Insole Court Book Club – May

Eight Months in Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel

This months book club read was chosen by one of our dear members. I was really interested in the choice as I had heard so much about Hilary Mantel and knew that Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies were mega popular (but a bit big for a one-month turnaround for book club, so grateful for that they weren’t recommended!)

I managed to get myself one of the original prints by Penguin which I enjoyed for its vintage look and small size. Insole Court managed to get in a lovely looking version for the shop, and we spent a good few minutes at the start of the meeting having a chuckle about one print that exists which has the most irrelevant stock-photo image on the front that I have ever seen.

Eight Months was first published in 1986, pre-Wolf Hall, and is a reflection of the few years that Mantel spent living in Saudi Arabia. I mention this to give some context to some later comments! As always, feel free to comment below, and get involved.

Struggled to get through it. Surprised by the quote on the book ‘horrifyingly gripping’.

Took a while to get going.

Mantel comes across as racist, not just the characters. Uncomfortable.

Expected a big revelation about how similar we all are really, but no.

Maybe more of a lack of understanding. ‘Back to the real world’ Western is right.

Too easy to say that she was expressing common viewpoints from that era, maybe it would be address more directly if it was written now?

Not sure what happened at the end? Felt a little bit rushed. Preconceptions proven right?

What happened on the balcony??!! Was it all just her paranoia?

What happens in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw for a reviewer to make this comparison? (None of us had read it!)

Some of us enjoyed the descriptions of the apartment block and the surrounding area and felt she built tension well, particularly the description of the tiles watching. Others could have done without it.

Directionless – is it a psycho thriller or a murder mystery?

One member decided to google real-life stories from Saudi to compare.

‘I’m not a racist, I’m a xenophobe’. Double standards. She doesn’t like anyone.

Chasing the money – criticism of expat lifestyle. Giving up the little things in life for the paycheck. Going for one year, staying for longer.

Francis formed her opinion of Saudi on the plane. Not that well-informed.

Irony of someone getting lost with a map she’d created as a cartographer. Only real time that her career is really mentioned.

We all thought that the Fairfax bit got interesting. Felt like things were going to start connecting.

We discussed the similarities to Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies to compare. Style is similar, lots of attention to detail. Measured. But had a much stronger plot. Is it because she was following the historical events?

It reminded one member of the film, Lost in Translation.

Lack of distinction in any of the other characters. Struggled to distinguish one expat man from another, and the same with the expat women and Saudi couples. Very 2D.

What about the burglary? Was it just to highlight how important home-made wine was to them?

No point to the different formats, eg diary, letter.

Some found it interesting to read about Saudi Arabia in the 1980’s. Some were able to compare it to what they had heard about people living ‘compound life’ in South Africa.

Blurb made it sound good. But one member found it quite miserable and depressing.

We thought that her isolation and how insular she became was interesting. The atmosphere that was created. Quite a poetic style at times.

‘Travel narrowing the mind’. Francis is testament to it. Self-aware. Quite witty in some ways.

Different editing might have improved it.

The memo at the start, we assumed was pre-action. If there had been names mentioned or more obvious hints, we would have paid more attention to it.

Unreliable narrator?

  • Hilary Mantel on the Reith Lectures, BBC Radio 4
  • The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
  • Wolf Hall & Bringing Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

So there you go. Not an overwhelmingly positive response to Eight Months on Ghazzah Street but a lot to talk about! Next months book club meeting (Tuesday 25th June) will be hosted by Natasha Wilson as I am off to a wedding! She’ll be chairing the discussion on Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox which is available now in the Insole Court Visitors Centre or widely available online.

I’m off to Hay Festival tomorrow for the first time so no doubt I’ll post some over-excited photos on Instagram @offbeatbookclub. I’m trying to limit myself to two new books but we’ll see. That’s probably not realistic…

Enjoy your weekend!

Kelly

Insole Book Club – April

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Huge apologies for the delay in getting the notes up for last months Book Club meeting. I’ve got a busy month in work at the moment and I have been trying to buy a house! So sorry that I am only getting around to this now. A few notes below as well as some further reading, watching, viewing etc. Really interested to know if this format is useful to those who aren’t able to make it to the meetings… please feel free to comment below!

Uncomfortable.

Informative.

Whole other perspective.

The lack of hope was quite depressing at times.

Explanations were good.

Meditative. But had to concentrate.

Quite intense. Felt sad for him that he felt , maybe rightly so, that there’s no hope for the future. Poor son.

Comparison to the way education is discussed in Becoming by Michelle Obama.

‘Those who believe themselves to be white’ really interesting concept.

The Dream. Picket fence. American Dream. Alignment of values.

Contrasted Coates’ description to our perceptions of the experiences of people of colour in the UK. Despite the UK’s heavy involvement in slavery, it seems different.

Discussed the fact that one National Trust building has started to have open discussions with their visitors about its history.

Felt a bit like a dissertation at times.

‘The black body’ so raw. The physicality of his writing is powerful. Some were able to relate to the lack of ownership of our bodies as women.

Some have criticised the lack of women’s perspective. We didn’t agree.

Some found it to be poetic.

Pre-Trump/Pre-Brexit, when the book was published, we’re more used to discussing the darker side to life and culture. Landscape has changed.

We also discussed young peoples relationship with police in Paris after talking about Coate’s experience there. You can read more about it here, thanks to Grace for sharing.

  • Toni Morrison
  • Beyonce’s Homecoming on Netflix
  • Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • explained: The Racial Wealth Gap on Netflix
  • Black in America CNN Documentary
  • Dear White People on Netflix
  • Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala
  • Black Boy by Richard Wright

Looking forward to discussing Eight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel on Tuesday 28th May at 7pm, at Insole Court.

Insole Court Book Club – March

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

A quiet book club this month, but no less interesting. As always, it was fascinating to hear what everyone connected to in this book, in particular, which characters/chapters stood out. One of the things we discussed was the authors choice to use different characters viewpoints throughout the novel, which was also reflected in Fingersmith, and a book that I am reading currently. Although Homegoing takes this one step further but adding in the new dimension of time.

Anyway, thoughts and comments below. Feel free to join in and let us know what you thought!

The difficulty of reading about the slave trade

Repercussions

Some read it one chapter at a time, so they could take a break and process

Others read in chunks

Following characters quite hard, even with the family tree

Some felt it spoilt the flow

Read like a collection of short stories

Some found the ending predictable

Sliding Doors / The Butterfly Effect

Educational and informative

Questioning history – fact / emotionally truthful / politically truthful

Important to not forget about Britain’s role in this part of history

Story shows a lot of nuance

Integration into new worlds without forgetting roots

Akua’s chapter is very hard to read – she bears the brunt of the family’s history

Water. Green

Some found the American characters relatable

Early chapters are about survival, tradition and ritual

Each generation is trying to connect to the past

Homegoing – all of them are looking back

No sense of oral history, the link is broken due to circumstances

History is traditionally written by the victors

All isolated

A snapshot

Is it important that the characters are all related?

Liked the way it was written

 

  • Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Our next book club meeting is Tuesday 30th April at 7pm in the Reading Room of Insole Court House, where we’ll be discussing Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

 

 

 

Brilliant Books Festival @ Insole Court – Short Story Book Club

The Ones Who Walk Away From the Omerlas by Ursula Le Guin.

Available to read online for free here or in various anthologies; including The Winds Twelve Quarters, first published in 1975.

I was really thrilled to play a small part during Insole Court’s very first Brilliant Books Festival, which celebrated literature for all ages, between the 2nd and 9th March 2019. They asked me to run a short story book club and gave me free-reign, which is brave of them. It really challenged me as although I appreciate short stories as an art form, I don’t read a whole lot of them myself. So I thought I would find something written by an author that I was familiar with.

My love of Ursula is no secret. See here for when I went to a Cardiff Book Talk discussion about her work. Omerla’s was ideal for many reasons; it was available for free online, it had depth and the themes were very in-keeping with other work of hers that I was familiar with.

The short story explores the moral conundrum of one person’s suffering vs the happiness of many. Le Guin explains that she was inspired by William James and The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life, although she also admits that she was influenced by Dostoevsky. We discussed this theme at length, as well as the uncertain narrator, utopia/dystopia, balance in the world and exploitation. We also explored how Le Guin breaks the fourth wall, and the impacts of it (some of us liked it, others didn’t!).

We also discussed many books, films and TV shows that we thought were similar is someways or were recommend further viewing or reading:

  • The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula Le Guin
  • Golden Apples in the Sun by Ray Bradbury
  • Brain Pickings by Maria Popova – Blog/E-newsletter
  • Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • East West Street by Phillipe Sands
  • Carnage on Netflix
  • Roma on Netflix
  • They Shall Not Grow Old (Peter Jackson)

It was a really interesting discussion and I would love to hear whether this is something people would like more of… And can anyone else recommend any other compelling short stories?

Kelly

 

insole court book club – february

Becoming by Michelle Obama

This book is the first of our group recommendations and the first non-fiction novel that we have delved into as a group. Luckily, many of us received it as a Christmas gift as it wasn’t quite out on paperback at the time of reading. There was a very interesting split in the room of people who enjoy autobiography and people who don’t. There was also an interesting split between people enjoying particular sections of the book more than others. Once again, lovely to welcome some new members!

As always, I’ll share some of our general thoughts and musings, and some further reading/watching. All of us, I think, found it hard to offer up comments or critique as it’s not about a narrative, its her life. So please bear with me. As always, I’m interested to hear your thoughts as well so join in the discussion in the Comments section. Like the physical book club, it’s a friendly place, we don’t bite.

Surprised by how unexceptional her early life was.

Race wasn’t acknowledged as much as expected.

Some disagreed with that.

Appreciated the strength that she needed to keep up with the campaigning.

Interesting and inspiring.

Coming of age shift was interesting to those of a similar age.

White House stuff was a bit glossy. Were her real feelings edited?

She spent a lot of time justifying herself. Had to make an impact.

Extraordinary intelligence.

Her passion for education is infectious.

Ability to excel in life is down to you, and your attitude.

Very charismatic.

Interesting that she leap-frogged her own city’s University.  Didn’t see her place there.

Moving from an individualist view-point to wider perspective.

The need to over-achieve. Especially when you are very visible.

The privilege that comes with wealth.

Different up-bringings in the relationship. Sometimes opposites work. They took a chance with each other.

Awareness of the sacrifices of all of the family members.

Some cultural references that require some knowledge – don’t necessarily translate for UK readers.

‘When they go low, we go high’

Powerful.

  • The West Wing
  • Veep
  • Dreams of My Father by Barack Obama
  • The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama
  • Lemmy’s autobiography
  • Nile Rogers autobiography

Our next book club book is Homegoing by Yas Gyasi, meeting on Tuesday 26th March, 7 – 8.30pm in the Reading Room of Insole Court House.

I am also doing a one-off short story book club on Tuesday 5th March as part of the Brilliant Books Festival at Insole Court. We’ll be discussing The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula La Guin. It is available to read for free here. The event is free but ticketed. You can find out more on the Insole Court website.

Kelly

 

insole court book club – january

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Another whopper of a book for this months book club. But generally well received, some found it gratuitous, some unputdownable. One book club member read us her favourite passage which can be found on Page 323, beginning with ‘Clara was still young…’

Really chuffed with how many people made it along considering the weather that was fore-casted and the bugs that have been going around. It was also lovely to welcome some new faces! As always, I have tried to capture some of the discussion points and suggested further reading, so feel free to join in the conversation in the Comments section below.

Secret, dark core of the Latin psyche.

So much in the book; politics, class, a family saga.

The political crescendo at the end.

Esteban Treubo: emotionally stunted.

Larger than life characters, not necessarily relate-able. Mythical.

Women’s roles in South America at the time (late 1890’s through to 1960’s).

Catholicism and the traditional society.

The fact that the country is never named.

The struggle for power. Venezuela today. Contemporary resonances.

Similar to Gothic novels and Victorian melodrama.

Men like Esteban can be found in Western literature. Very Dickensian.

Last line of the book being the same as the first. Symmetry and the cyclical nature of the story.

Strength of the women in the camp, a ray of light in the dark.

Clara, Blanca and Alba: all names suggest purity, clarity and innocence.

Nine years of muteness! Strength of character.

Suffragettes and corsets. Would like to have heard more of Nivea.

Symbolism and darkness reminded us to Kafka.

 

  • Love in the Time of Cholera, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor and 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Maria Marin the play
  • Midnights Children and Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

Have any of our lovely followers read any other books by Isabel Allende of any other female Latin authors? Would appreciate any further recommendations!

Our next book club book is Becoming by Michelle Obama, meeting on Tuesday 26th February, 7 – 8.30pm in the Reading Room at Insole Court House.

Kelly

insole court book club – december

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
We had been a bit ambitious with only 3 weeks between meetings to try and get through this book, so understandably, there were a few members who hadn’t managed to finish it. With that in mind, the rest of us really tested ourselves by discussing themes AND avoiding spoilers. We agreed that the twists in this novel need to be experienced, so despite how very laid-back everyone was about it all, we committed to a spoiler-free meeting.
Again, it was lovely to have a cup of luke-warm mulled wine (my fault) in the beautiful Reading Room of the Insole Court House. As always, see below for some discussion points and thoughts on Fingersmith and some suggested further reading/watching.
Some of the Victorian language a bit irritating as its unexplained.
Story is good.
Discussed the theme of human trafficking, comparing it to today.
The idea of being out of your depth and totally isolated.
Who do you trust?
How innocent are people really?
Initial thoughts of Gentleman, a love-able rogue.
Loved the book jacket review ‘pea souper Gothic’.
Men play pivotal roles but plot devices only.
Liked the descriptions of the paths that people taken around the Briar.
Lant Street offers a weird stability.
The Uncle compared to Poirot but more of a bully.
Sue’s brother and sister in the Borough provide a contrast, they represent Borough-life.
Mrs Sucksby is considered a benign motherly figure. She has a lot of power as a working
class woman.
We compared her to the little power that Maud had as a more privileged woman.
  • Sarah Waters on Radio 4, chatting about Fingersmith, through BBC iplayer
  • Tipping the Velvet and The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

 

Have you got any <spoiler-free> thoughts on Fingersmith? Feel free to share below.

Our next book club book is The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, meeting on Tuesday 29th January, 7 – 8.30/9pm, in the Reading Room of Insole Court House.

Kelly