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.

Monday, December 2, 2013

More Best Books!

OK, I realize that I am a week late with this NY Times link (click here) of Notable Books of 2013, but it was Thanksgivukkuh!  Anyway, lots of ideas for books to read and to give as gifts.  Literary Masters book groups and salons have already read and discussed two books from the list: Americanah and The Woman Upstairs.  One of these days I will get around to reviewing each of these wonderful novels--and I will fill you in on the riveting discussions that we had!

This month we are reading another novel that made the NY Times list: We Are Completely Beside Ourselves.  And our LM selection for May is The Lowland.  Hmm...do you think the NY Times consulted the Literary Masters list of titles for our 2013/14 season before posting their notable books list?  You can check it out also on my website; just click here.

I've read some of the others.  I must say, the James Salter novel disappointed me (I heard a collective gasp just now), but I really liked The Dinner and have recommended it to many people.  I loved The Circle and think it is a fabulous book for discussion as it raises many pertinent issues.  It's NOT sci-fi if it's happening to us right now for real!

I didn't love Kate Atkinson's Life After Life as much as everyone else apparently has, but it is a good enough read.  I didn't think Schroder measured up to the hype.

Tenth of December: yes, do read it.  Ditto The Son, if for no other reason than to tell me what you think of it!

Here are the books on this list that I really want to read and that I hope find their way into my Christmas stocking (are you listening, Santa?):

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.  Her first novel The Secret History is one of my favorite books, and I am so looking forward to reading her latest, which is getting rave reviews all around.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, which just won the National Book Award.

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III

I have just started A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, but I fear I will have to return it to the library before I finish it!

Stay tuned for more end of the year "best books" lists to come!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Best Books of 2013: Just in Time for Thanksgivukah!

I am feeling conflicted.  It's only mid-November and I am posting a "Best of 2013" reading list.  I feel like this is almost wrong--like seeing Christmas decorations in the stores before Thanksgiving!  However, it's an unusual holiday season this year with Hanukkah coinciding with our annual turkey day celebration--an event, according to the Mail Online, that last occurred in 1888 and won't occur again for another 79,000 years!  Wow!  I can see why their headline read "Happy Thanksgivukah!"--this is something to celebrate!

And while we're at it, let's celebrate some wonderful books that have been written, read, and discussed in 2013.  I will be posting more titles and "Best of 2013" lists throughout the coming weeks and into the new year, but for now, here's the first.  It's from Publisher's Weekly, and you can click here to find out more about each of these intriguing titles.

Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2013

Seas of Hooks by Lindsay Hill

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield by Jeremy Scahill

Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker

Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance by Carla Kaplan

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees, translated by Max Weiss

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

Wow!  What a list--we are spoiled for choice.  Something for every reader on your holiday list!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Samuel Johnson Prize: We Have a Winner!

I think you know by now that Literary Masters book groups and literary salons focus mainly on fiction, but each season we 'dig deep' into a non-fiction treasure.  My favorite so far, and I think my LM members would agree, is Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize, the UK's premier award for non-fiction work, in 2010.

The 2013 winner of this prestigious award has just been announced, so let's congratulate Lucy Hughes-Hallett, author of The Pike.  Her account of "a celebrated poet and Italian nationalist who was simultaneously repugnant and alluring" is evidently a form-breaking type of biography that escapes the restrictions of the genre.  Sounds intriguing.  The book won over an impressive shortlist of titles:


For more information on the Samuel Johnson Prize, including past winners, click here.

What good non-fiction have you read recently?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

National Book Award Finalists!

I told you that I just love this time of year!  Crisp mornings, sunny and warm afternoons, the Nobel Prize, the Man Booker, and now the National Book Award has released its list of finalists!  Click here  for all the info; I mainly pay attention, as you know, to the fiction category:

 The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
 The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
 The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
 Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon
 Tenth of December by George Saunders
As you also know, this season Literary Masters book groups and salons are reading Rachel Kushner's previous novel Telex from Cuba and The Lowland by Lahiri.

Have you read any of these books?  Your thoughts?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Nobel and the Man Booker

I love this literary time of year!  Literary Masters book groups and salons have started up again, the Nobel committee awards its prizes, and suspense builds for who will win the Man Booker Prize.  If this blog is the first media that you turn to each day
you're just learning that Alice Munro is the 2013 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.  Congratulations to a master of the short story!

Now we can all look forward to next Tuesday, when the winner of the Booker will be announced.  In case you need to be reminded of the short list, here it is.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Reading Literary Fiction Proven To Be Good For Us!!!

Hallelujah!  Finally, a study that proves what I've known ALL ALONG and have tried to convince others of: reading literary fiction, the type of fiction we Literary Masters members read each and every season, is GOOD FOR US!  It makes us more empathetic and understanding of others; it strengthens our emotional intelligence.  If you ever, ever, ever have had any pang of guilt while reading our monthly selection, if you ever have thought, "Oh, I shouldn't be reading; I should be doing something more useful," well, think again!  Clearly, reading literary fiction will make you a better person, which will lead to a better society all around.

To find out more about how reading literary fiction is the solution to all the world's problems (OK, maybe I'm getting slightly carried away here, but still...) click here to read the fascinating article from The New York Times.

Then go sit down and read a great novel!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Ten Best Books About Women

Everyone loves lists, right?  They make life easier.  So, even though I have no clue who the author Bidisha is, I am willing to see what she deems to be "the ten best books about women" in her recent article in the UK's Guardian.

What a list!  I've only read two of these books, but one was very influential in forming my literary "career"--Reading Lolita in Tehran.  And because that wonderful book is on Bidisha's list, I'm willing to give the others a try.  I am particularly intrigued by Joan of Arc: In Her Own Words and Intercourse.  Wow, the TBR pile next to my bed just got higher!

Click here for the full list.  What would your Ten Best Books About Women list look like?

Monday, September 2, 2013

Literary Masters: The List!

Your long wait is over!  The 2013/2014 Season of Literary Masters is officially launched!  You will find the reading list below.  As you'll recall, I allowed my LM members to vote this season; they chose our eight titles from a long list of books.  Everyone had fun with this, although making a decision wasn't easy!  First, here's the long list:
Fiction Category: (I asked members to vote for six out of the following titles; please note that the prizes and awards are for the author, not necessarily for the title listed below.)
  1. The Son by Philipp Meyer (Guggenheim Fellowship)
  2. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, O. Henry Award)
  3. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction nomination)
  4. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, Orange Prize for Fiction)
  5. The Dinner by Herman Koch; translated by Sam Garrett (Publieksprijs Prize)
  6. The Burgess Boys by E;izabeth Strout (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)
  7. The Round House by Louise Erdrich (National Book Award for Fiction, Guggenheim Fellowship, National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction)
  8. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid (Man Booker Prize nomination)
  9. The Innocents by Francesca Segal (National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, Costa First Novel Award, Women's Prize for Fiction nomination)
  10. The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)
  11. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (California Book Award Silver Medal, PEN/Faulkner Award nomination)
  12. Telex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner (National Book Award finalist)

Oldie but Goodie Category: I asked members to vote for one of the following titles:
  1. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
  2. A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines
  3. A Dry White Season by Andre Brink
  4. Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  5. All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

Non-fiction Category: I asked members to vote for one of the following titles:
  1. Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer
  2. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
  3. God's Hotel by Victoria Sweet
  4. The Season of the Witch by David Talbot
  5. The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

How would YOU have voted?  Keep reading to find out how Literary Masters members voted!

 The 2013/2014 Season of Literary Masters Book Groups and Literary Salons Reading List is:
October: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

November: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

December: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

January: Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

February: The Innocents by Francesca Segal

March: Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner

April: God's Hotel by Victoria Sweet

May: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
So grab your reading glasses and join us for another fabulous season of digging deep into literary treasures!
To find out more about Literary Masters book groups and salons, or if you'd like to join us, please visit my website: www.literarymasters.net

  1. Publieksprijs Prize
    Publieksprijs Prize

Sunday, August 25, 2013

An Experiment in Democracy!

If you're in one of my Literary Masters book groups or salons, you know that whether or not you like the book we're discussing is of absolutely no importance.  I've made you one promise: I will not make you read junk.  We read literary treasures that allow us to 'dig deep' and learn about ourselves, others, and the world around around us.

However, this 2013/2014 season, I am trying something new.  I put out a long list of book titles and asked my Literary Masters members to vote for the eight books they'd like to read.  What fun!  If I were a psychologist (perhaps in another lifetime), I would have a field day with this.  One thing is for sure: it is an impossibility to please all the people all the time.  I didn't even have one book group that voted unanimously.  Just goes to show--you don't join a book group to like what you're reading.  You join a book group to be open to the new, to learn, to grow, and to connect with others.

So, what titles were on the long list?  And what titles ended up on the final 2013/2014 Literary Masters reading list?  Stay tuned and all will be revealed...

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Desmond Elliott Prize--We Have a Winner!

I love this!  Ros Barber evidently mortgaged her house so that she could write her first novel, and it has just won the Desmond Elliott Prize!  This is a lovely story: check it out here.

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Venn Diagram of Sorts

I am supervising teachers this summer, and so I sat in on an English class the other night where the instructor was going over Venn diagrams.  You remember those: two circles that connect with an area in the middle.  The middle part is what the two circles have in common, while the outer, separate part of each circle holds what is unique to that circle, and therefore holds each circle's differences from the other circle.  Venn diagrams are commonly used to teach the organizational concept of compare and contrast.

"So what?" did I hear you say?  Well, I just finished two very different books that had me pondering over what they had in common.   (You see the connection now?)  One book is called The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing and the other is The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell.  If one measure of a good book is that you look forward to returning to it after you've put it down,  these are darn good books.

I always wanted to read Doris Lessing's work, but The Golden Notebook intimidated me by its girth. So, while browsing the "L" shelf at the library, I came upon her first novel, The Grass is Singing, written in 1950.  The book jacket said it takes place in "a sleepy South African town," and that was enough for me; I was sold.  (It's summer, so I love to read books set in far away, usually hot places.)

Reading The Grass is Singing is kind of like watching a train wreck about to happen.  From the first few pages you know that Mary Turner has been murdered and that Moses the houseboy has confessed to the deed.  So there's the wreck.  Now you spend the rest of the book watching how and why it happened.

Although at times I felt like Lessing could have used an editor to help her with her sentences (I can't believe I am saying that about a Nobel laureate!) and I wondered if her later works improved with the author's experience and maturity, I was mesmerized by this book.  Lessing brings the reader inside the psychological breakdown of Mary Turner, an experience so real and painful--yet utterly compelling--that it leaves you both fascinated and exhausted.

Warp-speed plot summary: Mary Turner, young, white, and naive, has actually stepped out of the 1940's constrictions on her gender, but doesn't realize that her happiness is unusual.  Thus, when she hears her more conventional colleagues gossiping about her not being married, Mary falls prey to society's expectations of her and she marries the first available man that comes along.  Unfortunately, that man is a not-very-successful farmer who brings Mary from her urban life to live in a hovel in the bush.  He may as well have brought her to Mars, and the changes her new, alien environment wreaks upon her have devastating consequences.

I would recommend this book for book groups because there is so much to discuss, especially if you read it through a post-colonial lens (which you know I like to do).  The novel caused quite a sensation when it was published, which won't surprise you, so that would be a long conversation all by itself. Just think how we used to look at white versus black.  At men versus women.   At Europe versus Africa.  And then you can discuss whether much as changed.

You can talk about how a white British woman wrote this book, and what meaning the book carries due to the author being a white British woman.  Who does the author give voice to?  What is the author's intention, and who is her intended audience?
The theme of identity is pervasive, and one angle through which to view this is the prisons we make for ourselves, the chains we allow to bind us.  Physical as well as mental and emotional prisons.  Spaces, environments--these all play a large role in the story.

One thing that I would love to discuss with someone--so if you read this book, feel free to contact me--is why it is titled as it is.  The reference is to a T.S. Eliot poem, but why this line?  Why this poem?  What does it mean?

Another intriguing title is that of Lisa O'Donnell's new novel, The Death of Bees, which came onto my radar because it won the Commonwealth Prize.  For more on that prize, click here.  This is a quick read, absolutely perfect for this summer.

Warp-speed plot summary: Marnie and Nelly's parents are dead.  Apparently Marnie or Nelly killed Gene, the father; Izzy, the mother, subsequently hanged herself.  Rather than become wards of social services (we are in a very poor area of Glasgow, Scotland), Marnie and Nelly bury their dead parents in the backyard and tell everyone that they've gone to Turkey.  No one really cares anyway; Gene and Izzy are drug addicts and appallingly neglectful parents, so anything they do doesn't surprise anyone.

Lennie, the gay outcast from next-door, takes pity on the girls and becomes a surrogate parent to them.  This seems to be a good solution until the girls' grandfather--Izzy's dad--shows up looking for his daughter.  Uh oh.  And Izzy and Gene's drug supplier shows up looking for his money.  Uh oh. And Lennie's dog keeps digging in the garden.  Uh oh.

This book is not perfect (but then, what book is?  Oh, we could have a long discussion about that).  However, I couldn't wait to find out what happens to all the characters in this dark and charming (yes, dark AND charming) story.  The voices of Marnie and Nelly are two of the most memorable I've read, and although the situation of the characters is rather grim, you still find yourself laughing out loud.

Back to the title: it has almost nothing to do with the book whatsoever.  Or...perhaps it has everything to do with it.  Suffice to say here--this book is not about bees.  So, your book group will be able to spend quite a bit of time interpreting the title.

Unlike The Grass is Singing (outside parts of the Venn diagram circles here), The Death of Bees is rather uplifting in its own little way.  While both books are dark (you all know by now that I can read dark), Lessing's novel spirals inexorably down into an abyss, while O'Donnell's novel has a much more fairy-tale ending.  Truth be told, the ending may annoy some readers, but I enjoyed this book so much, I wouldn't let it bother me.

This post is way too long--have you read all the way to here???  Thanks for doing so, and happy reading to you!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Women's Prize--A Winner!!!

Congratulations to A.M. Homes for winning The Women's Prize for her novel May We Be Forgiven.  This book has just moved up to the top of my TBR pile!  For more info, click here.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Summer Reading Suggestions!

As Memorial Day Weekend is the unofficial kick-off to summer (and that was a whole week ago!), I thought I would post some summer reading suggestions--brought to you by none other than the most fabulous readers ever: my Literary Masters book group members!  Here's wishing you all a wonderful summer--may you turn all the pages you wish to, both literally and figuratively!

In no particular order, enjoy these books this summer:

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (there is another book by the same title written by a different author, which is supposed to be quite good, too)

Speedboat by Renata Adler

The Submission by Amy Waldman

A Hundred Flowers by Gail Tsukiyama

One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

11/22/63 by Stephen King

Enchantments: A novel of Rasputin's daughter and the Romanovs by Kathryn Harrison

Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir

The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir

Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Open City by Teju Cole

The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Let me know if you read anything that is absolutely un-put-down-able!

Friday, May 31, 2013

Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award--the Shortlist!

I want to read a collection of short stories with my Literary Masters book groups this coming season.  We are absolutely spoiled for choice!  Do we read something from Lydia Davis, the most recent International Man Booker Award winner?  Or perhaps we catch up on one of Alice Munro's collections?  She, too, is an International Man Booker Award winner.  Or perhaps we'll read the collection from the winner of the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.  The shortlist has been announced:
  • Tea at the Midland and other stories – David Constantine 
  • Siege 13 – Tamas Dobozy
  • Black Vodka – Deborah Levy
  • Black Dahlia & White Rose
  • We’re Flying - Peter Stamm
  • Battleborn - Claire Vaye Watkins
Congratulations to these authors!  The winner will be announced in early July.  For more info, click here.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize--We've Got a Winner!

Congratulations to Dutch author Gerbrand Bakker for winning the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for his novel The Detour.  Bakker has won prizes before; indeed, his novel The Twin is one of my favorites--you'll remember how I gushed about it in an earlier blog post (click here) as a quiet book that just stayed with me for the longest time after I finished it.

I can't wait to get my hands on The Detour--race you to the library!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Ondaatje Prize--a Winner!

Congratulations to Philip Hensher for winning the 2013 Ondaatje Prize for his novel Scenes from Early Life.  For more info on this prize, click here.

Friday, May 3, 2013

2013 Best Translated Book Award: And the Winner is:

Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes (New Directions; Hungary)

Let me know if you read it!  

Thursday, May 2, 2013

2013 Best Translated Book Award--the Finalists for Fiction

Save the date!!!  Tomorrow the winner of the 2013 Best Translated Book Award will be announced.  Here are the finalists for the fiction category:

The Planets by Sergio Chejfec, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary (Open Letter Books; Argentina)

Prehistoric Times by Eric Chevillard, translated from the French by Alyson Waters (Archipelago Books; France)

The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, translated from the Persian by Tom Patterdale (Melville House; Iran)

Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes (New Directions; Hungary)

Autoportrait by Edouard Levé, translated from the French by Lorin Stein (Dalkey Archive Press; France)

A Breath of Life: Pulsations by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz (New Directions; Brazil)

The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller, translated from the German by Philip Boehm (Metropolitan Books; Romania)

Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz (Open Letter Books; Russia)

Transit by Abdourahman A. Waberi, translated from the French by David Ball and Nicole Ball (Indiana University Press; Djibouti)

My Father’s Book by Urs Widmer, translated from the German by Donal McLaughlin (Seagull Books; Switzerland)

I haven't read even one of these books--and I read a lot!  How about you?  For more on each book, click here.  And don't forget to check in tomorrow and I'll let you know which title won!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Women's Prize for Fiction: the Short List!

Save the date!  We will have a winner for the Women's Prize for Fiction, formally the Orange Prize, on June 5th.  Until then, you have some reading to do!  Here's the list:
  • Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
  • NW by Zadie Smith
  • Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
  • May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes
  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
  • Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Clearly, we are spoiled for choice.  Congratulations to the women whose works have made it thus far!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Pulitzer Prizes Announced Today!

And this time they actually awarded the prize for fiction!  Click here for all the news.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Should Your Book Club Read Schroder by Amity Gaige?

Hmm...well, this is a quick read, and it's one that book clubs will enjoy.  I will not be choosing it for my Literary Masters book groups, however.    I would recommend taking this novel to the beach or on an airplane, though--it's a compelling read.  The story is narrated by Schroder, aka Kennedy, who is writing some sort of apologia to his ex-wife (for one) because he kidnapped their daughter.

Here's what I liked about it: it was, as I said, a quick read, one I didn't have to exert too much brain power for, and I was in the mood for just that.  Yes, it's definitely a page-turner.  I wanted to find out how reliable the narrator Schroder/Kennedy is.  I wondered if we had a Humbert Humbert on our hands.  The narrator in this instance admits to his duplicity up front.  Hmm...is he believable?  Is he forgivable

I liked that I really entered the head of Schroder/Kennedy.  I think the author does a good job there.  And I felt his love for his daughter, and hers for him.

Here's what I would have liked more of: the bit about silences and pauses, and poetic reversals.  I think she could have fleshed this out much, much more and developed a much more literary novel.

I wish I knew more about Schroder's childhood and relationship with his parents.  Although the author touches on the narrator's background, she doesn't give enough information to fully or convincingly explain the psychological reasons for what he is doing. 

I wish I knew more about Schroder/Kennedy's relationship with his ex-wife.  Again, we get a bit of that, but much more would have illuminated the motives of the narrator/kidnapper and would have gotten this reader, at least, more invested in the story.  We don't get her perspective at all--or minimally, anyway--so the story feels rather flat.

I think the author has the bones of a great novel here, but I don't think she layered those bones with enough muscle, sinew, and flesh to make it a literary book.  I feel like when I try to "dig deep," I hit the skeleton pretty quickly, and that is that--on to the next book.

I do love the name Amity Gaige, though. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Congrats to the Winners of the Windham Campbell Prize!

According the website of the Windham Campbell Prize, "The Donald Windham Sandy M. Campbell literature prizes at Yale University recognize emerging and established writers for outstanding achievement in fiction, non-fiction, and drama."  (For more info on the prize, click here.)  So, many congratulations to:

  • Tom McCarthy
  • James Salter
  • Zoe Wicomb
  • Adina Hoffman
  • Jeremy Scahill
  • Jonny Steinberg
  • Stephen Adly Guirgis
  • Tarell Alvin McCraney
  • Naomi Wallace

Saturday, March 2, 2013

National Book Critics Circle Award--the Winners!

The National Book Critics Circle Award winners have been announced, and once again, Literary Masters book groups are ahead of the curve!  Our choice for this month is Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, which just won the award in the fiction category--yahoo!!!

For more on the awards, click here.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Should Your Book Club Read Imagining Argentina by Lawrence Thornton?

Ahhh...this is a tough one.  I think this is a really important book to read, but I have to say that it is somewhat difficult, perhaps too difficult for some book clubs.  When I say "difficult," I am not referring to the structure or the plot or the story; I am thinking of  the scenes of torture that are essential to our understanding of what the book is about.

The story takes place in Argentina during the "dirty war"--from about 1976 through 1983--when a military junta, after ousting Isabella Peron, gripped the country in a state of prolonged terror.  Anyone who opposed the regime, anyone suspected of subversion, anyone related to those who opposed the regime--basically tens of thousands of people--were taken, or "disappeared," in the middle of the night.  No explanation.  The kidnapped were tortured and killed.  Yet the regime denied anything of the sort was going on.

In this novel, Carlos runs a theater group for children, but when people start disappearing, he seems to have a magical ability to imagine what has happened to them.  Worried relatives seek his knowledge and he soon develops a following.  The narrator of the story cannot explain how Carlos does this and is skeptical, swinging from suspended disbelief to cynicism, much like the reader of the novel.  Yet, the narrator (and this reader at least) ends up firmly in the camp of those who believe in Carlos' imagination--and its power to defeat the terror.

I would love it if your book club would read Imagining Argentina because I'd like to hear your thoughts on it.  It's a very beautifully written novel (in spite of the scenes of torture) whose message I'm not sure I understood.  It seems like it was saying that we must imagine our way beyond the banal, beyond the evil.  And by doing so we will transcend it.  We can do this through art, through story-telling, through spirituality or other means, but it is very important that we do it.  That we remember and tell what happened.

Let me know if your book club reads it and what everyone thinks.  And if you're not sure your book club should read it, why don't you read it first--because every individual should--that's for sure.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Should Your Book Club Read The End of the Affair by Graham Greene?

The answer to the question: yes, with reservation.  This novel was the February selection for Literary Masters book groups and literary salons.  It proved to be a very difficult book for a lot of members, BUT we had seriously intense and riveting discussions.  So, I say "with reservation" because, if your book club is more social than serious, your members may have trouble with the book.  On the other hand, if your book club likes to "dig deep" into great literature, this is the book for you!

So what can your book club discuss?  The following contains many spoilers, and is in no particular order.  In fact, forgive me if there's a rambling nature to this blog post, but my head is swirling with thoughts due to the many fantastic insights my LM members expressed, and I want to get them down here.

Warp-speed plot summary: Maurice Bendrix is obsessed with Sarah Miles, who is inconveniently married to the unassuming Henry.  When Sarah breaks off the affair abruptly with no explanation, Bendrix is determined to find out why.

There are many lenses through which to view this novel.  Let's take a look at a few:

The biographical lens:  Yes, this book appears to be somewhat autobiographical.  Greene's house on Clapham Common was bombed during WWII.  Greene had an adulterous relationship with a woman who seems strikingly like the character Sarah.  Greene and his lover kept diaries that they shared.  Greene converted to Catholicism but seemed to struggle with his faith.  Greene went through Jungian psychoanalysis when he was young--and this book seems to be some sort of therapy for both Greene and Bendrix.  Greene is said to have suffered from depression (and was bipolar according to some accounts) throughout his life.

However, most of us knew none of the above before we read the book, so this information colored our reading experience in retrospect.  Once we knew these details, though, we couldn't help but conflate the life of Green with the lives of his characters.  And let's not forget that we have an author, Greene, writing about an author, Bendrix, writing about the end of his affair...who comes across the diary of his lover...

The historical lens:  We all discussed how this novel was about more than a love affair; it was about a whole new world that had exploded on the scene, literally, due to two world wars.  We talked about how of course one would question his or her faith--and whether there could be a God in a world that had seen such atrocities.  Note the references to the Victorian age in the novel, and see what message you can take away.

The psychoanalytic lens:  I mentioned above that Greene went through Jungian therapy, and my bet is that he read plenty of Freud.  So was it intentional on his part, or am I just reading into the novel the structure of the Oedipus Complex?  Motherless Bendrix has found his substitute in Sarah; he is the phallus for her, and the two of them are emotionally inseparable.  When Sarah, in the role of mother, leaves Bendrix, in the role of child, for the father--and in this case it's God the Father--Bendrix attempts to kill that father by denying his existence.

And if you don't like that triangle, how about this one: the Karpman Triangle, where each of three people take on a role of either Persecutor, Victim, or Rescuer.  In this relationship dynamic (which you can google to find out more about--it's really interesting) the roles are very fluid with the three individuals moving around and taking on a different role at various times.  One Literary Master member brought this to our attention; she said she was seeing these triangles all over the story!

We have more than a few feminists among us, and there was quite a lot of discussion about Sarah and what she got out of her relationship with Bendrix.  We tried to understand her in the context of the times, but she is a slippery one--we couldn't agree on her at all.  Lacan would have a field day with this!  (You know, Jacques Lacan, the "French Freud.")  Sarah needs someone to admire her--to validate her existence.  You'll want to talk about her mother and how that relationship has affected Sarah.  Interestingly, more than a few of us thought that Sarah made her vow as a way to break off her relationship with Bendrix.

No matter how you feel about Sarah, you'll want to discuss whether she truly did believe in God.  And if yes, when and why.

You'll want to explore the same question about Bendrix.

Henry is another character that will consume quite a bit of your time.  Some of us saw some homosexual tendencies in him--and in Bendrix.  Regardless, you'll want to dig deep into Henry's motivations.

This has been called a "Catholic novel" by critics.  You may or may not agree with this characterization, but you will want to discuss the miracles that occur in the story.  Are they truly miracles, or is there always a scientific explanation for what has occurred?  Are they just coincidences?

You'll want to discuss the role of suffering in the story and how it relates to love.

You'll want to discuss the language and Greene's use of opposites for effect. Not only are words and phrases contrasted; characters are as well.  We have the "high" and the "low" and you'll want to wonder why.  Speaking of characters, you'll want to carve out quite some time to discuss the secondary characters in this novel.  For example, what is the purpose of the scene with Sylvia Black?  (My answer--just a hint--focus on her initials...)

You'll want to discuss the symbolism and imagery in the story.  (Does Bendrix "rise from the dead"?)

If you've read all the way to here, kudos to you.  You're obviously a serious reader who will enjoy Greene's work.  When you've finished the novel, watch the movie (I watched the version with Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes).  You'll want to compare it with the book.  It's really good!

As always, let me know how your book club gets on--and enjoy!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Should Your Book Club Read Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter?

Should your book club read Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter?  Yes, absolutely.  If you're not in a book club (poor you), you should read it anyway.  It's funny and charming and compelling.  And very thought-provoking.  There's a lot of serious stuff going on beneath the humor in this book.  I laughed at parts and I cried at others.  This was Literary Masters' choice for September, and it was a huge hit!

Warp-speed plot summary:  It's 1962 Italy and the stunning Dee Moray arrives in the beautiful but forgotten seaside village Porto Vergogna on the Ligurian coast.  Our hero Pasquale is immediately smitten with her.  For reasons I won't go into here, she disappears from his life, and fifty years later he embarks on a quest to find her.  The reader is zipped along from Italy to Seattle, with stops that include Edinburgh, Rome, and Hollywood along the way.  Each place is brimming with unforgettable characters--each one more human than the next.

So what can your book club talk about? 

Well, you'll want to start by asking my favorite question:  What is this book about?

This elicited quite a few different answers, largely because this book has a lot going on in it.  A few themes stand out, though, and you'll want to 'dig deep' into each one.  For example, you'll want to talk about living the life you think you should be living versus really living the one you're in.  And speaking about the life you should be living, who has imposed that "should"?  Who has dictated the narrative of how your life should be led?   

One's identity and how it is formed is related to this, and you'll want to consider what the book is saying here.  For example, how are our identities shaped by our culture?  And who shapes or makes our culture in the first place?  Who has the power to do so?

The theme of storytelling runs throughout the novel--you'll want to ponder:  who gets to tell the stories that reflect and/or shape our culture?   And how do I create the narrative of my own life?  And who owns my story and why do I relinquish the telling of my story to someone else?

You'll also want to talk about the characters' quests for fame.  Why are they so intent on being seen by others?  Is this just human nature?  And you'll want to discuss the relationship between fame and art.  What is the book saying about this?

Shane's motto is "act as if," which seems particularly relevant to today's "social media generation."  Or perhaps people have always done this.  Perhaps people have always been projecting an image to others of how we want to be perceived.  Your book club can decide...

The characters that seemed to stand apart from the others were Pasquale and Michael Deane.  You'll want to talk about the innocence of Pasquale--and why he chose to do what he did--and you'll want to talk about...the incredibly unique Michael Deane.  One of my groups spent quite a long time trying to decide whether he is a narcissist or just a control freak.  Or both.

We talked a lot about what motivated the characters, and we 'dug deep' into the theme of desire in the novel.  "People want what they want."  You'll want to give this statement a lot of thought.

The Donner Party chapter is one you'll want to discuss.  I was fascinated by how we came at this from different perspectives.   For example, is the main point that Eddy is a hero whose story isn't told?  Can there even be a hero if there is no story?  Or is the point that, although there is a heroic person and story to be told, the audience is more interested in hearing about cannibalism?  Are we to draw the parallel between the cannibals of the Donner Party--eating each other to survive--and Hollywood--where much the same thing goes on?

The pillbox with the paintings also generated a lot of discussion.  Is it true art if no one sees it?  Why did Pasquale and Dee Moray invent the story about the artist?  And why was the "truth" so far from what they had imagined?  What is the book saying about truth and reality?  Your book club can have some deeply philosophical discussions, if you're so inclined.

You'll want to consider the epigraphs and their significance, if any, and you'll want to do the same for the title.

Well, I could go on, but I think this should get you started.  This wonderful novel has landed on more than one "Best of" lists for 2012 (if you "like" Literary Masters on Facebook, you can find a link to many of the "Best of 2012" lists), and I think you'll agree that it deserves all the praise.  Let me know how your book group enjoys it!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Should Your Book Club Read The Round House by Louise Erdrich?

My answer to this question is yes.  In fact, I think this is one of those books that is better read in a group than on one's own.  Trevor over at The Mookse and the Gripes reviewed it (click here for his excellent review) and he captured much of what I was struggling with as I read it.  As he so eloquently put it, it's a "bit of a mess."  Having said that, though, it's really a mess worth reading and discussing with your book club.  Really.

It won the National Book Award, which put it on my radar.  My personal book club (not my Literary Masters groups) read it, and we had a rollicking discussion.  So, what can your book club discuss?

Warp speed plot summary (for a more comprehensive review, refer to Trevor's above):

Set on an Native American reservation, this is a coming-of-age tale, told through the eyes of a 13 year old boy.  The narrator is much older now, but he is looking back and telling us the story of a pivotal event in his life: his mother was brutally attacked and raped by someone either on or near the reservation.  How the family copes and what ensues makes for a very interesting and thought-provoking read.

Your book club will probably want to discuss:
  • The family dynamics and the reversal of roles that takes place in the aftermath of the attack.  We all agreed that the love the boy feels for his family was the most moving part of the story.
  • You'll want to talk about the significance of the Native American myths that are woven throughout the novel.  How do they parallel, echo, or reinforce the themes of the book?
  •  What do you think of how life on a reservation is portrayed?  Is there a statement being made here?  This may open up the discussion of how Native Americans have been treated historically.
  • You will definitely want to talk about the narrator's motivations for telling us his story.  Why is he doing so?  Is he a reliable narrator?  Is his story important and why or why not?
  • In the afterword of the novel, Louise Erdrich states, "This book is set in 1988, but the tangle of laws that hinder prosecution of rape cases on many reservations still exists."  You'll want to discuss how the law plays a role in the story.  And you'll want to discuss whether the events at the end of the book are justifiable in the light of the legal situation. 
  •  Shifting boundaries pervade the story, and you'll want to talk about this.  Legal, familial, racial, physical: nothing is contained forever, no matter how much people try to enforce limitations.  This is a huge and important theme throughout the book.
  •  You'll want to discuss the symbolism and imagery in the book.  Hint: it opens with some significant symbolism.  How does it illustrate the meaning of the novel?
  • There are many characters worth discussing, especially in their relation to Joe, the narrator.  Considering this is a coming-of-age tale, you'll want to understand what Joe experienced as a boy, without his 'future understanding as a man,' and what he is reflecting upon as a grown man.  Very different--and rather important differences.  Memory and perspective will come into your conversation, no doubt.

All right, I could go on, but this should get you started.  My personal book club discussed all of the above and then some, and we came away from our meeting feeling like we had really 'dug deep' into the book.  Let me know how your book club meeting goes--enjoy!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Books into Movies--Game Change

Julianne Moore is one of my favorite actresses, ever since I saw her amazing performance in the film version of The End of the Affair, which just happens to be the February selection for Literary Masters book groups and literary salons.  Now she has starred--and scooped up a Golden Globe Award for best actress--in the film version of Game Change, a non-fiction book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.

I watched the movie first and was so gob-smacked at the story, I rushed out to the library to grab the book.  The book is much more comprehensive than the film.  The movie centers around Sarah Palin, after she is tapped by John McCain to be his vice-president, and the campaign for the presidency from that 'game-changing' moment until the election.  The film is thoroughly compelling and utterly fascinating.  My jaw was on the floor for most of it.  Yes, I was very aware of the story; this wasn't news to me, as I tend to follow presidential elections with some interest.  But this was inside the story, and honestly, I don't know how much of it was true, but if only half of it was, NO ONE comes out of it looking good.

The book is more about the campaigning for the Democratic nomination, so it covers the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama much more--in fact, maybe too much unless you like following politics and elections.  This is not to put you off reading it--it bogs down just a little--and each time it does, it quickly picks up and swiftly carries you along another storyline which you will not be able to put down--the John Edwards campaign, for example, or the problems that former president Bill Clinton posed for Hillary, or, of course, the main train wreck, Sarah Palin and the implosion of John McCain's campaign.  This is seriously frightening stuff.  You know how they say, if you like to eat sausages, don't look at how they are made?  Well, if you want to trust in your politicians, don't look at how a campaign is run, or how an election is won.  Sausage-making looks yummy in comparison.

Bottom line:  Run, do not walk, to get the DVD of the movie.  You can walk to the library to get the book.  The fresh air will open up your lungs.  And this book will open up yours eyes.  Read it!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Happy 2013! Best Books of 2012!

Happy 2013!!!

It has been a busy, busy holiday season!  Hence, I am a little late in posting the best books of 2012.  Below you'll find my take on my favorite ten 2012 reads as well as some links to "Best Books" lists I have found elsewhere.

So, I have enjoyed the following ten books:

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. The second in a trilogy, this novel won Mantel her second Booker award.  Yes, the first was for Wolf Hall.  No, you don't have to read WH to "get" BUTB, and the latter is much more accessible, easier to read.  Henry the 8th, Anne Boleyn, palace intrigue...what's not to love?  This book is scooping up all the major prizes, by the way.  More importantly, it is Literary Masters selection for May. :-)

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter.  Funny, poignant, multi-layered.  This wonderful novel will make you laugh out loud and cry into your tissues.  Best of all, it just may make you be a little more forgiving of people around you.  And of yourself.  It has landed on many "Best Books" lists; in fact, it was one of the NY Times' Notable Books of 2012.  But not until after it was Literary Masters' selection for September 2012!

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham.  No, it wasn't published last year, but I read it in 2012 because it was Literary Masters' selection for October.  By far the most popular book across all my Literary Masters book groups and salons, this little novel has it all.  If I awarded stars, I would give it five!  Much, much better than the movie.  Here's my original post on it.

What Happened to Sophie Wilder? by Christopher Beha.  I loved this book.  I found it while trolling some other blogs--I can't remember who to thank for this recommendation--but I couldn't put it down and I look forward to more from this author.  A very literary yet readable novel, a love story, a deeply thought-provoking book.

West With the Night by Beryl Markham.  Another oldie but goodie that I read last year.  Here's my original post on it:

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.  This was Literary Masters' May 2012 selection, and just about everyone loved it.  Some of us were even inspired to read (or re-read) Moby Dick.  If you haven't read TAOF yet, you are in for a treat. 

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris.  I have Reading Matters, a blog I follow, to thank for this one.  Hard to get into at first, but then you can't put it down.  A psychological thriller, set in Victorian times.  My niece read it and came away with a totally different interpretation than I did.  I love it!

Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron.  I couldn't stop thinking about this slim novel after I read it.  Here's my original post.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.  Another classic.  One of the best books I read in 2012, and probably one of the best books I've ever read.  Here's my original post.

In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar.  Yes, another Literary Masters 2012 selection.  Here's my original post.

Once you've read all of the above, here are some other lists to consult:

From the NY Times, a list of ten--click here.

From The Huffington Post, a longer list--click here.

From the Guardian, a really long list--click here.

From Trevor over at The Mookse and the Gripes, another blog I follow, click here.  Thanks, Trevor!

And from Kevin over at Kevin from Canada, click here.  Thanks, Kevin!

I could sit here all day and do this, but my other duties call!  Here's wishing you and yours a wonderful 2013--read a book, join a book group, talk about it with others, and as E.M. Forster so aptly put it: only connect!