Having just at great effort dug ourselves out from under considerable snow in the countryside, some of us not entirely successfully even this night, and under threat of yet more snow, the Barga Book Club members braved the elements and met at the warm and cozy hearth of Isobel in Canale, Tiglio.
Krysia writes: On our arrival Isobel lit all of the candles in the dining room, a custom which Isobel and Pete brought back from their time in Norway. We then proceeded to eat courses of wonderful food: warm Camembert cheese, salads, Isobel’s delicious lasagna followed by cake. We had a lot to say about the book ‘Why Be Happy, When You Could Be Normal?’ by Jeannette Winterson and we almost unanimously considered it a great read. Next month’s book is My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier. For future reading we decided on Black Swan Green by David Mitchell as the May title and for June another Jeannette Winterson book, The Passion. The other books we talked about were ‘The Matter of Death & Life’ by Andrey Kurkov, ‘The Stranger’s Child’ by Alan Hollingshurst and ‘Canada’ by Richard Ford.
Please send me your suggestions for future reading and also your comments on the books we have suggested here.The March Book Club meeting is on Wednesday, 20th. March to be hosted by Helen.I look forward to seeing you then.
The book under discussion was Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal, the ironically entitled autobiography of Jeanette Winterson. Helen led the enthusiastic discussion citing her intense interest in trying to keep up with the frenetic pace of Winterson telling her story of a turbulent tale of survival, fighting a complex abusive relationship with adoptive parents. Winterson’s developed technique to overcome horrific circumstances in this dysfunctional oppressive atmosphere was to make up stories and read literature, starting with author’s whose names began with A and working her way to Z at the local library. Thus she studied life, politics, and socialization. Librarians, teachers and others encouraged her resilience and resourcefulness in a complex emotional matrix.
Everyone agreed on Winterson’s matter of fact recitation of events and a great appreciation of the superbly placed historical, social and literary references rounding out the story.
Margaret adds: what I call matter of fact, some call detachment, but it isn’t cold, anything but. There is even humour. I liked the simplicity of those first chapters because she is talking about when she was so very young and the style is compatible with that. Her anger becomes evident only later on and the target of it becomes her adoptive mother because Connie isn’t there any more. She is scarred, but writing the book was good for her and a form of release, just the setting it down. She is capable of loving but has trouble receiving love and always pushes it away. However I understand she does have relationships and I think very close and strong ones. She is in survivor mode even though she was a victim.
I loved this book and it made me cry. Jeannette Winterson writes beautifully with conviction, honesty, humour and passion.What a great title as well; Why be happy, when you could be normal which is what her mother says when Jeannette tells Mrs. Winterson that the girl she has fallen in love with makes her feel happy.
From the first paragraph: ‘When my mother was angry with me, which was often, she said “The Devil led us to the wrong crib.” just about sums it up. We know right from the start that she was adopted, unwanted and her mother a religious fanatic. Of course we learn the horrors of Jeannette’s childhood as the story evolves. Her mother, Mrs. Winterson, a deeply unhappy woman who kept a gun in a draw and was waiting for Armageddon suffered from cycles of erratic behaviours; long silences when she would stand at the stove for hours stirring a pan of egg custard, bouts of anger and retribution thrown onto those around her, and then her self absolution when she would read the Bible throughout the night. Jeannette and her father never knew when she would strike. When you live in a home like that it’s probably best that you vacate to the doorstep. At least you are safe.
But this autobiography not only tells the story of an adopted child living with a monster as a mother but also tells the reader about the rich and fascinating history of Manchester. ‘Where you are born, the history of the place, stamps who you are.’ Manchester was the world’s first industrial city. It spun riches beyond anybody’s wildest dreams and wove despair and degradation into the human fabric. It was Utopian – the Quakerism, feminism, its antislavery movement. It was where Marx and Engels wrote their Communist Manifesto and the first trade union conference took place. Jeannette Winterson spent her childhood in a street of two up, two down terraces in Accrington, on the outskirts of Manchester where families lived from hand to mouth. and had outside lavatories. Women were brash, strong, capable and intelligent. They were the ones who kept the whole framework of society together and maintained it; the ones portrayed on seaside postcards as towering ogres wielding rolling pins chasing after their weedy little husbands.
What interested me the most, though, was how she became a writer. Well, she lived in a world surrounded by stories. There were always narratives in day to day conversation on the bus or in the street. Mrs.Winterson read the Bible to Jeannette and her father every evening after church where she listened to the preacher’s sermons.The language of the 1611 King James Bible was the language they were used to. Older people quoted from Shakespeare and the metaphysical poets like John Donne, without knowing the source, often misquoting and mixing them up like, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls.” ‘A tough life needs a tough language and that is what poetry is about.’ Jeannette read avidly in secret at the local library and when her mother burnt her books she started to create her own stories ones that no one could destroy. ‘I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence’
And what determination she had to get the thing she wanted; to go to Oxford and become a writer. What I wanted does exist if I dare to find it.’ She says. ‘There is a lot you can’t change when you are a kid but you can pack for the journey.’
She says that she and her mother were matched in their loss and losing. She had lost the warm safe place of the person who loved her and Mrs. Winterson had lost/was losing her life.
Near the end of the book when she seeks out her real mother Ann and Ann criticises Mrs. Winterson, Jeannette says ‘she was a monster, but she was my monster.’
Every page was studded with gems. A masterpiece in my opinion.
Kerry, the sole dissenting opinion, felt that it was a disingenuous screed of anger, resentment and discompassionate self serving vindication.
The title for the March 20th meeting is My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne Du Maurier and April is Lady Chatterly’s Lover, D. H. Lawrence.
Thank you very much to everyone who participated. – More information about the Barga Book Club can be found on their site here