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

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

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

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!

Gone Girl–the book/ Gone Girl–the movie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Affleck?  Come on.

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

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

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

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

Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for the article and enjoy!

Man Booker Long List Announced!

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

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

Do You Want Your Child to Read?

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

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

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

A Roll of a WHIRL!

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

So, What Have I Read Lately?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, what have YOU read lately?

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

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

So what can your book club discuss?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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