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.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Your blog needs You

Hello, everyone. Just a brief plea for any ideas for November's book choice after Pella's general triumph with Counselling for toads. Several ideas as yet unemerged from the pipeline, so any others would be very helpful for now or future months. Emailing me direct is probably simplest. Thanks.


Everyone else seems to have enjoyed this, but I was disappointed and found it hard going. The choice of Heron as counsellor promised much – but I’m afraid I was thinking of the American craze for therapists and expecting an expose of him devouring Toad, as they do (in both incarnations). Silly, because de Board is a counsellor and is serious about its value. I avoid contact with counsellors and psychotherapists, and the thought of the gen public being armed with this handy layman’s guide to diagnosis horrifies me. Obviously I have much which I want to hide.

But he’s made use of a brilliant marketing ploy in attaching his product to the famous and well-loved Wind in the Willows. I have probably read that book a dozen times but missed all this going on.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


Loved the peacock joke - reminded me of Darcy's response when Elizabeth Bennett refuses his first proposal; he: "seemed to catch her words with no less resentment than surprise".

As to Val's query about men being typecast... well, I think most people are both individuals and part of groups, and I find the interplay of that fascinating. I'm more relaxed about men being labelled because (apart from being female) men tend to be the more powerful gender, so to identify what exists is, I hope, less likely to harm them. They tend to have more choice and room for manoeuvre even if they do get typecast. Women, however, tend to be more vulnerable to oppression, so being labelled unfairly might be more damaging. (That's courtesy of John, who I go to for my feminist theory!) For instance, being labelled a Jack-the-lad never yet seemed to prevent a man, in real life or in literature from changing his ways and winning a lovely girl. (Happens all the time in Shakespeare.) In something like Tess of the d'Urbervilles, however, this is not exactly how it works out for a woman in a similar position, even when she does have choices. Kirsty - the book's certainly bleak enough for you, if nothing else!

To return to Pride and Prejudice, Darcy IS typecast as proud, and quite accurately, but as a man he can decide to go against type and approach a feisty, non-posh girl to loosen him up. Elizabeth does not have an equivalent choice: all she can do is choose between the offers she gets. My personal view is that Jane Austen cheats by giving Elizabeth such an unfeasibly eligible hero (like Helen S, I'm rather a Colin Firth fan, but Matthew McFaydden or however you spell it is well worth a look too). Elizabeth cannot choose - and indeed does not even seek to engineer - any of the offers she gets, and hey presto! One offer is utterly against her and his type, and yet is perfect. Charlotte Lucas has, I think, a far more plausible choice (for that era). But I'm glad Jane Austen did cheat and enable us to enjoy the novel. What do you lot think?

I quite agree with Kirsty about Counselling for toads - it IS scary to see how responsible we are for our children. But I suppose that, given that is the case, I'd rather understand as much as I can. Was I the only one to be emotionally moved (with application to my own life) by the issues raised, as well as gaining head-knowledge?

Following on from Val and Valerie, I quite agree that plots will modulate in response to new technology and scientific advances. Just thinking about the contemporary novels I've read most recently, just about all of them depend on miscommunication, and some are already using other factors to achieve this. How I live now had all the networks down, no landlines, and martial law (!). Curious Incident had a protagonist without a mobile phone. Even had Christopher been able to use one, I suspect he wouldn't have been able to get what he wanted from it, since his mental landscape is so very different from other people's. Miscommunication is thriving in that book, isn't it? And yet, brilliantly, the author makes things so very clear to us through the fog. The subject of Penelope Lively's The Photograph is dead (rather drastic!) so the whole point of the book is how those left behind understand what she can't now voice. The characters in Brick Lane are too poor and in Tracy Chevalier's The Virgin Blue they are too distracted to remember to call each other enough. Do you reckon that most works of fiction would come to an abrupt end if a character just announced, clearly and to everyone, what was not being communicated?

A Comfort Read

I have just finished Alexander Macall Smith’s “44 Scotland Street” and found it a good antidote to Ben Okri’s “In Arcadia”. Don’t go there. If you have read the “No 1 Ladies Detective Agency” then you will know his very simple language and gentle sense of humour. This is not profound, but on the other hand is not rubbish either. It is a study of personality around a light plot. Worth borrowing if you feel like an easy read occasionally. Good for young readers too.
You are right, Val, about the mobile phones making a difference. Poirot and Miss Marple would not have had to do so much deduction and therefore be so ‘remarkable’ if they had had so many traceable phone calls, DNA, etc. Computers now found in quite remote third world areas also change things. I should think they all will add plot lines as well as removing them.

Friday, October 14, 2005

peacocks and mobile phones

Throughout the animal kingdom it is almost always the female that chooses the male – hence male birds are more colourful, male lions have manes, male wrens build several nests for female to choose between, peacocks display and so on. (Aside: longtime favourite joke which I only remember because it was a Punch cartoon and therefore visual: Peacock with fully displayed tail feathers to mousy peahen “what do you mean, ‘no’”?). But this certainly isn’t the case in all human societies, even if the women arrange the matchmaking or marriage. I’m thoroughly enjoying Valerie’s Cairo Trilogy, 1313 pp, where the heroine Amina had no choice but to marry at 13 as her parents dictated. Her only choice is how she deals with this. Brilliant though it is, it is also very hard to stomach. I seem to have drifted off the point and you may no longer be reading, but I was surprised Emily, that with your distrust of ‘typing’ of women except in Shipping News, you nonetheless seem happy with the concept of types of men?

Emily told me I should share another hare with you: that in many (most?) novels, sooner or later, the plot hinges on people not being able to contact each other. I’ve just reread Daphne du Maurier’s House on the Strand (someone try it please, I’d like to discuss) and it is certainly true there. The point is, with the ubiquitousness of mobile phones this will no longer be feasible for novels set in twentyfirst century. So we might watch out for that, and also, do you think that over time it will make novels feel very dated (unless they are ‘historical’ ). Indeed will your children even be able to understand the concept of phonelessness?

Counselling for Toads

Hello everyone

I've been meaning to post for a few days now, but been a bit snowed under with things and battling with internet problems. (The blessed thing keeps ditching us out every few minutes, so it becomes a race against time). Anyway, hopefully I can type this up off-line and then post it.

I enjoyed Counselling for Toads (with the same reservation as Helen in that some of it felt a bit forced) and it was definitely worth the slightly odd look from the librarian! If I've ever read The Wind in the Willows I don't remember it, so some of the references were lost on me, but it was a really good insight into the world of counselling. The business about much of who you are being determined in the first few years of life is actually quite scary, although it does make sense.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles takes me back to dreadful English lessons ("and now girls we will read out endless sections of the book in a ponderous manner before learning a few random quotes to get brownie points in the exam"). The only book that survived this mauling and became a cherished tome was To Kill a Mockingbird, but I suspect that book could survive most things. However, I'm never one to say never again. It will be interesting to revisit Tess and see if I like it any better without a GCSE paper looming. This is the beauty of our little reading group after all - there's no way I'd have strayed into reading Hardy again, but I may find myself being surprised.

Bye for now


Thursday, October 13, 2005

How toads live now

I've now read How I live Now and Counselling for Toads. I enjoyed both especially the latter. I used Transactional Analysis with my counsellor so it was lovely to see it again. Apart from finding some of Toad's questions to elicit info about the model a bit contrived, I thought it was absolutely fabulous. An excellent choice.

I'm feeling a bit more ambivalent about How I live now. I found it really gripping but disliked the absence of conventional punctuation and syntax (when the first set of inverted commas turned up in the closing chapters I was so pleased). In that respect it reminded me of The Shipping News so it was funny to see that mentioned in a recent post. Like other readers I found it lacked emotional depth at times and the characters weren't very well developed. I wasn't sure if this was accidental or due to the fact the teenage anorexics are notorious for having a limited emotional vocabulary.

On the subject of choosing, I liked that The Shipping News emphasised that both Wavey and the male lead (whose name escapes me) both had difficult histories and both had reservations and both chose to go for it. If you want to talk about choices, how about Tess of the D'Urbervilles?

Aged Chick Lit?!

I heard a very interesting discussion on Woman's Hour on Radio 4 today on the latest literature genre: Matron Lit (literature for the over 45s). I make no comment as I know feelings run high on this sort of thing but the discussion made very good listening. Well worth hearing on the BBCs 'Listen Again' facility, if you dare!

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Author as matchmaker

How sharp of you Valerie - I hadn't even noticed! I guess I'd suggest that it's the author who determines who has which choices. Since the books I mention tend to have women as protagonists, that perhaps gives a slanted view. I certainly don't think women have the upper hand. However, since the normal dynamic is men making the proposition and women responding, I guess this can give the impression that it's the women who choose. That said, their choice is very circumscribed by the offers they receive, which in a novel is itself determined by the choices the authors are having the men make... The Shipping News is a primarily male protagonist, of course, and I did find it refreshing to have him actively thinking about types of women and what might - shock, horror! - actually work best. So often it seems to be that being pretty and vivacious gets a woman all sorts of offers which would be as unsuitable for the man as for the woman, if only he'd thought about it...

Monday, October 10, 2005

Quick Comment

Emily, your comment is all about women choosing men. Do you think that men have much input in the choice or are they just glad to be chosen? Or don't they stand a chance if they have been chosen? Is the choosing equal?

Saturday, October 01, 2005

An Ideal Husband

Thanks for your posts so far on Counselling for Toads. I especially like the idea of David Jason as Toad - wrong class overtones perhaps, thanks to his incarnation as Del Boy, but perfect ambience. And if Del Boy were to suddenly succeed in one of his get-rich-quick schemes, perhaps he wouldn't be so different from Toad after all? I'm always fascinated by fellow-readers getting different stuff out of books; I felt I learned more about human nature and Wind in the Willows than I did about counselling as such, but that's simply because I found it so very revelatory about the former things. My mind cannot register many impacts with equal force.

However, I do very much enjoy having new light cast on familiar texts, and Helen S has set off a wave of mini explosions in many an old favourite by her very stimulating musings on good husband material in A Suitable Boy. (Don't panic Helen D - no spoilers coming up!) As I thought about what Helen had said, I realised that in almost every novel there could be said to be a choice about what type of man one might choose, almost more than who he might happen to be. Girl with a pearl earring, although far more subtle in theme than choosing between lovers, epitomises this with Griet's pause for thought on the eight-pointed star. She's conscious that there are different things she could be trying to do with her life, and different people and options she knows are manifestations of different directions. I don't think Lata is dissimilar. For another example, The Shipping News with its astonishing and poetic images of the different archetypes of women: the only attempt at this which I've read which has made me delighted rather than furious. I've also found myself re-evaluating Brick Lane with Helen's perspective in mind. The answers the authors give vary, of course, according to genre and effect sought. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Lydia start by admiring the same man. While Elizabeth ends up choosing a man from a completely different type, Lydia sticks with this particular representative of the type she was always set on choosing, come what may.

Anyone else join in playing this parlour game - suggestions of old favourites which might be interesting looked at in such a light? Or, being you lot, a better version of my suggestion?!