Reading group choices and responses 2008

January
Persephone Reading Group: Every Eye by Isobel English
This is a decpetively slight novel, 118 pages including the afterword. I read it three times, and gained more from the experience each time. The writing is lucid and vibrant. Images and recollections move from pastr to present seamlessly. It is a wander though memory, exquisitely told. It feels incredibly modern. Highly reommended.


Reading for Pleasure: Atonement by Ian McEwan
An excitingly good book. The story is compelling and I guess most of us have read it or seen the film by now. We are doing a tour of Stokesay Court on September 14th: contact the shop for more details. back to the book; I completely loved it, and think this is a book that will still be being read a hundred years from now. The writing is fabulous, and as well as the plot, which is fascinating, McEwan layers in explorations of what it means to be a writer, or a reader; What is fiction; Where is truth; Why does fiction matter and what does it mean? A very wonderful book.

February
Reading for Pleasure: The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly
Karen Connelly won the Orange Broadband Prize for New Writers this year with the the Lizard Cage. It’s the story of Teza, a song-writer/political prisoner, and a young, nameless orphan boy who lives in the prison. The story begins seven years into a 20 year sentence of solitary confinement. That’s the bare bones of it. What Connelly does with this story though, is to take something that’s unremittingly grim and heart-breaking, and transform it into a story of redemption, compassion and love. Connelly is a Canadian and a poet, and like Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces – winner of the Orange prize-winner in 1997 - her writing is so beautiful, and so moving, that even as we turn away from the horror she portrays, on some level we embrace it as she does, knowing that we must know; we must bear witness. This is also a story of language, the power of words to change worlds. The boy sleeps with books under his head that he cannot read, he doesn’t even have an alphabet; these books are his friends, and it is the depth of his desire to read that eventually sets him free. I couldn’t help but think of Brian Keenan’s An Evil Cradling as I read: sometimes the truest freedom is wrenched from the darkest prison.

March
Persephone Reading Group: They Knew Mr Knight by Dorothy Whipple

When I read my first Dorothy Whipple, Someone at a Distance, I read it in one sitting, unable to drag myself away from the story, but bereft when I’d finished it. I had exactly the same experience reading this one. Luckily I’d got a rare day off (I teach a dance class on a Monday, but it was half term), so in an empty house I settled myself down on the sofa in the bay window to enjoy the bright February sunshine, a couple of cats on my lap, and a new book! When I put the book down, it was dark outside and the cats were hungry, but I had been transported to another world.
The Blakes are an ordinary family: Celia looks after the house and Thomas works at the family engineering business in Leicester. The book begins when he meets Mr Knight, a financier as crooked as any on the front pages of our newspapers nowadays; and tracks his and his family's swift climb and fall. The fact that we know from the beginning that tragedy is inevitable in no way spoils the suspense, or the drive of the narrative. Whipple’s story-telling is superb, and we are drawn ever inward to the doomed world she portrays so brilliantly.
The Blakes are ordinary, yes, but it’s an ‘ordinary’ that we scarcely recognise. While their house is so small that one can call out on the landing and be heard in the kitchen, they nevertheless have a full-time cook, who prepares Thomas’ breakfast of bacon and coffee and who magnificently rustles up shortbread, bread and butter (thinly sliced) and toast and honey for an impromptu tea when the wife of the financier comes to call unexpectedly.
Celia is, of course, a stay-at-home wife, who knows little of her husband’s working life, nor is she expected to. They work well as a team, whether in the garden of a week-end - she likes to tend and tidy, he to uproot and cut down – or on family day trips into the countryside. Theirs is a warm marriage, where each supports the other, and where passion has been replaced by friendship, respect and mutual love.
Thomas though, is influenced by Mr Knight and starts to speculate, making just enough money at first to buy back the engineering firm which had once had his father’s name above the door. Inevitably, his speculations increase, with disastrous results that I shan’t spell out here. Whipple shows just how easy it is to slide down the slippery slope to ruin. Even Celia, all innocent homeliness, comes to a point where she too is seduced, and indeed, it is when they both throw caution to the winds that the tragedy draws even nearer.
The children, two girls and a boy, are fully part of the story, each with their rĂ´le to play: Freda, the fashion–conscious little snob, who dreams of a better, more moneyed life; Ruth who spends all her time scribbling, and is warm-hearted and down-to-earth, and lastly young Tom, who dreams of becoming a great chemist, in opposition to his Father’s dream of passing on the engineering business to him. There are also wonderful minor characters, drawn beautifully and simply; the unloved wife, the put upon Mother-in-law, the feckless brother. And interestingly, each character experiences some kind of transformation that causes us to reconsider our perceptions of them.
Although I learned recently that Virago modern classics refused to republish Whipple because they thought she wasn’t good enough (they even had “a Whipple line”!) I fully applaud Persephone’s decision to publish four of her novels, and I recommend them to you highly.

A Fortnight in September


Bathers, Dieppe by Sickert Liverpool Museums, Walker Art Gallery

Reading for Pleasure: “The Fortnight in September” – R.C.Sherriff

This month the “Reading for Pleasure” book groups discussed, rather appropriately, “The Fortnight in September” by R.C.Sherriff. Here we are unreservedly invited on the Stevens family’s annual holiday, staying with them for a fortnight in Bognor before reluctantly bidding them farewell at the end. At first glance this novel can appear desperately unremarkable with Sherriff’s logical narrative leaving little to satisfy the intellectual; the author even admitted to himself that to present it to Gollancz “seemed like offering a fruit drop to a lion”. However as the lively discussion which followed proved, this novel, despite its modest subject matter and Sherriff’s characteristically understated language, is a neglected gem set within the interwar literary canon.

But what is so special about “The Fortnight in September”? Perhaps it is first and foremost the indulgent nostalgia the novel evokes transcending each generation. “The Fortnight” whispers to all of their own family holidays: directing the family with pre-departure “Marching Orders”: priceless memories of childhood frolicking in the sand: the sea “lazily slapping at the shingle” or “booming and sighing beneath the pier”. But Sherriff not only captures our personal experiences but also successfully preserves a bygone era thus constructing an important piece of social history. Physically he breathes life into the olden railway with the porters, trunks and “the long, wheezing, gasping sighs” of the steam train; mentally he recreates through his upright constructs a past mindset of living practically within your means where debt was less acceptable, “a lot could be done with thirty shillings” and making the best of the hand you are dealt, “Supposing he could do something to turn the sham pride of Belvedere College into a fine reality!”.

However “The Fortnight in September” is truly heart warming for the simple human emotions Sherriff conveys. Without attempting to be profound in a consistently understated tone he speaks of the universal: love between father and son, “It pleased Mr Stevens to see his son (pour out tea) without any prompting: marital understanding, “Mr Stevens knew that his wife would snore if she got into a certain position with her head bent too far down”: the strain of familial bonds, “luckily the hints of separate holidays had come to nothing”. Sherriff’s characters are indubitably stereotypical yet frequently remind us of ourselves or others and consequently he illustrates the interconnected nature of the human race. The fact that we can identify with the Stevens and their experiences makes Sherriff’s brutal honesty and meticulous attention to detail at times rather unnerving, but simultaneously with can find reassurance in his empathy.

For some this novel can seem overly idealistic or mundane: there are no violent arguments: the narrative is largely devoid of sexual innuendo; for example Mr and Mrs Stevens sleep with a bolster between them in the lumpy bed at “Seaview”. For others the security and strict sense of order the family strive to maintain is repressive and inhibiting based not on love, but fear of an ever changing outside world. However, although these interpretations can be justified, (Sherriff’s tone is highly sympathetic and the family certainly desire seclusion, demonstrated by Old Mr Burgin’s futile attempt to walk with them to the station: “It was a stupid, tactless thing to do”), there is a sense not of stagnation but progression. The Stevens break out of routine to stay an extra day, Dick resolves to broaden his horizons and become an architect and Mary begins to socialise outside of the family unit.

All in all “The Fortnight in September” can be seen as an admonition to the inexorable march of time, for although “Seaview” is slowly sinking into decrepitude Sheriff has preserved the past for us all to revisit and depicted aspects of humanity which will never change. The immense understanding and accuracy displayed in this novel perhaps embodies everything one loves about literature; unpretentious, honest insight. Indeed this masterpiece is arguably the ultimate parody – it is so ordinary it is extraordinary and I would recommend it to anyone.

Izzy King

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice December 12th 2007

Reminiscent of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith this is the engrossing story of Penny and her eccentric family in the post-WW2 1950’s just before the advent of rock and roll. A lovely, humorous and nostalgic read, I came upon it quite by chance when a damaged copy came in as a customer's special order. I don't usually choose pink covers, but this one was surprisingly charming.

Villette by Charlotte Bronte November 14th: 2pm and November 28th: 7pm 2007

A moving tale of repressed feelings and subjection borne with fortitude: the story of a woman's right to love and be loved.We're looking forward to seeing how our adult selves respond to this book, compared to the way we read it when we were teenagers. Our re-readings of Jane Eyre and Daphne du Maurier found us with very different feelings towards certain characters.

Maps for Lost Lovers by Aslam Nadeem October 10th: 2pm and October 31st: 7pm 2007

Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam

A group of ten of us met today to talk about this remarkable book, and we were unanimous in our admiration of it, and of the style in which it is written. It tells of events which affect a Pakistani family living in an un-named city in Britain, and of how these events impinge on their community.
Around this family is painted a detailed and revelatory picture of Muslim life, a sensitive topic for these times, but told with calm and unflinching directness by the author, himself a Muslim. We all noted that his style and use of language were somehow not those of a British-born writer. The book is rich in imagery, poetic in its descriptions, full of beauty and colour, all of which contribute to the “foreignness” of its themes, and transform its British location into somewhere unfamiliar and exotic.
The story itself is complex, but at its centre is the mother of the family, a middle-aged Muslim of fervent devoutness, stranded, with her strict and unbending beliefs within an equally rigid Pakistani community, in 21stcentury Britain. Around her unfold a tragic sequence of events, which she can only watch with helpless bewilderment. None of us was left unmoved by the desperate sadness of this woman`s life; but there were other emotions too, aroused by the oppressive and cruel control system imposed by the laws of Islam, especially over women, and the double-standards shown by the men on whom they depended. But both men and women colluded to prop up this system and defend its values, at whatever personal cost, in the face of the “Western” lifestyle that surrounded them. With limited success, however, since the children of the family, with such irreconcileable forces tugging them in opposite directions, had choices to make.
Naseem Aslam took 11 years to write this book, not with the idea of delivering a message, but as a way of understanding his own life. We all felt, even though it needed some effort to get into, that it more than rewarded a slow read, and was one of the most worthwhile books on the “list” this year.

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff July 4th: 2pm and July 18th: 7pm 2007

Supposedly for teenagers, this won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize in 2004. A gripping narrative set in a future war, this is “all about love” to quote the author. I was spellbound, (and immediately moved it from children's to adults!)

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter Downes June 6th 2007

Re-reading The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes published by Persephone, in our reading group last year, reminded me of this lovely, understated little book. A quiet day, nothing much happening, but oh, what lovely writing!

Beloved by Toni Morrison May 9th 2007

One of the great classics of black American literature, and indeed of great literature regardless of any kind of boundary limitations. This is a novel that makes you change the way you feel about your place in the world. A shocking, compelling and brilliant read.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson April 25th 2007

A quietly beautiful book, an old man looks back on his life and wonders what he will pass on to his very young son, and much-loved wife. We’ve waited a long time for this one! Marilynne Robinson's haunting Housekeeping is one of my top five books. I love the seriousness and poetry of her writing.

Short History of Tractors in Ukranian by Marina Lewycka March 14th 2007

I’m looking forward to reading this one, having heard so many different opinions about it! We are hoping to get Marina Lewycka to include Wenlock Books in her tour dates around now, as she promotes her new book.

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(Marina has very kindly been in touch, but it looks unlikely that she'll manage a visit.)

This, for me, was one of those reading experiences where I just didn't "get it" while I was reading the book, and I had to keep asking myself what all the fuss had been about. I felt squeamish about a lot of it; didn't find it laugh out loud funny (as promised by the blurb) and really just didn't like it. Then we talked about it in the reading group, and as one or other of us read bits from the book, I found myself laughing with retrospective humour, and enjoying the cadences of the Ukranian/English language. We often find that talking about a book enables us to see things in it we hadn't seen before, but I don't think I've ever done such a complete u-turn!

Tractors addresses some very serious issues: Eastern-European immigration; family tensions; elder abuse; sibling rivlary; aging and power - or lack of it - and more. With a lightness of touch, and a good ear for invented language, Marina Lewycka explores some of today's hot topics. Reminiscent in some ways of Small Island by Andrea Levy, it's a book that shines a light on everyday life and makes us look at it twice.

As for my squeamishness, well I still really don't like the image of the naked old man saluting the sun, but, thanks to the 80+ year olds in my reading groups (who found it very funny); well, if they can laugh at it, so can I!

Sex Wars by Marge Piercy February 7th 2007

Always a treat to have a new Marge Piercy, this is the story of the pioneers of women’s rights in the America of the 1860s and 70’s. I've been reading Marge Piercy since the 1970's and have been challenged, moved, inspired ... never disappointed!

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Or at least, never disappointed until now! I tried twice to get through this book, the second time being on our reader's retreat in Wales, when there was all the time in the world to focus on and relax into a good book. This was turgid and pedestrian: I finally gave up after 80 pages. Opinions among the two groups were also pretty similar; that she "told" rather than "showed"; that the only time there was any real life or lightness to the writing was when she was talking about the only completely fictional character; that although the premise of the book was worthy it just didn't work. Discussion in the group (one group was cancelled due to complete lack of interest in the book!) was interesting and lively as the women's rights movement was discussed; past, present and future (!), but this was a general conversation based on our own thoughts and experiences and bore little reference to the book.

Very, very disappointing.

If you want to read Piercy try Small Changes, Woman on the Edge of Time; Vida, Gone to Soldiers, her memoir - Sleeping with Cats - pretty well anything; just not this one!

The Reader by Ali Smith January 17th 2007

A fascinating selection of the prose, poetry, songs and articles that have informed Ali Smith’s reading and writing life, from childhood through to adulthood.You’ll meet well-loved favourites, make the acquaintance of new writers, and be reminded of long forgotten ones. Just like browsing someone else's book case.
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I so enjoyed dipping into The Reader over the Christmas holidays. It was great to see some of my own favourites there; Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson being particular favourites that I was surprised and pleased to find. I also really enjoyed Ali Smith's introduction to this selection, and to be honest, would have liked to have known more about why she made certain choices, why they were important to her and so on. She argues that she didn't want to get between the reader and the piece of work, which I understand, but I'll be interested to see (if this series continues as promised with other writers) if this standing back, this invisibility, is present throughout.

Reading an eclectic selection like this is, of course, also a fabulous way of being introduced to new writers, and trying out unfamiliar genres and styles. From the reading group's point of view, it was also fascinating to see how we had all picked out something different as a special favourite: the way we tackled this together was for us to suggest pieces we had liked which we then read aloud to the group. Being read to in this way deepened our enjoyment and reception of many of the pieces.