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

Thursday, 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!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Orange Prize for Fiction Long List Announced!

The season of literary awards is off to a brilliant start!  The Orange Prize for Fiction--in its 16th year of celebrating women writers--has announced its long list.  On it you'll find twenty wonderful books to keep you turning pages until the short list is announced on April 12th.  I can't wait to see that list!

The winner will be announced on June 8th.  Last year's winner was Barbara Kingsolver for The Lacuna, and as you know, Literary Masters book groups and literary salons kicked off our season with that excellent novel.  Let's see if this year's winner lands on Literary Masters' list for the 2011/2012 season.

To see the long list and for more on the Orange Prize, click here.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Should your Book Club read Emma by Jane Austen?

As you know, I am currently running a Jane Austen Literary Salon, and we just finished discussing Emma, the fifth of Jane's six novels that we're reading.  One of the members, let's call her Diane, had to miss last month's discussion of Mansfield Park, but she had a good excuse--her first grandchild was born!  And guess what Diane did while helping to care for her new granddaughter?  She read Emma out loud to her--I love it!  A little Janeite in training!

So, should your book club read Emma?  Are you looking for a classic?  Are you looking for one of Jane's novels to read?  I can recommend Emma for the individual reader and for a book club, but I have to be honest here...this is not my very favorite of Jane's novels.  Don't get me wrong--it's a wonderful, sometimes hilarious novel, with much to appreciate on many levels.  I just happen to prefer Mansfield Park (usually everyone's least favorite), or Persuasion.  But that's just me.  Emma is usually everyone else's favorite, along with Pride and Prejudice.

If you do read Emma, there's lots to discuss.

You probably know the plot, or some of the plot.  Emma is rich, spoiled, and rather self-absorbed.  She's also very snobbish, but not when it comes to her new friend and pet project, Harriet.  Harriet's class and rank are hard to pin down, as she has never known her parents--she is "the natural daughter of somebody"--and has lived at Mrs. Goddard's school.  Emma, who sees the world as she would like it to be rather than how it is, decides with no evidence whatsoever that Harriet must be the daughter of a gentleman and therefore deserves to marry a gentleman.  But which gentleman will it be?  And will that chosen man see Harriet the same way Emma sees her?  Emma sets her sights on the perfect man (or men?) for Harriet and the hilarity begins!

There's much more to the plot, but suffice to say that it reads like a Shakespearean comedy with all the confusion of who's in love with whom, and who's falling out with whom and who will end up with whom.  As I said, it's quite funny, but there's an undertone of serious business going on, and the careful reader will pick up on that.

The serious business of marriage, for instance.  Your book club will have a grand time discussing what this novel is saying about romantic love and marriage.  The class system looms large in this story, and impacts everyone and everything--you can see what you think the novel is saying about class and rank in Jane's day.

Actually, the list of what you can discuss would be too long to list here.  How genders are being played with in the story, and what this means, for instance.  Or if Knightley has "proper pride" and whether he is an ideal man.  Or how Jane's use of free indirect discourse impacts the reader's view of the characters and plot.  Or what to make of the themes of duty, the individual versus society, education, and authority, to name a few.
You could spend hours just talking about the characters, like Emma's father, a pathetic hypochondriac, or the inimitable and insufferable Mrs. Elton, one of the more loathsome characters in all of English literature.

I read and re-read Jane's novels because I love her use of language.  She is incomparably brilliant and I am in awe as I read.  I also read her because I appreciate how there seem to be so many different, yet simultaneous, discourses in her novels.  In our Jane Austen Literary Salon, we are trying to get to "know" Jane--through her texts, of course.  But this is tricky, as she can be very slippery--you think you understand what the text is saying only to find it's saying something quite different elsewhere.

Bottom line, Jane's novels can be read on many levels, which may be a key to her staying power.  Have a go with Emma and let me know what you think.  No cheating by just watching the movie, however!  As beautiful as the films of all Jane's novels are, they do not compare to reading the books--I assure you!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany

For those of you short on time, I will cut to the chase:  Yes, read this book.  I couldn't put it down.  Should you choose it for your book club?  Yes, with reservations.

This novel was published in 2002 but takes place in Cairo, Egypt, around the first Iraq war, way back at the start of the 1990's.  Written by an Egyptian, it is a slice of life--well, actually several slices of different lives--of people who are tied to each other via The Yacoubian Building.  Yes, the building is the main character of the novel.  Yes, it is a metaphor for what Egypt has gone through in its recent history.  However, I don't think the building itself looms as large in this story as the glass room did in Simon Mawer's novel of the same name, reviewed here.

The Yacoubian Building follows the lives of several different characters who are struggling to survive the Cairo of their present, as opposed to their past.  For the past is gone in a blink (or in a coup), and those who cannot adapt, die.  There is Zaki Bey, for example, whose father was one of the richest men in Egypt--before the revolution.  Now Zaki is reduced to prancing around like a playboy while fighting with his sister over their inheritance.  There is Kamal el Rouli, who grew up poor, but who is now in a position of power to exhort money from those who cannot escape his clutch.  There is Busayna, a innocent young girl whose mother encourages her to do whatever it takes in order to bring home money to help feed the family after the man of the house dies.  And there's many more.  Like the fundamentalist jihadists.  And the homosexual journalist.  (There's a lot of sex in this novel, but none of it gratuitous or "in your face,"; still it caused quite a stir in Egypt when it was published.)

For anyone who has ever been to Cairo, you know it is a place that teems with people, and this novel is teeming with characters, so much so that there is a helpful "Cast of Characters" at the front of the novel.  Don't let that intimidate you, though.  The writing is so good, and the characters so well drawn, you will have no problem remembering who they are and what they are going through.

Now my gripe:  I wasn't happy with the ending of the novel.  In fact, I said "What?  That's the end???" out loud to my book.  I then met with my personal book club, and I felt a bit better after discussing it with them.  Some light was shed on the story, like the "Big Man" being Mubarek.  That had gone sailing clear over my head!  It helps to have some knowledge about Egypt's politics, past and present, and it helps to discuss it with others who can help read between the lines and decode some of what the author has written. 

So, no surprise here, if your book club is willing to put some effort into the discussion, this book can be a great selection for you.  If your book club just likes to "show up and chat," you may have a much shorter evening, unless your members are already quite knowledgeable about Egypt.

This book is fascinating to read now, considering all that's going on in Northern Africa and the Middle East.  And the author, Alaa Al Aswany, has been quite outspoken during the recent revolution.  There is another book by the Egyptian nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz entitled Midaq Alley, which is often compared with The Yacoubian Building.  I read it a few years ago and liked it, but not as much as this novel.  You should read both and let me know what you think.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Should Your Book Club Read The Glass Room by Simon Mawer?

This is an easy one.  The answer is absolutely yes.  Not only did everyone love this book, it made for a lively discussion in all my Literary Masters book groups.

The Glass Room was short-listed for the Man Booker last year, but defeated by The Finkler Question.  Go figure.  I had never read anything by Simon Mawer, but now I'm looking forward to picking up The Fall, recommended by one of my Literary Masters members.

Quick plot summary:  It's the late 1920's in Czechoslovakia.  Victor and Leisl Landauer want to build a house that embodies the future and that has nothing to do with the past.  They hire an architect who doesn't build walls and ceilings--instead he captures space and light.  Blazing the trail of what will come to be known as the modernist movement in architecture, he builds the Landauer couple a glass house, the main feature of which is the glass room, a sanctuary of calm, reason, and scientific rationality.

The thing is, a lot goes on inside this sanctuary, not all of it calm, reasonable or rational at all.

The book takes us through about 7 decades, and during that time we watch as various characters--with various agendas--enter and leave the glass room.  Do they transform it?  Does it transform them?  That was something we discussed at length in our meetings.

Simon Mawer is a wonderful writer, so it's easy to speed through this book; I found it to be a compelling page-turner.  But there's a lot there to think about and reflect upon, so it's worth slowing down and savoring this novel.  The characters are intriguing, to say the least, and we talked about them in depth--their motivations, their desires, their self-delusions.  How they tried to escape their histories--as well as their present places in time--but to no avail.  And we talked about them as metaphors for what was going on at that time in the world.

Besides the characters, some of the things your book club may want to discuss:  What the glass room represents.  We started off each meeting with this question, and you'd be amazed at the various answers!  I always find it fascinating that we can read the same words and interpret them differently.  Don't forget to discuss the onyx wall!

You can all think about what this book is saying about history.  The structure of the book, with its many parallels and echoes, adds much to this conversation.

This novel explores big ideas, and your book club may want to do the same.  Science versus God, Nature versus Nurture, Science versus Art, Fate/destiny versus Randomness/chaos, Darwinism, Existentialism--they are all in there in some way, and you can have fun 'digging deep' into this literary treasure.  (I am only touching on some of the themes in the book here--I'm telling you, it is chock full!)

The Glass Room is not a perfect book, but it has so many wonderful qualities, a reader can easily put up with the two annoying aspects of it (as mentioned by reader after reader)--the ending, and the continual coincidences that pepper the story and strain credibility.  I happened to find neither annoying, and I think the coincidences underscore one of the main themes of the book, that is fate/destiny versus randomness/chaos.

I feel very comfortable highly recommending this book for an individual reader as well as for book groups.  I cannot believe that The Finkler Question won the Man Booker over The Glass Room, but that's a discussion and a blog post for another day!  Please let me know if your book club reads The Glass Room--and what you all think of it.