Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is undoubtedly one of the most well known Christmas stories of all time. It has been made and remade into countless movies and TV series, and its format used even more. It’s a classic and it’s my pick for this month’s book club because I was feeling festive and decided to reread it.

You probably already know the story of A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is a cold-miser who doesn’t believe in the spirit of Christmas until he is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, so why read it?

First off, the book is almost always better than the movie, fact. There’s so much more depth in the novella than any of the movies. There’s a reason it’s timeless.

Second, it’s the perfect way to get into the Christmas spirit, the true Christmas spirit, within a couple of hours. A Christmas Carol is only about 100 pages long. Dickens really has a gift for painting a scene. He can go from darkness to light, outrage to compassion, gloom to humour without ever breaking the scene.

SOME QUESTIONS TO PONDER AS YOU READ

  • How do you think the structure of the ghost of past, present and future would have read the first time?
  • How does reading the book compare to any other versions of the story you know?
  • Does the story still hold up so many years later?
  • Did Scrooge’s tale make you think about Christmas any differently? Does Dickens’ didactic moral still apply?

 IF YOU WANT SOME FURTHER READING TRY…

  • Watch any or all of the versions of A Christmas Carol made for the screen including but not limited to: the 2009 version, Scrooge from 1951, a Muppet Christmas Carol, and the animated Christmas Carol: The Movie from 2001. There’s even a retelling this year called The Man Who Invented Christmas, which imagines how Dickens wrote the story
  • Or, watch the Grinch which is pretty much Dr Seuss’s version of a similar tale
  • Read this review from The Guardian – when do I not include a Guardian review?

 IF YOU WANT MORE BOOKS LIKE THIS HAVE A LOOK AT…

 

This month I reread Emma for my office book club and I had such a good time that I wanted to share it here as well. Emma is one of my favourite Jane Austen novels and one of my favourite books full stop. It’s the only book that’s made me give up TV so I could race through it this year and it’s the ideal companion to cozy up to on an autumn’s eve.

For my book club posts, I normally offer you a bit of a review of the piece I’ve picked, but Emma has been so thoroughly reviewed since it’s publishing in 1815. And with 200 years of reviews from some of literature’s best (and perhaps worst) thinkers I’m not sure how much I can really add, so I’m going to keep this month’s review short, sweet, and glowing – yes I am biased and I don’t care.

My alternative cover design for Emma

If you haven’t heard of Emma before, it’s the story of Emma Woodhouse a precocious twenty-year-old lady of Highbury, who imagines herself to be a naturally gifted matchmaker. The reader follows Emma as she conjures up relationships for others but remains sure she will not marry. It’s filled with romance, humour, and plenty of drama.

If you haven’t read Jane Austen before, you’ve missed out. A lot of people including Bronte and Nabokov have written off Austen as nothing special, as “chick lit” for the 19th century and thus not worth any time at all. They are so wrong.

First off, “chick lit” is so valuable. If it brings you joy, if it can take you to another world, then it’s great literature and I don’t care if it features a romance or three talking chickens. Second, Austen is so special.

Second, Austen is a great writer. Her characters are interesting and complex. The way she builds societies and landscapes is simply wonderful. For a novel to read so smoothly there’s so much craft that has to go on behind the scenes. Plus, her use of free indirect discourse in Emma (essentially 3rd person narrator who speaks like, and knows as much as a character) was pretty revolutionary at the time, and yet it seems so natural!

Third, for me, even though her novels were written in the 19th century her stories are completely timeless. Not only do they offer you an insight into another world, they are the blueprint of so many modern romances.

So, in short, don’t write Austen off.

SOME QUESTIONS TO PONDER AS YOU READ

  • The world is very different to how it was 200 years ago, do you feel like Emma still remains relevant?
  • Reading Emma in 2017 means you have a lot of preconceived ideas of Emma, of romance in literature and film, and of what the plot might be, how do you think the reading experience would have been different if you read Emma in 1815?
  • How do you feel class is portrayed in Emma? What does Austen want us to think?
  • Emma is a matchmaker, do you think there are any similarities between how she draws people together and how Austen as a literary matchmaker brings her characters together?

IF YOU WANT SOME FURTHER READING TRY…

  • Watch the 2009 BBC adaptation, which is currently on Netflix starring Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller – in my opinion it is the best adaptation, the colour and life of it really picks up the character of the book
  • Watch Clueless, it’s pretty much a modern (90s) reimagining of Emma and it’s just a classic
  • John Mullan’s account of why Emma changed the face of literature for the Guardian
  • Anything Paula Byrne has written on Jane Austen, A Life in Small Things is particularly accessible and offers a really interesting look at Austen’s world

IF YOU WANT MORE BOOKS LIKE THIS HAVE A LOOK AT…

  • Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
  • Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey
  • Ian McEwan’s Atonement
  • George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss
  • Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters

Why not use Emma themed bookmark I designed to keep your place as you read? You can print and download it for free here.

As ever, let me know if you’ve read Emma, or if you have any recommendations for what I should be reading next.

It took me a long time to read this month’s book club pick, in fact I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t have a new review to share with you in time. Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter isn’t a long book, it’s your average 300 pages or so. But the mixture of a change in work schedule and a lot of things kicking off meant that I lost my regular reading time.

Despite those setbacks I knew that I wanted to read Sweetbitter. It, along with Emma Cline’s The Girls, was one of the most hyped books of 2016. It had a load of things I love in a book, a bit of a bildungsroman, an insight into a world I don’t know all that much about, and some romance. But it was Danler’s descriptions of food I was most interested in; good food writing is one of my favourite things to read.

I think the quote on the cover from Stylist – “think Girls meets Kitchen Confidential” – ended up being the most accurate description I read. Danler’s debut follows the classic coming of age format of a small-town girl moving to New York. However, Tess doesn’t dream of being a star or falling in love, she has no ambitions at all. Danler’s slight twist on the norm, still relies on the romanticism of moving to the big city even if the epigrams she often starts chapters with would claim be too jaded to be swept up by the delights of New York. It’s a tone that’s come to be used to describe the contemporary young woman in her own voice in the last couple of years, and it’s something that resonates me as someone who falls into that category.

Tess finds herself a back waiter at a Manhattan restaurant where meals probably cost more than I spend on groceries in a month. As someone who has never worked in a restaurant, but who has watched and read a fair bit about them, I really enjoyed Tess’s perspective. She’s finding her feet, and in a weird middle ground between front and back of house. Tess also finds herself in the middle of a bizarre love triangle, with a bartender called Jake, who she views only sexually, and the experienced waitress who takes Tess under her wing, Simone, who you could say is her real love interest.

As much as I quite enjoyed reading Sweetbitter, I don’t think it was quite deserving of the sparkling praise it received. It had neither the in-depth documentary style look at a restaurant I wanted nor a thrilling plot, so by the time I finally got to the end I had that slightly hollow feeling of “oh that’s it?”. The novel, like its main character, lacked drive or argument. On the one hand, this makes a lot of sense, and reflects a stasis within an industry where everyone is seemingly only waiting until their big break as an author, actor, singer etc. On the other hand, as a reader as much as I’m happy to read about a character’s lack of direction I still want the text I’m reading to get me turning the pages. That said, I did keep reading and I did enjoy a lot of the time I spent reading.

If you’re looking for a slightly more indie feeling beach read or a casual lunch time companion this one is for you. If you watch Girls, Fleabag, or Broadcity I think you’ll like it, especially if you live in or love New York. If you’re looking for something more, I’m not sure if this one is for you. Now, I’ve read Sweetbitter, I’m really looking forward to seeing what Danler writes next (and I’m sure there will be something) to see if she capitalises on and refines what worked in her first novel.

SOME QUESTIONS TO PONDER AS YOU READ

  • Danler’s descriptions of food, and how she interweaves them with the story are one of the most praised elements of the book, what do you make of them?
  • How well do you feel you know any of the characters in the book?
  • Can you imagine the book as a movie? Who would cast in which roles?
  • Endings, for me, can quite often make or break a book, what are your thoughts on how Danler closes Sweetbitter?

IF YOU WANT SOME FURTHER READING TRY…

IF YOU WANT MORE BOOKS LIKE THIS HAVE A LOOK AT…

Why not use Sweetbitter themed bookmark I designed to keep your place as you read? You can print and download it for free here.

As ever, let me know if you’ve read Sweetbitter, or if you have any recommendations for what I should be reading next.

Continuing my new found love of non-fiction, I recently read Alain De Botton’s Status Anxiety and knew it had to be included in my next book club post because it had such a profound effect on how I think. I’ve been a big fan of De Botton’s writing for a while, but I’d never read what is arguably his most popular work.

Just in case you haven’t heard of it already, Status Anxiety is “a book about an almost universal anxiety that rarely gets mentioned directly: an anxiety about what others think of us; about whether we’re judged a success or a failure, a winner or a loser.”

I realise that I’ve gotten to Status Anxiety over a decade after it was originally published in 2004, but I think I read it at exactly the right time for me. So many of the topics touched on in the book seemed to seamlessly weave into qualms and questions I’ve been having about my own life and the world around me recently. I feel like particularly after starting blogging and trying to navigate the world of work while deciding who I want to be and what I want to do, perceived status has been a silent shaping force in my thinking.

My perceived status does matter to me. I know some people will see that care as something negative, wrapped up in vanity and ego, which I guess to some extent it is, but not conicously. Status Anxiety has really helped me to understand why I care so much about my status and why that doesn’t necessarily make me a bad person. So much of how the world is shaped and organised is based on status, it’s how we’re taught to make sense of the world and our position. That doesn’t mean it has to rule us though. But even just knowing that has helped me debunk my negative perception of myself for caring about it, and to some extent diminish its impact.

My alternative cover design for Status Anxiety

The first half of Status Anxiety sets out De Bottton’s case for why status anxiety is real and a particular problem in the modern world (I would love to see an update on it for an increasingly digital world). He collates a thinking from a whole host of other philosophers as well as examples from throughout history. While at times this can feel more like De Botton is synthesising ideas rather than adding his own, the clarity with which he stitches these different ideas together is what makes Status Anxiety such a useful read. Yes, many of those ideas were out there already. Does a lot of what De Botton claims read like common sense after a while? Sure. But would I have read those other texts, or brought all of that thinking together on my own? I don’t think so. The principles this first section presented to me so eruditely have given me an additional set of lenses to view my world through.

The second half of the book poses some potential solutions to suffering from status anxiety. I have to admit that I didn’t get along as well with this half of the book. I wasn’t really all that convinced that any of the solutions presented worked as anything more than outward performances, but I guess it is hard to know how someone else truly thinks. This section, for me, turned into a challenge to try and think of ways that I could reduce my own status anxiety. I have yet to find a solution, but maybes the first step in that is just acknowledging it as a common condition.

I would whole-heartedly recommend Status Anxiety to anyone and everyone. It’s such a good eye opener and thought provoker. It doesn’t have all of the answers, or anything that’s particularly ground-breaking, but I think that’s its power. It’s easy to relate to and use as a platform to start reconsidering your own thought process. Plus, despite being a philosophical text it is surprisingly accessible and easy to work your way through – I think it took me a little over a week to finish just reading it in my lunch breaks.

SOME QUESTIONS TO PONDER AS YOU READ

  • Do any of the anxieties and principles suggested in the book affect you? If so how aware of them were you?
  • To what extent do you think that status anxiety can be diminished or eradicated? Have you done it?
  • How do you think social media has affected our perception of status, and thus our feelings of status anxiety?

IF YOU WANT SOME FURTHER READING TRY…

IF YOU WANT MORE BOOKS LIKE THIS HAVE A LOOK AT…

Other books (this list is a little short because I need to read some more to be able to recommend things to you confidently – please add to this in the comments, and I’ll amend the list!)

Why not use Status Anxiety themed bookmark I designed to keep your place as you read? You can print and download it for free here.

As ever, let me know if you’ve read Status Anxiety, or if you have any recommendations for what I should be reading next.

I am a sucker for a RomCom. There’s something about their familiar feel-good factor that I just love and can’t stop watching. But, I don’t really ever read Romantic Comedies. I’m not sure why. I think it’s perhaps something to do with an internalised stigma that they’re somehow less worthwhile than “more serious” fiction. I know they’re not, and yet something has held me back from really getting into them.

That was until I chose Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project as my holiday read last month. I knew I wanted something easy and fun, and I thought, after reading glowing review after glowing review, I thought The Rosie Project would be the perfect pick and it really was. I had such a good time reading it, and honestly, it felt so good just to be sucked into a story and get to revel in an upbeat love story.

This month’s cover redesign takes inspiration from Don’s relationship with ice cream (and relationships)

The Rosie Project is the story of “a brilliant yet socially inept professor of genetics, [Don Tillman], who’s decided it’s time he found a wife”. So, he decides to apply logic to the problem and designs what he calls ‘The Wife Project’, a survey to find his ideal woman by filtering out the smokers, the heavy drinkers, the late arrivers, and those with any dietary requirements. Surprisingly, he runs into a couple of hiccups along the way.

One such hiccup is Rosie Jarman, who although being recommended by one of Don’s only friends Gene, quickly fails to meet The Wife Project’s standards. Despite not being wife material, the pair do embark on another project together, one to find Rosie’s father. The progression of that project sees their friendship begins and many hijinks ensue.

As I said in my intro, what really stood out to me was just how easy The Rosie Project is to read. That might sound like a strange thing to praise, but finding a book that really pulls you through its pages and makes you smile as you go can be hard to find. While I didn’t find it to be laugh out loud funny (it’s rare I find a book that makes me audibly chuckle) I did find myself grinning at the end of each chapter. It was a story I could imagine on screen, which is I think why I enjoyed it so much.

That enjoyment was sustained throughout. But there were moments when Don’s Asperger’s seems to be skated over or easily forgotten in a way that doesn’t quite ring true. For example, he describes his intense dislike for being touched, but when it’s convenient to the plot that seems to be forgotten. As a novel that tries to get into the mind of a man with high-functioning Asperger’s to me at times that felt like it didn’t ring completely true. However, maybes those quick solutions are just part and parcel of creating a book with such pace, and similar plot solutions are generally taken as part and parcel of the genre.  

If like me you’re a fan of a romcom, or you just want a story you can race through I’d highly recommend The Rosie Project. It’s fun and light, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need.

SOME QUESTIONS TO PONDER AS YOU READ

  • Romantic Comedies characteristically have quite set plot points, how does having a sense of what’s going to happen before you go into a novel change how you read it?
  • How well do you think Simsion presents and handles Don’s “cognitive difference” in the storyline?
  • The Rosie Project was originally started as a screenplay, do you think that has had an effect on the writing style?
  • How does Don’s initial Wife Project compare to how the web has tried to make a science out of dating?
  • What’s your favourite ice-cream flavour? Can you tell the difference between it and something similar? (This is the aspect of the book I’ve probably spent the most time thinking about)

IF YOU WANT SOME FURTHER READING TRY…

 

IF YOU WANT MORE BOOKS LIKE THIS HAVE A LOOK AT…

Why not use The Rosie Project themed bookmark I designed to keep your place as you read? You can print and download it for free here.

As ever, let me know if you’ve read The Rosie Project, or if you have any recommendations for what I should be reading next.