At the end of October we met up to discuss Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It turned out to be our Halloween read but hadn’t been planned that way. Frankenstein was on at the National Theatre at the beginning of the year and two of our regular readers went to see it and both thought it a fantastic production and were really enthusiastic about it. So it went on our reading list and just happened to be October’s choice. In terms of whether it fitted with Halloween, there is a short introduction which tells of a few people sitting around entertaining each other with ghost stories and deciding to each write one, this, Frankenstein is the only tale completed, so yes it sort of fits with Halloween now so keenly celebrated.
An American children’s classic published in 1876 was not an obvious title to choose for our book group and as I read the introduction in the edition I’d picked up, my heart sank at the thought of reading what was heavily criticised from quite a lofty and literary perspective. My concern was misplaced, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and so did all of the group; as for the introduction, I think the critic was trying to be academic with what is essentially a ripping yarn.
Genuinely a children’s book which also appeals to adults (I spoke to a 10 year old who had recently read the same novel and thoroughly enjoyed it). So why does it work so well? After all, the cultural references are firmly embedded in American culture and that of more than a century ago. The answer is simply that this is a good adventure story about a mischievous boy, the sort we all either know or recognise elements of in ourselves.
This month WEN reading group read the same book, a play, as a local Ealing book club and we both went to see the play at the National Theatre this week. So what did we think?
It’s a common literary tactic to have a young child as the narrative device, with often prestigious results. Witness recent Man Booker winners DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little and Yann Martell’s The Life of Pi, both which focus on precocious young children in very adult circumstances, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time with its young narrator, garnered a slew of awards several years ago. Setting a novel in this way lets an author challenge accepted points of view or make a difficult point. And there are few more difficult points (even now) than 9/11 and what has followed.
Those of you who’ve read the critically and popularly acclaimed ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian’ will know Lewycka’s writing is engaging, quirky, eccentric and full of zest; so another title by her seemed the perfect choice for January. As a group we thought her writing style was all that I’ve described, but ‘We’re all made of Glue’ didn’t work as well as ‘Tractors’ for a few reasons, some of which irritated some of our readers.
This black comedy was easy to read, hence everybody finished it. The issue of aging was treated in the black comedy style you’d expect through the grandly comic character of Mrs Naomi Shapiro and it worked well. The crass stereotypes, such as the Northern father, a retired miner obviously; the woman who wanted to be more exciting and glamorous then found her solution in crotchless red knickers didn’t work so well, but the novel really came unstuck in international politics. We felt that instead of being an integral part of the story it was a crude addition to the plot, with the Arab-Israeli conflict described as though following a look on Wikipedia, and resolved around the rancid dinner table at Mrs Shapiro’s. It was this simplistic treatment of very complex and serious issues including the holocaust, Palestine, religious extremisim that irked most of our readers.
Not all bad, Lewycka clearly has an eye for the grotesque and through this creates very vivid characters. The novel begins with an estranged middle aged couple who after a series of terrible glue metaphors are reconciled at the end, this makes for a very human approach to looking at the often isolating and fragmented society that makes up modern London. Through the wife, Georgie Sinclair, we meet the heroine of the book, Naomi Shapiro, who turns out to be an imposter and not Naomi at all. This doesn’t detract from the flirtatious, vulnerable character of Mrs Shapiro who shares her philosophy on life and men with ‘darlink’ Georgie: ‘No need to be shy, Georgine. When you see a good man, you must grebbit.’ Georgie goes on to ‘greb’ one of two caricatured estate agents, who along with social workers are portrayed in the most cynical terms.
Bold characterisation extends to the cats that Mrs Shapiro surrounds herself with, particularly the violent, selfish and predatory Wonderboy. Personally if he was in my neighbourhood I’d stay in with my cat and read a good book, possibly another by Lewycka, as for all that wasn’t quite right with this title, she’s still an entertaining writer and it really wasn’t all wrong.
For November, the WEN book club turned to a new genre – science fiction. Though it must be said that famously Margaret Atwood doesn’t refer to her books as science fiction, but speculative fiction. Oryx and Crake, our book for November, certainly fit into this category, with Atwood taking modern themes such as genetic engineering and projecting them forward into the near future.
The novel introduces us to a post-apocalyptic landscape inhabited solely by the main character, Snowman, and a group of genetically advanced not-quite-humans, the Crakers. Departing with the traditional idea of the post apocalyptic hero, as in Mad Max and similar, Snowman is feckless, often drunk, and is in constant fear of his environment, fending off genetically engineered wolvogs and pigoons. We are immediately left with questions – who are the Crakers? What has happened to society? Why is Snowman the only human left?
Atwood’s narrative weaves in Snowman’s somewhat Quixotic journey back to the ‘Compounds’ where the rich used to live to find supplies, with the story of how society came to collapse. It turns out Snowman once lived in the Compounds and climbed his way up through the corporate world. As he works his way through school, then university, and then into his career, he encounters the title characters Oryx and Crake; tellingly both are named after extinct animals.
Through Snowman’s eyes we are shown a vision of the current world gone just that little bit more mad. Segregation of rich and poor (the poor live in relative squalor in the ‘pleeblands’), rampant use of genetic engineering and life-enhancing drugs with dubious side effects , and the pervasiveness of corporations in all aspects of society. By creating an alternate world of her own with ubiquitous brand names such as ‘Happicuppa’, ‘Helthwyzer’, and ‘Anooyoo’, Oryx and Crake makes for frighteningly realistic reading. It is this story that is the most engaging, but Atwood’s way of switching between the two narratives can be quite jarring – the book could have been written in a straight chronological fashion and would not have lost a great deal.
Both of the parallel stories in this book build towards what become rather obvious denouements, and Atwood often includes too much detail that seems to be padding. Characters too are thinly drawn, with Snowman being the best fleshed out. It may be that she has done this to draw attention to the emptiness of the characters’ lives (they are near owned by corporations), but this makes the book harder to like at times.
As Atwood attests, Oryx and Crake and is certainly not science fiction – it is far too grounded in the real world to be that, and it’s for that reason potential readers shouldn’t be put off. It’s an engaging read that keeps you interested, hoping that your questions will be answered – and they are for the most part. The issues the book raises about how we use science and technology are certainly thought provoking and will stay with you for some time.
Review by Chris Gilson
June’s meeting was on a gloriously hot day, and the lounge room of the Drayton Court made for a cool reprieve. WEN readers were decidedly not as hot under the collar as protagonist Keith, but quite cool towards ‘The Pregnant Widow’.
The story is the narcisstic account of a summer holiday at an Italian castle told by Keith’s older conscience looking back on his younger self. There was little to give the story a sense of place, however the sense of time was more relevant.
Set in 1970 at the beginning of the sexual revolution, Keith’s conscience reflected not just on himself but on 3 female characters too. Amis has said there are autobiographical elements in the character of Keith and as the female characters take very different stances within the sexual revolution these should have made for interesting characters
The new possibilities and social change of the 1970’s were explored by Amis through characters we found tedious and two dimensional. Keith, a horny English Lit student, spends his summer trying to take advantage of the sexual opportunities he sees arising for himself. This behaviour continues into adulthood with lasting destructive effect. Given the perspective of time, were we the reader to consider whether men were traumatised by the sexual liberation? We weren’t sure if this was what Amis was driving at, partly because of our disconnect with the characters and writing.
The language is unrelentingly crude, and the female characters described and defined by their physical peculiarities; the desirable two, ‘big tits’ and ‘big bum’, or the plainly not beautiful and therefore cynical. The thoughts of Keith rarely veered from sexual gratification with the result that rather than gaining insight into the character and time being lived through, the characters were unbelievable and therefore inaccessible.
As a feminist text, did it work as a discussion around the ‘equalitarian phase ‘ of the sexual revolution? With girls acting like boys, arguing that there is no difference between men and women, this was a failing in feminism which was portrayed by Amis, unfortunately using patronising language to describe the sexually active woman as a ‘cock’, that didn’t work for us either.
So, as a novel it’s readable, there is much that is interesting and we liked the novel in varying degrees. None of us connected with the characters and overall felt that we were the wrong audience for the book, but weren’t sure who would really enjoy it. Perhaps those who lived through 1970 might meet this book with a different reception…
It was the first time that I had been to a book group (You might suggest I needed to get out more often… which is exactly what I did and really enjoyed the night) and I have to say that I would not have ended up reading this title to completion if I hadn’t read it with the purpose of sharing it with a group of unknown strangers. (Who I can now confirm were very welcoming, diverse group and good company.)
A word of advice when you arrive at the Drayton is that some of the staff aren’t aware that a book group meet there each week but don’t be put off – they are there and they meet in a lounge area in the pub; a fitting room to chew the literary fat in.
The novel is an account of the Indian rebellion of British subjects in India during 1857. Based on these events, but fictional in style, this novel was an intriguing mix of satire, parody, the sublime and deliberately ridiculous. Some of us were tempted not to complete the book principally we felt it was at times a slow-moving story that took some time to reach its zenith. Some felt many of the characters came across were initially farcical and pompous.
When the story really shows its flair and starts earning its Booker kudos is when the siege begins. Arguably these privileged and dandy characters reach their most interesting when under duress and siege conditions – and therefore a social observation by Farrell on the complacency and entitlement of the age. These characters come alive and gain substance and interest once given a challenge and purpose – a daring and controversial form of satirical comment from Farrell.
Once the siege begins this is when Farrell was at his best.
What I most enjoyed about the story were the moments that Farrell conveys with such intensity and conviction; the claustrophobia and decay that permeates the very foundations of their community and engulfs Lucy entirely until she becomes a mass of seething black flies – a particularly well conveyed and realised moment in the novel for us all. An omniscient narrator provides some form of social comment or opinion on these characters and this is a challenging element of the siege.
The narrator conveys their misery and wretched end but avoids a moral tale or sense of pathos for the characters created. In this sense Farrell took some risks in exposing these characters; showing no sympathy for the colonialists as the siege tears them apart with carrion, pestilence and decay, we suspect this is representative of how Farrell felt about some aspects of the Victorian existence. We see the Victorians as they suffer and melt in the heat and fury of their trials and sense that Farrell enjoys their fall with gusto.
Farrell’s depiction of the fictional characters and town of Krishnapur also serve as a social comment on the society of the time. Religious fervor turns out to be unfounded or simply feverish, scientific advance is mis-employed and philosophies unfounded or the stuff of pomp and nonsense. Essentially the society is as flimsy as the bookshelves that are devoured by legions of ants in the residency and its occupants are devoured by pests and vermin, famine and disease. The entire story is an extended metaphor for the excess of the age, gluttony so extensive it consumed its very self.
The Siege is a complex story and it’s a tribute to the novel that as I write I find that I could continue endlessly to try to encapsulate the very varied and paradoxical nature of the text. It is comedic, hilarious and implausible – something that would seem to jar with the very bleak content and essence of the story; the siege. It is also a comment on an age, situation and a historical satire. Some remind me of Candide by Voltaire in its satirical and relentless tone. Some of the group noted that elements of Farrell’s style provoke comparison to Louis De Bernieres’ as he weaves a splendid and hyperbolic story; at the height of the narrative there are moments that are glorious and are testament to the power of Farrell’s expression and the sheer quality of his writing.
Read it for the impressive narrative style and characterisation. Stick with it for when the story really gets going; wait for the siege because that is when Farrell’s sharpest social observations take place. By the end of the process you come to love these ridiculous characters and in the end ask yourself are we any different or and indeed if our society has progressed any further than theirs. I believe this is what Farrell would have wanted – by examining the society of others we inevitably question the worth of our own with fresh eyes and less presumption – that in itself is a tribute to the book.
Review by Celia Walsh
It was my first time at the book club at the Drayton (and much like last month’s reviewer, I didn’t know what to expect). The group was already vigorously discussing the book (I got there a bit late!), but I soon slotted into the conversation.
So, this month, we switched from talking about Kevin to talking about Henry and Ian – Ian McEwan that is. Henry is Henry Perowne, the protagonist of Ian McEwan’s 2005 novel Saturday. Based in London, ‘Saturday’ takes one day in 2003 of the life of a neurosurgeon who has to navigate a raft of problems and occurrences that would lead most people beyond the point of exasperation.
After a false start with a near air disaster at 3am, Henry’s cosseted life is thrown into disarray and uncertainty after a chance encounter with a man after a road traffic accident. Henry spends the day making deals with himself – concessions; some large, and some small, some with no consequences, and some with enormous ones. I won’t spoil the rest of the plot for you, but it does become a real page-turner towards the end; a cliché I know, but in this case, an accurate one.
McEwan spends the first third of the book in depicting the tableaux of Henry’s life – his home in upper-middle class affluence, over-achieving family and professional life, all with the backdrop of 2003’s 15th February ant-war protest. It’s a lengthy depiction, but the real pay-off is when the novel’s plot really kicks in.
As with any good meeting of a book club, discussion of the book was varied in terms of approval – it wasn’t rated nearly as highly as the previous month’s book, ‘We need to talk about Kevin’ and some felt that some of Ian McEwan’s other books, such as Atonement were more engaging. We discussed and debated about the nature of ‘threat’ in the book; threats both perceived and real that we encounter every day living in a city like London. The discussion also switched to and from the election – it was hard not to, given that we met the week before election day!
Next month’s book is The Siege of Krishnapur, and looks to be very different to the last two! We hope you can join us at the Drayton on the 25th to discuss it over a drink.
Review by Chris Gilson
This month the WEN reading group got stuck into the 468 pages of Lionel Shriver’s million-selling novel.
It was my first visit to a book group, and as I marched myself down to the Drayton Court I had no idea what to expect. Clutching my copy of WNTTAK like an entry ticket, I tried to survey the delightful wood-panelled pub purposefully, until I spotted two young women at the bar. There was nothing for it but to accost them with the line, ‘Are you here to talk about Kevin?’ They were, and soon the whole group was off – when it comes to Kevin, there’s plenty to talk about.
The teenager in question has killed nine people in a murder spree at his school, in a manner that Shriver makes clear is far from uncommon in contemporary America. Whilst it goes without saying that this is sickening and ghastly, it also begs the question of why he did it. This is the question that haunts Eva, the boy’s mother, as she sets out to find answers in a series of letters to her estranged husband, Franklin.
The subject matter is grim and none of the characters are the sort of people you would invite round to dinner, but what keeps the story going and this reader frantically turning page after page, is the starkly real depiction of Kevin’s troubled infancy and childhood.
Yes, as the narrative works its way inexorably towards the dreadful events that must be recounted, the reader wants to know what happened, but more than that, like Eva, you want to decide how much she is culpable for the way Kevin turned out.
This question soon had the reading group in hot discussion. It’s a testament to Shriver’s skills of characterisation that we ranged from those who hated Eva, to those who largely blamed the father, to those who thought Kevin was simply evil.
The only thing beyond doubt is that Shriver is a skilled story teller, who portrays, with disquieting accuracy, the agonies of an ambivalent mother trying to relate to her hostile and unresponsive offspring. Should Eva and Franklin have spotted the signs that their son was on a one way ferry to sociopathy, or were they just like any other parents, rightfully trying to cling to a love that blinds?
The authenticity of this description is all the more impressive given that Shriver is not a mother herself. It’s a feel-bad book but I challenge you not to have a strong reaction to it.
That made it the perfect choice to ignite the debate in the Drayton Court. The other reprieves that kept me hooked despite the macabre theme, and arguably over-long series of anecdotes of Kevin’s increasingly ghoulish misdemeanours, were Shriver’s fresh and arresting use of imagery and language. The pinpoint accuracy of her observations of the minutiae of married life is enough to make you sit up.
I’ll be back for more Lionel Shriver and more of the reading group.
Review by Roderic Vincent.