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, November 27, 2012

A Book for Someone Special on Your Christmas List!

Just in time for the holidays! A friend of mine has illustrated a gorgeous picture book for children that tells the story of the Nativity. Entitled The Friendly Beasts, it is an "illustrated version of the French Christmas carol. In simple, rhyming verse, the stable animals welcome the new baby Jesus and describe the gifts they each give to him." If you have any nieces, nephews, or young kids of your own who like books, you can order from Amazon and receive it in time for Christmas (check delivery to make sure, though!). Check it out:

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

National Book Awards Announced!

The National Book Awards were announced today!  Congratulations to Louise Erdrich for winning in the fiction category for Round House, and to Katherine Boo for winning in the non-fiction category for Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.  For a full list of winners, click here.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Samuel Johnson Award Announced!

Congratulations to Wade Davis for winning the UK's prestigious prize for non-fiction--the Samuel Johnson award.  His book Into the Silence chronicles and analyzes Mallory's attempts to scale Everest.  Click here to read what the Guardian has to say about it--so interesting!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Goldilocks Dilemma of Reading

I love the online Guardian's book section; there's always something of interest there.  This morning I came across this article/picture gallery of the ten most difficult books to read, chosen by Robert Crum.  I got to thinking...I used to enjoy a "difficult" book much more; I found it challenging and felt very accomplished upon finishing it.  Especially if I had understood it. :-)

Perhaps I read too much now, but lately I get annoyed if I feel a book is difficult just for the sake of being difficult.  Sometimes I'm not in the mood to work that hard.  Yet, if a book is too light or easy, I'm not interested in reading it.  Hmm...the Goldilocks Dilemma of Reading: I have to find a book that's "just right"!

Click here to check out the Guardian piece.  And tell me, what is the most difficult book you've ever read?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Elaine from Book Passage WHIRLs!

I went to the wonderfully fabulous independent book store Book Passage the other day to listen to a book talk given by the wonderfully fabulous Elaine Petrocelli.  If you haven't yet visited Book Passage in Corte Madera, you really are missing out.  It is the literary hub in the San Francisco Bay Area.  You may run into a president, a movie star, or a Nobel Laureate while browsing the shelves in this charming and unpretentious shop.  No doubt about it, all the literary giants pass through here.  Click here for a link to check it out.

Elaine is very entertaining when talking about books, and she had many to recommend.  Here are just a few that she highlighted:


May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis

The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
  • I know many people reading this right now.  In fact, I'm supposed to be reading it for my personal book club!  I'll let you know what I think at a later date!
The Mirrored World by Debra Dean
  • Elaine suggested that book clubs read this over a two-month period paired with Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie.  What a wonderful idea!
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
  • I can't wait to read this book!  It is a finalist for the National Book Award (as you know because I told you that in an earlier blog post!).  Also, Diaz's Pulitzer Prize winning The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was a HUGE Literary Masters hit!
Round House by Louise Erdrich
  • Also a finalist for the National Book Award!
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
  • Also a finalist for the National Book Award!  I highly recommend this book, although I must warn you, it's tough to read.  Two American soldiers in Iraq.  Very poetic, moving, and thought-provoking.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
  •  As you know, this little gem of a novel was the September selection for Literary Masters book groups and literary salons.  Everyone loved it!  My blog post on it will be posted soon, so stay tuned.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
  •  This was last season's Literary Masters selection for May.  Again, a real winner!  Everyone loved this novel, and we had great fun with all the references to Moby Dick--some Literary Masters members were inspired and read Melville's masterpiece over the summer!  I went to a talk that Chad gave; if you "like" Literary Masters on Facebook, you'll see a photo of Chad and me!
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers
  • Also a finalist for the National Book Award!  I'm looking forward to reading this one soon.

Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie
  • I am a Rushdie fan, so I'm looking forward to reading his account of the fatwa that was placed upon him due to his publication of The Satanic Verses.
Paris, A Love Story by Kati Marton
  • Kati Marton's story of her marriages to Peter Jennings and Richard Holbrooke.  It sounds...juicy!  I bet it's a page-turner.
The Longest Way Home by Andrew McCarthy

Some Girls, Some Hats, and Hitler by Trudi Kanter

Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson
  • An Ethipian boy is adopted by Swedes, grows up in Sweden, and becomes an award-winning chef in America.   This memoir sounds like it's worth reading.
The latest Book Passage catalogue has even more of Elaine's picks--check it out!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Man Booker Prize Announced!

Congratulations to Hilary Mantel for winning the 2012 Man Booker Prize for her novel Bring Up the Bodies.  This is the second time Mantel has won this prestigious award; the first was for her novel Wolf Hall.  Click here for the full story.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Award Season in Full Swing!

This is such an exciting time of year for readers, especially if you're a reader like me, who loves prize-winners!  Congratulations to Mo Yan, who today won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  If you'd like to know more, click here.

Congratulations are also due to the finalists for the National Book Award.  The list was announced yesterday and the winner will be announced on November 14th.

The finalists for fiction are:
Junot Díaz, This Is How You Lose Her
Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King
Louise Erdrich, The Round House
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds
The finalists for non-fiction are:
Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956
Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
Robert A. Caro, The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 4
Domingo Martinez, The Boy Kings of Texas
Anthony Shadid, House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East
As you all know from one of my earlier posts, Katherine Boo's book is also on the shortlist for the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize.  The winner of that prize will be announced on November 12th.

And you also already know from one of my earlier posts that the winner of the Man Booker Prize will be announced October 16th.  Hey!  That's next week!

How exciting is this???

Friday, October 5, 2012

And Now For the Short List!

The short list is out for the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize, so all you non-fiction readers, grab your glasses and get comfy--you've got some reading to do!  You'll find the short list below, and click here for an interesting article on books that may change our view of the world.

The winner of the prize will be announced on November 12th. The full shortlist is:

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum, by Katherine Boo (Portobello Books)

Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest, by Wade Davis (The Bodley Head)

The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton)

The Better Angels of our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity, by Steven Pinker (Allen Lane)

The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain, by Paul Preston (HarperPress)

Strindberg: A Life, by Sue Prideaux (Yale University Press)

Friday, September 21, 2012

Long List Out for Non-Fiction Award!

The long list has been announced for the Samuel Johnson Prize, which is the UK's most prestigious award for non-fiction.  Click here for the website and more info.  As you know, Literary Masters always has one non-fiction selection and this season we'll be reading In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, which won the National Book Award in 2000.  Two years ago the Literary Masters non-fiction selection was Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize that same year.  Take a look at this long list and let me know what you think...

The 14 titles on this year’s longlist are:
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo (Portobello Books)
  • One on One, by Craig Brown (Fourth Estate)
  • Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest, by Wade Davis (The Bodley Head)
  • The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, by Masha Gessen (Granta Books)
  • Feathers, by Thor Hansen (Basic Books)
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman (Allen Lane)
  • The Old Ways, by Robert MacFarlane (Hamish Hamilton) Inside the Centre: The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Ray Monk (Jonathan Cape)
  • Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genuis, by Sylvia Nasar (Fourth Estate)
  • Winter King, by Thomas Penn (Allen Lane)
  • The Better Angels of our Nature, by Steven Pinker (Allen Lane)
  • The Spanish Holocaust, by Paul Preston (HarperPress)
  • Strindberg A Life, by Sue Prideaux (Yale University Press)
  • Joseph Anton, by Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Man Booker Short List Announced!

Grab your reading glasses!  The short list is out!  How many of these have you read?
Click here for list and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Autumn Abundance

If you look to the right of this post, on the sidebar, you'll find the list of books that Literary Masters members are reading this season.  You'll notice that the last two months are TBA, to be announced.  I purposely left those months blank because there are a lot of literary awards given in the fall, and I may want to select one of the winners.

Not only that.  This fall there is a plethora of books by my favorite authors being published.  Ian McEwanSalman RushdieBarbara KingsolverJunot DiazAlice Munro!!!  Wait--there's more!  Tom Wolfe and Zadie Smith will release new works, and J.K. Rowling's first book for grown-ups will hit the shelves.

I don't know about you, but I am so excited!

Here's an article about the fall "literary traffic jam" from the NY Times.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Why I Read, and Why I Talk About What I Read

Jane Brody has an piece in the NY Times about why she exercises.  Perhaps because I am "benched" for the time being--no running for me due to a uncooperative knee--I clicked on the article.  At the end, she sums up her reasons thus:

"It’s how these activities make me feel: more energized, less stressed, more productive, more engaged and, yes, happier — better able to smell the roses and cope with the inevitable frustrations of daily life."

I can relate to this.  But not with regard to exercise.  (I exercise mainly because I love sweets!)  All these exercise benefits that Brody states are what I get from reading, and from discussing with others what I've read.  If you've ever been in a book group, well, if you've ever been in a Literary Masters book group or salon, you know exactly what I mean.  The connection we make--to the book, to each other, to our own, unknown selves--is a forever rejuvenating and rewarding experience.

If you'd like to read Brody's article, click here.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Literary Masters 2012-2013 Season Book List is Posted!

I hope you are enjoying a relaxing summer filled with great books!  I have read some fantastic novels that I will "whirl" about soon, but right now I want to share big news: the Literary Masters 2012-2013 Book List is now posted!  Click here to find out more!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Summer Reading Suggestions!

The year has flown by, and the 2011/ 2012 season of Literary Masters has come to an end.  What a fabulous season it was!  And now, as promised, I have taken LM members' suggestions for summer reading and have compiled a list here.  There's not a synopsis or anything to go with the books (although sometimes there's a quote alongside the title), but you can rest assured that any recommendation from a Literary Masters member has to be good, yes?

The one title that was mentioned in every single salon was Fifty Shades of Grey.  This was the only book that was simultaneously liked and disliked.  And it was universally tittered over.  Described as mommy-porn (what is that???---rhetorical question; please don't answer it) and evidently featuring sado-masochistic themes, I'm not sure anyone who is an LM member has actually read this book, but we had fun imagining what it is about. 

I could do an entire blog post on "What Exactly is Summer Reading, Anyway?" but suffice to say here that most people think of it as lighter reading, you know, books that are not so taxing on our brains.  Others consider it to be reading that transports us somewhere else.  I always associate summer reading with books set in hot places.

So, I love to recommend books set in Africa or India.  Actually, I'd love to visit both those places, but I'll have to settle for an imaginary trip...here are some books that have taken me there (or nearby)...

West with the Night by Beryl Markham.  I blogged on it here
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin
Brick Lane by Monica Ali
Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry
Mothsmoke by Mohsin Hamid

The following titles will take us to lands near and far:

Many of you have recommended for non-fiction:

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
In the Garden of the Beast by Erik Larson
To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild
Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

I am very impressed by how many of you are reading the fourth book in Robert Caro's series on Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power. 

more non-fiction:
Coming Apart by Charles Murray
Citizens of London by Lynne Olson
Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz
Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild
Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer
Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz (this book is not published until August)

and a 'hot' book right now:
Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail by Cheryl Strayed (although one LM member finished this recently and wonders what all the fuss is about...)

Some fiction (I'm not sure how "light" these are, but members highly recommended these novels):

On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry (if you liked Brooklyn by Colm Toibin and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore--I blogged on that here--I think you'll like this latest from Barry)
The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (even better than TSC in my opinion)
Trapeze by Simon Mawer (he wrote The Glass Room, which so many of us loved last season)
Arcadia by Lauren Groff
We the Animals by Justin Torres "a quick, moving read"
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (he wrote The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet which we also loved last season; many consider Cloud Atlas to be his best)
Moby Dick by Herman Melville (extra credit for members who read this!!!)
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson: "charming, really sweet"
The Schmidt books by Louis Begley; the latest is Schmidt Steps Back
Carry the One by Carol Anshaw
The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger
Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill
The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (one of my favorite authors)
Mudwoman by Joyce Carol Oates "creepy, compelling, and thought-provoking"
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (some of you read this with me; click here for my blog post on it)

More fiction:
Skin Tight by Carl Hiaasen
Strip Tease by Carl Hiaasen
The Queen's Vow: A Novel of Isabella of Castile by C. W. Gortner (this book isn't published until June)
The Jump Off Creek by Molly Gloss
Restless by William Boyd
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (definitely in my TBR pile!)
How It All Began by Penelope Lively: "delightful"
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander
The Submission by Amy Waldman
There But For The by Ali Smith
Winter's Bone: a Novel by Daniel Woodrell
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
Only Time Will Tell and Sins of the Father, two novels by Jeffrey Archer

We should all laugh more this summer:
Lunatics by Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel (fiction)
I'll Mature When I'm Dead by Dave Barry (non-fiction)
Bossypants by Tina Fey

Well, this should get you started for the summer.  Thank you for everything this season--reading just wouldn't be the same without you.  Here's wishing all of you a safe, healthy, and happy summer filled with good books, good friends, and much laughter!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Should Your Book Club Read West With the Night by Beryl Markham?

How long have I had this book on my TBR shelf, and who gave it to me?  I have a vague recollection of someone in my graduate program handing it to me saying she had more copies at home, and that everyone should read this book.  Ernest Hemingway would agree, evidently.  He wrote to Maxwell Perkins that Beryl Markham could "write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers" and implored Perkins to get the book and read it because "it is really a bloody wonderful book."

I thoroughly agree with Mr. Hemingway.

This bloody wonderful book is not so much a story as a collection of vignettes; it is Beryl Markham's (Beru to the indigenous Africans) memoir about growing up in Kenya when it was still British East Africa.  What I love about the book is...everything.  So, should your book club read it?  I don't know.  I don't feel like I need to discuss it with anyone, yet I do feel that it will be a book I return to again and again to experience it as much as possible.  I wonder if the fact that it is a memoir, a genre I don't read often, makes me feel like I just enjoyed a journey with someone (the author) and therefore don't feel the need to discuss it with others.  Hmm, I don't know; I'll have to give that some thought.

I do highly, highly recommend the book--five stars without a doubt--so read it on your own or with others, if you choose.  If you are an aspiring writer, you should run to your nearest book store to get this book.  Then you should read it out loud so that the language--clay in the hands of the master sculptress Markham--makes a lasting impression on you.

The setting is so vivid, you will feel like you are in Africa, and Markham's evident love and respect for that country gives it a quality that brings it to life in a lovely way.  Her descriptions will make you want to go there to see the places that she played in as a child and worked in as an adult  For example, Lake Nakuru with its throngs of pink flamingos.  I never do this, but I was so intrigued by Markham's description of that place, I "google imaged" it.  Check it out:

And what a adventurous childhood Markham had!  From encounters with lions to wild boar hunting with native friends, Markham recounts her tales with just the right amount of suspense and intrigue.  Talk about intrepid--this is not your everyday little league upbringing.  I am amazed Markham survived some of her adventures!

When she starts to fly over the bush to track elephants for wealthy tourists who want to shoot them, one realizes that this is, indeed, a life lived in a different era.  Colonialism, WWII looming, the frontiers of the skies to be conquered...Markham just touches on the rich history of the geo-politics of Africa at this time.

What Markham does not cover in the memoir is her personal life.  I was surprised when I googled her to find out that she was married three times, and allegedly had romantic involvement with some of the characters in her tale.  Hmm, interesting what she decided to leave out of the memoir.

Bottom line:  if you liked Let's Not Go to the Dogs Tonight, another wonderful memoir by Alexandra Fuller, I think you will like this book.  And if you haven't read Let's Not Go to the Dogs Tonight, you really should!

Friday, April 20, 2012


I have been thinking about themes for my next season of Literary Masters book groups.  I have fond memories of the time I did "Literary Masters Falls in Love"--I mean, who can resist that?  I was considering books about marriage, but thought that might get too, I don't know, personal???  Anyway, all of a sudden, just by chance, I ended up reading a bunch of books that fall right into that category.  I don't have time for a long post, so I am just going to WHIRL here, but if you want "Points to Ponder," please let me know.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin.  I just love this title.  The book is quite good, if a tad dated.  (Is that heretical?)  Four stars, but would probably bump up to five if we discussed it in one of my Literary Masters book groups.  The books always improve in my salons!  I couldn't help but think of other books I've read while I was reading this, such as The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, or Coral Glynn.

On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry.  Four stars.  Again, I kept thinking of other books, like Brooklyn.  This is a quiet yet compelling story, and the writing is beautiful.  I almost feel I should read it again, and I might bump it up to five stars.  This book is about much more than marriage, but it deals with that institution in a certain time frame as well.  This book has been on long or short lists for many prestigious prizes, and I can see why.

Mudwoman by Joyce Carol Oates.  Wow.  This is one hefty book, yet I tore through it.  I had always wanted to read something by this prolific author, and now I have.  I'm glad I chose this book; it was really...creepy, compelling, thought-provoking, and quite a page-turner.  I am considering this for my next season of Literary Masters.

What about YOU?  What have YOU read lately?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Pulitzer Prizes Announced--What a Shocker!

I eagerly await the announcement of a literary award, so I was on pins and needles this morning, anticipating the Pulitzer Prize winners--especially for fiction!  Wow!  What a shocker--no award for the fiction category.  Really???

Click here for the link to the site in case you're interested in checking out all the other categories.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Springtime WHIRL with the Stars!

For those of you who are new to this site, welcome!  WHIRL stand for "What Have I Read Lately," and it's just a quick round-up of my reading that I don't have time to make longer posts for. (If you'd like "Points to Ponder--in-depth, thought-provoking questions for your book club--for any of these books, please let me know.)  So...here goes:

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.  If I gave stars like other sites do, I would give Middlesex by this author five stars, but I would only give The Marriage Plot three stars.  It was extremely disjointed, and although the section on one of the character's descent into depression was so well-written that I felt like I was descending into madness myself, I still think the book as a whole was just not...stellar.

The Road Home by Rose Tremain.  Again, I'd have to give this novel three stars.  That is, if I gave stars.  Hmm, perhaps I'll start.  Anyway, this novel is from another author whom I look forward to reading, but--and this speaks to my philosophy of "low expectations are a good thing"--I was disappointed in this book. Immigrant from Eastern Europe tries to make a success of his life in England.  It went on a bit too long, and I was just glad to be done with it.  Actually, that's too harsh.  I did enjoy the book until the very end, which dragged.  Maybe three and a half or four stars.  Tremain's writing is always good, and her character development is great. 

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.  Brutal.  Brilliant but brutal.  Five stars.  Read it.  And see the movie.  I may choose this book for my Literary Masters book groups next season.  I'm not sure, though, because it really is emotionally wrenching.  The portrait of a marriage, and the individuals within it.  A period piece that resonates for anyone in any era who strives to be special, amazing, the best he/she can be...

Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron.  Another period piece that resonates with anyone who has ever felt trapped--within a relationship, within a job, within one's own expectations.  Four and a half stars.  At first I thought this novel was rather simplistic, but it stayed with me a long time after I finished it.  If you liked Brooklyn and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, I think you will like this book.

So, what about you?  What have YOU read lately?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Should Your Book Club Read Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga?

You may know Aravind Adiga from his Booker-winning The White Tiger.  I enjoyed that book quite a bit, which propelled me to pick up Last Man in Tower.  I'm glad I did.  It was the March selection for many of my Literary Masters book groups, and it was a great choice.

Warp-speed plot summary:

The setting is Bombay, or Mumbai, depending on your politics, I suppose, and there is a developer who wants to knock down an old, dilapidated apartment building and replace it with something fantastically new, shiny, and ever so 21st century.  He's willing to pay the residents more than market value for their homes so they can become rich off the deal.

Sounds simple, right?  Well, there is one man who refuses to sell, and who therefore threatens to ruin the deal for everyone.  I won't tell you what happens, but I will say that this is a very readable, very literary, very subtle gem of a novel.

So, what can your book club talk about while discussing Last Man in Tower?

You'll want to discuss Masterji and his motivation.  Why does he resist the developer?  What does he want?  Is he heroic?  Is he narcissistic?  Is he to blame?  What would you do in his place?

Is there a hero in this story?  Adiga has stated that the real hero of the novel is Mumbai.  What do you make of this?  Of all the characters, does anyone act in a heroic manner?

Is there a villain in this story?

What do you think of the Shah?  What do you think of his methods of doing business?

You'll really want to discuss all the characters in depth.  Each one has a point at which he or she "turns" --a masterly feat of writing on Adiga's part.  What happens to each one and why?  How do they justify/ rationalize their behavior?  How is the realtor different from all the others?  This novel is in many ways a true study in psychology.

This novel raises many "big questions," and you'll want to discuss some of those.  For instance, can a person even be an individual when living within a society?  How much responsibility does one have towards others when living within a society?  Do individual rights trump those of the collective?  Should they?

Does everyone have a price?  Is it possible for a man to want nothing?

You'll want to discuss the saying "Man is like a goat tied to a pole," and the concept of free will in the novel.

You can delve into what the novel seems to be saying about the "old India" versus the "new India."  Do you think the novel favors one side over the other?  Is there a value system that is privileged in the story?  Is there a message we are meant to take away?

Ask yourselves:  could anyone who isn't Indian have written this novel?  What is the novel saying about corruption?

Make sure to save lots of time to discuss the beautiful imagery and symbolism in the story.  Talk about the birds, the stray dog, the black cross, and the caged animals, just for a start!

This ought to get you started.  Enjoy the book.  If you're anything like me, it will stay with you a long time after you finish it.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Should Your Book Club Read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes?

Should your book club read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes?  The answer to this question: yes, resoundingly so.  In fact, I think this book should only be read with others because I guarantee you will have more questions than answers when you finish it.

You probably know by now that Julian Barnes, nominated multiple times in the past for the Man Booker prize, finally clinched the award this year with his The Sense of an Ending.  I say "his" because there is another book by the same title, a collection of lectures by the literary critic Frank Kermode, published in 1967, and if you really want some light shed onto Julian Barnes' novel, I advise you to pick up Kermode's book.  Warning, though--it's not light reading.

So, what can your book club discuss after reading Julian Barnes' The Sense of an EndingThe following contains many spoilers, so don't read anymore if you haven't finished the book!

Julian Barnes has described his book as being about how time affects memory and how memory affects time, and undoubtedly, you will want to explore this.

Coupled with the above, you will want to delve into the character of the narrator, Tony.  Just how reliable, or unreliable, is Tony?  You should consider his relationships--how he describes them versus how they really are.  So, think about his relationship with his daughter, with his ex-wife, with Adrian, and with Veronica, for example.  Importantly, think about his relationship with you, the reader.  Is he telling you the truth?  Is he telling himself the truth?  Remember at all times--Tony is narrating this story.  And he tells (warns?) us at the very start of the book, "...what you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you have witnessed."

Along with time and memory, you'll want to explore what the book is saying about history.  There are different definitions of it--what is the significance of history and how it is defined?  Pay attention to documentation and corroboration.

While considering time, memory, and history, pay attention to the Severn Bore scene.  Also, note how watches are worn...and what is said about subjective vs. objective time...

You'll want to talk about the theme of sex and death (Eros and Thanatos) in the book.  What is the book saying about suicide?  Why does Adrian commit suicide?

Now, I warned you above that this blog post contains spoilers galore, so stop reading now if you haven't read the book!

If you do take a look at Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending, you'll want to think about peripeteia.  And then you'll want to talk about how this concept relates to Julian Barnes' novel.  And then you'll want to consider how it relates to your experience reading this book.

And then...I predict you will have a rousing discussion, with more questions than answers.  For instance...

What do we really know at the end of this story?  Did Adrian father a child with Veronica's mother?  Does the child really look like Adrian, or is that what Tony would like to believe, or is that what he would like us to believe? 

Is Tony the father?  When a very astute Literary Masters member first proposed this, I thought, "no way..." but then we talked about it...and it started to seem like he could be...

What did happen that weekend at Veronica's house?  Why did Veronica's mother tell Tony not to let Veronica get away with too much?  What was she doing with the eggs?  And what did her hand gesture mean?  Did Tony and Sarah get together that weekend?

What did Veronica mean when she said "he'll do" and why did she leave Tony with her mother while she went off with her father and brother?

What did Tony mean when he told Adrian that Veronica was "damaged a long way back"?

Why did Sarah bequeath 500 pounds to Tony?  Could Tony have given Sarah the money to terminate the pregnancy, and because she didn't, she returned the money, albeit years later?  Is that why Veronica suggested that it could be "blood money"?

Veronica repeatedly tells Tony that he just doesn't get it.  What does she mean, exactly?

Why did Sarah have Adrian's diary?  Why did Sarah bequeath the diary to Tony?  Why do we, the readers, not get to see it?

What is the meaning of the mathematical equation in the diary fragment?

No doubt you will want to discuss whether the point of this book is that we can't know all the answers.  You'll want to talk about how the way we "know" reality at all is through our (by definition, unreliable) memory, and time (along with a host of other factors) distorts memory.   But still, don't you want to know the answers to some of the above questions?

The New York Times ran an obituary for Frank Kermode, which you can read here.  In it, the English literary critic Lawrence S. Rainey is referred to because he had described a central theme of Frank Kermode's writing as being  “the conflict between the human need to make sense of the world through storytelling and our propensity to seek meaning in details (linguistic, symbolic, anecdotal) that are indifferent, even hostile, to story."  The obituary goes on to say that "Mr. Kermode analyzed the fictions we invent to bring meaning and order to a world that often seems chaotic and hurtling toward catastrophe," and that Kermode also pointed out "narratives, just like life, can include details that defy interpretation."

So, is that what I've been doing with regard to Julian Barnes' novel?  Have I been focusing on the details of the story, trying to extract meaning from (or is it impose meaning upon?) them, when they actually defy interpretation?  If so, isn't this book exactly like life in that regard?

Yet, on the other hand, if we persist in our search for answers, there's always the chance that we'll find them, right?

Well, I came away from this book (and I read it twice) with many more questions than answers.  And the answers I did have never seemed to be definitive.  There always seemed to be an alternative answer for each question.  If your book club reads this novel, and if your book club thinks it knows the answers, please share!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

This is Your Brain on Fiction

In today's world, there's a lot of competition when it comes to getting our eyes on print.  I have to admit, I rarely get through the paper on Sunday; if it's not captivating, I put it down so I can return to my latest novel.  But this past Sunday was an exception.  If you missed this piece in the opinion section of the New York Times, you should read it now.  It's all about your brain on fiction.  As if we needed another reason to read our novels!


I especially liked the last line:  "Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined."  Amen to that!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Should Your Book Club Read We the Animals by Justin Torres?

We the Animals is a wonderful little book, one you can easily read in one or two evenings.  It's about three little boys of mixed-race descent growing up in a household of little income, even less parenting, but, one has to believe, a lot of love.  There's not a traditional plot; rather, each chapter is a window into the life of this heart-wrenching family.

This is, as I said, a short novel, which I like, but it's a beautiful one.  The language is almost poetic, and considering that the book is narrated by the youngest brother, the contrast between what he says and how he says it lends a level of poignancy to the story that serves it well.  One can't help but feel for these little boys, their over-worked and self-effacing mother, and their well-intentioned but frustrated, macho dad.

I don't want to give anything away, but the end of the book, though in some ways shocking, comes as no surprise at all.  It left me wondering, "when, oh when, will we know what happens to them?  When is the sequel?"

So, should your book club read it?  I'd say this is a book most everyone will like, or at least appreciate, but the lack of traditional plot may pose a problem for those book clubs that don't approach their discussion in a structured way.  I won't be selecting this for our Literary Masters book groups, but that is not to detract from the novel.  I highly, highly recommend it for individuals, and if your book club reads it, do let me know how 'deep' a discussion you end up having.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Should Your Book Club Read In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar?

Absolutely yes!  This book is a winner and whether you read it on your own or with your book club, you should definitely read it.  It was written in 2006 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  It won the Europe and South Asia Region of the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for Best First Book.  And it was Literary Masters selection for the month of February.  I must thank my brother--yes, the one who never visits libraries--for bringing this wonderful novel to my attention.

Warp speed plot synopsis:

The narrator, a grown man, looks back through the eyes of his nine year-old self, and tells us the story of  living under Gaddafi's regime in Libya.  Suleiman's father is a dissident, risking his life and those of his family, to rebel against the dictator.  Suleiman's mother wants nothing to do with such trouble; she is more concerned with her own private rebellion--against the men who forced her into a hurried and arranged marriage against her will.  Suleiman, or Slooma to his loved ones, navigates the private trials and tribulations in his home and personal world, against the backdrop of an all-seeing, all-powerful public power.  As he tries to understand and take control of his little world, Slooma will open the door of his home and his family, letting that public and terrifying power in with lasting consequences for everyone.

So, what can your book club talk about?:

Well, you will definitely want to talk about Suleiman.  He is, without a doubt, one of the more interesting narrators I've come across.  You'll want to explore his motivations for making the decisions he takes.  There are emotional, psychological, and pragmatic explanations for his actions, but they don't all point to the same motivation.  He is, in a word, slippery.

What is he responsible for?  What did he do intentionally and what did he do unwittingly?  Was he a victim, or is he pathological?

Is he an unreliable narrator?  Yes, in the sense that he is telling us his story from memory, and memory is by definition unreliable.  However, is there more to this?  Is he telling us his story as a way of justifying his actions?

You will want to explore the Oedipal themes in the story.  This may help illuminate Suleiman's motivations.

You will definitely want to explore the character of the mother.  She's another incredibly interesting character.  What motivates her?  Her love for her son, or her lust for independent power?  Note the story-telling motif running throughout the story.  Note the parallels between Scheherazade and Suleiman's mother.  Who chooses slavery over death?

The theme of betrayal pervades this book.  You'll want to discuss whether any of it is justifiable.  You'll also want to consider the pleasure that some of the characters take in submitting to authority.  What is the psychology behind this?

The imagery and symbolism in this novel are beautiful; the author began the book as a poem, and one can see this in the tropes he employs.  You'll want to talk about the significance of the mulberries, and why the only remaining mulberry tree is in Rashid's garden.  Why does Suleiman eat so many, and why does the sun make him sick?  What does the sun represent?  What does Bahloul the beggar represent?  What about the sea?

You'll want to consider whether the book is asking the question:  how complicit are the characters in their own imprisonments?

You will want to talk about the title.  At length.

This book was written before the Arab Spring and the overthrow of Gaddafi.  You'll want to talk about whether we respond to it differently, knowing what we now know about how history has played out.

You'll want to talk about the moral dilemma:  does one sacrifice one's family for the sake of the larger good, or protect one's family at all costs?

I could go on, but I think this should get you going--happy reading, and have a great book club meeting!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Happy Birthday, Edith Wharton!

Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Edith Wharton.  If you haven't yet discovered this classic author, you should give yourself an Edith Wharton birthday present today!  I recommend:

Ethan Frome

The Custom of the Country

The Age of Innocence

You are in for a real treat!!!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Man Asian Literary Prize Shortlist Announced!

Are you familiar with this literary prize?  In an effort to widen my reading, geographically speaking, I have followed the Man Asian Literary Prize with interest.  (It is sponsored by the same people who sponsor the Man Booker Prize, so sometimes this award is referred to as the Man Asian Booker Prize.)  The shortlist for 2011 has just been announced, and the judges were evidently spoiled for choice.  Instead of the usual five books chosen, there are seven.  Here they are courtesy of the Man Asian Literary Prize website, which you can find here.
  • The Wandering Falcon by JAMIL AHMAD, Pakistan
  • Rebirth by JAHNAVI BARUA, India
  •  The Sly Company of People Who Care RAHUL BHATTACHARYA, India
  • River of Smoke by AMITAV GHOSH, India
  • Please Look After Mom by KYUNG-SOOK SHIN, South Korea
  • Dream of Ding Village by YAN LIANKE, China
  • The Lake by BANANA YOSHIMOTO, Japan

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Reading Is Fantastic for Your Mental Health!

I've always said that at Literary Masters book groups and literary salons, we 'dig deep' into literary treasures, and each discussion is like an aerobics class for our brains!  Now, medical research shows that reading, yes, reading is good for your mental health, and can reduce your stress level by 68%.  How great is that?

Here's the article; read it and relax!


Thursday, January 5, 2012

Costa Prize Winners Announced!

The winners of the Costa Prize have been announced!  The Costa website doesn't seem to be updated as of this blog post, as you can see here, but you can read about the winners in this article.

I am very excited to read Pure by Andrew Miller!  I'll let you know what I think of it once I've read it.

Hey, by the way, Happy 2012!  What are your resolutions this year?