Insole Book Club Notes – April

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

We have to thank our friends at NDCWales Book Club for this recommendation, it was great to share recommendations with another book club. In turn, we suggested My Sister the Serial Killer for them, which is a quick read that we’d pretty much all enjoyed.

It was great to get together again with the lovely Insole Court Book Clubbers, albeit digitally. It was interesting to talk about how our reading habits had changed over the past month, during lockdown.

Some found The Seven Deaths easier than others. It seemed to quite often hinge on whether you could give it a few hours of solid reading at a time. Reading or listening to it in short bursts made it quite difficult to follow.

We talked about the various different tropes that the author used, body swapping, etc, but how it may have gotten a little overly complicated. In particular, revelations about Anna felt a little tacked on. Especially as the twist had already been revealed at that point.

For some of us, the twist felt a little bit rushed and could have benefited from fleshing out for us to buy into it. But we also chatted about the fact that the reveal didn’t leaving us with too many questions, so the author achieved an entertaining murder mystery.

We all were intrigued by the descriptions of the various personalities and how they were cumulative, pushing in more and more as the book developed. This was cleverly done and unusual. We were interested in which of the physical behaviours ‘stuck’ from each character and how this helped with the plot. This reminded us of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; how much of who you are is made up of your memories?

We made comparisons to The Good Place, and Dante’s Hell – and the premise of a hell of your own making. The vividness of the world was captivating, and probably successful because of how you relive the world through so many different perspectives. The image of the ramshackle stately home is also well-known in mystery novels, so quite easy for us to grasp.

We spent some time discussing the title after discovering that it is published as The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle in America. It doesn’t appear that the number in the title relates to deaths in the novel, but is more about sensationalism.

Generally we would recommend this to our friends/family – reviews are good, and its been well received. We felt that the violence, although dark, wasn’t voyeuristic or gratuitous. And its a solid enough mystery to keep you going through, at least until the reveal.

I thought it might be interesting to share what we’ve been reading, as we normally finish our meetings with recommendations. So to continue the tradition, whilst quarantined, many of us are comfort-reading Bill Bryson, as well as:

  • Hillary Mantel
  • Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami
  • My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts, so please feel free to comment along below!

Kelly

Insole Court Book Club Notes – March

Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese

Way, way back, one week into the UK lockdown, almost 3 decades ago now, Insole Court Book Club attempted its first digital meeting. In advance, we agreed to have a crack at using Zoom for our discussion, and met at our normal time, but in our own houses, rather than the beautiful Reading Room at Insole Court.

One of our lovely regular attendees recommended Cutting For Stone, as she had previously read it and thought it would be a good book club pick. And I think it was a great suggestion, as we were definitely divided over it and had a good old chat about it. A couple of us loved it, a couple struggled/didn’t love it, and one or two weren’t able to finish it. It’s a big read, and we chatted about how this particularly time in history isn’t always conducive to getting stuck into anything too big.

Initially, we chatted about the pacing of the book, and how for some of us, it got harder to read the further along it went. We also discussed how some of the coincidences that occur during the book could make the reader feel a bit emotionally manipulated.

Interestingly, nearly all of us enjoyed reading about the setting, the hospital and Ethiopia, and most of us found most of the characters unlikeable. My caveat to that is that I loved Hema. I mentioned that I thought that Verghese was inspired by John Irving, and in this, I could see similarities to the way that the narrator is a fairly dull character, but is surrounded by very colourful characters, that drive the narrative. Many of us thought that there were other stories to tell, from the other characters perspectives.

Prompted by a question online, we discussed how the book represents the emotional lives of Drs. Some book clubbers felt that it was an accurate reflection of the emotional detachment that Drs have to develop to do their jobs. It’s a matter of survival. We also chatted about how single-faceted Marions life becomes, and whether this was informed by his childhood that was all-consumed by hospital life.

We talked at length about how Verghese doesn’t give a particularly clear answer the the big mystery that threads through the novel, that of the twins conception. And in turn, we talked about whether someones childhood/life experiences can excuse later betrayals. This led to whether we felt that Marion had been able to forgive some of the characters by the end of the book. We felt that it wasn’t necessarily given voice to but was implied. Some of enjoyed Marions rather teenage-angsty actions when he broke into Stone’s apartment.

According to Verghese, he wanted to ‘tell a great story, an old-fashioned truth telling story’. One of the suggested book club questions asked what human truths does the story tell. We felt that the story was centred around family, and that family doesn’t have to be blood-relations, and can be chosen.

Overall, the book covered a wide range of topics, and we found them to be interesting, particularly the medical aspects. The difficulty for some came in the pacing and size of the book. Some parts of the book were completely forgotten by us, like the section about Stones childhood, which is pretty long. And we were in agreement that parts of it were beautifully written. As I have said before, I often think its as much about ‘when’ you read a book, as to what its about. And the uncertainty of a looming global pandemic is not always the best time to take on a mammoth book.

Further reading :

  • My Own Country by Abraham Verghese
  • The Cider House Rules by John Irving
  • The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski

As a group, we were also reading:

  • Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  • Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson
  • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
  • Wolf Hall and The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Please comment below if you’ve read Cutting for Stone and want to have a chat about it! Or if you have any recommended further reading, we’re always up for recommendations.

In April, we met to discuss The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton, notes coming soon!

Kelly

Insole Court Book Club Notes – February

Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li.

I must apologise, I was not altogether awake for this months meeting. Luckily, the group is more than capable of chatting away without my input. We used some of the suggested book club questions in the back of the book so guide the discussion.

Almost all of the group had read the book and found it to be a fairly quick read. Readers were definitely divided over their enjoyment of it, but most found exploring the Asian-American experience and Chinese culture interesting.

Thematically, we discussed the three different love stories, which varied due to age and experience of the people involved. We also chatted about the recurring theme of feet in the novel, and the toll that working in hospitality had on the characters feet.

We explored the differences between the generations, and how the American culture had impacted on the relationships between the characters. The concept of survival was strong throughout.

None of us found the characters particularly likeable. They were presented as controlling, and mostly selfish. Nearly all of them lacked self-reflection. Many of the older characters seemed disappointed in the next generation. Jimmy is the only one who seems to resolve his feelings and seems to come to an understanding about his Father, who is a strong presence throughout the book.

One reader described the characters that working in the restaurant as ‘knocking together so often that they end up fitting together’ which I thought was a really beautiful way of expressing the family-like relationships.

There was some division in the group about the language and style of the book, some found parts of it poetic, others found the vulgarity off-putting. We chatted about the fact that much of the book is written as if its Jimmy’s stream of consciousness, which could be a bit jarring when it changed perspective.

Overall, we felt that the book offered very little lightness, showing an often tragic side the characters experiences. It felt like some of the story-lines weren’t fully resolved. Generally, we didn’t love the end. Some of us wished for a different outcome, and some of us don’t like the six-months-later epilogue style.

Further reading/watching:

  • Parasite
  • The Farewell
  • The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

I’m well aware that I wasn’t entirely with it, and my notes weren’t great so please do chip in and comment below! I promise I’ll be more on it next time!

Kelly

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