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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

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.

Monday, June 23, 2014 5:27 am
Mink River
Posted by: MaryKate Perry

abook7I have vowed that when I reach my crone years, I will sport a talking crow on my shoulder. Once I grow accustomed to the sensation of talons gripping my flesh, and the proximity of a carrion-tearing beak, I think the bird and I will get on famously. I had been thinking about crows because I was reading Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Crow Planet, which I mentioned to a book group member who exclaimed, “Oh!  Crows?  You should read Mink River.”

Roddy Doyle’s Mink River offers us the town of Neawanaka, tucked in between hills and ocean on the soaking wet Oregon coast. Moses the talking crow resides there, and it is through his eyes, as he soars over town, that we sometimes see the tapestry of inhabitants. They are a passle of economically challenged townspeople, Irish and Native American, struggling through their private pain, joy and longing.  While the joint heads of the unconventional Department of Public Works, Worried Man and Cedar, take off for Wyeast (Mt. Hood) in search of the “spool of time,” the doctor smokes twelve cigarettes a day – one for each of the apostles – and No Horses, the sculptor and possibly world’s fastest runner, tries to outstrip her depression.

Doyle is a poetic novelist – there are times when the novel has a spoken word rhythm –  and he is also a chronic lister. There are two-page paragraphs made up entirely of lists. It works, I think, although you have tcrowo catch his groove. And not only the style is surprising: early on, when a she-bear walks out of the woods to help a person carry something, I had to make the decision to be all in, to surrender to the magical realism and the language-driven tale. You would think that would have happened after I got introduced to the talking crow but strangely, no, that seemed possible. The setting is meticulously evoked in prose that seems worshipful at times. If you believe the Northwest is a gorgeous green paradise, and think it deserves to be immortalized in words worthy of it’s epic rain, bracingly beautiful mountains and roaring rivers, then you will treasure this sprawling, quirky novel.

Sunday, June 22, 2014 5:45 pm
Book group crystal ball #BEA14 (part one)
Posted by: Kaite Stover

For librarians and other professional book lovers, going to Book Expo is like riding the Polar Express to the North Pole to meet Santa. Every galley, every publisher book buzz panel, every in-booth author signing, generates the kind of giddy excitement usually reserved for an 8-year-old stuffed with sugar plums. This year there were manymanymany books that intrigued me (if my overloaded dining room table is any indication). But have to admit that I didn’t get a sense there’s a couple of titles flying under the radar, just waiting to swoop up the bestseller list. I’m hoping I’m just jaded and wrong. :)

What I *did* find this year are a galley of riches for my book groups and other thoughtful readers whose orbits I pass through. These are the types of books that would make fantastic tent-pole author event programs. They will encourage lively conversation among book group members and intelligent consideration of the subject matter’s place in our society. Put these on your radar for fall.

Book groups just tend to gravitate towards books about books. No doubt they will zero in on So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and How it Endures by Maureen Corrigan, NPR book critic for “Fresh Air.” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby has a devoted following in the U.S. and last year’s movie boosted interest in the Jazz Age tale of careless insouciance.soweread

Corrigan takes a different tack with the high school English class staple. She points out that 11th grade may have been too early for many of us to experience the finer points of the novel’s humor and social commentary. She examines the humor and hard-boiled noir element Fitzgerald places subtly in the book and larger themes of class, race, and gender.

The author’s enthusiasm for the American classic is palpable. Share it with your book group right after it hits publication in September from Little, Brown and give some consideration to reading The Great Gatsby side-by-side.

nafisiBook group favorite, Azar Nafisi, is back in October with The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books from Viking. Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran was a staple of book group reading lists when it was published and Nafisi’s follow-up may prove to be the same. Challenged to prove that Americans care about books and reading as much as the Iranian girls did, Nafisi throws herself into three American classics: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Babbitt, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

Nafisi energetically shows that fiction has as much to teach as nonfiction. But most readers know this. It’s the way Nafisi presents her biblio-memoir that will bring new fans into her circle of friends who share a passion for reading. Again, consider having copies of the three classics on hand for book group participants to use for easy reference during discussion of Republic of Imagination. forgers

Tickle the brains of book group readers with a penchant for mysteries by giving them The Forgers by Bradford Morrow. A literary thriller about the murder of a reclusive rare book collector. His body is found amidst many valuable tomes in his collection, defaced and ruined. The collector’s sister, Meghan, and her lover, an expert in literary forgeries and a forger himself, are haunted by the death and soon become targets of the mysterious killer. An intriguing page-turner for bibliophiles, look for this one in November from Mysterious Press.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014 9:42 pm
“My Real Children” by Jo Walton
Posted by: Misha Stone

Last year I read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, a novel about a woman who lives many lives depending on the choices she makes, and I didn’t particularly like it. Atkinson is a fine writer and I have liked many of her other books, but this one didn’t work for me–it felt too fractured and I never connected with the main character.

So when I heard that Jo Walton’s newest novel had a similar conceit, a “sliding doors” approach, I wondered what I would think of it. My Real Children has a palpable emotional resonance from the start, I am pleased to say, and it isn’t an understatement to say that I absolutely loved it and was sad to see it end.

When the novel starts, it is 2015 and Patricia Cowan is in a nursing home. She looks at her chart and sees that the nurses have said she is V.C. or “Very Confused.” Patricia knows she is confused and the narration begins with her puzzling as to whether she had 4 children or 3. They all seem real. Could they all be real, or not?

Born in England in the 1920s, a student at Oxford in the 30s, Patricia finds that her life begins to branch into two paths after she left Oxford. In one life, she married Mark, an academic-minded young man she met at an Oxford party; in this life, most people call her Tricia. In another life, she falls in love with a woman, Bee, and writes travel books for a living; in this life, she is known as Pat. In both lives she has children, and Walton draws each of Tricia/Pat’s children in vivid, idiosyncratic detail.

I recently saw Jo Walton read and I asked her if she was inspired by a book she mentions in What Makes This Book So Great, Katherine Blake’s The Interior Life. She said that she wasn’t, necessarily, but that My Real Children is very much about mothering and about women’s lives and relationships. She said that genre doesn’t often enough explore these themes even though in any future or past women’s lives are going on regardless. I thought that this was an important point and My Real Children succeeds where many fantasy and science fiction novels fail–ignoring the domestic realities of women and children, casting them aside as though they don’t provide enough drama or aren’t worthy of note. Jo Walton’s My Real Children proves that this just isn’t true–you can write a thought-provoking, engaging fantasy while capturing life in its splendid and even banal complexities.

When you get to the end of My Real Children, you will find yourself pondering its questions, wondering, as Tricia/Pat does, whether parallel lives are possible. Another subtly magical novel by the inimitable Jo Walton. Highly recommended for your summer reading or your book groups.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014 8:18 am
Love Minus Eighty, by Will McIntosh
Posted by: Neil Hollands

Love Minus EightyWill McIntosh’s Love Minus Eighty was RUSA’s Reading List choice for the best science fiction of 2013, and also received accolades in places as diverse as NPR and the science fiction website Io9. It’s the kind of book that most book groups wouldn’t give much thought, but they should. McIntosh blends science fiction, romance, and social commentary with a touch of comedy in a very readable dystopia.

At the core of this book is a future that is both scary and believable. The split between the haves and have-nots has grown to epic proportions, with a few wealthy people living in a technological playground that is literally on top of the dirty, monotonous world of the majority below them. The extremely wealthy can pay vast sums to have themselves revived through cryogenics and complex surgeries after death (although the repair is imperfect and shorter with each repeat of the procedures.) Privacy is a thing of the past. Internet and social media are fed to individuals via skin tight suits that hide unpleasant realities from their wearers, allow them to use consultants during social encounters, and enable them to “follow” certain narcissistic personalities in a combination of social media and reality television, watching them as they move through their days trying to create a dramatic show. Perhaps most horrifyingly, a new kind of dating service is prominent, in which attractive women are frozen upon death and become “bridesicles.” They can be revived for short visits by wealthy men, who can then pay to bring the woman back to life if she is sufficiently attractive…. and compliant. If the women don’t bring in enough clientele, the company will terminate them.

Rob, a musician who has managed to work himself up from poor origins to the fringe of wealthy circles, but as the story opens, Rob’s world comes crashing down. His girlfriend Lorelei dumps him and publicly humiliates him in her attempt to gain more viewers. Rob drives away, but in his distraught state, he runs over a jogger, Winter, and kills her. Without Lorelei, Rob is forced to take up a menial job and return to the house of his father, who still pines for a long missing wife. Although he has no money, Rob decides to slowly and agonizing save enough to get a few minutes with Winter and apologize to her. Out of desperate loneliness, Winter makes Rob promise to return for future visits, and a strange relationship begins to bloom.

Rob finds an ally in Veronika, a dating consultant whose own social life is sadly insular. She has a crush on another dating consultant, Nathan, who coincidentally was Winter’s boyfriend briefly before her death. Although Nathan likes Veronika, he’s more interested in himself. There’s also Mira, another bridesicle, one of the oldest in the system. If she doesn’t find someone to revive her soon, she’ll be terminated, but in life she was a lesbian with a committed partner whom she still loves. But her only visitor is Lycan, an intelligent but socially awkward man whose motives remain mysterious.

The plot is hard to describe in a short post, and I don’t want to give too much away, but don’t fear, McIntosh paces his story well and it’s never hard to follow. This is ultimately a story about the many permutations of love and how our relationships are affected by our social context. It’s powerful, cautionary, but ultimately redemptive and will appeal to a wide range of readers. Even if you don’t normally read science fiction, don’t let that put you off of considering this lovely book. It would generate a fantastic conversation in a book group.

Saturday, June 7, 2014 7:23 pm
Posted by: Kaite Stover

Wondering what to wear to the next book discussion? How about what you’re reading?

The creative minds at Litographs have designed posters, t-shirts, and totes with the text from your favorite classics and a few contemporary titles. ALL of the text.

This poster of Pride and Prejudice?pplito The entire book fits within the frame and is part of the artwork. Check it out as a t-shirt.plitotee

Litographs, founded by brothers Danny and Corey Fein, isn’t just committed to the printed word as fashion statement. The company is committed to literacy on a global scale. Every sale results in a donation of a book to a community in need.

These unique wares were on display at Book Expo America last week and I was utterly  charmed by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz design.

Imagine wearing your next book club selection. Think of it. You don’t have to carry anything, it doesn’t matter how many page it is, you don’t need to charge the battery, and who cares if it doesn’t fit in your purse? Heck, let it BE your purse. gatsbylit

For the librarian/reader/booklover on your gift list, too.


Wednesday, June 4, 2014 6:40 pm
Posted by: Gary Niebuhr

redeploymentRedeployment by Phil Klay is a collection of short stories that reveals the experiences of American soldiers who fought in the long Iraq conflict which started in 2003 and ended in 2011.  The stories reveal all aspects of military service from the boots on the ground action to coming home and everything in between.  Klay served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the surge in the Iraq conflict and it is perhaps that experience that helps these stories ring true.  On the other hand, as a Dartmouth grad and an MFA recipient from Hunter College, he proves time and time again in the work that he is a skilled and confident writer of human sorrow.

If you are considering having a discussion using this book, you will need to be aware that the tone of these stories is bleak.  While individual people may on occasion shine, most of the individuals in the stories are damaged by the war in some fashion.

While all the stories are worthy, some of them are outstanding.  If I was to suggest certain tales to a group that wanted to read less than the whole book, I certainly could.  Bodies is the tale of a soldier assigned to the remains unit.  Money as a Weapon System is a searing tale of how the war is politically handled.  Readers get the perspective of a chaplain in Prayer in the Furnace.  Perhaps the most powerful of all is War Stories, a tale of trying to be normal when physically and mentally damaged by the conflict.

It will take some courage to hold this book discussion.  Leaders are going to need to keep the focus on the individual stories because I could see how a group could slide into person issues and debates.  But have the courage to look at this work for a discussion–the individuals who these characters represent deserve your attention.

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