NW by Zadie Smith

Standard

On theinspired-2013-02-zadie-smith-nw-main chopping block was Zadie Smith’s NW . I think I can probably cut right to it and say that not many of us enjoyed the book. Set in North West London, Smith’s novel follows four thirty-somethings as they navigate their lives in the modern-day capital. The main characters (Leah, Keisha/Natalie, Nathan and Felix) all come from the same area, a fictitious neighbourhood named “Caldwell”. Incorporating aspects of Kilburn, Kensal Rise and Willesden, I think Caldwell was our first point of debate. Although I believe we all agreed that NW’s setting was realistic, there were split opinions surrounding how similar Caldwell was to the London we all live in (South London). And while a few of us thought that Smith’s London was very relatable, it was simultaneously trite – the novel could have taken place in Brooklyn/Salford/Tenderloin just as easily.

I’m pretty sure we all reached an agreement on the structure of NW though; I don’t think that anyone was particularly taken with it. I believe that everyone struggled with Smith’s fluctuating focus and a couple of us had even given up with the book. This was also reflected in the fact that Felix was voted our favourite character. The chapter that follows him as he bargains for a second-hand car and visits an ex-girlfriend is perhaps the most fluid and easy to read. This differs drastically from the blocky compartmentalised notes that Natalie/Keisha’s narrative is built from.

We spent a large part of the meeting comparing Natalie/Keisha and Leah. NW seems to revolve around the relationship between these two characters, yet neither were portrayed in the nicest light. Perhaps this was Smith’s intention, yet Keisha/Natalie and Leah were seen to be quite outlandish at times. This was a point of contention, as some book clubbers argued that the actions each took against their husbands were far-fetched, while others thought that their behaviour was understandable. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Flo’s death. It seemed like the dog’s passing (or could we even call it murder?) was a pretty odd addition to the plot. It basically played no part in the development of the story at all, it just seemed to be an added flourish and a macabre one at that. All in all, NW scored a modest 3.6/10.

Adam, Carnegie Library Reading Group

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

21:37 by Mariusz Czubaj

Standard

Image result for 21:37 Czubaj

South Lambeth Crime reading group met on the 29th September after a long summer break. It was very nice to be gathered around our favourite table in the library again.

We read 21:37 by Mariusz Czubaj. Rudolf Heinz is a criminal profiler, karate expert, guitarist and father of a teenage son. He specialises in profiling serial killers so when two young boys are found murdered with plastic bags over their heads, marked with 21:37 in blood he is called in to do his bit! Like many characters in this genre he has his own problems. Old injuries giving him constant pain, ghosts of previous cases haunting him at night; the usual portrait of a troubled man in his profession. His side kick Karloff who uses heavy-handed tactics to squeeze information out of his witnesses is also stereotypical. After the discovery of the murdered boys the story takes us to a seminary where a series of interrogations of priests and pupils take place. Then to a sado-masochists shop where one of the seminarians hangs out and is able to cast light on one of the problems Heinz is having in the case. Running alongside this case is a murderer who targets lone women in his local woods and brutally murders them. All his murders are linked in some way to biblical references (though when explained I felt were a bit far-fetched). Back to the main case, there were lots of false leads (perhaps too many) and repetitive ponderings. At the end Rudolf Heinz just sits back and the criminal jigsaw falls into place for before him.

The topics of homophobia, racism and Catholicism are tackled in the book but I am not sure if they are tackled very sympathetically and in the end I didn’t feel the author had much sympathy for any of the issues underlying his book.

We have read a few novels in translation, but somehow some of us are distracted by the translation. There are only four of us in the group and only two finished the book, possibly struggling towards the end but we got there! Tony and Lyn (who rarely gives up on a book), read the first couple of pages then gave up. Moira and I who made it to the end felt the translation was pretty poor. One of Heinz’s favourite expressions was ‘Enough of it!’. Who says that? I started off quite enjoying the book but the translation began to irritate and I spent more time criticising it than paying attention to the storyline.

So to the score; a miserable 8/40! Comments; ‘Finished the book!’, ‘I didn’t like anything about it, awful’ and ‘Bad translation’. So there we have it!

 

Glass by Alex Christofi

Standard

9781846689680_36Glass tells the story of Günter Glass a young ex milkman, who as a seven year old child visited a glassblower’s workshop and developed a fixation with glass ever since. After losing his job, then his mother in a short period of time, a minor adventure up the spire of Salisbury Cathedral makes Günter a local celebrity and attracted the attention of John Blades a well-known window cleaner. He wants Günter to join him in London to clean Europe’s tallest skyscraper the Shard.

How would Gunter’s life change? And what did the group think of Glass by Alex Christofi?

Here’s a few of their comments.

I found it quite funny in some parts and thought the end would be exiting but it wasn’t the case. I would say it was an easy read but would not however recommend it to anyone.

The characters are quite unusual but people like steppenwolf exit in society even though we do not all know or meet them.    I found the novel quirky, different and not difficult to read. However I don’t know who I could recommend it to.

I was keen to start with however lost interest as I read on. It felt like an author’s first book which I now know it was. He might do better next time I suppose.

I was quite irritated by the subs on almost all the pages.  Was the story about him Gunter or her the Dean?

I was a bit confused about the story, the story is told by someone who I don’t think had great contact with the main character to know all the details about his life.  I felt a though she was trying to make him more interesting than he really was.  Although he was quite naïve he was making sensible decisions all the time.  I didn’t buy it at all.

Glass by Alex Christofi received a score of 2 from our group.

Nicole, West Norwood Library Reading Group

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Standard

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

The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

 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