Writing the First World War

October’s reading choice was Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration’, the first of a trilogy of First World War novels in which she fictionalises an account of army officer and poet Siegfried Sassoon’s treatment at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, his historic meeting with fellow soldier and poet Wilfred Owen and the support he provides Owen in honing his war poems, in particular ‘Dulce et Decorum Est.’

‘Regeneration’ is an anti-war novel with complex themes and characters and Barker’s novel was rightly nominated for the Booker Prize following its publication in 1991. We read the book as part of Durham Book Festival’s Big Read, with free copies available across the city.

thumbnail_image-1Durham Book Festival held a fabulous event in the nave of Durham Cathedral, ‘Writing the First World War’, during which Pat Barker and Michael Morpurgo respectively discussed their novels  ‘Regeneration’ and ‘War Horse’.

The event was well attended and well hosted and facilitated by Caroline Beck, with the two authors discussing their novels and reading extracts to the audience. Interestingly, neither book had good sales figures following publication and it was only in 1997, when ‘Regeneration’ was made into a film, that the book experienced a popular resurgence and increase in book sales, its very own regeneration, if you like.

Michael Morpurgo made the audience laugh as he introduced  ‘War Horse’ as a novel he was heartily sick of talking about; unpopular and with low book sales when it came out, it also experienced a regeneration when it was eventually chosen as a screenplay for film and play, Morpurgo quipping that he’d like for a change, to discuss other of his works.

We meet again on Monday 14 November to discuss Jessie Burton’s second novel ‘The Muse’.

See you all on Monday and happy reading

 

Rachel Orange

My Name is Leon

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Our reading choice for September was Kit de Waal’s ‘My Name is Leon’, the second book we’ve read as a group that focuses on children in the care system, the first being Jenny Fagan’s ‘The Panopticon’; both popular choices.

The book is set in the early 80s, told through the eyes of the perceptive and observant Leon. Leon’s Mum’s new relationship has broken down following the birth of his baby brother Jake, resulting in a decline in mental health and an inability to look after her boys. Jake and Leon are put into the care system and Jake is quickly adopted as a white baby into a white family. Leon is sent to live with foster carer Maureen. Leon’s Mum Carol is white, his own Dad Byron is from the Caribbean and Jake’s Dad Tony is white too. Leon views Jake’s adoption as an unbearable loss and eventually, as a rejection of himself as a black child.

I found it a heart-breaking story; I had to stop reading a few times to have a good cry and one or two people in the group did the same. It’s sad, poignant, funny, filled with lovely ordinariness, wonderful characterisations, breathtakingly shocking moments, injustice and insensitivity, grief, loss and is ultimately a fabulous testament to the power of love.

As a group we admired de Waal’s superb writing style; she makes it look so easy. The story flows, with subtle shifts and sub-themes. Characters are authentic and Leon’s child voice is perfect, as is his adoption of an adult stance and mistrust of his social workers. We felt the story wasn’t over-sentimental or gushing and admired the pared back writing that delivers a powerful message, chiefly that Leon will find a caring substitute family in the range of odd characters he encounters in the allotment near his foster home. We loved Maureen his foster carer and her struggles to maintain her precarious health while providing Leon with a firm, fair and loving foster home balanced against the seeming indifference of the various social workers he encounters. De Waal doesn’t hold back from portraying the child care system in a poor light and she allows her characters to take the system and those working in it to task when they deliver meaningless platitudes to a little boy who is desperate to find his Mum and baby brother as his loss is so powerful and all-consuming.

Group members praised de Waal for her accurate portrayal of ‘salt of the earth’ foster carers and her focus on the social and political perspective in the struggles of black people in the 80s and their treatment by those in authority positions, whatever their age or social position. We also admired the fact that de Waal makes Leon’s story a search for his Mum and a gradual understanding of her frailties, allowing him to work things out for himself with the acceptance that she does love him but she just can’t look after him or his brother.

A beautiful tender story. Lovely stuff.

This book is a Durham Book Festival tie-in and as a NWN book group we’re offered reduced price tickets to hear author Kit de Waal speak about her work on Sunday 9 October in Durham.

Our next book choice is Pat Barker’s Regeneration which is the NWN Big Read. We’ll be discussing it at our meeting on Monday 10 October. Hope to see you there.

 

Rachel Orange

 

 

 

 

Next meeting Monday 12 September

Hi everyone

I hope you’ve had a lovely summer and read some fabulous books. My summer reads included Marlon James’s ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ which was quite challenging and Jane Gardam’s Old Filth trilogy which I’m a little more comfortable with. Great books all!

lOur next book group meeting is on Monday 12 September when we’ll discuss Kit de Waal’s ‘My Name is Leon’. We also have tickets as New Writing North Durham Book Group to hear Kit discuss her book on Sunday 9 October at Palace Green Library as part of Durham Book Festival:

http://durhambookfestival.com/programme/event/kit-de-waal-my-name-is-leon/

 

If you’d like to join us on Monday, do come along to Waterstone’s in Durham for 6pm, we always love to see new faces.

See you on Monday

 

Rachel Orange

Found in translation

Our book for July was ‘A Grain of Truth’ by Zygmunt Miloszewski, set in 2009 and translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones in 2012 which plots the story of recently divorced state prosecutor Szacki who, after shifting his career from the capital to the picturesque town of Sandomierz, rapidly becomes involved in the investigation of a series of murders.

Rebecca Wilkie, Programme Manager for Festivals and Events at New Writing North had arranged for our discussion of the book to be facilitated by Marta Dziurosz, herself a translator of Polish to English and Translator in Residence with the Free Word Centre in London. The idea was to discuss the book as a translation, with the greatest challenge for a good translator being to achieve a story that flows, not an obvious translation with clumsy phrases or odd sentences that stand out, but one that reflects an understanding of language in culture and how it changes.

Marta is very warm and engaging and ably lead us through our discussion with a series of questions. She started by explaining the purpose of her residency with Four Word which focuses on literature, literacy and freedom of speech; working directly with regional writing agencies, of which New Writing North is one.

imagesMarta gave us some context for the author of ‘A Grain of Truth’, who she explained had started his career with a young writers’ competition in Poland. The book is the second in a crime series Miloszewski has written and he has also published a number of fantasy novels. She also told us about some other Polish Crime writing writers, namely Marek Krajewski and Katarzyna Bonda who Hodder and Stoughton will soon be publishing in translation.

We were then asked whether we regularly read authors in translation and this prompted a good discussion, revealing a number of authors whose books we particularly enjoy including Haruki Murakami, Tove Jansson, Pierre Lemaitre, Jo Nesbo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Albert Camus, Mikhail Bulgakov, Orhan Pamuk, Isabelle Allende and classic writers including Leo Tolstoy who had many different translators of his work. We agreed that there are probably many others books that we’d read in translation but that it was the story rather than the fact that it was a translation that appealed when choosing what to read.

Marta asked us if we pick up a translated book thinking that we might learn something about the place it’s set in and one member said that she felt she had learned a great deal about Poland from reading ‘A Grain of Truth’, in particular the way a small town feels in direct contrast to a large city, which was one of the key themes of the book. We then discussed our thoughts on whether a writer needs to have direct experience of a country in order to write about it and on the whole it was felt that this was essential as we readers subconsciously expect to learn something from the book and anticipate a knowledgeable authorial voice. One reader, a history graduate, said that she simply wanted a good read rather than the author teaching her something and another reader commented on instances of authors writing about Irish history, thinking they understood the subject where clearly this wasn’t the case and producing books that were historically inaccurate, and distinctly unpleasant reads to the Irish reader.

We discussed the notion that crime fiction as a genre has become a keyhole through which we can look at other cultures. A key question from a reader was how realistic is the story and the incidents in ‘A Grain of Truth’ and Marta’s response was that it’s an extrapolated version of the truth. The novel, in her view sets out for the reader the undercurrents of hostility existing in Poland, the tensions that fluctuate and re-surface and is about the Polish/Polish relationship and the constant questioning of the country’s relationship with the rest of the world.

We did agree that the horrific incidences contained within ‘A Grain of Truth’ are offset by some great humour and tongue-in-cheek moments. We particularly liked the smattering of Jewish jokes, the sub-plot of a tv programme about a nice crime-solving priest set in the same town and a play on the author’s own first name, Zygmunt, which he claims only belongs to crusty old men; promptly contradicting this assertion with the introduction of an extremely attractive and hip thirty five year old character who bears the same name! None of this, however, distracted the group from the depth of the novel, the leit motif of the possible existence of a grain of truth in the myths and stories about Jews the author scatters through the story. As a character, prosecutor Szacki enters into a process of deconstructing himself and his prejudices, a number of readers expressing a dislike of his overt sexism and misogyny towards his female colleagues and women he’s attracted to.

At the close of our discussion we reflected on what the author is drawing us towards. Does he believe what he’s saying and is there a grain of truth in the myth about Jews taking over, dominating the financial world, or should we simply examine our own prejudices.

IMG_5299The group was split in terms of whether we enjoyed the book. One reader said she absolutely loved it and has gone on to buy every other novel that Miloszewski has written including his fantasy series and Marta commented that she felt the author would be thrilled to hear this.

Will we start reading more novels in translation from now on? I hope so and a few choices from those currently available and receiving good reviews are ‘Seeing Red’ by Arab-Chilean novelist Lina Meruane described as being ‘so wow that your teeth will fall out from jealousy’; Egyptian author/translator Nael Eltoukhy’s ‘Women of Karantina’; ‘The Door’ by Hungarian writer Magda Szabó and Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig’s ‘Beware of Pity.’

See you all in September when we meet on 12th to discuss Kit de Waal’s ‘My name is Leon’ which ties in with the author event at the Durham Book Festival on 9 October.

Happy holiday reading to you all.

 

Rachel Orange

Further Tales from the Unexpected

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Further Tales of the Unexpected

 

Durham readers continued their ventures into fantasy with their June book choice, The Unreal and the Real, Volume 1 of the selected stories of Ursula K Le Guin. The first mystery was who had chosen this book, an unsolved puzzle for our journey……

 

Beginning with a quick round of ‘points’ from everyone, there was a surprising prevalence of low scores for this popular and highly acclaimed author. Where was I? Was I hearing right?… I, too, had been surprisingly detached and unengaged by this volume but had not expected to hear this from most of the group. What had contributed to this unusual response to intriguing tales displaying the fine craftsmanship of Le Guin’s prose? Several members realised that they had decided they don’t enjoy collections of short stories. They were looking for the absorbing, gripping fantasy tales that unfold over days or weeks of reading, the satisfaction of a long term relationship with the characters and the plot. It was difficult to know where to begin to discuss so many stories. Unlike Raymond Carvers collection of snapshot stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Le Guin’s short stories demand serious thought, reflection and analysis for each one. To read these stories end to end prevents an appreciation of the varied meanings in the prose and the time for imagination and wonder to enhance our experience of the artistry of the writer.

 

The pleasure of a book group is that when some flounder others will have dived deeply, discovering hidden treasures that can be shared. Several readers were enthralled by this volume, appreciating Le Guin’s fine storytelling and interweaving of magic and fantasy with the political realities of totalitarian states. We considered the backdrop of communism and the eastern European struggles that would have been the historical context of these stories. We reflected on the symbolism of the characters and the tales such as ‘The Diary of The Rose’, where mind control has become a reality at a time when the West feared the potential of brainwashing techniques. Some stories had echoes of celtic fairy tales, that meeting of the visible and invisible worlds where humans find themselves in conversation with fairies, entranced, in communion with nature. In “Direction of the Road’, Le Guin invites us to see reality through the eyes of a tree questioning our whole experience of consciousness and reality. Strange happenings. Anthea reminded us of the Irish story telling tradition as one which fosters a love of telling and hearing short stories, perhaps differing from an English culture. Jane drew our attention to the beauty and lyricism of the prose, dancing at the boundary between poetry and prose.

 

Our July book is translated literature, ‘A Grain of Truth’ by Zygmunt Miloszewski, an event lead by a Polish translator, Marta Dziurosz, Translator in Residence, Free Word Centre, London. It has been organized by Rebecca Wilkie, Programme Manager, Festivals and Events, New Writing North. Marta will lead our discussion and be introduced by Rebecca form NWN. It is at Waterstones. Most people bought copies at the June meeting. If you still need a copy, try online or Waterstones Durham.

 

Jane has collected monies for a gift for Ashley to be given 5.30pm at Leonards café, 11th July- a short walk from there afterwards to our meeting at Waterstones. Anyone who would like to join please be at the café on 11th July.

Angela Douglas

 

A New Home

Our first meeting at the Durham branch of Waterstones went extremely well. Manager Kat had made every effort to make the transition from our previous book group venue to the current one as seamless and enjoyable as possible. We’re still the New Writing North Durham Book Group, but have been welcomed into the Waterstones book group fold with great hospitality and kindness. Many thanks to Kat and all the staff at her branch. We also welcomed two new members to the group, Anthea and Katherine.

19ROCCO-master1050-v2Our book choice for May was’ The Fishermen’, the debut novel by Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma, published in 2015 and short-listed for the Man Booker Prize that year. The novel follows four brothers in a small Nigerian village who are given a violent prophecy which shakes their family to the core.

Set in post-election Nigeria in the year 1996,’ The Fishermen’ has been described as a biblical parable, a mythological conceit. It’s the story of four middle-class Nigerian brothers, Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin, who decide to go fishing in a river. They do this without their mother’s knowledge, carefully hiding away their fishing kit when they come home. This career lasts for a few weeks until a woman neighbour informs their mother who then waits until their father returns and with great drama, lets him know what his oldest sons have been doing in order for them to be punished. The boys’ father works away from home with the Central Bank of Nigeria, and having big aspirations for his sons, duly punishes them. One day the brothers meet the local oddball Abulu, who has the power of prophecy and who predicts that Ikenna, the eldest, will be killed by one of his brothers; by a ‘fisherman’.

‘The Fishermen’ made a huge impression, with the group commenting on the vivid narrative that drew us right in to the sights, odours and sounds of Nigeria, leaving nothing to the imagination. As readers we observed the traditional man/woman roles within the family dynamic, where even in a middle class family girls don’t need to be educated. We described the shock we felt at the descriptions of squalor and deprivation and poor treatment of the mentally ill, how a rigid belief in superstition experienced by most Nigerians can encroach on the lives of the aspirational educated middle class. This is country where life is cheap and people live and die on the streets, where a dismembered corpse lies rotting in the dusty road for weeks and those with mental illness are marginalised including the semi-naked man Abulu who roams around casting wild curses.

fishingAs a group we loved the strong bond and affection between the brothers and laughed at the moments of light relief with references to pop culture including a mention of Tesco.  I was moved by the description of one brother telling his younger sibling a story from Homer as they lie together in the darkness in the moments before sleep. We saw the relevance of the simple chapter titles, drawing us as readers into the narrative. One reader commented on the symbolism of spiders taking over the house as the story darkens and the mother slips into her spell of madness. As readers we felt that language is an important element of ‘The Fishermen’ adding to the darkness and confusion of the story. One member of the group said that Obioma’s prose made her slow down her reading so that she could savour every word. The juxtaposition of English and native languages including that of the igbo throughout the book emphasises the stark contrast between educated English-speaking Nigerians and the uneducated who cling to their superstitions and dramatic renderings in native languages when bad things happen. One reader commented that ‘The Fishermen’ was a story that ‘started dark and got darker!’ Some of us were moved by the ‘African-ness’ of the novel, while others felt the book goes beyond being a story of Africa; Obioma revealing things to the reader towards the end of his story, encouraging reflection on the deeper significance of its events.

As a group we felt the sense of impending doom throughout ‘The Fishermen’ with readers comparing the story to Greek and Shakespearean tragedies, where a good but proud man is brought down by a prophesy made by a mad man. Obioma’s debut has been compared with the novels of Emil Zola and that seems apt as both offer stories of struggle and squalor where individuals succumb to the effects of powerful superstition.  Ultimately, ‘The Fishermen’ has a message of redemption and the possibilities of a brighter future.

As a newly emerging writer, we were impressed by Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel, only two group members disliking it. The rest of us are looking forward to his next offering.

Our next meeting will be on Monday June 13. In the time between now and then I’ll be reading more Jane Gardam, a wonderful novelist who is much overlooked in my opinion. She writes with great intelligence, feeling and humour.

See you all next month and happy reading!

 

Rachel

What We Talk About When We Talk About Books

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Sunshine in Durham today, lighting smiles and warming conversations. Was it only yesterday that relentless drizzle weighed so heavily? The enigma of our weather and its creation of an atmosphere. Not unlike Durham book Group’s experience of this month’s writer, Raymond Carver, in his 80’s collection of short stories entitled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’, recently published anew in the UK. One of our readers, Lorraine had studied his work as a literature student at Durham and invited us to share her enthusiasm for his artistry and skill in communicating the atmosphere and intensity of brief encounters, scenarios in the lives of characters who may have long-standing relationships or be strangers meeting by chance. Difficult subject matter is recounted starkly, fleetingly, in ways that leave lasting visual and emotional impressions.

In this collection of 16 short stories spanning only 135 pages, Carver engages the reader as an observer, a passer-by whose attention is drawn to something seemingly ordinary that transforms, surprises or shocks us. We glimpse human tragedy, the loss of relationships through misfortune, waning intimacy, alcoholism, horrific violence. His first story, ‘Why Don’t You Dance’, is about a young couple stopping to browse through a yard sale and reflecting on the desperate circumstances. The seller is a drunkard, down on his luck who wants them to dance to his records. The couple buy his furniture at low prices. The story ends some weeks later with the girl searching the records contemptuously, and puzzling again over the man’s situation. Readers were equally surprised by those stories that delight and comfort suggesting the hope of relationships being mended, as in ‘I Could See The Smallest Things’. Overall favourite was the title story of the collection, appearing as the finale and finally discussing what love is through recounting a wife’s love for her abusive and violent ex-partner and her current husband’s description of an elderly couple in hospital who could only be happy if close to each other. Readers described how the impact of alcoholism on human relations of all kinds is conveyed so skilfully in this final story.

It is not easy to discuss a collection of short stories since there is no one story or set of characters to hold centre stage. Nevertheless, a rich and diverse array of responses to the stories and the writing emerged. Most felt the emotional impact of Carver’s subject matter, using words like ‘grim’, and ‘disturbing’. Were books only enjoyable if not too disturbing, one reader asked? Not when considering the high ratings many of our readers gave this collection! Carver’s style communicates volumes in few words, like photographs, expert close ups that convey the realities of human relationships, warts and all. Several readers described experiencing the stories as films, sometimes recognising them in films they had seen. Some readers had checked out Carver’s biographical information, noting his own struggles with alcoholism and its effect on his life and wondering how this had informed his writing.

As you will know from the previous blog, our group is on the move. It is sad to be moving away from the venue provided by one of the group’s founders, Ashley, and her delightful café, Leonard’s. Needs must, however, and we are delighted and excited to have found a new home that can accommodate our size and diverse membership needs. Waterstones has welcomed us with open arms, offering space, refreshments and the promise of potential discounts for members.

Angela Douglas

PLEASE NOTE NEXT METTING VENUE ;- MONDAY 9TH MAY

WATERSTONES
69 Saddler Street
Durham
DH1 3NP
England

A Classic Yarn

A rather late blog this month! Apologies. Retirement fills life with endless tasks…. As well as time to appreciate the wonders of Durham footpaths in the spring……

Durham’s New Writing North book group chose to revisit one of George Elliot’s classic tales, ‘Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe’, this March. Published in 1861, it transports the modern reader into the world of the peasantry and gentry in Victorian England, setting the gripping story of Silas within the fascinating context of nineteenth century social and political mores. A weaver at that time was an independent artisan who either worked for himself and carried his spinning wheel and supplies on his back, traveling from town to town, or worked with other weavers in a stable community, sometimes doing both. Early on we learn how Silas has fallen on hard times and lost both his childhood community and his wife-to-be following betrayal by his best friend, accusing him of robbery that he didn’t commit and convincing this small protestant settlement of his guilt. To add further insult to injury, his friend later marries his wife to be. In response he has left his childhood home and become a traveling weaver, moving from place to place then settling in Raveloe. He is a recluse, a character viewed with suspicion by most of the locals. Silas shuns human contact and turns his affections to the horde of gold coins he amasses from his earnings. Elsewhere in Raveloe we glimpse the degenerate behaviour of the local gentry, local Squire, Godfrey Cass and his brother. Godfrey is desperate to maintain their land and status but neither he nor his idle alcoholic brother have the money. Whatever money he has goes to his brother who blackmails him about his estranged secret peasant wife who had his child. In another dramatic twist of fate, Silas’ life is upturned by Godfrey’s brother stealing his gold. Silas runs from his cottage distraught, wild, seeking, at last, the support of his neighbors. Meanwhile, a ‘golden child’ has appeared in his cottage, abandoned when its mother dies on the roadside en route to Godfrey Cass, the father. Silas sees this as his miracle child, adopting and caring for her. Gradually we witness him rebuilding his capacity to connect with people and the great joy and warmth of spirit replacing the miserly seclusion of his previous years in Raveloe.

imageDespite the somewhat simplistic and romantic nature of the story, our readers generally loved this book. George Elliot’s masterly depiction of social and political themes, descriptive prose and attention to detail in local dialect brought the characters alive . It was as if the reader, too, was invited into the heart of the community. Most of all, readers enjoyed the heart warming change in Silas. A moral fable for its time, yet still as pertinent today. There were minor irritations noted in the writing style at times. Was there a judgmental attitude towards the destitute mother of Eppie over her drug taking? Did Elliot run out of steam when tackling the ending? Was it too much of a ‘Happy ever after’ conclusion? A stereotypic fairy story? It has echoes of Rumpelstiltskin when he refuses treasure as a substitute for the miller’s daughter’s child in payment for having enabled her to spin gold and says “No, something alive is dearer to me than all the treasures in the world.”

For further information about George Elliott’s Silas Marner, check out Silas Marner: A Study of Transition by Shirley Galloway, http://www.cyberpat.com/shirlsite/essays/silas.html

Next month’s read is an early 80’s novel by American writer Raymond Carver, master of short stories, recently published in the UK, ‘What we talk about when we talk about love’. In May we treat ourselves to the debut novel from Nigerian writer, Chigozie Obioma, ‘The Fishermen’, short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2015. In July NWN has arranged for us to host a Polish translator visiting the UK. More details about the book she will talk about will be provided so check out the blogs for May and June. Autumn will find us engrossed in the Durham Book Festival NWN book groups choice, hot off the press.

Meetings remain at St Leonard’s coffee house for the time being though we may be moving in future to enable disability access, so do check the blogs!

Newcomers always welcome. Just turn up and we’ll sort out your details later.

Angela Douglas

What will survive of us

Did you ever fall completely in love with a character in a book and feel that you get what they’re about? That’s what happened to me when I read Emily St John Mandel’s ‘Station Eleven’ and encountered Jeevan Chaudhary. More about this later.

‘Station Eleven’ was our February book choice and an almost unanimous hit with the group. There was just one dissenting voice, a group member who didn’t enjoy reading the novel. The rest of us had nothing but praise for it and our lengthy discussion served to reveal more layers of meaning, acute observations and questions about the subject matter, narrative and characters. Once reader described not wanting to put the book down, an experience that she had always been searching for!

Dr ElevenThe premise of Station Eleven is the collapse of the known world following a deadly virus, the Georgia Flu, which sweeps across the globe wiping out whole regions, cities and communities in a matter of hours. What follows is the gradual revelation and realisation that small communities of people have survived the virus for a variety of reasons, and in different ways and locations, separate but interconnected and interdependent. Some of the group likened the book to a horrible dream as the reader is drawn into it, with a creeping realisation that this is how civilisation as we know it could come to an end, and undergo renewal.

We’re introduced to a number of characters including actor Arthur Leander who we meet briefly in the novel’s inciting incident; his death from a heart attack while performing the role of King Lear on stage in Toronto. Jeevan Chaudhary is watching the play and quickly realising Arthur is in difficulty, leaps onto the stage and attempts to resuscitate him. His attempt fails and Arthur dies. What follows catapults the reader rapidly into chaos as Jeevan wanders home in a snow storm, taking a call from a friend who works at Toronto General who tells him about the deadly Georgia Flu and the urgency of saving himself. Quickly realising the reality and seriousness of the situation, Jeevan rushes off to stock up on food and heads to his wheelchair-bound brother Frank’s apartment, where they remain locked away from the outside world for some weeks.

LakeThe novel shifts between different timelines, introducing us to characters that we meet and re-meet at key points in the story, and whose lives are interconnected and resonant with significance for the survival of others both physically and emotionally. Some readers found the time shifts disconcerting at first, together with the end of the world theme of the novel. We did all agree that this was a very exciting and compelling read, with moments of great poignancy and sadness as individuals die alone, some of whom are discovered years later as people wander through towns and cities searching for shelter and supplies, while gathering the full impact and enormity of what has happened. We loved the things that people cling to as a natural impulse within the process of surviving a disaster and thriving afterwards; music and the travelling symphony, culture and heritage with the museum that includes once indispensable items like a mobile ‘phone, and art with Miranda’s graphic novel and its beautiful drawings. We noted that the story begins and ends with Arthur, opening with his last moment on earth and ending with a description of the earlier part of his last day, and his attempts to maintain a relationship with his estranged son, a son who will survive the virus and play a significant role in the post-collapse world.

Mandel has constructed a very clever and beautifully written novel that has good pace and intriguing characters, with a startling theme that allows the reader to explore the probability and after-effects of a natural disaster, exploring memory and understanding some opposing aspects of human nature; the compulsion to exploit religion for personal gain and a response to the life-force within us to create harmony through supportive communities and new ways of living. This could have been a story of a dystopic world but it wasn’t, as we agreed that all the positive aspects of human nature that we would hope to see kick in post disaster are right there in the book. The story has moments of humour when we laughed out loud, and moments of real horror.

So now back to Jeevan who experiences a moment of cristallisation as he leaps onto the stage to save Arthur; this is what he wants to do with the rest of his life, help others. As Jeevan leaves behind a stagnant and unsatisfactory life before the collapse, losing his beloved brother Frank to the virus, he finds new meaning and personal happiness in and with what remains, anchoring himself within his community in a medical role and finding love. He helps others, drinks wine and reflects on the new world: “Even after all these years there were moments when he was overcome by his good fortune at having found this place, this tranquillity, this woman, at having lived to see a time worth living in”. Jeevan represents renewal, and the ultimate triumph of acceptance in adversity.

 

Rachel Orange

Findings

Poetry became even more accessible at our January book group meeting as we met to read, listen to and discuss poems that we collectively enjoy or have written ourselves.

booksThere was such a broad range of poetry and listening to another read aloud is a great way to appreciate something we may think we already know or hear something new, with an opportunity to listen to the way a poem flows, focus on its words and reflect on their depth, power and significance.

Angela began her selection with a reflection on what poetry is from
‘How to Read a Poem’ by Burton Raffel: “Poetry is a disciplined, compact, verbal utterance, in some more or less musical mode, dealing with aspects of internal and external reality in some meaningful way”.

Actress Fiona Shaw once said on her pleasure in hearing other people speak the words of great poets ” poems put me in touch with feelings I might not otherwise get a chance, in this short life, to feel.” I think she’s making an apt and insightful point.

To illustrate this and quite unexpectedly Hannah sang to us in her lovely voice, a poem that her sister-in-law Viv C Wiggins had written, to whose words she had composed a tune, which was a truly unexpected pleasure. Thank you Hannah.

The poems that we heard were wonderful and included a poem by Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer read to us by Sara, John Lennon’s song/poem ‘Imagine’ read to us by Sheila, a poem by Jacob Silkstone read by Margaret, Derek Walcott’s ‘Love after love’, Christina Rosetti’s ‘Goblin Market’, John Cooper Clarke; ‘Warming Her Pearls’ by Carol Ann Duffy, R S Thomas’ ‘The Moor’, Khalil Gibran, Jenny James, Mary Dorcey’s ‘After Long Silence’, Adrian Mitchell’s ‘A Puppy Called Puberty’, ‘Mental Cases’ by Wilfrid Owen, Harold Monro and ‘Keening’ by Paul Batchelor.

Something tells me we’ll be repeating our Poetry Night. One to watch out for if you want to bring along a poem you love or one that you’ve written yourself.

Our next book choice is ‘Station Eleven’ by Emily St. John Mandel which we’ll be discussing on Monday 8 February.

See you all then and happy reading!

 

Rachel Orange