Jim Crace – Harvest

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61e7s19aeQL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_This month the Waterloo Library Reading Group read (or in some cases listened to the audiobook of) Harvest by Jim Crace. The book is written from the perspective of Walter Thirsk, a resident (though not lifelong) of an unnamed medieval village and the narrator of the story of a turbulent period in the village’s history.

It’s cheeky for the writer of a reading group write-up to start by focusing on their own thoughts, but for Harvest it seems appropriate to take advantage of my position. I found the book hard to get into – the prose is clear and the countryside is evoked well, but the writing style is oddly cold and monotonous, and I found its treatment of its female characters infuriating, their lack of nuance leaving them as vessels for the thoughts of the narrator.

Another emphatic opinion at our group related to the book’s lack of positioning. Though the names of places and inhabitants suggest that the village is in Medieval England at a time of the division of common land and transition from localised to nationalised agriculture, there is no confirmation of this. Though we have a consistent narrator, he does not name himself until part way through the book. What’s more, he is a highly ambiguous character.

This ambiguity turned out, on discussion, to be the most interesting thing about the book. Walter Thirsk’s account of events in the village oscillates between affection, detachment and evangelism; he seems to jump in and out of the hive mind. He is trusted by the villagers, but also by the landowner and his more powerful cousin – his ambiguity turns into power and what he chooses to do with that power is very interesting. The plot references witchcraft – could Walter be the bringer of the omens? Is the book’s ambiguity of place only a marker pointing to the more interesting problem of an unreliable narrator?

Harvest is ripe with such pointers, linkages and metaphors. There are ties between the respective destructiveness of Walter, Beldam, Jordan, Kent and the villagers and the scale of change taking place in the characters’ medieval realm. The unyielding land is firmly linked to the calculated actions of Walter. Both seem compelled to survive, regardless of political or social context, out of necessity and impulse rather than rational planning.

The instability of the narrator makes it hard for the reader to define the motives of either Walter or Jim Crace. The reading group, like the book, ended with more questions than answers. The book group was ambivalent and wary towards the book; our meeting like the book ended with no neat conclusions but with a tangle of possibilities.

Sam, Waterloo Library book group

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Alice Walker’s The Color Purple

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9781780228716The Color Purple is a series of letters written by Celie, the novel’s protagonist, to God and her sister. The story follows Celie over four decades as she struggles to find her identity after suffering abuse from her father, husband and others.

I think the first main point of discussion was the form of The Color Purple. Walker presents the novel almost like a collection of diary entries written by the protagonist Celie, with a few letters from Celie’s sister Nettie interspersed throughout. There are around 90 entries in total, each signed off with “Amen”. Celie’s narrative is unique and one book-clubber had warned us at our last meeting that it might take a while to get used to her voice. I thought this was pretty good advice, but then someone at the meeting said that they were able to read it easily from the get go. Another book-clubber even admitted that they’d given up on the book as they hadn’t taken to the actual story. This was awesome to hear as each book we read can’t be a smash with everyone! And good on them for actually giving it a try before judging it.

Both racial and gender inequality feature heavily throughout The Color Purple, with Sofia’s story arc providing a particularly harrowing glimpse into Jim Crow America. However I believe we all agreed that the novel seemed to more directly combat issues surrounding gender. The inclusion of Nettie’s experiences in Africa seemingly confirmed this, as patriarchy was still a suppressive force amongst the Olinka tribe. During the meeting we discussed how Harpo seemed to have picked-up his oppressive tendencies towards his wife from his father. One could draw parallels between this sort of transference and the harsh cultural practices of the Olinka tribe. In both Western and African society, therefore, we saw female characters stifled by patriarchal ignorance.

So I’d hate to speak for everyone, but I think the main point I took away from the meeting was that The Color Purple is still a very relevant and relatable novel. As some book-clubbers pointed out, the Olinka’s encounters with colonials and the disasters which follow the introduction of western agricultural practices are not entirely dissimilar to current disruptions in South America relating to deforestation. Similarly, issues surrounding preserving cultural heritage and ceremonies like female circumcision are still hotly contested in some developing nations. And lastly, I think its impossible to ignore the fact that gender inequality is still a serious issue in modern society.

Ultimately, The Color Purple scored an impressive average score of 8.5/10! Emma Cline’s The Girls is up next!

Adam Comber, Carnegie Library Book club

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

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magictoyshopOur discussion of The Magic Toyshop opened with thoughts on the “weirdness” of the text, mostly in reference to its elements of magical realism, such as the sudden appearance of a dismembered arm (and lack of follow-up or explanation) and the odd assortment of characters (aptly likened by Roland to Cold Comfort Farm – but darker!).  There were, indeed, comparisons with other novels/genres: Melanie’s distant but loving relationship with her absentee parents who were lost to sea reminded us of the children’s adventure novel, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, in which Bonnie also loses (in that case less permanently) her adored parents to sea.  The end of The Magic Toyshop was compared to a gothic novel, in which the very building is destroyed, representing the destruction of the family.  The quality of Carter’s vivid writing was admired and the question of feminism was raised and debated in relation to the brutish, controlling (although this was also debated) uncle and his mute, collared wife.  We touched on the association between sex and death and considered the relevance of setting the toyshop in Upper Norwood.

We scored The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter 6 out of 10.  

Rita, Upper Norwood Library book club

NW by Zadie Smith

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NWbookcoverFor the first Waterloo Library book group meeting we chose a controversial book – NW by Zadie Smith. I thought that a character focused story set in London would be a good way for a group of Londoners, who until now have been relative strangers, to get to know one another. I overlooked the fact that North West London, where this book is set, is nothing at all like Lambeth. Luckily the rest of the reading group was there to remind me!

Once this was cleared up, we could safely proceed to look at the way Smith has built the characters in NW. The book is divided into three sections, each building a picture of a period of time in North West London from the perspective of a different local resident. The two main characters are Leah and ‘Natalie Blake’ (the way the character refers to herself gives a clue to the way she relates to the world). Childhood best friends who grew up on the same estate, Leah and Natalie follow very different paths; Leah’s life choices tie her into an awkward relationship with her neighbourhood, while Natalie’s propel her into new cultural surroundings, in the process distancing her from the people and places she grew up with. Leah is not entirely comfortable in her home, while Natalie does not.

Zadie Smith has used very different writing styles for each character; these styles show Leah and Natalie each build a very different identity in relation to the city they live in. The group consensus was that the downside of this experimentation was that NW was meandering and confusing – it was hard to get to the end of the book, and we had to repeatedly backtrack to make sense of a plot built from multiple perspectives. Leah’s part of the book, with its train-of-thought delivery, was particularly difficult to get into, while we agreed that the section of the book which brought in the perspective of the third major character, Felix flowed better than the other sections. There was some debate about the open-ended structure of the book; like the characters in NW, some of the Waterloo reading group enjoyed being lost more than others.

The book transpired to be a great framework around which to have an interesting discussion about the city and in particular about social mobility. Natalie’s determined transition from Keisha Blake (her childhood name) to lawyerhood sparked discussions about how easy it can be to lose ties with where you come from, and how important – but difficult – it is to retain those ties. The journey of the character of Nathan from hopeful youngster to violent adult led to conversations about how social stigmas can hinder or stop a person’s journey towards achieving their dreams.

Perhaps if more of the group had been able to make a strong connection with this meandering book we would not have meandered so much ourselves, but in this case the meandering was interesting and thought provoking. This month’s reading group was a good example of how shared views on a book can connect to many other interesting topics – and how a book can spark good discussion even if not everyone has finished it!

Samantha, Waterloo Library Book Group

Prophecy by S. J. Parris

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Prophecy by S. J. ParrisProphecy by S. J. Parris was this year’s Cityread title and we discussed it in April. The discussion started with a comparison of Parris with C. J. Sansom, who also writes historical crime fiction set in the Tudor period.  Sansom was the victor in that comparison as those who had read novels by both asserted he was the superior writer of the two.  Nonetheless, overall Prophecy entertained us and was considered a rollicking read.  The scene in which Queen Elizabeth I enters the musical concert at Richmond Palace whilst courtiers fawn and vie for attention was particularly memorable and, although some of the “action” scenes were considered somewhat ludicrous by some (e.g. Bruno escaping Howard’s home via a chimney flue or being suddenly spared death when his would-be killer is pierced by an arrow loosed by an unknown saviour), the historical detail seemed accurate to those in the know.  We were interested in Parris’s choice of Giordano Bruno as her detective and considered whether this was because of his foreignness and otherness, i.e. he didn’t subscribe wholly and tidily to any particular political or religious mind-set, which meant he could traverse the different factions.

We scored Prophecy by S. J. Parris a slightly above average 5.5 out of 10.

Rita, Upper Norwood Library Book group

Grahame Greene’s Our Man in Havana

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41l-O6Hd4nL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Grahame Greene’s Our Man in Havana follows Jim Wormold, a Havana-based vacuum salesman who takes on the life of a spy in an attempt to remedy his financial woes. However, Wormold finds himself in trouble when the fake intelligence reports he’s been filing begin to resemble real goings-on. At our last Carnegie Book Club meeting, Greene’s primary story line certainly provoked different responses as some book-clubbers saw Our Man in Havana as wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, while others found the book to be verging on absurdity. Our Man in Havana is noted to be one of Greene’s “entertainments” alongside his other mystery/thrillers like Loser Takes it All and Ministry of Fear. But even with that in mind I think that the majority of the Book Gang didn’t quite warm to the characters and setting. Although we were all in agreement that Greene’s depiction of Havana was pleasant, it was unfortunate that the characters seemed to spend most of their time drinking in nightclubs. Similarly, even after accepting the farcical plot, Greene’s characters were seen to have lacked depth. I think I’m even right in remembering (spoiler coming!) that nobody really felt too bad when Hasselbacher met his untimely demise? No matter on which side of these arguments people fell, everyone was in agreement that Wormold did not make an effective spy. However, his bumbling mishaps were certainly comical and perhaps it could be argued that he did pull-off some effective espionage leading up to the novel’s climax? Some of us were shocked by his ingenuity, while others were amazed by the fact that he did actually shoot Carter . . . or was that by accident? So, in the end, Our Man in Havana hit a pretty reasonable average score of 5.5/10.

Adam, Carnegie Library Book group

The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

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The Greatcoat by Helen DunmoreIn the winter of 1952, Isabel Carey moves to the East Riding of Yorkshire with her husband Philip, a GP. With Philip spending long hours on call, Isabel finds herself isolated and lonely as she strives to adjust to the realities of married life.

Woken by intense cold one night, she discovers an old RAF greatcoat hidden in the back of a cupboard. Sleeping under it for warmth, she starts to dream. And not long afterwards, while her husband is out, she is startled by a knock at her window.. Outside is a young RAF pilot, waiting to come in…

Billed as a ghost story, The Greatcoat was generally a disappointment for those of us who had read other novels by Helen Dunmore. (Try The Lie, A Spell of Winter, or The Siege).

Rather lightweight, the ‘ghost’ stretched our credulity, by drinking Scotch and possibly fathering a child or two. On a more positive note, comparisons were drawn to The Turning of the Screw, (Henry James), and some of the descriptive passages were more representative of the author’s talent – the sound of the Lancaster bombers surging heavily overhead.. and the period detail of the post-war years – the poor quality meat still rationed, the eking out of coal to last a Yorkshire winter.

Sara, Clapham Library Reading Group, Thursday 30th March