Theme Night: Books You Couldn’t Put Down

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Every 4th Tuesday, the book group discusses a theme. Last night we talked about books that we couldn’t put down; books that had kept us up reading late into the night; books we loved or were so impressed by we had to share with others.

Despite an unusually small turnout of just three of us, we found that once we got talking all kinds of books came to mind and we had a great time remembering not just recent books, but books from long ago that had stayed in our minds as great reads.

Margaret, who had suggested this brilliant theme, started by telling us about My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oykinkan Braithwaite, a dark comedic novel published 2018, which she couldn’t put down once started. The New York Times described it as ‘a bombshell of a book – sharp, explosive, hilarious’.

Another ‘dark’ choice was The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Set in Chicago in 1893 during the World’s Colombian Exposition, it’s a novelisation of a true story of horrific kidnap and murder. Margaret said it ‘hits you in the gut’ but it’s such a powerful story she’s lent it many times.

Here’s a list of other books we talked about, in no particular order:

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – published in 2001; a terrorist hostage story with an opera link; winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

Robert Goddard crime books – I remembered reading lots of these and sharing with friends in late ’80s/90s and once on holiday staying up to 4am to finish one.

An Equal Music by Vikram Seth

A Taste for Death and other PD James crime novels.

Regeneration – Pat Barker’s brilliant World War I trilogy.

Mary Wesley novels – a rush of good reads after publishing her first novel at the age of 71 in 1983.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. Perhaps still his best?

Ian McEwan – we talked quite a lot about the brilliance of McEwan’s writing; how some books were hard to read but left a long-lasting impression.

Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers – a ‘must’ for a trip to Venice … and other Vickers’ titles.

The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook. I talked of how I was attracted to reading this novel as I ‘knew’ Brook from being a regular contributor to ‘Thought for the Day’ on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. It’s a compelling read which was made into a film and released early 2019.

Notes on an Exhibition by Patrick Gale. I said this is one of my most lent books. A portrait of a family and how the severe mental illness of one member impacts on everyone.

The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass.  Doreen recommended this German novel published in 1959. The Guardian describes is as a ‘seminal work (that) remains the defining novel of the 20th century, wrenching art and hope from ugliness and horror’.

Barbara Nadel crime stories about Cetin Ikmen, a detective in Istanbul.

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith. A crime novel published in 1981 and set in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Fay Weldon novels – The Fat Woman’s Joke (1967), Life and Loves of a She Devil (1983), etc.

Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis (1946).

The Fear Index by Robert Harris – another recommendation from Doreen and as a book about a general election, the Flash Crash and hedgefunds, quite topical!

The Bull from the Sea by Mary Renault (1962) – a recommended read by Doreen for anyone going to Greece.

Margaret talked about two short story collections: Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps (1942) and Doris Lessing’s The Habit of Loving (1957).

Doris Lessing’s 1985 political novel, The Good Terrorist, was also recommended.

Possession by AS Byatt. I said this was one of my favourite novels that I couldn’t put down once started. We discussed more Byatt novels and that of her sister, Margaret Drabble: The Ice AgeThe Radiant Way and The Garrick Year.

We easily could have gone talking into the night (let alone reading!) as more and more writers and books came to mind. It was such a fun and interesting evening. What are your page-turner books? Do ‘Comment’ and let us know.

Upcoming Reads: November 2019 – March 2020

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We had a planning meeting at The Roebuck on Tuesday evening, 5th November, and put together a new reading plan until March 2020. Happy reading!

November 2019

12th  (Poetry) – Songwriters as poets: are the songs of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, etc. poems?

19th  (Novella) – The Third Man by Graham Greene

26th  (Theme) – Books you couldn’t put down; kept you up all night; had to lend

December 2019

3rd  (Novel) – The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

10th  (Poetry) – Christmas poems

17th – Christmas drinks at Christine B’s

January 2020

7th  (Poetry) – Winter poems

14th Drinks at Christine P’s

21st  (Novella/non-fiction) – Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know by Colm Toibin

28th  (Theme) – Ghost stories (for dark winter nights!)

February 2020

4th   (Novel) – Middle England by Jonathan Coe (again by request as we didn’t have time to properly discuss at the planning meeting)

11th  (Poetry) – Romantic poems (it’s almost Valentine’s Day!)

18th  (Short Stories/a collection of essays) – The White Album by Joan Didion

25th  (Theme) – Books translated well or badly into film or theatre

March 2020

3rd   (Novel) – Tidelands by Philippa Gregory

10th  Planning Meeting

17th  (Novella) – Dracula by Bram Stoker

24th  (Theme) – Book that made you laugh out loud

31st   Meal

 

 

Upcoming Reads: May 2019 -September 2019

We had our quarterly planning meeting at The Roebuck on Tuesday and came up with a reading plan all the way through to the end of September!

May 2019

14th     (Poetry) Vladimir Nabokov, Collected Poems (Tim)

21st      (Short Stories) Girl, Balancing by Helen Dunmore (Kay)

28th     (Theme) Reading a book whilst in that country/city

June 2019

4th       (Novel) Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale (Kay)

11th     (Poetry) Elizabeth Bishop, American 1911-1979

18th     (Short Stories) Stefan Sweig – revisit (Tim)

25th     (Theme) Scientific rivalry – Darwin/Wallace, others (Christine P)

July 2019

2nd       (Novel) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (Tim)

9th       (Poetry) Robert Frost (Tim/Kay)

16th     (Short Stories) The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry

23rd     (Theme) Your favourite book from overseas (omitting West Europe and US0

30th     Meal – La Buvette or other restaurant

August 2019

Holiday time! Read away, fresh suggestions.

September 2019

3rd        Planning

10th     (Novel) The Cat’s Table by Michael Oondaatje (Tim)

17th     (Poetry) Matthew Arnold (Clare/Tim)(

24th     (Short Story/Novella) A Beautiful Summer by Cesare Pavese (Kay)

 

 

 

Cookbooks Aren’t What They Used To Be

Am taking the liberty of reblogging a post from Kay’s blog which is very relevant to April 23rd’s subject of food writing. Happy Reading !

Travel Gourmet

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‘Fings ain’t wot they used t’be’ goes the old Lionel Bart song for the hit London stage show of the same name in the 1960s about East London Cockney characters. According to that doyenne of cookery writing Prue Leith, cookbooks aren’t what they used to be either. ‘In my day you could still buy a good cookbook in paperback with no pictures at all. I doubt if they would sell today. But those books were much used’ she told the Radio Times recently. She seems to think that nowadays people only buy cookbooks for show, rather than use, and that they are merely coffee-table books and represent lifestyle aspirations. It’s caused a bit of a rumpus over the media with people agreeing or disagreeing. What about you? What do you think?

Amidst this social media controversy I was interested to listen to Andrew Graham-Dixon extol the virtues of Elizabeth David’s Italian…

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Upcoming Reads: February – May 2019

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We met in The Roebuck for our first meeting of 2019 and had a great time working out a reading plan for the next three months. As usual, we followed our now standard pattern of: 1st week – Short stories (SS); 2nd week – Poetry (P); 3rd week – Novel (N), though occasionally a non-fiction title; and 4th week – Theme (T). There will be one 5th Tuesday – and we thought by April we would definitely be ready for a meal together at a local restaurant.

February 2019

5th       (SS)     PROPERTY by Lionel Shriver (Doreen)

12th     (P)       LUCK IS THE HOOK by Imtiaz Dharker (Tim)

19th     (N)      A ROSE FOR WINTER by Laurie Lee (Kay)

26th     (T)      Ghost Stories (Margaret – who suggested a good one for winter nights!)

March 2019

5th       (SS)      DINNER PARTY by Joshua Ferris (Doreen)

12th     (P)        RIVER IN THE SKY by Clive James (Kay)

19th     (N)       PARIS ECHO by Sebastian Faulks [due out in paperback in February] (Kay)

26th     (T)        Friendship – good or bad; life-enhancing or destructive (Margaret)

April 2019

2nd     (SS)       THE COLLECTED STORIES OF STEFAN SWEIG, published by Pushkin Press      [currently out of stock but also you may find some of the stories in their cheaper Pocket Collection] (Tim)

9th      (P)        A general theme of poems for Spring (Doreen)

16th    (N)        WARLIGHT by Michael Ondaatje (Tim)

23rd    (T)        Food writing (Margaret)

30th                 Meal!

May 2019

7th                    Planning

14th    (P)         COLLECTED POEMS BY VLADIMIR NAVOKOV (Tim)

21st     (N)        A BEAUTIFUL SUMMER by Cesare Pavese (Kay) [one in the Penguin European Writers series; Doreen suggested we do something European!]

 

 

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

The joy of the book group is other group members highlighting bits you’d overlooked and joint appreciation of memorable passages. This happened a lot last night and this insightful review rounds it off.

JacquiWine's Journal

Last year I read and really enjoyed Muriel Spark’s 1959 novel Memento Mori, a darkly comic exploration of ageing and mortality. In the hope of building on this positive experience, I recently turned to another of her early works, the wonderfully titled The Girls of Slender Means. Luckily for me, it turned out to be a great success. It’s a mercurial novel. Deceptively light at first sight, there are some genuine elements of darkness lurking just beneath the surface, all of which come together to make it a really interesting and surprising read.

Set mostly in the summer of 1945, The Girls of Slender Means centres on the May of Teck Club in Kensington, a hostel for the ‘Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation…

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The Purple Swamp Hen

This evening’s book provided a lively discussion. Final verdict was that these were typically magazine stories. Here is a fuller post.

Whitelaw

Dame Penelope Lively has had a storied literary career. Short-listed for the Booker a couple of times and a recipient once, she is the recipient of many other literary awards. She has written two memoirs with a third that focuses on gardens due out this month. Apart from novels and children’s books she has five short story collections of which “The Purple Swamp Hen” is the most recent. Distinctly traditional post-World War II British in tone, each story is narrated with limited dialogue. Well written, but due to narration, most of the stories have the emotional detachment of an observer. Relationships, particularly marital fidelity or lack thereof, are the subject of a number of the stories.

Her constructs are imaginative. The title story is told from the perspective of a purple swamp hen in Pompei. “Biography” is a series of interviews about Lavinia Talbot, a recently deceased professor (and BBC…

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Brat Farrar – Josephine Tey

Last night’s book was a success all round – here is an excellent blog post to sum it all up.

I Prefer Reading

Patrick Ashby committed suicide when he was just thirteen. He threw himself off a cliff or swam out to sea until he could swim no more. His parents had been killed in a plane crash shortly before but his family – twin brother Simon, sisters Eleanor, Jane & Ruth & Aunt Beatrice – & friends had no idea that he was distressed enough to take such a drastic step. Beatrice Ashby (known as Bee) had stepped in to look after her nephews & nieces & take on the running of The Latchetts, the estate & horse stud that would provide a precarious living for the family. Precarious, that is, until Simon, now the heir to his mother’s fortune after Patrick’s death, turns 21 when he will inherit.

Just before this milestone, a young man turns up claiming to be Patrick Ashby. From the beginning, the reader knows that he is…

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My Mother’s House and Sido – Colette

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Last night’s delightful book features vignettes of French country life at the turn of the 20th Century. This excellent blog post includes 3 very typical quotes giving a true flavour of the book. (It also highlights the importance of the choice of translation – the one used was the one most of us had bought and included some exquisite passages)

Ordinary World

What glory can there be in snapping green beans? A few weeks ago, I was given a large bag along with the inherent task of discovering just that. The beans were dirty, and more numerous than I hoped. They also had some spots that would need pruning before the whole bunch could be washed and prepared on the stove. Thinking about a plate fully laden with freshly cooked and delicately seasoned green beans, brimming with potassium and shell outs, impelled me to begin the task, made longer by the hems and haws of getting started.

That afternoon I wondered about the lack of celebration for the mundane. It seems we all want to kick ass in a specialty of one sort or another. We want to be stellar, even singular, at something good and praiseworthy. Then, we all want our plate of steaming vegetables for dinner. Perfectly prepared, but perhaps…

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Les Parisiennes by Anne Sebba

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Autumn seems to be the time we traditionally read some serious non-fiction. (Last year it was Ben Judah’s This is London)

For 2017, the chosen book is Les Parisiennes by local author, Anne Sebba. This is not a book to enjoy.  It is a book to pull you up short and consider the good fortune of living in the 21st century in a country with no experience of enemy occupation.  It is ferociously well-researched, amplifying our understanding of the depths of barbarity which the Germans meted out to French women in situ in France, and after their subsequent deportation. French complicity in the round up of the Jewish population is examined in depth as is the disparity in the treatment of returning Jewish deportees from the Resistance deportees.

It is a long harrowing read and needs considerable stamina to continue as the details are unimaginably bleak. But it is worth it. The closing chapters are very thought-provoking. They reveal (among other things) how the de Gaulle government manipulated the emphasis of media reporting once the initial purges of collaborators had taken place and analyses the difficulty deportees had reintegrating into society.

It is also an account of how French culture defiantly retained its place in the world despite the German onslaught. Attempts to pillage French art treasures and transfer haute-couture to Berlin were thwarted. The coverage is good of Picasso’s reasons for staying put in Paris and continuing to work, despite the exodus of other artists. And overall the book is a corrective to the post-war glamourizing of the activities of the Resistance.

We were evenly split over whether the immense weight of detail was irritating or whether it was necessary to provide every last fact in order to refute Holocaust deniers.

In terms of evaluating the narrative thread, each individual woman’s story was at times difficult to keep separate in the mind as the action progressed. Several of the SOE agents for example just blend into each other until their very shocking ends are retold. So hard to read if, like a lot of us do, you usually read very quickly. 

The book memorialises the hideous sacrifice made by many women to achieve the salvation of France. And it inhabits the mind for quite a few days after completing – the very definition of a good read.