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.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

May's book suggestion

Since many of you have been impressively racing through We need to talk about Kevin, I'll give you May's suggestion now. It's If nobody speaks of remarkable things by Jon McGregor. It's been recommended to me by the friend that recommended Kevin, so I'm prepared to give it a whirl. It doesn't look like "comedy" but it certainly looks rather lighter than Kevin, and should at least provide a contrast. Those of you who prefer your books weightier or darker probably shouldn't prioritise this over any previous books you might have not yet got to.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Geisha girls

Just to finish commenting on the excellent points made on Memoirs of a Geisha... Yes, Valerie, you're absolutely right about the ending giving us too much information, and like Helen S, I'm jumpy with it being America. Please understand me - I in no way say the film is better than the book. It's not nearly as good, in my view. However, it's a cinematic experience and I am delighted to have seen it, and I did enjoy the casting which put flesh on the bones of some of the characters (while the directing also, as Valerie says, removed dimensions from most of them). Pumpkin was an example of this fleshing out. Like Val, it's easy to feel that her transformation is rather sketchily done. But in the film, Pumpkin's visual transformation when war comes is startling, and (I thought) very convincing. To then discover that she's changed allegiances too seems only reasonable, given the very different side of her personality we've just been seeing. In the book, I didn't really absorb the impact of her change in profession, but her brassy and yet financially successful re- incarnation as a woman overtly for sale in the film version brought it home to me. I know they're all for sale in some form, but the gradations were clearly - and silently - in evidence. Pumpkin's ingenious, vulgar Geisha-style get-up was also a commentary on how cultures can cash in on tourists' baser instincts. I'm sure Val is right that it's the romantic ending which divides us. She regards it as being an apology for the system, wheras most of us seem to be experiencing it more as a merciful end to that particular story, ie as less pertinent to the geisha system, and only really relating to the particular characters involved (and helping sell way more novels). But fascinating to find myself on the "I can cope with this bleak stuff" side of a discussion!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Talking about Kevin

Firstly, just a brief not on Geisha... I really enjoyed this book (although I read it a long time ago and cannot remember the plot in much detail, hence the brevity of my comments) and I do not remember having any of the qualms that Val has about it. Although, that said, I was disappointed in the ending in that a life in the USA seemed to signify ultimate "success". However, voyeurism or not, I would still like to see the film sometime.

Anyway, to Kevin...

I was rather worried about reading this book when I saw what it was about, but once I’d established that Eva’s experience of pregnancy, birth and, at least, early parenthood was vastly different to mine, I felt able to relax and became totally gripped by it. I thought it was intelligently written with some exquisite prose. Fairly early on in the book there was a very evocative description of Eva’s thought pattern the night Franklin didn’t arrive home on time and I thought the whole process of reasoning whether or not to try for a baby was well crafted. I also loved the term “plastic dirt” to describe the plethora of toys Kevin owned.

The characters were very interesting and I highly recommend the “Listen Again” interview of March’s “Book Club” on radio 4 to hear Shriver herself describing her feelings about them. Interestingly enough, Shriver herself is not a mother and I didn’t know whether this fact lent greater or less authenticity to the book.

At first I felt annoyed with Eva as a character as I couldn’t believe that Kevin as a young baby could have such the conscious vindictiveness she was assuming (certainly if a child’s timely bowel movements are anything to go by then I’m sure every mother could claim to have spawned a monster!). However, realising it is meant to be a subjective account (hence why the letter format of the book worked for me) and only Eva’s perception of events, however twisted they may be, helped me feel more sympathy towards her. Shriver herself points out that Eva is, however honestly she is reviewing events, ultimately trying to exonerate herself from any kind of blame for Thursday.

Kevin, I thought was fascinating. He was both psychopathically repulsive and an intelligent commentary on middle class values. I thought his conversation with his mother over their dinner date was quite brilliant and she should have been proud rather than angry at his ability to spot such hypocrisy. As a secondary school teacher I would certainly agree that disaffected, intelligent teenagers are some of the hardest pupils to discipline, yet the most rewarding challenges and I was really pleased that Kevin’s English teacher was given sufficient nous to identify this. However I did think that, as young child, Kevin could have easily beaten his parents into submission with a bit of basic sleep deprivation – definitely a trick he missed!

I thought Franklin was definitely the weakest character and I found it hard to believe that family situations could enable Kevin to maintain his Jekyll and Hyde relationships to his parents. Yes, they spent a lot of time relating to Kevin separately but what about weekends, holidays and with the grandparents? Surely Franklin must have seen Kevin’s “true colours” in at least some of these situations, or at least the pointed absence of babysitters and nannies would have been enough to ask some questions of his behaviour? I therefore felt a little cheated by the ending in that I desperately wanted to see Franklin’s response to Thursday. Surely, if Kevin wanted to punish his father then seeing his beloved son interned for mass murder would have been far more satisfying? I was also unsure about Eva's final claim to "love" her son, having filled 400 pages or so of vitriol against him. I was even more unsure of the wisdom of putting a copy of Robin Hood in his awaiting room: outlaws who kill others with bows and arrows? Hmm...

Overall, I thought this a superbly written and gripping read. Definitely, for me, the best Orange Prize winner so far.
Geisha revisited.

Valerie and I seem closer on this than Emily (or indeed Ruth) and I do. For the two Vals, I think it is a matter of how heavily we weight the good and bad elements - on the element themselves we largely agree (as so often). And as I said, I’m puzzled myself on why this book infuriates me so much, and I think it is because Golden seems to me to act as an apologist for the system – which is not so in the other books Valerie mentions, at least, I don’t think so. I would recommend it to no-one, and certainly would have advised both daughters not to bother… hey ho.

As to the ‘happy’ ending Emily: I’m just grateful that we didn’t have a tearful reunion with the sister, which I kept thinking was surely round the corner. Maybe we have an editor to thank for this?

You did yourself a favour in reading the Bone People instead, Kirsty. I loved it both times I read it: and it has the unique distinction of being the only book I so enjoyed reading (the first time) that I deliberately (re)read another at the same time to make it last longer – Galsworthy’s The Saint, since you ask. I wouldn’t put it in quite that catergory second time round, but then books never impact on me the same on different occasions. I’ve just reread Alan Paton’s Cry the beloved country, which I really loved this time, but was only mildly in favour of 20 years ago. This inclines me to think that my personal context is a major factor in how I respond to and rate fiction. Do you all find the same?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Kevin et al

Firstly in response to Val. I am a little mystified that you feel so strongly about the plight of the girls in Memoirs….that that in itself would lead you to dislike the book, if that is the correct impression. Other books that we have read featuring courtesans; A Suitable Boy, A Cairo Trilogy, have included this cultural behaviour, which though not acceptable to us, was really just part of the narrative, trying to describe the behaviour of the era. Sally Heming and slavery also springs to mind. The 2D characters you mentioned were even more obvious in the film, I thought. Emily may wish to disagree.
Prostitution will always be a way out of poverty for some girls and I think Sayuri may have had a better life than she would have had if she had stayed in the fishing village or been sent to an orphanage. I certainly agree about the wartime narrative.
Homestead, with its light touch was in a different league with its own finesse.
I loved The Bone People and I am glad you did too, Kirsty. I read it twice and could read it again quite easily. Quite searing at times and the spirituality of the Maori culture gives an extra dimension.
I’ve just finished Kevin and am still feeling drained. I could not understand why L. Shriver used the irritating letter format and not a straight story telling style, but the ending is more powerful because of it, so perhaps that is why. I won’t elucidate .
Franklin did seem very forgiving, but that too gives purpose to the ending. This needs ‘Franklins Story’ as part two. One is left with many questions that can only be guessed at. Not every child who has a mother with postnatal depression will end up like Kevin, or there would be few children left in school, but the early days are very important and early diagnosis and treatment most desirable. I think I would find Eva rather hard work. Very bright and opinionated. She had a rather disturbed childhood due to her mother’s agoraphobia and was quite driven to travel as a response, even though it was a challenge. I think this also was extreme behaviour. Why was Celia so timid? Franklin did seem the most stable, but countermanding Eva in front of the children was asking for trouble. Was this a reaction to not getting his word in, in general? Was this potent mix of Kevin’s innate personality, sufficiently flawed, mixed with fairly average family dysfunction enough for such an outcome? Were the shootings just copycat or is there a real malaise in modern society sufficient to cause such outbursts? Are we poised for an increase over here? Although the characters were extremes, I thought this a very good read.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Kevin and The Bone People

Hello everyone

Feel like I've been away a while, but things have been a bit hectic one way or another. Anyway, with the decision to shunt Kevin into April I'm ahead of the game for once. (I had to skip Memoirs of a Geisha, Bel Canto and When I Lived in Modern Times to get there, but not to worry. Will hopefully get to them one day.)

I've wanted to read We need to talk about Kevin for a while now - the subject matter being intriguing enough to overcome my usual hatred of the letter format. (I have been known to skip letters shoehorned into novels - I think they tend to be a clumsy mechanism of conveying information when the author can't be bothered writing decent dialogue). I think it's an excellent book - hooked me in straight away and (the real trick) expertly peeled the layers back so I not only stayed hooked but actually found part of myself liking the lad. The mother's tracking of the years leading up to Thursday showed a real understanding of the undercurrents that exist in families - a subject which fascinates me. (The undercurrents are there in all families to a greater or lesser extent - we might not go around killing our classmates but we all know how to play our nearest and dearest). My only criticism is some of the portrayal of Franklin. He came across pretty 2D and there were moments where it seemed a bit unlikely that he would have actually excused his son's behaviour. Having said that, I liked the Jekyll and Hyde nature of Kevin's character with his parents and the way that fed Franklin's blindness. Oh, good ending too.

And onto The Bone People (by Keri Hulme) which I thoroughly recommend. Set in New Zealand, it's basically the tale of how the life of a reclusive artist (Kerewin Holmes - and I thought I was bad at thinking up character names) is changed when she is adopted by a mute kid (in the way a cat will adopt you). It's a hard book to describe, but it's one of those that stays with you - magical use of language (if a bit trippy in parts (especially the preface)) and utterly addicitive. Emily introduced me, for which I am grateful. I did find it bleak at times - depressing even - and I was, for once, glad of a hopeful ending.

So whilst I've been a bit slow on the reading front in recent times I have had the pleasure of two wonderful books on the trot.

As for funny books I think there's plenty, but would agree it's a very personal thing. I find myself reaching for Bill Bryson's Notes from a small island when I want a guaranteed laugh, or Dilbert (to remind myself the FSS isn't the only ridiculous company in the world), but the novels are out there too - I've not read P.G. Wodehouse for years, but the Wooster books always used to make me laugh out loud. Must try them again.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

relentlessly awful

I’m writing this before reading Emily and Valerie’s posting, and will answer them later
400 pages of relentless abuse is not my idea of a good read. The subject matter was horrible: child and gender abuse in the context of extreme patriarchal oppression. Ironically, one of its strengths as a book – the really vivid portrayal of the Geisha world – is, one hopes, actually wildly inaccurate and therefore not a strength at all. But on balance, and having read reviews, I think he got it right.

It isn’t Golden’s fault that this is such an abhorrent and obnoxious system which exemplifies, better than anything I’ve ever read, the fundamental feminist belief that patriarchal oppression is good for no-one, certainly not the men in whose name it occurs. Are any of the men frequenting Gion really happy and enjoying their drunken flirting? How awful must the rest of their lives be if this is preferable.

What Golden appears to have achieved is the creation of a believable portrait of a particular time/place/section of society – quite a feat for an American man. But apart from it being a subject I loathe, the fiction is itself:
- Far too long It could easily lose 200 pages.
- Hopeless in introducing the wider historical picture – heavy handed references, in one sentence, to Nagasaki bomb or the Depression jarred. Cf, those who’ve read it, how Homestead integrated the micro story with the macro picture.
- Characters are two-dimensional, from the sainted Chairman to evil Hatsumomo. All good in the story emanates from the Chairman, but why?, why is he different from everyone else (except Sayuri) who is either inherently evil and cruel or made so by their situation. He doesn’t explore why Mother or Pumpkin should become so nasty when Sayuri doesn’t. Nor why Mr Bekku – an innocuous presence in the latter parts – is so mindlessly and causelessly cruel to the 2 girls he escorts to Gion. There is a meaningful story to be explored here.

I’m trying to work out why I can read books about eg slavery and Apartheid, with enjoyment, yet not this. Is it because by documenting Sayuri’s rise and rise, Golden is almost justifying and colluding with the system, even acting as an apologist for it as the beautiful Sayuri gets the Chairman (as his mistress) and even better, gets to live in the US of A. A system that enables all this to happen can’t be all that bad, can it? Well, yes it can. It has no mitigating features and a book about it that suggests it does infuriates me.

I can’t imagine why you’d want to see the film: if it glosses over the child abuse and female oppression, to linger on the beauty and pageantry, then it connives with the crimes against humanity that underlie this. If it dwells on these crimes, that’s a voyerism I don’t need to see.