Thursday, 12th December, 2013: The Testament of Mary, a novella by Colm Tóibin

Our waiting room was full of participants. The provocative presentation of the Virgin Mary and the unadmirable methods of her guardians in their interrogations are described in beautiful and evocative prose. The guardians were ready to falsify the evidence of witnesses to create, as someone remarked, a better PR version of the foundation and tenets of the Christian church and this version has become the incontrovertible truth for believers through the millennia. Opinions about the book varied from ‘excellent’ to ‘didn’t care for it’ but it was unanimous that this was a fascinating and unforgettable discussion. ES

 

Thursday, 14th November, 2013: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Rarely have we seen such completely opposing views. "I HATED  IT !!" and "It's a marvellous book!"  The two camps were about equal in strength, although a few slight concessions were made on both sides. We disagreed on the prose style, the characters he created with their good or bad morals, the construction of the book, the success or failure of the many re-writings over a long period, the juxtaposition of time and place from one chapter to another - in short, pretty well everything. We spoke with vehemance and commitment but also with tolerance and good humour. ES

 

Thursday, 10th October, 2013: The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

This new author immediately impressed all but one of us with his originality and creativity. The strikingly dramatic first scene is explosive and mysterious, leaving our minds reverberating with questions which are only later cunningly brought into focus. The story line is broadened by Extence's use of sometimes surreal but very human figures to explore insights into such diverse subjects as meteorology, bullying, obscenity, education, the work of Kurt Vonnegut, morality, epilepsy, friendship, tragedy and comedy, spiritism, terminal illness and its psychological effects, euthanasia, and more. All this gave us plenty to talk about with considerable animation and a great deal of laughter. It was a most enjoyable discussion and evening. ES

 

Tuesday, 10th September, 2013: Transatlantic by Colum McCann

Most of us were irritated at first by the staccato sentences characteristic of his prose style but generally these became more easily accepted and sometimes no longer noticed. We appreciated the technical and historical research involved and how small, insignificant details gradually fit into place as the book advanced. The individual stories and their dates were placed in an apparently haphazard sequence. However, more careful attention revealed that they were forming a subtle mosaic, blurred at first and only coming into full focus right at the end of the story. The interactive discussion produced comments and quotations which illustrated and clarified a lot of  points  -  and that of course was what we were there for in the first place! ES

 

Tuesday, 13th August, 2013: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson

Negative: A re-hash of the multi-media success of Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. Her writing is obsessively narcissistic and she panders to the media-fed public appetite for sensationalism, pathos, horror and tragedy (see daily news).  In this book she Byronically trails "the pageant of her bleeding heart" on highly profitable promotion tours. While admitting mental derangement and emotional instability, her frankness is untrustworthy. She is disproportionately voluble about her problems. She always viciously and wilfully destroys those whose love and friendship she yet craves including that of her readers. Positive: A brilliant presentation of individual personalities / excellent analysis of the social conditions and the philanthropic work of the Victorian benefactors  in the northern industrial England of her childhood / valuable study of religious fanaticism and its effects /  skill in storytelling / insightful reflections on happiness and unhappiness, on love , on creative writing, on the enriching power of literature / a chuckling delight in human absurdity and a redeeming sense of humour /  gifted prose / and (I quote) "a dramatic and revelatory inquiry into the forging of the self." Most of us agreed with these negative and positive points. ES

 

Tuesday, 9th July, 2013: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

 

Tuesday, 11th June, 2013: The Quality of Mercy by Barry Unsworth

Were the characters just dummy figures on which to hang the main theme of the book? A very pertinent proposition. Their emblematic attributes and the happy-ending plot which so neatly smoothed out obstacles did support this idea. Interest in these individuals then deepened during further examination to reveal them as more differentiated and more subtly presented than had first been supposed. Unsworth is always a brilliant storyteller and this gift, combined with his profound knowledge of the period, enables him to bring the setting to vivid life. As so often happens, we tended to go off on tangents, but this time they always led us back happily to the book under discussion. It became possible to draw captivating analogies between the moral values and the conflicts of interest in modern global society and those central themes of justice and mercy which form the essence of the book. ES

 

Tuesday, 14th May, 2013: True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

Everyone had some reservations at the start and those who stuck with it got used to the unusual language (traps, cobe, punch fives, duff, fizgig), punctuation (lack of), wonderful similes until the style was maintained so effortlessly that the reader was pulled in. Some were interested in the tensions between England and the Irish that were transported to Australia and how land selection was made. In Australians' eyes, the Kelly gang epitomizes the image they like to have of themselves. Kelly does not come across as a thug, his fate seems to be decided for him and the reader feels sympathy for him even if the author does not glorify him. Once treated like an outlaw, Ned Kelly seemed to have no choice but to act like one. ES

 

Tuesday, 9th April, 2013: The Death of Sweet Mister by Daniel Woodrell

Already in the first couple of pages Daniel Woodrell takes his readers well out of their comfort zone. It is a tragic story in which the characters range from infinitely sad to monstrously evil, and the pressure never relents, not on the last page, not in the last foreboding sentence. The question was asked, "Would you recommend this novel?" In relation to the night-marish subject matter, the answer was negative or with great reservations, but positive with respect to the way that Woodrell develops the story line, his brilliantly presented characters, the setting in which he places them and the high quality of the prose. ES

 

Tuesday, 12th March, 2013: Nothing to Be Afraid Of by Julian Barnes

'Rambling’ was a good adjective which someone used to describe this occasionally rather taxing book. There were opposing opinions, one passionately positive, two distinctly negative, the rest at various degrees in between. However, the enthusiasm of the one and the negativity of the two provided a discussion which led to interesting modifications of opinion. ES

 

Tuesday, 12th February, 2013: Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

There was vociferous objection about the book from the majority of those present! We welcomed with pleasure a newcomer who hadn't had time to read the book but who took an active part with his questions and comments. This was good, because our explanations of the characters and the story line were often a help to the rest of us to clarify our ideas about many enigmatic points and about symbolism. ES

 

Tuesday, 8th January, 2013: Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos

This non-fiction book full of fascinating information about translating was a challenging choice indeed to start the new year. Seven of us responded to the challenge with varying degrees of enthusiasm.  Not everybody had actually got through it but everyone thought it had been worthwhile. The author seemed undecided as to his target readership: language specialists or non-specialists. If primarily to attract the ‘common’ reader, the book was too detailed and contained too much specialised jargon about translating. The neatest summary came from one member of the group who said it was "good, interesting stuff, but very much in need of energetic pruning.” ES