Book Club 2014

2. ask the dust

 

I wrote last year of the 99 books we had so far read in the boys book club and the joy, friendship, camaraderie and nourishment that I get from it.  I decided after pulling all the books together in one post last year that at the end of each year I’d do a post on the books of that year.  We always have a review of the year and last night was no exception, we both reviewed the current book and reflected upon what we’ve read across the year.  What I like about this process is that a book you might have scored very highly on the night originally does not stay with you as the year develops, whereas other books seep into your bones, resonant and you come to remember and reflect on them far more even if you didn’t score it that highly when you first read it.

Some thought that this year has been a poor year for us in terms of books but I think that they are letting the clang for a few shockers reverberate across the great books we have read the noise drowning them out.  The reflection last night was good as it dispelled this as we looked back, yes there were a couple of really bad books but there were some gems as well that will live long in the memory.  I think the year was roughly split actually between the good and not so good.  What I did notice though was that we have read a real range of stuff from 16th century political treatise right up to current day publications hot off the press.  We have covered huge issues through books covering slavery, genocide, class, gender politics, body image and ‘normality’ as well as different genres.

As always though it is the discussion that brings the books alive as we view the issues through the prism of our own experiences and world view and it is this that makes the boys book club so special.  Through the input of the other members I continue to grow as a person, they help me reflect on who I am and why I think the way I do.  I’m challenged, amused, horrified, perplexed but above all nourished by them.  One of our founder members is bowing out as they now live in another city and have struggled to keep up with the rigour that is required.  It’s a sad day in many ways as he will be deeply missed by us all but the book club will go on evolving and I can’t wait to see what 2015 will bring.

So without further ado what collectively were our top three books of the year:-

1. Ask the Dust – John Fante

2. Zone of Interest – Martin Amis

3. The Year of the Hare – Arto Paasilinna

I’d love to know what you think of the range of books we’ve read this year and whether or not you are in a book club, what has been your best books of the year, what would you recommend for us to read in 2015?

 

The Zone of Interest – Martin Amis

download

Last nights boysbookclub was a vintage edition, a book that completely split opinion with scores ranging from 2 to 9 meaning that discussion was heated and varied throughout.  We were, as we always are, looked after by the lovely staff of the Crosskeys and enjoyed sumptuous food (the venison and black pudding scotch egg was a thing of wonder) and wine while sinking our teeth into Amis’ latest book.  It’s actually a really good experience to be able to thoroughly disagree with someone and argue the point back and forth but to do so from a position of respect for the other person which only deepens the bond on friendship between us.  I left feeling thoroughly enriched.

If you can’t make it to the book club then you are need to submit a written review and while I have a very different view of the book than this, below is the fantastic review from Phil (@phildean1963) who scored the book 9 out of 10.

Before I read this book, the first question I asked is does the world need another holocaust book? The death camp Holocaust story has been told powerfully many, many times in film, book, stage and for me there has to be a very good reason to put the reader through it again. But after I’d read it, I had to re-appraise my view.

Firstly I have to say I found the The Zone of Interest one of the most brutal, empty, morally void, ambivalent and unflinching books we’ve ever read. At times this book was unreadable—in a good, bad way.

Amis is clearly a writer of real stature, a ‘proper’ author who uses words to massive effect (often ones I have to look up in a dictionary, so he must be proper). He’s that good. He perfectly captures the stark contrast between the captors and the captives – each suffering in their own way. I was reminded many times of Maus, a very different take on the holocaust but no less powerful.

I like at 1st how we didn’t know when the story was set. The picture gradually revealed itself, which usually frustrates but I enjoyed this reveal. Initially it could have been any time in history or the present day, which I’m sure was an intentional dramatic ploy.

The multi-voice narrative was bold, powerful and immersive. Confidently painting the darkest picture imaginable. Unusually, this was easy to navigate displaying the author’s prowess. The impeccable research and exquisite German cultural detail sat alongside horribly accurate concentration camp atrocity. I felt the book laid bare the German psyche: the reasons, the impact, the retribution, the horrific fallout and consequences of their actions. Amis casts an unswerving eye on Germany as a whole and whether involved directly in the mass murder or not, everyone is guilty by implication.

The notes at the end of the book were most enlightening: the immersion and desire to understand what happened and the philosophical arguments that to somehow understand why it actually happened actually validated the actions. These discussions actually helped me to make some sense of the book.

There was of course a mini drama being played out against the harrowing backdrop: Hannah, Thompson and Doll’s complicated relationships seemed at first petty and pathetic, annoying details set against the enormity of industrialised death. It seemed horrifically banal. But in the final chapters, the bitter love story developed into an insightful filter by which we could observe and understand how Germany came to be like this and the dreadful outcome. The relationship was unexpectedly but satisfyingly resolved in the end, in a typically and brutal fashion, the long, icy fingers of the past creeping into the present.

This book made for a truly unenjoyable read: not in the sense that it was hard to read or that it was laborious prose, but because to turn each page was to unearth inhumanity. In the end I didn’t want to turn the pages but I felt compelled to. At times I felt hollowed out by it. There was no triumph of the human spirit to be had here. The atrocities were laid bare, responsibilities clearly handed out and the complicated aftermath only just beginning. Amis revels in the moral ambiguity of his characters, challenging the reader at every turn. At the heart of it were meticulously drawn characters – not sketches – but Leonardo-esque in their detail and accuracy.

I actually love reading history books about the Second World War: Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad and The Second World War are immense and immersive accounts of man’s inhumanity to man (both credited by Amis I noticed in this book). But for me personally, the veneer of factual history literature protects me from the grab you by the balls detail of a novel, where the writer has unfettered access to our imagination—the imagined more powerful than the actual, for once.

And yet his book digs deeper. Gets under the skin of the Third Reich, using the collective German psyche as a prism for their actions; gradually, imperceptibly becoming truly horrific. The book maps out the moral maze Germany faced: everyone implicated from locals turning a blind eye to grey snow and the stench to corporates like Bayer, who still exist today in our everyday lives, quietly making products like Alka Seltzer.

It’s not often I wheel out words like elegant, intense, powerful, truthful. But this book is all of these. I’m not sure it’s ‘fearless and original’ as the blurb describes (back to my earlier point about does the world need another book about the holocaust) but In The Zone of Interestdemands the attention of the reader until the very last page and I’ve scored it high because the book held me in its vice-like grip to the very end.

Impossible to pick up, impossible to put down.

Reliance – by PB

1516711_398054460347158_1135401472_n

Following on from our boysbookclub trip to Barcelona where as well as reviewing a book we also took on the task of doing some writing of our own based on the theme of Reliance.  I’ve put up Phil’s and Stuart’s and here’s another one of the pieces done by PB.

The holiday camp next door had portholes for windows and a jaunty ships funnel on its roof, as if all the smoke from the combusting fun had to safely escape to prevent vacation asphyxiation. To the north a silent nuclear reactor, sitting monolithic, casting a long, evening shadow over the caravans. Behind, inland, the rusty Imperial Chemical factory emitting orange, fat, noxious plumes. All that was left was wide expanse. The sky. And to the west the bay, flat-lands and mud, salt-marsh and treacherous, shifting, sinking sands and rolling, curling tides.

Each school holiday the world revolved around this spot on the edge of the ocean. It was still guarded by hexagonal,  piss-infused pillboxes. Some of these crumbling sentinels were losing their own battles. Under them the soft, clay-layered coastline and cliff distintegrated, leaving foundations exposed, teetering on the brink. Others had already made a swift descent to the beach. Now they were making the slow journey to the sea, like giant, unwieldy, concrete, new-born turtles, where the motion of the waves would return them to sand and pebbles.

And a beach littered with huge slabs and blocks, more remnants of coastal fortifications and defences. Why would the Germans invade the country through a caravan site, where good folk take their families for summer, half-term, easter?

But, what i didn’t appreciate at the time was that caravan sites like Quantum Theory, baby boomers and credit cards were a more modern phenomenon, not one the nazi’s had to negotiate.   Their popularity coincided with the post-war picking up and brushing down. From where we were you either headed east or west. And west was where we headed.

The eight berth metal box on wheels was secure. Tethered to the ground, like a barrage balloon, to stop it blowing away in the gusts, gales and winter storms. In high winds it was safe under the sway and the drumming of the rain.

The roof was a ballroom for albatross-sized seagulls that tap-danced across it. If you crawled under, among the grains of dry, sandy earth, you could see the chains keeping it grounded. A hub surrounded by 3 generations, cousins, parents, aunts and grandparents. Fat chips for dinner and ham out of a tin. There were other tins. Tinned potatoes. Tinned carrots. Tinned peas.Vegetables with a metallic edge. Tinned pies. Tinned people.

It was a beautiful place.

After a quarter of a century things have changed. The caravan site, although the same size as it ever was has shrunk. It still smells the same though. According to someone that told me they’d read it, Marcel Proust in Remembrance of Things Past refers to the rush of memories he experiences when smelling a biscuit, a madeleine. My madeleine moment happens whenever i pass a sewage works. I never realised why i’d smile and think of childhood holidays until I returned as an adult.  It can instantly transport me to childhood holidays by the sea and the aroma of the sewage pipe that still carries shit out into the ocean.

The family has dispersed like the tide going out. The stall selling nettle beer in the local village has disappeared.  Further still, in the town, turning away from the empty shops, dilapidated amusements and derelict attractions across the bay there are green hills and purple mountains that weren’t there before but emerged from behind the clouds of growing up.

It is a beautiful place. The always changing constants.

Reliance – by Stuart

1389951_724661797611559_2032486031_n

As mentioned previously we try and come up with some of our own stuff at the Boys Book Club for our yearly trip away and this time in Barcelona we had the theme of Reliance to get our teeth into.  I’ve already put Phil’s marvellous Roll of Honour but here’s a different style from Stuart.  We all read our own pieces out on the night and this was delivered with some cracking intensity:

RELIANCE

History never repeats, but it rhymes
Memories are not read only files
They are torn pages rebound with emotion
“You’re a grown fucking man.”
Rely on nothing
No thing
Rely on the silence that allows the words
Surrender to the space you occupy

Barcelona and the Boys Book Club

10543029_740505762696494_152958460_n

This year’s annual boys book club weekend away saw us continue the search for a bit of autumnal warmth by heading to Barcelona.  Our trips follow the routine that I wrote about in last years Palma post and Barcelona would be no exception, no grand plan just wander around taking the temperature of the city and it’s culture as we meander, perhaps with a bit of architecture or art thrown in for good measure.  We would of course be reviewing this months book, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, and discussing some of our own work as we had set ourselves the theme of Reliance and were tasked with coming up with something creative around that theme.  We also had a couple of new members this year who had not been away with us before so that was also going to be interesting to see how the dynamic might be affected.

Much as I’m not a fan of getting up early in the morning, the forced early start does enable you to make the most of a weekend away as we were sat with a cold beer in our hands in a lovely little plaza by lunchtime with the day before us.  We’d actually stumbled upon a historic weekend to be in Barcelona as all 881 mayors of the various towns and villages of Catalonia were in town to discuss whether they should collectively sign a memorandum calling for the right to be able to hold a referendum on independence.  As a result there were TV crews around, demonstrators and a general feeling of excitement that something was afoot heightened by incredibly loud firecrackers being let off.  Yellow badges were being handed out that it was explained to us were not necessarily signifying that the Catalans wanted independence but that they wanted the right to a referendum to decide their own fate  Echoes of course of what we have recently gone through with Scotland and what might happen with Europe.  Much as I fully support the principle of national self determination I can’t help feel that globalisation is causing communities and nations to encircle the wagons somewhat and wrap those wagons in a national flag which has potentially dangerous undercurrents.

One thing that has definitely changed, even in the short few years we’ve been doing this, is technology.  Photos can be quickly snapped on phones (in the early days a couple of the lads used to rock up with some serious proper camera gear) and of course city maps, places of interest, where to eat / drink etc can be summoned up instantly.  There are many advantages to this but at the same time it can add a bit of tension for those who want to experience things in the moment and not second hand through the glow of a screen or someone else’s recommendation.  The same is also true of the books, do you read it with no prior knowledge or do you use the easily available information to find out more ?  In our book club it is very much frowned upon to do research around the book / author but for some this is a very difficult temptation to resist

Friday’s wanderings saw us drift down through the Gothic quarter mazing our way away from the crowds down through Bareloneta to the beach before thinking about eating (we did a lot of both thinking about it and doing it over the weekend).  A few people had said to me before the trip that you’ll get stung in Barcelona, really expensive.  This was of course true if you couldn’t be bothered to walk a couple of streets away from the honey traps.  If you could then you could (and we did) eat and drink like kings for staggeringly reasonable prices – much cheaper and better quality than Leeds that’s for sure.  Walking away from the seafront area saw us adopt the method for the weekend, a simple neighbourhood bar with a few tables outside and a tapas board delivered fantastic quality and value both from a drink and food perspective every time.  As in every other Spanish city the vast majority of places to eat and drink are small, independents which makes such a refreshing change from the branded sameness of much of the UK these days

We lazily headed back towards the centre of town keeping our eyes open for somewhere good to eat in the evening and popping our heads into anything that looked interesting, which included me joining some lively looking locals for a game of street table tennis.  Before heading out for the evening we had a very quick turnaround at the hotel before regrouping at a local pinchos bar to discuss our own work.  This is always an interesting and eye opening part of the weekend and we started doing it partly as an experiment but also we spend a lot of time critiquing ‘professional’ writers so what does it feel like to have a go yourself and open yourself up to a bit of peer reviewing.  This year we had some great interpretations on the theme, from a Haiku to poetry and short stories, some funny others reflective and some genuinely moving.  I think it really adds something to the weekend and it also proved to me that no matter what we do for our day jobs there is some hidden talent and creativity amongst the group.  Hopefully with the author’s permission I’ll post a couple of the pieces on here.  After more wandering, eating and drinking we turned in after covering a good ten miles during the day, which we would do again on the Saturday.

After clearing our heads – how nice it is to be able to do this sat in a nice plaza with a fresh coffee and orange juice – we decided to have a wander up to the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece.  Historically of course cathedrals did often take hundreds of years to complete but it feels slightly surreal that this is still the case today – I think 2026 is the anticipated finishing date to coincide with the 100 year anniversary of Gaudi’s death, but I have my doubts.  It’s a very difficult building to describe but it is undoubtedly one of the most staggering pieces or architecture (or works of art?) that I’ve come across.  Of course there is plenty more of Gaudi’s work dotted about the city that you will come across from the astonishing to the mundane as he designed some of the paving you will be walking on and, as I’ve written about previously, I think you can tell a lot about a city from it’s paving.

After another stunningly good value pavement lunch we wandered down to the Museum of Contemporary Art which had a real mixed bag of a collection in it, a great exhibition called Nitrate by Xavier Ribas contrasted sharply to me against a couple of floors of impenetrable offerings and several surreal items including songs by the Housemartins and the Smiths ?  We all needed something to drink after wandering round the museum before we gathered ourselves for the evening meal and a debate on The Moonstone.  Despite a valiant attempt by one member to point out the relevance of the book it’s fair to say it was universally not enjoyed and I doubt very much if it will enter the reckoning for our book of the year awards in December.

Although we had the odd focal point what I enjoyed most about the weekend was the aimless wandering, the randomness of the conversation and getting to know the other members more.  As we wandered about you would find yourself drifting in and out of different conversations as you walked next to a different person or sat next to someone different at the next bar, these moments are for me what makes the boys book club such a wonderfully rich and rewarding experience.

The photos on this post are a mixture of mine, Phil’s and Andrew’s taken over the weekend.

Crossing The River

41888ZQRN5L

Unfortunately I couldn’t be at the last book  club in person, so as our rules dictate, I submitted a written review. Sometimes a written review can produce a more lucid and passionate take on the book as there are no influencing factors or in my case, I don’t get too carried away with the emotion of a meeting.

I actually like the process of putting my thoughts into writing for book club and often wish I did it more often as I feel my written reviews have more gravitas and eloquence (especially when read out by a BBC trained voice like Andrew’s)…

Crossing The River by Caryl Philips 

Score 8 out of 10

Slavery is one of those subject matters that elicits a complex response from me. As a child I remember clearly the TV mini series Roots adapted from Arthur Haley’s book, it was a powerful and I’m sure relatively sanitized take on slavery and its impact on generations of people. I recall the powerful feelings of loss and overwhelming guilt, thankful that I was never to be put in a situation like that.

The fact that our country was instrumental in facilitating the slavery trade had been conveniently glossed over for me growing up and it was only on digging deeper that I discovered the inconvenient truths of slavery as close to home as Harewood House — built on slave money.

I would really liked to have seen Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave as a companion piece to this book too: an unwaveringly brutal depiction of slavery in film seemed like a good counterpoint to this subtle and delicate book.

Right, on with the book.

First question: Is this a novel or a collection of short stories? The link between the stories was there, albeit tenuous, particularly in the final story, but nevertheless provided a central thread around which the stories could be woven.

The Pagan Coast was a heartbreaking story, full of melancholy pathos and desolation. I thought it was really interesting to explore the little known fact (at least to me) that when slaves had done their time they were ‘freed’ back to their ‘homeland’. That this freedom turned into a form of cruelty worse than slavery itself was deeply, sadly ironic. As the story unfolded through the correspondence of the child like Nash Williams and his moving story of his father seemingly turning his back on him, the sense of loss was palpable culminating in his loss of faith in both his father and God and ultimately death.

The big question for me here is just how did the Christians of that time balance their faith with the concept and reality of slavery?

The slave ship captain interlude was relentlessly harrowing. Amidst the tedious descriptions of wind, temperature, tides and day-to-day ship duties was the everyday nature of taking slaves. This was described as such a commonplace event that it chilled me to the bone: lives ruined forever, casual death and the business of slavery, not flashily horrific but routinely normal.

Martha’s story was no less tragic but perhaps more recognisable in the canon of slavery stories. It was again a numbingly tragic story of a life lived, owned and ruined by different people. The author made these feelings real for me and the most moving part was losing her daughter and then spending the rest of her life seeking her out. This was an emotionally raw story told tenderly and I liked how the author chopped the timelines — a common but effective ploy used throughout — to create anticipation and depth. Yet again the story ends in death and there is a palpable sense here that death brings freedom as in the first story.

Joyce’s story felt very different and I was impressed throughout with how the author had created authentic voices across the generations. The physical and emotional austerity of wartime Northern England was perfectly captured in this story. This was an unpalatable layering of hardship, heartbreak, cruelty, determination and tragedy — predictably ending in death.  Interestingly the story raised questions for me around who was the slave and who was free and I really liked that I was asking questions all the time as to who was black in the story, as Joyce never mentions the colour of skin.

So, was Crossing the River a metaphor for death or slavery? I’m not sure—it could be both. I have read somewhere that ‘The River’ was what slaves called the Atlantic. Interesting also to hear the phrase being ‘sold down the river’ or betrayed, being used in its original context as the buying and selling of people.

Ultimately, I found this a harrowing book; the author not afraid to leave things unresolved or introducing stark tragedy at every turn. If the intention is to leave no glimpse of light in the darkness, amidst the desperation of dislocated and shattered lives, then this book is a resounding success.

I’m left with the lingering feeling that there should be no positives whatsoever where this subject matter is concerned and I am convinced that books on slavery should be painful to read by their very nature.

My score does not in any way reflect my enjoyment of this book, but the lucid power of the narrative and the fact that I simply couldn’t look away and not be affected by the stories.

Can we read a comedy next?

The Boys Book Club – 99 Books

In February 2005 I found myself on crutches having broken my foot playing football and tentatively inching my way across snowy pavements in Leeds, heading to a pub to meet some people who I’d never met before.  This would be the first meeting of the Boys Book Club and little did I realise at the time the huge positive part the club and the people in it would play in my life.  I tend to be with Groucho Marx when it comes to clubs, not wanting to join any that would have me as a member, and I’d never given any serious thought to joining a book club.  Yes I read a lot but I enjoyed deciding what book I was going to read next and never felt the need to discuss that with anyone else, good reads would be recommended, bad ones discarded and usually not even finished.  Stepping into a book club might change all this but I guess the stars aligned at the right moment and I thought what the hell I can always leave if I don’t enjoy it.  The fact that as we approach our 8th year I still enjoy it every bit as much as the first meeting tells a lot.

At that first meeting it was clear from the off that we’d all be drawn there to discuss a book and that was what was going to take precedence, who we were and what we did for a living were very much secondary issues.  This was important for me as I detest it when I meet new people and the first question they ask is “what do you do?” as if it’s our only our jobs that define us, make us who we are, not all the other things that we do in life, our interests and passions and let’s be honest some people make judgements based on what job you do – they picture your life, income, class and attempt to place you in a nice little box marked binman, solicitor, teacher, marketing exec etc.  Of course over the years we’ve discussed what we do but it’s not what drives or defines us, the book drives us and through the reading and discussion of the books and the themes contained within them we have learnt huge amounts about who we are as people and what it is that defines us.

The key to why we have all got so much out of the book club is I think rigour, the first rule of book club is Always Read the Book, which sounds simple but there are so many people in book clubs that I know where this does not happen.  The fact that we all invest the time and effort required gives us a shared starting point and there have definitely been books over the years that have been hard to read and very hard to finish, some that if I was reading them outside of the book club I would have discarded after 50 pages or so but I’ve had to knuckle down and do the hard yards.  This effort is then always rewarded by the discussion at the monthly meetings (second rule of book club, you must turn up to meetings and be prepared to discuss the book).  The discussions are for me absolutely the key, each of us takes it in turn and without interruption can talk for as long as we which, which can sometimes be five minutes sometimes half an hour.  After everyone has had their turn a wider discussion takes place on anything that’s been raised.

The best nights are usually those where the book has split opinion, there have been a few books where some have scored the book 0 and others 10 (we all score the books out of 10 then re-score after all the discussions) and these are generally better than those where we have all thought the book was fantastic.  It’s in your own monologue where the magic of the book club comes alive, you have to decide what you thought and why you thought it, this over the years has opened up windows into who we are as people as you inevitably tend to draw on your own life experiences to illustrate what you thought about the book and how it made you feel.  I don’t think there are many opportunities for a group of blokes to get together and do this and do it with such honesty.  Great art they say holds up a mirror to the soul and this has become self evidence in our discussions over the years.  We are all middle aged men and as a result have been through many of the ups and downs that life throws our way, losing jobs, relationship breakdown, death as well of course huge highs and through all this the monthly discussion takes place, good wine drunk, fierce exchanges of view sometimes take place and deep long lasting friendships formed.

We’ve gone through some changes of personnel over the years and have just got a couple of newbies join up but each time we make a change the dynamic may shift as each person brings their own personality and experience to the table but the rules of the club remain the same.  Read the book, turn up and express your view.  We’ve also had a go at doing some of our own writing which has been rewarding and daunting in equal measure as well as all going abroad for a weekend each year taking in Palma, Valencia, Malaga, Madrid, Rome and Nice as well as donning wetsuits for surfing in the North Sea in January !

Our next meeting takes place next Friday where we will be discussing The Prince by Machiavelli as well as looking back over 2013 to decide on our book of the year, which will be tough as it’s been a good year.  I was doing a look back at all we’ve read, which was the catalyst for this post and realised we’ve read 99 books over the years and I like the thought that the first book we choose this year will be our 100th.  I think that I’ll do a little post at the end of each year with the books that we’ve read during the year but below are all the books we’ve read so far.  I think we’ve covered a reasonable cross section of authors and genres but if you’ve got some ideas on what we should read next, authors or genres we are missing please leave a comment.  Long live the Boys Book Club and all who read in it !