Monday, 8 April 2013

March 2013 - Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? By Jeanette Winterson

The account of depression enabled us to understand how Jeanette felt, it sounded profound, e.g. as if she were two people. It encouraged us to be more empathetic to people we knew with depression and why they may come across as cold. Some readers preferred the 2nd half of the book as it felt more of a narrative so it was more interesting. The first few chapters seemed self-involved which made some readers feel impatient but then it is a memoir, but for some readers a few chapters in it clicked and they warmed to the author and found it more enjoyable. Some readers felt the timespan skipped in time so it felt like they were missing something but others felt that it was current as in her feelings at the time and flowed as if the reader was going through experiences and memories with her. We considered that memories are not linear anyway, they occur when they resonate with life and hindsight rather than in the order of growing through childhood. We agreed it is difficult to imagine such a harsh upbringing but those with less empathy for Jeanette said there are so many worse off than her and wanted her to elaborate good aspects such as the church outings! The narrative seemed circular, drifting in and out of time but she explained that as her personality. She seemed very resourceful considering experiences such as sitting out on the doorstep all night but never seemed to have hatred or anger rather appreciation of the kindness of people around her helping her to cope. We considered that a child wouldn't necessarily recognise anger anyway or why it happens as they are often not insightful enough. We found recounts of her childhood more interesting than adulthood. Ironically some felt she seemed more grown up as child, she 'stamped her feet more as adult' but then she was living in fear as child so she wouldn't have been allowed to show her individuality or get her needs met. Jeanette would describe a memory but not why it occurred as she moved on quickly in the telling of events so there was not as much depth. Some Book Club members with personal knowledge on adoption felt the explanations on adoption showed the loyalty felt to your adoptive parents but that you can't fit in, then connecting with birth parents doesn't necessarily live up to what is expected. It is rare for a memoir to be written by the person themselves which was beneficial for expressing depth of feelings - Jeanette didn't hold back on the ugliness of her feelings which was brave. The leap between childhood and adulthood seemed rushed. However Jeanette has a no-nonsense attitude when she speaks so the book is written in a style which reflects her personality.

The part where Jeanette left for Oxford after sleeping in her car highlighted the strength of character and determination that Jeanette possessed and the unconditional support of two significant women giving her the belief and tenacity to get to Oxford at a time when she was the minority. These acts of kindness from relative strangers were significant such as the trampolining teacher letting Jeanette move in and the old lady from church who always wore her coat as he had no clothes but fed the children every week. Many readers were inspired by Jeanette's references to the books she read as she moved through the alphabet and how her relationship between books and depression had been so special. It gave a linear structure to her life and gave her meaning when she had nothing else. This made us want to fall in love with reading again. It was fascinating when she simply decided to write her own book as her mum burned all of hers! Some readers were affected by the scene when Jeanette's uncle turned up and was so reactive. However, it seemed the attempted suicide was glossed over considering how significant it must have been.

Some readers felt sorry for Mrs Winterson, they felt that details of her childhood would have been interesting especially around religion and the mix up of babies and why did she want to adopt? She appeared very complex, especially her many quirks, and readers felt bad for her as she can't tell her side of the story. However, there was a sense of loss and richness not seeing her side. Discovering Jeanette's sexuality provoked a harsh reaction in her mother but at that time we agreed this would have seemed normal as people then didn't talk about problems as everything was behind closed doors. We were expecting a more explosive reaction when Jeanette came out as gay, there seemed an emotional detachment, e.g. we can cure you in church. It came across that this attitude of coping through detachment was passed on to Jeanette. Some readers felt the father was unable to have a positive relationship of love with Jeanette because the mother came between them, he was weak as he was forced to do what his wife wanted. It was positive that he met his new wife who was so different to Mrs Winterston. It was lovely that the book showed the two very different women.

To some readers Jeanette appeared to regress, jumping between childhood memories which they could understand but not empathise with. Obviously a reader never knows the full story and it is unfair to judge anyone in a memoir as they are real which is why we wanted to know more about reasons for behaviour and feelings.  Although this lack of detail reflects Jeanette as a person, as she does not waste time in unnecessary words. Our opinions of Mrs Winterston changed when she was trying to be normal as she seemed more ridiculous, e.g. providing pineapple for Jeanette's friend but it did make her a more interesting person! We discussed that you don't have to feel for the person in a memoir but the genre can make you resonate with your own life or other peoples. For example we discussed how we would have related to Jeanette if we had been at school with her, she was very prickly, not friendly and pushed people away! Some of us did grow to admire her resilience and how her ability to be different has brought her such success.

We appreciated how Jeanette bravely shows that families are not as chocolate box as society likes us to believe and can have a profound effect on our personality. We liked how it reflected the importance of connecting with people who accept you as you are, we might not start out with them but find them through life. Also how sometimes we need to leave our environment to be accepted, as we become older we realise we have to decide who or what is good for us and make informed choices. We agreed it is important to have books as an escape, Jeanette inspired us to want to read more books, to find the passion to interact with books although she did this more than with people! We were aware of her being in an environment that didn't nurture her but sheer drive for something better made her explore other places and people. It was empowering to read through a no-nonsense style, rather than fuzzy feelings which was achieved with humour and non-criticism. The explanations of poetry made us want to read more and reflect on the meaning, to dig deeper. We learnt how it is possible to read books for survival, to have contact with a world outside, such as Accrington, and have hope!

We enjoyed Jeanette's writing style and her references so we would read other books by her. Her other books are based on very different ideas, and almost unexpected by her which is an attraction. We enjoyed the conversational style which led some readers want to read something fictional by Jeanette as it would be interesting. Overall readers enjoyed her dark sense of humour, friendly style and matter of fact eloquence.

We had nine people turn up to the meet, as many others were poorly this month or just didn’t fancy this book. We did notice that most of the people at the meeting who contributed to the above enjoyed the book whereas those who didn’t attend didn’t enjoy it so much, finding it a bit depressing or disjointed. We did however have 14 votes come in, with an average of 6.3 out of ten, lowest 3 highest 9. 

Write up by Teresa

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