November 20, 2012
I recently met with a book club to discuss a novel they selected to read and discuss with me – Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth. The historical novel provided a lot to talk about. Indeed, at more than 600 pages, the award-winning fictional story about the 18th century British triangle trade proved to be difficult to digest, yet it engaged everyone and drew remarks about a kind of narrative depth not often encountered these publishing days.
Events in the plot revolve around the Liverpool Merchant sailing from England to Africa, where the captain is designated to purchase slaves he must then sell in the Caribbean nations in exchange for rum, sugar, coffee and other goods. Those goods are then sold in England for profit that will enhance the worth of William Kemp, the ship’s owner. Unsworth does not hold back regarding the brutal realities of the slave trade, writing cringe-worthy scenes that take place on the ship and driving home the unsettling message of man’s cruelty to man.
Heavy stuff. One book club member was so overwhelmed by the barbaric treatment of the slaves, she began talking about it before we’d had a chance to introduce ourselves. It was as if she had to put it out on the table to get it out of herself — the humiliation, debasement and senseless punishment (whips and chains) not only rained down on the slaves but also the ship’s crew. I asked her to pause for a moment for the introductions, and then turned to her afterwards to continue. I thought she would say she hated the book, but not so. Like every one else, she found herself absorbed in the unforgettable storyline, beautiful writing and powerful characters.
Here are other highlights from the discussion.
One person said she found the size of the book daunting. Then she revealed she tried to read it in one week as an e-book. With e-books, unlike printed books, you can’t see the journey ahead all-at-once in chapters and page count. You can’t flip through an e-book and determine the scope of reading at hand. Had she seen the physical book, she would’ve started it sooner. I can’t remember if she finished it or not — I’m thinking not.
Another person was enthralled by Barry Unsworth’s writing. A few times during the two hours, she picked up the book and read passages she’d marked. Gorgeous, moving passages that showcased Unsworth’s talent. One, I remember in particular, described a painful moment for the ship’s surgeon followed by a beautiful description of light. I wondered out loud whether Unsworth intentionally wrote about the light as a halo effect on this good character, suggesting it as a narrative tactic he may have used among characters who had a conscience, or a potential for good.
One person, new to reading in her life, provided some of the most insightful comments. The one that jumps to mind is her perception that Unsworth siloed his characters. Each one, she felt, had been created with a strait-jacket of characteristics that made them predictable. I’ve returned to that comment after the event in my thoughts because I didn’t want to agree with it at the time – I was too impressed with Unsworth’s craft to allow a flaw – but now, I think, she’s right.
Another person asked how the main character Erasmus Kemp, the son of the ship owner, could be filled with so much anger and revenge. What is driving him, she asked. I still can see her expression of confused wonder about such ugly human nature. Kemp is a character who has a prosperous life yet every fiber of him radiates an angry need to control people. Her question sparked conversation about how we become who we are as adults.
The person who spoke out her distress during introductions about the brutality in the story said she felt despair at the book’s end, failing to see redemption. But it is there — hope, too – and I used the story of Jean Valjean being given the candlesticks by the bishop in Les Misérables to illustrate how Unsworth creates the possibility for Erasmus Kemp to change. She got it. I could see it in her eyes.
Finally, one person repeatedly commented in her enthusiasm about Sacred Hunger that it was the most satisfying, profound book she’d read in decades. She wanted more.
Before we said our good-byes, I asked what everyone would do with the book going forward. Almost all said they would give it to a friend, wrap it as a holiday gift or recommend it. Hear, hear, I say, as well as bravo! for the readers who delved into this exceptional book with focused, unbridled energy. It was great fun.
The meeting with this book club was a result of the 2012 WOSU Chefs in the City fundraising event. The book selection process — how they chose Sacred Hunger — was written about in a previous blog post on The Longest Chapter.
October 7, 2012
I met with a handful of members from a book club recently with the purpose of selecting a book the club would read, and then I’d join them to lead the discussion about it. I brought with me six books as suggestions.
This group won the WOSU Chefs in the City auction item for this event. I thought TLC readers might be interested in my suggestions and how the group came to their book of choice.
First, I suggested two classics. It’s always good to bring classics because if all other choices bomb, classics provide the opportunity to read books for the bucket list.
Although a famous story, many have not read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Indeed, only one member among the selection committee had read this story about the murder of the Clutter family on November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas. Capote interviewed the town’s people and the convicted killers to capture this horrific story that unsettles us on many levels, but especially because the Clutters lived in a small, familiar, midwest community where neighbors didn’t lock their doors. In Cold Blood is widely considered to be the book that established the non-fiction novel genre in which actual events are told with compelling fictional style. The Library of Congress included Capote’s groundbreaking oeuvre in Books That Shaped America.
Book club verdict: The one book club member who had read the book claimed it as a favorite and wanted to read it again. Everyone else — except one – also wanted to read it. I thought this book would be their choice, but that one dissenting voice fervently resisted because of that frightening vulnerability I mentioned of the killers freely walking into the unlocked home. Her opinion won, and the book was cast out of the running.
The second classic I suggested was Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert but only the Lydia Davis translation, released in 2010. According to Davis in New York magazine, previous popular translations were “well written in their own way. But they’re not close to what Flaubert did.” Flaubert wrote his famous novel with meticulous, perfectionist attention to every word, sentence and phrase, orchestrating them into a flawless rhythm. Madame Bovary tells the story of Emma Bovary, who is bored in her marriage to the provincial Dr. Charles Bovary. It’s about her desperation to find relief, resulting in debt, adultery and tragic consequences. I love this statement inside the cover of the new translation: “Emma Bovary is the original desperate housewife.”
Book club verdict: Several wanted to read the classic for the first time, and others wanted to reread it in the new translation, but the story was deemed too depressing and not what they were looking for.
Next I suggested Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie. When recommending to groups, I always like to include a biography or memoir. Newly released this fall season in paperback, this New York Times best-seller explores the life of the German princess who ruled Russia for 34 year. The author told NPR: “The whole story of the life as it unfolded was absolutely fascinating. I have four daughters. … I think that Catherine is almost a lesson book. There were lots of moments of despair, but she carried on. She carried through. She’s an example. She won. … I found that exhilarating, and in a sense, reassuring.”
Book club verdict: The book club was reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, which they were going to discuss at their next meeting. Delving into another monarchy right after seemed too much too soon. They wanted something else.
Before arriving that night at the gathering, I had no sense of their reading preferences, even though they had given me a short list of books they had read together in the past. The list was so widely varied it revealed no pattern, such as a leaning toward classics or history, biography or light fiction. Hence, I thought it would be a good idea to throw a guaranteed engrossing novel into the mix. Why not make it a love story, too? And so, I suggested The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger about the love affair between involuntary time-traveling librarian Henry DeTamble and artist Clare Abshire. I made it clear if anyone had seen the movie, this was definitely a case of the book being better. The book is described as “a spellbinding tale of fate and belief in the bonds of love,” and I remarked that it was more about enduring love than time travel. Someone said, “I don’t believe in enduring love,” to which I replied, “Then we’ll have lots to talk about.”
Book club verdict: They liked the selection but decided to save The Time Traveler’s Wife for their February book, being February is the love month of Valentine’s Day.
Next I proposed two historical novels. Historical fiction offers a blend between non-fiction and fiction that can satisfy a group with mixed preferences between the two genres. Both books I’ve written about on TLC — click on the book titles and you’ll be taken to those posts where there is more information.
Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada, a page-turner set in World War II and made available in English for the first time by Melville House publishers in 2009. Holocaust survivor and acclaimed author Primo Levi described it as “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis.” The fictional plot is based on the true story of a working class German couple who lived a low-profile, non-political life in Berlin during Hitler’s years in power. When their only son was killed on the WWII front battle lines, they became resisters, launching a dangerous anti-Hitler campaign via postcards they circulated throughout Berlin. Eventually, the couple was found out, tried and beheaded by the Nazis.
Book club verdict: Great interest, but they decided to read the following historical novel instead. They recently had read Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, and although Hillenbrand’s story takes place in the Pacific theater, its World War II setting pushed them toward deciding on a different historical time.
Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth won the Man Booker Prize in 1992, but it tied with The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. Everyone remembers the latter, less the former that search upon search calls up consistent praise of ”magnificent” and “a masterpiece.” It’s a large novel about greed and man’s cruelty to man, as it tells the story of the 18th century British slave trade. Strong voices among the small selection committee spoke up wanting to read this book, while one person thought it might be too heavy or depressing. At that point, I wondered if I’d brought too many books they considered heavy topics or depressing and wished I’d brought along Rachel Joyce’s lively, enchanting The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. It’s Joyce’s debut, a new novel about a man who walks the length of England in his yachting shoes and light coat to save a long-ago friend. I was ready to offer it, when discussion turned positive toward Sacred Hunger, which they ultimately selected.
Book club verdict: The winner, for its interesting time period and historical events that would provide good discussion opportunities. Of course, it was also selected because there was curiosity about Unsworth’s prize-winning “magnificent” story.
June 12, 2012
Barry Unsworth and Ray Bradbury died last week, the one a highly praised, award-winning writer of historical novels and the other a renowned sci-fi writer. I keep scanning the bookshelf holding my college English lit paperbacks, searching for a science fiction anthology I’m sure contains Bradbury’s work, but I don’t see the memorable psychedelic book cover. It’s possible I gave the book away because I concluded, after reading it those many years ago, that science fiction and I aren’t compatible. The genre doesn’t generate impulse buys, late-night reading and that breathless desire to stack the reading table, much as I’ve tried. This is a familiar refrain I sing here. But what about Barry Unsworth?
News of his death in Perugia, Italy on June 5 drove me to find out about his work, 17 novels, which are less familiar to me than Bradbury’s oeuvre. Of the 17, the novel that rose to the top in my search, with consistent praise from critics and readers alike, was Sacred Hunger, a novel frequently described as “the book that shared the 1992 Booker Prize with The English Patient.” Most know Michael Ondaatje’s best-seller that was made into an Oscar award-winning movie, but not Unsworth’s novel, a 630-page thematic focus on greed and man’s cruelty to man, as it tells the story of the 18th century British slave trade.
If that kind of plotline sounds too heavy for summer reading, I’m thinking the engrossing “masterpiece” aspect of the book puts it in the running for a seasonal choice. Because isn’t that what some of us want? Not the lightness of a beach read, or the titillation of a gray-shaded sex boiler, rather an epic escape into another time and place that soar us into the wee hours of these long summer nights, a literate kidnapping of our imagination and intellect. The Guardian’s obituary says of Unsworth’s work, “All his stories start with the pressure of a secret that needs to be told. All leave the reader haunted.” Well, that got me. Sacred Hunger is now on the summer reading table.
Here’s a summary of its plot, given by the Man Booker Prize in their online archive:
“A blasphemous outcast, Matthew Paris boards the ‘Liverpool Merchant’ as ship’s doctor as it embarks on a mercantile voyage in the slave trade. An illness breaks out among the slaves and crew between Guinea and the West Indies, and slaves are ordered to be tossed overboard in order to claim the insurance. Illness gives rise to mutiny, the captain is killed, and, with Paris as one of the leaders, the ship sails for Florida to establish an egalitarian, interracial society. Meanwhile, back in Liverpool, the loss of the ship has financially ruined its owner, Kemp, who hangs himself. Twelve years later, upon hearing rumours of a utopian community of blacks and whites in Florida, Kemp’s son sets out for revenge.”
Author Ethan Canin selected Sacred Hunger in his 2008 NPR “You Must Read This” selection and said, “I’ve rarely heard anyone who has read it call it anything less than magnificent.” And that’s what I, too, kept finding — countless statements describing the novel as a masterpiece, not only for its plot and character development, but also for its overarching message about profit, greed and inhumanity. Herbert Mitgang wrote about Sacred Hunger in the New York Times, December 1992: “In this brilliant narrative, it is impossible not to feel that Mr. Unsworth’s characters represent something larger: the eternal clash between good and greed — sometimes within the same person — and the dream of an Arcadian life where people live free and equal in peace.”
Barry Unsworth’s novels Pascali’s Island (published in the United States as The Idol Hunter) and Morality Play were shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1980 and 1995. His most recent novel, published earlier this year, is Quality of Mercy. It continues the story of Sacred Hunger. In 2011, Unsworth told the BBC, “The fascination for writing historical novels is that things were different but they were the same. You say something that is true of the 18th Century, but at the same time you are saying something that is true of our time as well.”