Tag Archives: The Master and Margarita

The book group, the blogger and the book

There’s a cliché about book groups: the members are all women of a certain age, keen yoghurt knitters and instead of discussing a book they drink wine and gossip. They may exist, but I have never been in a book group remotely like that cliché. But I am having difficulty, partly because I belong to too many book groups.

kiki_b on Visualhunt.com / CC BY

Why belong to a book group?

What’s not to like? We talk about books. This is not something we can do just anywhere. With the odd exception (that is people who have read The Master and Margarita) on buses and trains people don’t expect to talk about books. The opportunity to indulge in these discussions is my main reason to be in a group.

I also enjoy reading other people’s choices, books I might have missed, or may have rejected for any number of reasons: I read it before; someone I know didn’t respond well to it; I’ve heard not good things about it; I am a book snob.

I like to be social, and meet new people, especially when I moved to Devon several years ago.

Book Group wars

There are some things to guard against in book groups, I have heard. There are people who speak too much. There are people who pronounce on a book’s qualities or weaknesses and will not listen to the views of others. And there are people who are downright nasty to other members, have secret meetings, and plot to make someone leave a group. I have never been in a group like that. But I know people who have been.

My book groups

I attend two face-to-face book groups. We meet in people’s houses and drink wine in the one that meets in the evening. Both groups are serious about discussing the books.

On my blog I join in readalongs, currently Muriel Spark’s centenary #ReadingMuriel2018 hosted by Heavenali. Recently there was the 1977 Club hosted by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. In the past I joined a year of Virginia Woolf. I like the on-line community, the different views of the bloggers, the slow conversation on-line and the sense of involvement in a project with others.

I have my own projects, the older women in fiction series, the women in translation series and the decades project. I also occasionally support the celebrations of birthdays of neglected women novelists.

I receive monthly novels from the Asymptote club that aims to promote fiction from around the world.You could try it.

Books about Book Groups

The Prison Book Group by Ann Walmsley

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

These first three are all non-fiction. The next three are novels.

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler: a clever book, a fun and creative spin-off for ‘Janites’.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Readers of Broken Wheel recommend by Katarina Bivald. Translated from the Swedish by Alice Menzies

No! I don’t want to join a bookclub by Virginia Ironside, about much, much more than bookclubs.

And for a list of nine (including some of the ones I have mentioned) you could check out this article from bustle.

Book groups – so what’s the problem?

Recently I have been thinking that all this book clubbery is too much. Already I schedule my reading to meet the demands of my groups and blog plans. But this is making me feel under obligation about my reading. I want my choices back again.

The tension mounted and it became still more difficult when my blog was playing up recently. I have fixed the blog but the requirement to read certain things by certain dates remains with me.

Fortunately the resolution is in my own hands. It’s simple – I may not keep to my schedules. I don’t believe many people will notice or that anyone will suffer from this decision. But you have been warned!

Do you ever suffer from book-reading-obligation blues?

Tell us about it.

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To Moscow with Books

What picture do you have in your head of Moscow? If you have never been, perhaps it is like mine: dark, threatening, sombre people and brutal buildings. And how was this vision built? Through films and news reports from the Cold War era. Who hasn’t seen the parades through Red Square? Who hasn’t heard about the eavesdropping, being tailed, the bureaucracy? The image has not been improved by recent killings of opposition folk: Alexander Litvinenko poisoned in London in October 2006, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya shot in Moscow in October 2006 and in February 2015 Boris Nemtsov shot in the back as he walked on the Bolshoy Moskvorsky Bridge.

Moscow Metro

Moscow Metro

The image of Moscow as dark, dangerous and mysterious may have been created by novels as well. In the first of the three discussed the Moscow location is an essential feature.

  1. Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (1981)

99 G Park coverThis is set in Moscow in 1981, the time of Brezhnev. Corruption is rife. There is an uncomfortable relationship between the Moscow city police and the KGB. Three bodies found frozen and mutilated in the snow in Gorky Park lead through the city, briefly to the border area beyond Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and ultimately to New York. It was the first in a series featuring investigator Arkady Renko.

The novel is mostly played out on the city’s streets and its buildings: offices, hotels and apartments. I read one climactic scene, a near-drowning in the University ponds, on the day we visited.

Moscow University with ponds

Moscow University with ponds

Martin Cruz Smith illuminates the physical appearance of Moscow in the early 1980s. Much of what he describes is still present.

Soviet gothic was not so much an architectural style as a form of worship. Elements of Greek, French, Chinese and Italian masterpieces had been thrown in the barbarian wagon and carried to Moscow and the Master Builder Himself, who had piled them one on the other into the cement towers and blazing torches of His rule, monstrous skyscrapers of ominous windows, mysterious crenellations and dizzying towers that led to the clouds, and yet still more rising spires surmounted by ruby stars that at night glowed like His eyes. After His death, His creations were more embarrassment than menace, too big for burial with Him, so they stood, one to each part of town, great brooding semi-Oriental temples, not exorcised but used. The one in the Kievskaya District, west of the river, was the Hotel Ukraina. (101)

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (first published in 1981), available from Simon & Schuster 559pp

  1. Snowdrops by AD Miller (2011)

199 Sdrops coverSnowdrops is a depressing story as no one in it behaves well. The narrator is confessing to his fiancée, but you feel he is unlikely to be forgiven by her. Miller describes Moscow in the first decade of twenty-first century, and the corruption in housing and the big oil companies. Snowdrops considers corporate and individual corruption through the narrator’s role in them. Weaknesses that leads to corruption are not only money, but also sex, fear, a need for attention, wanting to be right, fear of being wrong.

Two Russian young women pick up Nick on the Metro and take him for a ride, using his services as a lawyer to defraud their victim of her flat. The Cossack takes Nick and his fellow lawyers for a similar ride with investments in oil production. In both cases Nick gradually becomes aware of the scam, but does not speak out and prevent them. He colludes. It’s a grubby story.

The narrator meets Maria on the Metro, as he waits on the platform at Revolution Square, ‘where the civilian statues are – athletes, engineers, bosomy female farmhands and mothers holding muscular babies’ (8).

Moscow Metro, Revolution Square

Moscow Metro, Revolution Square

Snowdrops by AD Miller (2011) published by Atlantic Books. 273pp. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011.

  1. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1966/7)

Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

199 M & M coverFor a view of Moscow in the early 1930s this novel of satire and phantasmagoria is hard to beat. Its subject are Stalin’s regime, which was approaching the height of its power, the madness and menace of the regime and the chaos it caused. I couldn’t tell you the story, it is outlandish and hard to follow. At the time I read it I noted that ‘after the mayhem in Moscow it got easier to follow, and I even found myself thinking I might go back to the beginning’.

This book captures the borders of the familiar world with a dystopia and made me wonder about some aspects of our visit to Moscow. The drive from the airport to the city centre for example. Four of us were crammed into one car. The driver shot forward immediately, as he did every time he saw a meter of road. In the dense jam on the route into Moscow he went off road onto the hard shoulder and positioned our car is such a way that other cars could not cut back in, holding a shouting match with one driver whose car was 2 cms from ours. When we reached Mscow he shouted at us. None of us understood Russian and he had no English. Perhaps we had a sightseeing tour. As he left us he blew a raspberry for we did not give him a tip. I have only been more frightened in Malta, where we drove round U-bends on the wrong side of the road, in defiance of traffic rules and gravity.

The Master and Margarita generated spontaneous approaches from people on public transport when I was reading it. The impression it left with me added to the sense that in Moscow everything might not be what it seems, something was lurking …

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (first published in 1966-7) and republished by Penguin Classics 396pp

And has it changed?

There is still violence on the streets of Moscow. You might notice that the memorial on the bridge where Boris Nemtsov was shot six months before is close to the domes of St Giles Cathedral and Red Square.

Memorial toBoris Nemtov, shot on this bridge in February 2015

Memorial toBoris Nemtov, shot on this bridge in February 2015

Armed men still parade in Red Square. These men were rehearsing for a Moscow Day celebration.

Red Square, rehearsing for Moscow Day 2015

Red Square, rehearsing for Moscow Day 2015

And Gorky Park is still popular, full of young people and a delightful place to visit with its dancing musical fountains, young people and kiosks.

Gorky Park, musical fountains playing Russian classics

Gorky Park, musical fountains playing Russian classics

Moscow was a surprise to me despite these. I found it was a lively and accessible city, with beautiful metro stations and helpful people just getting on with it.

Related posts:

You can find a list of 10 novels set in Moscow in the Guardian. It included classics such as Boris Godunov by Pushkin, War and Peace by Tolstoy and Three Sisters by Chekhov.

Also see Trip Fiction site to find location-based fiction.

Previous travel and book related posts on this blog are:

Judenplatz, Vienna (March 2013)

Tales from the Vienna Streets (July 2013)

Berlin Stories (Oct 2014)

Amsterdam Stories (Dec 2014)

Bookword in Alsace (May 2015)

Coming soon: St Petersburg (Sept 2015)

 

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Reading with others

Anything you enjoy is better done in the company of fellow enthusiasts. I love talking about reading and books. Here are my six top ways of sharing reading.

 1. On the bus

Actually it has only happened once, or rather twice but about one book. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. I was preparing for a reading group. ‘Are you enjoying it?’ a total stranger asked as he sat down next to me. We had a conversation about it how he had always intended to read it. ‘How are you getting on with The Master and Margarita?’ asked the second. I got a 4 minute critique. ‘One of my favourite books,’ she said before getting off.

Great! I thought – conversations on buses, about books. I thought about the conductor who sang calypsos on the 38 bus, and began to imagine poetry readings on the 210 and a 73 bus route reading group. On reflection it seems that the conversations were more a response to the book than the potential of buses for such conversations.

96 73 Bus

 2. With friends

Naturally, friends recommend, deconstruct, give me (I can’t bring myself to say gift me) books. Thanks to Rose I found Sebald, and my sister recommended Barbara Kingsolver years ago. I read Alone in Berlin recently, by Hans Fallada, recommended by a friend (thanks Jennifer). Most meetings with friends include enquiries about current reading and lead to most pleasurable talk about books.

3. When I have my hair cut

Usually the conversation is about holidays. I’ve never sat and stared at myself, all red eyed and too like my parents, and discussed books before. Great stuff. Recently, after 9 months I decided to have my hair cut, and went to see Gill Goddard in Totnes, who subscribes to this blog. Gill did ask me for my holidays recommendations – so watch out!

 4. In a reading group

96 J&JLove this – being required to read a book I may not have considered before, and then discussing reactions to it, hearing other people’s responses, and sometimes seeing things differently. Next up for discussion in my group is Julie & Julia by Julie Powell. It’s about food and blogging and life. Lots to enjoy and talk about there then. The first book I ever read for a reading group was one I had decided would be too difficult: A Child in Our Time, by Ian McEwan. A young child disappears from a supermarket … I am glad I have faced that one, and (like much of McEwan) it’s a tough starting point.

5. On courses

A day talking with other people, usually women, who I have not met before, and learning about books on a particular theme. What’s not to love? While I was in London I attended courses at City Lit. I remember one excellent course on women’s short stories at the end of the C20th. We focused on the collection edited by Elaine Showalter called Daughters of Decadence (Virago). And that led me on to Women Who Did, a Penguin Classic collection of stories 1890-1914. That was a good course, one that extended my reading.

A good way to talk books in Devon came my way a couple of weekends ago. I attended a day in the Reading Room on madwomen in the attic. Oh, the pleasure, an indulgence as so many of the participants described it, of a day looking at fiction, in an environment entirely consonant with the conversation! The house was on a hill, just outside Chagford. The drive through Dartmoor was a treat, the refreshments and lunch entirely delicious, and the room itself comfortable, warm, everything a reading room should be.

96 2 booksThe day provoked, entertained, introduced new ideas and we enjoyed much laughter. Again I want to revisit some of the books we explored: The Awakening by Kate Chopin and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Gilmour Perkins are two of them. Thank you to Leah, Naomi and Frances.

6. With children

96 Reading with motherThe physical closeness of reading to a small child, watching them engage with the text and pictures, sharing the love of certain books – I spend hours doing this. Current favourites with my nearly 3-year-old grandson are still the Aybeeceedee book (in the picture), and also Not Now Bernard, by David McKee. I’ve been reading with both grandsons since they were just weeks old. Magic. I hope to read to their children in time. (That’s my daughter in the picture, by the way.)

96 Not now BAnd there is another way I am coming to enjoy conversations about books …

 7. Blogs.

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