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.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Story of Holly and Ivy

The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden (illustrations by Barbara Cooney) is a wonderful book to kick off the holidays! But, is it good for a Mother/Daughter Book Group? Where the daughters are in second grade? Well, I think so, as all the girls enjoyed the story--and the pictures!--and we had a great conversation about it, with everybody, including the moms, joining in.
Importantly, it meets my three criteria:

The Story: This story captures the attention and the imagination of the girls because it is, as the narrator tells the reader right away, a story about wishing. A doll in a toy store is wishing for a little girl to come and take her away. (Even the setting makes the story interesting!) A little orphan girl is wishing to spend Christmas with her grandmother, even though everyone knows she doesn't have a grandmother. And Mrs. Jones, the policeman's wife, is wishing for a little girl of her own to share Christmas with. How these three characters go about getting their wishes makes for a charming and heart-warming tale.

Questions: This story generated many questions, but what I loved were some of the answers the girls had. For example, when asked why Abracadabra is so mean--why does he tell Holly no one will buy her and she will be put in a box--one little Bookclub Buddy responded that perhaps Abracadabra had been put in a box at one time. Hmmm, pretty astute, if you ask me. This reader, at this young age, already can see that there is a cycle in our treatment of each other--that many times we learn how to treat others through how we have been treated.

The girls explained wonderfully how wishes work, and we discovered that: sometimes wishes come true later than we would like, sometimes they don't come true at all and we move on to other wishes, and sometimes we just have to never give up on our wishes--we have to keep on wishing!

We did a little critical thinking exercise and tried to put ourselves in the heads of our bedtime stuffies; we tried to see ourselves from their point of view. And I learned a critical thinking lesson myself, as I saw how much the illustrations in this story meant to the girls. It occurred to me that, as we get older and read books without illustrations, we may be losing our ability to gather meaning about a story from its pictures. The girls, however, are still expert at interpreting the artwork (in this case done by a Caldecott Winner); they think nothing of taking meaning about the story from the illustrations. I think this is terrific, and I will never breeze by the pictures in a book again--I'd like to thank my Bookclub Buddies for that!

Life Lessons: I think the big take-away (I hope, anyway) is that we should always have wishes--they really can't hurt and they just may help us get what we want. But more important than wishing is doing something about it. We can wish, and we should wish, but we must act and go after what it is we are wishing for.

So, The Story of Holly and Ivy meets my criteria and I can thoroughly recommend it for a Mother/Daughter book Group. First, second, and third-graders will enjoy it.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Wrapping Up Heart of Darkness

Love it or hate it--Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness generated a lot of fascinating discussion. One of my groups surprised me, though, as every single person in it disliked this book. And one member is still wondering why it is considered a classic or important piece of literature. I thought I would take a stab at answering him via this blog post, and please feel free to weigh in!

In one of my recent book groups the question came up "just what is a classic?" There is no definitive answer, and to try to address it today would take up more time than I have, so let me direct you to a helpful link here.

The above link takes you to an NPR discussion of this very question, and you may find it illuminating.

Regarding Heart of Darkness and whether it is an important piece of literature, almost all my groups' members agreed that it is, indeed, a very important piece of literature--for its own time and for ours. (Thus, a "classic" also?) But I hear you asking "why?" and to answer, I'll recap some of the discussions below. This is, I must stress, a very brief summary (I have to wrap up Heart of Darkness so I can move on to The English Patient!), but maybe it will help.

Many felt that the multiple layers of meaning open to interpretation in Heart of Darkness make this book quite exceptional. Most members spoke of the story as representing a psychological journey--one that everyone can relate to. The journey that Marlowe takes into the darkness to confront Kurtz (the embodiment of evil) is the same journey that the reader, that we all, take on a psychological basis. The lack of names in the book (instead we have the Director, the Accountant, the Intended) underscores the fact that any of us could step into these roles; it's a sort of Everyman story we can all relate to.

Most members agreed that there is the potential for evil (as expressed not only by Kurtz but also by the Belgian ivory traders) in each of us, and that, for some reason we are fascinated by and drawn to this potential. Certainly this describes Marlowe as he searches out Kurtz. So, we must ask ourselves, when face-to-face with that evil, how does each of us react? Do we, like Kurtz, succumb? Or do we, like Marlowe, resist? And more importantly perhaps, how and why do we resist? For Marlowe it seemed to be his Victorian restraint and his work. Remember the rivets? And you can, today, ask yourself this question. What saves you from going over to the "dark side"? Is it your work? Your religion? Your morals? Fear?

Speaking of religion, we discussed the role of ideology and its impact on Marlowe. When Marlowe, happily going about the Company's business in Africa, sees what the 'noble cause' has done there, his belief system is destroyed. How does he react? Does he, as he proclaims he always does, tell the truth? Or does he, like many who are confronted with a reality that isn't pleasant, tell himself and others (e.g. Kurtz's Intended) lies to get them through it all? One member rather astutely pointed out that Marlowe preferred not to think about all he was witnessing, and so he channeled his energy into work. Another pointed out that Marlowe's lie to Kurtz's Intended represents the ongoing denial that Marlowe will adopt in order to survive. He will pretend rather than be truthful. Again, you can ask yourself today, what would you do should your own beliefs be proven false?

One member commented that it's amazing how we can lower our own standards or rationalize our own bad behavior when other people around us are doing the same (or worse) thing. This is compounded, of course, when there is a government or company or other authority sanctioning the bad behavior on some sort of ground, be it noble or otherwise. One member really disliked Marlowe, accusing him of ignoring the terrible human suffering surrounding him while concentrating on getting the Company's work done. Again, we can ask ourselves today, are we complicit in the world's suffering by our lack of action?

In almost every group the book The Lord of the Flies came up, and almost everyone agreed that this is basically telling the same tale: when all the societal niceties or cultural laws and rules are removed (as in the wilderness for Kurtz), every individual is capable of becoming savage. The members felt that this is relevant today; look at how people behaved during Katrina. And then the discussion got a little depressing as we worried about the fragility of life, and how an earthquake or terrorist attack could change everything, including "polite civilization," in a moment.

All the groups discussed whether the book is racist or an indictment of imperialism, and that generated a lot of heat. The opinions were very divided; many felt that Conrad was racist and misogynous also. Then the question was asked: "Wasn't he just a product of his time?" In answer, another question: "Is that a good excuse?"

One rather erudite member pointed out that F. Scott Fitzgerald was heavily influenced by this novel, and suggested we all re-read The Great Gatsby with this in view. I am totally up for that!!!

Many of us swooned over the sheer poetry of Conrad's language, but some members disagreed. Different strokes, as they say. Hey, Germaine Greer wrote an article claiming that a person would be better off visiting a demented relative than reading Proust. How's that for iconoclasm?! Click here for the link if you're interested.

Rightey-ho, this post is "blonging" on a bit (to coin a word!) so I will sign off. I'd love to hear from you, though!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Wow! What a wonderful discussion! My fourth-grade lit-lovers are good little readers! I was worried that this book would be too challenging because it's rather complicated, but the girls had no problem at all; they followed the plot, picked up on many of the themes, and most importantly, they enjoyed reading the book.

So, bearing in mind my three criteria, is this a good choice for a Mother/Daughter Book Group? You bet!

The Story: Mrs. Frisby, a perfectly ordinary field mouse, must move her entire house to a new location so it isn't run over by Farmer Fitzgibbon's plow. The dilemma: her son, Timothy, is recuperating from a near-fatal illness and cannot be moved. What to do? If only Mr. Frisby hadn't died and could help solve this problem! Maybe he does help, though, because isn't it he who had told Mrs. Frisby, "All doors are hard to unlock until you have the key"? Mrs. Frisby, determined to save both her home and Timothy, embarks on an adventure to find that very key (metaphorically speaking!) and she is aided by a charming crow, a grumpy old owl, and a pack of highly intelligent rats. The rats are in the midst of their own adventure--and in search of their own "key"--and you will want to turn over every page of this book to find out how these creatures solve their own, and each other's, problems.

Questions: This book is so thought-provoking! I love literature that is multi-layered, and this story certainly is. I think that's why it appealed to the moms as well as to the girls. Part of our discussion focused on the secrets everyone was keeping in the story, and what type of secrets they were. We compared these secrets to those that were kept in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and determined that the main difference was that in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, many secrets weren't even known to exist until they actually came to light.

Among other things, we also discussed hard choices, bravery, the "soft life" versus a life with more work (I LOVED the girls' solution to this one: live and work in a place like Thorn Valley, but make sure to have a vacation home where you can go and have the "soft life" as often as you like!), prejudice against certain creatures, animal rights, and searching for the "key" when problem-solving.

Our discussion could have gone longer, but time was up--a sure sign of a great book for a Mother/Daughter Book Group!

Life Lessons: Two of the (many) take-aways from this story are 1) keep searching for that "key" when you have a problem to solve, and 2) sometimes a question doesn't have one answer that is right for everybody, but we must still ask the question and think about it. The girls were very excited to discuss whether we should use rats or other animals for scientific research, and we determined that it is very hard to find the "right" answer to that one.

Bottom Line: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH rocks!