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.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Barbecue Days - Reflections on the Irish Summer

I haven't blogged in almost two weeks and perhaps I have been waiting for something momentous to happen in my life. All I have done since Immrama is worked during the week and relaxed at the weekends - messing about in the garden when the weather is good and looking at the plants instead of weeding or doing something useful. You can see some of the plants in full bloom now, the lily was short-lived but spectacular, and the banana trees bring a bit of tropical memory into our lives. I still marvel that they thrive every summer while they die off at the first frost.

We had some lovely fine weather after the Immrama festival and decided on the spur of the moment the following weekend to get a new barbecue. Off we went to Toss Bryan's in Fermoy, a nearby market town in north-east Co. Cork, only about 15 miles from Lismore but a world away as it is across the county border, with its fierce GAA inter-county rivalry which manifests itself whenever Cork and Waterford are playing each other in hurling. Then the red and white of Cork pits itself against the blue and white of Waterford and local loyalties come to the fore.

But I digress. The barbecue has a unique place in Irish life, as we are a cold northern European country with erratic and unpredictable weather patterns when we can have all four seasons in one day, but we like to think we have a sunny Mediterranean outlook on life. Hence the first sighting of the summer sun is guaranteed to bring out the inner hunter/gatherer hidden deep in the psyche of all Irish males (or Irish-based ones, as hubby isn't Irish!) and they rush to grill any piece of meat within reach. This sometimes results in mass food poisoning when "cremated on the outside, raw on the inside" occurs, and there are terrifying public service ads on the radio every summer attesting to the hazards of such wanton folly.

It's a bit like the Irish response to the sun when all caution is thrown to the winds and we strip down to skimpy shorts and tops, resulting in the transformation of alabaster-white flesh turning an alarming lobster pink over the course of a day or two, with the trademark bra-strap stripes, and the promise of pain to follow as we won't risk missing out on a minute of potential tanning by applying anything with a higher SPF than about 5. We also revel in that peculiarity known only to the Irish male as the "man tan" where the arms and neck go pink and perhaps brown, or freckly, and when this manly specimen bares the torso on the beach he appears to have a t-shirt on, such is the demarcation of the man-tan!

We have been home for twelve years now, and have always had charcoal barbecues, perhaps a touch of nostalgia for the ubiquitous "jiko ya mkaa" or charcoal stoves we had in Africa, there of necessity rather than choice. We eschewed the gas barbie as being too easy and not quite pukka, not the real deal and maybe we were a bit too smug about our allegiance to the labour-intensive charcoal. Waiting an hour to get the glowing coals seemed quite normal, and you can't beat the all-pervasive smell of chargrilled food. We had gone through two or three stoves in the past decade, as the coal just seemed to burn through the base or the cast-iron was too heavy for the legs and they just broke, and we ended up putting the base up on blocks. It was high time for a move upmarket and we agreed to go for a nice gas barbie with lava rocks to replace the charcoal and give that smoky flavour.

Hubby is one of those decisive types when shopping - unlike me who can dither for Ireland, and spend days and weeks agonising over the merits of one item over another before (almost invariably) deciding on the item I saw first - he will enter a shop and leave within 10 minutes having completed the purchase. I can't get used to it after over 30 years, and it has me convinced that men really are from another planet when it comes to shopping. (It's the same with clothes, and that is definitely a gender thing, as the boys are exactly the same, in and out of Dunnes or Penneys in minutes, whereas teenage daughter and myself can browse for hours though I am no way a shopaholic!)

Within minutes we were the proud owners of a fancy gas barbecue, with lots of bells and whistles, figuratively speaking, and we went home salivating in anticipation of the culinary delights that beckoned. First the thing had to be assembled, which, as every Ikea flat-pack veteran knows, involves how-to leaflets, with odd diagrams and even odder piles of equipment. This is strictly a boy zone and I leave them to it while I marinade the meat and prepare the salad, spuds, garlic bread and fried rice, which is what we had with our inaugural barbie this summer. Imagine, not having our first barbie until late June! That has to be a record as the earliest we had one was in an unusually warm March some years back. Somehow global warming has passed Ireland by - if it's out there somewhere, no-one's told us about it, and we certainly haven't got much to show for it. There are days like during the torrential thunderstorms this week that we'd happily say - bring it on!

We had barbies every day for that week, with hubby at the helm with the new BBQ weapons of mass destruction to hand, though he drew the line at the canvas apron they all came wrapped up in. The barbie even thoughtfully has a beercan/glass holder! We thoroughly enjoyed eating alfresco every evening, pretending we were in Spain or Africa or anywhere that good weather is a given, with a midweek glass of wine almost de rigueur. Then last Sunday the good weather broke and we had a week of humidity with monsoon rains, thunderstorms, flash flooding and all the ensuing havoc. In other words, normal life resumed, just in case we were getting too complacent! Our barbie has gone back to the shed, and we look forward to its next outing, in the hope of an early release! Carpe diem really does apply to Ireland and its weather, and perhaps it should be a motto for living our lives all the time.