Around the Book Groups: October

The All Girl Filling Stations Last ReunionIf September was a Goldilocks and the Three Bears reading month, October veered more towards Little Red Riding Hood. The Innocent Reader and the lurking Big Bad Wolf both played their part this month.

It all started innocently enough with Fannie Flagg’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion. Set in Alabama, Southern Belle Sookie (and her equally weirdly named daughters), seems set for a peaceful retirement. Then, out of the blue, she is hit by a life crisis of epic proportions. It’s not scary, more Sookie skipping through the forest with a basket of sweet nothings while WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) planes pirouette overhead. If you are after a happy-ending holiday read, this may be the tickety-boo (as Sookie might say).

Black Rabbit HallBlack Rabbit Hall, on the other hand, is all about the setting. Not a forest in this case, but a building. The story starts ominously and just ratchets the tension up from there on in. Could a building possess a more dysfunctional presence is the big question? And why would anyone want to get married there? But Lorna does. And she wasn’t the only one to be lured in by this brooding ruin. Tragedy, ghosts, hidden secrets and an ominous atmosphere ticked all the boxes for one of my book groups this month.

Colorless Tsukuru TazakiBut my best book group read of the month – in fact now one of my best books of the year – is Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami. If you have so far run screaming through the woods away from  Murakami, this book (along with his novel Norwegian Wood) makes for a very accessible starting point. Imagine this – your four best friends suddenly dump you with no explanation when you are in your early twenties. Eventually, in order to save your sanity,  you decide to track them down to find out why this happened. It is a subtly tense read – absolutely gripping.

It was a month in which false identities “What big eyes you have grandma”, dark foreboding surroundings and lurking unease made up a terrific trio of book group reads. Whatever will November bring?

Around the Book Groups: September

Had Goldilocks been a bit less piggy and slothful, she might have raised her eyes to the bookshelves of the three bears, grabbed a read, and initiated a discussion with them when they returned – thereby founding the first book group in history.

But she did not, leaving us instead with the Holy Trinity of comparisons: too hard; too soft; just right. Here’s how my five book groups responded to some of our reads in September:

Cover of PlainsongThe Orchardist by Amanda Coplin tells the story of a lone bachelor on an isolated farm, whose peace is disturbed by the arrival of two feral, pregnant teenage girls. It was described by one Book Group member as “like reading a silent movie”. It is tonal, descriptive and almost dialogue free. I can’t help but compare it with the (in my opinion) superior Plainsong by Kent Haruf. A book that also explores the theme of lone bachelors and (in this case) a single pregnant teenage girl. Don’t read them one after the other.

Cover of Rich Man RoadRich Man Road by Ann Glamuzina is a New Zealand novel set in Auckland. The title is a play on the words Richmond Road, which the two main characters – both new immigrants – have difficulty in pronouncing. This book is proving to be very popular in one of my book groups. I however, stopped reading it after 50 pages. I blame the fact that it is a book that starts at the end of the story – thereby subjecting the reader to a further 250 pages of explanation. I will mention here that both main characters are nuns. It has been a bit of a nunnish month, as you will see.

Two further nun books have crossed my path in the past couple of months – and not any old nuns I will have you know – Anchoresses. I enjoyed The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader. A novel about a spiritual young woman who chose incarceration in a cell attached to a church to avoid marriage  may not be everyone’s idea of fun, but it is a well done piece of fiction.

Cover of IlluminationsBut nuns were not finished with me yet, as a completely separate book group had as their read of the month – Illuminations by Mary Sharratt which tells the fictionalised, but authentic tale of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), who was tithed to the church as an Anchoress when she was 8 years old. We blew very hot and icy cold on this book. Comments ranged from “It has changed my life” to “An atrocious read“. Hildegard is a fascinating character, but I did not complete this book either. In my bones I feel that this is a case of a book about a great person, but this, unfortunately, does not make it a great book.

Cover of Up Against the nightFinally, a distinctly mannish change of direction with Justin Cartwright‘s latest novel: Up Against the Night. I am a huge Cartwright fan and have read every book he has written. He is an intelligent author who can tackle serious themes (in this case the complexity that is South Africa today) in an accessible and entertaining way.

This is not his best book. Reading, in parts,  like a travelogue of the beauties of the Cape, it details a looming act of violence told from the viewpoint of a character who just has to be based on Cartwright himself. All the interesting stuff comes from the least well-adjusted character (who speaks in broken South African English – not sure how that is going to fly). I was bored witless by Nellie the partner of the main character. So perfect, so beautiful, so nice, so accomplished. Give Me A Break. Despite the foreboding violence, parts of this book are laugh out loud funny. But do you have to be South African to get it? That is the question.

I can’t remember when last we all agreed on a book in any book group I have ever belonged to, but A Man Called Ove must come pretty close. We all loved it.

Or as Goldilocks would say: Just Right!

The book club years

A book about book clubs

After all the studying, the OE, and the child rearing – if you are anything like me, you will wake up one day and know that you want more. You want to read again. You want to talk to people about something other than breastfeeding and toilet training. It comes to you in a flash – you will join a book club.

You are not alone in this. Curious as to how many book clubs there are in Christchurch, I phoned around the local bookstores, contacted the WEA Book Discussion Scheme and, finally, sucked the left hand opposable digit. I estimate that Christchurch has at least 300 clubs, with an average of 10 members each: that’s over 3000 book clubbers. There’s even a male book club, but no mixed gender book clubs that I know of ….yet.

With so many of them around, you’d think it would be like falling off a blog to join a ready-made group. But over 30 years, in three book clubs (Cape Town, Durban and Christchurch) I’ve always had to start them from scratch. Need some help with this? Have a look at Christchurch City Libraries’ new book clubs web page which is full of useful tips.

What’s the appeal? It’s the discovery and sharing of great reads and new authors. But there is a lot more to it than that. For starters, creating your own book group means that you have a degree of event control beyond your wildest dreams. I have three non-negotiables:

  • I will not bake for my book club meeting
  • That said, I like a book club where all the other members are great bakers
  • And this is the weird one: I will not read Jodi Picoult (the reasons for this are shrouded in the mists of time and don’t bear terribly close scrutiny)

Truth is: it’s your book club, you can do what you like. You can read prizewinning authors or trashy romances, meet in cafés or at home, eat vegan snacks, drink only red wine, have no books at all and use only e-readers. All you need is a small group of reasonably like-minded readers and you are on your way. Besides the obvious book talk, a book club can be a comfort through life’s challenging times: raising kids, divorces, marriages, career switches and ageing parents. We’re getting older ourselves – at last month’s meeting, arthritis had its little moment in the spotlight.

There are even books  about book clubs:

Even though we don’t always agree on a book (and passions can run high), my book club is my Happy Place and my book club ladies, world-wide, are my friends. You can’t say better than that now, can you?