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.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson

Written in 1947 by Hans Keilson, this German novella, translated brilliantly by Damion Searls, is a quick little read that will stick with you for quite some time. The story is simple: Wim and Marie, a Dutch couple, take the decision to hide a Jew called Nico in their home. Although the trio is faced with an extraordinary situation, they endeavor to keep life as ordinary as possible.

Until Nico unexpectedly dies.

I didn't give anything away there; you find out about his death in the first few pages. But Wim and Marie must now deal with his body, and therein lies the 'comedy' mentioned in the title. I must warn you, though: you'll only laugh if you find the cosmic sense of humor funny.

There's a lot in this novel for a book club to discuss, but most of it will be quite heavy. If your group is up for an existential journey, then it could be a good choice. If not, I still highly recommend this book for any individual reader--it really makes you stop and think about life and its meanings, or lack thereof. For a more in-depth and wonderful review by Francine Prose of this and Keilson's other work, The Death of the Adversary, click here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/books/review/Prose-t.html

Friday, December 24, 2010

Literary Masters has a Facebook page. I say this with mixed feelings. I hate it when people of my generation (not that old, just not that young either, never mind the specifics) act disdainful toward the current craze of social networking and all that entails, you know, Facebook, Twitter and the like. Instant info, constant sharing, keeping it short, what's the buzz now. I'm not against any of it, I just wonder about the value of it all. And I wonder, where is it taking us?

I mean, after all, I run book groups and literary salons. We're kind of the antithesis of what I've just described. We take time to read books. We take time to think about what we've read. We take time to 'dig deep' into what we've read and we take time to discuss what we've read.

And I think every single person in every one of my groups would tell you that there is tremendous value in what we do. Not only do we connect with each other every month, we connect with readers across time, we reflect on what it means to be on this earth, and we contemplate how we want to live.

Hmm...that was a bit heavy.

Having said all that, I agree with Tracy from the musical Hairspray, who sings, "You can't stop an avalanche when it's racing down the hill," and so I am, better late than never, going to embrace my new Facebook page. I'm not sure where it's leading me, but I'm curious. So, I plan to update it frequently. Go there today and you'll find a last minute gift suggestion--one of the funniest books I've read all year.

So please visit Literary Masters on Facebook. And let me know if you "like" it!

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Writers' Block at KQED

KQED, the San Francisco Bay Area affiliate of NPR, contacted me to say that Nicole Krauss, author of Great House, the novel I blogged about here, recently read from her book on KQED's weekly reading series "The Writers' Block."

KQED thought my "readers at Stick With Lit might be interested." Thanks so much, KQED!

Readers, let me know what you think. You can find the episode here:


You can also embed the reading - you'll find the code to the right of the
audio player.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

This was my first introduction to Cynthia Ozick. I read two reviews of Foreign Bodies; both said it was a clever re-working of Henry James' The Ambassadors, and both assured me that one could read, understand, and enjoy the former without having read the latter.

So, I read and enjoyed Foreign Bodies in a couple of days. Did I understand it? Hmm...I think so. Although I must admit, I feel like I'm missing... something.

Quick plot summary: It's 1952 and Marvin Nachtigall has asked his sister Bea to interrupt her European vacation in order to locate Marvin's wayward son Julian and make him return to his studies in America and the life Marvin feels he should lead.

Bea does as she is asked, sort of. Resenting her horrid brother's presumptive attitude (and he really is horrid), she does locate Julian, now living in Paris with his older and traumatized wife, a Romanian refugee, but she makes little effort to repatriate him. Instead, she takes matters into her own hands.

Bea, who has been virtually absent from her brother's adult life and the lives of his children, now interacts not only with Julian, but also with Julian's narcissistic sister Iris and their mother Margaret, who has been shunted off for a stay at an asylum. (Evidently she can't take the strain of missing her son for so long, but the reader understands that she must really want to escape her horrid husband.) Bea also interacts, not only through memories but also in reality, with her former husband, Leo, another semi-horrid person.

Interacting is big for Bea, because she hasn't done much of it (that the reader can see) up until now. A life passing one by, or living the life that others have chosen for you, or being an observer of the lives of others--are all themes running through this novel, and Bea falls into all three categories. Until now. Now Bea asserts herself, and the consequences are...startling.

I liked this book, or I should say I liked Ozick's writing. It's sparkling. And inventive. And captivating. It kind of dazzles. However, I can't help feeling that I came away from the book with an appreciation of the surface of the story, but not the depths. As horrid as many of the characters were, I wanted to know more about them, and maybe in not such a clever way as Ozick delivers them.

Somehow I feel (and I could be wrong) that if I read The Ambassadors, I just might gain greater access to Foreign Bodies. Or perhaps I should have the members of my Literary Masters book groups read it, and together we can "dig deep" into it and see just what kind of literary gem we have unearthed.

What about you? Have you read Foreign Bodies? What do you think about it?

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker first came to my attention as I sought recent prize-winning novels for my Literary Masters book groups to read. The Twin won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for 2010. I read a couple of bloggers' reviews and the book sounded a tad slow and dull, not something that would appeal to my members. My library doesn't carry it, and I never saw it in any book store, so it sort of fell off my radar.

Then one day recently I visited a local school's book fair and there it was. And it just looked so...inviting. I know that's silly. I mean, I've blogged about whether one should judge a book by its cover, but there was something about the aesthetics of this book that compelled me to buy it.

I'm so glad that I did.

I felt like I escaped into a different world while I read this book. The prose is spare but so captivating, I had a hard time putting the book down and looked forward to curling up with it whenever I had the chance.

The setting is a farm in Holland that seems to have escaped the progress of time. Helmer, the narrator and son who lives on the farm with his now dying father, seems to have missed the progress of time, but not of his own choosing. We find out that Helmer is the surviving twin of Henk, who died twenty years previously in an accident caused by his then fiance, Riet. Banished from the family, Riet hasn't been heard from in twenty years. Out of the blue, she contacts Helmer to ask if he will take on her somewhat troubled son, also named Henk, as a farm-hand. Young Henk comes to stay for awhile, and the reader now not only spends time with Helmer, his dad, and the young Henk, but also encounters the many ghosts that Helmer conjures as he shares his memories.

The thing about this book is that the writing makes it seem like there's nothing going on; the daily life as described by Helmer, the narrator, isn't exactly exciting. He tells us about his redecorating the house, taking care of the farm animals, interacting with the few people he comes in contact with.

And then every so often, something happens--something significant--and the reader realizes that there is a whole heck of a lot going on. The writing is so subtle, though, the depth of the story as well as the depth of the characters can be missed. You know by now that when I read a book I always have my book groups in mind. Will the members find it fascinating? Does it lend itself to a good discussion? Well, I can't say the tone and pace of the book are for everyone, but there is plenty there to "dig deep into."

There is emotion and feeling pulsing beneath the restraint of the surface--of both the writing and the characters. And there's plenty of metaphors sitting there just waiting to be 'dug into' by a book group. Clocks, crows, the rooms of the house and other spaces, are just a few.

I look forward to reading this book again so I can glean more than I did the first time. And I know I'll enjoy re-reading it; it's just that pleasurable.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

For a review of this classic tale, please visit www.mrsmagooreads.com for a Mama Magoo Review!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

I loved this book! I sat down and practically finished it in one reading. Written in 1955, it tells the story of Judith Hearne, a woman with a limited life view, a rigid code of behavior, an imagination that often supplants reality, and a wicked secret that threatens to destroy her.

Judith has done the right thing, much to the detriment of her own happiness. Caring for her dying aunt, Judith has missed out on life. No husband, no job, no opportunities. But she has a way of coping. Well, more than one way, but I don't want to give too much of the story away. Suffice to say, and this is what I loved about this book, one way she copes is by imagining an alternative reality. And she does it so subtly (Moore's writing is so brilliant) that you go along with her, thinking it's real until you realize, hold on, she's got it all wrong. However, by that time you can see just how and why her fantasies would have carried her so far; after all, you've been carried along as well. Moore makes Judith such a pitiable character, not only do you allow her those fantasies--you wish for them to come true.

I finished this book and put Brian Moore on my list of authors that I must read more of. His writing immediately carried me to a place and time that I now feel I know intimately. This book is a winner--run, don't walk, to your bookstore and enjoy it!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Great House by Nicole Krauss

Thanks for all your emails and phone calls; I am doing just fine, thanks. The reason I've not blogged in a while is that I've been reading! As you know, my Literary Masters Book Groups' selected book for this coming February has not yet been announced. I purposely left that month open so I could choose a red-hot-just-won-the-award prize-winning novel. After all, this time of year is quite exciting; we have the Nobel in Literature, the Man Booker, and, days away, the National Book Award.

The book I'm blogging about today--Great House by Nicole Krauss--is a finalist for the National Book Award. I read a great review of this novel, and I love last year's National Book Award Winner, Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. You know I love that book--it's this month's selected novel!

But back to Great House. I am so torn about this book. I feel like the author wrote the book on a pile of cards, shuffled the cards, dropped the cards, picked them and shuffled them some more, then published the book. I get the post-modern literary thing, really, I do, but I just kept thinking while reading this book, did she have to make it this so bloody difficult to follow? Is the structure carrying some meaning to me as reader?

The different chapters or sections of the book are mirror-imaged against each other, with the center (or roof if you like an image of a house) being "Lies Told by Children." The chapters are tied together through the seemingly disparate characters and a certain significant desk, although I can understand an impatient reader missing the connections altogether. I confess, I finished the book--and believe me, I read this book carefully--and I am still wondering who was related to whom and who did what. I think the lies (referred to above in the chapter title) are actually told by the father, not the children, but I'm not sure.

There are certain books with a complicated structure whose writing is so beautiful it pulls you through the difficulty of the plot and in the end you realize that the structure of the story is indeed perfect to its whole. I'm thinking of The English Patient, for example. And Let the Great World Spin, while not having an extremely complex structure, still demands a certain amount of attention from the reader to make all the wonderful connections between the ostensibly separate chapters. But McCann's writing is so poetic, the effort that the reader makes is a pleasurable one.

I'm sorry I can't say the same for Great House. Perhaps a second reading with illuminate a lot for me, but I'm not sure I want to spend my time re-reading it. On the one hand, I'd like my book groups to read it, so we can all figure it out. On the other hand, I'm not sure I want to subject my members to such a task.

I'm going to wait for the National Book Awards announcement this week. Should Great House win, I'm sure lots of people will write about it, and perhaps I can glean something from what they say. Perhaps even Nicole Krauss will shed some light on her work. So, stay tuned. Perhaps there's more to come.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

My personal book club discussed Freedom by Jonathan Franzen last night. I was at a disadvantage; having read it three weeks ago, I couldn't remember too many details--like plot, for example. You all know by now that my memory is abominable. You know what, though? Another member, let's call her Barbara, was railing against the conventional wisdom that Freedom is the new Great American Novel. And she said that although she enjoyed it, it was not memorable in any way whatsoever. So perhaps it's not my memory at fault here. Perhaps I've forgotten about Freedom largely because it's...forgettable.

This is not to say that it's not a romping good read. I found that I was looking forward to curling up with it each night; it's very compelling. However, although I think it is fantastically popular because it zeroes in on and illuminates our zeitgeist in a brilliant fashion, I still found it lacking in any profound message or moment of sublime art. I wasn't, in a word, moved.

My book club colleagues didn't even like the book as much as I had. They found it dark, dark, dark, and they got sick of the extreme self-absorption of the characters. Barbara found it structurally flawed; she didn't find any part of it believable, and she didn't like that it seemed to slip in and out of being satirical--almost like it couldn't decide what it was.

Another member, let's call her Elizabeth, said she found the sex in the book appalling, and it had to have been Jonathan Franzen's fantasies working their way out there. No woman would have written the sex scenes as he did. I won't detail our conversation surrounding this issue, but Elizabeth had us in stitches laughing.

The characters weren't likable (not that they should be), but some of us didn't even find them realistic. The cad of the story, Richard, aka Dick for the obvious reasons, was the only honest one, we decided. Lots of smothering-type relationships going on; we liked that Joey resented his mother for smothering him, so he married someone who was the antithesis of her. Even if his wife was bizarrely self-effacing. Oh, was Joey really in love with his wife's mother? Remember the MILF reference?

Anyway, if you want the plot you can go onto one of the hundreds (it seems) stellar reviews of this novel. We did wonder if there is a bit of group-think going on with the critics when it comes to this book, by the way. Oprah? Really? But now it's been snubbed by the National Book Award powers-that-be, so maybe not. Back to plot, suffice to say here that it is, in my book club's humble opinion, overly ambitious and would have been better if Franzen had not thrown in the kitchen sink, if you know what I mean.

I did really enjoy one gem of discovery that I'd like to share with you. I read Corrections years ago and the only scene I remember has to do with I think it's the father who is suffering from Alzheimer's flinging around his poop. Or dreaming about it or something. Anyway, there was a lot of poop in the scene. And now in Freedom, there is the scene where Joey has to dig through his poop to retrieve the wedding ring he has swallowed. What's up with that? Could this scene in Freedom be a metaphor for the shit (pardon the vulgarity) that everyone has to go through in a marriage in order to retain the relationship? Could we go further and say it's a metaphor for the shit everyone has to go through in life in order to grab the golden ring?

You decide as you read it. For it really is, notwithstanding the above comments, worth reading!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Wrapping Up The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Well, this was not an easy read, and some members couldn't stick with the book; I understand--Kingsolver is not for everyone. However, most of us loved The Lacuna. We liked that it is such a rich novel--there are so many layers to it and so much to discuss. And we even made an attempt to look at the novel through some lenses of literary theory: New Criticism, Cultural Criticism, and Post-colonialism.

Some of the members' insightful comments that I want to highlight here (these are almost bullet points because I am short on time--I have to move on to The Picture of Dorian Gray--and go to the grocery store!):

A big part of what this book is about is voice. Harrison has to find his and he does so by giving a voice to the "mute culture" of the ancient Mexicans. However, his own voice is then silenced by the howler monkeys--the press--as he refuses to answer or respond to their claims of 'fact' and their allegations against him. His silence here got us talking about the public vs private person of a writer or other notable. Just how much does a writer owe his/ her readers? Harrison's voice, through his words, are refused an audience as the public turns against him, but in the end, his voice, through the words of Violet Brown, are written down--and survive.

Voice leads to words and language and we all talked about the power of language and how it can create a 'reality' that is then taken for fact, but isn't necessarily 'real' or 'true.' Or perhaps isn't the entire story. This led into a discussion of perspective.

Even the structure of the book, a mix of journal, memoir, clippings, and more, seems to shout out that there are different angles from which to view something or someone. Which led us into a discussion about what truth is--is there such a thing, or is it just a perspective? Or is it a consensus of perspectives?

This led us into a discussion of the lacuna--the missing part to the story. Well, there were a lot of lacunae that we discussed. For example, one member saw the lacuna as an empty space to be given definition by others. And tied this to the identity of Harrison.

Other members saw the lacuna as a void or abyss. A scary, potentially fatal place to pass through and come into a sort of rebirth on the other side. We tied this to the birth of identity of Harrison when Frida sent him his notes and papers--when he could then become a writer.

Some members saw the lacuna as a gap to be filled--the missing part of the story--and tied this to what the press does when they don't know the full story--they just fill it in with whatever they want.

Which then got us talking--isn't there always more to the story? Can we ever know all there is to know about someone or something?

We also talked about the gap as what we fill in as readers--it's the space of interpretation between what is said and what isn't.

We all loved the howler monkeys--and we talked about the game of telephone--one person tells another who tells another and by the end of the chain--gossip, rumor, innuendo becomes fact, becomes reality, becomes truth and history.

One member brought up the fear that is pervasive in the book--Harrison's fear, the public's fear, the fear of those times, the fear of our times.

And we talked about history. Everyone agreed that the book was saying that history repeats itself--so watch out! Many of us found this to be depressing, but one member said, no, there is a hopeful message that we can get off this runaway train of history through art. I really love thinking about this...

We talked about art and politics and I look forward to more discussions about art as the season progresses. Does art, and this includes literature, have an obligation to be political? Or is it political without even trying to be? Can you separate politics from art?

Many of us agreed that this novel is an indictment of the press and of group-think. An indictment of taking what others have told us for fact and not looking deeper ourselves for the missing parts. And then, interestingly, we talked about how this novel is just another source of information that we need to consider in the context of its missing parts. Kingsolver can be pretty heavy-handed politically, and isn't she doing the exact same thing that she is criticizing others for doing? Isn't she only telling part of the story, her version of the story? Yet again, can you ever tell the whole story? Isn't there, as we asked above, always more to the story? Isn't there always another lacuna?

We talked about flatness of the characters, especially Harrison, and agreed that he is really a vehicle to get the points of the story across to us, and to take us on a journey through history. Many didn't like the book because they couldn't warm up to the characters, and one member said she absolutely hated the novel and thought it was absurd. Most everyone enjoyed reading about Frida and Diego--how could you not?

We talked about lots more, but I'm going to wrap this up right now and let YOU weigh in and POST A COMMENT. Tell me what I've forgotten, tell me your thoughts, tell me whatever you like!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Man Booker Short List Announced

Six novels have made the short list cut for the prestigious Man Booker Award. Here's the link if you would like to know more:


I am bummed that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, our :Literary Masters book groups choice for May, didn't make the list. I do have one of the short listed books sitting on my 'To Be Read' shelf: Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey. He's already won the prize twice, so there's a lot of hoopla about whether he can pull a hat trick. I'm not a big fan of his, which is one of the reasons I haven't yet read this latest one. Perhaps I'll give it a go soon.

Room, which I blogged about a couple of posts below (but you knew that, right?) made the cut and is apparently one of the favorites. I still don't want to read it.

The Long Song by Andrea Levy made the list. Now I read this book recently and really enjoyed it. It's a story told by a Jamaican slave and her voice is humorous, touching, and incredibly unique. I've been thinking about using this book for the month of February's Literary Masters book groups. Hmmm...

The winner of the prize will be announced October 12th. Until then, we can all hold our breath. How about you? Have you read any of the books on the short list?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

I'll Read These Books 'Cuz the Movies Were Great!

Okay, I think I'm a tad behind everyone else here, but I recently watched two films that blew me away, and now I want to read the books they were based on. The first film, Touching the Void, was so good, I did something I never do--I watched the special features about how the movie was made. And I loved that part, too!

Quick plot summary: It's 1985 and two climbing partners, both from England, head out to the Peruvian Andes to climb the 20,813 foot Siula Grande. As yet, no one has been able to do this, but that doesn't stop Simon and Joe.

The film alternates between Simon and Joe facing the camera, telling their story, and movie actors reenacting the expedition. It sounds sort of cheesy, but it works--I got so sucked in, even though I knew I was watching actors, my heart was racing as I worried for them!

I'm not giving anything away--you must know that the climb goes wrong, because there wouldn't be a film about it otherwise, right? So, anyway, the two climbers make it to the summit. It's quite dramatic along the way, and we cheer for them at the top. However--did you know that 80% of mountain accidents happen on the descent? I didn't know that, but Simon and Joe do--and they realize that their job is not even close to being over.

So, down they climb.

And things are going quite well. Until Joe breaks his leg--badly. At this point, Simon could ditch Joe, but he doesn't; instead he engineers some sort of knot and pulley system that will allow him to lower the two of them down the mountain. A brief side note here: never, ever underestimate the importance of knowing how to tie knots. I wish I had been a boy scout. Or a sailor. (I was a girl scout for a short while, and I did earn a cooking badge. No jokes, those of you who have experienced my cuisine.)

Back to the story: things are going quite well. Simon lowers Joe down via the rope, waits for his signal--a tug from Joe--and then Simon can rework the pulley system and lower himself. The system is working until, all of a sudden, things go disastrously wrong.

Joe goes flying over a precipice and is literally dangling in mid-air.

Simon, waiting well up the mountain for his signal, has no idea why Joe is not tugging. As he begins to fear the worst, Simon waits and waits. He is seated precariously on a slope, holding onto the rope, and he sees a storm blowing in. Eventually it is clear: either Simon has to cut the rope, sending Joe to a certain death, or he--Simon--will be pulled off his perch and the two of them will die.

Well, what would you do?

Simon cuts the rope, Joe plunges, and then the story really gets good. Because Joe doesn't die. And what he goes through, what he survives, what he does in his situation, is beyond astonishing. From a psychological viewpoint, I found it fascinating to listen to him speak about being so close to death--almost going through it as it were--and then finding life on the other side.

What or who do you turn to when faced with almost certain death? God? Your wits? Fate? And can there ever be something good to come out of such a harrowing experience? These and other questions are answered by Joe, but I wonder, how different would the answers be coming from someone else? How different would my own answers be? I don't want to know!

What Simon goes through is a whole other story. I'm telling you--if the book is even half as good as the film, it would be fantastic for a book group!

Okay, moving on: the next film is Revolutionary Road. First of all, can I ask, is there anything that Kate Winslet cannot do? She is extraordinary! I was reading a lot and not going to the movies the year she was nominated for two Oscars, one for The Reader and one for Revolutionary Road. It took me awhile to rent the dvd's and I must say, I really disliked The Reader.

However, I loved Revolutionary Road. Quick plot summary (really, this time I will be quick): a married couple in the 1950's thinks they are special. They have an idea of an ideal life, one that doesn't contain middle-management jobs, mortgages, and children. In other words, one that isn't exactly like the life they are living.

So they decide to throw it all in and move to Paris. The passion that Kate Winslet's character displays drives them, but will it be able to surmount all the obstacles, both societal and personal, that are thrown in their way?

Again, from a psychological viewpoint, this portrait of a 1950's marriage is riveting, and its insight into human nature and human needs grabs one by the throat with its bold truth.

I loved this movie, and cannot wait to get my hands on the book. What about YOU? Have you read either of these books? Are they as good as the films?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Two Books I Probably Won't Read

I'm suffering from insomnia at the moment, so I just finished reading a couple of good articles online. One is in the NY Times and suggests that the growth in popularity of e-books is going to be for bookstores what the meteorite was for the dinosaurs. It got me thinking...without bookstores, readers won't be able to browse around the store's shelves to find books. They will rely more heavily on the reviews of professional readers, such as...hmm, let me see, oh, hello! Can I be of assistance?

The other article was in the Guardian. It discussed the novel Room by Emma Donoghue, which has been long-listed for the Man Booker prize. Evidently the book is about a five year old boy and his mother who are held captive in a room--for years. There is a man who comes in the dark to bring necessities--and to take his own--but that's the only contact, save for the television, that the mother and son have with the outside world.

I read about this book when the long list was announced, and thought yuck, I don't want to read that. However, this article:


makes it sound very interesting and rather worthwhile. Donoghue certainly is articulate when discussing her novel. She defends herself from the accusation that she is sensationalizing and exploiting the true-life horror story of Franz Fritzl, the Austrian who kept his daughter in a room for decades and fathered seven children by her. You've heard about him, right?

This book may have been "triggered" (Donoghue's word) by that incident, but it is not about that. The author discusses how it is about the parent/ child relationship and the love that can withstand, and transcend, the ordinary--and the strange. She says, "Really, everything in Room is just a defamiliarisation of ordinary parenthood...The idea was to focus on the primal drama of parenthood: the way from moment to moment you swing from comforter to tormentor, just as kids simultaneously light up our lives and drive us nuts. I was trying to capture that strange, bipolar quality of parenthood. For all that being a parent is normal statistically, it's not normal psychologically. It produces some of the most extreme emotions you'll ever have." She goes on to say " I wanted to focus on how a woman could create normal love in a box."

The author of the Guardian article, Sarah Crown, goes on to contrast Room with another novel that won the Orange Prize and that was "sparked" (Crown's word) by another real life tragedy--the Columbine shootings--We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. Crown points out that in Shriver's novel "a mother and her son create hell in the heart of a middle-class idyll," while in Room, "Ma and Jack conjure humdrum beauty out of a kind of hell."

Hmm, although I know both these novels have received high praise from critics and the lay reader alike, I just don't think I want to spend my limited time with them. What about you? Have you read these books? Do you want to?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I Love You But I Hate the Book You Recommended

I read a funny article in the Guardian book blog today:


The author contemplates the existential questions that arise when someone you love recommends a book that you don't. He asks: "Does this mean, when a fellow book lover gives you a book you hate, the person didn't really know you, or had an erroneous idea of you in their mind? Does it mean you don't really know yourself? Does it mean the self is fundamentally unknowable, at least through the contents of a bookshelf?"

This cracked me up.

He uses as an example The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, a book given to him by a quasi-romantic interest, and one which he has tried numerous times to read but has never finished because...he doesn't like it.

I can relate to this because my brother, you know, the one noted in earlier posts who won't read used books and never goes to the library, gave me that book as a gift. Now I'm not sure he had read it, so technically it wasn't a recommendation--and I imagine gifted books raise different existential questions than recommended books. Anyway, I absolutely could not get through it. And I really, really persevered, and was terribly disappointed that I had done so because I ended up finally just closing it with a thump! that's it!--I cannot read another word of this unintelligible rot.

Here's a confession, though--I feel like this is a book I should read, and I do feel that I will pick it up again one day and get through it. And maybe even understand it.

But what about when I am recommending an entire year's worth of books for my book group members to read? That's a lot of pressure! What if they don't like what I've chosen? Yikes!

Well, we all know that you can't please all the people all the time, and over the years some members have, believe it or not, disliked some of my choices. I know, I know, hard to believe but there you are. Anyway, I take the advice that I would give to anyone else. I use criteria by which to judge a book--for instance this year we are reading contemporary prize winners--and if I've stuck to that criteria and if I find the book is literary and worth reading--and worth discussing--then I really don't worry about whether someone likes it or not.

You see, I don't think reading a book should necessarily be easy, and I don't think books worth reading should necessarily be likable. I think books should makes us think, make us feel, make us wonder, make us question, make us...change.

Yes, I will definitely pick up The Unbearable Lightness of Being again--and I will finish it!

What do you think? Is it important for you to like what you're reading?

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

The Slap won the Australian Literary Society Gold Medal. Really?

The Slap was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and the Colin Roderick Award. Really??

The Slap
is currently on the long list for the Man Booker Prize. Really???

I'm sorry, but I just don't get it. I found myself speed-reading this book to get it over with, and I cannot recommend it at all. Not at all.

Quick plot summary: Somewhere in the suburbs of Australia, a little boy is slapped at a BBQ by a man who is not his father. This event is used by the author as a device to delve into the lives of the novel's characters, eight of whom become the individual, central focus of a chapter of the book. The slap itself becomes a sort of signifier as each character places his or her meaning upon it and simultaneously takes from it what he or she wants.

Forget the seediness of the characters. Forget the ubiquitous and uninteresting sex scenes. Forget all the drug use. Forget the self-destruction running rampant through the novel. I wouldn't have a problem with any of this--not if the book were well written. But it's not. At times I thought Tsiolkas was trying to write a short story in each chapter, threading the slap through them all--to bind them together. But the chapters weren't interesting enough on their own to survive such a structure.

Instead of using the entire novel to build and develop the life of an individual character, he tried to cram it all into the one chapter devoted to that character's point of view. The result was tedious and boring. I didn't care about the characters, and consequently, I didn't care about the novel.

And I couldn't help thinking, even as I read the female voices of the novel, that this book just screams out that it was written by a man. When I'm hearing the author's voice overriding the narrators' voices, that's a problem, isn't it?

Perhaps this novel is meant to be some sort of mosaic or kaleidoscopic look at modern Australian society. Maybe. Again, I find I really don't care.

This was my "beach read" this summer. Hmm...I need another vacation. How about you? What was your "beach read"?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

I had come across this title a few times while perusing the long and short lists for award-winning fiction. However, the description--something about Ireland, a priest, a move to New York--put me off reading it. It was while reviewing the Guardian's article on authors recommending just two reads for the summer that it caught my eye again. I believe Tom Stoppard called this novel "flawless."

Far be it from me to argue with Tom Stoppard, so I won't delve into whether I think it's flawless or not, but I will say it is a touching, thought-provoking, wonderful book. It evoked A Tree Grows in Brooklyn more than once for me, with its descriptions of New York, seen through the eyes of innocence. The atmosphere of the book absolutely captivated me.

Quick plot review: It's the fifties in Ireland. Eilis' family decides it's time for her to make her way in the world, and what better place to do it than in Brooklyn, USA, the land of promise--and where the local Irish priest has many contacts who can help Eilis get settled.

Before she knows it, Eilis finds herself sick as a dog on a ship crossing the ocean.

Toibin is able to render Eilis' experience so that the reader feels she is going through it herself. But what is so nice, so refreshing, is that after a while I realized that nothing shocking or violent or predictable was going to happen. Eilis was quite successfully making her way in the world, the New World at that.

She does well at work, she has a nice place to live, and she meets and falls for Tony, a sweet Italian boy.

Then an event calls her back to Ireland. I'm not giving anything away--the book jacket tells you this much. What it doesn't tell you is now the book gets really, really good. No more black and white--grey enters the scene big-time.

One of my favorite books is Old School by Tobias Wolff. The main character does something that made me, as the reader, want to jump into the book and shout "stop!--don't you see what you're doing?" I had that same feeling while I was reading Brooklyn; I literally felt afraid for Eilis. I can't say more without giving some of it away, so I'll stop here.

Suffice to say, I heartily recommend this book. And with both Tom Stoppard and I recommending it, you're going to read it, right?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

I recently got my hands on the ARC (advanced readers' copy) of Michael Cunningham's new novel, By Nightfall. I know, I know--eat your hearts out. Seriously, don't despair; you won't have to wait long as it will be in bookstores in October.

This is a very good book, thoroughly readable. What's it about, you ask? Well, very quickly:

Rebecca and Peter are living in Manhattan. Of course they are, because Michael Cunningham's descriptions of that city take the reader there to an extent that rivals Ian McEwan's ability to transport the reader to (and through) London in Saturday. In my opinion, that's an achievement.

Rebecca and Peter are middle-aged, or getting there, long-married with a daughter freshly flown from the coop, and are both working "in the arts"--she is a magazine editor; he owns an art gallery and dreams of one day discovering that historically important artist that will transcend time, place, and the mediocrity of life.

Ahh, the mediocrity of life. It looms ever greater as a final destination the more into "middle-age" one advances.

Rebecca's brother, Ethan, aka the Mistake, or Mizzy, comes to visit. And there begins the tale...Although I cannot recall at the moment why Ethan's family calls him the Mistake, what is more important is that he conjures for others their own. Mistakes, that is. In life. The takes and mis-takes that lead one to live an absolutely ordinary, mediocre life.

And thus, Peter finds himself at a crux. The effect Mizzy has on Peter (I won't give away a huge part of the book right here--even though I saw it coming like a train entering a station) is life-altering. Should Peter go off to risk finding the extraordinary? Or should he settle for his everyday, pleasant, but let's face it, hardly amazing life?

It strikes me that this book is like a coming-of-age novel, but for middle-agers--people who haven't been innocent for quite a while, but who still harbor some notion of the existence, in themselves or others, of the ideal. And this book is about what happens when they realize that hey, that Paradise is just an illusion. You took a bite out of the apple a long time ago and this is the world that is yours. From a hopeful standpoint, though, that world, your life, although not ideal, can still be wonderful and full of beauty.

How about you? Are you still searching for an ideal life?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Can You Judge a Book by Its Cover?

I threw a small dinner party last night--just a few girlfriends--to celebrate a birthday. One of the guests is an author whose second novel will be released in March 2011. It's a fascinating education for me, listening to her as she talks about the publishing process.

She showed us all the mock-up cover of her book and asked us what we thought. There was a concern from someone that it looked like a Harlequin Romance novel--decidedly what this book is not.

I thought that it somewhat brought to mind a YA novel, but was, on the whole, rather nice and benign. In other words, it wouldn't turn me off from buying it. On the other hand, it wouldn't make me buy it, either. But I really don't judge a book by its cover. I don't think...

I mean, who does? And that's not a rhetorical question. Do we read a book because we've picked it up knowing nothing about it but the cover seduces us? Do you do this? I usually read about or hear about a book first, so I go to the library or book store seeking that particular title. I don't even really register the cover. In fact, of all the many books I've read lately (which you know about because you've read my WHIRL posts, right?), I cannot recall any of the covers.

Personally, I think the write-up on the back or on the inside flap is more important. And I also like to see who is recommending the book. If it's an author that I like or respect, that carries weight for me. Or if the book has won or been shortlisted for an award, that counts for me.

What do you think? Can you, DO you, should you--judge a book by its cover?

Sunday, June 27, 2010


My goodness, I haven't WHIRLed in ages! It isn't for lack of reading, I assure you. Hmm...shall I blame World Cup Fever, still rampaging through my house? Yes, that must be it.

So, here I WHIRL, but you may be disappointed for the moment, because I have read so many wonderful books, books that I have on my shortlist for this season's book groups, so I can't tell you those titles yet.

For instance, there's a book by one of my favorite American authors that I just loved, loved, loved! That will definitely be on my list.

Then the book by the author from Zimbabwe--I picked it up and read for two days straight without putting it down. Or so it seemed, anyway. You know, one of those great novels that you can't pull yourself away from. I may be putting that one on my list.

Tinkers by Paul Harding. This novel won the Pulitzer Prize this year, so I was excited to read it. Hmm...not loving it. And this is the second time I have picked it up--I am somewhat determined to get through it. Somewhat. We'll see.

The Appointment by Herta Muller. She was born in Romania and won the Nobel Prize, so I was really excited to read her. I am enjoying, not loving, this book, but I just don't think I will subject my book groups to it. I think I'd meet too much resistance.

Another novel by a Man Booker Prize winner--an English author whom I had never read before. Glad I picked this one up--I think it will end up on my list.

Chronicle in Stone by Ismail Kadare. Kadare is an Albanian author who has received numerous awards, one of which is the International Man Booker Prize, awarded every other year. Although I won't be putting this book on my list, I am really enjoying it. The story is narrated by a young Albanian boy who is chronicling what is happening to his village during WWII. What I love about this book is the boy's imagination, which of course hasn't been squashed by any adult logic. It's making me look at everything--stones and all--with a new eye.

I have never read any Joyce Carol Oates and I feel like I should! So I picked up Blackwater but got distracted, and then picked up another one, can't remember the title right now, but then got distracted. Oates is seriously prolific and I know she is loved, but I need some guidance here. Have you read her and can you recommend a title I should read?

What about YOU? Are you ready to WHIRL?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Sporting Advice

It's World Cup fever in my house. As I blog, New Zealand is on its way to a huge upset of Italy. Hard not to root for the underdog. Right, I may have to rethink this--as I glanced up from my laptop to the TV, the shot was on the crowd--about a dozen bare-chested, overweight New Zealand men, waving their shirts in the air. Not a pretty sight.

But I digress.

For a while we had basketball fever in my house as well. But then the Lakers wrapped it all up in the seventh (rather exciting) game against the Boston Celtics. With all the in-your-face technology available these days, the TV viewer was able to hear what the coaches were saying to the players at time-outs.

Doc Rivers told his team at one critical point that he didn't want any heroes. That they should play together. As a team.

For some reason that resonated with me. I got to thinking about the question from Elyse, one of my book group members, our very first meeting. What makes a really good discussion?

Well, one thing that helps is when the group converses as a team. That sounds sort of strange, but if you think about it, it's true. If someone shows up with the mindset of being a hero--of dominating the discussion with her opinion, of being "right" in her interpretation of the book, in short--if someone shows up with an open gob but a closed mind--then the conversation will suffer.

So arrive at your next meeting with an open and curious mind. Really listen to what others say before responding, and try to remark upon--and dig deeper into--what they are saying. This sounds simple but takes some practice. Many members just want to speak what's on their minds rather than engage with what has been said by someone else. However, following one topic to it's conclusion before moving on to another can result in a much more fruitful conversation for everyone.

So thanks, Coach Rivers, for the tip. The Lakers, coached by Phil Jackson, went on to take the championship, so let's give a nod to Coach Jackson also. He has coached more championship teams than any other coach in sports. So, he must be doing something right. To find out more, log onto www.amazon.com and see the books he's written. And if you read any of them, don't forget to WHIRL!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Literary Masters of the Future

There's an interesting article in the New York Times today about The New Yorker's upcoming issue in which twenty fiction writers under the age of forty are named as "ones to watch."

Here's the link:


According to the NY Times article, this is a big deal because it's been over ten years since The New Yorker last named any "writers to watch." So, looking at that list is pretty interesting. Jhumpa Lahiri was on it, one of my favorite authors. Have you read Interpreter of Maladies or The Namesake? How about Unaccustomed Earth? I have a very funny story about calling into NPR when Michael Krasny was interviewing Jhumpa on Forum. Remind me to tell it to you sometime.

Another fave on that list: Junot Diaz. We all loved The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but how about his collection of short stories, Drown? Have you read that?

Jeffrey Eugenides was on it (loved Middlesex!), as was Nathan Englander, one of my favorite short story authors.

I am going to take a close look at this year's list--if the last list is anything to go by, The New Yorker knows what it's talking about. Perhaps we'll all read these "writers to watch" in our future Literary Masters book groups!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Everyone Wins at the Used Book Sale

I was at my favorite local bookstore yesterday to buy the non-fiction book I'll be using in my next season of Literary Masters book groups. I can't tell you the title yet; you'll have to wait until I announce my list of books! Suffice to say, it is so captivating, I am having a hard time putting it down. I think everyone will love it!

Anyway, the bookstore was having a sale in its used book annex. The already discounted prices were 50% off to benefit the local hospice. Well, the only thing better than a great used book store is one that is having a sale, so I decided my reading (lots of reading to get through so I can complete next season's list) could wait and I went into the annex.

I came home with a pristine hardback copy of The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, some sort of riveting gothic tale. It was longlisted for the Orange Prize for fiction. I went on Sarah's official website, and she has a page of "top ten" ghost stories. Check it out:

I also purchased for a few dollars Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones. I've been meaning to read this book for ages--it was published in 2006. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, it won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

On my way out I picked up Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. Everyone seems to love this book. Well, I'll see...you all know what a literary snob I can be!

Anyway, I was happy with my purchases, the bookstore was happy that I bought a current hardback book, and the hospice was happy with the money from the used books I bought. Happiness all around. See what books can do for the world?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Wrapping Up My Son's Story by Nadine Gordimer

Well, isn't it funny--here this was the book I was most nervous about my groups reading; I thought people would find it too slow. Instead, save for a very few who found it a difficult read, most everyone just loved it. As you all know by now, it is one of my favorite books.

So, wrapping it up: what did everyone have to say about it? In no particular order:
  • Whose story is this? Well, this was answered on many levels, and more than one group pointed out that it may be the story of South Africa. Sonny, the Shakespeare-loving dad, handing over the reins to Will, who writes the true story of what happened. Or is it liberal-minded, free, and white Hannah handing over the reins to black, rebellious and silently powerful Aila?
  • Hey, but is the story true? Or is it, like one member pointed out, just one child's hand-held video-cam rendition of his family? Remember who is narrating the story. Yes, Will is. So, although we think at times we are getting Sonny's version, or Aila's or Baby's, we are only ever getting their version as mediated through Will.
  • And what kind of a narrator is Will? Hmm, as another member pointed out, only one of the least reliable narrators in literature! His motive: revenge! Will tells us, "...because I've begun a project--call it that--that needs solitude. I've found a use for the state, compromised and deserted, he dumped me in when he walked off so calmly with his blonde after an afternoon at the cinema." (196) And then later he admits to us: "In our story, like all stories, I've made up what I wasn't there to experience myself...Sometimes I can hear my voice breaking through, my judgments, my opinions elbowing in on what are supposed to be other people's. I'll have to watch out for that next time." (275) So, this really is Will's story--told by Will to us, and do we feel betrayed when we realize he's been imagining a lot of it?
  • Hmm...the theme of betrayal is absolutely pervasive. Every which way we connect the dots, we come up wtih betrayal. Sonny betrayed his family, the struggle, himself, and Hannah; Will betrayed his father (when he wrote the story) and his own self (by becoming his father); the struggle betrayed Sonny; Hannah betrayed them while in the country and then when she upped and left; the list goes on...
  • The references to Shakespeare made us all want to read more Shakespeare--King Lear and Hamlet ring throughout this story. And we read Sonnet 13, from which the epigraph is taken, and more than one member was visibly moved by it. Reading this sonnet and realizing why Will is writing the story combines to bring home the absolute devastating effects Sonny and Hannah's actions had on the family. One rather erudite member asked--are we to look at this story as a Shakespearian tragedy?
  • We all loved talking about the Oedipal dynamic going on between Will, Sonny, and Aila. Which brings us to Aila...her silence (representative of black South Africans under apartheid?) was, in the end, more powerful and stronger than any other force in the story. And she was committed to the struggle in a way that white Hannah showed she was not. Hannah, the liberal white wrapped up in the drama of another people. Swooping in like a savior, only to wreak destruction. See the poem on pp. 276-7. Most of us thought that the dove at the end, dashing in swift through the bars and breaking its neck against stone walls, was Hannah.
  • Why did Sonny go to Hannah--when it seemed like he and Aila really loved each other? Most members felt that as Sonny's identity changed, as he became more 'Sonny' than Sonny, as he became the revolutionary as perceived by others, his own identity became tangled up with Hannah--who was also involved in the struggle. The politics, the power, the passion all became intertwined, and they never separated their feelings for each other from the love of the struggle and their positions of power in it.
  • Some members commented on how Sonny and Hannah's relationship was more abstract than anything, well at least more abstract than Sonny and Alia's very concrete day-to-day existence. "Joy. That was what went with it. The light of joy that illuminates long talk of ideas, not the 60-watt bulbs that shine on family matters." (65)
  • And was Sonny treating the struggle in the abstract also? So that when he was called to act at the cleansing of the graves, he was not able to put his beliefs and values into concrete action?
  • Some members pondered whether Sonny's political fall affected Hannah's feelings for him.
  • Some members saw the venue where Will discovers Sonny and Hannah--the cinema--to be significant. I would agree, given his voyeurism that follows as he narrates their love story.
  • Oh gosh, there is so much more to this book, and I could just pick it up right now and read it all over again. However, I have to move on...

But how about you? What did you think of My Son's Story, if you read it? And if you haven't, do you think you will?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Wishful Thinking for Summer Reading

You know what I feel like doing? I feel like curling up with The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott, all 1926 pages of it, and reading it from one end to the other. I took it out of the library the other day, something I've meant to do ever since I watched The Jewel in the Crown, the British TV series that I was obsessed with--I had to watch every single episode (again, taken from my wonderful local library) right through from the beginning to the end of the series. I was so sad when it was over, and I wanted more!

Anyway, I was meandering among the fiction shelves and I saw it--The Raj Quartet. By page nine I was hooked. I felt like I was India. I could feel the heat, see the dust. Oh, what a wonderful way to spend a summer. I put it back on the shelf, though. I am being disciplined, as I have a lot of other reading to do. You all know by now that I am furiously reading award-winning books to choose my list for next season's book groups.


The four books within the quartet are titled: The Jewel in the Crown, The Day of the Scorpion, The Towers of Silence, and A Division of the Spoils.

Oh, and if you haven't yet seen the television series, RUN, do not walk, but RUN, knocking down everyone in your way, to your local library or video store to procure it. Or I guess you can Netflix it or some other less energetic way of getting your hands on it. Anyway, get it and watch it--you will thank me.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


I just know Mrs. Magoo of www.mrsmagooreads.com will be whirling today, so I'm going to join her and tell you: What Have I Read Lately! Perhaps I should say What Haven't I Read Lately, as I've been reading quite a bit in order to choose JUST the right books for my book groups next season.

Now, because I'm not yet ready to release my book list (I haven't yet completed it!), I can't divulge some of the titles of novels I've seriously enjoyed recently. Sorry, but you'll just have to wait, or better yet, sign up for one of my book groups! I can tell you about some books that I won't be using...not because they aren't good, but for various other reasons.

Man's Search for Meaning by Victor E. Frankl. Wow. I am currently reading this non-fiction book about Frankl's psychological theory, and I am thoroughly captivated. Warning: not an easy read, especially the first part about his experiences in a German concentration camp during WWII. I will WHIRL about this book again when I finish it, so stay tuned.

Summertime by J.M. Coetzee. Hmmm, I really enjoyed this book, but felt a little less than satiated at the end. The structure is unique: Coetzee, the author, writes a fiction about a dead John Coetzee, whose biographer is interviewing five important people from John's life as research for his book. John's notebook fragments on his own writing are also included in the fiction. At times I felt like I was in some sort of hall of mirrors...I'm still really digesting this book, figuring out what I think about it, but I wouldn't mind chewing it over with others in order to extract more from it. Have you read it? What do you make of it?

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Again. A masterpiece. As always.

How about YOU? What have YOU read lately?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Wrapping Up The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz is truly a wonderful book. All my book groups enjoyed it, and the conversations were lively, opinionated, and everyone had something to say. It's interesting how differently individuals reacted to this book. Some found it angry while others hadn't seen that part of it. Some found it hilarious although tragic. Some found it depressing. Just about everyone found it to be an interesting read. A real page-turner.

I'll highlight below some of the points that were made in the various groups. You may or may not agree with them:

This really isn't Oscar's story. It's Yunior's story. You can hear his voice change, grow, as he narrates the book, and you can watch him change and grow, too. He comes to terms with who he is as a Dominican man.

Although the men acted macho, this story just underscored that it was all an act, a role they were playing, a mask they were wearing. The women were the really strong characters in the story. They were the ones who, although severely restricted to a limited space by the patriarchal society in which they lived, took action when action was called for. The results weren't always great, but at least they did something.

Lola took on her masks, "performing" to others' expectations, until she figured out how to be true to herself. Oscar was the only one who didn't wear a mask, who didn't play a role, perhaps because he didn't know how to.

The question of complicity came up. And destiny. How much control do we really have over our lives? How much control must we cede to others? We talked about how Trujillo was a brutal dictator, but the Dominicans helped elevate him to mythological status with their stories about him.

Speaking of stories, and histories, and TRUTH, we talked about the structure of the book, especially the narrator and how he mediated the voices of the other characters coming through him.

What stories do we tell our ourselves? We talked about this, and the reason we tell ourselves stories.

We were all interested in the Macombo (magical realism elements) versus McOndo (gritty, street-wise realism) that are opposed to each other yet work side-by-side in this novel.

Oh gosh, we talked about much more: themes of identity, belonging, the "space in between," authority--I couldn't help but view the book through the lens of post-colonialism. And we talked about the brilliance of Junot Diaz. One of my members blurted out that she just so wished she could speak to him--a bit ironic, I thought, as we were talking about authority and how we give it over to others!

Bottom line: Run, don't walk, to read this book; it's amazing.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Wow! April is flying by! And I've been neglecting my blog! I'm so sorry to all of you--how have you survived? Have you had to turn to other reading? Hmmm, read anything good lately? Hmmm, What Have I Read Lately?

Ask, by Sam Lipsyte. Last time I WHIRLED, I was mid-way through this novel. Well, I finished it, and I would recommend it, sort of. I'd give it say, a 7 out of 10.

Solar, by Ian McEwan. I know the critics have panned it, but I think this novel is the funniest book I have read since Portnoy's Complaint. Run. Do not walk. Run to get your hands on this book.

Another book, an award-winner, the title of which I am not revealing because it was so good, I am using it for my next season of Literary Masters book groups. Join one of my groups if you want to know which book it is. :-)

How about you? Are you ready to WHIRL? Let me know what you've been reading lately.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Playing the Enemy

I saw the movie "Invictus" a few months ago, and I absolutely loved it. I found the story riveting, and I was surprised that I had never heard about it before. Nelson Mandela, released from 27 years behind bars as a political prisoner in South Africa, is elected the first black president of that country. As civil war between whites and blacks looms, Mandela wants to draw the country together using the sport of rugby as the unifier. The problem is, rugby is seen by South Africans as a "white" sport, symbolizing the apartheid regime and all the evil that accompanied it. How Mandela manages to pull off the impossible is the stuff of fairy tales, and yet this is a true story!

I came away from this movie wanting to know more about this episode in South Africa's history, and more about the amazing person--Nelson Mandela. So I went to the library and checked out the book that the movie is based on: Playing the Enemy by John Carlin. In fact, since it was my turn to choose the book for my personal book club, my entire group read it, and we all loved it. It's a bit of a hagiography, but if you can get past that, it really is a thumping good read.

Some of my favorite lines/passages from the book follow. These probably won't mean a thing to you unless you've read the book, but while I put them down here, I'm once again savoring this delicious read.

"If Mandela had learned one thing in prison it was to take the long view. And that meant not being sidetracked by present horrors and keeping his eye firmly fixed on the distant goal."

"'Mandela,' Barnard said, 'knew how to use his power subtly. It is like comparing old money and new money. He knew how to handle power without humiliating his enemies.'"

"Paballelo was consumed by every detail of the trial. But for the white population of Upington it might have been unfolding in Borneo...Drama works on the premise of a shared humanity with the protagonists. For Upington, Paballelo was dimly lit parallel world inhabited by an alien species; best left well alone."

"Mandela, as a man of the world rather than a man of one volk, had a capacity the general lacked to penetrate the minds of people culturally different from himself. He knew when to flatter and soothe (Niel Barnard spoke of Mandela's 'almost animal instinct for tapping into people's vulnerabilities and reassuring them.'); he knew when he could go on the offensive without causing offense..."

"'There was a cause-and-effect connection between the Mandela factor and our performance in the field,' Du Plessis said..."

"The Argus then listed the five "key factors" that enabled rugby to become 'a unifying catalyst': Mandela's vociferous support for 'our boys' and his wearing of the Springbok cap; Archbishop Tutu's public support; the rugby team acting in concert with the 'One Team, One Country' slogan; the team's success on the field; the singing of the new combined anthem and the waving of the new flag."

"Mandela's weakness was his greatest strength. He succeeded because he chose to see good in people who ninety-nine people out of a hundred would have judged to have been beyond redemption...Mandela zeroed in on that hidden kernel where their better angels lurked and drew out the goodness that is inside all people...By appealing to and eliciting what was best in them...he offered them the priceless gift of making them feel like better people, in some cases transforming them into heroes."


Sunday, April 4, 2010


I wonder if Mrs. Magoo from www.mrsmagooreads.com will "whirl" today. To jog your memory, WHIRL stands for What Have I Read Lately, and this blog post is my third WHIRL. I'd love to hear from you--why don't you WHIRL too? So, What Have I Read Lately?

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Like Midnight's Children on speed. Absolutely wonderful. Not for the faint of heart. My book groups have been discussing this, so look for my "wrap up" soon.

A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert. My personal book club is reading this novel this month, and I'm looking forward to the discussion. I found the book a wee bit on the slow side, but I think this was due to my mood more than anything else. I found the writing beautiful, and by the end of the book, I wanted more.

Ask by Sam Lipsyte. I am in the middle of this hilarious and rather exhausting book. I don't mean to be sexist, but I keep thinking "this is such a guy's book" as I'm reading it. Shades of Portnoy's Complaint and Catcher in the Rye and perhaps even Confederacy of Dunces and who-knows-what-all-else all rolled into one. I almost put it down but now find that I can't!

What about YOU? What Have YOU Read Lately?