“The indiscriminate reading of novels is one of the most injurious habits to which a married woman can be subject.”

dept of speculation coverBooks on Tap read Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill at Champion Brewery on August 2. The novel, short on plot but long on introspection, follows a writer who hopes to be an “art monster” as she marries, has a daughter, teaches writing in college and negotiates her marriage after her husband’s infidelity. Told in short bursts, it has been likened to an x-ray, drawing on the author’s experimentation with poetry during a bout of writer’s block. It starts in close first person, switches to third person after the cheating is discovered and then back to first as the husband and wife reconcile.

We all liked this witty rumination on growing older, knowing oneself and making compromises. Two of us listened to the audiobook and missed all the formatting (and thought we had missed entire chapters!). We didn’t think that the characters were particularly sympathetic but the narrator’s emotions resonated. Her desire not to lose her identity and drive after childbirth and her questioning of priorities accurately reflects life in middle age. However, the point of view is so narrow, it only serves to confirm that you can never truly know what happens in another couple’s relationship. The book contains all aspects of a full life: family, career, loneliness, romance, anger. Its format also mirrors how we communicate now, inward-turning short bursts with (inaccurate?) quotations of famous people. While the ending wasn’t particularly happy, it was happier and happy enough.

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“The only people who have to think about their identity are the ones who don’t fit the mold.”

simon coverThe LGBTQ Book club met at Central on July 31 to discuss the young adult novel Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. Everyone liked the warm coming-of-age story of Simon’s email flirtation with an unknown classmate, his forced outing, and the revelation of the surprise identity of his online crush. The novel is populated with Simon’s family and many, many friends, which are hard to keep track of but all have clearly drawn personalities. The book is lauded for its diverse cast of characters, but this seemed very subtle to us.  We were pleasantly surprised with the support Simon received from his family, friends and teachers, something that would have been unusual in a young adult novel ten years ago. While some of us who grew up in the area thought it rang true, a few of us thought that Simon’s classmates could have be crueler in real life and that Simon was free from any religious shaming.

Simon notices small, physical details about his friends such as the shape of their fingers. However, his primary relationship with Blue is conducted all online, with no physicality. Getting to know each other through email allows each boy to craft what they are saying, making their relationship less awkward and more intimate than it would have been face-to-face. This is mirrored the first time they are intimate, which is hilariously cringe-worthy.

The quotation “straight (and white, for that matter) is the default, and the only people who have to think about their identity are the ones who don’t fit that mold,”  resonated with us. One participant read an interview with the author who explained that the title was a play on the phrase “homosexual agenda.” While we didn’t think that would resonate with today’s teens (and none of us realized it while reading the book), it does position the coming out story as part of the human condition. This is a deeply human story and everyone must struggle with identity, ideally without wounding others along the way.

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Recommendations:
Alex Stranglove (film)
Rise (TV series)

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“More subtle than Kingsolver.”

ragnarokBooks on Tap read Ragnarok (other editions available) by A.S. Byatt at Champion Brewery on April 5. The book is part of the Canongate Myth Series, in which noted authors reinterpret myths in book-length format. Last fall the group read and enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s contribution, The Penelopiad, so we decided to try another one. A.S. Byatt chose Ragnarok, the Norse myth of a battle of the gods leading to the end of the world. She frames the story with that of the thin girl evacuated to the British countryside during World War II who comforts herself by reading and re-reading 19th century German collection of Norse myths. The destruction of the mythic world and  20th century Europe are compared in the final section, “Thoughts on Myths” with environmental degradation in the 21st century.

Unlike The Penelopiad which was a witty transformation of The Odyssey focusing on a minor character, Byatt’s Ragnarok is a straight-forward retelling within the frame story. Some of our readers found the writing, naming all plants and animals, lush, similar to The Ten Thousand Things. Others found it off-putting and hard to track.

Byatt questions the difference between myth and fairy tale but does not provide a clear answer. Our group was also unable to come up with a definitive answer, but did find this myth useful. Are we not as vainglorious as the gods? Is Loki’s chaos as natural state destined to bring about cyclical cataclysm, either war or environmental? Unlike modern interpretations of fairy tales, Byatt chose the pre-Christian ending, in which the world is destroyed but not re-born. However, there are glimpses of hope in her final section and in the fact that the thin girl’s father unexpectedly returns from war.

While this wasn’t the success that The Penelopiad was, the readers who joined us found it a worthwhile struggle and the first (and probably only) book by Byatt that we’ll read.

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