Tag Archives: Life after Life

A new book group

Have you ever started a new reading or book group? What was your experience? We have found it challenging, so I give you our story and ask for your comments and advice.

120 C18 groupEstablished readers of this blog will know I moved to Devon just over a year ago. I had got the number of unpacked boxes down to 100, so I met with my daughter to discuss establishing a reading group in the area. I missed talking about books with friends and wanted to meet bookish people and to read books recommended by others.

Planning

  • We faced a number of questions:
  • How to get people to join us?
  • Where to meet?
  • How frequently?
  • At what time of day?
  • What books should we read?
  • How would we choose the books?

Initial practical arrangements

My daughter knows more people in the area than me because she has lived here for several years. And she was now engaging with other mothers at the school and pre-school gates. She approached various people and suggested meeting once a month, in each other’s homes, at 7.30. The host would provide refreshments but not a meal. We decided on the dates of the first two meetings.

From the start all members were busy women, and it has proved difficult to establish the right practical arrangements. After a few sessions of changing the date and time and meeting place Anna suggested we set the dates and books ahead and keep to it even if people’s commitments changed. By that time we had enough members to see us through times when readers were busy elsewhere.

Choice of books

120 GrassWe wanted our first books to signal the seriousness of our reading. Doris Lessing had recently died and she won the Nobel prize for Literature. We began with The Grass is Singing. For me it was a re-read and my goodness I had forgotten but was soon reminded the searing sterility of the marriage at the heart of the novel, and the connections Doris Lessing made between the oppression of women and of the Rhodesian native black population.

The second book was meant to be a contrast: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier. Our discussion about it showed that the group enjoyed up-to-date writing and could be critical. Our third book was Persuasion by Jane Austen.

Having read our three nominated books, the choice became dependant upon all members. We were, in the words of one member, ‘very polite’ about making suggestions for future reads. It quickly emerged that the group wanted variation: modern and older classics, lighter (but not too light) fiction, including translated fiction, as well as non-fiction and poetry. But nothing very long. When I asked group members last month about their observations for this blog most of their comments referred to the choice of books.

New members

Another decision we reflected on was whether to have a closed group or not. We know of groups that have fixed membership, new members only being inducted when people leave. One reason for this is that the group’s books are supplied by the library in fixed numbers. We decided to remain open, and so far haven’t used the library to supply our books.

Benefits of the group

120 Reading-GroupWhy would busy people join a reading group, especially when they are frequently unable to finish the book before the meeting? One reason is that having the book group allows them to prioritise reading, gives them a little more incentive to find time and space for the reading.

Here’s a list of books we have read so far:

  • The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing
  • The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen
  • Julie & Julia by Julie Powell
  • A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride
  • Life after Life by Kate Atkinson
  • If only it were true by Marc Levy

And here are our plans for reading in the next few months:

  • Staying Alive edited by Neil Astley (a collection of poems, from which we will choose and say something about our choices).
  • The Bear by Claire Cameron
  • A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks

And in December we will have a Christmas feast and plan for next year.

It is very hard to establish a reading group. We keep going even if only two of us turn up, and so far that has worked. We have to recognise the busy-ness of our members. We have had a good discussions even with only two people.

Please Comment

What books would you recommend for a reading group such as ours as it approaches its second year? How do you choose?

What difficulties have you experienced with a book or reading group?

 

Some on-line resources for reading groups

The Reading Agency supports Reading Groups for Everyone.

A site that offers lots of resources for organising a reading group is The Reading Club

A Book Club Blog: Book Club Girl

120 R Group fo logo 

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Who or what are literary prizes for?

What purposes do literary prizes serve for readers? It’s clear that they provide writers with recognition and publicity that leads to sales. And for publishers it provides publicity that leads to sales. And for sponsors I guess it adds to their good image (which I assume is designed to boost sales somewhere along the line). So there is a pattern here.

67 MBP dated large

There are prizes for first novels, for biographies, a Samuel Johnson award for non-fiction, American prizes such as the National Book Award, and international prizes such as the Nobel Prize for Literature (for a body of work), the Man Booker Prize, the International Man Booker Prize and several awards for different genres (such as crime, sci-fi, children’s literature etc). For all I know there is a prize for last novels.

Zadie Smith is sure that winning a prize is essential for new writers to get noticed. Not everyone is convinced of their value. In the New York Times last month, Daniel Mendelsohn asked

What purposes do these prizes serve? Are the values they promote aesthetic or commercial? And how on earth do the judges arrive at their decisions?

Jennifer Szalai recalled what is said when things go wrong:

The complaints are as common as they are contradictory: Prizes are awarded to tepid, undemanding best sellers everyone reads; prizes are awarded to obscure, abstruse books no one reads. They are awarded to the right authors, but for the wrong work (Hemingway for “The Old Man and the Sea,” Faulkner for “A Fable”). They are awarded to the wrong authors for the wrong work (Margaret Mitchell for “Gone With the Wind”). They are withheld from the right authors for the right work (“Gravity’s Rainbow,” by Thomas Pynchon, won jury approval for the Pulitzer in 1974 but was overruled by a board that deemed the novel “turgid” and “obscene”). Sometimes the grousing has the whiff of sour grapes. “Prize X has never been awarded to Philip Roth,” “Prize Y has never ben awarded to me.”

She concludes that literary prizes should honour good books. Mendelsohn claims that prizes show what is prized and that as a result the real winner is culture itself.

But what about the reader? What do we get from these awards? I used to think that prizes were normative, restricting readers’ choices, operating a bit like the 2for1 tables at Waterstone’s, or reality tv competitions (the Great British Write Off?) or the bestseller lists in the weekend papers. And it is true that plenty of good books miss the awards: the slow burners, books that are idiosyncratic, specialist, appeal to small scale interests, and especially non-fiction and translated books. But we shouldn’t expect the awards to do everything for the book trade.

Awards do draw attention to some books, especially through their long- and shortlists. I admit to being very interested in long- and shortlists, and not much interested in which book or author wins (especially when the press starts speculating about muggin’s turn, as they did Jim Crace for the MBP this year and Julian Barnes in the past).

Here are some awards that have added to my reading pleasure:

IMPAC prize, especially for its longlist, because it is the outcome of nominations for high literary merit by public libraries across the world. Consequently some less prestigious, less artsfartsy books get identified, and frequently the shortlist (and winner) includes novels in translation. Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses (2007) and Gerbrand Bakker, The Twin (2010) are two examples. The list this year is very long – 152 titles. Great! Lots to discover.

67 Out Stealing

67 WPFF logo

Women’s Prize for Fiction because it promotes women writers and women are still less published, less reviewed and the literary scene benefits from positive discrimination. See the blogpost in praise of the Women’s Prize for Fiction for a fuller discussion. This year I read and enjoyed all six of the shortlisted titles.

The title of this next one deserves a prize of its own: Not the Man Booker Prize, a list nominated by readers of the Guardian and although readers vote in an arcane system that can only be likened to the rules of Mornington Crescent (see BBC Radio4 show I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue) the panel make a final judgement. I was pleased to see that Magda by Meike Ziervogel lead the readers’ voting, even if Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life actually won.

The Samuel Johnson award for non-fiction, because there is some excellent writing and subject matter being written about every year and it’s not all fiction. There is always biography in the list, and history and other books that might slip by. This year I have been interested to read reviews of David Crane’s Empires of the Dead: How One Man’s Vision Led to the Creation of WW1’s War Graves. And Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain by Charlotte Higgins also looks very interesting.

And I will continue to rely on several other ways of finding good reading: reviews, end of year and holiday recommendations, word of mouth, gifts, browsing in bookshops, Twitter and my local library.

67 MBP2013

Meanwhile I have one and a half books left to read from the Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2013. So far I have read 19cms and still have 8cms to go, including the winner – Eleanor Caton’s The Luminaries.

 

What do you think of Literary Prizes? Have you come across any good reads from a prize? What have literary prizes ever done for you?

 

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A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

This is a strange and clever book, and I loved getting into it, losing myself in its stories and ideas. It would not have surprised me if this book had won the Man Booker Prize in October. It was shortlisted but frankly any one of the six could have won – they are all so good. One the attractions for me of A Tale for the Time Being is the great older woman: old Jiko, who is an anarchist, a writer, a Buddhist nun, a teacher, the grandmother of one of the protagonists, and 104 years old with a wicked sense of humour and penetrating wisdom.

63 tale

There are two main characters, both female. Ruth is the narrator (she shares a name with the author) and lives with her husband and cat on an island off the west coast of Canada – remote then. She is a novelist who has interrupted her writing of novels to compose a memoir of her mother, who had Alzheimer’s. She is blocked, perhaps by grief. Ruth is a Japanese Canadian, like her namesake. She finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox on the shore containing the journal of a Japanese teenager, Nao. The reader is invited to consider both Ruth’s life, and the story of the younger girl revealed through the diaries, and the connections between them. According to her diaries, Nao had a great life in silicone valley before returning to Japan, where she suffered terrible abuse at school, difficulties in her family and is considering suicide. (She calls suicide ‘graduating from time’ or ‘dropping out of time’.)

The two lives, Ruth’s and Nao’s, are connected through the journal, through writing. Everywhere in this novel the power of the written word is explored. Reading Nao’s diary allows Ruth to become connected to the younger woman. Nao reads her uncle’s letters and begins to understand his actions and his place in his mother’s life. Jiko herself says ‘Life is full of stories. Or maybe life is only stories,’ (p246). And what are we to make of the small folder paper returned to Jiko on her son’s death, as a kamikaze pilot, on which is written ‘remains’? They could not return an empty box. But what of Haruki does remain? Not just concrete things such as his watch and his letters, but the idea of him, in the memory of his mother, passed on to her granddaughter Nao, and through the medium of the novel, to us the readers.

Nao finds understanding through her contact with her grandmother and her uncle. She finds his letters, which illuminate the theme of people’s connection through writing and over time.

March 27, 1945

Dear Mother,

You will be happy to know that as I wait to die, I have been reading poetry and novels again. Old favourites by Soseki and Kawabata, as well as the books you sent me by your dear women writer fiends. Euchi Fumiko-san’s Words Like the Wind and the poems of Yosano-san in Tangled Hair.

Reading these women makes me feel closer to you. Did you share their racy past, my dear Mother? I applaud you, and will ask nothing further, knowing it’s unbecoming of a son to tease a mother so.

I find myself drawn to literature more now than in the past; not the individual works as much as the idea of literature – the heroic effort and nobility of our human desire to make beauty of our minds – which moves me to tears, and I have to brush them away, quickly, before anyone notices. Such tears are not becoming in a Yamato danshi. (p257)

The title, A Tale for the Time Being, is a gentle pun, or at least can be taken in more than one way. What a curious English expression time being is. It can be taken to mean now, which is also the meaning of Nao’s name, in Japanese. Now, or the time being, is a transitory moment, disappearing into the past as soon as you enter it. The time being is an impossible state to be in. But of course we are all living within our own time. We are time beings, none more than Jiko, who has managed 104 years.

Hi.

My name is Nao , and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.

A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be. (p3)

Another little play on writing and time is that Nao’s diary is disguised in the cover of Proust’s A La Recherche du temps perdu (In search of lost time). This is how the novel begins, and already readers, including Ruth, will see that Nao is a writer wgho can hold attention. She is also an adolescent, with all the seriousness and pomposity of her age.

63 Hello K lunchbox 1

Eventually, it is the tsunami and the Fukushima disaster of March 2011 that impels Ruth’s involvement in Nao’s narrative. Is that how her diary came to be on the Canadian shore, washed there by the ocean currents? Did she exist? Did she survive?

The only jarring notes I found were the supernatural ones: the dream that resolved a plot complication (I find dreams are as unrewarding to read about as people’s accounts of them the morning after), and the mystical disappearance and reappearance of the writing at the end of the diary. But these moments still did not spoil my reading of this novel.

I enjoy novels that question and challenge and extend its very structure and form – following in the footsteps of Laurence Sterne. I like novels that play with ideas about time as Kate Atkinson does in Life after Life, (winner of Not the Man Booker Prize in 2013). A Tale for the Time Being has copious footnotes, mostly providing translations for the Japanese words and provides appendices and a bibliography.

I like novels that explore important topics, such as why writing is important, how people should and can relate to each other, the important of the natural world, the relationship of age to youth and what families can do for each other.

And who can resist a novel that adds writing to the range of superpowers in fiction? Nao is keen to make a connection with her reader. Towards the end of the novel, as her life is beginning to resolve itself she writes:

Anyway, I don’t know why I’m telling you all this, except that I thought you would like to know. My dad seems to have found his superpower, and maybe I’ve started to find mine, too, which is writing to you. (p389).

I63 Hello K lunchbox 2f you have read A Tale for the Time Being please let us know your opinion and reactions. Did you enjoy it? Are you tempted to read it if you haven’t yet?

 

The next Readalong, in January, will be Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald, first published in 1979. Hermione Lee has just published a biography of Penelope Fitzgerald. Join me in reading the novel!

 

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Let us now praise the Women’s Prize for Fiction

Let us now praise the institution that this year was called The Women’s Prize for Fiction. I’ve just finished reading all six shortlisted novels. They were all good, providing interesting subject matter, innovation and excellent writing. Six great reads! Here’s a reminder of the shortlist.

Hilary Mantel Bring up the Bodies

Barbara Kingsolver Flight Behaviour

AM Homes May we be forgiven

Zadie Smith NW

Maria Semple Where’d you go Bernadette

Kate Atkinson Life after Life

34 AM Holmes

I don’t believe it makes much difference to women’s fiction who won: it was AM Holmes. And whoever wins, I like a literary event that foregrounds women writers. With some women writers apparently sweeping all before them (think Hilary Mantel and JK Rowling) it has been questioned whether we still need a prize for fiction by women. I wont repeat the arguments so well made by Danuta Kean in Why We Need The Women’s Prize, except to notice once again that fiction by women is disadvantaged in the review pages of literary journals and newspapers. Fewer books by women than by men are reviewed. Not surprisingly there are also fewer women reviewers.

Next year the prize will be sponsored by Baileys. Thanks to those who kept the prize afloat while a replacement sponsor was sought. Kate Mosse was awarded a well-deserved OBE in the Birthday Honours, for services to literature. She was one of the founders of the prize and chairs the board

Here are my brief reviews of the two shortlisted novels that I read most recently.

34.maria-semple-qa

Maria Semple Where’d you go, Bernadette?

A racy read, almost a romp through contemporary electronic or wired life, set in Seattle, complete with Microsoft, TED talks, and high pressure sales ideas to ‘up-class’ the local school.

Bee is 15 (although she actually seemed much younger to me, more like 12 – no adolescent angst), and the only child of two high achieving parents. Her father Elgie is a top thinker with Microsoft, and her mother, Bernadette was once a cutting edge architect. Both parents come croppers – Bernadette through experiencing failure to preserve her twenty-mile house (a nice eco idea) and her husband by being immersed in MS before he finds his project is expendable.

The novel is the record of the disappearance of Bernadette, after some high stress middle class rage between her, her fellow Moms at Bee’s school, and her husband. Some of the plot is a little far fetched, but enjoyable for all that: eg a trip to Antarctica, the very handy on-line assistant, supposedly in India, who arranges every detail of the trip, the FBI investigation and the psychologist’s intervention.

Bee, of course, is high performing and it is she who presents the fast-paced narrative through the documentary evidence, itself saying something about the trail our lives leave: emails, letters, electronic records, faxes etc. When Bernadette wants to disappear she has to find a way to achieve it outside the electronic records. The novel concludes with a letter from Bernadette, sent via snail mail, which happily brings the family back together. The father never quite emerges as a rounded character, but comes good in the end. I wonder if this novel would also work as YA fiction?

Behind all this action are themes about the effects of the internet on our lives, how we can escape or use it, exploit it or be abused by it.

34 Life after Life

Kate Atkinson Life after Life

The device of this novel is that our heroine Ursula lives her life multiple times. There are a number of logical difficulties with this: are we to consider that this happens to everyone, or just her? Does Ursula have some special destiny, and if so what? Is this device to show that small things can lead a life along paths that are horrendous, and can the same be said of missed opportunities? So is it the case that when she failed to deny the bullying American boy a kiss it leads to rape, pregnancy, life-threatening abortion and finally death at the hands of an abusive husband thereby missing her opportunity to kill Hitler in the early ‘30s?

Ursula is born in 1910 to well-to-do parents, her father a banker, her mother a rather free spirit. She dies, nearly dies and then survives again and again. She has brothers and sisters, lovers, two husbands, servants, a rather wild aunt, and other friends who move in and out of her lives, survive or don’t survive. They experience European twentieth century history: the First World War, influenza epidemic, inter-war years, the second world war. The scenes in blitzed London are especially vivid – Ursula is an ARP warden. In another life she marries a German and survives in Berlin until the final days of the war, fearful of the prospect of Russian liberation.

So many lives mean so many deaths, so it is quite a stressful book. The deaths are Ursula’s but also her father’s, mother’s, cousin’s and just about every character at some time or other. It is an interesting way of writing a family saga, revealing different things about the people in every life.

The novel forces us to ask about the relationship between fate and freewill, and if it is possible to learn from lives we never knew we had, whether individual people really influence history. If Cleopatra’s nose had been a millimetre longer would the course of world history have been different? Discuss.

But in the end, can there be an end? Does she get her life right somehow, and if so, what is it that makes it right? Why would it ever stop, this succession of lives, there would always be another one. Ursula herself asks,

What had the Fuhrer’s apprenticeship for greatness been? Eva [Braun] shrugged, she didn’t know. “He’s always been a politician. He was born a politician.” No, thought Ursula, he was born a baby, like everyone else. And this is what he has chosen to become. (p332)

Now is that true, that we can choose who or what we become?

 

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