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Archive for the ‘book group reads’ Category

October was a busy month.  Reading and blogging hours curtailed not only by long working hours but also by more pleasant things too.  In particular the North Lanarkshire Libraries Words 2010 festival. I attended 4 events – all with no entrance price.  Long live my library and all the Words festival sponsors!

I listened to Booker long-listed author Alan Warner read from The Stars in The Sky and tell of the hell that was being locked up in a study with his female protagonists for the best-part of 12 months.  Liz Jensen talked of how fiction is all about conflict and how much she enjoys piling the pressure on her characters.  W David Woods described How Apollo flew to the Moon complete with scaled models and computer simulations.  And finally, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a very special book, the novel I actually accredit with sowing the seeds of my lifelong love of literature, Richard Holloway joined about 40 of us in Motherwell Library to discuss Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill A Mockingbird.

The discussion was fascinating.  So too was watching a master at work.  How do you control a reading group of 40, making sure that everyone gets a chance to join in.  I picked up some tips, I tell you.  Well-Read in Motherwell won’t know what’s hit them next week!

I took a note of the questions he asked us.  I’m posting them now, just in case you want to start an online rerun.  Why not?  Let’s all celebrate the  50th anniversary of one of the best novels of the twentieth century.

Q1: It has been said that goodness is hard to make interesting in literature, but in Atticus Finch, Harper Lee seems to pull it off.  How does she do it?

Q2: It has been said that the African American characters in the book lack the depth of characterisation of the White Americans, that they are symbolic rather than fully realised figures.  Do you agree?

Q3: How do you think the text would be felt/read by an African American:

a) when it was written, in 1960, at the beginning of the struggle for Civil Rights in America;

b) today when racism in America wears a different but no less ugly face?

Q4: Dill is based on Truman Capote and Scout on Harper Lee herself.  Both were outsiders in very closed, conservative communities, Capote gay and Lee a woman of independent mind. What do you think their status as outsiders had to do with their work as artists?

Q5: Have you seen the movie of the book?  If so, what did you think of it?

Q6:  Can you think of a contemporary novel that takes on society’s big issues as successfully as To Kill A Mockingbird?

Richard Holloway suggested James Robertson’s And The Land Lay Still.  A recommendation that was of particular interest to the Scottish audience.  I admit I couldn’t think of anything on the night.  Two weeks later, I’ve read something that qualifies.  More on that later this week.

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Yes, my book group is 5 years old this week. Over the years we have read 62 books together. We’ve loved some and we’ve hated others. Unfortunately I suspect that our current read is likely to be added to the latter type.

I’m fortunate to belong to a library book group. North Lanarkshire Council started these – I think there are about 12 of them now – as part of their reader development program. The upside is that the library provides the reading material. The downside that choices are often restricted to books in paperbacks for obvious budgetary reasons. This it is a small price to pay – better that than no bookgroup at all and you know, some of us – actually me – need all the help we can get with the virtue of patience!

Motherwell Library Entrance

My group meets on the second Monday of the month and average attendance is 15-20. We meet in Motherwell Library, a fine victorian building, the entrance of which bears testimony to its raison d’etre. With increasing space in libraries being devoted to film and music, and book budgets being slashed, it’s heartwarming to see North Lanarkshire Council continuing to promote and support reading with its book groups and even its own literary festival! (The Words 2009 program is here.)

We like to vary things with extraordinary meetings. October 2006 saw us celebrate Motherwell Library’s 100th anniversary. We did that by reading 3 classics published in 1906. In October 2008 Janice Galloway entranced us while talking about her novel Clara, a book we had read a couple of months previously. In October 2008, Charles Cumming delighted us all with his tales of espionage. Another highlight was a trip to the theatre in Edinburgh to see To Kill A Mockingbird . The lowlight occurred during the fire alarm that sounded on one cold blustery evening. Typical! One year we entered the Penguin/Orange Reader’s Group Prize and for that we had to give ourselves an identity and a vision. We christened ourselves Well-Read in Motherwell.

The question is are we?  What does our reading list say about us?  What do you think? What should we read that we haven’t? The time is right to ask as we are about to choose a new batch of books. Suggestions in comments, please,  and if your book makes its way through the selection process you can be sure that I’ll report back in full.

In the meantime let me express my personal thanks to North Lanarkshire Council for the last five years of reading pleasures and the occasional displeasure. (Reading poor books isn’t all bad. It helps appreciate good books all the more!). Thanks also to the librarians for coping with my obsessions! Keep up the good work. Here’s to the next 5!

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There’s nothing more annoying than knowing the book you’re reading is a work of genius and that your antennae are simply not attuned; Rushdie’s magmun opus feeling like incoherent nonsense; sublime humour, magical realism and historical allegory notwithstanding.   I was struggling to read  a chapter a day by the end of chapter 3.  Normally I’d bail out but this is allegedly the best Booker winner of the last 40 years – a must-read book is ever there was one.

Then there was the upcoming book group – how could I possibly contribute if I hadn’t a clue about what was contained between the covers.  So I ploughed on through 647 excruciating pages.  Three weeks later, as I turn the final page, the sense of achievement in having read the Booker of Bookers is small, minimised by the fact that  a) my literary blindspot has not been healed and b) amidst all that verbosity, the author has cheated me by omitting the most satisfying phrase of all … an error, which I promptly rectified.

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I’ve been leading a real-life book group for 5 years now and we’ve just read our 50th novel together! During that time it’s become clear that to be a success the book must have some or all of the following qualities:

1) It must divide opinion.  This is something that really ignites the discussion and ensures that all (in my case 15-20 group participants per session) can pitch in.

2) There must be strong characterisation whereby a dastardly villain is much more interesting that an saintly heroine.

3) There must be hooks to extraneous discussion – we quite like to digress into related news events or other reading.

 Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair  ticked  (tickled?) all three of those boxes. 

Box 1 – Following on from last month’s read Mrs Gaskell’s North and South, it retained the C19th century theme but in an absolutely mind-boggling way for those who hadn’t known what to expect.  There were those who failed to complete the course because it was so radically different, those who went along with the ride and enjoyed it and those evangelical converts to Fforde’s wacky universe who now want us to read the whole series!  We compromised on that and decided that we’ll take on The Big Over Easy  during December – something light and frothy and not too challenging during that time of year when everything lies heavily on the stomach.  And they’ll need something light to follow Karen Connelly’s magnificent but emotionally devastating The Lizard Cage

Box 2 – not one but two dastardly villains.  Acheron Hades and Jack Schitt (how can you not smile at that?).  Thursday Next, the heroine, not so saintly either.

Box 3 –  Fforde’s plot contains a plethora of literary allusions and an alternative ending to Jane Eyre.  There are hooks to further conversation on every page.  Some obvious allusions, some more obscure but you can be sure that a group of 15 spotted more than I’d clocked in two readings.  It was also a good excuse to get out the poetry anthology  and “wander lonely as a cloud” with Wordsworth while beating off Poe’s ominous raven.    Fforde proving that literature can be fun.  

January’s group will be interesting.  In 90 minutes we’ll solve the mystery of Humpty Dumpty’s death, deconstruct crime fiction and discuss the etymology of our favourite nursery rhymes.  I can’t wait.

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As my book group is approaching its 5th year and its 50th book, a review of past reads shows that the overwhelming majority have had unhappy, nay downright miserable endings.  One group member has been pleading for a happy book.  So it was that Stuck-In-A-Book’s mention of unremitting cheeriness led to the swift inclusion of this 2005 Richard and Judy Book Club choice onto our list.

Now I try not to indulge in inveterate literary snobbery and so I do enjoy a smattering of chicklit here and there.  The cover in itself was no turnoff.  However, the addition of candy floss pink edged pages was one saccharine-tablet too many and I began to read with a firm determination not to enjoy this book. 

Neither did I for about 120 pages.  The candy floss allusion proving more than apt.  Very sweet, dissolving to substancelessness after the initial taste.  But just as suddenly I found myself charmed.  It is quite an enjoyable read taken on its own terms.  A cheerful (Stuck-In-A-Book was right!) book about newly-formed friendships, the girlishness of the late teens, the innocence of the 50’s, pop idolatry in the days before Elvis, mismatched couples.  As a romantic comedy, it would make quite a good film.  The more serious social history element, the declining wealth of the upper middle classes as war and death duties take their toll on both people and property, is wrapped in an absurd humour, effectively removing much of the pain if not the sharpened point.

The group finally categorised the read as a happy fairy-tale for grownups and the book averaged a respectable rating.

I hope the group enjoyed the respite from mislit  because we have The Lizard Cage coming up ….. and I can’t wait!

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I have loved the hatchets wielded on Vulpes Libris this week – someone invent an award quickly!  I haven’t always agreed with them. In fact, I felt downright defensive during the attack on Tolstoy.  However,  as I haven’t yet read The Kreutzer Sonata, I’ll let it pass …  Mark well, my  pretty little book foxes, I shall be compelled to return to this at a later date.

Attention turned to Thomas Hardy and Jude the Obscure – a book I have always found therapeutic.  Hardy has to be the king of mislit and no matter how tough reality gets, Jude’s experiences make it feel better!

Quite by chance I was preparing for my book group, the next title being Tess of the D’Urbervilles.  To be honest, I’ve avoided Tess like the plague.  I saw the film – the Roman Polanski one – a few years ago and always felt that I couldn’t approach the novel.  My blood would boil.  Imagine my surprise when I found myself falling asleep … day after day after day …..

***** Spoiler alert *****

My problem is a major one.  Tess’s sob story doesn’t convince me.  She’s too pretty, too bland, sweetly dairy and milk-maidy … and so utterly fixated on being a victim that she is unable to free herself from her circumstances.  And she had opportunity aplenty.  Why was noone on hand to administer a good shaking/kick up the posterior and drive some sense in her head.   Too honest to keep silent?  Too proud to accept charity from your in-laws?  Good grief girl –  whine all you wish but all that achieved was an appointment with the gallows! Actions have consequences and you landed exactly where your own choices put you.

I would have applauded you, however,  had you turned on that hypocritical guttersnipe that you called Angel.  Oh no, his halo didn’t slip.    But to use as a pretext for your crime a statement which only you could interpret as a lie.  That’s completely dishonourable and  I have no sympathy!

***** End of spoilers *****

All of the above making the plot sound like a ménage-à-trois of the highly dramatic kind and a darned sight more interesting to read than it was.  How so?  In a word, pacing. A leisurely amble through the countryside – landscape prefiguring drama ad nauseam. In addition, we know that Tess and Angel will marry, we also know that Tess will tell her secret but do we really need 120 pages of romantic idyll and belly-aching to get us to that point?  Particularly as the pivotal scenes with Alec are so obscured – the first discretely smothered in fog, the second hidden behind closed doors.  Is this inconsistency or genius?  Don’t know.  Don’t care.  I was just relieved to get to the end.

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I’ve written the above before I start a thorough investigation of the novel.  I do like to know my way around the book group reads especially as I lead the discussion.  The novel may well rise in my estimation when I start reading the critiques and appreciating Hardy’s stylistic devices – use of landscapes, foreshadowing and omens.  I already appreciate the subtlety in the characterisations of Alec and Angel – lots of blurring boundaries there.  The most enjoyable part of the novel, in fact, and a heady mix for a book group blood-bath discussion.

As for the question Is Alec a rapist? , I found an excellent essay on this in The Folio Book of Literary Puzzles.   If you’re not a Folio Society enthusiast like me, the same essay can be found in John Sutherland’s Was Heathcliffe A Murderer? 

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Governor General’s Award for English Language Fiction 1993 / Pulitzer Prize 1995

The Stone Diaries is Carol Shields’ most famous novel.  Famous because it is the only novel ever to have won both of the awards noted above –  Shields was an American-born naturalised Canadian and thus, eligible for both prizes.  Famous also because it is Shields’ masterpiece.

Daisy Goodwill’s life spans the 20th century.  Born during the first decade, she dies in the last.  Her fictional autobiography is paced to match.  One chapter per decade.  Her life is that of a commonplace woman – a woman who never claims her own life but blends into the background during the normal life arc of childhood, marriage, motherhood, widowhood, old age, death.

So how does Daisy manage to retain the reader’s interest in her ordinary, everyday existence?  With a rich and varied cast of secondary characters observed and imagined in a vivid and entertaining way.  Chapter 1 holds a humourous but wholly imagined account of her mother and father’s marriage, cut tragically short by her mother’s death in childbirth.  Chapter 2 holds the account of her childhood – adopted by her Aunt Clementine, a feisty woman who leaves her husband because he refuses to foot the bill for a trip to the dentist.  Chapter 3 the history of her courtship and first marriage, which ends unconsummated on honeymoon when hubby meets a premature end.  Thus is the pattern set – Daisy’s “normal” life is punctuated by not-so-normal events and a cast of colourful characters.

Narrative texture is added by the use of multiple techniques.  The voice shifts from first person to third person and back again.  Sections of the novel are written in epistolary form.  Adding authenticity to the autobiographical tone, the book contains  a series of photographs in the centre.  Shields once spoke of her delight in “the freedom to create”, a freedom she uses to the max in this novel.

In this series of snapshots Daisy tells us only what she wants us to know.  The group discussion uncovered a number of hidden subtexts – particularly with regard to her two husbands! 

Amazingly the discussion turned to dispute when considering whether The Stone Diaries is a sad book.  It wasn’t the inevitability of life ending in death but the image of an old lady in a turquoise tracksuit living out her days in Florida, her family scattered to the four corners of the earth.   Daisy, still refusing to assert herself, remains uncomplaining but leaves life as she entered it – alone. It’s not until her grown children are clearing away her possessions that they find evidence of the woman they did not know. 

True to life it may be.  But I find that sad …. and tragic that they choose the wrong flowers for her funeral.

 

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