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The Book Discussion Scheme is the source of books and reading notes for our book group.  The scheme (BDS) is a not-for-profit organisation that started 43 years ago under the auspices of the Canterbury Workers’ Education Association.  They provide monthly books to more than 1,200 groups throughout New Zealand, and it’s all run from their busy premises in Colombo Street.  Group members pay $60 per year, which entitles them to ten books.   Members all read the same book at the same time, then meet to discuss it, answer questions, and develop friendships.  The BDS offices have appropriate murals by Wongi Wilson at their front door.

I’m aware there are some groups where people read different books, then share their ideas, and others where everyone buys the featured book each month.  Do you belong to a book club?

“Our members all have undertook
to try to read the monthly book.”

 

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This book is fascinating in a macabre way.  The goriness was almost nauseating at times and there was too much detail for my liking.  It’s the true story of an American World War Two flyer who crashed in the Pacific Ocean, and eventually became a Japanese Prisoner of War.  The harrowing recount of his experiences make it easier to understand an older generation’s prejudice against Japanese people.  I didn’t need to be reminded of the horrors of war, and I wouldn’t have persevered through the whole 400 pages if it hadn’t been a book group selection.  It was interesting to read about the war from an American perspective, when most of my knowledge comes from British people.

If you want to read a well-written detailed book about the Second World War, this is an excellent example, but it is not light entertainment.

“When I read all that he endured
I knew why war should be abjured.”

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If Chaucer is the father of English poetry, then Julian is the mother of English prose.

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This slim volune is easily read, impeccably researched, and relates what is known about Julian.  The author is a course director in History of Art at Oxford University who has written and presented numerous BBC history documentaries.

Julian of Norwich was born in 1343, the same year as Geoffrey Chaucer, yet he is much better known.  Her ‘Revelations of Divine Love’,  the oldest surviving book written by a woman in English, is a spiritual autobiography as relevant, comforting, and thought-provoking today as it was in the 14th century.  Julian was a mystic, and her writing is experiential rather than academic.  Because she wrote within a Christian framework she calls the divine God, yet she provides inspiration for people of all faiths.  She speaks of God as father and mother, who provides the unconditional love which is universal, including inside each one of us.  I found much that reminded me of Sufi and Pagan beliefs, especially when she says “there is no created thing between my God and me”.  Julian is quietly confident that no matter what happens “our heavenly mother Jesus cannot allow us that are his children to perish.”

The author gives the context for Julian’s book and marvels that the writing remains optimistic, hopeful, and positive, despite the death carts that must have trundled past her cell carrying victims of the plague.   She reiterates that Julian’s words, which exist outside time will always ring true whenever and wherever they are read.  I feel privilaged to have read such an excellent outline of Julian’s life, and to have had the opportunity to visit her rebuilt cell in Norwich.

“All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

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Parallel stories of Sookie, a modern woman who discovers she’s not who she thought she was, and Fritzi, a woman who flew military aeroplanes in the Second World War.  The author also wrote ‘Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café’.

This book came as a Book Group selection, not one I’d choose because I’m not keen on American novels, and it was not to my taste.  When Sookie read the letter that was to change her life I thought things were looking up, but I found much of the first 300 pages tedious.  The only time I related to her was when she talked about being scared to get up at night and go to the bathroom in case she put her foot down on something unpleasant.  I learned to always wear slippers when we had a cat who was inclined to leave dead offerings on the carpet.

The parts about the contribution to the war made by American woman pilots were the most interesting parts of the book.  What surprised me most about this was that they were never given proper military rank and the fact that the role they played was hidden for so many years (until 1977).  The novel is promoted as being a comedy, but I found the over-the-top characters hard to take.

I was fully engaged in the story for only the last fifty pages, when Fritzi and Sookie finally met, and I was deeply moved by the final reunion, especially the surprise speaker.

“These dames flew planes to help the war
but the reward they got was poor.”

 

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Each chapter in this book is named for a painting displayed in London’s National Gallery which is an integal part of the story.  A QR code directs you to the painting – if you have a smartphone.  I don’t, but I sought some of the paintings on my computer at times that suited me.  That meant if I was reading in bed at might, I waited until the next day to view the relevant painting.  I wonder how many people read the book with their phones beside them?  I started to get impatient with wanting to see the painting, yet not wanting to leave the book to look up the picture.

The story is centred around letters written during the London blitz.  I found the first few chapters pessimistic and wondered whether I would finish the book.  Overall it seemed tedious, and without the paintings it would be tiresome.  Using the two different timelines was an interesting device, but the modern day characters had little to commend them.

“The pictures are well worth a look
I’m not so sure about the book.”

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I liked this book, although it sometimes bewildered me.  The bewilderment started when a package arrived before Christmas from Amsterdam.  Nothing on it to say who’d sent it, and the only clue was the words “watch – filigree”.  I doubted anyone would be sending me a filigree watch, and I wasn’t sure whether it was a Christmas or birthday present.  When I opened it on Christmas day I discovered that it was a book ordered from Foyle’s in London by a kind daughter – one of several she sent which all came in separate parcels.

The story is set in the 1890’s, the third book I’ve read recently set in that period.  This one often has a modern tone which leads the reader to sometimes forget that it’s historical.  It moves back and forth from England to Japan, and involves sophisticated clockwork, magic, and clairvoyance.  Rather than an historical romance, it’s a Steampunk Saga, with fascinating characters and relationships.

“This book’s unusual fantasy
meant that it captivated me.”

 

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This is the story of the fight for women’s suffrage in Britain.  New Zealand women gained the vote twenty-five years before their British sisters, and I wondered whether I might find this book irrelevant, but definitely not!

It deals with early struggles for women’s rights, where the suffrage movement was linked with the anti-slavery movement and the Unitarian faith.  The need for sexual equality was discussed among the working class earlier than among the upper classes partly because lower class women had paid work outside the home and experienced wage injustice directly.

I was intrigued to read of the campaign by Caroline Norton, granddaughter of dramatist Richard Sheridan.   I’d heard of the Pankhursts and Emily Davison, whose stories were told in the film “Suffragette”, but many of the women in this book were new to me.

The U.K. movement was forced to be militant in a way the N.Z. movement was not.  This led to imprisonment, force-feeding, and the ‘cat and mouse’ act, where sick prisoners were released then confined again once they’d been nursed back to health.  Perhaps the N.Z. ‘establishment’ was less well-established and therefore more open to justice?  Reading about police brutality towards the suffrage protesters in 1887 and later reminded me vividly of scenes from Springbok Tour protests here.

There are many quotes from contemporary writings, and the whole book is well-researched and well written.  I found it engrossing.

Britain will celebrate their anniversary of Women’s Suffrage in 2018. Listening to Mary Beard being interviewed on the BBC confirmed to me that there are still brave women leading the struggle for equality.

This Saturday, 21 January, many women around the world, including me, will march in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington, to promote human rights and diversity at the time of Trump’s inauguration.

“So many fights for Women’s Rights
worldwide our sisterhood unites.”

 

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