Join the Berwick Book Group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

Please note, meeting dates are occasionally subject to change, so please wait for a response from the group leader before attending your first meeting.

(Please note: This website will no longer be updated and is being kept online for archive purposes only.)

DIVISADERO by Michael Ondaatje

‘It is the 1970s in Northern California. A farmer and his teenage daughters, Anna and Claire, work the land with the help of Coop, the enigmatic young man who lives with them. Theirs is a makeshift family, until they are riven by an incident of violence – of both hand and heart – that ‘sets fire to the rest of their lives’. This is a story of possession and loss, about the often discordant demands of family, love, and memory. Written in the sensuous prose for which Michael Ondaatje’s fiction is celebrated, Divisadero is the work of a master story-teller.’
Amazon’s plot synopsis for Divisadero is, literally, only the half of it: the first half, to be precise. This sums up, in a nutshell, the main issue for our group: was Divisadero a novel, or three short stories cobbled together? Gathered in the cosy bar of The Castle Hotel (our usual venue was closed for renovations), we enjoyed many aspects of Divisadero – Ondaatje’s lyricism and poetry, his evocative landscapes, and his characters – but there was frustration with the structure. We could see the connections and the echoes between the stories, and it could be argued that the structure reflected the fractured stories of characters whose lives were fractured by one, apocalyptic incident, but the majority opinion of those of us who had read and loved The English Patient, was that this novel (?) didn’t quite work.
Martin could not attend but sent a review: ‘I was greatly intrigued by the prospect of a farmer, which I understood to be a pretty full on occupation; feeding, changing, entertaining and otherwise caring for 2 newborn babies (Breed one, get one free?) and then adopting even if informally a 4 year old. Regrettably this astonishing feat was left unexplained. The later years of their upbringing was a little predictable with a follow up on gambling and drug taking neither of which have ever appealed. The book then moved entirely to France with a whole new cast of unrelated characters. I could not follow the French connection at all, nor could I relate it to our incredibly resourceful farmer whose heroic feats were so cruelly glossed over earlier. I fear I may be too old for books lacking a beginning, middle and end in the traditional sequence.’
This month’s recommendations from our members:
Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden
My Brilliant Friend, one of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Novels
Vanity Fair
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle’ series of novels
The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

Next month we will be discussing Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan.

Ann Coburn

H IS FOR HAWK by Helen McDonald

The cover blurb for H is for Hawk reads: ‘As a child, Helen Macdonald was determined to become a falconer, learning the arcane terminology and reading all the classic books. Years later, when her father died and she was struck deeply by grief, she became obsessed with the idea of training her own goshawk. She bought Mabel for £800 on a Scottish quayside and took her home to Cambridge, ready to embark on the long, strange business of trying to train this wildest of animals.

H is for Hawk is an unflinchingly honest account of Macdonald’s struggle with grief during the difficult process of the hawk’s taming and her own untaming. This is a book about memory, nature and nation, and how it might be possible to reconcile death with life and love.’
This creative non-fiction best-seller was winner of the Costa Book of the Year and winner of the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction. The critics all loved it, and so did the Berwick Book Club members. We had a very enjoyable discussion which covered a lot of ground. Comments included:
It reads like a novel, written in scenes with tension and narrative drive. She has a lyrical style. It doesn’t read like the writing of an academic. Exceptionally well written
The opening pages were particularly affecting and the first meeting with the hawk made for compelling reading.
The book was great on the history of hawking, which some of our members particularly enjoyed. One member informed us that Goshawks are secretive wonderful birds, and they have a stronghold in the Scottish borders. They live in forests with wide rides. They are top of the food chain and can catch a sparrow hawk! On the other hand, some members loved the book but hated the subject, finding both hawk and hawker/training methods brutal and cruel. A number of us commented on the revelation that, if McDonald had not killed the rabbits Martha caught, then the hawk would have begun eating them while they were still alive.
We found it a testament to grief and grieving and a compelling study of depression. Particular mentions were made of the scene outside the hospital when she burst into tears watched by her mother and brother, and her discovery of the last photograph her father took.
Some found the TH White sections peripheral, whereas others thought them the most interesting part of the book. We all loved the way the two threads wove together in the end with TH White trying to find the boyhood he had lost lost and Helen McDonald trying to find the father she lost.

February’s book is ‘A God in Ruins’ by Kate Atkinson

THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS by Rebecca Skloot

With over half of us away on holiday, it was a select group of four who met to christen our lovely new meeting venue, the First Class Passenger Lounge on Berwick Station, and to discuss our September book choice, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Here’s what the back cover blurb says:

‘Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. Born a poor black tobacco farmer, her cancer cells — taken without her knowledge — became a multimillion-dollar industry and one of the most important tools in medicine. Yet Henrietta’s family did not learn of her ‘immortality’ until more than twenty years after her death, with devastating consequences . . .

Rebecca Skloot’s fascinating account is the story of the life, and afterlife, of one woman who changed the medical world forever. Balancing the beauty and drama of scientific discovery with dark questions about who owns the stuff our bodies are made of, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an extraordinary journey in search of the soul and story of a real woman, whose cells live on today in all four corners of the world.’

Berwick Book Group members were, for once, in unanimous agreement with the critics in their praise of this non-fiction book. Hilary Mantel describes it as ‘A fascinating, harrowing, necessary book’ and we certainly felt that Henrietta’s story – and the saga of the HeLa cells – needed to be told. The subject and the facts were fascinating in themselves, but this book was much more than a story of medical discovery; it was also a depiction of racism, poverty and injustice, and a very personal portrait of a daughter’s grief over the loss of a mother she never had the chance to know.

We discussed the book itself first. Although non-fiction we thought it read like a novel. It was written in scenes, with drama, narrative tension and gripping character portrayals. The author – and her research journey – were part of the book and this brought an emotional depth to the writing. It was a book of two parts – the first the story of the mother and what happened to her cells after her death, the second part belonged to Deborah, the grieving daughter trying to connect with her mother.

Things that particularly stood out for us:

A relation of Henrietta Lacks, just before he went under the anaesthetic for a heart bypass, was told how much Henrietta had contributed to medical science. When he woke up, he was thousands of dollars in debt because he could not afford health insurance.

The description of Henrietta in her medical records – ‘well-nourished, cooperative’ – which sounded like a description in a slave auction catalogue.

The minor medical characters with absolutely no ethics or morals – Carrell, eugenicist and lunatic, and Southam, injecting patients with cancer cells to see what happened – and, more shockingly, with no system of controls to limit what they did.

One concern some of us had was the way very personal and confidential medical records were used in the book. Even though the author had the family’s consent, it could still be seen as intrusive and even exploitative – although everyone agreed that the author’s intentions were entirely honourable and the story needed to be told.

Observations from members included:

Only in America could a multi-billion dollar industry be created out of this personal tragedy. One of the factors is the lack of freedom of information there.

The UK is not pristine in these matters of medical ethics. Alder Hay was cited as an example.

After reading about the public wards in American hospitals, thank God for the NHS!

Finally, book recommendations from members:

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak

The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray

Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Beat Goes On by Ian Rankin

Thin Air by Ann Cleeves

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce

Ann Coburn

THE MOUNTAIN CAN WAIT by Sarah Leipciger

The Amazon blurb for this debut novel reads: ‘Set in a stunning but scarred Canadian landscape, THE MOUNTAIN CAN WAIT is a story of fathers and sons and the heartache they cause each other, in the tradition of Annie Proulx.
Tom Berry has always been a loner, a man content to live out his days in the wilderness with just enough ammunition and kerosene to last out the winter. A single father, he has raised his children with the same quiet and absolute dedication he brings to his forestry business, but now he’s discovering that might not have been enough.
When his son, Curtis, on the brink of adulthood, disappears after a tragic accident, it falls to Tom, the hunter, to track him down. Whether he can truly reach Curtis is another matter.’
Reviewers all praise Leipciger’s writing for its haunting quality, its beauty and its clarity. They also admire Leipciger’s creation of ‘flawed characters you care about’ and her depiction of the tender and mercurial relationship between father and son. What the critics rarely mention is the plot. It is slow, meandering even, and it is what divided our book group. The majority were not fans of the lack of pace and incident. They also found the narrative structure (which, not long after the arresting opening scene, spends a long time in the forest with Tom, the father, before returning to Curtis and the aftermath of the hid-and-run) ‘odd’ and frustrating. I tended to agree with them about the structure, but, in common with the minority voice (singular), I rather enjoyed the slow pace which let us get to know Tom bit by bit in the wonderful Canadian forest landscape. The tree planting chapters were full of realistic detail and were also a fascinating glimpse into an industry of which I knew nothing. Again these descriptions created differing responses. The lone voice enjoyed the detail too, and liked the culture clash between the tree planters and tree fellers. However Martin, who could not attend the meeting, wrote, ‘the cut throat capitalism of the logging industry was new to me but I don’t feel better for knowing about it. Not impressed.’ The majority thought that the imagery in the descriptions of landscape were overdone and without purpose at times, although at other times – for instance Tom’s canoeing, swimming and climbing trek – they told us something about character as well as landscape. Everyone thought the mosquitos were wonderfully well described!
There was something retro, even Hemingway-esque, about Leipciger’s protagonist, Tom, and his inability to connect with others. The episode where he would rather fix the kitchen tap than ‘fix’ his son is very affecting. The minority voice also thought that Tom’s strong feelings for his children were evident, as was his shock at the realisation that they thought he didn’t care about them when he had given up his life for them and continued to do so: ‘the mountain can wait’. Other characters were equally well-drawn, creating a response in the book group readers, even if it was sometimes a negative response. Martin writes that he ‘had to feel sorry for Tom with his wayward wife, misbehaving employees, nervous daughter and angst and drug ridden murderous son’.
The lone voice thought that the novel had something to say about the human condition and enjoyed the thematic symbolism of hunting, utilised, for instance, in the episode depicting Curtis’ inability to finish the kill.
Although the novel was certainly downbeat – and I can see why the majority found it dreary and difficult to finish – I thought it right that there were no happy endings in this exploration of the outcomes of the avoidance of responsibility. Apt, also, that the final chapter went to the victim of the hit-and-run.

We finished, as usual, with recommendations from members, including:
How to Be Both by Ali Smith
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimer McBride
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
The Martian by Andy Weir

Ann Coburn

Location, Location, Location….

44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith

As charming as the bohemian street in which it’s set. (SCOTTISH DAILY RECORD)

It is hard to think of a contemporary writer more genuinely engaging…[his] novels are also extremely funny: I find it impossible to think about them without smiling (Craig Brown, MAIL ON SUNDAY)

A treasure of a writer whose books deserve immediate devouring (Marcel Berlins, GUARDIAN)

a hilarious yet sharply insightful tale of middle-class Edinburgh … a joyous, charming portrait of city life and human foibles (SUNDAY EXPRESS)

All the critics seem to love this novel, which revolves around the comings and goings at No. 44 Scotland Street, a fictitious building in a real street in Edinburgh, but what would Berwick Book Group think? The group was somewhat reduced with a number of members working or away on holiday, but for those who did attend, this was another Marmite book with some loathing it and others, including Martin, loving it. His review follows:

’44 Scotland Street is the first of a series of ensemble novels following the lives of a number of the inhabitants of this Edinburgh town house and their neighbours. Re-reading it after 10 years I was surprised by how much of the book is devoted to the execrable Bruce and how little to Bertie. Happily in subsequent episodes that is reversed. For me the whole success of the series is the introduction of Bertie a delightfully precocious 4 year old with a dangerously opinionated mother, Irene. His young, rational counter-thoughts to her ludicrous and bigoted attempts to squash any nasty masculine tendencies in her son are the stuff of legend. This is not a weighty tome, it is a very light-hearted glimpse of genteel Edinburgh society filled mostly with an essential goodness and caring about others.’

Martin once again led the meeting in my absence. Thanks Martin! I’m looking forward to returning for our July meeting where we’ll be discussing The Mountain Can Wait by Sarah Leipciger.

Ann Coburn

HERRING GIRL by Debbie Taylor

My thanks to Martin LeFevre who is writing this blog for a few months in my absence. His latest report is below.
Ann Coburn

‘Set in a Tyneside fishing village, Herring Girl moves effortlessly between 1898 and 2007 as twelve-year-old Ben finds himself the unlikely conduit for Annie, a herring girl who lived – and died – a century earlier. As Ben tries to unravel the puzzle of Annie’s death, he is drawn irresistibly into her long-vanished world. Bringing the startling story of Annie’s life and curious death vividly to life, this brilliantly realised historical mystery introduces a cast of unforgettable characters, and reveals how the secrets of our past are never too far away.’

A wonderful book. It was nice to read about the lives of characters I could like, with the exception of the murderous Tom and indescribably awful Ian. Even Big Paul, who was forced to face up to his worst homophobic dreads in the most graphic way imaginable, elicited some sympathy as a man so far from his upbringing, he couldn’t cope and then had to face the loss of his son as a consequence of his prejudices. As to the existence or not of souls and re-incarnation, I found the quality of the writing so good it didn’t matter. I could accept the gripping story on the basis of its own premise in the same way that a certainty that teleportation, ray guns and faster than light travel are figments of the writers imagination does not spoil my enjoyment of a good science fiction work. The two explorations, of the past from the present and a mystery from the 19thcentury running in tandem was a masterpiece of planning and as good as any detective fiction. I have no knowledge of historical fishing methods and dialect but it felt consistent and could well be authentic. Everything about my slight knowledge of Shields was OK and nothing jarred as being out of place. The only bum note was Dr Mary’s supine acceptance of Ian’s intrusion and getting in touch with her past patients which must have involved burglary and the grossest breach of client confidentiality imaginable. The whole involvement of a film crew in any part of her work is highly suspect, especially with a minor. But the wholesale looting of her other client records and her own personal psychiatric history was just beyond the pale.I notice she has 2 other books listed on the back cover and I have ordered them on the strength of this book. I cannot give higher praise.

However, some book group members were less enthusiastic and a few did not finish the book. They felt that the modern era story was trying to tick all the politically correct minority boxes, that the psychiatrist would have been struck off, and that the historical research sections where characters read off the census went on for too long and in too much detail. Some also thought that the child with the confused gender was far to adult for his years. The historical story on the Shields Fisheries was much better received; for some this was the best part of the book.

Book recommendations from members:
Where’d you go Bernadette? By Maria Semple
Spool of Blue Thread by Ann Tyler
You have been shamed by Jon Ronson
Consolations by David Whyte
Forty Days of Rain byKim Stanley Robinson
Plus of course, in my case Debbie Taylor’s other novel, The Fourth Queen and the Hungry Ghosts.

Martin LeFevre


About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit www.newwritingnorth.com/submit/join-berwick-book-group.

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