Thursday, February 05, 2015

The Book Group

The first meeting

I have read many hundreds of books but never belonged to a reading group. I'm not a belonging-to-a-group sort of person, really. I like to get on with things in my own quiet way. However, when I saw the list of groups on offer in the newly formed U3A (University of the Third Age) in the village, I decided to sign up for a book group as well as gardening, craft, genealogy, local history and strolling (as distinct from walking and rambling).

I went along to the first meeting in the local library not really knowing what to expect.There were five of us, ranging in age from late sixties to mid-eighties, plus Rowena, the convener of the group. She had emailed each of us, asking us to be prepared to speak briefly about a book of our choice as we hadn't yet been issued with a group book. 

The first person to introduce her book had chosen Rose Tremain's Merivel: A Man of His Time. Unfortunately, she misunderstood the request to speak briefly and gave a detailed description of background, plot, character and style, reading long passages to illustrate her points. This took up so much of our hour that there was little time for the rest of us to speak and no time at all for discussion. Among the other books chosen were Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel and Daughter's-in-Law by Joanna Trollope. I had chosen one of my favourite comfort reads for the depth's of winter: Elizabeth von Arnim's The Enchanted April. I was greatly surprised to find that no-one else had heard of the book or the author. I tried to keep an open mind about the company I was about to keep!

Rowena then indicated a pile of extremely large books on a side table - veritable tomes! These were our copies of the first group book.
The response was interesting. Margaret grunted, "I'm not reading that!" Kay, who has severe arthritis in her hands said, "I can't carry that to my car." The rest of us were struck speechless at the thought of getting through more than 800 pages over the Christmas period with family and friends arriving any day but we picked up our books and headed for home. The only male member of the group proved to be a perfect gentleman and carried Kay's book to the car park for her; I have no doubt that lugging two copies of The Luminaries half way across the village should earn him a knighthood.

 The book

(Warning - spoiler ahead!)

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton was published by Granta in 2013 and won the Man Booker Prize that year. It is 832 pages long and a heavy, cumbersome book to handle. Not one for reading on the beach or the train. 

My first impression was that it was a historical novel with a murder mystery at its heart. The story is set in 1866 in the goldfields of New Zealand. The syntax, clothing,setting and dialogue are all appropriately Victorian and I settled down to a "sensation novel" in the style of Wilkie Collins. I soon discovered that this atmosphere, like everything in the book, changes as the story progresses.

I realised very early in the first chapter that this was to be a shaggy dog story. However, it is a beautifully crafted one, a well-written and compelling page-turner. Even though I realised that Ms Catton was making a fool of me, I reluctantly admired her audacity and skill.

This might easily have been a historical novel: there is plenty of authentic detail about life in the gold rush; it could equally have been a murder mystery but the circular and contradictory nature of the investigations rules that out. It has intrigue, double-dealing, mysterious deaths, prostitution, drugs and even a little romance but all of these threads are so interwoven and unfinished that it becomes obvious that it isn't a book with a plot at all.

There are lots of prominent characters in the story. Each is introduced in great detail and each has a story to tell and yet we can't get to grips with any of them. Each revelation means that we know them less well than the last time we encountered them. So, it isn't a book about characters or character. In most novels, the characters develop but in The Luminaries, they unravel.

The more I read, the less I knew or understood. The astrological tables, the detailed historical and geographical setting, the complex characters and the intricate plot all end in insignificance. In the end the plot slips away and neither the characters nor the events matter. Nothing has any substance.

The Discussion

When we met at the beginning of January, the discussion was very lively. Margaret, true to her threat, hadn't read the book at all. Kay had found it very difficult to physically handle the book because of its size and weight but had persevered. Two new members, joined us, a married couple who had read the book together and had spent a lot of time on the Internet checking up on the facts presented in the story; their most interesting discovery came from putting some of the pieces of Chinese and Maori dialogue into an on line translator and finding they were utter nonsense.

Several people believed that they had read a murder mystery and were satisfied that it all made sense in the end. Most felt as I did, that a very talented writer had used her considerable skills to produce an elaborate spoof. She won the Man Booker prize; it would be fitting if they had paid her in fool's gold.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The last thing on my mind

Days slipped into weeks then into months and now a whole year has passed since my last post on Random Distractions. Here we are in the midst of wintry weather and that was the thing on my mind when I last wrote.

I can't claim  excuses of going off to war, being forced to leave my home or even going on holiday for my absence but some explanation is required. The early months of last year were filled with hospital visits as my husband had major surgery on his spine. The hospital is 70 miles away so the outpatient visits took whole days and I had to take up residence in the city while he had his surgery. That took care of several months, when writing really was the last thing on my mind. I'm afraid that the longer I stayed away from the keyboard the harder it became to get back to it and lo, a year has passed!

I fear I have probably lost all of my old friends but, just in case anyone still looks in, here is a huge apology for going away with no word of farewell.

So, what does 2015 have in store? Top of my wishlist is good health for all my family and friends. I'm delighted to say that my husband is mobile again - no crutches or sticks but no more 5 mile walks before breakfast. That doesn't mean that I see more of him, however, as he used to set off at dawn every morning and would be home again before I woke. Nowadays he has to content himself with a couple of hours studying languages: stretching his mind instead of his legs.

Speaking of stretching minds, our village has just set up a branch of the University of the Third Age (U3A) and we are both very busy developing new skills and practising old ones. All that language study is coming in useful  for the MM as he is leading groups in French, German and Spanish. I have joined a book group (more of that another day) and genealogy, gardening and craft groups. We have both joined the "strolling group" as the walking and long-walking groups are beyond our current competence. It is all very exciting and we have met dozens of people. The dullest village in England has suddenly become extremely interesting. And that just as we are about to leave!

Yes, after several years of thinking and talking about it, we have decided to leave Devon and move to the Oxford area to be close to our lovely daughter and grandchildren. We will also be much closer than at present to our son and his family. We will all miss the sea and sand but we wil have beautiful countryside instead. Now we are busy decluttering and doing all those little repair jobs that have been put off over the 25 years we have lived in this house. I will miss my garden but I am looking forward to finding a modern easy to care for house. Eighteenth century cottages are full of character but also  full of problems, usually very expensive to fix.

I'll be back soon with reports on my recent reading for the U3A book group. I hope this reaches someone but a comment or two would probably be more than I deserve. Still, here's hoping.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Stormy weather

My posts about Devon usually boast photos of sandy beaches, stunning coastline and sun-drenched cottage gardens. Unfortunately, like much of the rest of southern England, we are having a tough winter and we are all wondering if things will ever be the same again.

The wet weather started in December and, apart from a few brief bright spells, it has gone on and on and on with no end in sight. As well as the never-ending rain, we are currently experiencing storms and high tides here on the coast. Our beaches are being swept away, our rail link to the rest of England has been cut off, seafront homes and businesses are being destroyed while further inland, farms and villages are suffering badly. Here is a clip from an ITV news report showing some of the damage:

I wonder if Ikea make a flatpack ark?

Thursday, January 09, 2014

January reflections

Belated New Year greetings to all. I had intended posting this piece earlier but I saw that my son had introduced his New Year post on The Dabbler with allusions to Janus, just as  was intending to do here. Now that his post is history, I've decided to use mine!
Many people find January a gloomy and depressing month but I like the opportunity to look back and towards the future at the same time.  The New Year isn't so much a time for making Resolutions, (pie-crust promises as Mary Poppins might say),  as for getting things into perspective.

For many years, January was a sad month for us: my father died on January second; a few years later my younger sister, barely thirty years old, died on January twenty-third and, just a few years later, my mother died on January twenty-fourth. I used to dread the coming of January with its feelings of loss and grief and I couldn't bear New Year celebrations. As time has passed, though, happy memories have taken precedence and I find it is good to have this specific time in the year when I look back on the lives of my parents and sister and recall all the positive aspects of their lives. My brother and older sister and I share funny stories from our childhood - there is nothing like laughter to put things into perspective: it overwhelms sadness just as light overwhelms darkness.

I always think of Janus on January 23rd. Not only is it the anniversary of my sister's death but also the day on which I twice had life-saving surgery, the same day in consecutive years. As anyone who is "in remission" knows, there is always an element of fear as check-ups and anniversaries approach but the image of Janus reminds me that each year I have further to look back on; years filled now with precious memories. Hope, like laughter, is a powerful antidote to gloom.

I'm going to invent a new word and describe the opening of a new diary as Janusistic. I sit with last year's diary and transfer significant dates to the new one, then I take out all the appointment cards that I've kept in the back of the old one while waiting for the new one to arrive.  What an opportunity to practise saying, "Goodness, is it so long since ......." at the same time, recognising that the teeth, feet, eyes and ears are all another year older!

Filling in the dental appointments is the task I like least.  I think of all the money I pay to be tortured! Not by my lovely dentist, I must hasten to say, but by the hygienist who offers spurious excuses for the agonising scraping and poking at my poor ivories and gums; it takes days for me to recover. On a brighter note, the waiting room always has tubs of sample tubes of different toothpastes. I like to pick up a few as they are the perfect size for overnight or weekend visits. One such sample intrigued me: the manufacturer noted the herbal ingredients and stated that many people found that, after using the toothpaste for14 days,  they quite liked it. I don't know which PR firm they employ.
It was 6 January 1989 when we moved from Hampshire to Devon. Looking back over the 25 years that we have lived in this house, we see many changes. We arrived here with a young son and daughter, they are now grown  with children of their own. The quiet village has grown into a busy thoroughfare, taking traffic to the beaches. We have been talking about leaving for several years and perhaps 2014 will see that happen. The great de-clutter has begun! Grandchildren Millie and Ben are very keen to have us move close to them, in fact so close that they want to build a house for us in their garden. They spent hours designing the ideal home for us:
It is a house with many doors and windows. Ben chose the shapes and colours, Millie did the drawing. There are enough rooms for us to entertain everyone we know. I can't wait to get there!
I know that the weather is a real problem for many people, this January but I hope that the freezing conditions in US and the floods in UK will soon be over and that everyone has a good year ahead.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas Greetings

Very best wishes for Christmas and the New Year to all!  I hope you will enjoy this selection of carols from King's College, Cambridge.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


I couldn't let the year end without one last attempt to write something here. Life does have a tendency to get in the way of reading and writing blogs these days.  My fingers have been busy making and baking rather than typing.

My mother and two sisters were really good at creating lovely things to wear, while I spent hours unpicking my uneven seams and dipping hems. My attempts usually ended in the dustbin or rag bag. It has taken the advent of grandchildren to get me to take up a needle again and nowadays I even use a sewing machine!

It all began with little quilts for cots and then aprons for toddlers and now I am responding to requests for dressing up outfits. This year the children will be snow leopards and cheetahs in these outfits:
I'm sure they will look better with children inside.

Then they all needed sweaters and hats; here are just a few:

and Ben wants to be a Jedi knight so I made him a robe:

One of my friends had enough confidence in my new-found sewing skills to commission some aprons to give as Christmas presents for her teenage daughter and friends. Cupcakes galore and a smarter one for herself.

I've made candles and cakes, mince pies and cookies and today will be chocolate-making day. How I wish my mother could see me now!  Each success I've had has boosted my confidence and I think I would probably have a go at any new challenge now. It is lovely to surprise others and even better to surprise myself.  Perhaps my next challenge should be to get back to blogging regularly in the New Year, now that would surprise you!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

How to win friends

When we moved to the countryside from the city, twenty-five years ago, we were struck by the open friendliness of people. Passers-by would nod or smile, shopkeepers would chat and neighbours quickly became friends. There has been a gradual change: village life is drawing ever-closer to city life. Now,  bumping into people in the village has taken on a literal meaning as they walk along reading and sending text messages. There is no need to stop for a chat or to seek out the local gossip since the most private of affairs are bellowed into mobile phones for everyone to hear.

I, however, have found a way of grabbing attention.
 Meet Ruby, a twelve week old cocker spaniel who belongs to my friend, Dr P.  I look after her on Fridays while Dr P is on duty. When Ruby and I go out for a walk, everyone stops to admire her and to talk doggy-talk. We have made friends with a whole range of people from babies to octogenarians; even teenagers have put their mobile phones in their pockets in order to pet Ruby. 

This experience reminds me of walking around Hampstead, pushing my first grandchild in her pram. People would smile fondly at her if she was laughing or sleeping and sympathetically at me if she was crying. Shop assistants would chat about their own babies or grandchildren. London seemed a very friendly place.

I wonder why we need the excuse of a baby or a puppy to make contact with strangers? Is it just because we are English or is this a universal trait? Were we friendlier in the past or is that my imagination?  A friend came to visit us yesterday. He recently retired and is having a wonderful time travelling around England's canals on his narrow boat. He said that people will wave from the towpath, offer to help with the locks, walk alongside the slowly moving boat and chat about boating and life in general. But..... when he moors the boat and walks to the pub or the local shop he becomes a stranger again and is totally ignored.

Maybe a puppy, a baby or a boat is a kind of visibility cloak, temporarily singling us out as interesting or perhaps "safe" people to speak to. Whatever the reason, I am enjoying Fridays in the park with Ruby.