Well, I didn’t see this one coming. Congratulations to Ali Smith for winning this year’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction for her unusual novel, How To Be Both! For more info, click here.
There are a lot of literary prizes being awarded these days. I tend to look at prize-winning authors and books as a filter. I know this is a flawed method, but in a world with so many books and so little time, I have to rely on something to help me whittle down my choices.
One of the prizes I follow is the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. The 2015 winner will be announced June 3rd. The short list is:
- Rachel Cusk for Outline
- Laline Paull for The Bees
- Kamila Shamsie for A God In Every Stone
- Ali Smith for How To Be Both
- Anne Tyler for A Spool of Blue Thread
- Sarah Waters for The Paying Guests
Of these books, I had difficulty getting into two of them: How to be Both, and The Bees. In fact, I put them down after a few pages. If one of them wins on June 3rd, I imagine I’ll pick it up again! I have a feeling Sarah Waters is going to take the prize, but we shall see!
I read this book in two days, and would have finished in one if other duties hadn’t insisted upon my attention! Wow, you think a subject like the sex scandals of the Catholic Church have been done and dusted, and then you pick up a book like this and realize…where is the outrage??? Yes, your book club should read and discuss this! Also, it’s a very gripping and superbly crafted story.
So, what can your book club talk about?
Warp-speed plot summary: It’s Ireland, and we’re taken by the narrator from his childhood through his time as a priest in both Ireland and Rome as he reflects upon the Church’s sex scandals, pondering all the while the culpability of those involved.
Father Odran Yates is our narrator, and you will no doubt spend a lot of time figuring him out. Is he reliable? Is he telling the reader the truth? Is he telling himself the truth? Is he the priest that his best friend Tom accuses him of being? Or is he someone else? Why does Odran join the priesthood, and why does he stay there? What is he getting out of it? Why is he telling us his story?
This may lead you to talk about the role of priests and other religious leaders. What is their appropriate role? What is their value? Are they anachronisms? What makes a good priest?
You’ll want to talk about the structure of the book. Does the form carry any meaning to the reader? Is the structure an integral part of what the book is saying? Would this be a completely different book if it were told as a linear narrative? How does the story’s structure express the theme of remembering? Yes, you’ll definitely want to consider the remembering that Odran is doing. What purpose does it hold? Is it healing? Or does it re-tramautize?
Should there be a collective remembering? Or have we all heard enough about such scandals? Is this an important book to read?
Why do you think this book is titled the way it is? Is there more than one explanation? What about the epigraph? How does this affect your understanding of the book? How does it inform Odran’s telling of the story?
One of the themes you’ll want to ‘dig deep’ into is that of how our childhoods shape who we are. And how far can we take this as an excuse for our adult behavior? How long can we blame our parents for how they raised us?
What do you think of Odran’s parents? Are they simply doing what any Irish Catholic parents of the 1960’s and ’70’s would do? Are they good parents? Or are they blind, unthinking sheep? And what about all the parents of the boys who were abused? Is it fair to say that no one could have realized what was going on except in hindsight?
What do you think of Odran’s sister? Why does he spend so much time telling us about her?
DENIAL. You’ll certainly want to discuss this. Who was in denial? Who truly didn’t know? Is it even possible that one couldn’t know? Or suspect? Or is that how we feel now because of everything we do know, now that the scandal has come to light? You should also talk about the culpability of those who chose or choose to remain in denial.
You’ll certainly want to talk about secrecy and its ability to protect those in power. While you’re reading the book, count how many times the words “embarrass” and “shame” show up. Talk about the psychology of using those very words by those who should have been experiencing embarrassment and shame–a colossal understatement, I realize–against their victims.
Power. Oh, yes, you will want to discuss this. Who has it. How they get it. And how they keep it. What happens to those who have it. What happens to those who don’t.
You’ll want to talk about Ireland and its relationship with the Catholic Church. Oh, and you’ll want to talk about the Catholic Church. This could, obviously, take up the entire meeting. Talk about institutions in general. Who is in control? The individuals within them or the system itself?
Talk about Odran’s experience in Rome. Why do you think he tells us about his time there? What do you make of what Odran tells us about his sexuality?
Is the book excusing anyone? Is it explaining anything? Does it add to your understanding of the sex scandals? Does it make you more empathetic/sympathetic toward anyone? Does it make you angry and want to DO something? Is it indicting anyone? Is it indicting YOU?
I love the National Book Critic Circle Awards! How could I not? On their website under Mission Statement it reads: “The National Book Critics Circle honors outstanding writing and fosters a national conversation about reading, criticism and literature.
“…fosters a national conversation about reading…” Hm…remind you of anyone you know?
Literary Masters is all about fostering the love of reading and the love of talking about what we read with others!
Congratulations to the winners! For all the info on the NBCC, click here. Make sure to check out how they select the winners.
For a snapshot of the winners in each category, continue reading:
Fiction: Lila by Marilyn Robinson. I can’t wait to read this book! (I can’t believe I haven’t done so yet.)
Autobiography: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast. For my review of this wonderful, laugh out loud, cry all day, graphic memoir, click here.
Criticism: The Essential Ellen Willis by Ellen Willis
General Nonfiction: The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation by David Brion Davis
John Leonard Prize for outstanding debut book in any genre: Redeployment by Phil Klay. You know that I am a big fan of this collection of short stories! I will try to post about it sometime soon!
Biography: Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr. (What a wonderful title!)
Poetry: Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award: Toni Morrison (I’m thinking it’s time to read another of her wonderful novels!)
Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing: Alexandra Schwartz
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton was this season’s classic selection for Literary Masters book groups and salons. Most members loved the book, but not all. A few found the writing too dense, too flowery, too old-fashioned. Hm…well, the majority of us loved it and thought it was brilliant. Many members said they can’t wait to read more Wharton! So, YES, your book club should read this literary treasure!!!
So, what can your book club discuss? Please note there are some SPOILERS BELOW!!!
SO MUCH!!! but in order to have a reasonable length post, I’ll just go over a few topics, just to get you started!
Warp-speed plot summary: It is the Gilded Age in New York City and the stunningly beautiful Lily Bart is running out of time to find a rich husband who will secure her future. Her options are plentiful and dazzling at first, but Lily is holding out. For whom? For what? As the story progresses, Lily’s suitors become fewer and much less alluring. Complicating matters is Lily’s dire financial situation as well as the rumors swirling about her behavior. Will Lily’s Prince Charming arrive in time? Will Lily save herself? If you think this story sounds vapid, you are seriously mistaken! This novel is so layered and nuanced; it will get you thinking–and keep you thinking!
AND DON’T TRY TO CHEAT BY WATCHING THE MOVIE! Part of the pleasure of The House of Mirth is the prose. You WILL want to discuss this. Wharton is witty, ironic, satirical, but best of all she evokes visions in your mind as you read. It’s as if scenes are playing out, one after the other. All inspiring writers would do well to study the craft of Edith Wharton! I kept thinking about Jane Austen’s writing as I read this novel, and I also thought of the scenic quality of Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil. It is no wonder that these authors’ works are turned into films; they are masters at the “screenplay” style!
There are many interpretations of this novel, so if you want to do some research, you’ll find feminist, psychoanalytic, deconstructive, and Marxist readings of it, to name a few. It’s not necessary to read any of them, of course; you can simply discuss your own “reading” of House of Mirth, but I am highlighting here that your book club may all “see” the story very differently. That’s one of the beauties of the book!
You’ll want to “dig deep” into Lily. What motivates her? What does she want and why? Does she even know what she wants? Do her desires change over the course of the novel? Talk about how Lily has been raised and how this has affected her. Talk about the other influences in her life also. Who/what has defined who Lily is?
Is Lily a sympathetic character? The answer to this seems to color a lot of how readers feel about the entire story, so it’s a simple but important question. What makes her sympathetic or not? Does she have a moral compass?
You’ll want to invite Lily to lie down on the couch! What is going on with her and the decisions she makes? Is she being self-destructive? Why? Is her behavior being motivated by unconscious desires? Is she an early feminist? How would she have become one? Is she simply clueless as to the consequences of her actions? Or does she know exactly what she’s doing? Is she a case of arrested development?
Is Lily a victim of the times and society in which she lives? Or is she complicit in her demise?
Does Lily end her life on purpose or accidentally?
If there is one point in the novel where you would put Lily on a different path, where would that be?
You’ll want to talk about LOVE in this story. Does anyone love anyone else? Connected to this, no doubt you’ll talk about marriage and how it is portrayed. How do the husbands fare? How do the wives fare? You’ll talk about the transactional nature of marriage, and who gets what from the deal.
Power is a huge theme in this novel, so you should talk about this! What gives the characters their power? Money? Beauty? Reputation? Personal contacts?
Money is also prominent in the story. Old money versus new money is one of the major themes and plays out in every way: how the characters live, entertain, travel, dress, emote–how they come about their money–in virtually every aspect of their lives. Yes, you can “dig deep” into what the book is saying about money, class hierarchy, and their complicated relationship.
Related to the above, you may want to discuss the time period of the novel and the changes that were going on during the Gilded Age. This may give you some interesting insight into the story. Ask yourselves, what is the book saying about the values and mores and the high society people of the Gilded Age?
You will of course want to discuss the other characters! How do you feel about Seldon? Does he truly love Lily? What does he desire and why? Is there any “good” character in the story? How do you feel about Carrie Fisher? How do you feel about Rosedale? Wow–these are complicated characters!
Here’s something to debate: When Rosedale tells Lily he will marry her if she brings down Bertha Dorset, the next morning Lily knows her decision. However, we as readers do not. Does Lily decide to do what Rosedale has suggested? What stops her from doing so? Or has she decided upon waking that she cannot?
You should discuss Gerty and her purpose in the novel!
I am leaving out SO MANY characters here that you’ll want to discuss, each one representing a different strata of society–make sure you “dig deep” into each one!
Save time to discuss the imagery in the novel!!! Notice the theme of imprisonment, note the water imagery, note the references to mythology! Note how nature is portrayed and the characters’ relationship to it. Note the architecture and the clothing! What about the names?
What about the title? It is taken from Ecclesiastes: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” How does this influence your understanding of this book? The original title was A Moment’s Ornament, and Wharton’s working title was The Year of the Rose. What do you think of this?
We are just scratching the surface here!!! However, I’ve probably tried your patience by making you read this far. One more thing, though: make sure to discuss what this book is about. Why do we read it year after year? What is it saying? Is it relevant to us today? (I think so!!!) Is it an important novel?
Let me know how your book club gets on with this literary treasure!!!
Although I loved reading comic books as a child, I haven’t read many graphic novels as an adult. I picked this up because I had heard so much about it, and WOW, am I glad I did. I spent an afternoon laughing out loud, weeping into my tissues, and sending texts to multiple friends imploring them to Run out RIGHT NOW and get this book!
Roz Chast, a cartoonist for the New Yorker, has written a memoir about her relationship with her elderly parents. Let me ‘cut and paste’ the description from the back of the book here:
“Roz Chast and her parents were practitioners of denial: if you don’t ever think about death, it will never happen. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is the story of an only child watching her parents age well into their nineties and die. In this account, longtime New Yorker cartoonist Chast combines drawings with family photos and documents, chronicling that ‘long good-bye’.”
So, should your book club read it?
Hmm…not an easy question. You see, I think this book is important–we all should be talking about these things with our families, but I’m not sure that anyone, well anyone over the age of say 75, really wants to talk about these things with fellow book club members. Don’t get me wrong–I think this is an important book that raises important issues. I also think it’s brilliantly done. As I said, I think everyone should read it, and I think all families should discuss it. I think many book clubs would enjoy talking about it. But I also think that it may not be the best selection for book groups with elderly members.
So what can your book club talk about?
The book raises questions that you should be discussing with your aging parents, a conversation that will differ from the one you will have with your book group. The latter conversation will be more about the book itself–although as I type this, I can imagine that many of those thorny ‘aging parent’ issues will be talked about also! In fact, I think this is one of those books where the discussion will be about the book BUT ALSO about your own life. Yes, it’s a very personal story, indeed.
You’ll want to talk about the form of the book itself. Do you think, like I do, that the message could not have been delivered so brilliantly any other way? Take it from someone who has lived a version of this book: if you don’t laugh along the way, you will do nothing but cry.
I read somewhere once that it’s a shame that grown-up books don’t have pictures. You really should each take a turn discussing your favorite picture from this book–and say why it is. My personal fave: actually, more than one–all the real photos of the author with her parents. They are smiling for the camera while she looks like she’d like to murder them and then the photographer. A picture paints a thousand words…
What do you say to your parents when their home (possibly your childhood home) is…grimy? Is this their sweet revenge for all those years you were a complete slob growing up? Now the tables have turned, but you can’t threaten to ground them if they don’t clean up their mess. So, how DO you handle this?
I suppose the conversation with aging parents is so difficult partly because there is an uncomfortable role-reversal taking place.
No doubt you’ll want to talk about that role-reversal and how to handle it. No right answer here. Definitely no easy answer.
You’ll want to talk about the relationship that Roz has with her mother and father. Does it affect how she deals with them as they age? Is she generous to her parents, especially when we consider how her mother treated her? Or is it her duty, as it would be any child’s, to care for them? What is motivating her? What would motivate you?
Perhaps you’ll want to discuss the elephant in the room. Yes, that’s right. $$$.
How does one plan for this? Whose responsibility is it to plan for aging parents? The parents? You? What if no one does? What if there’s not enough money?
How can a child deal with the resentment of being put in the position of caretaker? How can that child deal with her siblings who may or may not be helping? How can that child deal with the guilt from having felt resentment for being put in the position of caretaker? Not everyone can write a graphic novel to process her feelings!
You’ll want to discuss whether this raw, honest, personal book goes too far. Are Roz’s parents disrespected in any way?
Perhaps you’ll want to discuss how our culture–and other cultures–deal with the elderly and dying. Nursing homes, hospice care, keeping one alive as long as possible–all topics you can consider. Have other cultures figured out a better way than ours?
This book hit home for me, but I wonder if there are people who will read it and not relate at all. How could that be? Perhaps you can discuss this.
Rightey-ho, this should get you started. Don’t forget: when you’ve wrapped up your discussion with your book club, you’ve still got the MORE IMPORTANT discussion to go. Call your parents! Or, if you ARE the parents, call your kids!
The other day I posted a New Year’s Resolution suggestion to join or start a book club. Here’s the post. Then, this morning, I read that Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame, has done just that! I’m not claiming cause and effect or anything, I’m just saying…seems like a strong coincidence, doesn’t it?
This came to me from someone who knows how I feel about the power of language. It is from the Financial Times, copy and pasted here. Enjoy!
Happy 2015! Have you promised yourself you will eat better and exercise more? Good job–taking care of your body. But how about your MIND??? It is vitally important to exercise your brain, your mind, and your spirit, and here’s the perfect new year’s resolution that will enable you to do all three:
Join a book club! Or start one. It is scientifically proven that reading is good for your brain, and do you know what’s even better? Talking about what you’ve read with others!
Your brain will thank you, and perhaps even more importantly, your spirit will thank you! Being part of a book club checks off numerous “good for you” boxes, and my Literary Masters members constantly tell me that gathering with fellow members for our discussions is a highlight of their month.
Whether you join a Literary Masters salon or start/join your own, just do it! (Thanks, Nike!) And if you need tips on how to do so, stay tuned for future posts!
Here’s wishing you and yours a wonderful 2015!
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?
THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS!!!
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!