Archive for July, 2014


…because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.’  Mark Twain

Our July meetings are different.  We don’t read and discuss one book; instead we choose a theme and we each bring along our favourite illustration of that theme to recommend to the group as a summer read.  Oh, and there are snacks, many, many snacks, all put together to create an impromptu, anarchic pub picnic with some very interesting flavour combinations. 

This year, eleven of us met at The Barrels, bringing a wide-ranging selection of non-fiction book choices covering history, science, medicine, world travel, dog-sled racing, the English language, space, cookery and the theory of evolution!  So, along with a tasty glass or two of Rivet Catcher from the Jarrow Brewery, courtesy of The Barrels, here they are:

Helen recommended Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip by Peter Hessler.  She liked the way it was written like a novel, concentrating on the characters, but also traced the development of China.  She enjoyed reading how each town in China today specialises in one very specific manufacturing process – for instance one town does nothing but make the little plastic hoops used to attach bra straps to bra cups!

Ann had two choices.  The first was The Chambers Dictionary of World History because it is fascinating to dip into; the second was Marie and Mary by Nigel Tranter , about Marie de Guise and her daughter, Mary Queen of Scots.  Although Ann found the style rather dry, she thought that Marie de Guise, who ruled Scotland alone and kept the peace between Protestants and Catholics after the death of her husband James V, was a fascinating character.  She was a powerful woman, who foiled Henry Tudor of England’s plans to marry her baby daughter to his son Edward and unite the two thrones under English rule by sending Mary to France.

Martin brought along The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg, which had shown him that English was an evolving, changing language, not the rigid structure he was taught about and expected to abide by at school.  Bragg describes language as ‘a living organism’ as he explores the evolution of ‘the words we live in, think in, sing in, speak in.’

Don’t You Have Time to Think? by Richard Feynman was Paula’s choice. She loved the way he challenges orthodox thinking and suggests going back to first principles, both in scientific inquiry and in the national school curriculum, which does not nurture questioning thinkers. Richard Feynman was no ordinary genius. Brilliant, free-spirited and irreverent, he upset those in authority, gave captivating lectures, wrote equations on napkins in strip joints and touched countless lives everywhere. He also wrote hundreds of letters to friends, family, critics, colleagues and devoted fans around the world. The book is a compilation of these letters. 

Just Looking Thanks!: The Straight-forward Guide to Creating Brilliant Customer Service by Alf Dunbar was Nicholla’s suggestion.  She enjoyed reading about Alf’s personal experiences in retail and thought that the lessons in the book could easily be applied to other walks of life.

Man and Space: Life Science Library Series, 1970, written by none other than Arthur C Clarke was an important book for Rose.  She brought along the copy she had been given as a 9 year old girl, which inspired in her the desire to become an astronaut.  When she was told that astronauts were men (the title says it all!), her response was ‘why can’t I be an astronaut?’ – a question which challenged the status quo and which she has been asking ever since.  Although some of the information and speculation in the book is now very outdated or just plain wrong (dry-pack food anyone?) parts of it are still surprisingly accurate – the illustrated spread on spacesuits has some very weird combos, but the basic 21 layer spacesuit is probably not much different from those worn today.

Memories, Dreams, Reflections by Carl Jung – Jill loved the way the book delves into the unconscious, particularly the analysis of the archetypal symbolism of dreams – and also the ‘life’ wisdom of the old man, whether he be a peasant or an academic. Jung began writing his life story In 1957, four years before his death. But what began as an exercise in autobiography soon morphed into absorbing piece of self-analysis: a frank statement of faith, philosophy and principles from one of the great explorers of the human mind.

David tempted us with The Vegetable Book by Jane Grigson, who apparently hails from Whitley Bay, so she’s a local(ish) lass!  David chose this because it is much more than a recipe book.  The writing is funny, with historical amuse bouche thrown in.  David particularly liked the story about Alexander Dumas, involving D’Artagnan, Aramis and some New Zealand spinach.  He says the recipes are all excellent too, apart from the Pan Haggerty; in his opinion, Jane Grigson has got it wrong!  David, just to let you know, I’ve ordered this book and will be testing the recipe. 

Darwin: a Biography by Adrian Desmond and James R Moore was Bronwen’s choice. This biography of Charles Darwin attempts to capture the private unknown life of the real man – the gambling and gluttony at Cambridge, his gruelling trip round the globe, his intimate family life, worries about persecution and thoughts about God. Central to all of this, his pioneering efforts on the theory of evolution. Bronwen described the writing as cross-disciplinary – scholarly yet written in a style to entertain a mass audience.  She thought it a wonderful portrait of an essentially Victorian man who married into the Wedgewood family, and was captured by the portrayal of the struggle he underwent to choose between the Christian belief he shared with his wife, and his need to share his scientific discoveries. He delayed publication for a long time because he knew his theory would change everything.

I wanted to bring The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot – the best example of creative non-fiction I have come across – but I couldn’t find it.  I suspect it is out on loan – I do keep shoving it into people’s hands and saying ‘read this’.  Here’s the book blurb: 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 . . . 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.

So, my second but by no means inferior choice was Winterdance: the Fine Madness of Alaskan Dog Racing by Gary Paulsen.  This passion for sled racing, combined with a passion for the wild, beautiful landscape of the Arctic, is explored in Winterdance – a powerful, almost unbelievable adventure, told with humour, pathos, vitality and excitement. Beautiful, funny and laconic, it is ‘a book about men and dogs and their souls’.

Ann Coburn


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

July 2014
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