"Richard Price explores the intersecting worlds of children and adults
with a wild joy and sadness. Here Price’s lyric gifts are
refined further towards the quintessence. A well-nigh perfect short novel." -- Bill Broady
Despite their reputation for difficulty, or perhaps because of it, poetry and short stories are ideal for book group discussions. A single poem or story can
ignite an evening's conversation. A poetry sequence can have the suspense of a novel with a power that is somewhere
between film and song.
Thought-provoking contemporary fiction written in free verse
Evaristo's The Emperor's Babe, about a woman of Sudanese parents growing up in Roman
London, and the crime novel The Monkey's Mask by Dorothy Porter. Vikram Seth's The
Golden Gate, a love story set in San Francisco, uses the witty Pushkin stanza, a technical
feat almost as impressive as the eponymous bridge.
Short story collections from the masters of the genre - Guy de Maupassant, Chekhov, Raymond Carver, Flannery O'Connor -
to contemporary writers like Annie Proulx, Alice Munro, and Helen Simpson - can offer a book group a level of concentration that they might
not receive from novels (although there are novels and there are novels...). Like poetry they can allow the reader to dwell with them more intimately, an experience no book group should
miss out on once in a while.
Richard Price is a novelist (see The Island) and uses strong storytelling conventions
in the other literary artforms he uses: for example in poetry sequences such
as "Hand Held", collected
in Lucky Day, acclaimed as a moving account of fatherhood and the
early years of his mentally
handicapped daughter. Because he often writes short gatherings of poems groups unused to reading
poetry can concentrate on just a single sequence in his collections. Perhaps that is even the best way to
read his work. The sequence "Earliest Spring Yet" in Rays, which takes the reader through the stages of a
love affair, is another sequence that has a gradual narrative effect.
And the linked short stories of A Boy in Summer can be read individually
or, together, as a kind of novel (Price links the 'community form' to John Galt's comic but canny Annals of the Parish but you
don't have to take his word for it).
Book Group Suggestions
A Boy in Summer has been called an "elliptical novel" by its author.
This is because all the short stories are linked to one another through the network of a dozen or so characters
but the links are only revealed gradually and
at different speeds for different connections. Although the easy conclusions of so
much contemporary fiction are resisted that makes it sound more forbidding than it is: in fact
the book is a touching portrait of childhood and village community. Book groups may
enjoy the book's re-imagining
of 60s, 70s and 80s life, including, in one story, the day of the first momentous LiveAid concert, but they are
also likely to be struck by Price's handling of time passing.
The two sequences that open Greenfields, "Frosted, Melted" and
"Renfrewshire in Old Photographs" deal with the same themes and territory of
A Boy in Summer and can be read as a companion to that book (and vice versa). This is village life
in the 60s and 70s "age of the wagon prams" where a spirit of optimism and
Like the short stories there
is a cast of numberous characters - including the young anti-car 'terrorist' Glinchy, the
anonymous shopgirl who
is besotted with the mysterious John Gallagher. Perhaps Price is attempting to show how family
and community are intricately and sometimes mysteriously woven together. There
is much more Scottish landscape in these poems than in A Boy in Summer, though,
and Nature is often written onto (by council notice or inscription)
strange sculpture added to it. Book groups reading the poem "Hillman Avenger"
may be surprised to find Gormley's Angel of the North
had been imagined as a West of Scotland car-crash-as-installation: several pieces in
Greenfields reflect on the trend of public art.
Lucky Day opens with a gathering that is also concerned with
art and territory, "Scape."
One critic has suggested that Scottish landscapes are being depicted here
but the references to the Thames, to the white horse downs of Southern England,
to remote moorland and to forestry show that the perspective is much wider. Book groups will also
quickly see that the actual 'surface' of the poems is very different each time, with art
techniques (Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Futurism) being 'translated' into the actual delivery
of several of these big outdoors poems, while other intriguing visual effects are used in others.
If all that sounds rather high falutin, the next sequence, "A Spelthorne
Bird List" is (almost) all pure fun. A kind of Creature Comforts account of the birdlife
of suburbia, book groups may also find themselves discussing what the poems are saying about
contemporary life in Britain (not to mention the habits of our feathered friends).
Poetry can be discussed like a novel or film in a group but of course it has
its own rules and depths, like any other form. Sometimes a single poem may take a night to talk
through (the poet hopes, of course, that one night will never be enough!). Some of Price's
single poems are like that: the jazz-rhythmed "Lick and Stick" in Lucky Day which pursues its
complex theme of unrequited love through a braiding of strange sensual images, and "The Giant" in
Greenfields, described by one reviewer as "one of the great love poems in English in
To sum up: short stories and poetry offer both a theme-based approach to discussion at book groups and
a form-based approach (how the books actually do what they do). Richard Price's short novel The Island is
not the only book of his that offers the thought-provoking pleasures of a good read.
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