Thursday, February 9, 2012

In Praise of Bookgroups

Reading, that most solitary of pastimes, takes on a welcome social dimension when you participate in a bookgroup. You can rave (or rant) about that book you've just finished, analyze the characters, appraise the writer's style, and everyone is interested, because they've read the book, too!  Plus, sometimes those other opinions of a book you weren't crazy about or couldn't get into will persuade you to have another go at it or regard it with a new understanding.  Best of all, it seems to me, is that a bookgroup gets you to read books you probably would never have opened otherwise, often opening your eyes as well. 

 My Foreign Authors Bookgroup was started back in 1994 at the very first Borders Bookstore in Dallas, by JuLe, an employee there. Mr. C and I joined it (yes! there were men in it back then) in 1996.  And what a lot of interesting books we have read as a result.  Over the course of years the group has evolved, and the venue has changed several times. Now we are about a dozen women, in many respects fairly dissimilar except in our desire to read and discuss books with substance and meaning. We read eleven books a year, either by a foreign author or about a foreign place or culture; in September we nominate and vote on books for the coming year.  Generally, our discussions are free-form, with whoever nominated that book being the putative leader.  If you're in the Dallas area and would like to join us, please email me for details.  We are always glad to have new members.

This month's book was the winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. It is a big (but not sprawling) novel focusing on the years 1527 to 1535 as Henry VIII of England seeks to end his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and wed Anne Boleyn, with the surprising protagonist being Thomas Cromwell, son of a blacksmith, who rises to be Henry's right hand man by aiding him in this quest. And for anyone who thinks of Thomas Cromwell as the villain of A Man for All Seasons or one of the other many accounts and popular representations of the Henry-and-Anne drama, this is a different man altogether, a very remarkable one. I was in awe of how brilliantly Mantel presented the complex intertwined religious and political issues as well as convincingly portrayed the era to a modern reader without long and tedious paragraphs of exposition.  It is, indeed, a lyrical novel although not self-consciously so. You can open to almost any page and find a passage worth savoring.  It's an excellent bookgroup selection because there are so many aspects that will stimulate discussion. However, if you aren't in a bookgroup, don't let that stop you from choosing to read this five-star novel. But, I guarantee that by the time you finish it, you'll be dying to talk about it to someone else.            

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