A Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren
A twentieth-century classic. The book that inspired Lou Reed’s most famous song. Foreword by Russell Banks. Dove Findhom is a naive country boy who busts out of Hicksville, Texas in pursuit of a better life in New Orleans. Amongst the downtrodden prostitutes, bootleggers and hustlers of the old French Quarter, Dove finds only hopelessness, crime and despair. His quest uncovers a harrowing grotesque of the American Dream. “A Walk in the Wild Side” is an angry, lonely, large-hearted and often funny masterpiece that has captured the imaginations of every generation since its first publication in 1956, and that rendered a world later immortalised in Lou Reed’s classic song.
We all agreed that we would probably never have read this book if Sakura hadn’t brought it to our attention. Even thought it is apparently a modern classic, none of us had heard of it before! Algren conjured up the grimy, seedy atmosphere of New Orleans and depicted the lives of the many characters of the book in a poetic way. It was both tragic and funny and quite shocking in parts. We admired the beautiful language and the sense of time and place, and we really enjoyed the depiction of some of the characters (Terasina, Dove); others weren’t as well drawn as we thought that they could have been (Hallie) and at times there were so many it was confusing. The colourful details provoked lots of discussion and we all agreed that we were glad that we read it.
The choice of: Sakura
Group rating: 7
The New Confessions by William Boyd
The New Confessions is the outrageous, extraordinary, hilarious and heartbreaking autobiography of John James Todd, a Scotsman born in 1899 and one of the great self-appointed (and failed) geniuses of the twentieth century. ‘An often magnificent feat of story-telling and panoramic reconstruction … John James Todd’s reminiscences carry us through the ups and downs of a long and lively career that begins in genteel Edinburgh, devastatingly detours out to the Western Front, forks off, after a period of cosy family life in London, to the electric excitements of the Berlin film-world of the Twenties, then moves on to Hollywood … to ordeal by McCarthyism and eventual escape to Europe.’ Peter Kemp, Observer.
Carl chose The New Confessions because he had fond memories of reading it when it was first published. He enjoyed it as much as the first time round and we were all agreed it was an excellent piece of writing. We were enamoured by the the vivid characters (gorgeous Doon, endearing Karl and candid John James) who really made the book. We were also impressed by how the narrative stretched across the better part of a century through two world wars and several continents, including McCarthy’s America. Some who had read the author’s other novels felt that it wasn’t quite the masterpiece of Boyd’s writing career and we all agreed that there were faults (overly obvious references to Rousseau, occasionally too many characters and maybe, just maybe a little drawn out in parts). That said, the flaws were easily outweighed by the originality of the story, stunning prose and involving plot so that the The New Confessions really kept us hooked for 500 pages.
The choice of: Carl
Group rating: 8
The Private Life of Trees by Alejandro Zambra
The Private Lives of Trees tells the story of a single night: a young professor of literature named Julián is reading to his step-daughter Daniela and nervously waiting for his wife Verónica to return from her art class. Each night, Julián has been improvising a story about trees to tell Daniela before she goes to sleep, and each Sunday he works on a novel about a man tending to his bonsai, but something about this night is different. As Julián becomes increasing concerned that Verónica won’t return, he reflects on their life together in minute detail, and imagines what Daniela—at twenty, at twenty-five, at thirty years old, without a mother—will think of his novel. Perhaps even more daring and dizzying than Zambra’s magical Bonsai, The Private Lives of Trees demands to be read in a single sitting, and it casts a spell that will bring you back to it again and again.
I think that most of us took a big sigh of relief after reading a few pages in and finding that although The Private Life of Trees is an experimental novella, it wasn’t going to be another If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. We found ourselves floating along with Zambra’s dreamlike scenario. The relationship between the protagonist Julian and his step-daughter little Daniella, was a delight and Zambra just about managed to avoid coming across too-clever-by-half with just about the right amount of literary name-dropping along the way. We were divided a little by our response to one thing. For some of us, we enjoyed that the book ‘asked nothing of the reader’ (thanks Dom), yet for others it just didn’t have enough meat on its bones. Overall, though, the group responded well to this original and thought-provoking novella.
The choice of: Armen
Group Rating: 7.5
The Journey Home by Dermot Bolger
‘The Journey Home’ is the story of a young boy’s struggle towards maturity, set against a shocking portrait of Ireland: a tough urban landscape, not a rural Eden. Francis Hanrahan, the shy child of grey suburban streets, is Francy at home to his country-born parents. But when he meets Shay, an older, wilder image of himself, he becomes Hano, and is cast out into the night-time world of Dublin — a world of drugs, all-night drinking sessions in bars and snooker halls, and the stench of political corruption.
It was a small but animated group this time that discussed the respective merits and annoyances of Dermot Bolger’s The Journey Home. A glass of wine or two may have made us harsher critics — especially of the random poetry which cropped up at various points in the story. The beginning of the novel was somewhat confusing due to the different narrative threads and unusual structure — the plot is driven by events which are revealed in the final section of the book. We thought that Bolger’s descriptive prose was excellent and also evocative of the gritty backdrop, but for half of the group, the storyline was just too depressing, and the pace was frustrating. That said, the book picked up pretty smartly around the midway point, meaning that even the most grumpy of us had to concede that it built to a compelling finale.
The choice of: Kim
Group Rating: 5.5
13:55 Eastern Standard Time by Nick Alexander
Alice looks at the phone and then glances at the clock. 13:55 EST makes – she counts on her fingers – about 6pm in Berlin. He’ll be on his way home. Alice settles into the armchair and dials the number… If Alice hadn’t bumped into Will then she would probably never have phoned that afternoon. And if Alice hadn’t called, then Michael, poor Michael, might still be alive today. In a digital age of world-spanning communications and easy travel these stories explore how interconnected and yet fragmented our lives have become, and how – no matter where we live or what we do, no matter how different our lifestyles – the universal desires for love and happiness draw us ever onward.
The choice of: Dom
Group rating: 6
Butterfield 8 by John O’Hara
‘On this Sunday morning in May, this girl who was later to be the cause of a sensation in New York awoke much too early for her night before’… This particular morning Gloria finds herself alone in a stranger’s apartment with nothing but a torn evening dress and her stockings and panties. When she takes a fur coat from the wardrobe to wear home, she sets in train a series of events that will lead to tragedy.
A bestseller on its first publication, BUtterfield 8 is the glittering story of a 1930s glamour girl whose ill-starred entanglement with a respectable married man is set against a backdrop of Manhattan bars and bedrooms.
The choice of: Claire
Group rating: 7
Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb
Anxious to please his bourgeois father, Mihaly has joined the family firm in Budapest. Pursued by nostalgia for his bohemian youth, he seeks escape in marriage to Erzsi, not realising that she has chosen him as a means to her own rebellion. On their honeymoon in Italy, Mihaly ‘loses’ his bride at a provincial station and embarks on a chaotic and bizarre journey that leads him finally to Rome. There all the death-haunted and erotic elements of his past converge, and he, like Erzsi, has finally to make a choice.
The choice of: Polly
Group rating: 7
Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro explores ideas of love, music and the passing of time. From the piazzas of Italy to the Malvern Hills, a London flat to the ‘hush-hush floor’ of an exclusive Hollywood hotel, the characters we encounter range from young dreamers to cafe musicians to faded stars, all of them at some moment of reckoning. Gentle, intimate and witty, this quintet is marked by a haunting theme: the struggle to keep alive a sense of life’s romance, even as one gets older, relationships flounder and youthful hopes recede.
The choice of: Linda
Group rating: 7
The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal
264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox: potter Edmund de Waal was entranced when he first encountered the collection in the Tokyo apartment of his great uncle Iggie. Later, when Edmund inherited the ‘netsuke’, they unlocked a story far larger than he could ever have imagined… The Ephrussis came from Odessa, and at one time were the largest grain exporters in the world; in the 1870s, Charles Ephrussi was part of a wealthy new generation settling in Paris. Charles’s passion was collecting; the netsuke, bought when Japanese objets were all the rage in the salons, were sent as a wedding present to his banker cousin in Vienna. Later, three children – including a young Ignace – would play with the netsuke as history reverberated around them. The Anschluss and Second World War swept the Ephrussis to the brink of oblivion. Almost all that remained of their vast empire was the netsuke collection, dramatically saved by a loyal maid when their huge Viennese palace was occupied. In this stunningly original memoir, Edmund de Waal travels the world to stand in the great buildings his forebears once inhabited. He traces the network of a remarkable family against the backdrop of a tumultuous century and tells the story of a unique collection.
Group rating: TBC
Dark Matter by Juli Zeh
Sebastian and Oskar have been friends since their days studying physics at university, when both were considered future Nobel Prize candidates. But after graduation, their lives took very different paths; while Oskar holds a prestigious research post in Geneva, Sebastain worries that he hasn’t lived up to his intellectual promise, having chosen marriage and fatherhood as an exit strategy. A few days after a particularly heated argument between the two men, Sebastian leaves his son sleeping in the back seat while he goes into a service station. When he returns, the car has disappeared without trace. His phone rings and a voice informs him that in order to get his son back he must kill a man. As Sebastian’s life unravels, the only person he can safely reach out to is Oskar…
The choice of: Sakura
Group rating: TBC
Like a surreal and highly caffeinated version of The Big Chill, Jonathan Coe’s new novel follows four students who knew each other in college in the eighties. Sarah is a narcoleptic who has dreams so vivid she mistakes them for real events. Robert has his life changed forever by the misunderstandings that arise from her condition. Terry spends his wakeful nights fueling his obsession with movies. And an increasingly unstable doctor, Gregory, sees sleep as a life-shortening disease which he must eradicate. But after ten years of fretful slumber and dreams gone bad, the four reunite in their college town to confront their disorders. In a Gothic cliffside manor being used as a clinic for sleep disorders, they discover that neither love, nor lunacy, nor obsession ever rests.
The choice of: Carl
Group rating: TBC