The No Scrubs Book Club: Burial Rites

The club has met several times since my last post, and books continued to be set, but thanks to life events I mostly just turned up for the food and the company.

But now I’m back in the swing of things, and very excited to bring you our most recent book: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

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And in keeping with my last post, look at the variety in those covers!

Published only last year, Burial Rites is based on the true story Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman executed in Iceland. Accused and found guilty of the murder of two men with two fellow conspirators, Agnes is first kept in a dark cell, and then, after an unspecified incident, moved to the farmhouse of a rural leader and his family. Agnes is allowed one comfort: a churchman to prepare her for death. To the surprise of all – including himself – she chooses a junior priest. The story begins with her removal to the farm, unravelling her past as she comes to terms with her short future.

Hannah Kent is only a year older than I am, and a year younger than most of our book club, and we all feel terrible about ourselves as a result. Aside from the incredible bidding war this book incited (a million dollar advance for a first novel? FOR AN AUSTRALIAN AUTHOR? Pigs have flown, and Hannah Kent must be riding one in a tiara), her prose is absolutely beautiful. Evocative and visceral, but clean and unfussy. She paints such a grim, dirty, honest picture of Iceland and the lives of its working class with all its phlegm and semi-transparent bladder windows that you feel like you’re there – and rather than wanting to get out, as upperclass district commissioner Bjorn Blondal does during a visit to the farmhouse, you want to stay and watch their lives unfold. And you do. The book covers some months and despite the murderess sleeping unshackled in their badstofa (of which the family members have differing opinions) they get on with their seasonal work and chores, which is necessary to their survival. The way Kent weaves the reality of their daily lives is unobtrusive, but engaging.

‘They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say “Agnes” and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.’

Agnes is an interesting character. As the prose skips between her inner monologue to third person, we see her from within and without. From the outside she’s calm, practical, almost impenetrable, but kind. But of course, the inside of her mind is a stark opposite. She pours over her history, frets over her future, thinks passionately – both positively and angrily – about her lover. Her voice is mature, worldly and honest. She knows what the public thinks of her – a thirty-three year old unmarried woman known to have been sleeping with men, cold and proud and bewitching – versus her alleged conspirators – one passionate young man and one beautiful, innocent teenage girl – and she knows that there is no hope of redemption in their eyes. But still she reaches for it. This is not a woman who gives up and waits for death.

‘I don’t want to be remembered, I want to be here!’

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This book was something pretty special. Incredibly hard to put down (I read it in three sittings, and only because my kindle ran out of batteries) deeply sad but also a sort of celebration of life. All of us who finished it loved it, and everyone who was in the process had nothing negative to say.

Though I was alone in finding Steina absolutely wonderful. I’ve got a thing for well meaning pain-in-the-asses in fiction.

I could talk more about this book (particularly the character of Magret), but the joy of it is in the details and the unfolding relationships. It gets a healthy 4.5 stars from me, and I both look forward to Hannah Kent’s next work and do not envy her the task of topping this one.

Nor do I envy the task of topping next month’s book club! I hosted this time, and we put on a darn good spread.

Next Month: Another Australian author! This time even closer to home. We’ll be reading Elemental by Perth resident Amanda Curtin.

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The No Scrubs Book Club: Written On The Body

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‘You said, ‘I love you.’ Why is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to one another is still the thing we long to hear?’

Written on the Body is an experimental, poetic novel written from the point of view of a narrator with no name and no gender signifiers, recounting their relationship with a married woman. The narrative is non-linear, meandering between memories of her married lover, Louise, and others before her.

I’ll be honest, I started this book on the train to Book Club. It’s been a hectic sort of month. But by page thirty two, I was hooked.  The story itself is thin, but the prose is rich – almost overflowing – and completely engaging. So it was enough to have some thoughts to share. And luckily half of our little group had finished the thing, so there was plenty to talk about. In fact, we managed to stay on topic for over two hours.

The first question that came up was, who did we think narrated the story? Every single one of us identified them as a woman. While we admitted some bias – the book was written by a woman, and selected for the club by a lesbian woman who rates this as one of her favourite books – we also discussed what made us think of them as a she. After all, Winterson was careful to use mixed gender comparisons when describing them: swaggered like Mercutio, trembled like a schoolgirl (these are complete misquotes, I’m sorry) and keeps all descriptions of their clothing gender neutral. Several members thought the narrator noticed and described small moments as only a woman would. Another thought the narrator had seemed out of place in the men’s bathroom, treating it (and other instances when they encounter men) like foreign territory. I felt the love interest’s husband was far too unthreatened by the narrator spending so much time alone with his wife for it to be a man. Another, the least convinced of the narrators gender either way, admitted the book had caused her to examine her own notions of stereotyped gender behaviour. At no point did we examine why it was so important for most of us to assign a gender to the narrator, which is an interesting question in itself.

‘I have a head for heights it’s true, but no stomach for the depths. Strange then to have plumbed so many.’

Conversation went from unhappy marriages to the nature of affairs and trust to whether we perceived the narrator as selfish (a resounding yes, from those who’d read far enough), to the usefulness of homing pigeons, to the strength of the story versus the strength of the prose. We agreed the story, in the hands of a different writer, probably wouldn’t be worth reading. Some of us (okay, me) pointed out aspects of the prose we’d definitely find annoying written by someone else, and one of our members argued there were not enough sex scenes. But she also hadn’t finished the book, and was advised – very enthusiastically – to keep going.

I can’t rate the book, but I can promise to finish it. It’s rare to find a poetic writer I can sit through, let alone enjoy, so I’m glad to have been introduced to Jeanette Winterson.

‘Sometimes I think of you and I feel giddy. Memory makes me lightheaded, drunk on champagne. All the things we did. And if anyone had said this was the price I would have agreed to pay it. That surprises me; that with the hurt and the mess comes a shift of recognition. It was worth it. Love is worth it.’

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Next up, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. I’m excited for the chance to finally get into some Vonnegut. I’ve been meaning to read something of his for ages, and now I have the excuse.

Recently read: Good Bones by Margaret Atwood (5/5), Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (3.5/5), The Fault In Our Stars by John Green (4/5), Switched by Amanda Hocking (2/5).

On The Reading Pile: The Waves by Virginia Woolf, Wicked by Gregory Maguire, 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, Cold Fire by Kate Elliott. Possibly not in that order.

What’s in your reading pile at the moment? Any recommendations?

The No Scrubs Book Club: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The No Scrubs Book Club assembled Sunday, six weeks after our first meeting to allow everyone to settle comfortably into 2014.

6a00d83451bcff69e20120a4d81e15970bThe book was nominated by a member who had had it recommended by her mother. None of us had seen the film, or read it before, so we all went in blind.

The story follows Oskar, a nine year old boy struggling to come to terms with his fathers death, two years prior, in the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. Finding a strange key in his father’s cupboard, and having been taught by his father to look for clues (to anything and everything) everywhere, he begins a quest of sorts to discover the meaning of the key.

For the most part, the book is written from Oskar’s point of view, staying close in first person past tense. However there are also chapters written, in the form of letters, from Oskar’s Grandmother and missing Grandfather, recounting their tragic marriage following the blitz in Germany.

The writing could be said to be experimental, and is accompanied by pictures and handwritten passages and notes and blank pages.

Opinions on this book were mixed.

Most members liked the book, finding it extremely moving and poignant, though depressing. Some enjoyed it for the most part, but found the endings too sudden and left everything feeling a little purposeless. One member found it incredibly hard to get through, because the writing style and wacky formatting did her head in, which I know, because that member was me.

Anyway.

It was a long, and interesting discussion – partly because, even if you didn’t like the book there was still plenty to discuss and partly because I’m friends with some very intelligent, thoughtful women – and ranged from Oskar’s believability as a nine year old, the abusive nature of the Grandparents relationship, the positive male relationships, the way the women were defined by the men in their lives, the occasionally overwhelming quirkiness, how hard to read some of the conversations were due to formatting and unclear character voices, which chapters and passages we found the most engaging, how bad this family is at communicating, how we interpreted the ending and, inevitably, where we all were when we found out about 9/11 and its impact on us as a society and a generation.

At the conclusion, most of the group agreed they were glad they’d read the book, calling it beautiful, engaging, and thoughtful. And I made a face.

I rate this book two stars out of five, but plan to watch the film to see if I enjoy the story when removed from the writing.

Next month’s book is Written on the Body, by Jeanette Winterson, which I have never read or heard of. But it’s well loved by the member who nominated it, so I’m excited to dive in.

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The No Scrubs Book Club: The Book Thief

And so, with cups of tea, the fancy brand name kind of cheese, a chocolate cake, a flan, Tim Tams and a big Boston bun, the first official meeting of the No Scrubs Book Club came to order.

BZ1f7SHCcAAuhr1.jpg-largeSexy disembodied knees.

While one member was too busy to actually start the book (‘Oh wow, it’s about Nazi Germany,’ she observed, scanning the Wikipedia plot summary on her iPhone ten seconds before we started) and three hadn’t actually finished yet (first book, busy time of year, large-ish page count – we don’t judge), feelings about the book were largely positive.

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For those who haven’t come across this massively successful book by Australian author Markus Zusak (who slips a nice little nod to Australia at the end), The Book Thief follows four years in the life of Liesel Meminger during World War II. Willingly given up by her impoverished single mother (her husband a confirmed communist taken away by the Nazis), Liesel and her brother are taken by train to Molching. However, Liesel’s brother dies of ‘a cough that kills’ on the journey, and so Liesel has her first brush with Death and at the same time steals her first book.

In a bold move, Zusak has the novel narrated by Death: a dry, invisible but very busy entity who tells the story in retrospect via their own encounters with Liesel (of which there are three during Liesel’s lifetime) and from the memoir Death rescues from the back of a garbage truck.

‘I waved.
No-one waved back.’

Death’s interest in Liesel’s ordeals during this short period is understandable. Liesel is a thoroughly likeable little girl who’s been through much in her short life – and she doesn’t take it lying down. Although she battles flashbacks of her brothers death every night, Liesel has a sharp tongue inherited from her foster mother (the fabulous, lovingly abrasive Rosa Hubermann) and a mean fist. While Liesel could be considered a vulnerable, and deeply empathetic character, she has no trouble looking after herself.

‘Her knuckles and fingernails were so frighteningly tough, despite their smallness. ‘You Saukerl!’ Her voice, too, was able to scratch him. ‘You Arschloch. Can you spell Arschloch for me?”

This sort of unusual coming of age story focuses on the two most important elements in Liesel’s life: her relationships with her loved ones, and her relationship with words.

It may be an indicator of a male author, but Liesel’s most important relationships are with the men in her life: Hans, the only father she’s ever known, Rudy, her best friend and first love, and Max, the young Jewish man her foster parents conceal in their basement. It could also be argued she has a strong relationship with Hitler and Death (who remains unmarked by gender indicators, though interestingly was perceived to be male by most of our book club – though Terry Prachett got the blame in at least two of those cases). Hitler, interestingly and appropriately enough, is a presence throughout the novel despite never physically appearing. Also interesting to note is that, even in Max and Liesel’s imaginations and despite their hatred of him, Hitler always wins.

It was universally agreed that Hans Hubermann was a wonderful person and father, interestingly drawn and with real human depth, and that Rudy was impossible not to love, for all his cheek and charm and kindheartedness. However, it came up that several of us had trouble really caring about Max as a person. While we could sympathise with him for his situation, and cared about his wellbeing for its effect on Liesel and Hans, it was difficult to associate ‘Max the Jew’ with ‘Max the Man’ – it seemed like he was a completely separate person to the man we’d been introduced to via his backstory. While it’s not something I felt personally (though I do believe he wasn’t as richly drawn as Hans or Rudy, but more like the lesser characters of Rosa or Ilsa), I can appreciate the observation. And maybe that was the point. It could be commentary on the dehumanisation of the Jews under the Third Reich. Nothing about Max in hiding was the same as Max the free man.

Liesel’s relationship with words is, to me, something special. Relevant to the backdrop, in a nation won over by poisoned words and whole classes of people oppressed by them, illiterate Liesel understands their power. Over the course of the four years, Liesel learns that words have the power to hurt and heal, using her own to wound when cornered, to distract others when hiding in the bomb shelter, and to bring pieces of the world to a man who doesn’t dare go out and see for himself.

”Don’t punish yourself,’ she heard her say again, but there would be punishment and pain, and there would be happiness, too. That was writing.’

For me, The Book Thief is a lovely story told through a unique lens. The language is beautiful, and Death’s observations on humankind are at once inspiring and heartbreaking. Liesel is a character I warm to and care for, and so are the people around her. Just like Death, I have a special place in my heart for people like her and Rudy.

‘I have hated the words, 
and I have loved them,
and I hope I have made them right.’ 

The Book Thief gets a 4/5 from me, though according to my Goodreads list I gave it a 5/5 on my first reading. And I am quite annoyed the movie isn’t out in Australia until January.

Our next book will be Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Or is it Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close? I can never remember. It’s a surprise choice by a member who once gave me a copy of Marquis De Sade to read when we were teenagers (which was… scarring) and loves a good romance.

And next up on my personal reading list:
Good Bones – Margaret Atwood
Breathing GhostsLaekan Zeakemp

Until next time, happy reading!

The No Scrubs Book Club

I’ve done it.

I’ve embraced my adulthood and formed a monthly book club: The No Scrubs Book Club. The name is a tribute to strong women, a desire for abusive men to stop being romanticised, the greatest song of my generation, and also it rhymes a bit.

Our first book, chosen by me, is The Book Thief by Australian author Markus Zusak.

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Feel free to read along with me, I’ll be posting thoughts and opinions after our first meeting in a month’s time.

Happy reading!