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, 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!