The Drought by J G Ballard (December 2012)

New boy Ryan brought along a carefully edited selection of literary gems this month, so many gems that it was a close call! The Drought by J G Ballard pipped the post:0007115180.01.LZZZZZZZ

Water. Man’s most precious commodity is a luxury of the past. Radioactive waste from years of industrial dumping has caused the sea to form a protective skin strong enough to devastate the Earth it once sustained. And while the remorseless sun beats down on the dying land, civilization itself begins to crack. Violence erupts and insanity reigns as the remnants of mankind struggle for survival in a world-wide desert of despair. 

A flurry of sick notes were received this month – partially due to the busy Christmas season but also, we suspect, due to the difficulty some had finishing this supposed Sci-fi classic. Lack of character and some fairly hackneyed similes meant that, apart from one passionate book group member, much skim-reading ensued and we were left feeling, well, rather thirsty really…

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers (November 2012)

The lovely Charlotte provided us with so many interesting novels at the last meet that choosing something to read during October almost became impossible! Putting our foot down to a choice of three, Jane Rogers’ Man Booker long listed The Testament of Jessie Lamb made the cut:

Jessie Lamb is an ordinary girl living in extraordinary times: as her world collapses, her idealism and courage drive her towards the ultimate act of heroism. If the human race is to survive, it’s up to her. Set just a month or two in the future, in a world irreparably altered by an act of biological terrorism, The Testament of Jessie Lamb explores a young woman’s determination to make her life count for something, as the certainties of her childhood are ripped apart…

Although largely agreed that this is not the most well-written novel in the world and highly frustrating in parts, the group at least agreed that Jessie’s Lamb’s story contained some explosive, Man Booker-prize worthy ideas. Sadly marred by an unconvincing, irritating teenage narrator, the issues approached in Jessie’s pre-apocalyptic world captured the imagination of the group and we spent a happy hour speaking of women’s rights, the teenage mind and the possible realities of bio-terrorism…

Amerika by Franz Kafka (October 2012)

With a leaning towards dystopian fiction, Dan’s choices promised much more to talk about. With a shiver of trepidation we enthusiastically tucked into Franz Kafka’s Amerika:

Karl Rossmann has been banished by his parents to America, following a family scandal. There, with unquenchable optimism, he throws himself into the strange experiences that lie before him as he slowly makes his way into the interior of the great continent. Although Kafka’s first novel (begun in 1911 and never finished), can be read as a menacing allegory of modern life, it is also infused with a quite un-Kafkaesque blitheness and sunniness, brought to life in this lyrical translation that returns to the original manuscript of the book.

Amerika presented a first foray into the world of Kafka for some and a final dip into their dusty collections for others. Although undoubtedly well-written (even in its unfinished and largely unedited state) the general feel was for a book that, although not representative of the author’s far more surreal and darker works, still served as an effective advertisement for the group to go forth and devour some of the more obvious Kafka classicsAn often quite comic portrait of a nation that the author never had the opportunity to visit in person.

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood (September 2012)

Taking a leaf out of Louise’s book, Jess brought more than a mere three choices with her for September’s read. After a quickety quick vote, Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood won hands down:

After a chance encounter on a train the English teacher, William Bradshaw, starts a close friendship with the mildly sinister Arthur Norris. Norris is a man of contradictions; lavish but heavily in debt, excessively polite but sexually deviant. First published in 1933 Mr Norris Changes Trains piquantly evokes the atmosphere of Berlin during the rise of the Nazis. 

Well, what a surprise awaited us this week! Everybody seemed rather subdued and really at a loss as to what they thought about this book, positively or negatively. Where Arthur Norris provoked disgust and irritation in some, others found the deviant characters within this novel to be both amusing and well-observed. Further intrigue lay in Isherwood’s tense pre-WWII setting and rather ‘queer’ undertones. Beyond that? ….well, not very much really.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (August 2012)

The lovely Louise delighted us all by bring no less than eight interesting titles for August’s read. After a pondering few moments we plumped for Man Booker shortlisted ‘The Sisters Brothers’ by Patrick deWitt:

Hermann Kermit Warm is going to die. The enigmatic and powerful man known only as the Commodore has ordered it, and his henchmen, Eli and Charlie Sisters, will make sure of it. Though Eli doesn’t share his brother’s appetite for whiskey and killing, he’s never known anything else. But their prey isn’t an easy mark, and on the road from Oregon City to Warm’s gold-mining claim outside Sacramento, Eli begins to question what he does for a living – and whom he does it for.

With The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt pays homage to the classic Western, transforming it into an unforgettable comic tour de force. Filled with a remarkable cast of characters – losers, cheaters, and ne’er-do-wells from all stripes of life – and told by a complex and compelling narrator, it is a violent, lustful odyssey through the underworld of the 1850s frontier that beautifully captures the humour, melancholy and grit of the Old West and two brothers bound by blood, violence and love.

After a month spent working our poor weary heads around madcap cats in Moscow, Louise’s choice was a welcome break and, although it didn’t quite wow all of us, with a pair of devoted fans within the group, a lively discussion was had by all. What was the significance of the beavers after all!!? Although some felt deWitt’s characters lacked depth, some found this to be a convincing, sympathetic portrait of two contracted killers and we are all, without a doubt, intrigued to see what the author offers up next.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (July 2012)

Well the book group voted and from Alex’s three choices the title that won with most votes from the group collectively was the renowned ‘The Master & Margerita’ by Mikhail Bulgakov.  Alex strongly recommended we all read the same translation by Diana Lewis Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Conner published by Picador. Here is the synopsis of the book…

A literary sensation from its first publication, The Master and Margarita has become an astonishing phenomenon in Russia and has been translated into more than twenty languages, and made into plays and films. Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel is now considered one of the seminal works of twentieth-century Russian literature. In this imaginative extravaganza the devil, disguised as a magician, descends upon Moscow in the 1930s with his riotous band, which includes a talking cat and an expert assassin. Together they succeed in comically befuddling a population which denies the devil’s existence, even as it is confronted with the diabolic results of a magic act gone wrong. This visit to the world capital of atheism has several aims, one of which concerns the fate of the Master, a writer who has written a novel about Pontius Pilate, and is now in a mental hospital. By turns acidly satiric, fantastic and ironically philosophical, this work constantly surprises and entertains, as the action switches back and forth between the Moscow of the 1930s and first-century Jerusalem.

Everyone seemed pretty excited to have a crack at this classic (Alex included, despite the fact that she had read this book many moons ago) although it certainly isn’t a beach read for the summer and required a bit more concentration from us all! A first foray into the intimidating world of Russian literature for some, a drop in the ocean for others, it is certain that Bulgakov’s intellectually and politically provocative bizarre book captured our imaginations. Hurrah!

The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. by Jacques Strauss (June 2012)

For the second choice of read for the group Simon chose a debut novel which he hoped would be a ‘quirky and funny, in an inappropriately appropraite way, look at the South African apartheid’ and something short which would make people laugh after the previous months read (see below). Here is the synopsis…

Even as an eleven year old I had a strong sense that the universe was setting up nasty traps for me, all sorts of really horrible ways to die in which (and this is the crucial point) I would in some way be complicit in my own demise (and this before I had done anything to warrant this particular anxiety). I have always been shit scared of the deranged universe and it’s not really that stupid and irrational…it gets all of us eventually. It’s 1989, and in the dying years of the Apartheid regime, eleven-year-old Jack Viljee considers himself the centre of his world. The son of an Afrikaans father and an English mother, wedged between a strident older and favoured younger sister, Jack allies himself with the family’s beloved maid, Susie. Plagued by portents of doom, Jack nevertheless has firm views on race (complex), politics (straightforward), poofdas (inoffensive), God (dangerous), sex (bewildering), sisters (disappointing), parents (unfailing), Zulus (frightening) and the KGB (cunning). His Afrikaans family are wanting in a number of respects: they have too many children, let the maid keep chickens in the backyard, buy tomato sauce in ten litre vats and cover their furniture in plastic. Still, there is no doubt they could wipe the floor with his soft English relatives. Either way, at his new school he knows that he is set on an inexorable path to Englishness. Life is simple. But the comfortable domesticity of the Viljee household has been upset by the arrival of Percy, Susie’s fifteen-year old son. Percy – young, bored and full of rage – makes everything awkward and embarrassing for Jack. After one particularly humiliating event, Jack betrays Susie and learns that even the most childish act can avalanche beyond his most outlandish imaginings. The world, it turns out, is not so simple.

So what did the group make of it? Well only Simon truly admired the book and he couldnt make the book group (though emailed his thoughts over) the rest of the discussion was divided, with people seeing both the pro’s and con’s to the book. That said the discussion was lively and the book brought up debate over child narrators and also humour as a device when a novels theme is much darker. Not a bad read, good for discussion.

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell (May 2012)

For the first official choice of the Manchester Book Club co-founder Lucy chose a book that is meant to be the great ‘Manchester novel’ from one of the cities most famous authors.

Mary Barton is the pretty daughter of a factory worker who finds herself dreaming of a better life when the mill-owner’s charming son, Henry, starts to court her. She rejects her childhood friend Jem’s affections in the hope of marrying Henry and escaping from the hard and bitter life that is the fate of the workers, who are resentfully dependent on the callous mill-owners for their livelihoods. But when Henry is shot dead in the street Jem becomes the prime suspect and Mary finds her loyalties tested to the limit.

Overall we think its fair to say that no one at the meeting had particularily enjoyed reading the book, possibly an understatement, though everyone appreciated the fact it was a novel about the city they meet for book club in… if a very grim one. They discussed how the book had aged and the fact it was Gaskell’s debut novel, and pondered if they would read her again?

Favourite Books (April 2012)

For the first meeting of The Manchester Book Club all members brought their favourite books in to discuss and get to know each other better.