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Book Groups

The Island

"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 includes Bernadine 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 rockeries pervades. 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) or with 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 recent times".

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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