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, 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.