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, November 30, 2005

Don't read this if you don't want to know what happens!

Having just finished ‘ When I lived I Lived in Modern Times’ I am left with the question, why did this book win the Orange prize? The cover picture of a woman disembarking from a ship made me assume it was another ‘Small Island’, which I have recently read and enjoyed even if I did not enthuse. (I do sometimes!) The theme of the return of Jewish people to Palestine, following the Holocaust, raised my interest considerably, as this would be a perspective about which I know very little. However, I am sorry that although there were many facts gleaned about the relative position of the indigenous Arabs, the Jews who returned before the war, and the British trying to keep control and the use of terror to drive the British home (what’s new?), I could not summon up much interest in the story. Did I care much about the characters? Not a lot. I could have done with a happy ending. E.g.Johnny and Evelyn lived happily ever after. That would suit the weight of the novel. But Johnny an air steward? I don’t think so. So all in all a subject with promise but one dimensional characters and not enough of everything else.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Mostly happy endings

What great stuff you've been posting...

Films v books: Thomas the tank engine: brilliant choice. (It helps if the original is that dire, of course! Plenty of room for improvement.) Very interesting to hear about Ladies in Lavender, too. The scriptwriter, by the way, was Charles Dance himself. I read an interesting article about him in which he lamented how he used to play thinking women's crumpet (eg in White Mischief) but is now only offered aged roles (eg Gosford Park). This may be partly why he turned to directing and wrote the screenplay too. Perhaps he's an example of - occasionally - men getting typecast like women do once they cross 35, or whatever the line is.

I found myself agreeing with both Valerie and Helen S. I certainly liked Valerie's point about applauding authors who can acquire their readers' empathy without leaving them in a state of hopeless misery. But, like Helen, sometimes I can't even cope with that fairly reasonable-sounding formula. Which, I guess, is often due to either the author being just too good at what s/he's doing, or the issue being one on which I'm hypersensitive. (We all have short-circuits in our brains, don't we, where we react disproportionately to certain issues.) While they're reductive, I do appeciate the explanation of the certificate on the back of video boxes. I can tell before I start that I'm not going to be subjected to particular things like heavy drug use. Like Helen, I'm very careful about what I watch and read reviews ad nauseum for this reason. Although the price I pay is plot spoilers...

So, yes, I think Helen's right, and it's a very fine line between things that are authentic and yet uplifting (enough). And we all have such different places that we draw the line for different issues and in different mediums. Which is why like-minded friends are so USEFUL in this...

Sometimes I feel rather childish for demanding happy endings. Although at least I'm not abnormal. Griffin Mills in The Player (great film: dark, funny and yet nothing to haunt anyone. Have any of you seen it?) describes: "certain elements that we need to market a film successfully... suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mostly happy endings". (The reply comes back: "What about reality?".)

Friday, November 18, 2005

Something Uplifting

Another hark back to film versus book: I have just read Ladies in Lavender, the short story on which the film of the same name is based. It forms part of a collection of short stories by William J Locke (Thanks Emily for finding this out for me). I can highly recommend the whole collection as they are exquisitely written, with some lovely ones based around the theme of blindness. They encompass that wonderful mix of mystery and realism that short stories can do so well.

As to how the story compares with the film…Well it is much shorter for a start! The script writer for the film extrapolated a lot from Locke’s basic storyline but, I think, kept quite faithful to the feel of the plot, the characters (the 'old' ladies were aged 45 according to Locke!) and the little seaside town. However, the ending in the short story is very different and much more abrupt than the film version. It was interesting to see how they had adapted this story for film but you don’t get a good deal more from having read the short story. I suspect the story was a great find for a script writer as it was little known and had all the ingredients for a gentle, original, British film.

Regarding 'strong stuff', I'm afraid I would have to disagree with my mother-in-law. I don't think that completely bleak novels that leave one haunted and depressed are worth reading at all, in small doses or otherwise. I am of the view that we can get our facts about man's inhumanity from the daily news or from our own encounters with life without reading about it in books that would immerse you emotionally in it. I gave up reading The God of Small Things by Arundati Roi for this reason. As someone teaching in a Secondary School I was all too aware of the effects of child abuse without having to read about it.

I suppose I take this view because I tend to read for escapism, entertainment and interest and if I get educated along the way then that is a pleasing bonus. I am also aware that once a mental image is embedded in one's mind then it is very difficult to lose and has a nasty way of reappearing when least desired. I think this is even more true with films and I am therefore very choosy about what I watch. Having said that, I know a large degree of realism is needed in order to make something authentic but I couldn't put my finger on exactly where the line would be for me between the need for authenticity and a desire for soemthing uplifting. Having said all that, I really liked Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which is authentic but not that uplifting!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Strong stuff

I’ve wasted much reading time trying to sort blogging problems and am still unsuccessful so if there is a Whizz out there…help! Using an old computer, I would like to say I would be very happy to read the Orange winners, and have started Linda Grant. I’m pleased to read authors new to me, many I’ve never heard of, which gets me out of a rather narrow rut of clinging to a few favourites.
To answer Val’s specific question, I haven’t read Beloved, and would be interested to one day. I can understand Emily’s feeling on these strong subjects. I don’t think that one should shelter from the facts of life and living, but man’s inhumanity to man has been and is beyond comprehension and bearing. It is difficult as we are usually helpless onlookers and this is very stressful. We need to feel we can make things better. Therefore I think we have to pick the moment that is right for us and read such books in small doses. Do you agree? The books Emily mentioned that started bleakly but ended on a positive note are perhaps the best use of the novel which hopes to inform, acquire the empathy it is looking for but not leave the reader in a state of hopeless misery.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

harking back

Returning to the theme of films being better than the book: I nominate Thomas the Tank Engine and also Last Orders, Graham Swift. The film (L O) isn’t brilliant but the book is very ordinary, despite (?) being a Booker winner. Having read all the Bookers (in the days before reading groups) I’m very keen to try the rest of the oranges, rereading where necessary. I’ll decide whether to reread Linda Grant when I’ve seen what you all say.

Back history: Emily seems to bear me a real grudge for giving her Beloved by Toni Morrison, one of the best books I have ever read. But just for the record, I also recommended the Shipping News, End of the Affair and the Bone People, though this may have slipped her memory. Beloved is strong stuff and perhaps not ideal when you have young children. Valerie, have you read it?

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Yes, we're all individuals

Well, I'm glad you're all busy being individuals and choosing to read books which some of us wouldn't have thought you'd like... makes life much more interesting, doesn't it? (Note to Helen D: Kirsty is independent-minded, so it's not exactly surprising that she tries a book which nobody was recommending, and seizes upon an author who some of the rest of us specifically don't want to read! You go ahead and enjoy such things, Kirsty! Just don't make me read Tess again.)

Not to veto Helen Dunmore, but let's do Linda Grant and then perhaps Bel Canto by Ann Patchett in December, and see how we go. I was thinking back to an earlier post by Helen S, which clarified my thinking somewhat. She was saying - excuse any inaccurate precis - that it was both the destination and the journey which mattered to her in a novel. I found that so helpful in thinking what I tend to object to in books. I think it's like the means to the end - I can't be happy with an ethical choice if I'm uncomfortable with either the means or the end. So, a badly-written book with a happy ending is unsatisfying for me personally (eg chick lit, perhaps?!), but so is an exquisitely-written novel whose final effect is bleak. I don't demand Happy Endings as such, but if the book sucks all the joy out of me and haunts me, without some redeeming hopeful notes, I count that as counterproductive. (eg Beloved - sorry, Mum!). That said, I know we need grit to make the oyster, so I try to be open-minded if the case for the book is put persuasively enough... Many of the transcendant books I have read seemed too bleak initially. My votes for such would be things like The Shipping News, The Bone People, The End of the Affair. Anyone else got any votes?

Saturday, November 12, 2005


Dear Kirsty (and all),

I must say, I never intended to recommend Tess of the D'Urbervilles as I also disliked it at school. I don't think I was trying to put people off Helen Dunmore - she's a great writer - I've got no particular desire to read her again at the moment. I've never read Linda Grant so I'd like to try her given all the positive comments others are making.


Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Orange prize

Hello everyone

Just wanted to say I find the idea of the Orange Prize winners appealing (a lot of them fall into the category of "must get round to that one day" so this will spur me on). Happy to start with Emily's suggestion of Linda Grant, and am also keen to reread Fugitive Pieces. In fact, all those mentioned look worth investigating. Helen, your description of Helen Dunmore makes me curious about her (never having heard of her before) so I'd like to vote for that to be a choice at some future date. (Not sure this is the result you wanted Helen! If no-one else wants to read it I shall add it to my ever-growing list of "other stuff to read (when I retire at this rate!))

Incidentally, I am also rereading Tess of the D'Urbervilles and thus far enjoying it (to my surprise) so thank you Helen for inspiring me to give it another bash. May take me a while to complete, but I shall report back in due course.

Bye for now


Tuesday, November 01, 2005

New reads

Hi all. It's been really great reading all your posts. I'm just replying to Emily's proposals for future choices. I've read Fugitive Pieces before and would love to read it again as it's all a bit of a blur now. I've also read most of Helen Dunmore's work which I find unfailingly gripping and well written but also very disturbing at times. I feel decidedly ambivalent (if that's not an oxymoron) about reading her again. However, if anyone has a burning desire to investigate I'm happy to be over-ruled.
Best wishes, H.

November's book suggestion

Thanks for your various suggestions of authors to try next. I'd like to start with suggestion of Val's: Orange prize winners. When we looked at the list, all the ones we'd read had been great. Kirsty's praised Fugitive Pieces before, I've mentioned Small Island and Pella's hoping to review The Idea of Perfection. (Homestead was shortlisted one year and Larry's Party also won.) Quite an impressive strike rate so far!

The remaining books are: A spell of winter by Helen Dunmore, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, We've got to talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver, A crime in the neighbourhood by Suzanne Berne, Property by Valerie Martin and When I lived in modern times by Linda Grant. I thought we might start with the last, if that's ok with you all. We don't have to work through all of them, but if any of those authors/titles appeal to any of you, do let me know and that might solve the December choice issue... (If you go to Amazon and look at any one of those titles, you'll find that people who bought that also tended to buy all the others (!), so it's easy to click on the other titles and get to the reviews of them too.)