Book review: “American Pastoral” by Philip Roth

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The theme for July in my Facebook Reading Challenge was an American novel. It was a tough choice as I wanted to select something that captured the American ‘story’. I at first thought about The Color Purple, which had been on my shortlist for February (a work by a feminist writer) but I felt it was too similar to June’s choice of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the first volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography. I also thought about The Bonfire of the Vanities, but decided it was a bit long and my fellow readers on the Challenge would not thank me! So, I finally alighted on Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, which seemed appropriate in terms of both subject matter and timing, since Roth died just a couple of months ago. I’m not sure how other readers on the challenge got on, but I’m afraid I failed to complete it within the month – it’s not overly long at 423 pages, but the writing is so rich that it was almost impossible to read at any pace. I had to (and wanted to!) savour every word. That gives you an idea of my overall feeling about the book – it is tremendous, epic, glorious and tragic. If you want to understand anything about the American experience, especially the immigrant experience over the last hundred years or so and the effect that has had on the mindset of American-born second and third generation immigrants, it is essential reading.

2018-07-23 16.19.23The plot is not complicated: ‘Swede’ Levov is a third generation Jewish immigrant whose grandfather came to America from Europe. He was a glovemaker and set up a business in Newark, New Jersey which became highly successful. Swede’s father continued the business, which peaked in the 1950s and 1960s when glove-wearing for respectable women was the norm and most would have several pairs. (There is more information on gloves in this book than you will ever need to know, but it’s fascinating!) Swede inherited the business from his father, while his more wayward brother became a cardiac surgeon.

Swede Levov pursued the quintessential ‘American dream’ – he excelled in sports at school, served in the military, followed his father into the business, and learned the glove trade, married an Irish-American Catholic former beauty queen, with whom he had a daughter, Merry. From the outside everything seems perfect except for one small flaw – Merry has a stammer, which no amount of expensive medical or therapeutic treatment seems to be able to fix. This is the first indication that Merry perhaps represents some flaw which will undermine the Levovs and all that they represent.

Slight spoiler alert (though not really because you learn of the event quite early in the book): as a teenager Merry becomes obsessed with opposition to the Vietnam war. She becomes increasingly frustrated and rebellious. Her parents lose control and it culminates in her planting a bomb in the general store of Old Rimrock, the solid New Jersey semi-rural idyll in which the family has settled. The bomb kills the local doctor.

Swede’s world begins to fall apart; he cannot accept that his daughter has committed this crime, believing that she must have been put up to it by others, or indeed that others did it and are allowing her to take the blame. For a number of years Swede lives in the hope that he will be able to find his daughter, that the truth will come out and that she will be exonerated, and that their life will return to ‘normal’. For a time, it appears that he might find be able to find Merry, when a woman known as Rita Cohen contacts him saying she knows Merry’s whereabouts. Swede becomes convinced that she is in fact the real bomber because she is cruel and threatening and extorts money from him.

The Rita Cohen thread is all part of Swede’s self-deception, however, and this is the central theme of the book – Swede, his wife and his family, represent the ‘American dream’, which is in fact, just that, a fantasy, a mirage. Merry’s actions put Swede on a path where everything he held dear, which he believed to be real, unravels and is exposed as a sham.

As I have already said, the plot is not complex because it is not a novel so much about events as it is a deep exploration of the American psyche. The structure of the book is quite complex, however, but so brilliantly done that it is not hard to follow. It flits effortlessly between different stages, between different characters and their individual stories and the handling can only be described as masterful. No wonder it won the Pulitzer Prize (1998)! It explores notions of religion in America, particularly the Jewish experience as told through the Levov family, and through the eyes of our first narrator, former schoolmate of Swede’s and now author Nathan ‘Skip’ Zuckerman, the Catholic experience (through Dawn Levov) and the American Protestant experience through the residents of Old Rimrock. The decline of the glove industry and its craft, and also the city of Newark where the Levov family business was based, is a metaphor for the gradual collapse of the concept of the American dream which now seems to lie degraded and in ruins. A further metaphor is the Garden of Eden story, itself Old Testament fiction. The book is written in three parts (Paradise Remembered, The Fall and Paradise Lost) echoing Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, because for Swede Levov the experience is truly a destruction of all that he once understood to be real and to be good.

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In American Pastoral Roth explodes the idea of the ‘American dream’.

This is the longest review I’ve written in a while and yet I feel I have only scratched the surface in telling you about this book. I have only just completed it so I may write more in a few weeks once it has had a chance to sit with me! Truly, as I savoured the last few pages I was open-mouthed at the unravelling. It is truly an American tragedy (the title is a kind of oxymoron), and it reminded me of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf similar examples of the collapse of an American dream happening in slow motion before our very eyes. The final dinner party scene is quite spectacular.

Needless to say I recommend this book highly. It’s not an easy read but it rewards in spades.

If you have read this book I would love to hear your thoughts.

Kids book review: “A Whisper of Horses” by Zillah Bethel

If you have children aged 10-12 years, I can heartily recommend this book. It’s marvellous; dark in parts (but don’t kids love that?!), but ultimately full of hope and showing that you can achieve the near-impossible if you dare to believe.

a whisper of horses imgThe novel is set in Lahn Dan, you’ll recognise the pun, but the place described in the book will be unfamiliar; it is practically a separate city-state within England, encircled by the ‘Emm Twenty-Five Wall’ that none of the inhabitants dare cross (told that there is only a deserted wilderness on the other side anyway). This is a time after ‘the Gases’ (a reference to climate change), the ‘Tems’  has deteriorated to a muddy flat and only the rich are able to live in the ‘crystal towers’  that afford them some natural light and allow them to live above the pollution layer. In a nod to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World there is a strict hierarchy in the society: at the bottom are the Pbs, who do most of the work, then slightly higher up are the Cus, the professional classes, but true power lies only with the Aus. Give the child a prize who spots that these are chemical symbols and what this says about the social order! Lahn Dan is run by ‘the Minister’ a distant and slightly mythical figure, not unlike Big Brother, whose orders are carried out by Mordecai and his Secret Police. It all has echoes of 1984.

The main character is Serendipity Goudge a 12 year-old girl who lives alone with her mother. They are Pbs and do agricultural work. They live in a ‘pod’ and have very few possessions, though Serendipity cherishes a small wooden horse her mother once gave her; she is fascinated by the creatures but they are said to be extinct and nobody has ever seen one in the flesh. Serendipity’s mother dies, leaving her nothing of any value except a locket. Hidden inside the locket is a small map indicating a route out of Lahn Dan, through the Emm Twenty-Five Wall to ‘Whales’ via the ‘HH Bridge’  to a place where there might be horses. Strictly speaking, Serendipity, as an orphan, should be taken into care, but Professor Nimbus, her ‘storyteller’ (the children get a very limited education), takes her under his wing as his apprentice. It quickly becomes apparent that this situation is not sustainable and that Serendipity’s life is in danger. She decides that she will try to escape Lahn Dan, initially with the help of the Professor, who confesses that he, along with a small group of others, is a secret agitator for change.

By chance, they meet up with Tab, and his funny little dog Mouse. Tab is part of a band of Smugglers with a camp on the other side of the Wall. Tab is like something out of Oliver Twist, a street-wise orphan who helps Serendipity escape the city. They reach his community’s encampment, but it becomes clear that Tab may also be in danger and so he decides to accompany Serendipity on her search for horses in Whales.

The rest of the book is about their quest to fulfil a dream, but, though they don’t realise it at the time, they are also looking for a better life, outside the corrupt, polluted, decrepit city of Lahn Dan. En route they come across things they have never seen before – green fields, rain, a train, fresh food. It is a story about love and friendship – initially, Serendipity and Tab do not trust each other, but they soon come to realise that their fates are entwined and that they are better as a team. The people they meet along the way  help and encourage them on their journey. The novel also has great suspense; once the authorities realise that there has been an escape, they pursue Serendipity, and nearly catch her several times.

Spoiler alert!

Serendipity reaches her goal in the most magical and unexpected way, not immediately, but many years after she has settled happily in Whales, in a brief and beautiful moment that made me cry! 

This is a fabulous book which I thoroughly enjoyed reading – kids and adults alike will enjoy spotting all the references, the links to current concerns in its themes (the importance of community, climate change, the social and economic separation of London from other regions of the country). The pace is perfect for the 9-12 age group, the characters are well-rounded, credible and fun, and I loved all the nods to other books – this would be a great introduction to titles they might come across later in life.

Highly recommended.

[My copy of this book was very kindly sent to me by the author after I posted a review of her other novel The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare which I also enjoyed and recommend.]

What sort of books do your kids like reading?

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Book review: “Memoirs of a Polar Bear” by Yoko Tawada

This was April’s book in my Facebook reading challenge – I had mistakenly assumed it was a children’s book, as that was our theme for the month. It quickly became apparent to me that it definitely was not! This raises an interesting question in itself, however: why are we enchanted by our children’s books, with their talking animals, cross-species interaction, and animals mixing, seemingly without comment, in the human world, and yet, for our ‘adult’ books, we find this difficult to accept? Don’t get me wrong, I did indeed find this a really challenging read, and I’m still not really sure what I think about it, but it has made me realise that the genre of magical realism, into which I think this book falls, requires a certain openness of mind that we have to be really ready for. I think part of my problem, particularly with the opening section of the book, is that it really wasn’t what I was expecting. I felt somewhat thrown and it inhibited my engagement with the book.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear imgI’ll summarise the basic story of the novel. Part one is the most surreal and the most difficult. It is narrated by the nameless ‘grandmother polar bear’ (grandparent to Knut, star of part three). She has been reared as an attraction in the Soviet Union, by a cruel master, who, among other things, teaches her to stand on her back legs using what we would now regard as unethical methods. I think that by getting the bear to stand like a human the author justifies the morphing of her subject into something less animal. Throughout this part we are asked to suspend our disbelief: the bear escapes Soviet Russia, writes her memoirs, and flees to Germany, where she is ‘protected’ by an unscrupulous agent who simply wants to exploit her because her book has been so popular. The bear visits bookshops, makes human friends and animal enemies (the sea-lion publisher who makes ever more unreasonable demands). It’s all very tricky for us as adult readers.

I think part one is the most overtly political: there is the comment on the dehumanisation of life in the Soviet Union (thus the blurring of the boundaries between the animal and the human?), the bear as outcast (because she is foreign not because she is a bear), the futility of administrative and management practices, and about the impact of climate change – there are frequent references throughout the book to the threat to the species from the disappearance of its natural Arctic habitat. I think as a reader you just have to accept its surreal qualities.

Part two is about the polar bear’s daughter Tosca, who is a circus performer in East Germany. It is narrated by Tosca’s trainer, Barbara (although there is an interesting twist at the end of this part which I won’t spoil), and as such it feels more ‘normal’ to us as readers. Tosca and Barbara develop a very deep connection, which results in extraordinary performances, driving the greedy circus managers to demand ever more dramatic stunts. Her relationship with the polar bear leads Barbara to reflect deeply on the relationship between humans and animals and the author exposes the hypocrisy of the humans, who for example, see polar bears as aggressive and unpredictable whilst prosecuting violent wars themselves. There is also an exploration of gender inequality in this part as the trainer Barbara is as exploited as her animal charge.

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Knut the polar bear (2006-2011) with his keeper at Berlin Zoo

The final part of the book is about Knut, Tosca’s son, and is based on real events. Tosca says that she gave Knut away (in reality he was rejected by his mother, the inference being that reproduction in captivity drives unnatural behaviours), and he is raised by a human keeper, with whom, once again, he develops a very deep bond. I found this part the most moving and it is definitely more rooted in realism, even though it is narrated by the bear. I have read a little bit about Knut subsequently and it has made my reading of this part of the book more poignant. (Knut died suddenly in Berlin Zoo in 2011, aged only four years, from a brain disease). This part of the book truly challenges our attitude to animals and our use of them in captivity for entertainment, amusement and commercial gain. It also exposes most starkly our attitudes to climate change, habitat loss and species decline: we claim to raise animals in captivity (with all the inherent cruelty that entails) so that we can protect the species, without doing anything about the underlying causes of species decline.

 

Overall, I found this book quite difficult to engage with – I wish I’d known a bit more about it before I started it, but all the reviews I read didn’t really give much away about what the book was about. That is normal for book reviews – no-one wants to give away a spoiler. But there isn’t much to spoil in this book because there is no ‘plot’ as such. I think I could also have engaged with it more if someone had told me to read with a very open mind! That’s a lesson for me as a reader. I have enjoyed this book more in retrospect, as I have reflected on its subject matter and themes, and I am glad I have read it, even if it didn’t always keep me awake at bedtime!

Recommended if you like these themes and can be open to the surreal!

How did you get on with the surreal aspects of this novel?

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Waiting for Spring…

…feels a bit like Waiting for Godot this year!

Tomorrow it’s the Vernal Equinox, the mid-point on the calendar between the Winter and Summer Solstices, when the number of hours of day and night are equal. It may be the official start of spring in meteorological terms, but, here in the UK, it still feels very much like winter! The daffodils in my garden are putting a brave face on it, but we have just had a weekend of snow-related disruption in many parts of the country and the strong winds blowing in from the east mean it is freezing out.

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Spring bulbs are flowering in the sunshine, but it’s freezing out!

It is at this time of year that many of us start to get itchy feet, desperate to get outside after the long winter, and yet the weather is making that quite challenging. I’m keen to blow the winter cobwebs away, but not to get blown away! We have been relatively lucky here in Manchester, in the north west of England, with very little snow settling, particularly compared to other parts of the country. Temperatures look set to improve by the middle of the week.

The downsides of this protracted winter are obvious: less fresh air, less getting out and about, less exercise and more hours with the heating on! I’ve written here before about my reluctance to make New Year’s resolutions, but at this time of year, I start to get some energy and motivation back. So I’m trying this year to see more of the positive in events, to default to ‘Yes’ and to see a glass half full. In that spirit, I’m trying to think about the upsides of this unexpected weather and one definite bonus is more time for reading: I can still justify curling up with a blanket and a book when it’s too cold to go out!

I’ve almost finished Madame Bovary, the March title in my 2018 Reading Challenge, and am looking forward to starting our children’s book for April, which I’ll be announcing next week. After blogging here about my difficulties with 4321 last week, I’ve resolved to give it another go and take it on holiday over Easter. I’m also looking forward to reading my next book from the children’s library, Red Nemesis by Steve Cole, a Young Bond adventure set during the Cold War. Very topical!

What are you reading at the moment?

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Book review: “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” by Jeanette Winterson

Oranges are not the only fruitThis was February’s choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge. The theme was a feminist novel, in part to mark the 100th anniversary of the extension of the vote to a section of the female population in Britain. This book is normally considered a classic of the LGBT genre rather than feminist fiction, but, for me, Winterson is one of the most eloquent and interesting feminist authors around today, so I definitely felt this book was a worthy choice for the theme.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was Winterson’s first published work and proved a stellar launch to what has become a brilliant writing career. It was published in 1985 and won the Whitbread Prize (now known as the Costa book Awards) for a first novel that same year. I was a teenager at the time and can’t say for sure that I was particularly aware of it. I remember more vividly the 1990 television adaptation (written by Winterson herself) starring the late Charlotte Coleman (Marmalade Atkins, Four Weddings and a Funeral) which also won a BAFTA. This is a book with quite a pedigree.

Although Winterson insists this is a novel, it has strong autobiographical elements: the central character is adopted and called Jeanette, it is set in a northern industrial town, (the author grew up in Accrington), and it concerns a young woman’s discovery of her sexuality against a backdrop of religious zealotry. Winterson makes no apologies for this and writes in the Introduction to the 2014 Vintage edition that she “wanted to use myself as a fictional character – an expanded ‘I’.” She points to her 2011 memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? as being more authentically autobiograpical.

I had not read this book before but my memories of the television series were of something bleak and dark (and Charlotte Coleman’s brilliant orange hair!). I was expecting a sombre book with an overriding feeling of cruelty and oppression. In fact, it was lighter than I expected (Jeanette escapes, of course) with a great deal of humour, particularly in the characters, or rather caricatures, the author creates.

I’ll outline the story briefly. Jeanette is an only child, adopted as a baby. Her mother is a maniacal Pentecostal Christian “Old Testament through and through”, and her father, who has only a vague presence in the book, goes along with it, for a quiet life you suspect. In bringing up Jeanette, the mother attempts to instil in her daughter her own extreme religious views, keeping her as far away as possible from all other influences, including school. Every aspect of daily life is dominated by the church and all values and principles are predicated on the Bible teachings.

“The Heathen were a daily household preoccupation. My Mother found them everywhere, particularly Next Door.”

It is assumed that Jeanette will become a missionary when she grows up, like the charismatic Pastor Spratt, for whose work Jeanette’s mother raises substantial amounts of money, and for whom she harbours strong feelings which she would not describe as sexual, but which undoubtedly are.

There is cruelty in Jeanette’s childhood, in the way she is initially prevented from going to school, in the way her mother controls all aspects of her daily life, and attempts to control her mind, and in the way she denies her normal social interactions. This is tempered by the pithy and humorous observations the author makes about the church community, the hypocrisy, the characters she creates, and the naivety of some Jeanette’s observations. The following is an example – not long after Jeanette has started school, she reads out an essay in front of the class about what she did during the summer holidays:

‘”This holiday I went to Colwyn Bay with our church camp.”‘ The teacher nodded and smiled. ‘”It was very hot and Aunty Betty whose leg was loose anyway, got sunstroke and we thought she might die.”‘ The teacher began to look a bit worried but the class perked up. ‘”But she got better, thanks to my mother who stayed up all night struggling mightily.”‘ ‘Is your mother a nurse?’ asked the teacher with quiet sympathy. ‘No, she just heals the sick.’

There are passages in this book which are truly hilarious and it’s hard to pick out the best ones.

The level of cruelty, however, intensifies in Jeanette’s teenage years. This is the stage that her mother sees the greatest threat to the control she exercises over her daughter, and when the measures she adopts to keep her become the most extreme. Jeanette discovers she has feelings for a girl who has a Saturday job at the fish stall in the market. She contrives to spend time with her (in Bible study) but they become intimate. When this is discovered, Jeanette is forced to undergo a degrading ‘cleansing’ process, a kind of exorcism. At this stage the book becomes much darker.

Jeanette’s mother, although a frightening and unforgiveable bully, is of course a victim herself, driven to religious fanaticism, as the outlet for the frustration she has endured in her own life. Her bitterness and her need to oppress others, stems from her own anger and feelings of repression, and the author knows this. That is where I think a more feminist reading of the book can be taken. The men here are weak, pathetic, complacent, or downright creepy. The women are unfulfilled, frustrated or resigned. And it is this which has created the environment in which the promise of something more interesting and more empowering, albeit in the most dysfunctional of ways, through blind religious fervour, can thrive.

This is such a clever book, incredibly well-written, but complex. There are elements which are vaguely unsatisfying – the author tells a great story, but to some degree it is left unfinished. I found myself wanting more, wanting some answers. For me, it did fizzle out a bit at the end, but I can forgive this because the first half of the book is just glorious.

Highly recommended, but whatever preconceptions you might have about this book, set them to one side.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this book, if you have read it.

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Hot new books for Spring

At last, January is out of the way! The mornings are getting lighter, the sun is shining as I write this and things are starting to sprout in the garden; there are definite signs of Spring. Christmas is huge for the publishing world, for obvious reasons, so the new year can seem very quiet – no-one is spending any money, and we are all curled up on the sofa watching the telly! (I’ve been working my way through all the seasons of Breaking Bad and Mad Men forever and I made some pretty good progress last month!)

By February, publishers are getting itchy, however, and it seems to me there is a rush of great books coming out this month and in the next few weeks, all aimed at grabbing our attention for Spring reading. Perhaps you are going away for February half term or will be looking forward to some days off at Easter and relaxing with a book?

Here are some of the titles that have caught my eye that I think you might enjoy.

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The Immortalists  by Chloe Benjamin

This American author’s first novel, The Anatomy of Dreams was a prize-winner so the follow-up is much-anticipated. The Immortalists follows the lives of four siblings who visit a psychic, who forecasts the exact dates of each of their deaths. The novel explores some very topical themes including what part so-called ‘fate’ and choice play in our lives. Interesting given the promise, surely, in the next few years that gene-mapping will be able to determine what diseases individuals might be at risk of getting in their old age. Great cover too!

 

Feel Free by Zadie Smith9781594206252

Personally, I’ve struggled with Zadie Smith’s work over the years and have never yet managed to finish one of her novels, but I am determined to persevere at some point as she is so widely-acclaimed. This might do the trick as it’s something a little different from her, a collection of essays, some of which have been published before on other fora. The questions posed by the essays are characteristically provocative and diverse, such as asking whether it is right that we have let Facebook and wider social media penetrate our lives so profoundly, and how we will justify to our grandchildren our failure to tackle climate change. With titles as intriguing as Joy and Find Your Beach this might just be the book that finally does it for me and Zadie!

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An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Described as a ‘novel of the new South’ this is a novel in a new genre that is attempting to recalibrate our assumptions about the modern American south. Set in Georgia, Celestial and Roy are newlyweds whose lives seem to be on the up, when Roy is convicted of a crime he did not commit and sentenced to twelve years in jail. The novel explores the impact on their still young relationship of such a devastating event. Roy is finally released after five years but it is not clear they will ever be able to go back to what they were. Looks like a fascinating read.

 

9780525520221_custom-1b66fc1d3f41e6340606905dfa87fccab46e79f7-s300-c85I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

A memoir this time from a great British novelist, written as a tribute to her young daughter who suffers from eczema so severe that it impacts on every aspect of her daily life and her safety. This book is an account of a number of incidents the author has experienced in her life where she has come close to death, such as a life-threatening childhood illness and an encounter with a stranger in a remote location. She reflects on how we are never more alive than when we come close to death and so the book is ultimately life-affirming.

 

35411685How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

Matt Haig’s 2015 non-fiction publication Reasons to Stay Alive was a sensation in the way it tackled the author’s experience of living with depression. How to Stop Time is Haig’s latest novel, first published last year, but now being reissued, is a science fiction love story.  Tom Hazard, an apparently normal 41 year-old, is part of a small but exclusive group of unusual people who have been alive for centuries. They are protected by the Albatross Society on one strict condition: they must never fall in love. Tom lives in London as a high school history teacher, but then a romantic relationship with a colleague means he must choose between the past and the future, or, quite literally, between eternal life and death.

 

Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton34374628

And finally, a bit of historical fiction. I love a good historical novel set somewhere exotic; I find it compensates for the limited amount of travel I can do at this stage in my life! Miami-based writer Marisol Ferrera visits Cuba to fulfil the final wishes of her late grandmother Elisa, who wanted her ashes scattered in the place of her birth. Elisa escaped Cuba at the time of the revolution. Marisol returns to the land of her roots, tracing the history of her grandmother’s youth and uncovering long-hidden family secrets. I think this might be the one to read on a long journey! Tantalising.

 

What are you planning to read this Spring? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

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Julia’s 2018 Reading Challenge

2018-02-01-10-47-18.jpgAt the beginning of January I set up a Facebook group for a reading challenge. I was motivated to do this after I set myself the task last year of stepping outside my usual genres and reading choices. I enjoyed it so much and posted all my book reviews on this blog. Some friends and contacts suggested there might be some interest in sharing this more widely. I set a theme/genre for each month with a view to selecting a title at the start of the month. In January we read The Disappearances  by Emily Bain Murphy, the theme being a YA novel.

Not surprisingly there was a mixed response; some absolutely loved it, others found the pace a bit slow or the fantasy element a little hard to buy into. But what I loved was the discussion it provoked. It was so nice to have a literary conversation!

Oranges are not the only fruitIf you’re interested in taking part in this Reading Challenge you can join the group here or else just read the titles selected. I’ll be posting all about them on the blog. Our theme for February is a title by a feminist writer, celebrating the centenary of the extension of voting rights to women over 30 this week. The title we are reading is Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson.

 

 

 

It would be great to get as many people as possible involved in the Facebook group so hop on over and take a look.