2003 - Happenstance by Carol Shields (1991)
This was in Trevor's house, very artistically decorated by Anne,
his wife, with rag-rolling etc. We all admired the big wooden coffee-table
with Bombay Mix in bowls sitting on it, and Trevor confessed that
it had been a trial go when he'd first started making furniture,
and one of the legs was wonky.
Mark wasn't there: he'd just got back from Toronto and was full
of a cold.
This meeting was lively.
No one except Jeanne particularly liked Happenstance,
a book in two halves with the wife's and the husband's stories
opposed. This surprised us, because a few of us had read The
Stone Diaries by the same author and liked that very much.
Most of us thought this one pretty lightweight. I said I found it
lacking in moral nerve, basically too nice. Don agreed wholeheartedly;
he said he hated it. He asked who on earth had chosen it, barely
disguising his amazement and throwing me a look of conspiratorial
disgust. I confessed it was me.
Jeanne kept trying to protest, but she couldn't make herself heard
over the loud voices of the men.
In the end she got her chance and said she thought it beautifully
Don said, on the contrary, it was very badly written, and
to our chorus of protest promised he could find us a better book
that would put it to shame as far as good writing was concerned.
Trevor started to stick up for it. He said people did behave
like the characters in the book, they were cowardly, they
did just want a quiet life.
Then Don and Jeanne went home, and somehow Trevor got us talking
about the totally unrelated topic of evolution, which he said was
a fairytale people believed in, but he for one didn't.
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2003 - Rabbit, Run by John Updike (1960)
Mark turned up at last. He called for me and John and then we called
on all the others, and we walked in a gang across the village to
Don and Jeanne's. Another house a lot tidier than mine and John's.
There were little cheese biscuits, some with soft creamy middles,
and Jeanne handed them round until Don told her to sit down and
let us help ourselves and allow the meeting to begin.
This meeting was a row.
Rabbit, Run was the book which Don had offered up as an antidote
He told us the interesting fact that once, when he and Jeanne were
running a literary festival, they had had dinner with John Updike
and his wife, and found them extremely pleasant.
This did not stop half of us hating the book.
Half of us loved it. Don was its champion. Sarah loved it for its
descriptive prose. Jeanne said she'd been amazed, after years of
her own prejudiced feminist boycott, to find it was actually brilliant.
I said of course it was brilliant, but that didn't stop it being
sexist, and John and Doug and Mark agreed.
Don said you couldn't apply a feminist critique to it, because Updike
was showing Rabbit up as a faulty character.
I said I didn't think it was Rabbit's sexism Updike was criticising,
and Mark and Doug and John all joined in, agreeing.
Jeanne tried to come in again, but everyone else was too loud, until
people started to realise and feel bad, and let her speak.
When at last she got a word in, she said that she didn't know what
was wrong with her, the way she just somehow could never make herself
heard. However, she seemed very cross with us all.
All in all it was pretty heated.
Trevor was calmest. He said that yes, Rabbit was a right dodgy character,
but that was what some people were like. He said also that, like
Rabbit, he didn't half fancy Mrs Eccles, the minister's wife.
We all left early, so that Don and Jeanne could keep their usual
As we walked back through the village, Mark told us how that morning
he'd come into Heathrow to the big security alert.
Somehow from this we got onto the Harry Potter books, which Trevor
said ought to be burnt.
2003 - Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)
This was in Doug's house, newly decorated with polished floors.
All these people put me and John to shame. Very squashed, because
we had two new members, and only Mark wasn't there, we didn't know
why this time.
Doug brought in a brand-new designer-type deck chair, and new member
Neil sat down on it and split the canvas and went right through.
Everyone liked Atonement, though on the whole people felt
cheated by the postmodern ending, where it turns out that all of
the book preceding is in fact a novel written by Briony, the main
character, and that the other characters didn't after all have the
ending she'd invented for them.
Jeanne kept opening her mouth, and in the end everyone told each
other to let her speak.
She said she didn't know what we wanted: we'd all said we liked
it, that it had held us in a spell and even at times made us cry,
yet here we were picking holes. She said that as a writer she'd
give anything to write like that, and, as another fiction writer,
I knew she was especially talking to me.
I refused to be chastened.
Trevor said he fancied the pants off Briony, and we pointed out
to him that for half of the book she was all of thirteen.
He refused to retract.
He added that actually, though, he didn't like her in the final
part, in fact he thought she was awful. We all demanded to know
why and Don said in disgust no doubt it was because she'd got wrinkled
and old. Trevor protested, no, it was because she had turned into
a patronising old bourgeois, and Don said, Exactly.
Sarah then said that actually, though she loved the book for its
brilliantly descriptive prose she never liked Briony, not one bit,
in any part of the book.
Trevor said also that the crime Briony commits and needs to atone
really struck a chord with him, because when he was ten or so he
didn't deliver the harvest basket to the sweet old dear he was meant
to and took it home instead, telling his mum she hadn't been in,
and actually feeling terrible. But that unlike Briony, he got found
out and punished, because the old dear rang the school in a blazing
fury and complained.
Doug and his wife Helen had provided very lush nibbles - grapes
and nuts and fancy crisps and several kind of dips - but people
didn't really touch them because the discussion was so intense.
After Don and Jeanne had gone, we went on discussing the novel,
the first time a novel has inspired us to do it.
Next morning we discovered why Mark hadn't turned up. His partner
Kirsten had gone into labour; he was passing in the car with her,
on the way to hospital, just as we were all arriving at Doug's door,
and the baby, a girl called Lily, was born even as, unknowing, we
sat discussing Ian McEwan's brilliant manipulation of point of view.
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April 2003 - Slaughterhouse 5
by Kurt Vonnegut (1970)
I met Don in the charity shop on the day of the meeting and asked
him if he'd read the book.
He nodded then rolled his eyes and said: 'I'm saying nothing!'
That evening he and Jeanne arrived for the meeting at mine and John's
without their copy of the book, which was pretty unusual as Don
likes to refer to the text of a novel and read out passages he considers
It was quite a small meeting. Our two new members didn't come back
this time, and Jeanne and Don had met Mark in the park with his
partner and new baby, and Mark had said he would be off on a trip
Trevor introduced the book. He said it was basically about Vonnegut's
own difficulty in writing about his second-world-war experience
of the bombing of Dresden, and that the invention of the character
Billy Pilgrim, who also experienced Dresden but gets abducted by
aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, is a kind of 'cushion' for
the experience, making it possible for Vonnegut to write about it
from a more objective distance. He said that actually, he could
have done without the first chapter which gives an account of Vonnegut's
difficulties in writing about the subject before the story of Billy
Pilgrim gets going.
I said that I liked the first chapter, I loved the honest
way Vonnegut puts his cards on the table and dispenses with the
con of 'authorial authority' and admits how difficult it is to address
such a traumatising subject.
Jeanne said that she too had liked the first chapter but that was
all. She said she simply couldn't take the stuff about aliens, and
quite frankly and most unusually for her, she gave up on the book.
Don said that actually she threw the book across the room, and he'd
picked it up and said he'd read it, but found he hadn't liked
it either, himself.
Sarah said she felt the same, she'd found the sci-fi alien sections
thin and sketchy, so you couldn't sink into them in the way she
likes to do with any world she's reading about in a novel.
I said, But wasn't that because they weren't really science fiction
but a kind a metaphor for Billy Pilgrim's war-traumatised and -dislocated
state of mind? and Trevor, Doug, and temporary member Matthew, who
was staying with me and John, agreed. Those sections were a kind
of joke, I said. Sarah
retorted that that was the only way you could take them.
Don then said it made him angry the way Vonnegut used the Tralfamadorian
sections as an excuse not to deal head-on with the war: the way
Billy Pilgrim kept getting whisked away from the war to Tralfamadore
or another point in time.
We protested: but wasn't that the point - the fact that war
experiences can be so terrible you can hardly dwell on them or deal
with them? Especially when society expects soldiers to put their
war experiences behind them, and in particular, concerning the firebombing
of Dresden, since after the war the British and American governments
covered it up? And in any case, it wasn't that Billy kept being
whisked away from the war so much as whisked back to
it: he had come 'unstuck' in time, as Vonnegut puts it, because
you can never really leave unresolved traumas behind. But Don was
unmoved and insisted that plenty of writers had dealt with war experiences
better than that.
I said I thought Vonnegut did deal with them - that Billy's
war experiences were as vivid and moving and in fact more humane
than any fiction about the war I'd read, and when the novel jumped
back to the war scenes it was nearly always to the point it had
left off and followed the war story through.
Don, who was a schoolboy during the war and had cousins in active
service, said that he couldn't agree that the war stuff was truthful.
In particular, he objected strongly to the stereotype depiction
of the British officer prisoners of war.
Doug didn't think that that was meant to be the truth about the
officers, just the way they seemed to Billy.
Trevor backed Doug up in this. Yes, he said, the whole thing is
Billy's experience. The book was not about the war, but about
Billy's experience of it and his difficulty in dealing with
Don didn't find this acceptable. We had come to an impasse. Don
now pointed out that John had been very quiet so far, keeping his
cards close to his chest. Don was particularly interested to know
what John thought of this book because the time before, when Don
had especially praised the war section in Atonement, John
had said he found it boring and that he was bored with the war and
novels about it - which Don admitted he had found annoying.
John, who was born during the war, said now that he hadn't really
meant he was bored with the war. He said that actually it was very
important to him and he felt he'd been affected by it badly because
of what it had done to his father. What he'd meant was that he was
fed up of attitudes and books that failed to get to grips with its
true psychological dimensions. The soldier character in Atonement,
for instance, was meant to be delusional due to his shrapnel wound,
but you never properly shared in the psychological reality
of his delusions. Whereas
the psychological reality was exactly where Slaughterhouse 5
was located, and for this reason it was a truly great book.
Doug and Matthew and Trevor and I nodded vigorously, but Don and
Jeanne and Sarah were anything but convinced.
We had to agree to differ.
Then we ate up the nuts and crisps, rather greedily and neurotically,
and talked about the war that was happening now, which none of us
wanted to have happened, and suddenly we were all in agreement.
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2003- Affinity by Sarah Waters (1999)
As Jeanne had not yet chosen a book, we had suggested she did so,
and she’d chosen this lesbian story of Victorian spiritualism.
long after the decision, I met Mark at the shops, pushing his little
boy in the buggy, and he said he’d glanced at the book and didn’t
fancy it much, but he’d definitely be there this time, even if he
hadn’t managed to read it, because he wouldn’t mind starting to
have some input into the decisions - as long as he was in the country,
he was in Sydney when we went to call for him on the way over to
Don and Jeanne’s.
didn’t come, either, and when we got there Jeanne said it was perhaps
just as well as she’d been worried about the seating, although Trevor
and Sarah both sat on the floor anyway, to be near the crisps and
shortbread because neither of them had had time for any tea.
book divided the group.
as she’d already implied, loved it without reservation, as did Trevor
and Sarah. Don too was very keen.
was full of admiration for the convincing and evocative depiction
of Victorian London and Millbank prison where much of the action
takes place, and for the brilliant portrayal of the psychology of
the protagonist Margaret, and the extreme cleverness of the plot
which most of us agreed was pretty impressive.
said, yes, it was a cracking read. He said he’d been in the bath
when he got to the end and he was so amazed he shouted out loud
and kicked his legs up and splashed water everywhere and spilt the
beer he was drinking, and his wife came running up to see what was
said he saw it as a deeply psychological novel about seduction,
and Trevor said yes, you could tell from the first page that it
was all about sex, even though it was all so Victorian and repressed,
and this gripped him from the word go.
new member Madeleine (who had come back again this time) said that
she agreed with all that, but nevertheless she felt there was something
missing, as if there was another, deeper novel inside this one trying
to get out.
said that that was how I felt too. I said that, partly perhaps because
of all the hype over Sarah Waters, but also because of the quality
of the prose, I kept expecting, and hoping, that this was a novel
about the subconscious, or maybe inspiration or empathy, or the
transcendence of the human spirit over loss and terrible physical
conditions. And that, in contrast to Trevor, when I got to the end
I was extremely disappointed, if not very annoyed, to discover that
it was basically just a mystery story and in fact utterly depressing
and without redemption in its message about the human spirit.
was shocked that I didn’t find the brilliant psychology of the characters
enough and Don said, Yes, you were looking for something that wasn’t
there. I said, Well, yes, but that’s what I look for in books: some
kind of greater metaphysical breadth than I found here, and then
Don agreed that actually he did too.
John spoke up for the first time and upset people again by saying
that in fact he had found the book boring: all those historical
details larded on just because it had been researched.
said I agreed with him but -
Trevor interrupted and told me I couldn’t say that because -
John interrupted him to point out I hadn’t said it yet, at which
we all laughed and Trevor said sorry and looked sheepish, by which
time I had forgotten what I had to say.
I remembered it and said that the painstaking recording of social
detail was in fact artistically apt, because the protagonist was
consciously adopting a stance very true to the Victorians, that
of an anthropologist recording her findings in her journal - though
in fact using this as a smokescreen for her own turbulent emotions.
However, I did agree that I had found that it smacked somewhat of
a device and, that ultimately the book was a bit research-heavy,
and Don agreed.
I also said that I found the other, interspliced diary of the spiritualist
Selina to be a somewhat tricksy device, psychologically false in
fact, since no one ever writes a diary in the novelistic way in
which hers is done - ie deliberately withholding until the end the
most crucial information.
for Margaret’s diary, on the other hand, she is the last to realise
anything about herself - after the other characters and after the
reader - and this is brilliantly done, and everyone wholeheartedly
John read out the note Doug had sent, saying that he had found the
novel ‘mediocre at best, and as for the ending - enough said!’ and
Jeanne could hardly believe her ears.
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2003 - Surfacing by Margaret Atwood (1972), Virago
chose this book about a young woman who returns with three friends
to the remote Northern-Quebec island of her childhood to search
for her missing father. He chose it as one of his all-time favourite
and most admired novels, to the great delight of three others of
us, Don, Doug and me, who had also read it in the eighties and felt
exactly the same about it.
To the astonishment and disappointment of us four, this years-later
second reading left us feeling that the book was less great than
we had thought, and those present who were new to it - Trevor, Sarah
and Jeanne - also had great doubts about it.
We spent the meeting discussing why this change in attitude should
Firstly, our admiration for the prose was undiminished, and the
newcomers to the book agreed wholeheartedly that it transports you
vividly and utterly convincingly into the world of the Canadian
lakes and into the troubled mental state of the alienated nameless
narrator-protagonist. Sarah, who knows this part of Canada, said
the book captures beautifully and entirely accurately its character
and atmosphere, although the rest of us felt the portrayal had such
a ring of truth we didn’t need such real-life verification.
Don said that the main problem for him this time around was that
in spite of the vivid depiction of the protagonist’s state of mind,
he was no longer convinced by the overall psychology of the book.
He was especially dissatisfied with the portrayal of the other three
characters and their mistaken ‘alternative’ ideology: it seemed
too judgmental and far too simplistic a depiction, and those three
characters emerged merely as ciphers. I pointed out that this was
a function of the alienated psychology of the narrator, who is finding
it hard to relate to them and doesn’t even want to - ie. this is
how she sees them. Everyone, including Don, agreed that this
was true, yet we did all also agree that there wasn’t enough authorial
compensation over this not to make us feel that the book itself
colludes with the shallow depiction.
None of us who had read it previously had felt this at all the first
time round, and we concluded that then we had been entranced by
the very existence of these characters in a novel: contemporary
figures of the time in then-contemporary dilemmas, making the novel
then seem vibrantly topical and fresh.
Don also said that a lot of the dramatic tension of his first reading
was lost for the second, because this time of course he knew what
had happened to the father. This in turn shifted his attention to
the nature of the protagonist’s parents (which he hadn’t considered
the first time round). This time he felt that since the parents
were untypical, even idiosyncratic, in the way they had isolated
themselves and their family on the island, the protagonist’s dilemmas
over them failed to be universal. Not all of us agreed with this
last point. Some of us felt that the ambiguity of the parents (half
in touch with nature, half colonisers and destroyers of nature)
was a key element in the novel’s extremely universal theme of civilisation
and materialism versus nature and spirituality. However, we couldn’t
help agreeing that the parents remained shadowy, and that although
this was to a great extent the point, on a second reading (with
the truth behind the father’s disappearance pre-empted) it seemed
more of an omission that the protagonist’s pre-alienation relationship
with her parents is never greatly realised. This is an issue which
some of us felt is resolved in Atwood’s much later novel Cat’s
Eye which covers a lot of the same material.
Doug, who had read and loved the book as a fifteen-year-old intensely
interested in all things alternative and 'transcendental', was now
dismayed to find it showily over-poetic and intense and very much
a ‘young person’s novel’, and fervently wished he hadn’t read it
again and destroyed his vision of it.
As for those entirely fresh to the book:
Sarah basically found it irritating, and lost patience altogether
with both the protagonist and the novel when the protagonist descends
into her spiritual back-to-nature ‘madness’, which Sarah saw as
a ridiculous pratfall into hippy-babble.
Trevor too, was firm in his opinion that at this point the novel
gets rapidly worse. The thing that interested him about the novel
was, as usual, the sex: the complicated sexual relationships between
the four young people, which of course get very quickly abandoned
as a focus of interest for the protagonist and the author. Although
some of us protested that this was unfair (since the socio-sexual
relations are not the focus of interest of the novel) we couldn’t
help feeling that he had a point when he protested that actually,
the protagonist is dead interested in her own sexual standing
in the group, in spite of what she tells herself. Some of us felt
that this was a result of the author’s own ambivalence over this,
and that it was another clue to our new sense that the overall psychological
integrity of the novel was flawed.
Jeanne said that while in view of the current international situation
she was hardly a supporter of Americanism at the moment, she was
very troubled by the black-and-white anti-Americanism of the novel,
which seemed consistently to equate Americanisation with dehumanisation.
Doug pointed out that there are moments when the novel appears to
subvert this idea - for instance, when the ‘Americans’ fishing on
the lake turn out to be Canadians, and when the protagonist admits
her own collusion in ‘Americanisation’. However, we did all feel
that Americanisation was always presented in the book as a major
problem - the problem - and was equated fundamentally
with the protagonist’s emotional alienation and damage.
All in all, we found it extremely interesting that two readings
of the same book, in two different cultural climates and with the
space of twenty years between them, could give us such very different
This led us onto a more general discussion about how we read books,
and about how we choose them in the first place. Trevor said he
always reads the beginning, and we all agreed, except Doug, who
interestingly said that he specifically avoids the beginning when
glancing through a book with a view to buying it, because beginnings
are so often misleading. Most of us agreed that the cover is all-important
in attracting you to a book (however much you know it's a superficiality),
but Doug again disagreed and said pithily that he's a title man
Then somehow, perhaps because of the psychology of the novel, we
got onto a discussion of Freudianism, which Trevor said he found
It was a warm evening, and still light, and the ethos of the outdoors
seemed to seep into Trevor’s sitting room. Trevor took his shoes
off. When we left he followed us out into the dusk barefoot as the
hippies in the novel, and, in spite of all our criticisms, Margaret
Atwood’s prose and the vivid world of the book went with us all
the way down the road.
This was a Monday. On the Wednesday, our usual day, Mark called
at mine and John's at lunchtime to say he'd be making the meeting
for once, and was dismayed to remember that we'd changed the day
for the sake of Madeleine (who hadn't been able to make it after
all, however), and to find that the meeting had been and gone.
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List of all books discussed (alphabetically