Category Archives: St Andrew’s Church Book Club

‘Regeneration’ by Pat Barker

World War 1 Poster. "Women Say Go".

Attrib Wikipedia

I am quite the wrong sort of reader for this book, and therefore the wrong person to be reviewing it.  War and soldiers are not my thing at all.  Poetry, I don’t get on with, either.   I read it because it was the St Andrew’s Book Club book.  Last month it was Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie, which I found charming and thought-provoking at the same time, but you join a book club to expand and develop your reading.  When I realised what Redemption was about, my face fell.  Maybe I was prejudiced against it before I started, although, taking this attitude, sometimes you can pleasantly surprise yourself.

Regeneration, the first book in the Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker, is based on a true story.  This must be one of my unfavourite expressions.  Over the last few years, every film and every television programme (as well as books) tends to be based on a true story.

Poet Siegfried Sassoon

attrib Wikimedia Commons

This particular true story concerns Siegfried Sassoon’s incarceration in Craiglockhart War Hospital, Scotland, in 1917, following his publication of Finished With the War, A Soldier’s Declaration, in which he called for World War 1 to be ended.  Sassoon was sent to army psychiatrist William Rivers at Craiglockhart, following intervention by his friend Robert Graves, as an alternative to a court martial.  The idea was that Sassoon must be suffering from a mental disorder to write such things, whereas the premise of the book is that Sassoon was sane and everyone else at that time deluded.

Sassoon himself is not portrayed as an attractive character: smug, self-satisfied and arrogant.  Wilfred Owen gushes.  Graves is indecisive and allows himself to be belittled by Sassoon.  We follow the fortunes of other patients – Burns, Prior, Willard, Anderson – but there is no feeling of moving forward which comes with a plot.  The only ‘good’ character is Dr William Rivers (who is called ‘Rivers’ throughout) but he has no story arc.  He carries on trying to do his best for his patients, using gentle techniques, as compared with the cruelty of Dr Yealland in London.  Rivers becomes ill.  He gets better.  He carries on.

I’m not criticising the literary quality.  Pat Barker’s depictions of civilian life during war time were well researched and understood and her civilian characters (Sarah and her mother, Ada) believable.  Her written style is excellent, her descriptions of scenes and how people moved and acted excellent, but this was a novel of unleavened grimness, without a glimmer of humour.  Not a very funny subject, you might think.  However, people in grim situations tend to develop their own black humour (but not here).

That the conduct of the First World War was reckless and caused needless carnage is something we’ve known for many decades.  Yes, Sassoon was right, and I appreciate that people in government, and many of the general public in 1917 didn’t see it that way, but a century later Regeneration is not telling us anything new.

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‘Katharina Luther: Nun, Rebel, Wife’ by Anne Boileau

nun_300At nine years old, Katharina Von Bora was in the way.  A tomboy, and not prepared to flatter her new stepmother, she is sent away to the school attached to the Marienthron Convent at Nimbschen.  From that point onwards, she was being shoehorned into joining the order as a nun and, accordingly, she becomes a novice at the age of fifteen.  What a convenient way to get rid of a troublesome child.

However, by 1523, when she is in her early twenties, Katharina, and several other younger nuns, are restless.  They’ve heard about Martin Luther’s revolutionary preaching in Wittenberg and they’re fascinated by their – illegal – copy of the Bible in German.  More than anything else, though, they want out.  They can’t bear the thought of being stuck in the convent for the rest of their lives.  So, they write to Luther himself and he replies, concocting a plan for them to be smuggled from the Marienthron Convent in empty herring barrels.  They arrive in his house in Wittenberg and then they have to reconnect with the real world.  Luther doesn’t know what to do with them.  He expects the girls to return to their families, but for Katharina, and her friend, Ave, there’s no chance of that.  Eventually, Luther and Katharina marry.. and I’m not giving away a spoiler as the book starts with Katharina married and pregnant.

The book is written as Katharina’s diary during the last weeks of her pregnancy.   It’s not just ‘based on a true story’.  It’s a biography, faultlessly researched .  Anne truly got into the hearts and minds of the people living in that part of Germany during the first part of the sixteenth century, their fears of disorder and chaos, that sometimes only Latin prayers would do and the very real social disorder caused by Luther’s preaching.

Katharina herself was an interesting main character, plucky, resourceful, resilient, yet consistent with her time.  Luther himself is also well-drawn, earthy, a man who makes jokes about farts and bowel movements, yet whose thunderous voice can fill a church and the hearts of those waiting outside.

Anne Boileau lives in Essex.  I know her under her real name, although I haven’t met her recently and she has no idea that I’m reviewing her book.  The last time I saw her she was delivering staff development on lesson planning.  A month ago, however, Anne came to talk to the St Andrew’s Church Book Club about Katharina Luther, although unfortunately I was too snowed under with work to attend.  Really sorry to have missed her.  An unputdownable book, about one of my favourite periods in history.

Rating:  4/5

Buy Katharine Luther:  Nun. Rebel. Wife. here.

‘Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death’ by James Runcie

Attrib Wikimedia Commons

After the funeral of a Cambridge solicitor. who has, apparently, committed suicide, his mistress claims he was murdered.  An engagement ring, worth £350, goes missing and the intended bride, having been reminded of its cost too many times, goes off the groom.  The daughter of a ex-con, turned jazz club owner, is murdered.  An aristocrat, reluctant to share his art collection with the National Trust, is murdered during a stage production of Julius Caesar.  These are just some of the six longish short stories, set in 1953 and 1954, featuring Canon Sidney Chambers,  vicar of Grantchester, and reluctant detective.

Serious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, in every way ‘vicarious’, Sidney rides a bicycle and enjoys cricket.  When his friend, Amanda, arranges for him to be given a Labrador puppy, he is concerned about never having looked after a dog before, that it will needs walks, inconvenience his cleaner and upset the precarious equilibrium between his clerical calling and the outside world.  He worries that his crime-solving is getting in the way of his proper job.  He won’t do it anymore… but then his friend, Inspector Geordie Keating, whom he meets weekly to play backgammon in the pub finds him another case.  A reluctant detective, he considers himself to be a poor priest, despite being very conscientious in his parish and giving a lot of thought to he will preach about next.

Sidney Chambers believes it is his duty always to think the best of people.   People will talk to him, because he is so gentle and non-judgmental.   This is what makes him so useful in crime-solving.  Eminently likable.  His love-interest is the wealthy socialite and art historian, Amanda, but he doesn’t wish to impose upon her because, really, when he thinks about it, being a clergy wife probably wouldn’t suit her.  He has a sort of posh(ish) family in London, a sensible sister, Jennifer, and a brother, Matt, who is a jazz musician.  Sidney is also passionately fond of jazz, and, when asked, can’t explain why, the sign of a real aficionado.

The setting is comfortable, enjoyable and beguiling.  I want to be there in Grantchester in 1953 with him.  The only flaw in the scenario, to my mind, is that Geordie Keating uses Sidney’s skills and time too freely, ordering him about as if he were a paid employee of the police force.   Sidney is not a pushover, and certainly believes in putting his God and his church first, so, for me, that aspect doesn’t work too well.

Read  Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death (non-Amazon link).  This book, which was published by Bloomsbury in 2012, and is the first in the Grantchester Mysteries series.  James Runcie, the son of Robert Runcie, former Archbishop of Canterbury, has also written many other works, including Canvey Island and the Discovery of Chocolate.  The Shadow of Death is the first one I’ve read.  Will I read more in this series?  Oh yes, Dear Reader.

Rating:  4/5.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Hedgehog

Attrib Wikimedia Commons.

‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ is a literary novel, set in an expensive Left Bank apartment block in Paris.  The hedgehog is the despised concierge, Renee Michel, apparently the stereotype of her profession.  She looks dowdy, appears slow of intellect, owns a cat and the sound of her television blares from her flat.  Her tenants are all wealthy, well-educated, snobs and fashionably left-wing.  The story is told by Renee Michel herself and through the journals of Paloma Josse, an eleven year old girl living in one of the apartments (Renee in serif font, Paloma in san serif).  These two are the only two characters with whom the reader gets to know well.

Renee was born into a family of backward country peasants, who hardly spoke to one another and never addressed each other by name.  Renee deliberately gives the impression of still being that peasant, carefully concealing that she is cultured and well-read.  In fact, she is hungry for learning, someone who understands what she reads, but with a different slant, seeing as she is unschooled.  Her only friend is the Portuguese cleaner, Manuela, who, Renee adjudges to be an aristocrat because she insists on having a plate and a tablecloth when eating a walnut.  Renee is however a likable character who rapidly gains the reader’s sympathy.

Paloma Joffe defines herself by the people around her.  Papa, a republican politician, enjoys coffee, many different newspapers and rugby and has conscience qualms about putting his elderly mother in a home.  Maman spends three hours a day watering her houseplants and has been in analysis for ten years, not with a proper medic but, according to Paloma, ‘just a leftie’.  Maman loves to reminisce about the Evenements of 1968.   Paloma reserves her bitterest opprobrium for her elder sister, Colombe, an arrogant teenager who enjoys all the privileges of wealth yet effects to despise them.  She wears grunge clothes, with holes, which, in Renee’s opinion, belittle the aspirations of the less well off.  Colombe knocks on the concierge’s door at seven am, to tell her about an expected courier delivery, and is full of self-righteous indignation when Renee refuses to speak to her until the lodge opens at eight.

For a large part of the book, Paloma, who seems to believe she is too good for the world and her family, comes over as someone as entitled and snobby as everyone else.  She is considering committing suicide in a year’s time and, at the same time, burning down the apartment block where they all live.  It takes a while for the reader to grow to like Paloma and to appreciate her innocence, through her ‘Profound Thoughts’ (all numbered) and her ‘Journal of Movement of All the World’.  Only in the later sections do we realise that Paloma is only eleven and a half and that she is a geeky kid in pink-framed glasses.  Moreover, we don’t get to know her name until very late on.

The only other character who features majorly is the Japanese filmmaker, Kazuko Ozu, the newest man in the block, who appears only half way through the novel.  The antithesis of all the other residents, he is studiously courteous in a very Asian way and appears to be without class consciousness, is very well read and cultured, as well as being rich.  To my mind, he is just too good to be believable.

The author describes very effectively the pretentiousness and sense of entitlement of the wealthy left-wing establishment.   Renee is offended by the I’m-so-left-wing-I’m-speaking-to-the-concierge tone.

The writing style is intense, self-consciously literary, and the action slow-moving, insofar as there is action at all.  For me the lack of plot-line undermines some excellent characterisation.   It is said, repeatedly, that literature is ‘all about character’.  This novel, I’m afraid, disproves this maxim.

Steel yourself for the shocking ending!

I award this book three stars only.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog can be purchased from Gallic (through Belgravia Publishing) he

re.  Translated from the French by Alison Anderson.