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June 10, 2014

Breaking Into a Genre: Neil Gaiman Style

Posted by emily

Just before we launched our current feature for Neil Gaiman's THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, one of our readers, Sue from the Wordsworth Book Club, contacted Carol and asked for a guide for this book, as well as other materials that would enhance her book group's discussion. In her email she said, “Our book club is discussing THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE and whenever I select a Fantasy/Myth/Fairy Tale there is a lot of discussion about ‘what the book is about.’” She went on to say, “I enjoy the books just for the enjoyment of reading it and really don’t try to ‘figure it out.’  I try to select books for our discussions that cover different genre than they would normally read with good response and success. This is one genre they do have a problem with, so I am asking if you can direct me to a good review or discussion on the book that can help them understand the meaning of the story.” Sue’s sister and brother-in-law are published writers and both “have been very insistent that I try all genres to truly enjoy reading, fantasy or science fiction being among those choices.”

We shared our guide and this New York Times review that the publisher suggested but, intrigued, we asked her more about her group and their discussion.   

Sue lives in a 55+-condominium neighborhood comprised of 50 two-story buildings. She said, “The community has two book groups; one meets in the mornings  (the second Tuesday of the month) and one in the evenings in our Village Hall Library, which a few of us maintain for the community with donated books that can be checked out “.  With over 1,200 titles, they have “a nice place for the residents of West Neck to read and enjoy the written word.”

She goes on to say, “We walk to the morning group because it is held in the hostess’ home. We are all retired and now have time to enjoy reading on a larger scale, even though we are probably far busier volunteering for various things than we were when we were working. There are lots of retired teachers and nurses among us, as those were the careers for women when we were young. “The average age of the group attendees is 65. Sue goes on to say, “We have become open to new genres since the book clubs were started. There are 10 of us who attend both AM and PM meetings and two more who attend the morning meetings only. We have a few who only attend when the book is something there are interested in.”

For the morning group the hostess picks the book. To give you an idea of the challenges for discussion fantasy, the group’s discussion for this month is GONE WITH THE WIND. “One of our members, Mary, selected it  and most have not read it since school (eons ago). We have a whole different perspective on it after so many years, so it should make for a great discussion” in June. 

Her role? “I love to say I ‘mediate’ the meetings in the evening because sometimes they can get loud, but in truth I guess you would call me the moderator. I start as early as October to look for books to list for the following year, and at book group members’ request we discuss a different genre every month. Fantasy/Fairy Tale/Myth is a challenge, but THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE seemed like a great choice after reading reviews and perusing the book myself. It was’s recommendation that really sealed the deal!”

So what happened during their discussion? “There were only six of us at the book club meeting on May 19th when we discussed the book, but the discussion was one of the best we have had in a while. Our best discussions are usually when everyone does not agree on the book. Then those who like the book try to convince the ones who didn’t why they should appreciate it --- and typically everyone ends up really liking the book.”  

During their meeting Sue worked to describe understanding the fantasy genre --- why it is a legitimate genre and should be considered a good read. “One of the women who just did not understand this is a retired school teacher who thinks of books like JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, ALICE IN WONDERLAND and CINDERELLA as fantasy/fairy tales. The group asked if she believed the pumpkin actually became a coach and she answered, ‘Of course.'  So we asked why she couldn’t believe the duck pond could become an ocean [in THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE] and she admitted that she had not seen it that way. To carry it one step further: If she believed in Cinderella’s fairy godmother, why couldn’t she believe the three females were “special” [in Neil Gaiman’s story]?  Then we discussed the story being the result of a traumatic event and the possibility that, like in THE WIZARD OF OZ, the characters might be actual people in the protagonist’s life but were changed into fantasy because of the trauma suffered.”

She went on with this train of thought saying, “The boy was a loner; no one came to his birthday party and he lived life through children’s books. The moral --- if there is one for this book --- should be that friendship and trust are of the utmost important in counteracting the evil in life.” It should be noted that there were two group members who read and enjoyed the book simply as a fantasy.

Sue also got feedback on the book from those who could not make the meeting as they wanted to weigh in with their opinions! Clearly this was a book that engaged readers. She continued, “I plan to continue to add at least one fantasy book a year to my group’s list. [I know the group enjoys them] because after the discussions we have had, there always are one or two members who will admit to not having finished the book during our discussion, but once we have discussed it they will go back and finish it. Being in the book group challenges them to read a book for the pure pleasure of reading a story, without a motive or rational reason --- just the pleasure of reading and opening up a new world --- or in this case genre --- for yourself. This is the first Neil Gaiman book we have read.” We’re interested in seeing what fantasy title they read next.

One last nice thing she noted, “Since we started these book clubs, we have even managed to get our husbands to read, although they don’t attend the meetings.” Nice indeed!