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.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Introducing me

Hello All. My name is Helen and am a friend of Emily's via my husband and mother-in-law (Valerie). I have a four month old baby daughter who is currently taking up most of my time, energy and the three brain cells I have remaining. However, I do love reading and have been inspired by talking to others who read regularly and can recommend books to me, having come from a family for whom reading was considered an anti-social habit! I look forward to reading and contributing to these bloggs but seeing as it has taken me this long to do this, my contributions may be rather add-hoc. Anyway here goes...

Top 5:
A Suitable Boy - Vicram Seth
Put on here in faith as I am still reading it (p1025, only 449 pages to go!) but am already convinced it will be a firm favourite (and I didn't want to feel left out! Perhaps we should change the name of this reading group to A Suitable Book?!). Love the sense of place that Seth evokes and the discerning way he describes the Indian identity: religion, caste, geography, history, family etc. Not to mention wonderful character portrayals.
Challenged to tackle it after seeing it sitting on Valerie's shelf.

Middlemarch - George Elliot
I'm not really a 'classics' person but I did love this. Also epic but worth it for the well-meaning but flawed characters it contains. Essentially I saw it as being about marriage (I read it just after getting married myself, which is maybe why I liked it so much); expectations, failures, joys etc. First introduced to it by the BBC adaptation which is superb (and can now be bought on DVD!)

Wild Swans - Jung Chang
A wonderful, factual portrayal of Communist China told through the eyes of four women covering four generations of the one family. A beautiful weaving of history, politics and personalities, as well as a fascinating insight into Chinese culture.
Recommended by my hubby. Her latest novel is a biography of Mao; probably well worth reading but a pretty weighty tome.

Barchester Towers
Anthony Trollope
A must for anyone who has ever had any contact with the Church of England. A very wry, comic portrayal of the Victorian C of E Church set in the fictional county of Barsetshire. Some wonderfully odious characters and some very amusing asides and puns by Trollope.
First heard it as a BBC Radio drama starring Simon Russell-Beal as Mr Slope – wonderful! The prequel, ‘The Warden’, is also well worth a read although a much more subtle tale.

Poisonwood Bible
- Barbara Kingsolver
A fascinating tale of a fictional missionary family in Africa. The father typifies all that was wrong with the traditional, colonial attitude to missionary work and how the remaining members of the family come to terms with his mistakes and re-discover Africa for themselves. Another fascinating look at African culture and the changing fortunes of that continent during the twentieth century.
Recommended by a friend in Oxford.

These are the 'favourites' that spring to mind, although ask me a different day and I will have a different five!

Friday, July 29, 2005

It's working already...

... because Kirsty is going to read All Quiet on the Western Front, Ruth is about to read Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Helen D has bought A Suitable Boy, Helen S is going to finish it and Kirsty - never one to skimp on anything - is contemplating re-reading it. For my part, I have finally conceded that I must try Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet. Since you've persuaded me, Valerie, can I please borrow it? And The Long Walk to Freedom afterwards?! I've loved all the posts we've had so far, and have particularly enjoyed the individual ways that we've approached the "5 books" theme. It's been very stimulating.

By the way, having raved tediously about The History Boys on stage (sorry to rub your nose in it again, Kirsty!), they are planning to make a film of it, using the original cast. So if that comes off, you're in for a treat. One of you (forgive the memory lapse) suggested conferring about whether a film-made-of-the-book has EVER been better. Anyone got any candidates? My only thought is The Godfather, but since the book is pulp, that might not count. Mind you, creating such a transcendant film out of such a potboiler does rather highlight the triumph of the film. I tend to avoid films-of-the-book (recent disappointing examples include The Shipping News and The End of the Affair) but I have seen some where I felt the film equals the book in quality, for example The English Patient and Sense and Sensibility. Helen S had suggested having films/plays/reviews as a secondary subject on here, which I'd been desperately hoping we could. Anyone got any other contenders for either category? Or, being you lot, you doubtless have a better version of the question!

Monday, July 25, 2005

Favourite Authors

Picking particular books, for me, would prove a problem, except for one totally inspirational…Nelson Mandela’s A Long Walk to Freedom. For a broader guide to my reading habits, I go back to age about 20 with Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and others. Staying in the period before babies, the novels and letters of John Steinbeck, several books by Nikos Kazantzakis, the Cretan author of Zorba The Greek, and books by Lawrence Durrell, particularly the Alexandrian Quartet. Post babies and retirement, the authors of importance to me include VS Naipaul and Vikram Seth. One other that I enjoyed was Iain Pears’ The Instance of the Fingerpost. These are the books that have been allowed to remain on the shelf as I would like to re-read them.
I am currently reading The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Masouf which is about as long as A Suitable Boy, so I will have to finish this before reading a group book.
I hope that was not too involved, but I would find it hard to edit further.
I look forward to reading your opinions on the books that you are reading, and I will post something about my current book as soon as possible.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Hello from Valerie Shields (VS)

I'd like to say hello to the other members and introduce myself briefly. I first new Emily as a friend of my son Philip from college. We have always talked books!

Now retired, I have enjoyed having more time to read and, best of all, discuss the books with others via reading groups. I have had firm favourites over the years, but would find it very difficult to pick out just five books. I have decided to select the authors that have meant most to me. I will have to leave you wondering for a while, as time is short today, however in the next few days I will post my list.

Helen has mentioned she is my daughter in law. (Married to Philip).

Thursday, July 21, 2005

August's book choice

Hi, everyone. Thanks for your posts so far, which have been great. More feedback later, but for now here's August's book suggestion. It's How I Live Now (click for link to Amazon) by Meg Rosoff, which has just come out in paperback and I read a review of recently.

It likened it to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time which was one of my favourite books ever (do read it if you haven't already!) and it was beautifully-written when I checked it in a bookshop. It's also short and easy to read, so it seemed good as a bending-and-stretching exercise for us to start with :-)

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Hello, from Helen Dyke

Having one or two technical difficulties but hopefully this will work. I'm Helen Dyke and I was at school with Emily (nee Helen Stoneham, Ruth!). I work as a speech therapist with deaf children and am married with a 16 month old son. I love to read, it is my number one hobby and I fit in as much reading as I can. Mostly I read 'lite' stuff such as chick-lit or thrillers but I like to tackle more serious novels when they come recommended. I haven't yet read A Suitable Boy but I will be after reading all your posts. Here are my top 5 in the order in which I discovered them.
1) To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee. I read this at school and have re-read it many times since. I love the child's-eye view writing style.
2) Enigma, Robert Harris. I love all Harris' thrillers - he knocks Dan Brown into a cocked hat I think. Enigma is my favourite as I love the central characters and the wonderful evocation of Bletchley Park during the second world war.
3) Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Kate Atkinson. This is Atkinson's first novel. I've enjoyed all her books especially Case Histories which came out this year. This features in my top 5 because it's another child's-eye view narrative in which dark secrets from the past gradually unfold. It's also very funny.
4) Empty Cradles, Margaret Humphreys. A rare venture into non-fiction for me, this excellent book tells the stories of hundreds of children who were sent from this country to Australia during the '40's, '50's and '60's. Humphreys, a social worker, found out about them by accident and tells readers of her efforts to re-unite them with their families. A powerful and shocking book.
5) The Subtle Knife, Philip Pullman. I loved all the Dark Materials trilogy although I have a totally different world view to Pullman. The Subtle Knife is my favourite because I really like Will and his story and the inter-play between our world and the others he discovers in the book.

I look forward to reading more posts and some of your choices.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

I’m Val, Emily (and Ruth’s) mum. I work paaaaaaaart time at London South Bank Uni and have a dozen other interests which revolve round grandsons, gardening, natural history and books. I’m a devout agnostic feminist sort-of socialist.
Best books so far this year:
1 By a mile, Rohinton Mistry, A fine Balance. Not for the fainthearted – it’s longer (and incomparably better) than A Suitable Boy and is an unflinching story of 1970s India under Indira Gandhi’s ‘Emergency’. It is emotionally gruelling at times; extremely funny; compellingly written; and the characters get under your skin and stay there. And much loved by an Indian friend of mine. I found it, unread, on Emily’s bookshelf.
2 Through the embers of chaos: Balkan Journeys, Dervla Murphy. Not the best of her many brilliant travel books but unmissable if you want to know what it is now like to live in the former Yugoslavia. She takes no sides (and no prisoners) in her descriptions of the roles of the various ethnic groups. She talks to and quotes all sorts of people to give an ultimately depressing account of the future of that troubled region. Now in her 70s, she has cycled or walked over most of the planet but her account of being stoned by several different groups of Albanian children is perhaps her most chilling experience. Probably a minority interest? I bought it because I read everything she writes.
Last year’s best
3 Barbara Kingsolver, Poisonwood Bible. Has much in common with A Fine Balance in the breadth of the story and the quality of the writing. She evokes 1960s Belgian Congo superbly; excellent characterisation; strong human story set within the political story; makes acute observations about fundamentalist patriarchal religion and neo-colonialism; very funny in some places but heart-stoppingly sad in others; the writing so good in places you want to stop and read it all again. I can’t remember why I first read it but reread last year for reading group and it was even better the second time.
4 The True History of the Kelly Gang, Peter Carey. Not on the face of it my sort of book but Carey is always good so I eventually chose this for our reading group. Carey succeeds brilliantly in what he sets out to do: he reclaims Kelly as the Thomas Jefferson of Australia (sure, I got that from a review but it’s true); says a lot about our need for myth making and does it all in a really enjoyable story of pioneer life down under.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Kirsty's favourites

Hi, I'm Kirsty, John's sister. I live in Leeds where I work as a scientist by day and (hopeful) scriptwriter by night.

My 5 favourite books - quite a choice, and necessitates leaving some great stuff out (which can crop up at a later date, no doubt) but here we go...

A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
Emily got me onto this by first recommending An Equal Music by the same guy (sneaking another one in there - also fantastic) and it was a huge challenge - took months to get through but worth every second. I'm even contemplating a reread.

Fugitive Pieces - Anne Michaels
Uncertain how I came across this - I'm a bit prone to buying a book in a sale if it's got a nice tactile cover and I think this is how it came into my life. It follows the life of a young lad rescued from Poland during the Second World War, and is just a really moving tale.

The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy
Emily again (I think - it's a while ago now). It seems to be a love-it or hate-it type of book but I love it. Wonderful characters - primarily about the lives of twins Estha and Rahel, and a great insight into life in rural India.

Notes From a Small Island - Bill Bryson
Just a very funny account of Bryson's valedictory tour of Britain. Doens't matter how often I read it (and it's now close to falling apart) it still never fails to make me laugh.

An Anthropologist on Mars - Oliver Sacks
I've been an admirer of Sacks' work for many years. He's a neurologist, with a real gift for understanding the impact of the diseases his patients have on their lives. There's a quote at the start, attributed to William Osler (whoever he is) - "ask not what disease the person has, but rather what person the disease has." Pretty much sums it up.

And that's it for now - looking forward to hearing from everyone else


Tuesday, July 12, 2005


Hi, I'm Emily. Welcome to the site. I thought a good way to start it off would be to introduce ourselves and list our 5 favourite books we've read this year or of all time.

So... As most of you know, I'm married to John and have 2 small boys. Reading is central to my life but I don't get much time for it these days. I find that reading a book as part of a community, with a view to some discussion of it, vastly enriches my enjoyment of it. This online reading group will, I trust, provide those sort of benefits, in a flexible form, with yourselves as my handpicked fellow-readers :-)

5 best books this year, in no particular order

"Small Island" by Andrea Levy
Beautifully-crafted tale woven from 4 voices involved in Jamaican immigration to Britain in the 1940s. Tells us things we need to know in a funny, humane and satisfying way. The characterisation is especially sharp and subtle.
Source: my mother Val, chosen in our real-time reading group.

"The History Boys" by Alan Bennett
Quintessential Bennett: Exquisite. Hysterically funny, especially on stage: see it, at all costs, if it's ever performed again. A group of northern grammar school boys are groomed for Oxbridge entrance.
Source: saw it on stage first.

"Heartbeat" by Sharon Creech
A poignant short story in verse written about, and for, teenagers. Very moving in its simplicity, tenderness and clarity.
Source: recommended by my sister Ruth, who was recommended it by her friend Em.

"A Suitable Boy" by Vikram Seth
The monumental (in all senses) novel of Indian arranged marriage and family drama. Richly rewarding but needs stamina, since it's 1474 pages long.
Source: recommended by Valerie and my husband.

"All Quiet on the Western Front" by Erich Marie Remarque
The classic first-hand account of trench warfare in WW1, from the German side. Powerful yet not too gory; elegiac yet not sentimental. Captures a specific period, yet taught me valuable lessons now, with especially illuminating psychology.
Source: our real-time reading group; chosen by me, having been reminded that I needed to read it having bought it second-hand from a shelf in a pub...

Who's next?! I've put a few suggested guidelines below to help get us started.


Hi. I'm still getting to grips with this site and setting it up, but here are a few things to get us started.
  1. We will be having a monthly book suggestion to read together, for them as wants it, but I haven't stopped dithering about which one yet so I'll let you know when I do.

  2. As well as that, when you finish any other book, do please consider posting something - even just 2 sentences - on this site so we can build up various conversations.

  3. If you don't mind, it's fascinating to hear where you came across the book - where you found it, who recommended it to you. You'll note from my list how many of the members of this group are already featured!

  4. Practical suggestions... Book title in bold italics so they're easier to spot when scrolling through. When addressing each other, put each other's names in bold.

  5. Any questions, just ask me by email or post it on the site.