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.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Should Your Book Club Read The Cellist of Sarajevo?

If, like billions of others, you regularly read this blog, you know that I love my local library.  Linda, one of the stellar librarians, recommended this book to me.  How on earth did I miss this book when it first came out in 2008?  That's when I was starting Literary Masters so I was busy, yes, but this gem of a novel would have been a great literary treasure to 'dig deep' into.  In fact, my answer to whether your book club should read The Cellist of Sarajevo is a resounding YES!

So what can your book club discuss?

I am embarrassed to admit how little I know about the war in former Yugoslavia.  Ironically, I was living in London for many of those years, only a two hour flight from the war zone.  I remember a weekend trip we took to Italy to escape the English weather; we were soaking up the sunshine in an outdoor cafe and our waitress was a refugee from Yugoslavia.  She looked like any young English or Italian woman--educated, well-dressed, articulate, friendly--it was her accent that started our conversation with her about her origins.  At the time the war was just entering my consciousness so her plight didn't register like it should have.  I wonder what happened to her and others like her.

If you're looking for a book that will tell you all about the conflict--how it started and what went on--this is not that book.  In fact, if you know of such a book, PLEASE let me know the title!  Post it in the comments below; I am looking for a very accessible non-fiction book or novel that will shed light on what happened there and why.

What you will find in this book is, and I marvel at this, a poetic use of language describing war in a universal sense.  Don't get me wrong; we know the story is taking place in Yugoslavia--it's about the siege of Sarajevo.  But (for me) the take-aways from the story are not specific to that war; rather they speak to the humanity in all of us about all wars, all conflicts, everywhere.  I found this book to be one of the most moving novels I have read in a long time.  I look forward to re-reading it for many reasons, not least of which is so I can savor the beautiful language.

You'll want to discuss the beautiful prose and ponder the rhetorical devices the author uses.

Evidently there truly was an incident like that which happens in this book.  There was a bombing in Sarajevo where multiple people were killed and a local cellist played music for twenty-two days at the site of the massacre to honor the dead.  The author tells us in his afterword that this real-life cellist inspired the novel but he is not the cellist in the book.

There are four main characters in the book: the cellist, the sniper, the family man who goes for the water, and the family man who has sent his family to Italy.  There is, of course, the secondary but still very important characters: the men in the hills who are holding Sarajevo hostage, the men who are running the country's various factions, the middle-men who are making money off of the war, and the rest of the world which is refusing to rescue the citizens of Sarajevo.  And let's not forget the city of Sarajevo as a character.

You'll want to discuss all of the above characters--how does the situation affect them?    What is the motivation of each one?  What, if anything, do they learn?  What message do they send to the reader?  In fact, you'll want to discuss:  What is this book about?  (Not in the literal sense, but you know that already, right?)  What is the responsibility of each character?  How did each character come to be in the situation in which he finds himself?

You'll want to discuss war and conflict in general.  And how the world is a stage upon which we are all players.  What if we refuse to play our assigned role?  Who assigns us that role anyway?

You'll want to discuss the role of choices and decisions in the novel.  What is the book saying about this, and do you agree?

You'll want to discuss whether this could happen where you live.  My personal opinion is if you think not, you are delusional.  So perhaps you should talk about how we can avoid such conflicts.  Or, as the book asks, are we doomed to repeat them?

Connected to the above, you'll want to ask yourselves how you would act in such a situation.  Is there a moral component to how one should act in war?  Or does war excuse our actions with each man out for himself?  Can one remain principled during wartime?  Can one ever know the answers to these questions without being in the situation?

Whether you read The Cellist of Sarajevo with your book club or on your own, definitely read it.  It's worth it.




Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Should Your Book Club Read Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn?

Should your book club read Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn?  Well, I am going to say...yes.  I just finished this book--I tore through it and now feel a bit yucky, in need of a shower.  I'd been looking for a light read--something easy for winding down at night--and this was on the "New Books" shelf at the library and caught my eye.  I vaguely remembered having read a review of it in the NY Times and thinking this sounds interesting...

Well, it's interesting, all right.  In fact, I found it fascinating.  I am not a psychologist (although I am drawn to literature because it teaches us so much about human nature and the human psyche) but I
am going to venture a diagnosis here: I feel like I just finished reading a book about a psychopath written by an obsessive narcissist.  How's that for some armchair psychology?

Warp-speed plot summary:

This is Walter Kirn's true account (your book club will want to discuss what THAT means!) of his relationship with Clark Rockefeller, the conman who claimed to be part of the famous and wealthy family whose financial roots lie in Standard Oil.  This Clark fellow, as it turns out, was not a Rockefeller at all; he had many aliases and many other identities and lives, and eventually was put on trial for murder.  He had already been on trial for the abduction of his daughter, which evidently was the catalyst for everyone catching onto Clark's ruse in the first place.  "Ruse," in this case, is a serious understatement, by the way.

The book is Kirn's account--and exploration--of his relationship with Clark.  It is also the account of the murder trial.  So, it's a suspenseful murder who-done-it wrapped up in a psychological (or perhaps pseudo-psychological) study.  I read it with a kind of watching-a-car-crash fascination.  Kirn talks about the hall of mirrors that Clark has created, but I often was wondering whether I, as reader, had fallen into a hall of mirrors of sorts.  As much as Kirn was manipulated by Clark, was I being manipulated by Kirn?  And does wondering this put me in the same position as Kirn and therefore make me as narcissistic as he is???

I won't tell you how the book ends--maybe you already know--but let's now turn to:

What can your book club discuss?

Let's start with the author  You'll want to discuss the role of Walter Kirn as narrator and how that affects you as a reader--and how far you trust him.  How much of what he tells you do you believe?  What are his motivations for telling this story?  What rhetorical devices does he employ to gain your trust and credulity?

How would you characterize the author?  Some people think this book is more about him than about Clark Rockefeller.  You may want, therefore, to consider Kirn as a character in this book and analyze him accordingly.

In fact, as I just wrote that last bit, it suddenly makes sense: this book IS about Walter Kirn.  It's ostensibly about Clark, but really about Walter Kirn.  The same sleight of hand move that Clark would have used on Kirn, Kirn uses on us!  Ha!

But there's more!  The best part is (and I alluded to this above) that Kirn forces the reader into the position that he occupied vis-a-vis Clark!  Wow--that is some artistic manipulation!  And I am at risk of becoming the obsessive narcissist (not just a plain ole narcissist) as I keep repeating this...

You'll undoubtedly discuss appearances versus reality.  Although I'm not sure you'll come to many conclusions.  This is quite a broad conversation, but make sure to talk about how we create our own reality from our desires.  Kirn admits repeatedly that he should have seen through Clark's guise but didn't necessarily want to do so.  This seems to be a common trait in the people ensnared by Clark.  Why, though?  What was motivating them?  What drew Kirn to Clark in the first place?  (Hint, he admits why in the book.)  Part of this is the posturing that is going on.  By Clark.  And by Kirn.  Oh yes, definitely by Kirn.

You'll want to discuss the role of language--very important in this story.  Think about how Kirn uses language and how Clark uses it.  And how society uses it.  Turn to page 109 and read Kirn's words: "...I learned to speak the language of...paradox, of endless loops, of ever-receding, ever-dissolving everything, of "truth claims" instead of truths, of paradigms lost..."  You'll want to talk about truth.  What is it?  Does it exist?  Can it exist in a story that someone is telling us?  Even if that story is on the non-fiction shelf of the bookstore?  How much of Clark is a creation of Kirn?

Again, as I just finished writing the above, it is striking me: Clark is kind of blank page of sorts; he's an enigma or code that can't be cracked.  Kirn refuses to accept this and "writes Clark"; Kirn, as author, presents a Clark to the reader as the definitive version.  The role of creation in non-fiction--taken to perhaps a new level?

You'll want to discuss the role of class in this story--HUGE--and also the role of power.  And how they relate to each other.  Yes, in many ways, this is what this book is about!  On page 170 Kirn tells us:  "But men compete."  No question, no gray area, no wiggle room.  Just a definitive: "But men compete."  Really?  Is that what this book is all about?  Hmm...

You'll want to discuss how a shocking revelation can throw your sense of history into disarray.  Kirn discusses this on pp.179-80: "When fresh information discredits past perceptions, the underlying memories remain but they no longer hold their old positions; you're left to draw a new map with displaced landmarks."

You know, I can't stop thinking about Kirn as a character as I write this.  He's quite a lively writer, by the way; as I said above, I tore through this book.  He uses language--manipulates it, one might say--extremely well, and makes for very entertaining reading.  He went to Princeton and Oxford--impressive credentials, if not to you then to him for sure!, and seems very informed on all sorts of matters.  He also seems to be addicted to...what?  The limelight?  Attention?  Approval?  Admiration?  Well, you'll want to discuss this--get back to me on it if you like.

You'll want to discuss the literary references in the book; you may or may not find them successful.  (One question: Is Kirn using them to help build his case, his story about Clark?) But you'll also want to discuss how art is a presence in the book.  (Another question: How much of each person is a creation, an artwork?)  And how psychology is a presence.  Just this could take up an entire discussion!  And don't forget to talk about theater--and how this life is just a stage upon which we are all actors!  And who is directing???

At the end of the book, Kirn tells us: "I was part of [Clark's] audience, he thought.  But in truth I was acting much of the time.  He was conning me but I was also conning him." (252)  I guess I would want to discuss: As reader, just how conned by Kirn do I feel?  And does it matter if he entertained me with this story?  Am I a collaborator as opposed to victim--just as Kirn at one point describes himself?






Sunday, April 6, 2014

Literary Masters' Facelift!

As you all know by now, Literary Masters are book groups and salons where we dig deep into literary treasures!  Membership has been growing in leaps and bounds and to celebrate, we've had a facelift!  Our website has a whole new look; check it out here.

Best of all, with a click of a button, you can now purchase your very own "Points to Ponder" for many books, both fiction and non-fiction.  If you don't see the title you are looking for, please email us to see if we have it in our archives.

Thanks for visiting; come back often!!!  And don't forget to "like" us on Facebook so you can find out all about the latest LM literary news!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Should Your Book Club Read Wonder by R.J Palacio?

As you all know, Literary Masters are book groups and salons where we dig deep into literary treasures!  This season, one of the books that Literary Masters Parent/Child book groups read was Wonder by R.J. Palacio.  If you read one book this year and one book only, make it Wonder.  You will laugh, you will cry, and you will come away with a true sense of...wonder.  If you can grab your child, your wife, your husband, your neighbor, your personal trainer, anyone really, to read it aloud to and share in the joy of this book, all the better.  R.J. Palacio has written a gem!

So, what can your book group (even if it's just two of you) discuss?  I am just scratching the surface here; I could talk about this book over and over again and keep coming up with new subjects.  However, this should get you started:

Warp-speed plot summary:
August has a facial deformity.  A severe facial deformity, which he has had since birth.  He has been home-schooled up until now, but has decided to enter a traditional school for the first time; he will be in the fifth grade.  What a year it will be!  Told from the perspectives of August (Auggie), his sister Via, his schoolmate and friend Summer, his other schoolmate and friend Jack, Via's boyfriend Justin, and Via's childhood friend Miranda, this novel takes the reader along on Auggie's journey--a transformative trip for all.

You'll want to tackle some of the big questions that this book explores!  One of the big themes is identity.  August tells us that "...the only reason I'm not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way."  You'll want to ask yourselves: how much of who we are depends on how others see us?  What can we do when others see us in a way that feels false to us?

Auggie wishes we could all wear masks and get to know each other before seeing what each other looks like.  You'll want to talk about how important our looks are to who we feel we are.  How much do our looks define us?  What is so special regarding a face when it comes to who we are?  Do we all wear masks of a certain kind anyway?

Another big question is: what does it mean to be normal?  Auggie's sister Via says, "...we've all spent so much time trying to make August think he's normal that he actually thinks he is normal.  And the problem is, he's not."  You'll want to ask yourselves: What is normal?  How do we decide what is normal?  Who gets to say?  And is this right?  Are you normal?  Is "normal" good or bad?

Another theme to explore is kindness.  What does it mean to be kind?  Can we just be kind, or do we have to practice being kind?  Does it take effort to be kind?  This will, no doubt, bring up Mr. Browne's Precepts, which could take up an entire book club session all on their own.  I can't resist telling you here that my favorite precept is the one that Auggie came up with: "Everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their life because we all overcometh the world." 

I just teared up typing that.

On the flip side of kindness, you'll want to explore who in the story is being mean.  And is the meanness always intentional?  Via struggles in her relationship with Auggie when she enters a new school.  Is she being mean?  Is she being reasonable?  How would you feel in her shoes?

You'll want to talk about friendship and who Auggie's true friends are.   And why we are drawn to certain people as friends as opposed to others.  Do we ever want someone to be our friend because it will make us cooler in general?  Isn't this why we get excited if we come into contact with a celebrity--we feel cooler just for the fact that we've rubbed shoulders with someone who is famous?  And don't we shun unpopular or undesirable people for the same reason--because we don't to be perceived in the same way they are?  Ugliness by association?  It's an ugly concept, that's for sure.

You'll want to understand what type of friend Charlotte is to Auggie, as opposed to what type Summer is.  And what about Jack?  And how about that Julian, huh?  What's going on with him?  One of the questions posed in my Literary Masters book groups was "What character do you wish had a chance to narrate that didn't?" and the answer was overwhelmingly Julian.  Everyone was curious to find out what was going on in Julian's head.

And this is the coolest thing ever!  I guess it wasn't just Literary Masters members who were wondering this because the author is now writing an e-book, The Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story, all about Julian, to be released May 13.  HOW COOL IS THAT?  (Maybe she was listening to us, fellow LM members!)

Some of what you'll want to talk about may make you uncomfortable.  But that's good, because it means you are thinking!  How should "normal" people approach people with deformities?  Auggie doesn't like it when no one will look at him, but he doesn't want people staring at him.  Is he being fair?  Could he have done more to help others see beyond his facial deformity?  Could or should the school have done more?  What about Auggie's parents?  You'll want to talk about what kind of parents they are--again, this could take an entire book club session on its own!

If you've read all the way to here, thank you!  As you probably can tell, I LOVE this book and am enthusiastic about your reading it with your book club (however it may look in this case).  One last thing I will mention before I sign off on this very long blog post is: you'll want to talk about the artwork and the title, the epigraphs, the poetry and song lyrics.

There's more, there's much more to discuss.  But for now:

Read this book.  Enjoy.  Discuss this book.  Enjoy.  Give this book to others.  Enjoy.  This book is a wonder.




Monday, March 10, 2014

Should Your Book Club Read The Innocents by Francesca Segal?

Okay, this debut novel was the February selection for Literary Masters book groups and salons.  So, clearly, my answer is yes.  But!  To really have a special discussion, I suggest you do a pairing--read The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton first (a brilliant, sparkling gem of a novel!) and then read its "re-imagining" The Innocents by Francesca Segal.  You are in for such a treat!

In her interviews, Segal acknowledges her debt to Wharton.  I'll say!  Reading Segal's novel, I had the same feeling I experienced while reading The Hours by Michael Cunningham (you remember--the homage to Virgina Woolfe's Mrs. Dalloway)--I kept thinking, Wow! is this bordering on plagiarism?  No one seems bothered by Segal's or Cunningham's (re)writings, however, so let's not dwell there.  You may want to discuss it a bit with your book club, though.

What I am going to do here is mention what your book club can discuss if you choose to read The Innocents on its own.  Obviously, if you read the pairing as I suggested, you can compare and contrast the two novels.  Hey! do I sense a Venn Diagram coming on?

So, what can your book club discuss?  Warning: there are spoilers below!  Don't read further unless you have finished the book or don't mind spoilers!

Warp speed plot synopsis:  Adam and Rachel have grown up together in the tight-knit Jewish community of Hampstead Garden Suburb in London.  They are now engaged and planning the lavish wedding that their family and friends expect them to have.

Enter: Ellie, the black sheep cousin who fled her home for the wickedly debauched Big Apple.  She has now returned with experiences (and a reputation) that scandalizes the small village but intrigues Adam.

Fireworks ensue...

The novel starts at shul on Yom Kippur and ends at a bris,  Your book club will want to discuss the role of the Jewish religion and/or the Jewish culture in the book.  Is this book an exploration of Jewish identity at all?  Could the story have taken place in any other tight-knit community?  Is it universal or is it uniquely Jewish and how or why?

You'll want to talk about how a community works--what the benefits of belonging to one are, but also what disadvantages go along with being part of one.  Can one ever entirely leave behind one's "village"?

You'll also want to discuss Ellie as a trope--she has left the village but now returns.  What role is she playing in the story (besides the obvious love interest)?  In other words, what does she represent?  What motivates her?  And why is Adam attracted to her?  I will say, Literary Masters members had a wide range of reaction to Ellie, from sympathy to condemnation.  One thing to consider: how she is a survivor and what that has done to her psyche--and what kind of guilt she carries.  And how that informs her life choices.

You'll want to dig deep into Adam; what does he want and why does he want it?  What has been the defining fact/event of his life?  Does he change by the end of the story?  How and why?  Who does he love, if anyone?  Is there a Madonna vs. Whore dynamic here at all?  Will Adam ever be happy?

You'll want to dig deep into Rachel also.  What does she want and why?  Many Literary Masters members balked at her shallow character.  But!  Is she as shallow as she appears?  What does she revere above all?

Speaking of appearances, you'll really want to save time to discuss the theme of appearance/image versus authenticity.  What is the novel actually saying here?

What about the other themes?  What is the novel saying about familyDuty? MarriageTrust?  What is it saying about security vs. freedom?  Or familiarity vs. the unknown?

You'll want to consider whether there is a biblical "fall" in the story.  If yes, where's the garden?  What constitutes the casting out, and is there a redemption aspect also?  Is the forbidden fruit knowledge or desire or both?

Perhaps connected to this, consider the names.  Are they significant?  So fun to think about!

And don't forget to discuss the title!  Perhaps not as straightforward as it first appears.  Segal stated in an interview that she first wanted the book to be called Observance.  Discuss!

You'll want to talk about the role of gossip in the story and how it functions within the community as well as how it functions to propel the plot.  If any of you have taken part in one of my Jane Austen Literary Salons, you should think about the role of gossip in Jane's novels!

Connected to the above, who knew what and when and how much???

Your book club can have some fun experimenting with "fan fiction"--come up with the next part of this story: do Adam and Rachel stay together and are they happy?  What happens to Ellie?  And so on...

What role does food play in this novel?  Discuss this while eating!

This debut novel has won a myriad of literary prizes such as the Costa First Novel Award, the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, the Betty Trask Award, the Harold U. Ribalow Prize, and it was on the long list for the Women's Prize for Fiction.  Does it deserve them? 

Okay, all of this should get you started!  Enjoy, and let me know how it goes!  Thanks for checking in with WHIRL books and Literary Masters!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Daphne Award

You may be rolling your eyes (and I'm not sure John Updike would be smiling) at the concept of yet another literary award, but this one sounds so interesting to me.  The Daphne Award is being launched by the literary site Bookslut and will go back in time to right some wrongs.  Yes, it will start with the year 1963.  Evidently John Updike won the National Book Award (in '64) for The Centaur (I've never read it, have you?) and the Daphne Award is meant to find a more deserving winner.  On Bookslut's website, they are actually asking for OUR HELP with this.  Click here to read the short piece.

I'm not sure what I think of this, except that it underscores the subjective nature of prizes.  Still, it will be an interesting exercise from a cultural standpoint to see what/who was valued back, back, oh so very far back in 1963, and what/who is valued now.  For we will be reading the nominated books with 2014 eyes, yes?

There are multiple categories, and if you want to participate, follow the link above and carry on.  What fun--I wish we could go back in time to correct some wrongs more often!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Costa Book Award Winner Has Been Announced!

Formally known as the Whitbread Prize, the Costa Book Award rewards authors who write something that we readers enjoy reading.  Hmm...well, maybe there's more to the prize than that; you can check out the Costa Prize site here.  There are five winners, each in a different category: First Novel, Novel, Biography, Children's Literature, and Poetry (see the other category winners below).  Then, from those five winners, a super-duper winner is chosen as the Costa Book Award Winner of the Year.

Congratulations to Nathan Filer, who has won the award for his debut novel The Shock of the Fall, a "moving account of schizophrenia and grief." (Click here for more from the Guardian article.)  Filer is a nurse working in the mental health system in the UK, so I am intrigued to read this insider's account, albeit fictional.

I have already requested the book from my local library...stay tuned for more.  Oh, and it beat the other contenders:

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
The Pike by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse by Chris Riddell
Drysalter, a poetry collection by Michael Symmons Roberts

Happy Reading!