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Socialist Review Book Groups
A Socialist Review book group is currently meeting in London. We meet once a month to discuss novels, biographies, books in the news, socialist classics...
We meet in the Barbican (easy to get to from Barbican or Moorgate tube). Ring 07938 523249 or 020 7628 6845 for venue details or for more information.
Out of London? Set Up Your Own Group
1 March 2013
15 April 2013
3 May 2013
7 December 2012
11 January 2013 (note second Friday of January)
1 February 2013
2 November 2012
5 October 2012
7 September 2012
4 May 2012
13 April 2012
2 March 2012
3 February 2012
04 - Property
October 04 - The Poisonwood Bible
February 05 - Guest Speaker Barry Hines
March 05 - God's Bits of Wood
04 - Purple Hibiscus
04 - Life of Pi
04 - A Fine Balance
August 04 - The Poisonwood Bible
September 04 - Middlesex
This novel examines the way identity is shaped. How does the past influence the present? What does nationality mean? What does it mean to be a man or a woman?
February 05 -
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
05 - English Passengers
05- Light in August
May 05 - The God of Small Things
July 05 - Middlemarch
September 05 - We Need to Talk about Kevin
October 05 -
The Left Hand of Darkness
November 05 -
The Plot against America
December 05 -
God's Bits of Wood
January 06 - Family Matters
'One of the finest novels that most of us will ever read.' Irish Times
February 06 - Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self
March 2006 - Brick
April 2006 -
Arthur and George
May 2006 -
Woman on the Edge of Time
June 2006 -
Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie
August 2006 -
Barchester Towers, Anthony Trollope
September 2006 - Mutineers, Jonathan Neale
October 2006 - The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
November 2006 - On Beauty, Zadie Smith
December 2006 - Snow, Orhan Pamuk
January 2007 - The Amazing Adventures of
February 2007 - Havoc In Its Third Year, Ronan Bennett
March 2007 - All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy
April 2007 - The Night Watch, Sarah Waters
A majority of the group enjoyed this novel, which traces a group of mostly lesbian characters back through their experience of the Second World War in London. There was some discussion about the portrayal of the different characters - some of us found some of them thinly-drawn and unconvincing. We were also interested in how the book was packaged and marketed - is the lesbian content underplayed in the hope of gaining a wider audience?
May 2007 - Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
This classic novel was prosecuted on publication for its sympathetic portrayal of Emma Bovary, the bored wife of a country doctor who commits adultery. The book sparked a lively discussion - we agreed it was superb, though opinions varied as to how sympathetic a character Emma herself was.
June 2007 - Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie's account of the 60s civil war in Nigeria won the Orange prize just after our meeting. We all enjoyed the book, which portrayed a society and historical events many of us knew little about. Adichie creates a moving and detailed picture of Nigerian society, taking account of differences of sex and class.
July 2007 - Suite Française,
Suite Française portrays Nazi-occupied France: written during the Second World War itself, it was hailed as a major work of literature after its rediscovery and publication in France in 2004.
Most of us enjoyed the book's portrayal of the complexities and conflicts of French society in the early part of the war.
August 2007 - The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
The group was divided about this account of an Afghan childhood and later immigration to America. Some found it a moving account of a childhood friendship betrayed. But most of us felt that it was badly written, and too close to right-wing clichés in what it had to say about the family, America and Islam.
September 2007 - Northern Lights, Philip Pullman
Our first children's book, this is an adventure set in an alternative universe, moving from Oxford to the Arctic. Pullman uses his story to comment on organised religion, and in particular its contribution to the abuse of children. Most of us loved the book and its feisty main character, 11-year-old Lyra.
October 2007 - The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman
This non-fiction book describes a family from the Hmong people – an ethnic minority from Laos – who have migrated to America. When their daughter begins having seizures, conflicts arise between her parents and doctors over how she should be treated. The disagreements reflect the huge differences between Hmong and American societies, and the power that doctors have in Western culture. We all enjoyed the book, which sparked a lively and wide-ranging discussion.
November 2007 - Moby Dick, Herman Melville
We could all see why this is a classic, with its epic descriptions of whaling that constantly shade into wider philosophical questions. Some of us enjoyed reading the book, but others found it very heavy going.
December 2007 - The Yacoubian Building, Alaa Al Aswany
This Egyptian novel was a best-seller throughout the Arabic world, and depicts the different classes of modern Egyptian society, as well as addressing issues like homosexuality and Islamism. Many of us enjoyed the book, but we felt its portrayal of characters and account of the issues it raises were both a bit shallow.
January 2008 - The Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber
This account of the social rise of a 19th-century London prostitute divided the group. Some found it a historically accurate and entertaining page-turner with credible characters. Others challenged its accuracy, found its characters unbelievable and argued that the book was full of unpleasant and clichéd male fantasies about prostitution.
February 2008 - Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
An autobiographical graphic novel, set in Iran during the revolution of 1979 and in the years after, told by the six-year-old daughter of well-to-do liberal-left parents. Few of us had read many graphic novels, but the majority of the group enjoyed this one - though several didn't like the graphic novel format, provoking an interesting discussion. Most of us also felt we had learned something about Iran.
March 2008 - Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee
We had perhaps our best attendance ever at this discussion, with a wide range of views expressed in a lively discussion. Some had a high opinion of this ambiguous portrayal of post-apartheid South Africa, which addresses issues about both race and gender. Others felt this was a profoundly bleak novel full of unlikeable characters.
April 2008 - The Book of Dave, Will Self
Self's novel moves between the story of a Dave, a frustrated cabbie in present-day London, and a future society living in the ruins of England after an ecological disaster. The future society has chanced on Dave's writing to his son, and based their religion on it. Much of the book is written in a future English dialect. We were divided: some of us enjoyed the book, but some found it hard work and the rewards small.
May 2008 - Lady Audley's Secret, Mary Braddon
Does this Victorian bestseller have interesting things to say about the role of women in society, class and madness, with some barely-concealed homoeroticism thrown in? Or is it just, well, pretty badly written? Or maybe both? We disagreed, but most of us found it a gripping read.
June 2008 - Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
Everyone agreed that Márquez's famous novel was beautifully written, and evoked a powerful atmosphere and mood. Some felt it provided a subtle portrayal of men's contradictory feelings towards women. But many didn't like an attitude to women which they found sexist.
July 2008 - The Secret River, Kate Grenville
We gave pretty unanimous praise to the story of Will Thornhill, who grows up in poverty in early 19th-century London. Transported to Australia, he seizes an opportunity to make a success of his life, but at a terrible cost. A page turner, a subtle portrait of a sympathetic figure who nonetheless commits a horrible crime, and a fascinating account of colonialism and racism.
August 2008 - Millennium People, JG Ballard
No-one liked Ballard's supposedly satirical account of a group of middle-class characters in revolt against society.
September 2008 - Anna Karenina, Leo Tostoy
Those of us who finished Tolstoy's epic generally enjoyed it and rated it highly. We praised this tale of marital infidelity among the Russian aristocracy of the 1870s for its panoramic depiction of society and its psychological accuracy - though some of us felt Tolstoy did little to challenge the ideas of his time about women's place in society. But the group was badly-attended, so presumably many people found this 800-page classic something of a struggle.
October 2008 - Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Mario Vargas Llosa
This 1977 Peruvian novel is a favourite for some in the group, who enjoyed its comic writing and evocative portrayal of Latin America. But many other were frustrated by the book's innovative form, and felt that its characters were insufficiently developed.
November 2008 - Strumpet City, James Plunkett
Most of us enjoyed this novel of the years leading up to the First World War in Dublin. It paints a vivid picture of the conditions leading to the Dublin Lockout of 1913-14. We felt that some characters subtly reflected the social conflicts of the time - in particular, two priests - while others were less well-drawn. The women characters were particularly weak.
December 2008 - The Road Home, Rose Tremain
This prize-winning novel tells the story of a migrant worker who has come to London from Eastern Europe after the death of his wife. It got a bad reception - we felt that its portrayal of its main character was largely unrealistic.
January 2009 - The Red and the Black, Stendhal
Most of us were lukewarm about the book, disappointed that it did not live up to its reputation. A readable book, which must have been even more relished at the time and by French readers who might understand a lot of the historical and contemporary references. Overall a wobbling thumbs up!
February 2009 - Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
We were all intrigued by Rhys's subversive prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. The novel tells the story of Mr Rochester's first wife - revealing the personal history of the "madwoman in the attic" and dealing with big issues like sexism, racism and madness. Some of us loved it. Some felt this short book raised many issues, but was unsatisfying because it failed to explore them fully.
March 2009 - The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Kate Summerscale
Most of us greatly enjoyed this account of a 19th-century crime involving Victorian attitudes to women suspected of madness, possible liaisons between the master of the house and the governess, and issues around class. Like a Wilkie Collins novel but for real!
April 2009 - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz
Díaz tells the story of Oscar, son of a Dominican family living in New Jersey. He's very overweight, a hopeless romantic and an enthusiast for science fiction and fantasy. Most of us found the book an uphill struggle - you have to absorb the recent history of the Dominican Republic, cope with conversation in Spanish and feel at ease with Tolkien references. We felt it wasn't really worth the effort.
May 2009 - The Secret Scripture, Sebastian Barry
Barry tells the story of a hundred-year-old woman, locked up for decades in an Irish asylum because she offended narrow-minded morality in the 1930s. Most of us enjoyed the book, and felt its themes of madness and memory were well evoked. Some of us had doubts about the credibility of some episodes, and we all agreed the ending was a terrible mistake.
June 2009 - White Tiger, Aravind Adiga
There was a lively discussion - views on the book were very mixed. Some thought it was badly written and put a crude argument, others thought the book was more subtle and enjoyed it. All agreed it did highlight relationships of class in an insightful way. Some thought it light and comedic, others thought it had a more complex view of how people are confined by their position in society and find their options narrowing.
July 2009 - Wife to Mr Milton, Robert Graves
Most of us liked Graves' account of the English Revolution - we felt it provided a good introduction to the period, and was scrupulously historically accurate.
August 2009 - A Mercy, Toni Morrison
Morrison's short, poetic fable of America's early history was generally popular. We all liked the portrayal of relationships between men and women, and of a society where relations between black, white and native people were still in flux.
September 2009 - Beijing Coma, Ma Jian
Ma Jian gives a detailed and historically accurate account of modern China, centring on the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. It's fascinating at a political level, but many of us had reservations about how well it works as a novel.
October 2009 – The Reader, Bernard Schlink
This examination of German guilt after World War Two left the group divided. Some liked it, but others felt that it let people off the hook who should have been held accountable for their actions.
November 2009 – Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
An interesting book in many ways – utterly different from the Hollywood version, many of us thought the creature emerged as an anti-hero. While the book deals with many social and philosophical issues, none of us thought it was very well-written.
December 2009 – Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut
We were unanimous in our admiration for Vonnegut’s classic anti-war novel, which uses a science fiction framework to describe the horrors of World War Two, and its long-lasting effects on those who fought in it.
January 2010 - Goodbye to Berlin, Christopher Isherwood
Most of us liked Isherwood’s memoir of Germany at the time of the Nazi rise to power, and its portrayal of a society in turmoil, people by memorable characters.
February 2010 - What I Loved, Siri Hustvedt
Hustvedt's tale of two artist families in New York won over a couple of people – but most of us found it unbearably self-absorbed, and could feel no sympathy for its cast of middle-class characters.
March 2010 - Blonde Roots, Bernardine Evaristo
In this alternative history the slave trade is conducted by Africans, who enslave Europeans: central character Doris struggles to gain her freedom. The majority view was that, while parts of the book were interesting and moving, in general we found it contrived and badly-written.
April 2010 - Alone in Berlin, Hans Fallada
Fallada's recently-translated novel is based on the true story of a working-class Berlin couple who carried out their own small-scale resistance to the Nazis. We felt it was a graphic and realistic portrayal of life in a dictatorship, of the arbitrary use of state power, and of the banality of evil. The novel reflects the fact that, while most people were too terrified to resist fascism by 1940, a surpisingly large minority continued to do so in one way or another. A tragic but inspiring book.
May 2010 - Fleshmarket Close, Ian Rankin
Our first crime fiction was not well received. Most of us found the plot somewhat random, and the characterisation thin and clichéd. We felt the book tried to win credibility by depicting the lives of asylum seekers and campaigners in their defence - but we never saw anything from the asylum seekers' point of view, and the campaigner wasn't credibly drawn. Rebus book number fifteen, and it shows, we felt - lazily written throughout.
June 2010 – Bleak House, Charles Dickens
Some of us didn’t make it through the nine hundred pages of Dickens’ panorama of nineteenth century society. But even those who got bogged down enjoyed the melodramatic plot, the wonderful writing, the surreal elements and the social criticism in this story of an unending legal case and secrets in high society.
July 2010 – Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart
This satirical account of Russia and Central Asia in the age of the oligarchs drew a small crowd, but those that came enjoyed the book.
August 2010 – The Human Factor, Graham Greene
Greene’s novel tells the story of Maurice Castle. A long-term employee of MI6, suburban middle-aged civil servant Castle is as far from James Bond as you can get. And yet, after a posting in South Africa, Castle has a black wife and child, and has become a double agent. We all enjoyed Greene’s well written account of moral ambiguity, though we felt that Castle’s wife Sarah completely failed to come alive.
September 2010 – House of the Spirits, Isabelle Allende
We generally liked this classic example of magic realism. The nostalgia and enchantment of the first half, most of us felt, was balanced by the book’s account of more recent political events.
October 2010 – Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami
This story of complicated relationships with students of the '68 generation was generally popular. Most members felt that it gave an accurate portrayal of relationships between men and women.
November 2010 – The Bottle Factory Outing, Beryl Bainbridge
There were very mixed feelings about The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge. Some thought it was an enjoyable description of rollercoaster relationships between close friends with some well written observations of the Italian immigrants who staffed the factory, their alienation and discomfort on the day of the outing, wandering bemused round Windsor Castle not knowing quite what was expected of them. Others disagreed and thought they couldn't emphasise with any of the characters in the book and found the descriptions of the Italian workforce patronising. Most agreed that the climax of the outing and the last pages of the book disappointingly degenerated into a farce.
December 2010 – The City and the City, China Miéville
Science fiction seldom gets a thumbs-up from us, and opinion was in general against “The City and the City”. The problem wasn’t so much the SF/fantasy elements as political – members found no-one and no political currents in the book they could identify with, and felt the novel was politically pessimistic and its central plot device contrived and unconvincing. The novel’s use of the police procedural genre also left many of us cold.
January 2011 – The Ballad of Peckham Rye, Muriel Spark
The Ballad of Peckham Rye tells the story of a devilish Scottish migrant, Dougal Douglas, who moves to Peckham in London and wreaks havoc amongst the lives of the inhabitants. The story draws upon the supernatural and with much black humour Muriel Spark gives her version of the sterile and unremarkable nature of the lives of the Peckham working class of the Sixties. We had a lively discussion which divided the group. Many of the older women members appreciated the backdrop it gave of living in England in the Sixties and thought it presented a fair picture of the stifling sexuality of those days. A few of us revelled in the malicious wit for which Muriel Spark is known while others thought it painted a rather patronising picture of the working class. We argued whether we thought Dougal Douglas was diabolical or simply an ordinary opportunist making the most of his boring existence in Peckham Rye.
A classic Egyptian novel from the 1950s, set in Cairo during the First World War. The novel centres on a middle-class family headed by Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, who demands the strictest standards of modesty and piety at home, but himself goes out drinking alcohol and having affairs with women. It also examines political issues around the British colonisation of Egypt and the nationalist movement, in which one of Ahmad’s sons is involved.
In the heyday of the seventies underground, Bobby DeSoto and Mary Whittaker – passionate, idealistic, and in love – design a series of radical protests against the Vietnam War. When one action goes wrong, the course of their lives is forever changed. The two must erase their past, forge new identities, and never see one another again. Now it is the 1990s. Mary lives in the suburbs with her fifteen-year-old son who spends hours immersed in the music of his mother’s generation. She has no idea where Bobby is, whether he is alive or dead. Shifting between the protests in the 1970s and the con sequences of those choices in the 1990s, Dana Spiotta explores the connection between the two eras – their language, technology, music, and activism.
Ann Petry’s novel, first published in 1946, centres on Lutie Johnson, a single black mother raising her son in 1940s Harlem. The book was path-breaking in its account of the sexism and racism that shape Lutie’s experience, and reflects the experience of millions of African-Americans who moved from the rural South to northern industrial cities in the mid-twentieth century. Note – Petry’s novel is out of print, but second-hand copies are available from www.abebooks.co.uk and Bookmarks (ring 020 7637 1848).