Sunday Salon: Book Clubbing

sundaysalonAfter enjoying deep blue Spanish skies and temperatures in the high twenties for the last two weeks, I expected to start shivering the minute we landed back in the UK on Wednesday. I also expected to find the trees at our house were well on their way to the autumn show of colours. But what’s this – warmth and sunshine? And the grass is still growing and most leaves are still on the branches. It means I can delay getting the sweaters out of the cupboard for a few weeks yet I hope.

What I can’t delay is getting prepared for the book club meeting in a few weeks where I am leading the discussion on Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’m not sure how the club members are going to react to this book because I saw a few wrinkled brows when I said it was by an author from Nigeria. So I want to make sure I go equipped with good discussion points.

Which brings me to a question about your experience with book clubs and what the expectations are for the person whose choice of book you are reading. This is my first book club ever (not for want of trying but that’s a very long story) and I didn’t know what to expect. For the first two months it seemed the person who had nominated the book took the lead in discussion and had come prepared with talking points. One woman, who used to work in publishing, had clearly spent a lot of time thinking and researching her chosen title. I used that as my model when it came to my first choice (Margaret Attwood’s Possession) and found interviews in which Attwood talked about the book from which I read extracts.

But since then we’ve also had a few months where the club member hasn’t done any preparation. They didn’t even seem prepared to introduce the book, explaining why they chose it for example. When gently pushed, all they could say was “i thought it would be fun to read”.

It was left to the rest of the club members to throw a comment or discussion point into the ring otherwise we would have had an incredibly short meeting.

What happens with your groups – do people come with questions prepared in advance? is there an expectation that if it’s your selection, that you will kick off the discussion? Do you do any research outside of reading the book?  Do you have any tips to share on how I can make sure we don’t have long silences or people end up having side conversations about why the school bus was late that morning….


Weekend bookends #11 Sept 13 2014

It’s been a while since I did one of these posts about book related news items that I missed at the time and you may have missed also.

Since September is back to school/college time it seems the right moment to talk about a few programmes and courses offered by some of our educational institutions.

Open University: My Shakespeare

One thing I have certainly missed hearing about is a Sky Arts television documentary series called My Shakespeare in which leading actors My Shakespeare present the stories of, and the stories behind, some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. In this collaboration with the Open University, Joseph Fiennes talks about Romeo and Juliet for example, while Morgan Freeman explores The Taming of the Shrew. I don’t have a Sky subscription so will not get to see any of these unfortunately but if you do have access, you can read more about the programme via the Shakespeare pages on the Open University website.

Open University: Secret World of Books

Monsieur BookerTalk stumbled across a late night BBC4 programme in which Simon Russell Beale read extracts from Hamlet. His rendition of “to be or not to be…” was apparently the best that my esteemed partner has ever heard (high praise from one who until now had considered Richard Burton’s recording as the bees knees.) It rang a vague bell and then I remembered an email from the Open University announcing this new series together with a free App. I had tried downloading the App but the remote WIFI connection was too slow so I gave up and then promptly forgot about the whole series.

It’s a series of six programmes which revisit original texts, manuscripts, diaries and correspondence of some classic works of fiction including Frankenstein, Great Expectations and Mrs Dalloway. Kudos to the BBC for not only including something from my home country but choosing a text that isn’t as mainstream, The Mabinogian. For those of you who are not from Wales this is a classic work of literature which consists of 11 folk tales and legends.


If you can’t get to watch the programmes in real time, they should be available on the iPlayer. There is more info about the series on the Open University page – it also gives you the option to download a free App for your mobile device and some e versions of the texts.

I’ve seen a number of comments that the App is slow to download – I just had another go and didn’t encounter any problems.

Coursera: Comic and graphic novels

This genre (or is a sub genre?) isn’t something that particularly appeals to me but they do have a huge and enthusiastic fan following. So if these kinds of literary works light your fire, you might want to sign up of a free Coursera module which discusses whether they can be considered as literary art. It’s about to start and will last for seven weeks. To register go to


Hope you find something you enjoy here. Have any of you come across other interesting courses offered by universities or academic groups? If so, did you register or follow them and what did you think about them?

Man Booker 2015 shortlist announced

The Man Booker judges announced today the six books shortlisted for this year’s award      producing a list that despite all concerns about dominance by American authors, actually has a good global spread.  We have two US, three British  ( the judges are classing Neel Mukherjee as British although he originates from India) and one Australian.

No surprises to find Ali Smith on the list but I wasn’t expecting to see Karen Joy Fowler make it through to the penultimate round. Perhaps I’m being unfair to her since I’m only part way through We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. It reads very smoothly so far but I still wouldn’t out it in the same class as The Lives of Others which I read earlier this summer and enjoyed hugely.  A copy of Howard Jacobson’s novel  J that I reserved with my local library has just become available and will be waiting for me on my return from holidays this weekend so I should be able to read that before the winner is announced on October 14.

Anyone care to speculate which of these authors will be declared the 2015 winner? I would love to see the prize go to  Neel Mukherjee but I suspect that won’t be the case  and instead we will see it third time lucky for Ali Smith since her book features the kind of experimental narrative structure that the judges seem to like yet still is considered “readable”.

The Shortlist

To Rise Again At a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
J by Howard Jacobson
The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee
How to Be Both by Ali Smith

Travel the World Readathon day 7 update

blog globe small 1I hardly ever join readathons but one hosted by Lost in Books, Savy  Working Girl and Momssmallvictories caught my eye because it’s focused on reading books from outside your own country which is one of my current projects. Travel the World through Books also has coincided with my holiday when I knew I would have more time to read than usual.

Today is end of the first of this two week challenge and I’ve done well so far in terms of the range of countries covered. I’ve ‘visited’ China in the late nineteenth/ early twentieth centuries through Pearl S Buck’s Pulitzer prize winning novel The Good Earth and contemporary Eire with Niall Williams’ Booker longlisted title History of the Rain. By coincidence both of these books have a rural setting though Buck’s protagonist is significantly more successful at farming than than the family in Williams’ novel.

To finish up this short readathon I’m going to finish Nagasaki by the French author Erik Fraye which is a curious book based on a real life incident in Japan where a meteorologist discovers a woman has stowed away I. His apartment for almost a year without his knowledge. And I’m hoping to make some progress with The Infatuations by the Spanish author Javiar Marais. I’ve read about 70 pages so far and am not enamoured with it so far because of the verbose prose. His sentences are very long and contain so many clauses and sub clauses that by the time I’ve reached the full stop I’ve forgotten the beginning. I hope it picks up soon.

Find out more about the readathon at

Sunday Salon: finding an old friend

In the late 1990s I began to yearn for a device that would let me read books electronically. The advent of the iPod meant I no longer had to lug CDs and a bulky player plus spare batteries with me on holidays or business trips. I could now carry thousands of songs in the palm of my hand but still had the weight of many books in my suitcase. I discovered that an electronic book reader sundaysalonwas something the big technology companies were working on. It it seemed a long way off before they would ever get anything to market.  And then a solution materialised from an unexpected source with Amazons launch of the Kindle.

I wanted one immediately but couldn’t really justify buying one at around £400 for the UK version. I waited and waited for the inevitable price drop but it was very slow to materialise. In the meantime Sony launched their own device at a much more acceptable price.  It was light but not that easy to use since downloading books involved complicated manoeuvres. Still it was a big advance and I enjoyed using it for about six months until it badly malfunctioned and had to be replaced. (To their credit, the service from Sony was excellent). But I’d seen a Kindle in action and it was definitely superior to the e reader. The price came down, I went for it and enjoyed another year without the risk of excess baggage charges from too many books in the suitcase. My Kindle proved ideal when I wanted to sit in a park since I could easily fit it into my handbag and was discrete enough I could read while in a restaurant.  I proved to be a fickle user however because as soon as an iPad came my way one Christmas, my poor Kindle became the unwanted child. Soon it was the IPad that traveled everywhere with and the Kindle became relegated to a dark shelf somewhere.

And that stayed the case until just a few weeks ago when I was packing for a holiday in Spain and remembered that the one big drawback of the iPad is that the screen becomes unreadable in bright sunshine. Not much use then for reading on a Spanish balcony or in the piazza. I began to think that maybe the Kindle was a better option after all. It was more lightweight than the iPad, the screen technology worked significantly better in bright light and I could easily download any new books as long as I had an Internet connection.

The upshot is that I ended up bringing both devices with me. I  can carry the Kindle in a small backpack during the day for the occasional opportunities while sitting at a pavement cafe for example but I still have the iPad for emails and webs surfing.  Neither device is ideal in itself but  I’m hoping one day soon some techno experts will be able to combine the benefits of both these approaches.



The Long Way Home by Louise Penny

LongWayHomeWithin just a few pages of The Long Way Home it’s evident that you’re in the hands of an accomplished writer. This is the latest novel in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series by Canadian best selling author Louise Penny and if the plot of this tenth title seems a little weaker than its predecessors, the psychological perspectives, strong sense of place and memorable characters are undiminished.

Gamache, newly retired from his post as head of the Sûreté du Québec has moved from Montreal to live in the village of Three Pines with his wife Reine-Marie. It’s a time for reflection and a time for healing after his incendiary confrontation with terrorism and police corruption in the last novel How the Light Gets In. The quietude of Three Pines, a village so small it hardly exits on any map, seems the perfect place in which to achieve the desired calm.

“Armand Gamache looked across to the deep green midsummer forest and the mountains that rolled into eternity. Then his eyes dropped to the village in the valley below them, as though held in the palm of an ancient hand. A stigmata in the Québec countryside. Not a wound, but a wonder.”

But if Armad has come here to make a fresh start, he cannot ignore a personal request from the artist Clara Morrow, one of his neighbours, to use his detective skills and contacts. Her estranged husband, Peter, also an artist but one whose career has been eclipsed by his wife’s success, has failed to make an agreed rendezvous to reassess their marraige. Gamache ropes in his former detective partner and son in law Jean-Guy Beauvoir, to try and trace the missing man. Their search takes them on a journey into the darker side of the artistic world, revealing jealousies and the despair over unfulfilled talent.

A few Three Pines residents familiar from earlier novels make a reappearance in The Long Way Home including Gabi and Oliver who run the bistro which becomes the de facto search team HQ and Myrna the bookshop owner. The acerbic highly talented poet Ruth Zardo gets to show a side of her character hitherto unknown, providing critical insight Into the mind of the artist.

“Peter always had a ‘best before’ date stamped on his forehead,” said Ruth. “People who live in their heads do. They start out well enough, but eventually they run out of ideas. And if there’s no imagination, no inspiration to fall back on? Then what?”

Pride of place of course goes to Clara who makes it clear that although she wants the detective’s help, it’s her husband who is missing so she gets to decide how they find him.

All the elements exist for a very good mystery novel. The most enjoyable aspect of this book for me however lay beyond the discovery of what happened to Peter and related more to the themes that are woven throughout the pages.  Chief among these is the reconciliation and self enlightenment. The main characters in this book are all on a journey of some kind that will take them closer to understanding themselves and what matters most. (In her introduction, Penny says she was influenced by Homer’s The Odyssey and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness).

For Armand, the return to the procedures of detection rekindles his belief that while there is a world of beauty and love it is also one filled with killers and cruelty that he feels compelled to act and to stop. By the end of the novel he, like the village, has found a new sense of calm and of a new beginning.

What Louise Penny does next with this series will be very interesting to see. She hasn’t given any indication that this is the last Inspector Gamache story and having built such a strong protagonist whose ‘brand’ has resonated with millions of readers, why would she? But having retired him to one of the smallest communities in rural Quebec, it’s going to be tough to find convincing mysteries in which he can exercise his prowess.

End Notes
A Long Way Home was published in the UK in August 2014. Thanks to Sphere for providing me with an advance copy via NetGalley.

Louise Penny talked recently to NPR about her latest book. listen to the recording at


September Snapshot

Day 1 of a new month and it’s time to take a snapshot of what I’m reading, listening to and watching.


I’m in the closing stages of History of the Rain by Niall Williams which was long listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize. I enjoyed most of it, particularly the humourous reflections of its narrator Ruth Swain on the history of her eccentric family. At 19 years old she’s confined to bed by an unnamed blood disorder. Her attic room is filled with thousands of books once owned by her poet father. Through them Ruth tells his story and her own.

Next on my list to read is The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck, an author of Chinese origin whose work I’ve not experienced until now. The Good Earth, the first in a trilogy about family life in a Chinese village was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and influenced Buck’s award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.

Listening .

On the iPod is Elizabeth of York by Alison Weir. The Wars of the Roses period and the Tudor dynasty were staple topics on my school and college curricula but Elizabeth ( wife of one king, mother to another and grandmother to three monarchs) only got a small walk on part. Weir’s biography published in 2013 helps redress the balance.


I’m not watching anything much at the moment since all the hotel can offer its visitors who want English language programmes is the tedious BBC World  and the equally tedious CNN. Neither of these I find satisfying because they spend no more than about two minutes on a story before moving to the next. You get about five stories in the segment and then the next before we get some trailers for upcoming programmes and the  weather everywhere in the world except where you are at that precise moment. Then the whole cycle starts again as if they don’t believe that viewers can retain info for longer than 10 minutes. It’s rather like having a meal made entirely of appetisers.



The classics from page to screen

This month The Classics Club asks:


What are your thoughts on adaptions of classics? Sclassicsclub3ay mini-series or movies? Or maybe modern approaches? Are there any good ones? Is it better to read the book first? Or maybe just compare the book and an adaptation?

I grew up in an era when the BBC could be relied upon for high class productions based on classic novels. Watching these serials was a highlight of the week in my childhood and early adolescence. It was how I first experienced many  Dickens’ novels. Watching some of them now they feel rather stilted in comparison to the realistic dialogue and filmic qualities seen in recent adaptations. When you see that the screenplay is by Andrew Davies (the writer behind the version of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth ) there’s a pretty high level of certainty it will be worth watching.

As good as that version of Austen’s novel was, there are still some classic interpretations from an earlier era that have stood the test of time. My  three favourites are:

Middlemarch. BBC production from 1994 starring Juliet Aubrey and Rufus Sewell

Jewel in The Crown. The ITV adaptation of Paul Scott’s saga set in India broadcast in 1984 and featured superb performances by Peggy Ashcroft, Tim Piggott Smith and Geraldine James

Martin Chuzzlewit. Another 1994 BBC series. Tom Wilkinson as Mr Pecksniff is the creme of many fine performances

All of them withstand repeat viewings.

Watching them while you’re reading the actual book can help to fix the relationships between characters and multiple plot lines more clearly in the mind – particularly helpful with Dickens who can often have a large cast list and multiple plot strands. But they’re not a substitute for reading the book itself. Watching the adaptation of  Middlemarch you understand the ways that Eliot makes connections between the ambitions of Dorothea and those of Lydgate but what you can’t appreciate is the subtle way in which Eliot’s novel hows the whole of society as a web of connections. For that you have to get close and personal with the text itself.

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Cannery Row, Monteray

Cannery Row, Monteray

The last emotion I expected to experience with a John Steinbeck novel was laughter. My first encounter with him (Grapes of Wrath) hadn’t given me the impression he was anything other than depressing. So I resisted him for years. It was not until I joined a local book club who just happened to be reading Of Mice and Men that month, that I got an inkling that I’d misjudged the man. True it wasn’t very uplifting but there was a sense of  warmth and affection in his characters and tinges of humour mingled with the dispiriting nature of their predicament. Not quite ready to do battle with Grapes just however, I opted for the much shorter novel Cannery Row. It brought tears to my eyes, not of pity but of joy resulting from Steinbeck’s ability to wrest humour out of the most unlikely circumstances.

The is a novel which doesn’t have much of a plot. It’s more a collection of episodes about the people who live in the sardine canning district of Monterey, California. Today this is a small area crowded with tourists who swarm in and out of  souvenir shops and food outlets. In Steinbeck’s novel, Cannery Row is populated mainly by working-class people and a group of down-and-outs who live from one drink to another, begging, borrowing, stealing and fighting.  Their ringleader is the charismatic Mack, a man who if he put his mind to it would be smart enough to get a good job. But he prefers to lounge about on the fence, drinking a cocktail of slops from a local bar and doing odd jobs. He does however recognise a good turn when it comes his way. And no-one has been kinder to him and ‘the boys’ than Doc, a gentle, cultured man earning his living as a marine biologist.

Mack hits on the idea of trying to do something nice as a thank you for Doc: a surprise party.  Overcoming their first problem (a lack of money to fund the venture), they set about the plan with gusto.  Of course it all goes disastrously wrong causing extensive damage to Doc’s laboratory. Most people would have just given up at that point, but Mack is a resilient guy. He decides the only way to make amends is to throw another surprise party……. Is this any more successful? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

By the end of the book,  nothing has really changed. The characters go on living exactly as they have, good-naturedly co-existing within the community, through natural wit, innate goodness and genuine sense of community.

Look at them. There are your true philosophers. I think… that Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that ever will happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else.

Reflective at times, black comedic at others, this is a novel that seems to look fondly back to a time when Steinbeck believed life was somehow simpler;  a time when people could survive without money valued more for their companionship and the goodness of their hearts than the thickness of their wallet.  A little sentimental perhaps, maybe even naive but writing in the aftermath of the Great Depression and World War 2, it’s hardly surprising that Steinbeck del that his world had seen better days.



From a Crooked Rib by Nurruddin Farah

from a crooked rib

In his debut novel Nuruddin Farah turned the spotlight on the restrictions and limitations experienced by women in his native Somalia where women are considered not only inferior to men but as inherently flawed.

Woman has been created from a rib and the most crooked part of the rib is the uppermost. If you try to straighten it, you will break it.

From  a Crooked Rib is written from the viewpoint of one girl’s experience but through her, Farah shows that her predicament is one faced by many of his countrywomen. Ebla is an uneducated eighteen year old orphan who runs way from her nomadic settlement when she discovers her grandfather has promised her in marriage to an old man.  She hopes to make a new life for herself with a distant cousin and his wife in the city of  Mogadishu, but her inexperience and naivety make her ill equipped to deal with the reality of city life. She has never seen a plane or a car, has no idea what a policeman is and doesn’t know how to cook. Instead of enjoying an independent life, she is effectively sold in marriage by her cousin, then experiences sexual violence, poverty and a sham marraige.

Reflecting on her life, Ebla sees that she has simply swapped one form of servitude for another and is as powerless and dependent on men as she was in her desert home. She and other women are merely chattels in the eyes of the men, theirs to be “sold like cattle.”

In a short text of just 180 pages Farah challenges many of the preconceived and traditional values of his society. It’s a powerful story told through a character whose innocence and resilience engage our sympathy. As a work of fiction it has a number of flaws. The writing style for example often feels belaboured and sometimes the narrative seems to leave out critical pieces of information so we’re not entirely sure what is happening. But the importance of this work lies more in the subject matter than the way the story is told. In 1970 Farah dared to bring to attention and to question long held beliefs in the need for subjugation of women and practices like arranged marriage and female circumcision. From a Crooked Rib is not a book I will want to reread but it provided a fresh perspective on an issue I knew little about.

About this author

Nuruddin Farah (Somali: Nuuradiin Faarax, Arabic: نور الدين فرح‎) is a prominent Somali novelist. He was awarded the 1998 Neustadt International Prize for Literature.