament. As the red mist descended upon him, the otherwise gentle Roddy began a Manson-esque murder spree. Was Roddy just a man driven too far or was he a craven sociopath showing his true colours? Ultimately, there was discussion about the debate in the story as to whether Roddy was insane at the time of the murder. The old tropes about murderers being touched by insanity at the time of their deeds came up and we delved briefly into the more esoteric realms of ‘moral insanity’ and the M’Naghton rule for the determination of responsibility.

Jane commented that His bloody project was somewhat similar to Burial rights albeit that the former had more fictional elements. I must confess that I was under the misapprehension that GM-B had based his novel on more historical fact than was the case. Judith lamented that the book did not hold her interest all that well and I am afraid that I must agree. There was a wide spread of scores but, in the main, the book made a positive impression.

Scores: Jo 8; Simon 9; Helen 7; Karen 6; Charles 4; Wendy 8; Judith 6; Jane 6; Christine (email) 7. Average score = 6.8

Many thanks to Judith, ably assisted by the lovely Priscilla, who hosted in her new home for the first time.

CH

25/01/2017

Book 210: Man Tiger

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:59 am by Mark MacLean

man-tiger29 March 2017, at the Harmon home (minus Charles)

The book received mixed reviews culminating in discussion about high and low sixes as our scores reflected conflict of what a six really meant (you had to be there!). We were all keen to read an Indonesian author as most had not read any other Indonesian writers. The book opens with the ending – a murder, going back to explore the story that led to the murder, always knowing the perpetrator and the victim.

The story is set in a small town on the Indonesian coast and tells the story of two interlinked and tormented families and of Margio, a young man who conceals within himself a supernatural female white tiger. Margio’s grandfather has told him the story of how the white tiger is passed down the family line and it is the tiger that perpetrates the violent murder. This opening act of violence and its mysterious cause is unravelled as events progress toward a heartbreaking story of domestic violence, affairs and family problems.

The group was also divided in its sense of place, some feeling they could clearly picture the small Indonesian village, others not taken there. Most agreed however that some of the issues that were borne out were universal ie domestic violence and that it depicted the inequities and betrayals of family life with a cultural twist of the white tiger that inhabited Margio. We all would have liked more exploration the grandfather’s story of the white tiger and its cultural context as well as Margio’s relationship with his grandfather, a character we all liked.

Review: KH

Scores were as follows: Simon 7; Karen 5; Helen 6; Judith 6; Jane 5; Charles 5; Marion 7; Jo 6.

Book 209: These Are The Names

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:55 am by Mark MacLean

these_are_the_names28 February 2017, at Marion’s.

It was a somewhat depleted book group that met at Marion’s  – Christine was at Uni, Helen and Simon off in Noosa, Charles in Tamworth, Jo was moderating several thousand speech therapists on the internet, Karen was just back from Sydney and snuffling with a nasty cold, and Mark was living it up in Lightning Ridge. However, the remaining members had a very convivial evening with lots of good discussion.

The title gives us a broad hint of the near-biblical saga to come, as a group of migrants from an unidentified place in Middle Asia search for their promised land in the west. Two separate stories are told in alternate chapters, but the reader knows that the stories and characters will collide at some point. These are the Names is a quote from Exodus 1:1 “Now these are the names of the children of Israel, which came into Egypt; every man and his household came with Jacob.” Throughout the book there are parallels between the Flight into Egypt and the the wanderings of the refugees, who endure incredible hardship. Other refugee stories were referenced – Charles has pointed out similarities with the Oakies from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Although not all the refugees have names, their characters are developed well, as is their deterioration as they are progressively stripped of “their possessions; their pasts; their identities and their lives”.

Also the character of Pontus Beg, the flawed Chief of Police in the parallel story – getting old, craving love and respect, a little bit corrupt (so the police can get paid at the end of the month), but not without humour – is beautifully drawn.

To quote (in bits) Simon:

The migrants have no names, except for Vitaly, and latterly the Ethiopian, who is given the name Africa by his fellow travellers. As they search for their destination, Pontus Beg searches for some meaning to his life, something other than the daily routine of running a police station in a small town, tackling petty crime, aiding and abetting the corrupt imposition of fines. The migrants start out with a strange set of rules and superstitions: they keep away from people with red hair; they are suspicious of the Ethiopian, who knows how to find food, how to deal with the hardships of the journey better than they can. Eventually, when things get too bad, he has to be killed, his head carried on the journey as a talisman. Instead of reaching the fabled west, land of riches and plenty, they wash up – finally – in Michailopol, victims of a cruel trick. This is up there with the fake lifejackets and the trains bound for “Germany”, but which pull up hours later at an internment camp.

Pontus Beg happens on the last rabbi in Michailopol, befriends him and then decides that he himself might – just – be Jewish. Is he? The rabbi, Zelman Eder, is sceptical, but by the end of the book Pontus has decided that it’s a certainty. It’s another step in his search for meaning, for something better. How wonderful, he thinks, to immerse oneself in the mikveh and wash away all of the bad things from the past, all of the deals, the corrupt acts, the wrongful arrests.

Most of the group thought that the characters of both stories were well drawn. Minor criticisms: one or two had doubts about the Rabbi; Wendy found the beginning rather slow; Simon, Helen and Judith thought the ending weak – couldn’t see the boy’s travel to Israel as either an option or a solution. Jo, however, found it a bit annoying – she didn’t like any of the characters, and “women were just in it to have sex with boring and unattractive men, and the whole Jewish thing felt like a plot device to make the metaphor of travelling across to new lands legit.” Most, though, found it an “easy read” (sorry, Howard Jacobson) and obviously a good translation.

Overall, a very positive response (see marks below), thanks to Simon for introducing us to a little-known writer, and I’m off in search of Wieringa’s other books, particularly Joe Speedboat.

Marks: Marion 6, Jane 8, Wendy 8, Judith 7, Suzanne 9, Charles 8, Karen 8, Simon 8, Helen 8, Jo 6. Average 7.6.

JRW

13/12/2016

Book 208: Symphony for the City of the Dead

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:47 am by Mark MacLean

symphony_city_deadTuesday, 31 January 2017: Suzanne’s

The second (or, rather, other) book in our annual Christmas / New Year double-header.

M.T. Anderson’s novels are generally aimed at the emerging adult audience. His first effort, Thirsty (1997) a was a modest story about urban vampires but by the mid-2000s he had produced the two-volume novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, set in Revolutionary-era Boston, which won a (US) National Book Award in 2006. Refreshingly, Anderson has the happy knack of exploring his subject in detail while observing the imperative of developing interest while avoiding the temptation to proselytise. That Symphony for the city of the dead was greeted enthusiastically by our book group should come as no surprise.

Essentially the book provides personal insights into a the life of Dimitri Shostakovich – an intensely private man; a man with an obsessive nature (co-ordinating the clocks in his house so that they would chime at the same time); a man with a strong sense of family and a surprising tolerance for the antics of children; a man prone to tics and strange mannerisms; and a man with a keen sense of humour and irony. The book traces the rise this Russian composer at a time when another rising star, Joseph Stalin, was clawing his way to the top of the Soviet Politburo. The book later concentrates on the WW2 siege of Leningrad by the German invasion forces and the subsequent three agonising years of bombardment and deprivation endured by the inhabitants of that city. Shostakovich’s now-famous response to this invasion was to write his Seventh Symphony which is both a record of the Wermacht’s invasion and a powerful symbol of Russian resistance. Despite the composer’s remarkable achievement, he was continually criticised and manipulated by the Stalinist and later regimes (under Khrushchev and so on) and so this is a story of survival on a number of levels.

The book group members at Suzanne’s embraced this book warmly, not least because it was beautifully written and provided excellent contextual material which enabled us to better understand the second book discussed that evening, Julian Barnes’ The noise of time. There was deep appreciation that Anderson had produced an account of a complex history which was delivered from a relatively neutral perspective. Indeed most of us felt compelled to comment that Anderson caused us to rethink our biased views about the role of the Soviet Union in World War 2 and, indeed, our ideas about the ‘Allied’ invasion of Western Europe.

Mark felt that the stories presented “were not horrific enough” meaning that Anderson risked presenting an account which lacked accuracy. There was some agreement with this point of view while others felt that the criticism was unwarranted- maintaining that the book embraced a significant body of facts but that there were limits to the extent to which Anderson could explore all of the atrocities.

The relevant scores were as follows: Jane 8; Helen 9; Mark 9; Simon 7; Judith 9; Wendy 9; Karen 9; Marion 9; Suzanne 9; Charles 8. Average: 8.5.

Book 207: The Noise of Time

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:45 am by Mark MacLean

the_noise_of_time_smallTuesday, 31 January 2017: Suzanne’s

According to his bio, Julian Barnes won the Man Booker Prize for his book The Sense of an Ending, and three of his other books have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize: Flaubert’s Parrot, England, England, and Arthur & George. Barnes is well known to members of this book group and each of us has read his books either privately or as part of our reading list.

The tricky thing about writing about Dimitri Shostakovich is that we have very little in the way of personal memoirs – apart from his music (see below). The source of the great composer’s reticence is probably that he did not wish to put his life – or the safety of his family – at risk through some careless notes. Julian Barnes understood this reticence and the reasons for it: Shostakovich’s life-long, futile as it turned out, struggle with powerful figures in Soviet Russia. Indeed Shostakovich’s developing relationship with Power forms the main narrative in the Noise of time.

The book begins with Dimitri sitting by an elevator, bags packed and lit cigarette in hand, waiting for Comrade Zakrevsky’s NKVD men to take him away to the Big House; this after he had fallen foul of the Great Helmsman following the ‘failure’ of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. From this encounter come motifs which are repeated throughout the book, including Stalin’s infamous description of the opera as “a muddle instead of music”. Indeed other Codas appear after each of the composer’s brushes with Power including: euphemisms/ aphorisms such as “when you chop wood the chips fly” (as a justification for the harm done by the regime); and the continued evolution of threats – some veiled, some not so veiled – during the times when Shostakovich was ‘criticised’ or coerced into becoming a member of the Party.

The Book Group Members were divided in their opinion of this book. There was certainly an appreciation of the difficulties faced by the author as he tried to flesh out some of the nuances. Not least of these was the author’s attempt to discuss the way in which people were silenced by the Power elite and yet managed to ‘speak’ to one another in the language of irony and even sarcasm. Indeed Shostakovich’s compositions (even the much-appreciated Seventh) are replete with musical references which are veiled challenges to authority. All this in an attempt to avoid what Shakespeare referred to as … art made tongue-tied by authority (from Sonnet 66). Some of the Group would, doubtless, agree with James Lasdum of the Guardian (Feb 22nd 2016) who enthused about:

Barnes cycling and recycling choice vignettes through memory and reflection as well as real time, to create an intimately illuminating montage of Shostakovich’s life.

Alas, others amongst us were not quite so sure and found Barnes’ approach to be a little too oblique and sometimes lacking in context (hence the importance of reading the Anderson book first). From my perspective Barnes struggled to produce a firm narrative on the life of Shostakovich but his short essays on Power are wonderfully insightful.

The relevant scores were: Jane 7; Helen 7; Mark 6; Simon 7; Judith 9; Wendy 6; Karen 7; Marion 5; Suzanne 8; Charles 7. Average: 6.9.

Thanks, once again, to Suzanne for being such a wonderful host. Especially given that it was our first meeting for the year and because the weather at the time was horrendous!

CH

Book 206: The Good People

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:35 am by Mark MacLean

the_good_people1Tuesday, 29 November 2016: Marion’s

The mood of the meeting was suitably festive and the people there   regrouped rather well after the comparative indifference of our previous meeting. Good food, company and a bloody good book helped enormously!

The good people is Hannah Kent’s second novel. She received much-deserved acclaim for her first book – Burial rights – with gongs including the Australian Book Industry (ABI) literary fiction award and the people’s choice in the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. Burial rights was also shortlisted for other awards (The Guardian first book award etc.) as well as being well-liked by members of this book group (Book 183, December 2014).

In similar vein to the first book, The good people is set in the first part of the nineteenth century amongst simple rural folk living in an isolated community – this time in a Flesk River valley near Killarney, Ireland. The plot is based upon real events and the unfolding of the story is facilitated by the author’s excellent research. Just as Agnes Magnusdottir (Burial rights) is incarcerated and ‘sent up’ to be tried for the crime of murder, so too are the main female characters in The good people: Nora Leahy and Nance Roche.

The background story is that Nora’s daughter has died but her four-year-old son (Micheal) is affected by muscle wastage and intellectual disability – probably caused by his family’s lack of access to proper nourishment (although Helen thinks maybe Tuberculosis) and adequate medical services. The care of Micheal is left to (grandmother) Nora who becomes increasingly fragile and isolated by a community convinced that the boy is a curse and will therefore cause bad fortune in the guise of crop failure and personal misfortune.

Nora is distraught when her husband dies suddenly and she eventually seeks help from a young woman, Mary Clifford, to care for the boy and help with the farm work. Ultimately convinced that Micheal is a ‘changeling’, Nora seeks help from ‘handy woman’ Nance, who pronounces the boy ‘faery’ and agrees to perform rituals designed to banish the changeling and restore the ‘real’ Micheal to his grandmother. In a risky attempt to “put the faery out of him”, Nance accidentally (?) drowns Micheal and the two women find themselves before the ‘beak’ with Mary’s testimony before them.

The author appears to have a fascination for the time-period, the plight of women, and courtroom drama. A number of additional themes are explored in this latest offering including: survival in a ‘community’ of impoverished people dependent upon monoculture (you can imagine how tough it must have been, later, in the 1850s during the potato famine); the role of superstition, healers, midwives and ‘handy women’ in the treatment of folk unable to access mainstream medical services; the role of the church in ameliorating superstition (at the risk of replacing it with another layer of superstition and dogma); and the plight of families with a disabled child. These elements are the backdrop for the exploration of something darker and more sinister: the unravelling of a community and the subsequent evaporation of fairness and compassion once fear is fuelled by ignorance and ‘folk lore’. Just as social media can be the touchstone for hysteria and misinformation in modern society, so too does idle gossip and the machinations of bullies and opportunists play a role in the diminishment of the community portrayed in The good people. Another avenue explored by Hannah Kent is the role of incompetent but insistent ‘leaders’ such as Nance Roche and Father Healy.

Essentially everyone really liked this book to a degree. With a ‘low’ score of 7- things are on the up-&-up. There was much discussion about: Irish traditions and folk-lore – and present-day remnants of these; the tolerance and intolerance exhibited by people in times of adversity; the emergence of “good neighbours” such as Peg who seem to be themselves no matter the obstacles; and the tension between Church and Paganist when the chips are down.

Not all the talk was positive. Helen and Suzanne decried the lack of political context for the book – although this sort of coverage might have turned the book into a weighty tome. There was also discussion about the stereotypical roles played by women in such matters as the care of Micheal. Ultimately, though, these were minor criticisms in the grand scheme of things and we were content, at last, to have a ‘juicy’ book – well written with a story skilfully spun and characters which were beautifully developed – to discuss.

The evening was punctuated with stories of the Irish heritage of most of us in the room. Maybe this accounted for a certain bias? In any case, the scores were as below:

Helen 8; Wendy 9; Karen 8; Marion 8; Suzanne 9; Simon 8; Jan- 8; Christine 7.5; Charles 7.5; Judith 7. Average 8.

Thanks, once again, to Marion and Roland for being such wonderful hosts. MERRY CHRISTMAS!

CH

Note from the Purple Book Authorities: There is no mention in the above report of the emergence of Half Marks. Letters will be sent …

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