Monthly Archive for November, 2007

Living Room Book Group 2008 line-up announced

Just in case anyone hasn’t noticed, we’ve announced details of the spring 2008 book group! So don’t forget to check out the sections of the site about the group and the books for all the latest information.

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Fadia Faqir

Thanks to all those of you who managed to get to Tuesday’s reading group. It’s good to see returning faces as well as new members and as I’m always keen to point out, just because you haven’t finished the book doesn’t mean you can’t come. You might just want to sit down, have something to eat and drink and be with other readers, so that’s fine, it’s not a literature seminar! And if you don’t feel confident enough to contribute in the group, then I’m always around afterwards to talk to.

Last night the author of our third book My Name is Salma, Fadia Faqir, was good enough to come and talk to us, and for me it was a fascinating insight into what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land.

The ghosts of children haunt the novel but there are many other, more menacing spectres like that of Salma’s brother who penetrates the book to it’s very core. Fadia spoke about being brought up in an oral tradition and listening to storytellers when she was a child and I was reminded of the tales of the Arabian Nights.

Some readers had found the book hard to get into because of the fragmented style and Fadia explained that she wanted very much to suggest a person who fitted into neither one society or another but felt alienated from both. It brought many of the threads of the book together and was, as it always is when speaking to a writer about why they wrote a book in a certain style, an addition to one’s understanding of a complex subject.

We also talked more broadly about one of the book’s main subjects, so-called ‘honour killings’ where a girl who is seen to have disgraced a family is then murdered by her family in order to save it from disgrace. It is such a difficult concept to grasp in our western liberal tradition. It is an uncomfortable thought to realise that ‘honour killings’ also take place in this country as recent headlines witness.

More hopeful then to hear Fadia say that the first review of her book on Amazon was by a conservative young Muslim man who supported the reformist arguments of the novel. Surely if books are for anything they are for increasing our understanding of people that we, in the course of our lives, would never get to meet and whose stories remain hidden from view.

If you’re interested in reading more about these issues go to http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,2196350,00.html where you can look at a piece Fadia wrote for The Guardian recently.

Winter Blues

As soon as the clocks go back and the nights creep forward I start getting twitchy. I don’t like winter and despite what people tell me about crisp, cold days and log fires I still long for the spring. I can just about focus my attention on something else throughout November and December but by the time January hits I’m in full scale melancholic-mode. Reading is one of the few things that helps and if long nights are for anything at all they are for long, meaty books which can take you a month to read. This is the time when I want Victorian literature – nothing better than reading about child labour, penniless, grasping relatives and cold, drafty houses to make you glad you were born when you were.

The first Victorian book I ever read was Jane Eyre and watching my 13-year-old daughter reading it at the moment I can recapture completely that first, sweet thrill of gothic horror. But there’s so much more to this book than the mad woman in the attic, although God knows this is good enough (and which woman hasn’t had the unsettling thought that there might be a mad woman lurking in her own attic?) I have read Jane Eyre about five times and each time I’m struck by just what a bold and revolutionary book this is. Jane speaks for every woman who has ever felt the chill wind of financial insecurity and at the time she wrote the book – the 1840’s – there was a huge amount of such women. And it also quashes the lie that Charlotte Brontë was an isolated woman writing genius fiction up on the moors. She was, as the book shows, completely in touch with current debates about the emerging role of educated women in middle class life and although female emancipation would not follow for over half a century surely Charlotte started her readers thinking about such issues. All that and a tall, dark and handsome hero!

My other great love is Great Expectations. I think I must have seen David Lean’s black and white 1946 film when I was a child and got caught up in the horror of Magwich, the escaped convict who meets the child Pip in the graveyard in the days before Christmas. It’s a strange book, full of compelling and haunting images such as the prison boats, the ‘hulks’, moored up in marshy Essex coastline; the disappointed and frightening Miss Haversham who even as an old lady wears her wedding dress and the final image of the house going up in smoke before Pip’s eyes and Miss H. rising above it all like some black crow. It’s a hard edged little book and without the sentimentality that Dickens often doles out on his child characters.

My final choice for a winter read would be Middlemarch, said to be by many the finest work of fiction ever written. Although I love reading it, George Eliot canot resist telling you what someone thinks and then, in case you’re too dense to have got the point, telling you again. You wish she’d sometimes shut up and let you make your own conclusions in peace! But for all this it is a great book, full of wise insights about human relationships and foibles and, like the other two books outlined above, has a gripping story with a beginning, middle and an end. Now many contemporary writers could learn a thing or two from this …