The Gathering – Anne Enright

The Gathering

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Irish woman Veronica takes a closer look at her family’s troubled history while at the funeral of her brother.

“Liam Hegarty has drowned himself a river. He wears high vis to ensure his body is easy to spot. He is one of 12 siblings who all like to drink, though he was afflicted more than the rest.

The Gathering refers to his extended family, a large, Irish kin, coming together for Liam’s funeral and subsequent events. His sister Veronica narrates the tale, grieving for her brother but also attempting to unravel the causes of the family’s dysfunction. She remembers a summer long ago when the children stayed at their grandmother Ada’s house, and attempts to reconstruct Ada’s life to make sense of her own.

There is something wonderful about a death, how everything shuts down, and all the ways you thought you were vital are not even vaguely important… and it is just as you suspected – most of the stuff that you do is just stupid, really stupid, most of the stuff you do is just nagging and whining and picking up for people who are too lazy to love you.

“For us both, the endless misery in The Gathering put a veil over the whole reading experience, making it impossible to see what distinguished this as a book worthy of Booker nomination. There is no sentimentality and no joy. If that’s what Enright was after, she has done well, but that didn’t translate into reader appeal for either of us.”

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Published 2007
Random House
272 pages

The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid

Reluctant_Fundamentalist

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Over one night, a Pakistani man tells an American stranger about his love affair with a woman and his forced abandonment of America post 911.

“Changez is a Pakistani man living in New York at the time of the terror attacks on the World Trade Centre. The resulting chaos, especially for men of his ethnicity, causes Changez to abandon his wish to pursue the American Dream. With shifting beliefs and loyalties he rushes home home, experiencing ideological and political inner turmoil.

“Changez tells his thoughts and his story to an American he meets near a café in Lahore. An embedded narrative depicts a suspenseful and ill-fated relationship between Changez and the American as the motives of both men are slowly revealed.

As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away.

“This is an honest portrayal of a Muslim man living in New York when the towers come down. It offers new insights into the tragedy and offers reactions and consequences that I had not previously considered. It is an eye-opening and thought-provoking story, written in a personable way, as if we, the reader, are the American he is speaking with. Great characters, great plot, great read.” – Rachel

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Published 2007
Mariner Books
228 pages

The People’s Act Of Love – James Meek

The P Act of LoveREAD FOR BOOKCLUB

Chosen by Suzy

A renegade Czech army unit is stranded in a community of religious fanatics in a small, remote town in Siberia. 

“The People’s Act of Love is set in 1919 in Yasyk, Siberia, a small town on the Yenisey river about as far north as life can be sustained. It is built around three facts; thousands of Czech soldiers were left marooned in northern Russia by the collapse of the Russian Revolution; secretive, utopian communities of voluntary eunuchs flourished there throughout the 19th century; and there was a practice of taking a naive companion along on Siberian journeys with the intention of eating him.

“Meek has combined these facts with the fictional coexistence of a woman raising her son alone, a crazed Czech captain and his soldiers, and a group of religious eunuchs. Then a mysterious, charismatic stranger appears in their snowy village with a frightening story to tell, and their fragile societal balance is tipped off kilter. This is a heavily plotted book with many twists, turns and surprises.”

And you thought: they’re used to it. But that was how those who suffered less always thought about those who suffered more, that they were used to it, that they no longer felt it as you did. Nobody ever got used to it. All they learned to do was to stop letting it show.

“I certainly didn’t expect what I found when I first opened the book. A unique setting and idea, bringing together an army unit and religious fanatics in the harshest of climates, so that everything is a daily battle. This is a blindingly forthright story, one which poses many questions about the fragility of the human condition and makes you consider ‘what if’ over and over. The bleak frosty setting is well incorporated into the storylines and is almost a character in itself. I didn’t want to put this down.” – Rachel

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Published 2005
Cannongate
391 pages

The Red Tent – Anita Diamant

the red tent

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Chosen by Rachel

Dinah, daughter of Jacob and sister of Joseph, is a minor character in the Bible, but the author has given her a voice in The Red Tent.

The Red Tent tells the story of the biblical character Dinah, who, in the Bible is raped by an Egyptian prince. Simon and Levi, two of her brothers, avenge Dinah by killing all the men in the city. After that, Dinah is never mentioned again.

“Diamant wanted to give a voice to the character of Dinah as well as her mothers, to break the Biblical silence and give them strength and power and personality.

“Like Biblical stories and a lot of fiction, there is plenty of murder, vengeance, extramarital affairs and familial drama as Dinah’s character is explored and allowed the freedoms of a modern woman.

Death is no enemy, but the foundation of gratitude, sympathy, and art. Of all life’s pleasures, only love owes no debt to death.

“The intriguing aspect of this book was how the author could take this ancient aspect of story telling and turn it into something modern and relevant.  We were not disappointed and infact what it did show is as long as there are people involved, there is drama and adventure, excitement and sorrow; there is a story to tell. The Red Tent is plot heavy and tension filled with full bodied characters. We were all impressed by it.”

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Published 1997
St Martin’s Press
321 pages

She’s Come Undone – Wally Lamb

She's come undone

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Chosen by Nadine

The trials and tribulations of Dolores Price from age 4 to age 40 are detailed in this 1992 book with saw wide appeal after being chosen as an Oprah’s Bookclub book.

“Dolores Price has a harrowing life. Born in 1952 and the only daughter of dysfunctional parents she stumbles through the years from one hardship to the next. She is one of those characters who has great intentions and tries hard and you so want to like her, but to be honest in the end it is clear she has more issues than you can handle and she just gets you down.

“But for some reason I wanted to keep reading. She did go on many adventures, which were entertaining. Plus I was sure there had to be some hope for Dolores in the end and I wanted to be there to find the reason for all this suffering and craziness. Maybe there was going to be some dystopian reality that manifests and makes sense of everything. (There is not). But there are a lot of alternative realities inside Dolores’ head and that’s what the meaning of the book is: self awareness, mistakes and learning, coming of age, self betterment. It is a book that relies on emotion to get you through.

“It is not a story for the faint hearted. It covers off may big topics, such as abuse, suicide, death, rape, abortion … but luckily it has a dark and clever humour to it that offsets the grim realities.

“Though, to be honest, I’m not sure how I would feel about recommending this book.” – Rachel

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Published 1992
Simon & Schuster
368 pages

The Accidental – Ali Smith

accidental

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Chosen by Suzy

A 2005 novel which relays the consequences for a middle-class family when an uninvited visitor appears in their home while on holiday.

“Amber—thirtysomething and barefoot—shows up at the door of the Norfolk cottage that the Smart family is renting for the summer. She talks her way in. She tells nothing but lies. She stays for dinner.

“Eve Smart, the author of a best-selling series of biographical reconstructions, thinks Amber is a student with whom her husband, Michael, is having an affair. Michael, an English professor, knows only that her car broke down. Daughter Astrid, age twelve, thinks she’s her mother’s friend. Son Magnus, age seventeen, thinks she’s an angel.

“Each family member assesses her differently but ultimately all accept her a fixture. What she does is allow them to examine their own lives as they reflect off the stranger.”

Oh. To be filled with goodness then shattered by goodness, so beautifully mosaically fragmented by such shocking goodness.

“I was really looking forward to reading this book for bookclub as I’d read such amazing reviews.  I didn’t follow it easily and this has been a repeating theme with most other Ali Smith books I’ve since read (Hotel World being the exception).  Unfortunately this is a reflection of my intellect rather than anything to do with the author! ” – Suzy

The Accidental is unlike any book I have read before. In it a stranger, a young woman, plants herself in the middle of a family in their holiday home where her existence reveals more about the unwilling host family than herself. At first I quite enjoyed discovering the novel’s unusual flow but sometimes it was almost too clever, making following the storyline difficult. Fantastically developed characters and a satisfying conclusion, though.” – Rachel

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Published 2005
Hamish Hamilton
320 pages

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

Wind up bird

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Chosen by Rachel

This seemingly simple story of a Japanese man whose cat runs away is anything but. 

⚈ “Wow. Just wow.

“This is the kind of book I adore. One with much complexity that not only wows me as I read, but wows me further as I discover more stylistic techniques and deeper meanings to the text afterward. The book is 600 pages and there are so many characters and stories that there is much to analyse.

A Wind Up Bird is about a man called Toru Okada whose cat goes missing. He begins a search for the cat and then for his wife, who is now also awol. These searches introduce a raft of characters and lends him much time, voluntary time, down a domestic well. On a basic level he is there for the calm in which to consider his life, but at a metaphysical level he travels through the walls of the well and into other worlds that contain doppelgängers for the main characters and help him connect with his missing wife. 

“Hmmm this is not an easy book to review. 

“Murakami’s style fits into the magical realism genre so yes weird and wonderful things do happen. But the settings and characters and mundane day-to-day actives (boiling eggs, taking the train) are so normal they make the phenomena acceptable. It’s important to look beyond the strangeness and observe the commentary on social history that lies beneath.

“Murakami’s writing style, and that of his translator Jay Rubin is known as ‘simple’. The books’ sentences do not attempt grandiose statements or complex structure. Instead they simply state what has happened and what has been said. It is a testament to Murakami’s ability that he can make somethings seem so simple but actually be incredibly literary.

Maybe it’s been like that for you till now. But you’re not a kid anymore. You have the right to choose your own life. You can start again. If you want a cat, all you have to do is choose a life in which you can have a cat. It’s simple. It’s your right… right?

“As well as a clear fondness for the West, Murakami also injects his own love of jazz, of whiskey, of cats and raises some serious questions about Japanese history too. If it were a meal this book would be a ten-course degustation. There is so much depth and flavour that the moment you accept what is infront of you, the course suddenly changes and a new character and a new event inject their life forces into yours. But at the end of it, everything links together in an abstract way and if you think about it long enough you come to acknowledge and relish the links of every person, of every story to the wind up bird that slowly clunks through the moments of time for all the world to hear.

“I have read a few Murakami books before and loved their fearless and visionary style, hence why I chose this. But I have to say that this has expanded my brain and my being more than any other book before and as such I have to declare it as my favourite book of all time. Yes my number one. It’s an emotional moment.” – Rachel

“The only word that describes this book is ‘weird’. But definitely in a good way! The story line drew me in and held my interest, even though there were parts I didn’t understand.” – Nadine

“Don’t read my comments.  Anything I have to say will be done so with far more eloquence and insight by Rachel.  A superb introduction into the world of Murakami. Meticulously researched by Rachel for our bookclub that night and I still remember her revelation that “MAY KASAHARA IS US!!!”. A book club highlight.” – Suzy

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Published 1997
Shinschosha (Japan)
607 pages

Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

EverythingIsIlluminated READ FOR BOOKCLUB

Chosen by Suzy

The author’s eponymous protagonist travels to the Ukraine, carrying a photograph of the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. 

Everything is Illuminated is the transformation of the author’s own attempts to trace his Jewish-Ukrainian ancestry and the terrible truth about the fate of his extended family who stayed behind in the old country when the Nazis closed in.

“It tells how Jonathan traveled to the Ukraine in order to find the woman whose family helped save his grandfather during the war. Jonathan arranges through a travel agency to have a car, driver, and translator. The travel agent is booked, so asks his father and his son to act as driver and translator. The grandfather spends most of his time sleeping, the rest complaining. The son, Alex, does not know enough English to translate everything clearly. The three make a comedic pair as they travel through the countryside in search of answers.

I will describe my eyes and then begin the story. My eyes are blue and resplendent. Now I will begin the story.

“Beautiful/sad/haunting/memorable.  Discovering this author (who – ahem – is one of my top 5 favourite vegetarians by the way) was a revelation. He writes consistently good books and I would also highly recommend Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – go straight to the book, don’t bother with the movie.” – Suzy

“Obviously there are autobiographical elements here, which make the story of Jonathan’s search to find the woman who apparently saved his grandfather from the Nazis extremely heartfelt. The cast of hilarious characters offset the seriousness of the quest. Not only is there is a one-eyed chauffeur guided by his seeing-eye dog, but also a translator who uses the thesaurus to comic effect. You’ll laugh, smile, cry and grimace all the way through this book.” – Rachel

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Published 2002
Houghton Mifflin
288 pages

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood

The Blind AssasinREAD FOR BOOKCLUB

Chosen by Rachel

A novel within a novel within a novel. Set in a fictional Canadian town it recalls the life events of an ageing lady. It won the Booker Prize in 2000.

“The Blind Assassin opens with the following sentence: ‘Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove her car off a bridge’, making it clear there are mysteries to be solved.

“The make up of the book is puzzle like, with four interweaving narratives. The main story is of the Chase family from World War I through the end of the 1990s. Laura Chase, the sister who drives her car off the bridge, has a published novel which is dictated, also entitled The Blind Assassin. In it, two unnamed lovers pursue an affair. The man – some kind of political subversive – is on the run, while the woman has reason to want the relationship to remain secret. During their meetings are fragments of a third narrative, a science fiction fable that the man tells the woman. Interspersed among these three narratives are fragments of a fourth narrative: newspaper and magazine stories of Toronto society in the 1930s and 1940s.

When you’re young, you think everything you do is disposable. You move from now to now, crumpling time up in your hands, tossing it away. You’re your own speeding car. You think you can get rid of things, and people too—leave them behind. You don’t yet know about the habit they have, of coming back.

“The Blind Assassin is about storytelling. Storytelling within storytelling within storytelling. Clearly a book for those who love books! I could say it is about an ageing woman recalling her life in the 30s and 40s and the death of her sister, who drives her car off a bridge in the opening sentence. But this is merely just the beginning and it is becomes so much more than that. Layer after layer of intrigue is uncovered in this rich and uniquely rewarding reading experience. There are many tiers to this book, and I became instantly engrossed in all the stories being told, in the characters and their lives. It takes a little to get into rhythm with the various settings, timeframes and beats of the stories, but once you’re there, you’re living the book, and all its stories and it’s hard to put it down. Margaret Atwood is a master and I’m always apprehensive to start another of her novels knowing it will only have to end.” – Rachel

“Despite my initial confusion with The Blind Assassin it was definitely worth persevering with!  A stunning novel, one of my all-time favourites.  In conversations about books, I’m always surprised about the number of people who know of it but who haven’t read it.  Resulting in me shoving my copy in their hands and saying aggressively “SERIOUSLY YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK”.  Margaret Atwood is one of my heroes.” – Suzy

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Published 2000
McClelland & Stewart
536 pages

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

to-kill-a-mockingbird2

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Chosen by Nadine

A 1960 novel which won the Pulitzer Prize and has been named one of the best novels of all time. The young narrator’s warmth and humour are offset by the racial and societal injustices she observes.

“To Kill a Mockingbird replays three key years in the life of Scout Finch, the young daughter of an Alabama town’s principled lawyer. Scout relates how she and her elder brother Jem learn about fighting prejudice and upholding human dignity through the example of their father, Atticus Finch, who has taken on the legal defence of a black man falsely charged with raping a white woman.

“Lee’s story of the events surrounding the trial portray Southern life during the 1930s, examining the causes and effects of racism, and creating a model of tolerance and courage in the character of Atticus Finch. A regional novel dealing with universal themes of tolerance, courage, compassion, and justice, To Kill a Mockingbird combined popular appeal with literary excellence to ensure itself an enduring place in modern American literature.”

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

“I loved this book. I think as with a lot of the classics as soon as you start reading them you realise why they are a classic. And also you ask yourself why you haven’t read it until now!” – Nadine

“A great read – can you say anything but?  I also really enjoyed the research on Harper Lee & her mystique.  Also interesting was the controversy around whether the story was in fact written by Truman Capote.” – Suzy

“This book should be read by everyone without exception. There is much to relate to and learn from, especially the message of morality and the search to be free – whatever it is you are searching to be free of. It focuses on the idea of right and wrong, and this is portrayed in every character, from the courtroom trial to the young children playing freely around the neighbourhood, to the mysterious Boo Radley. And it’s these themes that make the book accessible and affecting for every reader. This book teaches us to learn from history and to never forget. It is timeless and will have an important message for every generation to come.” – Rachel

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Published 1960
Grand Central Publishing
384 pages