Together in Spirit

An online reading group ('TIS a reading group!) to bring together friends, and friends of friends, who aren't able to be in a conventional reading group due to constraints of time or geography.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Book Thief

Sorry - hadn't realised I hadn't published this. Very remiss of me!

I can see why this has been such a publishing success. It's very effective at what it does; even though it's not my sort of thing, I definitely wanted to know what happened and found myself caught up in the story. And I quite understand how a book so thoroughly in favour of books should win such reader loyalty!

My major gripe with the language is the know-it-all narrator. I appreciate that this is appropriate since the narrator is a world-weary Death, but it still grates with me because I find it unduly doom-laden (even when done in other books without this one's excuse!). Just a personal bug-bear of mine, I'm afraid!

I found some parts very moving, usually involving Hans or Max. Hans' inability to stop himself helping the hungry Jew, against all sense. And his horrified realisation at the danger he's put the hidden Jew in. Similarly Liesel or Hans realises part way into a mistake what they've done and has the bitter taste of it on their tongue, but still have to flounder on. How many times have I felt that?

And it certainly gave me an insight into the daily reality for ordinary German people, especially the fear of being reported. Which makes me think of a highly recommended book called "Nothing to envy" about North Korea. Factual, about a handful of real life stories there. Will show you at our lunch as one option...

A lurker speaks...

And for a bit of fun, a guest post from a lurker (John), about Not So Quiet (which he hasn't read):

"It is Price/Smith herself, however, who, in response to her mother’s ‘war to end war’ responds ‘Never. In twenty years it will repeat itself’ p 90. Was such prophetic perception common in the inter-war years? I found it surprising."

Couple of thoughts sprang to mind immediately. First, Wilfred Owen's Strange Meeting:

Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.

Second, there's the reference in 1066 And All That (pub. 1930) as "the Peace to End Peace".

Not so quiet

I found it really eye-opening and moving and would certainly never have tried it without the recommendation, so am extra grateful. I had absolutely no idea that things could be like that for the volunteers. My favourite scene is the new rapprochement between Roy and Nellie, where their shared experience of the horror allies them amidst their determindly non-understanding families. While I agree that the language is not the book's strongest point, I find it at the minimum perfectly servicable, and in the best scenes like that, faultless. Simple and unpretentious goes a long way when taking care to describe things honestly rather than patriotically!

I don't remember the structure of "All quiet" well enough to be distracted by it, and it seems a fitting companion piece. Thank goodness the author refused the dishonouring brief she was offered and wrote this brilliantly angry and persuasive book instead!

Recent reads

And from Val's email:

I did see the Sara Waters last week and enjoyed the production but felt it could be in two episodes as there were several strands of the story that were condensed a little too much. Normally I find they try to spin out something too thin. Acting very good. The Russian 'project' sounds imteresting.and I hope to be reading the second Dunmore soon. However, I would prefer a Russian author with good credentials if they are now allowed to be free to write.

The Night Watch

From Valerie, also originally by email:

I did see the Sara Waters last week and enjoyed the production but felt it could be in two episodes as there were several strands of the story that were condensed a little too much. Normally I find they try to spin out something too thin. Acting very good. The Russian 'project' sounds imteresting.and I hope to be reading the second Dunmore soon. However, I would prefer a Russian author with good credentials if they are now allowed to be free to write.

Recent reading

From Sue (originally via email):

I have now read Not so quiet and am half way through The Help.

Have also read The Road by McCarthy which was brilliant ‘post apocalypse’ stuff I thought, and The Outcast by Sadie Jones which was also excellent – get inside the mind of emotionally neglected kid who goes off the rails ; Small wars by same author also meant to be good. I have also read Anil’s Ghost by Oondatje about Sri Lankan anthropologist who goes home and her involvement in the war there; he writes so lyrically and on a topic I did not know so much about, but chimes with Brixton Beach which was also about Sri Lanka and the war.

I have been on a lot of trains and planes, hence the wizz through!

I quite like reading a lot about one place all together because then I remember it better. On Russia I have read Child 44 and Kolyma – not literary masterpieces but very good at building a picture about what it was like to live under and then post Stalin. I guess they form a historical path up to the Snowman which is modern Russia. However, that’s just the way I do it! You, My Joy is also a film about the mindless violence of current Russia – saw it at the BFI festival last year. Grim.

Anyone see Night Watch on the tele last week?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Not so quiet

As Barbara Hardy is keen to point out in the introduction, this is not a ‘rediscovered feminist masterpiece of style and structure’ but rather ‘a genuine popular novel’. I really liked it – for the most part it raced along and I was completely absorbed by the Helen character. Some of the praise must go to Winifred Young no doubt as it is based on her diaries. For example, the shilling they were docked for the unusable piano, ‘caused more indignation in the convoy than the invasion of Belgium caused the Belgians’ p 53, has such a ring of truth to it that I guess it must be true. It is Price/Smith herself, however, who, in response to her mother’s ‘war to end war’ responds ‘Never. In twenty years it will repeat itself’ p 90. Was such prophetic perception common in the inter-war years? I found it surprising.

The cast of characters is pretty formulaic, and I think the awful commandant stands in for the top brass generally – her petty rules and persecutions making life even worse for the girls than the Germans. Against this background is the almost unbelievably blind patriotism of the family at home, who still buy in to the ‘war is glory myth’, and whom Helen is unable to disabuse.

The story surrounding this book is as interesting as the novel itself and I was so pleased for the information in my VMC copy. I can’t remember the structure details of the Remarque book, which is probably just as well as On Beauty suffered from my trying to tie it in to Howards End. But without that guiding structure, Price seems to have floundered when she wrote various sequels on the back of Not So Quiet’s success.

If you can, do go to the current exhibition at the Imperial War Museum – free and open until end of August I think. It features their collection of paintings by women war artists from WW1 to present. Did you know we had official women war artists then? Nor did I, but the pictures concerning this period really bring this story to life for me and the explanatory text is fascinating about how women artists see things differently.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Children's Book and The Go-between

Emily asked me to let you know if I thought AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book would be a suitable one for the Blog. So briefly, I loved it but think it is far too long for TIS, both in length of time reading ( over 600 tightly packed and densely written pages) and our ability to do any justice to so much writing. But I am very happy to lend it to anyone who fancies reading it.

The story is set at the turn of the 20 century and follows a group of young people up to the disaster of WW1. She ranges through factual politics, social history, suffragists, art history (from HG Well to Art Nouveau), the formation of the V&A, cultural links with Germany, puppetry, the golden age of children’s books etc etc. It takes some getting in to, but then I found myself enmeshed in the various lives and could hardly put it down. If you didn’t like Possession, I suggest you give this a miss as Byatt uses the same technique of writing what she’s writing about – thus here great chunks of children’s fables.

But a suggestion I do have for the Blog is The Go-between, LP Hartley, if others haven’t read it. I’m sure Sue and Valerie have, like me, seen the Julie Christie film, but I’ve never read the book. There was an interesting rereading review in the Guardian 18.6.11 by Ali Smith which I’m sure is on-line and which I recommend.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Book Thief

Well, I can see what Val means about the style which was, what can you say, unusual. However it did not annoy me, it was like a game to follow it and I persevered and liked it. Not sure if there are other books on the topic, but I liked the way it gave a view of what it was like to be just an ordinary person under Hitler's rule, how hard it was to even quietly resist and not get pulled in, how complete the Nazi's control and tyranny was. Yes it was fluffy prose, a playful style with strange ways of telling you things, but it was different, fun, I liked it!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Good Book and a Bad

In response to Emily’s email, I enclose my views of The book thief by Markus Zusak.
I gave up after 100 and something pages of this: the context is always the most important thing to me and here the setting is fascinating and the issues significant. But the style is so irritating and there is so much of it that I’m sure I can find a better book about this period in German history. Earlier this year there was quite a bit in the press about Hans Fallada and Alone in Berlin, so I may try that. Anyone read it?

I’ve had a lot of enforced reading this past two weeks which has done wonders for my ‘to read’ shelf. I thought some of you might be interested in a VMC by Willa Cather. I review all my VMCs or risk forgetting everything within days, so have included it here in case anyone wants to borrow it. I’m not suggesting it as a blog book, but am happy to lend.

Death comes for the archbishop
Willa Cather
VMC 1981 (first published 1927)

Cather describes this book as a narrative rather than a novel: it is based on the real lives of French missionaries in SW America in the second half of the nineteenth century and incorporates stories and legends collected in the region. As such, it is a fascinating insight into that time and place when Indians were hunted for sport; when there was no way of communicating with the outside world save to ride the trail and when the Catholic church was the only civilising influence. The Church comes out well as do the two missionaries, Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant - a welcome antidote to my own prejudices and The Poisonwood Bible. Their sensitivity to their flock – Indian converts, Mexicans evangelised in the 16C by the Spanish and the white American frontiersmen comes over very convincingly. For example, Bishop Latour declined chilli seasoning but ‘hastened to explain that Frenchmen, as a rule, do not like high seasoning, lest she should hereafter deprive herself of her favourite condiment.’ p 30. Father Vaillant spent time near Tucson, where the people had, centuries ago, been converted by Franciscan friars but hadn’t seen a priest since. Vaillant was taken to a cave where all the paraphernalia of the mass was hidden and preserved. He describes this as a parable: ‘The Faith, in that wild frontier, is like a buried treasure; they guard it, but they do not know how to use it to their soul’s salvation.’ p 207

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, the writing, the stories and the insights. This is the first VMC I can remember that is not overtly feminist – this is not a story about women’s lives, though of course, they do feature, and as ever their lot is even more bleak than the men’s in this harsh world. Catholicism was certainly an opium for these masses, and not one I’d wish to have withheld.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Siege

Yes, liked it. The description of the suffering endured by people facing cold and starvation, the knock on effects on health, strength and behaviour were all very well done. Some amazing bits of prose. If I was to be a bit picky I would say only Anna is a fully developed character, the deaths were predictable, and some shifts were a bit disconcerting - they seemed to go from having lots of potatoes to starvation in the turn of a page and likewise back to relative normality just as fast. I agree with Emily about Pavlov. It lacked shock factor for me as I had already read The Bronze Horseman which is also about the siege of Leningrad; would recommend it if anyone can face more ...

Monday, February 28, 2011


In response to Val's last post, I have some trouble linking Faraday to be the instigator of the activites of the poltergeist/spirit activities. If The House on the Strand is Time Travel, that implies to me that the events in that book are of past people shown being enacted before death. Spirit activities are then after death. That precludes Faraday from having anything to do with activating the poltergeist etc. Or have I missed the point?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

More Stranger

I keep meaning to respond to the interesting questions you all posed about The Little Stranger. The big one first: who/what was the ghost? Waters does indeed imply in her article that you can see the good doctor as the ghostly presence, though in a way that ducks the issue, if you want a clear answer, as Emily does. Because he was never there when the events took place, he’d need some other agency to achieve the effects. Valerie, did you think Faraday was projecting his feelings through Betty? Waters was thinking of poltergeists as the force, but I know very little about them and how they are (rationally) explained. The dictionary definition is that they are spirits that manifest themselves by acts of mischief so I presume it is the troubled spirit of Faraday enacting the disturbances. The ‘how’ is where science and belief will collide and what makes this a ghost story. Does that take anyone any further forward?

As Emily and Valerie know, I adore the House on the Strand (D Du Maurier) and have read it many times, but I’d never seen it as a ghost story, rather as time-travel (not a genre I readily read). I guess time-travel raises similar conflicts between science and belief (small b), but I wouldn’t call it a ghost story.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Two Books!

Yes, I do. to answer Emily's last question. Though only as my initial response. It was an effective method of bringing a human scale to it, second to actually reading diairies of the time. After all only half the population of St Petersburg died, so there were a few happy endings! This was my second read of this book. Therefore this time it had lost a little of the grip and horror of the first. However I still find it hard believe that members of the highly civilised, and educated Germany and Austria, home to Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and Schubert could behave as they did there and elsewhere and it is good to be reminded that they did and it might happen again somewhere. (Beethoven wasn't too nice now I come to think of it, and showed a complete disregard of others' feelings.) I am inclined to try and read a factual account sometime. I know a well regarded history was published a few years ago but cannot remember the author. Does anyone know it?

I am hoping that the follow up will tell us how the city recovered under Stalin and the psychological effects of principles lost in the fight to survive, affected the consciences of those that did survive. Also living under another monster's rule, if they were then aware that that was what he was. I agree that it was very well written. I continue to have visions of the glazed corpses in the unheated rooms. I have just found a letter from Latvia received last year where the temperature in Daugaspils, Latvia was minus 33. How do they manage!

The other book was Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant, recommended by Val. I loved her Idea of Perfection, read a long time ago, but was rather disappointed in this. She tells us at the end the known facts of William Dawes (Daniel Rooke) and his journeys which Daniel's story follows quite faithfully. I felt that the story lacked depth and power to make me really care for the characters. One began to be hopeful that it would improve when there was some relationship developing between him and the aboriginal girl and her tribe. This fizzled out so quickly that I was left disappointed and the short author's notes would have done on their own.

I think I am still in thrall to the Raj Quartet and Staying On and other books haven't yet managed to measure up.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Siege

Wow. Full marks to Val for the recommendation - and bonus point for it being a subject I couldn't believe could be such a joy to read! So good was it that, like Wolf Hall, I dread the sequel not being up to it...

I tore through it. Always found Helen Dunmore too disturbing before, so glad to have made proper acquaintance.

Favourite quotes: "the best portraits... not about exposure, they're about recognition".
"light on form"
"Anna lies still, thinking in Evgenia's voice."
"You have to protect yourself. Keep something inside yourself, that can't be used up and taken away from you... a way of responding without being eaten alive."
"I could have looked at you and Katya, out there, and known straightaway who that wall was going to fall on."
"That's Pavlov's gift: figures don't overwhelm him; they sharpen him."
Anna no story, "because it's still happening. It hasn't turned into a story yet."

Now I look at those quote, I guess she hasn't created distinctive idiolects for each character - similar voice for narrator and characters, but all brilliant, so no complaints.

Loved characters, although would have welcomed more Pavlov. Thought that the focus on a few individuals rather than the siege itself enabled the reader to engage with it rather than just pushing it away as unimaginable horror. Also enabled a relatively happy ending, although do you feel that detracted from the portrait of the siege?

Character summary in a sentence

Another in our ongoing series of gems of the type, this one found by Val:

The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville - set in New South Wales in 18 century - I'd recommend that as well if you come across it. The eponymous Daniel Rooke goes to Australia as an astronomer - a very sympathetic character but he's better with numbers than with people:
'Rooke could hear how his words laboured. He sometimes thought that he arrived at a sentence the way other people did multiplication: the hard way, by adding.' Worth reading the book just for a sentence like that.

Reminded me of the narrator of "Curious Incident"...

Thursday, January 06, 2011

All our worldly goods, albeit late

Lovely to be able to join in with this discussion as I have, following a ridiculously hectic year, managed to read All our worldly goods.

I am suprised that so many of you didn't like it as I really did. I was disappointed with Suite, not because it wasn't beautifully crafted and skillfully written, but because it lacked an ending. This, to me, is very important. Consequently Worldly Goods was, as Emily said, "Neat". I didn't think it was trying to be a family saga of gargantuan proportions but a select (and there is much skill in the selecting, especially when covering such a large time frame) and concise portrayal. Nemirovsky beautifully drew out how history repeats itself, both at a national scale and at a familial one. I loved how the struggles with mother-in-law get repeated but from a different persepective and how the 'sins of the fathers' have ramifications in future generations.

I enjoyed it as a light read, covering a fascinating time in history whilst giving a glimpse into the manners and conventions that held town and families together. I was also suprised by how positive an ending the book had, given that N didn't live to see the outcome of the war.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Little Stranger

Read it some time ago before it was chosen for this group read, so no quotes to hand. I loved Sarah Waters other work and was just disappointed with this. Don't mind ghost stories per se but this was long, tedious and lugubrious and I did not like it one bit!!

Coming to Val's query re hard being a woman if you do it properly, perhaps we need to define 'properly'? Either way I think being a human being and doing it properly is difficult! Men have it easier in some ways but harder in others and are frequently emotionally constipated to boot!

The little stranger

These aren't really my thing, and reading this reminded me why! Not to criticise it as such, but the genre really isn't me. Reminded me of "The turn of the screw" and with a similar ending ambiguity. I want too much certainty (and happy endings) for ghost stories, really. Well written, and all that, but it's not going to convert me to the author or the genre, I'm afraid. That said, was very keen to know what happened, and thought she constructed the "ghost" very cleverly. I'd wondered what the ending meant, and then read Waters' comments (thanks, Val) about it (I think in the Guardian with John Mullan), and found that made sense. I wouldn't have had the confidence to come to the solution she hinted at, but since she implies it herself, I can relax into it. Well, sign up to a very bleak and destructive answer... Plot spoiler coming up: she seemed to me to be saying that it was Dr Faraday's neuroses etc which birthed the ghost and caused all the terrible trauma. Have I understood that right? Is that what you thought?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ghost Story

I wondered Val, whether you would not consider The House on the Strand by Daphne de Maurier, a ghost story? In a rather different and unusual form I grant you, but I feel it fits the genre.