Book Review of Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet
,Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet tells a completely fictionalized version of Shakespeare's life story after meeting his future wife Agne. The story unfolds up until the point Hamlet the play was performed in London.
Agnes (Anne Hathaway) is portrayed as a semi-wild unconformist woman with a love of nature, a skill in creating medicinal cures and a desire to escape her uncaring step-mother. There is a Cinderella aspect to the story as she is rescued by her hapless lover. Shakespeare, who works on her brother's farm as a latin tutor. Shakesepare is presented as little more than a boy, a dreamer and a man with few prospects. We follow their lives as fanciful and practical matters combine, before focusing in on their children, particularly the twins Judith and Hamnet.
Hamnet begins with the boy Hamnet tripping down the stairs full of life and vigour. We are quickly invited to understand his relationship with his wider family. This pulls us in and we watch the saga unfold leading to his death,. We learn the family dynamics at which Shakespeare himself was central and see how the plague touched the household.
Most readers will have some knowledge of Shakspeare and Shakespeare's England so this insight into a respected writer's interpretation of events and culture, within a broadly accurate historical context, is interesting and thought provoking. The challenge, as a reader is to suspend one's own imaginative flights of fancy and buy into someone else's. Once this is achieved then the book is absorbing and the story is well-told.
Book Discussion Questions on Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet
Bookclub Questions on Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet (If you haven't read the book!)
Personal Response to Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet
Hamnet was going to have to be a pretty special book for me to really buy into the story linking the death of his son with the play's production. Maggie O'Farrell's fiction account is, of course, utter conjecture. O'Farrell is offering 'a reading' or interpretation of what might have been. To get hung up on whether Agnes' interpretation of events at the end of the story is plausible is, arguably, missing the point of the book.
O'Farrell is writing fiction and bringing alive a possible scenario about something which the reader knows absolutely nothing for sure. Did I get hung up on this? YES! Hamlet, has the best lines of any play ever written or likely to be written. It's a big ask of the reader to ask them to either suspend their interpretation of the historical contextual reality in order to swallow this version. of the naming of the play. Could I do so? I'm afraid not entirely. That's perhaps because, ultimately I am too enraptured by the melancholia of Shakespeare's tragedy, to step fully into this world created by Maggie O'Farrell!
Book Review of Naomi Alderman's The Power
The Power by Naomi Alderman is an intelligent and well written dystopian novel that presents a futuristic scenario where women rule the world by strength. Men are seen as the weaker sex and must pay the price of years of sexism and oppresion of women. The Power is presented as a historical novel, written from thousands of years in the future by male writer Neil. Adam Armon. Alderman has fun using an anagram of her own name asking the question of Neil whether he would be better to publish his book as a woman in order to avoid being labelled as "men's literature'.
The story is told through the viewpoints of four main characters. The first is Allie, an adopted girl abused by her father. She escapes repeated beatings and rapes. She becomes Mother Eve and thus the reader is able to see how religion can be used to suppress, lead and oppress. A further key character is Roxy, the daughter of a criminal London gangster. Roxy has been brought up to see power linked to violence and wealth and has witnessed how men have gone to any and all lengths to attain it. A further key character is Tunde, a handsome young reporter, who discovers what it is like to be desired in a world of utter female domination. Finally we see aspects of the changing society through American politician Margot, who is prepared to abuse, manipulate and cheat for self-gain.
The reader explores these characters' changing perspectives as they learn to manage, use and fear the the power provided through the skein. The novel has a certain Animal Farm quality. The reader hopes for a future world run by women based on empathy, love and kindness but it never materializes. Ultimately 'all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others".
Book Discussion Questions on Naomi Alderman's The Power
Why does Naomi Alderman give the women a super power associated with electricity?
In the text the women are sometimes said to have enacted cruel and barbaric acts, such as the rape of men simply because 'they can'. How do you interpret this phrase?
What do you find the most troubling aspect of Naomi Alderman's The Power?
Is there a romantic future for Roxy and Tunde? Discuss why or why not?
Naomi Alderman using religion as a prop for Mother Eve's rise to power. Explore why she does this?
If Alderman is critical of religion, then it is religion as a whole rather than particular religious denominations. Explore why she does this and what you think her attitude to organised religion is.
Out of the four main characters, Margot, Allie, Roxy and Tunde, who do you have most sympathy for and why?
What is Naomi Alderman telling the reader through the horrific scenes of sexual abuse and violence perpetuated by women that she writes? Explore your emotional and rational response to these scenes.
Is the society in Alderman's The Power that existed before the women discover their strength a representation of today's world?
Explore the relationship between Roxy and Allie. What observations can you make about it?
Is Mother Eve corrupt?
Who is the voice in Allie's (Mother Eve's) head? Does it successfully guide her? Is Mother Eve actually mad?
The book is written as a historical text set thousands of years in the future. Discuss whether you think this is an effective way of narrating the story.
What did you find most unsettling about reading The Power?
What did you find most enjoyable about reading The Power?
The Power is pitched as being a thriller. Is it? What genre would you ascribe to it? Why?
Do you consider the revolutions that occured in Riyadh and Delhi to have been successful? Why or why not?
If Naomi Alderman was in the room what question would you ask her?
What do you think the illustrations added to the story?
What stereotypical qualities of men does Alderman mock through in the text? How does she do this?
What is the main factor that drives Margot's ambition? Does she remind you of any modern day politicians? Who? Is Margot someone you can admire? Why or why not?
How do you think the book resonates differently for male and female readers?
Do Roxy and Tunde have a romantic future?
Sex in the book is often based on pain and dominance. Discuss.
"A little power is a dangerous thing'. Discuss this quote in reference to Aldermans' The Power?
Is Naomi Alderman's The Power a worthy winner of the Women's Prize for Fiction? Why or why not?
What are the three main themes of The Power? Rank them in order of importance discussing the reasons behind your choices.
Discuss the relationships between fathers and daughters in the book.
Bookclub Questions on Naomi Alderman's The Power (if you haven't read the book!)
What do you think would happen in today's world if women suddenly gained more physical strength than men?
In The Power women are encouraged to pray to female religious figures rather than the traditional male ones. Do you automatically think of God as a man?
What super power do you think would benefit women most in our modern world?
What super power would you choose to have?
Women become powerful in the story after having gained physical strength. It is this that gives them supremacy over men. What qualities do you think are needed to lead in a modern society?
Which woman in a position of power do you most admire and why?
Which woman in a public position of power troubles you? Why?
Do you think true equality between men and women is ever possible? Why or why not?
Personal Response to Naomi Alderman's The Power
Cosmopolitan magazine describe The Power as a cross between The Hunger Games and The Handmaid's Tale. I thought this summed it up well. The review made me smile. It is interesting to see that Margaret Atwood was actually a mentor of Alderman during her writing of The Power. Atwood is, I think, the Queen of the dystopian text and a front runner of feminist literature, so it must have been an honour for Alderman to be able to thank Atwood in the acknowledgements.
I enjoyed The Power, but there were aspects of it that I didn't fully understand and need to revisit. I need to take more notice of how and why the revolutions occured in Riyadh and Delhi. I am also confused as to what or who exactly the voice in Mother Eve's head was. I am interested in exploring further the role her abusive mother played in the years following her escape from home. I'm happy to have these questions to ponder further on and it is the sign of having engaged fully in the text. There is a lot to dissect and review in the The Power. It would make a great bookclub choice.,
Book Review of Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-formed Thing
Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is a tragedy that is both compelling and enthralling. It is also extremely disturbing and difficult to digest; it is not suitable for younger readers. Although the bookjacket states "it is a shocking and intimate insight into the thoughts, feelings and chaotic sexuality of a vulnerable and isolated protagonist", I was uttlerly unprepared for the undercurrent of almost incessant violence and the brutal rape scenes that dominate the text. My hunch is that some victims of sexual abuse or violence would find it very upsetting to read,
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is structured around a young woman whose brother's childhood brain tumour is a factor contributing to the dysfunctional nature of the familial relationships. Able to escape to university, the girl's childhood experiences continue to affect her understanding of what 'love' is and her time at university is spent in a series of sexual encounters during which the protagonist uses violent sex as a coping mechanism for the trauma she has suffered. Unable to leave the horror of her childhood rape behind her, the reader is given some insight into her psyche and behaviour. The reader is encouraged to understand the motivation for what can be viewed, inaccurately, as erratic promiscuous behavour. McBride successfully provides the tools and the content by which the reader can begin to understand some of the awareness of the complexity of the effects of sexual abuse.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is completely deserving of being a winner of the women's prize for fiction as her writing is simply brilliant. From the very first line the reader is thrust into the narrator's head; the narrative voice is unlike any I've seen before. Using a combination of unfinished thoughts, incomplete phrases, random tangential thoughts, Irish dialect and expletives, the very essence of who the narrator is implodes and explodes. A kind of 'stream of consciousness'. with a rawness, and speed that is almost impossible to grasp or pin down, evokes an intense and unforgettable response. The reader is left reeling, and shocked, but like a guilty voyeur needing to know more. The narrative style is disturbing, exhausting, yet perfectly executed.
Book Discussion Questions on Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-formed Thing
Book Discussion Questions of Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (if you haven't read the book!)
Personal Response to Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-formed Thing
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is both bold and courageous. It is also a deeply troubling read. Although the book jacket of Eimear McBride's novel outlines the story as intimate insight into 'the thoughts, feelings and chaotic sexuality of a vulnerable and isolated protagonist.' I wasn't prepared for the level of violence, abuse and horrific rapes that take place in the story. Had I known I don't think I'd have read it. Having said that I am very glad that I did. It is brilliantly written, powerful and moving. I don't think I've ever read anything like it, perhaps the closest thing is some of the 'sexual scenes' described in some of Sally Rooney's Conversation with Friends which I reviewed on Goodreads. There are also aspects of it that reminded my of Tara Westover's Educated.
Book Review of Ali Smith's How to be both
Ali Smith's How to be both was fascinating and troubling. It is a story of two halves that can be read (and have actually been published in different orders). One story tells the tale of George, a 16 year old girl, who is coming to terms with the death of her mother. She becomes obsessed with renaissancea artist, Francesco del Coassa's painting of St. Vincent Ferrer. George and her mother had talked about the artist when her mother took her to see the frescos in Ferrara in Italy before she died. Caring for her younger brother, coping with her alcoholic father and experiencing something approaching first love are aspects of George's story,
The other tale is told by Francesco del Cossa, who has time-travelled from the 15th century to London and observes George studying his/her painting. We see Francesco's reflections about George. In addition s/he revisits his/her own life experiences, where themes such as gender identiy, sexuality, loyalty, status and wealth are explored. The writing is allegorical, but complicated to dissect. As a re-telling of what happened to Francesco it lacks the rawness of George's story and is perhaps more reflective in tone.
Book Discussion Questions on Ali Smith's How to be both
This is a challenging book so why not listen to this fascinating interview on How to be both by Ali Smith
Book Discussion Questions on Ali Smith's how to be both (if you haven't read the book!)
Personal Response to Ali Smith's how to be both
When trying to encapsulate what How to be both is about it feels like I have hardly even scratched the surface. This book can be peeled layer after layer. In this way it makes me think of T. S. Eliot. (It's difficult but worth it.) From the choice of the name George, to the lingering question of how much of Francesco's whole story is tied up with George's school project to the choice of syntax there is an awful lot to explore. i In order for me to really enjoy How to be both I need to now re-read and discuss it with friends and colleagues who are smarter than me. Any takers?
Book Review of Kamila Shamsie's Home Fire
Following the structure and themes of Antigone, Kamila Shamsie's Home Fire is a wonderful book that is well deserving to have been the 2017 winner of the Women's Prize for Fiction. It is topical yet timeless - an almost impossible combination to execute effectively, (I have explored the relevance of context in other fiction such as Jonathan Coe's Middle England and Jeanine Cummins' American Dirt.)
Home Fire tells the story of twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, who have been raised by their sister Isma in Preston Road, Wembley, London. Constantly under the shadow of the jihadist father Parvaiz never knew, he is the family member who finds it paritcularly difficult to manage the clash between faith, family expectations and the reality of society in our modern world. There is nothing simplistic in the story and the reader is forced to think about their own views, unspoken or unconscious prejudice and speed by which they are likely to jump to conclusions and be manipulated by media. After Isma goes to America to study for a doctorate, the family begins to really unravel. Parvaiz is lured to Syria and it falls to Aneeka to try and get him back to safety. Thus she embarks on a romantic relationship with the son of the Home Secretary, Eamonn. This leads to tragic consequences, that although expected (if you know the story of Antigone) are nevertheless shocking.
Book Discussion Questions on Kamila Shamsie's Home Fire
The Home Secretary is a complex character who is both reviled and praised for his stance against aspects of being muslim. How much sympathy do you have for him both as a politician and as a father?
Whilst, for the main part, the book is written using a regular third person narration, occasionally it uses poetry, tweets and newspaper reports. Discuss the purpose of the change of narrative style.
What did you learn from reading Kamila Shamsie's Home Fire?
Which character in the book do you most identify with and why?
Did Karamet make the right decision in not allowing Parvaiz's body to be returned to the UK?
Sum up as concisely as possible the opposing political viewpoints that are being explored in the text.
How much sympathy do you have for the choices that Parvaiz makes?
Who is the hero in the story Home Fire?
Discuss whether and how reading Kamila Shamsie's Home Fire has changed your own political views or opinions.
How would you describe Aneeka and Isma? Which sister do you like the most and why?
What have you learned from reading Home Fire?
As with Antigone, there is a sense in Home Fire of the events unfolding and outsiders are unable to do anything to prevent the final outcome. At what point in the story do you think it becomes inevitable that the story will play out as it does?
Is the reader presented by Kamila Shamsie as being as powerless as the chorus in a Greek tragedy?
Do you think Home Fire is a worthy winner of the Women's Prize for Fiction? Why or why not?
Can you connect with the events in Kamila Shamsie's Home Fire on a personal level? Would you like to share with the group how it resonates with you.
What is Karamet's opinion of Aneeka? Is his interpretation of her character fair?
Discuss the text from a feminist stance. What views are presented about the roles of women. To what extent and how is the text exploring inequality between men and women?
In the book there are several female characters about whom we know relatively little. These include Aunty Naseem, Eammon's mum and sister and Isma's supervisor. Discuss the types of character you imagine them to be.
If Home Fire was a film who would you cast in the key roles?
Bookclub Questions on Home Fire (if you haven't read the book!)
Karamet and Terry love their son Eamonn, but they don't actually think he is good at anything. He doesn't work yet lives a luxurious pampered life. His sister, on the other hand is viewed as intelligent, smart and successful. How have parental expectations and beliefs affected your own live and your relationship with siblings?
In Home Fire Shamsie successfully shows how the media portrayal of events gives an extremely biased view of events. Media doesn't begin to unravel the complexities of 'cause and effect' regarding personal choices. How inclined are you to believe everything that you read?
The blurb on the back of Kamila Shamsie's Home Fire includes the quote "it makes you think. Uncomfortably." When discussing big issues such as religions, racism and radicalism do you speak your views clearly and confidently or do you tend to be reticent about sharing your opinions. If the latter, discuss why this is the case. What conclusions can you draw from this?
Personal Response to Kamila Shamsie's Home Fire
Kamila Shamsie's Home Fire is a wonderful read. I found it particularly fascinating tracing how it imitated and devliated from following the structure of Antigone. In truth, I'd have never linked the two texts myself! It is a wonderful adapataion of a fantastic play. I'd love to still be teaching so I could compare the texts and make the parallels. Also, it is only now I've read the book that I'm beginning to think what an amazing title it has too. Having read Kamila Shamsie's Home Fire I can't wait to read more of her books.