I’m just going to subtly post this now and nobody will notice that it’s super late. Smooth as silk. No complaints, people will just assume it has been here the whole time and not question it at all…..
Hooray. It’s the highlight of the year. My two great loves together as they should be, Sydney Writers’ Festival (why yes I am a volunteer, how can I help) and THE Book Club ABC with the incandescent JByrne. All is right in the world…. well, except for the fact regular co-hosts Marieke and Ace have been cast aside like last year’s hottest new author that is now being crucified for their follow-up novel having too many POVs…. but apart from that, it’s just dandy.
The title of this episode is Books That Changed My Life. Let’s find out if that means for the better or for the worse, like when Anne McCaffrey suddenly killed off Moreta right when you thought the day was saved leaving a generation of fans emotionally obliterated because we thought somehow she’d sneakily survive but NO. Firstpublishedin1983outsideofspoilerwhinezone!!!
The guests are George Saunders. See his debut full length novel get book clubbed here. Also the much esteemed Anne Enright and OMG she has chosen The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, one of my fav books EVER. You and me Anne, all the way, love your work, love your taste. OMG×2 Anne Enright studied under ANGELA CARTER. I am so excited that I am about to pass out! Next guest is Mikhail Zygar. He is clutching Confession by Tolstoy. A less well known Tolstoy about his spiritual awakening. JByrne breaks her own rule of starting to discuss the book before its turn. She’s not happy, apparently the book describes Anna Karenina as an ABOMINATION. I’m sure we’ll hear more about that later. And finally, Brit Bennett, who is the most spectacular speaker. If you ever get the chance to hear her, do go. She has chosen Beloved by Toni Morrison. I have goosebumps just thinking about it. It’s a book about a woman who kills her own child to prevent her from going back into slavery…. I might cry during this episode. It’s such an amazing book. Very powerful.
Now it’s time for our first guest to present their book for discussion. George has chosen The Coast of Chicago, a short story collection by Stuart Dyvek. He loved it. It was about his city. He got to see the work necessary to change a reality into fiction. Prior to that, he felt that all good books were from the past, this book showed him how amazing contemporary literature can be. It changed his whole approach to writing. Now if this was a regular episode this kind of heartwarming attachment would be blown apart by either Marieke or Ace savaging it. Let’s see how the SWF guests go.
Anne Enright says that Stuart Dyvek is endlessly writing about lightbulbs, but he writes about them fantastically. He apparently also digs precipitation, and Anne likes that. JByrne points out he also likes to write about lonely people.
Nobody has hated it. JByrne realising her sassy compadres are missing has to bring in conflict on her own. She askes George what would he do if someone hated it. George says he taught it recently and half the kids didn’t love it. He didn’t flunk them. He accepted that Dyvek was doing something bold so would leave some people behind. Burn.
Speaking of bold, Bloody Chamber time. Brilliant retake in fairy tales. Lush, decadent, violent, and deeply sexual. Anne says, ‘it’s so good, it’s wrong.’ JByrne said she didn’t get how transgressive it was when she first read it. Anne said she told one of the stories to her two year old daughter to cure the pink problem. One can imagine it was edited slightly for a two year old?
Brit particularly liked Puss in Boots. JByrne says it was very Antonio Banderas in Shrek. Hmmmm, maybe Shrek needs to pay some royalties. Brit points out that the princess also becomes the ogre…. Did the makers of Shrek pay???
Anne loved the freedom to turn something on it’s head. She liked that you could work with opposites and reclassify. When Anne wrote The Green Road she thought, ‘I’ll do a female King Lear.’ Angela Carter had given her that freedom and flexibility in thinking and creativity.
Time for Mikhail and Confession. JByrne calls it a spiritual midlife crisis. Mikhail says it’s more politics. Fight, fight, fight. Mikhail says it was more end-life, not mid-life. Tolstoy had stopped writing fiction and started becoming political and a leader of alternate Russia. A beacon for those wanting freedom.
JByrne feels like it was metaphorical self-flagellation. He was lamenting his wild youth and him popularising Anna Karenina. Anne points out it is also a humble brag. He points out his huge achievements whilst seemingly undercutting them.
Mikhail says that the book is important to him because for him Tolstoy’s Russia is greater than Putin’s Russia. That there is the alternative that seeks freedom and expression, and Tolstoy is the symbol of that. Okay, Mikhail has won me over. I shall re-read Confession with new eyes.
Time for Brit’s choice, Beloved by Toni Morrison. A book that looks at how does a country deal with its past traumas. It is about a woman who escapes slavery and when she is about to be captured she makes the heartbreaking decision to kill her children rather than see them tortured, humiliated and brutalised beyond belief back in slavery. She is then haunted by the ghost Beloved, the child she had killed. The ghost eventually takes on bodily form and returns to her life. I am just going to go grab a million box of tissues. I personally have only read this book once but it is incredibly powerful and stays with you. George looks like he is going to cry too.
Brit says this isn’t her favourite Toni Morrison novel but it is one that she has read countless times because it does what she wants her own work to do. It is beautiful, it is brutal, it is important. The book does all three things and it centres around the black community. And it is highly nuanced. Brit says that Toni Morrison was not interested in looking at white people at all, what white people did was horrific and there can be no question about that, but what Toni Morrison looked at was the black community and their own responses to give insight and a voice to individual and community trauma.
Anne praises Beloved on how it is so perfectly structured in a traditional sense and yet does such amazing and innovative things. JByrne also praises the innovation. Anne calls it political writing at its finest.
JByrne asks how important is timing for when you read a book. George says it is crucial. Often great advice only has a two week window for being effective. Anne says we read in a searching way so timing is everything. Mikhail agrees, he says reading is 50% the writer and 50% who the reader is. So each time you read you’re a different person and get a different message.
JByrne asks will books always be a force for change. Brit says yes. For example Beloved tackles what is still the most important question in American politics today, what do we do with the ghosts of slavery, and nobody knows what to do about it. I wish we could get to this point with the Stolen Generation and the White Australia Policy, but unfortunately we’re still denying that it was really that bad and not even up to wondering how to help.
And that’s a wrap. What an emotional episode. Loved it.
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