We meet quarterly, at 2pm, usually at Wesley Centre, to discuss a book we have mutually agreed to read. Everyone is welcome to join.
8 December The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
Curtain: Poirot's last Case by Agatha Christie
For our Christmas meeting the Wesley Book Group chose two Agatha Christie books – light reads appropriate for post-Christmas lunch discussion.
‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ (written in 1920) was Hercule Poirot’s first case and ‘Curtain’ (written in 1940 but not published until 1975 – ask me why!) was his last. The two books were compared and the changing character of Poirot noted.
The popularity of Poirot continues unabated. David Suchet has played the part on screen for every one of the Poirot books – indeed Suchet’s autobiography implies that so immersed was he in the role that he felt he almost became Poirot, identifying with many of the detective’s traits.
So why do we all like to settle down to a nice, cosy, genteel murder at Christmas? Why is crime fiction so popular? Christmas really wouldn’t be Christmas without an Agatha Christie on television. Is it the televisual equivalent of a crossword puzzle: an exercise of wits looking for clues where the all-knowing Poirot will explain the solution, and the guilty will always be revealed?
Agatha Christie’s home Greenway, near Torquay, is owned by the National Trust and is well worth a visit.
Arthur and George by Julian Barnes
Here was a book that everyone in the group enjoyed reading! A beautifully written historical novel by the Booker-winning writer, Julian Barnes who, with extraordinary empathy and imagination, invites readers into the world of Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji. These two men would never have met but for a terrible miscarriage of justice. The book is based on real-life events and the case led to the setting up of the Court of Appeal.
As well as reading about the investigation of the case, the book includes surprising biographical details about Conan Doyle – his marriage to Touie, his nine year affair with Jean Leckie, his frustration at the fame attached to being the creator of Sherlock Holmes and his involvement with spiritualism, psychics and mediums.
The contrasting world of George Edalji’s fight for justice led to discussion on racial prejudice and the dark undercurrent of racism in turn-of-the-century England; identity and nationality; police incompetence and corruption; and justice and evidence.
Don’t expect a tidying up of loose ends as happens in most detective fiction. This is based on real life so there are uncertainties and unproven accusations and a degree of ‘unknowability’. It’s a very readable and fascinating book.
For the August meeting the Wesley Book Group read Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog
This was the first of three meetings discussing detective novels and was chosen because:
· it is set locally – in Leeds, Harrogate and Whitby and surrounding areas
· it is set in both the 1970s and the present day
· it is by a highly acclaimed, best-selling author
· it covers topical themes – including police corruption and professional misconduct, dementia, missing children and parenthood
· parts of it are very funny and witty
It is about the choices we make, and how lives are changed by a split second decision.
However …it is intricately plotted and some of the group wrestled with the numerous characters and tangled subplots. You do have to concentrate to keep up, but most of us agreed that it was well worth the effort.
Some quotes from the book:
‘It would be helpful if kids came with instructions and a list of requirements. Kids should come with wheels attached’
‘His phone vibrated in his pocket like a hefty trapped wasp’
It was a woman’s job to try and improve a man. It was a man’s job to resist improvement. That was the way the world worked. Always had. Always would.’
‘Families weren’t always great places to be. Especially for kids.’
‘There is nothing more frightening than a middle-class woman when she lets her hair down’.
‘Evil will prevail when good women do nothing.’
So, no shortage of discussion material with this book.
This is Atkinson’s fourth book to feature private investigator Jackson Brodie, who himself is a complex character. As with the novels of Dickens, there is a reliance on coincidence but Atkinson resists neat resolutions - a problem with some of our group members.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. This is a very moving novel telling the story of Harold Fry, his wife Maureen, son David, and Harold’s former workmate, Queenie. It is the story of Harold’s journey from Devon to Berwick on Tweed.
What is pilgrimage? “At one level the pilgrim makes a physical journey, covering often distant and difficult terrains. At a more profound level the experience of travelling through a foreign land towards a sacred goal can become a metaphor for the pilgrim’s search for his or her religious identity”.
From Pilgrimage by Simon Coleman and John Elsner.
Queenie is the goal. She has to be unable to contribute in any way to the conversation when Harold arrives or she may have altered his personal pilgrimage. She may have rendered it unnecessary by telling him of her visit to see him and Maureen before she went away. This factor relates to Christian and Islamic belief systems in that the prophet Muhammad was illiterate, therefore he could not add anything personally to the revelations which make up the Quran. Similarly, it was important for Christianity that Mary the mother of Jesus was a virgin as this gives the same aspect of purity to the birth of Jesus as Muhammad’s illiteracy does the Quran. As a Christian, one wonders if St. Paul, who never met Jesus, took Christianity, and in his letters altered it. What were his sources?
Maureen has her own personal baggage. She too could have altered the story and made Harold’s pilgrimage unnecessary.
Harold is the pilgrim. His own personal journey explores the whole of his life and the mistakes he has made on the way, an experience which is both physically and mentally draining.
The end of the book leaves us wondering whether we should need a sequel, or not?
Everyone had enjoyed reading this book. Some members of the group had found it difficult to become involved in it at the beginning, but later found they couldn’t put it down.
We felt that Harold’s family life had brought about a situation where he needed to escape from his normal surroundings and that his pilgrimage was his way of dealing with his grief. When he finally gave away the few possessions he had with him he became a true pilgrim. Here, at this stage in the book, the emphasis moves to highlighting Christian values through the help given by strangers he meets on his journey. “through faith you can do anything” he is told.
This was a memorable book club meeting in that we followed our discussion with afternoon tea to celebrate Lynne’s 70th birthday. Lynne wishes to thank everyone who contributed in any way to her celebrations, for a delicious tea and her bouquet of beautiful flowers.
This book is in complete contrast to books we have previously read and discussed about the First World War in that it is autobiographical and tells of the ordeal of someone who loses her brother, her fiancé and two close friends. We read at first hand of a situation where women see a whole generation of their peers wounded and killed. Many of them were eighteen years old. This is a harrowing book.
What was the purpose of this war? Though nursing English then German soldiers, Vera Brittain is faced with having to answer this question. She abandons her studies for a degree at Oxford and becomes a VAD nurse in order to experience the war herself and to be nearer those close to her who are involved in the fighting. After the war, she returns to university, adopts pacifism and lectures through Europe for the League of Nations.
Vera Brittain is an excellent writer. She faces her readers with the issues of being a survivor in a lost generation. In writing this book, her wish was to 'immortalise' the story of her family and friends.
'This is a wonderful book' was a comment made by one members of our group. Everyone had found it an engrossing read, impeccably written. We were glad we had chosen to read this book and whilst reading had had to remind ourselves we were not reading a novel, but real life facts. We wondered if in a similar situation, young people of today would feel as committed as those of a hundred years ago who went so willingly to fight and in very many cases to death.
We were amazed that Vera Brittain maintained her love of fashion, and despite the horrendous conditions, what she wore was always noted in her diary.
With many people who had experienced the horror of the First World War still living in 1939, why was the Second World War allowed to happen?
The final word must go to Storm Jameson who wrote in The Times 'Miss Brittain has written a book which stands alone among books written by women about the war'
No two persons ever read the same book –Edmund Wilson
The above quotation couldn’t be more true in the case of our latest discussion on Shirley by Charlotte Bronté. Arguably it was the most unpopular book since the book club was formed: some hated it, some didn’t even get further than the first chapter, some tolerated it, one found it a harder read than the first time round and only one thoroughly enjoyed it.
Whatever the opinions of the readers Bronté’s book was admired by some historians . The themes near to her heart were intertwined in the unfolding story: women’s rights; the positions of tutor/governess; Yorkshire manners (as opposed to the boorish southern ways); and the plight of the unemployed poor. One reader took issue with Bronte’s treatment of the homeless, starving and unemployed, feeling that she dealt with them unsympathetically.
The overall feeling was that we should leave the 19th Century behind for the time being and enjoy a ’lighter’ read.
On 6 January 2015 North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell.
In spite of its length, everyone managed to finish it (no spoiler but it does have a happy ending in spite of the deaths of three of the leading characters) and concluded that Elizabeth Gaskell was a better novelist than she was a biographer—we had read her biography of Charlotte Bronte in October. Of course it helped that it had recently been shown on television. It is always interesting to discuss how novels are adapted to meet the needs of a wider film audience.
Discussion centred on:
- Working and living conditions in the industrial northern towns
¨ The apparent acceptance of the death of children in infancy
¨ The rise of the Trade Union movement and its connection with dissenters
¨ How the characters changed in the course of the novel
¨ How strong some female characters were
¨ Father/daughter and mother/son relationships
¨ The divide—then and now—between North and South
So….at the end of 403 pages ‘It’s Pride and Prejudice for Socialists’!
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