Crossing The River

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Unfortunately I couldn’t be at the last book  club in person, so as our rules dictate, I submitted a written review. Sometimes a written review can produce a more lucid and passionate take on the book as there are no influencing factors or in my case, I don’t get too carried away with the emotion of a meeting.

I actually like the process of putting my thoughts into writing for book club and often wish I did it more often as I feel my written reviews have more gravitas and eloquence (especially when read out by a BBC trained voice like Andrew’s)…

Crossing The River by Caryl Philips 

Score 8 out of 10

Slavery is one of those subject matters that elicits a complex response from me. As a child I remember clearly the TV mini series Roots adapted from Arthur Haley’s book, it was a powerful and I’m sure relatively sanitized take on slavery and its impact on generations of people. I recall the powerful feelings of loss and overwhelming guilt, thankful that I was never to be put in a situation like that.

The fact that our country was instrumental in facilitating the slavery trade had been conveniently glossed over for me growing up and it was only on digging deeper that I discovered the inconvenient truths of slavery as close to home as Harewood House — built on slave money.

I would really liked to have seen Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave as a companion piece to this book too: an unwaveringly brutal depiction of slavery in film seemed like a good counterpoint to this subtle and delicate book.

Right, on with the book.

First question: Is this a novel or a collection of short stories? The link between the stories was there, albeit tenuous, particularly in the final story, but nevertheless provided a central thread around which the stories could be woven.

The Pagan Coast was a heartbreaking story, full of melancholy pathos and desolation. I thought it was really interesting to explore the little known fact (at least to me) that when slaves had done their time they were ‘freed’ back to their ‘homeland’. That this freedom turned into a form of cruelty worse than slavery itself was deeply, sadly ironic. As the story unfolded through the correspondence of the child like Nash Williams and his moving story of his father seemingly turning his back on him, the sense of loss was palpable culminating in his loss of faith in both his father and God and ultimately death.

The big question for me here is just how did the Christians of that time balance their faith with the concept and reality of slavery?

The slave ship captain interlude was relentlessly harrowing. Amidst the tedious descriptions of wind, temperature, tides and day-to-day ship duties was the everyday nature of taking slaves. This was described as such a commonplace event that it chilled me to the bone: lives ruined forever, casual death and the business of slavery, not flashily horrific but routinely normal.

Martha’s story was no less tragic but perhaps more recognisable in the canon of slavery stories. It was again a numbingly tragic story of a life lived, owned and ruined by different people. The author made these feelings real for me and the most moving part was losing her daughter and then spending the rest of her life seeking her out. This was an emotionally raw story told tenderly and I liked how the author chopped the timelines — a common but effective ploy used throughout — to create anticipation and depth. Yet again the story ends in death and there is a palpable sense here that death brings freedom as in the first story.

Joyce’s story felt very different and I was impressed throughout with how the author had created authentic voices across the generations. The physical and emotional austerity of wartime Northern England was perfectly captured in this story. This was an unpalatable layering of hardship, heartbreak, cruelty, determination and tragedy — predictably ending in death.  Interestingly the story raised questions for me around who was the slave and who was free and I really liked that I was asking questions all the time as to who was black in the story, as Joyce never mentions the colour of skin.

So, was Crossing the River a metaphor for death or slavery? I’m not sure—it could be both. I have read somewhere that ‘The River’ was what slaves called the Atlantic. Interesting also to hear the phrase being ‘sold down the river’ or betrayed, being used in its original context as the buying and selling of people.

Ultimately, I found this a harrowing book; the author not afraid to leave things unresolved or introducing stark tragedy at every turn. If the intention is to leave no glimpse of light in the darkness, amidst the desperation of dislocated and shattered lives, then this book is a resounding success.

I’m left with the lingering feeling that there should be no positives whatsoever where this subject matter is concerned and I am convinced that books on slavery should be painful to read by their very nature.

My score does not in any way reflect my enjoyment of this book, but the lucid power of the narrative and the fact that I simply couldn’t look away and not be affected by the stories.

Can we read a comedy next?

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Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

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This year has been another classic year for our book club. As we get to the end of the year, we always take a backwards glance at the year’s books in our annual review and it’s always a delight to go back over the reading material and re-appraise the books—time often provides another filter in which to consider their impact.

We have read some really challenging and stimulating books this year in book club and none mere so than this collection of short stories by Nobel prize winner, Alice Munro. I’ve said many times before, the measure of a great book club book is the conversation it stimulates, the book itself doesn’t have to be amazing: in fact if it is, it’s usually high scores all round and a fairly dull meeting ensues.

I think we’ve only read short stories before on one occasion (Sci Fi as I recall) and we knew we were in safe short story hands with Munro, given her recent Nobel accolade for her literature. Awards are no guarantee of a satisfying book and discussion as we’ve found in the past, but the book ticked a lot of boxes, so in we went.

This book was easy to read, although I found short stories need to be consumed in one sitting, otherwise the characters in different story fuse together. In fact looking back, I feel the themes were far more important across the collection than the characters. Good short stories are impressive feats of writing too—a compelling and believable world has to be created quickly and efficiently with no luxury of 800 pages to flesh it out.

Munro examines the trajectories of lives, criss-crossing, delicately woven together, smashed part, unfolding, unravelling. She tackles the difficult issues of the bargains we make with ourselves to make things work or rationalise in our hearts and heads. She enjoys the untidy nature of life which, as much as we try to keep it in order, can never be mastered. She is a master at portraying the complexity of emotions, the fragility of relationships, unbreakable family ties, duty and responsibility. Furniture is a theme that re-occurs constantly, an analogy I think for the everyday stuff that surrounds us in our lives, physical things that we can move around but never goes away.

The men in her book are hard, unattainable, dutiful, arms length objects of female desire to be lusted after or fearful of. The women are trapped, hemmed in by their duty and loyalty, occupying traditional stereotypes that perhaps speaks more of her Canadian home.

Her prose is like a delicate filigree, beautifully realising the relentlessly chilly tales. I found many of the stories bereft of emotion, Munro doesn’t flinch from the harshness of life and relationships, as the reader, one gets cold comfort from her elegant, neatly realised writing.

This collection is ultimately a mediation on morality and mortality—each story prodding, poking, picking at the edges of life. There aren’t many answers to be found in her pages, she simply sets out the scenes and asks the reader to decide. As each story unfolds, Munro seems to get bolder, finishing with the powerful Bear came over the mountain, laying out the components of loss: memory, relationships, tragedy and mundanity.

Of course a collection of stories like this got us all hot under the collar and a seriously good discussion ensued. I scored the book highly as this is clearly the work of a great writer and writing this, three weeks after we met, the themes have matured and lurk in the back of my mind, gloomily reminding me that it’s a fine line between happiness and sadness. And it’s a line that we all tread daily.

War of the Worlds

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For those of us of a certain age, War of the Worlds by H G Wells is an iconic story. First published in 1898, Well’s enduring and familiar tale of a Martian extra-terrestrial attack on Earth has been told memorably in film, radio and music.

First came the George Pal‘s liberal interpretation of the book, glossy and glamorous with new found Technicolor, then came the panic-inducing Orson Welles radio version striking fear into the heart of middle America. In the seventies, serious muso Jeff Wayne‘s concept album stuck closely to the original text creating a long-standing impression using Richard Burton as narrator. More recently Spielberg’s 2005 CGI drenched version delivered a modern take on alien destruction a la Independence day etc. It’s testament to Wells’s nineteenth century imagination that his story lives in our minds so, each generation has found something to draw on, interpreting his themes to deliver relevant messages to each generation.

“Yet across the gulf of space,minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us”

We read and reviewed this book as part of our annual book club trip book – this year, Palma if you were wondering – and sat around a lovely table in a tapas bar overlooking the sea we discussed at length the book’s merits and foibles. Perhaps disappointingly, the scores for the book around the table were uniformly the same, which is never the sign of a classic book club discussion. Where we find common ground, we often find accord which is all well and good, but discord often creates a more vibrant discussion.

I think if we were scoring this book on the ideas and the time in which they were written, it would have to be ten out of ten for me. In 1898, Wells was imagining martian invaders, spaceships, complex machinery, mechanised warfare and mass hysteria well before any of these things had become part of the modern lexicon. This is a book chock full of ideas and Wells uses the Martian invasion superbly as a thinly veiled attack on the British, who at the time were at the peak of Empire, conquering all before them with little thought of the consequences. He doesn’t stop there either, releasing both barrels to the church’s ineffective ministry in the face of crisis.

So if the ideas are massive and well considered, it’s ultimately the narrative and characterisation that suffers. Although the book moves along at a good old pace, it’s hard to get past the turn of the nineteenth century language that at times reads like a boys own tale to a modern reader. It’s not without its charm, but the simple story arc gets a bit muddled, ends suddenly and has a ludicrously happy ending, which for me was unsatisfying after what I thought was an effective build to the all out destruction of middle England.

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A few things worked really well for me: the action is set in the home counties, bastion of Englishness which up until this moment had never been threatened in any way. The Martians set about destroying suburban towns like Leatherhead with genuine enthusiasm using their heat ray with gusto and they land showily in banal places like Horsell Common (the image above captures the otherworldly ordinariness I’m getting at). Our modern experience of destruction porn movies is the White House getting it or New York slipping into the Atlantic. I loved the mundanity of everyday, wanton destruction.

I savoured also the ententacled metal-clad invaders, almost steam punk in their kit and destruction, gouts of green gas spewing from clanking limbs. The Martians showed no mercy whatsoever to the pathetic humans – in what were surprisingly graphic chapters – Wells certainly pulled no punches. I mused also on the dreadful prophesy it foretold of mass destruction, mechanised death and total war that would come our way in the Great War, just 16 years after he had written the book.

Ultimately we all felt a little let down by the book. It wasn’t the classic of literature ( or even the sci fi genre) that we were looking for. And although the themes War of the Worlds are thought-provoking and vividly relevant still today, many of us were left untouched by the inadequate and incomplete manner in which they were delivered.

 

The Garden of Evening Mists

The Garden of Evening Mists

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

An unusual choice for the boys book club this month. Put forward by Andrew in an almost hopeful fashion, we were drawn to it as it was outside our usual orbit of choice and as is often the way with books like this, we select it in spite of it almost.

There is so much to like about this book, it’s really difficult to know where to start. The opening sentence of the book sets the tone for what is a moving and poetic story: “On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan”

The book tells the story of Teoh Yun Ling, a straits Chinese woman born in Malaya in 1923 and how her life was affected by the Japanese occupation of Malay (as it was then) in the Second World War. Interned in a concentration camp with hers sister, the brutality they face at the hands of the Japanese casts a very long shadow on the rest of her life. After her escape from the complete annihilation of the camp and its inmates, including her sister, a promise she makes dictates the path she takes in later life.

The story itself is being told as the narrator, losing her own memory through degenerative illness, looks back on her life and the author skips lightly from present to past tense skilfully, blending the narrative into a compelling and profound story.

As a means of escape from the brutality, the sisters dream of  the Japanese gardens they saw pre war and the pledge Teoh Yun Ling makes to her sister to build a garden for her drives her to seek out the most famed and regarded gardener in Japan, Aritomo. He refuses to build her garden but offers to teach her and their relationship unfolds from there.

The author carefully weaves themes of memory, remembrance, retribution, honour and duty into a rich and compelling story. The big themes are played out in beautiful vignettes – families destroyed by war, on both sides, and the post war ‘Emergency’ in Malay of communist uprising provides a unique insight into an overlooked post war event.

The zen-like calm in which the author portrays Aritomo and his disciplined, rigorous life is exquisitely drawn and his growing relationship with the narrator is elegant and touching. On top of being a kick ass gardener it turns out Aritomo is a top notch archer, calligrapher, engraver and tattoo master.

This is a haunting and atmospheric story, packed full of ravishing detail but its key theme is summed up with the quote that appears on page 118:

“The palest ink will outlast the memory of men”

This quote is close to my heart and resonates with me. I have to say when I came across it, I was blindsided. It is an inscription in a note book that my old boss and late mentor Dean Brewer gave to me many years ago. I harangued him for keeping a beautiful handmade book that he’d bought from a craft fair tucked away in his desk drawer. He shrugged his shoulders and then one day there was a brown paper wrapped parcel on my desk. When I opened it, inside was the little handmade notebook. When I opened the cover, there was an inscription.

Here’s what it said:

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So The Garden of Evening Mists struck a real chord with me.

Making marks to remember people and events is what my little book is all about and this book captures the essence of this beautifully.

A Casual Vacancy

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This month’s book club choice was A Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling. Coming off the back of last month’s shocker, I was looking forward to reading a proper book ie a book that has a story, characters and dialogue. Well I wasn’t disappointed.

It’s worth saying up front that I came to this book fresh to Rowling’s writing. She has made her millions of course as the creator of the Harry Potter universe and although I’ve seen most of the films, I haven’t read any of her books. I don’t think her skill as an author has ever been in doubt as the Potter franchise demonstrates a vivid and lucid imagination at work with a steady storytelling hand on the tiller. But what would her first ‘proper’ book be like?

A Casual Vacancy is a real departure for Rowling in that a) it’s a book for adults and b) it’s a book about modern life in all its tedium and tragedy in suburban Britain in 2013. She’s clearly had enough of wizards and mudbloods and is now focusing in on the minutiae of ordinary life in the home counties. Set in the fictitious town of Pagford, A Casual Vacancy uses the death of a local parish councillor and his replacement’s election to tell a number of stories, each delicately weaved around each other.

Rowling zooms right in on the themes of class, social mobility, drug issues, poverty and wealth distribution with plenty of sharp insights. At times it felt a little like she was ticking off boxes – social alienation, tick. Teenage self harm, tick. Cyber bullying, tick. Posh folks having run ins with local chavs, tick. She definitely piles it all in.

Interesting to note that the adult characters she portrays are all pretty unlikable, apart from the dead councillor who we never meet. Predictably Rowling shows more compassion when writing about the teenage characters which is perhaps where her true feelings lie.

It’s over a week since I’ve read this book and that’s always a good test – what has stayed and what has started to fade. I found this book entertaining and as the book reached it’s somewhat predictable denouement it certainly engaged me but at the same time I was left wanting more. Maybe the book spreads itself too thin, trying to cover all the key issues facing modern suburbanites or maybe Rowling is just too lightweight a writer to really go for the jugular, I’m not sure.

But it’s worth a read: the pages skip by and her style is light and engaging, quickly eating up the hefty page count. The book club discussion was, as usual, insightful and enlightening with a good range of scores making for a great evening’s discussion.

I’m glad we read it but I’m ready for a literary heavyweight to my teeth into and the next book we’re reading (at long last) is The Great Gatsby. Tune in next time to see what we made of it!

The worst book I’ve ever read

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I realise that’s a contentious title, but I have to come clean about the last book we read in Book Club.

It was awful. No, worse than awful, it was dreadful. Hang on, scratch dreadful. In fact, the more I think about it, it was fucking abysmal.

Last month’s book was Life: A user’s guide by George Perec. If you’ve read this book and loved it, it’s probably best that you look away now or, better still, reply at the foot of the post explaining why I’m a foolish thrill seeker looking for fun where there clearly is none and deep meaning where there is monotony. If, on the other hand, you’ve read this and hated it – read on and enjoy the vitriol.

But seriously, this book sucked. Big time. Never have I read a book so diametrically opposed to engaging the reader with the author adopting an almost unreadable modernist style that meant every single page was the hardest reading yards I’ve ever done. There was no dialogue whatsoever, no light and shade in his writing – just shade. Page after page of tedious descriptive text which to give him some credit was moderately interesting, in an autistic obsessive kind of way.

The book paints a ludicrously detailed picture of a Parisian apartment building and all the people who live in it. That in itself would have been a feat I can tell you, but Perec decides to not only tell those stories but those of every other family that has ever lived there. It would have been one of the great feats of modern literature for the author to pull this off this vast tableau of stories successfully. But unfortunately for me, he didn’t.

And then there was the size. The sheer number of pages the book took to unfold its layers of tediousity mocked me daily. We make a point of not de-selecting books if they are large – in fact some of the best books we have ever read scared us with the point size of the book or the page count. But Perec took page count to a whole new level of tedium, filling the pages with meaningless drivel and thankfully page after page of OCD type lists that could be skipped easily (and by the way, his style of writing meant there weren’t many opportunities to skip pages, believe you me I did try).

So were there any positives? As ever, the evening discussion inevitably led to some insight and enlightenment for me. But to be honest I wasn’t buying it. There weren’t any scores above 5/10 which is rare, bottoming out with my big fat zero – which is a first for me, king of the optimists. Some of the other chaps were gamely digging out gems that gave the author far too much leeway and whilst I accept the writing style, subject matter and sheer quantity was a major barrier to my getting anything out of this experience, my failure to connect was in itself  interesting and hilarious in equal measure.

Under no circumstances read this book, or attempt to read this book. It’s hours of your life that will never, ever come back.

By the way, this is what the author looks like – I rest my case.

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Great Expectations

I came to this book having read very little Dickens. We read A Christmas Carol in the book club a few years ago, but I don’t think that really counts as a fully fledged Dickens. In the book club we have tried on numerous occasions to try and get a ‘proper’ Dickens on the table to no avail. The length and perceived complexity has always been a barrier when our usual monthly time frame is factored in.

At Christmas, we usually allow ourselves more time by dint of the fact we can never get together in the run up to Christmas. So the stars were aligned and Great Expectations (GE) was suggested and carried to be the December book, the last of the year.

I have seen a fair few television and film adaptations of GE and it’s fair to say some of them cast a fairly long shadow. David Lean‘s seminal and masterful black and white film adaptation has long been a favourite of mine. It is sensationally cast and acted and the trademark lush Lean cinematography is a joy to the eye. Recent TV adaptation with Ray Winstone is also worth a mention for its dark beauty. Although I’ve not seen the most recent film adaptions, there are already lots of ways this book can be digested which can sometimes be an issue when reading a book for the first time.

I’ve written before about the issues of film versions of famous books and the reading thereof. It’s always an interesting process to see if the book can bring something new to the reader as often its the book that comes first and more often we’ve seen the film version first. Anyway, on to the book. First thing to note is that Dickens is a very funny writer. I’m talking laugh out loud funny at times. His keen eye for the ridiculous back then is not lost on the reader of today and his superb characterisations are at the heart of this book. Dickens wrote this book and many of his others as serialisations for magazines and at times this is obvious with an almost soap opera nature to the chapters. In the first half of the book this does drag on a bit if I’m honest and the minutiae of the various family lives does wear a bit thin when it’s not driving the narrative along.

The story of Pip plucked from poverty and propelled into wealth and a life of ‘great expectations’ by his anonymous benefactor is well-known I think, but the book fills in lots of the gaps and embellishes what is already a timeless and rewarding story. Dickens is a master at tugging on the heartstrings and he shamelessly goes for the jugular where emotion is concerned. Having read Clare Tomalin’s superb biography of the complex writer, I can see how he drew on much of his upbringing and early life in GE.

The second half of the book is where Dickens’ turns in a virtuoso writing performance. He takes the reader on a roller coaster of emotion by bringing Pip’s story to a fulfilling and dramatic conclusion – not entirely in keeping with what we’ve seen in the film adaptations over the years. I’ll admit I found this very long book hard yards in the first half – even with lots of Xmas down time it took some application to get it rolling – but in the second half of the book, the pages turned easily and quickly.

This is a very moral book about hopes and aspirations and what might happen if we actually get what we wish for and it not turn out quite as we expected. It’s a book about friendship – between men predominantly – with women portrayed as manipulative and cruel. There’s a sweet bromance between Pip and Herbert that is as passionate as any Jane Austen male/female romance and male characters and their relationships with each other are the backbone of the book.

There is an interesting moral conundrum at the heart of this book. Ian S likened it to a reverse Frankenstein – Pip is turned into this reverse monster, a gentleman. Dickens creates this construct then almost as Shelley did with her monster, explores morally how everyone behaves around it. It’s an interesting idea – a Dickensian Prometheus. Rob explored the theme of social mobility – just as prevalent in Dickens’ time as now – and what the outcomes might be. Michael built on this theme with Pip and Estella’s ‘ideas of destiny’. Gurdev countered with the thought that Dickens’ stature as a literary genius may be overstated and he likened him to a Grisham of his time – and who can argue with that? Ian T finishing thought was around the Pygmalian-isation of Pip, you get on in life but at what cost…

As ever with a brilliant book, we had a brilliant evening discussing it. And as I’ve said before, often the discussion and ensuing enlightenment sheds a different light on the book. So is Dickens all that he’s cracked up to be and are his stories still relevant hundreds of years later? I’d say yes and yes. Dickens’ timeless understanding of the human condition has lots to tell us today and although the language and conditions may have changed, the themes and emotions have not.

Superb.

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