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.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sunset song

This book is intensely lyrical in its depiction of the crofting life, but at the same time pulls no punches about the cruelty, hardship and insularity of times ( for example, the burning to death of the cattle; John Guthrie’s violence and abuse; the ignorant taunting of Long Rob when he refuses to buy into the xenophobia of the times.) I think these two aspects come together most effectively and affectingly in the death of Ewan. He is shot for desertion and the explanation he gives to Chae is ‘It was the wind that came with the sun, I minded Blawearie, I seemed to waken up smelling that smell’ p 237. He leaves the trench to get back to Blawearie and Chris, and is arrested and shot. I thought this by far the best part of the book – not just because of this structural integrity, but because it was so moving, so honest and so awful. It made me cry.

This was a book that took me a long time to get in to and I do think there are problems with it. I found the Prelude unreadable, partly because of this new-to-me language, partly because I didn’t know why I was reading it and because it was so bitty. So I gave that up half way through. Then, in the main part of the book I couldn’t recall the minor characters at all – and found that I should have read the Prelude. Did this happen to anyone else? I think this is poor writing structure – you need to know who characters are when they appear, not half a book earlier.

I am not convinced by Gibbon’s explanations for the use of so many Scots words. I did get used to them, and didn’t usually bother to look them up, but I think if he is going to use ‘the great English tongue’ he should do so, and if he thinks the book can be written in Scots (which he implies has disappeared from literary usage) he should do so and accept that his royalties will be much reduced.

And then there’s Chris’ education. Much is made of this in the early part of the book so to drop it totally when her father dies and she marries leaves one wondering why. It does serve the function of giving the ogre John Guthrie his redeeming feature (though I found it unbelievable): he supports Chris in her schooling and ambitions. This is number one of a trilogy, so I presume we return to this later. Well, I don’t think I will – it was worth reading and some of it was a joy to read, but I’m not sure I need to read more.

Recalling Pat Barker

No sooner had I blogged the suggestion of Pat Barker's Life Class than I found it was not what it said on the packet. Hence my recall via Emily. But if anyone does want to read it (or borrow it) they're welcome. My review is below, if that helps.

Very much in the mode of the Regeneration trilogy, this is the story of Paul and Elinor, as art students before the first world war, and as lovers when Paul joins the Red Cross at Ypres. It is not, disappointingly, the story of Henry Tonks, a real artist-surgeon, though the cover led me to think it was. And that is a shame because in her Acknowledgements, Barker describes him as a surgeon before he became an artist who worked on the techniques of modern plastic surgery on the faces of mutilated young men, Tonks making the drawings of patients before and after surgery. In the text Barker writes: ‘You knew he’d arrived only when you saw the students sitting opposite straighten their shoulders or bend more anxiously over their drawings. Tonks was a dark planet whose presence could be deduced only by a deviation in the orbit of other bodies.’ Stunning imagery.

The actual story is OK, well written and taking a slightly different approach to the war – through Paul’s gruesomely described work behind the front line with the Red Cross and Elinor’s impatience with it (the war) and with the fact that everyone else seemed to think now wasn’t the time for focusing on Art.

A good chunk of the story is told through Paul’s eyes. I don’t know how realistic a man would think her characterisation is here, very much in the same mode as the Regeneration Trilogy. There is something that doesn’t ring true – which quite probably means she understands men’s minds better than I do, and that is why I find them a little strange. I’m happier with her women. This is worth following up when reading other work by her.


In the interests of democracy, I will read the Pat Barker and if Val would be willing to lend me her spare copy, I would be most grateful. I am getting a little behind with two rather long books at the moment, so may take a little while to post.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A suggestion

Hi. If anyone wants to go ahead and read the Pat Barker, they're more than welcome (and Val has a spare copy). But she suggests that those of us short of reading time may wish to give it a miss and read something else instead. I'm happy to fall in with that, being extremely short of reading time, and wonder if the rest of you might like to join me in "Sunset Song" by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. It's a Scots classic, apparently, and in libraries. I'm very open to other suggestions, but this is one if no one else has one for now. If you get the same edition as me - with introduction by Tom Crawford - I highly recommend skipping the introduction. It is the most terrible plot spoiler. There is a glossary at the back for dialect words and the blurb/reviews give you an idea what it's about. Anyone in?

Helen Slavin

Thank you for agreeing to try this with me. It's hardly my normal sort of thing either, but it utterly won the page 67 test. Have you heard of this? A diagnostic: you try page 67 as a sample.

I loved it. Somewhat despite myself - it reminded me of "Bel Canto" in this way. I thought the writing fluid and witty and the plot conceit good enough to work. I wouldn't claim it was literature for all time, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and it replays in my mind weeks later and I would look out for other stuff of hers.

I particularly enjoyed the dead being such vivid, real people and their obsession with trivial things. As someone comments, no-one's message is simply "go on and enjoy your life". Tellingly, Arthur's gran surprises Annie by NOT waking her up! I found the policeman very delicately written, especially the contrast between their perceptions of their relationship - Annie can get it so wrong with the living! And he's so delicately helpful when he comes back, and so utterly uninterested in his own fate ("I've not come about that"). Very, very moving.

I think you're right about Evan, Valerie, although his ending is rather less finished than I would choose (and the rest of the ending is a bit overly-sorted, cf. "Bel Canto" again). But I think that's part of the irony, isn't it? Annie gives others all sorts of things she tends to lack in her own life, for instance consideration, clarity, perception, closure.

I'm delighted to have read it, and even the central conceit worked in way I need such things to work: internal consistency. It works on its own terms and within the parameters set by the author, and these are explored engagingly enough to win my support. And I did feel the book used communication with the dead as a way in to more wide-ranging (and accurate) themes and characterisation and observations, which is ultimately why I found it so life-affirming.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Extra Large Medium

Well, in the end I enjoyed this book as a light entertaining read. I certainly took a while to care about what is rather a lot of nonsense, but it was written in a very accessible and chirpy manner and the chocolate brown dressed people were cleverly included in the narrative as characters but retained their dimension. I found that I was eager to find out how everything resolved,but the ending left me a little bemused. Why did Arthur seek out Annie? What really happened to Evan? I assume he is still alive in Northumberland or were we meant to believe he died? It seems he was only legally dead, if I did not miss the point.

The title is rather misleading, as the overwhelmingly main character, the medium Annie was not the E.L.M. so that just seems rather a lack of imagination and a pity; or have I missed another point?

Its often said that no-one really knows their nearest and dearest, they only think they do. That certainly was the case here.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Not at all

I would be very happy to read another Pat Barker.

Death and then Life?

This is engaging, well written, with a good ideas and a good turn of phrase – e.g. ‘Happy is overrated, it is like the giddy cousin, laughing too loud and too long. It is better to be simply at ease.’ However I found I just couldn’t be bothered with it or any of the characters as the premise didn’t hook me, so I gave up a couple of weeks ago and haven’t given it another thought till now. I shall look forward to reading what you all think of it.

I have just started reading Pat Barker’s Life Class. Like the Regeneration Trilogy, it is based on a real character – artist/surgeon Henry Tonks in WW1. The writing is brilliant – see if you agree: ‘You knew he’d arrived only when you saw the students sitting opposite straighten their shoulders or bend more anxiously over their drawings. Tonks was a dark planet whose presence could be deduced only by a deviation in the orbit of other bodies.’ Is it too soon to suggest this as the next book?

Monday, February 02, 2009

I'm in!

Sounds intriguing and, more importantly, I can get hold of a copy. So count me in on this one!