Linda Grant A Stranger City

So, this is a novel about place, London, or more accurately people within that place. It is of our times and has zeitgeist elements to it. 

Grant says that the novel had its genesis in an argument between a young man and women that she witnessed on a train from Moorgate to Alexandra Palace in 2016 (Linda Grant talks about her London novel – A Stranger City – onlondon.co.uk).

The novel is full of characters – too full, I think. It looks at the milieu of a plethora of people and roots their social and cultural experiences to the city we all live in. It has been argued that her book is not the London of Londoners but of people who come from somewhere else but now live here, (onlondon supra).  But isn’t that what London is at the end of the day, a large cultural melting pot? Brexit was perhaps a reaction to that very reality and A Stranger City gives more than a nod to that tension. 

Grant has been quoted as saying ‘what worried me most after the referendum was the xenophobia and everyone affected in quite personal ways… I wanted to write about that, trying to imagine a worst case scenario which would operate in the realms of the possible and the idea of home as well as where do we belong? Is this actually my home? Look at the Windrush generation you see how people can lose their idea of where they belong overnight,’ (as quoted in http://www.onlondon.co.uk/ supra).

Linda Grant

All though laudable my feeling is that she gets lost along the way. There are simply too many characters and too many intertwined stories. She studied her MA on Dickens and she tries, and in my view fails to be Dickensian. It is a mammoth undertaking, a huge narrative. It is not just that there are too many characters all jostling for attention – the scope of the book is also too large, tackling Brexit, terrorism, acid attacks, racism, social media, climate change.

It tried to be a modern social commentary and warning of an impending dystopia but at the same time according to the Evening Standard review it was ‘no politically ponderous diatribe but a witty sun lounger accessible and deeply humanising story about people – about us – and the societal shipwreck we are stuck in.’ (Brexit scarred London gets a skilfully light comedic tough Francesca Mccoy – Evening Standard, Thursday 18 April 2019). I thought this was too kind. I didn’t find it witty or ‘sun lounger accessible’. How would I describe this book – it’s a noble effort but I would say that she has bitten off more than she can chew.  

So what did book club think?

I think the writing was on the wall when someone asked at the beginning of the meeting ‘who loved this book?’ and no one replied yes. There is a common theme to our year that the book at the beginning of September is usually a dud – this is because it is the last book to be chosen of our annual list before our new list starts at the second or third week of September.

Some people like Diana and Elizabeth thought the book had ‘moments’ or that it ‘painted a picture’.  But no one really loved it. Diana also liked the vivid images and descriptions.

Caroline who had originally suggested the book to book club did come to its defence saying it was very ‘now’ and that it painted a very fractured picture of London life. It was ‘form following function’. In fact, Diana thought it was so current she was waiting for the pandemic to feature.

Elizabeth said maybe it was too now. Maybe topics like Brexit were too recent and that we needed a decade to reflect before writing about it. Stephanie disagreed and said she had read a great book called Middle England by Jonathan Coe – that dealt with Brexit. It wasn’t the topic that needed distance that affected the quality of the book, it was poor writing.

For me, and others in the group there was just too much going on. Jan was fed up with its derisive narrative.

Diana did like some of the descriptions in the book and felt that sometimes Grant showed stylistic elements of McEwan. Elizabeth said it was a bit like his Saturday. To me that’s like comparing Shakespeare with a copy of Private Eye. Others said it was similar stylistically to Amanda Craig’s Lie of the Land or Elizabeth Day’s Paradise City.

We all agreed it painted a gritty picture of London, but at times it felt contrived, or full of racial stereotypes.  Anne-Marie talked of the time she sat in a tube seeing a women in a burka on a mobile phone ranting about the state of her marriage and saying she was going to leave her husband. Claudine said that wearing a burka was not necessarily a submissive act, she referred to Nawal El Saadawi book The Hidden Face of Eve where she argues that it is actually a feminist act.

What it did do, is paint a picture of a pre-Covid London. But it never really gelled. Rebeca said it was a book of lost depressed people. Anne-Marie said it had no emotional centre. It did however have some excellent prose in parts. Anne-Marie said the author was painting a deliberately hostile environment.

Sally said it left her feeling ‘down about London’. Sally arrived in London at the time of the terrorist attacks and had been mugged shortly after arrival which left her with mixed feelings about London.  However, she felt that Covid had brought unity and a sense of community, it brought people together and made them feel better about their city. This book however was a slap in the face to the city.

We talked about how in the novel the River Thames represented death and danger. Caroline said Grant was very influenced by Dickens and that she had done her thesis on Bleak House. Jo felt it was wrong to compare her to Dickens. She had been reading a lot of Dickens lately and Dickens characterisations are superb.

Elizabeth said this would be a novel lost on people who did not live in London. It had an exclusionary element if you did not live here you would not ‘get’ the references particularly to places.  She described it as an insider’s book that didn’t go inside.

Sally said she was hoping after the first 2/3 of the book it would come together but it didn’t, she felt it was an example of sloppy editing, and that Grant was just not good at developing characters.

Caroline had had the benefit of hearing Grant speak at JW3 and said she struck her as an author trying to find her identity. She was trying to find her voice and had grown up slightly paranoid and in the shadow of Brexit.  Anne-Marie did wonder whether the author was depressed.

Caroline said that the book had had some good reviews in the Guardian. Anne-Marie said this was probably an example of log rolling – as she had worked at the Guardian.  But Stephanie looked her up, she had also won the Orange Prize for Fiction and been short listed for The Man Booker Prize for other works. The critics did seem to like her.

We all ranked this book slightly higher than Keeper of Lost Things, the worst book I think we have discussed as a group but not by much.

Caroline said she did like the book more the second time she read it. Diana said she could see how the book would be better read through a second time but just wasn’t sure it was worth her time. I personally did not think it was worth my time on the first read through.

Future books

The good news is that we are onto our new list of books so the quality has dramatically improved. The next three reads are:

21 September – I know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

5 October – American Dirt by Jennie Cummins 

19 October Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead 

These book clubs are now hybrid where up to six people will meet in person at the bottom of my garden and we will be joined on zoom by the rest of the book club. If you want to be one of the four in the garden you have to email me at 9.00am on the Monday one week before the book club. The first four people who reply after 9.00am will be selected. If you have been before you will be at the bottom of the selection list.

HWC kick off

A reminder that the Hampstead Women’s Club will be holding its kick off meeting on Zoom on the 30 September at 1:30pm – 3.00pm this is open to members and non-members who might want to join the club. For more information contact hospitality@hwcinlondon.co.uk  There will be quizzes, prizes and a whole heap of fun.

Events in London

I went to the Openaire Float-in Cinema with Rebeca and watched Pretty Woman, it was an amazing experience (thank you so much Rebeca), the food and ambiance was fantastic. They have just announced an extra screening of Pulp Fiction on the 19 September. For more info see  

https://www.openaire.co.uk/?fbclid=IwAR2oCFjOpYJ6wWmvX-xWMuyOVa4CuUplaTsR6_jfOGzJiH8Kdd6RXs4bxYU

Cinemas have re-opened and I am off to see Tenet at the Everyman with HWC this Thursday. If you are still too nervous to go to the cinema, drive-ins like the Rooftop Cinema in Alexandra Palace

https://rooftopfilmclub.com/london/venue/alexandrapalace/

and the Drive-in London

https://www.thedrivein.london/

are still open.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

I was so happy to finally be back on stronger ground, first with last fortnight’s wonderful book and now my joy is complete with this masterpiece.

Perhaps it is best for me to start with a quotation from Geoff Dyer about this book in his article in the Guardian (Who is afraid of influence? 22 September 2001). He writes, ‘it is a tribute to the scope, ambition and complexity of Atonement that it is difficult to give an adequate sense of what is going on in the novel without pre-empting and thereby diminishing the readers experience of it’.

The novel is astonishingly brilliant. I cannot possibly do justice to it and all notes and comments I make on this work of art will necessarily be contrived. I have always lauded the talents of McEwan. Nutshell has long been one of my favourite bookclub reads, and this book has done nothing to lessen the admiration in which I hold this master.

The novel Is segmented into parts, the first part takes place at the Talis family home. It is a large family home of an affluent family just prior to the second world war. All the characters are exquisitely drawn. The young narcissistic Briony so self-absorbed, not really because of any deep character flaw but by the very nature of childish lack of self-reflection, the twins Piero and Jackson staying with their sister Lola and their aunt Emily. Cecilia, Briony’s older sister and Robbie the home helper’s son who has been educated by the Talis father and sent to Oxford (although, the father working in London never really features in the novel).

Through a series of events so adeptly drawn, Briony sees a letter written by Robbie to her sister containing an explicit message and sees Robbie making love to her sister in the Library. I think these adult manifestations of desire confuses Briony, but this is too simple an explanation. There is much depth and subtlety to what subsequently transpires. Lola is raped by a visitor to the house, Paul Marshall whilst the twins are missing. Briony instead of accusing Paul says that Robbie raped Lola. This is the act for which she later atones.

Robbie is sent to gaol only to be released to serve in the second world war and this part or the novel describes the British evacuation of Dunkirk as Robbie tries to get back to English soil. In the New York Times article by Michiko Kakutani, he says ‘the Dunkirk section in particular could stand alone as a bravura set piece capturing the banality and horror of war there is nothing self-conscious or mannered about Mr McEwan’s writing, indeed Atonement emerges as the authors most deeply felt novel yet – a novel that takes the glittering narrative pyrotechnics perfected in his last book Amsterdam and employees them in the service of a large tragic vision.’ (Books of the times and when she was bad she was bad … New York times March 7, 2002).

McEwan writes about the horror with such sensitivity and mastery but also in contrast with such loudness and in your face suffering that you get a clear vision of war and sheer futility of it the monumental waste of young life that it brings you to your knees.  

It then switches to London where Briony is now working as a nurse and trying to atone for wrongly accusing Robbie. Finally, it cuts to Briony as an aging author with dementia trying to set the record straight. There are two endings for Cecilia and Robbie, the imagined one where they find each other again after his return from Dunkirk and another one where he never makes it back dying of septicaemia on the beach and Cecilia dying as a result of the bombing of the Balham tube. Briony as an author attempts to explain the fact that she gives them there time together, albeit in fiction, she says that ‘it isn’t an act or evasion but a final act of kindness a stand against oblivion and despair to let me lovers live and unite them in the end’ p 351.

In the Penguin Books Reader’s Guide to Atonement, it states that it is ‘brilliant and utterly enthralling in its depiction of childhood, love and war, country and class, the novel is as profoundly moving exploration of shame and forgiveness and the difficulty of absolution’.

Those who know me know I am not often lost for words. This is probably the most awkward poorly written blog I have done.  I am a stunned mullet – It’s an Australian phrase from back home, I can’t even adequately explain that phrase so I looked it up in the Australian colloquial dictionary it says ‘Dazed, stupefied; uncomprehending; unconscious. The phrase alludes to the goggle-eyed stare (and sometimes gaping mouth) of a fish that has been recently caught and made unconscious. A person typically looks like a stunned mullet as the result of a sudden shock or surprise.

That’s how I feel; overcome at just how good this novel is. Flabbergasted lost for words and rendered incoherent.  

I could never do this novel justice. Superlatives like great, good,  profound and brilliant can’t do it justice, you just have to read it.

What did bookclub think?

I think the book was almost universally loved.

Many of us commented on the sheer skill of McEwan’s writing.

Diana said that she had first read Atonement many years ago and it was the first of his novels she had read. She was bowled over the first time she read it and found it even better the second time. She said the first time she read the book she could remember reading three pages about a migraine. She questioned how an author could keep you enthralled for three pages about a migraine, but he did.

She felt all his writing was good including books like Children’s Act. She did allude to the much-missed Sheila, who used to call McEwan the ‘show off- know it all’. You could always count on Sheila for an opposing viewpoint.

Rebeca said her favourite McEwan book was ‘Saturday’, which was set over a period of 24 hours.

Anne-Marie said it reminded her of a Passage to India with the class system and the sexual hysteria and how easy it was to accuse people who were not in your class. Sussana said class was not a simple concept in the book. Robbie even though a private in the war was recognised as being higher class due to his education.

There was no doubt that Robbie was a sympathetic character. There was some alluding to a meritocracy with him getting a first from Oxford, but Rebeca said the book showed how even this could be stuffed out. As Yulia said, however, Cecilia did still wait for him while he was in prison.

There was some discussion about Briony and how reprehensible or not her actions were. Some of the book club argued that she genuinely believed that she saw Robbie rape Lola. As Yulia said she was the sort of child who ‘lived in dreams’ and these dreams played out in her head. Stuti also felt that after writing tales of Arabella Briony wanted to be part of a Drama. Rebeca also felt that Briony did not know the difference between truth and fiction. Diana said it is often difficult for people to understand the consequences of what they do at this age.

Although Lisa did not manage to finish reading this book, she loved McEwan and particularly his book Nutshell. She felt here it was difficult to write the internal thoughts of a 13 year old girl with both naivety and yet depth but that overall he had done a good job.  She felt the reporting of the rape was like the fluttering of butterfly wings which had a big consequential effect. Others did feel that Briony was old enough to know better. Anne-Marie said her actions were a little pathological.

Rebeca said she found Lola’s rape hard to rectify as she ended up marrying her rapist Paul. She knew who raped her and she almost went along with it. Stuti however pointed out that it was clear at the dinner table that Lola had bruises and scratchers on her arms prior to the rape. She said if Lola did go along with it, it was probably more of a Stockholm Syndrome situation.

Yulia said she felt it strange that nothing was ever told to the parents and that the father never featured in the story. Rebeca said that this was often how the class system worked at that time, the parents would simply not be present. Lisa said he did however sponsor Robbie’s education, and Rebeca agreed that patronage of the servants could be common.

We all felt that this section on the war was meticulously researched. Stuti went as far as saying that she was worried about reading the book at night as the description of Dunkirk was so evocative she thought it would give her nightmares.

Sussana loved the writing but said that fundamentally it was a boy meets girl story, but it was interesting use of circumstances. Briony annoyed her however and she did not find her sympathetic nor did it move her that Briony did not end up in Cambridge.

We discussed the title of the book. Rebeca said it suited its title . Sussana said yes – it is about making up for lost things. Anne-Marie felt atonement was a profound concept.

We did discuss the film version of the book which is available on Netflix. Yulia felt that the film did not really do the characters justice. Claudine felt that the book was much more cerebral.

Personally, I would do both – you MUST read this book – but the film is pretty good too.

Reviews

in his own words

in his own words

Future Books

7 September – A Stranger City by Linda Grant 336 pages suggested by Caroline

21 September – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – 320 pages suggested by Claudine

5 October – American Dirt by Jennie Cummins – 400 pages suggested by Jan

19 October – Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead – 400 pages suggested by Claudine

What’s on

Candlelight concert in Camden Market on 28 August

https://secretldn.com/open-air-candlelight-concert/

Floating candlelight on the Thames – take a boat ride and listen to Chopin on the 29 August

A few of us had seen this and said it was fabulous – Titan National Gallery

https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/exhibitions/titian-love-desire-death

Open boat cinema this looks fab – I am going to the pretty woman one and the Mamma Mia one – can’t wait!

https://www.openaire.co.uk/?fbclid=IwAR2oCFjOpYJ6wWmvX-xWMuyOVa4CuUplaTsR6_jfOGzJiH8Kdd6RXs4bxYU

Have a Mystery picnic

https://www2.amazingco.me/uk/lp/mystery-picnics/london?fbclid=IwAR3edRjK0GCkWNyIr97pYaQEyFFK3Koy3eF2odr_tg7zjid_jML855lePJk

From a Low and Quiet Sea By Donal Ryan

Long Listed for the Booker Prize 2018

This book is Ryan’s 5th novel. Some years ago, he was asked about what motivated him to write, by a journalist at the Guardian and he nonchalantly said, ‘I though how could I make some extra money and I thought the one thing I am good at is writing.’ I totally agree he is a brilliant writer which is why it totally baffles me that his first two novels were rejected over 47 times combined.  Both went on to win  national acclaim after publication. The lesson to be learnt is to believe in yourself, be tenacious and don’t give up.

I really just want to say after a run of books that I personally have not been impressed with I am so thankful for a book that finally moves me beyond words. I will actually say that this now surpasses American Pastoral as the high-water mark by which I judge good literature. For those that know me – that is really saying something.  

Ryan has been described as, ‘the best of the new wave of Irish authors to have emerged over the last decade’;  (From a Low and Quiet Sea Review-  by John Boyne The Guardian 20 March 2018)

Boyne goes on to write ‘this is a suburb novel, from a  writer building a body of work the equal of any today. His books are filled with love and righteous anger, most of which lurks darkly beneath the surface ready to explode like an ill-judged comment at a family gathering. Until now, the spinning heart was my favourite of Ryan’s novels. From a Low and Quiet Sea is better.’

The book was profound in so many ways. It did however, immediately fill me with trepidation when I read the first sentence which said ‘Let me tell you something about trees, why they speak to each other just what they think and what they must say.’ I had a  sense of dread, I thought it would be Overstory all over again. I need not have worried. If Overstory had trees at his heart, this novel had people. Well drawn, heartfelt, interesting, intriguing people.

It positively hummed with amazing prose and beautiful descriptions. It was like molasses slowly seeping through your fingers. Rarely, or indeed ever, have I ever loved a book so much.

This lyrical nature of the book was also mentioned in an article in the Scottish review of books (by Arran Ward Sell on June 17 2019). He writes ‘From a low and quite sea is’ gently imbued with a soft sometimes passive yearning.’ He goes on to write ‘his novels refuse conventions of realist prose. There are no quotations marks to sperate thought form speech or description. But within his lengthy paragraphs the reader is not forced to interpret or to reassemble. Instead they are coolly guided along by sometimes enchanting sometimes sickly tide of ostensibly sympathetic language.’

The book is divided into four sections. The first section deals with the refugee Farouk and his flight to freedom. It has the tempo and eloquence of something like ‘The Kite Runner’ or ‘The Book Keeper of Kabul.’  It is in my view a far better written account of a refugee fleeing their home country than ‘The Bee keeper of Aleppo’ which we discussed earlier this year. Although both stories are similarly tragic tales of perilous journeys this one is told with much more eloquence and the prose is simply stunning.

The story then abruptly changes in the next section and is told from the point of view of Lampy, a Irish lad who is illegitimate, but much loved by his grandfather Pops. The nature of their relationship is both heartfelt and heart-warming. The characters are multidimensional and 3D although like all humans they are inundated with faults, their relationship is underlaid with a warm blanket of love.

Pop is pub loving, and Lumpy doesn’t do too well in the relationship stakes, dumped by his first love in McDonalds, with his relationship scattered behind him like wedding confetti he takes a job as a bus driver for an old peoples home.

He never really reaches his potential in love or in his career and does make some half-hearted attempts to immigrate to a better life in Canada but the wonderful Pop anchors him back to home.

The third part of the book is about John. John, I found particularly interesting. He is tormented by his transgressions and is haunted by his catholic faith and he needs to make amends and to atone for his indiscretions. His ‘golden child’ brother dies early in the chapter turning the whole family away from God. He is also unfaithful to his wife and has become a heart hearted lobbyist and accountant and treated his surviving brother Henry very badly. Now facing death, he wants to atone. This  section is full of catholic vernacular an iconography but this is entirely appropriate for a character attempting to make peace with a God for a live lived poorly.

The fourth part of the book ‘Lake Islands’ draws the three sections  together in an integrated heart felt way. It pulls all the loose strings together. I won’t tell you what happens or how it is sorted out that would ruin the surprise. Just to tempt you to continue I will write what John Boyne said his article on the book (supra). ‘The three stories are equally involving but is only when the final section arrives that they are drawn together in the most heart-breaking manner. There are revelations to be found at the closing pages, and connections between characters that took me by surprise – making me utter an expletive allowed in Dublin airport whilst reading, causing a women sitting next to me to declare furiously, ‘May God forgive you.’

I can’t think of the words to tell you just how good this book is. I loved it so much I could never do it justice. I am just so delighted to have read something with such depth such warmth and feeling with such finally drawn characters. With my last two book reviews I used the adjectives being ‘banal’ and ‘contrived’ to describe them. How would I describe this one – I couldn’t do it in one word so like the book I will do it with a trifecta ‘suburb’, ‘life affirming’ and ‘profound’. Don’t miss this one!

So what did book club think ?

Unfortunately, I couldn’t make the meeting due to a sudden and unexpected bout of food poisoning. (In truth when is food poisoning ever expected).  The meeting was ablely lead by Anne-Marie and recorded so that I could take notes at a later time.

I wasn’t the only one who noticed the tree metaphor at the beginning of the book, both Debra and Rebeca commented on it. Debra felt it was just indicating how everything was connected.

The book is a short one it is only 300 pages and a lot of us including Rebeca felt we could read a lot more of it.

Anne-marie liked the book a lot and said it was beautifully written. She particularly like the relationship between Lampy and his father. It was, she said, small on plot but was about people’s lives. I would agree it was a character study about people. Anne-Marie felt it was a book about people’s vulnerability.

Caroline did say that a lot of people had criticised this book for its lack of plot, but she too felt that the characters were so well drawn it didn’t really matter.

Most people’s favourite character was Farouk but Lampy was also well liked.

Debra called the book a ‘brutal book’ and in some ways it was.  The Book Club talked in general terms about the difficulties that the Irish have in expressing their emotions, and how in Irish literature the men are often angry and dysfunctional and the women hold it together. Anne-Marie said she felt in some ways that cursing was a kind of percussion in Ireland.  

There was also a brief discussion on the wonderful Irish writers like Edna O’Brien and Dolan’s – ‘Exciting Times’ and Colum McCann who although a large man apparently locks himself in a broom closet to write – but he must do this often as he is such a prolific writer.

Debra did find Lampy’s father hilarious. She felt that she had to ‘go back and forth’ to try and work out what was happening and found it hard to follow in places. But she did agree that the characters lept off the page. She felt  they were all so different but all so damaged. Caroline interposed and said ‘aren’t we all damaged in some way’. To which I might add – Isn’t that what makes us human?

One thing was apparent was that the ending was not totally clear cut, there was some discussion as to what had actually happened and what direction the plot had taken. Debra opened the meeting by saying ‘the book was very deep but I have so many questions.’ We did all love how the final chapter did appear to weave the story together even though the answers where not completely overt.

I am loathed to write down the ‘big questions’ that book club had as I think it really is a spoiler and I think it should be discovered and analysed by the reader and not revealed by the group or this blog. What I will say is that for me it didn’t appear to be a ‘swear out loud in a Dublin Airport’ type of plot twist. I did see it coming, but it was not contrived or inevitable it was just not shocking.

I will conclude by saying after listening to the tape of this meeting nothing book club has said has changed my mind. This is my high water mark of good literature and I would thoroughly recommend this short but profound character study of this beautiful but damaged group of people.

Reviews of From a Low and Quiet Sea

Future books

24 August Book club will be discussing Atonement by Ian McEwan 371 pages.  Suggested by Jo

Taken from Good Reads, ‘Ian McEwan’s symphonic novel of love and war, childhood and class, guilt and forgiveness provides all the satisfaction of a brilliant narrative and the provocation we have come to expect from this master of English prose. On a hot summer day in 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses the flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant. But Briony’s incomplete grasp of adult motives and her precocious imagination bring about a crime that will change all their lives, a crime whose repercussions Atonement follows through the chaos and carnage of World War II and into the close of the twentieth century.’

7 September  Book club will be discussing   A Stranger City, by Linda Grant, 336 pages. Suggested by Caroline

When a dead body is found in the Thames, it begins a search for a missing woman and confirms a sense that, in London a person can become invisible once outside their community – and that assumes they even have a community. A policeman, a documentary film-maker and an Irish nurse named Chrissie all respond to the death of an unknown women in their own ways. Grant weaves a tale around ideas of home; how London can be a place of exile or expulsion, how home can be a physical place or an idea. How all our lives intersect and how coincidence or the randomness of our birthplace can decide how we live and with whom. Described by the “Financial Times” as “a compelling portrait of contemporary London… a novel fit for shifting, uncertain times.”

Booklist for 2020-2021

Our book list for 2020-2021 has been voted on the books chosen are:

  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo 453 pages. Suggested by Madeleine and Amanda
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou 320 pages. Suggested by Claudine
  • Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner 181 pages. Suggested by Jo
  • Once Upon A River by Diane Settlerfield 464 pages. Suggested by Angela
  • The White Tiger by Avarind Adiga 276 pages. Suggested by Jo
  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath 240 pages. Suggested by Claudine
  • American Dirt by Jennie Cummins 400 pages. Suggested by Jan 
  • Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk 274 pages. Suggested Anne–Marie but also suggested by Antonia last year.
  • Three Women by Lisa Taddeo 304 pages. Suggested by Jo
  • Contains sexually explicit material – but Jo says it is the best book her sister read last year.
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead 400 pages. Suggested by Claudine
  • Never Split the Difference by Christopher Voss and Tahl Raz 288 pages. Suggested by Claudine
  • Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl 160 pages. Suggested by Claudine
  • The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson 464 pages. Suggested by Anne-Marie
  • Blindness by Jose Saramago 349 pages. Suggested by Jo
  • The Power by Naomi Alderman 352 pages. Suggested by Claudine
  • American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld 555 pages. Suggested by Charles Palliser – guest author.
  • Do No Harm Stories of Life Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh. Suggested by Jo

Things to do in London

Theatre to watch live  Blindness – This is one of the books on our list for next year it is running live at the Donmar Warehouse.  It is running four times a day from Monday – Saturday, 3 – 22 August, with enhanced safety measures in place to ensure the health and safety of all visitors to the Donmar Warehouse. Visitors will be seated 2m apart in accordance with social distancing guidelines, unless you attend with someone from your household or social bubble. It is with the voice of Juliet Stephenson. The review is as follows:

As the lights change at a major crossroads in a city in the heart of Europe a car grinds to a halt. Its driver can drive no more. Suddenly, without warning or cause, he has gone blind. Within hours it is clear that this is a blindness like no other. This blindness is infectious. Within days an epidemic of blindness has spread through the city. The government tries to quarantine the contagion by herding the newly blind people into an empty asylum. But their attempts are futile. The city is in panic. 

Award-winning playwright Simon Stephens has adapted Nobel Prize-winner José Saramago’s dystopian novel Blindness as a sound installation, directed by Walter Meierjohann with immersive binaural sound design by Ben and Max Ringham. Juliet Stevenson voices the Storyteller/Doctor’s wife in this gripping story of the rise and, ultimately, profoundly hopeful end of an unimaginable global pandemic.


This hour-long ticketed installation for a limited number of visitors will run four times a day, with seating arranged 2m apart in accordance with social distancing guidelines, in a transformed Donmar Warehouse. Visitors will listen on headphones as the narrative unfolds around them.   

Free Audio Books;

Jo mentioned a way to get hold of free Audio books. It is via an Ap called RB Digital. It is available via the App Store. You only need a library card, then you quickly set up an account and you have access to free audiobooks, ebooks, magazines and comics.

Theatre to watch Virtually

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat – can be bought for about £3 and streamed

Can be shown in conjunction with an origin of Joseph video

Jesus Christ Super Star can be bought for £3 and streamed here  (includes cast with Tim Minchin and The Chick from Spice Girls)

Around London (virtually)

Virtual tour of Tower of London

https://www.hrp.org.uk/discover-the-palaces/#gs.c3s4rx

Virtual tour of Houses of Parliament

With children

Hogwarts at home tour https://www.wbstudiotour.co.uk/at-home/

British Library Harry Potter a history of magic:

https://artsandculture.google.com/project/harry-potter-a-history-of-magic

Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

If last week’s adjective for Overstory was ‘contrived,’ this week it’s ‘banal’. Banal is defined in the online dictionary as ‘ lacking in originality and boring.’ This book is full of vapid, neurotic self-absorbed New Yorkers and lots of meaningless sex (for diverse opinions see below).  

It is essentially a book about the dissolution of a marriage. The marriage of Rachel and Toby has fallen apart. Rachel is a high-flying entertainment agent and the bread winner of the relationship. Toby is a doctor but very much a ‘house husband,’ in charge of the house and the kids. The divorce lawyer refers to him as ‘the wife’. The narrator is a former journalist turned housewife called Libby who is a friend of Toby.  One day following the divorce Rachel simply disappears, re-emerging at the end of the book having suffered a nervous breakdown.

 A couple of reviewers have compared Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s book to Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. (both in the Washington Post article, ‘Now that we have all read Fleishman Is In Trouble let’s talk about the ending’ by Rachel Rosenblatt 1 October 2019; and the New Yorker’ Fleishman Is In Trouble turns the marriage novel inside out,’ by Katy Waldman 7 June 2019).  I find this an absolute affront to good literature – I have always maintained that Roth’s book was a work of sheer brilliance (despite whatever qualities he had as a human). To compare American Pastoral with Fleishman is to compare Shakespeare to Mills and Boon. They’re just not in the same league.  I almost chocked on my porridge when the Washington Post compared the narration of the main protagonist Libby to the finally nuanced musings of Roth’s Zuckerman.

In the New Yorker review by Waldman, she  can’t seem to make up her mind – on the one hand she says that ‘Brodesser-Akner’s descriptions can seem more cartoonish more intent on charming an audience than on getting it right.’ And yet it goes on to say that she ‘channels Tom Wolfe’s fiction … and Roth is everywhere’ – you can’t have it both ways.  Brodesser-Akner lacks nuance and she lacks subtly – it is a sledgehammer of a book.

It simply goes on and on – vapid sex vapid people no substance unremarkable characterizations. 

It did get a bit better towards the end, with the characters beginning to deal with real trauma such as the forced breaking of Rachel’s waters which she equated to surgical rape. The cascade of Rachel into a breakdown, although tragic is slightly redemptive in terms of the books writing style – but it is a case of too little too late.

If you want to read good literature dealing with a marriage breakup try ‘Revolutionary Road’ by Richard Yates or ‘On Chesil Beach’ by Ian McEwan and avoid this compete tosh.

So, what did Book Club think?

This was Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s first novel. She had written a number of profile pieces for GQ – Susanna had read some of them and said they were excellent. Anne-Marie pointed out that Brodesser-Akner had given herself only six months to write this book. I think it showed. It could have done with a lot more work and fine tuning.  Lisa said not to judge it on the fact that it had been written in six months: It was a novel that was 40 years in the making.

Most of us thought that the book got better towards the end. Millie thought the first 2/3 of the book were slow and hard going. The latter part of the book which deals with Rachel’s story was much better written. Millie thought the way that Rachel articulated the unseen work that she did was very eloquent. It was, she thought, a very interesting take on marriage that gained in both momentum and perspective as it went along. Ann said the last 100 pages galloped.

Jan agreed that Rachel’s story was the best part of the novel. Although it was possible to feel empathy for Toby in the beginning, you just wanted to shake him. There was too much sexual detail too many dating apps. It could all have been condensed.

Quite a few of us were put off by the soft porn that did predominate in the early part of the book. But as Ann said it was like two immature boys talking to each other and as the characterizations developed the porn dropped off. It was this glib approach to sex which put Anne-Marie off the book in the beginning. He just lacked so much empathy when he had sex with strangers. Yulia, who joined our Book Club for the first time, was worried initially about the sort of books that we were reading, and found none of the characters likable.

Ann had some very good points as usual. She said it was a good book on gender. It made you think about the differences between men and women in a ‘men are from Mars women are from Venus’ type of way. It showed the difference between the genders and how these differences manifest themselves. Toby took up space. Much like men take up space on the tube, legs akimbo wide stance, or what is known as “man-spreading.” Whereas Rachel spent the novel trying to make her own space. In a sense, men never have to make their own space, they automatically get it, whereas women have to fight to carve it out.

We talked a bit about this history of women in high powered jobs and how women had to fight to get to the top and then once there compete against each other. This meant that when Rachel finally broke down there was no one there to go to. There was no private or professional network to support her.

Ann did feel it was a bit unrealistic that Toby’s college friends who had little in common with him had managed to stick together but Millie said this often happened. You may well have friends from your youth who, if you met today, you would find you had little in common with.

It also had insights to marriage. As the character Rachel said, when you spend a long time together you blame each other for what is going wrong, but really part of that blame and part of that fault belongs to you. This was a couple that did not understand each other. They smothered each other. They couldn’t hear each other.  It was an interesting power dynamic with a sense of role reversal. Toby was the homemaker (although he was also a doctor) and Rachel was the big earner who had the clout in the marriage. 

Ann pointed out that she felt that Rachel was authentic. She had a bad background and did not know how to be a mother or to cuddle a child. Millie agreed and said that Rachel cared in her own way, the only way she knew how. She showed love by trying to improve the children’s social position and chances in life. As Anne-Marie said – she suffered from status anxiety. Lisa said she had no imprint for motherhood.

Many of us felt sympathy for Toby. There were things in Toby’s life that could resonate in our own lives. Millie for one said after reading about all the women in logo T-shirts she began seeing them everywhere.  It was clear that Toby was damaged too.  Anne-Marie said he was almost infantile and adolescent. Although he had a lot of sex, he didn’t really enjoy it. Jan said it was like he was a kid in a candy shop. He was free to take whatever he wanted but it was not fulfilling. Ann said it objectified women.  Lisa again thought there was an interesting gender turn around, it was Toby’s mum who was telling him to lose weight, whereas usually it is the mother telling the daughters to lose weight.

Millie pointed out that it was interesting that he assumed just being good at what you do would get him the promotion that he wanted. He didn’t get that there could ever be more to it than that. Rachel, however, did, as she had to fight her gender to get where she did. Lisa loved the moments where Toby was treated like a woman – for example when the divorce attorney referred to him as ‘the wife’ . It was, as Anne-Marie said, a ‘gender flip’. Lisa loved the book immediately and felt that the unravelling of Rachel was the Trojan horse. Having spent a long time living in New York she found the characters relatable and believable.

Susanna thought it a telling comment in one of the reviews she read that if a woman has an interesting story to tell, it is often told through the male’s perspective.

Ann did get an inkling that Rachel would be sick. Jo found it unbelievable that it would not have occurred to Toby to call the hospital, the police or even her assistant when he realized Rachel was missing.

I did ask if anyone had noticed any parallels with Roth as I couldn’t see them myself – Jan said there were no parallels. Anne-Marie’s favorite character was Libby which was interesting as this was the character that many of the reviewers said reminded them of Roth’s Zuckerman.

If you are going to read this book – a word of warning Susanna did say not to listen to it an audible, it is much better if you read it, because the audible narration is annoying. And do stick with it – it gets better as it goes along.

Reviews

From you tube

In her own words

Hampstead Women’s Club

If you would like to join the Hampstead Women’s Club so that you can come to one of our virtual book clubs or join any of the many events and activities of the club, please join up here

.

https://www.hwcinlondon.co.uk/how-to-join

HWC will be holding a number of virtual events including a book club every fortnight until lockdown is over and we can all meet physically again. The aims of the club are to promote a social contact and friendship amongst members. You do not have to have read the book to come to the meetings.  We are voting on next years books this week to have a say join up!

Future books

10 August Book club will be discussing  From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan, 192 pages.

Long listed for the Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award 2018. Farouk’s country has been torn apart by war. Lampy’s heart has been laid waste by Chloe. John’s past torments him as he nears his end. The refugee. The dreamer. The penitent. From war-torn Syria to small-town Ireland, three men, scarred by all they have loved and lost, are searching for some version of home. Each is drawn towards a powerful reckoning, one that will bring them together in the most unexpected of ways.

24 August Book club will be discussing Atonement by Ian McEwan 371 pages. 

Taken from Good Reads, ‘Ian McEwan’s symphonic novel of love and war, childhood and class, guilt and forgiveness provides all the satisfaction of a brilliant narrative and the provocation we have come to expect from this master of English prose. On a hot summer day in 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses the flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant. But Briony’s incomplete grasp of adult motives and her precocious imagination bring about a crime that will change all their lives, a crime whose repercussions Atonement follows through the chaos and carnage of World War II and into the close of the twentieth century.’

7 September Book club will be discussing   A Stranger City, by Linda Grant, 336 pages.

When a dead body is found in the Thames, it begins a search for a missing woman and confirms a sense that, in London a person can become invisible once outside their community – and that assumes they even have a community. A policeman, a documentary film-maker and an Irish nurse named Chrissie all respond to the death of an unknown women in their own ways. Grant weaves a tale around ideas of home; how London can be a place of exile or expulsion, how home can be a physical place or an idea. How all our lives intersect and how coincidence or the randomness of our birthplace can decide how we live and with whom. Described by the “Financial Times” as “a compelling portrait of contemporary London… a novel fit for shifting, uncertain times.”

Things to do

TODAY- here is a link to the launch of Charles Harris new book Room 15 a psychological thriller – is on between 7-8pm on 28th July – see facebook for the link https://www.facebook.com/events/1135439183521916/

Update on Drive in Club Brent Cross – unfortunately this has now closed as it could not break even so Adam Kay is now off as well. However roof top cinema and Drive in at Alexander Palace is still going strong. I looks like Pretty Women which is on tonight has sold out – so hopefully it will tick around. More detail and its schedule can be found here:

https://rooftopfilmclub.com/london/venue/alexandrapalace/?gclid=CjwKCAjwmf_4BRABEiwAGhDfSe7hnvsr0nf9QgV3j-8qHig05IFi80TmrzksimtEas6SHf01lTQGGhoC6s8QAvD_BwE

A reminder:  Theme parks are now reopening. We took our daughter to Thorpe Park last week and she loved it! They are implementing pretty good social distancing measures. You have to order your tickets in advance as they are restricting numbers because of Covid. You can’t get fast passes but you probably won’t need them as there are fewer people going.  For a video on how they are handling social distancing and a review see

Also a reminder that The English National Opera are also adapting to Covid and will be offering a drive-in performance. They are staging performances of La Boheme in Alexandra Palace between the 19-27 of September. It is £100 per car and information can be found here https://eno.org/your-visit/drive-live-register-your-interest/

And don’t forget to support your local Zoo either the London Zoo or Whipsnade, tickets can be bought here

https://www.zsl.org/bookticketszsl

you have to buy tickets in advance as they are limiting numbers because of social distancing.

The Hampstead Everyman has also re opened and needs our support, you can find details of what is on here

https://www.everymancinema.com/hampstead

and to see the precautions they are taking because of Covid – see here

https://www.everymancinema.com/an-update-from-us

On TV

The rise of the Murdochs – fascinating insight into the family dynamics and the media business – BBC iplayer.

Mrs. America – starting the fabulous Cate Blanchett – deals with the rights of women in America – also on BBC Iplayer.

Line of Duty – Box set on BBC iplayer – this had me so hooked I did not sleep for weeks – amazing 5 series set.

Death In Paradise – Box set on BBC iplayer series 1-9 (I don’t really get this one but it is so beloved by all the other members of my family that I thought I would add it in) a series of who done its – set on a sleepy island in paradise.

Once Upon a Time in Iraq — BBC iplayer — a series telling the story of the Iraq invasion from the point of view of the Iraqi civilians who suffered in it, the journalists who covered it, and the American soldiers who fought in it.

Think outside the box

Be grateful even in the chaos – the sky is clearing

As we come out of the pandemic let us learn from it  – A message of hope 

Stay safe. Stay connected. See you soon.

The Overstory by Richard Powers

2019 Pulitzer Prize winner

Richard Powers

To say this was not one of my favourite Book Club reads is a bit of an understatement. In fact, I gave up listening to it on Audible half-way through. I felt that I was being slapped over the head by a wet fish. It was as nuanced and subtle as a ton of bricks. And there I go, using two clichéd similes – but I think that is probably appropriate given the number of clichés and stereotypes and lack of original thought that I think abound in this book.

What astounds me most is that this is a Pulitzer Prize winner. As Sam Jordison writes in his Guardian article,  ‘If The Overstory really is one of the best books of the year, then the novel is dying even faster than the forests’ (18 December 2018 ‘How could The Overstory be considered a book of the year? ‘). I chatted to Anne-Marie about this before the meeting started. She said that often the Pulitzer is a consensus choice. It isn’t always the best book that gets chosen, but it is the book that everyone can agree on. I said it is a bit like saying that ‘The Overstory ’was the lowest common denominator.’ If you think of it in these terms it makes this choice much more understandable.

Contrived. That is probably the adjective that I think best describes this book. The dictionary defines ‘contrived’ as ‘created or arranged in a way that seems artificial and unrealistic’. For a book all about nature – this is one of the most artificial and unrealistic books I have ever read. I initially felt as I did when we read ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison – that I must have missed something, Why did I not like what was meant to be a profound work of literature? But I was glad to find as I read online reviews that I wasn’t the only one who had reservations or doubts about the book. Jordison in his review (Supra) went on to write, ‘The Overstory is just so undemanding. It asks nothing of its readers. There is nothing beyond the page, Nothing that Powers doesn’t spell out slowly for us. If there is a moral dilemma, the characters will pick it over. If there is something to spot it is always clearly signposted. Details are fed to us with all the elegance of Dorothy feeding soup to her ruined husband.‘

It is a long book and full of prose as Powers waxes lyrical on the majesty and beauty of trees, but it has very little depth or substance. In his article in the Guardian Benjamin Markovits writes, ‘Plot on a human scale doesn’t get much of a look in: marriages, kids, jobs, moving house, fighting with friends. These feature but only abruptly, like the rapid shifts in time-lapse photographs of plant growth. All the big things happen suddenly. Characters die, from gas poisoning or suicide or strokes, marriages collapse, people get arrested. In a book about the wisdom of trees, the stories that shape human life tend, by way of contrast to be over dramatic.’ Sam Jordison writes that it  ‘descends into increasingly absurd melodrama’, and that it ‘eventually descends into just the kind of crash- bang bollocks that makes bad comic book adaptions so repetitively dull.’ (Supra)

There is no doubt that writing literature about ecological damage and environmental destruction is important, but this book falls short. I didn’t find it enjoyable, enlightening or educational. It was boring  and puerile. Eoin McNames in his article in the Irish Times calls Powers ‘a 21st Century animist with the eyes of a revivalist preacher. There are colours on his spectrum that no one else can see. Or at least he believes they are there.’ Margaret Atwood says that ‘it is just not possible for Powers to write an uninteresting book,’ a sly quote with just a little bit too much condescension buried in it.’ ( An Overstory Review: a Ranter’s Sermon’,  14 April 2018)

So, what is this ‘car crash’ of a story all about?  It basically tells the story of nine characters and their relationship with trees as they become environmental activists. The book is split into four sections: Roots, Trunk, Crown and Seeds.

Adam is a psychology student who evaluates the psychological reasons behind why people become environmental protestors.

Patricia Westerford studies forestry at university and becomes an academic. She develops a theory that trees are social beings. Her thesis is rejected by the academic community and she contemplates committing suicide. She then goes into the old growth forests, gets a job at the Bureau of Land Management and lives a solitary life. She eventually marries Dennis, the station manager where she works; after his death she is so overcome with grief she kills herself.

Neely is the son of Indian immigrants and becomes a computer coder. He falls out of a tree and becomes paralysed. After witnessing Patricia’s death he invents a  game where players can help make the planet more sustainable by ‘unsuicidesing’ the planet.

Mimi Ma is an engineer and a descendant of a Chinese immigrant who committed suicide. She does not like the fact that trees are being cut down outside her office. She meets Douglas, a Vietnam vet. They plant trees together to help combat deforestation but then are horrified to learn that big logging companies are profiting from their plantings. Mimi is fired from her job and both she and Douglas become activists.

Nicholas is a struggling artist who lives on the family farm. His insurance money runs out and he has to move. He forms a relationship with Olivia. She is a college student, and after a near-death experience she becomes convinced that she should go to California to save the Redwood trees. They join a group of radicals and change their names to Watchman and Maidenhair. They tree sit a Redwood. Adam comes to interview them. Nick and Olivia are forced out of the tree and move to Oregon to continue their fight. Adam later decides to join them. Mimi and Doug also join them. Mimi has changed her name to Mulberry and Doug has changed his name to Doug-Fir. They are now all part of the activist camp – ‘the Cascadians’. The camp is destroyed by law enforcement and Mimi and Doug get injured.

To retaliate, the group sets fire to logging equipment. Olivia is then injured in an act of arson and dies. The four remaining activists scatter. Nick becomes a vagrant and is profoundly affected by Olivia’s death. Mimi reinvents herself, Doug becomes a BLM ranger and Adam returns to academia. Doug writes down what has happened in his journal, which the FBI find and they arrest him. He gives them Adam’s real name to protect Mimi. Adam is then sentenced to 140 years imprisonment and Doug is sentenced to 7 years imprisonment.

The book ends with Nick, with the help of a Native American, making a giant message out of branches and dead logs in the forest which reads: ‘still’. It is legible for 200 years before it is absorbed into the forest.

So, what did Book Club think?

I had an inkling that that some members would love it.  During the week I received a couple of emails about the book from members who were unable to come to the meeting, but said that the book had a profound and life-changing effect on them. Antonia wrote that she was sorry that she couldn’t come but that it was one of the best books she had ever read and she had never looked at the heath in the same way afterwards.

To those in the meeting, to be honest, it was a bit like marmite. Some loved it some hated it. That is always what makes Book Club so interesting. It would a very boring world if we all agreed on everything, and in truth we very rarely do.

Jan agreed with me, and she felt the book was really boring ,and compared it to watching paint dry. She felt it took too long to build tension and was very slow and laborious to read.  Debra agreed it was a bit like watching paint dry but that was, in some way, the point. Trees grow very slowly and incrementally little by little over time. In the same way this book grew slowly.  This sense of timelessness was also mentioned by Ann who said it was lovely that the book conveyed the sense of trees being a never-ending stalwarts. She particularly liked the comment made in the book that, ‘if the world had started at dawn, humans would have only entered the picture at 11 at night.’ She felt it was humbling and made us understand the natural legacy of trees and  recognise that their power dwarfs us all.

One thing that was apparent quite quickly is that if you do read this book it is  probably best to read on the page rather than listen to it. The structure of the book is not divided into four sections in the audio book, and you have no idea where the trunk / roots / crown / seed sections begin or end. These are important themes in the book and the book relies on this structure. (Regarding the structure, Ann felt the bit that was most laborious was the trunk part of the story which ran from page 191 to 441 in the book. Jan was trying to work out if she could skip this, but as alluded to above,  it is difficult to work out what section is which in the audible version and the audible version does not have page numbers, only time left to read.)

Debra pointed out that the word ‘Overstory’ was an arboreal term. It is the top canopy in a forest. She said that in our lives we tend only to look at the small picture or the immediate environment, almost like the foliage at our feet,  but in fact we need to look at the whole picture that has developed over centuries and see the overstory. To do so gives us perspective on our time and history and purpose.

Rebecca felt that the book was very clever, that there were so many stories, and it gave a good picture of the multicultural genesis of America. She felt that by the end the book had turned into an exiting thriller. She said it was one of the few books she had finished. She liked the surprise element – you could not see what was going to happen and how the characters would get entangled. You could not guess where it was going to end. She felt it was the type of book that even if you did not like it, you would  never forget it.

Anne-Marie  said that she found the book tedious . However, she felt that although she personally was not fond of the book, she wanted to find out why people loved it so much. She also mentioned Julia Butterfly Hill a real protester who lived in a Redwood. Information about Julia can be found here

https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Julia_Butterfly_Hill

Caroline was expecting to love it but only liked it. She did feel she was in the presence of something grand and she was glad that  the majesty of trees formed a central theme in a novel. She too felt that the book could do with a lot of editing and that there were too many characters, but added that the book surprised her and it was unique.

Christy also loved the book. Coming from Oregon originally, which is full of trees, she said the book really spoke to her. She said she feels the same way about our heath as she does about the Oregon old growth forests, and she loves that the book has got people talking about trees. She said that the book had made her change the way that she looks at trees and that it was epic in scope.  A couple of people did argue that it was a book that could probably have been better in several volumes, maybe even a trilogy.

Ann felt that the book got lost in the middle but that ending was terrific . She felt that it was a bit like a Dickens novel. Characters came in and out and were over written, but she did feel it could have done with some editing and could lose 100 pages in the middle. But she said don’t give up: the ending was terrific.

Many of the people at Book Club mentioned the book ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’, which is referred to by Powers in Overstory. They all said that this book was easy to read and although it had nothing to do with fanaticism, they liked the way the essence of that non-fiction narrative was weaved into The Overstory.

Ann loved that each person was represented by a tree. It implied there was as many types of people as there were trees. Some trees were straight, some wiggly – the tree brought everyone together.

Ann felt the book was interesting on three main levels

  1. It was a story about trees and the history of America.
  2. It was an insightful study on fanaticism and the different forms it takes. From the protester/ researcher/ academic / psychologist. It did tend to stereotype a little the different types of fanatics into roles; for example, observer/ martyr/ follower.  She felt  maybe it stereotyped them too much.
  3. It was a book about power and authority and whose opinions mattered and and why.

Ann felt it was a cleaver book, and that although she was sure Powers probably got the Pulitzer prize because of its environmental message, she felt that his book had parallels to works by Dickens or Shakespeare. It had changed identities like Much Ado About Nothing.  Anne felt glad to have read the book. It was a book that would stick with her and that she would read a second time.

Perhaps to conclude, the opinion of Marilyn is most interesting. She hadn’t read the book and after listening to all of us discuss it, I was interested to see if it was going to be on her must-read list. Nothing that anyone said made her think she was going to pick it up.  

If you do want to read the book it can be bought here:

This book did make me think of a wonderful song about trees by Harry Secombe that my father used to play when I was little; it can be found here

My dad told me there was also a very funny Goon show skit with Spike Milligan which I was unable to find online, unfortunately, called  ‘I talk to the trees that’s why they put me away.’

Bookclub now has an instagram page it can be found here

https://www.instagram.com/hampsteadbookclub/

Future reads

Book Club will be meeting to discuss the following books.

Monday 27 July Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner you can buy this here.

Monday 10 August From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan

You can buy this here

Monday 7 September A Stranger City by Linda Grant

This can be bought here

My blog on these meetings should appear by the following Wednesday.

Other news

Things to do

My husband and I went to the Drive-In Club at Brent Cross which I mentioned in my last blog and tried it out. It was exceptionally well organised. We had a great night listening to Jason Manford from the comfort of our own car and were able to order some very nice Papa Johns pizza from an app on our phone which was delivered to our car. They even had passion fruit martinis and  an exceptional banoffee ice cream platter. It was a truly great night. They also have a vegan pizza offer. I have now bought tickets to Eddie Izzard at the end of July. For more information see

Adam Kay is playing there too and is doing a version of his ‘This is Going To Hurt’ show. I would go but I saw it in the West End before Covid. I would really recommend it. It was fantastic.  He has just released a new book which is a love letter to the NHS and contains letters of thanks from over 100 celebrities.  He is interviewed about his new book here; all profits from it go to the NHS and I would strongly encourage you to buy it

His new book can be bought here

Theme parks are now reopening. We have tickets to take our daughter to Thorpe Park  on the 24th July. They are implementing pretty good social distancing measures. You have to order your tickets in advance as they are restricting numbers because of Covid. You can’t get fast passes but you probably won’t need them as there are fewer people going.  For a video on how they are handling social distancing and a review see

The English National Opera  are also adapting to Covid and will  be offering a drive-in performance. They are staging performances of La Boehme in Alexandra Palace between the 19-27 of September. It is £100 per car and information can be found here

AWC Event 

Sally also told me about a fantastic event organised by the American Women’s club which some of you might be interested in. It will be held on Thursday the 16th July  on Zoom. The author Tracy Chevalier will be talking about her book ‘New Boy’. She is also the author of the best-selling ‘The Girl with the Pearl Earring. You can register for that event here 

https://www.awclondon.org/AWC-Blog-Spot/9049129?fbclid=IwAR15-CktLY6_L1yv8EPwAz_xRuPTFAss6lMzuqHYlmSOa0UXBZY32iBkzGk

Things to watch

Netflix

Eurovision – a lot of silliness and fun with Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdam, and Pierce Brosnan.  I thoroughly recommend it. It is just the light-hearted feel-good movie you need in a global pandemic.

Wanted – a thrilling Australian drama series with the outstanding actress Rebecca Gibney – had us all transfixed in our house.

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser

Winner of the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction (1991)

This is a Goliath of a book, both in size and in substance. The Quincunx is 1,200 pages of pure brilliance, which has been described as ‘more Dickensian than Dickens’ and ‘more Collins than Collins ever was’. A Waterstones review said: ‘It is everything you could want in a Victorian novel: episodic, all-encompassing and packed with denouements at every turn.’

We were so lucky to be joined at this week’s Book Club by the eminent author Charles Palliser, to discuss his outstanding magnum opus The Quincunx. Not only is he a prodigiously talented writer, but he was also a wonderfully engaging and interesting speaker who was thought provoking and inspiring.

Despite the almost universal acclaim his book has received, Charles remains humble and grounded. He said right at the outset of our meeting that when he first wrote The Quincunx he was concerned that no one would be interested in his Victorian pastiche, so much so that he went out and purchased 50 copies of his book so he could hand it out to friends to show them he had written something. He need not have worried: the book was picked up by Canongate Books in 1989 and the publishing rights were quickly picked up by Ballantine Books in the US in January 1991. It became an instant bestseller, selling over a million copies, and earned global recognition and praise.

His writing style is often compared to that of Dickens, but a Dickens who has taken a long, hard look at himself in the mirror without the benefit of mood lighting. Palliser’s book is Dickensian writing distilled ­– without the sentimentality or the redemption. The following quote is from a fellow wordpress blogger. It is long but makes very good comparisons and highlights some differences between Palliser and Dickens – the full blog can be found here: .

https://xianblog.wordpress.com/2013/07/01/the-quincunx-book-review/

The quotation, which I will quote in full says:

‘As I am a big fan of Dickens, I went through The Quincunx as an exercise in Dickensania, trying to spot characters and settings from the many books written by Dickens. I found connections with Great Expectations (for the John-Henrietta couple and the fantastic features in the thieves’ den, but also encounters with poverty and crime), Bleak House (for the judicial intricacies), Little Dorrit (for the jail system and the expectation of inheritance), Our Mutual Friend (for the roles of the Thames, of money, forced weddings),  Martin Chuzzlewit (again for complex inheritance stories), Oliver Twist (for the gangs of thieves, usury, the private ‘schools’ and the London underworld), David Copperfield (for the somehow idiotic mother and the fall into poverty), The Mystery of Edwin Drood (for the murder, of course!)  And I certainly missed others. (Some literary critics wrote that Palliser managed to write all Dickens at once.)

However, despite the perfect imitation in style, with its array of grotesque characters and unbelievable accidents, using Dickens’ irony and tongue-in-cheek circumlocutions, with maybe an excess of deliberate misspellings, Palliser delivers a much bleaker picture of Dickens’ era than Dickens himself. This was the worst of times, if any, where some multifaceted unbridled capitalism makes use of the working class through cheap salaries, savage usury, and overpriced (!) slums, forcing women into prostitution, men into cemetery desecration and sewage exploration. There is no redemption at any point in Palliser’s world and the reader is left with the impression that the central character John Huffam (it would be hard to call him the hero of The Quincunx) is about to fall into the same spiral of debt and legal swindles as his complete family tree. A masterpiece.’

Palliser himself says that Dickens has some outstanding qualities as a writer, but also some serious faults, particularly in his tendency to over-sentimentalise his characters, painting prostitutes as almost cherubic and constantly implying that people would be saved or rescued by a rich benefactor.

Early on in the book Charles admits there is a similarity to David Copperfield, particularly with respect to David and the character of Peggotty. However, in this book he points out that, although there is a charge/nanny relationship with Bisset, the nanny is much more spiteful and malevolent.

Charles Palliser

He also says that Great Expectations influenced his writing of The Quincunx. Just as Pip’s beliefs in that book were built on self-deception and illusion, so too in a way were John’s. Interestingly, Charles points out that in the early drafts of Great Expectations Pip and Estelle do not meet up at the end but Pip remains a lonely middle-aged man. Dickens was encouraged to ‘soften‘ the ending.

Anne-Marie said comparing Charles to Dickens was like comparing Downton Abbey and Gosford Park – one was idealised, the other gritty and real.

At the time when Charles was writing The Quincunx he was teaching Victorian fiction at Strathclyde University and was reading a lot about the social and primary history of the period. As Palliser says, Thackery and Collins knew what life was like at the time but were not really free to write about it candidly. What we now know actually happened from primary sources was not necessarily what they depicted. Palliser has tried to tie together and marry up the best elements of Victorian literature with a more realistic picture of what was actually happening in that era. Charles is the first to admit that Dickens inspired him. He himself, encouraged by his grandmother, had read all of Dickens’ work by the age of 13. But Dickens is not his only inspiration. He also read all four volumes of the journalist Henry Mayhew’s Stories of Victorian Life in his series of essays in London Labour and the London Poor (1851) – one of the main primary sources of social history of the time.

Most Victorian writers, Palliser says, do not take you into the real world of the suffering of the working class. The one exception to this general rule he said was Elizabeth Gaskell who did write candidly about prostitution and did not tend to romanticise the poor. Palliser says his novel is a novel set in the 1850s which no one in the 1850s would have wanted to read. They did not want to see the sheer scale of destitution and poverty and complete deprivation that it brought. There was in that period a great deal of censorship. Dickens and Collins could write about the working-class poor as long as they did not reveal the full horror; and discussion of middle-class poverty and destitution was even more circumspect.

The Victorian era was a period of extremes: one could easily fall through the cracks and keep falling as there was nothing to catch you. A person with money could put their enemies in a lunatic asylum, and Dickens himself tried to get his wife committed. The practice of committing a scorned spouse continued until at least the 1930s-40s ­­– probably because up until that time it was cheaper to commit your wife than to divorce her.  We also talked about the Yorkshire Schools like Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby, where illegitimate children where sent to more or less starve.

The era was one when women had no right to property at all. (We touched briefly on the case of Caroline Norton – see the Wikipedia outline of her history below, it is fascinating.) Upon marriage all a women’s property became her husband’s. The only way to protect a woman’s assets was to make a marriage settlement, but this only worked if your family was rich. The poor had no way to protect themselves. We talked about how babies were taken from unmarried mothers to be ‘looked after’ by baby farmers but were often killed or starved. I saw a play at my daughter’s school – The Corium Boy – which illustrated this very issue. We also talked about the medieval notions of property that existed at that time and how a society was built on a parish-based theological system that had originally only supported small local communities but was now having to support large industrial societies. There was no single organisation in charge in London, to make sure crime was controlled or childcare or healthcare provided. There was no welfare system. Landowners or householders would pay a ‘poor rate’ to keep the poor alive, but it often failed even to do that.

In the 1830s poor houses developed. Women often picked oakum and men broke up stones for no purpose or reason other than to force them to do manual labour. I referred to the work of Bentham and pointed out that, at the time, there was a prevailing belief that the conditions in the work houses must be worse than not working – as it was felt that people shouldn’t be encouraged not to work in the belief that they would have a better life in a work house. Palliser referred to Thomas Malthus an early economist, who argued that if you encouraged the poor by feeding them, they would breed and the whole of society would end up impoverished and starving. Some of these misconceived ideas still have a pervasive effect on politicians today – the denial of universal healthcare in America for example. The conflicting views on charitable giving are seen in Palliser’s book in the character of Pentecost, who is secretly soft hearted and gives money away and hates himself for doing it.

We did talk briefly too about debtors’ prisons. I said I thought my grandfather Eric had gone to prison for non-payment of a debt and I thought this was a debtors’ prison. Charles said he must have done something else as debtors’ prisons closed under the Debtors Act of 1869. I have since checked it out – although debtors’ prisons did close then, you could (and can still be) sent to prison for non-payment of debt, mainly in two different situations: a) if you fail to pay a debt and you have the means to pay it; and b) if you default on a payment to the court or for not paying things like your council or business rates. My grandfather was sent to Brixton jail when he was 29 for two months for non-payment of a debt of 15 pounds nine shillings and 6 pence. He spent two months there while my grandmother fished around for funds to get him out. He was prisoner number 1968 and I have a heart-breaking letter from him to my grandmother in which he tries to think of people who could lend them money so he could get out.

Debra said this book has so many layers and deals with so many issues. There are five generations and five families – she asked how Charles brought it all together, whether he started with one family and one story, and how did it grow.

Charles said he started with an image of a woman with a young son in a garden. To this image he added a nanny. He soon had written 15,000 words but then he paused while he structured a comprehensive plot and framework. He said after six or seven years the book was getting longer and longer and he wanted some kind of pattern and structure to control his writing. He said he found that the number five already featured heavily in his book: there were five generations and five families and it was easy to divide up the story into a quincunx format. A quincunx, for those who don’t know, is a shape like the figure five on a dice – four parts on the outside and one in the centre. The centre of The Quincunx is the mystery of the middle pages of Mary’s journal that deals with the night of John’s father’s murder. You never really find out what these pages said. John thinks he knows at the end of the book what these pages reveal but we are never really sure. Charles has a view, but even his view has been challenged by some of his friends and readers. He likes the ambiguity and the fact that the reader can decide, decipher and decode and come to a number of different interpretations of events.

Charles said his aim in writing the book was to create a Victorian melodrama full of surprises that kept people engaged. It is a book about finding out who you are and what your destiny is. Debbie said that John had a tendency to trust everyone which led him into trouble. Every time he met a new character Debra said to herself ‘No please don’t trust him!’ Charles disagreed a little – he said John does become more distrustful, he suspects Bisset of betraying them; whereas his mother comes to her defence. He didn’t want John to be seen as too trusting.

The basic premise of the story is that John, the narrator, finds himself the key protagonist in a legal dispute over an inheritance. He is caught between two dynastic claims. One family wants to keep him alive so they can inherit and one wants to kill him to prevent that. Charles pointed out that the novel illustrates that pursuing justice at all costs is not often redemptive and can be profoundly damaging as it becomes all-encompassing and consuming. John, by the end of The Quincunx, has paid a high price emotionally and spiritually for pursuing his claims. He has been corrupted and, in some ways, destroyed, and he is certainly less generous and loving as a result. Charles has been criticised by some people for not giving John and Henrietta a happy marriage at the end of the book. But as Debra said – you wouldn’t expect it. Charles agreed, saying it would undermine the story – Henrietta and John were so damaged they simply couldn’t end up together.

Although the book has a starkly bleak view of Victorian poverty, there are some redeeming characters, such as Mrs Digweed, Sukey and Helen Quilliam, who is a clever, brave and honourable woman who tries to do the right thing as much as her circumstances allow.

A friend of Charles said his book is about betrayal and Charles thinks this is true to an extent. People have to, by their very nature, put their trust in people and they often get it wrong. All human relationships, he said, are based on a bond where both people think they are getting something out of the relationship. The very thing that attracts you to a friend – things like their sense of humour or intelligence – can quickly become the thing that you resent them for. Attraction and hostility, he said, are often aligned.

Anne-Marie asked about the role of women in his work. She asked if he had thought about narrating from a female perspective and noted that authors like Thomas Hardy for example had portrayed very authentically the female voice. Charles felt it was incredibly difficult to have a woman as a central character and narrate from a female perspective. He felt it would almost be audacious and he felt acutely aware of his own limitations. He said that he felt that it was hard for a writer to disguise their gender. We discussed some writers who had successfully done this, such as George Eliot, who wrote so well from a male perspective, and Henry James, who so eloquently captured the female voice. Charles said one of his concerns was that his motives were often misjudged. He referred to his book The Sensationalist in which the leading female character kills her own child after a doomed love affair. He was criticised for portraying women as being unstable, but what he was really doing was trying to focus on the men’s attitudes and abuse that had brought about the tragedy. He faced criticism too when the hero of Rustication has an affair with a 14-year-old servant girl. He wasn’t passing a moral judgment on the relationship, but it was indicative of its time. That’s what happened, so to say otherwise is to give a false account and perpetuate a myth.

The reviews of this book are simply outstanding. Pages and pages of people who have read it describe the book as one of the best they have ever read. They call it life-changing and genius. I read someone say – and I can’t remember where so I can’t attribute the comment – that it is: ‘a book you could study for years and still not grasp fully and that even at 1,200 pages it is nowhere near long enough.’ Charles said he got a bit bored of the flattering reviews. He looked for ones that were slightly disparaging.

He says he was really lucky with the translators of the book. The French translation, by the translator Gerard Pilocuet, in particular is very nuanced. The translator was dying as he adapted it and put his heart and soul into every word The Dutch translator also became obsessed by the book. We noted how in Europe translators often have a much higher status than in the UK, with someone pointing out that on one occasion the translator was earning less than the typist who was typing up the translated copy. Jo, a translator herself, said not much had changed. Jo asked Charles what French 19th-century novelists he admired. He said all of them. He loves Zola who, though writing during a slightly later period, was much more candid about sex and violence; and he also loves Balzac; plus he said there were also some astonishing Russian writers like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. He said in his own writing, looking back, he was sometimes astonished to see the influence of other writers. It isn’t really a case of plagiarism however – all writers are influenced by what they have read and experienced.

We asked Charles if he had ever been approached for the film rights to this book. He said there had been two or three attempts to make the book into a film or series but none of them had got off the ground despite two of them being close. He said one of the problems is that the novel is long, and its central protagonist ages. Also, as a costume drama, it would be expensive to produce. He thought it might better be adapted to a radio dramatisation.

Charles says that lockdown has probably made him focus a bit more on his writing, but that he used to write for 4-5 hours a day even before lockdown. He writes every morning and says that the only thing that usually stops him is exhaustion. To other writers he says that the key to writing is to sit at your desk and just start writing. You can’t wait for inspiration to come – you have to go looking for it. You have to develop the habit of writing. He does feel, however, that lockdown is starting to be oppressive and taking a physical and psychological toll, but is glad it has meant that he has made progress with his book.

Charles sometimes worries, given the world we face now – a world of hollow, empty men who lack any sort of inner guidance or vison or courage – if his writing is really that important in the light of the problems the world is facing. We all universally assured him that his writing is more important than ever now. There is a need more than ever for good literature to inform and reflect on morals and society and to provide a sense of escapism in a world where people are physically trapped. He did say that because 1820 is in the past it is easier to look back on it and reflect on its shortcomings and examine it. It is harder to analyse your own epoch or generation with as much objectivity and wisdom. Everything is easier in retrospect. Charles said it is too easy to see abject poverty as a thing of the past in a less progressive era. The conditions of the Victorian slums in England in the 1820s are currently being played out in third world countries all over the globe. People are still dying in the streets of starvation and we are still tolerating or ignoring it.

Charles is writing a new book – but this one deals more with the psychology of relationships among a family. You may have to wait as he expects to finish it in the next two to three years. He thinks it will be as long as The Quincunx.

Charles has published five other books. He says that Unburdened and Rustication are of a similar kind of genre but that The Sensationalist is different. It is a modern book and slightly erotic. He felt it hadn’t been so well received as his other works, as people expected the same Victorian genre over and over again. This frustrated him as he wanted to be able to use his imagination in different ways. He said writing is about exploring your curiosity; if you always write the same thing you are not exploring or finding out anything new. In Rustication a central theme is that the people whom you trust most, and who can harm you the most, are often those who are nearest and dearest to you, like your mother or sister. Anne-Marie said American families are much more likely to confront their own toxicity – this can be seen in the writings of people like Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, whereas the English don’t tend to do this to the same extent.

Charles himself ran a book group in Stoke Newington for over twenty years. He is missing that and the regular meetings of the society of authors. He said ours was the type of club he would love to join.

Thank you Charles for your time, your wisdom and your genius, and being willing to share all three with us.

Charles books can be ordered here

For an interesting article on Mayhew see:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/oct/16/rereading-henry-mayhew-london-poor

For an article by Caroline Norton see:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caroline_Norton

For an interesting review of the book see:

https://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2009/12/02/the-quincunx-by-charles-palliser/

Other news

The flowers we sent

Jan is very sadly standing down as co-chair of our Book Club. Don’t worry, she is not abandoning us completely and will still be a regular attendee at our meetings – but she has been Book Club co-chair for a number of years now and would like a break. We all thanked her so much for her time, support and dedication to our club. We sent her a bunch of flowers from us all which she had on display at the zoom meeting. She wanted me to put a picture of those flowers in this blog and say thank you to everyone in Book Club and thanks to me for co-chairing [Ed: it was a pleasure] and said the flowers were much appreciated and were beautiful.

I am really excited to announce that Anne-Marie will be taking over as co-chair of Book Club. Thank you so much for putting your name forward.

Nominations for future reads

Please continue to send me your nominations for future books to vote on in August. The list is beginning to come together nicely. The books can be fiction or non-fiction.

When pressed for recommendations for our future reads Charles mentioned The Other Passenger by Louise Candlish which can be found here

and American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld, a thinly veiled fictionalisation of the life of Barbara Bush. It can be found here:

Her new book on Hillary comes out on 9 July and can be found here:

Next books

Monday 13 July      Overstory by Richard Powers

Monday 27 July Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Monday 10 August From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan

Monday 7 September A Stranger City by Linda Grant

The blogs should be up by the following Wednesday

Things to buy

Anne-Marie and Claudine both mentioned a fantastic coffee pod that they have found for Nespresso-type machines which is completely biodegradable, can be put straight on your compost, is affordable and tastes great. It can be found here:

Elizabeth, who would have loved to join us, found this wonderful site where you can see what the best board games are as voted by Mensa – her and her son Gray are loving them

https://mensamindgames.com/about/winning-games/

Things to do

I went to London Zoo today with my daughter Charlotte. They have just opened up and you have to buy tickets online in advance for either a morning or afternoon slot as they are controlling numbers because of Covid. It was a fantastic day and, although a lot of the enclosures and exhibits like the reptile house and the insects were closed, there was still a lot to see. We saw penguins, giraffes, hippos and meerkats and it was great fun. You can purchase drinks to take away from the kiosk and the shop is open but entry to it is regulated. Toilets are also available and there are multiple hand sanitising stations throughout the zoo. I felt really safe, there were not that many people there and things were tightly controlled. We walked from Hampstead as we didn’t want to catch the tube. I thought it was going to be a short walk but it wasn’t – next time I would drive. There was a car park there with plenty of spaces (although it is about £14 a day). It was an expensive day but the zoo needs our money more than ever after months of closure and it was great to get out of the house and get some exercise. Tickets can be bought here:

https://www.zsl.org/london.

In addition to the zoo opening I have found out that there are a number of drive-in movie theatres opening in response to the Covid risk. Some are even having live comedy nights – there is this one in Enfield off the North Circular, which is £35 per car (you can have as many people as your car can fit

https://www.thedrivein.london/whats-on).

Tickets are a bit more expensive at the Brent Cross drive-in at £44 I think – but they are holding a lot of live events too – you can see Adam Kay perform his show This Is Going To Hurt for example. For more information see here:

https://drivein.ticketline.co.uk/adam-kay-brent-cross

Rooftop films at Alexandra Palace are also doing a drive-in – tickets are a bit cheaper at £29.50. You can reach the site here:

https://rooftopfilmclub.com/london/venue/alexandrapalace/.

Also they are screening Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing – which I mentioned last week in my blog and which is fantastic – on 6 July at 8pm. Tickets can be bought here:

https://rooftopfilmclub.com/london/alexandrapalace/film/do-the-right-thing/

All the drive-ins are contactless: you print out your ticket at home before you go then hold it up on the inside of your car window for scanning. All of the venues say they are serving food and drinks which I think you purchase over a phone app and they bring to your car in a contactless way.

There is also a live stream on the fire of London from the Museum of London on the 6th July details can be found here

https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london/whats-on/great-fire-london-live-stream-part-1?id=267208

Queenie by Candice Carty Williams

Queenie was long listed for the Women’s Prize in fiction in 2020 and was runner up in the Costa First Novel award in 2019.

I am really glad that Book Club chose this book to read at this time. Now, more than ever, we have to realise that ‘Black Lives Matter’ and listen to calls for structural change. The Black Lives Matter movement was formed in 2013 by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Opal Tometi after the murder of Trayvon Martin. In recent days it has brought people together, in response to the murder of George Floyd, to protest systematic racism and violence against black people.

Candice Carty Williams has long been an advocate of social justice and of social inclusion and is a strident voice for equality and a champion of diversity.  She is a screenwriter and journalist. Her mother was a dyslexic Jamaican-Indian receptionist and her father a Jamaican cab driver.  She has written for the Guardian and launched the 4th Estate BAME short story prize. This is her debut novel.

Queenie has been described as, ‘refreshingly candid and delightful’ and as ‘compassionate and bracingly real’. (Waterstones Review). It tells the story of Queenie Jenkins, a young Jamaican millennial, living in London, navigating the perils that life throws her way, from unrequited love, dubious sexual encounters, an unfulfilling job to mental health issues. It deftly describes some of the class and race issues in modern Britain.

Queenie was marketed as a ‘Black Bridget Jones’s Diary’, but I think this is dismissive of the message it conveys. It is not a romantic novel or chick Lit.  As Book Club said, it had a much more serious message. Candice Carty Williams, in interviews, has also dismissed this analogy saying that Queenie is ‘much more political’.  (See her You Tube interview below).

There was clearly a sense of a structural divide in the book. As Madeleine and others said,  the first 2/3 of the book dealt with Queenie’s disastrous relationships with white men. The last third was much more meaningful as we came to understand why Queenie had made the decisions that she had.

Many found Queenie’s casual sex graphic and confronting. Jan said it was ‘almost like self-harm’ and was ‘so sad.’ The sex we felt was not just casual sex, it was violent sex. Queenie was sexualised and abused by a succession of white men who used her as a plaything. I found it very interesting that Candice Carty Williams in her interview, which you can watch below, says that she gave all the men in her novel names with three letters only, to show how inconsequential they were. This book was about the women and not the men.

The issues raised in the book are not unique to the black experience. Gael said lots of us have been through bad relationships and lost our confidence and had our self-esteem knocked. However, I do think it speaks more loudly to the disenfranchised and dispossessed.

Most of us found the book easy to read. Madeleine said she could not put the book down. We also agreed that it had a snappy writing style and a journalistic feel. Anne said it had punchy sentences and ran very fast, but it was not a high quality text. Jo also felt that the characters were not compelling and that if felt rushed. Anne went as far as comparing it to an ‘airport edition’ – an introduction to therapy and racism.  She felt it was too basic and dealt with issues like institutional racism in a too simplistic way and that it was not nuanced.

Some of us agreed that the book lacked depth and we found it unrealistic. Gael, a therapist herself,  felt Queenie would never have kept her job and  felt that the character of the therapist lacked authenticity. Although the trauma was well portrayed and there was a good sense of the rejection felt by Queenie,  there was no real breakthrough with the therapy. She seemed to make a dramatic recovery with only gentle support. The process would have been a lot longer and would have needed a lot more input from her family.  As Anne said there was evidence of a profound lack of Queenie’s insight into herself. Anne also felt that the three techniques referred to in the book for self-soothing, (deep breathing, going to your special place and counting to ten) were too basic. These were a band aid solution to a major arterial bleed.

The use of text messages in the written text was controversial – some of us loved it, some of us hated It.  Gael felt it made it difficult to read the text. Others felt that it was a good literary technique as it made it more believable – you could say things in the text that more succinctly than dialogue.

There were some amazing character portrayals, particularly of her grandparents and friends, who were believable and realistic.

We must remember that Queenie is Candice Carty Williams first novel. As Anne-Marie said, there was all the evidence there that she would grow into being an engaging writer. Most of us felt that a good editor could have really improved this book. We discussed changes in printing. You no longer have to have fixed print runs but can print to order and things have become so digitalised and mass produced that there just isn’t the same attention to detail as there used to be. You have to give credit where credit is due however, as Queenie is currently one of the top ten best sellers in the Sunday Times List.

Queenie does feature all the buzz words of our times. It touches on feminism, racism, mental health, and millennials. Issues like domestic violence and racism, given the events of recent months, have never been more relevant. Race riots and domestic violence are occurring on a daily basis. The problem we collectively had with this book is that although these topics were mentioned, the attention that they were given was tokenistic and the standard of writing was just not great. The novel did not delve deeply enough and any analysis it gave, was superficial and incomplete.

There were some elements that we found far-fetched, most notably that Ted would have been able to blame their whole encounter on her or that the Welsh boyfriend was actually Cassandra’s boyfriend.

I personally found this book funny and tender and profoundly human. It has compassion and integrity and empathy and speaks volumes about black identity and the British social structure.  In these days of Black Lives Matter and continuing social repression and injustice we could all learn a little from Queenie and be better people for it.

Reading through reviews on Amazon it is clear that there is a sharp divide between those who lament that Queenie has little redeeming qualities and argue that she was self-destructive and self-absorbed and they did not like reading about her. Others said that her flaws is what made her relatable and real.

There were also a smattering of reviews which seem to echo the ‘all lives matter’  hyperbole, arguing that Queenie is guilty of a kind of reverse racism and that every white person in the book is portrayed as a villain. To take this stand denies the structural racism that pervades British society and tries to reframe it in a way that belittles the authenticity of her experience as a black women in a society of what are unquestionably unequal opportunities. Anne probably said it most eloquently when she said there is no such thing as white racism you have to be oppressed to have racism.

This book is a starting point for a conversation. It doesn’t say all that needs to be said or have all of the answers, but it is a beginning. An important one. The global society that was once an aspiration of many is challenged more than ever today by a reactionary nationalism with people like Trump proselytising  and making divisions, making us define ourselves in terms of our otherness and our difference. I am not saying that difference doesn’t matter. In a world of systemic and ingrained racism, we have to focus on black lives in particular and give the issues the attention they deserve to rectify centuries of injustice, persecution and stigmatisation. The reason why we are focusing on it, is for a hope that one day we can live in a world that is colour-blind, without injustice, without prejudice and where the colour of a person’s skin is as inconsequential as the toothpaste they use.

You can purchase the book here

Congratulations

I would like to congratulate my friend Farrah on being selected to take part in ‘The Write Now ‘ program run by Penguin. This program was set up in 2016 by Penguin to mentor, publish and nurture writers who are under-represented in the publishing world, such as BAME, LGBTQ , economically marginalised writers or writers with disabilities.   You can find information on the program here

https://www.penguin.co.uk/company/creative-responsibility/writenow.html

Entries have closed for this year. One day Farrah I hope to be blogging about your book!

Things to watch

Gael recommended BritBox as a streaming service. She has seen many things on it including the fantastic northern voices with Danial Craig.

https://www.britbox.co.uk/

Jan recommends Little Fires Everywhere on Amazon Prime she says it is even better than the book which we read in Book Club

I would also recommend the Spike Lee classic movie, Do the Right Thing, which although it came out in 1989 is just as relevant today, if not more so – you can rent it from Amazon Prime for under £3. 

Jo recommended the National Theatre’s production of Small Island which can now be viewed on the web at

https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/nt-at-home-small-island

It  is based on the Windrush  generation and also speaks volumes about issues of racism and inclusion – (the book by Andrea Levy is also fantastic by the way).  It is only streaming until the 25 June, so be quick.

Important videos on racism

For a good illustrative video on the problem with saying ‘all lives matter’ see

For a good video on white privilege (this is four years old but just as relevant today)

For an Interview with the founders of Black Lives Matter see

For an interview with Candice Carty Williams see

  and

For other book clubs and individual reviews of this book see

Upcoming books

Monday 29 June The Quincunx by Charles Palliser with the author

Monday 13 July –     Overstory by Richard Powers

Monday 27 July Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner 

Monday 10 August    From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan,

Blogs will appear by the Wednesday after the meeting.

Inheritance by Dani Shapiro

This book is about a women’s search for her identity and her place in the world. Dani Shapiro’s memoir chronicles her journey from the discovery by chance, that her birth is the product of an anonymous sperm donor, to her final acceptance that parenthood is about more than just genetics.

As a child Dani was never told of her origins.  She was told before her mother’s death that she was the product of artificial insemination but it wasn’t until she was in her 40s that she found out the sperm used to conceive her, was not in fact her father’s but an anonymous donor.  This revelation shocked her to her core and this book deals with her journey through grief to self-discovery and acceptance.

She found out about her origins from an ancestry.com genetic test. She did the test,  not because she doubted where she came from, but because she had a passing interest in her history. She recounts the moment she decided to take the test. ‘Though I no longer remember the exact moment. It is in fact the small, the undramatic, the banal the ‘yeah sure’ that could just have easily been a shrug and ‘no thanks.’

The test revealed that she was not genetically related to her half-sister, but it did reveal a first cousin who she did not know about. From that information and after some detective work, she manages to trace and  find her biological father, Ben Walden, a doctor who lived in Portland, Oregon. Dr Walden initially declined to meet Dani but did offer to send her his genetic history. After initial hesitation on Dr Walden’s part they came to know each other and each other’s families and Dani comes to accept herself and who she is.

The big spiritual questions ‘Who am I?’, ‘Why am I here?’  and ‘how should I live?’ loom large in the book and it is these questions that she has to grapple with and come to terms with. She has to, as she says, ‘learn the truth of oneself’.

There is a also a cultural and religious dimension to the book. Dani was raised as an orthodox Jew and Dr Walden was Christian. Her book highlights the conflicting Jewish law on artificial insemination and the difficult religious dilemmas faced by her parents. On the one hand the first word spoken to human beings in Genesis by God is Pru u’rvu. This is a commandment to be fruitful and multiply– which is considered the first mitzvah or blessing.  However, despite this command to multiply, something her parents couldn’t do without assistance, the Halachah, the body of Jewish law that deals with donor insemination says that it is not just forbidden but is an abomination.

Under Jewish law her biological father, not the father who brought her up, would be considered her father and is a point she really struggles with.

She goes to see Rabbi Lookstein, a well-respected Jewish Rabbi who knew her father. She told him she didn’t know whether her mother told her father that she had used donor sperm or if her father knew all along. Despite the Halachah,  Lookstien shows compassion and empathy to Dani asking her ‘which story would ease your heart’. He goes on tell her that if he had been in her father’s position and his wife had badly wanted a child he would also have agreed to it. And that her father should be given credit for fulfilling the mitzvah of Pru u’rvu.

Dani will never really know absolutely if her father knew or didn’t know of the donor, this is an ambiguity she will have to live with for the rest of her life. She did meet Dr De Cherney who knew of the Institute where she was conceived, who said  people whose partners had low sperm counts where often told that there was a ‘treatment for that’ and that ‘treatment’ was adding donor sperm to the fathers sperm. He told her, her father would not have known about it. Despite hearing this from Dr De Cherney Dani says that she had to  ‘open herself up to the possibility that they had some awareness’.

Unlike a lot of children, the product of anonymous sperm donors, Dani was able to identify her biological father because a genetic cousin had also done an ancestry.com test. The randomness of this is not lost on Dani, she writes ‘What if Adam Thomas hadn’t shown up on my ancestry page? What then? All would have been yearning, cavernous, emptiness. Devoid of possibility. Like the baby bird that fell from its nest, I might have wandered throughout the world never knowing where I came from. I would have been left with a hole inside me in the shape of a father, or rather  two fathers. ……instead of a false narrative, there would be an infinity of narratives’.

Towards the end of the book Dani comes to accept her origins and says of her father, ‘I was connected to him on the level of neshama (viz soul) which had nothing to do with biology and everything to do with love. She writes, ‘my newfound awareness was both gauntlet and gift. The choice wasn’t to see it as one or the other. It was to embrace it as both.’

There is no black and white but shades of grey. Her father who raised her was her father in the way that mattered, but there was also a place in her life for Dr Walden. As her friend Rabbi David Ingeber told her, ‘you can say,  this is impossible, terrible, or you can say this is beautiful wonderful.  You can imagine you are in exile, or you can imagine you have more than one home.’

There is rarely, in my view, any absolute truths or absolute moral rights or wrongs. Life and human beings are complex as are the situations they find themselves in. Dani writes in her book ‘I tell my students who are concerned with the question of betrayal, that when it comes to a memoir there is no such thing as absolute truth – only the truth that is singularly their own.’ This is Dani Shapiros truth and her testament.

My main criticism of this book is that there was quite a bit of navel gazing. I have summarised the entire story in this blog. Sorry for any spoilers. A lot of the book is padding, and it goes over the same ground quite a lot. As you can tell from my blogs, I also have a habit of writing too much to explain a simple point. My dad often reads emails I write to him and says ‘I know Claudine – if you had time you would have written a shorter letter.’ Me criticizing  Dani Shapiro on this point, is like a pot calling the kettle black.  

So, what did bookclub think?

To say that Dani Shapiro was not universally liked is a bit of an understatement. Words ‘entitled’, ‘narcissistic’ and ‘self-absorbed’ where floated about.

All of us universally agreed Dani laboured her points a bit too much. Debra said she found it repetitive and that it seemed as if she started each chapter with a version of ‘I was in such shock’. As Debra said, she had been there and got that t-shirt a number of times before.

Many felt that her story was a bit ‘over egged’ and ‘staged for effect’. It was, as Diana said, as if she had a tick list – been to LA  tick – gone to San Francisco– tick. Ann said that the chapters were deliberately short. They began snappily and ended snappily. It was so commercialised, it was revolting. To have gone through something so personal and then jazzed it up to sell copies was like selling your soul.

We all felt the dichotomy between her devotion for her father and her contempt for her mother. I think this said more about Dani than it did her parents.  Rarely are things ever so black and white. Ann lamented that our resident psychiatrist bookclub member, Amanda,  wasn’t  with us to discuss the family dynamics. Dani is an apologist for her father but constantly accuses her mother. Caroline did enjoy reading the book but also felt that there was a distinct lack of information on the mother.

This paradigm is probably best revealed by the quote, ‘I was my mother’s daughter, narcissistic personality disorder, borderline.  I had read dozens of books over the years ranging from complex psychoanalytic tomes to straight up self-help as I tried to navigate the difficulties of being my mother’s daughter. But the single best defence had always been that I was my father’s daughter. I was more my father’s daughter. I had somehow convinced myself that I was only my father’s daughter’.

There was certainly as Jane said – ‘something quite complicated in that family.’ Ann pointed out that at that time in the 1960’s it was not uncommon for families to have secrets. Things were simply not talked about.

We all found it interesting that the book centred around men – her father,  her biological father, her husband and her son. Women were to a large extent marginalised or demonised.

Jane pondered as to whether the mother knew that the donor sperm was not Dani’s father but that her father did not know and that is why she tried to push the daughter and the father into a close relationship so that he would always think of Dani as his and never question it. Eun also questioned what the  parents knew. I don’t think this question is ever resolved in the book. Her parents are both dead and couldn’t answer that question and there are indications for both scenarios.  

Dani has a habit of painting herself as a victim, but as Ann pointed out she had two fathers and a mother who all cared for her. She was so self-absorbed in the book she took very little interest in how her discovery affected others. She didn’t even call her son from the restaurant when she met Dr Walden – he had to call her. She said she wouldn’t approach Ben but then did. Anne-Marie said she felt that Dani was so entitled and privileged she couldn’t engage with her. It was ‘ginned up’ and ‘dramatized emotion.’ Elizabeth said it left her hollow – it felt like a celebrity culture book. She was preaching from her platform as a writer. It had a narcissistic overtone that became boring.

We discussed Dani’s Jewish sense of identity and how she was questioned about her ‘Jewishness‘ as a child because of her blond hair. Anne-Maire found this surprising and said in LA a lot of Jewish people had blond hair. Diana said this was not her experience in New Jersey and New York. We also discussed why the Jewish religion passes down the mother’s line. Madeleine, who is Jewish, said it is because you can’t always tell who the father is, but you can always tell who the mother is.

Elizabeth and Madeleine discussed if this was really a memoir at all as it focused just on a single area of her life. We said there were so many better memoirs like Angela’s Ashes and Why the Caged Bird Sings. This memoir we felt was unauthentic. It an element of storytelling and fabrication. Ann said  it wouldn’t have made a good story if the father who raised her, was stupid or a bully – he had to be portrayed as a saintly character.

With respect to the ethics and consequences of sperm donation in general, Jan felt it was disheartening  that vials of sperm sold for as little as £35 in the UK, but they represented millions of potential lives.  Ann said that donors in the 1960’s thought of  the donation very differently than we do today. Donation was seen as a generous act. It was like giving a blood transfusion. You did it to help. It was seen as a gift to infertile couples.

Certainly, it was felt that the ease of access to genetic information on the net had revolutionised society in ways that we never suspected it would.  Anne-Marie talked about the genomics website GED Match in America. Law enforcement have used this data base to trace DNA links to genetic family trees to find and identify suspects. This genetic tree profiling has resulted in the conviction of the Golden Gate Killer Dangelo and the Norcal rapist amongst many, many others. As Jane pointed out it really highlighted the power of the internet and how it is so easy to find information. The digital age has meant the death of secrets. GED did tighten up on its privacy rules in 2019 which has made it more difficult for law enforcement  or anyone else to access the personal information that they hold.

It is not just in the field of artificial insemination that anonymity has been removed. Now children, the product of adoptions have rights to trace their birth parents. This is even in cases where the birth parent had been assured their identity would be kept a secret. At the end of the day it is a matter of weighing up competing rights that can never really be reconciled.

The Donor Sibling Register which Dani mentions in her book can be found here

https://www.donorsiblingregistry.com/

Ancestry. Com can be found here

https://www.ancestry.com/

There is no actually an Ap in the Uk where you can search for a donor

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3806348/New-order-daddy-app-lets-women-browse-950-sperm-donors-easily-shopping-online-Marks-Spencer.html

For an outline of the UK law on sperm donation look here

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/sperm-donor-uk-law-legal-rights-child-conception-fertility-clinic-a9294896.html

I came across this video on Youtube about a group of 30 half siblings who all stem from an anonymous donor at the same Farris Institute in Philadelphia where Dani was conceived. They identify their donor as being a young doctor. I wonder if it could be Dr Walden

The YouTube videos below show how complex the issue of donor sperm can be, particularly where it results in multiple siblings. They also show the dubious ethics of a doctor using his own sperm.  

Even friends sort of deal with some of the issues

Recommended Movies

Diana recommend Westworld which she described as a dystopian free will v fate drama

Anne-Marie recommended – Ride Upon the Storm by the creators of Borgen, Season 1 and 2  available on Amazon video on demand.  She is also watching The French Village about German occupation, also on Amazon on demand.

Rebecca says Big Little Liars has made her want to move to Monterey as soon as lockdown is over.

Future Blogs

There will be no blog next week – it is my birthday and I am having a party instead.

I will be back the week after with a blog on Queenie by Candice Carty Williams . The bookclub will be meeting on the 22 June and I hope to have my blog up the following day . You can purchase Queenie from Amazon or Audible here

You can also listen to Queenie for free on BBC sounds. it can be found here

On the 29 June Bookclub will be having a meet the Author event with Charles Palliser. He will be talking about his book The Quincunx, It is an exceptionally long book – over 1000 pages – so you might want to get a head start. It can be purchased from here

Gayle’s Secret Who Can You Trust? With the Author Michelle Harris

I have to admit I scheduled this book for our Book Club without reading it or knowing anything about it. Michelle Harris is a friend of one of our members Sonu and she sent me a lovely email offering to come to a meeting to discuss her new book: Gayle’s Secret.

When I got around to going to Amazon to purchase it, I was somewhat startled to see that it had an advisory warning that it might contain ‘material of a sexually explicit nature.’ This was certainly going to shake things up in the Book Club!

It did get me to thinking though about ‘erotic literature’ in general. Could an erotic novel ever be ‘good literature?’ What makes good literature and what does that term mean?

Sexual contact and the sexual act is at the base of all human existence. Our sexual urges are responsible for the continuation of the species and men and women’s quest for the carnal is as old as time itself. Erotic literature is merely a manifestation of those desires.

Erotic stories even appear in the bible – you only have to look at the Song of Songs. Other early erotic literature that has shaped our society over the centuries and reflected the culture and times in which we live, includes books like ‘The Karma Sutra’, William Shakespeare’s ‘Venus and Adonis’, DH Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, the Marquis de Sad, the Story of O and the Fear of Flying spearheaded a feminist revolution, and E. L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey’ sparked the term ‘Mummy Porn’. Anne-Marie tells me 50 Shades has made more money than the GDP of some small countries. (It grossed the author around $95 million US dollars according to some estimates).

The Story of O and the Fear of Flying have been credited with the sexual awakening and liberation of women in the 1960s, and Jilly Coopers ‘Riders’ was named by the BBC as one of the 100 books that had shaped our world when the list was announced in 2019.

So where does Gayle’s Secret fit in? Is it part of this genre of books? Firstly, let me start with a disclaimer, unfortunately, I didn’t manage to finish this book as my beautiful daughter’s test on hydrocarbons and esters was looming, but the Book Club talk was illuminating and edifying.

So, firstly, is Gayle’s Secret erotic literature? At a stretch I think you could call it an erotic thriller but as Michelle said – it is much more nuanced than that. Michelle describes her book as a thriller but emphasized her writing is naturally uninhibited rather than erotic. The sex is not gratuitous but an essential element of the characters’ development and that within intimate relationships, people can relax their defences and in some cases be manipulated by their partners.  With the vivid descriptions and insights into her characters’ lives, she wanted readers to feel touched by their experiences on both an emotional and physical level.

I asked her about the Amazon advisory on her book and whether it was fair. She said she thought it was. There are sexually explicit bits within the book but was absolutely not a 50 Shades of Grey.  Rebeca pointed out the sex within the book was not a turn on. There were erotic parts within the book but it was not romantic and sensual.  Michelle agreed but wanted us to understand the characters by their actions and described her book as being written upon multiple layers where actions give insights to more than just the act but self-understanding, ethics and morality.

We discussed one of the main key characters, Ellis, portrayed as a sociopath. He had an inability to feel loved despite his mother’s affections. This affected his actions which were ‘complicated’ because of his own inner turmoil. However, his character is essential for the theme’s development.  After a violent sexual act and as a safer alternative, his father procures a robot for him to vent his physical tensions. Michelle also sees a redemptive aspect to the robot’s characterisation.  Ellis falls in love with his robot (Donna) and begins to relate to it in a way he would not be able to within a normal relationship. He becomes more sympathetic towards women and a better person as a result.

The book is contemporary and of our times.  I was impressed that there were references in the book to Corona even though that word only entered the public lexicon in about January. She began to write the book 18 months ago and was revising in January. The book is set in 2025 and she feels reflects the future and COVID19’s affect upon our lifestyles. Not to include a reference and a certain revised way of life, would seriously impact upon the book’s credibility.

Robots are not just part of Ellis’ romantic and sexual journey but also part of another key character, Tristan. His long-standing colleague is dying in a hospital and a female robot is able to offer him comfort.  Touch, as Michelle pointed out is one of the five senses. The procurement of a robot for Sergei gives him a sense of affection. Surely that has to be a positive thing that we shouldn’t be too quick to pass judgement on. It is not just the affection but also the outlet that the robots provide. 

As Michelle says, artificial intelligence and robots are coming out of China and also Japan. She stresses we need to control the influence AI is having on our lives. There is a danger that it could develop into Frankenstein’s monster. We need to control it so it doesn’t control us. Gayle’s Secret is, at the end of the day, a book about love and technology and teaches us to be open to developments as part of our lives. Futuristically, we are moving towards a society where multiple sources of technology will be increasingly part of our lives. Intelligence is being constantly gathered from all the devices we have installed in our homes which are there to make our lives easier; from our smart phones to TVs and the omnipresent Alexia. We are being listened to and we are being watched on a constant basis.

If zeitgeist is defined as a spirt of the age – this is it.

As Michelle said, the ending and unexpected twist is absolutely relevant right now.

Michelle commented that we’re turning into mini computers and expect to work at computer standards and speed. If you haven’t had a reply to your email in a matter of an hour or so, you begin to panic.  Email fatigue is a real thing. People are anxious about their inboxes and pressure to respond. As she pointed out in a recent news item, even Microsoft are beginning to use AI robots rather than journalists to pick up news stories. The world is becoming increasingly automated. Michelle commented in passing that potentially, a future PM could be a robot. At least it wouldn’t end up with coronavirus and it arguably could do a better job! It certainly wouldn’t need a senior advisor (probably another robot!) a make a trip to Barnard Castle to check its eye-sight!

It did hark back to memories of another book we read for Book Club some years ago ‘The Heart Goes last’ by Margaret Atwood, which Stephanie politely stated was one of her ‘lesser works’. If I remember rightly, it also featured sex dolls and robots within a dystopian prison. I think there was a cultural reference to Elvis from memory too.

I asked Michelle what she saw the role of women was in the book and how it could be viewed from a feminist perspective, ideas of Fear of Flying and the Story of O looming large in my wine addled-brain. She said that nobody really knows what goes on behind closed doors and that the protagonist, Gayle had a senior corporate position with a stay-at-home husband as the resident parent. Gayle is faced with the same challenges of most professional women; how to ‘have it all’ and juggle everything within a complex world. Women are under pressure and Gayle certainly felt that – it’s not that she doesn’t love her husband or doesn’t feel physically attracted to him but like us all (especially now in lockdown) she is tired and simply cannot do it all and is frightened to admit to her vulnerability. Her journey is central to the book’s development and the maternal desire to protect her family.

Michelle has written another book called ‘Diamonds and Secrets’ about an abandoned baby who only has a brooch within her blanket. This is the only clue to her background and parents. A book about connection and although erotic in parts, it is about a girl’s journey to womanhood and how she developed a greater understanding and acceptance of herself. When you love yourself, you’re able to love others and have a meaningful relationship.

Michelle was asked when she writes her books and about her daily timetable. She replied that she mainly writes at night. Her day doesn’t start until at least 10 a.m. but the best writing time is between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m. in the morning when there are no emails, phones or other distractions. She stated that writing takes a lot of energy and discipline and as a writer, she is enjoying the social isolation that her liver disease demands in this time of coronavirus. She said silence and isolation are a writers modus operandi.  

It is not just her book which is fascinating . Michelle’s life is nothing but extraordinary. She has been publishing her work for over 40 years. She has travelled to over 122 cities in her life and has 5000 books in her personal library. Michelle left school at 16 and became a secretary but then joined the peace corps and was seconded to Egypt/Israel in the early 80s as part of the Camp David Accords. She thoroughly enjoyed working in the Middle East until she rejected the advances of an Egyptian colonel. At that point all Hell broke loose. Not only was he angry at the rejection, but because she is British, memories of the Suez crisis added to the animosity. She was tipped off by friends and had 20 minutes to flee Egypt under armed guard as she raced through the border at Rafah.   

Anne-Marie asked if she had thought of doing a memoir or a non-fiction book of her time in the Middle East, a bit like ‘Our Man in Havana’. Michelle replied that she had, back in the day, signed the Official Secrets Act. Although that only covered 30 years and despite being free of the restrictions, she still did not feel comfortable telling her story.

When Michelle’s marriage fell apart 15 years ago, like most newly divorced women with children, she was worried about keeping her house and providing for her children. A client encouraged her to become a copywriter and she launched a very successful carrier and then trained to become a journalist becoming a member of the international Federation of Journalists (NUJ) and also the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).  Although the majority of her work is corporate, she enjoys using her imagination to write novels.

Michelle is currently self-published as she wanted to get her book out quickly and whilst absolutely relevant to current events. She has sold a lot of her work through promotions on social media, speaking at book clubs and from the reviews received so far. Her book is currently selling internationally too in Europe and Australia.

Gayle’s Secret can be purchased from here

Diamonds and Secrets – Love Never Lies can be bought from here

Michelle Harris is willing to answer any questions you have on this book or any of the other work. She can be reached here michelle@starcopywriting.com

There is also a very interesting podcast by Clayton Cooke on ‘The Cash Flow Series’ were he talks to Michelle. It can be found here

https://www.pod.fo/the-cashflow-show/episode/57f3879eeb94c2da14bf15107652e75d9bbc1cbe/view

Although Michelle’s book is more than just erotic literature, If you are interested in exploring this genre of novels there is a great article here from Esquire with some good suggestions

https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/books/a52988/sexiest-erotic-novels-of-all-time/

As to who reads erotic literature , it is apparently independent intelligent women see

For an interesting cultural perspective on how Islam views erotic literature look at

If you want to hear the dulcet tones of Alex Baldwin reading some erotic literature look here

It is interesting to note the increase in downloads of erotic novels during lockdown, particularly in the east of England which has seen a 152% rise, London is a much more modest 24%

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8321697/Online-searches-raunchy-novels-Fifty-Shades-Grey-surge.html

For more erotic fiction set during the pandemic, I haven’t read this but try

Other matters

For things to do in lockdown see  

https://www.hellomagazine.com/healthandbeauty/health-and-fitness/2020031686372/things-to-do-if-self-isolating-at-home/

If you need a corona antibody test this one has been approved by Public Health England.

https://bluehorizonbloodtests.co.uk/products/covid-19-sars-cov-2-coronavirus-antibody-home-test-kit?variant=32220935946336.

There is some dispute as to how effective pin prick tests can be so make your own mind up on the evidence.

You can find some amazing digital content from the recent Hay festival here

https://www.hayfestival.com/hayplayer/

On a personal note, I have had long discussions with my children this week on the issue of race and racism given the appalling murder of George Floyd in America and the riots that are taking place in America and around the world in protest. I told my children that everyone bleeds the same colour and our choices, opportunities and lives should not be defined by the colour of our skin but by our actions and how we treat others. No one should live in fear because of the colour of their skin and they certainly shouldn’t be killed because of it. Charlotte looked at me and said mum you get white eggs and brown eggs, but they are both exactly the same inside.

If you have children and are talking to them about race, and  I think it is an important conversation to have, there is this great resource of books to help explain and expose the issues to them in an appropriate and sensitive way

https://www.embracerace.org/resources/26-childrens-books-to-support-conversations-on-race-racism-resistance?fbclid=IwAR2bab5vtxWWapbsEizQDnzdueZkSOeIdxfPgqqo0mYr_7tI6gEMJUfdZB8

Future reads

On the 8 June we will be meeting to discuss ‘The Inheritance’ by Dani Shapiro. I hope to have my blog up by the following Wednesday. 

There will be no book club on the 15 June but on the Monday 22 June we will be discussing Queenie by Candice Carty Williams.

On Monday 29 June we will be meeting to discuss The Quincunx by Charles Palliser where we will be joined by the author.

All of these events will be written up for the blog.

Milkman by Anna Burns

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‘Milkman’, by Anna Burns, is a stream of consciousness narrative, where no characters have proper names but are given names like ‘former boyfriend’, or ‘sister-in-law’. There are no blocks of dialog. It is one long uninterrupted monologue written from the perspective of an adolescent girl living in Northern Ireland in the 1970s’.

Anna Burns won the Man Brooker Prize for this book in 2018.

To me, one thing was  quickly and starkly apparent, Milkman is a book that should be listened to and not read.

I bought a hard copy from Amazon and struggling a bit, I have to admit when I started reading it. Unfortunately, or fortunately as it turns out, I lost my paper copy in the mess that has become my house in lockdown and had to resort to an audible copy. It was fortuitous. The story was transformed. The prose and the stream of consciousness dialog, that was so difficult to follow in the written text, came alive with the narration by Tony Award winner Brid Brennan spoken in a beautiful Irish lilt.

I soon realised that I wasn’t the only one who found that Milkman was much easier to listen to than to read when Cindy, a former member of our bookclub, emailed from America a week before bookclub telling me that her ‘book group here in the States read Milkman & all of us who listened to the audiobook (great narrator) loved it, but those who read it, did not enjoy it.  And, I do not usually listen to books.’ 

Convinced I was on to something I looked further afield and found a fantastic article by Ian Brown in the Toronto Globe entitled, ‘Why audio books are back in a big way thanks to the storyteller’. The article was published in the 14th July 2019 edition of the paper. Unfortunately, I had to subscribe to the Toronto Globe to access it, but so intrigued was I, that I thought I would treat myself to a subscription even though I may never it use again. After all, restaurants, theatres and my birthday party are off – so other than groceries there isn’t much left that I can spend my cash on.

Brown states in his article that the audio book version means that ‘the high-minded difficulty of Milkman’s written text evaporates leaving only a funny intelligent voice behind’.

As a dyslexic, I have long been an advocate of audio books. If you can’t access the written text it gives you a way of accessing the material, increasing your vocabulary and engaging with a story. I have often tucked up my wonderfully bright dyslexic, autistic daughter in bed with an audio version of  ‘The Human Body’ by Bill Bryson, ‘How to Train your Dragon’, ‘The Hobbit’ or similar and I delight at watching the intensity with which she listens. 

Brown, in his excellent article concludes that, ‘maybe reading doesn’t have to be that much agony. Because, here’s the really wild thing, even in the formal parlour of highbrow literature, still one of the stuffiest rooms in contemporary culture, listening to a novel is now as acceptable as having read the monster.’

It’s not just dyslexics who can benefit from audio books however. As Brown states, the written text ‘engages the crowded and ultra-detailed visual cortex, which produces very specific (and sometimes overwhelming) word associations. Listening to a text on the other hand, leaves fewer details stuck in one’s memory, but produces a readier grasp of the passage’s deeper meaning. Listening is our evolutionary default mode. Shakespeare is easier to understand on stage than he is on a page‘.

I have long overcome my significant difficulties with reading, but even I now as a voracious reader,  found Milkman difficult and unpalatable in written form. I am glad to find that I was not alone. Brown stated ‘losing the thread in Milkman left me again and again in a deep dark wood, afraid I would never be found again.  I kept tracking back to ferret out where I had drifted off course. But when the story is read in Brennan’s lilting voice the narration carries you forward on a wave.’

It’s interesting that Brown also talks about ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Sanders, another book that we have read in bookclub. Although I wasn’t at that particular meeting, I have heard it reported by other members of the bookclub that the stream of consciousness writing in Lincoln in the Bardo was very challenging to read too. Lincoln in the Bardo had 166 characters and in the audio book every voice is recorded separately, making it much easier to navigate the narrative.

So what did bookclub think of the book?

The book it was revealed, although not really an autobiography, had autobiographical elements. Anna Burns was born in 1962 and is 57 years old. Jan, as always, had done extensive research on the author and told us that she had lived with her Aunt in Northern Ireland in her youth and that her mother lived with her siblings across the street. We debated as to why this might be the case and came to the conclusion that Anna probably just needed some peace and quiet and her aunt probably needed the company. Like the narrator in Milkman she was quite impoverished and lived in catholic Belfast in the 1970’s. Her experiences probably heightened the books authenticity.

There was no doubt that the unstructured dialog and stream of consciousness writing presented a challenge to our bookclub members. Diana, however, loved the fact that no character had a name. She said it was easier to remember a character by what they did and what they were like.

Anne-Maire said that there was not much physical description in the book which compelled the reader to focus on the action. She wondered however, that if this book had not won a major award, would it have been so widely received.

Ann said it was interesting that the main protagonist of the book and the narrator, was an adolescent. The book was all about finding an identity and about place. It was about a need to follow sophisticated social rules, which as an 18 year old, the narrator would find difficult to understand. This was coupled with an adolescents’ need to rebel and it made a genius narrative. She said it provided a Technicolor framework of social discord.

It was a great bookclub book because there was so much to discuss and so many different opinions. Not only did it provide a good basis for discussion, but many found it life affirming. Jan said she was glad she had read it and it was something she won’t forget. Stephanie said the book had actually shaped and changed her. She said it was a pleasure that lockdown had given her the chance to read this book again.

One point that was often made by the bookclub was that it was important to persevere with this book. Most of the people who read this book found it difficult at first but couldn’t put it down by the end. As Stephane said, ‘you get sucked in’. Caroline also said the book gained momentum as it progressed, but she felt as though the narrator was so traumatised by her environment and that it was emotionally flattened. She felt that the narrator had little emotional response to highly emotive events.

The divide between Catholic and Protestant loomed large, although it was never explicitly referred to. There was never a mention of Catholic versus Protestant. It was all alluded to. Stephanie saw the religious schism revealed by the depiction of ‘Red Light Street’, where the narrator could live unmarried with ‘maybe boyfriend’.

Rebecca found it particularly tough to read and said it was not something to read at 10pm. She did however say that after listening to our comments she would listen to it on audible.  Marion said it is not the kind of book you could skim, She also said that she would try the audiobook. Interestingly Marion pointed out that she had lived in Dublin, Ireland for 20 years and as a Brit had felt very accepted, even by people who had fled Belfast for the South because of the sectarian problems.

Ann also found the book difficult to get into but said that the ending was fantastic, (a common theme amongst our members). She said to persevere with the first 150 pages and you will be rewarded to which Stephanie added “page 250 is particularly good”. Jan also liked the ending of the book. Amanda listened to it on audible and found it a ‘joy to listen to’. She said it was compelling, particularly towards the end and she also loved the wry humour and the depiction of the sisters. She said it was a book about women coming together and there was lots of love in the book particularly in the family. The narrator’s family, we worked out after some discussion, consisted of 10 siblings. It was pointed out that at this time in Northern Ireland larger families were very common. It wasn’t until just before lockdown that abortion was made legal in Ireland but this legislation has yet to become enacted.

Stephanie said she found parallels in this book with the writing of James Joyce.

The book was in parts tragic, particularly the mothers love for the real milkman. However, there were funny bits in the Milkman and it had a wry humour. Stephanie found the portrayal of the wee  sisters very good particularly the fact they chose  ‘Who is afraid of Virginia Wolf’ as the book they wanted to be read to them.  Jan particularly liked the depiction of the parents of maybe boyfriend and the letter they wrote to him.

Ann said that at the end of the day the book is about rules. Rules maybe boyfriend broke by having a gay relationship. Anne-Marie said they were all living clandestinely, for political and personal reasons. It was in effect, a book about people living underground. As Ann said, everyone was  leading a double life, it was a ‘no hope’ society where you couldn’t afford to love, it was too scary, you couldn’t marry someone you loved in case they were killed. This was particularly the case with the narrator’s sister and her mother. The other feature which loomed large was place. Where you could go, where you couldn’t, over the border, over the pond and over the road.

The book was also fascinating in its depiction of the feminists and in the dichotomy it created between the ‘shinny people’ and the ‘beyond the pale’ and how you didn’t want to stick your head above the parapet and become a member of either of these groups. You see in the book the narrators’ difficulty in navigating these social groups and how as Madeleine pointed out she ‘made herself beyond the pale and suspicious’ by reading while walking. Stephanie pointed out it was an act that was a bit like breaking the lockdown curfew.

Anna Burns has also written ‘No Bones‘, which was short listed for the Orange Prize, unfortunately none of the group had read this book so we can’t pass comment on it.

I will leave you with a final message from Brown. Brown concludes his article, which I referred to earlier, by writing ‘What’s required to break the totalitarian grip of incessant judgment and of the conformity it breeds is someone daring enough to stop separating the world into black or white, right or wrong, catholic or protestant, ours or theirs, afraid or not afraid, literary or non-literary, read or heard. When that happens, Burns says, a new motto emerges. Attempt and repeated attempt, that’s the way to do it. Break the tradition and listen to the book you were always meant to read.’

Future books

Next week I will be blogging about ‘Gayle’s Secret’ by Michelle Harris and will be discussing the genre of ‘erotic literature’ – What is it? What is its history? And are people downloading it more than ever in lockdown? Bookclub will be joined by the author on Monday 1 June. I should have the blog up by Wednesday the 3 June. The book can be purchased from Amazon here https://www.amazon.co.uk/Gayles-Secret-Who-Can-Trust-ebook/dp/B086VPS2Q2/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=gayles+secret&qid=1590475548&sr=8-1

The following week I will be blogging about ‘The Inheritance’ by Dani Shapiro This is a New York Times best seller about a woman who was born via a sperm donor  and her quest to find her real father.  Bookclub will be meeting on the 8 June to discuss this book I hope to have the blog up by the 10 June. You can order this book from  Amazon here https://www.amazon.co.uk/Inheritance-Memoir-Genealogy-Paternity-Love/dp/191154750X/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=the+inheritance+dani+shapiro&qid=1590475792&sr=8-1

Other information

Doctors in Lockdown

Other than calling NHS 111, If you need to go to the doctors but are too scared to go to the surgery, I strongly recommend the ap zoomdoc https://www.zoomdoc.com/ They sorted me out with antibiotics in 10 minutes after a video consultation and it only cost £40. They are also available 7 days a week 24 hours a day. I also consulted a top nephrologist for my husband  on ‘Top doctors’ , again for only about £40 for an online consult https://www.topdoctors.co.uk/ and he was a world expert.

Millie wanted me to point out however that you can still see a GP in lock down on the NHS and wanted to assure readers of my blog that it was now possible to have a video conference with a doctor on the NHS. She also pointed out that it may still be necessary to have physical one to one appointments for things like testicular lumps or things that couldn’t be diagnosed over a video but should still be investigated. She wanted me to point out that she had to go to the GP for some blood tests and that it couldn’t have felt safer. She was the only one there, the doctors and nurses all wore full PPE including masks and visors and she felt completely safe.

Inspiring You Tube videos

I recommend this great You Tube video to those with children. It is a fantastic narration of ‘James and the Giant Peach;,  read by Takita and a variety of famous actors/actresses to raise money for Partners in Health  – There are a number of videos on each chapter. Here is the first.

Remember you have friends and stay connected

And this is for our carers from James Blunt

And if you are wondering why there are so many reruns on the TV and are having a sense of Deja vu – watch this

There were a couple of days last week when we recorded  zero new cases of Covid.  it was really nice to listen to this from our local Camden voices – Here Comes the Sun

And who doesn’t love a bit of Billy Joel ? 

I accidently left this link out of last week’s blog – it is a call for world peace by the UN.  Lets fight a common enemy not each other

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