Archive for January, 2011

Flawed but fascinating Children’s Book

We’ve had some challenging reads at the Berwick group recently and A.S. Byatt’s Booker-shortlisted The Children’s Book certainly counts amongst them. The divided responses to it were fascinating and unexpected – some readers who admitted their hearts sank at the author’s name found they loved the work, whilst others who’d enjoyed other novels or short stories by A.S. Byatt didn’t take to this one. This book group is nothing if not unpredictable!
Byatt said of her earlier novel Possession that she wrote it ‘partly to show off,’ and some of us detected a little showing-off going on in this novel too – the wealth of historical detail was enthralling to some of us and off-putting to others. I liked Mike’s wry remark that he ‘learned far too much about pottery.’ The author also said her starting premise for the book was the controversial idea that ‘writing children’s books isn’t good for writers’ own children.’ What does come through in the work is the potential destructiveness of all creativity.
Margaret was one of those who ‘hated Possession, loved The Children’s Book.’ She liked the way readers could immerse themselves in it and found the characters well-described on the whole. Mike too loved the world that Byatt created, although he found the last part of the novel rushed. The characters of Dorothy and Tom seemed particularly strong. Whilst Paula too felt that she didn’t need as much factual information from the author, she loved the characters and the multiplicity of themes. Writer Ann enjoyed the way Byatt breaks so many ‘rules’ of good writing but carries it off and, rather like one of the puppeteers in the novel, ‘shows you the wires.’
The other half of the room was less enthusiastic. For Anne, it aroused contradictory feelings – for her, it had too wide a cast, with some characters not developed enough; in spite of being a fan of historical fiction, she felt unable to get into the setting and found many of Byatt’s stylistic devices irritating. Anne is a reader who did enjoy Possession and also recommends Byatt’s Little Black Book of Stories. Helen agreed that Byatt, whilst being a clever writer, was too prone to lecturing and she would have preferred to read ‘more about people and less about stuff.’ Jacqui, who couldn’t attend, sent her comments that it was ‘too lengthy and woolly, in need of better editing.’ We did wonder whether anyone but such an established or revered author would have got away with some of her lengthier descriptive passages.
Most damning comments from Janet: ‘By Page 75, I felt as if it was sucking the life out of me. Even the reviews were depressing! It’s already in my local charity shop.’
The use of fairytale, the historical context and the relationship between the parents and children gave us plenty of avenues for discussion, however, so in terms of a book group choice, it worked for me.
We inevitably compared our Christmas books and those we’ve been reading whilst stuck inside because of the snow. Helen recommends the short story collection Superior Bedsits by Helen Lamb and also was pleased to receive more works by Liz Jensen. Ann is enjoying some non-fiction, including Bill Bryson’s At Home and A History of the World in 100 Objects (complete with podcasts – I am envious). Margaret recommends Alan Massie’s Death in Bordeaux, Kate Atkinson’s latest Started Early, Took My Dog and Rose Tremain’s Trespass. Mike said Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story was one of the best books he’s ever read (high praise indeed from this very prolific reader) and he’s also read a selection of Margaret Atwood’s science fiction (‘flawed but good.’). Another of his recommendations is David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Paula loved Stuart Maconie’s witty Pies and Prejudice, while Anne recommends Helen Dunmore’s Betrayal and Laura Wilson’s An Empty Death. Lucky Janet won a copy of Alasdair Gray’s My Life in Pictures and found a Mark Bilingham in her Christmas stocking (so to speak). Apologies if I’ve missed anyone – it was an awesome list.
Finally welcome to Catherine who’s moving to the UK from Switzerland. A reading group veteran, Catherine recommends a powerful collection of short stories by Petina Gappah, An Elegy for Easterly.
Hope to see everyone back in February when we’ll catch up with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, winner of this year’s Orange Prize.
Next meeting: Tuesday 1st February at 6.30pm, Doolally’s in Marygate, Berwick. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver.

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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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