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, October 21, 2014

Should Your Book Club Read Life After Life by Kate Atkinson?

YES.  In fact, I don't see how you could read this book and NOT discuss it--really digging deep like we do in our Literary Masters salons--with others.  Life After Life by Kate Atkinson was the October selection for Literary Masters book groups and salons, and it was a hit!

This book not only cries out for a post-reading discussion, it also demands to be read twice.  Honestly, the second reading makes all the difference--and makes the first reading worth the time.  So what can your book club discuss?


Warp speed plot summary:
Set mainly in England between 1910 and 1967, this novel tells the story of Ursula Todd and her family who live at Fox Corner.  The thing is, Ursula is a very unique character; she keeps dying and coming back to life.  Each time she returns, the life she leads is different from the one before. Sometimes it's slightly different, and other times it's radically different.  So what is going on?  We readers wonder this as we follow Ursula through her many lives and through the history of the time, especially the wars and the Blitz.

If this sounds like science fiction or fantasy to you, I would argue that it is not.  This book is so well done--as a piece of realistic fiction that is also perhaps a thought experiment--I urge you to give it a try.  Twice!

Your book club should "dig deep" into the following:

Two main things seem to be going on in this book: the exploration of philosophies or life beliefs, and a telling of the history of England.  As for the first:

You'll want to really ask yourselves: what is going on with Ursula?  Is she being reincarnated?  Is she living parallel lives?  Is there some sort of circularity happening, or is it more like a palimpsest?  Is the book saying anything about all of the above?  Or is it merely exploring all these concepts?  A good place to start is to ask yourselves:  Is Ursula conscious of what is going on?  Is she consciously making choices in her life that set her on a different course?

Or is she dreaming?  Or crazy?

Related to all of the above, you'll want to discuss the idea of eternal recurrence.  Read the epigraph together and talk about the importance of Nietzsche's concepts.  (If you don't have a philosophy major in your group, just do a bit of googling!)

Whatever you decide is happening with Ursula, is it also happening with the other characters?  Why, for instance, does Ursula's mother have scissors at one of the births?  What does this mean if it is happening with all the other characters?

These questions will no doubt carry you into the area of fate vs. randomness.  You'll want to discuss how much agency or free will Ursula and the other characters have.  How much free will do you think YOU have?  Is your life fated, or are you its master?  What is the book saying about this?  Is there a point to Ursula living her life over and over again?  Does she learn to improve it in any way?  Or is that irrelevant?  Is she finding ways to have agency over her fate?  Is that even possible?

Another major concept you'll want to explore is whether there is a core or essence to a person.  Is there a core to Ursula?  Is she essentially the same throughout all her lives?  Or is her identity shaped largely by her experiences?  Which points in the book do you think are pivotal with regard to Ursula's identity?

What about the other characters?  Does each one change depending on the life that s/he is experiencing?  Two interesting characters to "dig deep" into are Sylvie and Izzy.  This touches on the history of England aspect of the book also.  Think about the change from a traditional, pastoral, idyllic England (set in cozy Fox Corner) morphing into a modern, post-war, industrialized England.  Where do Sylvie and Izzy fit in this picture?  Where do the others fit, and what is the book saying about this change?

This may take you into a discussion of the role of women and what choices they had at different times of history. 

You'll want to discuss how the wars and particularly the Blitz are almost characters in the book.  There are graphic scenes of devastation in England but also in Germany, when Ursula and Frieda are victims of the Allied bombing.  What is the point of this juxtaposition?  Ursula has a crush on her Jewish neighbor in England but marries a German Nazi in another life.  Izzy's son is adopted by a German couple so could be dropping bombs on England while Teddy is dropping them on Germany.  What point is the book making?

You'll no doubt want to discuss the imagery in the book.  What significance does snow have?  What about all the animals?  Ursula means little bear, Teddy is a teddy bear, Hugh refers to Pooh bear--what's up with the bears?  What about foxes?  What does Fox Corner represent and why is it called that?  Ursula's last name is Todd, which means fox!  Yet she transforms into Miss Woolf on p.446--what does that mean?  There are many wolves, especially in the German section.  Adolf means wolf.  However, Ursula marries Jurgen Fuchs, which means fox!  And as I just mentioned, she admires and transforms into Miss Woolf!  Foxes vs. wolves--significant?

There is much more imagery to explore--you will no doubt come up with many more questions than answers!  Kate Atkinson seems to be, among other things, having fun with all the names in the book.  And you'll want to discuss all the literary references.  Is Maurice purposely named?  Are we meant to think of E.M. Forster's "homosexual novel" and thus make the connection that Maurice is a closeted gay man whose repression of his true self has resulted in his being a mean person?  Is Pamela purposely named?  Are we meant to think of Samuel Richardson's novel Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded?  Is she virtuous?  Does she get her reward?  Is the Miss Woolf mentioned above supposed to make us think of Virginia Woolf?

You'll want to discuss Hitler.  What role does Hitler play in this book?  Why does the book start with the scene that it does?  Does Ursula kill Hitler?

You'll also want to discuss the book as a meta-fiction.  Talk about how it's exploring the writing process itself.  You can start with the chapters titled "Snow," where every story starts over; they are like a clean sheet of paper.

This book was like a Rorschach test.  I think Stanley Fish would have enjoyed observing the many Literary Masters salons in which members read their own experiences into this novel.  The interpretations were wide-ranging and fascinating--I could go on and on discussing this book and discover new ways of looking at it each time.  In that way, it's very much like life.

There is so much more to this book, but time is flying and I must attend to other aspects of this life I am living.  Hopefully this will get you started in your discussion!  Let me know how it goes!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Gone Girl--the book/ Gone Girl--the movie

Yes, I did.  Two summers ago I read THE hot summer novel--Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  Just like everyone else.  And just like everyone else, I devoured it in almost one sitting.  Afterwards, I felt like I had binged on a hot fudge sundae.  Ugh.

My memory of the book is that it was a page-turner that dragged on a bit too long and had somewhat of a surprising ending.  Oh, I should probably mention here that this blog post has spoilers.  So, if you haven't read the book or watched the movie and you don't want to find out what happens, don't read this post.  Lots of people didn't like the ending because the two main characters--Nick and Amy--end up staying together.  After all they have been through!  I remember thinking, "Good.  They deserve each other."

Even though I have an appalling memory, I do recall that the book's first plot twist is done really well.  That's when the reader finds out that Amy has not died at the hands of Nick; indeed, Amy has not died at all.  She is alive and well and taking out a terrible revenge on Nick, setting him up to take the fall for her meticulously (and admirably) planned (faux) murder.

The book gets a bit loopy toward the end, but at that point I just wanted to finish it and see how everything would be resolved.  And as I said, Nick and Amy stay.together.  Done.  I shut the book and promptly forgot about it.

Until I saw it had been turned into a movie.  With Ben Affleck!  I gathered four friends and we went to the matinee yesterday.

Three out of five of us had read the book.  I sat next to a woman who hadn't--Kim.  And all during the first part of the film, when we meet angelic Amy and the philandering and potentially murdering/murderous husband Nick, I kept wondering if Kim and I were having completely different reactions to the story.  I kept wondering if Kim would suspect Nick at all.

Because here's the thing--in the book, Nick is not a sympathetic character.  Nor is Amy.  Like I said, they deserve each other.  And I have to hand it to Gillian Flynn for writing a book where the characters are so unlikable.  You may recall from other posts that I get really annoyed if someone tells me that they didn't like a book because they didn't like the characters.  Claire Messud, who wrote The Woman Upstairs, has quite a lot to say about this subject.  She expressed herself much more eloquently than I ever could; click here to read her opinion.

So, what's up, then, with casting Ben Affleck as Nick?  Ben Affleck?  Probably one of the least unlikable stars one could cast.  Everyone loves him!  He saved all the hostages who were hiding in the Canadian Embassy during the Iranian Revolution.  And he did it practically single-handedly.  He's married to that fresh faced beauty who never stops smiling.  And we know why.  It's because she's married to Ben Affleck!

Ben Affleck?  Come on.

This totally affected the movie--and not in a good way.  Instead of watching the (admittedly sick) dynamics of an equally matched dysfunctional marriage, the viewer can't help but side with Ben, I mean Nick, as he becomes a victim of his psychopathic wife.  And it's not even done very well.  Kim, who hadn't read the book, thought it was one of the most preposterous movies she had ever seen.  She couldn't understand why Nick would ever stay with his homicidal wife (yes, she is a true murderer).  And I struggled to explain that, in the book, the two characters are in a very sick relationship that they both thrive upon.  If there is ever a victim, they each takes turns being it.  Very fair.

Also, in the recesses of my mind, I think there's something from the book about his relationship with his dad--and possibly not wanting to turn into his dad?  Isn't that a motivating factor for staying with Amy?  I can't remember.

As Amy toys with Nick and Nick toys with Amy in the never ending "game" that goes on in the book, we readers realize how much fun Gillian Flynn must be having with us.  And we play along, enjoying the twists and turns of plot, as loopy (as I said) that they get.  And the movie is kind of camp in this way--it seems to bring attention to its ridiculousness--starting with the silly music and Amy's melodramatic voice.

Kim couldn't appreciate any of this, and instead just saw the flaws and gaping plot holes.  Well, even I had to wonder how anyone could green light the scene where Amy staggers home, then is questioned by the authorities at the hospital and finally allowed to return to her house covered in the blood of her alleged kidnapper whom she has killed.  Oh, yes, thanks for showing up after all these months and filling us in on what's been happening--why don't you go home and clean yourself up now--take a shower and rinse off all that nasty blood and evidence and stuff.


Bottom line: to really enjoy the movie, read the book first.  Then you know what kind of ride you're about to take.  Kim was unable to suspend disbelief because she was expecting something more clever than fun.  She may have been looking forward to a good murder mystery when we readers knew that Gone Girl isn't about the mystery of murder so much as it is about the mystery of marriage.  It's just a shame that the marriage in the movie isn't the fair match that it is in the book.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Eleanor Catton, Prize-Winning Author of The Luminaries: What an Inspiration

I haven't yet read The Luminaries, which won the Man Booker Prize as well as the New Zealand Post best fiction and people's choice awards.  I think its heft intimidates me; also, I've heard mixed reviews from my Literary Masters members.

However, I am thoroughly impressed by the Kiwi  author, the youngest ever to win the Man Booker: 28 year old Eleanor Catton.  Why, you ask?

Ms. Catton has decided to take the money from her latest awards and set up a grant that will enable writers "the time to read."

Let me repeat that: "the time to read"!

How awesome is that?  We all know that the best writers are READERS.  But really, you should read this article from The Guardian to learn Ms. Catton's reasons for her generosity.  In a world that lately seems to have gone stark raving mad, it is absolutely heart-warming and inspiring to witness such a move.

Click here for the article and enjoy!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Liz and Literary Masters in the News!

Just in case you don't get the Marin Independent Journal delivered to your door, here's a link to last Sunday's article on Literary Masters!  Kudos to Greer Gurewitz and a special tip of my hat to Alan Dep, photographer extraordinaire!


Friday, August 8, 2014

Last Minute Summer Reading List!

Hey!  If you haven't yet checked out North Bay Woman Magazine, you should do so now because yours truly has written a little article for them.  Here's the link:


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Man Booker Long List Announced!

This is always such a fun time of year when the award season really starts ramping up!  The Man Booker long list has been announced, and it's a big deal this year because, as you'll see from this link, this is the first year that writers from around the globe (the work must be written in English) can compete.  You will see some American authors on this list--of course you'll remember Karen Joy Fowler's book We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves as one of Literary Masters' book selections from last season.  (Can you hear the sound of patting on back right now?)

Click here for the link to see the twelve titles on the long list; this will eventually be whittled down to six for the short list.  What do you think?  Have the judges got it right this year?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Do You Want Your Child to Read?

A silly question, right?  We all want our children to read, and ideally, we'd like them to read books! Parents who know about  Literary Masters frequently approach me and ask, "How can I get my child to read more?"  This is what I tell them:  If you want your child to read, YOU must read.  It's like Robert Fulghum, the author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, said so eloquently, "Don't worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you."

Children model their parents' behavior (scary concept, I know); what their parents DO is much more important than what their parents SAY.  So, if you want your children to read, make it clear that your home values reading.  Carve out some evening time to read and suggest your children do the same.  Even better, carve out some time to read together.  And best of all, join a Literary Masters Parent/Child book group to discuss what you've read together.  Not only will you learn something about the book--I guarantee you, you will learn something about your child!

Click here for an awesome article that Frank Bruni wrote for the NY Times.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

What do YOU think of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch?

Are you on Facebook?  If so, please "like" Literary Masters, directly to the right of this post you are now reading, and you can read/weigh in on the conversation regarding critics' responses to The Goldfinch.  See you over there!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Roll of a WHIRL!

As you well know, WHIRL stands for What Have I Read Lately, and I have to say, I have been on a roll!  I won't have time to do full reviews or even "Should Your Book Club Read..." reviews--sorry!  But I can give you a "blink" of what I think.

So, What Have I Read Lately?

Someone by Alice McDermott.  Sigh.  So good.  I'm resisting returning it to the library because I want to ignore all my other books and pick this back up and read it again.  Savor it, more like it.  Irish immigrants living in Brooklyn, female narrator remembering her life.  Nothing of importance in her life--except to her, of course.  Filled with the ordinariness of life.  Just someone's life.  Five stars, if I gave stars.

Benediction by Kent Haruf.  Another quiet book to savor, this time with characters on the Colorado plains.  Spare prose, simple plot (or is it?)--another look at the ordinariness of everyday life--and how extraordinary it can be when summed up.  A dying man whose family is taking care of him--his present, his past, and how they intertwine.  Five stars, if I gave stars.

All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu.  I've been wanting to read something by this author from Ethiopia, the recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant.  This novel goes back and forth between Isaac in Uganda to Helen in the US Midwest.  Isaac has fled war-torn Ethiopia and Uganda and landed in the Midwest with Helen as his social worker.  Helen has never been beyond the end of her nose.  A very readable novel but not earth shattering.  Three and a half to four stars.  If I gave stars, that is.

God's Hotel by Victoria Sweet.  Our Literary Masters selection for the month of April, this non-fiction account of the only alms hospital left in the United States--Laguna Honda in San Francisco--raises some serious questions.  The author's thesis is that we should incorporate much more slow medicine (closer to pre-modern medicine) into our health care system because we would save lives and money in the long run.  Important issues here.  Literary Masters members loved the book for the most part, although there was a small minority who found the author insufferable.  Four stars.  If...

Telex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner.  Our Literary Masters selection for the month of March, this novel will take you back to the 50's with the added bonus of a trip included--to Cuba!  Here's the story of the American ex-pats and Cuban revolutionaries mixing it up--right before Castro successfully takes over Cuba.  The prose is as lush as the Cuban jungle and as intoxicating as the exc-pats' nightly cocktails.  We loved it!  Four and a half stars

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.  Literary Masters read The Innocents by Francesca Segal for our February selection, which is a re-imagining of Wharton's classic.  For that review, click here.  To read these two book together is a real treat, but if you don't have the time, read this one!  It is a sparkling gem of a novel!  New York City in the late 1800's--and the social climbing involved in surviving there.  The more things change, the more they...
Five stars.

Well, what have YOU read lately?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Should Your Book Club Read The Good Lord Bird by James McBride?

Being the founder of Literary Masters, a literary society of over 200 members (and growing rapidly--thank you, all of you!), I read A LOT.  So, perhaps I am more critical than most.  I don't want superfluous words or pages; I want tight writing.  Now, I have to thank those over at the National Book Award for introducing me to James McBride--wow, can he write!  His novel, The Good Lord Bird won the award this past year, and I just finished it.  I have already requested Song Yet Sung from the library.  This author can write--his use of language is truly inspiring--and he can spin a tale that will keep you turning the pages--and he can tug at your heartstrings while tickling your funny bone.  He really can write!  The only gripe I have with this book is that it's too long--it needed an editor.  I couldn't put the book down for the first 100 pages, but the next 200 were inconsistent--too much repetition and scenes dragged on a bit.  The last 100 pick up speed again--and when I say speed, I mean page-turning into the wee hours of the night speed.  So, that's my uber-critical take on this otherwise outstanding novel.  Is it worth reading?  Yes!  Is it worth discussing with your book group?  Yes!

So what can your book club discuss?

Warp-speed plot summary:  It's 1856 and Henry, a slave in Kansas Territory (where pro-slavers and anti-slavers are up against each other), meets Old John Brown, the legendary abolitionist.  Old John Brown, who sees things the way he sees them, not only gives Henry a new name--Onion, he also gives him a new gender, turning him from Henry to Henrietta.  Onion joins John Brown, or the Captain, on his quest to free all the slaves--just as God has ordained--and travels with him for the following years until the big event at Harpers Ferry, which will precipitate the Civil War.

Henry tells us the story and rips us along on his adventure much like he was ripped along by Old John Brown.  Fasten your seat belts, for you are in for a ride!

You'll want to discuss the language!!!  You'll want to savor it for sure, but you'll want to consider why the author used this sort of wild west/Huckleberry Finn/caricature style to tell his tale.  How does it affect your reading experience?  How does it affect the meaning of the book for you?  What purpose does the humor serve?

You'll want to discuss why Henry becomes Henrietta for so long, and what makes him revert to Henry.  Are identity issues being explored here?  Or is it saying more about Old John Brown's view of the world, seeing what he wanted to see.  Or is John Brown creating the world he wants?  Is Onion able to do more as a girl than a boy?  Or is the author subverting traditional notions of male/female abilities?  Is he making a statement about the time, 1856?

You'll also want to discuss why Onion is half black and half white.  Is this significant?  Onion is a child, so he can see things to which adults have become blinded.  Does his straddling the two races give him insight that others do not have?  And he is also straddling two genders, so he's got quite a lot going on.  What significance does all this hold?  And why "Onion"?

You'll want to discuss Onion in depth.  Hero?  Villain?  Neither?  Reliable narrator?  What does he learn on his journey?  What was his purpose to Old John Brown?

You'll want to discuss Old John Brown in depth also.  Hero?  Villain?  Neither?  You'll want to talk about his religious zealotry, his motivations for abolishing slavery, his tactics for doing so, and whether this portrait of him is fair.  What values and mores informed his actions?

You'll want to discuss Frederick Douglass and his portrayal in this story.  What point is being made by his characterization?

You'll want to talk about the role of slaves and the role of free blacks in dealing with slavery and abolition.  This book makes it clear that it was a complex issue, so you'll want to "dig deep" into what exactly the book is saying about this.

You'll want to discuss the title and the significance of the bird itself and of the feathers from that bird.  Are the colors significant?

You'll want to discuss whether this is an important book and why or why not.  Is it an essential addition to the literature about slavery and the civil war?  Can it help race relations today?

And of course, you'll want to talk about the messages or overall point of the book.  You'll want to ask yourselves, What is this book about???

There's lots more to discuss, but that ought to get you started!  Enjoy!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Should Your Book Club Read Three Strong Women by Marie Ndiaye?

Can a book be beautiful and compelling while being suffocating and depressing?  I found that I couldn't put this book down, but wonder if I had, would I have resisted picking it back up?  Three Strong Women won France's most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt, and Marie Ndiaye, by all accounts, is one of France's most anticipated, applauded, and astounding authors.  So, I wanted to read this book!

My answer to whether your book club should read it is: it depends on your book club.  This is not a typical book club read, and I can't imagine everyone loving it...having said that, it is worth reading and worth discussing--if your book club can handle a book that is, well, beautiful but suffocating, compelling but depressing.

So what can your book club discuss?

Warp-speed plot summary:

The book consists of three stories that are very loosely connected.  In the first part, Norah has been called back to her native Senegal from France by her father, a demonic character who has a grip over Norah that she can't shake.  Or can she?

In the second part, Rudy has brought his Senegalese wife Fanta back to France where only Rudy can legally work.  Although schooled and trained to be a teacher, Rudy works as a kitchen salesman.  His boss is the man with whom Fanta had an affair.  Rudy immediately forgave his boss, but has had trouble forgiving Fanta and has treated her horribly in retaliation.  Rudy is now desperate because he thinks Fanta may leave him for good.

In the third (and most depressing) part, Khady has been kicked out of her deceased husband's family's house and told to make her way from Senegal to France.  With no schooling, no family, no home, and no way to make an independent living, Khady has no choice but to do what she is told.  Or does she?

One aspect of all these stories that you'll want to discuss is the mental stability (or lack thereof) of the three main characters.  Is Norah slowly losing her mind, her grip on reality?  Can we readers trust her as a reliable narrator?  How does her account of her trip to and stay in Senegal change from the beginning of her narration to the end?  Is Rudy losing his mind?  If you think Norah and/or Rudy are losing their grasps on reality, how do you think they end up?  Do they go totally insane?  Do they pull back from the brink and return to reality?  Do they remain just as they are?  Is Khady in touch with reality?  Why or why not?

You'll want to discuss the symbolism and imagery in the book and what meaning is conveyed to the reader and why.  There is a touch of magical realism in the first and second stories in particular--or is there?  Instead, are we simply listening to the thoughts and rantings of mentally ill people?

Related to the above, you'll want to pay attention to wings, flight, prisons, and cages.

You'll definitely want to discuss the language and the way the author creates an atmosphere that is oppressive and claustrophobic--for the characters as well as for the reader.  And what about the dreamlike states the characters seem to drift in and out of?  Are they related to the question of mental illness, or do they have a different purpose?  How do they make you feel as reader?  Like you're moving in slow motion?

You'll want to talk about the title.  The word "puissant" in French means powerful.  Why does the English title use the word "strong"?  And who is strong or powerful?  What kind of strength or power is wielded in this novel?  Oh yes, this is a big discussion.  Possibly the biggest.

You'll want to talk about mothers, fathers, and other relationships in the novel.  Is there a pattern?  Who are the villains and why?  How are the children responding to the legacies left to them by their parents?

Talk about how the stories are connected.  Are the stories more meaningful because they are together?  Are there repetitions?  Are there similar themes?

And of course, you'll want to discuss the locations.  And dislocations.  Norah's father forces her to come to Senegal and stay there.  Rudy forces Fanta to come to France, even though he knows she cannot work independently.  Khady is forced to leave her home in Senegal and told to find her way to France.  What is all of this saying, if anything, about colonialism and its legacy?

There's much more to discuss, but that should get you started.  Let me know how it goes!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Should Your Book Club Read The Cellist of Sarajevo?

If, like billions of others, you regularly read this blog, you know that I love my local library.  Linda, one of the stellar librarians, recommended this book to me.  How on earth did I miss this book when it first came out in 2008?  That's when I was starting Literary Masters so I was busy, yes, but this gem of a novel would have been a great literary treasure to 'dig deep' into.  In fact, my answer to whether your book club should read The Cellist of Sarajevo is a resounding YES!

So what can your book club discuss?

I am embarrassed to admit how little I know about the war in former Yugoslavia.  Ironically, I was living in London for many of those years, only a two hour flight from the war zone.  I remember a weekend trip we took to Italy to escape the English weather; we were soaking up the sunshine in an outdoor cafe and our waitress was a refugee from Yugoslavia.  She looked like any young English or Italian woman--educated, well-dressed, articulate, friendly--it was her accent that started our conversation with her about her origins.  At the time the war was just entering my consciousness so her plight didn't register like it should have.  I wonder what happened to her and others like her.

If you're looking for a book that will tell you all about the conflict--how it started and what went on--this is not that book.  In fact, if you know of such a book, PLEASE let me know the title!  Post it in the comments below; I am looking for a very accessible non-fiction book or novel that will shed light on what happened there and why.

What you will find in this book is, and I marvel at this, a poetic use of language describing war in a universal sense.  Don't get me wrong; we know the story is taking place in Yugoslavia--it's about the siege of Sarajevo.  But (for me) the take-aways from the story are not specific to that war; rather they speak to the humanity in all of us about all wars, all conflicts, everywhere.  I found this book to be one of the most moving novels I have read in a long time.  I look forward to re-reading it for many reasons, not least of which is so I can savor the beautiful language.

You'll want to discuss the beautiful prose and ponder the rhetorical devices the author uses.

Evidently there truly was an incident like that which happens in this book.  There was a bombing in Sarajevo where multiple people were killed and a local cellist played music for twenty-two days at the site of the massacre to honor the dead.  The author tells us in his afterword that this real-life cellist inspired the novel but he is not the cellist in the book.

There are four main characters in the book: the cellist, the sniper, the family man who goes for the water, and the family man who has sent his family to Italy.  There is, of course, the secondary but still very important characters: the men in the hills who are holding Sarajevo hostage, the men who are running the country's various factions, the middle-men who are making money off of the war, and the rest of the world which is refusing to rescue the citizens of Sarajevo.  And let's not forget the city of Sarajevo as a character.

You'll want to discuss all of the above characters--how does the situation affect them?    What is the motivation of each one?  What, if anything, do they learn?  What message do they send to the reader?  In fact, you'll want to discuss:  What is this book about?  (Not in the literal sense, but you know that already, right?)  What is the responsibility of each character?  How did each character come to be in the situation in which he finds himself?

You'll want to discuss war and conflict in general.  And how the world is a stage upon which we are all players.  What if we refuse to play our assigned role?  Who assigns us that role anyway?

You'll want to discuss the role of choices and decisions in the novel.  What is the book saying about this, and do you agree?

You'll want to discuss whether this could happen where you live.  My personal opinion is if you think not, you are delusional.  So perhaps you should talk about how we can avoid such conflicts.  Or, as the book asks, are we doomed to repeat them?

Connected to the above, you'll want to ask yourselves how you would act in such a situation.  Is there a moral component to how one should act in war?  Or does war excuse our actions with each man out for himself?  Can one remain principled during wartime?  Can one ever know the answers to these questions without being in the situation?

Whether you read The Cellist of Sarajevo with your book club or on your own, definitely read it.  It's worth it.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Should Your Book Club Read Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn?

Should your book club read Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn?  Well, I am going to say...yes.  I just finished this book--I tore through it and now feel a bit yucky, in need of a shower.  I'd been looking for a light read--something easy for winding down at night--and this was on the "New Books" shelf at the library and caught my eye.  I vaguely remembered having read a review of it in the NY Times and thinking this sounds interesting...

Well, it's interesting, all right.  In fact, I found it fascinating.  I am not a psychologist (although I am drawn to literature because it teaches us so much about human nature and the human psyche) but I
am going to venture a diagnosis here: I feel like I just finished reading a book about a psychopath written by an obsessive narcissist.  How's that for some armchair psychology?

Warp-speed plot summary:

This is Walter Kirn's true account (your book club will want to discuss what THAT means!) of his relationship with Clark Rockefeller, the conman who claimed to be part of the famous and wealthy family whose financial roots lie in Standard Oil.  This Clark fellow, as it turns out, was not a Rockefeller at all; he had many aliases and many other identities and lives, and eventually was put on trial for murder.  He had already been on trial for the abduction of his daughter, which evidently was the catalyst for everyone catching onto Clark's ruse in the first place.  "Ruse," in this case, is a serious understatement, by the way.

The book is Kirn's account--and exploration--of his relationship with Clark.  It is also the account of the murder trial.  So, it's a suspenseful murder who-done-it wrapped up in a psychological (or perhaps pseudo-psychological) study.  I read it with a kind of watching-a-car-crash fascination.  Kirn talks about the hall of mirrors that Clark has created, but I often was wondering whether I, as reader, had fallen into a hall of mirrors of sorts.  As much as Kirn was manipulated by Clark, was I being manipulated by Kirn?  And does wondering this put me in the same position as Kirn and therefore make me as narcissistic as he is???

I won't tell you how the book ends--maybe you already know--but let's now turn to:

What can your book club discuss?

Let's start with the author  You'll want to discuss the role of Walter Kirn as narrator and how that affects you as a reader--and how far you trust him.  How much of what he tells you do you believe?  What are his motivations for telling this story?  What rhetorical devices does he employ to gain your trust and credulity?

How would you characterize the author?  Some people think this book is more about him than about Clark Rockefeller.  You may want, therefore, to consider Kirn as a character in this book and analyze him accordingly.

In fact, as I just wrote that last bit, it suddenly makes sense: this book IS about Walter Kirn.  It's ostensibly about Clark, but really about Walter Kirn.  The same sleight of hand move that Clark would have used on Kirn, Kirn uses on us!  Ha!

But there's more!  The best part is (and I alluded to this above) that Kirn forces the reader into the position that he occupied vis-a-vis Clark!  Wow--that is some artistic manipulation!  And I am at risk of becoming the obsessive narcissist (not just a plain ole narcissist) as I keep repeating this...

You'll undoubtedly discuss appearances versus reality.  Although I'm not sure you'll come to many conclusions.  This is quite a broad conversation, but make sure to talk about how we create our own reality from our desires.  Kirn admits repeatedly that he should have seen through Clark's guise but didn't necessarily want to do so.  This seems to be a common trait in the people ensnared by Clark.  Why, though?  What was motivating them?  What drew Kirn to Clark in the first place?  (Hint, he admits why in the book.)  Part of this is the posturing that is going on.  By Clark.  And by Kirn.  Oh yes, definitely by Kirn.

You'll want to discuss the role of language--very important in this story.  Think about how Kirn uses language and how Clark uses it.  And how society uses it.  Turn to page 109 and read Kirn's words: "...I learned to speak the language of...paradox, of endless loops, of ever-receding, ever-dissolving everything, of "truth claims" instead of truths, of paradigms lost..."  You'll want to talk about truth.  What is it?  Does it exist?  Can it exist in a story that someone is telling us?  Even if that story is on the non-fiction shelf of the bookstore?  How much of Clark is a creation of Kirn?

Again, as I just finished writing the above, it is striking me: Clark is kind of blank page of sorts; he's an enigma or code that can't be cracked.  Kirn refuses to accept this and "writes Clark"; Kirn, as author, presents a Clark to the reader as the definitive version.  The role of creation in non-fiction--taken to perhaps a new level?

You'll want to discuss the role of class in this story--HUGE--and also the role of power.  And how they relate to each other.  Yes, in many ways, this is what this book is about!  On page 170 Kirn tells us:  "But men compete."  No question, no gray area, no wiggle room.  Just a definitive: "But men compete."  Really?  Is that what this book is all about?  Hmm...

You'll want to discuss how a shocking revelation can throw your sense of history into disarray.  Kirn discusses this on pp.179-80: "When fresh information discredits past perceptions, the underlying memories remain but they no longer hold their old positions; you're left to draw a new map with displaced landmarks."

You know, I can't stop thinking about Kirn as a character as I write this.  He's quite a lively writer, by the way; as I said above, I tore through this book.  He uses language--manipulates it, one might say--extremely well, and makes for very entertaining reading.  He went to Princeton and Oxford--impressive credentials, if not to you then to him for sure!, and seems very informed on all sorts of matters.  He also seems to be addicted to...what?  The limelight?  Attention?  Approval?  Admiration?  Well, you'll want to discuss this--get back to me on it if you like.

You'll want to discuss the literary references in the book; you may or may not find them successful.  (One question: Is Kirn using them to help build his case, his story about Clark?) But you'll also want to discuss how art is a presence in the book.  (Another question: How much of each person is a creation, an artwork?)  And how psychology is a presence.  Just this could take up an entire discussion!  And don't forget to talk about theater--and how this life is just a stage upon which we are all actors!  And who is directing???

At the end of the book, Kirn tells us: "I was part of [Clark's] audience, he thought.  But in truth I was acting much of the time.  He was conning me but I was also conning him." (252)  I guess I would want to discuss: As reader, just how conned by Kirn do I feel?  And does it matter if he entertained me with this story?  Am I a collaborator as opposed to victim--just as Kirn at one point describes himself?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Literary Masters' Facelift!

As you all know by now, Literary Masters are book groups and salons where we dig deep into literary treasures!  Membership has been growing in leaps and bounds and to celebrate, we've had a facelift!  Our website has a whole new look; check it out here.

Best of all, with a click of a button, you can now purchase your very own "Points to Ponder" for many books, both fiction and non-fiction.  If you don't see the title you are looking for, please email us to see if we have it in our archives.

Thanks for visiting; come back often!!!  And don't forget to "like" us on Facebook so you can find out all about the latest LM literary news!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Should Your Book Club Read Wonder by R.J Palacio?

As you all know, Literary Masters are book groups and salons where we dig deep into literary treasures!  This season, one of the books that Literary Masters Parent/Child book groups read was Wonder by R.J. Palacio.  If you read one book this year and one book only, make it Wonder.  You will laugh, you will cry, and you will come away with a true sense of...wonder.  If you can grab your child, your wife, your husband, your neighbor, your personal trainer, anyone really, to read it aloud to and share in the joy of this book, all the better.  R.J. Palacio has written a gem!

So, what can your book group (even if it's just two of you) discuss?  I am just scratching the surface here; I could talk about this book over and over again and keep coming up with new subjects.  However, this should get you started:

Warp-speed plot summary:
August has a facial deformity.  A severe facial deformity, which he has had since birth.  He has been home-schooled up until now, but has decided to enter a traditional school for the first time; he will be in the fifth grade.  What a year it will be!  Told from the perspectives of August (Auggie), his sister Via, his schoolmate and friend Summer, his other schoolmate and friend Jack, Via's boyfriend Justin, and Via's childhood friend Miranda, this novel takes the reader along on Auggie's journey--a transformative trip for all.

You'll want to tackle some of the big questions that this book explores!  One of the big themes is identity.  August tells us that "...the only reason I'm not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way."  You'll want to ask yourselves: how much of who we are depends on how others see us?  What can we do when others see us in a way that feels false to us?

Auggie wishes we could all wear masks and get to know each other before seeing what each other looks like.  You'll want to talk about how important our looks are to who we feel we are.  How much do our looks define us?  What is so special regarding a face when it comes to who we are?  Do we all wear masks of a certain kind anyway?

Another big question is: what does it mean to be normal?  Auggie's sister Via says, "...we've all spent so much time trying to make August think he's normal that he actually thinks he is normal.  And the problem is, he's not."  You'll want to ask yourselves: What is normal?  How do we decide what is normal?  Who gets to say?  And is this right?  Are you normal?  Is "normal" good or bad?

Another theme to explore is kindness.  What does it mean to be kind?  Can we just be kind, or do we have to practice being kind?  Does it take effort to be kind?  This will, no doubt, bring up Mr. Browne's Precepts, which could take up an entire book club session all on their own.  I can't resist telling you here that my favorite precept is the one that Auggie came up with: "Everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their life because we all overcometh the world." 

I just teared up typing that.

On the flip side of kindness, you'll want to explore who in the story is being mean.  And is the meanness always intentional?  Via struggles in her relationship with Auggie when she enters a new school.  Is she being mean?  Is she being reasonable?  How would you feel in her shoes?

You'll want to talk about friendship and who Auggie's true friends are.   And why we are drawn to certain people as friends as opposed to others.  Do we ever want someone to be our friend because it will make us cooler in general?  Isn't this why we get excited if we come into contact with a celebrity--we feel cooler just for the fact that we've rubbed shoulders with someone who is famous?  And don't we shun unpopular or undesirable people for the same reason--because we don't to be perceived in the same way they are?  Ugliness by association?  It's an ugly concept, that's for sure.

You'll want to understand what type of friend Charlotte is to Auggie, as opposed to what type Summer is.  And what about Jack?  And how about that Julian, huh?  What's going on with him?  One of the questions posed in my Literary Masters book groups was "What character do you wish had a chance to narrate that didn't?" and the answer was overwhelmingly Julian.  Everyone was curious to find out what was going on in Julian's head.

And this is the coolest thing ever!  I guess it wasn't just Literary Masters members who were wondering this because the author is now writing an e-book, The Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story, all about Julian, to be released May 13.  HOW COOL IS THAT?  (Maybe she was listening to us, fellow LM members!)

Some of what you'll want to talk about may make you uncomfortable.  But that's good, because it means you are thinking!  How should "normal" people approach people with deformities?  Auggie doesn't like it when no one will look at him, but he doesn't want people staring at him.  Is he being fair?  Could he have done more to help others see beyond his facial deformity?  Could or should the school have done more?  What about Auggie's parents?  You'll want to talk about what kind of parents they are--again, this could take an entire book club session on its own!

If you've read all the way to here, thank you!  As you probably can tell, I LOVE this book and am enthusiastic about your reading it with your book club (however it may look in this case).  One last thing I will mention before I sign off on this very long blog post is: you'll want to talk about the artwork and the title, the epigraphs, the poetry and song lyrics.

There's more, there's much more to discuss.  But for now:

Read this book.  Enjoy.  Discuss this book.  Enjoy.  Give this book to others.  Enjoy.  This book is a wonder.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Should Your Book Club Read The Innocents by Francesca Segal?

Okay, this debut novel was the February selection for Literary Masters book groups and salons.  So, clearly, my answer is yes.  But!  To really have a special discussion, I suggest you do a pairing--read The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton first (a brilliant, sparkling gem of a novel!) and then read its "re-imagining" The Innocents by Francesca Segal.  You are in for such a treat!

In her interviews, Segal acknowledges her debt to Wharton.  I'll say!  Reading Segal's novel, I had the same feeling I experienced while reading The Hours by Michael Cunningham (you remember--the homage to Virgina Woolfe's Mrs. Dalloway)--I kept thinking, Wow! is this bordering on plagiarism?  No one seems bothered by Segal's or Cunningham's (re)writings, however, so let's not dwell there.  You may want to discuss it a bit with your book club, though.

What I am going to do here is mention what your book club can discuss if you choose to read The Innocents on its own.  Obviously, if you read the pairing as I suggested, you can compare and contrast the two novels.  Hey! do I sense a Venn Diagram coming on?

So, what can your book club discuss?  Warning: there are spoilers below!  Don't read further unless you have finished the book or don't mind spoilers!

Warp speed plot synopsis:  Adam and Rachel have grown up together in the tight-knit Jewish community of Hampstead Garden Suburb in London.  They are now engaged and planning the lavish wedding that their family and friends expect them to have.

Enter: Ellie, the black sheep cousin who fled her home for the wickedly debauched Big Apple.  She has now returned with experiences (and a reputation) that scandalizes the small village but intrigues Adam.

Fireworks ensue...

The novel starts at shul on Yom Kippur and ends at a bris,  Your book club will want to discuss the role of the Jewish religion and/or the Jewish culture in the book.  Is this book an exploration of Jewish identity at all?  Could the story have taken place in any other tight-knit community?  Is it universal or is it uniquely Jewish and how or why?

You'll want to talk about how a community works--what the benefits of belonging to one are, but also what disadvantages go along with being part of one.  Can one ever entirely leave behind one's "village"?

You'll also want to discuss Ellie as a trope--she has left the village but now returns.  What role is she playing in the story (besides the obvious love interest)?  In other words, what does she represent?  What motivates her?  And why is Adam attracted to her?  I will say, Literary Masters members had a wide range of reaction to Ellie, from sympathy to condemnation.  One thing to consider: how she is a survivor and what that has done to her psyche--and what kind of guilt she carries.  And how that informs her life choices.

You'll want to dig deep into Adam; what does he want and why does he want it?  What has been the defining fact/event of his life?  Does he change by the end of the story?  How and why?  Who does he love, if anyone?  Is there a Madonna vs. Whore dynamic here at all?  Will Adam ever be happy?

You'll want to dig deep into Rachel also.  What does she want and why?  Many Literary Masters members balked at her shallow character.  But!  Is she as shallow as she appears?  What does she revere above all?

Speaking of appearances, you'll really want to save time to discuss the theme of appearance/image versus authenticity.  What is the novel actually saying here?

What about the other themes?  What is the novel saying about familyDuty? MarriageTrust?  What is it saying about security vs. freedom?  Or familiarity vs. the unknown?

You'll want to consider whether there is a biblical "fall" in the story.  If yes, where's the garden?  What constitutes the casting out, and is there a redemption aspect also?  Is the forbidden fruit knowledge or desire or both?

Perhaps connected to this, consider the names.  Are they significant?  So fun to think about!

And don't forget to discuss the title!  Perhaps not as straightforward as it first appears.  Segal stated in an interview that she first wanted the book to be called Observance.  Discuss!

You'll want to talk about the role of gossip in the story and how it functions within the community as well as how it functions to propel the plot.  If any of you have taken part in one of my Jane Austen Literary Salons, you should think about the role of gossip in Jane's novels!

Connected to the above, who knew what and when and how much???

Your book club can have some fun experimenting with "fan fiction"--come up with the next part of this story: do Adam and Rachel stay together and are they happy?  What happens to Ellie?  And so on...

What role does food play in this novel?  Discuss this while eating!

This debut novel has won a myriad of literary prizes such as the Costa First Novel Award, the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, the Betty Trask Award, the Harold U. Ribalow Prize, and it was on the long list for the Women's Prize for Fiction.  Does it deserve them? 

Okay, all of this should get you started!  Enjoy, and let me know how it goes!  Thanks for checking in with WHIRL books and Literary Masters!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Daphne Award

You may be rolling your eyes (and I'm not sure John Updike would be smiling) at the concept of yet another literary award, but this one sounds so interesting to me.  The Daphne Award is being launched by the literary site Bookslut and will go back in time to right some wrongs.  Yes, it will start with the year 1963.  Evidently John Updike won the National Book Award (in '64) for The Centaur (I've never read it, have you?) and the Daphne Award is meant to find a more deserving winner.  On Bookslut's website, they are actually asking for OUR HELP with this.  Click here to read the short piece.

I'm not sure what I think of this, except that it underscores the subjective nature of prizes.  Still, it will be an interesting exercise from a cultural standpoint to see what/who was valued back, back, oh so very far back in 1963, and what/who is valued now.  For we will be reading the nominated books with 2014 eyes, yes?

There are multiple categories, and if you want to participate, follow the link above and carry on.  What fun--I wish we could go back in time to correct some wrongs more often!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Costa Book Award Winner Has Been Announced!

Formally known as the Whitbread Prize, the Costa Book Award rewards authors who write something that we readers enjoy reading.  Hmm...well, maybe there's more to the prize than that; you can check out the Costa Prize site here.  There are five winners, each in a different category: First Novel, Novel, Biography, Children's Literature, and Poetry (see the other category winners below).  Then, from those five winners, a super-duper winner is chosen as the Costa Book Award Winner of the Year.

Congratulations to Nathan Filer, who has won the award for his debut novel The Shock of the Fall, a "moving account of schizophrenia and grief." (Click here for more from the Guardian article.)  Filer is a nurse working in the mental health system in the UK, so I am intrigued to read this insider's account, albeit fictional.

I have already requested the book from my local library...stay tuned for more.  Oh, and it beat the other contenders:

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
The Pike by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse by Chris Riddell
Drysalter, a poetry collection by Michael Symmons Roberts

Happy Reading!

Friday, January 17, 2014

National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists Announced!

The short list is out for the National Book Critics Circle Award.  Click here to read the entire article in the LA Times.

The fiction finalists are:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah (Knopf) A LITERARY MASTERS SELECTION: OCTOBER 2013

Alice McDermott, Someone (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Javier MarĂ­as, The Infatuations, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Knopf)

Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being (Viking)

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (Little, Brown)

As you know, Americanah was Literary Masters' October book; everyone loved it and we had fantastic discussions.  (For more on Literary Masters, click on link to the right of where you are now reading.)  I am currently reading The Goldfinch--not loving it as much as I thought I would (expectations, expectations) but it's early days yet.  This is one long book.

I want to read the others...

The winner will be announced in March!

Friday, January 3, 2014


Happy 2014 to you all!  Have you made your new year's resolutions?  Have you made your new year's reading resolutions?  Hmm...I'll have to do another post about that one of these days.  Today, though, I want to share a little gem of a book with you:

 I saw this in a book store and immediately bought it to give to my friend, Kim.  She's always drinking out of a mug that say Keep Calm and Carry On; it kind of fits her personality, to be honest.  She has an aristocratic demeanor about her.  I thought I'd give her this book to show her how we non-nobles cope.

When I went to the counter to pay, the clerk asked me if I wanted it wrapped, and I said 'no' so I could enjoy the book first.  (Is that a bad thing?)  Well, days later...hmm...weeks later...I am still enjoying it! 

It's a collection of maxims from various people, one on each page.  Let me share one or two with you:

"The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on.  It is never of any use to oneself."  ~Oscar Wilde

"Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former." 
~Albert Einstein

Or how about this zinger:

"Forget the past--the future will give you plenty to worry about."  ~George Allen, Sr.


"Hard work never killed anybody, but why take a chance?" ~Edgar Bergen


"Experience is a comb that life gives you after you lose your hair." ~Judith Stern

If you. like me, find wisdom in pessimism, this book will crack you up.  And if you're an optimist, read it and see how the other half thinks.  As for Kim, I think I'll let her just Keep Calm and Carry On for a bit longer...