Last year, as part of the ‘Women Empowered through Coaching and Networking’, or shortly, the #WECAN project, I led a research study conducting a systematic literature review on women and networking. Other than the usual stuff of women facing barriers for not always being able to network and networks still functioning as boy’s clubs, with women’s networks being powerless even when they are formed, I also found two articles commenting on the benefit of a book club. In those articles (Alsop, 2015; Macoun & Miller, 2014), authors commented on the emotional benefits of women networking in this way, sharing experiences, bonding and having a safe place from an otherwise competitive work culture. I suppose I should have started this blog series about the book club immediately, and it is not like it did not cross my mind, except that research work got the better of me. It still does, to be fair, but I just made a decision to ignore certain things and take it a little bit easier so I can do more of what I always loved the most, read and write.
This gave me the idea to form a school’s book club as part of the #WECAN project, and also to write reflective diaries, for research purposes. The results were astonishing with five colleagues joining and all of us ending up bonding and sharing experiences, as well as learning from each other. What is more, we managed to overcome the notion of women’s networks not being powerful by developing papers and projects, thus not needing formal networks to go ahead but working with each other and collaborating. This seems to be a way forward for women whose networks are not always recognised, i.e., women’s networks do not need to try to be hierarchical and create power to influence the top, this is ultimately a historically masculine practice. What women’s networks can do is create collaborative spaces that both create CVs that make them hard to ignore in promotions, as well as emotionally support each other to create coping mechanisms by forming work friendships.
I did not want us to read just women’s authors, as this has been done before, but do something different and see what comes out of it so I proposed we each propose a book that means something to us, which is probably why we achieved such outstanding results. This resulted in an interesting set of books, which I am briefly outlining (no spoilers, no worries).
This is the book I proposed. I read it in Croatia, before moving to the UK so it has been a while. The reason it initially stayed in my mind is because of innovative writing of a life of two people using just one day in each year of their lives. This always appealed to me as I also have one day every few years when I evaluate the last period of my life, reflect on what I have achieved and also use this evaluation to encourage myself further. However, after reading it again, with a PhD in sociology and more life experience, I realised this book is ultimately an English class story as the female protagonist of the book is Northern working class and the male protagonist is a southern upper-class guy. We follow a story of their friendship and how they overcame differences or failed to do so. What was interesting in our book club discussion is how we read books based on our origin, and so differently. So, those of us of working-class origin noticed the class story whereas the middle and upper-class women noticed the gender story in the book of women providing emotional support to men whereas the rest of us only saw class. This class reading of books was fascinating and regardless of different viewpoints, I remain with an opinion that this is a beautiful class story of differences in behaviour and taste among upper and working classes, as well as differences between north and south of England. The social and cultural capital is also something that shows as very divisive in this book and the book portrays how these differences create different opportunities and attitudes toward life. A wonderful read.
John Steinbeck, GRAPES OF WRATH
The second book was also proposed by a working-class member and it is also a class story from a Nobel prize winner about poor workers in the US who were struggling against early corporations. In some cases, they had to leave their homes and migrate to other parts of America and interestingly, this immigrant experience is something that middle- and upper-class members picked up whereas the rest of us, the working class, picked up the class story and the struggle against capitalism. So, another fascinating experience of how our class consciousness influences the way we read texts and what we notice in people’s stories. This convinced me to continue my research into the working-class culture in England so one of the joint projects of this book club was to invite members to contribute to my project on the English working classes as I have been struggling to find time to complete it due to a large dataset.
Buchi Emmecheta, THE JOYS OF MOTHERHOOD
This book was an absolute gem that not only made me read the book in a record time, but it actually prompted me to buy other books from this author. What a compelling writing style and what a joy to read a novel and learn about Nigerian culture at the same time. The book follows a story of a Nigerian woman who wanted to be a mother, as this was her upbringing, to see the role of a mother as her primary one. However, she did not find a man who was a breadwinner so ended up also working to support a family and look after children assuming he owns her and her children anyway. A very captivating story of the position of women, patriarchy and again, class and poverty. I do not want to write too much deliberately because this author is simply amazing, and no words could do her justice. JUST READ THIS!
Lionel Shrivel, SHOULD WE STAY OR SHOULD WE GO
This was a very, very, very weird book but the one you also cannot let go of. It is a story of what could have been showing a life of an old couple who thinks of planning for their deaths and even perhaps committing suicide so they are not a burden to NHS and society. After this morbid introduction and setting out of the context, which is painfully mirrored in the mainstream British press that treats anyone seeking any social help as a parasite, the book continues with various scenarios of what could have happened to the couple including even sci-fi chapters and futuristic scenarios. An interesting critique of language in one of the chapters stayed in my mind because in the futuristic story the couple does not understand people from the future and the new language whereas the language they speak is considered old language. An Orwellian reference emerges as well as a reference to the way social media writing is destroying the language (LOL, right?).
Jeanine Cummins, AMERICAN DIRT
This is again a story that instigated an excellent debate in our school’s book club. Again, those of us from the working class origin saw the class story here, because a middle-class woman is reduced to the underclass by having to leave everything in Mexico and embark on a dangerous trip to illegal immigration to the US. But, the others saw a story of a woman and a mother struggling to make ends meet and a story of immigration, particularly how hard it is for people to immigrate and the fact people make choices to violate laws and illegally immigrate because of desperate reasons. There is some naivety in the book and I do not think the struggle to illegally immigrate was portrayed as harsh as it was in the real life but I did like the class story because, indeed, many people immigrate for personal reasons and not just financial ones. In this case, and this is certainly the case with many immigrants, there was a persecution that led the woman to immigrate to what is effectively a much lower quality of life than the one she enjoyed in Mexico despite the USA being nominally wealthier than Mexico. The book instigated both appraisals and criticism because some questioned the substantial contract that the author got as opposed to Latin American authors who wrote similar stories and got paid peanuts, so this is something to consider. I looked up other books with this same theme and will review them once they arrive and I read them to give recognition to other authors.
Thomas Erikson, SURROUNDED BY IDIOTS
This appealed to me immediately because of the title as this is one of my favourite statements when someone fails to deliver some work in time (guilty as charged). It turns out this is a popular attempt to study human behaviour by assigning colours to people and thus learning how to handle them and in what organisational positions to put them. It is an interesting concept and the author makes an attempt to quote some behavioural studies in his book, but this is a popular book and the author is basing his work mainly on observation not done as empirical research, which has instigated criticism from some psychologists.
But it was a fun experience to read it and it instigated some further research into this area in our group. The book is based on a premise that people’s personalities can be described using four colours (red, yellow, green and blue) and how this works in the workplace, how this can be used to assign people roles, etc. So, we had fun trying to assign colours to our colleagues whilst being aware of the criticism of psychologists so we took it easy.
If you want to know your colour, here is a free test (full disclosure, I am a red so beware of collaborating with me); see the test here.
After this remarkable experience, I now founded a project book club, as part of the #WECAN project where women who participate in the project can come to a book club network, share experiences and bond. In the first book club meeting, in September, we are reading The Quantum Curators and the Faberge Egg by Eva St John.
I will write a review of these books after each meeting and, reviews of some other books I read. I do not read just books in English but also in Croatian. I am contemplating an idea to review those books as if they are not available in English, I do not have to bother with spoilers, but we will see how it goes. The English books will be reviewed for sure so stay tuned.
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Alsop, R. (2015). A novel alternative. Book groups, women, and workplace networking. Women’s Studies International Forum, 52, 30-38.
Macoun, A., & Miller, D. (2014). Surviving (thriving) in academia: feminist support networks and women ECRs. Journal of Gender Studies, 23(3), 287-301.