Saturday, November 19, 2016

Books for December

As always, I like to suggest some thought-provoking titles in my selections as well as some lighter fare. The Left Hand of Darkness appeared on a list of books set in Winter and I thought that the gender issues involved would make for a lively discussion. I suggested The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating because I thought it might be an interesting exploration of immobility after Me Before You.

Both books are now available on the Nooks.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuinn

On the planet Winter, there is no gender. The Gethenians can become male or female during each mating cycle, and this is something that humans find incomprehensible.

The Ekumen of Known Worlds has sent an ethnologist to study the Gethenians on their forbidding, ice-bound world. At first he finds his subjects difficult and off-putting, with their elaborate social systems and alien minds. But in the course of a long journey across the ice, he reaches an understanding with one of the Gethenians—it might even be a kind of love...

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey

While an illness keeps her bedridden, Bailey watches a wild snail that has taken up residence on her nightstand. As a result, she discovers the solace and sense of wonder that this mysterious creature brings and comes to a greater understanding of her own confined place in the world. 

Intrigued by the snail’s molluscan anatomy, cryptic defenses, clear decision making, hydraulic locomotion, and mysterious courtship activities, Bailey becomes an astute and amused observer, providing a candid and engaging look into the curious life of this underappreciated small animal.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Meeting Dates for Spring 2017

We will meet at 6.00 pm in the Board Room on the ground floor

January 26th

February 23rd

March 23rd

April 20th

May 18th

Dates for later in the year will be announced nearer the time.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Books for November

I am pleased to report that our first non-fiction title was a resounding success, however, we return to purely fictional selection this month. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes was highly recommended even before the recent movie adaptation. The approach of the festive season, and long dark nights, makes Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman seem like a great choice to pass the ever-lengthening evenings.

Both books are now available on the Nook accounts.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Lou Clark knows lots of things. She knows how many footsteps there are between the bus stop and home. She knows she likes working in The Buttered Bun tea shop and she knows she might not love her boyfriend Patrick. What Lou doesn't know is she's about to lose her job or that knowing what's coming is what keeps her sane.

Will Traynor knows his motorcycle accident took away his desire to live. He knows everything feels very small and rather joyless now and he knows exactly how he's going to put a stop to that. What Will doesn't know is that Lou is about to burst into his world in a riot of colour. And neither of them knows they're going to change the other for all time.

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

According to The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter,Witch (the world's only completely accurate book of prophecies, written in 1655, before she exploded), the world will end on a Saturday. Next Saturday, in fact. Just before dinner.

So the armies of Good and Evil are amassing, Atlantis is rising, frogs are falling, tempers are flaring. Everything appears to be going according to Divine Plan. Except a somewhat fussy angel and a fast-living demon—both of whom have lived amongst Earth's mortals since The Beginning and have grown rather fond of the lifestyle—are not actually looking forward to the coming Rapture.

And someone seems to have misplaced the Antichrist . . .

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Books for October

This month I am proud to announce that we have selected our very first Non-Fiction title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I have heard so much praise for this hybrid of science fact and biography, and so many people have recommended it to me, that I am pleased that it is one of our choices this month. The other is another offering from the amazing Neil Gaiman and I am sure that his Coraline will put us all in the mood for Halloween.

The books are now available on the Nook accounts and are ready for download.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Coraline's often wondered what's behind the locked door in the drawing room. It reveals only a brick wall when she finally opens it, but when she tries again later, a passageway mysteriously appears. She is surprised to find a flat decorated exactly like her own, but strangely different. And when she finds her "other" parents in this alternate world, they are much more interesting despite their creepy black button eyes. When they make it clear, however, that they want to make her theirs forever, she begins a nightmarish game to rescue her real parents and three children imprisoned in a mirror. With only a bored-through stone and an aloof cat to help, Coraline confronts the harrowing task of escaping these monstrous creatures.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons.

HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.

The dark history of experimentation on African Americans helped lead to the birth of bioethics, and legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

In a frighteningly possible future, the members of the United States government have all been assassinated and the constitution over turned. In its place there has arisen the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian Theocracy that ruthlessly imposes Old Testament ideals upon its entire population. The world is suffering from a sharp decrease in fertility and an equally worrying increase in non-viable babies being born. In response to this, a woman’s place in Gilead’s society is dictated by her ability to reproduce or fulfill another useful role in the production of viable offspring. All women are categorized and forced to wear clothing of a certain color to advertise their role in life. They must not stray from their roles, they must not question those in authority, they are forbidden to read and are encouraged to think as little as possible: they must simply accept the role that God has prescribed for them. This is especially true for the Handmaids who have proven that they are capable of producing healthy babies.

If a high-ranking official, like the Commander, has the misfortune to have an infertile Wife he can be assigned a Handmaid. She is a non-person, a receptacle for carrying his baby and nothing more. She is known only by the word ‘of’ plus his name. She must do nothing other than receive the gift of his seed once a month and then carry his child. If she fails in this task than she will be passed to a different man, but if she has not had a child after the third man she will be discarded and sent to the work camps cleaning up the toxic zones: for the law states that no men are sterile and so the fault must lie with her.

Offred has already failed to become pregnant with two men and we follow her thoughts as she settles into life with The Commander. She remembers her marriage to Luke, who had divorced his first wife to marry her. This made their union illegal under the new regime and allowed the state to annul it and separate them by force. She also remembers her daughter who was stolen away and given to an influential infertile couple. Then there is her mother, the raging feminist, who became an enemy of the state for believing that women had the right to do things other than reproduce. She also remembers her friend Moira, the lesbian, who escapes from their Handmaid 'training' camp in search of the resistance movement and a way to reach the utopia of Canada.

* * * 

The Handmaid’s Tale is a book that I had been recommended many times and I remember watching the film version many years ago, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to discuss it with the Book Group. Although the book is thirty years old, I was surprised by how depressingly relevant it is to modern America, with its debates about access to birth control and abortion and the rape culture that commiserates about the sentencing of young men who make a ‘mistake’ while the victims are vilified for all the ways that they were ‘asking for it’. 

I have always considered myself a feminist in that I believe that men and women should hold equal value and that a person’s gender should never be the factor that determines their role in life. As a biologist, I am aware that total equality will never be possible because of the very unequal method by which we reproduce, but other than making allowances for this fundamental difference in physiology, I firmly believe that neither sex has an intrinsic superiority to the other. These beliefs made it very difficult for me to read about a society where women are either walking wombs or solely concerned with making babies or looking after men. The later revelations about the men who go against their own rules to visit prostitutes, whilst condemning any form of female sexuality, was all too predictable to raise much more than sadness from me.

The fear of the female ability to reproduce lies like a stink over Gilead, and it is a stink that also wafts through some aspects of modern American politics, so I found it all too plausible that a democracy based upon personal freedom could be replaced by a misogynistic theocracy. When I hear absurd statements about a rape victim’s body “shutting that whole thing down”, only “sluts” wanting contraception and masturbating male fetuses (that last from a pediatrician, no less) I truly wonder if I have been transported back in time or to an alternative universe. We are bombarded by so much moral criticism aimed at the female of the species that you would think that men had nothing at all to do with the reproductive process. It is not as if contraception is a modern invention: papyri from ancient Egypt outline recipes for contraceptive plugs whilst the Greeks used an extract from the plant silphium so much that it was harvested to extinction and I will not even begin to relate the number of things that have been used to make condoms. Yet some people still think that abstinence is a viable alternative even though history has proven that humans often prefer to have sex without the chance of conception. 

Women are not the only victims of the Republic of Gilead. The Sons of Jacob are given the opportunity to emigrate to Israel shortly after the democratic government is overthrown, although it seems that some enterprising captains would dump them into the sea after receiving payment and to increase the number of ‘passengers’ that they could carry. We also know that many Jews remain in Gilead but have to worship in secret because the Theocracy is exclusively Christian. The fate of the Children of Ham is far more disturbing. It seems that many of these African-Americans are considered suitable as the infertile Marthas who run the houses of their wealthy, white superiors. However, most are resettled into Homelands, mimicking the Reservations used to isolate and control the Native American population by the European invaders. No doubt these Homelands allow the people to live in the idle luxury that you would expect for those forcibly removed from a society. Again, this mirrors the continuing anti-immigrant rhetoric and racism that still pervades some sectors of US society.

I imagine that when Ms Atwood wrote this novel in 1985, she saw it as a commentary on the US of the time or the very recent past. We know that the feminism of the 1960s provoked a conservative backlash from the Christian right, and I am quite sure that she was inspired by seeing this during her studies at Harvard. I can appreciate how her Canadian upbringing would have made her very aware of the power that religious groups wield in the US, which was a shock to me when I first arrived. I find it frightening to think that many in the States would actually like to make the country into something so scarily similar to Gilead, and that it seems like a real possibility to me.

As a footnote, I was surprised and delighted that a revelation is made at the end of the book that shows that the grand state of Maine was a hotbed of moderates and people willing to help women escape to free Canada. It was particularly gratifying that Bangor itself was marked out as a particular place of tolerance.  

This was not a pleasant book to read, but it was powerful in a visceral, thought-provoking way that makes me understand why so many people rate it as one of their favorite books of all time. I would recommend that every person should read it, man or woman, because it shows us what could happen to the US if the right wing, religious conservatives ever get enough power to impose their beliefs on the rest of us.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Schedule for Fall

The meeting schedule will continue after the summer. 

The meetings will be at 6pm and I will post the meeting rooms once they have been finalized / finished.

22 September

20 October

17 November

15 December

Those of you who were at the May meeting will notice that I gave you the wrong date for September because I made a mistake predicting how the staff schedule would continue after the summer . . . doh!

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Choices for September

As we have now reached the holiday season, the group will take a break over of the summer with the next meeting scheduled for September. To keep everyone occupied during this extended period we have three books to read. My husband has recently read The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and he has been badgering me about it every since: fortunately the group voted to include it in our summer reading list! Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass is a wonderful fantasy that ranks as one of my favorites, so I am pleased to have an excuse to re-read it. The Eyre Affair is a book that I have had recommended to me on several occasions and seems like a suitably literary choice to round out the selections.

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

Welcome to a surreal version of Great Britain, circa 1985, where time travel is routine, cloning is a reality (dodos are the resurrected pet of choice), and literature is taken very, very seriously. England is a virtual police state where an aunt can get lost (literally) in a Wordsworth poem, militant Baconians heckle performances of Hamlet, and forging Byronic verse is a punishable offense. All this is business as usual for Thursday Next, renowned Special Operative in literary detection, until someone begins kidnapping characters from works of literature. When Jane Eyre is plucked from the pages of Brontë's novel, Thursday must track down the villain and enter the novel herself to avert a heinous act of literary homicide. 

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North  

No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.

Until now. As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. ‘I nearly missed you, Doctor August,’ she says. ‘I need to send a message.’

This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Orphan Lyra Belacqua, lives a carefree life among the scholars at Oxford's Jordan College until her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her. In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the alethiometer. All around her children are disappearing—victims of so-called "Gobblers"—and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person's inner being. And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved.

Have a fun summer!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to find a letter on her steps. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain’s most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history.

While pondering whether to accept the task of recording Miss Winter’s personal story, Margaret begins to read her father’s rare copy of Miss Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is spellbound by the stories and confused when she realizes the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Intrigued, Margaret agrees to meet Miss Winter and act as her biographer.

* * *

Sometimes I struggle to find suggestions for our votes, and I often turn to Goodreads as a source of ideas. The website has a rather useful “Readers Also Enjoyed” link for every book, and that is how I found this title. It had won a few awards and sounded interesting, so it seemed like a good choice even though I was unfamiliar with both the title and the author. As an avid book reader, I was enthused by the prospect of reading a book about an insatiable reader who lives in a bookshop and gets to write the biography of a mysterious author. The added interest of a dark and mysterious past made this title fairly irresistible and I expected a suitably gothic tone to remind me of such classics as Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. I was not disappointed. It proved to be as entertaining as I had hoped, although the group did have a few reservations about some of the plot points.

There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.”

Ms Setterfield’s words are certainly true of her own writing. This tale grabbed me from the very beginning and kept me enraptured to the end. I do have a few minor criticisms about the believability of some of the plot points, but the standard of writing was excellent throughout. This truly was an ode to literature and the special magic of story-telling as a form of escape and also as a vehicle for exploring, and possibly redefining, the truth.

Ms Winter has made a career of creating multiple origin stories for herself, so that every single interview has a totally different set of personal information about her and she entices Margaret into writing her biography by simply offering to reveal ‘the truth’. However, it soon becomes clear that ‘the truth’ is not quite what we are receiving, and that Ms Winter is still struggling to be completely honest about the past. She has spent her entire life hiding her true identity and, although she now feels compelled to reveal everything before she dies, it is a very hard habit for her to break. She insists on presenting her life as a series of tales and refuses to allow questions from Margaret so that she can control the sequence in which her secrets are exposed. This manipulation of the audience could be seen as simply an extension of the tale-weaving skills that have made her a bestselling author, but it also allows Ms Winter to hint at secrets before she finally works up the courage to reveal them.

Interestingly, we have not one but two unreliable narrators. From the very beginning we know that Ms Winter has previously lied about her history, so we approach her stories with a certain amount of skepticism. However, Margaret begins the book as a character that bibliophiles can identify with very easily, so much so that she borders on being a Mary Sue because she lives a life that seems ideal in so many ways. But as we learn more about her past as the single conjoined twin who survived separation surgery, it becomes increasingly clear that Ms Winter is not the only one with a family history of mental issues. The apparently clear-headed, capable woman that we meet at the start of the book soon morphs into something of a Gothic heroine herself, one who eventually submits to a bout of Bronte-esque melancholy and is prescribed a rousing course of Sherlock Holmes by the local doctor. We begin to doubt her sanity and the ending definitely left the book group with the impression that she is not quite as normal as one would expect in a narrator.

A second link between these two characters is the issue of twins as Ms Winter reveals her true name to be Adeline March, twin to Emmeline. Unlike Margaret, Adeline grew up with her twin, but in a highly unhealthy and mentally unstable environment which had disturbing effects on both girls. Whilst the family was wealthy, owning a large house and estate, a heavy dose of insanity was passed down through the generations and the twins were raised in a chaotic and squalid environment. Resisting any attempt to normalize them, they finally reach adulthood as almost feral creatures that disappear from the area when the house burns down.

Whilst the descriptions of the twins and their immediate family are evocative and compelling they do present the reader with one giant problem. How can the highly articulate Vida Winter be the violent and apparently illiterate Adeline? How could this wild creature ever change so dramatically, even when the responsibility for running the house falls onto her bony shoulders? I will not spoil the explanation for this apparent impossibility, but it does undermine the reader’s belief in Ms Winter’s honesty to quite a considerable extent. The group found the explanation itself almost unbelievable and thought that it was the biggest problem with the entire book. I am not sure if a slight alteration in the depiction of the twins could have helped, but I suspect that it would have detracted from the slightly melodramatic, gothic atmosphere of the book. It was also necessary to justify the actions taken by Ms Winter. If we are to believe that Mrs Rochester is locked in the attic for a very good reason, then she needs to be truly and completely insane, not just a little bit ‘off’. So it is with Adeline: her story is horrifying and yet it is necessary to explain everything that has happened.

Despite these few quibbles, the group and I thoroughly recommend this title to anyone with a love of reading, books and libraries.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Books for May

This month we have a suggestion from Goodreads based on our previous choices and then one of my personal favorites from the realm of Fantasy.

Both are now on the Nooks.

Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler

Eighty-nine-year-old Isabelle McAllister has a favor to ask her hairdresser Dorrie Curtis. It's a big one. Isabelle wants Dorrie, a black single mom in her thirties, to drop everything to drive her from her home in Arlington, Texas, to a funeral in Cincinnati. With no clear explanation why. Tomorrow.

Dorrie, fleeing problems of her own and curious whether she can unlock the secrets of Isabelle's guarded past, scarcely hesitates before agreeing, not knowing it will be a journey that changes both their lives.

Tailchaser’s Song by Tad Williams

This is the story of the story of Fritti Tailchaser, a courageous tom cat in a world of whiskery heroes and villains, of feline gods and strange, furless creatures called M'an. When his best friend, Hushpad, vanishes, Fritti embarks on a quest to find her, and is captured by several large cat-like creatures and forced into slavery in a subterranean world. This feline epic culminates in a decisive battle with an evil cat god.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Books for April

At long last, I have persuaded the group to try a book by one of my favorite authors: Brandon Sanderson. Warbreaker uses a magical system based upon color, which I think is unique in the Fantasy genre. It also features a reanimated zombie squirrel and a sword with a burning desire to kill things. Our second read is The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, set in the world of writing.

They are now both on the Nooks.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to find a letter on her steps. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain’s most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history.

While pondering whether to accept the task of recording Miss Winter’s personal story, Margaret begins to read her father’s rare copy of Miss Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. She is spellbound by the stories and confused when she realizes the book only contains twelve stories. Where is the thirteenth tale? Intrigued, Margaret agrees to meet Miss Winter and act as her biographer.

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

Since she was born, Vivenna has been raised to marry the God-King Susebron who rules the city of Hallandren. Siri has always been surplus to requirements and has been able to do as she wanted.

Lightsong is uneasy, not knowing why he is a God or what he is really meant to do with his powers. Vasher is a gruff man with his own goals, condemned to carry Nightblood, an evil sword that can talk and really, really enjoys killing people. Vasher is also adept at manipulating Breath, the magical currency of this world where color, magic and life are intrinsically linked together.