The Book Club

Are you an avid reader? Or perhaps new to the village. Did you know we have a flourishing Book Club?

The book club started about 15 years ago with just 3 members and our first novel was ‘the Girl With a Pearl Earring’. Since then we have grown into a small but enthusiastic group of committed readers. We meet monthly in different members houses for book discussion and a bit of gossip over a glass of wine. Books are chosen democratically: someone suggests a book which we may vote on. We aim to read widely — modern literary books, some classics and, occasionally, a thriller or a biography. We want to enjoy our reading but sometimes to challenge ourselves and read something we may otherwise not have thought of.To find out more about the Village Book Club contact Heather.
Activity Address Rose Cottage and various venues
Name of Contact Heather Mines
Contact Address Rose Cottage, Hall Lane, Hadlow Down, TN22 4HJ
Telephone 07974 204231
Email Address heathermines2@hotmail.com

Love is Blind by William Boyd

‘Life without complications isn’t really a life’

Our choice in July was ‘Love is Blind’ by William Boyd. Like many of Boyd’s novels (e.g. ‘Any Human Heart’) it follows the protagonist’s life, in this case ten years of Brodie Mancur’s life at the beginning of the 20th century as he flees around the world from a pursuer bent on revenge. It is therefore a picaresque adventure story owing much to one of Boyd’s heroes, Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as to Chekhov – another influence on his writing.

Brodie is a short-sighted piano tuner , but no ordinary piano tuner – he has the ability to adjust, fine- tune, play with the piano to produce the best sound for any particular pianist and in addition he has a good business sense. He is therefore recruited to work for a piano-making firm of high repute, and then to travel with a famous concert pianist, John Kilbarron, an alcoholic who is past his best but still attracting audiences. Music therefore plays an important part in the novel on many different levels.

As the title suggests, this is a love story as Brodie starts an obsessive affair with Kilbarron’s beautiful mistress, Lika Blum, while Kilbarron’s sinister brother, Malachi, lurks in the shadows. The novel becomes a chase from city to city, as the lovers and Lika’s little dog,escape from one catastrophe to another, with disappointments at every location. As such it is a page turner; we want to know what happens to Brodie as he travels around Europe. Boyd strongly evokes character and place, from the hum and filth of everyday life to the life-style of the very rich of St Petersberg. It is, however, a carefully plotted book – meticulously crafted as the pianos were and framed within the beginning and ending on the Pacific islands of the Andaman. The shadow of Brodie’s consumption hangs over the novel .

On one level this can be enjoyed as an adventure story, but there are other layers for the discerning reader. Boyd is a disciple of Chekov and this is strongly reflected in the novel. Chekov also has a blonde mistress named ‘Lika’ and the title of one of his short stories is ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’. There are many allusions to Russia and Brodie meets a fellow patient, surely Chekov, in the sanatorium in Nice. The underlying themes are also reminiscent of Chekov – Brodie is at the mercy of the gods of love , time and death in a life which is a lottery – the novel has been described as a game of snakes and ladders . This results in a tension between the randomness of life and the formal nature of art, reflected in the mechanics of the piano as well as the careful plotting of the novel.

Boyd has other literary and cultural references half-hidden in the text ,such as the man in the overcoat in the park, an allusion to Proust; the conductor of Mahler’s symphony who is Mahler himself, and many others. Brodie’s benefactress is surely a ‘Miss Havisham’, and the grim Scottish home recalls Stevenson’s ‘Kidnapped’. It is as though Boyd is playing with us and adding such discoveries to the pleasure of the novel. It is also worth paying attention to seemingly trivial details such as Brodie’s cigars and the Scottish folk tune which come to have such importance in the plot.

Most members of the Book Club enjoyed the novel. They raised such questions as why Brodie’s tyrannical preacher father hates him so much and is Brodie what he seems to be? Does Lika betray her lover, or worse? One member found what she called ‘the Easter Eggs’ in the text, i.e. those half- hidden references that give delight when we find them. There are times when the plot doesn’t quite convince, and some found the characters not entirely sympathetic and lost patience with what happens to them. However most of us found it a rewarding read and worth rereading – ‘readable,engaging and frequently funny’.

Our next book is ‘Paris Echo’ by Sebastian Faulks

Heather Mines

‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama – ‘wife, mother, dog lover’

‘Becoming’ opens with an anecdote that sets the tone of warmth throughout the book. She tells how, having left the White House, and hungry in the night, she goes down to her own kitchen and makes a cheese toastie to eat on her back doorstep, suddenly becoming aware of her newly-found freedom to do something that would be impossible in the White House. So starts the memoir of a woman who grew up in a humble black-district in the south side of Chicago and rose to become America’s First Lady with many achievements in her own right.

Michelle Robinson was born in 1964. The book traces her life from a happy childhood and a highly successful education culminating in Princeton University and Harvard Law School. Then came a successful career with a prestigious law company, where she met a young intern named Barack Obama, followed by a number of community and university jobs where she demonstrated her organisational skills at a high level. Marriage followed and political campaigning and then her role as First Lady where she continued to set up projects working for the under-privileged and the community.

Thus it can be seen that the book covers a lot of ground and much of it is in some detail. Its strength lies in Michelle’s warm storytelling style. Although it perhaps lacks the eloquence of her husband’s writing, I found that her direct style really drew me in. I particularly enjoyed the account of her childhood: her parents love, support, wisdom and aspiration clearly laid the foundation for the strong woman she became. I was interested to read what it was like to grow up in a humble black neighbourhood and then to excel at school and college as one of a black minority.

Michelle accomplished so much in her own career and with so many people that I did find myself skipping sections here. However it was interesting to read of courtship and marriage – there were some marital problems between two such driven people. Obama had to be away much of the time and at one point they sought marriage guidance to help her find her own role as a mother and as a professional woman. These are problems many of us can relate to. What was fascinating was learning what it was like to be the First Lady. Michelle does not gossip, but she has a woman’s feel for interesting detail. So we read about being taken round the White House by Laura Bush and seeing where the Bush girls st up their slides on the shiny floors; what it felt like waiting to go onstage at Obama’s inauguration, never mind the ten balls she had to attend that night.

The level of security she now had to endure was amazing: if she wanted to take a cup onto her private balcony, she had to notify security who then cleared the neighbouring streets. When she and Barack went on their first and only date night, they were taken in armoured cars and a helicopter, the streets were cleared and other diners and theatregoers had to be security-checked, so that the show started late.

Her impressions of London and meeting the Queen, both formally and informally, were interesting. There appears to have been a warm relationship between the two women despite Michelle’s much publicised breaches of protocol in wearing a cardigan (designer I’m sure) and putting her hand on the Queen’s arm. It seems that the Queen was not too bothered as on a later private visit she insisted that Michelle rather than the President sit beside her in the back of the Range Rover while Barack sat beside Prince Philip who was driving. With the wisdom of hindsight, this may not have been wise.

Throughout the book, we learn how they succeeded in maintaining a warm family life, passing on the values she herself had learned as a child. Some members of the book club found the book inspiring, others became bored by sections of it – often a problem with memoirs. I would recommend it for its interesting insights: it is a good read if you are prepared to skim read occasionally.

Heather Mines – next book to be decided.

Autumn by Ali Smith

‘ It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again.’

Last month the Book Club read Ali Smith’s ‘Autumn’. Published in 2016 soon after the Referendum, it is the first of four seasonal state of the nation novels and was shortlisted for the Mann Booker Prize. It is a novel that has haunted me since reading and re-reading it, largely due to the poetic flow of the language, which has been described as ‘a beautiful poignant symphony of memories, dreams and transient realities’, but also to the complexity of the ideas, the richness of literary allusions, the use of symbolism and the treatment of time. It is an elusive, multi-layered novel.

At its heart, however, is the platonic relationship between Elizabeth and her neighbour Daniel, which starts when Elizabeth is eight years old and Daniel is 65. It is this relationship which gives a crispness to the flow of ideas in the novel, and, for me, makes it an enjoyable read. As the book opens in the present, Daniel, now aged 101, lies dreaming in a nursing home in the increased sleep period before death. Elizabeth sits beside him reading aloud, as she regularly does. The novel then moves back to the time when Elizabeth was a child: then their friendship was formed through her clear-sighted literal view of the world, her innate honesty and her rebellious nature that refused to compromise with convention. Daniel was the one who questions her and makes her think – ‘What are you reading?’ his invariable greeting. Their dialogue sparkles with wit, something that Elizabeth carries into adult life as she confronts what is often a sombre, mindless bureaucracy in a drab world. At times her confrontations, such as the scene in the post office, where her head in her passport photo is judged ‘too big’, have a Kafkaesque quality.

And so one of the themes of the book is about the nature of enduring love. Daniel still mourns his younger sister who died when just a girl soon after the war. It was she who first asked the question ‘what are you reading?’ and taught Daniel to think. His other great love was for the real life pop artist, Pauline Boty, who created witty, subversive, colorful paintings and collages: she becomes a symbol of all those who are lost and ignored. Her vitality as part of the sixties scene is contrasted with the grey, unhappy world of the present, summed up by the sadness in the eyes of the clerk in the post office. Elizabeth goes on to write her PhD thesis on Boty who remains a recurring motif in the novel.

.The novel is full of literary references which enrich its meaning. Thus Daniel’s dying dream which opens the novel has connotations of drowned refugees washed up on the shore but also of the Odyssey and Shakespeare’s Tempest. But it is a state of the nation novel in which frequent references to the ‘Tale of Two Cities’ and ‘Brave New World’ reflect the chaotic divisions opening up in society and the increasing hostility between groups of people. There is real anger in the writing here, but also some sense of hope as shown in the rose at the end. For perhaps the main theme of the book is time itself as Smith sets out to explore what time is and how we experience it. Smith writes elsewhere that we are all ‘time containers’; she is interested in the cyclic nature of time and it is this that gives the sense of hope.

There were a variety of book club responses to ‘Autumn’. One member said that if anyone would like to read it, they have a half-read copy going spare and if you really only enjoy narrative-led novels, this is not the book for you. Others enjoyed the poetic prose combined with wit and humour and warm human relationships.  if you can tolerate a degree of uncertainty and experiment, you will find this a rich and rewarding novel that gives more on each re-reading.

Ali has just published ‘Spring’, the third novel in the quartet to great critical acclaim, and I look forward to reading it. Our next book is a complete contrast, Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming’.

Heather Mines

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

“There are chapters in every life which are seldom read and certainly not aloud”

Carol Shields was born in 1936 and died in 2003. She had five children and her first novel was accepted in the week she turned forty. She went on to become a prizewinning novelist and an academic with an interest in women’s rights. The ‘Stone Diaries’ 1993 is her most famous book. it was shortlisted for the Mann Booker prize and went on to win the Pulitzer prize and the Governor General’s award in Canada. In many ways it reflects her own domesticity as well as her wider aspirations.

The Stone Diaries chronicles the life of a typical woman and housewife through the 20th century. Daisy Flett becomes an everywoman asking the question, ‘What has the century delivered to women?’ In many ways it is a sad book, beginning with a death in childbirth and ending in Daisy’s own lingering death with her last words unspoken; “I am not in peace.” And yet Carol Shields herself claimed never to have written with such happiness and the book has moments of joy and humour and is written in a manner to please and intrigue.

It purports to be Daisy’s autobiography and follows the design of a 19th century biography with title sequences, photographs, a family tree and various household lists. It is a book about biography and memory: what we can truly remember of our own lives and how much is shaped by other people’s memories and anecdotes. As such it is written partly in the 1st person and partly in the 3rd with Daisy as narrator- albeit an unreliable one. Her life is cut into every ten years, a device which forces us to become active readers as we fill in what is not overtly revealed. Much use is made of of letters which also forces us to read between the lines.

Daisy’s life began with the death of her mother Mercy Stone Goodwill, an orphanage girl who didn’t even know she was pregnant, but who had a gift for homemaking and cooking and died in the act of making a Malvern pudding for her husband. The novel follows Daisy through childhood, a disastrous first marriage and then a settled state with a rather dull older husband, becoming a mother of three and a maker of excellent meatloaf. In widowhood she becomes a gifted gardener, going on to write a weekly column for a newspaper. This is a period of fulfilment and happiness before she is unfairly ousted by a rival male reporter. Later, with blue-rinse and turquoise pant suit, Daisy moves to a retirement condominium in Florida until finally she dies in a nursing home. It is a seemingly uneventful and unfulfilled life, her true feelings only occasionally revealed in conversational asides, but there are moments of joy as she laughs with her friends in an Anne of Green Gables manner, or as she plays bridge and jokes with the ‘four flowers’ in the retirement village. However, over this life hangs the shocking event, never subsequently referred to and unknown by her children, of the sudden end of her first marriage, a jolt to the reader as well as to Daisy.

This is an intricate novel with a wide cast of characters, in many ways a family saga but written with subtlety and delicacy and loving attention to domestic detail. In this and in the skill with which Shields lets the characters reveal themselves, she is reminiscent of Jane Austen of whom she wrote a biography in 2001. It is a multilayered novel in which she uses ‘stone’ as a metaphor for strength and endurance but also constraint. Her father’s monumental stone in memory of her mother also stands for the other women in the novel who endure. But Daisy’s beloved flowers are also a theme and a symbol of life and freedom.

The members of the Book Club all found this a satisfying and enjoyable read, commenting on the poetic language and its wide span historically and geographically. Readers may  enjoy her last novel ‘Unless’ 2002, also shortlisted for the Mann Booker prize as well as the Orange prize.

Heather Mines

2018 Book Club Review

She is too fond of books and it has turned her brain
Louisa May Allcott

 

On a  cold November evening in 2003, three of us met in the Village Hall and Hadlow Down Book Club began. Our first book was ‘The Girl with a Pearl Earring’.Since then, our numbers have grown; we have met regularly and read a wide range of books with some lively discussion over a glass of wine. Our meetings are informal and non-threatening and books are chosen democratically. Although we aim to read some challenging books, we do so without pressure and it is an enjoyable experience for all of us.

I’ve now been asked to write a short piece on a regular basis about the books we are reading, and I thought I would introduce it with an overview of some of the books from the past year.

One book by a new author was Francis Spufford’s acclaimed ‘Golden Hill’, a fast-moving story of 18th century New York in the style of ‘Tom Jones’.We recommend it for those who enjoy action but with a deeper meaning. Mothering Sunday’ by Graham Swift was a complete contrast – a short and beautifully intense erotic novel about a relationship between a servant girl and the young master set just after the First World War. I personally loved this novel and find it gets even better on re-reading.

Another short novel was Ian McEwan’s ‘Nutshell’ – a modern version of ‘Hamlet’ narrated by the unborn child in the womb of the Gertrude character. Extremely funny – this foetus develops a taste for fine wine and has a view on the state of the world from Radio 4 that his mother listens to. Our other McEwan Novel ‘The Children Act,’ was made into a successful film after we had read it – we like to think we are ahead of things. For those who, like me, enjoy dialogue and, in particular, closely-argued court scenes, this was an absorbing book about a moral dilemma and it was enhanced by McEwan’s usual erudition.

Elizabeth Moss was a new writer to us and we enjoyed the wit and humour of ‘Tidal Zone’. It was serious and potentially tragic about a teenager who suddenly has an anaphylactic seizure and dies for a few minutes. It is also full of humour, however, with its all too sharp observation of modern institutions and middle-class family life. Moss is herself an historian and her narrator’s research into the bombing of Coventry and the rebuilding of the cathedral provides depth of meaning and enhances a satisfying read. I have since read her ‘Night Waking’ and would recommend this novelist.

We have read a few Mann Booker prize winners including ‘The Siege of Krishnapur’ – a horrifying but hilarious account of moral and physical collapse by JG Farrell. We also read Penelope Lively’s ‘Moon Tiger’ (shortlisted for the Booker 50 Year Golden Award), and then ‘The English Patient’ which actually won the award. These two novels about the aftermath of WW2 marked a high spot in a year of enjoyable reading. Lively’s novel, written from the narrative viewpoint of a dying but reprobate old woman looking back on her unconventional life and loves as a war journalist crackles with life. ‘The English Patient’ by way of contrast centres on four war-scarred survivors who find refuge and healing in a ruined Italian castle – a place of haunting beauty and concealed dangers. It was quite a challenging read but one that continues to resonate in the mind. We all felt it was well worth reading.

Sometimes we enjoy something lighter and Gail Honeyman’s ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Absolutely Fine’ was  easy but satisfying with a real surprise at the end. About loneliness, it was sad but also had some very funny moments. We contrasted this with another novel about loneliness, ‘Our Souls at Night’ by Kent Haruf, a subtle, sensitive study of the relationship which develops between two elderly people who decide to spend platonic nights together.

Our current read is Carol Shields’s ‘The Stone Diaries’ and we meet on Wednesday 20th March to discuss it. Should you wish you join the group, contact me at heathermines2@hotmail.com or 830314.

 

Heather Mines