As the heading says, I am looking for some help here. Six months ago I started a Readers Group in the retirement complex where I now live. We meet once a month and share our reading experiences since we last met over tea, coffee and a large box of biscuits. It’s been very successful, not least because it has brought some people out of their apartments who would not normally join in with other activities. One of these is my friend Graeme, who is in the early stages of dementia. I think he is so brave to come and join in our discussions despite the fact he is finding it increasingly hard to recall what he has read. I have suggested that he makes a few notes about what he wants to say to bring with him and that has helped but the time is coming when getting pleasure from a full length novel is going to be more difficult and so I tentatively asked if he would be interested in reading some short stories. The problem is that, like me, Graeme primarily reads for plot and short stories don’t always fit with that type of reader’s tastes. Furthermore, his real passion at the moment is Dan Brown and with my very limited knowledge of the genre I can’t think of a collection I could recommend that would fit his preferences. I brought very few volumes of short stories with me when I came here and they are nearly all written by women. I certainly don’t have anything I think would be suitable. Can anyone suggest anything that might be appropriate? I would be very grateful and I know Graeme and his wife would be as well. Thank you in advance.
I’ve really fallen behind with my reviews over the past couple of weeks, partly because I’ve had a lot of preparation to do for other projects and partly because once more the dentist is looming large in my life. She told me on Tuesday that all the excavating that had to be done back in April when the rogue root was discovered embedded in my jaw means that before any restoration can be done I’m going to have to have a bone graft and a pin put in place. “You might want to clear your diary for the following week,” she said, rather ominously. I am choosing to interpret that as, “expect at least a fortnight of untold misery”. At least, that way, if I’m over-reacting I will have been prepared for the very worst. Anyway, in order to clear the decks I thought I would just offer a series of mini reviews so that I can start afresh at the beginning of next week.
An Officer and a Spy ~ Robert Harris
This was the second from my 15 Books of Summer list. It’s the first time I’ve joined in with this particular challenge and I can already see that I have approached it all wrong and may need to reorganise myself. Nevertheless, that did nothing to dim my pleasure in this book. As I’ve said before I chose it because I wanted to know more about the Dreyfus Affair, which rocked France during the last decade of the Nineteenth Century and wasn’t really resolved until almost the end of the 1900s. I’ve had a patchy experience where Harris is concerned but I thought this book was excellent. Told from the point of view of a French Army Officer, Georges Picquart, it starts on the morning on which Dreyfus, found guilty of passing secrets to the Germans, is publicly humiliated by having all the insignias of rank and regiment torn from his uniform. Picquart has been involved in bringing this about and is rewarded by being placed in charge of the intelligence unit that had been responsible for bringing Dreyfus down. Once he has access to all the unit’s secrets, however, Georges starts to suspect that the case against Dreyfus may well have been at best flawed, at worst manufactured, and so begins to dig more deeply into the affair. What he discovers is a conspiracy to protect the positions of the men in power in both army and state at whatever cost to the truth even if that cost should include men’s lives.
This is a chilling story extremely well told. It is particularly chilling because of the parallels so easily drawn with our own times: the incipient anti-semitism at the heart of national institutions, the conspiracy to cover-up the wrong doings of men of power, and the ease with which the media can stir up mob hysteria in the populous. It needs Picquart at its heart, a man determined to uncover the truth despite the cost to himself, otherwise the reader would come away thoroughly ashamed to be a member of the human race.
A Closed and Common Orbit ~ Becky Chambers
This was the novel chosen for Wednesday’s book group meeting and it provoked a lot of discussion. It is the second in a sequence of three science fiction books and although those who had read the first thought you didn’t need to know what had gone before the rest of us disagreed. The storyline stood on its own, but we felt we had missed a lot of the ‘world-building’ that had happened in the first novel and were at times floundering a bit. Like most science fiction, the book asks questions about the way in which a society works which can be seen as relevant to both the fictional world and our own. In this instance these were mainly to do with the autonomy of the individual, gender fluidity and the definition of sentience. Although not everyone agreed with me, my own feelings were that these were treated with too light a hand. I did find myself wondering who the intended audience was, because personally this was a book I would have given to teenagers rather than to adults.
Black Summer ~ M W Craven
Just before Christmas, I wrote about The Puppet Show, the first in Craven’s Washington Poe series, here. As I said then, Craven was my crime fiction discovery of the year and Black Summer has only served to reinforce this view. DS Washington Poe is now back with the Serious Crime Analysis Section (SCAS) full time. Based, as it is, in Hampshire, this means that he spends far less time than he would like in his beloved Cumbria but this changes when a young woman walks into the Alston library and tells the police officer based there once a month as a ‘problem solver’ that she is Elizabeth Keaton. As far as the law is concerned Elizabeth Keaton was killed six years previously and it was Poe who was mainly responsible for putting her father, world famous chef, Jared Keaton, behind bars for her murder. If Elizabeth is still alive then Jared is innocent and given that very few people would argue that he is a dangerous psychopath, this doesn’t bode well for Poe. Matters become even more complicated when Elizabeth vanishes for a second time and the evidence seems to suggest that Poe has something to do with her disappearance. Never one to suffer fools gladly, the DS has made enemies in his home force and as some of those climb the ranks they are only too pleased to have the opportunity to bring him to book. However, while Washington may have enemies he also has friends, two in particular: his immediate boss, DI Stephanie Flynn and the brilliant, if socially inept, young analyst, Tilly Bradshaw. When, at two in the afternoon, Poe texts Tilly to say that he is in trouble he expects that she will drop everything and turn up sometime the following afternoon. Fifteen hours early at three in the morning isn’t quite been what he’s been counting on, but Poe is Tilly’s friend and in her book that’s what friends do. Tilly Bradshaw is one of my favourite characters in fiction. Her incisive mind cuts through everything. I don’t care that she frequently doesn’t know how to act in a social situation. Tilly tells it how it is and I applaud her for it. What is more, she is brilliant at discerning patterns and, although I don’t think there is quite enough Tilly in this book, she it is who finally has the insight that explains what is going on and leads the case to its conclusion. Possibly the best thing about this book is the way in which it ends because it makes it clear that there is going to be a third in the series. If you enjoy crime fiction and you haven’t read Craven then I can’t recommend him too highly.
At a time when everyone else in the blogging world seems to be reading Diane Setterfield’s latest novel, Once Upon A River, I found myself picking up her previous offering, Bellman and Black, it being this month’s choice for one of my Book Groups. I didn’t particularly enjoy Setterfield’s first novel, The Thirteenth Tale, even though it was such a commercial success, and the fact that it was promoted on the cover as a ghost story didn’t do anything to attract me to this second volume – I haven’t read ghost stories since I was fourteen. But that’s the whole point of a Book Group, isn’t it? Or at least it is of the two to which I belong. We read books we would otherwise never have picked up because we trust the instincts of the other group members. I find it very hard to believe, but this particular group is now in its seventeenth year and during that time I have discovered several authors whose books I would never normally have picked up but who now feature regularly on my reading lists. So, remembering that the person who had chosen this also introduced me to David Mitchell and Kamila Shamsie, I dived in.
When William Bellman is ten, cheered on by his cousin Charles and friends Fred and Luke, he takes up his catapult, pulls off a remarkable shot and kills a rook. This is the novel’s opening scene and the reader is encouraged to believe that this incident will colour everything that happens to William from that day on. Although a grandson of the local Mill owner, it is not William who is in line to take up the business but his cousin, Charles. However, Charles has no interest in the business, indeed no interest in living in England. His love of painting takes him off to Italy and it is William who joins Paul, his uncle, in the family concern and whose fresh eye and keen brain soon transforms the Mill and all the associated trades. When his grandfather dies and Paul takes over there is nothing left to stand in the way of William one day succeeding his uncle and not only running, but substantially expanding and innovating the Mill himself. Happily married and with four small children everything seems to be going William’s way until an unnamed epidemic (we speculated either typhoid or diphtheria) hits the village and his wife and three youngest children die while Dora, his eldest, is left both disabled and disfigured.
At each of the funerals he is called upon to attend William is drawn to a shadowy figure in black, someone he feels he should know but just can’t quite pin down in his memory. Memory is something that William avoids, even though Dora tries to recall the family life that they had once known. William is all to do with thought and as the book reminds us,
[there] is a story much older than this one in which two ravens – which are nothing but large rooks – were companions and advisors to the great God of the north. One bird was called Huginn, which in that place and time meant Thought, and the other Muninn, which meant Memory.
In giving himself over entirely to thought and neglecting to remember his family and all those who were important to him, William cuts himself off from the people who love him and who might have saved him as he becomes more and more obsessed with meeting what he sees as an obligation to the black-coated, shadowy figure from the graveyard. And yet, ironically, it is memory which is at the root of his next great business success as he goes on to found the magnificent London emporium, Bellman & Black, where everything you need to commemorate your recently departed loved one can be found under one roof. It was the description of the building and the fitting out of this store (one bound to bring almost unlimited success at the height of Victorian mourning traditions) that I enjoyed most. Bought up in trade and with a love of ordering and organising, I was fascinated by the minutiae of how William builds this new business from quite literally the ground upwards. But, although his name is over the door and on all the carriages and letterheads, the mysterious Black is never seen and gradually his absence begins to build in importance in William’s mind and brings about the novel’s conclusion.
We had a really good discussion about this book, mainly because although we had all found it eminently readable, we none of us thought that it quite held together. Our main complaint was that Setterfield had started too many ideas and not really developed any of them sufficiently. Too often we felt we were having to search for an explanation as to how a particular incident fitted into the overall scheme of things and as a result the ideas, if not the narrative itself, seemed disjointed and not fully developed. Our estimation of the character of William, however, differed. While some found his obsession with his work disturbing and difficult to understand, others felt it chimed with the experience of trying to build a career in a challenging climate. Ulitimately, of course, William fails because to be obsessed with death in life is to deny living, until all that is left is death itself, those things which make living worthwhile having never been enjoyed. The book begins and ends with William’s death. Whether or not he can be said to have lived in the interim is for the individual reader to decide.
It’s been a busy week! It started with a visit to the dentist, never a good move. In this case even less of a good move than usual as we ended up planning an intensive programme of further visits over the next six months or so. There’s a passage in one of Helene Hanff’s books where she tells how she has been intending to visit London only to discover that she is going to have to spend her savings on dental treatment instead. I know just how she must have felt. As I watched the projected costs mounting I could hear Jolyon Bear (he who keeps hold of the purse strings) in my head telling me that it is going to be the library for me for the next year or two.
Then I had my first assignment to write for my Shakespeare course – only 500 words, but that actually made it all the more difficult. I just about managed it (518) in as much as I answered the question, but there was no room for eloquence and I always feel that anything you write should take account of the “music” of the words as well as the content. This felt more like a simple check list of the points I needed to make than anything else. Submitting it electronically was fun too as the instructions provided bore very little resemblance to what actually happened when I tried to download it onto the University site. In the end one of the other students (a software engineer) and I found a way to get round the problem but IT support and I are going to have words tomorrow morning. A Russell Group University should not be making mistakes like that.
So, all in all there has been very little time for reading or blogging this week. I have just finished Mari Hannah’s latest Oliver and Stone novel, The Scandal, which comes out at the beginning of March so I will leave a review until nearer the publication date. I like Hannah’s work very much and for the most part this was no exception. My one quibble was that she stood on a particular soapbox and thumped a particular drum rather too loudly and obviously and weakened her argument as a result, but more later.
I am also halfway through Diane Setterfield’s second novel, Bellman and Black which is next week’s Book Group choice. I was one of the few people who didn’t like The Thirteenth Tale. I was getting along fine with it until about three quarters of the way through and then the plot lost credibility for me and I felt cheated. I was getting along fine with this book too until yesterday when it suddenly took a turn that left me feeling a bit grubby for reading it, so I’m not certain how I’m going to respond to what I still have left to read. Still, at least there will be something to talk about next Wednesday. One of the things that I am most interested in is how unusual a choice it is for the person whose turn it was to select the book. I’m also interested in the fact that I feel that way. Perhaps we stereotype each other as particular categories of readers too easily. It’s a lazy way of thinking.
Having settled into my new surroundings one of the things that I wanted to do was expand my circle of local friends. I chose where I was going to move to quite deliberately because I already knew a good number of people living here, but they are all from within a certain circle and I thought it would be good to broaden that out. The obvious way forward was to join a(nother) book group, but there were certain problems with that. Firstly, the local library group already has sixteen members, which I consider too many for a decent discussion, and secondly, I belong to two groups which read and discuss specified novels and having two books a month dictated by other people’s tastes is quite enough, thank you. So, I approached the library about starting a different sort of group, although one that I have had experience of before, and this evening we are to have our first meeting.
The idea is very simple. We (no more than a dozen or it becomes impractical) will meet once a month to each talk briefly about what we have read since the last time we got together. There are all sorts of benefits to this sort of group. No one feels any pressure to read something they are not enjoying. There isn’t the problem of everyone trying to get hold of limited library copies of the same book. (The librarians particularly like that aspect!) You can come along even if you are still struggling with whatever you were trying to read last month and simply comment on your progress or lack thereof. It doesn’t matter how you have accessed the book; there is one young woman interested who is blind and always uses audiobooks. And, perhaps most importantly, you get to ‘meet’ new authors that you might never otherwise have thought of reading. This is how I first came across writers like Patrick Gale and Richard Russo, now both ‘must reads’ as far as I’m concerned. This latter point can mean that even though we don’t set out to be a discussion group discussion will often arise because over time a number of people will have read the same book and inevitably have a variety of views about it. (Note to self: don’t damn anything outright, it might be someone else’s favourite ever book and you may never see them again.)
I have no idea how many are going to turn up this evening. We have advertised the group in the library and in the local newspapers. (The Bears were very aggrieved that only my picture turned up in the Bromsgrove Standard; they thought it would have been much more effective if they had been included as well, probably quite rightly.) I am expecting at least four but the librarians say they have had several enquiries from people who haven’t spoken to me so it could be that we are full from the word go. I shall just have to wait and see. Further reports as the week progresses!
February 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.
I 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?
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.
I 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 Fiction as 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.
One 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 show 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?