Book Review of Salley Vickers' Grandmothers
Salley Vickers' Grandmothers is an unusual and much needed book in that it focuses on the lives, loves and losses and hopes of three older women. They are either grandmothers, or in the case of Minna, a surrogate grandmother, It is through the relationship that the women have with their grandchildren that their inner thoughts, aspirations and ultimately moral values are demonstrated. In Grandmothers, Sally Vickers shows that the Grandmothers are valued far more by those in their grandchildren's generation than they are by those in their children's generation.
The main character in Sally Vickers' Grandmothers' is Nan who has a secret life as an award winning poet. We see her preparing her grandson as she prepares for death. It is around her that the book is structured. Of the other women Minna is shy and bookish and takes comfort in her friendship with a neighbour's child. Blanche, is seemingly suave, sophisticated, wealthy and content but is in fact lonely and saddened about her estranged relationship with her son and daughter-in-law. At different points these characters' lives interweave. Friendships are formed and the reader is encouraged to reflect on relationships, ageing, the future generation and the quintessential brevity of life.
I've recently read Ruth Jones' Us Three which also explores the friendships of women in their middle age. It is a genre that I enjoy.
Book Discussion Questions on Salley Vickers' Grandmothers
Bookclub Questions on Salley Vickers' Grandmothers (if you haven't read the book!)
Personal Response to Salley Vickers' Grandmothers
I enjoyed reading Salley Vickers' Grandmothers and thought that aspects of it were brilliant. It was a quick and easy page-turner which belies the depth of philosophical contemplation that underpins the social and personal commentary in it. Having said that if I'm honest, I did find the execution of the story-telling just occasionally a little heavy handed. There was a sense that the author simply needed to tell us something about the character rather than reveal it in order to keep the story moving forward. There is perhaps an argument that each of the grandmothers' in Salley Vickers' Grandmothers deserve their own novel and shouldn't have to share one. I'm about to watch thevideo clip and try and get some top tips from Salley Vickers about writing poetry.
Book Review of Douglas Stuart's Shuggie Bain
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart is a hard hitting story about poverty, alcoholism and isolation. Set in the early 1980s Shuggie Bain opens with a group of women sitting around a table playing cards for pin money. Agnes, daughter of Liz, is one of these women. She is devoted to her second husband Shug who treats her cruelly. The opening is brilliant and captures the tone and the mood of community. The bond between the women is strong and the toughness belies the depth of kinship and friendship bewteen the women.
As the story moves forward we quickly see the tougher and bleaker side of Glasgow living. Shug is both violent and a philanderer and seems to want to break Agnes completely. Shug moves the family, little Shuggie (his son), Catherine and Alexander (Leek) to a wasteland that was once a pit village. Here everyone is for themselves only. Violence is the norm, women are judged for dressing slovenly or as whores and the mood is callous and biting. Much of the story is set here and Agnes is the main character. She is both proud and a desperate alcoholic. (I suspect many readers have questioned Douglas Stuart why he actually labelled the book Shuggie Bain rather than Agnes Bain).
Agnes's descent into despair and alocholism, is a tool to explore how substance abuse can affect familial relationships. Shuggie, Agnes' youngest son, is witness to sights a small boy should never see. His love for his mother is unwavering as he wipes the vomit and bile and ignores both the bruises on his mother and the numerous men who visit the house.. Shuggie frequently goes hungry and promises to become 'normal' as often as Agnes promises to give up the drink. Acceptance of being homosexual is an important sub-theme in the text. Being gay was not readily accepted in the tough working class community of Glaswegians in the 80s.
The book, Shuggie Bain, is one about community and people. Politics constantly simmer under the surface as the author balks at the consquences Thatcherite policies have had on working class families. Despite this, little specific context is given. There are only a few references to fashion to specifically date the novel to the 80s. It is Shuggie we care about and it is because we care about Shuggie that we keep reading.
Douglas Stuart's Shuggie Bain doesn't have a great deal of hope in it. It is gritty realism well executed. It is a return to the vibe of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting. but arguably with a sharper focus on women, friendship, relationships and sexuality.
Book Discussion Questions on Douglas Stuart's Shuggie Bain
Bookclub Questions on Shuggie Bain (if you haven't read the book!)
Personal Response to Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
Shuggie Bain is a book I listened to rather than read. This meant that I invested more time with Shuggie than I would have done had I raced through the pages. In the first chapter we meet Shuggie post the events of the story so we have a fair idea throughout what the outcome will be regarding Shuggie's alcoholic mum, Agnes. If I'm honest, (despite my tendency for reading the ending of stories) I didn't like knowing where I was heading. I found it left me pretty bereft of hope or optimism for a better future. Despite this I loved the book. A friend told me that he actually groaned out loud when things take a bleak turn in the story and his wife had to check if he was ok. It takes a powerful book to do that. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart is such a book.
Book Review of Ruth Jones's Us Three
Us Three by Ruth Jones was an easy read that was a pleasurable page-turner from beginning to end.
Us Three follows the lives of three best friends, Judith, Lana And Catrin who, when primary aged children, swear on a Curly Wurly wrapper to always be there for each other. This is what happens, give or take a few decades of quarrelling and perceived betrayals between Judith and Lana. Catrin reluctantly takes on the role of mediator and go-between over the years and is the rock that holds the trio together. The story takes an unexpected twist when tragedy befalls Catrin. and it is at this point that the unravelling of the friendships pauses as Judith and Lana both need to support Catrin.
The story, Us Three, spans an ambitious thirty plus years focusing from the characters late teens to early fifties. At times, as a reader, I felt that there was hardly time to pause for breath, but that, I guess, is how life can feel. There is certainly plenty of action and events that unfold fast and furiously. Backpacking, boyfriend and husband dramas, alcoholism, fraud, fame and death are just a few of the things that the three women encounter.
The story, Us Three, is full of hope and warmth. It is the type of book where you wish you were involved in the character's lives rather than just an observer from the outside.The female friends are really well portrayed and the structure is perfectly suited to the story, It is a straightforward narrative, but awash with opportunities to engage empathetically with. I could imagine it being serialized in the future. As Ruth Jones is the co-writer of Gavin and Stacey this is perhaps not surprising.
Book Discussion Questions on Ruth Jones's Us Three
Bookclub Questions on Us Three (If you haven't read the book!)
Personal Response to Us Three by Ruth Jones
After listening to Ruth Jones discussing Us Three on my favourite Fortunately podcast I couldn't wait to read it. It didn't disappoint. In some respects Us Three reminded me a little bit of David Nicholls's Us. The obvious difference being that Us Three primarily focuses on friendship rather than on marriage. Both Nicholls's Us and Ruth Jones's Us Three would be brilliant book club choices. Finally why not enjoy this amusing interview with Ruth Jones and James Corden.
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.