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Book 55: Little Women, Louisa May Alcott (1868 & 1869)

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6ce3221ebf5ad145ab24b16470467022.jpgLocation: James Dahl Indian—our first book club curry, and probably our last there since they charge extortionately for poppadom dip.

Theme: Books that changed your life (double-header)

Chosen by: Clare

For most of the group, Little Women was either a childhood favourite or a set text in English lessons at school. Only two of us had never read the book before. So after the dip-pricing shock, the first thing mentioned was that most people had read an abridged version as children and were suddenly surprised by how long the book is.

Little Women is perhaps so famous it needs no introduction, but in short, it’s the tale of four sisters growing up in America, following their transition from girlhood to womanhood. Originally published in two volumes, the first volume “Little Women” was written in just a few months. After immediately garnering much critical and commercial success, the second volume “Good Wives” was written equally quickly when readers wanted to know more about the characters. It is now published as one single volume containing both books.

The stories of the March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—are now so well-known from popular references that without even reading the book, many people know that [spoiler alert] Beth dies. Although child death wasn’t uncommon at the time, it’s still a shock for many readers. What most people don’t know is that the book was largely autobiographical, with Alcott writing about her own sisters, one of whom died. In fact, her intention for writing the book was to make money for her struggling family.

Alcott was writing at a time when women in America were starting to find their feet, get jobs, and not just be stay-at-home wives. As such, the novel explores the theme of female independence to a degree—particularly in the gutsy tomboy Jo, who didn’t want to get married and sold her lustrous hair to pay for her father’s hospital treatment.

It’s no surprise that most of us liked and identified with Jo. However, the other characters were often type-driven and narrow in scope. Beth is sickly sweet, Amy is a bit of a brat, and Meg is vapid and vain, while their mother is a typical goodie. This may have been a result of Alcott writing quickly or trying to simplify the content for children or young readers. Perhaps because the novels were rushed, Amy’s marriage feels incongruous.

Whilst most of the book clubbers had enjoyed the book as children, they struggled with it as adults. Those reading it for the first time gave up. Only one book clubber retained their original love for it. The writing style is repetitive, the story is very twee, and tone often falls on the side of sentimental or moralising. Very much a novel of its time, the stories in each chapter often feel like thinly-veiled lessons in how to be a good person. In short, while appreciating its value to children and for its time, most of us didn’t enjoy the book as adults.

Score: 5

The double-header was Mansfield Park, but so few of us managed to read the book that it’s not actually worth writing a review. Poor show UCBC.

If you loved or loathed Little Women, feel free to score the book using the 5-star voting system above.

Book 49: Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier (1938)

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Rebecca - Virago Modern Classics 1973 (Paperback)

Location: Sack of Potatoes, double-header.

Chosen by: Claire

With one of the most famous opening lines ever “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, Rebecca’s popularity has transcended almost 80 years. Since being published in 1938, it sold over 2 million copies between 1938 and 1965 and has never gone out of print. It. Despite often gracing the “100 books you must read” lists, half of the book club had amazingly never read it.

For those who haven’t either, Rebecca is best described as “a gothic romance”. Du Maurier herself described the novel as “a sinister tale about a woman who marries a widower…Psychological and rather macabre.” Due to the book’s title, you might be mistaken for thinking that Rebecca is the protagonist, but in fact Rebecca is our unnamed protagonist’s new husband’s dead ex-wife. Got that? Rebecca is beautiful and mysterious, and our young protagonist feels horribly inferior to her predecessor.

Having met Maxim de Winter in Monte Carlo and married within a few weeks, the second Mrs. de Winter is surprised to find her new husband Maxim now cold and distant. What’s more, the infamous and malicious house keeper, Mrs. Danvers, adored Rebecca and makes the new Mrs. de Winter feel unwelcome at Manderley, her new home. As the novel progresses, the mystery surrounding Rebecca is unravelled.

Like countless others, Rebecca certainly had us hooked—from those who had never read it before and loved it to those on a re-read who described it as “one of the best books I’ve ever read”. It is incredibly well-written, descriptive, and compelling. In particular, our nameless protagonist’s feelings of inferiority and jealousy are relatable. In part inspired by the author’s own jealousy of her husband’s beautiful previous fiancé, and her memories of Cornwall and similarly-named Menabilly house, it is no surprise that the novel seems so believable.

Our only criticism of the novel relates not to du Maurier herself, but to the common edition that most of us read—the Virago Press edition. Firstly, the cover is a massive spoiler alert—thanks for that Virago! Secondly, the edition’s afterword by Sally Beauman (not to speak ill of the dead as she passed on this year, but…) is at best infuriating and at worst completely out of touch with du Maurier’s sentiments.

It’s baffling why Virago thought that including this afterword would enhance the book. While du Maurier—as the real-life jealous lover—clearly associates with the protagonist in feeling incomparable to the beauty who came before her, on the contrary, Beauman is clearly a fan of the first Mrs. de Winter. Beauman even went as far as writing a “sequel” of sorts named Rebecca’s Tale, where Rebecca’s story is relayed, though far from the spirit of du Maurier and the afterword almost feels like a sales pitch for her own novel.

So if you’ve not read the book yet, our advice is most certainly do—but not the Virago edition!

Score: A shockingly-brilliant 10/10!

Book 44: The End of the Affair, Graham Greene (1951)

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Location: Bacchus Bar, double header

Category: Classics

Chosen by: Rachael

In this double header of reviews, we found ourselves split for the second time. Half of us loved the book; the other half really didn’t. The End of the Affair is the love (or hate) story of Bendix and Sarah in war-torn 40s London. Bendrix is the former lover of Sarah, a married woman of good social standing, whose husband Henry is a well-known, well-respected man.

For reasons unknown to Bendrix, Sarah abruptly ends their love affair, and love-sick Bendrix hires a private detective, determined to find out why. As the name suggests, the novel atypically begins at the end of the affair, which is actually somewhere in the middle of the plot. Confused yet? Well, this is not just a simple tale of an affair.

It’s difficult to write this review without spoiling some of the story, so if you don’t want to know anything about the book, maybe switch off here. That being said, I won’t ruin the surprise either.

The affair

Suffice to say that Bendrix and Sarah aren’t your run-of-the-mill blasé cheaters, they’re tortured souls, whose fatal flaws make the story. There is angst and turmoil, complicated feelings, and Greene expertly invokes the feeling of love and the desperation to need to feel love back. There is an element of Wuthering Heights to this affair, the failure to tell be honest about one’s true feelings, leading to tragic and avoidable situations. There is also a third party in the affair, strangely not Henry but God.

The God Question

What starts out as a simple affair turns into a surprisingly deep religious and philosophical questioning. This book explore about big things, not just our relationships with each other, but our relationship with God, the nature of existence and the physical, and death. The thought-provoking debates on God and philosophy are well-informed and educated, though are conceded perhaps a little too quickly. Set against a backdrop of World War, the subject is pertinent.

The Style

If you’re looking for a holiday read, this certainly isn’t it. It’s by no means an easy read, and some of the book clubbers found it heavy going, or should I say “It looks like a short book, but it was like wading through treacle”. Greene is an excellent writer, who crafts beautiful sentences. He captures a lot in a short book, with a plot that unravels in an intriguing manner, presenting the same events from several perspectives, and a strangely comforting unconventional ending.

Score: 7

Book 42: The Millstone, Margaret Drabble (1965)

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The Unconventional Book Club is back. I (the blogger) have been away travelling for a year, and the book club did continue in my absence with many a book read. However, I’ve lost track of what book number we’re on…I’d estimate 43. So that’s what I’m going with. Welcome back readers…

Location: The Woodman. It sounded like a herd of elephants were about to come through the ceiling, but apparently it was just a Morris dancing practice.

Category: 1960s

Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone is a tale of unmarried pregnancy in 60s Britain. A mere 50 years ago, it’s hard to imagine the scandal of having a child out of wedlock, but this was a scenario that befell many women. Drabble’s protagonist Rosamund is atypical—an academic, living in the apartment of her upper middle-class parents who are living abroad, Rosamund is in a relatively privileged position.

Other women at the time were not so lucky, often forced into mother and baby homes, and forced to have their babies adopted. Less an obvious moral tale of social injustice, The Millstone is rather a character story of Rosamund’s personal progression.

Previously avoidant of sex and physical contact, Rosamund gets pregnant the first time she ever sleeps with someone, and is then equally avoidant of deciding what to do about her pregnancy. After a brief and failed attempt at aborting the baby with a bottle of gin, her lack of decision turns into the decision to keep the baby.

She lives a life of omission, where failing to do things becomes her way of life. From a position of being oblivious to life, not even knowing how to book a doctor’s appointment, Rosamund deals with the pregnancy entirely on her own, asking no one for help. In fact, she neglects to tell most people of her pregnancy, including her parents. Instead, she captures, objectively, the details of her appointments and interactions.

Yet when baby Octavia is born, Rosamund becomes warmer and more open, with an overwhelming desire to care for her daughter. Her pregnancy breaks down the barriers as she must face the physical “bodily” aspects of life on her own. As one of our book clubbers put it, “the baby was the making of her, and actually not a millstone at all”.

A quick and easy read, The Millstone is well written, and the narration style really embodied Rosamund’s academic, no common sense, character. Considering how otherwise well-drawn Rosamund’s character is, it is somewhat hard to believe that she so easily gives up her previously heavily-guarded virginity. What could have been an overly moralising or depressing story is instead a comfortable balance of factual and amusing. For us, The Millstone fractured opinion, from “really enjoyed it” to “a chore”.

There was some disappointment that The Millstone featured less of the swinging 60s and more of the British Library, but the novel is quintessentially British. From inviting relatives you don’t really like to dinner because “you should”, to having banal conversations in difficult scenarios rather than talking about the important things, to just accepting the situation and “getting on with it”.

The Millstone is an important piece of British social history, detailing a time when a single woman having a child on their own was considered a disgrace. Let it make us grateful that times have moved on.

Score: 6.5

Book 20: Goodbye to Berlin (1939), Christopher Isherwood

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Discussion location: The Sun on the Hill (had to ask for mayo three times, waitress was rude to the chair, shall not be returning to this venue any time soon!)

Chosen by: Susan

Reason for choice: Amusingly, Susan bought this book having mistaken it for an earlier choice (Alone in Berlin). She thought the synopsis sounded good (and more cheerful than Alone in Berlin).

Review:

With our second book set in 1930s Berlin, you might be forgiven for thinking that we’re gluttons for punishment.  As it happens, this book is pretty much free of the impending war until near the end of the book, and it’s actually quite easy to forget it’s based in Berlin at all. Incidentally, that’s about the only compliment the book is going to get in this review, so be prepared.

Having been hailed as a classic of British literature, described as a “masterpiece”, and consistently receiving 4+ stars out of 5, we all wondered what we’d missed. With a wealth of reading experience, a love of classics, and several English literature degrees between us, we’re hardly closed minded.  However, we just didn’t get this book or the hype surrounding it.

Goodbye to Berlin is a short novel, or novella, consisting of six short stories, partly autobiographical in nature, and narrated by Christopher Isherwood (sort of as himself and sort of not).  The stories depict a range of characters in pre-war Berlin, including his nosy landlady Frl. Schroeder, a young English woman named Sally who sings at a local cabaret, a rich Jewish heiress called Natalia, and a gay “couple” Peter and the debatably not-gay Otto. It formed the basis of Cabaret, but for those who had seen Cabaret, they had no idea how.

In the absence of bad reviews of this book (and because I don’t wish to waste any more of my life on it), here are some verbatim observations.  Think of them as the recommendations from the guardian on the front cover, if you will.

“A thorough disappointment. I wanted shabby decadence, it was just smelly and full of boring people…” (Susan)

“I would like back all the hours I read it…” (Theresa)

“I felt all the way through I was missing something, missing its subtle greatness…” (Claire)

“Prose, prose, prose…Lovely words, no substance…” (Clare)

“I would actively persuade people not to read it…” (Rachael)

“The rise of Hitler was periphery…” (Lorna)

“He turned a good phrase, but it didn’t feel like a book…” (Me, Ameesha)

“A classic case of ‘don’t believe the hype!’” (Rachael)

“He didn’t put much effort into making his diaries a book…” (Theresa)

“Based on real people, but they felt badly drawn and unbelievable…”

“Isherwood was an observer not participating in life…”

If you needed any more feedback after that, the consensus that there was no progression, no point, no plot, no redeeming features, it was not entertaining, not a story even as a vague collection of diaries, none of the characters were likable, and it was tedious.  It depicted a superficial and selfish society, showed the worst side of people, and failed to feel like a real book. Worse still, in comparison to Alone in Berlin, a true masterpiece on Nazi Germany,  Goodbye to Berlin was shallow, lacking, and downright boring.

Our lowest rating yet: 3/10

Book 13: Pride and Prejudice (1813), Jane Austen

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Discussion location: Homemade picnic – bargain!

Chosen by: Lorna

Reason for choice: First read aged 13, on my 4th re-read. One of my favourite books and if put on the spot, I always say it’s my favourite.

Favourite quotes:

From the book: “he simpers and smirks and makes love to us all”

From the evening: “…the dad, what’s his name again? Oh yeah, Mr. Bennett.”

“I just love it, if I could open the door behind my shower I’d go back.”

Review:

In its 200th year, and having sold around 20 million copies worldwide, Pride and Prejudice continues to be one of the most popular and “loved” novels in the history of English literature, frequently topping the ‘100 best books’ etc lists.  A subject of much critical interest, it has inspired numerous adaptations in a range of media, from television and film to novels (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies being one of the most inventive) and even a comic and graphic novel.  In fact, Austen’s work remains so popular that she is set to be the face of £10 bank notes from 2017.

Indeed, the story is now so ingrained in British culture that I’m not going to bore you with the plot and an analysis of Lizzie Bennett as a strong female.   Nor am I going to tell you that 20 million people are wrong and the book is actually dreadful.  The simple fact is, for the majority of readers, it’s an enjoyably comfortable and light-hearted novel, or as somebody described it, “a warm bubble bath”.  So, you might ask, what magic formula has ensured the ongoing success of Pride and Prejudice where so many others have been left to gather dust on library shelves?

As we know, the basis of any long-term achievement is a solid foundation, and as I alluded to above, for Austen this is established through a fundamentally good story.  The plot is simple enough to be memorable, yet detailed enough to involve a range of characters and cover a variety of themes. There’s minor peril (will they get their men? will Lydia ruin her reputation?), enough to muster interest without being a struggle. And despite the predictably happy ending, there is the moral victory that love conquers class divide and social expectations; that Darcy chooses Lizzie despite her lesser social standing and questionable relatives.

There’s also humour sprinkled throughout; for example, Mr Bennett failing to support his frivolous wife, stating, “An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do,” and even a good dose of mocking on social customs, Lizzie dancing with a silent Darcy stating, “you ought to remark on the size of the room”.

However, much of the allure of Pride and Prejudice is the degree to which it is still relevant, despite its age.  When I say relevant, I don’t mean literally; we don’t marry our cousins anymore. What I mean is that the plot, themes and characters are transferable to modern times, and indeed, have been.  In fact, one of the most famous ‘transfers’ is Bridget Jones Diary (even featuring the same actor for Darcy).  The impressively realistic characterisation in the novel demonstrates that human beings haven’t really changed that much in 200 years. Every girl wants a Mr. Darcy, everybody knows a Mr. Wickham and everybody has a Mr. Collins they wish to avoid.  Moreover, the conversations about character and morality are still entirely relatable; the qualities we seek in others are the same.

So the formula might look something like:

Story + Morality + Humour + Characterisation + Transferability

Having lavished all of this praise, you might wonder why we only scored it 8 out of 10. Some critics of the novel have accused it of being too insular, and indeed Emily Bronte described it as “carefully fenced”. However, for us it was simply an issue of style. Considering the substantial amount of conversation in the novel, there was very little “said x”/“said y” making it easy to lose track of who’s saying what. Although the conversations were slow, like “a gentle amble through the countryside”, it was one where a lack of signposts meant backtracking was an annoying necessity.

Another debate was had on the issue of style, or “spending 3 pages discussing the hem of a skirt”.  I jest somewhat, but Austen, like many authors of her time takes an awfully long time to get to a point, leading to a long text where little actually happens. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the popularity of television and film adaptations of the novel. For modern readers, it is difficult to disassociate with the famous adaptations which have in many cases influenced perceptions of the novel (for example, at no point in the novel does Darcy take a quick swim in the lake, nor is there a sickly ending like the one for American audiences in the Knightly adaptation).

Whether you prefer the BBC adaptation, one of the many films, or modern alternatives, it is undeniable that Austen has inspired many others.  Her novels have endured, her characters are still believable and her themes are still relevant. Of all of her novels, Pride and Prejudice is arguably her finest work, light-hearted and enjoyable with hidden depths and admirable characterisation.

Overall rating: 8/10