Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Of Books and Book Clubs

I have been a member of a Book Club in Lismore for the past nine years, and it has opened a window to a world of books and authors that I might otherwise never have read. I have always loved reading and was a prolific reader growing up as an only child - Enid Blyton's Famous Five and Secret Seven, as well as her school series, Richmal Crompton's "William" books, the "Jennings" school series, Billy Bunter, "What Katy did" series, Charles Dickens, Little Women, and many more. I was pretty eclectic and read comics and annuals which I still have and the kids have enjoyed - Beano and Dandy with their beloved Dennis the Menace and his trusty pets Gnasher and Rasher, and Desperate Dan with his cow pie, and the more girly comics like Bunty, Judy, and June and School Friend. We then moved on to teen mags like Fab 208, which celebrated the long-defunct Radio Luxembourg, which introduced my generation to pop culture as much as BBC Radio One did some years later. Ireland had a long way to go to catch up on the rest of the world, with the clergy decrying the evils of rock'n'roll and groups like the Beatles from the pulpit at every opportunity.

Then I went through the chick-lit years of Patricia Scanlon and Maeve Binchy, and read all of James Michener during the 70s and 80s, and living in Africa and Asia led to books with those settings, like Kipling and M.M. Kaye's Indian books, and Paul Scott's Raj Quartet. The African books included everything from Wilbur Smith's historic novels to Thomas Pakenham's Scramble for Africa, which I already wrote about here, to accounts of the Rwandan genocide which was very close to our lives. In case this all sounds dreadfully worthy and dull, I read all of Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole books, and still love Ross O'Carroll-Kelly's running autobiography penned by his alter ego Paul Howard. They are a peculiarly Irish phenomenon and many of you may not know them - but they are hilarious! They incorporate a whole new world of Irish rhyming slang which probably take some lateral thinking to fully comprehend (e.g. " Roy" = eager - as in Roy (sometime Irish soccer player) Keane = keen. I know, it takes some local knowledge but this site helps!). Given that Ross was invented as a send-up of the worst types that unearned entitlement threw up in the boom years of the Celtic Tiger, and was adopted as a hero by the very people he was spoofing, with a total lack of irony, says a lot for the shallowness of same tiger cubs! I am just finishing off the newest book - We need to talk about Ross - and enjoying it as a light summer laugh.

I wanted to name some of the book club reads we had lately, as we have a list up to 2005 and thereafter it's guesswork. We each select a book for discussion and the only criteria is that the selector must have read the book, and it is in print and in paperback.

About our Book Club

We are not affiliated to the library book clubs that have sprung up around Ireland but are a group of women from diverse backgrounds who like reading and got together to start the book club ten years ago. Men aren't banned (we're not sexist like some golf clubs!) but it was decided at the outset that partners and husbands wouldn't join, just to avoid any inhibitions I suppose - books could be a flashpoint if there were wildly varying opinion and we didn't want anyone holding back. It can get quite heated at times, and we all love a lively debate.

We meet on neutral ground which is currently a room above a local pub. This is in contrast to a lot of book clubs which meet in the members' houses on a rotating basis. I have to confess a preference for our method for a variety of reasons, as follows:

Advantages of meeting on neutral ground
  • It gets us out of the house on a weeknight - we meet up on a Monday each month in a room above a local pub.

  • It removes the status anxiety inherent in having the book club at home, perhaps tidying up, dispatching kids and partners from the room and generally ensuring a child and man-free zone - not an easy task in today's open-plan homes.

  • It prevents grandstanding in the cookery/baking/snacks stake.

  • We can have a nice cuppa tea or coffee or a glass of wine or whatever we like, depending on mode of transport home - for me, that's walking.

  • We don't have to get all glammed up as it's not like we're going clubbing or to the theatre, so smart casual is as fashionable as it gets.

  • There is no danger of anyone eavesdropping if scintillating gossip is being shared.

  • We enjoy the camaraderie of shared interests and female friendship.

  • All of us have such busy lives it is crucial to have an interest that extends into totally new territory.

  • We get to borrow books from each other and read new writers - I found Sue Miller , Barbara Kingsolver and Barbara Trapido here, and am very grateful!

  • We have a good excuse to have a big night out occasionally - usually a good meal out in January to combat the post-Christmas blues.


  • We don't get to snoop at other members' houses.

  • We don't have a nice meal/cakes/snacks every month in home comfort.

I can't think of any other drawbacks - if you can, all comments welcome!

I have reviewed a number of books on Living Social and Library Thing which I will try to link. Library Thing is a sidebar widget on this blog so look it up and add it to your blog as it is a great resource. I review books not as an ego trip to show how clever I am but because I forget so quickly what I have read and it is a way to recall the delights of an enjoyable book with my appalling retention - I have difficulty remembering the last book I read so it focuses the mind to review them and if it is read by other readers that's a bonus, not the intention.

I had the pleasure albeit embarrassing at the time of having a book review read by the author who turned up as a speaker at Immrama in 2008. We had read Blood River by Tim Butcher and had a great discussion on it, as we had all pretty much unanimously decided that Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible was a group favourite and this was also set in the Congo, over 40 years later. Tim read my review on Facebooks Living Social application, and was very gracious about it, lucky it was a positive one!

The recent books in no particular order include the following list:

Of these, I did not enjoy The March as American Civil War books just don't appeal to me. Nor did the Murakami book which was the first of his I'd read, just too anarchic and soulless, and while it seems churlish to speak ill of the dead, I found the Joan Didion book way too hard to even read as she had to deal with way too much grief for anyone to bear at one go - husband keeling over after dinner and adult daughter on life support following catastrophic brain damage. Her book was probably cathartic and made a wonderful stage show by all accounts but it was hard going for this reader.

I loved the others. Stasiland was a brilliant insight to the lives of ordinary and extraordinary people in the former East Germany and inspired me to see the film The Lives of Others (Das leben der Anderen) about the paranoia and the impact of the state on ordinary people which must still resonate today.
Sebastian Barry's book was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and as we say in Ireland - he was robbed - but then he won the Costa prize and that was a vindication of a brilliant book. It was criticised for a twist at the end but I felt it didn't detract from the book even if it was a bit too contrived. Many Irish people were locked away from society in asylums, if they were seen as a threat by being different or anti-establishment. We have a long history in that whole area - I wrote about the Ryan report on Institutional Child Abuse here and this was another sorry saga in our dysfunctional collective psyche.

Richard Ford has written three great American novels in the Frank Bascombe Trilogy and I have reviewed all of them on Living Social here. He is up there with the great contemporary writers like John Updike in his Rabbit books and Philip Roth with the Zuckerman books.
We have a long Russian read over the summer recess - Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I have yet to get it and while it is online at Gutenberg project website I don't think I'd have the stamina to read such a weighty tome on my laptop! We have yet to embrace the Electronic book readers like Sony and Kindle in Ireland - in fact I don't think Kindle works here even if you got it on Amazon.
Perhaps that will be the next big thing and the prophets of doom will be predicting the end of the written word as we know it, but if the internet hasn't destroyed the book industry I doubt if it'll fall prey to the e-book readers. There will always be the pleasure of the physical sense of a book, and like newspapers online, there is no way that I read the Irish Times in the same detail online as I do the print edition. I have stopped buying the daily paper though, as I realised I was often only reading the preferred features and skimming the news anyway, and now I do that online but still buy the Saturday edition for the magazine and the Weekend review supplement.

One of the joys of the Immrama Travel Writing Festival is the opportunity to buy a lot of books of the presenters and get them signed, items to treasure long after they are read.

This is long enough for a literary reflection - if you have any recommendations let me know - there are plenty of avid bookworms out there and I would love to have some more book-posts in my blog but there's no point in blogging on books if it eats into reading time.


Irene said...

I really enjoyed this post, anything to do with books, you know. For some great book suggestions I suggest the following site which is really helpful and I've put all of the books reviewed there on my wish list.


Catherine said...

Thanks Irene for this link - I have added it to
my follow list.,as I love many of her fave writers, the South African one, Malan, Coetzee, and then US ones like Kingsolver. I will look at it in more detail when i get time, I am busy since my hols so I must blog later this or next week as I am off then!(you can see my hol pix on Facebook!)
Hope you are well,

Kacie said...

I agree with the Poisonwood Bible - it was fantastic. Have you discovered the world of book blogs? Start out with SKrishna blog and you'll see how many people follow her and volume of books she reviews. My "to read" list has grown tremendously since discovering book blogs