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

Tuesday, 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?