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readers' group review

This month we have two readers groups, both reading the same book, Pat Barker's Regeneration. Will they agree? Let's read on and find out.

The Wakefield Library Readers Group

Welcome to the group

We have been meeting for two and a half years, on a monthly basis, at Drury Lane Library in Wakefield. I am the reader-in-residence at the library and the WEA funds me to facilitate the two-hour evening meetings.

The readers group has just been awarded a Regional Arts Lottery Programme Grant of £33,000, which means that we can extend our enjoyment of reading to housebound readers through setting up bookchains between housebound readers, and funding me to do home visits with the purpose of encouraging housebound readers to widen their reading choices. This is done in conjunction with the Home Library Service in Wakefield.
The grant has also enabled us to produce four issues of a magazine, entitled Reading Lights, written by readers for readers to be distributed throughout Yorkshire and Humberside. The first issue includes an interview with Helen Dunmore and will be launched on Saturday 19th January 2002 at Stanley Library, Wakefield, from 2-4pm. Deric Longden and Roger Osbourne will be talking and we may even have a game of Book Bingo (with prizes)! It's free and all are welcome so come along if you can.

There are roughly 14 people in our group (and growing). We are very well supported by the Library Service in Wakefield; we choose our group reads and the library provides sets of 10 copies for us to read. These sets are shared throughout the Wakefield Library Service district as there are about seven library based readers groups altogether.
About one third of our members are men and our ages range from the late 20s to the late 60's. We have quite diverse tastes and usually have lively discussions with a few laughs thrown in. We award each read a Star Rating:

1 Star = don't waste your energy picking up this book.
2 Star = only read if there is nothing else in the house.
3 Star = a good read.
4 Star = you'll rush home to read this.
5 Star = put your life on hold until you've read this book!

Here is our diary for Regeneration by Pat Barker. (This book was discussed a week before the American World Trade Centre attack).

Regeneration is the fictionalization of Siegfried Sassoon's sojourn in a mental hospital, Craiglockheart, in 1917 after he'd written a letter to Parliament protesting that the war was being needlessly extended. His psychiatrist, Rivers, is given the task of getting Sassoon to 'see sense and return to the front'. Rivers, a gentle, perceptive, humanitarian, attempts to save Sassoon and the other inmates from the demons that have come to haunt them. His burden is to share their grim experiences as they become able to articulate the horrors that have rendered them psychologically paralysed . But how do you help people make sense of a world that has possibly gone mad itself? Whilst at Craiglockheart Sassoon meets a young man called Wilfred Owen and gives him valuable advice on his poem 'Anthem For Doomed Youth'. Meanwhile, the reader and Rivers become aquainted with a working class officer, a rarity in itself, named Prior who has lost his ability to speak, through shock or possibly even by choice.

Present at our meeting were me (Julie), Mick, Pam, Jane, Liz, Janet, John, Marion, Duncan, Michael and Anne (who hadn't got around to reading the book and was hoping to find out whether she should bother).

Mick, a journalist, poet and writer, so he's good with words and is one of our most talkative members, loved this book so much that he went out and bought his own copy plus the next two in the trilogy. He liked the way that the war was used as a dramatic device to explore very complex issues. 'I was gripped by it. It's not a book in which an awful lot happens; someone has a day out and people have discussions about mental states, but at the same time there's an emotional undercurrent so you don't feel it's becoming too highfalutin'. This is high praise as Mick spots any weakness in novels like a hawk on a mouse. However, no-one agreed with his only criticism, that the novel lacked an appropriate denouement because, although Rivers states that Sassoon intends to get killed when he returns to the front, we all know, courtesy of the notes in the back of the book if not our own knowledge, that Sassoon actually survived long enough to listen to the Beatles!

Many of us were familiar with the poems of Owen and Sassoon due to O or A levels at school, so these two characters felt familiar in a way. We were intrigued by the conflict that Rivers faced, as a doctor his job is to preserve life, yet his aim was to get these men functional again so the they could go back to the front and probably get killed. We all warmed to Rivers, regarding him as an honourable, moral and thoroughly decent man. We concluded that, given the emotional ties between men in the trenches and the sense of honour that prevailed at the time, if a man didn't return he would be destroyed by guilt. In other words, they are in a Catch 22 situation; damned either way, but at least with a small chance of survival if they go back to the trenches.

Some had initially been reluctant to read the book. Duncan had been sidetracked by books of his own choosing, so picked it up grudgingly then found he couldn't put it down. Louise commented that she would never have chosen it herself and Janet was nervous it would be difficult to read, given the subject matter. Both were really pleased they'd given the book a go. Janet also liked the gentle humour, as did Marion, commenting that it may have looked odd but it didn't feel strange to be smiling at a book dealing with such a tragic subject.

All of us liked the larger themes of 'war' the book embraces, the 'wars' of everyday life such as class, gender, father/son relationships, the 'sane' and the 'insane'. From such conflicts comes a kind of love, especially between men, war being the excuse for them to become closer, to talk about their feelings and fears and become aquainted with their feminine side.

We all enjoyed this book immensely. Here are some of our comments:

' The best book we've had so far'.
' There's a great drive in the narrative that really moves you forward'.
' An emotionally satisfying book that's also surprising.'
' You think to yourself "Where's it going to go next?" '
' It asks what you might owe your fellow man.'
' Every time you feel there's a point being made you find there's a counterpoint
' It's not ideological - it's searching. It explores people's attitudes'.

We decided to class this as a 4 star read.

Anne eagerly took a copy home because 'Everyone is so impressed and gripped by it. I'll tell my husband to read it too'.

Wakefield Library Readers Group Daytime Section

Welcome to the group
This group meets monthly too on an afternoon. We have been running for about a year now and are steadily growing. There are eight members ranging in age from early 40's to early 80's. Apart from Colin we are all female. This was a small group of four due to holidays and illness so me (again), Doreen, Jessie, Colin and Abigail made up an intimate meeting.

We met to discuss this book one week after the events in America.

Doreen didn't finish the book as she didn't like it. By the time she had reached page 30 she still wasn't sure who was who and couldn't be bothered to go any further. Although we could sympathise with her point that there are a lot of characters the rest of us were too drawn in to put the book down.

The issues of class distinction made Colin feel uneasy, even a little angry although he appreciated that it was an accurate description of society at the time the book was set. Colin's method of gauging whether a book is good is if some passages have made him pause to think and read them again because they have touched him in some way, this book did so more than once and he declared it 'a quality read'. He was even inspired to do some research into Sassoon's life and re read his poetry. One (rather irrelevant but interesting) question he posed, which none of us could answer, was; 'Is Vidal Sassoon, the hairdresser, related in any way to the poet?'

Jessie felt that the author was particularly clever in the way in which she poses questions about war and the nature of humanity. This seemed especially relevant, given the events of that week. We had a long discussion about whether soldiers need to lose their individuality and questioning nature in order to be able to fight. Having lived through two wars Jessie felt profoundly uneasy at the turn world events were taking - as did we all. She asked to read out part of the final passage, whose words struck us all as weighted with particular significance.

We wondered if the 'poetic mind' is one that 'sees true' and is inclined to be rebellious, and were grateful that Owen and Sassoon have left such a rich, honest and deeply disturbing legacy behind in their poetry.

I felt that significant events such as war are particularly well suited to poets and writers, as they are able to tap almost directly into our subconscious. Wasn't it ironic that Rivers was using Freudian techniques of psychotherapy, appropriately for the time the novel is set, on his clients, when it was Freud who commented that he had not really 'discovered' the unconscious, but that poets and writers had been there first? The balance of power between father and son relationships (or father figures) is a Freudian theme this book examines closely, yet accessibly.

Abigail set off another long discussion when she questioned notions of femininity and neuroses, saying the men were suffering what is often perceived to be a 'female' illness for the same reasons that women often suffer them, constant stress and lack of control in their lives. Abigail is another reader who is very much looking forward to reading The Eye In The Door and The Ghost Road.

This group also decided to class this book as a 4 Star Read.

Incredibly in our two groups there was only one reader who didn't like this novel, the rest of us found it a riveting page-turner that deeply affects the reader. One aspect that we all felt was exceptional was the way in which the readers' emotions are not consciously manipulated; Pat Barker respects our ability to think and make connections for ourselves and that involvement draws the reader in. The essence of sacrifice, despair, love and sense of honour that characterized the First World War is perfectly and poignantly captured within these pages.

Other books we have read

Waiting by Ha Jin
Amsterdam by Ian McKewan
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
God's Bits of Wood by Sembene Ousmane
Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge
The Reader by Bernard Schlink
The Loop by Nicholas Evans
Getting Over Edgar by Joan Barfoot
Reflections on a Marine Venus by Lawrence Durell
The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox
The Swimmer by Bill Broady
Iris by John Bayley
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean Dominique Bauby
Anita and Me by Meera Syal

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