Marching Forward

3afef1e893f675f1dd6af0348c666c70February was not really a great reading month, I’m afraid. With the exception of a couple of very good crime novels, Claire McGowan’s A Savage Hunger, which I reviewed in the previous post, and Alafair Burke’s The Ex, the review for which will be in the next edition of Shiny New Books, I wasn’t really knocked out by anything else that I read. Mind you, as a month it had a lot to live up to given that my January reading included Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton and Eva Dolan’s After You Die and, even though it had an extra day, February is still a short month so I won’t complain too much but just look forward to March and hope for better things.

My book group reading consists of two re-reads balanced by not only a book but an author that is new to me. The Monday Group asked for some crime fiction and as that is a group set up to look at novels shortlisted for book awards I decided to go for Sara Paretsky’s Blacklist which won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger in 2004.  I’m not certain how well this is going to go down, but I enjoy the way in which Paretsky explores the links between crime, politics and big business interests and makes it clear that while you may catch the people at the bottom, or even those in the middle, at the moment bringing down those at the top is still proving more than difficult. If nothing else it will introduce almost everyone in that group to an author they haven’t read before.

The other re-read is Huxley’s Brave New World.  I did this with a different group a couple of years ago and it works really well in discussion not only in respect of its literary merits but also in terms of asking just how prophetic the author’s vision was.  I have to say that I’m not certain myself that Huxley intended it to be prophetic but it’s a good point for debate, nevertheless.  My only qualm about that one is that we have one member in the group who always wants happy books, suitable for (and I quote!) ladies of a certain age. I’m not sure quite what she’s going to make of this.

The author new to me is Adam Foulds and the book that has been chosen is his first novel, The Truth About These Strange Times.  Other than that I’ve had quite a job getting a copy from the library I know nothing about this at all, so if any of you have read it and have any comments before I start on it next week I shall be interested to read them.

As far as other reading goes the month is going to primarily taken up with tackling all those books that I said I was going to read over my long weekend off.  I hadn’t realised just how tired I was and in the end I found myself doing more re-reading simply because I hadn’t the energy to tackle anything new. I did read one of the review copies I had on hand and I began Helen Dunmore’s Exposure, but, for personal reasons, I’ve found it a particularly difficult read and I’m having to take it just in small sections.  I’ll talk more about that when I review it.  That does mean, however, that I still have Slade House and The Noise of Time waiting to be read as well as a couple of crime novels to review for NetGalley.  Given all that I don’t think I should be looking any further ahead right now. I can add to the list if I find I’m running out of material.  At the moment, that seems unlikely.

Sunday Round-Up

341df81e231750e5c7f0523db256ffa3I was hoping to get several more reviews written over the course of this past week but, as so often happens, life got in the way, so in lieu I’ll just offer a few quick thoughts about the two most recent book group discussions on Ian McEwan’s The Children Act and David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

The group with which I read The Children Act were most exercised by whether or not the main character, Fiona Maye, was believable. For me, however, this wasn’t really the issue.  I think I’ve reached the point where I just accept that McEwan has no idea how women think and behave and so I let that stand as a given and concentrate on what else I think he is concerned with.  In this novel I was more interested in what it was he was trying to say about the law and the individual’s relationship with it.  It seems clear to me that this is his primary interest.  Why else start with what is an overt reference to Dickens’ Bleak House?

London.  Trinity term one week old.  Implacable June weather.

I decided in the end that what McEwan was trying to examine was the way in which, even in situations where our children’s wellbeing is at stake, we want to place the onus of decision onto an outside body, despite the fact that, in his opinion, this is to abdicate our personal responsibility.  He offers several examples of families passing through the courts whose children are in need of medical or educational intervention and in each instance there is a sense of parental relief when the outcome is decided by someone else.  However, he also provides examples of two such cases where the judge concerned has made a mistake that has had life long repercussions for the families involved and his ffinal* verdict on Fiona appears to be that she needs to recognise her responsibility to exercise judgment in her behaviour towards children outside of the trappings of the court as well as within.

There are a lot of seems and appears in that because I don’t think McEwan manages to make his point of view clear, possibly because, as so many of the group recognised, he doesn’t make Fiona herself believable.  And, while I don’t disagree with the idea that we all need to take responsibility for the welfare of society in general and especially of children, I’m also bothered by an approach which seems to question the centrality of the judiciary.  Yes, they sometimes get it wrong, but what happens if you take the law away?  I have run across a number of literary instances recently that very strongly make the point that if the law is bent, neglected or personalised then the very pillars on which society stands are threatened.  I’m teaching The Merchant of Venice this term and not only The Duke and Balthazar/Portia recognise the irretrievable damage that will be done to the State if Shylock is denied his bond, so too does Antonio, who very definitely has the most to lose.  Then, it’s not long since I reviewed Claire McGowan’s latest Northern Ireland based novel, The Silent Dead, where the question of retaliatory ‘justice’ is foregrounded and in which the ffinal* judgment is that however fflawed* the justice system might sometimes be it is infinitely superior to what would happen if there was no system at all.  And I have never been able to forget the conversation between Thomas More and his son-in-law in Robert Bolt’s play A Man For All Seasons:

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

We take decisions out of the hands of the law at our own peril, I think.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was a much happier reading experience. I was so glad that this had been chosen because I have been trying to ffind* time to read more David Mitchell ever since being bowled over by The Bone Clocks, however, he is not a writer you can hurry and there just hasn’t been a large enough space when I could explore his earlier novels.

As far as Mitchell goes, this, I understand, is a comparatively straightforward narrative, although exploring a complexity of issues, mostly to do with the question of translation.  Many of the main characters in the novel are interpreters who work for the Japanese state as linguistic go-betweens for the ruling powers and the Dutch traders of the late eighteenth century.  But, while they may haltingly fffind* the words for a literal translation, interpreting the society behind the words is a very different matter.  Even as the novel draws to a close the reader is left puzzling over a nation that can be so isolationist that it will not allow a son who is half Japanese and whose mother is dead to leave to be with his Dutch father.  The writing is beautiful, the characterisation superb, but it is a solid read, so don’t embark on it unless you have the time to give it the attention it deserves.

I hope the forthcoming week is going to be slightly easier, especially as I’ve already got behind in my course on Dorothy L Sayers and could do with a few spare hours to catch up.  I have discovered, however, that it is possible to have too much of a good thing even where books are concerned, and my reading of the Wimsey novels has slowed considerably.  In particular, I fell foul of Five Red Herrings, which I seem to remember not being very keen on when I read the books the ffirst* time round.  I’m now half way through Have His Carcase and should really do my best to ffinish* it over the weekend.   What are your plans for a damp and soggy Sunday afternoon, I wonder?

N.B.  I do know how to spell the words marked thus*, but the WordPress program is refusing to spell them with just one ‘f’.  It’s two or nothing, so I have chosen to go for two.  Is anyone else having this problem?

A Spool of Blue Thread ~ Anne Tyler

51IxhCyQpLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_About a third of the way through Anne Tyler latest novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, the entire Whitshank family set off to spend a week at the beach.  This isn’t a spur of the moment vacation.  Not only do the Whitshanks spend the same week on the Delaware coast every summer, they spend it in the same house.  And, they are not the only family with fixed habits when it comes to taking a holiday.

“The next-door people are back,” Jeannie called, stepping in from the screen porch.

Next door was almost the only house as unassuming as theirs was, and the people she was referring to had been renting it for at least as long as the Whitshanks had been renting theirs.  Oddly enough, though, the two families never socialized.

They may not socialise, but the Whitshanks do speculate about the nature of the family and watch for changes year by year.

[T]hey continued to come, the mother taking her early morning walks along the beach…the daughters in the company of boyfriends who metamorphosed into husbands, by and by, and then a little boy appearing and later a little girl.

“The grandson has brought a friend this year,” Jeannie reported.  “Oh, that makes me want to cry.”

“Cry! What for?” Hugh asked her.

“It’s the … circularity, I guess.  When we first saw the next-door people the daughters were the ones bringing friends, and now the grandson is, and it starts all over again.”

“You sure have given these folks a lot of thought,” Hugh said.

“Well, they’re us, in a way,” Jeannie said.

And, just as the Whitshanks watch the changes in the next-door family so we, the readers, do the same for them. When the book begins we have as unfocused a notion of the dynamics in Tyler’s Baltimore family as their holiday neighbours do.  Do we

find the Whitshanks attractive?  Intriguing?  [Do we] admire their large numbers and their closeness? Or [have we] noticed a hidden crack somewhere?

Well, if we haven’t noticed the crack, indeed the cracks, by the time we read about the annual holiday then we haven’t been paying enough attention, because what Tyler gives us in this novel is a portrait of an apparently stable, loving family that unwinds as we observe it.  Like a spool of thread which, when first purchased, appears tightly bound and compact, the moment you start to pull at a loose end the whole structure begins to fall apart. What is more, once that has happened, you can never rewind and recover the sense of completeness and perfection that you had before.  Indeed one crack exposes another and then another until there is little left of the image with which you began.

The process begins slowly enough.  We are aware from early on that the elder Whitshank boy, Denny, is a source of family disquiet, but it isn’t until Denny himself, in a reported conversation with Abby, his mother, drops the bombshell that Stem, the youngest Whitshank, is in fact not a Whitshank at all, that the process really begins to gain momentum.  And from then on in we watch as all that we have been led to believe about the stability of the family, all the stories that they have told about the Whitshank past, the stories on which their sense of who they are is built, crumbles before our eyes.  We move back through the generations, discovering at each stage how different the reality of the Whitshank’s family history is from the picture that they present to the world.

And yet, they are still Whitshanks.  Oh, it may be Stem, the abandoned child, who shares their name but not their blood, who takes on that family name in the form of the business, but it the end it is Denny who proves himself to be the direct descendent of those first Baltimore Whitshanks, Junior and Linnie Mae.  In a reflection of the circularity that Jeannie recognised in their beach-side neighbours, the novel concludes with Denny’s return to a woman who clearly loves him but to whom, in an echo of his grandfather’s earlier behaviour, he has been unable to commit, and we are left with the sense that perhaps this time he really will be able to build a relationship that has some lasting stability.  It may not be as strong or as perfect as they would like the world to think, but it will have a utility out which a future can be forged.   Some of that trailing thread is being rewound and while it may not be possible to return it to its original pristine condition it will serve for the day to day purpose of holding a family together.

While the Whitshanks may not be the picture of family perfection that they would like to appear, Tyler’s depiction of them comes pretty close to perfection.  Time and again I found myself drawing parallels between situations in either my own family or those of people to whom I am close enough to have been allowed to see the cracks.  And for me, I think her greatest achievement is the sense of hope that she provides for such families.  Because, despite the flaws, the difficulties, the betrayals, that we witness, in the end we recognise there is still love in this family, there is still mutual support, there is still a sense that while the thread may not be as tightly bound as it could be, they are all part of that same spool.  This may be a novel that charts our growing awareness, as outsiders, of the dysfunctional nature of the Whitshank family, but ultimately it is also a novel that says, in fact, any family at which you look closely is probably going to be pretty dysfunctional one way and another.  But you know what?  In the end they are going to survive because they are bound by that blue thread and as long as it isn’t actually severed it can be wound back in and remain whole.  And, as Jeannie points out, the family we are observing is us, in a way, which means that Tyler is also saying that there is a good chance for the survival of any family, just so long as you’re willing to hold on tight to the end of that spool of blue thread.

Looking Ahead

ImageI am always envious of those readers who seem to be able to look forward to the coming year and make reading plans which they confidently forecast they are going to be able to carry out successfully.  For me this has always seemed to be the surest route to failure.  It’s a bit like the Great Expectations experience writ large.  As the year goes by so I am repeatedly faced with my inability to live up to the predictions I made with such confidence back at the beginning of January. Nevertheless, I still continue to try and beat the fates by outlining my intentions even if it is only in the broadest possible way.  So here goes for 2016.

At the top of the list go three dozen or so books many of which I don’t yet know the titles of.  These are the books that I’ll need to read for my three book groups and the August Summer School.  January’s selections are Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread,  Ian McEwan’s The Children Act and David Mitchell’s  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  The first two will be re-reads but the Mitchell is new and I’m excited about that as I really loved The Bone Clocks and have wanted a reason to fit more of his work into the schedule ever since.

Another inescapable list will be books to do with the Shakespeare plays I shall be teaching during the year.  The groups focus on one play a term and this year we are going to be studying The Merchant of Venice, Othello and Antony and Cleopatra.  Lots of blood and violence there then.  Othello and Antony and Cleopatra were my A level texts and it will be interesting to come back to them from a very different point of view.  We don’t focus on close readings but rather on how the plays fit into the era in which they were written, their publishing history and the ways in which they have been produced on the stage from Shakespeare’s time to the present.  This year, for at least one of the plays (The Merchant of Venice) there will be an updated novel version available as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project.  Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name is due to be published in February.  I have been very sceptical about this enterprise, but having heard Jacobson talk about the book last summer I probably will read it.  Tracy Chevalier is tackling the Othello re-write, but there is no publication date as yet.

The other reading to which I am already committed is that for my course on Dorothy L Sayers.  I still have more than half a dozen of the Peter Wimsey novels to finish as well as all the short stories.  I am not a short story reader and I suspect I shall only tackle those if it becomes obvious that I can’t complete the module without doing so.  The course finishes at Easter but I’m hoping that it will jump start another project I’ve had in mind for some time. I read an inordinate amount of crime fiction but without any real direction or purpose.  What I would like to do is use the essays in The Companion to Crime Fictioas an organising tool to undertake a more deliberate exploration of the genre, be that through a chronological approach or according to sub-genre. I’m particularly interested in the ways in which plots are organised and how they are signalled to the reader.  Has that changed over time?  Are there specific features associated with specific sub-genres or perhaps specific countries of origin?  What I would really like to do is set up another book group to facilitate discussion but whether I would have the time to run a fourth is doubtful.

Over and above these, as it were, social reading commitments there is, of course, my little list.  I’ve already marked down any of my ‘must read’ authors who have books due between now and the middle of the year and as soon as I can I shall put in library reservations for them.  In any one twelve month period the number of novels I get through in this category probably runs to about thirty so, when you add that to what I’ve already outlined, you’re coming very close to the hundred odd books that I get through in a year.  Perhaps then I had better stop at this point or there will be no room for any serendipitous reads that I discover as 2016 goes on.  Will I, I wonder, have the courage to come back in twelve months time and see how well I’ve managed to stick to my forecast?  That, I suspect will depend on how successful I’ve been.

Life Class ~ Pat Barker

9780141019475hOne of the things I really appreciate about belonging to a book group is that every now and again a novel will turn up on our schedule that has somehow slipped out of my tbr pile before I’ve managed to get round to reading it.  This was the case with Pat Barker’s Life Class and, as it was the first of a trilogy, that has meant that I have also had to postpone reading Toby’s Room and the more recently published Noonday.  It was because the member who suggested it wanted to read Noonday but, like myself, hadn’t read the earlier novels, that we ended up discussing Life Class at the beginning of the week and we had some very differing reactions to the novel.

I expect that by now everyone else has encountered the work and knows what it is about so very briefly, as a reminder, it is set just before and then, latterly, about a month into, the onset of the First World War.  Initially we meet three art students studying at the Slade under the renown surgeon turned teacher of life drawing, Henry Tonks.  Paul Tarrant, Kit Neville and Elinor Brooke each display very different talents and very different approaches towards their work as artists.  Paul seems to be able to do nothing to please Tonks and is seriously questioning whether he has made the right decision in coming to London.  Kit, on the other hand, has had some success and is prepared to be as commercial as is necessary to make money from his art.  Elinor perhaps has the most difficult time because she has to battle not only to get her work appreciated but also with the prejudice against a woman studying art rather than preparing herself for what is generally seen as her real role in life, namely as someone’s wife.  The difference in the ways in which each of these characters face their situations is expertly drawn and appreciating this set of contrasts prepares the reader for the more substantial contrast to come.

Nothing, however, prepares the young artists for what is about to happen. The move into the clearing stations for the wounded in France is as sudden for the reader as was the onset of war for the peoples of Europe.  Paul in particular is completely unequipped for the Life Class in which he now find himself enrolled as he encounters the reality of what can be done to the human body in the name of war and the suffering that consequently ensues. Now the disarticulated limbs are not simply plaster casts studied for aesthetic purposes, they are the shattered remains of young men who had no idea of what they were heading out to when they enlisted and now no real idea as to what they are fighting for.  The clearing station becomes another studio as artists turned surgeons struggle to understand the ways in which the human body works in order to save the lives of those who have become their unwitting ‘models’.

In general, we were in agreement about the book seen simply in the terms I’ve described.  We all very much enjoyed it, although there was one dissenting voice who thought that the first section was too long.  Where we differed was in respect of the way in which Barker had made use of real people to populate her work of fiction.

In many works of historical fiction mention will be made in passing of individuals who actually existed.  That is the case here both with Tonks and with Ottoline Morrell, who later in the work befriends Elinor.  No one had a problem with that.  Discussion centred, rather, on the question of the extent to which the characters of Paul, Kit and Elinor were based on real artists of the day.  Locally we had an exhibition last year of the works of Richard Nevinson and it didn’t take much to link him with Kit, especially as Nevinson’s given name was Christopher.  One of the most striking works in the La-Patrieshow was of a large barn being used as a hospital before there were any real medical facilities set up in France. this is exactly the situation that Kit and Paul find themselves in when they first go out with the intention of serving as ambulance drivers. Rather more tentative was the identification of Paul as Paul Nash.  What we know of Paul Tarrant’s background doesn’t fit, even though Nash did have considerable wartime experience.  However, Elinor is more easily linked to Dora Carrington, not the least because her connection to Ottoline Morrell would bring her into the Bloomsbury circle, the group of painters and writers with whom Carrington is inevitably associated.  Where we, as a group, differed was in how far we thought we should take what we knew of the real people into consideration when discussing the actions of the characters in the novel.  Is it valid, for example, when asking whether or not Elinor’s conduct in a given situation is believable to justify your response by reference to what you know of Dora Carrington’s actual behaviour?

I’m still not certain where I stand on this.  If you, as the reader, are not in a position to make those identifications and draw those parallels then the character that the writer has offered has still to be able to stand up to scrutiny when you question the nature of their behaviour. And yet real people do behave in ways which if you attributed them to a character in a novel no one would endorse as credible.  In the end we had to agree to differ because the discussion was getting quite heated.  I wonder what you think?

Sunday Round-Up

142004194470138886_zzjkurbS_fIn theory this ought to be a good day for writing blog posts.  There is, after all, a whole extra hour that can be dedicated either to reading books or to writing about them. Somehow, though, it never quite works out like that.  I get completely disorientated by the change in the clocks and although the autumn experience isn’t quite as disturbing as the one in the spring, when we lose an hour, nevertheless it will be the end of the week before my internal clock resets itself and life returns to something approximating normal.  This doesn’t bode well as I have a lot to get through over the next seven days with a class on Love’s Labour’s Lost to develop and teach, the work for my Dickens class to continue and a book club discussion for the following Monday to prepare, on top of all the other normal weekly commitments.  If I go under and vanish from view then it has been good knowing you all.

Literary Fiction

What do you think of, I wonder, when you hear the phrase literary fiction?  It was bandied around rather a lot last Wednesday when the group reading that book I was finding so troublesome met for our monthly discussion.  Only a third of the group had managed to finish it, although to be fair they had all enjoyed it.  The rest of us, for one reason or another, had admitted defeat.  I did try to battle on to the end, despite all your good advice, but when I found myself setting out to clean the kitchen for the second time in as many days just to avoid reading I knew that a line had to be drawn.  The member who had chosen the book was severely disappointed in us and several times during the evening she commented on the fact that she really enjoyed literary fiction.  The implication was obvious.  This was literary fiction, and it was clearly not for the likes of the rest of us.  The implied hierarchy in both books and readers was fairly obvious as well.

Literary fiction is a difficult thing to define.   I’m fairly sure I know what the fiction bit means but after that I start to fight shy of anything concrete.  On Wednesday it seemed to mean ‘books that you have to work really hard to understand and even then will only appreciate if you are very very clever indeed’.  I tried to think of books that I would describe as literary fiction in the hope that I would find a common thread linking them which would offer enlightenment.  My first thought was just about anything by Colm Tóibín, Jim Crace or Julian Barnes.  When I read works by these authors I have a sense that every word on the page has been carefully weighted to account for what it adds to the novel as a whole before being allowed to stand.  There is a rhythm to their writing, whether it is at the level of the sentence, the chapter or the entire book. I come away from a first read blown away, but knowing that there will be more to gain from a second, third or even fourth read.  Crucially, I look forward to subsequent readings.  I add that last thought because I suspect that my reading group colleague would argue that all that was true of her choice of book. The important difference for me being that I had to fight my way through it the first time and wouldn’t go back to it if I was paid.

I suspect that for some people literary fiction is defined in a negative way in as much as they would see it as that which is not genre fiction.  Now that, I think, really does smack of literary snobbery.  I will fight anyone who argues that Hilary Mantel’s historical fiction is not literary or what about P D James’ crime fiction, especially from her middle period.  I first came across Katharine Kerr’s fantasy novels when one of them was included in a corpus a friend was working with and the quality of the writing stood out so strongly against the other data that we just had to break protocol and find out what it was she was reading.

So, what is literary fiction?  If it is fiction I have to fight in order to even begin to understand it, then I will gladly admit to not being clever enough and let it pass me by.

Emergency Poet

I was going to report on how the Dickens course is going, but this post is long enough as it is.  I will come back to that midweek, perhaps.  I did just want to say, however, that those of you who commented on my entry about Deborah Alma, the Emergency Poet might like to know that Deborah herself came by and left a thank you message in response to your enthusiasm for what she is doing. You can see what she has to say here.

‘Banned’ Authors

06d11e3a0263b62966ea48fc5e990cc3Earlier this week I was at a book group meeting where we seemed to be in pretty much unanimous agreement that the book we were reading (and don’t ask, because I’m not going to tell you) was superb.  The style was magnificent, the humour wry, but never overplayed, the characters well drawn and sympathetic and the themes to do with the importance of kindness in small ways to the general well being of a community.  It seemed as if we all felt better for having spent time in the world of the novel and in the company of the woman who wrote it.  At least that appeared to be the case until the one member of the group who so far had said nothing quietly commented that while she could appreciate the points we were making she knew the author to be a nasty piece of work who was the antithesis of everything she was endorsing in the novel and that this had completely ruined the reading experience for her.

Now I should say that this response was not based on spurious information gleaned from social media or the gossip columns.  This group member’s personal circumstances are such that she is in a position to know the writer herself and to have had first hand experience of her behaviour.  She normally speaks very sympathetically of the authors with whom she comes into contact, and consequently this reaction was all the more pointed.  And, of course, it led us into a discussion of the extent to which we are influenced in our reaction to any work of art by the knowledge we have of the artist who created it.  The most frequently cited example, I suspect, would be Wagner and there were people in the group who said that they did actively avoid his music because of his political associations.  Personally, I also avoid his music but in my case this is because I don’t like it.  What my reaction would be if I was to really enjoy his work, I don’t know.

Coincidentally, I was browsing through some old copies of Slightly Foxed yesterday and came across an article by Francis King which began

Once met, I rarely dislike a person.  But the idea of a person often fills me with dislike and even abhorrence.  So it was with Wyndham Lewis…  A supporter of the British Union of Fascists and of Franco, he wrote a laudatory book about Hitler…[He] always ended up by sinking his poisonous fangs into the hand of anyone who had helped him…kept his put-upon wife in purdah from his friends and frequently betrayed her with other women… [His] intermittent paranoia persuaded him that even his intimates were plotting against him and doing him down.

In the light of the above, it is hardly surprising that when…a friend of mine…pressed Lewis’s ‘The Revenge of Love’ on me, I read it with growing annoyance.  At the close of Part I, I gave up on it.

The point of King’s article is that in later years he went back to Lewis’s work and was able to read it without allowing his dislike of what the man stood for and of his behaviour towards others to colour his appreciation of his writing. Given my friend’s age I suspect she is not going to undergo the same transformation.

Whether or not you should read an author’s work in the light of their biography is a topic that has been much discussed over the years in academic circles, but I don’t think my friend’s response should be considered in quite the same way as the issue which is debated in university seminars.  She wasn’t suggesting that this writer’s life history was colouring her writing but rather the opposite, that the author was hypocritically championing a way of behaving towards others which she, herself, did not demonstrate.  Given that she knew this to be the case, she simply couldn’t respond as the rest of us had to the novel.

I wonder how you feel about this?  Do you think you would react in the same way?  Do you think it is a valid reaction?  I have a later novel by this same author sitting on my shelf as I write.  Until I have begun to read it I am not going to know how much my new ‘insider’ information has affected my responses.

Why Belong To A Reading Group If You Don’t Like Books?


e2191505c671674fab7f119e0ae8ab3fA couple of weeks ago a friend invited me along to a reading group that she convenes for a local arts organisation.  I already belong to three book groups, and I wasn’t sure that I either wanted or had the time to attend another. However, I was interested in the book that they had scheduled so I decided that once couldn’t hurt and, having read the novel, dutifully turned up to add my two pennyworth to the discussion.

Each of the other groups to which I belong has its own very distinct personality and each is peopled by very distinct characters.  If you were to give me a transcript of a discussion from any one of the three with no names attached I would immediately be able to tell you which one it came from just by the flavour of the conversation.  The one thing that they do have in common is a real interest in books and in spending time attempting to understand what it is an author has been trying to achieve in his or her work.  They are not groups where the discussion comes to an end after ten minutes.  In fact, in the two of them where we meet in hired halls we have to be careful we don’t get thrown out for exceeding our time limits.  We like books; it’s why we meet.  So, as I set out, book under my arm, to visit this new reading group I was expecting to find myself in a similar situation.  How wrong can a person be?

Now, don’t misunderstand me.  We didn’t crack open the wine and start discussing our Facebook pages (what Facebook page?) within a hair’s breadth of arriving; the discussion was, at the very least, intellectual.  The problem was that it had very little to do with the book. As the new girl I went in with the intention of staying mute for the first half an hour or so, until I’d had the chance to test out the nature of the group and the type of comment it would be appropriate to offer.  I’m not certain I actually achieved the appropriate part of that aim because when I did finally open my mouth it was to say very quietly, although perhaps not very diplomatically, that I didn’t think that I’d been reading the same book as everyone else.  I didn’t add that I’d arrived at that conclusion because as nothing I’d heard seemed to offer any sort of reasoned exploration of the novel in question I could only assume that in fact they hadn’t actually read it at all – that might have been a step too far!  It also wouldn’t have been true.  They had read the novel sufficiently well to pick up minute faults in the text which they could then use, first, and briefly, to lambast the author and secondly, to offer an oration – at length – on their own erudition in respect of whatever the perceived failings of the writer might be.  One by one they tumbled over themselves to bring their particular area of supposed expertise to the fore and take over the ‘platform’. The noise level was actually painful.

Now, I have been in many a discussion where we have picked up an error of fact in an author’s work.  I am still smarting over the writer who had a group of Victorian Englishmen claim that somewhere was relatively close by because it was only thirty-five kilometres away!  But, because we are readers who care about books, we have raised the point, and then considered it in the light of what it might say about the veracity of the rest of the text, and moved on – not used it as an opportunity to show how much we know about the history of linear measurement in the UK in the nineteenth century.  We have been there to discuss the book, not polish our own ego.  In this instance I wasn’t certain that the other people there were what I would call readers at all.  When I was asked to describe them the word that came to mind was competitive.

And who was it that asked for a description?  Well, there was a postscript to this story.  It transpired that the reason my friend had asked me along was because she was sick to the back teeth of these people, who apparently always behave this way, but had no idea how to tackle the problem.  What would I do?  And it is a problem.  If it were just one or two then I would shut them up by asking the quieter members of the group to give their opinion of the book and stamp down hard on anyone who tried to interrupt, but it seems to be all of them.  Hence the noise levels.  Very reluctantly, I think she is going to have to withdraw.  She has to be away for three months at the end of the year and that would seem to me to be the perfect opportunity to let the position go.  But has anyone been in a similar situation and have other options that she might explore?





Stoner ~ John Williams

9780670671243I’m really not very good at climbing on bandwagons, especially where books that are being hyped in the media are concerned. This is a character trait I noticed first when Watership Down was the must read title one summer back in the early seventies.  I wasn’t going to succumb to public opinion and read a novel about rabbits (for goodness sake) even though I was blithely prepared to say good morning to the numerous representatives of the species that I passed every day on my early morning cycle rides into Stratford.  Eventually, of course, I gave into the pressure and finally realised what all the song and dance was about, months after everyone else had had the pleasure of Richard Adam’s insightful commentary on both extremes of human society.

You would have thought, then,  that I would have learnt my lesson.  If that many people are singing the praises of a particular novel it is just possible that it may have something to recommend it.  Nevertheless, despite all the publicity, despite the fact that every time I’ve walked into Staff House at the University for the past year I have seen someone reading it, it has taken the appearance of John William’s Stoner on one of my book group lists to get me to pick up a copy and to discover what a really wonderful book it is.

I could sing the praises of this book in so many ways.  I could tell you about how beautifully it is written.  There is nothing spectacular about the writing, nothing intensely lyrical or poetic, but every word is placed with care and precision and there is a rhythm about it that echoes the rhythm of the life of the novel’s central character, University English Professor, William Stoner. For the most part this is a steady beat reflective of what some have seen as a dull and even a sad life, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t moments that elicit in the reader real emotion, most often in my case anger at the way in which other people take advantage of a man who never really comes to understand the lengths to which some individuals will go to get what they want, regardless of the damage that may be done to others in the process.

I could tell you about the accuracy of the portrait it paints of life in the University sector.  For example, even though many things have changed in the years between the early part of the twentieth century depicted here and the present day, I’m afraid that the departmental in-fighting still goes on.  I have met Holly Lomax, the Professor who is determined to get his own way about a student who everyone else can see is struggling, insisting that he be allowed to continue even though eventually not only will the student be damaged by the experience but so too will any others he comes into contact with.  I have actually worked with Holly Lomax.  There have been the occasional days when I have specifically wanted to strangle Holly Lomax – for the ultimate good of the student, the department, the University, the world.  Like Stoner, I have resisted.

But what I actually want to tell you about in praise of this novel is what Williams has to say about the joy of being a teacher, because for me this is the ultimate truth and the heartbeat at the very core of this book. From the moment when his mentor, Sloane, asks Stoner

‘Don’t you understand about yourself yet?  You’re going to be a teacher.’

Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded.  Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, ‘Are you sure?’

‘I’m sure,’ Sloane said softly.

‘How can you tell? How can you be sure?’

‘It’s love, Mr Stoner,’ Sloane said cheerfully. ‘You are in love. It’s as simple as that.’

to the point of his retirement dinner where after a couple of false starts Stoner finally says

I have taught at this University for nearly forty years.  I do not know what I would have done if I had not been a teacher.  If I had not taught, I might have – ‘ He paused, as if distracted.  Then he said, with a finality, ‘I want to thank you all for letting me teach.’

Stoner is, quite simply, a teacher.  He is defined by his job, and by the way in which he does his job, he defines what it should mean to teach.

I wish I had read this book by the time I retired, I would have plagiarised that final speech unmercifully.  But I suppose that would have been to suggest that I was something like as good a teacher as Stoner is.  That would be difficult.

Interestingly some of the things that show him at his best are times when Williams tells us that he upsets various students.  The most obvious of these is the case of Holly Lomax’s protégé, Charles Walker, who Stoner refuses (rightly) to pass through his oral examination as part of his progress towards a doctoral qualification.

‘God damn it,’ Lomax shouted. ‘Do you realise what you’re doing, Stoner?  Do you realise what you’re doing to the boy?’

‘Yes,’ Stoner said quietly, ‘and I’m sorry for him.  I am preventing him from getting his degree, and I am preventing him from teaching in a college or university.  Which is precisely what I want to do.  For him to be a teacher would be a – disaster.’

Sometimes your job as a teacher is to prevent your students from following a path that would damage not only them but also many generations of other students.  It is never easy, but if you really are a teacher you have to do it.  Just occasionally, I had to take the same decision in respect of students who wanted to be primary teachers.   It hurt, but the thousand children they could well have encountered in a forty year teaching career had to come first.  The thought of Charles Walker being allowed to stand in front of a class of undergraduates frightened me so much I couldn’t read on for a time.

Less immediately apparent to the non-professional eye may be the moment when Stoner reflects on the way his teaching style unsettles some of his students.  He gets so caught by his enthusiasm that he stutter[s], gesticulate[s], and boldly, proudly displays the love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words.  Many of his students respond to this with renewed efforts of their own, showing hints of imagination and the revelation of tentative love.  However, there are also those who had been able theretofore to plod through his courses by the repetition of mechanical steps who begin to look at him with puzzlement and resentment.

Teaching is not about rote learning, it is about enthusiasm and inspiration, but there will always be some students and a great many people in power who will be frightened of the freedom of thought that not only allows but actually encourages.  A good teacher wouldn’t have it any other way.

As you will have noticed, I have now climbed on one of my soapboxes.  It is time to get off and to say simply that I wish I hadn’t waited as long as I did to read this book and to urge those of you who may not have yet done so to get hold of a copy as soon as you possibly can.

The Shock of the Fall ~ Nathan Filer

str2_ma_1901_p14a Shock Of The Fall Costa Winner 2013One Saturday in May of last year I had the pleasure of hearing Nathan Filer read from his debut novel at a local Readers Event. The Shock of the Fall, which had been published just two days previously, was already garnering praise from all quarters and it was evident that its author was more than pleased, but nevertheless a bit bemused, at its reception.  It was immediately apparent that this was a book I was going to want to read. After all, how can you not be intrigued when the passage you hear begins:

I’ll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother.  His name’s Simon.  I think you’re going to like him.  I really do.  But in a a couple of pages he’ll be dead.  And he was never the same after that.

Well you wouldn’t be, would you?

Unfortunately, I was so certain that this was a book I was going to want not only read but also discuss that I put it on one of my reading group lists as my next selection and as a result have only just got round to engaging further with both Simon and the narrator of this book, his younger brother, Matthew.

We very soon discover that Matthew is not going to be the most reliable of narrators so perhaps we should take his initial assessment of himself with a pinch of salt.

I should say that I am not a nice person. Sometimes I try to be, but often I’m not. So  when it was my turn to cover my eyes and count to a hundred –I cheated.

However, there is that in his opening statement which should begin to trigger questions in the reader’s mind.  What adult is going to see cheating at hide and seek as a major moral breakdown?  Well, in Matthew’s case, one who has suffered from so many other breakdowns that his perspective is no longer as clear as it might be, because when we first meet him Matthew is receiving treatment for what it gradually becomes apparent is schizophrenia, possibly exacerbated by what happens to Simon, but also clearly a trait that has appeared in his family before.

Gradually, Matthew builds a picture for us of the events that led up to Simon’s death and its aftermath in terms of the breakdown that followed in his family life. What is remarkable about the book, however, is the way in which Filer allows us to experience something of the confusion in Matthew’s mind through the style in which the novel is written.  Although we are never less than certain what is going on we can still experience the changes in his behaviour as he withdraws from the programme (medical and social) intended to help him stabilise.  In part this is because much of the book is written in very short sections and it possible to indicate a change in mood or reaction to a medication (or lack thereof) in the turn of a page.  But it is also due to the way in which Filer has caught some fundamental characteristic about  Matthew’s voice and that characteristic stays with him throughout.

This may well be beginning to sound like a seriously depressing read and when I add that as well as dealing with death, mental illness and family breakdown the novel is also concerned with the wanton destruction of public services for those who suffer from mental ill health I am almost certainly confirming that opinion in your minds. However, that simply isn’t the case.  There is a great deal in the book that is really uplifting and a lot that is just downright funny.  Sometimes, of course, there is a wry edge to that humour.  Filer has a knack of putting his finger on a truth about either the illness or the services that makes you smile at the same time as making you wince. Anyone who has had anything to do with people suffering from schizophrenia will recognise the veracity of Matthew’s claim that this illness has a work ethic only too readily.

Filer is also very good at drawing heart-warming portraits of some of his characters. Who wouldn’t want to know Matthew’s Nanny Noo?

My grandmother (Mum’s mum, the one we call Nanny Noo) reads books by Danielle Steele and Catherine Cookson, and whenever she gets a new one the first thing she does is flip straight to the back to read the last page.

She always does that…

Nanny Noo made nice food.  She is one of those people who tries to feed you the moment you walk trough the door, and doesn’t stop trying to feed you until the moment you leave.  She might even make you a quick ham sandwich for your journey.

It’s a nice way to be.  I think people who are generous with food have a goodness about them.

Whatever lies behind it, whether it is food or her need to know what happens in a story before she reads it, Nanny Noo certainly has a goodness about her.

And there is a lot of goodness about this book as well.  Yes, there is heartbreak and there is anger as you are faced with the senseless way in which the state deals with the needs of those who are challenged by mental ill health.  (One in four of us, remember will have mental health problems at some point.)  But ultimately this is a book about the successes that it is still possible for anyone in a seemingly desperate position to find in their lives.  Those successes may be small in the eyes of some but that is their inability to appreciate what really counts.  For Matthew and his family every step forward is one that isn’t backwards and deserves to be celebrated as such.  If you don’t come away from this novel with your heart gladden I will be very surprised.