The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and Do No Harm by Dr. Henry Marsh

(April 2014 Meetup)

The books…
This month had a medicinal theme.

  • The Fault in Our Stars is a fictional novel about two young people who have cancer, and the book follows their lives and their love story.
  • Do No Harm is the non-fiction account of a top neurosurgeon who lays bare the trials and tribulations of his profession with admirable honesty.

We loved….
…everything about The Fault in Our Stars from the characters to the plot to the writing. It is moving and had a strong impact on us all. We loved most things about Do No Harm, especially the fact that Anne features in one of the chapters. We loved learning more about the intricacies of the surgery, and the refreshing honesty of the author who explains how one can only become an expert at anything by making mistakes, but that unfortunately the mistakes in brain surgery are often fatal.

We didn’t love….
…the trailer to the film of The Fault in Our Stars which we fear will not do justice to the writing. Some of us didn’t like the arrogance of Dr. Marsh in Do No Harm.

We disagreed….
…on quite a lot this month actually! There were conflicting thoughts from the Arts and Sciences. Some thought that Scientists are generally the ones who make the effort to cross over into the Arts, whereas others felt as though Scientists gave the impression of being superior. The attitude of Dr Marsh was seen by some as a necessary confidence and arrogance for the type of profession, but by others as sheer egotism. There was a difference of opinion in the quality of the writing, with most people finding it creative and enjoyable but others feeling like it was too scientific.

We digressed….  
and talked about how cancer has touched our own lives, and how much this book is spot on with a lot of what it says about the support groups and attitudes of others. We agreed how it is a real shame that this is marketed as teenage fiction and therefore may not be picked off the shelves by enough adults.

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god I love our bookclub, and advice for those wanting to start one

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I went to a cracking little bookclub when I lived in Oxford, where we sat in a cosy pub once a month and all the people around me sounded like they knew loads about what they were talking about. Everyone had a chance to vote for the next book on the list and in general it was just a ruddy nice time and I always cycled home with my book in my basket feeling a little bit like a better person for having actually left my bed to drink wine that night (Tracy Emin just pipped me to the post on that exhibition by the way).

When I moved back to my local area in the middle of nowhere I was unable to find a bookclub where I could get drunk and spout off my opinions about books. The only ones I could find had a ‘one in one out’ waiting list (code for ‘we have to wait for one of the members to die’) or they involved having to read Ruth Rendall in a stranger’s chinzy lounge eating overly buttered sandwiches with my legs crossed. So I decided in February 2013 to see if I could rustle up a tipsy book club like the one in Oxford, for lovers of liquor and literature, and call it Reading Between the Wines.

I put a shout out on facebook about this little gathering, chose a night of the week, chose a venue, and chose a really stupid book choice. Note to others who are thinking of starting a bookclub – maybe don’t pick a book about how every time a certain nursery rhyme is uttered a whole load of kids drop dead. Over and over again. And again. And some more. Cheers to Palahniuk for almost stopping the club before it started. Slightly more death than I’d planned for but at least it served the purpose of showing I didn’t want this to be a club that reads the equivalent of the ‘easy listening’ playlist on Spotify.

3 friends showed up out of sympathy to me. I have nice friends.

We drank some wine and turned the book over in our hands a bit and looked at the front and back cover while we said ‘yeh it was ok’. Once everyone’s alcohol limit for driving had been reached we were allowed to leave, and I tentatively said I hoped to see them next month. Someone chose a book. I thought ‘cool’.

Next month there were more of us. People suggested things. I liked the suggestions. I didn’t tell anyone they were stupid. It seemed to work.

And now that we have around 16 members, with a core of 8 who are there despite flooding, and other countryside obstacles, I’m assuming they don’t hate it because many of them bring a friend, and they often say nice things about it, and write me cards which make me cry (in a good way).

I’ve had various requests of advice from people wanting to set up a bookclub. After completely winging it for years now here is what I think about it all:

Don’t be put off about living in a tiny place. My own fantastic gathering of people happens in a place that only has a blacksmith, a church, and a pub. In places like this you can tap in to the fact that there is little else to do, a lot of people will have shit broadband services, and many will have started drinking at such a young age in the local pub that they will be down there every night anyway and may not even notice they’re even in your bookclub. Use these people to bump up your numbers and to fill the background in photos and make you look popular on social media.

Do have a bookclub ‘afterparty’ when the situation allows. It’s a great time for non bookclub members to dip their toe in, see what all the fuss is about, and also they’ll usually tell other people about you when they hear of others looking for a bookclub.

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One of the many after parties.

Let go of your own reading list. So you want to read everything Steinbeck has every written? Twice? Great. And so you should. But unless your book club is held in the National Steinbeck Centre then you really need to indulge in your own shit in your own time. Let everyone have some kind of say in the books, or the genres at least. You’ll often find that people will love to follow a theme for a little while anyway so you can totally have a few months of a theme ranging from ‘autobiographies’ or ‘books that won the transgender immigrant writer of the year’ award , but be open minded to all books. I won’t lie – you will hate some books, but others will hate your choices too at times. The flip side is that you will most probably fall in love with a book you would have previously assumed you’d dislike from your preconceived ideas. Even if you end up reading a book you thought you’d dislike, and it proves you right, well done – it is sometimes good to be reminded of what your taste is and often we don’t actually read the books we think we don’t like. Besides, you can still come along for the wine and opinions. And hey, maybe there is only one other person in the group who also doesn’t like that book. Maybe you end up talking about how you’re both better than all the rest of us because you clearly have more discerning taste. Maybe you go for a drink after the bookclub, maybe you end up getting married in the Bodleian and having a smug happy highbrow life together. Just turn up and read godammit.

Pick a few books in advance. I have found it really useful to gather book suggestions for as far ahead as the whole year. This has a few advantages:
1. People can choose to plan holidays around the months they really want to attend (often to showcase the book they chose)
2. Some people are avid readers and want to know immediately what they next book is so they can make a head start
3. If people know they can’t make one month they can use their time reading ahead to the next one
4. People can do all their book shopping in one big go, or order books ahead at the library
5. New people who ask you about joining the club will always ask ‘what sort of books do you read?’. Having the whole list ahead gives people a clearer idea of what type of book club you are.

Stick to the same schedule. I tried to start a bookclub 2 years before this one. It was a group of friends who had just had children and wanted to get out and meet others, and read more. I spent the whole time working around other people’s changing schedules. The meetings never happened. I gave up on bookclubs for over a year. It’s sad when someone who you really want to attend can’t make it one month, especially if they have chosen the book. But having a set day is the only way to keep it going. Trust me on this one, and this is coming from a total people pleaser who would love to be able to change it month by month to have the maximum attendees possible.

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Discussion Questions in the hiking boot for ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed

Get a fantastic ‘Second in Command’.  I  am lucky enough to have a remarkable lady who helps me out so much. She is the Question Master on many an occasion and comes up with themed stuff like this (yes, the questions are in the boot).

Go online. People bloody love to be tagged in a photo holding a book. Make it happen.It’s useful to have a little public or private space for members to share stuff between meetings. I have a facebook page to create events, invite people to them, and share updates, and a private group where members post opinions and reviews about the book or ask questions to each other. I also send out a few emails a month to the whole mailing list as not everyone is on social media. It helps remind people to keep reading and gives people a chance to let you know if they can’t make the next meeting.

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One of our members stocking up

Get out of your house and meet in a (nice) pub – you’ll find that members (and yourself) often barely have time to finish the book, let alone whip the hoover round and arrange their book collections to hide any shitty books from their peers. Find a venue where people can order what they like, leave when they like, and leave someone else to do the washing up. It also allows people to drop out last minute, which brings me on to the final point…

Don’t be a dick to people if they don’t show up or drop out altogether. Sometimes people have an idea of what a bookclub will be like. Believe it or not, your gathering of pissheads reading that one book plucked out from the millions and millions on offer may not be what they want to do right in that moment in time, or ever again for that matter. There was enough of that crap at school (Disclaimer: without the alcohol)*.

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Secret Santa Book Swap

Failing all that, just do a quiz and give out some free stuff sometimes.

*My schooling was in Wales so this disclaimer does not apply.

 

February Meetup 2016 – Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The book..IMG_0793
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

This novel portrays the tension between illusions and material reality. Gives different perspectives

My 2nd reading of this book showed me a huge amount of stuff I’d forgotten.

We liked…
some of the humorous writing, such as the parrot episodes, and the surrealism.

We didn’t like…

  • How Marquez suggests that all women have carnal appetites.
  • How uncomfortable it was to read about the relationship with the 14yr old girl.
  • How difficult it was to empathise with some of the characters.

We agreed…

  • that the book would maybe not be able to be written now, with it’s discussion of rape and the underage relationship.
  • that it was interesting magic surrealism, a bit like some of Salman Rushdie’s works.
  • that it would have been good to have a sample of some letters. Guernsey Potato Peel book was so effective with the letters that some would have been so interesting.

We discussed…

whether ‘perverts are allowed to be in love’?

We digressed….
..and talked about whether two people in a couple can ever always want the same things, and that there seem to be 3 options:
1 – Be like elastic bands, going away from each other then bouncing back
2 – Take turns to do what you want
3 – One person tends to dominate the other
…and talked about how ‘Cholera’ means ‘Passion’ in Spanish and how whether knowing this affects the story. Passion is discussed like an illness throughout the book.

Other talk about marriage included a discussion about what is most important. We arrived at the conclusion that it was when you can be the best person you know you can be with that other person, the most yourself and most true to yourself.

Reviewed by:
Chris A, Judy D, Carol, Judy J, Nadia , and me J

Next month…
In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden – White Hart, Llangybi, last Weds In March, 2016, 7:30pm.

 

January 2016 Meetup – Maskerade by Terry Pratchett

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The book.. Maskerade by Terry Pratchett.

Not all of us in the group had ever been drawn to read Terry Pratchett as he seems to write in such a specific way. However Kath, a very welcome newcomer to the group, made such a compelling case that we all voted this as the first book to kick off 2016. This novel forms part of the Discworld series, but also stands alone as quite separate to anything else he wrote. There are at least 3 layers to this book. He uses the sci-fi world to mirror our society and each book is a social commentary.

We loved… – That it was a standalone book in a large series. – How he allows his characters to change to suit the particular novel in the series. – Kath’s reading out of the chocolate sauce passage – Anne’s mask which we all had the joy of wearing – How Judy J said it didn’t make her laugh once, just before she burst into laughter re-reading one of his paragraphs.

We didn’t love… Some of us debated the quality of ‘fantasy’ as a genre, with a few thinking that it is just an easy way to say anything you want to.

We agreed… …that his similes were astounding and that the work needs to be read aloud to be fully appreciated. …that his female characters tend to be more rounded as a whole, than the male. They don’t back away from difficult situations. Whereas the men all seem to have some sort of weakness. …that there is something intrinsically English about Terry Pratchett.

We discussed… …how he didn’t want his books to be made into films. Perhaps the changing characters would not work so well in films. …how Tony Robinson is by far the best narrator to listen to if you want to listen to the audio version. …how Pratchett enjoyed talking to people and that there is a gentle yet deflating way about how he satirises something or someone. … the rumour that this book was written as a dig at his previous agents about fraud, because he changed agents straight after this book. …the very serious couple of pages around chapter 5/6 which looks at a cow and baby’s death which could be interpreted to be about his own child.

We disagreed… …about whether his writing made us laugh out loud or not. …and some thought that this was perhaps his weakest novel in the series because it was more domestic than others. Some of his other novels tackle politics and larger questions. The book chooser pointed out that this tackles the subject of equal rights. It is believed to have been written in response to Pratchett’s daughter being bullied. She was very into her gaming but this was considered to be something that girl’s just didn’t do. So he wrote this book.

We digressed…. ..and considered whether there were any strong female characters in Lord of the Rings.

Reviewed by:
 Zuhal, Chris A, Judy D, Anne, Drew, Paul, Karen, Julie, Chris G, Judy J, JB, Kath, and me.

Next month… Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – White Hart, Llangybi, last Weds In Feb, 2016, 7:30pm.

May 2015 Meetup – The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

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The book..

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

We loved…
…the style of writing in general
…the sections on the war
… learning about the minutiae of Japanese life in general

 

We didn’t love…
…how quickly it wound down at the end.
…how sometimes we would be reading a passage with infinitesimal detail about something then realise you we have missed that crucial sentence which explains why the character has moved from A to B.

We agreed…
…that despite the length and occasional tedium, the language was enjoyable enough to keep going. Someone said that the sentences were lovely, and they turned into good paragraphs, which turned into great chapters, and it just made you want to keep reading.
…that the surreal nature to the writing is probably something much more prevalent in Japanese culture.
We disagreed…
…about whether the bit about stroking someone’s bum to see if it is your lost cat’s tail is the best thing we have ever read or not.
We digressed….
…and talked about how it seemed to remind people of a computer game, where there are different levels to reach, and seemingly unrelated surroundings are all placed together.

Reviewed by:
Zuhal, Chris A, Judy D, Anne, Drew, Paul, Karen, Jackie, Carol, and me J

Next month…
SKyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker – White Hart, Llangybi, last Weds In June, 2015, 7:30pm.

April 2015 Meetup – Wild by Cheryl Strayed

The book..

Wild by Cheryl Strayed. This is a book about a woman’s journey by foot on the PCT trail in America, which she undertakes as a response to her mother’s illness and various other triggers in her life. She describes physical suffering as a way to combat the emotional suffering at the time.

We loved…

…that we had the book club’s first ever film night, and nearly all of us went to the Riverfront, Newport, to watch Wild the day before discussing it.
…how raw and real the writing was
…Michelle’s question boot
…Judy and Drew’s discussion:

Judy J: <some comment about the book>
Drew: ‘you would say that.’
Judy J: ‘I would, and I have.’
We didn’t love….
…that there was a lack of good description of the countryside at times and often we didn’t feel as though we were in the scenery with her.
…that it could be a little too self-indulgent at times.

We agreed…
…that there seems to be more of a rebellion involved in a woman taking off and going on a long journey just because it is not something that was as easy for them to do in the past with gender stereotypes and different roles.
We disagreed….
…about the first chapter. Some of us thought it was the best part of the book, and that it didn’t go on to live up to expectations, others thought that the opening was a little cheesy and that the writing got better over time.

…about whether she used her sexuality to get help along way.

We digressed….
…and talked about whether we would have thrown the second boot over the side of the cliff or not. Some of us were adamant that we would not have done that as it’s not very green, but others would have lost their temper and thrown it without a second thought.

Reviewed by:
Chris A, Judy D, Carol, Anne, Drew, Julie, Nadia, Michelle, Karen, Jackie, Judy J, and me J

Next month…
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami – White Hart, Llangybi, last Weds In May, 2015, 7:30pm.