The first book of the year as you will realise was not a happy read. What follows is David Burningham’s summary of our discussion of ‘The First Iron Lady: A Life of Caroline of Ansbac’ by Matthew Dennison:
“You may strutt dapper George, but ‘twill be in vain;
We know ‘tis Caroline, not you that reign”.
This contemporary verse was written about the wife of George II, the subject of our chosen book: ‘The First Iron Lady: A Life of Caroline of Ansbac’ by Matthew Dennison
“A brilliant study of a brilliant woman” said Lucy Worsley in her review for the Times Literary Supplement. Not a single person in our group agreed with this verdict.
Describing the work as a “slog” and a “great disappointment”, since we had been looking forward to learning about Caroline’s interests in science and the Enlightenment, we were unanimous in thinking what should have been a page turner was made tedious by the research details that the author flaunted lavishly: Caroline’s character, her “bosoms” and the Court; far too much monarchical detail and too little on Caroline’s intellectual life.
Like most of our book group members George and Caroline lived much of their life in Richmond, Surrey while George’s mistress Henrietta Howard lived nearby in Marble Hill House, Twickenham and Alexander Pope in Teddington, factors that might have drawn us in and yet the book was deeply disappointing and thought by all of us to be pretentious and in some places incomprehensible.
While the text was loaded with Dennison’s scholarly references the detail of history was curiously incomplete – Horace Walpole a confident and advisor to Caroline is mentioned often in the book and yet nothing is said about his role as the first Prime Minister of this country, the first resident of Downing Street and the first Leader of the Cabinet.
Sadly this book received the lowest rating of any we have read so far. On a scale of 0 to 10 we gave it a generous 3.5 (6 readers present).
In this the final month of the year we read ‘The Dressmaker’ by Beryl Bainbridge, perhaps not a particularly festive choice to discuss at our Christmas lunch gathering but one which brought forth a variety of insightful comments from our nine contributors. An excellent discussion.
Set toward the end of the second world war it describes a family’s interaction with a changing world. Some of us felt it hard to get into and initially confusing, other’s found echoes of Pinter in the interplay of comedy and tragedy, praising the ‘poetry of the mundane’ in its writing. Bainbridge claimed the character of Rita was part autobiographical – interesting to note that Rita is “good at English”.
It is a book rich in the themes of repression, matriarchal dominance and the obsessive quality of first love culminating, unexpectedly, in murder.
The book evoked memories for many of us: scenes from the past where family histories remained unspoken – skeletons firmly locked in cupboards and even furniture enveloped in its original shop plastic covering.
The range of scores from four to eight reflect our mixed reactions to ‘The Dressmaker’. The six it achieved was a fair result for this thought-provoking novel from a highly skilled author.
Discussion summary by Susan Wallbank
The penultimate book before the end of 2018 was ‘The Brain. The Story of You’ by the renowned neuroscientist David Eagleman. The general consensus was that it was an excellent journey into the human brain, if occasionally somewhat “texty” and repetitious. In his introduction Eagleman writes he is still in awe every time he holds a human brain. All thoughts, dreams, memories are contained within a mere 3 pounds of a jelly-like substance.
“You don’t perceive objects as they are. You perceive them as you are.” he tells us. We learn that we all live nano seconds behind what we think of as ‘the present’. We are all born “unfinished” – an advantage as it turns out because we can each learn to adapt to many different cultural and natural environments; we are “live-wired” not “hardwired”. Some group members admitted disquiet to have read that there is no such thing as colour – our beloved reds, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet – are only as our brains interpret. Colour is a subjective experience we share. Our decision-making processes made by a “neural parliament”.
In Eagleman’s view, examining warfare and violence as neural phenomena is as valid as examining them in the context of history or economics.
For Eagleman, the question of where the brain can take us and who we will be when we get there is about possibilities, a continuation of our 100,000-year journey of evolution. “Our species owes its runaway success to the special properties of the three pounds of matter stored inside our skulls.” He cites Leibniz’ mill argument: a thought experiment that involves walking into a mill; that material things such as machines or brains cannot possibly have mental states. Only immaterial things, that is, soul-like entities, are able to think or perceive. If this argument succeeds, it shows not only that our minds must be immaterial or that we must have souls, but also that we will never be able to construct a computer that can truly think or perceive…..
So much still to learn and argue. It is no surprise that the group of seven gave the book an 8 out of 10 based on recommending it to a (carefully chosen) friend.
The group was unanimous in thanking Terry Rollinson for proposing this book that was originally a 6 part BBC TV series, now available via YouTube.
Our October book was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Of the nine of us who met to discuss Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ only two in our group had read it before, although we all thought we knew Frankenstein. We were grateful for the opportunity. The book was seen by some as nascent science fiction.
Opinions varied over the book’s narrative, style and characterisation. One person thought it a “slog” and three of us felt it was in parts long winded with its lengthy, stiffly formal passages of dialogue. For others this was not a problem. The exchanges between Frankenstein and the “daemon” he had created were well written and even theatrically amusing in places. Some saw the descriptions of alpine scenery and England as an enhancement. We all agreed that the author’s knowledge of geography was amusing – the idea of rowing from Orkney to the Ireland in just a few hours caused some mirth.
Whatever our various views on the style, we were united on the contents of the book – bursting with ideas and raising questions of interest to humanists: what does it mean to be human? Is it mainly nature rather than nurture that shapes us? What is the source of evil? What is paradise? Does the quest for knowledge and scientific progress lead to irreversible changes that are harmful to life? Echoes of John Milton’s Paradise Lost resounded through the creature’s laments.
Toward the end of the book, Frankenstein in pursuit of the creature he has made, observes: “the snows descended on my head and I saw the print of his huge step on the white plain”. As Fiona Sampson says in her recent biography of Mary Shelley “Mary’s print is huge too; huge for writing women, for the always emerging, always creative scientific imagination and for the dreams and nightmares of the Western World”.
On the question would you recommend the book to a friend on a 0 to 10 scale scores ranged from four to ten, with an average score of 8.
In September our group read ‘The Death of Truth’ by Michiko Kakutani.
Her short book elicited a fair amount of criticism. Whilst presenting the problem of a lack of truth, particularly in relation to American politics today, it was felt the author failed to offer anything new to the subject. Her book being seen as a ‘rant’, a piece of journalism existing in its ‘own bubble’, offering no solutions and possessing very little humour. However it promoted a wide-ranging discussion from religious beliefs and where they fit into ‘truth’, to the growth of cynicism in society arising from that ‘firehose of falsehood’ she mentions, the role of the internet and the subsequent emergence of the ‘troll’.
Our reviewer liked the quotation from Kipling, ‘We are all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding’ and how the author drew upon the words of Jefferson, Washington, Orwell and Huxley to illustrate her sense of a dystopian future.
We awarded the book a 4 out of 10 (based on the average vote given by 7 attendees), acknowledging that, by dividing our monthly reading clearly into Fiction/Non Fiction, at least we attempt to draw a line between the two.
There was a grand turn out of nine people in August for Penelope Fitzgerald’s ‘The Golden Child’. It was her first work of fiction written in 1977 in part as a protest of the poor museum experience at the dimly lit Tutankhamun exhibition, and as an amusement for her terminally ill husband.
A word that occurred fourteen times in the discussion notes was ‘absurd’ – four of us used the word admiringly and with great fondness for the apparently haphazard splashes of colour and images, and muddles of madness and violence that adorn the work; five were less than enthusiastic referring to the plot as “incoherent”, “made up as she went along”, a “patchwork of ideas”, “inhabited by unrecognisable caricatures”. We were unified in our dislike of the portrayal of all three female characters, one of whom doesn’t even appear.
The shift of the plot to Russia seemed all too surreal for some – as for the Russian circus….? And yet – and yet – one or two of us toyed with the thought of Fitzgerald writing about a certain perfume spray discovered just recently in a Salisbury park ….. how might Fitzgerald enjoy the macabre tapestry of such an unlikely plot?
“Overwrought” was the description of one devoted admirer who did not fail to recognise the gentle qualities of Waring or the extremes of the ‘fish finger exquisite’ Marcus Hawthorne-Mannering, Keeper of Funerary Art; both treated like the majority of other characters with deadpan humour.
Is the book dated? Has it become a period piece? Surely we reasoned, such a fake Museum exhibition could never convince a sophisticated modern audience or get past the many experts who would interrogate and analyse the exhibits. Papier mâché – gold leaf? No, no. Too absurd…. The general public is more than capable of distinguishing reality from absurdity, truth from lies….?
The overall score was 6 out of 10, with a range from 3 to 9 and a request to put Fitzgerald’s last novel ‘The Blue Flower’ on our reading list.
(For those interested in Penelope Fitzgerald we can recommend Hermione Lee’s ‘Penelope Fitzgerald – A Life’.)
Our July book ‘Other Minds – the Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life’ by Peter Godfrey-Smith prompted a vigorous and wide-ranging discussion. What is it like to be an octopus? Someone thought that after reading the book it would be difficult to cook and eat one: “I became very fond of the octopus”.
The author wrote “One of the classic problems of my discipline – philosophy – is the relationship between mind and matter … and I want to make progress on that problem, vast as it is, in this book.”
Opinions varied on how successful he was. Some of us thought the book was not scientific enough and lacked a coherent structure. A glossary of terms would have been helpful.
It was suggested naughtily that the book had been written “in the style of an octopus”, with the tentacles reaching out in all directions for material. On the other hand some saw considerable merit in the descriptive passages in the book and the relaxed anecdotal style.
There was however general agreement that the level of insight into the mind–body distinction, whether or not it was helpful to make such a distinction, was inadequate. Questions about the scope of human intelligence, and subjective and objective reality were insufficiently explored it was thought.
Scores on the ‘would you recommend this book to a friend’ index ranged from 0 to 8 with an average of 6.5.
We Humanists might all agree with the author’s final sentence “when you dive into the sea, you are diving into the origins of us all.”
Our book for June was Flann O’Brien’s ‘The Third Policeman’.
The wide range in the scoring, from 2 to 10 illustrates the diverse views this book generated, from “unreadable” to “one of the best books I have ever read, a Desert Island Disc book”.
Comments varied between ‘unfunny’, ‘laborious’ and ‘unrelenting’ and outstanding praise for the author’s use of language that echoed the early literature of Ireland, his occasional beautiful prose and his playfulness on all important ideas on life, death and hell. The footnotes were found either “boring” or a “clever mockery of specialists” who spend their lives examining scientists’, in this case, mad, theories.
It was generally felt the publisher had done the book no favours and challenged the use of quotes from professional reviewers such as ‘hilarious’ and ‘satire’ to describe it. There were quite a few objections to Anthony Burgess’s statement that only “stupid fools’ would fail to cherish the work of Flann O’Brien”. While one reader “fell out of bed laughing” and another (listening to the audio version) “nearly crashed the car” – we agreed it is most definitely a ‘Marmite’ book.
In May we discussed ‘The Drowned and the Saved’, by Primo Levi
We were all agreed we were grateful to have read this book. Levi was not only a fine writer and technician, he had the ability to quickly draw the reader in to what was a ‘grey’ world. He brought his analytical mind to bear on what remains ‘unbelievable’ to those of us who did not directly experience Hitler’s concentration and extermination camps. Like the Wedding Guest in Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ Levi was forced to tell “his ghastly tale.”
One of Levi’s purposes in writing this book forty years after the end of World War II was to warn future generations: this can happen again. Was he hard on the Germans in his final chapter ‘Letters from Germans’? We spoke of the correspondents who wrote they had not realised what Hitler intended: the response is the intention was made clear in ‘Mein Kampf’ (written in 1925 and 1926).
We spoke of Levi’s ability to examine various aspects of despair and the “extermination of memory” in an unclichéd way: to challenge his own guilt as a survivor – “we the survivors are not the true witnesses”.
Levi was searchingly honest about himself in the chapter ‘The Intellectual in Auschwitz’ – speaking of prayer “For one instant I felt the need to ask for help and asylum; then, despite my anguish, equanimity prevailed: you do not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, nor when you are losing, A prayer under these conditions would have been not only absurd (what rights could I claim? and from whom?) but blasphemous, obscene, laden with the greatest impiety of which a non-believer is capable. I rejected that temptation: I knew that otherwise were I to survive, I would have to be ashamed of it.”
We Humanists will likely understand: but as a contrasting thought Levi the atheist acknowledges that more ‘survivors’ believed in a deity, since they had hopes of transcendence.
Our score based on the question would you recommend this to a friend was 8.5. One of our group remarked “everyone should read this book”.