The Managers Guide to Employee Feedback

The Managers Guide to Employee Feedback by Glenn Devey is essential reading for all managers, no matter how experienced you believe you are. Even as a manager of seven years I found the tips in this book to be useful, backed up as they are by real-life examples. In fact, I’ve been on management training courses that weren’t as well considered or developed as this little book. Continue reading “The Managers Guide to Employee Feedback”

Attracting IT Graduates to Your Business

I wish An Coppens all the best, of course, but I’m at a loss as to the purpose of her book ‘Attracting IT Graduates to Your Business‘. Much of the focus, at least in terms of examples given, is on mega-business. Microsoft. Google. Facebook. That’s all very well but, if you’re hiring for a mega-business then these tips are already likely to be ingrained into your company culture – and, if you’re not, then you probably can’t afford to hire in quite the same way that they do. That’s not to say that a small business can’t attract excellent graduates, of course, just that they techniques that they’ll need to use are rather different. Continue reading “Attracting IT Graduates to Your Business”

The Xcode 4 Cookbook

The Xcode 4 Cookbook (by Stephen F. Daniel) is the most misleadingly named titled that I’ve read in a while. If you’re after an Xcode 4 Cookbook and you’re planning a little Mac OS X development then, make no mistake, you’re in the wrong place. If you’re after an iOS Cookbook (that name is already taken hence, I suppose, this title) then read on – this book might be right up your street.

Continue reading “The Xcode 4 Cookbook”

The Meaning of Liff

Ambridge (n.)
Indecisiveness brought on by a lack of concern for the actual outcome.

Borchester (n.)
The peculiar form of bloated heartburn engendered by eating too many potatoes too quickly.

Felpersham (n.)
The feeling you get on realising that the driver of the car that you are travelling in is an Archers addict, and the time is swiftly approaching 7PM.

 

Fear and Trembling

As every good reviewer knows, one should never judge a book by its cover.  If one were to ignore that rule then the Penguin Great Ideas edition of Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard would garner the highest praise.  The cover design of slightly embossed text is plain but beautiful and, unlike many publishers these days, Penguin employs typesetters who understand the importance of ligatures.  This is a book that feels wonderful and is a joy to look at.

No, one should never judge a book by its cover.  The only sound way to review a book is by its smell.  Open it up and bury your nose in its pristine pages – only then will you truly know whether the book in your hand is worth a second glance.  A book may have many smells: knowledge, excitement, adventure, romance, paper, ink and glue.  Mainly paper, ink and glue I concede.  Try it for yourself.  Grab your favourite novel and, lets say, the Microsoft Windows user manual.  The Windows manual will probably have you reaching for a bucket – which is entirely appropriate considering the subject matter.  Fear & Trembling, on the other hand, smells unexciting but mind expanding which I put down to the high solvent content of its raw material.

I mentioned earlier that Fear and Trembling is a joy to look at.  It isn’t, however, a joy to read.  That isn’t to say that it’s not interesting – but it is a bit of a headful and it’ll take longer to read than its diminutive 152 pages suggest.  I’m a fast reader, I can polish off the Lord of the Rings in a week (although I admit that I do tend to skip the dire poetry and the boring battles, which helps).  It took me the same amount of time to read Fear and Trembling, because I’d reach the end of a section and, realising that I hadn’t fully grasped the concepts, have to reread it.  If you have no interest in philosophy and theology then you probably won’t want to put the necessary effort in and if, like me, you’re an amateur in the field then you’d be better off dipping into it rather than reading it in one go.

It’s a dangerous book too, because it doesn’t present a cut-and-dried philosophy for the reader to accept or ignore.  It retells and then dismantles the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, subjecting it to the kind of forensic analysis that’ll boil the blood of any dyed in the wool ‘it’s in the Bible so it must be true’ zealot.  It considers whether Abraham’s faith was justified and whether or not he was on ethically sound ground.  There are people who attempt filicide today, claiming that their offspring are demonically possessed or that they were acting under orders from God.  We, rightly, lock them up for the loonies that they are, but how are they any different from Abraham?  Of course, the Bible, and the Old Testament in particular, is full of nasty, violent, prejudiced and contradictory claptrap.  The intelligent mind questions it and excises the poison from the basic worthwhile message, but one can understand how the socio and psychopathically inclined (think of Alex from A Clockwork Orange or any number of real life cult leaders) are drawn to it like flies to rotting meat.  All Kierkegaard does is shine a light on this paradox.  According to Kierkegaard, Abraham chooses faith (do as God says, unquestioningly) over morals (thou shalt not kill).  In doing so, Abraham surrenders free choice and becomes an automaton for another Mind.  Even today, there are zealots in every creed who claim that, like Abraham, their faith is the most important thing in their lives.  Like Kierkegaard I’d argue that they are dangerous and that the world would be better if they lived their lives morally instead.  A truly faithful person can abdicate responsibility for their actions and commit the most appalling atrocities.

I’ve long believed that one should never accept only one point of view and that everything should be questioned – and Kierkegaard goes far beyond my own limited enquiries.  Fear and Trembling should be read by anyone, of any faith, who claims to have any interest, however limited, in religion.  It is not an easy read but, if nothing else, it’s laid out nicely and it smells quite pleasant.

Small Island

Okay.  This is my second stab at writing the minutes.  The first was creative.  Even by my standards.  It was also entertainingly abusive.  But you won’t be reading any of it because a) I absent mindedly threw it away.  Irrevocably. Or b) I only dreamed I wrote them  – in which case I need to get myself some better dreams.  I’m going with the a) theory, but I must admit that the b) theory isn’t entirely out of the question.  Whatever.  Either way I can’t be arsed to be creative again, so what you get is what you get.  Provided I don’t absent mindedly trash these minutes as well.

Sangeeta, unfortunately, couldn’t come.  A double pity since she chose a very nice pub – with no smoking. Always a bonus.  James thinks that she might have been sick with desire for him, but I think that she was just feeling a bit ill – as, indeed, I would be if I fancied James.  Get well soon, Sangeeta.  Sarah couldn’t come either.  That, incidentally, isn’t my fault.  I hope.  Paul was also absent.  Absent and suspected of having been kidnapped by the moonies.  Jon pointed out that he seemed a bit distracted last time we saw him, and James suspects Paul has relocated to Waco.  I hope not.  Finally, Claire couldn’t come either because she’s still trying on new shoes.

The book we read was Small Island by Andrea Levy.  It was Sangeeta’s choice.  Jon enjoyed it.  It was, he said, very well done.  The characters were convincing.  he was surprised when Bernard started narrating his own story – Jon had assumed that he’d be the villain character, and that he’d never introduce himself.  He liked the way that the different points of view contradicted each other.  It was sometimes heavy handed, and Jon wasn’t particularly keen on the fly-and-dog-shit brooch.  Dog shit.  It’s quite a pleasant phrase isn’t it?  It trips off the tongue in such a way as bring a smile to even the glummest face.  Jon didn’t think the book was profound, but it was easy to read – although the opening chapter, Queenie in Africa, was rubbish.  He read somewhere that Small Island is the most popular book for reading groups at the moment, and that just about says it all.  He reiterated that Time’s Arrow was awful.

Ilona enjoyed the book.  She read it very quickly over a week – she thought that she’d missed bookclub and thereby cunningly escaped the tedium of having to read a book.  On discovering that she hadn’t missed anything after all, she panicked and read it in a rush – discovering that reading isn’t so bad after all.  She liked the different perspectives on the same incidents, and she found Small Island to be a real page turner, an easy read.  It was interesting to see the way the characters developed.  I may have gotten some of that wrong.  Whilst writing the minutes I also seemed to be busy inventing new letters – the result being that I can’t actually read my notes.  Ilona also liked the way that the characters spoke in dialect.  She could ‘hear’ them speak.  John concurred.  Ilona thought that the story was quite upbeat, and she couldn’t take it entirely seriously.

James thought that the book was very realistic – he could visualise the period.  He had mixed feelings about it, also the balance was in favour of his positive thoughts.  He was particularly concerned by the opening chapters – he thought that the book would be in-your-face and worthy.  Most of his fears were allayed until the coincidence, the reappearance of Michael Roberts, which James didn’t think quite rang true (i.e. he thought it was bollocks).  On the upside, he liked the title.  And he liked the way that nothing sensational happened.  He felt that it was steeped in realism, with credible characters.  So, overall, okay.  With a few niggles.

I agreed that the coincidence was a load of bollocks.  I found Small Island to be quite slow to get into, and it certainly wasn’t a page turner.  I didn’t dislike it, but I wasn’t gripped either – and so it took me longer than usual to read.  I liked the way the characters evolved as the story progressed – there was no black and white, just shades of grey.  Bernard turned out to have a redeeming feature, and Queenie displayed the capacity to be callous.  The only character that I felt was good through-and-through was Gilbert.  I certainly wasn’t gripped enough to want to read anything else by that author.

Sangeeta found Small Island to be a well written and touching novel that explored the theme of post war racism in a moving and sometimes humorous manner. She liked the way the characters were developed throughout the book and thought that the topic was handled sensitively. She thought that Queenie was probably the best character in terms of her naïvety at what to expect from the English way of life and her sad disillusionment at the reality. I guess that since Queenie was English, Sangeeta actually meant Hortense. She liked Gilbert the least, finding him a bit boring, and she thought that some of the war dialogue was a bit long. Overall though she really enjoyed the book – very insightful and a good story.

Sarah didn’t really believe in the characters in Small Island and she didn’t really like them either.  She enjoyed the picture painted of Jamaica in terms of the carnival, the dress, the culture and the food. She was interested in they viewed England as a mother nation even though England couldn’t care less and, as they discovered, treated them very badly when they made it ‘home’.  Gilbert was okay and Sarah wanted something good to happen regarding Michael and Ms. Trouble but it never did.  Maybe it’s because nothing really ‘good’ happens in Small Island that Sarah lost interest.  Everything was tough for everyone and no-one was particularly happy. It gets to be depressing after a while!

Jon also read art books.  He’s halfway through his course, and he’s enjoying it.  He finds medieval perspective boring though.  He’s also been reading Chronicles by Bob ‘short for Kate’ Dylan.  It’s terrific.  There’s no ghost writer, and there’s a great sense of atmosphere.  He could smell the clubs that Bob played it.  It’s a pity that Bob forgot so much because he was drugged up – but he liked the sense of bewilderment in waking up in a new place with no idea how he got there.  It was a bit like On The Road.  Only good. Fantastic.  He’s gearing up for Chronicles II.

Emphyrio by Jack Vance is good fun.  It’s about a kid growing up on a planet dedicated to making arts & crafts, which are then sold across the galaxy.  The heroes father is executed for using a photocopier.  Jon bought the book because he liked the look of the cover. And that’s true. I didn’t make it up.

Jon will be enjoying The Smoking Diaries next month.

Ilona half read The Dice Man by Luke Rheinhart. It’s about a man who makes all his daily decisions by rolling dice and, Jon says, is inspired by a song by The Fall. It’s readable, but not recommendable.  Not exciting at all, and so she got distracted by another book…

…Which was also rubbish. The blurb for Nobody Loves a Ginger Baby by Laura Marnie suggested that it was comical.  It wasn’t. The best bit was the ending – but only because Ilona could get on with reading something better.

The Journal of Mortifying Moments by Robin Hardy is an easy read about a woman with relationship problems, it’s written like a diary.  James commented that it sounds like a hell-fest, but apparently it’s very funny.

Dot Homme by Jane Moore is about a woman who was bought an ad on a dating site by a friend.  With friends like that eh? Apparently it’s very good.

Ilona did read one good, non trashy book.  The Pact by Jodi Picault is about a murder investigation into a suicide pact.  It’s well written, and told from many different points of view. She has nothing else do say – but she said it with enthusiasm.

James read my minutes. They were great.  The best work of fiction that he read that week.  He also wrote a speech – and, apparently, that was great too.

He also read La Pest by Albert Camus.  He read it in French, in case you didn’t guess from the title.  It’s an allegory for the invasion of France by the Germans.  It’s steeped in realism and very good.

To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee is terrific.  Actually,  James hasn’t finished reading it yet so he shouldn’t really be talking about it here.  He hasn’t even got to the trial yet.  He’s loving it, and knows that he won’t be disappointed.

The Empire position of the month is standing at the bar.  Getting drunk.

I read The Riddle of the Titanic by Robin Gardiner.  It was a big load of conspiratorial clap-trap.  Utter shite.  I didn’t finish it.  Apparently the Titanic didn’t sink.  It was another ship.  For the record, I think it was the Titanic that sank – but even if it didn’t, it was still a bloody big disaster.  End of story.  And no, I don’t think that the White Star Line deliberately sank her.  Piffle.

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling was crap.  Harry Potter is an annoying little shit.  And I was still conned into reading the damn book.  And you know what?  When the next book comes out I just know that I’ll end up reading that too.

Fortunately, The Rotters Club by Jonathan Coe was great.  Unputdownable.  I was only a toddler at the time the book was set, but I still remember the sights and smells clearly.  Besides, the knackered old busses and unionism persisted into the eighties.  It describes the town where I grew up.  I will be buying the sequel.  Pure nostalgic delight.

The Model by Anaïs Nin is great.  Get it now in Penguin 70’s.  She is the mistress of erotic story telling.  Can’t be beaten.  Hmm.  Actually, beatings have been known to take place in her stories!

Sangeeta also read Morality for Beautiful Girls, The Kalahari Typing School for Men, The Cupboard Full of Life and In the Company of Cheerful Ladies. These are the remaining books in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith and, as you can see, she is addicted! The books are highly entertaining, very light reading but full of wry humour.

The Time Travellers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger is a very good book about a man who time travels through life and about his relationship with his eventual wife. It has a slightly confusing style as it moves between years and places but it is worth persevering. The description of how their relationship progresses is, at times, very moving – the girls will probably need their hankies at the end.

The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman is an excellent book. It is Szpilman’s personal account of his life in German occupied Warsaw during the second world war and his extraordinary struggle to survive the torture and horror of this time. It’s really well written and manages to avoid being over sentimental despite the emotional torment and heartbreak he suffered. It was made into a harrowing film.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith is an interesting book which covers the interlinking lives of three different cultures and their family backgrounds. Sangeeta really enjoyed it and found it quite humourous.

Brother and Sister by Joanna Trollope explores an adopted brother and sister’s struggle to find their biological parents and the effect it has on their lives. It’s entertaining but nothing special.

The Mango Season by Amulya Malludi is about an Indian girl who gets sent to America to study and work. She gets engaged to an American, but when she returns to India (during the mango season) she finds that her family are trying to arrange her marriage. The book explores her changed attitudes to the traditional views of her family, and her eventual revelation about her true life. The book is also interspersed with delicious mango recipes.

The Best a Man Can Get by John O’Farrell is a light and entertaining read about a man who leads a double life, unable to deal with true domesticity. Eventually his wife finds out he has been spending half his time living in a bachelor flat and she is not amused. It’s a entertaining look at how the male mind works.

Shopaholic Abroad by Sophie Kinsella is the second book in the shopaholic series and it is just as hilarious as the first. It’s nothing intellectual, but it is a laugh out loud read.

Sarah did read some other books.  I know.  I saw her reading them.  She can’t remember what they were though.  Actually, neither can I.  So perhaps I only imagined seeing her read them.  It’s possible.

I feel I should also point out the I saw The Pixies live.  Again.  They were great.  They always are.  Kim Deal is a Goddess.  Sarah saw them too, and was most taken with Joey Santiago’s superb axemanship. David Lovering is the human incarnation of Animal – no-one bangs the drums like he bangs the drums.  And as for Frank Black.  I wish I could howl like he can howl.  Tame?  Not even slightly. Jon also saw The Pixies, and he loved them too.  He saw them at Reading.  James an Ilona didn’t see them.  They are the weakest link.  But I’ll forgive them.

This month we will mostly be reading The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  I’ve only read the blurb so far, but it looks like it’ll be a good ‘un.

Cloud Atlas

The sky was grey and featureless, and the wind lashed down the deserted streets of the city.  Those that survived the plague huddled for warmth in their homes, and burned whatever they could in metal bins to provide heat.  The electricity had finally failed months earlier after a protracted death in which the ailing substations died one after another, some in a shower of sparks and some with barely a whimper.  The air smelled of burned metal, faeces and decay.  A rat twitched in the gutter, its life nearly spent, as evil smelling water, iridescent with rainbow hues of green, pink and yellow, surged past it.  The sickness seemed to have been more devastating to the rodent population than it had been to the human citizens so, whilst men and women could still be seen scurrying nervously between one shelter and another, rats were now a very rare sight indeed.  There was good eating on a rat, it was said, but rats that showed signs of infection were wisely avoided.

On this evening though, the streets were not quite as deserted as they first seemed.  One man strode briskly through the dead leaves and abandoned crisp packets that decorated the pavements.  His hands were thrust deeply into the frayed pockets of his coat, and his collar was turned up against chilly evening air.  A casual observer might have commented on his scruffy hair, or perhaps his handsome aquiline nose.  When pressed, that un-named observer might have recalled the purposeful manner with which the man covered the distance.

Most buildings were dark, having neither candles nor oil lamps.  One was different though, and a warm glow spilled out of its un-shuttered windows.  A sign hung over the door, showing a ruddy faced, red coated, bewigged nobleman.  Gold lettering named him as the Lord John Russell.  It was into this building that the man walked, and greeted another man who was sitting in a prominent position, with a drink on the table by his side. “Hello, Jon”, he said, “How are you?”

“Mmph”, said the man sitting down, “mmph fine.  Bu’ ’ve g’oh too fache.  Ow’wer you, Pax?”

“I’m okay”, said the man with the aquiline nose. “Can I get you a drink?”

“Yes, but make it an orange juice and lemonade please”, said Jon, “and make it quick.  I’m bored with all this tiresome dialogue.  I thought that something exciting was going to happen with the diseased town and the rat.  Incidentally, do you like the way my toothache has mysteriously cured itself?”

“No, no” Jon continued, as Pascal began to splutter out a reply “please don’t answer that.  I don’t really care – and I’d much rather be reading the minutes…”

“I see”, said Pascal tersely. “These would be the minutes of the meeting we’re just about to have, would they?  The minutes for a meeting that the others haven’t yet turned up to? Okay – but you can get your own drink, and I’m not responsible for any changes to reality that this will invariably cause.”  With that, he turned in the direction of the door and pulled a ring out of his pocket.  The ring was silver and fairly plain, ornamented only with strange runes that he claimed meant ‘Peace, Hope & Love’ in some strange and forgotten language.  The truth was that he didn’t really know what the runes meant, and he was merely parroting the explanation given to him by his sister some years previously.  He put the ring on his finger, gripped it with the other hand and purposefully twisted it through 180 degrees – and disappeared.  There was nothing dramatic about his disappearance; he just ceased to exist.  He ceased ever to have been and, as he did, the sun came out and the streets of the town bustled into life.  In that instant, the electric lights came on and the candles went out without so much as a twist of smoke or the oily smell of burnt wax.

Jon was sitting at a table in the pub.  He still had toothache – not all the side effects of the vanishing were good.  The recently disappeared Pascal reappeared – but this time more conventionally, on foot and through the open door.  Over the next half hour, others appeared to join them – first Sangeeta, then Sarah, and finally James.  So claimed the minutes, at any rate.  This is what else they said.

They commented on the absence of one time member Paul Frew.  By general consent, his name wasn’t spoken – the others feared meeting the same fate.  Paul had disappeared some months earlier on a clandestine mission to the library.  Some feared that he had gotten lost in the labyrinthine maze of books – but others, the mysterious Pascal included, believed that he had been eaten by a ravenous librarian after trying to return a tome that was more than two years overdue.

Ilona was similarly missing, although she had been seen more recently.  From her infrequent communications it was learned that she was fighting a losing battle with a particularly ill-tempered copy of Cloud Atlas, one that was determinedly trying to suck her brains out.

The reason for Claire’s absence was well known.  She had nobly rendered herself immobile after running out of bookmarks.  Rather than risk creasing the spines of her charges, she nibbled off one of her own feet in order to use her toes to mark pages.  A medal of some kind will be shipped to her if we can get one struck before she bleeds to death through her leg stump.

Of the older members, and now honorary members, Sharon was also missing in action – believed buried under a massive pile of beach fiction, somewhere in Queensland.  Vic bravely fighting her way through Waterstones, trying to decide which of the many books had the prettiest cover.

“I chose it”, declared Jon, talking about Cloud Atlas, “because I’d read two of the authors previous works.  I really enjoyed David Mitchell’s other work, so this was too good to miss.  It felt like a bit of a rewrite of Ghostwritten, but it was more structured and a superior story.”

The League’s resident art historian sipped thoughtfully from his glass of orange juice and lemonade.  “I liked the way man’s cleverness and violence leads to his own downfall – and I loved the nuclear power station thriller.”

“That’s all very well”, retorted Sangeeta, making a welcome return to The League of Extraordinary Bookreaders after her recent absence, “but the journal at the beginning of Cloud Atlas was very dull.”

“Actually”, she confessed, “I haven’t finished reading it yet.  Please could you hold up a sign warning me of any plot spoilers you plan to throw into the conversation?”  The other members duly assented to this request.  “I was gripped”, Sangeeta continued, “from chapter two onwards, and I particularly liked the subtle links between the stories and the huge jumps from one time to another.  It’s a unique book and I’m looking forward to finding out where the story leads.  I’m slooshing around Sloosha’s Crossing at the moment, but I keep needing to re-read earlier chapters to remind myself what’s already happened.”

“This is an excellent book,” she finished, “David Mitchell is clearly a very imaginative chap.  Is he on drugs!?”

“It’s very influenced by pop-culture, isn’t it?”, said James, the Leagues resident intellectual wit.  He pushed his half rimmed glasses up his nose, leaned back and harrumphed.  “I mean, it rather reminded me of 2001 – A Space Odyssey, if you know what I mean.  Mass extinctions and what-not.”

Sarah exchanged a sympathetic glance with Pascal.  “I think his batteries need changing”, she said.  “He often burbles when he’s low on power.”

“No, no”, said James, “I mean the way the book often went off at a tangent and became difficult to follow.  It always explained itself in the end though”.

“It always explained itself, did it?” said Pascal irritably. “Well, I wish you would.  You’re making no sense at all.”

Ignoring the rude interruption, James continued; “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle you see, where one randomly plonks pieces down and eventually builds up a picture.  A bit like Magnolia, which is a very good film with Tom Cruise in.”

“I thought it was great”, said Pascal, the Leagues resident encyclopaedic brain. “I didn’t like the cover though.  Once I got past that obstacle though, I was gripped from the first story to, well, the end of the first story!  It’s a compelling novel from the first page to the last.  The sub-plots were fantastic all the way through, but I couldn’t see the relevance of the birth mark and…”

“You cretin!”, said Sarah scornfully. “All the main characters in the book are the same soul – that’s what the birthmark signifies.”  She sniggered in a self-congratulatory manner.

“Oh”, blustered Pascal.  He stuttered as his brain attempted to digest this new information.  “But”, he said, regrouping magnificently “how can that be true given that only one story can be guaranteed true in the ‘book universe’.”  He held up a hastily scrawled sign warning of a plot spoiler. “’Sloosha’s Crossing’ is the top level of the story, and can be regarded as true.  ‘An Orison of Sonmi’ is analogous to The Bible, and can be regarded as being about as factual.  It all goes downhill from there.  ‘Timothy Cavendish’ is a film that may or may not be factual, and ‘Luisa Rey’ is a thriller.  The soul theory unravels.”  He grinned, and secretly thanked his magic ring for giving him the ability to alter time in such a way that he could come up with a good riposte to Sarah’s criticism.

“I liked the way elements of the story seemed to be derived from other sources, greatly increasing its believability.”

“I liked the cover”, said Sarah, the Leagues most glamorous glider pilot, leaping to its defence.  “I thought it was pretty, and it made me want to buy the book even before Jon suggested it for book club.  I loved the style, the detail and the spellings.  By the way, did I mention that I thought the cover was nice too?”

James interjected to agree.  “I liked the way &c. was used instead of etc. in the first story”, he said.  Pascal geekily pointed out that & is merely a ligature, a combination of e & t, or et.

“Fascinating,” said Sarah impatiently, and continued “I particularly liked the conspicuous branding throughout Sonmi. I found the unfinished stories a little confusing until…” She paused, and scrabbled for the ‘Plot Spoiler’ sign.  Sangeeta hastily trust her fingers into her ears. “…until I realised that the endings of the unfinished stories would be revealed later in the book.”

“I can still hear you”, Sangeeta complained.

The others in the league smiled.  There wasn’t a lot that could be done about that, after all.  “I thought that all the stories were true in the context of the book”, said Sarah, “it was a very well constructed story, but all rather far fetched.  I struggled with the journal and with Sloosha’s Crossing, but I raced through the other stories”.

The League all congratulated Jon on an excellent choice – again.  As they did, the astral plane warped and twisted and all felt a presence speaking to them. “Sorry, sir”, the voice said, “next month I will be sure to complete my homework”.  Ilona continued eerily, “Sorry, I found it really hard to get into – not helped by the fact that I had a fainting incident last month and so I gave up reading on the train.  To show my dedication to The League I shall live dangerously and read on the train again, besides my blood tests came back clear.  I will use your psychic emanations to decide whether Cloud Atlas is worth persevering with past page 50!” One day Jon will put a foot wrong but, on balance, it seems that that time has not yet come.

Sangeeta stood up impatiently.  “Drinks anyone? Be quick – I’m dying to hear what books everyone read this month”.  The orders were duly placed and, as if by magic, drinks appeared on the table.

“I didn’t think you’d be interested” said Jon, who’d been uncharacteristically quiet.  The rest of The League suspected that discomfort caused by his toothache might be the reason for his silence.  “Well, I read nothing.  Nothing other than Printing as an Instrument of Change in the 14th Century – it’s a belter!”

Sangeeta had been rather busier in her reading.  “I read South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami.  It’s about a man who, as a child, is friends with a girl who has a limp.  They’re both single children and this bonds them together.  He is obsessed with the girl, but they move apart.  The man marries someone else, and when he meets the girl again later in his life his family falls apart.”

“I also read a hilarious chick lit story, I think it’s called The Secret Diary of a Shopaholic, but I may be wrong because I’m psychically being told that there is no such book.  Perhaps it’s called The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic.  It’s by Sophie Kinsella.  It’s about someone who cures her problems with retain therapy – it’s a laugh, and I highly recommend it as a beach read.”

Eleven Minutes by Paulo Coelho is about a Brazilian girl who emigrates to Geneva and becomes a prostitute, and meets a painter who she falls in love with.  It’s alright, but not wonderful.  It’s sexually explicit and not even slightly deep and meaningful, despite what the cover claims.”

The Reading Group by Elizabeth Noble is about a group of women in a reading group, their lives and the books they read.  They have no special superpowers though, unlike us. Their lives do end up mirroring the books they read.  It’s very girly and the women’s husbands usually end up having affairs – so there is a bit of sex in it.  Another beach read.”

The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith is really good.  It’s about a Botswanan woman who sets up a detective agency with her fathers legacy.  It’s light, amusing and fabulous.  I also read Tears of the Giraffe which is in the same series and about the same detective.”

James confessed that he hadn’t read as much as Sangeeta.  Sarah needed to take over the minutes at this point as Pascal lost the plot completely, and with it the ability to breathe.  There was a very good reason for it though – and it concerns a certain 12th Man.

This bloody obsession Tony has for sticking things into the wicket is really getting quite out of hand. As a matter of fact earlier this season, he borrowed a magnificent gold and onyx fountain-pen of mine and to this day it remains buried some six or eight inches somewhere under this fucking pitch, and now here today, we’ve seen the Australian batsmen having to contend with Tony’s bloody car keys sticking out of the turf just in front of the popping crease down at the Member’s end.

James continued on the Cricketing theme “I read Someone Who Was byBrian Johnston.  It’s a great, great book about a lovely chap.  It’s such a positive book – it’s about his life and, doubtless, Cricket. Pascal has Johnners CD’s – doubtless he’d lend them to anyone who’s interested.”

The Smoking Diaries by Simon Gray gets bogged down in the little details.  It’s stream of consciousness writing and all the stories are true.  It’s written by a friend of Harold Pinter.  Inner weaknesses are revealed as his 20 year old self interviews the 60 year old. I think this would appeal to Pascal and Jon – but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else.”

“By the way,” James said, “I haven’t read it recently, but Death to the French is also a good book!”

“Speaking of French,” said Pascal, “that’s my excuse for not having read anything this month.  I’ve been too busy trying to learn the damn language.  Stick a babel fish in my ear, please, I’m hopeless!”

“I read The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank, and the best bit of it was the blurb which was written by my sister” said Sarah proudly.  “It’s chick lit set in the Jewish community of New York.  The pink dress that the heroine had to wear to her bat mitzvah stuck in my mind.  It’s sort of well written, and it’s sort of enjoyable.  It isn’t wonderful.”

Citizen Girl by Nicola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin is even less interesting than The Wonder Spot.  Actually, it’s an appalling book.  It’s about an ill-tempered girl.  I felt sorry for her boyfriend.  It claims to be darkly feminist, but it isn’t.  It’s just pointless.”

“I had better luck with my last book, I can highly recommend it.  It’s The Chimney Sweepers Boy by Barbara Vine.  It’s really well written, a real page-turner.  A girl is asked to write a biography of her dead author father by his publisher.  I was disappointed to find out subsequently that Barbara Vine is Ruth Rendell”

“Oh well,” Pascal sighed.  “You see what happens when you mess with reality?  You wanted more poetic minutes – and this is what you got.  A mess.  I might just have to give you them straight next month.”   With that, he turned and began to leave the pub.

“Hey” said Sangeeta, “what about my book?  It’s my turn to choose, remember?”

“Sorry, Sangeeta”, said Pascal contritely, “I forgot.  I’d forget my own head if it wasn’t screwed on.”

“Well, okay” said Sangeeta, slightly mollified. “I choose Small Island by Andrea Levy.”

And with that, the League disbanded for another month – where and when they will meet again is a mystery.  And as they faded into the cold night air a mysterious voice called out of the bitter emptiness “I am too embarrassed to admit to the trash I have actually read this month, so let’s assume that I was illiterate, see you next mo…”, and then melted into the night.

Silence.  The streets were empty, and the night air warmed.  A bird twittered with fear as a cat slunk along a branch towards its nest, heedless of the danger posed to its feline well being by the fox licking its chops at the bottom of the tree.  After a while one last voice drifted across the sleeping city, a voice that sounded remarkably like James “well, I don’t think much of the minutes, there wasn’t any sex in them.”

Silence.

Natasha

Ah, sod it. I can’t be bothered. I’ve started to write the minutes (well, I’ve written two and a half sentences so far), and I now discover that I can’t be bothered after all. The sun is shining, I’ve got stomach-ache and I feel fed up. So, no, I’m not talking to any of you right now. I’ll try again tomorrow okay? This was a false alarm.

Okay. Time to try again. Let’s see how far I get this time. I suppose introducing the book would be a start. We read Natasha by David Bezmozgis, and it was James’s choice, on the recommendation of his sister. He also chose the pub – The Market Porter, and that choice would have been a bad one if it weren’t for Ilona arriving earlier than anyone else and grabbing a table for us.

James enjoyed the style of the book – he likes short stories because they can be picked up and dropped. The reader doesn’t get bogged down at all, he says. Mind you, if he habitually drops books down the bog then I want my copy of The Curious Incident back now. That would be one curious incident too far. James didn’t believe in all the stories, but the style was convincing.

He especially failed to believe in the The Worlds Second Strongest Man, but he was very fond of the dog death. He says that the concept of adults getting their pets out of proportion struck a chord. I quite understand – I can’t stand miniature mutts either. Or perhaps he meant that he killed one of the little buggers. In which case, good job!

He liked the book for not attempting a pathetic ‘we’re poor, pity us’ style – they accepted their lot and got on with trying to improve it. He can’t understand why his sister and The Guardian short-list people raved about it. I can. They’re Guardian readers, and therefore borderline illiterate. He’s glad he read Natasha thought. I’ve got a feeling ‘Glad I’ve Read It’ (GIRI) is the new ‘It Was Great’. He didn’t read it at all. Did you James?

This is great. Now I’ve established that James can’t read, I can insult him at whim.

Sarah could see why Natasha should be shortlisted. It should be included in a shortlist of books not to read. It was a quick read though – which was a blessing because she didn’t enjoy it at all. That said, she liked the holocaust memorial story and the second strongest man. I say ‘liked’, I should have said ‘disliked’ – but she didn’t dislike them as much as the other stories, so by comparison they were quite good. She really liked the insults though – it reminded her of her own school days.

Was Natasha autobiographical? She doesn’t know. I suspect that she doesn’t care either.

Jon thought that Natasha was really good. No, really. Really, really good. Great even. Too short though. Like James, he likes short stories (although he doesn’t generally dip them in the khazi). He thought that the book was an interesting slice of someone’s life, but he isn’t sure if it’s autobiographical or not. He didn’t believe in Natasha herself or the drug dealers – he thinks it was just chucked in to provide a sexual awakening story. He liked the feeling of lives spinning out of control – although I must admit that I can’t remember feeling that my own life was out of control when I was a spotty yoof. He also liked the dead dog story. Jon would read more by David Bezmozgis – but he thinks that a new cover artist is required. The cover of Natasha is rubbish!

Ilona also enjoyed Natasha. Hmm. That sounds a bit sapphic. She liked the ‘snapshot’ style and being able to dip into the book at random without feeling that she was missing anything. It was an easy read – and it was cultural too. She doesn’t read many books about other cultures, she says. What? Is this an admission that you didn’t read The Book Seller of Kabul after all? She enjoyed reading about the struggles for acceptance, and the obstacles that the family came up against. She was particularly fond of the little details – like the father needing to be told to advertise his business by the local rabbi. She’d recommend the book to anybody – but not at eleven quid. That’s too much!

I started reading the book on a lazy April afternoon, sitting on the grass outside The Princess of Wales pub in Blackheath. I had a beer in my hand, and a girl by my side (Sarah) – what could have been better? Well, a different book would have improved the scene considerably.

I liked (in the same sense that Sarah ‘liked’) the story of the dog’s death – I hate small dogs, and the story of the strong man. With regard to little details, I liked (in the dictionary sense) the bribing of the KGB. I thought that the title story was pointless, and not based on any fact. A teenage bimbo inserted to provide feeble sexual interest only.

I wasn’t worried by issues of truthfulness – I didn’t consider the book to be autobiographical. As far as I was concerned, the book was fiction. Reading Natasha was like being stuck at a boring party, surrounded by people who are all trying to tell you their pointless anecdotes. That said, I am glad I read it. It provided food for conversation, and I’d say it was a good book-club book. But don’t read it for any other reason, I beg you.

Other than Natasha, James read nothing. Well, unless you count Ceefax page 371. He read Empire magazine too (the position of the month is ‘The Mission’ary. f’narr f’narr). Oh yes! And he read the minutes for last month’s book club. They were cracking, he says. They take longer to write than the do to read, he opines. Isn’t that always the way? He appreciates the effort that goes into them, so he feels honour bound to read them properly. They were drier than usual though – he prefers the minutes to have a little fruity piquancy.

Sarah read Vernon God Little by D. B. C Pierre. It was shit, and she doesn’t know how it won an award. Nonsense from start to finish. It’s about a redneck oik boy who’s wrongly arrested for murder. She’s happy to lend it to anyone who feels they’d like to waste their lives on a tripe book.

She also read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s great. Her sister, Sam, recommended it – and Sarah says that Sam’s recommendations are always to be trusted. It has great characters. It’s set in 1920’s New York, and she had to read the ending twice because it was quite confusing – but well worth it.

A Christmas Card by Paul Theroux is about a family who get lost on the way to a cottage, which they planned to stay in over the Christmas holidays. They take refuge in a strange ‘hotel’, and they’re looked after by an odd man who gives them a magic card that tells them how to get to their destination. I did type ‘odd’ by the way – it’s not a typo. He’s old too, if that sets your minds at ease.

An old book-club book, Holes by Louis Sachar, was very good. I won’t discuss it again here – I hate to repeat myself repeat myself. Jon was very pleased by the fulsome praise heaped upon Holes by Sarah. He chose it for the book-club – lest we’d forgotten!

What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt was amazing. So, so good. Sarah can’t lend it out though, because she only lends out shit books (anyone want to borrow Vernon God Little?). Besides, it isn’t her copy to lend. It’s about two couples living in a flat. It has affairs, divorce, drugs, madness and crime in it. Stop reading these minutes, go out, and buy a copy now!

Sarah also read the minutes for the last book-club. She thought they were dry and less entertaining than usual. She liked the typeface though. I don’t know why. It was just boring old 12pt Times New Roman – although I did chuck in a funky 36pt Copperplate Regular drop cap.

Ilona, who grabbed our luxurious table, read The Other Side of the Story by Marian Keyes. It was an easy, predictable, read. There are three stories about three women, and the stories gradually merge as the book progresses. It was trashy, but fun.

Sorting Out Billy by Jo Brand was an easy but slow read. It’s a girly comedy about – er – three women. A sense a theme here. All the women had been abused. Ilona wondered if it was drawn from any of Jo’s experiences as a psychiatric nurse.

Running With Scissors by Augustin Burroughs is an off-the-wall memoir. More mental health shenanigans then. It’s a true story, and very strange – almost like living with The Addams Family. It’s an embarrassing, occasionally funny, book to read, but she’s glad she read it. It’s not one to read on the train though.

Ilona also read the minutes for the last book-club. They were very good.

Jon read nothing except the minutes of the last book-club. He liked them so much he read them over and over again. He was especially liked the lack of personal stories about his childhood, and the lack of lies about him killing his brother. Shomemishtakeshurely? I didn’t write anything so slanderous did I? Oh. Perhaps I did. Can’t remember.

Deep breath. I read loads of books. More, I’m sure, than I remembered at Book Club. I’ll do my best though. Black Cabs by John McLaren is a tail of intrigue, murder and finance. A group of cabbies set up a share syndicate taking punts on the basis of private conversations that they hear in their taxi’s. It starts out as low level naughtiness and ends up with with murder. I’m not saying by whom or where it all ends up – if you’re interested, then read the book yourself. It’s highly entertaining pulp fiction – but great literature it isn’t. James commented that it sounds like a late night TV movie combined with Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less – although I think it’s a little harsh to compare John McLaren with Jeffrey Archer.

Sleepers by Lorenzo Carcaterra claims to be a true story. But let’s face it, so does A Fish Called Wanda (and if you don’t believe me, watch the credits for that excellent film again). I found Sleepers to be highly entertaining, pulp, fiction. It’s about a group of boys who accidentally cripple someone, are sent to prison, are abused and. Er., and what happens next. Yes, it’s another badly written story – but still well worth reading. Sarah claims that it’s as badly written as the notes she was taking – but I think that’s a little harsh. Lorenzo’s writing wasn’t that bad.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien is far superior to Lord of the Rings. There’s less tedious poetry, and far fewer tedious battles. In short, it’s a good kids story written in the days when Tolkien’s writing hadn’t got stuck up its own arse. Excellent fun. Actually, that’s harsh – LOTR is good too if you ignore the poetry, battles and the films.

The Great Automatic Grammatizator by Roald Dahl is a collection of twisted short stories. There’s nothing new here, they’re all in other compilations. Dahl is good even when he’s bad though, so I loved it. Particularly the story about the land lady.

Ben Elton’s Inconceivable is the story of a couple who are trying to have a baby. It’s drawn from Elton’s own experiences, and it’s good. Ben Elton has always had good plots, but his early books were dreadfully written. Inconceivable is mostly reasonably well written, and it’s all entertaining. His books are much better than his stand-up!

I also read a mystery book about four loonies who try to commit suicide, meet each other just before the attempt, and then don’t. Instead they help each other out – although one of the suicidal’s had to have her head sat on. It’s a dreadful load of old rubbish. I’m not saying who wrote it (although it’s bound to sell loads of copies just on the authors name), or what it’s called (because it hasn’t been published yet). All I’ll say is that this is a good year not to buy any books about people committing suicide.

This months book is Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. It was Jon’s choice – and I reckon it’ll prove to be quite popular. See you all, in a pub of Jon’s choosing, on Tuesday 17th May.

The Bookseller of Kabul

A sad day. Claire will be leaving us in order to have her feet operated on. She needed an excuse to buy new shoes, and alteration of her feet seemed like the most sensible option. The next time we see her, they’ll be size 11 (men’s) and covered in a thick carpet of curly brown hair. Rrr. She still wants to be sent the minutes though (and we still want to read what she has to say about the books we read), and she might even return in half a years time when the swelling recedes.

Still, on to the book. It was Claire’s choice. She chose The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad. She also chose the pub – Williamsons Tavern, in Groveland Court. An excellent choice as, I think, everyone agreed. The beer was good. The cider was good. The wine was good. Even the hot chocolate was most enjoyable – but, perhaps, served in cups that were a little bit too small.

Paul found the book to be strange, and hard to form an opinion about. He expected it to be one story, and found it hard to keep track of all the small stories and their minor characters. Parts of it were disturbing, such as the extreme sexism, the unjust treatment of the poor carpenter, the young boys being used as surrogate girls for the sexual gratification of the tribesmen in the northern ‘bad lands’. He was also disturbed by the incestuous marriages within the family – although he is from Norfolk, so this may be a case of the pot calling the kettle black. It was rather disjointed, and Paul wondered how much of it was true, and how much was ‘interpretation’. It wasn’t easy to read, but it was interesting and educational.

Claire chose the book because she’d read lots of recommendations. On balance though, it wasn’t what she thought it was going to be, although it still interested her. She was surprised by the emphasis on the women’s lives – she thought that it was going to be a book about the bookseller. She didn’t like the bookseller, but she tried to be objective – and wondered whether or not he was as black as he was painted. Claire found it hard to relate to the difficulties of the Afghan women, to having to wear the Burqa. Leila’s story was the most interesting for Claire. She didn’t feel like she’d learned anything new, and found it difficult to separate the fact from the fiction.

Sangeeta suspected that the author might be a compulsive liar. She thinks that Asne Seierstad might be guilty of exaggeration to add shock value. She thought it would be a story about a likeable bookseller, and was shocked when it turned out to be a supposedly true documentary about a selfish arrogant tyrant and his poor suffering family. She was amazed at how backward Afghanistan seemed, and the portrayal of the poor standard of life that the women ‘enjoy’. Given that the stories are the view points of only three women, possibly distorted by the words of a westerner, she couldn’t separate the truth from the imagination. She isn’t surprised that Sultan is suing the author – the Afghans have a tradition of hospitality, and to have the hospitality thrown back in your face isn’t very nice! Despite all that though, she was glad that she read the book.

Ilona couldn’t relate to the story, but it was an eye-opener for her. It was, she said, an easy read and told very much from a woman’s perspective. She suspects a certain amount of bias. It was hard to keep track of all the characters and Sultan sounds like an ‘arsehole’. Ilona found The Bookseller of Kabul to be readable, but not necessarily enjoyable.

Jon would have preferred the book to be a novel; he couldn’t believe in it as a semi- documentary – he worried about the truthfulness of it. Because of this, he preferred the parts that were narrative driven such as the shopping trip and the pilgrimage to the tomb. His favourite character was the ostracized brother, and he would have liked to have read more about him. Jon thought Sultan was hypocritical and inconsistent in his dealings with people, but probably not very representative of the people of Afghanistan – especially given his position in society. He’s glad he read the book though, and he liked the description of the three burqas shopping in the market.

James enjoyed the book. He thought that the emotion was well described and believable. He felt that he could relate to the characters, although he also commented that we don’t know enough about the Afghan people to give the story context. Perhaps, he says, that isn’t the point. The book isn’t about the Afghan people as a whole; it is just about one family. James found the book to be slightly strange with its mix of fact and fiction, but he was pleased that it wasn’t too simplistic. James also commented on the two sides of Sultans personality – his liberal business views, and his harsh dealings with his family and with the carpenter.

Sarah agrees with Jon’s comments, but adds that she read it as a work of fiction. Sultan likes to imagine that he is enlightened and modern, but he isn’t so different from anyone else. He’s a hypocrite. Sarah liked the way the author could see both sides of the culture – the male side because she has the special privileges granted to westerners, and the female side because she is a woman. With notable exceptions, such as the three burqas in the market, Sarah found the book to be rather dry. She didn’t, for example, enjoy the account of a grumpy and overheated Sultan smuggling himself into Pakistan. She’s glad she read the book, although she’d have liked more history and culture, but she wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

Pascal (that’s me) thought the book was great. I could believe it as a documentary and enjoy it as fiction. I was gripped by everything that happened, and I made mental notes about places and situations and then looked them up on Wikipedia. Factually, the book seemed to be consistent with the information available on-line. I was particularly disturbed by the warrior tribesmen of the north who strictly segregated women to the extent that they were not seen outside of the family, and then had sexual relationships with boys who were made up to look like girls. May I just remind you all how much I hate fundamentalism! Prior to reading the descriptions of what it is like to wear the Burqa, I hadn’t considered what it must be like to be confined to one. Asne Seierstad describes this horrible and pointless piece of clothing very well indeed. I found the description of the journey north to be rather depressing as it recalled the beautiful vista of flowers that once grew in the bombed out wasteland. Everyone else has commented on Sultan – I shan’t add my ha’porth, except to say that I agree. It’s very sad to think that the fairly liberal, enlightened Afghanistan of the 1970’s is now consigned to history.

Claire read A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly. She really liked it – it’s a murder mystery set in the American West a long time ago. It’s based on a true story.

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown was unputdownable, but Claire guessed everything. It didn’t surprise her at all.

Small Island by Andrea Levy is about Jamaica’s contribution to the Second World War, and their subsequent bad treatment when the war ended. Actually, Claire mentioned something about ‘the shitty end of the stick’, but I chose to edit that incase any of you got offended.

Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam is a murder story set in an English Pakistani community. It’s beautifully written and well worth reading.

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler is about a book group that discusses nothing but the works of Jane Austen. Claire doesn’t comment on whether or not she enjoyed it. At least, if she did then I didn’t hear her. It might be a great read – but I suspect that it’s crap.

The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor is about a little girl growing up in Ireland during the Second World War. There’s anti British feeling in her community, and the houses of English settlers are being burned. Against all this, the little girl is being sent to England and she doesn’t want to go…

Sangeeta read Persuasion by Jane Austen. It has a feisty heroine, and it’s very good – really compelling. Sangeeta admits that she might be a bit biased though. She’s a huge Jane Austen fan.

The Five People You Meet In Heaven is ‘touching’, ‘sentimental’ and ‘lovely’. It’s also thought provoking, and Sangeeta thinks that it will appeal to everyone.

The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru is really weird and, unlike Transmission, very good indeed. It’s about an Indian princess who has an illicit affair with an Englishman, gets pregnant (whereupon the Englishman dies), and then marries an Indian prince. Parenthood confusion shenanigans ensue.

Ilona also read A Gathering Light. It’s a slow burner, but it got better as she progressed. She adds that it’s about a little girl who is more intelligent than her family gives her credit for.

A Special Relationship by Douglas Kennedy is about a female journalist on assignment in another country. She marries a man she meets whilst covering her story, gets pregnant – and suffers appalling postnatal depression. It’s gripping and unexpected.

Where Rainbows End by Cecilia Ahern is readable, but not as good as PS, I Love You. It’s a trashy read written in the style of e-mails and letters.

Five People You Meet In Heaven by Mitch Albom is thought provoking and very readable. Ilona recommends it most highly.

Jon read very little – but, once more, he proffers his art history course as an excuse. He read a trashy sci-fi book called Demolished Man by Jack Holdiman. I think that Jon invented the author though because Amazon has never heard of him. I suspect the author is really Alfred Bester. It fits Jons description anyway.

He also tried to read My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk, but he couldn’t get past chapter 4.

James read the rest of Chronicles by Bob Dylan. He’ll bring it in so that someone else can enjoy it. It’s amazing. He felt part of ‘the scene’ whilst reading it, although he thinks it strange that Bob’s family doesn’t get mentioned much.

Sarah read The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (the perpetrator of The Moomins). It’s about a grand mother and a precocious small child who live on an island. It’s really sweet and it’s really funny.

She also read Brick Lane by Monica Ali. She’s not enamoured with it. It’s unbelievable.

I read lots of books. Miracle at Kitty Hawk is a collection of the letters ofWilbur and Orville Wright interspersed with historical notes written by the editor, Fred Kelly. It provides an insight to their triumphs and failures, their accidents and their successes. It’s fascinating – and rather biased, it doesn’t acknowledge the successes of their competitors in the field. It’s very good though, but probably only for people obsessed with flying.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke starts slowly and is quite dry to begin with. As it progresses though it becomes more and more gripping until about a third of the way through the book when it becomes unputdownable. It’s a sort of adult Harry Potter or Dark Materials. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys fantasies of Magic.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is pure fiction about Afghanistan. It’s written by an Afghan in America, and it’s clearly for the American market. It’s melodramatic and full of preposterous coincidences. It isn’t as good as The Bookseller of Kabul. It’s clearly aimed at credulous Americans – but it is, despite that, highly enjoyable. And more than a little bit sick.

Enigma by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore is an excellent account of the cryptography of World War Two, concentrating mainly on the efforts of the Bletchley Park mathematicians to crack the German Enigma codes. It misses out on Colossus completely – which seems like rather an oversight bearing in mind that Colossus was the world’s first digital electronic programmable computer.

Finally, it was James’s book choice this month. He chooses Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis (ISBN 0-224-07125-4). We’ll be meeting on the first Monday in April (4th).

Incidentally, despite the dissatisfaction previously voiced about my minutes, there have been many plaintive cries about their late arrival of this month. I apologise. I’ve been very busy. But I’m flattered that you want to read them. I’ll take the distressed yelps as a tacit admission that I’m great, and I’ll dismiss your previous complaints as the uppity snarling of young whelps in a pathetic challenge to the alpha male. That’s me, by the way.

These minutes are dedicated to Illona. Why? It’s simple really. She’s had, apparently, a good month at work – and she insisted on buying drinks for me. It’s true. I wasn’t allowed to buy a single drink. I tried, but on each occasion she insisted that it was her turn. I’m easy to please – so these minutes are brought to you by Illona. I’m getting visions of those ads at the beginning of dramas on ITV. You know, Drunken Fart Breweries Ltd sponsors Inspector Morse. So if Illona is the sponsor this month, Sarah is the drama. Well, her book is the drama anyway. I, of course, am the director – and I’m rapidly losing the plot.

The first scene opens in a smoky pub in the City of London. It’s hidden down a snicket, and the doorstep is so worn down with age that it’s been covered with an iron grille so that the litigious punters don’t trip. Two upstairs bars are warmed by open fires, and the air is acrid with the coal that they burn, it’s cosy and the customers are glad to get in from the shivering cold – it’s beginning to snow, and by morning the city will be covered in a thick, pristine blanket. Children are excitedly running in the streets, shouting, playing and anticipating uncovering the frozen dead bodies of peasants as they make snowmen in the morning. The aged door of the pub creaks open protestingly admitting a flurry of snow. A tall man stands for a moment on the threshold, lit only by the guttering flames of the streetlights outside, and then strides inside. A buxom barmaid swoons as the hero (that’s me, by the way) steps up to the bar. The hero shrugs, turns, and peers myopically into the gloom. A woman stands in front of him – she looks familiar. “The name’s Harris”, he says. “Pascal Harris”.

“Indeed”, she says coolly. “We’ve met. I’m Illona, you dipstick”. He sweats slightly as several hundred cool points disappear up the chimney. She softens. “Shall we?” she says, and one after the other they disappear down the perilously steep steps into the cellar.

The cellar bars are cooler, but the air is clean and it doesn’t sting the back of the throat. The selection of beers is limited, but at least the ale is real and cheap. The cellars are a labyrinth of nooks and crannies, some are large and well lit and reveal raucous groups of revellers. Others are small, lit only by a single candle and conceal lovers hiding from their spouses. After several minutes of fruitless hunting they discover the Minotaur, who is terrifying a poor maiden. “I don’t know about you”, said Pascal, “but I’m bored with this story already. I’ve run out of ideas, and if I’m not careful I’ll just end up going for cheap laughs by abusing the assembled company. I know you said I just make the minutes up, but this is ridiculous. Let’s just cut to the chase.”

Some time later, the company has grown – and the atmosphere is electric with intellectual discourse. Sarah is discussing the book that she chose for us all to read. It’s Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis, and she thought it was a lot better written than these minutes. She liked it a lot, but thinks that she may be in a minority. We’ll see. Please, all of you, be quiet and don’t try to anticipate what will happen next. She liked its twistedness, it was twisted like a sandwich bag. It didn’t just pander to the usual tricks of backwards writing, the regurgitating of food and the ingestion of excreta, it examined behavioural traits such as the girl giving flowers to the boy and the birds bringing breadcrumbs to the old lady. She enjoyed seeing the emptiness of people’s threats. Sarah couldn’t understand why the consciousness narrating the story had its timeline running in the opposite direction to that of the story itself. None of us could enlighten her. It was, for her, a quick read.

James looked at the blurb and thought “What a barrel of laughs that’ll be”, and first impressions did nothing to soften his initial opinion. As he read on though he came to be absorbed by the book, and even enjoy it – although he isn’t certain if ‘enjoy’ is the right word. He liked the powerlessness of the consciousness and its lack of understanding. It wasn’t easy, but it was intriguing, to read conversations backwards. At this point he also felt that it was his duty to point out that I can’t spell. He may very well be right – but I’m amazed by his telepathy since he couldn’t actually see my notes.

Illona, the book club sponsor, appreciated how cleverly the book was written. She didn’t enjoy it though, and she certainly didn’t appreciate having to read each paragraph twice in order to understand them. It may have been a short book, but if each paragraph needs a double reading it’ll still take a while to get through. She said that she wouldn’t have finished it if it hadn’t been a book club book. The dashing hero pointed out that she still didn’t have to read it if it was that bad. She could have given up, and perhaps made up a review. There is a precedent. Needless to say, she won’t be reading any more of Martin Amis’s books. She did like the cover though.

Talking of liking the cover and setting a precedent, Vic thought that the beginning was excellent. Actually, she thought that the middle was excellent too. It tailed off towards the end – the ending was only great. She wouldn’t read it – or, in fact, anything else – again though. Whilst we’re on the subject of merciless piss taking of a non-present member, Vic also read the drinks menu – and then chose to have coke, Spot Goes to the Dentist and Spot Gets Put Down. So a literary month then.

Sangeeta thought that it was an interesting idea, but she adds that the concept doesn’t work. It was boring, and the backward conversations irritated her. She appreciates that the book is original, but it’s also pointless and has more holes than Brighton pier. Supposed to be a masterpiece? Perhaps. But it’s weird and that doesn’t say much for Martin Amis’s other books, although she does suspect that Martin Amis may be quite clever. The character development was poor, and the pace of the story was too rapid. If it was shortlisted for a Booker, it must have been a very long shortlist – and the only positive thing she can think of saying is that she’s glad it didn’t win. She didn’t like the cover either.

Paul suspects that the pace was rapid to represent the life Tod led flashing before his eyes as he dies. Or as he’s born. It could be either in this case and I’m confused. You can have on-life haventa forewhen presooning returningwenta retrodead. Dr. Dan Streetmentioner should be able to help you out here. Paul felt that he was fortunate enough to have read it before, and he really enjoyed it then too. It was more confusing the first time when he didn’t know what it was about. It’s a very Martin Amis book – the clue is on the cover. Martin Amis can either be very good or very tortuous, but in this case Paul thinks he’s on form and far better than Kurt Vonnegut who wrote Timequake – which is ‘similar, but shit’. Paul claims that the timeline of the book is somewhat fractured. Occasionally it seems to get confused and start going forwards instead of continuing its relentless backwards march.

I thought that it was a brave book. It tackled the issue of Nazi experimentation in such a way as to make it look like a heroic deed. That is, in itself, quite a feat. It was a theme that, I felt, could have been explored in greater depth but such as it was it was explored well by Tod’s confused soul. I didn’t find it difficult to read and I was gripped from page one, I thought it was too short though. Having just returned from New York, I found it interesting to try and fit Tod’s experience as an immigrant with what I learned at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Thinking about it, I think that Martin Amis must have done some research there. At this point the piss was carelessly and heartlessly taken, it was suggested that I only praised the book so fulsomely because it was Sarah’s choice. I assured everyone that this wasn’t the case, and that Sarah seldom listens to a word I say. Sarah assured me at this point that I was talking shit, and that she hangs off every golden word that trips from my lips.

Claire was absent on account of illness. She wasn’t too good over the weekend and spent most of yesterday under the duvet feeling rather sorry for herself. She did read Time’s Arrow and thought it was complete rubbish. She isn’t a fan of Martin Amis anyway, having read a few of his other books and finding all of them appalling, Money was particularly bad (I think that even Paul agrees here). Martin Amis is obviously a very intelligent man, but she just doesn’t like his books – they’re awful from start to finish!

Sarah also read High Five by Janet Evanovich. It’s a regrettable, trashy, sub-chick-lit book about a bounty hunter that she got off an American when she was on holiday in China. The bounty hunter’s name is Stephanie Plum, and she gets to track down and fight a dwarf. She’s hampered by aim so bad that she manages to miss a door. She probably couldn’t find it on the map.

The most galling thing about High Five is that she swapped P.S. I Love You by Cecilia Ahern for it, which was sweet. She really enjoyed it and it reminded her of someone who died similarly. Five People You Meet In Heaven, by Mitch Albom, was a good idea but badly written. It’s about someone who dies, and before he’s allowed into heaven he has to meet five people who’ll teach him a little bit about his life. Sarah enjoyed it. Paul hated it.

Sarah hated Sophies World by Jostein Gaarder. I’m going to interject here and say that Sophies World is a fantastic beginners guide to philosophy, and I’ve read it three times. I’m sure I’ll read it again too. I’m in the minority though. Everyone else thought it was crap. Apparently, they expected a storybook – and it wasn’t story enough.

Watching the English by Kate Fox is dry, it’s like a dissertation by a professional stalker. Finally (phew), Frankie & Stankie by Barbara Trapido is very much recommended. But Sarah hasn’t finished reading it yet.

James read the autographed version of Viv Richard’s Autobiography. It’s very good, and (of course) it’s about everyone’s favourite member of The Young Ones. Possibly. You know, the punk. Oh, no. It isn’t about him after all. That was wishful thinking. It’s actually about one of the greatest cricketers ever to stride the earth.

James also read Vatican Cellars by André Gide. It’s ridiculously complicated, but a tremendous read. James first read it because he had to, he likes it even better now that he doesn’t have to. Finally, James is proud to announce that he knows what a ‘chav’ is, and that he understands ‘bling’. He accompanied this announcement with much waving of hands in an Ali G styley. Bo. He should know what a chav is, of course. He does live in Croydon.

Illona read Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. It’s very good, rather difficult to get into, but very good none the less. It’s a detective story which addresses class issues. It’s narrated by the butler, who probably also did it, so it’s good to see that he’s getting his alibi in. Chocolat, by Joanne Harris, is strange. The film version isn’t very good, and it has a priest in it who’s a git. Maybe. It might be that the book has a gitty priest in. It’s based in France. Sorry, I’m making a dogs breakfast of this. I’m confused. My notes are erratic, and my imagination isn’t up the task of pretending to understand what Chocolat is all about. Sangeeta says that it isn’t worth reading though, so I’ll go along with that.

Finally, Illona also read Cosmo. She wouldn’t tell us what the sex issue of the month was, but James reckons it’s orgasms. He also reckons that using a cheesegrater has a good effect.

Sangeeta finished reading Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler. Apparently the woman didn’t have an affair after all. Ooh. Like a soap opera, this, intit? It was the man who cheated. He was horrible and penny pinching, and the woman was downtrodden and died unhappy with her dreams shattered. If you can’t remember what was said about it last month, let me enlighten you.

It was moving, emotional and girly. Yet again, one of us has read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night by Mark Haddon. Once again, it’s received the thumbs up. Illona spotted a commuter reading it on the train, and was so overcome by excitement that she tried to spoil the ending for him. Angels & Demons by Dan Brown kept Sangeeta entertained. It’s similar to The DaVinci Code. Sarah points out that Deception Point, again by Dan Brown, is ‘shite’. Sangeeta begs to differ. Sangeeta also read Accountancy Age. Apparently accountants don’t have sex – but the position of the month is book keeper.

Paul read Lost Continent and Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson. He related an embarrassing mirror incident as well. Which was nice. The books were really good, and they made him laugh. The mirror incident was really silly and made us laugh. So all round, everyone was happy.

Five People You Meet In Heaven was, Paul opined, alright. It was quite a grudging alright though, so I suspect that he might not have enjoyed it all that much. He also read Lovely Bones by Alice Seybold, and he thought it was crap chick lit. He’s wrong. I enjoyed it – which much mean that it’s a) not crap and b) no chick lit either.

The Amber Spyglass by Philip ‘not fit to lick C.S. Lewises boots’ Pullman is the weakest of the trilogy. It’s still good though. Heavy going, but good. Lastly (thank God – I think I’m getting RSI here!), he read Canal Dreams by Iain Banks. He hates it. It’s shit. Worse even than A Song Of Stone. If that’s the case then it must be truly dire.

“Amateur Marriage is a book that Sangeeta has only just started. So far it’s about a woman who is very pretty and involved with a man. So far, so good – but she hasn’t got any further than that yet. Between them, Sarah and Sangeeta have hypothesized that story will continue as follows. The man and the woman marry, they have three children. The man turns out to be a wimp, so the woman has an affair with another woman. We’ll see next month how accurate their guesswork is. Sangeeta bought the book because it had a nice picture on the front. If I remember correctly, that was also Vic’s main criteria in book choice.”

I only read one book this month. But it was a whopper. I read The Ascent of Science by Brian Silver. It’s a serious excellent history about, well. Actually, it’s about science. You’d never guess. It’s also about philosophy, since that forms the basis for modern physics, alchemy (chemistry) and posh twats mincing about the countryside with an easel and a paintbrush (biology). I highly recommend it.

Claire also read Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi. It’s an absolutely amazing book about Nazi Germany as seen through the eyes of a young zwerg girl (auf Englisch man sagt ‘Dwarf’). It’s beautifully written but a bit slow at the beginning – it’s definitely a book to persevere with though as it improves drastically.

Strange Places, Questionable People by John Simpson is a good read but not as enjoyable as his more recent autobiographical stories.

Claire is currently reading Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, but she isn’t particularly enjoying it. She thinks she’ll finish it but it isn’t quite as amazing as it’s reputed to be. Despite her ‘no’ vote, she’s sure that the millions of people who continue to buy it will ensure it a place on the bestseller lists for months to come!

Next months book is Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle. It was Illona’s choice. We arranged to meet on December 13th – but Claire can’t manage that day. It would be nice to have a Christmas book club with a full house – can anyone manage Monday 20th December instead?