Another year of Book Club is reaching it’s end. We have chosen our books for next year, and will be busy getting hold of them over the summer.
Meanwhile, these are the books we have read this (academic) year, and this is what we thought of them…
The Discovery of Heaven – Harry Mulisch
Russia: A Journey to the Heart of a Land and its People – Jonathon Dimbleby
Two books this month and I haven’t read either of them! The first because I couldn’t find a copy anywhere, and the second, although I had bought the book, to be perfectly honest, I just didn’t want to.
Wasn’t sure if I should go to the meeting, but went along anyway to say hello to everyone after the summer break. There were some new faces, although in actual fact they were just old faces who had re-joined the group after a few years absence. Neither book got good reviews, so I don’t feel so bad about the Jonathan Dimbleby. The consensus was that his book was more about himself than Russia, and that it was more of a contractual obligation than an investigation into the ‘heart of a land and it’s people’. We have read books about Russia before in the group, so maybe we’re a bit jaded with it all. The Discovery of Heaven, on the other hand still sounds quite a tempting read. The author is Dutch and the book opens in Den Haag and tells the story leading up to the birth of a boy with a destiny. Two angels manipulate the events of history to bring about his birth, and the themes are theological, philosophical, historical and political. On second thoughts, I’m not going out of my way to get hold of a copy.
The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson
My choice. A slim volume in which a crazy old Swedish man escapes from his own 100th birthday party in an old peoples home, and wreaks havoc around the countryside with a gang of assorted petty (and not so petty) criminals, some accidental mishaps (death by elephant) and a suitcase full of drugs money. Along the way, we learn that as an explosives expert, he has been an unwitting catalyst to almost every important event in modern history befriending such important figures as Stalin, Churchill, Truman, Mao, Franco and de Gaulle. I loved the descriptions of Sweden, the dark humour of the gang of villains, and the plausibility that his life story might actually be true.
The Uninvited Guests – Sadie Jones
What can I say? I didn’t like Sadie Jones previous book, The Outcasts finding it rather formulaic and stilted, and I didn’t like this book much either. The story is set in an Edwardian country house as the impoverished occupants prepare for a 20th birthday dinner. But everything starts to go wrong when a train crashes nearby, and the surviving passengers are sent to the manor for shelter. With the man of the house away on business, and the trusty servants sent to help with the crash victims, the phone lines break, and the ‘helpless’ women folk are forced to deal with the ever increasing numbers of uninvited guests. You could argue that there is dark magic afoot as the household descends into chaos.
The characters are thoroughly nasty, and the story contrived and predictable. Reviews call it a ‘darkly humorous, unsettling and ghostly tale’ but it didn’t make me laugh.
Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
Prompted by the recent death of Doris Lessing at the age of 94, and the subsequent outpouring of reviews for her contributions to 20th century feminist literature, this book was certainly a challenge for us Book Clubbers. Written in 1962, it was certainly a defiant text for the time, dealing as it does with topics that had rarely appeared in print before. The protagonist is a divorced single mother with a career, an interest in Feminism, the Communist party, married men, homosexuality, and body functions. As with the author herself, the heroine is a native of South Africa living in London, and it is hard to avoid the implication that it is largely autobiographical. Not all of us managed to finish the book, some skipping over ‘the bits about communism’, others just blatantly giving up. I’m glad I finished it, but the reader really has to imagine life in the 50’s & 60’s when, unlike today, topics such as sex, menstruation, defecation and the descent into mental illness were not generally mentioned in polite society.
Brighton Rock – Graham Greene
It was good to have this modern classic to read over the Christmas break. A story of 1930’s Brighton gangland which was first made into a film starring Richard Attenborough in 1947. A new adaptation has recently been filmed starring Helen Mirren (2010). We were able to have a good discussion about the plot, the characters and the contemporary setting of the book, which was familiar to some of us, but completely new to others. What was Pinkie trying to prove? Would Ida really have followed up on such a vague story after a chance snippet in the newspaper? Why does Rose behave in such an incredibly foolish way? It was interesting to read the book with a little knowledge of the geography of Brighton, and with the hindsight of 1930’s England. It’s a good story, well written and deserves it’s place in literary history.
A Fortune Teller Told Me – Tiziano Terzani
I thought this book had great promise, starting from the premise that the author, a well known Italian journalist, had been warned by a fortune teller that it would be dangerous for him to fly anywhere in the year 1993. Accepting this challenge, as much by perversity as by superstition, he manages to spend a year travelling around Asia and the Far East, by road, rail and boat, continuing his work in as normal a way as possible. He adds to his personal challenge by determining to consult a fortune-teller in each country he visits. When a plane carrying Terzani’s colleage crashes en route to cover Terzani’s own story, there is a great opportunity for the book to develop into a mystical discovery of the powers of mystics, shamans and sooth sayers, but instead we see how disillusioned he becomes with the endless offering of ambiguities they dispense. His documentation of travels to Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Mongolia, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia are very interesting and insightful, and he is able to examine the ways in which these countries are changing in the modern world. He may have avoided a plane crash, but he has discovered a slower and more personal way of life. He also discovers yoga!
The Orphan Master’s Son – Adam Johnson
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and a string of other literary awards, this one has to be on my shortlist for book of the year! Some of our book clubbers didn’t like this book, and it does indeed have many unpleasant passages, but for my part, I thought it was a great read.
Set in North Korea, it’s the story of Jun Do, a citizen who begins life in an orphanage, believing he is the secret offspring of the Master, who treats him even more cruelly than the other children, so that no one will suspect this truth. As he grows up, his career progresses through a series of bizarre coincidences, which are horrifyingly believable. The author has visited North Korea, and many of the story lines in the book are taken from the testimonies of gulag survivors. In a country where it is impossible for citizens to have any personal desires, motivations or fears, every citizen must bow to the will of the Party, and ultimately Kim Jong Il. While this book is a fiction, most of the events are based on fact, the kidnapping of a singer, the permanent state of near starvation, but alongside the brutality, and almost unreadable torture scenes, there is a great deal of humour in the book, as the awful situations Jun Do finds himself in, lead indirectly to the next step in his story.
There is a lot in this book, not all of it very palatable, but certainly all of it very readable, and unfortunately very believable.
1Q84 – Haruki Murakami.
I have read Haruki Murakami before, and still not made up my mind about his books. I wonder if there is something inherently different about the Japanese mindset that I am missing, something perhaps that has been lost in translation. Again, the book clubbers were divided on this one, some really liking it, and others not so impressed (me!).
The book is in three volumes, though not exactly a trilogy, and is the story of a boy and a girl, a world with two moons, a book within a book (ghost written by the boy) a religious cult, an assassin (the girl), the Little People, and a dead goat. While there is plenty of scope for weirdness in Murakami’s writing, it never seems quite weird enough, it’s as if he’s dabbling with weirdness. I think the thing about writing weirdness, is that it has to be believable, and serve to lead the reader through the story with some purpose. One might argue that this lack of purpose is exactly what Murakami wants from his weirdness, I might argue that he’ll have at least one fewer reader in that case.
A Secret Kept – Tatiana de Rosnay.
At last, some consensus amongst the Book Clubbers, we did not like this book! Several of the group had already read Sarah’s Key by the same author, a book in the ‘Holocaust’ genre according to Wikipedia, which they all highly recommend. This book, however fails to live up to it. It is the story of a brother and sister, he with a failed marriage behind him, and she still unmarried and childless at 40. The uncovering of a family secret through a long winding series of events, is tortuously delayed firstly by a car crash which renders the sister unconscious for a few chapters just as she is about to reveal her crucial memories, and then by the same sister turning her back on the whole story and refusing to take any further interest. When we finally and painfully expose the secret, it seems an enormous let down. ‘So what?’ We all asked ourselves. Maybe we should have been more shocked to discover that their mother was having an affair before she died of a brain aneurism at an early age, the twist being that the affair was with another woman. Should we put ourselves in the position of a well-bred Parisian family in the 1960’s and be horrified, embarrassed and ashamed by this revelation? Does the fact of the affair being with a woman make it any worse than a regular heterosexual affair? If the father had been having an affair would that have been equally shocking? In the end, all the characters involved in the scandal are dead or dying, and so the truth can never be known, the secret is indeed kept.
Sugar Salt Fat – Michael Moss
Obviously, it’s not June yet, so we haven’t discussed the book.
Let’s face it, we all know these things are bad for us. We all know that big food companies want to sell their products, and we all know that they sell their products by putting sugar, salt and fat in them to make them taste better. Not sure we now need to read a book about it though.