Hot Milk by Deborah Levy


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We were a small but nonetheless very engaged group on Tuesday last and had a really good discussion both on the chosen book, Hot Milk by Deborah Levy and then on the current state of the novel in general, inspired by Louise telling us that in a recent lecture at Goldsmith’s College, Will Self had announced the death of the Modern Novel.


Firstly, the book itself.  A brief synopsis – the protagonist, Sofia is an anthropologist and offspring of ill-matched and now divorced parents.  Over the years her mother has developed a problem with her legs leaving her unable to walk. Mother and daughter go to a specialist clinic in Spain to try to discover whether mother’s inability to use her legs has a physical cause.


In the course of their visit they run into an exotic assortment of characters – the suave, impossibly expensive doctor (is he a quack ?),  an over-helpful bisexual embroiderer and her executive trainer boyfriend. None of these characters are fully developed and in the course of this short novel (217 pages) exasperation sets in (in the reader that is). There is a sense that the author is working through a tick box of requirements – mother/daughter relationships, daughter/father relationships, feminism,  hypochondria, gender fluidity. There’s a fair amount of obligatory psychobabble too – “You are using your mother as a shield to protect yourself from making a life.” So overall there was a sense that Deborah Levy was trying too hard to produce a book with global appeal, quirky enough to get on a major literary prize longlist, and it didn’t quite come off.


Which led us on to consider whether contemporary novels try to cram too much in, leaving the reader with indigestible content ?  Is there a hidden list of issues which authors feel they need to introduce in order for their work to be relevant.  And is the all-pervading tone of “elusive ambiguity” – never knowing quite where you are with any character – the dominant theme of current writing ?  Answers in the Comments Please !

40 Sonnets – Poems by Don Paterson


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We seem to be on a roll with our poetry selections – this month’s choice, 40 Sonnets by Don Paterson generated as lively a discussion as the previous two poets we’ve looked at. This is Paterson’s latest collection for which he won the Costa Prize for Poetry. At first glance, a collection entirely made up of sonnets seemed a tall order but we found we liked this form – Paterson makes it work well. 14 lines is just long enough for effective scene setting before (sometimes) delivering a killer punch. Here he is on the subject of sonnets as short poems in an interview in The Herald in Scotland “It’s not going to give the reader the chance to get bored. But hopefully they will get to the end and think: there’s a lot more in this…..and read it again.” We certainly didn’t get bored and enjoyed teasing out the meanings in our discussion.

The poems may all be in the same form but their subject matter and construction is varied. There is a tenderly recounted outing with his sons (The Roundabout), a political yet personal account of a Palestinian father at the bedside of his injured son (The Foot), the banal questions the audience ask at a poetry reading (Requests) spiritual pretensions (The Eye) and the exquisite The Wave where The Wave itself is the voice of the poem “nothing in my head beyond the bliss of my own breaking, how the long foreshore would hear my full confession and I’d drain into the shale till I was filtered pure.”

Paterson has the knack of making the reader present to his subject matter – “on the steel bench knowing what was taking shape, she tried to stand” (Mercies) – we are immediately beside the steel bench in the vet’s surgery emotionally engaged in the life/death continuum of a much loved dog.

There’s a mid-book digression of a couple of pages of prose called The Version about a poet entering some sort of competition solely for the money and with the intent to be ironic. This backfires and his attempts at irony are lost in translation. Highly entertaining and unexpected in the middle of a book of poetry !

So poetry is alive and well in our quiet space upstairs at The Roebuck. Many thanks to Kay for suggesting 40 Sonnets.
















Loop of Jade – Poems by Sarah Howe


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Tuesday evening was full of surprises for us.  Surprise that our usual venue was closed for redecoration so we took refuge in The Mitre. And surprise that a poetry collection by a complete unknown (well until she won the T S Eliot prize that is) turned out to be so good.

The overarching themes in this collection China, Chinese culture and Chinese customs intermingled with personal reminiscences. Sarah Howe is Anglo-Chinese and was brought up in Hong Kong for the first seven years of her life before moving to the UK.  This gives her the outsider’s eye and ear for detail.  In Crossing from Guangdong her description of the border guard at the checkpoint is particularly well-drawn “The lichen-green uniformed official, with his hat brimmed in black gloss, his elegant white-gloved hands, his holstered gun, slowly mounts the rubbered steps, sways with careful elbows down the aisle.”

[There were barnacles……] is another very well-judged short poem.  To say of such prosaic creatures “And when the russet tide came they opened themselves like unfamiliar lovers” is spot on; the reader has a very clear sense of the barnacle’s tentative response to the inrush of water.

The third poem we looked at closely was Tame – a rather gruesome fable based on the Chinese proverb  “It is more profitable to raise geese than daughters.”  We thought this felt like the reworking of a Grimms fairytale in a Chinese setting. Once we had discovered the story of Sarah Howe’s mother (see this TED talk ) Tame had an added poignancy.

There are some poems in the collection where she overreaches herself and she has been roundly criticised by the old guard. But taken as a whole this is a refreshingly different debut collection which we thoroughly enjoyed.  Hat tip Ruth for suggesting it.



Sentenced to Life – Poems by Clive James


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Pippa has very kindly written this review which brings into focus the highlights of Clive James’ recently published (April 2015) poetry collection (subject of our discussion on Tuesday evening).

Before I read these poems I knew of Clive James only as a witty and amusing broadcaster. How ignorant I was! In fact he has written much fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and in 2013 translated Dante’s Divine Comedy. This latest volume of poetry undoubtedly adds to his reputation.

The 37 poems of Sentenced to Life have all been written in the last four years, since James was diagnosed with terminal leukaemia, and many of the poems have a valedictory tone – the more so, because James apparently has no belief in any form of afterlife. But memories, where can you take them to? Take one last look at them. They end with you. (From ‘Star System’).

The poems are dedicated to Clive James’ wife Prue, and are shot through with feelings of loss and remorse – loss of life and of this world, which James imminently faces; and loss of the relationship with his wife which he has brought about by his infidelity. In ‘Balcony Scene’, he addresses his wife directly: Worse than a waste Was how I hurt myself through hurting you. And: There is a man here you might care to save From too much solitude. He calls for you. Here two opposing forces will collide – Your proper anger and my shamed regret – With all the weight of justice on your side.

Some of the poems return to childhood memories of James’ homeland, Australia, intertwining nostalgia with musings on his present predicament. ( ‘Manly Ferry’, ‘Cabin Baggage’ and ‘Tempe Dump’). A few have less introspective subjects such as the artist Nina Kogan (‘Nina Kogan’s Geometric Heaven’); or, filming elephants on safari (‘One Elephant, Two Elephant’). But it is the emotional perception and honesty of James’ more personal writing, especially in his acknowledgement of his past failings, which makes these poems so memorable and so touching. Here is a man who bravely wears his heart on his sleeve – and yet the poems are skilfully crafted, and do not slip into over-sentimentality.

The Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty


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In the main, we felt this was an enjoyable page-turner.  It’s all about fantasy, the tales we tell ourselves about ourselves. In The Apple Tree Yard the key players have gone the extra step of acting out that fantasy to the point where it takes them over.  There were a few reservations about the credibility of the plot after the pivotal point where the attack happens. But, overall a good choice to take on holiday, which a lot of us seem to have done.

Here is an very insightful post which expands on our discussion

A Book I would never part with

Books are often the first casualty of an enthusiastic declutter or downsize so taking a few minutes to go through our shelves we each chose a book or books we would never part with; here are the results …

The Bible & The Puffin Book of Magic Verse
There are two books I would never throw away. The first is a bit Desert Island Discs – despite not having set foot in a church or picked the book up for a long time it has to be The Bible. The second is a book I bought when I was ten. I think I dragged it along to a few Book Club meetings. ‘The Puffin Book of Magic Verse’ chosen by Charles Causley. The introduction says ‘All poetry is magic. Charles Causley’s far- ranging anthology includes not only incantations and curses, and poems about elves, changelings , wizards, ghosts and mermaids, but it also introduces poems on the mystery and the magic of the natural world and everyday life.’ The selection includes a poem from Cherokee Indians – A Spell to Destroy Life that I couldn’t even bear to touch the page of, let alone read when I was ten- to Shakespeare, Blake, Bronte, Yeats , Frost, Hardy etc.
The pages are brown with age, the pages have all come away from the binding, but the book still captures me with its magic.

Possession by A S Byatt
The book that immediately came to mind for me was A.S. Byatt’s POSSESSION. It’s many years since I read it – in fact probably when it first came out in paperback in 1991. But the power of the excitement I got caught up in so early in the book has stayed with me. I was so excited myself by the discovery of the letters and can still feel the awe of how amazing it would be to make an academic discovery like that which would have a huge impact on current understanding and to possess the knowledge alone in that first instance. Then there is the interconnectedness of the old and new love stories, the nature of possession – whether it be a lover or an academic discovery. I should re-read it!

A Grief Observed – C S Lewis
This may surprise those who think of CSL for “The Narnia Chronicles” or “The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe” or less commonly his works on theological topics. Lewis found love late in life with Joy Davidman whom he married at the age of 57/58, 17 years his junior, almost immediately after they met she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. They married in a civil ceremony in 1957 but in in 1958 they entered into a Christian marriage celebrated at her hospital bedside. She died in 1960. This book is a profound reflection on the grief which ensued.

The Plague – Albert Camus & Revolution in the Head – Ian MacDonald
It feels a bit pretentious choosing a Nobel Laureate but it was an A level text which has remained with me long after studying it, with my handwritten notes from another era.

The second book is a definitive guide to every song The Beatles ever wrote plus a bit of cultural commentary on the Sixties and their place in history. All very niche but a great antidote to today’s marketing-led music. There is a wonderful chronology in the back under four headings – The Beatles, UK Pop, Current Affairs and Culture. Can’t throw it away as, believe it or not, I still refer to it from time to time not just about The Beatles but also for the glossary (Doo-wop anyone?)

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
My most precious book is ‘Testament of Youth’ by Vera Brittain. Published in 1933, it is a powerful autobiographical account of the brutality of World War I, and its pointless waste of human life.
Aged just twenty when the war started, Vera lost, one by one, her fiancé, beloved brother, and two closest men friends. Other friends returned, maimed. Vera Brittain wished this book to be a lasting memorial to them, and to the futility of war.
Vera’s story is also an inspiring portrayal of feminism in action. Before the war, she struggled against her parents’ opposition to win her place at Oxford – a rare achievement for a woman at that time. Then, as war dragged on, Vera reacted with passion to the events which shattered her life and the lives of those she loved most. In the midst of her grief, she decided that in order to honour those young men who had given their lives, she too must not flinch from playing her full part; and so she gave up her Oxford studies (to which she later returned), and became an auxiliary nurse, caring for the wounded and dying in the carnage of Northern France. Her experiences turned her into a lifelong pacifist writer and speaker.
When she died in 1970, according to her wishes her ashes were scattered over the grave of her brother in Italy, by her daughter Shirley Williams.
This book reminds us not only of the horror of war, but also of the nobility, courage and idealism of the human spirit at its best – and that is why I love it so much.

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace – Kate Summerscale
The book’s main interest lies in the fascinating historical record of a real woman’s travails in the mid 19th century. Mrs Robinson’s real live divorce in 1858 – just after English law relaxed the rules on divorce and took it out of the church’s control – was tilted in her husband’s favour. The only spurious evidence of adultery came from her diary – which, written by a very intellectual, imaginative person represented her desires, rather than fact! Was she suffering from mental instability?

And finally a miscellany of treasured books
Choosing books I would never part with proved more of a challenge than at first realised. Books one loved in childhood and early teens included, I suspect for many of us, Louisa May Alcott’s enduring classics Little Women and Good Wives. Funnily they didn’t seem at all old fashioned at the time of first reading as the characters had so much robust vitality and each of the four sisters was so acutely described. I also loved and still sometimes re-read a book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, published in 1943 and a best seller for many years after, about a dreamy bookish girl from a struggling immigrant family and the character of New York in the early years of the 20th century. Also I relish two short story collections by women writers, The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy and Doris Lessing’s A Man and Two Women.

Is there any book you couldn’t bear to part with ? If so, please let us know in the Comments section.

Helen MacDonald – H is for Hawk


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We were evenly divided on this book last night but as we are book champions I’m reblogging this very positive, insightful post which I found very helpful.

Lady Fancifull

H is for HawkLove, death and the wild, wide world

Helen MacDonald’s aching, raw story of loss and relationship speaks so much of longing that reading it is as much about being fed, sustained by grief, as her hawk is fed by the death it has dealt. Indeed the two, love and death, are linked.

We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all the lives we have lost

We love because we will lose, or be lost to, that which we love. It’s the presence of death which fiercens the love. Mabel, Helen’s hawk, is of course overwhelmingly real – but that reality is thickened by all the metaphors accreting to her. The potency is the potency of what the hawk represents, in history, in literature, in imagination to us.

Accipiter_gentilis_-owned_by_a_falconer_in_Scotland_-upper_body-8aWiki Commons, Photographer Steve Garvie

To me she was bright, vital…

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The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame


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“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally –and often far more– worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” C S Lewis – hat tip for this quotation to Catherine @MeltonBook

This proposition was tested and approved at our annual picnic last Tuesday evening. The setting of Louise’s house and our choice of book was a remarkably good fit. Following Doreen’s excellent reading of the picnic basket section* of Wind in the Willows (WITW) during our foodie evening last month, we decided that WITW might be a lighter alternative to the previously-planned Nemirovsky novel and this was borne out on the night.

In his introduction to The Folio Society edition of WITW (hat tip Margaret), Alan Bennett defines a classic as “a book everyone is assumed to have read and forgets if they have or not”. He goes on to point out that Grahame’s writing resembles in one particular way the writing of A A Milne, Lewis Carroll and Tolkein – “the capacity to create self-contained worlds; their books constitute systems of literary self-sufficiency….it is a kind of cosiness.” (For examples of this all-enveloping literary comfort blanket see the extracts at the end of the blog).

But where Bennett’s introduction really comes into its own is his gentle analysis of the gender balance in the book. Only three women and all minor characters. Rat, Mole and Badger are described as “confirmed bachelors.” Bennett describes Bachelordom as “a status that had more respect (and fewer undertones) in Grahame’s day than it has now…. Some bachelors are more confirmed than others, and the bachelordoms of Mole, Rat and Badger vary.” The differing bachelordoms bring into relief Grahame’s great gift characterization. The main characters are such individuals we are lulled into forgetting we’re supposed to be reading about animals and think they are real people.

To celebrate the centenary of WITW in 2008 the Financial Times published an article by Emily Stokes entitled “Who are you in ‘Wind in the Willows”? (hat tip Doreen). It’s suggested that David Miliband is Mole “a thoughtful creature …who tends to go along with other’s plans”. Water Rats “tend to make people feel at ease while inciting them to action” – David Cameron and Jamie Oliver are suggested Rats. But I think the writer does Badger a disservice when she likens him to Gordon Brown. My view of badger is that he had natural authority and didn’t need to throw his weight around. And so to boastful, larger-than-life Toad – well plenty of candidates here – Boris Johnson and Russell Brand to name but two and we added Alex Salmond especially after the condescension of his exchange with Anna Soubry this week.

Who would have thought that an Edwardian children’s classic written in high flown language would generate such lively discussion?



Extract 1 – Here’s a taster of the passage which sparked off this discussion

The Mole waggled his toes from sheer happiness, spread his chest with a sigh of full contentment, and leaned back blissfully into the soft cushions. What a day I’m having!” he said. “Let us start at once!”

“Hold hard a minute, then!” said the Rat. He looped the painter through a ring in his landing-stage, climbed up into his hole above, and after a short interval reappeared staggering under a fat, wicker luncheon-basket.

“Shove that under your feet,” he observed to the Mole, as he passed it down into the boat. Then he untied the painter and took the sculls again.

“What’s inside it?” asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.

“There’s cold chicken inside it,” replied the Rat briefly; “coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkingsaladfrenchrollscresssandwidgespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater –“ 

“O stop, stop,” cried the Mole in ecstasies: “This is too much!”

“Do you really think so?” inquired the Rat seriously. “It’s only what I always take on these little excursions; and the other animals are always telling me that I’m a mean beast and cut it very fine!”


Extract 2 – Here is the very essence of cosiness – the appealing passage where Mole stumbles upon the scent of his modest little home and is drawn irresistibly towards it

He stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current, that had so strongly moved him. A moment, and he caught it again; and with it this time came recollection in fullest flood. 

Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way! Why, it must be quite close by him at that moment, his old home that he had hurriedly forsaken and never sought again, that day when he found the river! And now it was sending out its scouts and its messengers to capture him and bring him in……

….The weary Mole turned in without delay, and soon had his head on the pillow in great joy and contentment. But ere he closed his eyes he let them wander round his old room, mellow in the glow of the firelight that played or rested on familiar and friendly things which had long been unconsciously a part of him and now smilingly received him back without rancour.”

A Bookshop Renaissance



This is a bit of a personal digression to mark the reincarnation of a Richmond institution.

An essential part of my children’s childhood disappeared when the Lion & the Unicorn bookshop closed in July 2013. It was the destination of my daughter’s first unaccompanied trip into town. 20 years later when she was a class teacher needing a particular book to teach from next day, they kept the shop open for me to pick up a vital copy.*

A specialist independent bookshop knowing its market inside out, a haven alike for bookish children and adults looking for that special present.

So in 2013, I got that sinking feeling when I heard that a rent increase too far had done for this unique business.

A year and a half on, a minor miracle has occurred – a new children’s bookshop had opened in Richmond run by the very same people who ran the Lion & the Unicorn.

It’s called “The Alligator’s Mouth” and is located at 2a Church Court (by the side of Tesco) Richmond, TW9 1JL in a shop vacated by another bookshop (Houben’s).

So people of West London, you have an alternative to shopping in The Jungle (I’m not going to dignify the online market leader by referring to them by name) – you can give your custom to people who really care about and understand children’s literacy. There’s so much talk these days about getting children to read for pleasure and what better way is there for them to discover the comfort of a good book than by regularly popping into a well thought-through emporium of bookish delights ?

For further info’ with some very good photos click here

*”I’ll take you to Mrs Cole” by Nigel Gray and illustrated by the incomparable Michael Foreman