Insole Court Book Club Notes – January

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Firstly, a huge croeso to our the new book clubbers who have joined us this month. Really lovely to welcome you to our little group.


Secondly, after repeatedly receiving feedback from the bloke-at-home about the layout of the website and these book club notes sections, I’m going to try out a new format this month. Do let me know if its useful to you, regular book club attendees, those who come intermittently or those who read along from afar. Rather than a random list of comments and thoughts, I will try to provide more of a narrative of the discussion.


It was great to be back in the Reading Room at Insole Court and to see everyone after such a long break. 


**CONTAINS SPOILERS**
So this month, we were reading My Sister, the Serial Killer the debut novel of Oyinkan Braithewaite, a Nigerian born poet. It was recommended by a book club regular, who hadn’t read it before but thought it ticked our boxes and looked entertaining. Everyone had read it, which is no huge surprise as its a small book, and we’d had a big break since our last meeting before Xmas. We kicked off by discussing our general thoughts on the book; many of us were surprised by the depth of it. Some of us expected it to be a little light, or ‘silly’ and although it was very much an easy and quick read, and had comedic elements, it also had layers that keep you thinking well beyond the end of the book.


We moved onto discussing the theme of the authoritarian Father figure had come up in other books by Nigerian writers before. We wondered if this was reflective of the Nigerian society, especially at the class level of Korede and her family. Although not fully resolved in the book, many of us thought that Braithwaite implied that either one, or both of the girls had been responsible for their fathers death. 


‘The rain will drown you’ was pointed our as a particularly poetic phrase employed by the author. 


We discussed gender expectations, in Nigeria and in the UK and the role that your place in the family has on the expectations placed upon you. We felt that Korede, as the older sister, had been earmarked for a caring role from an early age. The fathers abuse had made Korede even more protective of her younger sister. Especially as the mother seemed disconnected from the world, and failed to see what was going on with her daughters in the present day. 


One member compared the marriage of Koredes parents to that of Muhtar and his wife. We found it poignant how loyal Koredes mother had been to her father, with the memorial party etc. But also reflecting on her little ways of rebelling, for example by wearing a colour he hated. 


We considered Korede’s own mental health. Did she have OCD? We wondered whether she actually enjoyed her role in the murders, enjoyed the drama. Enjoyed the challenge of not getting caught. She didn’t seem overly concerned about confessing to Muhtar when there was a chance that he might wake up. 
We discussed the impact on your moral compass of growing up in a society where corruption is rife. Could explain Ayoola’s lack of concern for getting caught, as she doesn’t respect authority. We got the impression that the police failed to really consider the girls as suspects as they were women and clearly wouldn’t be capable of murder! We also briefly considered why there are so few books about female serial killers, relenting that there just aren’t many female serial killers themselves. This then led to a fairly inappropriate discussion about fair representation and the lack of female serial killer role models!


We had a brief chat about social media etiquette in when it comes to mourning. How Femi was truly considered dead once there were no more mentions of him online. We thought this said a lot about our value. And how wrapped up Ayoola was in her own world. Was she a sociopath? She seemed to lack empathy and seemed quite vacuous. But we were aware that we only had Koredes viewpoint of her to go on. 


Neither sister appeared to have friends. Although the side characters were all really interesting. We found that Mohammed served a purpose, to show us that people considered to be of the lower classes could be victims of the upper classes way of life. Korede didn’t seem to have a good relationship with anyone, other than Tade who we felt she put on a pedestal. 


We touched on the horror of discovering that their Dad considered selling Ayoola, and the fact that this might have led her to see relationships with men as transactional, the lack of details about the murders and the poetry within the book as well. We also briefly discussed why Korede became so obsessed with her sisters boyfriends, and wondered whether she was desperate for a close relationship. 


Overall, we all felt that we would recommend it to others and enjoyed the conciseness of the writing. 

Further reading/watching:

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
  • Killing Eve on BBC iPlayer

Insole Court Book Club – December

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

This month saw us being welcomed graciously into the Insole Court Volunteer festivities, and for many of us, seeing a Mari Llwyd for the first time (worth a Google if you are unfamiliar with this Welsh tradition).

The Mars Room caught my eye after being short-listed for the Man Booker prize in 2018, having recently read Telex from Cuba, Kushner’s debut novel. I was really pleased that it prompted such interesting discussions for the group, of which you can read more below, and as always, comment if you feel like it!

Quite divisive. Some found it hard work. Some couldn’t finish it. Some found it very compelling.

Very sad, no feeling of hope.

Really felt like you knew Romy.

Indictment of the US judicial system.

Some of us read it quite quickly, others read it in chunks.

First third of the book slower than the rest.

Reflected on how hard it must be to have so little information about the outside world, we were shocked.

Interesting how they made their own lives behind bars.

At times could be quite amusing, some dark humour.

Tremendous characters.

But paints such a bleak picture – particularly the woman slumped on the bus at the beginning.

So hard for rehabilitation to happen in that environment.

Many of the characters are the victims of circumstance.

Shared histories and history repeating. Cycles of poverty. Hard to survive.

Romy was close to making a better life for herself before Jimmy betrayed her.

Jumping between time lines was clever but didn’t always work out.

It definitely didn’t reflect the San Francisco that we picture, and we felt that many American cities aren’t what they seem, like Washington DC. Every city has a darker side.

Her memories, although often at a distance, are very specific.

Juxtaposition of the Mars Room and prison.

Discussed what would happen to Jackson if it were in the UK.

Jackson represents hope and goodness, the only character in the book to do so.

At the end, she reflects that she gave him life, but is it such a good thing?

Her use of train tracks to present life and inevitability.

Kushner is very good at writing different view points. Reflections of different classes.

The chapters written in a different font were Ted Kaczynski, which was totally missed by some of us (me.)

Prison is a primitive way of dealing with crime. Lack of resources and will for rehabilitation.

She doesn’t talk much about race in prison, which is often a key focus of many prison dramas in the US.

Kayne West says that 1/3 black men have been in prison in the US.

Discussed the classism of crack cocaine vs. cocaine use.

Discussed institutionalisation, routine, living alongside other people.

Discussed what books we would pick if we were giving books to people in prison.

  • Responsible Boy on BBC
  • Telex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner
  • Manhunt: Unabomber on Netflix
  • Freakonomics by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner

Better late than never with the notes, I hope! We’re always keen to hear your thoughts, so please comment below.

We’re next meeting on Tuesday 28th January at 7pm, where we’ll be discussing My Sister, The Serial Killer by Okinyan Braithwaite. See you then!

Kelly

Insole Court Book Club – November

Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

This month, we took a slight departure from reading new releases to discuss the 1980’s classic, The Remains of the Day. It was lovely to catch up with the group again and welcome a new member, despite it being a dark and damp evening. As always, thoughts and further reading/watching below. Please feel free to comment. 


Nearly all of us had read it and finished it.

Heard Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson’s voices while reading it (the stars of the film).

Very slow-paced, could be a bit samey.

Some found it an easy read, but not massively engaging, due to a lack of action.

Dignified.Duty, dignity and grit come up many times throughout.

What has Steven’s missed out on? Does he know?

Back then, butler’s didn’t marry. But his father must have?

His mother is never mentioned.

Steven’s is an odd character, very set in his ways. 

Some still feel like its a love story. All that is unsaid. 

Some want to shake him! But also angry at the way he was treated by people. The classism. 

Some felt sad that it took a stranger to remind him to make the most of his time. 

The most English story ever. 

‘Too much Celt in me to enjoy it!’ in reference to Steven’s saying that only the English make good butlers.

Does Steven’s have autistic tendencies? Social awkwardness. 

His pride in how he managed his fathers death. Felt very tragic, despite the fact that he felt peace with it.

He has no social norm to adhere to as he doesn’t socialise and has no social group.

In some ways, he is self-aware. Analytical and critical.

Insight into the upper classes. 

Moderism/modernisation/transistion. Britain is changing.

There was immaturity on the side of Miss Kenton too. 

Sense of duty.

He didn’t leave the house whereas she did. 

He must have known what was going on with Darlington. 

Interesting that he always attributes opinions to others.

Similarities with Downton Abbey.

Wondered if some aspects were inspired by the book.

He’s a spectator. He compartmentalised everything.

The odd request of Steven’s to have the birds and the bees conversation. There to show that he has some awareness? A moment of dark humour.

Why doesn’t he correct the townspeople when they assume he’s a Lord of some sort. maybe he wants to spare their embarrassment?

Marked difference between when he is talking about his ‘tour’ compared to reflecting on the past.

He gains a wider perspective on the outside world. Freed from the job.

His lack of concern for her when her Aunt died!

Just hearing snippets of the Darlington story made us really intrigued. We would read a book about that!

A good picture of life as it was then.

Do people still have staff?

Steven’s and Miss Kenton were stuck in the social structure of the day.

Their jobs would have been desirable/sought after.

Faraday really seems taken with the English way of life.

She did love him. he would have infuriated her though, if they were together. He might have changed under her influence.

Hers was also a story of duty. Heart-breaking.

Never hear her perception. 

We then discussed whether we were satisfied with the ending, and then endings in general!

  • The Remains of the Day Film (plenty of Oscar noms!)
  • On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
  • A Pale View of the Hills and An Artist of the Floating World (first two novels by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (very different)
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

For something completely different, we’ll be meeting on Tuesday 17th December to discuss The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, with some mince pies! Our 2020 books are up now and should be in the Insole Court Visitors Centre before Christmas so plenty of time to get ahead of the game. 

Insole Court Book Club – October and birthday!

Amateur by Thomas Page McBee

Huge thank you to all those who braved the horribly dark and grim evening on Tuesday to come out and humour my excitement at the Book Club reaching the grand old age of one! It was lovely to have celebratory cake (rather than just our normal Tuesday cake) and a drink at the Maltsters afterwards, and as always, it was great to welcome new faces.

Amateur prompted some really fascinating discussions, which I’m not sure I managed to fully capture in short hand, but I’ll do my best!

When he talks about his own story, it is very compelling.

Some found the first section of the book quite hard-going.

Some really enjoyed the passages directly related to boxing.

Author was extremely self-aware and great at unpicking his own thoughts and feelings. Not typical in men?

For some, the book gave them an insight into the patriarchy and built in stereotypes. The assumption of competence being very interesting.

Such a unique perspective, not just because he is a trans man but also because of his ability to ‘pass’.

Many reflected on feeling like an ‘ornament’ around men; not listened to, talked over etc. and connected to the passages about feeling vulnerable on the streets, vulnerable in our own bodies.

Great insight into the mental/emotional transition.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’

We loved the passages about his mum: ‘A golden core’

Similar to Born a Crime by Trevor Noah in that the mother is present throughout.

The physical touch and its acceptability in the boxing ring; tender and intimate.

The duality of the boxing ring.

Would love to hear what boxers think of this book.

Does that fact the he’s a journalist explain why the first section of the book felt a bit more disjointed?

Boxing is what makes it special, it wouldn’t have the same impact if he’d trained at tennis or joined a team sport. Boxing is such a good metaphor for life.

Really liked both of the coaches.

A great insight as we tend to see and hear from more trans women in the media.

The fact that McBee reports that every time he’s on TV, there’s always another man there to tell him why he’s not a man.

The argument that this offers ‘balance’. Some things don’t need balance. No-platforming.

The ‘snow-flake generation’ and the health and safety analogy. Just making sure people are safe.

Having to constantly out yourself, as well as there always being images online of you pre-transition. Removing images from Google, will become more of a thing in the future?

McBee is the masculinity expert for Vice.

Womens fear of men is ingrained. We are taught from a young age how to protect ourselves, boys not necessarily taught to look out for girls.

We really liked Jess.

Workplaces and emotional intelligence.

Maggie Nelson quote ‘sitting with someone uncurling his hands, then holding them out to you, open, so that you can behold all the hard-won strength, insight, agility and love to be found there’.

The ‘crisis of masculinity’ in America. Is it because of its unique culture? The Greatest Country in the World philosophy. What happens if you’re not living up to the ideal?

Further reading/watching/listening:

–          Man Alive by Thomas Page McBee

–          The Power of One by Bryce Courtney

–          The Fight by Norman Mailer

–          Million Dollar Baby by F.X Toole

–          Rethinking Masculinity on the Guardian Books Podcast

–          Seahorse: documentary

Please do comment below if you’ve read along and want to share your thoughts!

Looking forward to the next book club meeting on Tuesday 26th November where we’ll be discussing Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Keep an eye out for our 2020 book club pick, coming soon!

Kelly

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).

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.