Reading 2 articles

Reading 2 group articles

Reading group 2 report

The past year has seen our group add a new dimension to our reading experience. One of our members has an extensive collection of DVDs and has generously invited us to her home on a monthly basis to view films based on books. Among others, we have viewed “Memoirs of a Geisha” (Arthur Golden), “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (John Fowles), “The Notebook” (Nicholas Sparks) and “A Room With a View” (E M Forster), all modern classics.

For this year we chose books from the Queen’s Jubilee list – only a few reading group sets from this are stocked by the library – including Iris Murdoch’s “The Bell”: we considered her prose style cumbersome, and did not warm to the characters.

Other reading has included Kate Adie’s hilarious account of her early days in journalism and as a BBC foreign correspondent “The Kindness of Strangers”, and two autobiographies: Captain Tom Moore’s “Tomorrow Will Be A Good Day” and Tim Peake’s “Limitless”. Both men had a very positive outlook on life, loved the outdoors and challenges, and were keen to learn and advance in their careers. Very different was Maggie O’Farrell’s account of 17 near death experiences in “I Am, I Am, I Am”, some of which were quite shocking and terrifying.

Fiction has covered a wide range of subjects, from the rollicking 18th century-set tale “The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock” by Imogen Hermes Gowar (involving a sea captain, his niece, a courtesan, historically accurate depictions of high class bawdy houses, their madams and frequenters – and of course the mermaid - or was it?) to two classic novels: “The Haunted Hotel” by Wilkie Collins, which we agreed was not one of his best, and “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” by Anne Brontë. The latter has been belatedly recognised as an important early feminist work, covering addiction and domestic abuse, and Anne’s literary reputation has soared. Anne’s sister Charlotte suppressed the manuscript after Anne’s early death, judging these subjects unfit for a novel written by a young lady! We also read one of the year’s best-selling crime stories “The Appeal” by Janice Hallett. This proved a “marmite” book with some loving it and others hating it, mainly because of the format: the book is written entirely in emails and WhatsApp messages. This might, of course, be considered the modern equivalent of the format of Anne Brontë’s novel, which was written as a series of letters to a friend.

Jen Cayley

Group report - diverse reading

The library’s sets of books for reading groups commendably include many that have been long- or short-listed for prizes, or won them. Many of our choices have been from this pool. Recently there has been criticism of the listing process for its lack of diversity and tendency to select established writers. Amends are now being made and shortlists have begun to feature exciting new talents. We have played our part in reading over the past year an autobiography of a Chinese writer, whose first novel we had already read, and three very different books by black or mixed-race authors – a London primary school teacher, an Afro-American and a Nigerian, all women publishing debut novels.

Our reading, as always, has been diverse in other ways, featuring fiction and non-fiction, lighter and more serious books, and a variety of locations and eras. We read contrasting autobiographies – featuring a severely impoverished and unloving upbringing in rural China (“Once Upon a Time in the East” by Xiaolo Guo) and a conventional background for the son of a violin-playing Yorkshire butcher (“A Life Like Other People’s“ by Alan Bennett). An Edwardian-set mystery novel involving a rising star politician forced to resign after his fiancé suddenly broke off their relationship without explanation (“Past Caring “ by Robert Goddard) contrasted with a modern day small-town American tale of a girl’s killing and its consequences (“Parting Shot” by Linwood Barclay): both books involved murder, blackmail and well-plotted story twists. Modern-day America featured also in “Such a Fun Age” by Kiley Reid, contrasting with a tale set in Nigeria 40 years go: (“Stay With Me” by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀): both concerned children, the former in a wealthy white family employing and attempting close friendship with their black childminder, the latter featuring the heartbreak of childlessness and the desperate remedies employed to overcome it. Again, both books contained surprising twists, forcing the reader to re-evaluate the preceding storyline. Very different was “The Butchering Art” by Lindsey Fitzharris, the account of how 19th century surgeon Joseph Lister transformed gruesome and dangerous surgical and hospital conditions by introducing antiseptic methods: although not for the squeamish, it proved largely popular.

Jen Cayley

Group report - surviving pandemic

During the first lockdown in 2020 we set up a WhatsApp group and kept in touch through this and emails, sharing quizzes, jokes and newsletters. One of our members became tech proficient and set up Zoom meetings for us (thank you Diana!) We began Zooming fortnightly for social chat and general news sharing. Once the library allowed access we were able to resume reading our monthly books, meeting by Zoom once a month for book discussion, but keeping up the in-between Zooms for social reasons. During summer 2020 we managed some garden meetings in person. Further lockdowns meant no face to face discussion but we continued as before, with monthly newsletters updating the group on literary happenings eg prize winners, recent book reviews and other book related news.

Books we have read recently include: The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood, Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey, Love is Blind by William Boyd and Fell Murder by E C R Lorac.

Sadly, two of our members have died in the last few months: Daphne Somerfield, who on being registered blind, intrepid as ever, continued reading by audiobook well into her nineties; and Sue Humphrey, well-known to you all, admired for her boundless energy and commitment. Both contributed a huge amount to our group and we miss them very much.

Jen Cayley

Group report

As members of a reading group we have varied interests and tastes: how, therefore, to choose books that satisfy us all?

We like biographies, so read two over the past year, but though interesting books, neither of the subjects appealed to us. “Sheila” by Robert Wainwright, chronicled the life of a beautiful Aussie socialite who married into the British aristocracy and was rumoured to have had an affair with the future King George V!. (There was a Hayling connection – one of her lovers was the ex-husband of the Russian princess buried in St Peters’ churchyard). In “Spilling the Beans” well-born Clarissa Dickson Wright (one of the two fat ladies of TV cooking fame) told of her abusive childhood and descent into drunkenness. We thought her at times too boastful and economical with the truth and found some of her views abhorrent.

Choosing books by authors we have previously (separately) read and admired does not always guarantee a popular read. Robert Harris’ “The Fear Index” (topically about Artificial Intelligence) and Eric Newby’s “Departures and Arrivals” (snippets from his extensive travels about the world) were agreed not to be their best works.

Reading classics has been an aim of our group, and Daphne du Maurier’s “The House on the Strand”, deemed an example of a modern classic, was thought to be a very good read. Far more sombre, “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin, published in the USA in 1899, and described as the first feminist novel, was rated rather dull and tame. (The author’s beautifully crafted prose went unappreciated!) Taking as its subject the growing sexual feelings of a married woman for another man, it was thought scandalous in its day, ending its author’s novelistic career.

Comedy novels were surprisingly unpopular. Chosen as lighter summer reading “Mapp and Lucia” by E F Benson (between-the-wars social rivalry) and “Hitman Anders and the Meaning of it All” by Jonas Jonasson (a Swedish satire from the author of ”The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared”) proved flops. Taste in comedy is very personal, and it may be best to steer clear in future!

So, does it matter that some books are not liked by some of the group? We feel that the challenge of trying books we would not otherwise have come across, thus widening our reading experience, is what a reading group is for.

Now it is time to choose again for 2020 ………..

Jen Cayley

This is an article published in the Summer 2019 edition of the Hayling Island U3A newsletter

Group report

This is an article published in the Summer 2018 newsletter ….

As often before, some of our best reads over the past year have been non-fiction:

‘The Shepherd’s Life’ by James Rebanks is an unsentimental account of the working year of a sheep farmer in the Lake District. Not for him a place of spectacular scenery or hearty walking holidays but the land where he and his forefathers have lived and worked in harmony with the seasons for generations. His lyrical descriptions of the changing seasons and his undoubted love for his animals bring into sharp focus the tough conditions of his working life. And yet, there is another side to his story: in his 20s, Rebanks, having idled away his schooldays, attended Oxford University, gaining a double first in history. His love for the shepherd’s way of life drew him back and today, to make ends meet, he combines this with a post for UNESCO advising on tourism.

‘Singled Out’ by Virginia Nicholson looks at the lives of “surplus” women who, after the terrible depredations of WW1, were left without hope of marrying or raising a family. For many this meant a lifetime of scrimping and getting by on near-starvation wages – mens’ needs always came before those of a single woman with no dependants. Others blossomed, taking on and making a success of roles that would never have been open to them had the men survived. Defying convention and prejudice, these women excelled in traditionally male roles of medicine, marine and electrical engineering, stockbroking, Egyptology and many more, paving the way for the generations who came after. One problem we encountered with this book was that the typeface is too small and faint: several of us had to use magnifiers.

‘Blood River’ by Tim Butcher recounts his 2004 journey along the Congo river, retracing the steps of his fellow Telegraph reporter Stanley who first mapped this region in the 1870s. He skilfully blends history with present day experience in this war-torn country, exposing the brutality and exploitation of colonial days and the cruelty, corruption, and venality of leaders and warring tribes following independence. He lays bare the shocking contrast between the “civilised” society of the colonial era and the broken-down remnants of it today. Butcher’s mother visited by rail in the 1950s; Katherine Hepburn stayed in a comfortable hotel while filming “The African Queen”. Yet today, in this resource-rich country, buildings are rubble, and no railways or roads remain. How did Butcher manage to make his journey against all the odds? How did he stand the relentless heat, the limited diet and the constant fear of marauding rebel fighters? A meticulously planned and executed trip.

We were, however, disappointed with Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen which we read to mark the 200th anniversary of the great author’s death. Little substantive Austen material remains (her family burnt most of her letters, for example). Tomalin was obliged to include a wealth of detail about friends and relatives of the Austens, which we found confusing and boring (too many Janes and Elizabeths!)

Other books we have enjoyed include Rosemary Lupton’s “The Quality of Silence” in which a mother sets out with her 10 year old profoundly deaf daughter along the Alaskan Dalton Highhway to search for her husband, refusing to accept that he has died in an accident. The pace and tension as the pair wrestle with the constant darkness and extreme cold of an Alaskan winter while pursued by villains, are well-drawn. ‘The Muse’, Jessie Burton’s second book following her successful debut novel ‘The Miniaturist’, is every bit as enthralling a tale. Set in two time periods, the late 60s and pre-civil-war Spain, it involves secret love affairs, hidden identities, and a mysterious painting which links the two eras.

Jen Cayley