A Partisan’s Daughter by Louis de Bernières

partisan-daughterNovember 2015

Chris is 40 and bored with his life. He has a daughter that he adores but is not particularly happy in his marriage (calling his wife ‘The Great White Loaf’). One evening he spots a prostitute, the first time he has ever knowingly seen one, standing on a street corner and decides to try to pick her up. Roza is not a prostitute though, and after laughing at Chris she tells him he can make amends by taking her home. Getting out of the car, she tells him that if he’s ever passing he should pop in for coffee.

Shortly after, Chris does just that. Read more

Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin

Pepys-TomalinJune 2015

Who was Samuel Pepys? He wrote a diary. But what else? He is one of those people from history I knew of but knew next to nothing about. This biography by Claire Tomalin went a long way towards putting this right.

Pepys is a fascinating man. The son of a tailor, he rose to become Chief Secretary of the Admiralty. But the fascination is not so much that he was an extraordinary man, but that he was an ordinary man, living through a turbulent period of history, who just happened to keep a diary.

Having said that, to say he was ordinary is perhaps to do him a disservice. He was clearly a very clever man, who was also adept at making his way through the political and social chaos of the time. The combination of brains and social adroitness meant that he managed to manoeuvre his way through the Cromwell years, and navigate his way safely through the accession to the throne of King Charles II. He did spend time in the Tower but fared better than many of his contemporaries.

We are lucky that while he was keeping his diary, some major events took place. And so we see events like the Fire of London and the plague through the eyes of someone who lived it.

What we know of the man beyond the diary is actually quite limited, and Tomalin has done a wonderful job of trying to pull together the smattering of sources that describe his life before and after the decade covered by his diaries. It is, though, the diary years which really come alive and give you a sense both of the man himself but also the period in which he lived.

Most members of the group enjoyed the book, finding it informative and interesting, although it cannot be described as ‘gripping’. Much of the discussion was about whether we liked Pepys, the man, or not – a credit to Tomalin’s telling that we all felt we knew him well enough to do this! Several members are keen to read more by the same author, and more about this period of history.

The book for next month is The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. We will meet on Thursday 27th August.

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The Round House by Louise Erdrich

round house erdrichMarch 2015

This month’s book represented a new venture for our group as it described Native American life on a reservation in North Dakota. The author, Louise Erdrich, has a wealth of experience from which to draw. Her German-American father and half French-American and half Ojibwe mother both taught at a school set up by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and her maternal grandfather served as tribal chairman for the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa Indians, of which she is now an enrolled member. Widely acclaimed as one of the most significant writers of the second wave of the Native American Renaissance, she won the national Book Award for Fiction for this novel, The Round House, in November 2012.

The story focuses on thirteen year old Joe whose life on an Ojibwe reservation is shattered when his mother is brutally raped. Traumatised by the event, she takes to her bed and for a long time refuses to say anything about her horrific experiences. Joe’s father, a tribal judge, insists that the only response is to seek justice through the law. When this fails because reservation law does not allow the lawyers to pursue someone living outside Indian territory even if the crime was committed on reservation land, Joe decides to take the situation into his own hands. The advice he receives reflects the different cultures around him. His father advises the way of reservation law, the priest assures him that good will come out of evil and the traditional Native American way recommends revenge. Joe is accompanied in his search for resolution by a group of friends whose camaraderie is wonderfully portrayed by Erdrich.

As well as being a coming-of-age story this is about justice in a clash of cultures. One in three native American women are raped in their lifetime and 86% of the perpetrators are non Native American men, most of whom get away with it. Also important in this book is the location of the rape. It takes place near the ceremonial structure that gives the book its name. The Round House is the heart of the community, its sanctity is supported by mythological tradition, so the violation of an Indian woman by a white man on this spot is also symbolically a violation of Native American culture by an outsider.

This was one of the most popular books we have read. We loved the writing. Erdrich manages to get into the head of a teenage boy reassembling his world after a tragedy. We learnt a lot about reservation life and for those who like the detective genre it also had plenty to offer.

Our next meeting is on 30th April when we will be reading The Seagull by Chekhov. The following week on 7 May we will be discussing Claire Tomalin’s biography of Samuel Pepys, the Unequalled Self.

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Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

BarnesJulian_ArthurAndGeorgeFebruary 2015

George Edalji is a vicar’s son from Staffordshire. A quiet, precise person, he never really fits in with the local community, even as a boy. After qualifying as a solicitor, George begins work at a law firm in Birmingham, and produces a book on railway law, so that the ordinary ‘man on the train’ might know his rights. He is the original ‘upstanding member of the community’.

When a series of events, ‘The Great Wyreley Outrages’, begin, George falls under immediate suspicion. Animals are mutilated under cover of darkness, and a series of poison pen letters implicating George are sent to the police. The local police focus all their efforts on finding evidence against him, and he is eventually arrested. George’s faith in the legal system means he is confident that he will be acquitted, but instead he is convicted and serves three years in prison.

Many people, however, believe in his innocence. As part of the campaign to clear his name, a summary of the case is sent to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who takes up his cause. Conan Doyle is a trained doctor, but is far more successful as an author.

Conan Doyle is a complete contrast to Edalji. Born in Edinburgh, he is a larger than life character, and after studying the material he proclaims that he does not think, nor believe, George to be innocent – he knows it. He throws his full weight behind the appeal and carefully constructs a case that he takes to the Home Office, which he is certain proves beyond doubt that George is innocent and deserving not only of a pardon but of compensation.

The one point on which they differ is that Conan Doyle is convinced that George’s race is central to the issue – George’s father is Indian, although his mother is Scottish. George, on the other hand, believes that, as he was born in England and lives according to English values, that he is completely and utterly English, and he refuses to admit that his father’s country of birth may prejudice people against him.

This is based on true events, and it marked the birth of the Court of Appeal. The two stories intertwine, beginning with the childhoods of both men, and provide a detailed account of their early lives. It paints a very vivid picture of the two men and their completely different backgrounds. There is a lot of detail that isn’t directly relevant to the story at hand – much is made of Conan Doyle’s interest in and devotion to spiritualism, for example, but it all serves to build a complete portrait of the two men.

This book provoked a bit of a ‘marmite’ response from the group. Most loved it, but those who didn’t really disliked it! It is in many ways a very frustrating book as the miscarriage of justice is so blatant, and the police so prejudiced, that it is uncomfortable to read, but Barnes moves the plot along fairly swiftly, and in many ways it reads in a not dissimilar way to one of Conan Doyle’s own detective novels.

The book for next month is The Round House, by Louise Erdrich. We will meet on Thursday 12th March.


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2015 Poetry Sampler

Poetry - words IIJanuary 2015

We decided to postpone our normal Play-reading in January and instead it was suggested that everyone bring along a favourite poem, or two! Easier said than done for some of our group – how does one choose a ‘favourite’ from such a wide-ranging genre? Hence Anne’s dining-room table was littered with a breathtaking selection from individual collections to large anthologies.

How does one define Poetry? The very nature of Poetry as an authentic and individual mode of expression makes it nearly impossible to define. It is an ancient form that has undergone numerous reinventions over time. Traditionally Poetry employed meter and/or rhyme but in modern times this is by no means considered necessary. It has been described as an imaginative awareness of experience expressed through meaning, sound and rhythmic language choices so as to evoke an emotional response.

A.E. Housman put it even more succinctly in a 1933 lecture entitled The Name and Nature of Poetry – ‘To transfuse emotion – not to transmit thought but to set up in the reader’s sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer – is the peculiar function of Poetry.’

This definition resonated with most of us and we went on, as Housman did, to discuss the difference between Poetry and Verse. Our readings when they began encompassed both and included Donne, Yeats, Owen, Kipling, Frost and Heaney. Joan recited a John Pudsey poem from heart that she had learned as a young girl and Tsering introduced us all to the Vietnamese philosopher poet, Thich Nhat Hanh. The Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy both amused us and gave us cause for contemplation and Christine entertained us enormously with the witty verse of Ogden Nash. Our pleasure and discussion was curtailed as usual by time – some of us could have carried on much longer but regrettably we had no time to read Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edward Thomas, Philip Larkin or Sylvia Plath. I’m sure for many of the readers of this magazine I probably haven’t even mentioned your own favourite poet.

Incidentally in a 2013 poll of the most requested poems on Radio 4’s ‘Poetry Please’ programme, Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ came out top, displacing Kipling’s ‘If’, which had been voted the nation’s favourite poem in 2005 and 2009. In the same poll, T.S. Eliot was voted the greatest poet.

We meet again on 12th February to discuss Julian Barnes’ book – Arthur & George.

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Mending Wall

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

Telling Tales by Alan Bennett

Telling TalesDecember 2014

This month’s book, Telling Tales by Alan Bennett, does exactly what it says on the cover. Bennett, one of the country’s most highly acclaimed wordsmiths, tells ten autobiographical tales about his childhood in Leeds, which he describes as a provincial city which life generally tended to avoid.

In several of the tales Bennett details the causes of his frustration as a youth – he knew that his family was very ordinary (not working class, but certainly not middle class) yet at the same time different from others. Read more

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar by Sylvia PlathNovember 2014

When Esther Greenwood wins an internship on a New York fashion magazine in 1953 she is elated, believing she will finally realise her dream of becoming a writer. But in between the cocktail parties and piles of manuscripts, Esther’s life begins to slide out of control. She finds herself spiralling into serious depressions. She grapples with difficult relationships and a society that refuses to take her aspirations seriously. Read more

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

purple hibiscusOctober 2014

Purple Hibiscus is the story of fifteen year old Kambili and her family. Set in post-colonial Nigeria, it is a turbulent time to be growing up, as a military coup overthrows the government. This is not however a political novel, although the events do touch the life of the narrator.

Kambili comes from a devout Catholic family. As the story starts, her older brother Jaja has caused a family row by not attending communion. Threat is heavy in the air from this opening incident, both in the reaction of their father and in Kambili’s silent pleas to her brother to ‘seal his mouth’. Read more

The Road Home by Rose Tremain

The Road HomeSeptember 2014

Lev is a legal economic migrant travelling from an unspecified East European homeland to find work in England, having left his young daughter and his mother behind. Beside him on the bus, a plump woman ‘with moles like splashes of mud on her face’ (so no incipient romance there, then) helps him with basic English phrases and offers him hard-boiled eggs and dried fruit and pieces of chocolate; Lev offers her, and incidentally us, the readers of this novel, pieces of information about himself, about the death from cancer of his wife and about his friend Rudi and the old Chevrolet which Rudi had managed to buy. As they say goodbye at Victoria Coach Station, we are left in little doubt that Lev will need further assistance from Lydia before long. Read more

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

good_earthJune 2014

Pearl Buck grew up in China a child of Presbyterian missionaries with a Chinese nanny, Chinese playmates, and a scholarly Chinese tutor. She was a clever studious child, steeped in the Bible, and to her father’s dismay the complete works of Dickens, as well as the folklore and classical stories of her Chinese friends, and she readily admits that her first appreciation of story came from the Chinese.

The Good Earth was a revelation to the West when it was published in 1931, especially because of Buck’s innate understanding of the people her novel describe. A wave of critical acclaim and popularity gained her the Pulitzer Prize and greatly contributed to her Nobel Prize for Literature, which highlighted “a human sympathy passing over widely separated racial boundaries”.

Our book circle discovered that The Good Earth still has the power to transport us into the lives of O-lan, a homely servant girl, and Wang Lung, the peasant farmer who marries her. Their marriage is not easy, and when famine strikes they must leave the land or starve, but O-lan’s determination brings them back and allows them to raise their family and build a life together.

With one exception, The Good Earth was universally liked by our group for the beauty of its writing, for its wonderful though flawed characters, and for the sympathy with which Buck shows us a culture quite alien to our own.

We meet again on Thursday 17 July at 7.30 pm to discuss The Road Home by Rose Tremain.

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