Persuasion by Jane Austen

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jane‘Twenty-seven-year old Anne Elliot is Austen’s most adult heroine. Eight years before the story proper begins, she is happily betrothed to a naval officer, Frederick Wentworth, but she precipitously breaks off the engagement when persuaded by her friend Lady Russell that such a match is unworthy. The breakup produces in Anne a deep and long-lasting regret. When later Wentworth returns from sea a rich and successful captain, he finds Anne’s family on the brink of financial ruin and his own sister a tenant in Kellynch Hall, the Elliot estate. All the tension of the novel revolves around one question: Will Anne and Wentworth be reunited in their love?’

Jane Austen is obviously not for all. The group were divided about Persuasion, even Austen fans agreed it wasn’t her best. ‘Clumsy prose, boring story, and a narrow field of social focus.’ Oh dear.. All possibly valid criticisms, but a spirited defense was made. Persuasion was published posthumously, and therefore probably suffered from a lack of revision and polishing.

On the most basic level Persuasion is an outdated love story, set among the landed gentry, and it’s easy to understand the lack of appeal to many people. However, to others, Jane Austen’s novels are comic and entertaining, full of delicate, ironic observations on the social customs of the times, and her plots highlight societal flaws and the sorry plight of women in the 18th century.

Sara, Clapham Library Reading Group

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The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson

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The Waterloo library August reading group book was Jonas Jonasson’s The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden. Jonasson is an ex-journalist; with this bit of context the book makes a lot of sense. The story is fast paced, every exploit is entertaining, and the subject matter is often disturbing, but somehow – skillfully, we thought – light enough to be a topic for discussion rather than a period of mourning.

Jonasson’s journalistic past also makes us readers wonder how much of the book is derived from the author’s experiences ‘behind the scenes’. For journalists, the daily practice of social self-editing becomes written output. They must have to hide a lot of what they think.

We wondered as a group whether Jonasson had met men like the drunken engineer, given such force of identity that they never learn to think, their thoughts become static and they rely on clever people without the protection of identity status, whose lives they control. Has he met kings who want to be farmers? Has he met anyone who has had to be as ingenious/adaptable/gutsy as Nambuko? We spoke about how status and power in the book are shown to lead to all kinds of fundamentalism – the characters without stability or status are the ones who are most ready for life’s challenges.

We also talked about how Jonasson’s energetic style works when applied to his subject matter. Some of the most devastating events of the twentieth century are woven into his story – events in the book correlate with events in history and the book deals with apartheid South Africa, Mossad and the Cold War. This light treatment of heavy events is a problem – is Jonasson being too glib? Or is he drawing our attention to the fact that what we read in the news is a woefully condensed – and often entertaining – account of actions which impact on lives. Maybe Jonasson thinks that there are urgent lessons to be learned from the crazy world of journalism (“anyone who has involuntarily driven around with an atomic bomb in the back of his truck knows the feeling”) and deploys humour to that end. Or maybe this story is closer to fantasy or escapism. We can only speculate – and enjoy.

Samantha, Waterloo Library book group

 

Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis

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This month the Waterloo Library Reading Group focused on a book written in 1952 by a Cretan philosopher and adventurer. Nikos Kazantzakis was born in 1883 and studied law at Athens University and philosophy at the Sorbonne before travelling for two years with Angelos Sikelianos, a poet, playwright and enthusiastic nationalist. While travelling the two writers poured their energies into finding ways to ‘elevating the human spirit’ through religion, art, writing and travel.

While not an autobiography, Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek is quite obviously influenced by the writer’s life, in particular the time the author spent running a lignite mine on the Mani Peninsula with a miner named Georges Zorba. The book tells the story of an intellectual who, having recently said goodbye to a close friend and fellow academic, meets a miner named Alexis Zorba and decides to experience the life of the ‘working man’ by mining for lignite in a Cretan village. It is written from the perspective of the intellectual, who is consistently in awe of the ability of Zorba and the villagers to live in the moment.

There is an irony to this, which our group talked about; the book tells its readers to get out of the book and into the sunshine, which is tempting in this weather, but also for other reasons. The book idolises the rejection of formal ceremony in favour of a different code of honour. If Zorba is insulted, rather than rationalising he will fight to the death. The reading group preferred this approach to the narrator’s – we were not impressed by the philosopher’s distance as a vulnerable woman he cared for was killed – but we wondered why there had to be a ‘code of honour’ at all.

This might sound like a strange thing to say – honour and justice are of course important. Our problem was that the book fixated on glamourous, heroic, transcendent kinds of ‘justice’ – fights to the death, lines in the sand, higher planes of consciousness –  rather than on actual justice. This is illustrated over and over again with the book’s treatment of women. In one storyline a widow refused the advances of a young man, who committed suicide. The village groups together to punish the women for insulting the honour of the young man and his family, form in a circle around her. Zorba pushes away a man who attacks the widow and makes space for her to escape. Just as she is about to get away, she is killed by another man. Throughout the episode the narrator ponders not how to help the woman, but why he does not intervene – the group was extremely unimpressed with this self absorption.

Throughout the book, women are treated as alien creatures, simultaneously on pedestals, eager only to please men, and disposable. Justice, morality and transcendence seem mostly to be framed as male terrain – there is one female character whose inner life is described, but for her nirvana is her own youth and beauty and the men she used to court. We talked about this book as a way to think about attitudes to women throughout history and throughout the world. We also agreed generally that books like this should not be discarded due to political correctness. While Kazantzakis accords too much importance to male honour in the form of the warrior (Zorba) or the intellectual (the narrator), one of the book’s underlying preoccupations is with the futility or ephemerality of any ‘code of honour’ – the book dwells on its own tendency to live life according to a rule book. This book, it seems, is an illustration of mid 20th Century male anxieties. It is also a book that thinks itself into a corner. With that in mind, having read this book we are all quite keen to stop reading and to live life instead.

Samantha, Waterloo Library reading group

Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood

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 Ernest Hemingway was unusual not in the number of women he loved, but in the number of women he wanted to marry: Hadley Richardson, the generous, homely older woman; Pauline Pfeiffer, the rich society vamp; Martha Gellhorn, the restless long-legged war correspondent and Mary Welsh, the adoring journalist who took the risky step of giving up her own career to become the fourth and last Mrs Hemingway.

Each new wife believes that she alone can provide the requisite mixture of comfort and excitement needed to redeem Hemingway, but only Mary Welsh succeeds in retaining the Mrs Hemingway title until his death. Arguably, by this stage Hemingway is too drunk, depressive and irascible to convince any of his new conquests to marry him. But in Wood’s portrait he has also found the complete and restful love he craved for years.

The Clapham Reading group were somewhat divided in their opinions:- the majority finding various anachronisms irritating, the editing leaving much to be desired, and the rather problematic device of ‘fiction’ based on fact hard to reconcile.  The minority, possibly with more of an interest in Ernest Hemingway, were reasonably entertained, but left wondering if the characters of the four wives could have been given a little more depth.

Sara, Clapham Library Reading Group

A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli

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First its worth saying that discussing A Meal in Winter as a group made me appreciate the novel so much more. As well as highlighting the complexity of the dilemma that Mingarelli’s characters faced, talking with everyone helped shed light upon the lengths that people go to survive during a time of war. So again a sincere “thank you” to all who attended.

Right then, we kicked off by going around the group and briefly summarising what we thought of the novel. I believe we all agreed that, while the book might not have been everyone’s cup of tea, A Meal in Winter was a thought-provoking read. Set in Nazi-occupied Poland, Hubert Mingarelli’s short novel follows a group of three soldiers as they conduct a patrol on a bitter winter’s day. Somewhat fortuitously for them, they capture a Jewish fugitive, but on their return trip take refuge in an abandoned house where they cook a meal and begin to contemplate the consequences of their actions.

The novel is short. At only 138 pages, A Meal in Winter is perhaps too slight to be dealing with such a hefty topic. In addition to this, Mingarelli largely focuses on the mundane. The essential dilemma that the soldiers face is addressed towards the end of the book, with the bulk of the text detailing how the soldiers find a hut, how they light a fire, how they prepare some food, how they struggle to keep the fire going, etc. Still, we wondered whether this was done for literary effect – that perhaps focusing on the task in hand helped bury the underlying torment that the soldiers were feeling?

But it didn’t take long for us to get to the tougher issues. At one point in the novel, one solider (Bauer) asks the question “which one of us is the best?”. He does this before revealing that he’d cunningly stole some food which he then donates to the group’s lunch. Yet I thought that Bauer’s statement actually raised the question: which of the soldiers was the most moral? Although Bauer donates the food and even later invites their prisoner to join them, he seems to be the most set on delivering the prisoner back to camp. Emmerich, another of the soldiers, conversely argues that they should free the prisoner (led by his concern that his moral comeuppance will be dealt upon his son). The third soldier, the nameless narrator, chews over the decision before ultimately siding with Bauer. Arguments were offered for all three, but I think our group came to the conclusion that none of us were really in any position to cast judgement on any of them.

We rounded up our meeting by comparing two book reviews I’d found online. The first took a more stern approach, observing how Mingarelli made it difficult to connect with the characters. Instead they argued that soldiers were: “poor souls who have been forced into murdering people. Eye roll. The only attempt of compassion our narrator shows is when he talks about feeling sorry for the victim’s mothers, it feels so forced and sudden, it’s just not honest”. The second review took a more sympathetic approach, on the other hand, and praised how tangible and relatable the dilemma was: “The men in this story seem so ordinary that they really could have been me in a life not so long ago”. I think all of us book clubbers found ourselves having more in common with the second (no matter how much they may have agreed with the first when the meeting began!). So with all that, we gave in our scores – granting A Meal in Winter an impressive 7.6.

Adam, Carnegie Library book group

The Muse by Jessie Burton

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Jessie-Burton-Film

Clapham Library reading group were more or less in agreement with this quote from The Guardian: “It’s a severely competent novel. The craftsmanship is solid, the sincerity of feeling is sustained to the end; none of it is exceptional. Yet who would bet against it selling a million copies like its predecessor, The Miniaturist?”

In the summer of 1967 a young woman recently arrived from Trinidad, Odelle Bastien, applies for a job at the Skelton Institute, a discreetly upmarket gallery in St James’s. The Skelton’s eccentric co-director, Marjorie Quick, spots the young woman’s potential and offers her £10 a week as a typist – riches! Odelle meets Lawrie, who has inherited a painting he thinks might be valuable. At the Skelton they’re very interested, though on glimpsing the picture Miss Quick looks as though she’s seen a ghost.

Apart from some unlikely scenarios and coincidences, some rather inelegant prose and language that didn’t fit the era, the general consensus was that it was ‘An enjoyable read, twists and turns, drama and intrigue, a mystery to solve’.

The mystery of the painting’s provenance is by degrees unveiled in the novel’s other timeframe, southern Spain in 1936, and the discovery of a duplicitous act.

Sara, Clapham Library Book group

Emma Cline’s The Girls

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41bFJtd5s+L._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_What a turnout for our June meeting! Thanks to everyone who came, it was brilliant to see some new faces.  Alright then up on the agenda was Emma Cline’s The Girls. Published in 2016, Cline’s debut novel follows Evie Boyd as she revisits a tumultuous summer from her teenage years. Back in the sixties, Boyd finds refuge from her disappointing family life in a nearby commune, led by an enigmatic musician named Russell. The novel charts Evie’s increasing involvement with Russell’s posse, which reaches its climax when she almost takes part in a gruesome murderer.

One of the main talking points of the meeting was the book’s setting. Although parts are set in the present day, the majority of the novel takes place during the Summer of Love. Cline plants her story in a fictional town in Northern California, however it also appears to be tethered to real-life happenings. Here, we debated how much influence Cline drew from the Manson Family. Quite clear parallels can be seen between Charles Manson and Russell (his musical ambitions, his predominantly female following, etc.). Similarly the character Mitch (Russell’s celebrity friend with links in the music industry) appears to be a reference to Dennis Wilson – the Beach Boy drummer who had ties with Charles Manson. With this in mind, I asked whether the book could be described as “historical fiction”? The resounding answer was “no”. After discussing what constitutes “historical fiction”, a few book club members confirmed that without references to actual events or people, The Girls doesn’t really fit into the same category as titles like The Other Boleyn Girl.

Another topic of debate was Cline’s writing style. This point was raised by a regular book clubber who couldn’t make the meeting, but had emailed in their critique of the book. I think a few of us agreed that the beginning of The Girls was a bit slow and wordy. However, this style was noted to have improved as the book went on. We also spent some time discussing authenticity and accuracy. Later in the meeting, when we were reading a selection of book reviews, we discussed one critic who was very displeased with Cline’s depiction of drug use. The critic claimed to have used hallucinogenic drugs and cited falsehoods alongside other, somewhat irrelevant inaccuracies. Still, I don’t believe that these were red flags for any book clubbers. Instead there were questions surrounding the ineptitude of Evie’s parents and Russell’s unexplainable appeal. I think everyone agreed that Russell was vile and outwardly unappealing, which left us asking how he’d actually cultivated such a following? Here, Cline wasn’t exactly forthcoming. The fact that Evie was able to stay at Russell’s ranch for days on end was equally odd. Yes both of Evie’s parents were self-involved, but failing to notice that their fourteen-year-old daughter had joined a cult seemed quite a stretch. Having said that, two book clubbers with first-hand experience of America at that time noted that these types of experiences were quite plausible.

So, all in all, Emma Cline’s The Girls received an average score of 5.9/10. Our next meeting is Monday 3rd of July, same time, same place (St. Saviour’s Church Hall, 7pm). We’ll be discussing Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter, so bring along some treats if you want to stave off your hunger! LOL! Hope to see you all there.

Adam, Carnegie Library book club