The Wych Elm
War & Turpentine
by Belinda Bauer
'In Another Country & Besides"
by Maxwell Jacobs
Seven book club members attended this meeting which was host by Liam.
Though the discussion, like the book, covered many topics, the one that stood out was the treatment of Northern Ireland, possibly because it made some of us feel so old to realise that the Belfast Good Friday agreement now fits into a historical novel although we remember it well, and possibly because it has been in the news again because of Brexit and the backstop/customs border arrangements.
Some of the non-Irish members felt they were a little at a disadvantage as there were many references that went over their heads. Instead of helping them get to know Ireland (the aim of the Ambassadors’ list where we got the idea for reading this book from), it made them aware of how little they knew about the country, which for Axelle spoilt the pleasure of reading the book. Poppy on the other hand, for whom as the youngest member of the group it really was history, didn’t find it bothered her at all.
Focusing as it does on three momentous moments in Irish history, it was probably to be expected that we all agreed that events were much more important than the characters, and with perhaps the exception of Lillie, the Dublin maid who leaves for America and develops into a strong and independent woman, the fictional characters were not particularly well drawn enough to elicit any sort of emotion or attachment from the reader. Allison was interested enough to research the real historical characters to get to know them better, but one of the fictional characters Hannah was found to be a disappointment, and even downright annoying for Elena. New member Nicole made the very valid observation that the female characters existed only in the private sphere, whereas the men were all very much public heroes, a reflection of the times he was writing about or an oversight by the author? Poppy however pointed out that she was impressed by how a male author managed to write believable female characters. Nicole found the teenage son a little too perfect to be true though.
It was generally agreed that although the various strands of the book may have been interesting (except the NI part for Mary) the links were tenuous, even preposterous. While generally it was agreed that the writing was good, the overuse of a staccato style of three and four-word verbless sentences in the first chapters was irritating.
As the first Saturday sitting of the Westminster parliament was happening as we were speaking and as we all knew that the meaningful vote could turn out to be meaningless, the talk veered off onto the topic of Brexit before we got back to the book to vote. Votes were surprisingly similar, the range only being between 6 and 7 – it actually felt like watching an ice-skating championship 6/6.5/6/7/6.25/6.5/6 to give an overall score of 6.28/10.
There 7 book club members at this meeting which was host by Elena.
Marit enjoyed the writing and found the book touching. She was particularly impressed how someone that got into books and learning so late in her life has such a gift with words.
Jess thought it was well written, yet she questions some of the details (whether the wounds were as severe as suggested, for example).
Christine would have preferred a different title, Enlightened more appropriate as the book is not necessarily about education; she also found some passages a bit too long
Julia would have liked a fiction book as her first book club reading, but appreciated this well written, feminist memoir
Sofia joined Jess and some of the questions regarding the veracity of some details, but enjoyed the writing
Poppy likes memoirs and found this an iteresting read, yet has criticism with the way it was received by the American press, which turned her story into a 'pull yourself by the bootstraps' American narrative (too simplistic and not fully accounting for Tara's journey)
For Liz it was a gripping read, left her wanting more, couldn't put it down
Alicia enjoyed it for its very good writing but also for the important themes presented (fundamentalism and feminism)
Axelle loved this book, in spite of some parts being too long
Allison didn't finish the book (and is eagerly awaiting our Quiz questions next time ;)) as this book was very emotional, tied to her personal story of family, estrangement, home schooling, coming to terms with the past, etc., she loved the book
Mary enjoyed it for its tight, concise writing, however, in spite of it being a good story, it wasn't transcendent
Elena liked the beginning, yet the narrator is too engrossed in the family mindset--it would have been enriching for her writing (and for us as readers) to get more of a glimpse of life outside the family sphere (Tara's life at the university, her love interests, etc.) 7/10
Nicole doesn't like memoirs, yet the author constructs her story in an interesting way, with beautiful writing 8/10
Liam gave the book a very high mark--not a lot of criticisms except some of the vocabulary that was bothersome/heavy (ex: the scrapyard scenes)
Alis thoroughly enjoyed the book. Beautiful writing, a beautiful story. although I have to say I'm glad that I won't have to do outside research for our next read (sometimes it does spoil the simple joy of reading)
We were a slightly smaller group than the previous month when we gathered to discuss Unsheltered on Saturday and we appreciated the remote participation of Liam and Alis. Those who had read previous novels by Kingsolver were disappointed with this one. There was universal dissatisfaction with the main protagonist, Willa and a feeling that the modern story line was overcharged with problems. Despite occasional witty moments and an appreciation that the text was well written, the general impact was depressing. The modern story failed to compel: the collapsing house and Willa’s marriage to Iano were considered unconvincing. The 19th century story line was much more appreciated and could have been developed further. The link between the two timelines was considered tenuous and forced and the alternating chapter structure could become tedious. The overt political engagement of the novel was appreciated by some, but not by others and we all agreed it certainly wasn’t subtle.
Quite a consensus about the book – we all agreed that it was a worthy choice for the Belgian ambassador as it did make us think more about the country and the First World War, the linguistic divide, religion and we again thank Axelle for answering some of our many questions.
Allison, who couldn’t make it but did send her comments in advance, found the second section of the book, which describes Urbain’s time as a WW1 soldier, depressing for its reality. The rest of us found this part really well-written and were surprised/relieved that it managed not to tilt us too far into trenches, rats, smells, ‘we’ve heard all this before’ territory, probably thanks to the first section of the book, which described his Ghent childhood and gave us a good sense of who the main character was so we were motivated enough to be interested in his wartime experiences. Elena suggested that it was this personal viewpoint, rather than any sense of a more general history of the war, which made it feel that it wasn't just a reworking of something like All Quiet on the Western Front.
Lots of discussion about how present the author was in parts 1 and 3 and why he chose this rather than just to recount his grandfather’s tale. This and the chronological shifting led James to find it a bit hit and miss in parts, whereas both he and Nicole agreed that the WW1 bits felt authentic. Alice enjoyed the author’s detective-like work in piecing together the story and visiting places his grandfather had been. Elena didn’t enjoy the three sections of the book equally. The overall opinion seemed to be summed up by Axelle – ‘not my kind of book’, but still interesting, a good read yet maybe not enough to recommend it to anyone else. Despite such mixed opinions about the book, we generally agreed that there was more positive to say than negative.
Bookclub members were hard pushed to find anything positive to say, but after much mirth and head scratching Liam said the best thing about the book was that he managed to finish it. Alis charitably said it reminded her of travelling to (admittedly tame) destinations, whereas Connie was pithier in saying that at least the book had words in it. It called into question the wisdom of turning one’s hand to writing: Elena said it the quintessential example of how not to write and thought it would make good fodder for creative writing 101. Others felt encouraged, thinking (quite rightly) that they would make a better fist of writing than this ham-fisted turkey. Nicole thought the author enjoyed writing this, but Mary thought that the writing seemed as excruciating as reading it certainly was.
Incongruities were glaringly obvious: a woman exiting a marriage in Italy of the 50’s would be inconceivable; contrary to what the author seems to believe, Montpellier is NOT in Provence; grapes do not grow on vine ‘trees’; they are not harvested, nor is wine made in June, and in no way is Arles reminiscent of Paris, or vice-versa.
Negative comments, as numerous as the spelling and grammatical errors, could be summarised as: badly written, unedited, nonsensical and soulless, with poorly developed, unsympathetic characters; a narrative with more plot holes than plot. Asked for one word to describe this work, BC readers variously found it disappointing (Liz), awful (Connie), dreadful (Poppy), superficial (Alis) and as Nicole accurately put it: quite dreadful. Liam suggested duplicity, Mary suspected a hoax, and Self-publication was suspected by all..
BC members deserve accolades for trudging through this book, valiantly foregoing time in lives they will never recover. All thought that the book resembles the first draft of a poorly told tale, rejected by the assistant editor’s assistant on a student internship. It was published by an outfit called Morgan James Publishing which “ has revolutionized book publishing—from the author’s standpoint…teaches authors strategies to leverage their books and grow their businesses—adding value while staying out of the way…” Nobody will be surprised then to learn that Morgan is an ex- (or maybe not even ex) mortgage banker, making a successful career of promoting bad books written by and about bad writers.