Book, cake and me

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Readers of the World Unite

As a child I enjoyed many pursuits, wondering in fields looking for places to make dens, swinging from ropes like a monkey in barns (dangerous), lying on the sunny part of my landing floor reading a good book ... all very healthy pursuits.  Then I moved away from my country village to Newcastle and had a whole street of other children to play with.  This is where my love of clubs outside of the Brownies began, nature club, micro machines club, bike club the list goes on.  If only I had a laminator for all those membership cards...
So as an adult I am proud to be a member of a reading group.  One, I suppose you could say, I facilitate.   A reading group is a rewarding group for many reasons, there are no laminated membership cards in our group...yet, but it is a great way to widen your reading choices, find new authors and genres you may not have chosen yourself.  It is a point of discussion and you get to know your friends even better or indeed make new good friends. 
You can start your own reading group too, here’s how:
Promise cake and drink.
Ask your friends and get them to suggest people that they know who may be interested.  See how many members you can potentially have.  I would say six or seven is ideal and to be honest it is rare that you have a meeting where every member is there, so if you can drop one or two each meeting and still have a good discussion, you will be fine. Excuse my harsh use of the verb ‘drop’ here, but you get the idea.
Invite friends and selected friends, friends.  I did this by email in which I suggested dates for our first meeting so we can ‘get to know each other’ and discuss how reading group would work practically.  I hosted the first meeting at my home. People will offer to bring drink and if you say you are making a cake or cakes others may offer alternative choice of cake and nibbles too.
There must not be a leader but you must have a facilitator.  This is someone who can steer your happy reading group boat.  The facilitator will make sure they relate dates, times, venues, book choices and comments regarding meetings as well initiate any discussion about how reading group is run.     Making a group of contacts in your email contacts is the easiest way to do this.
Have your first proper meeting! 
I would say, relax about the first ten minutes as people turn up pour drinks, eat cake and natter.  If your group is like mine we all know each other quite well now and about ten minutes in, when you have had a general catch up, the facilitator needs to jump in and get the book discussion started or you may lose it all together.  I have found myself discussing sock quality, cake quality and even man quality within that adequate ten minute slot, after that we move on to solutions for world peace, deep philosophical questions are explored and the future of the science fiction genre.  So bring the book in and let the discussion begin.  We have no format for this; no talking stick, no timed slots in which to put across your point of view, no presentations, graphs and no scales by which to judge the books.  We are a group that does not like to be bound by anything and discussion follows on fluidly from one member to the next and yes, we can go off on interesting tangents but will summarise and evaluate the book in our own organic way.   In fact we are a group that does not like to feel like we have to do much work really.
Be cool.  Not everyone will read the book for many reasons and there have been some books that have been quite a challenge on many levels, which brings me to advice about making changes if you need to.   However, your group may find itself wanting more parameters to maximise discussion and participation.  We used to take it in turns to choose the book and this was good in many ways as it meant you chose a book and no one could argue thereby widening other members’ reading experience.  We have, however, changed this as we felt it was becoming too stressful with all that power and responsibility, Peter Parker can attest to that.  We spent time in one meeting coming up with themes and making a list.  We have started our thematic reading with vampire novels and our title choices are now pulled out of a hat.  So members have shared responsibility and have to find titles within the theme to write down and put in the hat or we just decide all together in our meeting depending how people feel.
Once you have decided how your group will work you need to arrange the next meeting as soon as possible, either in the meeting or by email the next week.  Four weeks is generally enough time though you may give an extra week for Christmas or holidays.  We did play around with longer times so that more people could finish the books, but it loses momentum and becomes a bit stagnant.  So I would recommend monthly meetings and we have ours at members’ homes and sometimes a nice pub is good for discussion.  We may even meet in a local park in the summer, let the teenagers join in so long as they share their White Lightening and fags.  Do kids these days still drink White Lightening? 
The future is an open book and a clean page with reading group.  I have a vision where Isleworth reading groups unite, we have a convention or jamboree.  We could even invite international groups and meet in a hotel conference room with a buffet... the possibilities for swapping cake recipes are endless.
Readers of the World Unite!
Do you already have a reading group?  Do you have a laminator?  Join in the discussions on these pages.  Next title is ‘The Vampire Lestat’ by Anne Rice I will post my comment in a few weeks. Please if you have read it make a comment too, this blog is intended to reach out to a wider reading community.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Twilight - No sex please we're vampires!

My copy of Twilight has a white cover with red edged pages, I deliberated over the white cover or the black cover, but the white cover appealed as did the red edged pages almost as if dipped in the pure blood of innocent mortals.  The cover image is of two porcelain hands cradling a red apple.  It is actually a romantic image with the red apple, the vampire, tempting even sinful but cradled by the pure hands of an angelic young female.  There is no conflict or seduction here, the suggested vampire is not bloodthirsty or intent on seducing young maidens and then devouring them.  We all understand the vampire image and its potent sexual allure.  Indeed, I have female friends who swoon at the thought of Damon Salvatore using his eyes, yes ladies, to compel you.  The Vampire Diaries seems more lustful than Twilight, the vampire characters do compel us and we are not repelled, the aesthetic is more denim and leather, sexy and modern, not a crushed velvet piece in sight.  There is a love triangle, lots of desire and some violence and cruelty, but still, like Twilight,  tortured souls and very human emotions.  The Vampire Diaries is rock and roll where Twilight is more EMO; for sensitive souls.  Back to Twilight and the cover which promises a romance between an innocent mortal and a beautiful, tragic vampire with the apple tempting and red and the innocent purity of the girl’s hands that hold and control that temptation. 
In fact when you get into Twilight you realise that the vampire genre is a construct to explore a romance that has constraints and that those constraints make it appear even sweeter.  Teenagers especially, a group who have devoured Twilight and its following four or five books, understand what it is to be restrained when they desire to do something forbidden or dangerous.  Stephanie Meyers could be accused of writing a novel about abstaining from sex encouraging young people to stay chaste.  She is happy to say that she is ‘straight laced’ and is a member of The Latter Day Saints.  The question I would ask of Stephanie is, “is it morally correct to think about sex and have desirous thoughts about Edward, but not morally correct to er, rip each other’s clothes off and go for it?”  I detect a moral stance in Meyer’s novel and the mechanic that if they did have sex Edward could kill her, is slightly repulsive to me.  What I really accuse Stephanie Meyers of is writing a novel that directly appeals to teenagers and the teenager that remains in adults.  She has understood how to string us along for five books and several films thus making a lot of money out of desire and fantasy.  Bravo! 
So we have Edward, at first a mystery to Bella but she is not fooled and she finds out that yes he is a vampire!  This revelation does not turn Bella away, she can’t get away from him and his eyes and sensitivity.  A sensitive vampire who rather than feast of the blood of an innocent young lady wants to protect her and welcomes her into his vampire family.  These vampires are beautiful, wealthy and of course intelligent, but I don’t think there have been many stupid vampires in literature or film.  They have the ability to appear aloof and do things with ease and grace, along with the cars and beautiful clear skin, teenagers crave. 
Bella is the outsider who becomes an insider with the beautiful and mysterious Cullens.  She is hapless and helpless; this is actually quite annoying because any feminist sensibilities you may have are jarred by Edward’s stance as her protector.  In fact, Bella is saved from being crushed by a van in chapter three and then faints in chapter five at the sight of blood by her hero Edward. This is before we even get into the real vampire story.  Another idea that may well make us feminists wince is the suspicion that this whole series of novels, this great epic, will end the only way women would want things to end.  She becomes a vampire, they can quench their sexual thirst and Bella stays young and beautiful with her young and beautiful vampire husband.  Isn’t that is exactly what us women really want?  To be eternally youthful, beautiful and have a gothic fairytale ending. 
We do like Bella, she is a bit rubbish at P.E. a thing many of us can identify with, she isn’t a primped and preened princess.  She comes from a humble background and is even a bit of a tomboy albeit geek (which is cool you know) preferring to read her books, and she is also quite unassuming and awkward in some social situations making her even more endearing.  But it is that girl, that we can all find a bit of ourselves in and who we really want to see with Edward the dreamy high school heart throb.   Bella has to fend off suitors like Mike and Tyler, politely, and finds herself in the elite circle of the Cullens and in the heart of the ultimate romantic hero, Edward with his perfect face and distracting eyes.  The problem is that sex would be too dangerous!  This is a message that can only reassure parents of its teenage readers.
The real romance may be the relationship between the vampire and the mortal human.  It is longing by the vampire to be part of the fragile mortal world again.  In many past vampire novels and films the vampire is emotionally detached from its victims, they have an appetite for blood, they hunt and they kill.  The modern vampire appears to be more complex and has emotional attachments to humankind despite being superior.  Like the Gods and the mortals, Gods can become jealous of our fragility and immortality which adds depth and meaning to our endeavours.  The vampire appreciates beauty; they are usually learned and intelligent with an inherent class.   Would you rather be devoured by an ignorant monster or a sophisticated vampire? The modern vampire like Edward is at odds with this desire for blood and his blood thirst would be his downfall like the apple and Adam.   We actually feel sorry for Edward and things would be a lot easier for him if he was human, but how boring!  Who would protect Bella from her clumsy self?
Meyers has captured the imagination of a generation of teenage girls and women who like to escape into the remembered exciting and emotional world of a teenage girl.  I for one fully support this escapism.  I would admit that it is not a literary masterpiece; her writing could be pulled apart quite easily by the sharp teeth of critics, but it is a clever route into a fond genre.  Twilight is a romance novel before it is a vampire novel.  It draws on Pride and Prejudice (she finds him really quite rude), Wuthering Heights (an intense impossible fever of love), our bookish adoration of the romantic poets (deep and brooding Byron or the tragic vulnerable poet Keats) the list goes on.  In fact, as a vampire novel, I prefer Anne Rice’s ‘Interview with a Vampire’ which delves into the vampire's relationship with the human world; the characters of Louis and Claudia struggle emotionally as new vampires outside of a world in which they once fitted as a mortal.  ‘Twilight’ delves into a human relationship between the self and the ideal of romance.  This is the idea that romance is above sex and desire, the morally right way to conduct a relationship according to Meyers.  The belief that someone could love you enough to hold back and do ‘the right thing’ and adore you in the same way you adore them.  A fantasy and escape that appears to be a hit for a large female readership, once again, bravo Stephanie Meyers. 
To women of a legal age to drink, this book must only be accompanied by a glass of red wine.