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, December 21, 2008

TIS of TISers

By my calculation, we’ve now read (collectively, if not individually) 25 TIS books. How about awarding our TIS of TISes a la Booker of Bookers? I’m adding the list below in case you need reminding (please let me know if I’ve omitted something).

My favourite reads include Bel Canto, Kevin, and The child in time but it was quite easy to pick my winner: Can any mother help me. What do you all think? Can we agree a winner? I read an interesting article in the Guardian earlier this year about how each of the Booker winners were chosen, the common factor being that all seem to have been the compromise candidate, which is rather sad. And, incidentally, the name that kept coming up as ‘the one that should have won’ was The Blue Flower. I'm surprised to find the book I most want to reread is A month in the country...

Together in spirit book titles

Meg Rosoff How I live now
Robert de Board Counselling for toads
Linda Grant When I lived in modern times

Ann Pachett Bel Canto
Arthur Golden Memoirs of a Geisha
Lionel Shriver We need to talk about Kevin
Jon McGregor If nobody speaks of remarkable things
Marie Darrieussecq White
Khaled Hosseini The kite runner
Marina Lewycka A short history of tractors in Ukranian
J L Carr A month in the country
Bill Bryson A short history of nearly everything
Anne Tyler Back when we were grownups.
Amy Tan The kitchen god’s wife

Tove Jansson A winter book
Penelope Fitzgerald The blue flower
Elizabeth Kolbert Field notes from a catastrophe
Paulo Coehlo The alchemist
Ian McEwan The child in time

Sarah Waters The nightwatch
Jenna Bailey Can any mother help me?
Maria Lewycka Two caravans
Bill Bryson Shakespeare
Leo Tolstoy Anna Karenina
Joan Didion Year of magical thinking

Anna K and Joan D

I thoroughly enjoyed reading AK, disappearing into another set of lives so much that they became real enough for me to want to know what happened next. I was sorry I knew that Anna killed herself because I don’t think I’d have expected that till near the end. Like Emily, I couldn’t understand Anna and therefore why everyone melted before her. Why she emotionally abandoned her daughter by her great love was not clear to me (yes it happens, but I needed to know why in her case). For me she was so incompletely drawn that the claims for this to be the greatest novel are quite unfounded.

I did, however, really enjoy the side issues around Levin and his attempts to understand and reform Russian agriculture. I guess many would have skipped that bit but if you want to understand the Russian Revolution, you really need this back story. Levin, in contrast to Anna, was a complete character and modelled, I believe, on Tolstoy himself or at least on Tolstoy’s own farming experiments. I also seem to remember that he, Tolstoy, was a genuine mcp, so maybe we shouldn’t expect insights into women? Emily and I are planning to watch the DVD together (hope you remember it when you come Helen) so may return to the subject then.

I have rather less to say about the Magical thinking year as I found it so irritating that I skipped my way to the end, something I almost never do (if it isn’t worth reading properly, it isn’t worth reading, but blogging requires that you do). If it helped JD through what is an unimaginable time, that I’m glad she wrote it for her own sake. But for me it was badly written, boring and so introspective it felt more like a self-help manual, which I guess in fact is was. I hate self-help manuals. I can’t back up that list with examples from the text as I couldn’t send it back to the library quickly enough.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A year of magical thinking

Thank you for choosing this, Helen. I wanted to read it when it came out, but chickened out at the last moment because I misunderstood something about it. I'm very glad to have been coaxed back to it! Enjoyed it isn't quite the word, but I found it gripping, moving and enlightening. She made such sense of such a horrible situation and skewered it so precisely. You know her daughter died after it was finished but before it was published? Not untypically, she responded that she wouldn't change the book: "It is finished".

It wasn't so much the American things as such which I noticed as alien, but I was conscious of not really "getting" the couple's sheer stature over there. Which makes the open, self-critical account even more startling.

I loved the spare, merciless prose style, and the forensic dissection of grief. It made an alien situation - both her lifestyle and the situation she was plunged into - feel very real. She wasn't exaggerating or wallowing, so I felt I could take her insights on trust. Her very fear of self-pity made me more sympathetic. Like Helen, I found the same couldn't be said of the Daily Mail's (!) comment on the front. That seemed to me to promise the wrong thing, while failing to advertise the book's many selling points. Hey ho, Emily in shock disagreement with Daily Mail (again). Phew.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Anna K

Thanks for the feedback on the televised version. Interestingly, even 750 pages of the novel doesn't give what I felt was a comprehensive account of Anna's feelings! She seemed to be viewed from the outside, with Tolstoy (like everyone else) entranced by her beauty and charm, but he never really seemed to work out what made her tick. Her decisions - and there were a lot of smaller ones as well as the biggies in this category - were often baffling to the reader. I'm not sure if Tolstoy meant this or not. While it is difficult to convey someone making illogical or self-sabotaging decisions, it is of course possible for a very skilled writer to convince the reader that the person's character bred these decisions, and even that they have an internally consistent logic to them. And I'm sure we all know people who behave like this regularly and, over time, one can sometimes even get a handle on how/why. But Tolstoy couldn't or didn't really communicate this, which I found a bit frustrating. Which, of course, he may have intended! I certainly concur with Valerie who has - as usual - found the mot juste: "substantial". It is much more satisfying to read a book that has something meaty to it. cf "The Bone People", "The Poisonwood Bible" etc. Perhaps I'm in denial about my feelings about fat books after all?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

AK and Magical Thinking

I'm afraid my experience of AK is limited only to the adaptation and that I saw a very long time ago. I always felt annoyed by the story as I felt that Tolstoy wanted the reader to feel sympathy for AK and yet I could not. She chose a hedonistic lifestyle at the expense of her husband (not a great loss admitedly) and her son and paid the price. Harsh maybe, but that is perhaps the result of seeing the 'bare bones' adaptation rather than reading her inner monolgue which, I am guessing, is what the book gives you. That said, I loved the Levin and Kitty storyline and thought there were some truly memorable scenes (the proposal, the confession) which were movingly portrayed.

Regarding The Year of Magical Thinking, I thought this was a very good read. I found it refreshing that someone had seen fit to tackle, what might arguably be considered, the western world’s final taboo subject. I thought she struck an excellent balance between her personal story and a more objective study of the subject. Had she erred too much on the former then the book could have become a very depressing read, which is what I came to the book expecting. However, the forays into psychology, anthropology, medicine etc, swept you along and enabled the reader to move on, which is afterall what happened to JD through the same process.

I recently found out that the term ‘magical thinking’ is a technical term used in psychology and anthropology. CBT works in identifying where a person has become dependant on magical thinking, for example in cases of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and create alternative thought patterns. All of which agrees with her point that grief is a form of mental illness.

I thought that, unlike the blurb on the front cover (“will speak to and maybe comfort anyone who has lost for ever the one they loved”), the book can appeal to anyone, regardless of whether or not they have known a major bereavement. I found myself identifying with the feelings and emotions she describes from drawing upon broken relationships, homesickness etc.: the minor ‘griefs’ one encounters.

My only real struggle was with the Americanisms in the book. The references to places, people, organisations, culture, food, idioms, geography that I am not familiar with (and is not explained) interrupted the flow for me. I wondered if I might have overcome this had I been listening to a reading of the book, where accent/inflection/tone might have better contextualised these references.


Emily, I have been thinking about my response to your wish for a discussion regarding the merits of the book over the TV adaptation or vice versa. I find that the dramatisation, which I saw quite recently, is very much more clear in my mind than the book, which I read a long time ago.

This is partly due to memory, but also the very good performances from the likes of Helen McCrory and the visual impact of the production. Had it annoyed me, conflicting with the memories of the book, I think that would be my memory, which it is not. I do remember feeling that the book is very long but that is not a criticism as I read it when not under the pressure that a book group engenders. In fact, I like becoming immersed in the lives of the characters when the writing is of the standard of Tolstoy. Obviously, the adaptation left parts and characters out, but at the moment I would be hard pressed to know what they are. I do know that I thought both were a very substantial experience.