The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

(Sept 2014 Meetup)

The book
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which is an epic story following the lives of some very interesting characters, and revolves around the painting of the same name.

We loved….
…her storytelling, and we all, well nearly all, persevered to the end, and wanted to find out what happened.
…the after party where Mansel, Paul, and Sam joined us and we had Michelle, who hadn’t read the book, asking her questions to these three, who hadn’t read the book. Their answers were remarkably realistic however, and I’m wondering whether there is much point in reading the books at all in the future.

We didn’t love….
…the length of the book, and a few of us weren’t that taken in by the characters. One person didn’t even start the book because they were put off by the cover. We also didn’t love that the Kindle edition doesn’t show the full painting, only the small section through ripped paper.
…One person chose not to read the book based on the cover, one person got to chapter 2 and wasn’t hooked enough to continue, and others felt the characters weren’t believable.

We agreed…
…that she can tell a great story, and that it was worth continuing to the end.

We disagreed….
…about Tartt’s descriptive writing. Some of us felt that she put in too much padding in parts, and that her philosophies were a bit too prescribed to us. Others felt that the amount of detail that she put in really made the story, and that her ‘drip, drip’ way of adding detail effectively built up the whole picture.

We digressed….
… and talked about art as therapy, right/left wing brain, a form of meditation.

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The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer and The Boy with the Top Knot by Sathnam Sanghera

(June 2014 Meetup)

The books:
The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer.
The Boy with the Top Knot  by Sathnam Sanghera.

Both books tackle the topic of Schizophrenia. The first is a fictional account of a young boy, Matt, coming to terms with the death of his brother, and his journey into adulthood while suffering from this illness. The latter is a non fictional memoir of a Punjabi boy growing up with his family in Wolverhampton, and his account of finding out that his father and sister both suffer from Schizophrenia but were unaware of this due to lack of English and awareness.

We loved….
How both books complimented each other; one was the experience of living with Schizophrenia, one was the experience of living with others who have Schizophrenia. We loved how much we learned about the subtleties of this illness and how much we learned of the struggles of immigration and living in Wolverhampton at that time. Both books were difficult to put down, and the consensus was that we were happy to have persevered with them. We liked how both books played with the timelines, and used lists, and letters. Oh, and we loved being outside and having Sarah all the way over from Australia for it, and also welcoming a new member, Chris.

We didn’t love….
…Drew’s Australian accent! and Lucy’s substandard ‘question tree’ in Michelle’s absence, and how the photos in The Boy with Top Knot didn’t show up well on the Kindle. We also thought this book was lightly self indulgent in the beginning, and how some bits dragged on a bit too much.

We disagreed….
While the vast majority loved The Shock of the Fall, there were a few members of the group who raised the interesting point that the dystopia created in the book was negated by the fact that the author used narrative techniques such as withholding information for suspense, thus rendering the troubled character a bit unrealistic in their eyes. However, someone explained the possible use of these techniques by quoting Richard Burton who says “When I played drunks I had to remain sober because I didn’t know how to play them when I was drunk”. While some enjoyed the range of fonts and styles which emulated the darting around of Matt’s mind, others found it distracting and that it made it difficult to follow.

We digressed….
…and talked about labels, and how they can inhibit and also help people with disabilities and mental heath problems. We talked about our own personal experiences of how labels have affected our lives. We talked about whether books like these will help to educate people on mental health, and also racial integration, and although we would like to think that they will, the valid point was made that these books will sadly only reach the people who want to be reached.

The P45 Diaries by Ben Hatch

july(June 2014 meetup)

The book:
The P45 Diaries by Ben Hatch
This book is a semi-autobiographical account of the protagonist’s coming of age, following his journey as he gets sacked from a number of jobs from working in a kebab house where he didn’t realise he had to take the skewer out of the chicken before putting it in a pitta, and various others, including macdonalds, and a stint with a builder. As funny as it is to read about his blaze of glory exits from the workplace, there is the undercurrent of him dealing with the bereavement following the death of his mother, and the consequently tumultuous relationship with his father who is the Head of BBC 2 and desperately trying to get his son to hold down a job.  Another main theme is his rejection of the corporate world and his inability to embrace maturity, so when the ending sees him being accepted onto a journalism course the reader is relieved to witness this first step towards some stability in his life and his entrance into adulthood.

We loved….
The humour and change in style from some of the ‘heavier’ books we have been reading, and the way that the book managed to tackle some really heavy issues such as bereavement, the deterioration of someone before death, while making us laugh out loud. There was a refreshing mix of humour, honesty, and seriousness. We also loved the al fresco setting, and michelle’s epic diary style question tree (see photo!), complete with Welsh cakes! A hard act to follow for next month but I’m sure she will.

We didn’t love….
that Michelle got stuck in traffic and was late and that we were actually going to have to think of something to say unprompted! Also, a few of us thought that perhaps the humour was a little forced in places, especially the beginning, until it became a bit meatier.

We disagreed….
about very much this time. On the whole we all enjoyed it, and everyone who finished it said that they did not expect the ending.

We digressed….
and talked about the difference between bronchitis and pleurisy. We obviously missed the last couple of months’ medicinal themes and wanted to give our brains a workout. Thanks to Robin, our resident microbiologist, we learnt a lot about lungs. We also talked about the possibility of branching out and going to the cinema to watch the film adaptations of books we have read. This led to a discussion about the release of 50 Shades of Grey as a film, and there seems to be more demand for Mansel to reinstate his weekly readings from the book.

 

Life Class by Pat Barker and The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriaty

(Aug 2014 Meetup)

The books:

  • Life Class  by Pat Barker
  • The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriaty.

We loved….
…both books in their own way. They were quite different in a number of ways. Life Class is a heavier piece of work, and the only book that has ever made Chloe cry! and The Husband’s Secret is more of a lighter page turner which makes you ask yourself how you would react if in the same position of discovering the secret.  Most of us agreed that we would read other titles by the same authors, and not many of us had a clue what the secret was until we got to it.

We didn’t love….
…some of Moriaty’s ‘easy’ writing style in places, where she tended to fill in too much information, losing some subtlety even though the plot was gripping. Some of us weren’t that keen on the title either. As for Life Class, some found the scene where Elinor sneaks to the Front completely unbelievable. It was noted that all the characters change over the course of the war apart from Elinor who claims all the way through that she wants to stay true to her art and nothing else, but one of the artists of the bookclub group felt that you cannot be a true artist if you do not embrace change. Interestingly, those reading it on an ereader  who were unable to get information from the cover and the blurb, found it difficult to work out which era it was set in for quite a while.

We disagreed….
…quite strongly about whether the number and type of events that occur to the people The Husband’s Secret were realistic. Some believed that it was unrealistic to have so many dramatic instances in the lives of the group of characters and that the book would have benefitted from fewer dramas. Others firmly believed that a lot of bad things can happen to people in short spaces of time. Some felt that the dramas were just added to make it like a soap opera, whereas others felt that it portrayed the real lives of real people and how they deal with such events.

We digressed….
and talked about the recently released film, Lucy, which discusses the idea of primal instincts in relation to the mother’s in The Husband’s Secret doing whatever necessary to protect their families. We also discussed whether we would have read the letter in the attic and I believe it was a unanimous yes!

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and Do No Harm by Dr. Henry Marsh

(April 2014 Meetup)

The books…
This month had a medicinal theme.

  • The Fault in Our Stars is a fictional novel about two young people who have cancer, and the book follows their lives and their love story.
  • Do No Harm is the non-fiction account of a top neurosurgeon who lays bare the trials and tribulations of his profession with admirable honesty.

We loved….
…everything about The Fault in Our Stars from the characters to the plot to the writing. It is moving and had a strong impact on us all. We loved most things about Do No Harm, especially the fact that Anne features in one of the chapters. We loved learning more about the intricacies of the surgery, and the refreshing honesty of the author who explains how one can only become an expert at anything by making mistakes, but that unfortunately the mistakes in brain surgery are often fatal.

We didn’t love….
…the trailer to the film of The Fault in Our Stars which we fear will not do justice to the writing. Some of us didn’t like the arrogance of Dr. Marsh in Do No Harm.

We disagreed….
…on quite a lot this month actually! There were conflicting thoughts from the Arts and Sciences. Some thought that Scientists are generally the ones who make the effort to cross over into the Arts, whereas others felt as though Scientists gave the impression of being superior. The attitude of Dr Marsh was seen by some as a necessary confidence and arrogance for the type of profession, but by others as sheer egotism. There was a difference of opinion in the quality of the writing, with most people finding it creative and enjoyable but others feeling like it was too scientific.

We digressed….  
and talked about how cancer has touched our own lives, and how much this book is spot on with a lot of what it says about the support groups and attitudes of others. We agreed how it is a real shame that this is marketed as teenage fiction and therefore may not be picked off the shelves by enough adults.

Book Review March 27th 2013 – How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

This book was great for a bit of a debate. It wasn’t long before a good ol’ debate opened up about whether we really can/should differentiate people so much into woman and men and separate them so much/ One reader claims to be more of a ‘personist’ than a feminist and does not like the idea of people being so pigeon-holed into groups. Although she didn’t say it explicitly in this book, Moran does agree with this is some of her other writing:

 “I’m neither ‘pro-women’ nor ‘anti-men’. I’m just ‘Thumbs up for the six billion”

Another reader believes that there is a lot of truth behind the  ‘men are from mars and women are from venus’ concepts, and that a deeper understanding of these ideas can greatly improve relationships.

One of the men in the group did not really get on with Caitlin Moran’s style of writing and found it quite annoying. The elements that were most interesting to the men in the group seemed to be the writing about family life growing up as this was something that they could relate to more. I agree to a small degree. There were some bits that seemed a little over the top for me, but on the whole it was interesting and difficult to put down. I’m glad that we read it as a group, and that there were men at the meetup who were happy to give it a go and give us their opinion.

I personally found it most interesting in its discussion of what it means to be a feminist. It is easy to think that in order to label yourself a feminist you must have done something actively feminist like marching somewhere wearing only your bra, or not wearing your bra, or reading Germaine Greer. Moran makes us all realise how important it is to question what we believe the word ‘feminsim’ to mean, and if we believe in equal rights then we should not be afraid to call ourselves a feminist.

“But, of course, you might be asking yourself, ‘Am I a feminist? I might not be. I don’t know! I still don’t know what it is! …  So here is the quick way of working out if you’re a feminist. Put your hand in your pants.

a) Do you have a vagina? and b) Do you want to be in charge of it?

If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.”

“What is feminism? Simply the belief that women should be as free as men, however nuts, dim, deluded, badly dressed, fat, receding, lazy and smug they might be. Are you a feminist? Hahaha. Of course you are.”

“When statistics come in saying that only 29 percent of American women would describe themselves as feminist – and only 42 percent of British women – I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue’ by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF SURVEY?”

She does make amusing points agains those who think that they are against feminism and why they contradict themselves, as they are getting paid as an independent woman as they write it:

“These days, however, I am much calmer – since I realised that it’s technically impossible for a woman to argue against feminism. Without feminism, you wouldn’t be allowed to have a debate on women’s place in society. You’d be too busy giving birth on the kitchen floor – biting down on a wooden spoon, so as not to disturb the men’s card game – before going back to quick-liming the dunny. This is why those female columnists in the Daily Mail – giving daily wail against feminism – amuse me. They paid you £1,600 for that, dear, I think. And I bet it’s going in your bank account, and not your husband’s. The more women argue loudly, against feminism, the more they both prove it exists and that they enjoy its hard-won privileges.”

Yes her writing can sometimes get a little over the top in parts but let us not ignore some of the important messages that she is getting across under her humour and sensational use of the c*** word, and, most importantly, the people she is getting this across too. She is clearly doing her best to target as many readers as possible who may not read academic literature on feminism and the female plight throughout history. She is targetting readers who may not even want to learn about feminism but just wanted to read something funny about how to be a woman and who will not be able to not learn about feminism by reading it. From talking about this book with friends I have found out that there are many young people reading this who really do need to read this. She talks about porn like she is talking about baking a cake, and getting very important messages about self respect, choice, freedom and power across to the most important audience – those who don’t think they are feminists.

As a mother (Moran, not me), I found it refreshing that she was able to write so convincingly about the validity of a life without children. As someone who currently has one eye on the biological clock and one eye on the globe that I could travel if I didn’t have to find a hostel that had a crèche, I am constantly frustrated by comments implying that I cannot have a truly fulfilling life if I do not have biological children. To read someone able to wax lyrical about the joys that her own children have brought her, but who also stands up strongly for those who do not have children, can describe the positives of that choice, and who can justify her decision to have an abortion, to me was so comforting. She really is able to lay out the bigger picture. She rightly challenges the negative connotations inherent in not having children which is extremely ingrained in society and is severely da

“But deciding not to have children is a very, very hard decision for a woman to make: the atmosphere is worryingly inconducive to saying, “I choose not to,” or “it all sounds a bit vile, tbh.” We call these women “selfish” The inference of the word “childless” is negative: one of lack, and loss. We think of nonmothers as rangy lone wolves–rattling around, as dangerous as teenage boys or men. We make women feel that their narrative has ground to a halt in their thirities if they don’t “finish things” properly and have children.”

“If you want to know what’s in motherhood for you, as a woman, then – in truth – it’s nothing you couldn’t get from, say, reading the 100 greatest books in human history; learning a foreign language well enough to argue in it; climbing hills; loving recklessly; sitting quietly, alone, in the dawn; drinking whisky with revolutionaries; learning to do close-hand magic; swimming in a river in winter; growing foxgloves, peas and roses; calling your mum; singing while you walk; being polite; and always, always helping strangers. No one has ever claimed for a moment that childless men have missed out on a vital aspect of their existence, and were the poorer, and crippled by it.”

This is comforting reading from someone who is also brimming with joy at motherhood in many other passages:

“…there is the sheer emotional, intellectual, physical, chemical pleasure of your children. The honest truth is that the world holds no greater gratification than lying in bed with your children, putting your leg on top of them in a semi-crushing manner, while saying sternly, “You are a poo.”

“It’s the silliness–the profligacy, and the silliness–that’s so dizzying: a seven-year-old will run downstairs, kiss you hard, and then run back upstairs again, all in less than 30 seconds. It’s as urgent an item on their daily agenda as eating or singing. It’s like being mugged by Cupid.”

At the end of the day, whatever you think of her, don’t be too harsh. She has said nice things about libraries:

 “A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life-raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen instead”

Thanks to everyone for coming and making it such an interesting evening.

Future Meetups:

April 24th The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

May 29th Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold

June 18th Gangsta Granny by David Walliams

July 31st And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

August 31st The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson 

 September 25th The Warden by Anthony Trollope and The Spooks Apprentice by Joseph Delaney

October 30th The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

November 27th Dovetail by Jeremy Hughes

December 18th A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

January 29th 2014 Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier