Insole Court Book Club – September

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. Notes by the very wonderful Grace Capper who hosted last months meeting.

“Trevor Noah’s unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. ”

On a wet Tuesday evening, with the summer a receding memory, there was a definite back-to-school feel to this month’s book club. Luckily, the book that was chosen for this month was a thoroughly enjoyable read filled with interesting discussion points and some ridiculously funny true stories. It was lovely to see some familiar faces, and welcome some new ones too. 

A summary of our discussion:

  • This is the first book that we have had in a long time where everyone in the group really liked it!
  • One of our members had listened to the book as an audiobook which was narrated by the author, which added an extra dimension as his use of different languages and accents is such an important element of the book which is harder to convey in print.
  • Apartheid as the setting for his early years. Growing up mixed race in apartheid and how this has shaped his life.
  • The segregation between Black/White/Coloured and how this labelling means something totally different in America. 
  • Belonging to different communities, and several places where this choice was made for him, and the difference when he was able to choose for himself eg school, jail, the ghetto
  • We discussed how various labels/signs can cause completely different reactions in different cultures and how easy it is to be completely unaware of how something is interpreted if you come from a different cultural background or lack historical knowledge eg There is a section in the book about how the name Hitler was fairly common in the black community in SA as European history was not taught as a priority in the black schools  – which set up a very, very funny anecdote that could not happen anywhere else. 
  • Trevor Noah was born in 1985. This sparked some debate on a couple of issues 
    • Shock at how recent apartheid was. When reading the book it felt like some of the incidents described belonged to a much older time.
    • For such a young person to have written an autobiography of his life already shows a remarkable life, and also a remarkable ability to reflect on it in a very considered way. This was followed by some discussion of terrible celebrity autobiographies written before the author had really done anything of note. Luckily this was not the case with this book!
  • How tragedy and comedy intertwine and how comedy can make it easier to discuss serious topics such as race
  • Domestic abuse and the lack of support from the police in reporting incidents and prosecuting his stepfather. Highlighted the institutionalised racism and sexism. Police attitudes throughout the book were very depressing.
  • The high level of violence in the book and how this affects relationships between the people in it
  • Some of the side characters were incredibly funny and memorable, there was an element of Delboy around some of them
  • His mother is an exceptional human being to have been able to raise him so well in such difficult circumstances and to have had such aspirations for him. 
  • The lack of father figures and male authority figures not being present or not being good people to look up to.
  • How he talked about the shooting and his stepfather was incredibly mature and nuanced
  • Discussion of meritocracy and access to resources and how he acknowledges that he needed help to get to where he is now “People love to say, “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” What they don’t say is, “And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.” That’s the part of the analogy that’s missing.”
  •  As the author he could have portrayed himself as more of a hero battling adversity throughout but he didn’t – the person he made the most fun of was himself, especially with his dating misadventures, and he was incredibly honest about his decision paying for his mother’s’ medical bills. The honesty made us warm to him more  
  • Was his mother’s survival a miracle?
  • There is a film being made of this book and a new book following on from it that is due out later this year.

Further reading/watching

Huge thanks again to Grace, and looking forward to catching up on Tuesday 29th October where we’ll be discussing Amateur by Thomas Page McBee, and celebrating our 1st birthday (more details to follow).

Review-ish: Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

”Silence becomes a woman’. Every women I’ve ever known was brought up on that saying.’

I’ve been aware of Pat Barker’s writing for years, having read her work in college (Regeneration I think) when studying First World War literature. But to be honest, I haven’t picked up anything of her since then. Until one of our Book Club members mentioned that she had, like Madeline Miller, been re-writing the Greek classics from a female perspective.

I brought this beautiful copy at Hay Festival where she was a speaker this year. I would have loved to have heard her speak and its given me the drive to take some time next year so get over to Hay more.

In all honesty, I read this a while a go now (I’m playing catch up on reviews) but the word one that sticks out still when I think of it is ‘brutal’. There’s much more blood, violence and brutality than Circe but then it follows the those affected by the Trojan War, rather than the squabbling of the Gods. There were moments that were hard to read.

It has made me consider trigger warnings. On Goodreads, many people asked about the incident of sexual assault in Circe, but other than questioning whether Silence of the Girls is appropriate for younger readers, there was a lot less discussion about trigger warnings, despite the fact that this novel contains many more incidents. I’d be really interested in discussing whether trigger warnings are necessary/important on novels further.

The title is powerful. Their silence is their strength. These women who are pawns, slaves and playthings in a war that saw them lose their brothers, sons, husbands and fathers. Barker flips the narrative, contrasting these steely women with passionate warriors that weep and throw their toys out of the pram at the drop of a hat.

Parker effectively uses italics to show the inner voice, from both sides. She manages to show so much nuance in the characters. Especially when Briseis is being struggled over by men on different sides of this tireless war.

The use of British vernacular did grate on me occasionally. But not enough to stop me from ploughing on. This book is definitely compelling. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, it was too violent for me to me to find enjoyment in it, but I couldn’t put it down. The writing is brilliant and all I expected from Barker.

I would whole-heartedly recommend it if you’ve been suckered into this sort of novel like I have. I assume that anyone picking up a novel based on Greek myths would expect a level of violence and would know what they’re getting themselves into. Why is it that reading about violence bothers me more at some times that others? Anyone else find this?

Kelly

Insole Court Book Club – August

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. Translated by Ginny Tapley Takamori.

This months book club pick was recommended to me by a friend and has popped up in many discussions since then, and has been reviewed widely online. Its also lovely and short so perfect for a quick read during a busy Summer. It was lovely to welcome some new members to the group this month. As always, I’ll share a summary of our discussion below so that you can join in in the comments.

Reminded some of us of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine in the way that the characters think.. Eleanor was worse.

Keiko always wants to be better or normal. But the author never explicitly says whats ‘wrong’ with her.

Writing suggests that she is autistic but some behaviours don’t ring true.

‘On a different beat’. High functioning.

She’s just copying – observing behaviour.

True narrative or not?

The other characters also took on each others behaviours. We all do it with accents.

Strange as a child – extraordinary.

Quite sad that all she wanted was to be normal. Huge societal pressure.

Ending was quite odd.

Structure, transactional environment of the convenience store. She seemed happy here. Manual for life. She excelled. And she belonged.

Cultural differences between the UK and Japan.

How her social valued increased when she was ‘with’ Shiraha.

He was a user, exploitative. But was there mutual benefit? His words were awful. She shrugged it off.

Better to be unhappy in normal parameters. Expecting everyone to conform.

The convenience store as a distilled version of society at large.

Japanese culture more conservative than the UK. Conflict between a culture of working hard vs. a drop in population.

Was it written to shine a light on alternative ways of thinking/communicating? Raise questions?

Makes less sense if you’re not familiar with that culture.

Translation is very good. Had a conversation about how you tell tell when something is translated well.

Offense in different cultures. ‘Finishing schools’ for future ambassadors etc.

Its a natural desire to want to fit in.

What do you do? Being defined by your job.

Books written for neuro-divergent people about how to behave in social situations.

Discussion about the difficulty of how we talk in the UK. Use of colloquialisms and lack of directness. Challenging if you take things literally.

Keiko seems resilient, in control, quite happy. Shiraha seems like someone who just repeats things that he has seen/read, rather than actually being prejudice. Some believe he was genuinely manipulative. Some believe he lacked the ability (and charm) to be manipulative.

Changing generations and how acceptable language changes. What will we look back on in 50 years and find unbelievable? Homelessness, the environment.

Message at the end, you don’t need to conform.

  • Kathy Burke All Woman – Channel 4
  • Blinded by the Light (film)

Great discussions around this book and lots to think about. Next month (Tuesday 24th September) the book club will be meeting to discuss Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, now available in the Insole Court Visitors Centre.

Insole Court Book Club – July

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

This months book club book was picked through a conversation around one of our previous books (for the life of me, I can’t remember which book led us to this one but it has been a while!). I had heard very polarised viewpoints about Rooney’s writing so I was interested to see what people thought! 

Thoughts below. And please get involved in the discussion using the comments box.

Easier to read than others we have read recently. Holiday read.

Quite stylised, took a while to get used to. Author born in 1991. Conscious of that.

Quite realistic which makes it hard at times.I hate you and all your friends.

Pretentious characters. Deliberate choice by author.Possibility that we were like that too at 21.

Normal People quite similar. Could be same characters.

Frances doesn’t feel anything. Everything’s ironic. Trendy.

References (bands and books) used to place it at a time and place. Cool points!

‘Landscape paintings are patriarchal’.

Interesting that Frances downloads and goes back through her texts. 

Nick made to sound so old, despite only being in early 30’s. A very early 20’s perspective.

Privilege of many of the characters and how it rubs off on Frances. Doesn’t want to work, like the others.

We read that it was written in 3 months and discussed whether you can tell. Did she start writing it, not know where it was going to go? Imitating life?

Frances is emotionally dull. Is this to allow you to put your own emotions on her?

Relationship with Dad, emotionally shut down to cope with. What does she then look for from Nick? Attention, which comes in scraps. All a big game.

Discussion around a point made in this article comparing Rooney’s Capitalism to Joyce’s Catholicism.

Is setting in in Ireland critical? Some thought so. Biggest boom and bust. Impacted on people like Frances and her family.

She’s distrustful, but also in awe of glamorous lifestyles. Discussed who had more power. Beginning= Bobbi, end = Frances. A toxic relationship but quite realistic.

A shared history that you can’t separate from. 

Is it a coming of age story? We didn’t think so as no one grows.

Talked about Nick as a character. Why doesn’t she mention which character he plays in Hamlet? It would have given us an idea of his career.

A very passive character. If this book were written 30 years ago, the story would have centred on him. 

Would the story have been different if Nick had been a woman? A different sort of power struggle/jealousy.

Melissa’s email to Frances was devastating. Why was she so interested in Bobbi and Frances?

Frances is not reliable as a person, let alone as a narrator. Very hypocritical. 

‘You can’t be unemotional. It’s like saying you don’t have thoughts’.

Frances writes with more nuance that she portrays in person. Is it a generational thing? Do that age group communicate better through technology?

Overated perhaps, but we liked it. Would recommend to some people. Works as a holiday read.

Liked Mum and Bobbi. We’d hang out with her. 

Lack of quotation marks blurs lines between whats real and whats not. He said, she said. We know that Rooney debated at Uni and it shows. Not a realistic form of dialogue, one step removed from the conversation.

Brief discussion about women written by men, and men written by women. Our cultural conditioning. 

No recommendations this month but all reading lots of interesting books. Anyone want to share there current reads below?

Next months book club meeting is on Tuesday 27th August where we’ll be discussing Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata.

Review-ish: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

‘I think it possible to put flesh on the bones of our terrors, most of all when we have turned our back on God.’

Cheers to Dai Brows for this recommendation. It’s definitely not something that I would have normally picked up as I shy away from period novels, but the recommendation was strong and Essex is the Mother and Fatherland so thought I’d give it a go. The cover is gorgeous actually, a William Morris design. I love it and it shows the reader that it’s much more than a piece of Victoriana.

It’s just a bit of a delight really. It has enough depth through the deeply complex and fascinating characters to make it truly gripping, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The narrative is so unusual, exploring Victorian thoughts on science, medicine, social housing, wrapped around a legendary serpent and this compelling and sometimes a bit frustrating (in a good way) central character.

Perry only hints at Cora’s past married life, which makes it all the more powerful. She creates a central character that is sometimes irritatingly niaive and at other times very self-aware. Cora herself recognises the contradiction of knowing that the marriage shaped her into the woman she is now.

Cora is a maverick and really challenges those around her’s perceptions of womanhood. I loved and loathed that everyone felt owed something by her; love, politeness, friendship, a typical family-life. This provides another layer of tension throughout the book and allows us to examine Victorian-life for women, through her experiences and the way that it contrasts to the other female characters.

Every character in the book, even the more minor ones, have the same level of detail, quirks and individuality. As I write this, I remember more and more of the characters; Naomi, Cracknell, Maureen Fry, Charles Ambrose and Thomas Taylor. A specific interaction between Cracknell and Cora’s son Francis stands out to me as peaceful, beautiful and faintly comical due to Francis’ matter-of-factness.

Perry uses foreshadowing in an impactful way without slapping you round the face with it. And her little updates or summaries at the start of many of the chapters were really poetically written and a simple and effective device.

This is a really great and pacey read. If you’re looking for something a bit different I highly recommend getting your teeth into it.

Whats everyone planning on reading over the Summer then?

Kelly



Review-ish: Circe by Madeline Miller

“He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend that I had none.” 

< There are so, so many beautiful passages in this book that I could have used, have a look here for some examples> Strap yourselves in, this is going to be one of those gushingly positive posts, where I offer very little literary criticism.

I have been eyeing up Circe in book shops ever since it was published in 2018, but a 5 hour wait at Edinburgh airport broke my resolve to get through my to-buy list in order. Circe is Madeline Millers second novel, following her debut novel, The Song of Achilles, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction back in 2012.

This book is so stunningly written that it will make me incoherent. Not only is the narrative fascinating, tracing Circe’s journey from childhood to adulthood (can a demi-god be a child??) intersecting with characters from well-known Greek myths, but it is also stunningly poetic.

“But gods are born of ichor and nectar, their excellences already bursting from their fingertips. So they find their fame by proving what they can mar: destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters. All that smoke and savor rising so delicately from our altars. It leaves only ash behind.” 

Case in point. Oh how its flows.

The way that Miller introduces these ancient stories is really remarkable. And surprisingly modern-feeling. The mythical characters were bought to life in a way that they never really had been for me before (save for a GCSE Drama class exploring Orpheus and Disney’s Hercules) All were 3D and complicated, and the Gods in particular were nuanced whilst, I believe, staying true to their origin stories.

I fell in love with Circe’s internal transformation, her strength and her flaws, in the way I would with a dear friend. She is complex, burdened with struggling to find her place in the world. No wonder so many of us related to her so deeply (it has a 4.3 rating on Goodreads at time of writing). This is without a doubt, one of my top reads of 2019 so far.

Thanks to some further-reading recommendations from Offbeat Book Club pals, I have become obsessed with these feminist re-tellings of stories that we have heard our entire lives. So further Reviews to follow. And please keep up your recommendations. Already on the list or already read: Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker and A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes. Obviously I will also HAVE to read A Song for Achilles by Madeline Miller.

Anyone else fallen in love with this? And dare I ask, did anyone hate it?

Kelly

Review-ish: The Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb (#2 in the Farseer Trilogy)

‘Wolves have no kings’.

I appreciate that I wasn’t blown away by the first installment to Hobb’s Farseer Triology, as you can read here, but something drew me back in. Lad-at-home continued to wax-lyrical about this series, and I didn’t dislike the first book, I just found it a little bit slow. I’m aware that I have the concentration-span of a springer spaniel and it had been a while since I’d read a fantasy books so thought I’d have a go at Book Number Two, The Royal Assassin.

This installment certainly isn’t slow. It picks up after a cliffhanger, with Fitz a shell of his former youthful self, and rushes straight back into the action. The characters that are introduced in the first book develop further, all with very interesting and often unexpected arcs. The Fool in particular begins to reveal more of his true self, whilst also totally baffling me. Which I loved. We follow Fitz into his near-adulthood, whilst he stumbling-ly finds his place within this world of treachery, intrigue and class war-fare.

The concept of the Forged Ones is brilliantly clever; we are made to fear them, but also pity them. And it allows us to explore the complex range of emotions that the families and communities must go through. It also allows us to see a new side to Fitz, as his skills develop.  I won’t say anymore about the Wit and the Skill as I don’t want to spoil it for any other readers but the ‘magic’ elements if this series as fantastic. I love that these skills have to be developed through hard work and connection to others, rather than just ‘boof’ magic-done-type magic of Tolkein ilk. Its why I love Ursula La Guin so much. Brilliant. 

Like a few reviewers on Goodreads, I feel fairly meh over Fitz’s relationship with Molly. I understand it as a plot device but care less about his romantic relationships that his much more interesting relationships with the royals, Burrich and Patience. There was a lot less of Chade is this book, which I hope that is meant to create more mystery around him, and hopefully he’ll play more of a role in the concluding book. 

This was a much more compelling read than Book #1. And I really hope that readers that find the first installment a bit slow aren’t put off trying the next one as it really is worth sticking with. I believe that I have read enough fantasy series over the years to confidently say that Hobb’s voice is wonderful and that the world that she has created is all-encompassing. Even if I haven’t read enough, sod it. This is my blog so I can say what I like!

Anyone ever had a similar experience with a series before? Is second-book-syndrome really a thing? Chat ahead in the comments.

Kelly