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.

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!