Riffraff Book Club
Winter/Spring 2019: Retellings
Over the course of the first six months of 2019, we’ll be reading and discussing books that represent a variation on the theme of RETELLINGS, books that look at timeless myths, tales, folklore, or even literary classics and reinterpret, reframe, and/or reimagine them.
The schedule of meetings and books being discussed is as follows:
Wednesday, January 16, 7pm
Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson
Geryon, a young boy who is also a winged red monster, reveals the volcanic terrain of his fragile, tormented soul in an autobiography he begins at the age of five. As he grows older, Geryon escapes his abusive brother and affectionate but ineffectual mother, finding solace behind the lens of his camera and in the arms of a young man named Herakles, a cavalier drifter who leaves him at the peak of infatuation. When Herakles reappears years later, Geryon confronts again the pain of his desire and embarks on a journey that will unleash his creative imagination to its fullest extent. By turns whimsical and haunting, erudite and accessible, richly layered and deceptively simple, Autobiography of Red is a profoundly moving portrait of an artist coming to terms with the fantastic accident of who he is.
Wednesday, February 13, 7pm
Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie
The suspenseful and heartbreaking retelling of Antigone centered on an immigrant family driven to pit love against loyalty, with devastating consequences
Isma is free. After years of watching out for her younger siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she’s accepted an invitation from a mentor in America that allows her to resume a dream long deferred. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London, or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream, to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew. When he resurfaces half a globe away, Isma’s worst fears are confirmed.
Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Son of a powerful political figure, he has his own birthright to live up to—or defy. Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz’s salvation? Suddenly, two families’ fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined, in this searing novel that asks: What sacrifices will we make in the name of love?
Wednesday, March 13, 7pm
The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud
He was the brother of “the Arab” killed by the infamous Meursault, the antihero of Camus’s classic novel The Stranger. Seventy years after that event, Harun, who has lived since childhood in the shadow of his sibling’s memory, refuses to let him remain anonymous: he gives his brother a story and a name—Musa—and describes the events that led to Musa’s casual murder on a dazzlingly sunny beach.
In a bar in Oran, night after night, he ruminates on his solitude, on his broken heart, on his anger with men desperate for a god, and on his disarray when faced with a country that has so disappointed him. A stranger among his own people, he wants to be granted, finally, the right to die.
The Stranger is of course central to Daoud’s story, in which he both endorses and criticizes one of the most famous novels in the world. A worthy complement to its great predecessor, The Meursault Investigation is not only a profound meditation on Arab identity and the disastrous effects of colonialism in Algeria, but also a stunning work of literature in its own right, told in a unique and affecting voice.
Wednesday, April 10, 7pm
The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, by Angela Carter
Angela Carter was a storytelling sorceress, the literary godmother of Neil Gaiman, David Mitchell, Audrey Niffenegger, J. K. Rowling, Kelly Link, and other contemporary masters of supernatural fiction. In her masterpiece, The Bloody Chamber—which includes the story that is the basis of Neil Jordan’s 1984 movie The Company of Wolves—she spins subversively dark and sensual versions of familiar fairy tales and legends like “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Bluebeard,” “Puss in Boots,” and “Beauty and the Beast,” giving them exhilarating new life in a style steeped in the romantic trappings of the gothic tradition.
Wednesday, May 15, 7pm
Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi
From the prizewinning author of What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours and 2019’s Gingerbread, comes a brilliant recasting of the Snow White fairy tale as a story of family secrets, race, beauty, and vanity.
In the winter of 1953, Boy Novak arrives by chance in a small town in Massachusetts looking, she believes, for beauty—the opposite of the life she’s left behind in New York. She marries Arturo Whitman, a local widower, and becomes stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow.
A wicked stepmother is a creature Boy never imagined she’d become, but elements of the familiar tale of aesthetic obsession begin to play themselves out when the birth of Boy’s daughter, Bird, who is dark-skinned, exposes the Whitmans as light-skinned African-Americans passing for white. And even as Boy, Snow, and Bird are divided, their estrangement is complicated by an insistent curiosity about one another. In seeking an understanding that is separate from the image each presents to the world, Boy, Snow, and Bird confront the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold.
Dazzlingly inventive and powerfully moving, Boy, Snow, Bird is an astonishing and enchanting novel. With breathtaking feats of imagination, Helen Oyeyemi confirms her place as one of the most original and dynamic literary voices of our time.
Wednesday, June 12, 7pm
Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys
Wide Sargasso Sea, a masterpiece of modern fiction, was Jean Rhys’s return to the literary center stage. She had a startling early career and was known for her extraordinary prose and haunting women characters. With Wide Sargasso Sea, her last and best-selling novel, she ingeniously brings into light one of fiction’s most fascinating characters: the madwoman in the attic from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This mesmerizing work introduces us to Antoinette Cosway, a sensual and protected young woman who is sold into marriage to the prideful Mr. Rochester. Rhys portrays Cosway amidst a society so driven by hatred, so skewed in its sexual relations, that it can literally drive a woman out of her mind.
Fall 2018: Capitalism + the Individual
Our first themed series of book club discussions was entitled Capitalism + the Individual, an attempt to examine the ways that the complex and pervasive machinations of late capitalism affect the lives of normal people. The four books were:
Surveys, by Natasha Stagg (fiction)
Surveys follows a twenty-three-year-old woman with almost no attachments or aspirations for her life who suddenly attains ambiguous Internet stardom when she’s discovered by a semi-famous icon of masculinity and reclusiveness and swept into a new life of whirlwind parties and sponsored events.
Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl, by Tiqqun (non-fiction)
First published in France in 1999, Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl dissects the impossibility of love under Empire. The Young-Girl is consumer society’s total product and model citizen: whatever “type” of Young-Girl she may embody, whether by whim or concerted performance, she can only seduce by consuming. Filled with the language of French women’s magazines, rooted in Proust’s figure of Albertine and the amusing misery of (teenage) romance in Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, and informed by Pierre Klossowski’s notion of “living currency” and libidinal economy, Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl diagnoses—and makes visible—a phenomenon that is so ubiquitous as to have become transparent.
Rich and Poor, by Jacob Wren (fiction)
Rich and Poor is the story of a middle-class, immigrant pianist who has fallen on hard times, and now finds himself washing dishes to make ends meet. Wren capably balances personal reflections with real-time political events, as his protagonist awakens to the possibility of a solution to his troubles and begins to formulate a plan of attack, in which the only answer is to get rid of "the 1%."
Excess—the Factory, by Leslie Kaplan (poetry)
In 1968, the American-born French poet Leslie Kaplan went to work in a factory. She did so out of choice rather than necessity, part of a generation of Maoist établis, university-educated radicals who entered the factory in order to organize the working class. Excess—The Factory evokes the tumult of those years through an encounter with the serial violence of the assembly line, descending by way of infernal workshops to reach the dark center of capitalist accumulation.
To join, simply send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and read the book before the meeting! All book club titles are $1 off in advance of the discussions.