Theme: Unread Books that were Presents

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Our theme these week is ‘Christmas present books that you’re still putting off reading’, but we’ve extended this to books given as presents at any time, even as presents to yourself! The theme was suggested by Margaret.

Margaret:

Every Christmas, I receive a number of books because everyone knows I am an avid reader. This is wonderful, but it seems to me that there are certain pitfalls with regard to Christmas books. This is because Christmas is, after all, the ultimate self-indulgent festival. We have time, often quite a lot of extra privacy, despite the social whirl, to do what we like. Who doesn’t eat too many chocolates, drink too many martinis, or lie around playing silly games? But, in my case, that is definitely the time for rubbishy books.

I provide my family ahead of time with a little Christmas list of the latest crime fiction (say, Jack Reacher, or old classic crime fiction like Earl Stanley Gardner or Eric Ambler), and then sit back a wait happily for Christmas morning. Others may be delving into the Milk Tray, but I am devouring the pages of light fiction at Christmas.

The result, of course, is a pile of unread books – until after Christmas – when I am grateful to dear friends and family for giving me a range of marvellous ‘proper’ books, which I embark upon in January.

Nonetheless, there is always at least one book that sticks doggedly to the bedside lamp waiting to be opened. Why is this? I look at the book – I want to read it – it is by a favourite author – the giver knows I will love it. What is stopping me? Maybe it is too thick, 400 pages; maybe it is actually non-fiction; maybe I know too, that it will require an intelligent answer later as to whether I have read it yet, and what do I think! Maybe, even worse, it is a set!

This year’s unread Christmas book was The Body by Bill Bryson, which has lain unread since December, but It called to me on Sunday. I opened it. I love Bill Bryson. It is 454 pages long. It’s non-fiction and serious, but it’s written by the master of the light touch. It has fabulous vintage illustrations of bizarre medical practices and history. It is already fascinating me, because I have always been interested in physiology and anatomy – and, of course, the donor knew that! Did you know that Leonardo da Vinci drew the human body showing blood circulation circa 1490? He was one of the first to dissect the human body and even he found it disgusting. So, I am already enthralled by The Body because it will provide endless and riveting information. And here is the subtitle: ‘A Guide for the Occupant’. Perfect Bryson, laconic, informative, witty.

The fact is, that this was never a neglected book – it has been a Book in the Bank, just waiting for its moment. I like to think that many of our unread books are really deposits, ‘banked’ for us by the donors – for when the time is right.

Impulse Buying

My main weakness, with regard to buying books impulsively, is in the field of children’s literature. Over the years of children and grandchildren, one of the key pleasures has been to introduce children to wonderful stories and to discover others together. Opening a new story with a child is a fine pleasure, and it is poignant to be told later by a child, teenager or student that they were enchanted by a particular story or author  because we read it together.

The catch is, that these much-loved books leave the house, they go to the recipients. Sometimes I miss them terribly, so I amble into the Children’s Section, and graze, with every intention of indulging myself. I have a lovely copy of The Wind in the Willows, another of The Water Babies, and others too numerous to mention, The Gruffalo, Where the Wild Things Are, and so on.

The great Dr Seuss needs no introduction, but one of his, called Horton Hears a Who, has a special place in my heart. Horton hears minuscule tiny noises, he discovers that minute creatures, too small to be seen, also inhabit the earth, in civilised groupings just like humans. He learns from them that they too, have feelings and values and he is left to ponder the wonder of this. Horton, or any child who loves this story, does not need to wait till school later to hear Shakespeare’s Shylock make his famous plea – Do we not bleed…….’

Timing is all.

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Ted:

This is a really thoughtful suggestion and it includes Christmas and birthday presents, books one has bought, and may I add, books that one has been lent!

I find books that I have been enthusiastically lent or given as a present the most difficult to deal with.  About ten months ago a good friend put three books into my arms, which she thought I would love. They were Wilding by Isabella Tree, War Doctor by David Nott and This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay. Having worked as a junior doctor in acute medicine with all the stress and horrors that it involved, for leisure I tend to avoid these types of books or for that matter, TV programmes like Casualty. I dutifully read both medical books and Kay’s book in particular, which is well written and amusing, took me right back to those hospital days. War Doctor was about acute care in war situations like Syria, which was particularly graphic. I returned the two medical books with honest, tactful comments but since then I have been unable to read Wilding by Isabella Tree. This book is such a contrast! It’s about this couple handing their large farm back to nature and the project has become a leading light for conservation in the UK … but I seem to be unable to read it.

I was given Island Stories, Britain and its History in the Age of Brexit by David Reynolds for my birthday in April. It is a historical analysis of Britain and its place in the world over the centuries to the present day. The title of the opening chapter is Decline! This book could stare at me unread for a long time or I may use the method described below!

Unread books or unfinished books; ’Sometime’ means ’Never’. I now find books that I have bought less of a problem since reading Marie Kondo’s three chapters, Storing BooksUnread Books and Books to Keep in The Life Changing Magic Of Tidying. I started reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver several times. It is about a Baptist missionary and his family set in the Congo in 1959. I was irritated by the narrative style and found some of the characters unconvincing. After several attempts at reading the book, I picked it up, did not start reading it again but just asked myself whether it made me feel happy to have it. It didn’t ‘Spark Joy’ … and went to charity as did several other novels that I had been struggling with.

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Kay:

I rarely get given books other than cookbooks as presents – and usually they are ones I’ve given strong hints on wanting, so always welcome and much used. However, I’m rather prone to buying books as, one might say, presents to myself, and then not reading them. There’s invariably an unread pile by my bed or stacked in my sitting room. I’m always promising myself I won’t buy another book until I’ve read that pile … but then temptation intervenes and I only add to it.

I’m seduced into buying these unread books because of one of those tickets on Waterstone’s shelves where one of the staff has read and highly recommends the book; by enticing reviews on book blogs I follow or in newspapers or magazines; by the mention of some famous book in a TV programme; by friends telling me how much they loved a particular book and I must read it. It’s a bit like going to the theatre or cinema to see a play or film that all the critics have given 5* – my expectations rocket and so often become unrealistic and disappointment follows. The last – books recommended by friends – can be a bit embarrassing if you have to confess that you didn’t enjoy it that much; maybe didn’t even finish it. I try to avoid all mention of it and if it’s brought up, dissemble, for no one wants to upset friends. So I don’t think I’m going to name any of the books I have in this category!

As a Registered Homeopath, Reiki Master and with other alternative health and spiritual interests, I’ve read a lot of related books over the last 25-plus years, though not so much the more academic ones now. However, I still like to read books with some kind of spiritual or psychology background, especially when it’s fun like David Mitchie’s The Dalai Lama’s Cat; or a non-academic but engaging read like Sue Monk Kidd’s memoir, Traveling with Pomegranates. However, I can occasionally still get tempted by something more serious, like Alice Miller’s The Drama of Being a Child. When I did more homeopathy I worked a lot with children, often kids who’d suffered trauma, and I always meant to read this book. I bought it a few months ago when I was filling in time in a little bookshop in The Cut before meeting a friend at The Old Vic, but its seriousness always overwhelms me and after picking it up, I put it aside again, unread. I think this book represents those books bought with ‘good intentions’.

BB’s famous book The Little Grey Men was discussed on a TV programme and with three grandsons in my life and a daughter who lives in a very old farmhouse in deepest Worcestershire, I thought I should read it. I’ve picked it up a few times but never got far. I think this book represents books you should browse first in a bookshop, not buy over the internet. I was put off by its dismal cover as soon as I saw it. I know … how shallow … but when I worked full-time in publishing we had whole meetings devoted to book covers/jackets every week!

I’m not good at finishing books I can’t get into early on. When I read reviews about how a book takes a while to get into but is worth the effort, I always feel perhaps I shouldn’t give up too soon on books that don’t immediately appeal. In part I blame it on working for many years as a Reader for publishers who told me not to bother to read a whole book if I didn’t like it or think it was suitable for their list, and they’d still pay me the full fee (they did know me well enough to trust me on this one!), but I also remind myself of Janet Street Porter’s wonderful book of fun and advice: Life’s Too F***ing Short. I feel I’ve reached an age in life when I shouldn’t force myself to carry on reading a book I’m not enjoying!

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Doreen:

I don’t think I’ve ever had a book present I’ve put off reading.

One exception – a biography of Hillary Clinton, which was just plain dull. The writer just made it all totally prosaic and drowned the poor reader in data. Probably one for the scholars and policy wonks. The gift was meant well, but maybe Hillary was rather boring and in 2016 the USA was in a mood to live dangerously and take a gamble.

I have often bought books and squirrelled them away for either holidays or rainy days. Like having a well-stocked store cupboard or more likely anticipating the rainy day or winter ‘flu which might well find one longing for fresh reading matter. I may well have caught up with the backlog over lockdown! There are some books I knew to be well regarded, so did buy, but never got around to reading before. I have still to broach A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell. There’s been some thrillers and genre fiction where I’ve bought something by a writer I know is a pleasure to read and put it on the shelves for later. I reckon I must have been the sort of kid who left the marzipan and icing on the cake till last. Over this odd slice of lost time, I’ve found it quite rewarding to re-read books read ages ago and realise how much has changed in the last decades including oneself. One encounters attitudes which were part of the folk wisdom of the time but seem absolutely absurd these days. I usually like to read recently published contemporary fiction which reflects our ‘now’ but the last three months have just craved escapism.  Armchair travelling seems the answer at the moment and I very much enjoyed a book I was lent (thanks Margaret) of Jan Morris’s travel essays. Be interested to hear what other people have found the right reading prescription for these odd times.

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Louise: 

What a meditation this theme has proved to be!  There is absolutely no quick way to address this.

At its simplest level my books fall into two distinct camps. There are presents (including to myself) that I am still intending to read but have not yet; and books I can never throw out because they are beloved companions with whom I share so many memories. Even now, I regularly (at least once a year) take them down from the shelves where they nestle – like an old friend it is important to check in with in case they have moved on without my knowing.

So we are addressing the former today. Luckily I am just about capable of a reasonable discourse on this topic. This is because in three diminishing sweeps I have ejected thousands of the well-intentioned-when-bought-but-still-unread, as well as the never-to-be-read again, over the course of my move to Highgate; my move to the flat downstairs during the house refurbishment; and my move back upstairs.

Never again, I have sworn, will I haul a heavy box of useless books up or down five flights of stairs. But I weep when I think of the waste of money, good intentions and, worse, of dreams of reading.

Out went full unread collections (The Greville Memoirs, Walter Scott, The collected plays of Henrik Ibsen, everything written by Bill Bryson), all the text books I purchased at university (many never opened), all the worthy books, all the cheap tat and (oh, shameful admission) all the books written in foreign languages but with beautiful covers or pictures. All the thoughtful (but ultimately thoughtless) gifts of a former lover who would connect himself to my latest project by the purchase of a book, but never really understood what or why I read. My mother’s endless collection of art books that I inherited (they were hard to throw). And dozens upon dozens of Christmas books, freebies, work books, study books and spontaneous purchases in the second-hand book shops that I haunted from my teens to my fifties. As I left that decade, luckily, I realised it was BOOKS I liked, more than READING, and the collection ceased to grow.

So what remains, still here, still unread?

There are the two gorgeous volumes of Rabelais with illustrations by Heath Robinson; the 15 volume privately published set of Richard Burton’s 1001 Nights (with pictures). They will never go. I look at them quite regularly. I never actually read them.

The rest are all in topics: books about nature; books about sailing, boating, the river and the sea; books about Ancient Greece; books about walking; and the Middle East. The yet-to-be-read lovelies are in collections, the content largely read but by no means fully. And there are still a few worthy ones nestling in there: my son (who understands my reading habits and interests better than my lover did) bought me Weizman’s Hollow Land one Christmas. I have managed just the introduction – it tears me apart. Bedouin Poetry was another gift, the following year.

But when I cast my over all the unread since their purchase there are a few I KNOW I will get to – eventually, because even lockdown didn’t find the key to reading them.

In no particular order:

Queen of the Desert, by Georginal Howell – about the extraordinary Gertrude Bell.

London Observed, by Doris Lessing – a set of sketches and stories.

Albion, by Peter Ackroyd – about the origins of the English imagination.

A strangeness in my mind, by Orhan Pamuk – a novel set in Istanbul spanning four decades of an ordinary man leading an extraordinary inner life.

What a great exercise this has been. As I cast my eye over my remaining bookshelves, full of friends, and select those books I still want to get to know, this has shown me where my attachments lie. Perhaps I should let these guide me in a bookshop from now on?

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Please let us know what books you have gathering dust on your shelves and still unread, in Comments below!

Short Stories: Showing the Flag by Jane Gardam

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This month’s short story selection is Jane Gardam’s Showing the Flag and chosen by Doreen. Here are some thoughts on it from members:

Doreen: 

It didn’t seem such a long time since I found the Jane Gardam short stories in our Richmond Lending Library on the Green, now closed for the duration, but so much has happened since it feels like a year ago. Probably it was our last meeting before the lockdown, but those who were there may recall I was very amused by the shrewd comparison the writer made between life in a Wimbledon enclave and in Richmond, and brought that passage from the story Rode by All With Pride to share the sly humour.

I’d read and much enjoyed the Jane Gardam novels and her touch with the short story genre seems equally sure. She is a very acute social observer and her descriptions linger. I found Groundlings, and After the Strawberry Tea were both poignant and perfect, not a word wasted and the length absolutely tailored to the theme. Many writers present a short story collection, which seems to have been a collection of five finger exercises, just practice for the longer opus. These were very deft and fine examples of the art of the short story.

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Christine B:

I have been a great admirer of Jane Gardam’s novels for years. My favourites are Old Filth and God on the Rocks and it has come as a pleasant surprise to read these wonderful short stories, which are varied but the theme of showing the flag runs throughout.

She has a great sense of place as in Bang, Bang – Who’s Dead. ‘Even the birds stop singing, tired by their almost non-stop territorial squawks and cheeps and trills since dawn, they declare a truce and sit still upon branches, stand with heads cocked listening, scamper now and then in the bushes across dead leaves.’

And in Rode by all with Pride: ‘Wimbledon is not the suburb of the plastic greenhouse, tomato plant, sunflower and prize marrow; the squirt of coloured glass in the vestibule window, permanent -wave and coffee morning, of wife-swapping and vodka. This is folklore.’
But my favourite is The Dixie Girls, a story of three Army bred sisters and their ‘friend’, Nell, their landlady’s daughter. A simple tale though packed with humour and perception. ‘After the family left to travel over the world Nell wrote letters to them. “Dear Nell” they all said. Such excitements.’ There was a slight uneasiness in their voices sometimes – or at least in the voice of Vi or May – that Nell should be so entertaining, so articulate, so full of gusto. Was it not just a bit forward of her to write with such self confidence? But Vi, who was nice, said not at all. “Well, she owes it to us,” said Vi.’

‘Nell had been visiting May’s bed-sitting room (which had turned out to be a very nice flat with three bedrooms and a kitchen with only a kettle).’

Nell married and had a daughter and her husband, ‘The cobbler was a heavy man who sat slumped with a pipe … but he was splendid in bed which had been a glorious surprise to Nell who had expected something unpleasant or just to be endured.’ I won’t finish that as it would be a spoiler!

‘In old age Hilda, Nell’s daughter came to live next door, a very confident woman with strong opinions.’
‘To be happy and secure, old people must have no choices, and the doctor, humbled, had gone away.’
The contrast between them is Hilda’s opinion ‘You could smell the hypodermics. And that other smell. That rich geriatric smell.’ Nell replies, ‘I don’t like a poor geriatric smell.’
In Nell’s old age ‘She drank sweet sherry all day long and grew fatter than the landlord, rejoicing in the clamour within and without.’
A perfect short story.

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Margaret:

This is an expert and adroit storyteller, who can reveal the complexities of human relationships with devastating acuity.

There are ten stories here, the lead one, Showing the Flag, features a boy being seen off by his mother and her friend as he embarks on ship, alone, for a rendezvous with a man who is to host him for a three-month educational stay in France. The key to the rendezvous is for both man and boy to be wearing little British paper flags in their lapels. From the start, we know that the mother has mixed feelings about parenthood. We see the boy, anxious to wave goodbye from the upper deck, turning away disconsolately – they have left already – he has been despatched – time for tea. Anxiously, the boy checks in his little tin containing the flag, he knows his mother to be efficient, but he needs to check. Inevitably, the tiny paper flag, key to everything, is blown away by a breeze. Now we are in the mind of the boy, as he considers grandiose and unrealistic plans for dealing with this unexpected contretemps. We suffer with him, and we suffer for him. His thoughts on his mother are bleak and sad. However, the sly wit of the author in providing a surprising and warm ending brings relief to boy and reader in equal measure. However, the poignancy of the boy’s anxiety and the earlier remarks of the mother to her friend on parenthood, leaves an uneasiness in the reader’s mind that is hard to assuage.

Gardam is particularly good at dissecting and presenting class in all its manifestations Rode by All with Pride introduces a solid, rooted, academic, middle-class family who are blessed with a clever and promising daughter approaching university entrance exams and interviews. Here, the girl’s obsession with a fair, which comes every year, with a favourite ride of old and beautiful horses (“rode by all with pride”) is drawn into a subtle parallel with the parents’ confident, not to say smug, belief that she will triumph. Two icily brusque sentences, one inserted at the beginning and one at the end of the story brutally remind us what can happen when pride is heedless, and Gardam ensures that the reader shares the shock. This story requires the reader to read between the lines, to work for understanding. Marvellous.

Among the remaining stories, we are introduced to a group of avid theatre-goers who encounter each other regularly queuing for cheap tickets, (Groundlings). They have been doing this for years and have always felt a fondness for a particular woman, who does not speak, is not friendly, but, as the story unfolds, they come to realise that she has assumed iconic status for them. They look out for her appearance in the queue. Aggie Batt, “She is homage. When we see her, we grin. We say, ‘There’s Aggie’ but we are really saying, ‘There’s one of the best of us.’ Through Aggie we know our tribe.”

In Swan, we see a lumpy schoolboy who has been persuaded to take a totally silent little Chinese boy out as his volunteer duties.  The boy has never spoken, although he can, unexpectedly, occasionally, exhibit self-protective prowess at judo. But when circumstances demand, the child shows not only a transformative example of coping, but speaks, confounding the older boy.

Another story, Damage is particularly strong in delineating the love-hate relationship that can exist between an elderly parent and a grown-up child. Real pathos underlies the way in which a busy, professional daughter punishes herself for her guilt over her father by virtually haunting herself in a truly surreal manner. Another piece, After the Strawberry Tea shows a delicacy of touch and sympathy with a long-married couple who are finally leaving their family home, and seeking pastures new. All of us will recognise how hard it is to stop touching things for the very last time. But also, perhaps because time has been given to this, it might not be too much to hope for that a sense of release and adventure could arise.

What is interesting about this writing (and in the remaining stories) is the element of surprise, or of the unexpected or shocking with which Gardam so often invests her stories. All this is leavened by a thorough and unsentimental, ironic understanding of human nature. What a gift – for this means that the reader, literally, is always, always happy to turn the page.

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If you’ve read Showing the Flag or any other of Jane Gardam’s books, do please leave a Comment below and share your thoughts.

The Poetry of Sylvia Plath

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This is poetry week for the group and Christine B chose the work of Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) for us to look at. Most people are familiar with Plath’s sad history of clinical depression, her destructive marriage to the poet Ted Hughes, and finally her suicide at the age of just 30 years.  Here members offer their thoughts and responses to her poetry.

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Christine B:

Dear Fellow Clubbers,
I have a confession to make to you all, here I go – I have not been captivated by Sylvia Plath’s poems nor have I felt any womanly desire to relate to her. I chose her as I hoped someone would speak up and explain to me what I was missing. I appeal to you, dear readers, to do exactly that. Nevertheless, I feel that it is now my duty to comment on some of her mainly depressing, self- and death-obsessive poems.

She said, ‘Surely the great use of poetry is its pleasure.’ No comment; apparently teenage girls love her poetry as does my eighteen-year-old grand-daughter who is tremendously enthusiastic about it. Perhaps I was too late, even when I first read her in my early thirties.
Some of her poems about birth like Morning Song are very moving, warm and beautiful: it ended:

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from my bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth open clean as a cat’s. The window Square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

More of that, please, Sylvia.
I think Lady Lazarus is a riveting poem and it deserves to be remembered over the years after her death. There are some memorable pieces:

I rocked shut As a seashell      

And,

Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

‘A miracle!’
That knocks me out.
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, a very large charge
For the hearing of my heart —
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.

And the ending is magnificent. –
Beware
Beware

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

Wow! That really hits one in the solar plexus.

Letter in November and Cut and some others seem to me to be more fully rounded than so many of her poems, with a hint of humour. Some of them are depressing to the point of terrifying, particularly Daddy; also Fever 103, Edge, The Applicant – which I find particularly horrible, was apparently written the day before she wrote Daddy

Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

I do hope someone will explain her poetry and help me get pleasure from it.
A terribly sad life and death, what a waste.

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Christine A:

In January this year I was sent Crossing the Water, an anthology of Sylvia Plath’s poems selected by Ted Hughes. I read the first poem Wuthering Heights on one of the days we had Storm Ciara and the passages about wind seemed very relevant: ‘the wind pours by like destiny, bending everything in one direction’. In this poem Plath also has a lovely description of sheep, which I find very appealing: ‘they stand about in grandmotherly disguise, all wigs and curls and yellow teeth and hard, marbly baas.’ Not what I think of as typical Plath at all!

More typical is Last Words where she talks about the people who will care for her body after her death: ‘They will wonder if I was important’. When I first read the collection I underlined (in pencil!) half of it as outstanding, which I still consider them to be but with the caveat that on repeated reading there are disturbing undertones. I was taken with this comment in the blurb, ‘readers will feel, more and more, that they have no option but to try and understand’, and think it sums it up well.

My personal all-time Plath favourite is Morning Song found in the Carol Ann Duffy selection Sylvia Plath Poems (P57). Morning Song gives a very realistic account of being a first-time mother. The idealism, ‘love set you going like a fat gold watch’; the feeling of imposter syndrome, ‘I’m no more your mother than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow effacement at the wind’s hand’; and the exhaustion ‘one cry, and I stumble from my bed cow heavy’. This anthology has a strong introduction by Duffy: ‘here was a uniquely radical, stylised poetic voice which claimed for its subject something which had not previously appeared in “the canon” – the experience of being a woman’.

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Ted:

Since part reading The Bell Jar in 1976, which I found oppressive I have kept away from Sylvia Plath’s works since then. I have both Colossus and Ariel on Kindle and found the poems in Colossus more accessible. I don’t know how to formally analyse poetry so I will just give some thoughts, feelings and associations triggered by a few of her poems.

Two Views of a Cadaver Room: ‘A vinegary fume of the death vats clung to them’, so took me back to the dissection halls as a young medical student and to the pathology museum ‘In their jars the snail-nosed babies moon and glow’… they literally do!

Hardcastle Crags: One can hear her footsteps echoing, ‘A firework of echoes from wall to wall of the dark, dwarfed cottages. I also liked the sound of ‘grasses riding in the full of the moon, manes to the wind, tireless, tied, as a moon-bound sea moves on its root.’

Point Shirley: ‘The shingle booms, bickering under the sea’s collapse’, and ‘the waves’ spewed relics clicker masses in the wind’ …perfect!

All the Dead Dears: ‘We’d wink if we didn’t hear stars grinding, crumb by crumb, our own grist down to its bony face. This spoke to me about the transience of life and the inevitability of death.

But the lines that really moved me were, ’From the mercury-backed glass Mother, grandmother, great-grandmother reach hag hands to hall me in …all the long gone darlings’, which set me thinking, misty eyed, about parents, pets and friends who have died.

She is brilliant but not easy reading in a time of Covid!

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Margaret:

Tulips by Sylvia Plath

I always find approaching Sylvia Plath’s work overwhelming. The drama, the genius, the illnesses, the passion, the flaming, hectic pace of everything and her self-willed death. How blandly unlived it can make one’s own life feel. There are about 140 books in print devoted to Plath. And who knows how many tortuously manufactured PhDs are still being written.

Nonetheless – deep breath – here is what matters – her peerless poem, Tulips. Who doesn’t love those pliant flaring beauties, always shapely and lovely even as they wither and thin so delicately.

And the poet, recovering from surgery, sees all that beauty – but she also knows that such a vase of scarlet tulips will dominate her room – take it over. It will disturb her peace. She resents it, saying, ‘The tulips are too excitable’. A wonderful word – and on she goes, showing how her acceptance of, and her losing of herself to the anonymous administration of the hospital staff has soothed her – ‘my body is a pebble to them … smoothing them gently’. Until now she lost herself willingly, ‘sick of baggage’. She has reached the stage of seeing a family photograph as delivering ‘little smiling hooks’ to draw her back into life. She declares, ‘I am a nun now’, and states clearly, ‘I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.’

By the fifth stanza, she has articulated her conclusion: ‘a name tag, a few trinkets. It is what the dead close on, finally.

The sixth stanza brings all her power as a writer to bear in showing how she feels threatened by those tulips, ‘too red in the first place, and then that chilling simile which rears up out of the page, describing them as being ‘like an awful baby.

The final three stanzas show how she acknowledges the power and life force of the tulips, how loud and disruptive it is, snagging and eddying like a powerful current in river. Now she sees them as irresistible dangerous animals, attacking her desire to let go, ensuring, rather, that her own life force will win, her heart will open, pulsate again, and thus, finally, ‘The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea, And comes from a country far away as health.’

What a battle, and how tragically telling too, because her own life force may win her back here, but we know now she chose a much darker path later.

This pitch perfect observation of how the lassitude that often accompanies recovery from illness can mutate into a rejection of life itself is recognisable to most of us, but Plath, of course, has elevated a common condition into a crisis of faith in the worth of life itself by employing the running metaphor of the tulips.

I wonder how many readers, having assimilated this fine poem, now see tulips, especially red ones, in a different light?

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Do please leave a Comment below if you’d like to share your thoughts on Sylvia Plath’s poetry.

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage

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Our novel this week is The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage, first published in 1967. This book, now considered a classic, was chosen by Ted, who gives us the background to the author and book in his review:

Ted:

I came to this novel via Mr B’s Reading Emporium when I asked them to recommend a book that was as good as Stoner by John Williams. This was the result.  It is brilliantly written and the most enjoyable book I’ve read in a long time. It belongs to the late golden age of America landscape fiction [roughly the first half of the last century] where the landscape is integral to the narrative and affects the characters lives. I loved the descriptions of the country and the intricate studies of the characters that were drawn from the author’s life. It is also a psychological thriller with an unexpected and chilling ending. One could understand who would want to do it, but the ‘how’ was a shock, making me immediately re-read the last couple of chapters and yes, I guess the mode was very discreetly in plain sight!

The setting of the novel is Utah in 1924 where the Author was born in 1915 into a very wealthy sheep-ranching family. When he was two years old his parents divorced and his mother remarried a wealthy Montana cattle rancher named Brenner who became a wonderful stepfather. The second brother became his bullying step uncle who constantly undermined and slyly insulted his mother. This man was the inspiration for the book’s evil central character, Phil Burbank.

Two brothers Phil and George run the Burbank ranch and share the same bedroom. They are polar opposites. George is slow, stocky and kind whereas Phil is brilliant, very capable and also a bully, critical of all around him. Phil seldom bathes or has his hair cut, cultivates a tough masculine image and spends much time in the bunkhouse with the hands extolling the virtues of real men. He is particularly critical of ‘sissies’, social climbing Jews, Blacks and Indians! He humiliates the drunken town doctor [see page 36-37] and later the doctor’s widow Rose runs an inn with her son Peter. George is starting a relationship with Rose and one evening he, Phil and the men come for a meal. I found Phil’s critical observations of the other customers and his observations and attempted humiliation of Peter very revealing [see page 55-57]. George eventually marries Rose and when she and Peter come to spend the summer on the ranch Phil is appalled and prepares to make their lives a nightmare. He has met his match in Peter who has the measure of Phil, sees what he is doing to his mother and forms a plan. I found this book riveting and a breath of fresh air.

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Margaret:

Thank you, Ted, for bringing this book and its author to my attention. I found that this novel, attributed to “landscape fiction” in roughly the first half of the 20th century in the US West, a wonderful example of setting and character being interdependent. It seems to me to deserve to sit among the greats of US writers of those times, Steinbeck, Falkner, Willa Cather, Hemingway and others. I love the biblically sourced title too.

However, I couldn’t help wondering, along with other commentators, if the relative neglect of “The Power of the Dog” arose from the force of the theme of repressed homosexuality masked by overt homophobia, and if it was too strong to deal with at that time.

My Kindle edition of the book is a Vintage Classic, which includes at the end a wonderful and lengthy 2001 critique by Annie Proulx on Savage’s life and literature. It tells how strongly he drew from his own lived experiences of family, drama and love of the West.

The novel blasts into action with a stomach-churning description of the castration of calves at the hands of Phil, the elder of two brothers who own and run a rich and successful farm. Phil and George are opposites. Having read of Phil’s dealing with calves, the reader is not surprised to find that George is quiet, fair-minded and less talented and good-looking than Phil.

The story deals with good and evil in broad terms, but is very far from crude. When George marries pretty, widowed Rose and brings her to the farm, we have already seen that Phil is ruthless in his judgement and cruel in his treatment of the weak. He hates Rose. He sets out remorselessly to destroy her peace of mind. She wilts under the cruelty of him never speaking to her, and parodying her piano playing with his own version on his banjo. He has already occasioned her doctor husband’s suicide via a humiliating incident in a bar, but she does not know this. We watch Phil ‘s determination in horror. He drives her to drink, and he gloatingly waits to inflict his cruelty on her young son, Peter, whom it is easy to portray in those macho times as a cissy, a “miss Nancy” to the boys in the bunkhouse. Annie Proulx describes Phil as a “vicious bitch” – very telling.

Phil is wedded to the portrayal of himself as a tough, virile guy. His hero was Bronco Henry, whose untimely and unexplained death he witnessed. Phil never wears gloves, his hands bearing witness to his strength.  But, he is conflicted in his pursuit of Peter’s destruction. Peter catches him bathing naked in a secret spot. Peter also sees immediately the semblance of a “running dog” in the configuration of the undergrowth of the cliffs that only Phil and Bronco Henry ever fathomed. Phil has always held this recognition as a secret and iconic proof of his own masculine superiority. Also, Peter proves surprisingly courageous under fire as proven by his handling of a potentially humiliating incident orchestrated by Phil at the bunkhouse.  So, Phil decides to set out to alienate Peter from his mother and starts to draw him into his own exaggeratedly masculine world. They engage together on the plaiting of a rawhide rope. This brings a seeming warmth between the man and the boy – even occasioning the touch of a hand, an arm around a shoulder when Phil accidentally cuts himself whilst dealing with the rawhide materials.

At this point we could have begun to see Peter as yet another victim, one of several hapless male characters who figure poignantly in the book as subjects for Phil’s disdain, contempt and homophobia. But we are not allowed to fall into this narrative trap of expecting the worst for Peter.

Rather, the author shows us now that – along with Phil himself – Peter too has been highly sensitive as to what is going on. Suddenly, Phil falls sick. Swiftly the narrative rattles into action and elucidation. Peter has seen Phil for what he is. He recognises evil and has used his own weapons to save his mother. For he has studied his father’s books. He has taught himself how to introduce anthrax material into the deep cut in Phil’s hand. Phil is too proud of his toughness to do anything other than wipe his bleeding hand with his bandana. He dies a horrible death, a victim of his own hubris and, unknowingly, at the hands of a superior foe.

Such an ending is of course melodramatic, but as a seasoned old reader, I found it dramatically satisfying to see that the “running dog” had met his match. At the same time, I would argue that such an abrupt and harsh ending provides an equalising balance to the brutal opening castration chapter.

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Kay:

Unfortunately I’ve only had time to read about a third of this book so far and have to confess that, after reading the blurb on the book’s cover, I came to it with some reluctance. During this time of the Coronavirus pandemic many of us are seeking uplifting books and struggling with things too grim or heavy, so a book about a ‘vicious sadist’ didn’t immediately appeal!

However, as soon as I started reading it I was caught up in the story and by the beautiful writing. The opening paragraph is a rather gruesome description of castrating bull calves on a ranch yet it also sets the brutal background of the story. But soon we turn to ranch hands waiting for parcels of goods they’ve ordered ‘that might include with the new gloves, new shoes for town, phonograph records, a musical instrument to charm away the loneliness of winter evenings when the winds howled like wolves down from the mountain peaks.’ And out on the ranch early in the day ‘When the sun rose red and the frost fled from the surface of the short, dry grass … the bewitching spell of the dark and that holy quality of the dawn that turns men in upon themselves.’

When George wants to buy a car Phil baits him with ‘Want to look like some Jew?’ and it is quite shocking, though of course slightly less so back in 1924 when the novel is set. I thought Phil saying he’d never go to a moving picture revealed his bully-boy insecurity; that change is a challenge and he always feared being shown up. But it is also, early on, an indication of his suppressed homosexuality; he fears anyone seeing the true Phil so he masks himself in macho bullying.

Although I now know the ending, this is such a powerful and beautifully written book, I shall carry on reading.

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If you’ve read this or any other of Thomas Savage’s works, or would like to let us know what you think of The Power of the Dog after reading our reviews, do please leave a Comment below.

 

Theme: Books about Greece and/or the Greeks

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To take a literary journey to Greece as the sun blazes outside, and we enjoy some summery days, is a joy. We may not be able to travel in reality at the moment due to the coronavirus lockdown, but we can travel in books … This theme was Doreen’s choice and a very welcome one at this time. These are some thoughts from members:

Doreen:

The Colossus of Marousi by Henry Miller is an absolute love letter to Greece.  Miller loved everything, the landscape, the light, the people.  He wrote: “The light of Greece opened my eyes, penetrated my pores, expanded my whole being.”  It’s a travelogue but a very personal one.

The Greece of antiquity, the gods of Olympus, myth and legend, comes to vivid life in the Mary Renault novels.  The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea are a recreation of the Theseus story and The Mask of Apollo and The Praise Singer are about actors in ancient Greece.  There’s also the Alexander trilogy about Alexander the Great.  Renault creates an absorbing and believable world in them all.

Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantakis, is an exuberant book about a very exuberant character and is full of great vignettes of people and places.  The film Only on Sunday chose the perfect actor to portray the character in Anthony Quinn.

A different take on the Greek island experience comes with John Fowles novel The Magus, a strange and dreamlike tale of almost magical realism on a well imagined Greek island.

All good books to read either in Greece or hoping to reach there.

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Kay:

It was serendipity rather than planning that led me to read a book about Greece this week. While watching Mary Beard’s Front Row Lockdown Culture (which I love!) a couple of Thursdays ago, I saw Dave Gilmour (Pink Floyd) and his wife Polly Samson talk about Leonard Cohen and Hydra, and Polly’s new book, A Theatre For Dreamers, which is set on the island at the time Cohen first visited it. As someone who still plays Cohen’s albums fairly regularly and who’s read and watched quite a lot about his home on Hydra and all the people connected to that time, I couldn’t resist ordering the book. I’ve really enjoyed reading it over the last few days. It is in many ways an escapist sort of book but inevitably also, if you know the true story of Cohen, Marianne and all the others who formed the troubled circle of artists on the island in the 1960s, a story of pain and tragedy. Yet it’s also a story that brims with life and wanting to live it to the full. Although the narrator (Erica) is, I think, fictional, the events played out in this book are fairly faithful to actual events. And as someone who has sailed into the port of Hydra (20-odd years ago) I was excited enough by the description of Erica’s arrival to feel I must return some day:

‘The port of Hydra sweeps into view suddenly, dramatically, like a curtain has been raised between mountains. The symmetry of stone walls and mansions imposes a perfect horseshoe around the water where tiers of white houses rise like the seats of an amphitheatre// It’s a magic trick from barren rock, a theatre for dreamers.’

My first return to Greece after the Hydra sailing one was in 2011 to Kardamyli in the Peloponnese (photo at the top). Another case of serendipity here for I happened to arrive days after the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor died, carrying with me his famous book, Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese. To be honest, at the time I knew little about him and the book, but Fermor lived in Kardamyli and when I arrived and carried the book around with me to restaurants and cafes to read, everyone – I mean everyone – would point to it and declare how sad they were he’d died; how much they loved him; what a wonderful man he’d been. Apart from this unexpected connection, the book turned out to be the perfect read:

‘The quiet charm of Kardamyli grew with each passing hour … The same leisurely spell pervades the whole of this far-away little town. Cooled in summer by the breeze from the gulf, the great screen of the Taygetus shuts out intruding winds … it is like those Elysian confines of the world where Homer says that life is easiest for men’

I seem to have written quite a lot already so will just mention a couple more books briefly. In my experience Greeks really do like to talk about philosophy and serious things; not just the Ancient Greeks but modern-day Greeks too. During my hour-long cab ride from Kalamata airport to Kardamyli, arranged by a friend and shared with a couple, the discussion with the cab driver all the way was most definitely philosophical – I knew I had arrived back in Greece. On my next trip to the country I took Travels with Epicurus by Daniel Klein, a Philosophy/Travel book, also based in Hydra, with ‘Meditations from a Greek Island on the Pleasures of Old Age’. Another book I took on a holiday was Sue Monk Kidd’s Traveling with Pomegranates, which is another philosophical type of book, reflecting on life as she travels in Greece (also Turkey and France).

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Tim:

At first my mind was a blank and then they flooded in: Too many to comment on/analyse with the usual erudition of our group.

How could one not start with The Iliad and The Odyssey? I confess to having only read the last book of the Iliad; so romantic when Odysseus returns after 10 years to Penelope who has remained faithful to him but cannot recognise him for sure; to convince her he reminds her of his DIY days and the matrimonial bed he built, supported by an olive tree, still in the bedroom to which faithful P has admitted no suitor; all’s well that ends well. It must be the book with the most translations; I suggest Robert Fagles. Lawrence Durrell, infra, wrote the Spirit of Place; one of my Spirit of Place experiences was stepping from my boat onto the beach of Ithaca wither Odysseus had returned 3000 years before. Unfortunately I found no palace; only a fly blown Coca-Cola stand!

So then: The Greek Myths by Robert Graves, whom like many other writers lived in Corfu for a while before Majorca. Bitter Lemons by Lawrence Durrell, some of which is set in his home Bella Pais, now in the Turkish sector, then predominantly Greek. Again Lawrence Durrell: The Dark Labyrinth set in Crete, Prospero’s Cell set in Corfu, and Reflections on a Marine Venus.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres, set in Kefalonia. Has he written anything as good since??

The Thread by Victoria Hislop: Some do not rate her writing but I enjoyed this; set in Thessaloniki [Salonika] 1900 -1945. Set in the silk fashion quarter. At that time an harmonious city of Turks, Greeks and predominately Jews. It was the only city in the world to have a majority Jewish population until the Nazi horrors of 1943.

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Christine B:

John and I went to Greece for the first time, for our honeymoon. For part of it we went to Skyros as we were both Rupert Brooke fans and visited his grave. From a small book of black and white photos, The Islands: ‘The most beautiful island in the Sporades group is the northern reaches of the Aegean is Sykros. The abundance of marble and limestone explains the surprising resemblance of the architecture of its white, cube-shaped houses, to the architecture one sees in the Cyclades.’

Also a small extract from The Greeks by H.D.F.Kitto: ‘The disciplined and well-armed Greeks easily defeated the Persian army, but Cyrus was killed … and the Greeks were three months’ march from home. They elected a general, Xenophon, an Athenian country gentleman. With the self-discipline that these turbulent Greeks often displayed they held together week after week and made their way through these unknown mountains. We read from Xenophon that the leading troops were climbing to the head of the pass and when they got to the top they began to shout and gesticulate, all shouting and gesticulating. At last the anxious rear guard could hear what they were all shouting: it was “thalassa, thalassa” The long nightmare was over, for thalassa is the Greek for sea.’ Brilliant.

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Margaret: 

Little Infamies by Panos Karnezis

I decided to find a book set in Greece that was new to me. Fortunately, Saturday’s Guardian travel section, which was dealing with Greece, mentioned this book of short stories (along with a string of well-known and much-loved others). I ordered it on Kindle, and set to.

The writer came to the UK to study engineering in 1992, but ended up with an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. This is his first book, published in 2002, at the age of 35.

The short stories are set in a nameless Greek village, and the recurring characters are the people who live there – the priest, the barber, the whore, the doctor, the seamstress, the mayor and the occasional animal, for example, a centaur, a parrot that recites Homer, a horse called History. Their lives intersect, as do those of everyone who lives in small places. They know each other’ s secrets – the hidden crimes, the mysteries, the ‘little infamies’ that men commit. Karnezis observes his villagers with a forgiving eye. He creates a world where magic invariably loses out to harsh reality, but for the reader, it is universal, funny and quite compelling.

This is not the first time that I have picked a book purely on its title alone, and I have often found myself delighted, engaged and – a fan. This title is a perfect description of the behaviour of the inhabitants of this village.

There is nothing charming or cute about this writing, rather a dry, literate candour, underpinned by a measure of human compassion. Some stories are brief, vivid, others comprise several mini-chapters, along with medium narratives – often surprising the reader. Minor incidents are as interesting as earthquakes, prison, death, murder, loss.

I was also intrigued to find echoes of some great old French writers here. For example, Clochmerle by Gabriel Chevalier, the stories of Guy de Maupassant, those of Alphonse Daudet, and even a faint frisson from the essays of Montaigne.

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Louise:

So, Tim said it all.  As I was reviewing my books on Greece, I came up with exactly the same list  (although having read both The Iliad and The Odyssey in full – mostly – thanks to attending a couple of workshops at my favourite local institution  https://hlsi.net) I can’t help resist pointing out that it is the last chapter of The Odyssey which describes the return to Ithaca and the reclaiming of Penelope. Probably a slip of the finger, Tim.

But yes, he was right on the money. The Iliad, The Odyssey, Lawrence Durrell (also his book The Greek Islands as well as Reflections on a Marine Venus), Robert Graves,  they were all there.

Except perhaps two big misses.

First, Lawrence’s brother Gerald Durrell and his memoirs of their early family life on Corfu captured in My Family and Other Animals and I believe two others that I haven’t read. These are early – and by far the best – examples of the genre dealing with family emigration to sunnier climes, subsequently developed by Peter Mayle starting with My Life in Provence and others. My Family is laugh-out-loud about the Durrell mother and four unruly, strong-headed youngsters moving to Greece in extreme poverty, and making their life there. It was recently made into a TV series – surely everyone watched it?

Secondly, and importantly, Patrick Leigh Fermor. Although his most famous book A Time of Gifts was not about Greece but about his travels across Europe as a young man, Fermor is also famous for his time in Crete when he played a prominent role in the Cretan Resistance during WW2, and at least three of his books are set in Greece: Mani, Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (pub 1958) – Mani is a peninsula where he and his wife lived part of the year in their second house: Roumeli (1966) about his travels in northern Greece; and The Cretan Runner: His Story of the German Occupation, written with George Psychoundakis (1955). There is also Abducting a General – The Kreipe Operation and SOE in Crete (pub posthumously 2014), which I spotted when looking him up but do not know myself.

Well there must be lots more – I will leave others to find them, especially more modern ones. Well done, Tim, for your list. The advantages of a classical education!

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I hope you’ve enjoyed this Greek journey and that it may have inspired you to visit Greece when we can travel again and take some of these books with you.

 

Learning to Talk – by Hilary Mantel

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Our book choice this week was Hilary Mantel’s collection of short stories, Learning to Talk. Here are some thoughts from our members:

Ted:

I enjoyed this book of stories inspired by recollections from her Northern working class childhood. Hilary was born in a Derbyshire mill village and the family moved to Cheshire when she was eleven. Family life became complicated after her father left the home and she inherited a temperamental, sometimes violent stepfather.

She has amazingly perceptive, acute observations of people which are sometimes unsparing. In King Billy Is A Gentleman, when the boy living next door was made to look a fool, ’I saw in his face a sort of low destructive rage, as if some other creature might break through, a wilder beast; what I thought was that we all have a buried nature, a secret violence.’

In Curved is the Line of Beauty there is a lovely description of relationship between two young girls at play. I liked her subsequent observation of children in action, ’Their faces are intent and their missions hidden from adult eyes; they have a geography of their own, that has nothing to do with the milestones and markers that adults use. The country through which they move is older, more intimate than ours’.

In  Learning to Talk aged thirteen she is at an up-market convent and there are hilarious descriptions of her elocution lessons to ‘learn to talk properly’. They were only partially successful… ‘Give me your northerner till he is seven and there are sounds that a southerner makes that he will never convincingly imitate. I’ve met closet northerners since, but they give themselves away’.

Third Floor Rising is about her summer job between school and university at a failing Manchester department store called Affleck and Brown. She worked in the department next to her mother who was the manageress of the fashion floor. There are hilarious descriptions of her mother’s reinvented persona and also of the colleagues she worked with.

The only other work by her that I have read is  a novel called An Experiment in Love which was brilliant. I intend to read more of her work.

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Christine B:

I had just finished The Mirror and the Light and felt inclined to go back to the beginning and read it all over again, it was such a pleasure. Resisted the temptation and looked out my copy of Learning to Talk. Oh, she’s got a way with words – try page 125. She is certainly a brilliant writer, capable of writing in totally different ways – these two books clearly illustrate that. The stories are about childhood, how much of it is autographical I don’t know, does anyone know anything about that? I would suggest that she has reflected truthfully in general and made it so successfully entertaining with a great variety in the stories; sad and quite tortuous and ridiculous at times. Destroyed is about dogs and she portrays herself as puzzled but accepting of the life around her.

Curved in the Line of Beauty is about the fear in different ways in childhood. ‘Being lost and damned to hell could happen very easily if you were a Catholic child in the 50s. If the speeding driver taught you at the wrong moment, let us say, at the midpoint between monthly confessions – then your dried-up soul could snap from your body like a dead twig. Our school was situated handily, so as to increase the risk, between two bends in the road.’

Her mother was really rather terrifying but brilliantly described. Mantel is very sharp about her and cruelly amusing; she had been a very sickly child and suffered terribly, I would think, and at the beginning of Third Floor Rising she says, ‘I went to senior school and got abruptly better, as an act of Will on my mother’s part.’

Every piece is worth reading and right to the end I needed to laugh and cry, even for Giving up the Ghost.

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Louise:

There’s almost nothing one can say about reading a Hilary Mantel story that hasn’t already been said. Her absolute gift is a sense of time and place delivered wrapped in a sparkling narrative (rather than long boring descriptions), which puts you right beside her. And none more so than in these apparently simple autobiographically inspired tales of disrupted and uncomfortable childhood. The stories are ghosts that live in the present and are quite terrifyingly real in the depiction of events long gone that continue to influence and affect the writer (and reader) even in hard-won adulthood.

For me, they recall the less comfortable aspects of my own childhood, as I imagine they must to many who read them, even with, like me, a distant view of childhood as a happy time. I was never unfortunate enough to be abandoned by my father (a recurring theme in the stories) and have to tolerate one, or a series, of alternate substitutes. But the emphasis on good manners, on elocution, on being pretty and feminine and, worst of all, on being ‘nice’ in the face of bullying and any other adversities haunted me and limited my full growth into a powerful woman well into my forties. Children are usually stopped from raging openly when they find injustice – and some of us subvert rightful anger for most of our lives, scared of the consequences.

I can’t say I had a favourite. I loved them all, but possibly the most poignant for me was Third Floor Rising which brings to the fore both what was expected of a growing young woman and the lies which lay behind the front of feminine compliance. Ultimately most of us triumph. Hilary Mantel certainly has.

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Kay:

As I was loading my fellow book-loving friends’ rave reviews of this collection of short stories on to the blog, it was tempting to back out of writing myself; I am clearly way out of step with them. But then I can’t be the only person in the world to find these stories unappealing. I had time to only read a couple – the first two – and found them very depressing. I read many of Mantel’s early novels years ago but haven’t read recent ones … not even the much applauded, prize-winning Wolf Hall series. I was however expecting to enjoy these stories, but right from the start, felt troubled by the depressive and rather sinister undertones.

I could be impressed by her acute observations – the village on the outskirts of a city – ‘We were too close to the city for a life of our own’ in King Billy Is A Gentleman. When the narrator’s (a young Mantel) father suddenly leaves them ‘at ten o’clock one blustery March morning … leaving all his underwear; my mother washed it and gave it to a jumble sale’, this seemed to me to be a chillingly depressing memory.

In Destroyed, while the mother rather horrendously thinks that ‘Everything is just once, and happiness can’t be repeated’, there is some light relief in the observation that ‘The idea of anyone in our village owning a Pekinese was simply preposterous; I knew this already. The inhabitants would have plucked and roasted it’, which made me laugh out loud. However, this wasn’t enough to win me over and I gave up …

Clearly I am not a Mantel fan like my friends. Or maybe this collection was another victim of the pandemic lockdown when I feel only able to read uplifting stories or something straightforward like a good thriller.

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It you’ve read this book, do please leave your thoughts in Comments below.

Arias – A Collection of Poems by Sharon Olds

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It’s poetry week and Arias, a collection of poems by Sharon Olds, was chosen by Tim. Olds is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and this is her latest collection, which sparked a diverse range of reactions from our members. Enjoy their comments here:

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Tim:

I discovered Sharon Olds ,77, on reading Stags Leap which won the TS Eliot Prize in 2012. An 89 page collection reflecting on the breakdown and loss of her marriage of 30 years when her husband unexpectedly, as far as she was concerned, left her for another woman. ”Everyone dies. Sometimes a beloved dies, and sometimes love…” I enjoyed this work and therefore ordered her latest book Arias and suggested we read it before I had started. If you have seen a copy, it runs to 204 pages and say 100 poems or “Arias”. I regret I cannot say, having read perhaps half, that I enjoyed it and was disappointed after Stag’s Leap. I do not like her prosody {is there any ?]. Some of you will know of my conservatism re. much contemporary poetry, which seems to me to be a stream of prose consciousness without rhythm or rhyme cut up into lines and called poetry .

A major theme seems, in late life, to be a reconciliation with her mother who beat her as a child ,e.g. “Where is my lady?” p.156.

The themes are wide ranging: “Poem to Etan Patz”, a notorious case of a child of middle class N.Y. parents who, aged 7, is allowed for the first time to go alone to the bus stop to go to school and is never seen again and no body ever found. His parents never moved from their flat for 33 years lest he should return .

Sharon Olds is perhaps well known for her frankness about sex, anatomy and bodily functions, which even 60 years after the Lady Chatterley trial, surprise [of course we are not shocked are we?]. “Even I” might feel inhibited in discussing /reading some of them in our co-ed group although Dr Pickard would help me get over such inhibitions. In “Gliss Aria” Olds rejoices in the state of her vulva in old age and gives thanks for the pleasure given, ”the mouth of ecstasy.” In “Unexpected Flourishing” she considers her Venus mound sprouting virile growth on the advent of a new lover! Anal sex? “Anal Aria” p.29.

Lest, dear reader, you think I have emphasised the above theme, the “Arias “ are wide ranging and show a deep appreciation of nature. I liked the insertion of phrases from WB Yeats’ “Lake isle of Innisfree” in “Hospice-Bed Song”, which moved me.

I look forward to hearing what others think.

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Christine A:

Poems can offer consolation and explanation but Olds makes you work hard to find a glimpse of either. She sets me on edge wondering whether I’ve got hold of her meaning in any way at all. Somehow I find myself being defensive and I’m bemused by a lot of them. But here goes anyway on what I thought of three of them.

In I cannot say I did not – there is a list of everyday events that Olds appears to take responsibility for but I think the list itself is actually deeply ironic and this disparate group of items generate the question, “How can I be responsible for this mess of a life I found myself in?” After several reads I did begin to find in the poem something I could respond to in a gloomy way and yes, I would say it merits a deep read.

I’m not sure how I would have responded to Meeting a Stranger if I hadn’t just read Girl, Woman, Other but having been acutely sensitized to my white privilege by Bernadine Evaristo I am much more aware of how, for a black person, atrocities which happened to your ancestors are wholly present here and now. So well done, Sharon Olds, for highlighting this from a sensitive white perspective.

When you were first visible is the third poem in the collection that caught my eye – I found similarities between it and Morning Song by Sylvia Plath. The latter has moments of joy but Olds poem is more matter of fact. It is a poignant reflection on new life, maybe better judged at a distance rather than when you have just been involved in new birth.

These are the poems which most stood out in a huge collection – 204 pages long. As it was so long I really felt the need for a physical book and read the poems in paperback. Does the format you read in change the reading experience I wonder?

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Christine B:

Of that small group of American female poets born within ten years from 1932 to 1942 – Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Oliver and Sharon Olds – I must admit she is my least favourite. So, have not bought Arias, but will be very interested to hear others’ thoughts and feelings. I rather like her poems around birth and new life, Her First Week is delightful. Having read a review by Zakia Carpenter-Hall I gather it is all about death so not appropriate.

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Margaret: 

I enjoyed this book of poems much more than a previous one by this author on her divorce after a long marriage. (Thank you, Tim, for suggesting it.)

Here, the writer, in much the same age range as some of us, is covering anything and everything in human life from birth to death. Her writing is so immediate, so compelling, that the reader feels that he or she is actually along for the ride. The element of unexpected turnings, thoughts, ideas, details keep these poems leaping from the page. We are, almost, sharing the writer’s thought processes.

From a complex list, here are a few favourites. “Looking South at Lower Manhatten, Where the Towers Had Been”. The description of the effect of this sight on the writer is truly visceral, listing the constituents of the human bodies, which were annihilated by the outrage. She makes it agonisingly clear that words are not enough, but … what other shield or song can she employ. This may be the most striking piece in the book.

In one poem, a description of a baby breast-feeding – “a little pump”. Perfect.

Another, “No Makeup”, is wise and witty about the effect – “And when the makeup came off I felt actual as a small mammal in the woods…”.

There are several poems about her mother, who had beaten her as a child and the resultant lack of love that Olds felt for her. But in “Hyacinth Aria”, on being at her mother’s death bed, Olds finds a sudden, piercing moment in which to love her mother: “I loved my mother – she was my first chance, my last chance, to love the human.” There is no sentimentality here, therefore we can value all the more that lightning flash of primitive humanity.

There are two sonnets on the physical chastisement, the blows that fall on children. They are unbearably acute, “blows don’t fall, feathers fall”.

Here is a distinguished and much decorated poet at the top of her game. Enjoy!

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You might also be interested to read this review from the Guardian: click here.

Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

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J.M. Coetzee is a South African writer who was born in Cape Town in 1940. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003 and has won many other literary prizes, including the Booker twice – the first time for Life & Times of Michael K in 1983 (the year it was published) and for Disgrace in 1999.

Life & Times of Michael K was our book group choice this week, chosen by Christine B. Here are our thoughts on it:

 

Christine B:

Michael K is set in the Civil War  in South Africa in the 70s and early 80s when  Coetzee’s country was chaotic, violent and desecrated. The land is very important in the story, almost as a character and justice is not considered. The story begins when Michael K is born with a hare lip. He attends a special school and becomes a gardener living with his mother. She decides that they leave the city and go back to her childhood home. Michael builds a vehicle based on a wheelbarrow for his mother but she dies and he continues the pilgrimage. It is long and tortuous and he experiences cruelty and gratuitous violence but he seems to be the sane man in a mad world; at no time are characters labelled black or white. However many times he is forced to move and suffer but continues with his aim to find some soil to plant seeds, grow vegetables, eat his crop of healthy food and pure water and settle.

The book has been considered Kafkaesque by some; I feel that his single-minded simplicity, patience and gentleness aims to achieve his idea of perfection in a mad world. He says, ‘I was mute and stupid in the beginning, I will be mute and stupid at the end. There is nothing to be ashamed of in being stupid.’ If you’ve not read the book read the final paragraph first.

 

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Ted: 

This is a sad, bleak novel set in the Western Cape during a fictitious civil war. There are curfews and prison camps to incarcerate different types of offenders. The overall feeling is of a controlling, dystopian society that is fighting a war ’so that minorities will have a say in their destinies’. This made me think of the Group Areas Act of the Apartheid era. I preferred Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, but this is still an excellent novel which is prescient of a civil disorder that is still possible in South Africa.

The main character Michael K is a ‘simple’ Cape Coloured man, born with a harelip. He grows up in an orphanage and later works as a gardener in Cape Town. He moves back to stay with his mother in her tiny room when she becomes ill.  There is civil disorder where they live and she decides to move back to her birthplace in the country. It is an arduous journey and she dies en route but K continues onwards taking her ashes to her birthplace, which has become an abandoned farm near Prince Albert.

He struck me as a very resourceful person who manages to find a way to live in the wilderness. A grandson of the farm owner, who is an army deserter, returns and treats K like a servant so he decides to leave, initially living in the mountains and later sleeping rough in Prince Albert where he is picked up and sent to a displaced persons labour camp which is similar to an internment camp. He later escapes and finds his way back to the farm. There is no sign of the grandson and he makes a life for himself building a hideout away from the house, growing pumpkins and eating insects. He manages to avoid a group of insurgents that pass through the farm one day but thereafter hides away during the day and became a ‘creature of twilight and night’ with highly developed senses of smell, taste and touch. He gradually becomes weaker and is discovered in this state by a visiting army patrol who suspect him of being linked to insurgents. He is transferred to a prison hospital in a rehabilitation camp on the outskirts of Cape Town.

K refuses most food and becomes weaker giving concern that he might die. The medical officer responsible for his care becomes fascinated with his case and comes to realise that K is an innocent civilian and his reason for not eating is that he wants to live on his own terms. K escapes from the camp and the medical officer envies his freedom and has an imaginary conversation with K asking to be led by him ‘ had I been awake and followed you, I could see that you did not belong in any camp’. He also asks K for forgiveness and says that ‘ Your stay in the camp was merely an allegory….of how scandalously, how outrageously a meaning can take up residence in a system without becoming a term in it’. [ I think the story of K’s ill treatment and incarceration symbolizes the repressive political system in South Africa at the time ].

After his escape K meets up with a group of drifters in Cape Town who give him food, drink and introduce him to his first sexual experience. He returns to the apartment where he and his mother lived which is now cluttered with junk and has signs that another displaced person lives there. He reflects on how he has become an object of charity and like the camps ‘ I will escape the charity too’.  He also reflects that ’the truth, the truth about me. I am a gardener’ and ‘ If there was one thing I discovered out in the country, it was that there is time enough for everything’. 

 

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Kay:

I’m afraid I don’t have a lot to offer on this book. I began reasonably enthusiastically and it’s easy to get into but I faltered as I read further on. It’s such a sad beginning; a mother not able to accept her baby’s son’s physical deformity – a hare lip (something that could easily be treated these days) – and thus he is put in a home for other ‘unfortunate children’ where he suffers a loveless childhood, forced to carry out a kind of child hard labour. Unsurprisingly he grew up to find physical intimacy difficult and it ‘was easiest when he was by himself’. Despite being abandoned by his mother he is remarkably loyal to her. Living in a time of terrible civil unrest, with his world falling apart, Michael decides to leave Cape Town and take his sick and disabled mother back to the countryside town where she was born. Michael’s devotion and quiet assumption of loyalty to this mother who gave him up is moving, especially in the face of her constant complaining and his physical struggle to carry her on a crude homemade rickshaw. The sense of his impotence in the face of bullying South African officials and the impossibility of getting necessary permits to leave, and his quiet determination to beat the system, are all well drawn. Yet it was Michael passivity, the lack of emotion, and the relentless awfulness of life in South Africa at this time that made it all too bleak to read. In these pandemic lockdown times, I felt in need of something considerably more cheerful. Michael K was too much to bear and after soon skipping through it more quickly, I gave up completely about halfway. I discovered a similarly unimpressed review in the Guardian from 2009: https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2009/jun/16/booker-club-jm-coetzee

 

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Louise: 

I love this blog – and last week made two failed attempts last week to comment on WordPress about how much I enjoy reading this on Wednesday – including the additions – and especially being reminded of the quality of the readers in our group. So there it is. That’s the comment. You are all great. I am so glad I can reconnect with you here.

The problem I have is that I give myself one week with the book, then read (or listen to) it up to the deadline but have no energy left on Tuesday evening to write, so I always leave it till the next morning (which is my best writing time). THANK YOU Kay for being so tolerant and helping my review play catch up with the rest of you.

So it turns out that THANKS is mainly what I have to say this week. I have read (almost to the end) The Life and Times of Michael K. Thank you, Christine B, for bringing me back to Coetzee. Years ago I read Disgrace, and I am grateful for being reminded what a skilled author Coetzee is, both in his writing style – which manages to be both ‘lean and spare’ (as the Guardian review, link below, points out) yet wonderfully visually descriptive – and his ability to convey a sense of place and time. Reading Coetzee I am right there with the unfortunate protagonist, thinking his thoughts, living his life, seeing what he sees.

Unfortunately that is all I really have to say about the book. Did I enjoy it? Well, yes (for the writing) and no, because its mood really doesn’t match mine. Michael K – nearly always referred to simply as K(ay), is having a hard time. And I suppose I don’t really want to read about hard times just now. He is also finding some simple joys in his hardship, but they are overwhelmed by the insecurity of his position. Read Chapter 8 if you want a quick summary of this. It was my favourite chapter, and I couldn’t help reflecting on our own current lockdown and in what ways some similarities emerge  (yes, I know…. but still…..)

But ultimately I also found the plot difficult and full of some troubling inconsistencies, which I couldn’t resolve in my head until I trawled through a few reviews. Read this one  and you will see exactly what I mean. Sam Jordison captures for me just what bothered me about the book. He is obviously too hard on Coetzee (seems he disliked Disgrace, which I can’t understand but maybe I would, if I re-read it now) and fails to point out how well Coetzee captures South Africa at one of the most stricken times in its history. But generally he has it: why would a protagonist so continuously emphasised as a simpleton, turn out to be so smart.  Answers, please, in the comments?

 

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What an interesting set of thoughts – as always – about our book choice this week. If you’ve read Michael K and have some thoughts to share, do please post them in Comments below.

 

Theme: Crime

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Our theme for this week’s book group is Crime. Here are what members wrote about their favourite crime writers and books:

Christine A:

The Cutting Room – Jane Casey

For this theme I thought I’d better read something current and, as Jane Casey frequently features in The Sunday Times bestseller list and the ST is serialising her latest book, I decided to download that. I like reading about the River Thames and the fact that the body (parts) are discovered by a licensed mudlarker got me intrigued too. I was soon into very messy graphic descriptions of violence, murder and body disposal – not my usual reading at all but I found the protagonist engaging and believable and against all my expectations I enjoyed it – partly because in the current lockdown I’m looking for anything that will distract me.

After finishing it I decided that reading crime fiction, the deal seems to be that you have to accept improbable coincidences, once done you go along for the ride.

Dissolution – C J Sansom

The first in C J Sansom’s Shardlake series, the Dissolution in question is Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and is about the murder of one of Thomas Cromwell’s inspectors during a monastery visit. Usually I can’t stand books that take liberties with history but this book hooked me in all the same. It’s a nice bit of escapism with good writing and the main character, a hunchback lawyer called Matthew Shardlake, is a very sympathetic character who bears his physical deformity with good grace. The worst part of the book is the ending – an improbable scenario set in a belfry. I was particularly interested in the historical note at the back where I realised that the author had done his homework properly and his broader historical facts were reliable.

Both these books are part of larger series. The Cutting Room is #9 in its series but for me as a first time reader it worked fine as a stand-alone. Apparently this is not so with the Shardlake series which should be read in sequence as there is an ongoing story and characters reappear later on.

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Tim: 

Dear Criminologists,
I confess to not being a reader of Crime fiction and only recall Murder on the Orient Express read at the age of thirteen on a family holiday in Spain; perhaps it rang a bell as we travelled a few times by train from Victoria to the Mediterranean, 3rd class, not in Orient Express grande luxe.
          My only other crime read which comes to mind is Appletree Yard by Louise Gough, which I think we may have read in the group. Not the usual detective sleuth genre, but a horrifying insight into being prosecuted for a crime one did not commit.
          Not that, having spent a career in criminal law, I am uninterested in crime, just because perhaps fact can be stranger than fiction. There is a murderess somewhere out there against whom I failed to secure a conviction at the Old Bailey! Look out!
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Ted:

I have read very little crime fiction.  On the recommendation of friends I have in the past year read Sleep No More by PD James [ Six murderous Tales]  and one of The Dublin Murders called In The Woods by Tana French. They both had their moments but were not that memorable. Inspiring suggestions anyone?
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Kay:

I rarely read crime novels now, other than for my work as a book editor in which I’m often editing or proofreading crime or thriller books. Starting to think about this theme, it then made me ponder on whether there was a difference between ‘crime’ and ‘thriller’. It seemed to me there should be but I googled the question and found this article in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/perfect-crime-fiction-bestsellers-whodunnits-thrillers-leave-rivals-for-dead. This seems to put the genres together. However, I do believe there is a difference. A crime novel, to me, usually involves the solving of a particular crime and usually a detective or amateur sleuth, or perhaps a lawyer, is the protagonist, the central character, whose ‘job’ it is to solve the mystery of the crime. And the ‘solving’ is the very essence of the book; its purpose to the reader. Often a few red herrings are thrown in as devotees of the genre usually like to try to solve the crime themselves, examining the ‘evidence’ and characters as they arise. My mother was a great fan of Agatha Christie and loved being able to guess which character was the murderer before all was revealed on the final pages. In more recent years I’ve enjoyed this little challenge of guessing who the murderer is through watching the wonderful Inspector Montalbano on TV. I’ve also read and enjoyed some of the books, written by Andrea Camilleri, and once bought an Italian version in the hope of it improving my Italian, but it turned out to be written in Sicilian, so was quite difficult to understand!

Thrillers usually involve spies or someone who is running from some evil or threat. Think John Le Carre’s spies, Robert Harris’s historical thrillers and the dark psychological thrillers of Daphne Du Maurier.

I was for many years, back in the 1990s, a great fan of Robert Goddard. I remember even staying up until 4am once because I couldn’t stop reading one of his books (I was on holiday so such a mad thing was more easily done!). His most well-known book, Into the Blue, was the first I read and that got me hooked. I had friends and family similarly hooked so we passed copies round and talked about them, which is always fun.

P.D. James certainly sits in the traditional crime genre and for a few years I became totally hooked on her work. She managed to combine great tension and mystery, a strong engagement with the solving of the crime, with fantastic writing and strong characters.

There are some crime writers I get to read regularly through work and the ones I’m always particularly pleased to be given are books by US writers Jonathan Kellerman and Harlan Coben. When you have to read every single word because you’re being paid to, then a book that not only holds your interest but even sometimes makes you not want to stop working although it’s getting late, has a lot going for it.

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Margaret: 

They are all old-fashioned murder mysteries, and their presence on my shelves displays battered covers, fluffy pages and stains from my reading in bed with tea and biscuits – all the hallmarks of much loved rattling good yarns. All three concern carefully plotted crimes.

The first two, Brat Farrer by Josephine Tey, and Crooked House, by Agatha Christie, are well known, but I think worth revisiting. Brat Farrer was based on a famous impersonation case (the Tichbourne Claimant), and serves up an ingenious, detailed plot, with fully-fledged characters and a peculiarly unsettling atmosphere which builds up superbly to its climax. Suspense is powerfully maintained to the end, which, while being thoroughly satisfying, is truly sad.

Agatha Christie named Crooked House her own favourite book. It is her classic puzzle, relying heavily, as usual, on dialogue to drive the plot, a device which has kept her books fresh. The final unveiling of the killer in the crooked house inhabited by its family is clever and unexpected, but psychologically sound.

Both these writers’ murderers share a very distinct set of characteristics. I say no more.

The third book, by Margery Allingham also needs no introduction. Many readers think The Tiger in the Smoke – published in 1952 – is her best book. Here, we meet her detective, Albert Campion, wrestling, as so often, with a complex family and local London scenario. The description of a killer on the loose in the fog of fifties London is vivid and chilling. The events and incidents that lead to Jack Havoc (wonderfully named) becoming a calculated and cold-blooded killer form the main thrust of the book. Allingham puts together a clear picture of the makings of a killer. But only Allingham would also offer a measure of compassion and a picture of a torn and desperate nihilism, which leads to miserably anonymous end.

 

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Christine B:

I enjoy the books of the  present group of crime writers who set their stories in Italy – Donna Leon, Michael Dibden and , above all, Andrea Camilleri with his mouth watering descriptions of the delicious meals he needs to feed his brain, so very important for the detective, Montalbano,  in beautiful Sicily.
But, a big but, my absolute favourite is Dashiell Hammett author of The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, The Thin Man and his first novel written in 1929 Red Harvest.  He led the way in the States showing the corruption, rival gangs, labour disputes, massacres, a laconic femme fatale and the excitement of New York.  The  laconic narration throughout is shown with the detective going to talk to the female suspect :
She drew her brows together and asked:
“You mean he knew someone meant to kill him.”
“I don’t know.  He didn’t say what he wanted.   Maybe just help in the reform campaign.”
“But do you- ?”
I made a complaint:
“It’s no fun being a sleuth when somebody steals your stuff, does all the questioning.”
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Louise: 
I have three authors to recommend – but not much more to say.  I couldn’t find their books among my mess of a library (now the weather has turned, time for a sort-out) so cannot review them,  but I just recall devouring them in my youth – nearly always read in a single ‘binge’ sitting.
One is the great Dashiell Hammett – 1894 to 1961 – and whose lover was equally great writer Lilian Hellman, of The Children’s Hour, and I recall in her memoirs her revisiting of their discussions about writing and how much he taught her. Hammett is the author most famously of The Maltese Falcon, but I remember him most for the Thin Man in a book of three crime novels I bought in a single volume (was fond of volume reading in those days). He is said to be the creator of the modern American Crime Novel. Also I believe the inspiration for Raymond Chandler – 1988 -1959 – creator of Philip Marlowe, whose books my father treasured and I still have, although I don’t remember enjoying them as much as Hammett’s.
The third is the Belgian writer Georges Simenon, 1903 to 1989.  His heady combination of sex and crime were enthralling to a young woman in her late teens. For me he captured an era of seedy thrills laced with grit and intoxication and grit,  just as Hammett did. I headed to Paris on my honeymoon partly in memory of reading his books (which may not have been set there) and we did find ourselves, being low in cash, spending our week in what turned out to be a former (I thought) brothel on the Left Bank in view of Notre Dame. But the glamour and the thrills had gone. As has that era of crime.   And now I am hooked on TV crime drama which, somewhat sadly, has taken the place of great, thrilling crime reading.
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Do let us know about your favourite crime writers!

 

Book Review: ‘The Years’ by Annie Ernaux

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Our reading choice this week was Annie Ernaux’s The Years. I mistakenly listed it as a ‘novella’ (it was for our short stories/short book evening) but it is in fact non-fiction. Tim chose it and here’s what he has to say about it:

Tim:

I chanced upon this book – maybe a Guardian review – and ordered it. I hope you have secured a copy, it is sold out in some sources  Read the Guardian review, much more erudite than my random comments.
Part of its appeal to me is that Annie E is my contemporary and the book could be said to be a stream of consciousness from birth /childhood in 1940 until her retirement as a teacher/writer c.2006. She has gone on her recherché du temps perdu and for me has found much which is nearly lost .
I hope you will not be put off by the fact that this is the search of a woman brought up in France, educated and working in France. I feel our countries and the lives we have lived on both sides of La Manche have so much in common that there are numerous resonances. Perhaps not a book for for the Brexit attitude.
I am an ardent Francophile; I spent time with a French family in my teens who became lifelong friends and I worked in France for a year in 1962/3. Many visits, especially to Paris, and holidays followed.
The book is continuous with no chapters; however the nearest to chapters are memories aroused by photographs in chronological order, I’ve counted ten, sepia, black and white, the arrival of colour and then – remember? – the cine camera!
She grew up in a working class rural background. “For some education was a chance to escape.”
“The increasing rapid arrival of new things drove  the past away ……people just wanted to posses them.”
“The dreams of writing in a language no one knows ……words are ‘little embroidery stiches around a tablecloth of night.”
Teenage years are well portrayed, especially young sex, no PILL and then its arrival. “The thing most forbidden, the one we’d never believed possible, became legal; we didn’t ask the doctor ……that would be indecent.”
“We’d be so free in our bodies it was frightening. Free as a man.”
Of course for many years the colonial wars, Vietnam and Algeria were a constant. I recall a wounded young man returning to my family, both legs broken in an explosion, and we had to carry him to the loo.
Then De Gaulle and the Algerian war, raising terrible moral issues .”Torture, the cancer of democracy.” (Jean-Paul Sartre)
Of course De Gaulle opposed British entry to the EEC , saying we were not suited ….how right he was proved to be .
With increasing material goods, prosperity came increasing pressures; she recalls her parents reproach: “be happy with what you’ve got”. Now we knew that all we had didn’t add up to happiness but that was no reason to abandon THINGS.
Enough ! Perhaps the raison d’etre of this book is “To save something from the time where we will never again be”.
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And here are thoughts from others members:
Ted:
The Years is a mix of autobiography, history and culture covering the period 1941 to 2006. There is so much to this book. The political history of France from after the Occupation, the 1968 student revolt and beyond was of less interest to me than some of her other more personal insights of which I will mention a few;
 
Of all the ways in which self-knowledge may be fostered, perhaps one of the greatest is a person’s ability to discern how they view the past, at every time of life and every age.
She describes the transition of France from an austere post-war culture, from her parent’s ‘Be happy with what you’ve got’,  to a consumer society driven by materialism, where people wanted to possess new things and did not question their usefulness. It was unfulfilling… ‘Now we knew that all we had didn’t add up to happiness, but that was no reason to abandon things!’
The explanation she offers for all this purchasing was that it ‘created a brief illusion of renewal. More than a sense of possession it was this feeling people sought on the shelves of Zara and H&M’.
May ’68 became a way of ranking individuals. When one met someone new one wondered which side they’d been on. This made me think about how an individual’s Brexit choice would be regarded in the future.
With the advent of television, computers and the internet, a continuous recording of the world was achieved. ‘One lived in a profusion of everything, objects, information and expert opinions’. With all of these ideas ‘it was increasingly difficult to find a phrase of ones own, the kind that, when silently repeated, helped one live’.
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Louise:
The Years (a title shared with Virginia Woolf’s last novel) is one of those books that I know is clever and erudite – even a literary phenomenon –  and at the same time I found to be a great struggle to read.  I tasted a sample on Kindle (too late to order the book in hard copy) and then quickly flipped it into an audio book to get a better chance of completing the assignment, as it could accompany me on the daily walk.
And indeed I have reached chapter 13 so am close to ending. Integrating a read and walk on most occasions doesn’t suit me but in this case it did work. Also helped by a few reader reviews which I sought out about a third the way through. One reader luckily echoed my own feeling. This was a slog and life’s too short to slog through a book. Another however, explained the brilliant avoidance of the personal pronoun and the interweaving of personal, cultural, social and national history always without putting anything in the perfect tense and so somehow keeping it moving as if the passage of time was simply in the present. If it hadn’t been for this review, I would have given up.
So, it is indeed brilliant. And so much seems to run parallel (even if French) with my own experiences growing to womanhood and, more, it echoes the strange emotions that come up when turning the pages of a long-forgotten family photo album found at the back of a cupboard (quite a lot of that is happening during quarantine). Annie Ernaux (and her translator) have created an extraordinary narrative – with all the finesse and subtlety to mask what must have also been a serious amount of research into the times (unless she is also a detailed diarist) and make it seem a spontaneous piece of writing, completed in one sitting.
But in the end it didn’t do it for me. The long lists, the monotone delivery (not just the reader) the lack of spark, the (quite deliberate) distancing from actual emotion, seeing all things in one’s life, as she points out at some point, as ultimately insignificant. They are, of course. But life itself depends on not believing that. She references towards the end her (never my or one’s) own struggle with trying to find the right format to write ‘their’ memoir – this is also quite close to the point where she observes that everyone has become obsessed with identity – when once that was simply your name and picture on a photo card.  Yet somehow I was left feeling I would have enjoyed the company of the provincial girl she grew from, better than the intellectual she became.
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Many thanks to our reviewers. Do please comment below if you’ve read the book or have any thoughts to share.