Book group tips, reading lists, & lively talk of literary news from the experts at Booklist Online
Thursday, February 6, 2014 5:53 am
The Power of Small Actions
Posted by: MaryKate Perry
Please welcome my guest blogger, Ryan Warner, who lives in Olympia Washington with his wife and son. He fell in love with discovery and learning at a very young age and is never without a book.
As an idealistic young person, I believed (as did many of my peers) that a great wave of revolution would come and right all the world’s wrongs. As we aged, it became clear that societal change would actually be a progression of small things, of daily efforts to make things better. Oftentimes, transformation would be due to the unseen acts of love and compassion that would rise like dandelions through the concrete. It is this realization that ran through my head and heart as I read The Revolution of Everyday by Cari Luna (Tin House Books, 2013)
The Revolution of Everyday is a story about a group of people who lived as squatters in an abandoned building in NYC in the mid 1990′s. The diverse group of characters worked day by day to rebuild what had been lost and tossed away by society (a trait the building shared with some of its occupants). The characters used what was available, often accessing recycled and thrown away materials. This story illustrated the cumulative power of individual actions to create gradual, big results.
The author was able to present characters who openly showed their flaws, struggles and hurts, without glorifying the kind of life they lived or what it took to live it. The story demonstrated the evolutionary process of the characters and what the toll of taking small actions meant to each of them. The individual struggles of each character make the story a powerful read. The battle each of them had with their own demons was as compelling as their collective battle against the onslaught of gentrification that ultimately may be the downfall of the group.
Wednesday, February 5, 2014 3:23 pm
Men We Reaped
Posted by: Gary Niebuhr
Race may be one of the most difficult topics to confront in America. Everyone has an opinion and no one has a solution. We both obsess on it and ignore it every day in our interactions with each other. We are all victims in some fashion or other.
In Men We Reaped: a Memoir by Jesmyn Ward we learn about race from the perspective of a small Mississippi town called DeLisle where Ward grew up. Ward left her home town to get degrees from Stanford and Michigan but returns because this place on the earth is always home for her.
While she has written two novels, one of which one the National Book Award, this is different. This is telling the story of four male Americans of African Descent who are dead. This is the story of how their deaths affect DeLisle. But most importantly, this is displaying the pain that Jesmyn Ward carries within her every day because of who she is, where she was born and how she is perceived because of that.
Ward tells us that the primary causes of depression in black men are racism, poverty and violence. The display of violence is both internal and external. Ward says of her father’s pit bull training that “alternatively he coddled his dog, treated it tenderly as one of his children, but the dog’s ability to fight was paramount.” Ward’s brother Joshua received this kind of fathering: “There was no room for error in disciplining my brother, my father thought, because my brother was a boy. A son. A child who would be harder pressed to be a fighter.”
The poverty is dominant. “My mother had buried her dreams on that long ride from California to Mississippi. She’d secreted them next to my brother in the womb, convinced as she was, with a sinking dread, that they were futile. She’d tried to escape the role she’d been born to, women working, of absent fathers, of little education and no opportunity.”
While there are specific examples of racism shown, what bothered me the most about the book is that the racism seems to be imbued within every action in the book. Racism is omnipresent.
What happened to hope? Gone and returned, Ward only finds more death in DeLisle over the period covered by the book. “We knew we were old; by the end of summer, we’d know we had one foot in the grave.” The saddest statements are these: “My entire community suffered from a lack of trust.” Then, even more tragic, she says, “We distrusted each other.”
Our staff read this book for our monthly reader’s advisory training in the category of biography, autobiography and memoir. We selected it because (so far) it was selected by PW as a Best Book 2013 and is shortlisted by the National Book Critics Circle. The book is written in reverse by filling in the details of the last death and working back to the first: the death of her brother Joshua. The writing is disturbing, powerful and emotional.
When we were done, we had no answer for this book discussion query: “Tell me one thing you found in this book to bring you comfort.” Perhaps, because we still have so far to go, this was the best answer possible.
Friday, January 31, 2014 12:01 am
Read Two Books and Call Me in the Morning
Posted by: Neil Hollands
Experienced readers know that books are good for the soul, and that can translate into improved psychological and even physical health. The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin takes that extra step made by some bibliotherapists, and suggests that particular books can be used to treat specific ailments. As their subtitle notes, they offer “from Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You.”
Should we believe these claims? I don’t know. I suspect that the results may vary significantly from reader to reader. But I do know that well timed books have cured me of many of the ailments listed in this book: anger, existential angst, broken spirit, falling out with a friend, guilt, hypochondria, failure to seize the day… I could go on. For each ailment, Berthoud and Elderkin describe a book or two or three. We get Crime and Punishment for feelings of guilt, Jane Gardam’s Old Filth for a horror of old age, or The Tin Drum and The Hobbit for being short. For being in a cult, the suggestion is Peggy Riley’s Amity and Sorrow and for a fear of confrontation we get My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. Sometimes a character in the book suffers the same ailment more drastically than the average person. Sometimes he or she finds an elegant solution to one of life’s problems. In still other cases, the tone or style of the book is the antidote.
In addition to these prescriptions for specific problems, the authors add book lists for people in a variety of conditions or states of life. For instance, each decade of life gets a top ten list. They also include solid advice for readers with a variety of problems: being overwhelmed by one’s to-read list, having a non-reading partner, loneliness induced by a bookish life, or a tendency to either give up halfway through books or fail to give up on books that one doesn’t enjoy. All in all, the layout of this book is fun, and provides plenty of variety.
The list of books prescribed by the good doctors is impressive, including titles just barely released and classics that are unjustly neglected. I don’t know if they can cure all of your problems, but Elderkin and Berthoud are sure to add some carefully targeted choices to your reading list.
This book could prove very useful for groups, which might try asking readers to select one of the novels mentioned and report back on whether it helped with the ailment in question. Or it might be interesting for book groups to play further with the idea of bibliotherapy, perhaps using one of the ailments from this book as a theme for a month’s reading or a variety of ailments for a year-long series of selections. Put it to the test. If it works, I’ll send you the bill when you’re feeling better!
Thursday, January 30, 2014 10:55 am
Discussing an SF Classic: Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination
Posted by: Misha Stone
Alfred Bester’s 1957 classic The Stars My Destination is an influential work. Many science fiction greats credit it as one of the best in the field. William Gibson says that it blew his mind and Neil Gaiman, in his introduction, calls it “the perfect cyberpunk novel.”
Most of the members of my group had not read The Stars My Destination which was originally published with the title, Tiger! Tiger! We talked about the title and then delved into the main character, Gully Foyle, a man hellbent on revenge after a spaceship leaves him stranded on his bombed-out craft.
Gully Foyle is a challenging character–as Gaiman attests, he is a murderer, a rapist, a man filled with violent rage. Many readers made note of the misogyny in the novel, but one reader noted that Foyle is so awful that you aren’t necessarily being asked to accept the misogyny.
All readers, even those who didn’t particularly like the book, made note of the excellent world-building. The Stars My Destination does not feel dated because it incorporates compelling science and concepts.
The book starts with the discovery of humankind’s ability to teleport or, as they call it, “jaunt,” by tapping into their brain’s potential. When we meet Foyle, we learn that jaunting is forgone by the super-rich who instead choose to use outmoded transport such as cars. Bester delves into the economic and political ramifications of teleportation and space travel but the real thrust of the story is a revenge plot that he based on Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo.
The Stars My Destination is still a riveting read, revealing much in an amoral character who does (although this is up for discussion) evolve and morph despite his single-minded, destructive pursuit. Alfred Bester is still provocative after all these years.
Wednesday, January 29, 2014 5:06 am
Posted by: MaryKate Perry
Ever since I read Champion Dog, Prince Tom in second grade, I have been besotted with books. I became partial to fiction during the week I spent following the progress of Prince from frisky pup to disciplined show dog, but it’s not just fiction I delight in. I remain in awe of a writer’s ability – in fiction, non-fiction or memoir – to sustain a tale, or an idea, beyond a page. Once, in graduate school, I wrote a 28-page paper (too short to be deemed a “thesis”). I extracted these pages from my addled brain as one extracts blood and other fluids from stone. I submitted it, and the work was bound (perhaps gagged) and placed on a shelf in the basement of Colorado State’s library. This basement was promptly demolished in a flood. I myself, was flooded with a sensation something like relief. Now I play it safe and short; I have ideas, but they are small ones. I have never constructed a lengthy or lofty structure out of them and I remain deeply impressed by writers who craft sturdy, sustained literary architectures.
But in spite of being drawn to the arrangement of Claire Dederer’s memoir of motherhood and yoga, I began her story with scepticism. As Elizabeth Gilbert (herself the creator of an ingeniously structured memoir) wrote in her review, “Yoga sometimes makes people talk like jerks.” But Claire Dederer, as Gilbert notes, is not jerky, but funny, searching and vulnerable. She evokes the 1970′s vibe of her Seattle childhood, reconstructing the aftermath of her parents’ split. She efficiently and poignantly sets up the idyll of her early years: “Our dads were at work, working. Our moms were at home, smoking. Our brothers were in the woods, looking at waterlogged porn. We thought it would be like this forever.” Then she chronicles the years after her dad moved out, interspersed with those of her own marriage and time as a novice in motherhood and yoga. She fashions her life story around 23 poses and this works, at times brilliantly, at times awkwardly.
She comes to yoga while in the fog of caring for her baby daughter, a role that proves draining, especially in the parenting climate of Dederer’s peers. The daily grind of attempting to be the perfect mother leaves her longing for something self-creating, not procreating, so she attends her first yoga class. Her exploration of yogic texts didn’t constitute my favorite portions of the book, but I think much of the potential audience for this book will care about the origins of the various forms of yoga and besides, it’s non-fiction, which means permission to skim.
The structure of this story is ambitious, perhaps overly so, and is not seamlessly executed. Two thirds of the way through (the seventh inning sag I see so often) she seems to lose her way. This aimlessness might be intended metaphorically, as a reflection of her own lost state, but it is somewhat trying for the reader. However, much of the writing is humorous and relatable. And it is not the imperfections of this book that remained with me but rather, the many small perfections. Behold: “Submission, trust, transmission from teacher to student, imperfection, the release of the ego — these were the things that would save me from myself, even if they were as unfamiliar as Krishna with his blue face. You can’t go deeper and know what you’re doing the whole time.” In marriage, motherhood, yoga, in so much of life, you dive in and sink down into the unknown. A posture of caution gets you somewhere but a pose of abandon, somewhere else entirely.
Monday, January 27, 2014 9:50 am
What Was Lost
Posted by: Gary Niebuhr
Our winter crime fiction book discussion kicked off the New Year by reading What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn. This novel is O’Flynn’s first and it is quite the ambitious effort for a fledgling novelist.
The story is told in three parts. The first part takes place in 1984. Here we have the actions and thoughts of a ten year old girl named Kate Meaney. As a coping mechanism, Kate has formed Falcon Investigations and spends her free time on stakeouts. Her goal is to prevent a crime but we understand it is also to fill her time as her life is not all it should be. She does strike up a friendship with a 22 year old man named Adrian who, despite his university experience, has settled for a life behind the counter of his father’s sweet shop.
The second part of the novel takes place twenty years later. We meet Lisa, Adrian’s sister, who is now working at the Green Oaks mall in the Your Music store. We also meet Kurt, a security guard who one lonely night believes he sees the image of Kate, still 10, in his security camera display.
It seems that Kate disappeared without a trace twenty years prior and Adrian was suspected.
The third portion of this novel is made up of italicized accounts of various happenings in conjunction with Green Oaks. Each vignette that is recounted adds one more layer of mystery and misery in the lives of people who come to the mall for all that it offers.
The book is an odd mixture of styles. While Kate’s detecting work has some of the flavor of Flavia in the Alan Bradley books, Lisa and Kurt’s portion is much more in the Holden Caulfield mode. While odd might sound like a negative word, here it implies engagement. The style is so edgy that this book takes on the tone of a Stephen King novel at points.
Under terms of full disclosure, quite a few of my participants did not like this book. I did and I wonder if they were confusing not liking the situations and the characters with not liking the book. I am going to vote in favor and point out, once again, that the group’s displeasure only made our discussion more valuable.
Thursday, January 23, 2014 3:58 pm
Back to the Garden: Reading East of Eden
Posted by: Neil Hollands
The short description one usually sees of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is that it is a re-telling of the story of Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel near Salinas, California in the early 20th century. While that’s true, I suspect that it puts off more potential readers than it attracts. That’s a shame, because East of Eden is a masterpiece, a classic that over 60 years after publication remains eminently readable and relevant.
The story follows three generations of Americans and in addition to its biblical allegory, its commentary on the relationships between fathers and sons, and the nature of good and evil, it’s much more. This is also a book about the power of jealousy, about the limits of virtue and love, about the beauty of invention, the evils of business, and the nature of destiny. East of Eden has relevant things to say about how we see minority people, about our relationship with the land, and the difference that perspective can make. It’s a book that will appeal to readers with a philosophical bent, but also to those who enjoy a strong sense of geographical or historical setting. Readers who like complex, deep characterizations will love this book.
My favorite characters in this book fall outside of the Eden allegory. I love the Chinese servant Lee, a man who at first plays along with what is expected of an immigrant but eventually casts this aside to become a part of the family, sometimes more of a father for Aron and Caleb Trask than their own virtuous but distracted father. I love the merry energy of Samuel Hamilton, the inventor patriarch of the family that becomes interwoven with the Trasks. He can’t scrape much out of the miserable land that he owns, but he becomes a local icon and raises a large family of interesting, passionate children.
It wouldn’t be a Steinbeck novel if the action wasn’t grounded in his observant sense of place. Some readers might be made a little bit mad by Steinbeck’s long diversions into descriptions of place in the midst of his suspenseful, dramatic stories, but whether it’s the tidal pools in Cannery Row, the road-crossing turtle in Grapes of Wrath, or East of Eden‘s frequent descriptions of both lush and barren farmlands, the details of place are part of the author’s naturalistic view, a world where people are connected to the land fundamentally. There’s an earthiness in Steinbeck’s characters too, a connection to their physical bodies that makes them more modern than most characters written in the 1950s.
Even Steinbeck’s Eve is fascinating to a contemporary reader, perhaps in ways that Steinbeck didn’t foresee himself. The mother Cathy rejects her sons and nearly kills her husband to escape marriage, then finds an unhappy success as a manipulative madam in an evil brothel. To the contemporary reader, however, she’s more than just an icon for sin, but an interesting case study of a strong woman trapped in a world built for men.
In the end, I think most readers will love East of Eden because they will see pieces of themselves and their loved ones in so many of these characters. It’s a novel to re-read and ponder, to absorb into one’s own life experience.
Wednesday, January 22, 2014 5:48 am
Posted by: MaryKate Perry
Sidone slowly came onto the stage. She was wearing a riding outfit and a black, feathered hat. With an eye patch. And a riding whip. Vaisy whispered to me, “That’s what I wear when I am Black Beauty.” I whispered back, “What, you wear an imaginary eye patch when you are your imaginary horse?” She said, “Yes.” I smiled to myself. This is the life. Proper friends who share everything together.
- A Midsummer Tight’s Dream
Crikey! Do you crave a mirthful little respite from reality? Then fetch some of your fabby mates and have a girls’ night and a good gos about the cast of the zany Tallulah Casey novels. Don’t blame me for the slang, this is the way Brits talk, and it makes everything they say sound funnier than if they just spoke Yankee. This is the second in the new young adult series by Louis Rennison, who made her name writing the Georgia Nicolson diary series that began famously with Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging. Tallulah is Georgia’s cousin, so for those who are missing Georgia, (ten books weren’t enough?) Tallulah reflects on a bit of Georgia’s “wisdomosity,” every once in a while. Here’s a Georgian gem: to get boys to like you, you have to flick your hair around almost constantly. It’s practically Taoist.
Rennison borrows merrily from the canon of British literature; Talullah reveres Em, Chaz and Anne (the Bronte Sisters). There is ample homage to Stella Gibbons’ cheeky wit (the village bad boys are Seth, Ruben and Cain Hinchcliff). In order to study the performing arts, Tallulah attends school in Heckmondwhite, where she lives with a family whose father attends “Inner Woman” groups. The entire village is peopled with outlandish, histrionic characters: take for instance the scourge of the Dother Hall girls, the formidably rumped townie, Ecclesiastica Bottomly. Ah well, it’s all just too silly to bang on about in a blog dedicated to high-toned literary works.
Tallulah and her girlfriends are obsessed with fame, boys, looks, and the progress of the their burgeoning corkers (those are breasts, as I learned). It’s been decades since I was a teenaged girl but I am thinking Rennison’s not bloody far off the mark. These books seem like a fun choice for a teen book group. As with the Georgia Nicholson series (and also with Wuthering Heights, come to think of it), these books have tiresome, repetitive portions. Nevertheless, they are diverting. I kept thinking about how much fun Rennison must have had writing them.
Perhaps it would be larky to read Withering Tights, A Midsummer Tight’s Dream and Taming of the Tights, along with the works from which Rennison derives her titles. Have a simply smashing book group!
Tuesday, January 21, 2014 12:30 pm
The Power of a Series: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels
Posted by: Misha Stone
While there seems to be agreement in popular culture that many television series are becoming just as if not more than sophisticated and mature than stand-alone feature films, there is less agreement or even conversation about this phenomenon in literature. Most series are given short shrift as if it is less remarkable to develop characters and story and themes over a span of books rather than in one. Lois McMaster Bujold has often pointed out that there is not enough written, certainly academically, about the arc and development within longer series, especially genre series.
I just read the first two in an Italian quartet that reminded me just how powerful a series can be. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels capture the lives of two girls, Elena and Lila, in 1950s/60s Naples. In My Brilliant Friend, Elena, the narrator, and Lila meet in 1st grade and the rivalry at the heart of their friendship is frozen like perspex the moment Lila drops Elena’s beloved doll down a dirty stairwell. In school, they compete and parry intelligence, but while Lila finds learning effortlessly she is not allowed by her family to continue past elementary school. Elena is allowed to go on and fulfills the promise that Lila cannot when she must go to work in her father’s shoe repair shop.
Ferrante captures the cruelty and everyday violence of these girl’s Naples neighborhood, the down-at-heels existence they live, the domestic violence that effects them all and is accepted as a matter of course. The Story of a New Name starts where My Brilliant Friend ends, with Lila marrying a wealthy boy in the neighborhood at the age of 16 while Elena continues to strive for high marks in school. Ferrante manages to infuse a kind of riveting reality in these novels, an intensity of feeling and thought that hews true.
Book groups would find much to discuss in these books, in the mystery surrounding the reclusive author and in the ways she depicts women’s lives. When the third book, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, is released in English later this year, groups that have started with the first two will not be able to resist finding out where life takes these two memorable characters. (The fourth book is due out in 2015, according to Europa Editions Editor in Chief Michael Reynolds.) And I hope they talk about what linked books can accomplish and the value that readers can find in series that show development and lived experience over time.
Tuesday, January 14, 2014 5:31 am
Luck + Pluck = Survival
Posted by: MaryKate Perry
Do give books—religious or otherwise—for Christmas. They are never fattening, seldom sinful and permanently personal.— Lenore Hershey
I can’t believe I have not written about this book before! I am sorry this posting comes too late for you to order a copy for every person on your Christmas list. As you may have ascertained, our site has been out of commission for a bit. The Survivors Club is one of those rare finds that I end up buying for, loaning to, or recommending to almost everyone. It’s great for adventurers, introverts, cynics, optimists, fiction and nonfiction readers, your mail carrier and your former brother-in-law (he loved it!). I think one of the reasons it is so adaptable to the tastes of so many is that it has heart-pounding plot-driven sections, musing portions, scientific research, self-help, and an array of fascinating characters. It contains many of the elements of enjoyable fiction, plus it offers you stranger-than-fiction, hair-raising tales.
Sherwood is a student of human nature, an experiential learner, (he allows himself to be trapped underwater at a naval training center) and an empathetic listener. He brings a social scientist’s curiosity and a chaplain’s heart to his subjects. I finished this book feeling like he genuinely likes people, and roots for them in their quests to overcome daunting misadventure and tremendous physical and emotional anguish. He revels in stories of success, but is also frank about the sad and disheartening details of people’s lives. He talks with a Holocaust survivor, the woman who still holds the record for living through the longest fall, and people who have tried, unsuccessfully, to end their lives beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. All of them have such enormous, humbling grit. Hearing about them made me feel a reverence for life, with all its twists of violent fate and joyful reprieve.
After delving into all manner of stories that take place on sinking ships, in the jaws of a rogue mountain lion and on plummeting airplanes, he offers research on how to increase your luck. Sometimes you don’t have a choice about the outcome, but sometimes you do. My favorite words from the book were, “Sooner or later, we’re all survivors.” When you start to think of yourself that way, as a person on a journey of resilience, it changes your story. You can increase your chances of outlasting cataclysmic troubles; though increasing your luck at love and cards is a story for another book.
P.S. To alleviate some confusion, you should know there is a crime fiction by Lisa Gardner that bears this same title. I have not read it, but I am curious.
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