Wednesday, December 9, 2015: A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

The discussion group, for the most part, enjoyed reading this book, although there were some dissents. Most enjoyed the conversational / dialogue style of the writing and found it real and engaging. The book tells the story of an ordinary family who believes itself to be extraordinary and the dysfunction they live. The story takes place in Baltimore and centers on the lives of Red and Abby Whitshank and their four children, Amanda, Jeanne, Denny and Stem. Denny, the prodigal son, seemed to enjoy wreaking havoc and destabilizing his parents although he seemed to care about his family. The group discussed several themes including the complexity of spousal, parental and sibling relationships, the ambiguity embodied by individuals, and the secrets and power dynamics in family life. The group spent a fair amount of time discussing Linnie Mae and Junior, the house as a character itself, the significance of the color blue (blue swing / blue spool of thread), and Denny. Many felt they knew the characters, they know people like the Whitshanks. Although the book was lengthy, most were glad they read it, would definitely recommend it but would not read it again. GS

 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015: Outline by Rachel Cusk

Our discussion group was polarized over this book. Many of the readers felt that the novel has no clear theme or narrative thread, and it was difficult to empathize with the protagonist, a woman who travels to Greece for one week to teach a writing course. The book centers around her encounters with a variety of people — aspiring students, a has-been writer, a thrice-divorced elderly man, a socialite turned feminist — without revealing much about her own feelings. Some readers were also frustrated by the first-person technique and the detailed descriptions. On the other hand, some readers felt this is a truly modern novel, one that breaks the norm with new techniques to depict some of our deepest problems: alienation, the difficulty of maintaining a marriage or relationship, the danger of defining oneself through another person. Many of the characters are suffering the consequences of lying to themselves or to their partners; this seems to be a unifying outline for the book. ML

 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

Based on the lives of the Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina (Nina), The Invention of Wings tells the parallel stories of Sarah and the slave girl Handful, called Hetty by the Grimké family.  Sarah is growing up in a privileged slave-owning family in South Carolina and is given Handful as a eleventh birthday present.  Unlike the rest of her family, Sarah finds the idea of people as possessions appalling and attempts to free and befriend Handful, suffering the wrath of her mother as a result.  In the process she discovers that being a woman also classifies her as a second-class citizen, and the frustration she feels at being unable to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer helps shape her path in life. As her younger sister Nina grows, Sarah finds an ally in her.  Nina is, in fact, more outspoken than Sarah, who suffers periodically from a severe speech impediment. Eventually the girls leave home to campaign both for the liberation of slaves and for the liberation of women. Meanwhile Handful is herself fighting battles, both within the household against the tyranny of Mrs. Grimké and, once she finds ways to escape, outside its walls in the city of Charleston.  She takes great risks as the treatment of rebellious slaves is horrific. Although this was, at times, a challenging book, it provided many different topics for a lively discussion, from the way the book was structured with alternating chapters for Sarah and Handful, to the extent to which the sisters’ campaign for women’s rights was an impediment to their campaign for the rights of the slaves. JH

 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Our discussion covered a wide range of topics, reflecting the complexity and multiple layers of this book. Structured as a memoir, H is for Hawk is also a meditation on the relationship between animals and humans, on history and the creation of myths, on death, on the conflicting needs for freedom and security. Some members thought the book did not progress and was too repetitive: dozens of scenes focused on the author taming and walking with the hawk. Other members read these as stages on Macdonald’s path to recovering from the death of her father. Everyone agreed on the beauty of the author’s intense, poetic writing and her ability to depict the English countryside in all its variety. Another pleasure of reading the book was discovering the traditions and specialized vocabulary of falconry. We ended the discussion evenly divided between those who would read another book by Macdonald and those who would not. For more information about the change curve and the grieving process:

https://www.exeter.ac.uk/media/universityofexeter/humanresources/documents/learningdevelopment/the_change_curve.pdf

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%BCbler-Ross_model

ML

 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015: Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant

Not one of the most successful books but a good discussion.  Here is a selection of views expressed. The characters, apart from Bobby and the narrator, were not sufficiently differentiated and so numerous that it was often a struggle to remember exactly who was who. There was much gloom and negativity and a bleak lack of any kind of humour. Grant's depiction of life in a provincial university during the seventies was excellently observed, as were the consequences for the characters through later life. The students show a touching mixture of self-confidence and naïvety. The story covers very many aspects of contemporary thought among students during this period, touching on morality, politics, economics and sociology. The writing is skilful, perceptive, observant of physical surroundings and with sudden turns of phrase which were electric jerks to animate our flagging attention. ES

 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

We had a very incisive negative review from one participant and though most of us were more lenient, we agreed that what he wrote was pretty well justified. What was positive among our comments? Well, it is a gentle novel pleasant enough to read on the level of a fairy story that would appeal to a teenager or an elderly (Victorian-style) aunt. Let’s sit back with a cool drink to hand and relax. Someone asked about the book’s possible message. Perhaps the most valuable message that ought to influence every category of reader is to stress the value and often the transformative power in our lives of positive interaction with our fellow human beings, of human relationships, of friendship and of love. ES

 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015: Wild − from lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Apart from a little relatively minor criticism, we found this book worthy of all the hype.  The PCT provides a clever framework for a well-constructed story and within this frame she has three intricately interactive areas; 1) the geographical account of the hugely spectacular trail itself, for example the beautiful and stirring Crater Lake of Mount Mazama in Oregon; 2) the starkly physical agonies she suffered in completing the thousand-mile journey; 3) her own spiritual struggle through her turbulent emotional life full of painful inconsistencies and self-deception and, centrally, her pathologically obsessive devotion to her mother, which distorted her whole existence. Yet her self-analysis is often perceptively clear-sighted. She presents herself with the expertise of a practised writer. Unwittingly she also comes across as a hard, self-satisfied, and as a manipulator who is professionally cunning at selling her wares and exploiting her alluring physical charms. However, she portrays delightfully her cast of her fellow travellers.  She is also outstandingly courageous, generous, wise, perceptive, sensitive and doggedly intrepid about conquering her (very justified!) fears. A highly enjoyable read. ES

 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

Would it be wrong to say that only two of the many characters are firmly anchored in their lives: the immovably dedicated Roman Catholic Betsy Convoy and the enigmatic Uncle Stuart Plotz, who adroitly combines atheism with remaining a practising Jew to enable him to keep fully connected with his Jewish family and their circle. The despondent search for belonging, coherence and meaning in life is best exemplified in the main protagonist Dr. Paul O'Rourke. This outstandingly good dentist has reached the height of his profession in material success. But he is at once comically and tragically floundering in his unhappy search for integration into a loving and accepting relationship with his fellow human beings. It is therefore a paradox that his own obsession prevents him from taking a close interest in his fellows and so cuts him off from the very sense of belonging he is craving for. Paul the ‘hero’ is thus like most of the main members of the lively and intriguing cast of well-developed lesser characters whose lives we follow through the book. Unfortunately, the plot gets out of Ferris's control and cutting many of the over-developed sections would have given the book more muscular power. Many of us were bored by this work - some had skipped through it or given up before the end. The early promise of high comedy was not maintained although it was often very funny indeed. There were nine members present and only two of us, while agreeing with the need for pruning, were unequivocally in favour. Although this had not been planned, the latest book developed further the theological aspects discussed by several other recent choices of books and so stimulated our contacts with ‘the vast concerns of an eternal theme’ which do not often crop up among the chats we exchange in our daily lives. ES

 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015: Religion for Atheists - a Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton

This glitteringly articulate composition touched a chord in each of us. In a major key was our general appreciation of a good read.  In a minor key we had melodic variations on the theme in the form of our members' personal anecdotes. De Botton's fertile mind is working on a grand scale throughout the book. Admittedly he sometimes finds it difficult to co-ordinate his multiple insights. The layout is a complicated system of divisions and sub-divisions and there are some tantalising gaps and some repetition. One of us regretted there was not more on music and someone else would have liked the comments on the three chosen religions to be more evenly distributed. However, the book as a whole provided a constant supply of striking and original ideas that sparked our imaginations and encouraged us to look up unfamiliar references. The illustrations too are very apposite. De Botton wears his erudition lightly so there is plenty of wit and humour. This book choice was an informative extension of the four or five previous books on unusual aspects of religion we have read over the years, and it gave rise to an exceptionally inter-active discussion. A good way to get acquainted with this author and this book is at:

https://www.ted.com/talks/alain_de_botton_atheism_2_0

 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015: Foreign Gods, Inc. by Okey A. Ndibe

Only one of the seven present had enjoyed the book from the start. The rest of us expressed dislike of almost every aspect of this novel and admitted that we had only persevered so as to get together for a couple of hours to talk about it. However, yet again the discussion proved valuable. It brought into focus many aspects that we had rather under-rated:

    - the quality of the writing and the subtle depiction of the numerous (mostly unpleasant) and oftencomplex characters in the story.

    - the magnificent prose of the prayers to the local god Ngere, contrasting with the rendering of the harangues of the obsessed missionary Stanton and the ranting of the disgustingly bombastic evangelising of Pastor Uko who so shamefully exploited his congregation of starving and naive villagers

     -  the divide between such different cultures as urban USA and a rural Nigerian village

     -  the abyss between ancient pagan and modern western religious traditions

     -  the ironic and satirical humour that helped to lighten the depressive mood the book created

     -  the concept of money as a commodity to provide anything from average comfort (taken for granted by so many of us) to the outrageous, compared with having money as a necessity for just staying alive. Money too encouraged corruption and greed and utterly unrealistic dreams.

As you see, some of our opinions got somewhat refined, and the varied contributions helped to form a more discriminating judgment. We agreed and disagreed and contradicted each other's views with great enjoyment. Very stimulating! ES

 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

The first comments were rather censorious: "The modern episodes were contrived." "The mother/daughter relationship was psychologically unrealistic." "The mother's reticence about the family background was inexplicable." "The two-year gap in writing the book was bad for the structure of the novel." As the discussion progressed, more positive aspects became evident and the final judgement was in the majority favourable: a vote revealed that out of a maximum of 5 points, two voted 3, one voted 3 1/2, four voted 4 and two voted 4 1/2. Nearly everybody found the subject interesting and informative, throwing light upon Christian, Jewish and Moslem inter-relationships down the ages. ES

 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015: Solar by Ian McEwan

Nine of us gathered to discuss this somewhat demanding but successful book. Only one was a bit negative but even she admired the writing skill, the subtly biting humour and the creative power behind the characters. The theme is largely the contemporary problems of energy shortage, global warming, and the blindness and greed of those in financial or political power who stand to lose if coal, gas and electricity are replaced by alternative sources such as what could possibly be supplied by the sun. Professor Michael Beard is a typical McEwan anti-hero, here expanded to quite horrific proportions. This brilliant prize-winning young scientist was content ever after to capitalise on his early success, using his status to exploit the groundwork of his colleagues and subordinates. He is gradually and dexterously revealed as a selfish, irresponsible, self-serving charmer, an obsessive womaniser devoid of empathy and concerned only with himself.  He is vain, a cheat, a liar, luxuriating in self-pity and self-satisfaction, a self-indulgent glutton and alcoholic, a slob. We long for him to get his come-uppance and yet when Nemesis strikes, we are not as gratified as we had expected because somehow some of his charm works retrospectively upon the reader too. McEwan has also done untiring research to present the scientific background. He comes across as being rather smug about his hard-won erudition, which is too overpowering for the average lay reader and creates a certain imbalance in the structure of the book. He has, however, written an excellent novel and the group's judgement was that Solar is well worth reading. ES