The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing

grass singingSeptember 2015

We had a warm enthusiastic discussion of a bleak, dispiriting book. What made The Grass is Singing so impressive? It’s the first novel of the Nobel Prize winner for literature, Doris Lessing. In an interview at the age of 80+ she said that, rereading it recently, she was surprised it was so mature for a 25 year old. But she’d always been a sharp-eared child, listening closely to the adult conversations that drifted over her discussing the quotidian problems and dramas of the white Africans in what was then Rhodesia. Read more

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

DOT TriffidsHave you ever described an odd plant in your garden as a triffid? John Wyndham’s novel brought the term into our vocabulary in 1951, and it entered the Oxford English Dictionary, rather late I think, in 1986.

What is it about triffids that catches the imagination? More than a few of our readers had been terrified by the book in their teens and a couple chose not to read it again. Wyndham combines a calm objective narrator with scenes of mayhem, tragedy and horror. The narrator, Bill Masen, wakes up in hospital, knowing it’s a Wednesday and wondering why it feels so much like Sunday. Read more

Stoner by John Williams

stonerOctober 2014

Stoner was a great hit. The novel tells the story of William Stoner, a farm boy whose parents made huge sacrifices to send him to college to study agriculture, but he fell in love with literature and became an English professor – assistant professor – married, had a little girl, taught through both World Wars, and lived what most would call an unremarkable life.  One of our member’s experience with the book was typical for most of us:

“I was a reluctant reader with this book, for quite a while. I read the first couple of chapters and left it, knowing I’d probably allow it to filter to the bottom of my book reading stack. However, with such a lovely summer, my book pile started to shrink and Stoner was back on top. I began with the intention of skim reading, but slowly Stoner sucked me in. Read more

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

sputnik-sweetheartAugust 2014

Though I expected to like the book much more than I did, the book’s puzzles gave rise to an especially interesting discussion. Sputnik Sweetheart tells an unusual tale and, as Roger’s very thorough introduction explained, the author leaves a lot to the reader to work out on his own. When the story suddenly shifts from the normal to the bizarre, Murakami refuses to help the reader decide what is real and what is not. What struck me about our discussion is that everyone seemed to draw the line between the real and unreal in a different place.

We begin with a fairly normal plot; a love triangle. A young schoolteacher, known only as K, is in love with Sumire, a self-obsessed aspiring writer, while Sumire is in love with Miu, a Korean businesswoman. When Sumire disappears from one moment to the next, strange tales of other-worldly experiences are told about each of the characters. What is the reader to believe? All of us felt the book left us with more questions than answers, but as you can see from the points, most of us were happy with that.

More than a few in the Book Circle had never heard of Haruki Murakami, though he is one of the top-selling authors in the world, which surprised us. There seemed to be differences of opinion on the quality of the translation, but we agreed it was a well written novel, beautifully atmospheric in parts. It begins and ends in Japan with a Greek sojourn in the middle, and compared to his other novels, blissfully brief. There are certainly a few of us curious enough to try another few ‘inches’ of his prose.

Points: 8.5 – 8.5 – 8.5 – 8 – 8 – 8 – 8 – 8 – 8 – 8 – 7.5 – 7 – 7 – 7 – 6 – 5 – 2

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The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig

post office girlMay 2014

Another great discussion at Book Group, with 17 people it was the largest turn out we have had. Here is a list of the marks and very brief comments. For some people the comments are more positive than the marks would suggest. Interestingly it was a book that all the men really liked.

6, brilliantly written, clever very sad.
7, enjoyed it very much, liked the social commentary. Would have given a higher mark but did not like the characters much.
7, had only read a part of it.
7, writing beautiful, timeless, memorable, didn’t get the despair from it that the rest of us did.
7, like a fairy story, very visual, interesting.
7.5, enjoyed it, the second half more than the first, good ending9, brilliant.
8, writing excellent, annoyed by some characters.
8, loved it, enjoys the darker side of life.
8, enjoyed ending, frustrated with the main character.
8, ran out of steam towards the end but the actual ending redeemed it. Beautifully written.
8, loved it but not impressed by the translation.
8.5, unrecognised classic.
9, loved it, descriptions very good, evinced reality,loved ending, enthralled.
9, unfinished classic.
9, loved the social history, post world war 1desolation very well depicted. Interested in the themes of inequality and control (or lack of it) over one’s life.
9, very good.
9, couldn’t put it down, well written.

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The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge

birthday boysMarch 2014

The Birthday Boys was a fascinating read. We all agreed that the author succeeded very well getting into the heads of Scott and the men who accompanied him to the South Pole. Mike gave us an excellent introduction with lots of facts and photos of the expedition, and though Bainbridge’s account was what might be called ‘faction’ she had obviously researched it throughly, including the backgrounds of the each of the men who narrated part of the story. We enjoyed the book far more than any of us thought possible, but nonetheless, most of us still found it difficult to understand why human beings would sacrifice so much, their health, wealth, family and ultimately their life, to race to a remote point in the snow and back again. Bainbridge showed us their grit and determination, generosity and grace, but perhaps missed out on the passion and excitement of scientific curiosity.

If you are interested in further reading, this first-hand account is highly recommended: The Worst Journey in the World: A Tale of Loss and Courage in Antarctica by Apsley Cherry-Garrard.

Points: 6 – 6 – 7 – 7 – 7 – 7 – 7 – 7.5 – 8 – 8 – 8 – 8 – 8 – 8 – 8.5 – 9

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The Waves by Virginia Woolf

The Waves IIIJanuary 2014

The Waves by Virginia Woolf strongly divided opinion; there were a record number of passes, but if you don’t count the passes, average points were high. And as I was updating the points I noticed that the number of passes has gone up for the last few meetings. Even though we want to read the book, sometimes it’s just not possible. As Robbie Burns says, ‘the best laid plans…’ or to paraphrase John Lennon, ‘Life happens.’ In a way it’s very encouraging to see passes, because it means that even if we haven’t finished it, or even if we’ve barely started, the discussion is still fun.

None of us had read a book quite like The Waves before. How do you tell a story from inside the head of six different characters, entirely through impressions and emotions, without any direct reference to time or place, and little rational thought? As we read we began to see a rhythm to the novel, but everyone found it perplexing to some degree. Read more

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

The_Thousand_Autumns_of_Jacob_de_ZoetNovember 2013

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was certainly a polarising novel. We all found it slow starting, though most enjoyed it very much once the story got going about a third of the way through. But for some, the author was neither able to interest them in the characters nor the place, and the density of detail was off-putting. Those that had also read Cloud Atlas recognised similar themes: culture clash, the subjection of women, the struggle against authoritarian power.

Not many of us knew anything about the trading relationship between Japan and the West at the turn of the 19th Century. David Mitchell based this novel in a real place, the man-made island of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki, where imperial edict kept contact between Japan and the Dutch East India Trading Company exclusively to business; cultural exchange forbidden. Jacob de Zoet, an honest and intelligent young clerk, quickly learned that Dejima was a hothouse of embezzlement, duplicity and intrigue, and unsurprisingly became caught up in a few intrigues of his own.

POINTS: 9.5 – 8 – 8– 8– 8 – 7.5 – 6 – 6 – 5.5 – 5.5  – and 4 passes.

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