Members’ book group
The Institution's long running and popular book group meets on the second Monday of each month to discuss the latest read. The books for the year ahead are selected by the group which is run by Margaret Knight. The group is currently meeting via zoom.
Reading list and meeting dates for 2021
11th January – Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce
It is 1950. London is still reeling from World War II, and Margery Benson, a schoolteacher and spinster, is trying to get through life, surviving on scraps. One day, she reaches her breaking point, abandoning her job and small existence to set out on an expedition to the other side of the world in search of her childhood obsession: an insect that may or may not exist–the golden beetle of New Caledonia. When she advertises for an assistant to accompany her, the woman she ends up with is the last person she had in mind. Fun-loving Enid Pretty in her tight-fitting pink suit and pom-pom sandals seems to attract trouble wherever she goes. But together these two women find themselves drawn into a cross-ocean adventure that exceeds all expectations and delivers something neither of them expected to find: the transformative power of friendship.
8th February – The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
The Leopard is a story of a decadent and dying aristocracy threatened by the forces of revolution and democracy. Set against the political upheavals of Italy in the 1860s, it focuses on Don Fabrizio, a Sicilian prince of immense sensual appetites, wealth, and great personal magnetism. Around this powerful figure swirls a glittering array of characters: a Bourbon king, liberals and pseudo liberals, peasants and millionaires.
8th March – Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi
A memoir from the 1930s at the start of Mussolini’s Abyssinia campaign. Levi was exiled as a political prisoner to two remote small towns in Luciana – most of the book is about Gagliano, wind swept and stuck between two ridges on a pale and barren clay.
The clash in civilisations is on several levels; between the gentry and the peasants with the former ruthlessly exploiting the latter who are dirt poor; between the North and South (Levi was from Turin) and between Rome and its remote provinces.
The book ends with a treatise on the remoteness of Rome and a plea for the peasants to be given a stake in their future through more regional autonomy.
The book describes the medical conditions of the peasants (primarily malaria and anthrax), the appalling behaviour of the gentry, the malign fatalism of the church, the superstitions of the community and the fascist politics of the period. A real eye opener into conditions of the time.
12th April The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
Somewhere out beyond the edge of the universe there is a library that contains an infinite number of books, each one the story of another reality. One tells the story of your life as it is, along with another book for the other life you could have lived if you had made a different choice at any point in your life. While we all wonder how our lives might have been, what if you had the chance to go to the library and see for yourself? Would any of these other lives truly be better?
In Matt Haig’s enchanting new novel, Nora Seed finds herself faced with this decision. Faced with the possibility of changing her life for a new one, following a different career, undoing old breakups, realizing her dreams of becoming a glaciologist; she must search within herself as she travels through the Midnight Library to decide what is truly fulfilling in life, and what makes it worth living in the first place.
10th May – Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler
Micah Mortimer is a creature of habit. A self-employed tech expert, superintendent of his Baltimore apartment building, cautious to a fault behind the steering wheel, he seems content leading a steady, circumscribed life. But one day his routines are blown apart when his woman friend (he refuses to call anyone in her late thirties a “girlfriend”) tells him she’s facing eviction, and a teenager shows up at Micah’s door claiming to be his son. These surprises, and the ways they throw Micah’s meticulously organized life off-kilter, risk changing him forever. An intimate look into the heart and mind of a man who finds those around him just out of reach, and a funny, joyful, deeply compassionate story about seeing the world through new eyes, Redhead by the Side of the Road is a triumph, filled with Anne Tyler’s signature wit and gimlet-eyed observation.
14th June – Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
Like the May of Teck Club itself—”three times window shattered since 1940 but never directly hit”—its lady inhabitants do their best to act as if the world were back to normal: practicing elocution, and jostling over suitors and a single Schiaparelli gown. The novel’s harrowing ending reveals that the girls’ giddy literary and amorous peregrinations are hiding some tragically painful war wounds.
Chosen by Anthony Burgess as one of the Best Modern Novels in the Sunday Times of London, The Girls of Slender Means is a taut and eerily perfect novel by an author The New York Times has called “one of this century’s finest creators of comic-metaphysical entertainment.”
12th July – My Name is Why? By Lemn Sissay
At the age of seventeen, after a childhood in an adopted family followed by six years in care homes, Norman Greenwood was given his birth certificate. He learned that his real name was not Norman. It was Lemn Sissay. He was British and Ethiopian. And he learned that his mother had been pleading for his safe return to her since his birth.
Here Sissay recounts his life story. It is a story of neglect and determination. Misfortune and hope. Cruelty and beauty. Sissay reflects on adoption, self-expression, and Britishness, and in doing so explores the institutional care system, race, family and the meaning of home. Written with all the lyricism and power you would expect from one of the nation’s best-loved voices, this moving, frank and timely memoir is the result of a life spent asking questions, and a celebration of the redemptive power of creativity.
9th August – Raynor Winn The Wild Silence
Nature holds the answers for Raynor and her husband Moth. After walking 630 homeless miles along The Salt Path, living on the windswept and wild English coastline; the cliffs, the sky and the chalky earth now feel like their home.
Now, life beyond The Salt Path awaits and they come back to four walls, but the sense of home is illusive and returning to normality is proving difficult – until an incredible gesture by someone who reads their story changes everything.
A chance to breathe life back into a beautiful farmhouse nestled deep in the Cornish hills; rewilding the land and returning nature to its hedgerows becomes their saving grace and their new path to follow.
The Wild Silence is a story of hope triumphing over despair, of lifelong love prevailing over everything. It is a luminous account of the human spirit’s instinctive connection to nature, and how vital it is for us all.
13th September – Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls
In 1997, Charlie Lewis is the kind of boy you don’t remember in the school photograph. His exams have not gone well. At home he is looking after his father, when surely it should be the other way round, and if he thinks about the future at all, it is with a kind of dread. Then Fran Fisher bursts into his life and despite himself, Charlie begins to hope.
But if Charlie wants to be with Fran, he must take on a challenge that could lose him the respect of his friends and require him to become a different person. He must join the Company. And if the Company sounds like a cult, the truth is even more appalling. The price of hope, it seems, is Shakespeare.
Poignant, funny, enchanting, devastating, Sweet Sorrow is a tragicomedy about the rocky path to adulthood and the confusion of family life, a celebration of the reviving power of friendship and that brief, searing explosion of first love that can only be looked at directly after it has burned out.
11th October – A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville
Based on a true story, A Room Made of Leaves builds an evocative narrative of oppression and desire amidst the harsh realities of an Australian penal colony.
It is 1788. Twenty-one-year-old Elizabeth is hungry for life but, as the ward of a Devon clergyman, knows she has few prospects. When proud, scarred soldier John Macarthur promises her the earth one midsummer’s night, she believes him. Elizabeth soon realises she has made a terrible mistake. Her new husband is reckless, tormented, driven by some dark rage at the world. He tells her he is to take up a position as Lieutenant in a New South Wales penal colony and she has no choice but to go.
Sailing for six months to the far side of the globe with a child growing inside her, she arrives to find Sydney Town a brutal, dusty, hungry place of makeshift shelters, failing crops, scheming, and rumours. All her life she has learned to be obliging, to fold herself up small. Now, in the vast landscapes of an unknown continent, Elizabeth has to discover a strength she never imagined, and passions she could never express. Inspired by the real life of a remarkable woman, this is an extraordinarily rich, beautifully wrought novel of resilience, courage and the mystery of human desire.
8th November – Never let me go by Kazuo Ishiguro
From the Booker Prize-winning author of The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans, comes an unforgettable edge-of-your-seat mystery that is at once heartbreakingly tender and morally courageous about what it means to be human.
Hailsham seems like a pleasant English boarding school, far from the influences of the city. Its students are well tended and supported, trained in art and literature, and become just the sort of people the world wants them to be. But, curiously, they are taught nothing of the outside world and are allowed little contact with it. Within the grounds of Hailsham, Kathy grows from schoolgirl to young woman, but it’s only when she and her friends Ruth and Tommy leave the safe grounds of the school (as they always knew they would) that they realize the full truth of what Hailsham is.
Never Let Me Go breaks through the boundaries of the literary novel. It is a gripping mystery, a beautiful love story, and also a scathing critique of human arrogance and a moral examination of how we treat the vulnerable and different in our society. In exploring the themes of memory and the impact of the past, Ishiguro takes on the idea of a possible future to create his most moving and powerful book to date. (less)
13th December – Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
Queenie Jenkins is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London, straddling two cultures and slotting neatly into neither. She works at a national newspaper, where she’s constantly forced to compare herself to her white middle class peers. After a messy break up from her long-term white boyfriend, Queenie seeks comfort in all the wrong places…including several hazardous men who do a good job of occupying brain space and a bad job of affirming self-worth.
As Queenie careens from one questionable decision to another, she finds herself wondering, “What are you doing? Why are you doing it? Who do you want to be?”—all of the questions today’s woman must face in a world trying to answer them for her. With “fresh and honest” (Jojo Moyes) prose, Queenie is a remarkably relatable exploration of what it means to be a modern woman searching for meaning in today’s world.
If you would like to join the book group please contact Margaret Knight at [email protected]. Due to Covid-19 the book group is currently meeting via zoom, but will return to in person meetings as soon as it is possible to do so.