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.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Should Your Book Club Read To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf?

This is not an easy book.  It is, however, a brilliant book.  So, forgive my equivocation, but I think my answer to should your book club read To the Lighthouse depends upon...your book club.  I will say that this book almost demands to be read with others so that you can talk about it and make sense of it.

To the Lighthouse was Literary Masters' December selection, and I found our discussions fascinating.  Like a mirror held up to each individual reader, this book seemed to reflect unique and personal responses.  Each LM member seemed to have a different interpretation of the parts, as well as the whole, of the story, much like the characters within had each an individual response to their lives.  Thus, we readers were like the characters in the book, constructing our perception of reality through the prism of our own perspectives.

I could spend days here going over the themes of the book, and analyzing the imagery, and discussing the characters, and so on.  And the thing is, I could spend each day looking at the above through a different lens: one day I could view the book through a historical context; one day I could do a Freudian reading, one day I could do a feminist reading, one day I could look at it through an existentialist lens, one day I could just analyze the symbolism, one day I could just analyze the colors...I think you get my point.

So what can your book club talk about if you read To the Lighthouse?

Many critics feel this book is highly autobiographical, so that may be a starting point for you if you are up for doing a little research.  Even if you don't, though, you'll want to discuss the relationships in the book.  Why does Mrs. Ramsey refuse to say 'I love you' to Mr. Ramsey?  Whom does Lily love?  What does Lily feel toward Mrs. Ramsey?  What does James want?

Actually, that's a good place to start.  What does each character desire?  This may lead you to what I consider an overarching theme of the book, one of the main things this book is "about."  And what does each character do with that desire?  And what does that say about human nature?

Each reader in your book club may have a different answer to "what is this book about?" and each one may be right.

Talk about the significance time plays in the story.  What is it saying about time?  How do the characters feel about time?  What is each character's relationship with time?  Perhaps you could consider the most important thing in each character's life and go from there.

Talk about the imagery and symbolism.  For example, what significance do windows hold?  What about the lighthouse?  Note all the gardens, trees, and other natural phenomenon and how they relate especially to Mrs. Ramsey.  What is the significance of that?  Talk about the house; many of my LM members felt that the house was a character in itself.  What do the waves represent, if anything?  Honestly, I could go on and on, but the above is probably enough to get your book club going.

This book is absolutely poetic and you may want to read passages just for the beauty of the language.  You'll definitely want to talk about the unique structure: Virginia Woolf was a pioneer of 'stream of consciousness,' so you as reader will be inside the flowing thoughts of the characters.  How does this affect you?  And how does this form embed the themes of the book?

I highly recommend this book.  It speaks to the reader on an individual level as well as speaking to us all on a universal level of things that are timeless.  This is probably why it is on every list of "must read" books.  It demands a little more work on the reader's part, but the rewards are well worth it.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Should Your Book Club Read A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan?

A rather controversial choice--some members loved it and some did not--A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan was Literary Masters' selection for November, and the bottom line is: yes, this is an excellent choice for your book club, but you need to have a focused, disciplined discussion to get the most out of this very dense book.  This blog post should help you.

One reason this book is so dense is its structure, and you'll want to explore that at some length.  In an interview, Egan says she wanted to structure the book like a record album, with an "A" side and a "B" side.  Explore this issue, and quite a bit comes up.  You may want to consider the 'collection of chapters' as a type of record album--with some 'songs' that you like more than others.  Also, consider how each chapter relates to music in its message, mood, and tone.

Some of the themes of the book are actually expressed through the structure, and this will be illuminated if you really 'dig deep' as we do in our LM literary salons.  For example, one theme we discussed was how we are all separate yet connected.  Egan wanted each chapter to be able to stand on its own, which each one does, but taken in the context of all the stories, each chapter takes on that much more resonance and meaning. 

One of the most interesting chapters is the one done as a power-point presentation.  Now, your book club will want to talk about what this entire book is saying about technology and its effect on us individually and as a society, but this chapter particularly brings up the idea of the pause and what that signifies.  Now think about all the chapters--what does the "pause" mean?  This brings up all sorts of different and wonderful interpretations!

I found one of the main themes of the book to be redemption.  Each of us has an "A" side that eventually, for a variety of reasons--and your book club will want to explore these reasons with regard to each character--stops.  But, after a pause of some sort, the music starts up again, and you're on your "B" side.  Another allusion to the record album that will get your book club talking!

You'll want to consider how this is a book about time.  And also about time and music.  Egan says that nothing can bring you back in time like hearing a song from your past.  How are the characters relating to/ considering their pasts?  Read the epigraph and discuss how it relates to the book.  Egan says that she was heavily influenced by Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past while writing A Visit from the Goon Squad, so your more literary book club members will want to weigh in here.

Consider the title!  and discuss!  What is the "goon"?  You should have more than one interpretation of this most interesting question!

Another theme you'll want to explore is authenticity versus artifice.  Just how much "spin" is going on in each chapter?  Ha!  Another allusion to the record album--I love it!  Many of my members found this to be a depressing topic to delve into, especially as we considered the last chapter where technology is used to an extreme to manipulate everyone's desires--and no one seems to be aware of it.  Just how much free will do we have?  How mediated are we in our daily lives? 

This novel is very much an exploration of identity--what it is, how we acquire it, why and how we refashion it.  You can spend an entire meeting discussing this one topic.

I'm just scratching the surface (no pun intended!) in this blog post as to what your book club can discuss when it comes to this highly entertaining and deeply literary book.  One thing you can do to really "dig deep" is take one or two stories and concentrate on them.  My favorite is "Safari, " but each one is brilliant in its own right.  Happy reading!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

National Book Award for Fiction 2011

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward has won the National Book Award for Fiction.  I have it on hold at the library, so stay tuned to find out if your book club should read it!  For more on the National Book Awards, click here.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

WHIRL is on a Roll!

As you all know, WHIRL stands for What Have I Read Lately, and I must say, I have read some wonderful books lately.  Don't you just love it when your reading is on a roll, so to speak?  So.what have I read lately?  Read on to find out:

You know from my previous post that I loved The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham.  I loved it so much, I went to the library and took out another novel by Maugham, The Razor's Edge.  This was one of those books that you look forward to returning to when you've finished whatever else it is you must do.  Many of the same themes are present in this novel that are in The Painted Veil, and there's much here to ponder, but, as we all know, it's the story that matters most, and this story is compelling.

Isabel is in love with Larry and he's in love with her.  However, Isabel wants the good life, the fun life, the high society bourgeois life.  And Larry is in search of something else.  Something else entirely.  So how to reconcile their differences and hold onto their love?  This is a large part of the story--but not all of it.  You'll meet other wonderful characters, you'll contemplate what "love" really is, you'll ponder how one should live, and what makes a successful life.  This is a slow-paced page-turner, if that's not too much of an oxymoron for you.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.  Oh, we all know by now that this novella won the Booker Prize this year, and you probably have read many reviews on it.  I quite enjoyed it, but I have to say, and you won't understand this until you've read it, I felt a little cheated when I was through.  Yes, it is worth reading.  Absolutely.  And YES, I get that my feeling was part of the point of the book.  But I just think that it came up just short of being a WOW of a book for me.  I can't say why because that would give too much away.  So you'll just have to read it and see what I mean.  Enjoy!

Obviously I liked Barnes' writing because I went straight to the library and took out Arthur and George by the same author.  Now, this book I loved.  It is a bit on the slowish side, just a tad, but it is so good.  It is based on the true story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle helping to clear the erroneous conviction of George Edalji, a half-Indian son of a vicar.  This is a fantastic book--it was short-listed for the Booker in 2005, and there is MUCH to 'dig deep into'--I may just choose it one of these days for a Literary Masters Salon selection.

What about you?  What have you read lately?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Should Your Book Club Read The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham?

Yes!  And if you're not in a book club, poor soul that you are, you should still read this fabulous novel on your own.  It's a beautiful, lyrical, thought-provoking book that I read in two days.  I would have finished it in one sitting, but I forced myself to slow down to enjoy the language and to think about the themes.  I loved this book.  I understand there's a film out there based on the book, but I don't think I'll see it--I don't want to ruin a good thing.

Warp-speed plot summary: 

Kitty, beautiful, spoiled Kitty has married fairly "well" in order not to be left on the shelf forever.  Walter, sweet, sincere, but achingly dull, has offered her a secure if not wildly passionate life in Hong Kong, where he is posted as a bacteriologist.  Once there, Kitty makes up for the lack of passion in her marriage through her adulterous affair with Charlie, the charming and handsome assistant colonial secretary, an appropriately glamorous post--much more exciting than being a bacteriologist.

However, in the opening scene--really one of the best opening scenes in literature, don't you think?--Walter has found out about Kitty and her lover.  And, I won't give more away, but Kitty ends up in the cholera-stricken area of China, where she is forced to deal with a life that doesn't revolve around superficial beauty and charm--a life where Kitty will need to dig deep within herself to find resources that she may just not even have.

So, what can your book club discuss?

There are so many angles at which to approach this novel.  For one, it's a love story.  You can discuss the different types of love in the novel and how they change.  That could take an entire evening!

There is spirituality and philosophy in the novel.  The characters have had to choose how they wish to live.  Which path is right?  Or is there a right path?  And how do we find that path? 

This novel is filled with deep questions.  What makes life worth living?  What is this novel saying about beauty?  What is it saying about morality?

The language of the novel is beautiful--I for one, am going to read more of W. Somerset Maugham--and you can dig into the imagery and symbolism.  What does the temple represent?  What does the title mean?  What does Walter's enigmatic response to Kitty mean? 

You'll of course want to discuss the characters and their relationships--all of them!

And you'll want to ask yourselves--what is this book about?  What is it really about?  I think you'll be amazed by the answers.

The more I think about it, the more I think I just may select this book for a future Literary Masters book group or salon!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Should Your Book Club Read Nemesis by Philip Roth?

Someone told me that when Nemesis came out, the reviewers said it wasn't as deep and as layered as some of Roth's other novels.  Huh?  I couldn't disagree more.  Nemesis was Literary Master's October selection, and we had some of the best discussions ever.  Nemesis has layer upon layer of meaning to dig into, and we did!

The bottom line: YES, your book club should read this novel.  And if you don't belong to a book club, you should read it anyway.  It is, quite simply, one of the best novels I have ever read.  Philip Roth has aced it--this book is a page-turner, but it's also extremely thought-provoking.

Warp-speed plot summary:  The setting is mainly a Jewish section of Newark, New Jersey, in 1944.  There is an outbreak of polio, and tension mounts as the townspeople become increasingly fearful for their children.  (It's also wartime, and we all know, looking back, what was happening to Jews at the time.) Bucky Cantor is the director of the playground, and he feels it's his duty to keep the kids safe and healthy.  However, Bucky's girlfriend, Marcia, is a counselor at a summer camp in the cool mountains, an idyllic place where polio isn't even a concern.  A job arises for Bucky there, and he has to choose between staying where he is or joining Marcia.  Sounds simple, but this story is complex in a very sophisticated way.

So, what can your book club talk about?

For a start, consider the title.  Can we understand this novel better in the context of a Greek tragedy--where the hero has a flaw, usually hubris, and so the spirit Nemesis puts the hero in his place?  If so, what is our hero's hubris?  How does it manifest itself?  Or, if you just want to think of a nemesis as an enemy, what is the nemesis in our story?  Is there more than one?

Consider the protagonist Bucky.  What is motivating him?  Why does he make the decisions that he does regarding Marcia?  Why does he make the decision about the summer camp?

This book is a deeply philosophical novel, asking the BIG questions about how one should live.  And of course, asking about whether God exists.  Consider the characters and how they view how one should live.  Take the narrator, for instance.  And compare him to Bucky.  What sets them apart from each other?  Is the book making a judgment about how to live one's life?  Is the book making a judgment about whether God exists?  What is this book saying about chance?

This book is also a deeply psychological novel, delving into what makes us, as humans, tick.  Do you think Bucky's actions can be explained when one considers that he feels guilty for his mother's death?  A type of survivor's guilt?  What about the fear that grips the townspeople?  Could they have acted any other way?

This book can also, one can argue, be read on a political level.  What else at the time was threatening Jews, attacking them out of nowhere, herding them into a place apart from others?  Is it significant that the boys who come in and spit on the playground are Italian?  Who or what does Horace represent?  Is that handshake to appease him and get him to leave the playground significant?  What references to Germany are present at the Indian Night ceremony?  Or, can we look at the incidents at the summer camp in the context of Native American history?

This book is also exploring the concept of story-telling, asking why we tell them, and taking a close look at just what underpins our beliefs.  Again, consider the ritualistic ceremony at Indian Night.  What's the significance of that, do you think?

This book is filled with mythological and biblical references.  Consider the scene where Bucky is talking to Dr. Steinberg in Mrs. Steinberg's garden.  Dr. Steinberg represents?  And consider the peach that Bucky bites into.  And consider Bucky's subsequent actions...

Or perhaps, like me, you think Bucky is extremely narcissistic.  And if you remember the myth of Narcissus, you'll see a deeper meaning in the scene where Bucky is diving into the water...

This book is filled with symbolism that you can 'dig deep' into.  For example, what do the butterflies represent, if anything?  And what about the relentless sun?  Philip Roth was reading Camus' The Plague while writing Nemesis (or so I read), and Camus is also the author of The Stranger.  Remember the relentless sun in The Stranger?  Significant?  Coincidental?

What do you make of Bucky's bad eyesight?  Symbolic?

I laughed as I realized that we all were acting out a major theme of the book as we looked for meanings in the book.  Did Roth intentionally put in the book all that we saw?  Or was it just us bringing our own readings to it?  Does life have a grand design?  Or do we choose to read our own meanings into random occurrences? 

I could go on, but that's enough to get your book club talking.  I cannot recommend this book enough--you will NOT be disappointed!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Julian Barnes' Novel The Sense of an Ending Wins Booker!

In what has proved to be a rather controversial Man Booker contest this year, Julian Barnes has won the prize with his short, compelling novel The Sense of an Ending

For all the dish, go to:


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Lots of Literary News!

So, you know that I love prize-winners, and there's lots of buzz surrounding this subject right now.  One is that the finalists for the National Book Award have been announced.  You can access all the info you need here:


Of the fiction finalists, I have only read The Tiger's Wife, reviewed here.  I have already requested two of other the titles from the library; I have to admit, I like the sound of The Buddha in the Attic.  I mean literally--I like the way that title sounds.

The other buzz is about the new literary prize coming out of the UK and, if you believe all the rumors surrounding it, competing with the Man Booker Prize!  The audacity!  It's called The Literature Prize.  There's a certain self-importance linked to that simple name, don't you think?  Here's a link that you may enjoy if you'd like to follow this story:


Evidently this is good news for Americans because they won't be excluded from this opportunity as they are from the Booker due to estrangement from the Queen. 

More literary news to come soon, so check back often!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Women WHIRLing!

So, I promised to compile of list of books that Literary Masters Book Groups and Salons members devoured over the summer.  In no order whatsoever, and with very little accompanying commentary, here are some of the more popular titles (numerous members read these) that you may want to check out:

Submisson by Amy Waldman; here's a link to the NY Times review of it:

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer; here's a link to The Washington Times review of it:

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson (non-fiction); here's a link to the NY Times review of it:

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain; NY Times review here:

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (non-fiction); here's a link to the WSJ's review of it:

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (non-fiction); here's the NY Times link:

The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (memoir); here's a review from the Washington Post:

Just in case you're looking for something to read~enjoy!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Should Your Book Club Read The Road by Cormac McCarthy?

Although I found The Road by Cormac McCarthy absolutely stunning, I hesitate to recommend it for book clubs.  I highly, highly recommend it for individuals, and I would even like to discuss it with someone else who has read it, but paradoxically, I cannot suggest you select it for your reading group because...

Well, I'm not sure exactly why.  After all, Oprah selected it for her book club, and who am I to argue with Oprah?  Let's just say that I think there are other novels better suited for book group reading, others that I would suggest instead of this one.  I am currently reading another novel by Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses, so I'll let you know if you should choose that one for your group.  Let me finish it and I'll get back to you.

The Road is a quick read, but one that lingers long after you finish it.  It's the story of a man and his son who are traveling down a road in what seems to be a post-apocalyptic America.  We don't know what has caused the destruction, but the devastation is so intense and so pervasive, every moment for the duo is a struggle to survive, and every additional day of survival is a questionable achievement in itself.  After all, to live like this, wouldn't the alternative be better?

Two things pulled me along through the novel (in fact, I couldn't put the book down): one was McCarthy's poetic prose.  For a long time I had avoided him because I thought he was too grim and violent, but I am so glad that I overcame my squeamishness.  His writing should not be missed.  (Has anyone ever compared him to Hemingway?)

The relationship between the son and his father was the other thing that captivated me.  Whatever monumentally destructive event occurred, it took place before the boy was born, so his entire world has been constructed by his father.  (The mother has, well, you'll have to read the book to find out.)  The two are searching for other "good guys" but apparently the bad guys, and they are really bad, are more numerous.  Can you imagine living in a world where every single movement of every single day has the stress of life or death importance upon it?  McCarthy helps you imagine it, and for me, just doing that--imagining living that way--was a seriously intense reading experience.

Yes, this novel is bleak, but it's also filled with hope.  It's grim, but it's also filled with beauty.  Yes, it shows the absolute worst of mankind--no doubt.  But there is something to counter that, and I'll let you find out for yourself what it is.  This is one of the best books I've read this year, and I know that I am accused of liking dark literature, but I feel confident recommending this book to anyone--it's just that good.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Should Your Book Club Read Amaryllis in Blueberry by Christina Meldrum?

Should your book club read Amaryllis in Blueberry by Christina Meldrum?  A resounding "yes!" is the answer.  This intriguing novel is the ideal choice for a book club; it's a compelling read, the writing is beautiful, and there is a lot to discuss.  In fact, the publisher, Simon & Schuster, realizing the appeal Amaryllis in Blueberry would have for book clubs, produced a paperback in order to make it more affordable, and completely skipped the hardcover stage.

You may not know Meldrum's work because her first novel, Madapple, was pegged for the YA (young adult) market, where it received immediate and widespread critical and commercial success, landing as a finalist on more than one prize shortlist.  (And you know how I like literary prizes!)  Amaryllis in Blueberry is her first "grown up" novel, although I think this is a "crossover" book, one that would appeal to the "young adult" market as well as to the "adult" market.  Hmm..not sure that's what we're called, but you know what I mean, right?

Quick synopsis:

Dick and Seena Slepy are married, but we get the feeling that their marriage has become a sort of prison for them.  Each is unhappy in his/her own way, and we soon learn that each has a secret that is feeding this unhappiness.  Dick decides that the only way to escape his miserable situation is to go to Africa as a medical missionary, and he drags his family--his wife and four daughters--along.

The oldest three girls each have the first name of Mary, but are called by their middle names, and each one harbors a corrosive secret of her own.  The youngest daughter, Amaryllis, is called Yllis, and early in the book, Amaryllis seemingly discovers yet another family secret and opens it up to the family, unleashing an unforeseen chain of events that will change each and every one of them.

So, what can your book club discuss?

There are lots of secrets in this book, and much to discover.  Meldrum weaves mythological stories into the plot of the book, and does it so well and so seemingly effortlessly that the reader ends up learning not only about the Slepy family, but also about age-old stories, and why we tell them.  The book explores all sorts of stories, from religion to science to family legends to stories we tell ourselves to get through the day, and your book club will want to discuss the how and why of these tales.

Another theme running through the novel is truth or Truth--what it is, whether it exists, how we reach it, and how we hold onto it.  This is quite a philosophical novel, but done in an understated way, through the very compelling main story.  A philosophical page-turner, if you will.

Meldrum is a beautiful writer, and some of her prose reads almost like poetry.  Your book club will have a blast with the imagery--note the literary nod to Conrad with the light/dark imagery, and have fun deciphering the symbolism in the story--do the characters represent someone or something other than themselves?  What does Africa represent?  Can we do a Freudian reading of this novel?  Pay attention to the names and how they give meaning to the tale. 

In the end, this novel seems to be about redemption, about hope, about having a second chance.  As the Slepy family returns to America, forever changed by their stay in Africa, they seemed poised to take on a life without secrets.  Or do they?  Which secrets remain?  This is something your book club will want to discuss!

Bottom line:  yes, your book club should read Amaryllis in Blueberry--it's a perfect choice--and I am looking forward to more writing from this incredibly talented author!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Haruki Murakami

You'll remember from my last post that I am midway through the novel Norwegian Wood by the Japanese author Haruki Murakami.  This is the first novel I've read by him, and I suppose I shouldn't say that too loudly, as he is tipped by some to be the next Nobel Prize winner.  Where have I been?

Now I read that he is set to "take the West by storm" with a 1000-page book bound as a trilogy entitled 1Q84.  Here's the link to the article; I am definitely going to keep my eye on this one.


And something else about Murakami that makes me want to get to know him better:  he's a marathon runner!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Man Booker Prize 2011--The Short List!

Exciting news in the world of books--and the prizes that propel them.  The short list is out for the Man Booker, and guess which book is not on it!  That's right, The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst! That novel is, as you all know, our Literary Masters book of the month for May 2012.  Will I be changing our reading list?  Hmm...stay tuned for further details...

To find out which books are on the short list, click here.

Let me know if you've read any of them--what an eclectic selection!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Where in the WHIRL Have I Been???

I love you all--thanks for the flood of correspondence wondering where I've been--it's so nice to feel loved and missed!  I have been away on a literary mission (!) and as soon as I get my photos downloaded, or is it uploaded?, I will post a couple and blog more about my adventure.

Have I piqued your curiosity?

For today, though, I am blogging about some books that are on my side table.  These are books that I am in the midst of reading, but I've put them down because I knew at a certain point in each book that they would not work for my Literary Masters book groups and literary salons.  However, these are books that I do intend to finish!  We can call it a Mid-way WHIRL, if you like, or an In-Progress WHIRL:

First off, Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.  My brother, yes--the one who disdains used books, is a fan of Japanese literature, and he introduced me to Kenzaburo Oe, the author of A Personal Matter, which I reviewed here.  Murakami is the author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which you may have read; I never have.  I decided to start with Norwegian Wood on my brother's advice, and I...like it...I don't love it, but I do like it and I am willing to persevere with a rather slowish read.  I am not, to be fair, very far into the novel.  So far I think I've met the key players, although not a tremendous amount of action has taken place.  The back of the book describes it as:

"A magnificent blending of the music, mood, and the ethos that was the sixties with the story of one college student's romantic coming of age, Norwegian Wood brilliantly recaptures a young man's first, hopeless, and heroic love."

Umm...okay.  I hope to finish this novel to see why, again stated on the back of my book, "This stunning and elegiac novel propelled Hauki Murakami into the forefront of the literary scene..."

When I do, I will review it at length.  Stay tuned!

Next, Tyrant Memory, by Horacio Castellanos Moya.  You'll remember that I became an instant fan of this author when I read his novel, Senselessness.  I eagerly anticipated his new book, and was so impatient, I bought it instead of waiting for a library copy!  Although I am thoroughly enjoying it, I don't think it measures up to Moya's previous work--but, to be fair, I have not yet finished reading it, so stay tuned...

It follows a certain family, their trials and tribulations, in El Salvador in 1944 during the month between an attempted coup and a general strike that forced out the dictator Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez.  Staggering between laugh-out-loud hilarity and close-your-eyes horror, this novel is a very compelling read.  I just didn't think I could subject my book groups and literary salons to it, though.

Finally, for today, The Counterlife by Philip Roth.  Many consider this to be his best work, so I was excited to read it.  I am a fan of Roth, although I know a lot of women have difficulty reading his work.  I've said before, as you know, that one of the funniest books I've ever read is Portnoy's Complaint, which I read many, many years ago.

I am enjoying The Counterlife, and I can see why it is so highly regarded, but I have to admit, I was getting kind of bogged down in the second section, after loving the first...and I imagined my Literary Masters members getting bogged down also.  The idea of the novel is a character who dies in the first section, but then who isn't dead in the next.  From the little I've read, I'm surmising that we are delving into the area of parallel universes, or the lives we could have, would have, should have lived.  Something I find very interesting, so I do hope to finish this book.  Again, stay tuned!

Right, now that I am back turning pages and pressing keys, I hope to be posting much more frequently than I did during this past month.  What about all of you, though?  What Have YOU Been Reading Lately???

Friday, July 22, 2011


I will be blogging at length about these two books shortly, but for now, just a "Wee WHIRL":

(And you all know by now that WHIRL stands for "What Have I Read Lately", right?)

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett:

I know this novel is getting lots of positive critical reviews, but I have to say, I was...underwhelmed.  I loved Bel Canto, the last Patchett book I read, and I was looking forward to her latest, but I found it rather lackluster and disappointing.   The story is about a woman who goes to the Amazon to investigate her company's investment in a drug that will allow women to bear children into their old age.  Patchett raises many questions through multiple themes, one being the morality of scientific experiments, but I felt like she was forcing issues rather than authentically exploring them.  Stay tuned for a longer review, but meanwhile feel free to weigh in with your own opinion.

Nemesis by Philip Roth:

This is one of the best books I've read all summer.  I loved it, and now I want to read the three that precede it in its group, "Nemeses":  Everyman, Indignation, and The Humbling.  This most recent novel from Roth tells the story of one summer in 1944 in Newark, when the local boys were either off fighting WWII or home awaiting a different kind of enemy, but one that was just as deadly:  polio.  This is such a thought-provoking book: it raises all sorts of existential questions.  I will blog at length about it shortly, but I want to say here that I highly recommend it.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

WHIRLing the Summer By!

No, I have not jetted off to some remote island with no internet access--far from it.  I've just been busy, busy, busy reading away--trying to choose the absolute BEST books for the upcoming season of Literary Masters Book Groups and Literary Salons.  So, have I finalized my list of selected books?  No, but I've been having fun trying!  Check out some of what I've been reading:

The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna.  This book was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize this year.  Is it possible to like and hate a book at the same time?  That was my experience.  Set in Sierra Leone, the birthplace of the author, the story involves characters who are trying to come to terms with their pasts--in a place that has recently emerged from a civil war.  There is much to discuss and think about with this book, but I feel reluctant to choose it for my book groups because...well, I think it drags on too much.  I am generally a very patient reader, but I found myself multiple times thinking, "get on with it."  So, although I think this is a good book with an important story to tell, I'm not putting it on my list.

Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo.  This book won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize this year.  I liked this book a lot, and I'm torn whether to put it on my list.  Written by a Peruvian author now living in Spain, it tells the story of the incredibly officious and bureaucratic prosecutor Chalcatana investigating a series of murders.  But of course, it's about so much more than that.  I was so curious after reading it that I did some research on the Shining Path in Peru, and I even started reading Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa, but I feel these books could be just too grim for my groups.  I recommend Red April for an individual read, though, absolutely.  I haven't yet finished Death in the Andes.

Bruno's Dream by Iris Murdoch.  I always wanted to read something by Iris Murdoch, and now I have.  I enjoyed this book immensely, but I don't think it will do for my groups, so I'm leaving it off my list.  Bruno, an old man who resembles a spider (the description of Bruno is worth reading the book for) and who collects stamps, is dying.  Wanting to come to peaceful terms with his estranged son, he calls for him.   I'd love to say that he then weaves a wonderful web in which he catches his son and the other characters (the book has quite a few), but alas, the metaphor is not carried through the book, or if it is, I missed it.  This novel is quite good and well worth reading, but I don't think it will be on my list.  I'll have to try another Iris Murdoch novel--yay!

The Sea by John Banville.  This book won the Man Booker Prize in 2005, and John Banville won the Kafka Prize this year.  I loved this book.  It is beautifully written; it carries the reader along on a tide of lyrical prose.  It's about love, loss, grief, and memory, and it is undoubtedly worth reading.  I'm not sure if it will land on my list because I'm wondering if most people have already read it.  We'll see.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

WHIRLing Away!

As you all know by now, WHIRL stands for What Have I Read Lately.  Sometimes I read a book and I don't have time to post at length about it, but I don't want you to miss out on a really good read.  So I WHIRL and tell you just a little bit about what I've read lately.  But you should know--often these are some of the best books I've read in a long time.  Here goes:

The True Deceiver by Tove Janssen.  This is an odd yet thoroughly compelling book.  It won the 2011 Best Translated Book Award, which is how it came onto my radar.  I checked it out of the library and was surprised to find that it was written in 1982 but wasn't translated into English until 2009.  Thomas Teal is the translator and my edition has an introduction by Ali Smith.

The story takes place in a snow-laden village where everyone pretty much knows everyone else's business.  Or so they think.  Katri Kling, always brutally honest and ferociously protective of her younger brother Mats, has earned the villagers fear and respect.  Caring nothing for anyone but Mats, Katri sets out on a relentless mission to secure his future.  And so they befriend Anna Aemelin, a children's book illustrator who sees the world as she paints it--full of lovable, fluffy bunnies.

What happens to these individuals as they get closer to each other makes for a thought-provoking and page-turning read.  I was very grateful for Ali Smith's introduction, which I read after I finished the book.  Her insight into the novel gave me much more to ponder than I would have done on my own.  It was like being in a Literary Masters book group!

Senselessness by Horatio Castellanos Moya.  Wow.  What a book.  I want others to read it so I can talk about it with them, but I hesitate to have my Literary Masters book groups read it because it is, how do I say this, not for everyone.  It's a short, dense book, and I know it will stick with me for a while.  I look forward to reading more from this author.

The narrator tells us his story in a kind of stream-of-consciousness ramble, with long, convoluted sentences that have lots of repetition and end up circling back on each other.  He is editing a report that the Catholic Church has pulled together from the testimony of victims of military brutality during the country's civil war.  We don't know exactly which country they are in, but from outside reading I've done, I understand the place to be Guatemala, and the events to have taken place in the 1960's.  The narrator is fearful of the repercussions from his work; after all, the military whose crimes he is exposing is still in power.

His fear turns into paranoia, but what do paranoid people say? "Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get me."  Perhaps that's a clue to this book, which is alternately hilariously funny and horrifically shocking.

This is, without a doubt, one of the best books I've read in a long time.

The Privileges by Jonathan Dee is also an excellent read.  This is similar to Carol Edgarian's novel Three Stages of Amazement in that it follows the lives of two people who decide to grab their piece of the American Dream, but with vastly different results.  I found this novel very literary in how it is crafted, and I would love to discuss that aspect of it with a Literary Masters book group, but even if you read it on your own, it's a terrific story.  Very compelling.  The kind of book I couldn't wait to get back to.

Perhaps you've heard by now that Philip Roth is the fourth writer to have won the Man Booker International Prize, awarded every other year.  He's joined Alice Munro, one of my favorite authors, as well as Chinua Achebe, and Ismail Kadare.  So...I went to my local library and checked out The Ghost Writer, the first of a series of novels with Zuckerman as the narrator.  Now, you may know that one of my all-time-most-hilarious-fall-off-the-couch-laughing books is Portnoy's Complaint, and I like Philip Roth in general, so I was looking forward to this book.

I really enjoyed it.  Many themes are in it that will surface in other Roth novels, and I even thought about picking up The Finkler Question, a book I disliked, again.  Something in Roth reminded me of the best bits of Jacobson...

Montana 1948 by Larry Watson won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, and it is a wonderful little book.  I read it in a day.  Narrated by a grown man who is looking back on the summer of his twelfth year, the story manages to be both lyrical and riveting.  I couldn't help thinking of To Kill A Mockingbird while I read it, although the two stories are nothing alike.  I think it is the coming of age quality of it, as well as the unforgettable voice of the narrator that reminded me of Harper Lee's masterpiece.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Should Your Book Club Read Three Stages of Amazement by Carol Edgarian?

If you're looking for the bottom line, here it is: absolutely yes.  This is a perfect book for book clubs, and if you don't belong to one and you're reading it on your own, you'll still love it.

Quick plot overview:
The story takes place during one pivotal year, 2009, the first year of Obama's presidency.  The country is reeling from the financial crash of late 2008, but people are still clinging to the hope they've pinned on a new president and on the American dream that is, let's face it, their birthright.  Charlie, a surgeon, and his wife Lena, a documentary film maker, want their little slice of entitlement and Charlie knows how they can get it.  He's going to build a medical robot that can be used in remote locations and the venture capitalists in California will fund it and they will all live happily ever richer.

So Charlie and Lena move to San Francisco "ready for luck."  They have "made their deal.  Charlie would give everything to Nimbus and Lena would handle the rest."  The slight glitch is that "the rest" is quite a bit, and this puts a strain on the marriage that it may not survive.

Meanwhile, in a beautiful mansion in Pacific Heights in San Francisco, live Cal and Ivy.  Cal is Lena's estranged uncle, a fact that concerns Charlie immensely.  Because guess who wants to invest in Nimbus and make Charlie and Lena super successful and wildly wealthy?  You guessed it--Uncle Cal.  Charlie is caught between a rock and a hard place, and without giving anything away, let's just say he risks getting crushed between the two.

The plot thickens as we meet Alessandro, the mysterious Italian who works for Cal but who was once Lena's lover.  Alessandro's job puts him in a position to have a direct impact on Charlie's success--and on his marriage with Lena. 

The opening line of Three Stages of Amazement begins "The modern marriage has two states, plateau and precipice..."  And yes, this novel is about marriage.  It's not about the wedding, nor the divorce.  It's about that in-between part, the real thing, marriage.  What creates a marriage, what's the glue that holds a marriage together, what a marriage does to the couple in it...you could spend an entire meeting over just this issue, but this novel is also about so much more.  What else can your book club talk about when discussing it?

The title, for starters.  The book is divided into three sections: Silence, Disbelief, and Talk.  I was fortunate enough to attend an evening where the bright and beautiful Carol Edgarian spoke about her book, and when asked about the title, she tied it to how people react when they are amazed by something.  First, silence--kind of a stunned silence.  Next, the brain's not really accepting it, so there's disbelief.  Finally, as we process what's going on, we begin to talk.

I love this explanation because it works on so many levels for this book.  Many of the characters go through the three stages of amazement on a personal level as they confront various events of their lives, but also the entire country is going through the same three stages following the catastrophic crash of the financial markets.  Carol Edgarian does an amazing job of capturing the zeitgeist of that little slice of time between when those cataclysmic events occurred and when people finally accepted those events as real, permanent, and part of a new way of life.  You can view this novel as a coming-of-age story for an entire country, when innocence was lost and disillusionment set in.

No doubt you'll want to discuss the characters in depth, and as you do so, see how each character's desire is playing a role in the story. And their principles.  And their secrets.  And how all three of these interact to create unexpected results.  A major theme in the book is whether or not we have any control over our lives; is there such a thing as fate, destiny, luck, or are we asserting our own will?

As summer approaches, it is perfect timing to read this book.  It's fast-paced enough to read on a trip, but literary enough to keep you interested and engaged.  A "cerebral beach read"--now that's the ticket!  Whether you go to the beach alone or with your book club, you'll enjoy Three Stages of Amazement.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Should Your Book Club Read The 1000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell?

This bursting-at-the-seams novel was the May selection for Literary Masters book groups.  It proved to be a polarizing choice.  Perhaps it's the time of year; I, like many others, feel like my head is inside a Magi-mixer--and the switch is on!  Some members (myself included) loved the book, and others found it really hard going.  Everyone appreciated the opportunity to discuss it, though.  So, if you're here for the bottom line, I would say: this is a book worth reading, and if you do read it, you'll want to talk about it with others, so yes, your book club should read it!

Our groups talked about so many things, one main concern: what on earth is this novel about?  You've got the first plot--the Dutch on Dejima island in Japan at the turn of the nineteenth century, based on real events--and then there's the second plot--the sisters and monks living in the mountaintop shrine.  And then the British frigate, again based on true events, arrives--almost a third plot--and helps tie everything together.  It's an adventure story par excellence, and it's also full of big ideas for your book club to explore.

We cover about twenty years--from 1799 until 1819 or thereabouts, yet all the major concerns of the century will be crammed in the story.  Science versus superstition, tradition versus modernity, West versus East, exploration versus exploitation, and much, much more.

Several overarching themes were discussed:
  • The idea of man being a complicated creature, a mix of both good and evil.  Are we just the sum of our deeds?  Is morality an absolute, or is it relative and dependent upon our culture?
  • The idea of life being a zero-sum game, and we are all just living by the law of the jungle.  It's always all about power--who has it, who can grab it, how to use it.  Betrayal is pervasive throughout the story, which makes sense when it's an eat or be eaten world. 
  • Stories, myths, and why we tell themAnd how they form who we are.  Whether we realize it or not.  Refer to page 244 for a great quote on this.
  • How we (often times blindly) hold onto a belief or ideology that justifies any and all of our actions.  How hard it is to let go of our beliefs because they form our identity and they give us power.  Refer to page 205 for a wonderful quote on this.
  • How very difficult it is to communicate, especially across cultural or other divides.  The power that an interpreter has, and the huge consequences that can arise from misinterpretation.
  • Imprisonment in a time of exploration.  Think about it--lots of the characters either chose their own prison or were put in one by someone else.
This book is bursting with metaphors, but one I loved was the birth at the beginning of the novel--a wonderfully symbolic scene.   And we all loved the language, especially the haiku-like 'interruptions'--usually tied to nature--that underscored the action.  For example, when the villagers don't want to know about what's going on in the shrine on p.182, the line reads "She hears the ancient hush of falling snow," and then later, when the truth is being uncovered on p. 236, the line reads "Someone sweeps snow in the courtyard with a stiff-bristled broom."  How gorgeous is that?

There's lots more to this book, but this ought to get you started with some ideas to discuss with your book club.  Happy reading!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Man Booker International Prize!

BIG NEWS in the literary world: Philip Roth has won the Man Booker International prize.  He's the fourth person to do so, joining Chinua Achebe (read Things Fall Apart if you haven't yet), Alice Munro (one of my favorites), and Ismail Kadare (I read his Chronicle in Stone last summer--really good).  One of my all-time favorite laugh-out-loud books is Portnoy's Complaint by Roth.  I have never read American Pastoral (I know, hard to believe)--I've had it in my "to be read" pile for years.  Perhaps this summer I will get around to it...What is your favorite Roth novel?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Bad Nature, Or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marias

Wow, this seemingly simple story packs a powerful punch.  I am constantly lamenting the gaps in my literary life, and one embarrassingly deficient area of knowledge for me is the Spanish-speaking world of literature.  I am trying to rectify this, and one author that I've had on my radar for awhile but had never read is Javier Marias.  I mean, Orhan Pamuk has said that Marias should win the Nobel prize for literature, and Orhan should know--he's won it himself.

One of my favorite bloggers suggested I start with this book.  And I can see why.  This is a quick little book; in fact, one can easily read it in a day.  I think it will take much longer than that to process, however.

Quick plot overview:
The narrator is being hunted.  He makes this abundantly clear to us in the first five pages of the story.  In a kind of stream-of-consciousness style, he tells us just how hunted he is.  For the rest of the story, we learn why there are people out to get him, but the story is so funny, I forgot about his being hunted at all.

The narrator is in Mexico to shoot a movie with Elvis Presley.  There is, as one can imagine, quite a large contingent of people accompanying Elvis, and our narrator is there for one purpose: as a diction coach.  His job is to see that Elvis pronounces the letter "c" as it is pronounced in Spain; Elvis doesn't want to have a Mexican accent.  An easy job, as it turns out; as our narrator tells us, "Mr. Presley had to pronounce very few Spanish phrases in the course of the film..."

We learn that Mr. Presley is quite a nice guy, but is rather restless as well.  When they aren't shooting the film, he and his entourage go out in search of a good time. Our narrator is with them, but he's no longer a diction coach.  Instead, much to his dislike, he is forced into the role of translator.  Seeing as they've all stumbled into a local bar full of hostile thugs who are intent upon insulting Elvis and his companions, the job of translator is a dangerous one indeed.  Our narrator must relay the messages from Elvis to the thugs and vice-versa, all the while trying to keep the peace. 

And all of a sudden, this quirky amusing novella becomes seriously intense and psychologically deep.  And impossible to put down.  Suffice to say, I closed the final page and my hands were practically trembling.  The power of words.  The power of image. The power of the medium.  What is real.  What we believe.  I've been pondering all this and more thanks to Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico.  And the fact that Javier Marias worked as a translator for years--wow, that just adds more brilliance to an absolute gem of a novel.

The next Marias novel I want to try is A Heart So White.  How about you?  Which Marias novel is your favorite?

Friday, April 29, 2011

WHIRLing Again!

You all know by now:  WHIRL stands for What Have I Read Lately.  There are some books I've read in the past year that I can highly recommend, but just haven't had the time to blog at length about them.  Being realistic, I probably won't get around to reviewing them, but I don't want you to miss out.

The Lovers by Vendela Vida.  This is a book that I enjoyed so much; I highly recommend it.  I hope this doesn't sound too pretentious on my part, but I feel like Vida's writing can only get better, and she is definitely one to watch.  This novel takes place in Turkey when the protagonist goes there on a trip after her husband dies.  Suddenly alone and forced to do things for herself, she flounders a bit, both physically and emotionally.  As we watch her make some surprising, if not poor decisions, we slowly get to know this woman and wonder if she's ever known herself.

This is one of the best books I've read recently for putting me in a place.  Vida evoked Turkey for me and made me want to be there.  This novel is a winner.

Ethan Frome by Edith Warton.  I practically read this classic in one sitting--I was riveted.
It's short, a novella really, and it's so compelling; I only put it down because I knew I had to get up early the next morning. Which I did, only to immediately pick up the book and finish it! This was, I am sorry to admit, my first experience with Edith Wharton. Shocking, but true.I suppose what hooked me at first was the mystery. The narrator is wondering, and makes the reader wonder along with him, what has made Ethan Frome the bent and broken man he seems to be. The narrator is obsessed with Ethan and so perhaps this is why he can articulate Ethan's story so well. For Ethan, in turn, is obsessed with a lady, a lady who is not his wife.

Who knew I'd be swept along in a romantic triangle in a time of restraint and austerity.  And the landscape, a huge character in the story, is a perfect metaphor for the restrained passions of Ethan and his object of affection.  I would be surprised to find anyone who doesn't like this book.  Almost as surprised as I was at the ending of it!

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman.  I picked up this book because I read an article in The Guardian that compared it to Franzen's Freedom, stating that Goodman's book was just as good, if not better than Franzen's, but Freedom gets all the attention because the novel, like the author of it, are loud and in-your-face whereas Goodman and her novel are more nuanced and subtle.

Well, I'm not sure I agree with any of that, but I did enjoy The Cookbook Collector.  It takes place in the Bay Area, and follows various people's lives, one of whom collects, you guessed it--rare cookbooks.  To attempt a cooking metaphor here: at times I thought the author, as cook, threw a few too many ingredients in the pot and the flavors became too muddied; I would have preferred fewer and more distinct characters and subplots.  Having said that, this is a very readable book, and one that I think book clubs would enjoy discussing.

What about you?  What have you read lately?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Should Your Book Club Read The Calligrapher by Edward Docx?

This book was recommended to me by one of my favorite bloggers to use for my Literary Masters book groups.  Although I don't think I'll be putting it on my list for next season, I can highly recommend the book for your individual reading pleasure, and you may even enjoy a rousing discussion about it with your personal book club.

Quick plot overview:
The narrator, Jasper Jackson, is a calligrapher by profession.  Living in north London, Jasper has been commissioned by a wealthy American media tycoon to transcribe thirty poems from John Donne's Songs and Sonnets.  Now if you know little to nothing about calligraphy and the same amount about Donne and his poetry, you are in for a treat.  More about that later, however.

Jasper Jackson is a bit of a womanizer as it turns out, and he doesn't restrict himself to one amour at a time.  Constancy seems to be a bit of a problem for Jasper.  But then again, Jasper hasn't really found his true love yet.  Until one day, when he is gazing out his window onto the garden below, where he spies a woman so outrageously beautiful, he compares her to Helen of Troy.  He also calls her, for lack of the words to do her true justice, a "real hottie."  Immediately he is smitten, no make that obsessed, and it becomes his sole ambition to meet her--and more.

Now, at the start of every chapter, there's a poem by John Donne, and even if you've never read his poetry, you can figure out the gist of what it means and then, and this is the clever part, you will know what's going to happen in that chapter.  If the way I've just described it makes it sound corny or cheesy, that's my fault because it's really done well.  Occasionally within a chapter Jasper discusses Donne's poetry and what it means, or how difficult it is to definitively pin down, but this never comes across as heavy-handed.  Instead, I found myself enjoying learning a bit about this 17th century poet and his work.

This novel is quite funny at times, although at first I felt like I was reading a guy's novel (I couldn't get too excited about Jasper's musings about woman and his wooing of them) and wondered if I would stick with it.  I'm glad I did, not only because it rapidly improved and then easily hooked me, but also because there's a couple of unexpected twists in the story that lend it depth.  And when considered in the broader context that encompasses Donne's poetry, one can see how these twists make a lot of sense.  It makes for a very clever, or as the Brits say, a brilliant package.

I highly recommend this book for a fun literary read, and I think most book clubs will find enough in it to carry an evening's conversation.  I will be keeping my eyes open for more Edward Docx for sure.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel

I chanced upon this book when I was reading about past winners of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.  Brodeck's Report (Brodeck, A Novel in the US) won this award in 2010, but for some reason, it had never crossed my radar.  When I saw that the author also wrote the film I've Loved You So Long, I put down all my other reading to pick up this novel.  If you haven't seen I've Loved You So Long, you are really missing out.  And if you have seen it, you know exactly what I mean.

Brodeck's Report did not disappoint me.  Yet, I hesitate to recommend it to all.  (I think I'm suffering from being accused of reading only heavy or depressing books, an accusation that is not true.  Well, not 100% true, anyway.)  How do I even describe this book?

Reading it was like being in a dream.  I wasn't exactly sure where the setting was.  A tiny isolated village somewhere in the fluid-boundary zone of Europe, around the Germany/France border or the Austria/Hungary border.  The time is post WWII, although this, too, is fluid as we follow the meanderings of the narrator's memory as he tells us his story.  The characters are sometimes real, but hard to pin down.  They felt sort of ephemeral to me.  And at times I felt I was reading a fable or allegory.

But at the same time, I couldn't put this book down, and the messages it carried were very real and clear.

Quick plot summary: Brodeck has been charged with writing a report about the events surrounding the death of a nameless character he refers to as "the other."  The people who have ordered him to write the report have actually murdered "the other," and they intimidate Brodeck into cooperating.  However, as a means of resistance, Brodeck writes two reports, and the book we are reading is the "true" one.  Or so one would think.  Make of that what you will; at any rate, Brodeck starts his narrative with this disclaimer:

"I'm Brodeck and I had nothing to do with it.  I insist on that.  I want everyone to know.  I had no part in it, and once I learned what had happened I would have preferred never to mention it again, I would have liked to bind my memory fast and keep it that way, as subdued and still as a weasel in an iron trap."

Ah yes, but it is terribly difficult to "bind memory," and in the midst of writing his report, Brodeck reminisces about his time in a concentration camp, from which he has recently returned.  Resisting his captors was not an option for Brodeck at the camp.  Instead, he performed the role that the sadistic guards demanded of him: he acted, quite literally, like a dog.  This he did in order to survive and return home to his beloved Amelia and Fedorine.

As it turns out, Amelie has not been left unscathed in the village as she awaited Brodeck's return.  And it isn't just the invading soldiers who are culpable; local villagers are to blame as well.

As Brodeck writes his reports, it becomes obvious to him and to the reader that he is in danger.  The villagers who murdered "the other," and who have ordered Brodeck to write his report, do not trust him.  "The other" was murdered because he held up a mirror to each person in the village.  Now we fear Brodeck will meet the same end for shining a light on the villagers' crimes.  Philippe Claudel is a master at building tension; I found this book to be a literary page-turner as I read furiously to find out what would happen.

Questions of who is to blame, who is complicit, how to survive, what we choose to remember, whether we even can choose to remember, how history becomes "fact,"--all this and much more is in this intriguing novel.  It would generate a great discussion for a book club, but I'm not sure everyone would enjoy reading it.  If heavy subjects don't put you off, and if you're drawn to atmospheric writing, then you'll probably like it.  Whether you read it or not, do not miss the film I've Loved You So Long.  And bring your tissues.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Orange Prize Short List Announced!

Oh dear.  The short list for the Orange Prize has been announced, and I didn't like three out of the six novels on the list.  You'll recall that my Literary Masters book groups read last year's winner, The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver.  That was a wonderfully literary novel, which I blogged about here.

This year's short list is as follows:

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht.  Here we go.  I can just see this book sweeping the literary awards, and as you know, it left me...underwhelmed.  I blogged on it here.

Great House by Nicole Krauss.  Ugh.  I blogged about it here.

Room by Emma Donaghue.  I know that I said I wouldn't read this book, but I did.  And I found it creepily compelling for the first half, and then I thought it fell apart in the second half.  Yes, I, like others, found the boy's voice believable and, as I said, compelling, but that wasn't enough to sustain me.

Grace Williams Says It Loud by Emma Henderson.  I haven't read it, but it takes place in an institution for the mentally ill, and is about a relationship between the two patients.

The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna.  I haven't read this either, but it's evidently about the Sierra Leonean civil war.  Or the aftermath.  Or both.  I'm sure I'd learn a lot anyway.  I think I may read this one.

Annabel by Kathleen Winter is about a hermaphrodite whose parents' choice of surgery has massive consequences in the child's life.  I may read this one as well.

One book that did not make the list that I have on my TBR shelf is Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad.

For more on the Orange Prize and its short list, click here.  And let me know what you think--which novel do you feel should win?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

I Haven't WHIRLed in Ages!

As you know, WHIRL stands for What Have I Read Lately.  Recently I asked my Jane Austen Literary Salon what books (besides Jane's six novels that we are reading and discussing in the salon) they have enjoyed lately or what books are on their all-time faves list.  Here's what they said:

Moby Dick by Herman Melville, "because the entire universe is contained in it, and it's still so compelling today."

Wow, makes me want to re-read that wonderful novel!  The last time I read it was with the fabulous Professor Zimmerman in my 19th Century American Lit class.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, "an amazing piece of literature."

Yep, one of my favorites, too.  I am a big fan of Kingsolver; as you know, one of my Literary Masters book selections this season was The Lacuna, another winner.


Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, a "creepy page-turner with amazing insight into people's psyches as well as very well written social interactions."

Hmm...makes me want to pick this up again.  I started it awhile ago, and found it too...yes, creepy!...to continue.  Perhaps I'll give it another try.

Austenland by Shannon Hale--"I listened to the book on tape on a car trip and have not laughed so much in a long, long time."

Well, I hope you weren't the one driving!  I tend to close my eyes when I'm laughing that hard.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender.  "I have not read this, but am fascinated by the concept of tasting the emotions of the cooks who prepared the foods eaten."

Hmm...I'm not sure it counts if you haven't read the book you're recommending!  The same concept was explored in Chocolat, no?
 The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell and The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz "are wonderful books.  Both are historical fiction, although Oscar Wao is much more recent."

Two fantastic books, I do agree!  Literary Masters book groups read The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao last season, and everyone loved it, and we are reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet right now!

"The Bone People by Keri Hulme for fiction.  Traveling with Pomegranates by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Taylor Kidd for non-fiction."

I haven't read either of these books, but I like the title of the non-fiction book.

"The best recent piece of fiction is The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.  I like her as well as Jane which is saying a lot.  She's also written Gourmet Rhapsody which is not as good but still very good indeed."

Very interesting...I have heard mixed reviews of The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

"There are three non-fiction books by Michael Lewis that I have read this year and that I am wild about.  My favorite I guess is The Big Short, which is the most intelligible and readable account of what caused the current financial crisis.  The other two are Moneyball and The Blind Side, which are about sports but there's a whole lot about people and prejudice and analytical thinking." 

I just took The Big Short out of the library; I can't wait to read it!

Hey, there's more to WHIRL about, but that's all for now.  Stay tuned for my next WHIRL post.  And don't forget to tell me what you've been reading lately!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

I sometimes joke, with just a kernel of truth, that the secret to happiness is low expectations.  And perhaps it's the same with books.  I had heard so much buzz about Tea Obreht's debut novel The Tiger's Wife, I was excited to crack it open and ready to devour it.  The NY Times raved; click here to read that review.  The Christian Science Monitor positively gushed; click here to read that review.  Even Book Pages, which I picked up at my local library, led me to believe that I had, absolutely had to read this book.

So I did.  And I must say, I was slightly disappointed.  Perhaps it was just my "reading mood"--I really felt like curling up with a long, atmospheric narrative into which I could escape for awhile.  Instead, I found myself laboring to comprehend a novel that is structured like a set of Russian dolls, or as Kapka Kassabova calls it in her review in the Guardian (click here for review), a "matryoshka-style narrative."

I read Kassabova's review after I finished The Tiger's Wife; I was looking for some explication of its many references.  I wish I had read the review before however, as it did shed some light on the novel for me.

Quick plot review:  Natalia is narrating the story.  She is in an unnamed Balkan country that has recently emerged from the ravages of civil war.  Considering that the author was born in Belgrade, I just assumed the setting is, or could be, the former Yugoslavia.  Natalia is a doctor who has crossed the new border into what was once her own country, but is now former enemy territory, to bring vaccines to a mainly suspicious and resistant audience.  An arduous physical journey, this is also quite an emotional trip for Natalia because she has just found out that her beloved grandfather has died.

So that's the frame of the book.  But now it's the reader's turn to travel as Natalia takes us on many journeys by way of stories that her grandfather has told her, the two main tales being about a tiger that is, or is not, a lot like Shere Khan from Kipling's The Jungle Book, and a deathless man.  There are many other characters, and other tales also; at times I felt like I was reading short stories, but I knew that (I hoped that?) they would all come together in the end.

I think they did, but not as convincingly as I was hoping they would.  By the time I closed the book, I was just glad to be done with it.  Oh, that sounds harsh, and don't get me wrong; this is a very good book in many ways.  Obreht's writing is seriously impressive, and she does know how to tell a story, building suspense along the way.  However, at times I felt like I had entered a maze of fabulous tales reminiscent of...what?

I don't know what.

And perhaps that was part of my problem.  I felt like I was missing a lot by not understanding what I assumed were many references--cultural, folkloric, religious, and otherwise.  So I stumbled around the maze and emerged dazed, and ultimately a little disappointed.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Should Your Book Club Read A Room With A View by E.M. Forster?

An Edwardian comedy of manners in the mode of Jane Austen, this little gem can be read as a simple love story--sweet, endearing, and a glimpse back in time.  Yet, dig deep, and you will find this book to be very profound.

Quick plot review:  Young and innocent Lucy Honeychurch has traveled from her country home in England to the land of art and passion--Florence, Italy--with her older cousin and chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett.  They arrive at the Pension Bertolini, run by a Cockney from London, to find that their room has--no view!  Two other guests, Mr. Emerson and his son George, offer to swap rooms, as theirs has a view and "women like looking at a view; men don't."

Charlotte Bartlett is horrified.  How very improper!  If they accept Mr. Emerson's generosity, and let's face it, Mr. Emerson is really not the sort of person one is used to associating with, they will be obligated to him.  And Charlotte, who must protect the purity of her charge Lucy, cannot allow that.

Yet Mr. Emerson persists and asks the questions which is perhaps being asked by the book itself--addressed to everyone about everything--"Why?"

We tour Florence and its surroundings with Lucy and the other characters from the Pension Bertolini and witness a murder on the Piazza Signoria.  But what can this mean? the reader wonders.  Thank goodness Mr. Emerson's son, George, was there to rescue Lucy when she fainted from her shock.  Not so, thinks Lucy.  Something has happened on that piazza, but not only to the poor Italian who was stabbed.  Something has happened to Lucy--and she is changed forever.

What has happened to her, you ask?  Well, that's something your book club can--and should--discuss at length.  For this scene (and Forster, like Jane Austen, writes in beautifully rendered scenes) is central to the book--on many levels.  For this book is about so much--

Yes, it's a coming of age story on one level.  But not only for Lucy.  This was a time of tremendous change in England, when the gentle countryside was being invaded by urban grit, industry was crowding out agricultural life, and the class system was becoming destabilized.  So you can read the novel as a coming of age story for England itself as it moved, inexorably, from the Victorian era into the modern age.

Lucy returns to England and becomes engaged to Cecil.  All right, I must say, Forster rivals Jane Austen for his characters, and any book club should take each one and talk at length about him or her.  Cecil is priceless.  We know he's wrong for Lucy--we know Lucy is in love with George Emerson--but will Lucy do anything about it?  Or will Fate step in?  Ah, yes, another question running through this novel--is there such a thing as Fate?  And going a bit further, does God exist?

I don't want to give anything away, so I'll stop with the plot review here, but if your book club does read the book, pay close attention to Forster's writing.  For example, see how the imagery of light versus dark is so prominent in the novel, and how it carries the theme of "coming of age" throughout the story.  One can do a wonderful psychoanalytic reading of this novel, digging deep into the unconscious layers.

Pay attention to nature, and how it is being portrayed.  What is the importance, for instance, of the scene at the Sacred Lake, when Mr. Beebe, a clergyman, removes his clothes and prances around?  Pay attention to the roles that art and music play in the story.  And pay close attention to the settings--and how they carry the meaning of the story to the reader.

And, whatever you do, pay very close attention to the muddle.  As I said above, I think this book is quite profound.  It's full of religion, art, philosophy, and more.  But if you miss it all, just take one little pearl of wisdom from it--and it regards the muddle.  One of my favorite lines in literature is "only connect" from Forster's Howard's End, and now I have another favorite line from Forster's A Room With a View--"Beware the muddle."

If you, or your book club, reads A Room With A View, enjoy! and let me know what you think!