Posts Tagged ‘book group’

A Feminist Book Group Calendar


Regular readers will have seen me refer to my very small book group. When I say mine – it is only because I have been attending since it started – but I didn’t start it myself. It was started by Jo – the partner of the guy who once ran another book group I attended for a short time. I knew immediately that Jo’s book group was just right for me – it’s a feminist book group – (a must for a Virago reader surely) – and we have read some wonderful books.

To start with there was just four of us, Jo, myself and two friends I had persuaded to join us. Now three years on – we have moved our meetings to a coffee shop in the city centre; 7pm on the second Wednesday of the month – we have about nine members now. Generally, there are only about six of us at any meet up, which is just right to sit around the big table in Café Nero. Café Nero is open till about 9.30pm midweek and we’re usually finished before 9.00 so not too late home on a school night.


Not all the books we have chosen, have been overtly feminist – some books we chose we did what you might call a feminist reading of – and that works just as well. In fact, in the interests of equality 😉 we’ve even read a couple of books by a men, and could well do that again one day.

So, let’s pretend you are launching a feminist book group of your own – here is what you might read (all of these are books my lovely book group have read sometime over the past three years)

January The Awakening – Kate Chopin

This was the first ever book we read in our book group – such a good one to get started with. The Awakening is a feminist novel of liberation, Edna refuses to conform or sacrifice her wants for her husband and children. First published in 1899 – this novel was controversial when it first emerged. The writing style has a more modern feel to it than might be expected – it is very much a novel of that realistic school of some French novelists.

February Quartet – Jean Rhys

Beautifully melancholic, Quartet is perfect for a gloomy month like February. An autobiographical first novel. Marya is trapped into a ménage à trois, a victim of the society in which she lived. A society where women with no money and no husband or family are prey to the wealthy and or disreputable.

March – Everywoman – Jess Phillips

Everywoman is part memoir, part feminist manifesto – written by my local MP – a woman I have come to respect and like enormously, despite a general disenchantment with her party. I knew nothing about Jess Phillips until after she was elected. She’s a kick ass feminist, who wears her heart on her sleeve, she spends her life fighting for women who have no voice – or feel like they have no voice – she’s heroically fierce, and very funny.

April – Elizabeth and her German Garden – Elizabeth von Arnim

A perfect spring read Elizabeth is a woman out of her time in many respects – quietly irreverent she is a woman who appreciates time on her own, who feels she has earned the right to her own space.

May – How to be a Heroine – Samantha Ellis

A work of feminism, literary criticism and memoir – and it is a book about books. Our group had to battle it out over the eternal question over Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights – #teamJane #teamCathy – it was a fun battle – I can’t quite remember but I prefer to believe Jane won.

June – The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

(Do you see what I did there?)
Needing no introduction, a must for any book group surely, but essential reading for a feminist one. It was a re-read for all of us of course – but one we felt was very important for us. I feel as if Margaret Atwood has paved the way for so many modern feminist writers – like Naomi Alderman (see below) and Christine Dalcher the writer of Vox – a novel our group will be reading in November.

July – To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf saw the novel as an elegy to her own parents – and presumably her childhood. The novel itself is about a marriage, childhood, parentage, reminiscence and grief. It is an exquisite novel.

August – Bad Feminist – Roxanne Gay

A collection of essays – not a perfect book but a great read particularly for young feminists. Gay’s references are more popular culture than academic – which won’t suit everyone – but it is a very good read nonetheless.

September – The Power – Naomi Alderman

The story of The Power is set in the reasonably near future – when suddenly a few teenage girls begin to discover they are possessed of a strange power – a kind of electrical force which runs through a skein in their bodies – and is capable of inflicting great pain or even death on others. An extraordinarily thought-provoking novel, which has a lot to say about the power balance between the sexes, addressing quite unflinchingly the worst things that can happen across nations as well as between men and women when there is a transference of power.

October – Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner

A magical little story – perfect for the month which ends with Halloween. The story itself is tender and a little magical, and I adored the character of Lolly Willowes herself. Laura Willowes (to allow her, her given name) is a dutiful unmarried daughter of twenty-eight when her beloved father dies. Published three years before Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Lolly Willowes is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s assertion that all single women should have their own liberty and lives of their own not dictated for them by others.

November – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Bronte

A novel I had read twice already when my book group chose it. I didn’t read it completely for a third time – but I did re-read a few bits to refresh my memory. It is a book I love – a feminist classic – it sent shock waves through the establishment when it was first published in 1848. This is certainly a novel of its time, in the 1840’s when Anne Bronte was writing; a married woman and her child belonged absolutely to her husband. A few years ago, I wrote a post about this novel called Slamming the bedroom door.

December – The Magic Toyshop – Angela Carter

The Magic Toyshop has elements of a Gothic fairy-tale, a coming of age tale and quirky romance, it’s compelling, disturbing and charming all at once. It is nothing short of wonderful.

So, there you go – twelve books for twelve feminist book group months. All you have to do now is get a few friends together. I love my book group – even when we pick books I don’t really like. I look forward to those second Wednesday of the month evenings.


As for my own real-life group – well – any of you who are local to me feel free to join us, you can find out more about where and when we meet, on our Twitter page @BrumFemBookClub.

Up next – Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – winner of the Women’s Prize. I read this last year – and remember it so well – can’t wait to discuss it. November is Vox by Christine Dalcher.


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the yellow houseOn Sunday evening I laid my kindle aside with a book un-finished – and reached gratefully for something else. Oddly, I only allowed myself to do this having been told by several people on Twitter – that if I wasn’t enjoying my book – to walk away. My guilt was greater because this was a book group read – and one I voted for the evening it was picked (all book groups do that voting thing don’t they?).

It isn’t often that a book completely defeats me – once begun I generally struggle valiantly on. Although this year, I am happy to say, there has been little that has disappointed me – I have had a pretty good run. I am still not entirely sure why this particular book defeated me – it might just have been the case of the wrong time, wrong mood, maybe the wrong subject – for me at least – and not so much the book. The book in question: The Yellow House by Martin Gayford (2006) – a non-fiction book has a healthy number of four and five star reviews on Goodreads, but also many one and two star reviews – so possibly it is a bit of a marmite book. I am certainly not suggesting that this is a bad book – I read enough (a little more than half) to know it is a well-researched book with an interesting subject – I really had expected to enjoy it – and that’s speaking as someone who generally struggles with non-fiction.

The book is about the nine-weeks spent by Vincent Von Gogh and Paul Gauguin in the eponymous yellow house in Arles, the South of France in 1888. The subtitle – nine turbulent weeks in Arles – is a tantalising suggestion of a glimpse into the lives of two fascinating figures of the art world. I do like art – I am certainly not very knowledgeable however, but I do appreciate it, and generally like the work of these two artists. However something didn’t work for me, I was left cold, unengaged and dragged down by an overwhelming tedium. That sounds harsh – but that’s how I felt. Gayford does provide a lot of precise details about artistic execution – which was a little lost on me, I can imagine artists loving these details, and I’m no artist, I can barely draw a straight line.

vangoghVincent Van Gogh is a fascinating figure – and his story was the reason I wanted to read this book – and although he is presented to us here as fragile man already, he remained a little elusive, and Gauguin I certainly did not get to know at all. Vincent was already in awe of Gauguin when he came to the yellow house which Van Gogh had rented a few months earlier, that they should share a house was a plan he had conceived much earlier, and finally brought to fruition in October 1888. The two men collaborated artistically much more than I expected – one of the fascinating things that did emerge from the part that I read – each of them interpreting the same things quite differently. Living together in a tiny house with no bathroom, these two men with different artistic temperaments were always going to have problems. Gauguin begins to enjoy a little success, Vincent doesn’t, is often still thought of as a ‘madman’. I was frustrated by a story which should have completely captivated me, was in fact leaving me cold. So I stopped. This is a period which of course leads ultimately up to the time when Vincent Van Gogh suffers a breakdown and slices off his own ear. Having read only about 55% of this kindle book – it was Vincent who I felt for more – and I really do remain frustrated that the book didn’t deliver (for me at least) what it had promised.

As an aside – the reproductions of images of the artwork in my kindle version are pretty awful, displayed almost as greyish smudges. Although I have discovered that the paperback version only has small black and white images too – considering the importance of colour in the lives of these two men that does seem a shame.

I don’t like to put people off books, so you might want to make up your own mind on this one – we all like and dislike different things after all. The only reason I am writing this post at all is due to a self-imposed rule that I write about everything I read (unless it’s only a very few pages).

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Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is an exemplary autobiographical graphic novel, in the tradition of Art Spiegelman’s classic Maus. Set in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, it follows the young Satrapi, six-year-old daughter of two committed and well-to-do Marxists. As she grows up, she witnesses first-hand the effects that the revolution and the war with Iraq have on her home, family and school.
Like Maus, the main strength of Persepolis is its ability to make the political personal. Told through the eyes of a child (as reflected in Satrapi’s simplistic yet expressive black-and-white artwork), the story shows how young Marjane learns about her family history and how it is entwined with the history of Iran, and watches her liberal parents cope with a fundamentalist regime that gets increasingly rigid as it gains more power. Outspoken and intelligent, Marjane chafes at Iran’s increasingly conservative interpretation of Islamic law, especially as she grows into a bright and independent teenager. Throughout, Marjane remains a hugely likeable young woman
Persepolis gives the reader a snapshot of daily life in a country struggling with an internal cultural revolution and a bloody war, but within an intensely personal context. It’s a very human history, beautifully and sympathetically told.

 Chosen by my book group I can honestly say it is not a book I would have gone anywhere near otherwise. My first experience of a graphic novel, this has been an interesting reading experience for me but probably one I am unlikely to repeat. As a reader I love language – I love description and clever wordsmithery (not sure if that’s not a real word?) I like blocks of text. None of those things are really present in a graphic novel. I found the size of the print a big problem for me with my poor eyesight too. I actually gave myself quite a headache while reading it.
So as a graphic novel virgin – I’m not sure I am qualified to write a decent review, as it is a different medium, and an art form that I have no previous experience of so all I can do is recount my reactions to it.
This book is the complete Persepolis – the story of a childhood and the story of a return, which was originally published as two volumes.
Marjane comes across strongly as an intelligent feisty young girl/woman who becomes really quite politicised; with a rebellious streak. From a fairly young age she is forced to become all too aware of the things that are happening in her country. She is the daughter of outspoken Marxists, the great-granddaughter of Iran’s last emperor. The story re-creates the everyday life of Marjane’s family, after the fall of the Shah and during the rise of the fundamentalist regime. Marjane is instantly a character that is easy to identify with she is adored by her parents and has a touchingly close relationship with her parents and grandmother. She quickly learns to separate her public and private self, but she also learns to rebel in small ways – and her parents begin to fear for her rebellious nature. At 14 Marjane is sent to Austria – where she must learn a greater independence away from her parents. The second part then relates Marjane’s four years in Austria, her confusion over who she is and her later return to Iran when is 18.
  I was surprised at how this graphic style manages to covey the emotions and upheavals of Marjane as she grows up. The simple stark black and white images are powerful, perfectly conveying the fear, tension and rigidity of the regime.

I found Marjane’s story compelling and a fascinating insight into the Iranian way of life. However I didn’t enjoy the process of reading this – the print was too small for to read comfortably and I missed prose. I did feel though that I liked Marjane enormously and think she is very brave – her book is marvelously honest and for that alone she should be commended. It was an interesting book to read though for many other reasons, I learned a lot about Iran for a start – and I am glad I have had the chance to read something I would never have picked up if not for my book group. I am looking forward to the discussion of it on Wednesday evening.







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On a wild and stormy night Molly runs away from her grandparent’s house. Her dad has sent her to live there until he Sorts Thing Out at home. In the howling darkness, Molly sees a desperate figure running for his life from a terrifying midnight hunt. He has come to help her. But why? And who is he? SEASON OF SECRETS weaves the tale of a heartbroken child and an age-old legend into a haunting story of love, healing and strange magic.

This was the latest of our book group selections. Certainly it’s not a book I would have picked otherwise. It was presented to us as a YA book, it isn’t – it is a children’s book, an older children’s book perhaps but a children’s book nonetheless. Nothing wrong with children’s books of course, nothing wrong with adults reading them. I think I just struggle reviewing things for which I am not the target audience.

Having said that I thought it was an enjoyable little read. Well written with a sympathetic narrative voice in the recently bereaved Molly. ‘Season of secrets’ weaves the magical myths which surround ancient tales of The Green Man, with the changing seasons and the grief anger and vulnerability of two young girls who having lost their mother, have been sent away by their father.
I read this in a few hours today (either side of an exhaustive massive shopping trip) and found it a charming easy to curl up with read on an appropriately rainy/blustery day. I am sure a 12/13 year old girl would love this slightly sad family drama with a hint of magic.

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I first read this in 2006, re-read now as it was my choice for my book group’s November read.

Maps for Lost Lovers is a stunningly brave and searingly brutal novel charting a year in the life of a working class community from the subcontinent–a group described by author Nadeem Aslam as “Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian and Sri Lankans living in a northern town”. The older residents, who have left their homelands for the riches of England, have communally dubbed it Dasht-e-Tanhaii, which roughly translates as “the wilderness of solitude” or “the desert of loneliness”. As the seasons change, from the first crystal flakes of snow that melt into “a monsoon raindrop”, we slowly learn the fate of Jugnu and Chanda, a couple whose disappearance is rumoured to have been a result of their fatal decision to live in sin in a community where the phrase holds true meaning.

I liked this novel just as much as I did the first time, although you can never recapture that first impact a wonderful novel has for you as a reader.

The opening sequence of the novel – Shamas standing in the doorway in the snow had stayed powerfully with me. This is a beautifully written novel, evocative and bravely honest. Some of the characters strain against their religious and cultural ties, others find strength in those traditional ways and beliefs.The stories of the people in this novel are generally sad, there is little reason to hope for the future (something I felt very much with Aslam’s third novel A Wasted Vigil too). Lives are restricted because of strict religious or moral codes, a fear of “what people will think/say” is constant. Kaukab counting on the fingers of one hand the number of white people she has spoken to. Her constant misunderstandings with her children, her life so desperately sad.

Nothing is an accident: it’s always someone’s fault; perhaps-but no one teaches us how to live with our mistakes. Everyone is isolated, alone with his or her anguish and guilt, and too penetrating a question can mean people are not able to face one another the next day.”

There is a feeling of tension throughout – the tension of a community where everyone knows who is who, and gossip is rife, and a life can be destroyed simply by been seen talking to someone in the street. This is a story of love in it’s many guises, of loss, bigotry and injustice.

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Read for my book group.

From familiar fairy tales and legends – Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, Puss in Boots, Beauty and the Beast, vampires and werewolves – Angela Carter has created an absorbing collection of dark, sensual, fantastic stories.

A collection of dark, adult, re-told fairy tales. Not my usual kind of reading really, but I was strangely fascinated by these stories, and came to appreciate the excellent writing of an author I have not read before. I am not sure I exactly enjoyed all the stories however, although some I did very much. The stories are sexual, sensual and dark, one – Puss in boots rather farcical, there is depravity and cruelty as well as some beautiful imagery in the descriptions of nature. One of the recurring themes is loss of innocence, and Carter has blended the traditions of mythology and fairy tales with nature to explore the sexual awakenings and strength of young women. My personal favourites from the collection: The Bloody Chamber, The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Company of Wolves.
I am looking forward to hearing what other people in the book group thought.

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Read for my book group.

Read on kindle

From the Back Cover

1913: Suffragette throws herself under the King's horse

1970: Feminists storm Miss World

Now: Caitlin Moran rewrites The Female Eunach from a bar stool and demands to know why pants are getting smaller
There’s never been a better time to be a woman: we have the vote and the Pill, and we haven’t been burnt as witches since 1727. However, a few nagging questions do remain…
Why are we supposed to get Brazilians? Should you get Botox? Do men secretly hate us? What should you call your vagina? Why does your bra hurt? And why does everyone ask you when you’re going to have a baby?
Part memoir, part rant, Caitlin Moran answers these questions and more in How To Be A Woman – following her from her terrible 13th birthday (‘I am 13 stone, have no friends, and boys throw gravel at me when they see me’) through adolescence, the workplace, strip-clubs, love, fat, abortion, Topshop, motherhood and beyond.

If it hadn't been for the fact that this was chosen by someone at my book group, I would never have read it. I knew it wasn't my kind of book. I am quite prepared to be wrong about a book, I have been before. However I wasn't wrong, I didn't like this at all.

Firstly, I'm sure this can't really be described as a work of feminism – which is how it has been touted – talking about sex and saying c*nt a lot doesn't make one a feminist! (However I would also agree that most of us women these days are feminists to some degree or other) That is not to say that Moran doesn't raise some interesting points – she does, and many of them I would agree with – however these were no great revelations for me – I knew already I thought these things. Also a few quotes from Germaine Greer hardly makes for a great work on feminism either – there have after all been others along the way.

This is mainly a rant, Caitlin Moran rants about things that get her goat – which she is quite entitled to do. Her style is very witty – and I suspect she is very pleased with this style – I however found it rather trite, it got a bit much after a while. It did seem as if for many things Moran has no grey areas, things are either marvelous or terrible – well for me, there are sometimes shades of grey to be considered.

Parts of Moran's memoir – the story of her upbringing, her pregnancies and marriage are quite entertaining and interesting, however I felt the book was quite lightweight and was often irritated by things I suspect may be exaggerations.

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