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July 2018

Greetings everyone and welcome to our July Book Club! I can’t believe it’s July, we’re part way through summer already. Where is 2018 going?

 

So up on the block this time around we have Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation, which stands out as one of the funniest books I’ve read in the last year, and one that manages to be fantastically entertaining despite the fact there isn’t a huge amount of action.

 

At its heart Standard Deviation is very much about main characters Graham and Audra’s marriage. This is really the sun around which the whole novel rotates, so let’s start there and work our way outward. but interestingly isn’t a story about a marriage in crisis.

 

Novels that focus on relationships tend to capture a big event or take a snapshot of a significant moment in time. That’s why romance novels often cover the courtship or why some of the more prominent novels focused on the intricacies of a relationship centre on a marriage in crisis; both events have the capacity to be filled with tension and drama.  

 

In every novel, there’s a catalyst that makes the story worth telling – in stories fixated on relationships a couple need to meet and fall in love, or a relationship needs to crumble so that we have something to read about.

 

Movies and books often ignore the middle bits of long relationships because they don’t necessarily make for entertaining reading. So in this sense, Standard Deviation is already offering a unique perspective.

 

Graham and Audra are more than a decade into their marriage and are neither particularly happy or unhappy. They’re just getting on with the business of living, and the narrative is zoomed all the way in on the miniature daily dramas that make up a life.

 

On the surface, these two characters couldn’t be more opposite, and their differences are all the more glaringly obvious when Graham’s ex-wife, Elspeth, comes into the picture. (We’ll come back to her in a minute.)

 

So Audra and Graham are living in Manhattan and raising their 10-year-old son, Matthew, who has Aspergers. How Graham and Audra think about Matthew is where we really come to understand their differences in personality. Audra is determined to clear a path for Matthew to make his way into the world, while Graham mourns the fact that Matthew will never get to be ‘normal’.

 

Normal is an interesting idea in and of itself. Is being normal good or bad? At times all you want is to be normal, to fit the mould, to be like everyone else. Other times, being normal is the worst thing in the world, you want to be seen as an individual, not like everybody else. This question of normal says a lot about Graham and Audra’s worldview. When Audra thinks she might be pregnant, Graham worries their child might not be normal. Audra worries that they will be.

 

In the year or so we follow the family, there’s a few different things that could have easily turned into major issues – Audra’s emotional affair with the mysterious Jasper, as well as Graham’s growing closeness to his ex-wife Elspeth. Both have the opportunity to stray from the marriage, and both turn back at the last second. They weather the storm and move on.

 

I loved both these characters – by the end they felt like members of my own family – and something I particularly admired about the writing was how authentic they both felt.

 

They were likeable but distinctly imperfect. They said the wrong things and made mistakes. Audra could be tactless, Graham could be cold, and though they were each walking contradictions you ultimately came to like and accept them for who they were.

 

Their son Matthew was equally wonderful, and the scenes that revolve around him – his origami club, their trip to the origami convention, his visit to camp, the fishing expedition – were often charming, life-affirming and bittersweet.

 

My single favourite moment in the novel is when Matthew arrives home from camp, breathlessly announcing: “Camp–was–fantastic!”

 

I could vividly imagine Matthew bursting into the apartment and loved how beautifully the author captured this moment. Before Matthew arrives home Graham is restless, irritable. But that’s completely forgotten the second Matthew runs in, happy and disheveled – Graham’s joy is an extension of Matthew’s joy. And isn’t that always the way with the people we love? Their highs and lows become our own by association.

 

The final piece of the puzzle is Elspeth, Graham’s ex-wife. I have mixed feelings about her and the role she played in the story. She was the source of several plot twists – when she enters into their lives, when she invites Graham to have an affair, when she suddenly dies – but we’re still very disconnected from her.

 

Graham and Audra manage to spend more time with Elspeth and Bentrup than I do with several of my good friends, but we’re never privy to these interactions. We see snippets of conversation but the rest is told to us in summary.

 

Elspeth is actually very vividly rendered, we do get a sense of who she is – for example, when she abandons her cart in the grocery store because she doesn’t want to deal with running into Audra and Graham. That small interaction spoke volumes.

 

What bothered me about her is how little lasting impact she left on Graham and Audra. Graham is deeply shocked when she dies, but to call either him or Audra heartbroken would be a huge exaggeration. When they go into her apartment so Graham can choose one of her possessions, he’s more fixated on keeping score, spooling back through old arguments, than he is grieving her loss (though you could make the argument those two things are one in the same). And Audra seems not to care at all – she’s really just there to snoop around.

 

So if I was going to make one criticism of the story that would be it. Why after the story has spent so much time invested in Elspeth does no one seem to care when she’s died? She is a huge source of plot in the novel, then exits with a whimper rather than a bang.

 

There are dozens of small moments that pack huge emotional punch in this book. That’s what made it so fun to read; you feel the full force of Audra’s personality and all the people she brings into her orbit.

 

There is a very clear editorial decision being made here; there’s plenty of potential tension but the edges are always dulled, quickly passed over to make room for the novel’s true strength, which is observing family life and pulling at the things that are universal. The characters and their situation are unique, but also deeply relatable – we recognise the emotions they encounter, even if the experience itself is very different to our own situation.

 

There’s so many other things I could touch on – Graham’s assistant, the origami club (and the symbolic meaning of origami in general) – but it’s time for me to hand it over to you. What did you think of Standard Deviation? What bits stood out for you?

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April 2018

Conversations With Friends has been on my radar for a long time – I was really excited to share this one and am excited to hear what you all think!

 

There’s a couple of reasons I picked this one. The first is that it’s incredibly readable; as a narrator Frances is just straight to the point. There’s no time wasted on detailed descriptions – you launch straight in and very quickly there’s a lot going on.  

 

The second reason I knew this would be a great book club pick is because it challenges how we think and points out all sorts of absurdities about people and relationships both in large and small ways. This book is a masterclass in sharp observation, and I don’t just mean the observations Frances makes directly.

 

I loved the small passing ironies – like how at a dinner party our characters end up talking about the evils of society and capitalism, yet they’re all wealthy, privileged and benefitting hugely from many of the things they claim to hate.

 

Or the bigger themes that we confront again and again.

 

Take communication for example. This book has a lot to say about how we have conversations and how what’s left unsaid can often be just as strong a form of communication as speaking directly.

 

In the novel, technology facilitates communication between characters – many of the most important conversations happen not face to face but through a phone or a screen.

 

This is especially true of Frances and Nick.

 

Without email and text their affair wouldn’t have been a possibility – a huge chunk of their relationship is spent chatting or emailing back and forth. Technology allows them to communicate but eventually also prevents them from communicating honestly.

 

From behind their screens they’re each able to present a version of themselves and leave out anything that’s messy, inconvenient, or doesn’t fit with their portrayal of themselves to each other.

 

Think about what Frances is doing when she’s talking to Nick. She feels deeply about Nick – it’s almost an obsession – but uses technology as her shield to pretend she doesn’t feel anything at all.

 

In this form her conversations with Nick aren’t just words; they’re keepsakes. She scrolls through texts and emails again and again, analysing and re-analysing the things they’ve said.

 

I love this idea – it’s so relevant. How many times have you had an argument with a friend over text or tried to squeeze every last drop of meaning out of an ambiguous text from a love interest?

 

We hold on to emails and texts and use them as clues, momentos, evidence. When we speak in person words are spoken, then forgotten; they evaporate. When we speak to each other through a screen they can be memorialised and revisited again and again, interpreted each time in different ways.  

 

Or let’s look at it from another angle. Frances struggles to communicate using her voice yet can powerfully communicate using her words. Her relationship with Bobbi is unbalanced because Frances can rarely find a way to communicate what she’s thinking and feeling – their friendship fractures because Frances is able to write about Bobbi but not share any of that information with her directly.

 

Or how about how a lack of communication can also be a powerful weapon. Bobbi knows how to use secrets to keep the upper hand in their friendship, and Frances also eventually follows suit. The two of them both use secrets to show their power over the other.

 

I’m just scratching the surface here. Appearance and the body are other interesting themes you could explore. Think about how Frances thinks of her body, and how she uses it. She harms herself in an effort to control her body; her body controls her actions by desiring Nick.

 

Or take the fact Nick is so good looking. He’s not described in terms of anything else. For the fact he’s such an important character in the novel we know comically little about him. That he’s handsome seems to be his defining characteristic. We’re reminded of it again and again and again.

 

When Frances is talking to Nick she relentlessly looks up photos and videos of him. For much of the book he’s closer to a fascinating object than an actual living, breathing (and flawed!) human being.

 

The biggest theme though, of course, is relationships. There’s just so much to unpack here.

 

Let’s start with what we accept as good, bad and normal when it comes to relationships.

 

In broad strokes: affairs are bad. Close friendships are good.

 

Now let’s look at how the novel manages to turn these ideas upside down.

 

Nick and Frances more closely fit the profile of what we’d traditionally call a dysfunctional relationship – they’re having an affair, after all, and that by definition is ‘bad’.

 

Yet by the time they’re dating openly their relationship is actually very functional and stable.

 

Contrast this with Frances and Bobbi. On the surface these two present like best friends and creative partners, and are treated by almost everyone who knows them as a unit. We see this as normal, healthy, good.

 

Yet the dynamic between the two of them is completely dysfunctional. They’re jealous and possessive of one another and Frances really struggles to relax and show her true self to Bobbi most of the time.

 

They’re both obsessed with being clever and having intellectual conversations, yet are never really able to discuss the things that are actually most important to them.

 

Or take at how the book approaches the concept of marriage.

 

Nick and Melissa are married, but Bobbi and Frances both see this relationship as dysfunctional and failing.

 

Whether it is or not is a point we could argue – the number of times they’ve had affairs or been on the brink of separation certainly suggests their marriage is a mess.

 

Yet in other ways it does seem to work for them. Frances and Bobbi’s take on their marriage is naive; it doesn’t make many allowances for the complexities of adult relationships.

 

When sifting through the evidence even Frances is eventually forced to acknowledge that they clearly love each other. Nick’s loyalty is ultimately to Melissa even when he’s having the affair. And if you want to take it one step further – it was only when Melissa found out about their affair and ultimately granted Nick permission that him and Frances began to thrive.

 

Is this a marriage that’s failing or a snapshot of a complicated couple working through a difficult time?

 

So jump forward to the end of the book and it feels a bit like we’ve hit the reset button in a way. Nick and Frances are finished. Nick and Melissa are still together and moving forward as a unit of two.

 

When Frances hits rock bottom, it’s Bobbi who is there, and the two of them start turning a corner. They’re back together and for a minute it feels like everything is as is should be.

 

But then Bobbi refuses to acknowledge that the two of them are back together, and before Frances has an opportunity to make meaning of that she finds herself back on the phone with Nick.

 

The two of them have their most honest conversation in the book ever – notice how Frances is able to confide in him and in return how vulnerable he ends up being with her.

 

We end on a bit of a cliffhanger – I actually found myself yelling out nooooo when Frances asks Nick to pick her up.

 

I liked Nick – but ultimately as a reader my loyalty is to Frances. And by the end of the book I firmly felt that Frances needed to get away from both Bobbi and Nick. These relationships weren’t healthy for her.

 

And she has some incredibly complicated and unresolved issues to deal with by the end of the book – with herself, with her health, with her family.

 

I couldn’t help but feel the best thing for Frances would be to go and get herself a job somewhere else and figure out who she is on her own.

 

I have now said more than enough – it’s over to you! What did you think of Conversations with Friends? And, more importantly – do you think Nick picked her up?

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January 2018

It’s our first book club of 2018 and we’re kicking the year off with Rebecca Mascull’s The Wild Air.

 

There were a few reasons I chose The Wild Air, one of them being that it offers lots of food for thought. Whether you loved it or it drove you mad I knew there would be plenty we could find to talk about.

 

Before I jump into the plot and characters, I want to point out what I think is the strongest element of this book: the details. A ton of research clearly went into the making of The Wild Air and it shows.

 

The same way they say you can tell a great restaurant by the way you don’t notice the staff at all, you know a novel is working when the research comes together to make the experience seamless for the reader.

 

There are hundreds of tiny details sprinkled throughout the book that add up to give us a vivid sense of the world Della lives in. I have almost no interest in flying or aviation, yet the novel managed to make it interesting and deliver up enough detail that it all felt real.

 

Della herself is a completely fictional character, but many of the other pilots we meet and hear about in the novel – Hilda Hewlett, Melli Beese, The Wright Brothers to name but a few – are all real people in history.

 

It’s these little things that anchor us to the story and create a world that feels like it could easily be real.

 

And it’s a good thing, because within the first three pages we know that the novel is going to span, at the very least, the better part of a decade. The prologue opens in 1918, but chapter one starts in 1909.

 

For a novel that’s less than 400 pages that’s pretty ambitious. We’ll come back to whether or not the story bites off more than it can chew in a minute or two.

 

Let me begin with Della. I love Della, I loved her pretty much from page one. I have a huge soft spot for quiet heroines – Jane Eyre and Persuasion’s Anne Elliot would be two other notable examples – because I typically relate to them more so than the bold, fearless characters we tend to bring to mind when we use the word heroine.

 

And for all that Della doesn’t see herself as clever or special or brave, she still is. She has the courage and conviction to follow her dreams despite the fact that the idea of a woman flying  makes her pretty much a laughing stock.

 

She’s strong-willed but rarely forceful. She gets on with it in spite of some pretty strong opposition – from her father, from her instructors, from other pilots – and kept at it even when working towards her goal was tedious, mundane and frustrating.

 

Della could both love flying but also find the sacrifices she made to do it boring at times – she wasn’t universally grateful for what she was doing and had to face down loneliness and self-doubt despite the fact that she was a talented pilot.

 

That the novel didn’t gloss over this to make the ‘adventure’ seem more exciting for the reader was another reason I chose this one to kick off the year. So often when we talk about pursuing dreams we use a glossy, Instagram-worthy version of the truth that ignores just how unpleasant the journey can be at times.

 

As a reader we get to experience the joy of her triumph but must also learn to stick it out when things aren’t going to plan.

 

For me, the Meggie Magpie years are definitely a highlight of this novel. I loved watching Della mature and rise up to meet her ambitions and had huge sympathy for her as she had to learn to navigate her relationships with the men around her.

 

Look at her relationship with Claude Grahame-White for example; she admires and believes she has fallen in love with him at first, only to later realise that the two would never be equals. She gives him too much credit, and he doesn’t give her enough.

 

And of course, Dud. It was only a matter of time before I got to Dudley – he becomes more and more important as the story goes on.

 

Though their relationship features heavily in this book I still wouldn’t necessarily call it a love story. That’s not where the tension comes from – once they decide to be together we never have cause to question the strength of their relationship again. Dud’s loyalty and devotion is simple and obvious.

 

So Della’s career is going on well, and then the war arrives and obliterates pretty much everything. After spending so long touring around Europe, Della is at home and grounded, left to kick her heels and wait.

 

At first, the excitement is palpable – the naive belief that the war will be over and done with before anyone sees any real action is perfectly captured through Della’s brother Puck, and even, to an extent, Dud’s botched proposal.

 

And then reality starts to creep in. The war drags on, Puck is killed and the family is plunged into grief. Dud returns battered and shell shocked and Della is really fearful he might be lost to her for good.

 

We get a brief respite from this when she teaches him to fly, but once Dud’s training is finished the honeymoon is over – he’s sent back to the war and she’s once again left behind in anxiety and frustration.

 

Notice how we share that frustration as readers – we have little more to do than wait for news through Dudley’s letters for a huge chunk of the novel’s second half. I found myself impatiently reading through this section because, like Della, there’s really not much else we can do.

 

Thanks to the prologue we know that something serious happens to Della in 1918, and I was busy anticipating that while we wait as the war unfolds.

 

In general I’m not a huge fan of a prologue – it seems to rob us as readers of the dramatic tension. For example, until Della went across the Channel to rescue Dudley, I never once truly worried whether or not he’d be alright – I had been told as much on page one.

 

Which brings us to what I anticipate will be a key sticking point for many of us  – Dudley’s rescue.

 

For a book that was so rooted in reality her rescue of Dudley felt ridiculously far fetched. When I first read it I didn’t find it believable in the least – there were so many potential disasters and everything was just fine.

 

Is it truly plausible that Della would just fly over to France, find Dudley on the run despite having no real information to go on, and face no opposition getting him home? Too much fell into place too quickly and too easily.

 

But then later I had to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth as a reader: would I have found it as unbelievable if the tables were turned?

 

What if it was Dudley who went off and rescued Della? He says it himself – wives shouldn’t be rescuing husbands – and though I thought this scene could have played out much better in general, I wonder if it would have jarred me as much if the shoe was on the other foot.

 

There are several books in our Rare Birds bookstore that feature more ridiculous rescues than this and I accepted them without a second thought. It’s not lost on me that the rescues are usually the hero going after the heroine.

 

It’s an interesting question to grapple with, especially considering the novel directly and indirectly questions the role of women and what’s considered acceptable again and again and again.

 

We see it in Della’s treatment by the other pilots she encounters, but there are also dozens of smaller, subtler ways the author puts the question to us as readers. Even when I felt the plot wasn’t working – like in the rescue scene – I can admire the fact that it forced me to acknowledge that even as a reader (and a woman!) this was a moment I was all too ready to believe this was a bridge too far.

 

The other major criticism I have for this book was the treatment of Betty.

 

Betty, who helped bring Della out of her shell. Who introduced her to flying and encouraged her to pursue it, and believed in her and showed her a model for what a woman could be. Betty who was responsible for encouraging the friendship between Dudley and Della.

 

Secondary characters are notoriously tricky, and this is often true with novels of this length – we don’t have enough time and space to round them out. They end up as two-dimensional plot devices that enter the story to get our heroine from A to B.

 

This is where covering so much ground in one book can come back to bite you – Betty deserved better than to be treated as a plot device, and considering we spend so much time with her at the start of the novel it felt hugely unfair that she just disappears.

 

We learn about Betty’s death in a letter, and though Della explicitly acknowledges how hollow she feels at not being there, it takes her little more than a paragraph to come to the conclusion that the greatest tribute to her is to continue flying, and that’s Betty consigned to history.

 

I really felt like we could have dispensed with many of the war chapters and instead spent more time exploring Della and her Great Aunt’s relationship and how both women see an ambition achieved as Della begins to fly professionally.

 

That’s plenty from me – it’s your turn. What did you think of the Wild Air? Did you like our heroine Della? Did you fall for Dudley?