WHIRL (What Have I Read Lately) Books is a site for readers to find books for themselves and their book clubs. Liz at Literary Masters runs book groups and literary salons where we "dig deep" into literary treasures.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Should Your Book Club Read Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast?

Although I loved reading comic books as a child, I haven't read many graphic novels as an adult.  I picked this up because I had heard so much about it, and WOW, am I glad I did.  I spent an afternoon laughing out loud, weeping into my tissues, and sending texts to multiple friends imploring them to Run out RIGHT NOW and get this book!

Roz Chast, a cartoonist for the New Yorker, has written a memoir about her relationship with her elderly parents.  Let me 'cut and paste' the description from the back of the book here:
"Roz Chast and her parents were practitioners of denial: if you don't ever think about death, it will never happen.  Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is the story of an only child watching her parents age well into their nineties and die.  In this account, longtime New Yorker cartoonist Chast combines drawings with family photos and documents, chronicling that 'long good-bye'."

So, should your book club read it?

Hmm...not an easy question.  You see, I think this book is important--we all should be talking about these things with our families, but I'm not sure that anyone, well anyone over the age of say 75, really wants to talk about these things with fellow book club members.  Don't get me wrong--I think this is an important book that raises important issues.  I also think it's brilliantly done.  As I said, I think everyone should read it, and I think all families should discuss it.  I think many book clubs would enjoy talking about it.  But I also think that it may not be the best selection for book groups with elderly members.

So what can your book club talk about?

The book raises questions that you should be discussing with your aging parents, a conversation that will differ from the one you will  have with your book group.  The latter conversation will be more about the book itself--although as I type this, I can imagine that many of those thorny 'aging parent' issues will be talked about also!  In fact, I think this is one of those books where the discussion will be about the book BUT ALSO about your own life.  Yes, it's a very personal story, indeed.

You'll want to talk about the form of the book itself.  Do you think, like I do, that the message could not have been delivered so brilliantly any other way?  Take it from someone who has lived a version of this book: if you don't laugh along the way, you will do nothing but cry.

I read somewhere once that it's a shame that grown-up books don't have pictures.  You really should each take a turn discussing your favorite picture from this book--and say why it is.  My personal fave: actually, more than one--all the real photos of the author with her parents.  They are smiling for the camera while she looks like she'd like to murder them and then the photographer.  A picture paints a thousand words...

What do you say to your parents when their home (possibly your childhood home) is...grimy?  Is this their sweet revenge for all those years you were a complete slob growing up?  Now the tables have turned, but you can't threaten to ground them if they don't clean up their mess.  So, how DO you handle this?

I suppose the conversation with aging parents is so difficult partly because there is an uncomfortable role-reversal taking place.
No doubt you'll want to talk about that role-reversal and how to handle it.  No right answer here.  Definitely no easy answer.

You'll want to talk about the relationship that Roz has with her mother and father.  Does it affect how she deals with them as they age?  Is she generous to her parents, especially when we consider how her mother treated her?  Or is it her duty, as it would be any child's, to care for them?  What is motivating her?  What would motivate you?

Perhaps you'll want to discuss the elephant in the room.  Yes, that's right.  $$$.
How does one plan for this?  Whose responsibility is it to plan for aging parents?  The parents?  You?  What if no one does?  What if there's not enough money? 

How can a child deal with the resentment of being put in the position of caretaker?  How can that child deal with her siblings who may or may not be helping?  How can that child deal with the guilt from having felt resentment for being put in the position of caretaker?  Not everyone can write a graphic novel to process her feelings!

You'll want to discuss whether this raw, honest, personal book goes too far.  Are Roz's parents disrespected in any way?

Perhaps you'll want to discuss how our culture--and other cultures--deal with the elderly and dying.  Nursing homes, hospice care, keeping one alive as long as possible--all topics you can consider.  Have other cultures figured out a better way than ours?

This book hit home for me, but I wonder if there are people who will read it and not relate at all.  How could that be?  Perhaps you can discuss this.

Rightey-ho, this should get you started.  Don't forget: when you've wrapped up your discussion with your book club, you've still got the MORE IMPORTANT discussion to go.  Call your parents!  Or, if you ARE the parents, call your kids!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Literary Masters Leads the Way and Facebook Follows!

The other day I posted a New Year's Resolution suggestion to join or start a book club.  Here's the post.  Then, this morning, I read that Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame, has done just that!  I'm not claiming cause and effect or anything, I'm just saying...seems like a strong coincidence, doesn't it?

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Language Matters

This came to me from someone who knows how I feel about the power of language.  It is from the Financial Times, copy and pasted here.  Enjoy!

And the Golden Flannel of the year award goes to . . . 

Lucy Kellaway Lucy Kellaway


On New Year’s eve, just before the final judging session of my 2014 Golden Flannel awards, I put out a last minute plea on Twitter. What were the most irritating new phrases uttered by business people last year?

Reach out, lots of people replied. Lean in. Going forward. Push back. Space. Learnings. Passionate. Content. My ask of you.

As I read these suggestions I started to get pretty irritated myself. These phrases were aggravating in 2014. But they were also annoying in 2013 and earlier. Reaching out and going forward started grating back in the last millennium.

Yet the response proves something about the jargon space last year. If it was a feeble one for innovation, it was one in which existing guff spread wider and got more bothersome than ever.
This year I’m awarding a special prize to an organisation that ought to have risen above jargon, but has been dragged down into it. Winner of the inaugural Fallen Angel award goes to the Church of England, which in a paper on training bishops talked of “a radical step change in our development of leaders who can shape and articulate a compelling vision and who are skilled and robust enough to create spaces of safe uncertainty in which the Kingdom grows”. Our Lord, looking down on a sentence in which His Kingdom was obliterated by a dozen dreary management clich├ęs, must have found his genius for forgiveness sorely tested.

My next award is given to a big name chief executive who has delivered standout services to guff during the year. One has to admire the actually baffling way in which Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T said: “We actually think that the industry is at a place where you can actually see line of sight to the subsidy equation just fundamentally changing in a very short period of time.”

But in the end the judges actually felt that Tim Cook — who spookily was also chosen as the FT’s person of the year — deserved to be the 2014 Chief Obfuscation Champion. Under his leadership, Apple, hitherto the world’s only example of a successful company that uses words elegantly, succumbed to drivel.

As he took the stage at Cupertino he declared “At the end of the day . . . this is a very key day for Apple”, thus combining two empty, clashing phrases. More bafflingly, when all those topless pictures of stars escaped from their iCloud, he said: “When I step back from this terrible scenario . . . I think about the awareness piece. I think we have a responsibility to ratchet that up. That’s not really an engineering thing.” Maybe it isn’t. But it makes Mr Cook my 2014 COC.

One of my favourite prizes every year is the best euphemism for firing people; this year I’ve decided to withhold the award, as no entries were worthy of it. ABN Amro fired 1,000 people to “further enhance the customer experience”, which was good, but nowhere near the brilliance of EY, which in 2013 sacked people explaining it was “looking forward to strengthening our alumni network”.

Instead I’m giving a new prize for the least appropriate start to an email. Stephen Elop began a 1,200 word message in which he axed thousands of jobs at Microsoft with “Hello there.” But he was beaten to the prize by Uber, which started a message to customers concerned by the alleged rape of an Indian woman by an Uber driver with the jaunty salutation: “Hey”.

The next category is the Communications Cup, given out for the ugliest new way to describe the simple activity of talking to people. Here the competition was fierce: during the year I was asked to “hop on a call” — grating for its false jauntiness — and to “send me dates, and we can lock in”. Better than either was “circle back with”, which though not new, got worse in 2014 as the preposition “to” was replaced by the cheesy and nonsensical “with”. But then, in an email from a PR, I found something even better. To reach out is yesterday. The new and more fashionable way of using this hateful term is back-to-front: “I’m outreaching to you . . .”

The next award is for the silliest job title. The judges admired the way that Tesla calls its car salesmen “Delivery Experience Specialists”, but after fierce debate, have given the prize to PwC in Switzerland for calling its HR head: Territory Human Capital Leader. The first three words are intolerably pompous, and the fourth is a lie. HR people don’t lead.

In choosing my overall Golden Flannel phrase of the year, I considered the dementing “does that resonate with your radar?” but quickly saw it was puny compared to the terrific new verb “to action forward” which I heard an otherwise sensible manager utter last month. “Actioning forward”, with its dazzling combination of two of the most irritating bits of jargon ever, resonates with my radar so powerfully I fear I may have broken it.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Happy New Year! Literary Resolutions for 2015!

Happy 2015!  Have you promised yourself you will eat better and exercise more?  Good job--taking care of your body.  But how about your MIND???  It is vitally important to exercise your brain, your mind, and your spirit, and here's the perfect new year's resolution that will enable you to do all three:

Join a book club!  Or start one.  It is scientifically proven that reading is good for your brain, and do you know what's even better?  Talking about what you've read with others!

Your brain will thank you, and perhaps even more importantly, your spirit will thank you!  Being part of a book club checks off numerous "good for you" boxes, and my Literary Masters members constantly tell me that gathering with fellow members for our discussions is a highlight of their month.

Whether you join a Literary Masters salon or start/join your own, just do it!  (Thanks, Nike!)  And if you need tips on how to do so, stay tuned for future posts!

Here's wishing you and yours a wonderful 2015!  

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Should Your Book Club Read Life After Life by Kate Atkinson?

YES.  In fact, I don't see how you could read this book and NOT discuss it--really digging deep like we do in our Literary Masters salons--with others.  Life After Life by Kate Atkinson was the October selection for Literary Masters book groups and salons, and it was a hit!

This book not only cries out for a post-reading discussion, it also demands to be read twice.  Honestly, the second reading makes all the difference--and makes the first reading worth the time.  So what can your book club discuss?

THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS!!!

Warp speed plot summary:
Set mainly in England between 1910 and 1967, this novel tells the story of Ursula Todd and her family who live at Fox Corner.  The thing is, Ursula is a very unique character; she keeps dying and coming back to life.  Each time she returns, the life she leads is different from the one before. Sometimes it's slightly different, and other times it's radically different.  So what is going on?  We readers wonder this as we follow Ursula through her many lives and through the history of the time, especially the wars and the Blitz.

If this sounds like science fiction or fantasy to you, I would argue that it is not.  This book is so well done--as a piece of realistic fiction that is also perhaps a thought experiment--I urge you to give it a try.  Twice!

Your book club should "dig deep" into the following:

Two main things seem to be going on in this book: the exploration of philosophies or life beliefs, and a telling of the history of England.  As for the first:

You'll want to really ask yourselves: what is going on with Ursula?  Is she being reincarnated?  Is she living parallel lives?  Is there some sort of circularity happening, or is it more like a palimpsest?  Is the book saying anything about all of the above?  Or is it merely exploring all these concepts?  A good place to start is to ask yourselves:  Is Ursula conscious of what is going on?  Is she consciously making choices in her life that set her on a different course?

Or is she dreaming?  Or crazy?

Related to all of the above, you'll want to discuss the idea of eternal recurrence.  Read the epigraph together and talk about the importance of Nietzsche's concepts.  (If you don't have a philosophy major in your group, just do a bit of googling!)

Whatever you decide is happening with Ursula, is it also happening with the other characters?  Why, for instance, does Ursula's mother have scissors at one of the births?  What does this mean if it is happening with all the other characters?

These questions will no doubt carry you into the area of fate vs. randomness.  You'll want to discuss how much agency or free will Ursula and the other characters have.  How much free will do you think YOU have?  Is your life fated, or are you its master?  What is the book saying about this?  Is there a point to Ursula living her life over and over again?  Does she learn to improve it in any way?  Or is that irrelevant?  Is she finding ways to have agency over her fate?  Is that even possible?

Another major concept you'll want to explore is whether there is a core or essence to a person.  Is there a core to Ursula?  Is she essentially the same throughout all her lives?  Or is her identity shaped largely by her experiences?  Which points in the book do you think are pivotal with regard to Ursula's identity?

What about the other characters?  Does each one change depending on the life that s/he is experiencing?  Two interesting characters to "dig deep" into are Sylvie and Izzy.  This touches on the history of England aspect of the book also.  Think about the change from a traditional, pastoral, idyllic England (set in cozy Fox Corner) morphing into a modern, post-war, industrialized England.  Where do Sylvie and Izzy fit in this picture?  Where do the others fit, and what is the book saying about this change?

This may take you into a discussion of the role of women and what choices they had at different times of history. 

You'll want to discuss how the wars and particularly the Blitz are almost characters in the book.  There are graphic scenes of devastation in England but also in Germany, when Ursula and Frieda are victims of the Allied bombing.  What is the point of this juxtaposition?  Ursula has a crush on her Jewish neighbor in England but marries a German Nazi in another life.  Izzy's son is adopted by a German couple so could be dropping bombs on England while Teddy is dropping them on Germany.  What point is the book making?

You'll no doubt want to discuss the imagery in the book.  What significance does snow have?  What about all the animals?  Ursula means little bear, Teddy is a teddy bear, Hugh refers to Pooh bear--what's up with the bears?  What about foxes?  What does Fox Corner represent and why is it called that?  Ursula's last name is Todd, which means fox!  Yet she transforms into Miss Woolf on p.446--what does that mean?  There are many wolves, especially in the German section.  Adolf means wolf.  However, Ursula marries Jurgen Fuchs, which means fox!  And as I just mentioned, she admires and transforms into Miss Woolf!  Foxes vs. wolves--significant?

There is much more imagery to explore--you will no doubt come up with many more questions than answers!  Kate Atkinson seems to be, among other things, having fun with all the names in the book.  And you'll want to discuss all the literary references.  Is Maurice purposely named?  Are we meant to think of E.M. Forster's "homosexual novel" and thus make the connection that Maurice is a closeted gay man whose repression of his true self has resulted in his being a mean person?  Is Pamela purposely named?  Are we meant to think of Samuel Richardson's novel Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded?  Is she virtuous?  Does she get her reward?  Is the Miss Woolf mentioned above supposed to make us think of Virginia Woolf?

You'll want to discuss Hitler.  What role does Hitler play in this book?  Why does the book start with the scene that it does?  Does Ursula kill Hitler?

You'll also want to discuss the book as a meta-fiction.  Talk about how it's exploring the writing process itself.  You can start with the chapters titled "Snow," where every story starts over; they are like a clean sheet of paper.

This book was like a Rorschach test.  I think Stanley Fish would have enjoyed observing the many Literary Masters salons in which members read their own experiences into this novel.  The interpretations were wide-ranging and fascinating--I could go on and on discussing this book and discover new ways of looking at it each time.  In that way, it's very much like life.

There is so much more to this book, but time is flying and I must attend to other aspects of this life I am living.  Hopefully this will get you started in your discussion!  Let me know how it goes!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Gone Girl--the book/ Gone Girl--the movie

Yes, I did.  Two summers ago I read THE hot summer novel--Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  Just like everyone else.  And just like everyone else, I devoured it in almost one sitting.  Afterwards, I felt like I had binged on a hot fudge sundae.  Ugh.

My memory of the book is that it was a page-turner that dragged on a bit too long and had somewhat of a surprising ending.  Oh, I should probably mention here that this blog post has spoilers.  So, if you haven't read the book or watched the movie and you don't want to find out what happens, don't read this post.  Lots of people didn't like the ending because the two main characters--Nick and Amy--end up staying together.  After all they have been through!  I remember thinking, "Good.  They deserve each other."

Even though I have an appalling memory, I do recall that the book's first plot twist is done really well.  That's when the reader finds out that Amy has not died at the hands of Nick; indeed, Amy has not died at all.  She is alive and well and taking out a terrible revenge on Nick, setting him up to take the fall for her meticulously (and admirably) planned (faux) murder.

The book gets a bit loopy toward the end, but at that point I just wanted to finish it and see how everything would be resolved.  And as I said, Nick and Amy stay.together.  Done.  I shut the book and promptly forgot about it.

Until I saw it had been turned into a movie.  With Ben Affleck!  I gathered four friends and we went to the matinee yesterday.

Three out of five of us had read the book.  I sat next to a woman who hadn't--Kim.  And all during the first part of the film, when we meet angelic Amy and the philandering and potentially murdering/murderous husband Nick, I kept wondering if Kim and I were having completely different reactions to the story.  I kept wondering if Kim would suspect Nick at all.

Because here's the thing--in the book, Nick is not a sympathetic character.  Nor is Amy.  Like I said, they deserve each other.  And I have to hand it to Gillian Flynn for writing a book where the characters are so unlikable.  You may recall from other posts that I get really annoyed if someone tells me that they didn't like a book because they didn't like the characters.  Claire Messud, who wrote The Woman Upstairs, has quite a lot to say about this subject.  She expressed herself much more eloquently than I ever could; click here to read her opinion.

So, what's up, then, with casting Ben Affleck as Nick?  Ben Affleck?  Probably one of the least unlikable stars one could cast.  Everyone loves him!  He saved all the hostages who were hiding in the Canadian Embassy during the Iranian Revolution.  And he did it practically single-handedly.  He's married to that fresh faced beauty who never stops smiling.  And we know why.  It's because she's married to Ben Affleck!

Ben Affleck?  Come on.

This totally affected the movie--and not in a good way.  Instead of watching the (admittedly sick) dynamics of an equally matched dysfunctional marriage, the viewer can't help but side with Ben, I mean Nick, as he becomes a victim of his psychopathic wife.  And it's not even done very well.  Kim, who hadn't read the book, thought it was one of the most preposterous movies she had ever seen.  She couldn't understand why Nick would ever stay with his homicidal wife (yes, she is a true murderer).  And I struggled to explain that, in the book, the two characters are in a very sick relationship that they both thrive upon.  If there is ever a victim, they each takes turns being it.  Very fair.

Also, in the recesses of my mind, I think there's something from the book about his relationship with his dad--and possibly not wanting to turn into his dad?  Isn't that a motivating factor for staying with Amy?  I can't remember.

As Amy toys with Nick and Nick toys with Amy in the never ending "game" that goes on in the book, we readers realize how much fun Gillian Flynn must be having with us.  And we play along, enjoying the twists and turns of plot, as loopy (as I said) that they get.  And the movie is kind of camp in this way--it seems to bring attention to its ridiculousness--starting with the silly music and Amy's melodramatic voice.

Kim couldn't appreciate any of this, and instead just saw the flaws and gaping plot holes.  Well, even I had to wonder how anyone could green light the scene where Amy staggers home, then is questioned by the authorities at the hospital and finally allowed to return to her house covered in the blood of her alleged kidnapper whom she has killed.  Oh, yes, thanks for showing up after all these months and filling us in on what's been happening--why don't you go home and clean yourself up now--take a shower and rinse off all that nasty blood and evidence and stuff.

Really?

Bottom line: to really enjoy the movie, read the book first.  Then you know what kind of ride you're about to take.  Kim was unable to suspend disbelief because she was expecting something more clever than fun.  She may have been looking forward to a good murder mystery when we readers knew that Gone Girl isn't about the mystery of murder so much as it is about the mystery of marriage.  It's just a shame that the marriage in the movie isn't the fair match that it is in the book.


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Eleanor Catton, Prize-Winning Author of The Luminaries: What an Inspiration

I haven't yet read The Luminaries, which won the Man Booker Prize as well as the New Zealand Post best fiction and people's choice awards.  I think its heft intimidates me; also, I've heard mixed reviews from my Literary Masters members.

However, I am thoroughly impressed by the Kiwi  author, the youngest ever to win the Man Booker: 28 year old Eleanor Catton.  Why, you ask?

Ms. Catton has decided to take the money from her latest awards and set up a grant that will enable writers "the time to read."

Let me repeat that: "the time to read"!

How awesome is that?  We all know that the best writers are READERS.  But really, you should read this article from The Guardian to learn Ms. Catton's reasons for her generosity.  In a world that lately seems to have gone stark raving mad, it is absolutely heart-warming and inspiring to witness such a move.

Click here for the article and enjoy!