Friday, 12 November 2010

The Percy Road Book Group, Southampton

For a work project, I visited my sister's book group in Southampton, having given them copies of one of our books in advance. Never got round to using it at work, so here's the discussion:

The Book:

The Chapel at the Edge of the World by Kirsten McKenzie

A moving story of Italian childhood sweethearts separated by war. Emilio is a POW in the Orkneys, Rosa remains in Lake Como. He builds a makeshift chapel (true story), she joins the resistance.

Who's who?

Michelle (our host) - favourite book: The Five People You Meet In Heaven
Chris - favourite book: Keep the Aspidistra Flying
Angela - Jonathan Livingstone Seagull
Vic - If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things
Brendan - The Kite Runner
Me - The Name of the Rose (this week)

What did they like?

Plenty, thank God. The nightmare scenario of nervous silence thankfully didn't materialise. Here's a few likes: "The small, intimate cast of characters"; "the fast moving narrative; the story alternates between settings in small chunks, with lots of dialogue"; "really distinct styles to the two threads of the story; a pacier narrative in the Rosa bits"; "reminds you of the courage of resistance fighters"; "the strong theme of perseverance"; "the absorbing atmosphere".

Chris and Vic both re-started the book as soon as they'd finished it, to read again the bit at the beginning (which is actually the end of the story). Like The Kite Runner, you're uncertain what's happening at the start, until the story unfolds...

Like most people in publishing, I sometimes forget that not everyone likes reading. Michelle told us she'd struggled to get her colleague excited about this book, but then remembered he'd only ever read one book - a Mario Puzo novel badly finished by his wife when he died - and was so cross he never read another.

What did they not like?

Some of the group felt that the book didn't end quite as strongly as it had started. Others wanted the story to be bigger, and escape the episodic narrative. Angela didn't feel the relationship between Emilio and Bertoldo was very clear; their attitudes to one another seemed to shift in inexplicable ways.

The Chapel

Every book group needs a research fiend, and Michelle was that lady, finding pictures on the net of the actual chapel on Lambholm.

It turns out to be bigger and more impressive than people had imagined. Interesting question: is it better to see that before you read the book, or would that inhibit your imagination?

Chris observed that the chapel was a brilliant device for writing about people; each character projected their own needs and hopes onto it. It provides a release for some, a distraction for others.

The Characters

Bertoldo was considered fascinating and surprising; where did he find the courage to attempt an escape?

Rosa was the most controversial. To some she was gutsy, confused, changed by the war (whereas Emilio 'came back the same person'). To others she was deceptive. Was she engaged in resistance work as a distraction, as Emilio was with the chapel?

Emilio: he coped by
not yearning.

Their Best Book for Discussion, Ever?

This lot, like many reading groups, often have good discussions about bad books. They named The Mermaid and the Drunks and The Death of Mr Love.

'Best book' votes went to Germinal, The Bone Setter's Daughter, and English Passengers. They love a book offering an escape to a historical reality.

Why a book group?

So you can discuss books at length without boring loved ones! And you find yourself reading books you'd never have normally picked up.

How do they decide on the next book?

They take turns. No messing. And they use a list from the excellent Southampton Central library for inspiration, and usually source the books from them. And compete in their vicious Christmas Quiz...

Do they use reading notes or similar?

They sometimes use questions from the back of books, and often research on the web. is approved of.

Catering Report:

Outstanding biscuits including those nice little oblong Jaffa Cakes, already well known to your correspondent. Red wine (likewise).

Next Time?

Restless by William Boyd. Never heard of him.

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