October Book Club notes
Our October Book Club choice was A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson. This wonderful memoir is cleared inspired by Gerald Durrell, filled with short stories and anecdotes from Goulson’s childhood and recounting how a childhood fascination with insects developed into his important work into Bumblebees. It is no surprise to the reader to discover that Goulson is currently Professor of Biology at Sussex University, specialising in Bee Ecology who campaigns tirelessly for bees – and we are delighted that he will be coming to The Bookshop for an evening event next spring.
Offering up a non-fiction tract based on bumblebees was, I admit, a trifle nerve-racking. Would the Book Club be absolutely gripped (as I was) or absolutely floored? Both Book Clubs agreed that they had approached the book with some trepidation: it was ‘very niche’. But, on a show of hands four ‘loved it’ and the other six ‘enjoyed it’ – so with only one dissenter, this was our most enjoyed book so far!
The obvious question then is how on earth Goulson manages to turn his scientific research, which he admits himself can be dry, into something quite so captivating? We concluded that this comes from two things. First, like Durrell, Goulson has a full cast of characters. Whilst Durrell uses his family to add colour and to reflect normality onto his obsession with animals, Goulson uses his colleagues – a host of PhD researchers who are also passionate about insects. The researches add humour and diversity to his writing – and the different projects help us to move through the book and to feel how his thinking/research is progressing. There was some criticism on the Walking Book Club that Goulson had a patriarchal tone in his writing, with young female researchers being notable for how they looked. Re-reading (as I hadn’t noticed it) there is an element of truth in this, except that the male researchers are also vividly described and given that Goulson is trying to create ‘characters’ to capture the readers interest, perhaps those descriptions can be justified by the end? Goulson’s second tool in creating such a captivating book is clearly the use of humorous anecdotes which accompany and illustrate each of his scientific points. The science is divided into chapters, creating a series of funny and well told vignettes. Some of the Book Clubbers found they needed to dip in and out of the book as it was ‘fact dense’ and so this division was useful. It was interesting that a third of the group had found it a very easy read, washing over them in a glory of fascination and humour, whilst others had found they needed/wanted to really concentrate on it and give it more time. Perhaps this is the difference between ‘monitors’ (who need to know everything) and ‘blunters’ who take the overview and drill down when they need to (a useful division from the world of advertising!).
We all felt that this was a purposeful book, written to stress the important of insects as we work towards returning our planet to health. We liked Goulson’s honesty in admitting that whilst scientific research is important, it is not very proactive on a day to day basis. With this in mind he set up the Bumble Bee Conservation Trust, which some thought was given too much weight in the book (a whole chapter). Had the book inspired us to think further about bees? Clearly we are all watching the bees around us much more closely, and one Book Clubber had drawn up a list of plants for her garden which were mentioned as being important in the book – you’ll find it at the bottom of this note. Other books which we felt were similar included anything by Richard Feynman – another great communicator writing on physics; Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Flight Behaviour (on monarch butterflies) and of course our old friend Laline Paull’s much loved novel, The Bees.
There was a comment that the ending of A Sting in the Tale had been very satisfying – there is clearly a lot of work going on that we don’t know about. However, it has still left us with lots of questions to put to Dave Goulson on Thursday 16 March, 7pm in The Bookshop! - not least whether the road traffic cone is still attached to the outside of the Science Buildings at Southampton University!
As ever our Book Clubbers were not monogamous in their reading... Louisa has taken up some freelance editing so is immersed in YA at the moment, particularly Sarah J Maas. Little does she know how useful she will be in the New Year when we begin our YA section. Vickie recommended Daisy Jones and the Six… the fictional story of a pop group which is like a great, thick version of Hello!, and is also reading The Outsider, another thriller from Jean Hanff Korelitz who wrote The Plot. The Plot is a current bookshop favourite, which many of us have now read and Chris has just finished. Chris also read Amor Towle’s The Lincoln Highway which she highly recommended for the great character descriptions. Michael has been immersed in newspapers and magazines, trying to make sense of the world (ha!), and similarly Amy has been reading Fairy Tales in conjunction with her mother who is setting next year’s AQA English exam questions (sounds fascinating!). In particular, they are immersed in Tolkein’s Tree and Leaf. The state of our politics pushed Janice to a book she has had on her shelf for years. Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife is loosely based on Laura Bush and touches on a number of political themes. Janice particularly liked the form of this book which is divided into sections based on where the lead protagonist is living.
The book for next month is Sarah Jane Butler’s Starling – and Sarah Jane will be joining us at The Book Club on Monday 28 November in The Bookshop. Walking Book Club will be Wednesday 30th November (tickets on the website) when we will stick to the Forest Way after rather a muddy walk this month! Do come and join us!
Whatever you are reading, enjoy it… and come and tell us about it when you’re done!
Annie’s plant list from A Sting in the Tale – to attract bumblebeees to your garden:
Aqualegia, Foxgloves, Vipers Bugloss, Comfrey, Thyme, Rosemary, Sage, Chives, Lavender, Hollyhocks, Scabious, Lupins.