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.

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