Book Club Confidential: Frog Music and Astray by Emma Donoghue
I enjoyed writing a meta-review of Come Barbarians so much that I thought I’d do another. Sadly, I did not get to drink wine with Ms. Donoghue, but I read her two most recent books, Astray and Frog Music, with others, and with interesting results.
I’m trying to challenge myself a bit this year. Attending an IRL book club with people I don’t know was one of those challenges, and I did it with Astray. Recording a podcast thing wasn’t in the plans, but it worked well with Frog Music, forcing me to be spontaneous where I’m usually heavily edited.
My rating: 4 stars
The Book Club: Write Reads
First, listen to to my thoughts on Write Reads! I guest hosted the May “new release” podcast and chose Frog Music. I haven’t listed yet because I’m scared I’ll hate my voice. No offense to my sister since we have the exact same voice.
I was super nervous about recording the podcast. My review-writing process is usually days, sometimes weeks long, and often begins months after I’ve read a book. Now, I’m supposed to read a book and just… say what I thought about it? What if I say something dumb? Or think of something better to say later? Both those things happened but the unpredictability of the podcast format is what makes it awesome.
It helped that the hosts, Tania and Kirt, are themselves quite awesome. I know Tania from a former life in which I was a (recreational) belly dancer and met Kirt for the first time that same day, and I was afraid it would be awkward – given the book, I knew the conversation would get pretty racy – but it was so great. I want to guest host again just so I have an excuse to hang out with them. I almost wish our after-podcast conversation had been recorded too. There’s nothing like debating what exactly constitutes double penetration with and old friend and a guy you just met. Or discussing the layout for an imagined Boys of Book Blogging calendar. I fear I’ve said too much!
I liked the book more than either Kirt or Tania. The balance between love and revulsion is what Donoghue does best, and she gets it so right: mother and child, prostitute and customer, friend and lover. If the podcast had been longer, I would have talked more about:
- Arthur and Ernest. Former partners on the trapeze, they are definitely more than friends, and the dynamic is fascinating. Each has their own female partner, but when Arthur nearly dies of smallpox, Ernest cares for him. I wanted to know more about these two.
- “Nursing out.” This concept of sending children away, to a “farm” or to a peasant woman, for the first months or even years of life, seems to be a fairly normal concept in 19th century France. It flies in the face of attachment theory that guides much of parenting trends today, and left Blanche woefully unprepared for motherhood – having been nursed out herself, and in a new country away from any female relatives or friends, how was she to know how to take take of P’tit?
- Blanche as the anti-fallen woman. I read a lot of classics, and a lot of female characters are either put on a pedestal, perfect wives and mothers, or, are cast out as fallen women. Blanch is neither. It’s telling that she may be the most confident female character I’ve ever read, and she exists in the 19th century. I hate the cliche of a “strong female lead” but she is, despite being, at times, a terrible wife, mother, friend, and lover, she overcomes. She keeps going. She learns and gets better.
- The end. I found the ending too happy, despite the death and mayhem. It was very hopeful. Then, of course, I read the afterword about what really happened to the model for Blanche and it was too sad. I’m hard to please.
I’ve read four of Donoghue’s books so far, and rate them all a solid four stars. Frog Music is probably my least favourite of the four, but that’s not to say it’s bad. The murder mystery stuff didn’t work that well for me. I wanted more character, more backstory, and yep, more sex scenes. She does them so well. I mean, here, from the disputed DP scene:
Blanche is the conduit, the river, the rope, the electrical current…she’s going to drink down every drop they’ve got, their spill one unbroken seam of gold through the shattering rock.
I recommend this to lovers of historical fiction, “strong” female leads (even if that phrase makes you cringe,) visceral writing, and the earlier Donoghue novel, Slammerkin.
Further reading on Frog Music:
- A review at Editorial Eyes, which says a lot of what I wanted to say in the podcast, more coherently!
- Donoghue’s soundtrack. Essential. I wish I found it while I was reading so I could really immerse myself in the sounds.
My rating: 4 stars
The Book Club: CanLit Book Club at Jasper Place Library
This book club is what it is thanks to its leader, librarian Lindy Pratch. Once I figured out that Lindy is a book blogger, it all made sense! She reads widely and prolifically, with a focus on CanLit.
The CanLit book club was born a couple of years ago, to relieve the pressure on an over-subscribed general book club over at Woodcroft Library. Lindy chooses all the books, which must be CanLit, and must have enough library copies for the 20ish members. The reading list is so diverse, with YA, mystery, historical fiction, short story collections, graphic novels, and more. Check out the full list of titles here, which includes Reading in Bed favs like The Cat’s Table and really-wanna-read books like The Sisters Brothers and Galore.
I was afraid that the people who attend a library book club would either be super cliquey, or that maybe they’d all have similar opinions, or, even worse, that they wouldn’t talk about the book, as I keep hearing is the case at book clubs. None of these were true. What they lack in demographic diversity (almost exclusively white women age 60+) they make up for in life experience, reading experience, and curiosity. Each meeting is an hour long and there’s always so much more I want to talk about!
If you’re in Edmonton, check it out on the fourth Wednesday of the month. The next book is Karma by Cathy Ostlere, which is just great, and we meet on May 28th at 7:00 p.m.
I loved Astray. I’m reading more short story collections that I ever have, and this one is at once so different from the typical Canadian short story, but so obviously Canadian.
I found the book clubbers were divided into those who like short stories and those who don’t; and those who liked the premise of Astray, and those who found it frustrating. I didn’t realize that some people are just not open to short stories, like, at all. As for the premise – Donoghue takes snippets of old news stories and imagines the outcomes, revealing the source material at the end of each story – I found it made for a more compelling read than the usual short story collection, which you can dip and and out of. I was so curious about what was real and what was invented that I was racing to the end.
The best comment from a book clubber was “There sure were a lot of gay people. There were just so many,” which you have to imagine delivered completely deadpan, zero indication whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. It’s true, and I guess this reader was not familiar with Donoghue’s previous work! She runs the gamut from cross dressers to women in trouble to a man and his elephant. Not surprising to me, as I know she can write a novel set in present day, mostly in one room, as well as she can write about a cast of characters in 19th century San Francisco.
My only complaint about Astray is I couldn’t tell what makes a snippet of info short story worthy vs. novel worthy. Frog Music was built on a similar premise, and there were some stories that I wish had become novels. “Counting the Days” in particular, a crushingly sad and super honest portrait of a marriage. In the reveal, we find out that the wife, having lost her husband just before her arrival in Canada from Ireland, with a pack of young children and nowhere to go, remarries quickly and has seven more children. I want to know how she meets her new husband, if she is haunted by her first husband, how the children adapt to their new situation – just more.
I recommend Astray to just about anyone. It may not change your mind if you’re anti-short story, but if you’re open to it, you won’t do much better.
So, looks like I need some new bookish/blogging challenges. How are you getting out of your comfort zone?