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.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Another Word on ASB

I enjoyed ASB as an entertaining novel that held my attention to the end. This depended on the fluent writing, the structure and the characters. As a bonus, I felt I had a much better understanding of the many strands of the religion and politics of the culture of the subcontinent. I have enjoyed two Salman Rushdie novels but found them rather more difficult to understand fully. V.S.Naipaul’s ‘India. A Million Mutinies Now’ led to deeper understanding of the more recent situation of the population, but is not a novel. The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott made such a good TV series (The Jewel in the Crown), I felt I did not want to read the books. I thought my enjoyment of the series would be devalued. Does anyone else feel this about reading the book of the film?

I rather agree about comfort reading, Val. Now I only read the books I mentioned if I find myself without a book I have planned or for discussion. But I did enjoy Bill Bryson, read on a TGV up from the South of France much to the embarrassment of my husband.An out-loud laugh!

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

comfort and A Suitable Boy

Comfort reading: all my leisure reading is comfort reading and most of it is done in a hot bath. I was going to say, is this an age thing, but Valerie’s comments suggest maybe not. At my advanced age, I cannot waste time with deficient books and would find doing so anything but comfortable. ‘So little time, so many books’ makes rereading something of a problem, one I didn’t experience years ago when my favourite books were read and reread, but never, ever, as Emily does, just favourite bits from them. And similarly with the so-called airport novel/holiday reading. The nearest I get to this is well-written but ultimately not very satisfying work by Penelope Lively, Margaret Forster and similar. Though they have both written very good books (eg Moon Tiger and Have the men had enough, respectively), most of their output is comfortably unchallenging. So are they my answer?

I can go no longer without comment on A Suitable Boy. I consider it vastly overrated (but not in itself bad) - I think because I have read a dozen Indian novels which I personally preferred. How much are you all in love with India itself, rather than this book in particular? Better books, I suggest are
Paul Scott: the Raj Quartet, plus Staying On ( in total much longer than Seth).
E M Forster: A passage to India
J G Farrell: Siege of Krishnapur
These are all about the Brits in India
Rohinton Mistry: A fine balance, Family matters.
Salman Rushdie: Midnight’s Children
Arundhati Roy: God of small things.

Some of these some of you have already mentioned. How do you think they rate to ASB?

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Precise but not pedantic, The complete consort dancing together

Helen S has it absolutely right - I think it's definitely more difficult to pare things down to almost nothing. Not that the big books aren't great, and not to deny that they do things you couldn't do in shorter books, but my instinct is for concise unless heavily persuaded otherwise. I think it requires more discipline from the writer (and/or editor - very interesting article from Val the other day about how editors don't really edit these days, or aren't allowed to, hence so many overblown books) to leave stuff out. Homestead is one of my favourite books of all time, as much as for what's left out as what's left in. Sheer genius. It would have been a family saga in any other hands. Perhaps it's like sculpture - they start with a huge lump of stuff and it is only the removal of excess material which reveals the potential beauty within.

Which is probably the main reason I like poetry. The title of the post is from The Four Quartets by TS Eliot. (John will be in fits of laughter that I have managed to Not Mention my favourite ever literary work for all this time. It weaves its way into most of my conversations, as my patient loved ones know to their cost.) It's in a section where he's talking about the need for precision in language, and how - when the right word for each occasion has been caught - the whole thing dances. (So much better than when the author is flailing around not quite sure of the apposite word, so using plenty in the hope they'll get it accidentally.)

Given that you've just triumphed over the monolith that is A Suitable Boy, Helen, how about a short book to up your average rate? I do this shamelessly; after months getting through Pepys, I devoured Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Chronicle of a death foretold and August's book choice How I live now (Meg Rosoff) in a couple of hours apiece - they are SUPER short. And brilliant. And the shortness is crucial to the brilliance, in my opinion. How about trying the Rosoff?

Tuesday, August 23, 2005


At last I'm in, have been having terrible technical difficulties compounded by lack of memory (forgot my user name and password!). Am slightly apprehensive that once I've logged off, won't be able to access the site again, so if I'm gone for sometime you know why........!

Anyway, let me introduce myself whilst I'm here. My name's Pella. I used to work with Emily in the hostel in Guildford, and am privileged to be godmother to her two gorgeous boys. And living near by, it means I'm able to pop in regularly which is a real treat.

As for reading, I love to when I can, but in common with many of you, often find I lack the time and sometimes the energy and discipline to do as much as I'd like and could. Is that sacrilege to admit this on this site! Having said this, recently read a recommendation by Emily, Moontiger by Penelope Lively. Loved the way in which the story was developed, and the main character, Claudia, revealed almost like a jigsaw, with recollections being told thematically rather than chronologically.

Shall try and catch up on all your post which looks like an excellent read in and of itself.

Monday, August 22, 2005


I was amazed at the many entries when I logged on today. They made interesting reading. It’s good that you are finding the time to log on. I’m at page 400 of 1313 of The Cairo Trilogy (Naguib Mahfouz)and thoroughly enjoying a powerful story. There is not much action, but the story of a strictly Muslim family describing the daily life of living with a father who maintains an iron rule, in spite of being at a time when women in Cairo were becoming a little more liberated is powerfully written. The story is continuing with the events in Egypt following the end of the 1st world war and the attempts to oust the English.

I am making a list of the recommendations you have given, and hope to try some. I think that the idea of discussing films is great. I haven’t seen many recently, but with so many books to read, if the film is recommended, maybe that will suffice.

I do have comfort reading, Emily, although I have not previously thought of it as that. A good whodunnit/adventure will fit the bill. Recently that would be Henning Mankell, Ruth Rendell, John le Carre and the first James Bond type of book, Riddle of the Sands (Erskine Childers). Others have been Hotel du Lac (Anita Brookner), Notes from a Small Island (Bill Bryson) and Toad of Toad Hall.

I’m impressed that Val can read so many again and keep abreast of the current as well as work paaaaart time. Although, having just re-read ASB after 10 years, I’d forgotten so much that it seemed quite fresh.

Notes from a Small Island I found hugely amusing too. He seems to have met my family! I also giggle at the memory of Scoop (Evelyn Waugh) although the rest of the reading group also trying it couldn’t see the joke at all, so am loath to recommend it. I would like to re read Three Men in a Boat to see if it is still as funny as I recall.

I think that the power of All Quiet on the Western Front, a fairly short novel, shows that length does not indicate good writing and sometimes the briefer and sharper , the better.

‘Chick Lit’ is a marketing headline that does not deserve to be repeated, as it means little and probably describes a genre that couldn’t be classed as literature! Or am I being sniffy?

I have also lost bold as have cut and pasted. Sorry.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Comfort reading

Oh well, I guess I have to agree with Kirsty that I don't know how she does it, Bridget Jones etc go in a genre by themselves, if only because "when my brain's fried" is such a perfect description. Val and Valerie - do you ever feel the need of such comfort reading? Your lists seem very, um, intense. I don't enjoy classic chick-lit (Fielding/Pearson without the depth) but I do an awful lot of comfort reading, usually of stuff I've read before. Rowling, Pullman, Tolkien, CS Lewis, Elizabeth Goudge, Helen Fielding, Allison Pearson... Very highbrow, I DON'T think! But I need more than one book on the go at a time, to cater for how fried my brain is/n't at any given moment.

Kirsty - quite agree about the great bit in I don't know. It made me read the book in the first place. Except it was the "they can't just eat sweetcorn all the time" bit which got me. As the mother of sons who would cheerfully eat nothing else if given the opportunity, and - Pearson's masterstroke - if I wasn't here would do their energetic best to convince John that Mummy let them just eat sweetcorn...

But what do the rest of you read and re-read for comfort? Or am I weird in this?

Friday, August 19, 2005

August book review

Hi all,
Just a (relatively) short post to say hello and to kick off the reviews about the August book choice, How I Live Now. Hopefully I will get around to updating my profile before too long, but for those of you who don't know me, I am another of the Rea clan (Emily's sister, Val's daughter).

So... I liked How I Live Now, but would rather it had actually been two books. I started to get into the whole teen voice thing at the beginning, and would have happily read a book's worth of insight into the normal (i.e. completely alien, to me at least) teen mind of today, complete with multiple neuroses and lashings of hormones. When the War broke out, apart from being pleasingly surprised by this jolt to the plot, my imagination was captured and my mind started to wander off on a different vein; I wanted to be reading a lot more detail about what was going on from a wider perspective (*see below!). While Rosoff has created a unique story by combining the modern-day war plot with the teenage voice, I ended up being mildly disatisfied by both. I love books which are written purely poetically, and I also love books with a good plot, and for me the two didn't merge effortlessly in How I live Now, although both elements were present and I enjoyed this. (As an aside to illustrate this point, I found Heartbeat and The Curious Incident, two other teen novels mentioned on this site, to each have a stronger individual identity - I thought Heartbeat was a little self-contained piece of art, and The Curious Incident was like stepping into an intriguingly different world without this feeling contrived or overstated - the plot was gripping, but evolved perfectly from the characters.)

For me the best points were 1) the pace - she didn't hang about; 2) the fact that things actually happened, e.g. in the relationship with Edmund, which in other novels by adults for teens would have been dealt with much more slowly and less intensively, which let's face it is not often how teenage romance is.

*Did anyone see the TV drama series "The Last Train", which was on C4 about 5 years ago? I only saw a couple of episodes and wish I'd seen it all. It was a modern/ slightly futuristic story about a group of people who got stuck in a train in a tunnel and thereby escaped the obliteration of modern society due to an armageddon-type event, and what they found when they emerged. I am quite fascinated by the idea of alternative realities/ breakdown of modern society (although not really sci-fi - Terminator is about my level!) - used to love reading John Wyndham etc - so if anyone has any suggestions along this vein I'd appreciate it!

I'll be interested to know what everyone else thought of HILN..
Bye for now, Ruth

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Suitably long?

Hooray! Have finally finished A Suitable Boy. Yes, it will definitely rate as a favourite. I will not dwell on a review as so much has been said about it so far, suffice to say that amongst the politics, religion and geography, it was a fascinating slant on the perennial problem of what makes a suitable marriage prospect. Passion versus practicality, Heathcliffe versus Edgar Linton , Mr Rochester versus St John Rivers etc. I was also worried that having spent so long reading it the ending might disappoint. I am not someone who just likes to read a book for the journey it takes you on, I need a decent destination to arrive at at the end and A.S.B gave both. However, I did get fed up with innumerable rhyming couplets which I did not think added anything to the characters or plot and wish that Seth had saved his poetic outpourings for The Golden Gate.

I had many comments from people who saw the book on my coffee table about the size of the book and how amazing that someone could write so much. I certainly like a long novel as you feel you get to live with the characters and I shall certainly miss Lata et al of an afternoon. It is said of Jean Rhys that she spent years finely tuning Wide Sargasso Sea and it certainly reads like a tightly crafted piece of work. Might it be that the finely honed slim volume takes more skill?

Continuing the book versus film theme, I watched Ladies in Lavender the other day. A lovely, gentle film with superb character portrayals by the great Dames (Judy and Maggie). This was not plot-driven so much as character-based but I still thought it worked very well as a film. It is supposedly based on a short story and I wondered if anyone had read it and could comment on how the film compared?

As to the top authors, I don't think I have read enough of any one author to be able to compile a list. As a teenager I read anything and everything by an author I liked to an almost fanatical extent and as a result I have veered to the opposite extreme. This has been encouraged by my husband's philosophy that there are far too many good books out there just to stick to one author. I know this will sound like heresy to some (Valerie?).

best authors, best books

I surprised myself with my best author list and realise that Valerie was very wise to divide hers into life-stages. How would I feel about Galsworthy and Greene now? I’ve decided that the only thing to do is to reread a shortlist of about 20 of my best books (luckily I have a list of everything I’ve read since 1985, with the top three marked for each year) and from that construct both a best books and best author list. Rereadings, of course, result in different judgements, so this is hardly are rigorous scientific survey. I’m sure this is of minimal interest to you all, but it will keep me amused and eventually you will be informed of the final results.

Emily and I are both musing on the best book/best author issue, and feel probably that our best books are not by our best authors. In my case, one of my best all time books will surely be Poisonwood Bible, but another Kingsolver I dashed off to read, Prodigal Summer, is disappointing (all unlikely sex and coyotes conservation). Ditto Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, great, everything else, mediocre. Maybe there is a special one-book-wonder category? What else would you nominate?

(Sorry, I still haven't found out how to make titles bold ( i do this in Word and then paste)

Wednesday, August 17, 2005


A strange phrase really, and it has aquired something of a derogatory undertone, but I would stand by I don't know how she does it falling into the category. I would, incidentally, also put Bridget Jones in there and the Imogen Edwards-Jones book I mentioned in my last post. I enjoyed all three, and would consider them to be good examples of "chick-lit" but perhaps it comes down to how you perceive them (and indeed the genre). For me they are enjoyable and readable. This doesn't make them bad books - it just means I can happily read them when my brain's fried, and overall I don't take as much away from them as something like All quiet. Interesting that Helen Fielding advised Allison Pearson - it seemed remarkably similar in style to the Bridget Jones books. I cried at the family memo Jill Cooper-Clark left for Robin after her death. The minutae of a life he knew nothing of because he was too busy making shed-loads of money (I was just about all right until the last point, which cracked me - [talking of their sons] "kiss them for me and don't stop just because they get taller than you, will you?").
Off to read something bleak now (!) - Just a boy (written by the son of one of the Yorkshire Ripper victims) which has been lent to me by one of Mum's friends.

Yes but no but

Kirsty - YES - great point about murder mysteries or transfer to film/book generally: the plot-dependent versus character-driven is a really useful distinction. Will try to remember that when I'm next agonising about whether to give re-tread a go. And I hadn't realised it until now, but you're absolutely right about the poignancy of All Quiet on the Western Front, and the soldiers' lack of hope for the war ending. No wonder I found the ending merciful (in the teeth of some opposition, if I remember rightly). Am intrigued - you must tell me which bit of I don't know how she does it made you cry. (For anyone who doesn't know, my sister-in-law likes her books pretty bleak.)

But NO - I can't let you describe I don't know how she does it as chick-lit. OK, it's packaged like that and the style is akin, but I think it's a different league. I think it was Helen Fielding (of Bridget Jones fame - well-practised at being underestimated) who advised Allison Pearson that the way to write a huge bestseller and not be hated by everyone was to pretend that it just kind of wrote itself and really wasn't difficult and it's such a surprise it sold so well. Yeah, right. That's why we're all turning out books like I don't know, which make Kirsty cry, and men like John read it despite the lurid pink cover, and me press it on everyone I can. It summarises why I don't work full time for cash while also bringing up my children, for instance.

That said, being readable IS rather a danger, isn't it? Makes people think you're lightweight. Have just finished Claire Tomalin's biography: Samuel Pepys - The Unequalled Self. Thanks, Valerie. Interesting and moving, but rather hard work. Especially since he has to give us ALL the details of every servant he gropes in a long and busy ("boisterous") life. Glad to have read it, but also glad to be going back to things that I can read more lightly.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

"All Quiet" and "I don't know how she does it"

Hello everybody

Feel like I've not posted anything for a while - combination of technical ineptitude (thanks for sorting me out Emily!), busy weekends and cricket. Never mind, am back now and have finished All Quiet on the Western Front as recommended by Emily. It's great - a really frank insight into trench warfare, and the whole hopelessness that surrounded the kids on the front line - how they were changed by the experience, and most striking for me how they weren't actually looking forward to the end of the war that much. There wasn't much for them to look forward too.

I've also recently finished I Don't Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson. Falls into "chick-lit" category, I guess, but it was an enjoyable read about a woman trying to balance a city job with motherhood, and v funny in parts. It actually has the distinction of being the only book I can remember that made me cry at one point. This makes it sound better than it was - it's not some massively moving tome, just one part that slaps you in the face a bit. Think I must be getting soft in my old age.

Books from films is a tricky one. I've never read The English Patient but I enjoyed the film and it highlights for me a particular problem with such transformations, in that books are written as books and films as films. Obvious point perhaps, but it is a very different writing style, and to carry it off it helps to be called Anthony Minghella (who also did the Inspector Morse series from the books in great style). Books often rely heavily on long descriptive narrative to let you see into the characters' world and minds, but you just can't get away with that in a film, where the key factor is "show don't tell". To use the example of The English Patient I know plenty of people who found it too slow. My memory of it is that it's very dependant on a lot of narration, and this slows everything down - you need to be in the right mood to put up with it.

The books that do transfer well are your murder mystery types - plot dependant books rather than character driven, and there's a whole raft of good examples of these. Many of the TV crime dramas that kick around for any length of time (Morse, Frost, Rebus, P.D. James' stuff) have come from books (at least initially) and they work well for me.

If there's a big enough budget, fantasy will also tranfer (Lord of the Rings style budget) but I also have to give an honourable mention to Harry Potter. I'm not exactly the biggest fan, and have only read the first book, but the films seem to work (especially since they managed to keep J.K. Rowling off the set).

Second question I seem to have managed to miss is favourite authors. I don't really have any, although I would probably mention Peter Carey, Iain Banks and Vikram Seth if pushed. If you can include playwrights then it would have to be John Godber and Alan Bennett (plays) and Stephen Poliakoff, Peter Bowker and Paul Abbott (TV).

Anyway, enough for now - I'm going to track down a copy of It's How I Live Now and will report back in due course (word of warning - I'm not the world's fastest reader, although the review suggests it to be a fairly easy read). If anyone's after a laugh I recommend Tuscany for Beginners by Imogen Edwards-Jones - I really enjoyed it (a story of a woman setting up a B+B in Tuscany) but then perhaps that's because the awful Belinda reminded me of someone I used to know...

Friday, August 05, 2005

A Suitable Book

A Suitable Book - an excellent alternative title from Helen S (in her Introducing Me post of 31st July). Or even A Suitable Book Online, ie an ASBO... very much the sort of thing we hope not to be acquiring. Although if reading is considered anti-social, who knows what might happen?

Val (Mum) - intrigued to hear your vote on good-film-of-book when you remember it. I quite agree with Helen S's votes. Great films. I'm sorry there's no subsection facility to put films in or, indeed, "if you liked that you might like...". I'm afraid we have to just have them interweaved with our other exchanges. I'd thought there would be a partitioning facility, but it turns out you need to pay each month to have a site which does that, and we felt this would rather detract from the informal nature of the site. But yes, definitely recommend things under the "if you liked..." banner. John tells me Amazon have copyrighted or somethingd that sort of facility in some way or another, but that's so patently (!) ridiculous that I shall make a point of doing it and hope that I manage to infringe something. Seriously, I think they've patented it if you're selling things online. And while this site could cost us a fortune in terms of books-we-have-to-buy-because-they've-been-so-persuasively-recommended, it's not as if we're on commission. Alas.

Will have to come back when I've thought of a list of favourite authors - I've found the lists so far very stimulating. Interesting how they do not necessarily mirror what people read most often, or indeed their worldview. By which I mean - you don't get a more committed feminist and anti-racist than my Mum, but she appears to have been rather mugged by her subconscious and of her list, 4 are "dead white men", or at least established/establishment white men.

Kirsty - what might yours be?

Monday, August 01, 2005


Hi all
Isn’t this great? Trouble is it doesn’t leave much time for reading.
Emily, pls ask John if he can fiddle with the date list so that it’s in English, ie day/month/yr not American.
Sorry that my posts don’t highlight names as instructed – broadband hasn’t reached Well Hill yet, so I type in Word and then transfer to save costs.

I’ll need to think about the film of the book debate because I’m certain I have a contender if only I can remember which. Meanwhile, how about having an ‘if you liked that you’ll like this’ section. Helen D: if you like the child’s eye view, have you read Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, by Roddy Doyle?

Valerie: favourite authors made me think and my list, not in order, might well be (for fiction):
John Galsworthy (funny, acute and lots of upstairs/downstairs Emily);
Peter Carey (always different, all well written);
Graham Greene (the master of language, description and Catholic angst – his closest modern rival would be the Alan Bennett) ;
Jennifer Johnston ( modern Irish history through short deceptively simple novels); William Golding (no-one else gets so totally immersed in the very varied contexts he writes about. If you haven’t read the Inheritors, you absolutely must. It’s about Neanderthal man, but don’t let that put you off. It would certainly be one of my 10 books you should read before you die).
But I’m sure I’ll want to add others – particularly women!

Films of Books

Yes Emily, I too thought Sense and Sensibility and The English Patient were suberb adaptations on film. As I mentioned in my earlier Blog, I also thought the BBC's adaptation of Middlemarch was superb. Robert Hardy made a wonderful Brooke of Tipton and whoever the actor who played Raffles was was disgustingly brilliant. The other book that I thought worked well as a film was Tracy Chevalier's The Girl with a Pearl Earring. This is as much to do with the subject matter which by its very nature is all about the visual medium. I also thought that they filmed it very beautifully in a way that reflected Vermeer's work in general and the hazy beauty of the Netherlands. Colin Firth was also very nice to look at, even with long hair!