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.

Humble Pie

I was browsing through an old MacUser (16 November 2001) when I came across a letter deriding the iPod as another ‘cube’.  I chortled heartily at this, but my laughter froze in my throat as I read the next letter on the page.  It described the iPod as a ‘poxy Rio clone’, ‘a wasted opportunity’ and unable to ‘outperform my minidisc player’. Unfortunately the shortsighted fool that wrote the letter was me.

I’d like to take this opportunity to eat my words. I love my ‘poxy Rio clone’.  Since I bought mine many of my friends and family have done so too, and they love theirs as well.  I was wrong, and I apologise for my rudeness to Apple. As for my minidisc player, I have no idea where that is. Scrap probably.

I might even remember this humbling lesson and buy a Mac Mini.  Maybe not.  After all, it doesn’t have enough graphics memory and it is just a poxy clone of the Cappuccino PC. Ahem.

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?

Path of Dalliance

I had my longest ever journey home from Book Club last night.  Full of tasty food, beer and bewildered by reasonably intelligent conversation, I fell asleep on the bus.  I woke up in Tottenham, somewhat confused by my utter lack of familiarity with my surroundings.  I know – that little anecdote has nothing to do with book club. I offer it only because it may very well prove to be more interesting than the drivel I’m about to spew onto the page.

It was my choice of book, and it was universally decided that I am not great.  Well, almost universally.  There was one dissenter and, let’s face it, his was the only opinion that really counted.  My choice of pub was held in high regard though, so much so that I think we’ll be exploring more inebratoria south of the river.  Enough. My book? It was Path of Dallianceby Auberon Waugh.  I am, as you all know, a huge fan of the Waugh’s both senior and junior.  This was the weakest Waugh book that I’ve read – and perhaps it is no coincidence that it was the last work of fiction written by Auberon Waugh before he decided to give up story telling for a life of spoof journalism.  It was something of a slow burner, and not a lot happened as the characters and their petty concerns were developed.  When funny it was hugely entertaining – but many of the jokes were spread over entire chapters, and therefore could not be appreciated if the book was (for example) skimmed through over the course of a day. For throwaway gags, I loved the randomness of the duck incident and the cringeworthy baby talk. I felt that the author got rather confused in places though. That said, I still enjoyed it and I will be reading it again.

James saw a woman reading Transmission by Hari Kunzru on the train. He wanted to warn her not to waste her life over it, but then he suspected her of being a teacher and his altruistic plan went out of the window. Besides, he said, she had a mole on her forehead.  James described Path of Dalliance as a curates egg.  Since I chose the book I will not be making any snide comments about the meaning of that phrase.  He went on to say that he liked the way that the characters of all ages were essentially the same.  He liked that the ‘mature’ adults were just as immature as the sixth formers and university students. Some parts were very, very good – particularly the inept attempts to get laid, the death of the greeny CND bitch from hell (Anne Etherington – but steady on!) and the repercussions of that suicide.  He liked the fabricated story of a great artist, and the plot to blow up the telephone exchange.  The pseudo high-minded ideals of people who never actually did very much.  The problem was that the book was as quick as an asthmatic ant with some heavy shopping.  It felt light and frothy, a holiday book for people with brains.  It was, he said, a lazy book that felt as if it had been written in the author’s spare time.  He enjoyed it, but it was meaningless.

Illona liked the book although it was, she said, slow and confusing.  The character development was well done, and she liked the way that the men and women who lived in separate accommodation were integrated.  She didn’t feel that the book was in any way special, and she wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else.  It was just a nice read rather than an excellent one but it was, at least, better than Transmission. Damn. Transmission must have left some deep scars to be slated so long after we read it.  It wasn’t really that bad was it?

Sangeeta felt that the book was okay, but slow.  It was an interesting insight into ‘posh’ peoples lives, but she didn’t feel that there was much of a story there.  The suicide was the most interesting part, and the book over all was far too political.  This comment sparked a brief argument between the boys Harris and Hubbard on the merits of liberalism. The sub plot of work in the newspaper office was interesting, but the paintings sub-plot confused her totally.  It felt like a collection of anecdotes, and it was altogether too unfocused.  The mad mum was her favourite character.

Sarah was bothered that nothing more was made of Anne’s death, but other than that she didn’t care whether the characters lived or died.  She didn’t like the snobbery in the book. Hmm. The joke she missed, hmm?  Read it again she will not I think, hmm? She doesn’t rate the Oxbridge tradition or the concept of tradition for the sake of tradition.  She quite liked the art scam – presumably because it highlighted the gullibility of the individuals concerned.  The mum was mad, but who cared?  The characters all fulfilled their stereotypes without advancing the plot – which was pointless.  Over all, she did not like the book.

Paul is, in his own words, ‘such a nob’.  What a great word.  Let’s all say it aloud to confirm its majesty. Nob.  It’s almost as good as ‘cock’.  As in ‘Utter Cock’ which, coincidentally, isn’t quite what he thought of the book. He thought it had it’s surreal moments (such as Sligger with the dead duck, and Mrs Sliggers tape measure) but all in all it didn’t hold his attention for too long. He thought it rambled along and didn’t seem to have much direction. That said, he didn’t think it was as bad as most of his choices!

Jon felt ill and he sent his apologies for his absence.  Alas, I was unable to contact him on the telephone – so I can’t find out what he thought of the book either.

Claire was also missed – and I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say that I hope we’ll see her again soon.  Not if she’s going to be so rude about my choice though!  She skim read it in a day (ahem), whilst lying on a beach in Greece.  If it hadn’t been a book club book she’d have put it down before she reached half way.  The constitution doesn’t actually say we need to finish reading book club books does it?  There really is no need to read a book you don’t like – that wouldn’t be fun at all.  Actually, you could just say the beginning was great, the middle was great and the ending was great – we’d know what you mean, and there is a precedent.  Claire felt that the book was dull, and she was disappointed that the only character she warmed to – Anne Etherington – took her own life so early on in the book.  The boys all needed a good kick in the arse, apparently.

At this point I had my pen and my notebook confiscated and Sarah took over the minutes.  Not that it really matters though, because (as you know) I make all this up anyway.  Nevertheless, I was grateful as it saved me the effort of having to look as if I was listening.

I read The London Pigeon Wars and it was mighty.  It was, I think – and no matter what Sarah says, a ghost story.  The pigeons mysteriously become sentient and observe the humans for half of the book, and the humans tell their own story whilst commenting on the odd behaviour of the pigeons for the other half.

Last Chance to See is a book by Douglas Adams about endangered animals.  It’s a serious matter handled well in an often funny book by a man who isn’t interested in looking at birds.  There’s a bit about condoms in it – as a method of waterproofing a BBC microphone and, in honour of the fact, Douglas Adams has drawn a picture of a used condom on the cover of the book.  Incidentally, Douglas Adams is playing the part of Agrajag in the upcoming Radio 4 continuation of the H2GT2G.

Everyone has read Lovely Bones by Alice Seybold.  What more can I say? It’s a very good book indeed, but somewhat disturbing.  A difficult subject, but sensitively handled – and not as mawkish as it might have been.

Why Men Don’t Listen and Why Women Can’t Read Maps is an interesting study into the differences between men and women.  Men are, it seems, dullard Neanderthals.  Single tasking half wits who happen to excel at certain specific tasks.  Women are more rounded and capable of doing lots of things at once (or so this book claims).  Actually, like the book, this review is vastly over simplified.  It generalises – but it’s interesting, and I’m sure it’s pretty accurate if one averages the population as a whole.  My only concern is that if an alien race decided, in order to discover our intelligence, to average the population of the U.K. as a whole they might decide that we’re too thick even to tie our own shoelaces.

Sarah fell asleep during my review of The Da Vinci Code. She’s heard it all before.  I enjoyed it, with provisos.  When it was intelligent, it succeeded.  Too often though it felt like it was aspiring to Indiana Jones.  It also frequently resorted to overly geeky descriptions of the technologies used in it “The Hawker 731’s twin Garrett TFE-731 engines thundered, powering the plane skyward with gut wrenching force.”  I’m sorry. Am I the only one irritated by this style of prose?  I mean, who cares about the model number of the engines?  What’s wrong with “The Hawker’s twin engines thundered, powering the plane skyward with gut wrenching force”?  Humph.  Other than that though, I did enjoy the book, and I would read another by that author (I did try another Dan Brown. Several others. They were all crap. And I didn’t enjoy re-reading the Da Vinci Code either.  Avoid!).  As for my theological views, we’ve done that. Repeatedly.  And we ain’t doin’ it again. Not now, anyway.

Illona read Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination.  It was hard to get into, but she’s glad she persevered.  It’s very different to Bridget Jones’s Diary, which everyone agreed was an entertaining film but a dire book.  All I can remember about it was Rene Zellweger and being compared to D’arcy by Sarah.  He was a good guy though, I think, so awww.

PS, I Love You by Cecilia Aherne is about a woman widowed by the time she reached 30.  It’s an excellent read – she couldn’t put it down.  It made her cry, which is very unusual.  The main character is sent letters every month telling her what to do, up to ‘It’s been a year. Move on.’  Eh!? Her husband dies and she’s being told to move on after only a year? That seems a little harsh.

Illona highly recommends The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  I’d quite like to hear from someone who didn’t like it I think.

Still Thinking of You by Adele Parks is absolute trash. Addictive, but girly.  I take it then that Illona liked it, but wouldn’t recommend it – especially not to a bloke.

Illona is just getting into The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins.  Can we expect a more fulsome review next month?

Sangeeta finished reading the His Dark Materials trilogy.  Apparently, I hated it because Philip Pullman won’t have C.S. Lewis’s babies.  Not strictly speaking true – I enjoyed HDM, but I won’t read another of Pullmans books because I’m childish and I was irritated by his slating of Lewis.  Sangeeta enjoyed His Dark Materials too.  Actually, that’s an understatement.  It was ‘a riveting masterpiece’, and ‘brilliantly and expertly written’.  Apparently ‘Bill, don’t you fancy a bevvy’ too – but I can’t even pretend to understand what that’s all about.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks is long but very descriptive.  Parts are really good, but other parts… …aren’t.  The war descriptions are moving.  She’s wanted to read it for ages.

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.

James read Finding my Feet by Jason Robinson.  It’s his life story, or (more accurately) the story of his life so far since he’s still quite young.  He was the wild child son of a drunk, and he’s grown up to be a non-drinking Christian hero of Rugby. He switched from playing League to Union.  Sarah’s transcription of James’s explanation of the codes is as follows.Union = rahrahrah. League = Northern Peasants.  It is, James says, really interesting.

Scorpion Signal by Adam Hall is a cold war thriller.  The under cover agent runs around headlessly trying to stop wars.  Apparently, the agent is British and he’s trying to prevent the assassination of Brezhnev.

At this point we discovered that Claire has an A in psychology.  Well done, Claire.  James would like to suck up to Claire and say congratulations on her cross-stitch qualification.  I’m not going to talk to her ever again in case she analyses me.

Sarah became illiterate for a few months.  She says she hasn’t read anything.  Nothing she’s going to review, anyway.

Claire read The Other Side of the Story by Marian Keyes.  The usual escapism, and most enjoyable.

She also read Lucky by Alice Seybold.  The beginning is great, the middle is iffy and the ending is great too.  It’s a harrowing read though relating the true story of her rape experience.

Ooh! She really enjoyed reading Mystic River by Dennis Lehane.  It’s a crime story that really held her interest.  She knew it was good because Mark (her boyfriend) read it in a week, and he never usually reads things that fast.

Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller is an odd book.  It’s well written but not as spectacular as the notes on the cover would have you believe.  It’s about a teacher who has an affair with one of her fifteen year old pupils.  Hmm. Would that be fifteen toddlers, and she had an affair with one of them? I think we should be told.

Kate Adie’s The Kindness of Strangers is a wonderful book.  Claire really enjoyed reading it.  She took her time over it because she wanted to absorb all the details.  Kate Adie is an amazing woman.

The catcherintheryeesque Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre is a crazy book.  Claire really liked it though.

It seems that Paul didn’t read anything else this month.  He wins honorary illiterate of the month award – unless Jon wants to try and wrestle that honour from him.

Actually, I lied.  Sarah did read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. It’s about a manipulative teacher who brain washes her girls into fighting for Mussolini and she gets them killed.  Sarah will not be reading any more books that I have after this month, I think!  She was not hugely impressed.

Sarah also read Hot Sex by Tracey Cox.  It’s great, and full of practical advice.  I’ll second that.  The pictures were also examined in Joy of Sex andMore Joy of Sex. But I don’t have enough of a beard (I grew a beard subsequently. It didn’t help!), so that’s me out of the picture.

Honestly.  I didn’t lie about Paul.  He really didn’t read anything else this month.

This month, we’ll be reading Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis.  It’s Sarah’s choice.  We’ll be meeting up on Monday November 15th.  Put it in your diaries NOW.