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Book Group Buzz

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Book group tips, reading lists, & lively talk of literary news from the experts at Booklist Online

Sunday, July 20, 2014 12:44 am
What Light in Yonder Saber Breaks? William Shakespeare’s Star Wars
Posted by: Neil Hollands

Shakespeare Star Wars coversLooking for a change of pace for an upcoming book group meeting? I’m a big advocate of playing with the formula at least once a year and trying something unusual. The contrast helps to keep the standard meeting format fresh. One of my favorite variations is to read something aloud. There’s a great deal of fine literature, particularly poetry and plays, that comes to life when one hears the words spoken, and it can be great fun for your group members to channel their inner ham.

To that end, Ian Doescher’s recent adaptations of the first three Star Wars films, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, a New Hope; William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back; and this month’s William Shakespeare’s The Jedi Doth Return provide a great opportunity. Split up the parts and start reading! Almost everyone is familiar with these films, and Doescher’s adaptations are very clever, a cut far above the usual mashup, illuminating both the storytelling of the films (not a scene is left out) and the linguistic power of Shakespeare. The books include black and white, Elizabethan style illustrations of the familiar Star Wars characters and fine iambic pentameter throughout. Doescher adds a chorus to help fill gaps in the narrative (and to perform the famous screen scrolls). Even R2D2 and Chewbacca begin with appropriate iambic beeps and groans, but later open the fourth wall with funny asides about their devious manipulations of the other characters.Hamlet Skywalker

Doescher inserts a liberal dose of lines close to those found in other Shakespeare, so when C-3PO spouts Now is the summer of our happiness/Made winter by this sudden fierce, attack! or Han Solo vows The day when Jabba taketh my fair ship/Shall be the day you find me a grave man,your more astute readers can enjoy a game of name that play and identify the original reference.

If the Coen Brothers are more your thing than Star Wars, try Adam Bertocci’s Two Gentlemen of Lebowski instead, but just as zombies overran all matter of classics a few years ago, these Shakespearean mashups may follow suit. As with that earlier trend, the first examples (like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) are likely to prove more successful. My recommendation is to jump in now, grin and bard it with your book group, before the proverbial horse is flogg’d to the death.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014 1:05 am
A Life in Film
Posted by: Neil Hollands

Life ItselfI didn’t always appreciate Roger Ebert. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when he and Gene Siskel were America’s most ubiquitous critical presence, I didn’t give either the thumbs-up as a reviewer. But over time, and through illness, Ebert’s steady presence grew on me. Whether you agreed with his verdict on a particular film or not, if you were a film lover you had to respect his dedication to the craft, the cause, of movies.

But you don’t have to be a cinephile to enjoy Ebert’s Life Itself, a memoir that encompasses American childhood in the 40s and 50s, the adventures of a budding journalist, rousing encounters with Chicago writers, film stars of many ages, his long-time television partner Siskel and other celebrities, fascinating travelogues of London, Cannes, and other locations, a battle with alcoholism, and a lovely paeon to the wife he married at 50, Chaz Hammelsmith. If you experienced the 20th century, there’s probably more than one section in this book to which you will relate.

Now that he’s gone, Ebert’s memoir takes on special meaning, as it depicts his various struggles with the throat cancer that would ultimately take his life. Ebert faced his disfiguring illness with an earthiness, an optimism and humor that are inspirational. Ultimately, it’s these qualities, and Ebert’s quirky and gently opinionated outlook on Life Itself that make this a memoir for the ages.

As a pairing, look for the wonderful 2014 documentary biographical film by the same title, directed by Steve James (who also directed one of my all-time favorite documentaries Hoop Dreams).

Thursday, July 10, 2014 12:42 am
Go Straight to Hell’s Kitchen: North River by Pete Hamill
Posted by: Neil Hollands

North RiverThis summer seems to have been a season for trying authors who have long been on my bookshelf, but never quite made it into my hands.

Pete Hamill’s North River mixes atmospheric historical novel with thoughtful middle-age romance, family tragedy with a dash of criminal suspense. The setting is the waning days of the Tammany Hall machine in the Manhattan neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. Doctor Jim Delaney went to WWI out of a sense of duty. He suffered a career threatening injury and saw a lot of rough things, then returned home to find that his parents had died in the great flu epidemic and his wife had lost patience with their marriage while he was away. As the novel opens, middle age has landed squarely on Delaney’s tired back. It is 1934, and his wife has disappeared, maybe a suicide, maybe just a runaway. Delaney is shocked from his long-term mourning and wondering when his troubled daughter leaves a three-year-old grandson who doesn’t speak English on Delaney’s doorstep while she searches for herself and for her revolutionary husband in Spain.

Also early in the novel, Delaney makes two more fateful decisions. To help him take care of the boy, he brings a 30-something Italian woman, Rose Verga, into his household. She’s attractive in a solid way, but brings the baggage of a troubled past. Delaney also helps an old war friend, now a gangster, survive an attack, thus invoking the enmity of a rival gang.

Delaney is a likeable character, the kind of dependable but world-weary man on whom a neighborhood depends, especially in an era where dangers are plentiful and doctors making housecalls are the best defense for down-on-their-luck people. The novel is full of mild suspense. Will Delaney’s wife or daughter come home? Should he pursue Rose instead? Could such a romance survive differences of age, ethnicity, and class? What will be best for the boy? And will everyone make it safely through the violence of mobsters, the machinations of local politics? While those questions drive the story at a steady pace, the real focus here is on believable characters in a setting that Hamill clearly loves, and brings vividly to life. I’ve read many books set in New York City in this era, but none has brought the time and place so clearly back into being.

If you should have access to the audiobook, read by Henry Strozier, I recommend it highly. Strozier finds the perfect tone for the tale.

Hamill himself is a fascinating character, a man who has worked in steel yards, the Navy, and graphic design, then turned relatively late in life to journalism and then fiction. Any of his novels or nonfiction pieces look to be worthy material for book groups. I know after finally picking up North River, I’ll be back for more.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014 9:00 am
Discussable Duets: Pairing fiction and nonfiction
Posted by: Kaite Stover

It may be the height of summer, but the F season is right around the corner. I’m not talking about FALL, I’m talking about FOOTBALL.

If you’re group plans their reading only a few months in advance, why not try to grab that elusive demographic–the male reader–and answer a pertinent question posed by many American women–”football. What’s the appeal?”

There are two books coming in September that use football as a theme. Both books use the gridiron game in different ways and definitely unlike the majority of the flifeinterceptedootball fiction and nonfiction on the shelves. Yet, these two books look at the sport and share a less than positive view of America’s most popular past-time.

Charles Martin’s novel, A Life Intercepted, will please fiction readers who enjoy domestic dramas with thought-provoking subjects. Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto by Steve Almond, is a memoir of a man falling out of love with the sport he adored for forty years.

In A Life Intercepted, a promising first-round draft pick, Matthew, sees his life disintegrate when he is convicted of a crime and sent to jail for a dozen years. His young wife, Audrey, disappears to avoid the incessant media coverage. After serving his sentence, Matthew starts looking for Audrey and discovers there’s a new young man in her life, Dee, anotagainstfootballher promising young football player. Matthew violates his parole to spend time with his wife and coach the student athlete to greater athletic heights that will demand great sacrifices from all involved.

At the outset of Against Football, Steve Almond has already made the sacrifice. He’s turning his back on football, but not without examining the physical, emotional, economic toil his beloved sport takes on players, their families, and the fans.

Pair these two books and ask the readers to look at the benefits and drawbacks of devoting a life to a sport that can tear out your heart and kick it cleanly through the goal posts. Both books have lively pacing, engaging tones, and likeable characters and make salient points about America’s most watched sport and the people who play and watch.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014 5:38 am
West of Here
Posted by: MaryKate Perry

Our guest blogger, Marnie Lassen, hails from Melbourne, Australia, where she is a reader, conservationist, adventurer and excellent cook.  She recently scaled the tallest mountain in Borneo (and got back home in time to whip up a pavlova).  When I last saw her she was passing through the Northwest, on her way to brave the dangers of an all-inclusive Mexican resort.

It only seemed appropriate that as we headed on our first family trip back to the Pacific Northwest since moving away two years ago, I should read West of Here by Jonathan Evison. Its Northwest wilderness theme dovetailed neatly with the time I spent here hiking and working in conservation. And I learned about the early regional history of exploration and settlement to boot – albeit through the use of historical fiction.

The book straddles the eras from when the mighty Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula was first dammed in the name of progress and industry, to when it was finally set free again. It reminds us of how outposts like the Olympic Peninsula were not so long ago considered to be untamable – to the white folks at least – and of the apparently limitless source of natural resources that places like this presented.awetsofhere

Evison also paints a picture of a population that struggled to mark its place in US history in both eras. In the 1890s the folk in the small towns around the Peninsula were literally trying to scratch out a life and livelihood miles west of the already bustling metropolises of New York and Chicago. In the early 2000s they were coping with an economy and society that had largely passed them by, their formerly quaint small towns pocked with fast food chains and Walmart.

A question I rarely ask myself when hiking is, ‘Who was that mountain named after, and what was that person like?’ By contrast, the book gives life to (fictitious) figures who might otherwise be relegated to history. It follows a small group of hardy, if not foolhardy, explorers who were determined to be the first to cross the rugged interior of the Olympic Peninsula. Again – a neat dovetail with my time here, when my beloved and his friends made a similar attempt, but didn’t make it even with the benefit of GPS, Goretex, granola and a well-constructed hiking trail. I won’t disclose whether the explorers made it across some 120 years earlier without those innovations.

While I generally steer clear of magical realism, Evison lightly infuses the story with Native American folklore and modern era Bigfoot rumor, without overpowering the main narrative. Indeed, this aspect of the book ties the two eras together, and adds a depth that might otherwise have been lacking. The story is also inter-generational, picking up the lives of the descendants of the original settlers and giving a fascinating ‘Where are they now?’ aspect to the tale.

I came away from the book with a new appreciation for the grit and determination that it took the first settlers to carve a life in this near-perpetually damp clime. It somewhat diminished my own self-perceived hardiness in surviving several years here, even if they were during an unseasonably cold and wet La Nina period. At least I had central heating.

Friday, June 27, 2014 1:23 pm
Swipe and Prejudice
Posted by: Neil Hollands

Pride PhoneIt is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good smart phone must read the books of his wife.

Let’s start with two confessions. First, despite the fact that she is probably my wife’s favorite author, I had, until recently, never read Jane Austen. Sure, I’ve seen enough PBS to know the drill: smart woman with cash-poor family survives a series of officious relatives, failures to communicate, and her own charming foibles to find a happy ending with Colin Firth or Alan Rickman, or whatever English actor is on the way up. But that doesn’t quite count, I’d never read Jane herself. Her name has sat atop my list of literary shame for several years.

Second confession: I help people use electronic devices to download books every day. If cornered, I’ll even feign cheer as I tell a patron that the library is committed to providing all of their digital pleasures (even if we often pay extortionate amounts for the privilege.) My own attempts at digital reading, however, have been rather pathetic. My friends wipe tragic hands across foreheads and proclaim the cruel difficulties of a past where they carried books on vacation, supported the weight of large volumes with languid limbs, or had to wait hours, perhaps even a whole day, to download the next volume in The Song of Ice and Fire. I nod sympathetically over the top of my paperback, secretly trying to understand why one would possibly want to exchange the wonderful and durable technology of the paper book. My first few attempts at reading on the screen ended in aborted failures. I either lost track of the story or the book magically returned to the ether as my checkout period ended somewhere in chapter two.

Last Christmas, a smart phone with a screen big enough to hold a couple of paragraphs arrived under the tree. It was with me all the time, even a few times when I was caught lacking for a book: bored in a doctor’s office, sitting in an airport terminal, lying in bed with insomnia, but unwilling to turn on the lamp for fear of waking said wife. A 21-day checkout wasn’t going to do it, and I’m a cheapskate when it comes to books, but wandering through Project Gutenberg one day, the lightning bolt hit: I would read Jane, albeit very slowly, and I would read her digitally.

Four months later, I’m convinced that it’s called digital reading because of all the tiny swipes my digits have made across the face of the phone. It’s more than a little ironic to relish the pleasures of the letters exchanged while waiting for news of Lydia’s disastrous elopement, the miscommunications between Elizabeth and Darcy, Bingley and Jane; all the while reading from a device that would have wiped out said letters, corrected each miscommunication with a well-timed text message. Would Lizzy have escaped all those tedious card games and recitals by feigning attention to an incoming message? Would Mr. Collins have clued in when Elizabeth refused his Friend request? Would Darcy have dropped Wickham from the friends and family plan, or kept him on out of duty to his departed father? And what kind of delicious plot twists would Austen have created from auto-corrected messages?

Despite the historical incongruity, I can report that Austen survives even the most protracted reading. I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! With a phone of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.

Now it’s on to Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, (and no the ironies of that title aren’t lost on me). I still prefer to read off paper, but there’s room for a few digital classics in my repertoire. Laugh as much as you choose, but you will not laugh me out of my opinion.

Thursday, June 26, 2014 4:23 am
Cyrano Wrap
Posted by: Neil Hollands

CyranoI’m a long time, unabashed fan of Edmund Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac. The play introduced the word “panache” to the English language, and that’s appropriate, because nowhere else is the concept more fully brought to life.

Cyrano is a soldier, a poet, a duelist, a musician, and even a theater critic in the course of the play. He loves the beautiful Roxanne, but she can’t see past Cyrano’s famous nose, instead she has a crush on the handsome but tongue-tied Christian. Christian is a newcomer and outsider in his predominantly Gascon regiment, and Roxanne makes Cyrano promise to protect him. In one of the best scenes in the play, Christian is foolhardy and brave enough to insult Cyrano’s nose. Cyrano responds with a litany of more clever ways Christian could ridicule his nose, but ultimately holds his temper because of his oath and gains respect for Christian, the first man in a long time to stand up to him directly. He agrees to help Christian woo Roxanne, using his own words of love to win her. Roxanne believes the ruse at first, but then becomes confused when she realizes that Christian is not as eloquent as the man she has come to love. Just as things look up for Cyrano, his rival De Guiche sends his regiment into the heart of a hopeless battle.  That’s enough plot. If you haven’t seen or read this wonderful play, I won’t sp0il the ending.

There are two English translations of Cyrano that I recommend over others on the market. Brian Hooker’s predominated until the 1980s, but I prefer the Anthony Burgess (of Clockwork Orange fame) translation, which first appeared in the 70s, then was updated in the mid-80s. It retains Rostand’s rhyme scheme (Hooker uses metered free verse) and has more humor at the start, more drama at the finish.

Cyrano still makes a wonderful choice for a book group, with so much vigor and style packed into a quick read. If you have a robust reader in your group, spend the evening reading the play, or at least some of its best scenes, aloud. Or pair it with viewings of any of several marvelous filmed versions: Jose Ferrer’s 1950 film is still a great choice, or to experience the original French, Gerard Depardieu’s 1990 film can’t be beat. Steve Martin reset the part in the modern day for his 1987 comedy Roxanne. Good versions with Kevin Kline and Derek Jacobi are also available.

Everything about Cyrano is big, not just his famous nose. In wit, in bravado, in romanticism, he just can’t be surpassed.Let this classic work its magic again for a memorable book discussion.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014 2:12 pm
For the third time–Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
Posted by: Gary Niebuhr

7948230Those who read Book Group Buzz and memorize all the entries already know that Rebecca Vnuk (08/17/11) and MaryKate Perry (10/12/12) have already recommended Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (2010).  For some unknown reason, no BGB reviewer promulgated it last year but I am here for the current year.

I am going to recommend this book again.  It is that good.

Not only is the story a fine male bonding tale but it comes with added twist that one man is black and the other is white.  Because it is set in Mississippi, those facts have you on the edge of your seat the entire time.  With a historical unsolved murder impacting on the characters in the present day when another girl goes missing in the same small town, the pot is bubbling.

However, what really makes this book, is the quality of the writing.  Superb.  OK, I do not have to linger around here when I am playing third fiddle.  I just did not want you to forget the high quality and eminent discuss-ability of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014 8:38 am
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
Posted by: Misha Stone

Bookish people can seldom resist the charms of bookish books and The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin should be no exception. For anyone looking for a sweet, mostly uplifting book about a bookstore owner, look no further.

A. J. Fikry is a man old before his time, a bookseller on Alice Island in the Northeast with very particular, curmudgeonly taste. When Knightley Press sales representative Amelia Lowman first meets Mr. Fikry he is snappish and rude with her. It is not until many years later that she learns it is because he had lost his wife to a tragic car accident the year before. When they reconnect, the intervening years have made them predisposed to see one another in a better light.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is a love story and a story about chance connections. While Fikry and the author pick apart the general tropes of literary and popular fiction, Zevin employs what would sound, on the face of it, like a saccharine Silas Marner type story to emotionally effecting ends.

I can’t help but compare this book, in a way, to John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Like Green’s book it unfolds and makes you care deeply about two characters who were perhaps not meant to find love but do. There also happens to be a badly behaved author, although that figures less greatly in this book than in Green’s. I also draw the comparison because this book, too, made me ugly cry at the end. You hate to stop reading about these characters because they restore your faith in humanity.

Once again, bookish people should not hesitate to pick up this most bookish and heartfelt of books–Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014 2:41 am
Inside the Prison of Belief
Posted by: Neil Hollands

Going ClearWhen a writer of Lawrence Wright’s status takes on a subject like Scientology, it’s no trivial matter, but a page turner of a book isn’t necessarily the expectation. Wright won the Pulitzer for his 2006 book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. After hundreds of interviews with former Scientologists, he returned with 2013′s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.

Writing such a book is a challenge on many levels. While people often make jokes about Scientology, most of us don’t know anything concrete about its beliefs. Even for an insider, those belief are hard to follow, with various levels of access gained after years of study, investment, and rising through a complex organization; tenets that have shifted over time at the whim of Scientology’s leaders; and strange terminology that can sound almost like complete nonsense to the uninitiated. To write about it, one has to talk to those who have gained the religion’s upper levels, but even these people may not have the full story. Unless they’ve turned against the religion, these sources won’t tell an outsider much and what they do share will be filled with propaganda, deliberate obfuscations, and outright lies. If they have turned against the religion, their embittered state may make them equally unreliable, so the only way to reach the truth is to talk separately to hundreds of different people and compare the notes, as Wright did. Even if one manages this obstacle course, physical courage is still required, as Scientology has a history of running smear campaigns, filing law suits, and in some cases even physically intimidating critics.

Wright navigates all of that successfully with Going Clear, bringing readers the story of founder L. Ron Hubbard and the strange development of his religion (often on ocean-going vessels, traveling the high seas while trying to find a home country that would tolerate his tax dodges, espionage campaigns, and the questionable treatment of followers). When Hubbard died in 1986, the story became, if possible, even stranger. A mid-level leader in his organization, David Miscavige, led what essentially was a coup to take over leadership of the Church, but as Wright documents thoroughly, Miscavige is a man with a history of cruel techniques aimed at followers who threaten his authority or who try to leave Scientology, cruelties that sometimes even rise to the level of personal physical beatings from Miscavige.

Wright explains the development of Scientologist beliefs such as the payment for “auditing” sessions that are required to rise in the religion, the influence of past lives on one’s current state and the use of hypnosis to access them, the ability to overcome physical problems with the mind, and the Church’s systemic hatred for psychology. Wright documents, as well as one possibly could, the tactics Scientology used to gain tax-free status while becoming rich on real estate investments. He shows the history of shunning, psychological torture, deliberate splitting of families, forced labor, and the brainwashing, near starvation, and keeping of “suppressive” individuals in squalid, prison-like conditions.

For those interested in the Hollywood connection of Scientology, Wright doesn’t disappoint either, documenting Scientology’s carefully planned pursuit of celebrity advocates and its strange relationships with celebrities like John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, musician Chick Corea, and most importantly, Tom Cruise. It’s an odd tale of extravagant catering to the needs of celebrities mixed with threats against those who then decide to leave. One of Wright’s chief informants was the Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis, now a fierce critic of Scientology.

Does Wright know everything about Scientology? No, it’s a complicated enough organization that no one possibly could, even a true believer at a high level. But Wright does a masterful job in documenting the many cult-like aspects of this strange American-born religion and the many questions an informed person should be asking about its practices. It’s an eye-opening book that is also entertaining to read, a sure bet to create a lively discussion at your next book group meeting.

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