Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

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Good Morning, MidnightIn 1930s Paris, where one cheap hotel room is very like another, a young woman is teaching herself indifference. She has escaped personal tragedy and has come to France to find courage and seek independence. She tells herself to expect nothing, especially not kindness, least of all from men. Tomorrow, she resolves, she will dye her hair blonde. Jean Rhys creates the powerfully modern portrait of Sophia Jansen, whose emancipation is far more painful and complicated than she could expect, but whose confession is flecked with triumph and elation.

Much of our discussion revolved around the narrator’s mental state, as this is primarily what the novel concerns itself with. We meet Sasha in 1930s’ Paris, a place she associates with happier times, but it is immediately obvious how displaced and notably at odds she is in the environment now. Sasha sits uneasy in her own skin, not belonging anywhere, or with anyone, living hand-to-mouth and stumbling from one rented apartment to another, terribly self-conscious and fearful. Her soul seems crushed and we could feel the weight of her depression and quiet desperation right through the pages, but only found out why she has reached such a state of vulnerability and utter hopelessness much later in the novel. Or perhaps not utter hopelessness; we noted Sasha’s adolescent attempts to self-heal, to achieve some modicum of happiness and self-worth with a new haircut, a stylish outfit, or a room with light. She has little sputters of hope that a cosmetic plaster can cover up the gaping wounds in her soul, which we know, of course, are destined to fail. Her inability to “pick herself up” initially frustrated some readers, but by the end of our discussion, after we had considered the factors that would push someone so far down a black hole and whether we would all have the mental tools to deal with these challenges, we concurred that Sasha deserved some sympathy and understanding.

We all agreed what an utterly depressing novel this was. We discussed, at length, the reasons why Sasha seemed lacking in emotional resilience and the basic ability to look after herself. Although this was a time when more and more women had careers, Sasha’s patriarchal upbringing and then marriage meant she never learned to be independent, to budget, to build an identity of her own. We weren’t sure how this novel sat within a feminist reading; on the one hand Sasha is gadding about Paris alone, drinking too much, wasting money and almost sleeping with gigolos. On the other hand she has decided to slowly drink herself to death because she has lost her child, her husband and her home, and therefore has nothing…surely a woman is more than a wife and mother? Much is made of her fading, ageing looks; the thought of not being sexually appealing to men seems like another nail in the coffin to her. Overall, a short novel with much to analyse and feel, but rather too depressing to enjoy.

We gave Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys an overall rating of 6 out of 10, with scores ranging from 5 to 8.

Rita, Carnegie Library Book Group

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Macbeth by Jo Nesbo

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MacbethPart of the Hogarth Shakespeare project, which invites modern novelists to reimagine some of Shakespeare’s most celebrated plays, we have Macbeth, by the king of Scandi-noir, Jo Nesbo.

The Scottish play is transplanted to a geographic location which mixes terms of Scottish and Scandinavian origin. A grim northern town where industry has shut down and it nearly always rains. Macbeth, a man of the people, leads a paramilitary Swat team. Duncan is the chief commissioner of the police, and Malcolm his deputy. The leader of the narcotics unit is known simply as ‘Duff’. Consumed by ambition, and spurred to action by his wife, Macbeth murders Duncan (stabbing him in his sleep). Forced to commit more and more murders to protect himself, he becomes wracked with guilt and suspicion.

Only one of the group managed to finish the book. It was given a resounding 0 out of 10, which is a shame. The mythical location left everyone confused, and the characters failed to grip. I’ve read a lot of Jo Nesbo and was looking forward to this, but it was a struggle to finish it. We now know a lot more about the story of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which is one positive outcome…

Sara, Clapham Library Crime Reading Group

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer

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pumpkin eaterIn this extraordinary, semi-autobiographical novel, Penelope Mortimer depicts a married woman’s breakdown in 1960s London. With three husbands in her past, one in her present and a numberless army of children, Mrs Armitage is astonished to find herself collapsing one day in Harrods. Strange, unsettling and shot through with black comedy, this is a moving account of one woman’s realisation that marriage and family life may not, after all, offer all the answers to the problems of living.

We had quite mixed views about The Pumpkin Eater reflecting its score of 6.4.

Mortimer ‘s most famous novel was published in 1962 before the advent of Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer. It’s quite a brave work of literature, tackling the rather claustrophobic domestic situation many women found themselves in during the fifties. The protagonist Mrs Armitage never reveals her Christian name . We sensed that this showed her loss of identity. We shared experiences of our mothers, some of whom were clearly depressed by being trapped in a life of domesticity, expected to see their main roles as that of producing children and making homes for their husbands as comfortable as possible. Mrs Armitage is actually very privileged . Jake , her husband, says ” She’s got everything any woman could want- clothes, a car, servants. She’s attractive.” Yet she is not happy, she is seeing a therapist, trying to come to terms with her situation.” Although Mrs Armitage is excellent at giving birth to numerous children, she shows very little interest in her children, naming only Dinah. We were very shocked at her attitude towards her children. The boarding school tradition of upper and middle class parents packing their children off at a young age was discussed. Mrs Armitage seemed perfectly happy to say goodbye to three of her children without a backward glance.

Mrs Armitage is already with her fourth husband when we meet her. The novel is clearly semi autobiographical, mirroring Penelope Mortimer’s own experiences in many ways. The writer John Mortimer was her fourth husband. A passionate woman, when Mrs Armitage is faced with her husband’s infidelities, she breaks down. Her life without him seems unbearable. “Jake and life became confused in my mind and inseparable. He increased monstrously, became the sky, the earth, the enemy, the unknown.” His ultimate betrayal is to persuade her to have an abortion and to be sterilised. She doesn’t know at the time that he has got his mistress pregnant. Some women, we agreed, feel their lives are over when they are no longer of child bearing age, whilst others are relieved to be past the menopause. We looked at how the position of women has changed in many ways for the better but there is still a long way to go before we have real equality with men. There are encouraging signs of young men sharing more of the childcare etc but somehow women have allowed themselves to often have taken on even more demanding roles, trying to be everything to everyone. Wives, mothers, bosses, carers, homebuilders, superb cooks, bakers etc etc. Every marriage is different and every long term relationship is going to encounter problems. Mrs Armitage came across as self centred and lacking in empathy. She had no female friends and no hobbies or interests. No wonder she had difficulties, she was too obsessed with her husband, had too little to occupy her mind. We’re not even sure that she is being honest, she confesses that she is not even sure herself how much was true and how much she had dreamt.

It seemed to us that Penelope Mortimer was taking a risk writing so obviously about her own experiences, exposing her children and family to public view. However, she probably has helped some women feel less alone in their domestic misery! The title is taken from the nursery rhyme “Peter,peter, pumpkin eater, had a wife and couldn’t keep her. He put her in a pumpkin shell and there he kept her very well.” Husbands felt a duty to keep their wives, the wives often resented this. Roles between men and women can still be confused today. Men who become househusbands often encounter prejudice and disapproval, working mothers still have to battle for acceptance in the workplace. Penelope Mortimer’s rather grim picture of the male /female dynamic is still relevant. Some of us were absorbed by this rather emotional and demanding novel, others were less enamoured. But overall we found it a worthwhile read and it prompted some very good discussions.

Penelope Mortimer could be described as an” angry young woman”, she certainly caused a stir when The Pumpkin Eater was first published. Many feminist works have followed, yet The Pumpkin Eater could have been written yesterday. I think it deserves to have become a classic. One or two of us may well disagree. But that’s what makes being in a reading group so fascinating.

Jan, Upper Norwood Library Book Club

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

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LolitaPoet and pervert, Humbert Humbert becomes obsessed by twelve-year-old Lolita and seeks to possess her, first carnally and then artistically, out of love, ‘to fix once for all the perilous magic of nymphets’. Is he in love or insane? A silver-tongued poet or a pervert? A tortured soul or a monster? Or is he all of these?

Carnegie Library Reading Group met to discuss Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. As expected the book elicited very strong feelings in response to Humbert Humbert and his sexually obsessive proclivity for pre-pubescent girls. Some of us found being in HH’s head as the first person narrator discomfiting and often disgusting, yet the quality of Nabokov’s writing and capacity for storytelling kept us reading. We weren’t impressed by HH’s attempts to distance himself from himself and underplay his urges with third person references to his own “foolish” desires. We also noted the preoccupation with names and naming: Lolita is rebranded by HH, her mother and most other characters, which gives them authority over her to decide what she is and means to them, which cleverly and subtly highlights where the balance of power lies.

We reminded ourselves that we only know Lolita through the eyes of HH, who is writing an account/confession/mental health journal in retrospect, and is an unreliable narrator as his mental stability is called into question. We pondered over the end of the novel, which takes a surreal cross-country turn culminating in murder, and wondered how contrite HH truly was, whether he understood the true impact of his actions…and, indeed, what impact he did have as Lolita’s life seemingly pans out fine. We discussed what the point of writing such a novel was, with opinions divided: some of us thought it was a very real and necessary subject to shine light on and, if not understand, to at least address in discussion. Some of us felt such a text had no place in a library, or being published at all, it was so deviant.

The final score for Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov was 6 out of 10, the ratings ranging the full gamut of 0 to 10!

Rita, Carnegie Library Reading Group

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

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WarlightLondon, 1945. The capital is still reeling from the war. 14-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister Rachel are abandoned by their parents who leave the country on business, and are left in the dubious care of a mysterious figure named The Moth. Nathaniel is introduced to The Moth’s band of criminal misfits and is caught up in a series of teenage misadventures, from smuggling greyhounds for illegal dog racing to lovers’ trysts in abandoned buildings at night.

But is this eccentric crew really what and who they claim to be? And most importantly, what happened to Nathaniel’s mother? Was her purported reason for leaving true? What secrets did she hide in her past? Years later Nathaniel, now an adult, begins to slowly piece together using the files of intelligence agencies – and through reality, recollection and imagination – the startling truths of puzzles formed decades earlier.

I was hooked from the start. Taken in by the parents initial move abroad and the children packed off to boarding school. However I felt confused by this mother who seemed to be so caring before she left, to suddenly not communicate when her children were unhappy in boarding school. Nathaniel was almost feral at this point. I could feel Rachel’s sense of betrayal when she discovered the suitcase of her mothers carefully packed clothes. I thought perhaps not such a clever spy to leave clues like that.

Both Moth and Darter fascinated me. They clearly were out of their depth when caring for children. The true events unravel in the second half of the book and I warmed to both Moth and Darter. I felt sorry for Rachel as her relationship with her mother had been so badly damage. This book has induced me to read “The cat’s table” unlike “the English patient”. I gave this book 8/10.

Liz, Upper Norwood Library Book Club

I just adored the book, sublime from beginning to end. One of the reviews sums up my thoughts completely, ‘ for my money Michael Ondaatje is (one of) the greatest living writers in the English language… He restores belief in the beauty and power of literature and, by extension, humanity. I have loved all of his books, and I was so immersed in this one that I did not want to leave it behind… An unreserved 10 out 10 for me.

Irene, Upper Norwood Library Book Club

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

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The LifeboatIt is 1914 and Europe is on the brink of war. When a magnificent ocean liner suffers a mysterious explosion en route to New York City, Henry Winter manages to secure a place in a lifeboat for his new wife Grace. But the survivors quickly realize the boat is over capacity and could sink at any moment. For any to live, some must die. Over the course of three perilous weeks, the passengers on the lifeboat plot, scheme, gossip and console one another while sitting inches apart. Their deepest beliefs are tested to the limit as they begin to discover what they will do in order to survive.

We had the most consensus for a very long time about Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel The Lifeboat. That meant its final score rather flattered, coming in just under 5/5, despite the general misgivings about the novel.

Everyone found it easy to read and a page-turner but the ending proved unsatisfying for so many of us. In fact the whole book on reflection failed to engage in terms of the characters and their predicament – summed up in the general feeling: ‘It pulled me in but it left me cold’.

The structure used a court case to bookend a tale of raw human survival on a lifeboat at the break of the second world war. The action on the lifeboat was recorded as extended journal the narrator Grace put together for her lawyer preparing her case. As it was done from memory, rather than showing the action in real-time, it had the effect of distancing the reader from the emotions and the experiences of the people on board. One reader said she felt she ‘ought to care but she didn’t’.

The sheer number of people on the boat – 40 at the beginning of the rescue from the doomed ocean liner – meant the writer set herself a difficult task to do much more than sketch in the characters. Without feeling the intense involvement we yearned to have with the narrator, the motivations for the moral transgressions that stacked up as the story went on were harder to identify with. There were some compelling details from the off: the little boy ‘with the bow tie and the dead blonde mother’ that Mr Hardie battled away with his oar. And the themes came through strongly, particularly the question of morality versus the greater good. Did those who stood by and let others do the dirty work, like Anya and little Charles whom she kept under her skirt, complicit in the horrors? Mrs Grant was felt to be the most fleshed-out and dominant character with her ability to manipulate others and ultimately turn people murderously against Mr Hardie, the only person with sailing experience and the very one who’d kept people alive thus far.

It was the shifting power games and the hope of rescue that drove the story for us. Perhaps that was why everyone felt so shortchanged by the ending, which denied us experiencing the emotions of the rescue. Instead we were given the court-case, brought by we-weren’t-sure-who, against Mrs Grant and her sidekick Hannah and Grace, our narrator, over the death of Mr Hardie. The rescue we’d yearned for was then summed up in a perfunctory way.

For most of us, as is often the case at our stellar bookclub, people got more out of the discussion than the reading of the novel!

Esther, Upper Norwood Library Book Club

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

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madame-bovaryWhen Emma Rouault marries Charles Bovary she imagines she will pass into the life of luxury and passion that she reads about in sentimental novels and women’s magazines. But Charles is a dull country doctor, and provincial life is very different from the romantic excitement for which she yearns. In her quest to realize her dreams she takes a lover, and begins a devastating spiral into deceit and despair.

Considered, on publication, morally outrageous by some and widely admired by many for its literary style,offering the first, perhaps, in a long modern line of doomed adulterous heroines, this book earned rather a mixed reception at the February meeting of the Upper Norwood Library Reading Group. For some it had been a laborious read and difficult to finish; others found it a quick read but not particularly engaging. The quantities of factual detail and the recondite vocabulary made it seem very 19th Century and , for most of us, the way Flaubert depicted his characters didn’t make them very likeable.

Emma’s husband Charles earned a bit of sympathy and there was a lively discussion about Emma herself and her attempts to escape her straitened circumstances and give expression to her romantic yearnings through marriage, lavish spending , two ill-starred affairs and suicide. The issues raised, about marriages, women’s opportunities,social mobility ,snobbery and the influence of media on ones imaginings were still felt relevant (The way she got ever deeper in debt, very contemporary!).

We wondered about whether this was, as is often claimed, a “realist” novel; the people seeming rather caricatured. There were also some reservations about the uneven plot, which worked well enough for the most part, but many felt the closing passages to be too perfunctory in the way they disposed of the other characters after Emma’s protracted death.

The scores we gave ranged from 3 to 7 and averaged at 5.4 (All in all, the discussion probably more enjoyable than the book.)

Peter, Upper Norwood Library Reading Group.