Book Clubs, Blurbs and the Booker

The book club I belong to works like this: We aim to have 12 members. Each member selects a book they would like the club to read. These books then form a list of 12, one for each month of the year. Everyone buys/borrows their own copies of all the books and when it is your book and your month you host the club, and you conduct the discussion.

Possession by AS Byatt was the book for May – my selection. Good decision, yes? Hmm, I don’t think so. For one thing it was 511 pages long. According to Ten Ways to win the Booker prize (http://bit.ly/2scYmlC) by Mona Chalabi and George Arnett, 374 pages is an average for a Man Booker winner. For another thing, the book was full of poetry. This proved to be a good and a bad thing. One book club member ‘loved’ the poetry, while most of the rest skipped this part in favour of the plot. Gasp, skipped some pages!? Well, since I was conducting the discussion I didn’t skip. I slogged my way through which meant that by the time I’d read the book, prepared the discussion, baked the food and cleaned my house I was exhausted.

But wasn’t Possession an excellent choice because it was a Man Booker winner? Not necessarily. For us anyway. In the ensuing discussion it turned out that most of us (South Africans) didn’t like the works of JM Coetzee, another Man Booker Prize winner. This got me thinking about how books are selected for this prestigious prize (which carries a top winnings of GBP 50,000). Ten Ways to win the Booker prize (http://bit.ly/2scYmlC) says to win: you can’t be too young; you should choose a short title; get a private education; study at Oxford; be a man (if possible); write about death loads and love a fair bit; and get published with Jonathan Cape.

Well there you have it. I must say I hadn’t chosen Possession because I knew its author AS Byatt was a Booker winner. I didn’t (know she was a winner). I chose it because the blurb made it sound so exciting. ‘Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance…. A novel for every taste…. You turn the last page feeling stunned and elated, happy to have had the chance to read it.’ It wasn’t (exciting). For me, at any rate. Which just goes to show that: 1) It wasn’t a novel for every taste. And,  2) Booker prize recommendations and blurbs don’t necessarily equal books that everyone will enjoy.

Onto the next booker prize winning book for next month: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (this author writes about death loads…).

Memory Highlights Prejudice

The Book of Memory, published in 2015, was added to my reading pile through a book club I have newly joined. Zimbabwean author, Petina Gappah, writes in short, simple, unsentimental prose throughout this, her second book. This style coupled with a harsh story line makes for a punchy, compelling read.

Briefly, the narrative revolves around a woman called Memory who is in prison awaiting execution for the murder of her adoptive father, Lloyd. At the instigation of a the-book-of-memoryvisiting American journalist, Memory recalls her past from early childhood to the present, all the while regaling readers with accounts of the interesting characters that people the women’s prison in Chikurubi alongside her. Memory’s memory of her childhood is distant and inaccurate, as memories are, but becomes clearer as the story moves to the present. Some of the ladies in my book club saw the emergent revelations at the end too rushed. But perhaps this trait was more a deliberate merging of past and present, than of an author growing tired.

The most important aspect of The Book of Memory for me was how it highlighted the prejudices rife in (in this case, Zimbabwean) society. Memory herself is a Black woman born with albinism. From birth her melanin-deficient condition incurs suspicion and rejection. Lloyd, the man who, as Memory recalls, “bought” her, is a gay White man who, likewise, suffers at the hand of society. Just about everyone and everything in the book is subject to Gappah’s scrutiny – from the stupidity of the uneducated guards, to the colonial and post-colonial politics, religion (including Christianity, ancestor worship and fatalism), the flawed justice system, Memory’s own selfishness, and gender inequalities. Whilst Gappah (or Memory’s) most disparaging remarks are reserved for the prison guards, her tone is non-judgmental, leaving it up to the reader to draw his/her own conclusions.

It is interesting to note that Memory is able to see things the way she does thanks to the “Western” education serendipitously bestowed upon her. I found this aspect of the book a little disingenuous. Despite this, The Book of Memory raises some important issues, is very well written, and made for some stimulating discussion at the book club meeting.

Petina Gappah has also written An Elegy for Easterly and Rotten Row.