Book Review of Ali Smith's Summer
Summer is the final book in the seasonal series that Smith has completed over the last four years. It is set in pretty much real time and traces recent social and political events such as the climate crisis, Brexit and the current pandemic. The first book in the quartet, Autumn was published in 2016, shortly after the first EU referendum .In Summer Smith is very critical about our world leaders' handling of the current crises, She begins Summer by commenting on the apathy of many people who simply accept what is happening. As such it invites personal reflection and self-criticism. Summer, is not though a book without hope. The younger generation are presented as aware, astute, intelligent and capable of instigating positive change. The question arises whether the cyncism of the world around them will become so ingrained that they will choose not to act.
Summer is the longest book in Smith's quartet. It pulls together connections between characters who feature in all the novels. Smith's texts aren't based around a tight plot, rather they are snapshots of aspects of inter-related characters' lives. In Summer we follow the lives of different groups. These characters are largely middle class and oozing intelligence. This includes siblings Sacha and Robert and their mother; we revisit the life of Art (who appeared in Winter) and Charlotte, and spend time with the ageing Daniel Gluck, a main character in Autumn.
In Smith's explorations of the characters' lives 'time' is the central theme. At different points in Summer the characters reflect philosophically on the nature of time. Robert goes as far as playing a trick on his sister by supergluing an egg timer to her arm. giving her 'time on her hand'. The speed between Smith's writing of the books and the publishing of them, adds an extra dimension to this that is never far from the reader's mind. Time isn't only explored by the characters but is an integral aspect of the writing struture.
It is incredibly difficult to pin down or pigeon hole Ali Smith's writing style. Sharp satire, whimsical exchanges, poetry and even aspects of a Greek chorus (opening the novel) pull together in a masterful tour de force. Shakespeare is frequently referred to and storylines are loosely based on aspects of his plays. Dickens features too, as do artists of the current time.
Ali Smith is without doubt a brilliant writer and a fabulous social commentator. This seasonal series will serve both as a historic record of the current turbulent times and a fine example of literary greatness.
Book Discussion Questions on Ali Smith's Summer
Discuss the siblings Sacha and Robert. To what extent is their relationship typical of a brother/sister relationship? How has their assimilation of societal values affected their views on the world?
The ideas explored in Summer (and Smith's other books) are topical and explored with force and gusto. Do you think the characters in Ali Smith's books are much more intelligent and articulate than most people you come into contact with on a daily basis? If the answer is yes, how does this affect your reading of Smith's books?
Smith is known for her satirical wit and has a cutting abiility to expose characters' flaws. (An example is Art who, despite his artistic leanings, and creative aims has had a far less noble and much duller day time job of being a squealer on artists who break copyright rules.) In Summer Art plans to cope with lockdown by sharing with Charlotte something meaningful that he witnesses each day. He puts this to her with the story of a pigeon carrying a twig in its mouth. Re-read this anecdote. What is the tone and purpose of his sharing this story? Is Ali Smith making fun of him? Do you think Art's idea is a good strategy for handling lockdown?
Is Summer a hopeful or a pessimistic book?
Who is the most interesting character in Summer. Discuss.
When Grace visits Suffolk she revisits the church where she assisted a joiner repairing a church pew. Why does Charlotte need to do this? What is the signficance of the difference between how Charlotte remembers the events and what actually happened? Is the anecdote believable?
In Summer Charlotte finds herself living with her ex-partner's Aunt Iris. Iris involves Charlotte in preparing the large rambling house they inhabit into a refuge for refugees who have been kept in a detention centre. Discuss Iris and what she symbolizes. If you have also read Winter explore how Iris and her sister Sophia are different.
Why does Charlotte barricade herself in her room in Iris' house?
Why do you think Ali Smith refrains from mentioning the pandemic in Summer specifically as Covid -19?
Sacha writes to a refugee ANHKIET who thanks her for having been in touch. Discuss the content of Sacha's postcards. What do they reveal about Sacha? What is Ali Smith saying about the refugee situation?
How is time central to Summer and also the whole series of books. How would you have responded as Robert's parent to his act of supergluing an egg timer to his sister's arm?
Daniel Gluck is described in this guardian review as being the moral centre of Summer. Is he? Discuss.
Book Club Questions on Summer (if you haven't read the book!)
Summer begins with the line 'Everybody said: so?', However, Smith quickly immediately follows this with refuting the claim and saying that millions and millions of people were vocal about climate change, immigration, poor political leadership etc. Discuss what you think is the biggest issue of today's society.
Ali Smith's series of Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer is written over four years and pretty much follows real time. Autumn is written after the first Brexit referendum and Brexit unease and discontent is still being referred to in Summer. Discuss the longevity of the Brexit process and the consequences of it.
Ali Smith uses Art, particularly the pop art of Pauline Boty and literature, often referring to Dickens and using Shakespeare. What aspects of the Shakespeare plays that you know can be used to symbolize events unfolding in the modern world?
Whilst the books in this series don't act as sequels to one another in a traditional sense, in Summer different characters from the other books do come together to make a unified whole. The reader sees seemingly tenuous links come together into a completed picture. Are there examples from your own lives where unsurprising connections between you and others have been made?
In reviews written about Ali Smith's Summer far more attention is paid to the innovative writing style, philosophical ideas and revolutionary speed of books being published linked to real life events than that paid to actual plot. How important is a strong plotline to you in fiction?
Personal Response to Summer
Summer is an utterly amazing book, but it is a text that requires concentration. Ali Smith's writing is dense and intense. I find when I'm reading any Ali Smith, for example Smith's How to be Both, that I have two choices. I can either relish the text as a linguistic and poetic masterpiece, where the rhythms, sounds and cadences immerse and envelop me in a sensory overload, which is simultaneously both pleasurable and painful to read. When adopting this approach there is little point trying to establish too much immediate meaning from the text. The alternative is to read her books in short chunks and analyse the context, content and their significance in a fairly clinical manner. I am simply not clever enough to do both at once.
Upon completing Summer I was aware of having been part of the interconnectedness of my world to the society in Summer. of which I'm also a part. I was also aware of the interconnectedness of the characters in Summer to the other books in the quartet. I feel that this should have given me a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, but what I actually felt was a great sense of unease. Ali Smith is very convincing in her presentation of a world in utter dissaray. I was left with an overhwelming feeling of helplessness, inadequacy and to some extent, disconnect, both as a reader and a participant of society. Despite this Summer is a book that I think everyone should read.
Book Review of Alan Davies' Just Ignore Him
,Alan Davies' autobiography Just Ignore Him, focuses largely on his childhood and the trauma surrounding it. Davies' mother, of whom Davies speaks fondly, died of leukaemia when he was six years old. Davies and his brother and sister were then brought up by their father.
Davies recounts in Just Ignore Him how he was made to feel that everything that ever went wrong within the family was his fault. He describes how his brother and sister were encouraged to ignore him when he was deemed as being irritating. Davies is clearly bitter and upset about many of his childhood experiences. The reader learns that his poor relationship with his father is far more than simple disagreements or personality clashes. It is revealed that Davies was sexually abused by his father up until the age of 13.
It is the abuse that Davies receives that dominates the whole of the book. In his forties Davies step-mother gives him photographs that his father had hidden of teenage boys who look like him and he consequently makes the decision to report his father to the police as an abuser. Due to Davies' father's age and diminished mental capacity he hasn't, to date, been taken to trial.
Davies Just Ignore Him is not what a reader might expect from a showbiz autobiography. This is not least because it is so well written. At times there is an unexpected softness and tenderness to the text, especially when Davies is talking about his mother and describing what it is like when growing up in the 70s.
Davies completed some of the text as part of a creative writing course focusing on memoir writing. His intelligence, wit and honesty serves as a super backbone to the text making it a book that is well worth reading.
Book Discussion Questions on Alan Davies' Just Ignore Him
What aspects of this biography, Just Ignore Him surprised you?
Being ignored by his siblings and father is presented as a frequent act of cruelty in the book. Discuss.
Davies comments in the book how he couldn't possibly imagine hurting his own children like he has been hurt himself. Other than this his own children are seldom mentioned in Just Ignore Him. Do you think the focus of Just Ignore Him is too narrow?
Discuss the ways in which the abuse Davies suffered affected him emotionally.
How, if at all, has your view and opinion of Alan Davies changed now you have read Just Ignore Him.
During Alan Davies teenage years he frequently stole things for himself and for his friends. He even got caught. Why did Alan choose to steal? What does he reveal about himself in his recounting of these episodes?
When Alan Davies was caught stealing and reprimanded by the police his father was determined that his brother should be told. What was his father's motivation for this?
Alan Davies presents his relationshp with his mother as being perfect. Discuss.
What can be gleaned about the relationship between Alan Davies' mother and father and consequent relationship between Davies' stepmother and father?
How much sympathy do you have for the case against Alan Davies' father never going to court?
Do you respect Alan Davies for writing Just Ignore Him? Why or why not?
Bookclub Questions on Just Ignore Him (if you haven't read the book!)
Chat about any other showbiz biographies that you've read. Which titles do you recommend and why?
Whilst child abuse is more openly discussed than it used to be, it is seldom male victims who tell their story. Why do you think this is the case?
How do you think a biography that told the story of a comedian's abuse would have been received ten or fifteen years ago compared to now?
Alan Davies has been on the panel for QI for many years now. Have you watched it? Chat about the programme together.
Alan Davies's hardly mentions his showbiz career in his biography, but instead focuses almost entirely on his childhood trauma. Do you think it is possible to ever really escape your childhood experiences, whatever they might be?
Personal Response to Just Ignore Him
Throughout Just Ignore Him the hurt and anger that Davies clearly feels towards his father is never far from the surface. The writing has a rawness and urgency that pulls the reader in. Davies wears his heart on his sleeve and has shared his story with honesty and openness. It seems that in interviews promoting his book he has been unwilling to discuss the sexual abuse that he writes about. This strikes me as interesting, though not really surprising.
Just Ignore Him is a brave book as Alan Davies will, at least for some time, be now known as the comedian whose father abused him. It will, I hope help other people in similar situations speak out and confront abuse that they have suffered.
Book Review of Jenny Eclair's Older and Wider: A Survivor's Guide to the Menopause
Jenny Eclair's Older and Wider: A Survivor's Guide to the Menopause is a fun and informative read for anyone who has experienced, is experiencing, or will experience the menopause. No... let me amend that to also include anyone who knows someone who fits the above criteria.
Jenny Elcair's A Survivor's Guide to the Menopause is full of common sense, and offers practical advice about managing aspects of what our grandmothers' called 'the change'. Using a logical A to Z approach it covers all aspects of what the menopause entails and ensures that its menopausal readers know that they are not alone in what they are experiencing. Whilst I'm not a fan of the term (I don't know why) the book is a text of 'sisterhood' at its best.
As would be expected of Eclair this menopausal guide is full of wit and humour, It doesn't hold back on the expletives and adult humour. It may make some readers' hair curl, though having said that none of it is offensive, unless you happen to be Tim Henman. (It seems Eclair finds him a little dull!)
Amongst the strengths of the book is the reassuring tone and the solid advice offered. For example, Eclair, without being patronizing, tactfully warns readers to be mindful of divorcing their husbands, as part of a mid-life crisis, as they may live to regret it. (The women not the men. The men would obviously regret it!)
A Survivor's Guide to the Menopause is a book that I listened to rather than read. It is wonderful entertainment when partaking of a walk or cycle, perhaps as a means of cooling down from a hot sweat or ensuring that those middle-aged endorphines remain active.
Book Discussion Questions on Jenny Eclair's Older and Wider: A Survivor's Guide to the Menopause
What is the most single useful piece of advice in Jenny Eclair's Older and Wider: A Survivor's Guide to the Menopause?
What part of Jenny Eclair's A Survivor's Guide to the Menopause did you find the most amusing?
Was there any part of Jenny Eclair's A Survivor's Guide to the Menopause that you thought was simply wrong? What was it?
Jenny Eclair is a fan of acupuncture, but is less convinced by other 'alternative' approaches to enhancing health and well-being. Discuss.
Would you give this book to a male partner or relative? Why or why not?
Jenny Ecliar is a white middle class hetrosexual woman. She acknowledges in the book that she had some concerns whether this might be problematic to her readers. Do you think her narrative can be considered narrrow and unrepresentative of a diverse readership? Why or why not?
Jenny Eclair makes a quip about most 60 year old men resembling Toby Jugs. Is this true or fair, or is it just a joke? Does it matter if it is true?
Jenny Eclair speaks very frankly about the eating disorder that she had during her twenties. Recap and discuss what Eclair states about her illness and how she got better. Do you think treatment of the illness would be similar now to how it was thirty plus years ago?
Bookclub Questions on Older and Wider: A Survivor's Guide to the Menopause (if you haven't read the book!)
Who in your own life most needs educating about the menopause? Explain why. Will you buy them this book?
If you are a younger reader to what extent did you understand your own mother's menopause?
If you are experiencing the menopause right now what is the worst thing about it?
Have a chat about HRT and its pros and cons.
If you listen to the Older and Wider podcast you will have heard Jenny Eclair speak quite personally on ambition, wealth, family and politics. Do you think knowing a little about a writer enhances a reading of their book?
Do you think people have more knowledge about the menopause and are more willing to chat about it now than they were five or ten years ago? Do you feel comfortable freely discussing the menopause?
What does the term 'male menopause' mean to you?
Personal Response to Older and Wider: A Survivor's Guide to the Menopause
Jenny Eclair's A Survivor's Guide to the Menopause was a particularly easy listen to me, as I'm already a fan of the podcast Older and Wider, which she records with Judith Holder. Most of what Eclair said really resonated with me. That's perhaps because I'm a 51 year old woman with two grown up children and a husband I have a tendency to snap at for no particular reason! The part about empty nesting actually reminded me very much of my own blog posts on the topic of empty nesting.
If I'm honest I think I was expecting Jenny Eclair's A Survivor's Guide to the Menopause to be a little shocking, whereas it was actually very sensible and grounded. It is also very amusing. Even if learning about the menopause isn't of paramount importance to you right now this is a good listen or read. It's full of sound life advice, much of which is applicable to all ages.
Book Review of Avni Doshi's Burnt Sugar
Set in Pune in the west-central Maharashtra state in India, Burnt Sugar is primarily an exploration of a dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship. Burnt Sugar is told from the viewpoint of Anantara. who we learn had an unconventional and neglected childhood.
In her youth Anantara's mother, Tara, had left her husband to join an ashram. Whilst Tara took Anantara with her she largely ignored her as she embarked upon a wild and unsatisfactory love affair with the ashram leader, After later being rejected and leaving the ashram, there followed a stint as a beggar, and a further unconventional and unsatisfactory love affair with the waiter/writer Reza.
The reader joins the story when Tara is in middle-age but suffering from early onset dementia. Anantara is married to Dilip, (an immigrant reluctant to return home to America), The story is based on an exploration of Anantara's emotions and own unravelling sense of self. The ties of Tara and Anantara are, it seems impossible to break, as the lines between love and hate merge.
The unravelling sense of self seems to be reflected through the first person narrative. Conventionality is challenged and rejected. Dysfunctionality is presented as normality; The narrator uses an understated matter-of fact tone to reveal complex and shocking emotions. The reader is drawn into exploring the unravelling not only of Tara's mind, but also that of Anantara.
An acerbic wit is used to ponder big life questions which encourage an engaged reader to confront truth in all its ugliness. Burnt Sugar is raw and challenging. It reveals the cruelty of life in a deceptively readable manner.
Book Discussion Questions on Avni Doshi's Burnt Sugar
Bookclub Questions on Avni Doshi's Burnt Sugar (if you haven't read the book!)
Personal Response to Avni Doshi's Burnt Sugar
This is a great debut novel from Dubai based author Avni Doshi. After reading the first few pages I thought it was going to be a topical and timely exploration of caring for a parent with dementia. It had pleased me that such an important topic had been chosen for a Booker Prize longlisted text. How wrong I'd been in this oversimplification. Burnt Sugar is a story of love and hate, betrayal, forgiveness and revenge. It takes the emotions of a dysfunctional familial relationship and takes the exploration of mother/daughter relationships to extremities.
Book Review of Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys
My husband enjoys fiction with well-developed characters and a defined 'plot' line. The largely linear narrative of The Nickel Boys, at least for the first two sections of the story with a definite progression of events and wonderful characterisation of the protagonist, Elwood Corey, meant that I didn't hesitate to recommend The Nickel Boys to him. This isn't something I'd do lightly. My husband reads more non-fiction than fiction so is very choosy about the fiction that he invests in. The Nickel Boys is worth the investment.
The Nickel Boys traces the story of young Elwood through his childhood into his teens, growing up in Talahassee. Although abandoned by his parents, he is loved by his grandmother, and, inspired by the speeches of Martin Luther King, is determined to improve his own life circumstances.
As Elwood leaves home for a college education he, through no fault of his own, finds himself wrongfully sent to a reform school. Once there Elwood suffers untold and unimaginable horrors, but is determined to not only escape the miseries he and the other boys endure daily, but to continue to hold close the ideals and beliefs of Martin Luther King. During a spell in solitary confinement he struggles over King's equation "Be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer..." It is King's beliefs and values that underpin the novel.
On the book jacket of The Nickel Boys Alex Preston, of the Observer states that The Nickel Boys "opens up thrilling new vistas for the form of the novel itself." I began the review by suggesting that the book follows a traditional narrative structure. When reading the text Preston's comment initially surprised me. Although the book is great, it wasn't I felt ground breaking, stylistically. It was only when I had read to the very end that I realised what an absolute tour de force it is both in structure and style. The final chapters are stunning demonstrating tremendous story writing skill as the heart wrenching conclusion to events is revealed. As in The Underground Railroad Whitehead shows it is clearly not his purpose to spare the reader's feelings..
Book Discussion Questions on Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys
Did you anticipate the twist at the end of the book?
The injustices Elwood's grandmother has faced throughout her life means that, whilst she acts very bravely, she actually lives in constant fear. How does this manifest itself in the way that she raises Elwood?
Revisit the different sections of the story. Discuss how and when the narrative voice changes.
Appearance vs reality is a theme that dominates the story. Discuss when and how the theme is explored.
Why did Turner/Elwood refuse to be photographed promoting his business in front of his new offices on 125th Street?
Turner was reulctant to share Elwood's written account of what really happened in the school, but ultimately did so. Why?
What messages of hope are there in the story The Nickel Boys?
Discuss the signficance of the final line of the The Nickel Boys "He was hungry and they served all day, and that was enough."
In chapter twelve of The Nickel Boys the narrator states that there are four ways out of Nickel. Of the four tehcniques which would you choose?
The Nickel Boys illustrates the horrendous levels of racial abuse that openly existed in America during the 1950s and onwards. Moving forward, how helpful was the text for you in understanding the current "Black Lives Matter' movement?
In The Nickel Boys the weak prey upon the helpless. The level of barbarity and pre-meditated cruelty of characters such as Spencer and Hardee is wicked. Are some people simply born evil or are the reasons behind their cruelty more complex? Is it possible to, if not pardon, at least explain the reasons for their barbaric behaviour?
Did you find the ending of the book satisfactory? Why or why not?
Who is the bravest charcter in The Nickel Boys? Discuss.
We learn that Elwood had been abandoned by his mother and father who left him and went to California when he was six. Elwood's father had fought loyally for America but became embittered once he returned to civilian life where he lived in a town where black men in uniform were frequently lynched. Elwood's mother was described by his grandmother (her own mother) as weak. How do you view Elwood's parents?
What lasting impression has reading The Nickel Boys had on you?
Bookclub Questions on Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys (if you haven't read the book!)
Whilst The Nickel Boys is a work of fiction it is inspired by the real events that occurred in The Dozier School for Boys. Discuss whether you find fiction a useful means of understanding real life events. Do you have examples of other fiction books which have helped you understand real life injustices?
Discuss how you think you would respond if faced with utter adversity.
Discuss how you have been affected by the Black Lives Matter movement. How has fiction, for example The Underground Railroad, or Kiley Reid's Such a Fun Age helped you understand racism from both a historical and current context?
Elwood only owns one record which plays the sermons of Martin Luther King given at Zion Hill. What speeches have you heard that have inspired your life? Or, what music have you repeatedly played that has lasting significance for you?
Personal Response to The Nickel Boys
When I read The Nickel Boys I hadn't realised that it had won the Pulitzer Prize this year. I was suprised, especially as it is was only 2017 that Colson Whitehead took the same prize for The Underground Railroad. I was pleased though. I enjoyed it and thought it a thoroughly worthy winner.
I particularly enjoyed that The Nickel Boys was historical fiction, but set relatively recently. It raised that classic question about how we continue to be blind to current injustices. It is difficult to comprehend how the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida on which the fictional Nickel was loosely based existed right up until 2011. A sobering thought. Having now read The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys I will certainly read more of Whitehead's books. I will also be investigating the Pulitzer further; it is a prize I know little about and I'm curious what criteria the shortlisted titles must meet to be considered for it.