The Literary Masters Reading List for the 2015/2016 Season is Posted!

The 2015/2016 Season of Literary Masters is officially kicking off today with the announcement of the reading list on the Literary Masters website.  You can visit and learn all about Literary Masters book groups and salons by clicking here.  And if you just want to see the reading list, here it is below.  Why not read along with Literary Masters?  Enjoy!
Controversy. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary app, controversy is “a discussion marked especially by the expression of opposing views.” Well, the 2015/2016 Literary Masters season is sure to be filled with all sorts of viewpoints! As always, our salons encourage debate and a spirited exchange of ideas. Our hope, of course, is that we come away from each meeting having learned from fellow members and with a more open, informed, and empathetic viewpoint. After all, isn’t that why we read and gather to talk about our books? Get ready to wade into a few controversies, fellow members!
Literary Masters 2015/2016 Season
October: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. To call the publication of this book a controversy is an understatement. Like it or hate it, Pulitzer Prize-winning Harper Lee’s second novel has generated one of the largest (and divisive) literary conversations in ages. And we’ll be taking part!

November: Redeployment by Phil Klay. This time it’s the subject matter that is controversial; these stories written by an Iraq war veteran will take us to a place that none of us have been to—but where we’ve sent plenty of fellow Americans. We should talk about this, right? What’s not contested is the merit of this book; it won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, among others.

December: The Children Act by Ian McEwan. Can you force a sick child to accept medical treatment? Should you? What if that child’s religion forbids it? And who gets to decide? These and other controversial topics will be covered in our salons during December.

January: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen.   The protagonist of this thought-provoking novel will undoubtedly make you look at the Viet Nam war (and America’s role in it) in a whole new light. Just how much responsibility does America bear, and how guilty should we feel? A controversial war, and a novel sure to generate a lot of debate.

February: Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. There is universal sentiment that the literary world lost a lion when E.L. Doctorow passed away this year. However, this novel is full of controversy, both in its structure and its themes. We will have fun “digging deep” into this literary treasure, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

March: The Lonely War: One Woman’s Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran by Nazila Fathi. Is there anything about Iran that isn’t controversial? This memoir is our nonfiction selection for the season, written by a native Iranian and NY Times correspondent. This is sure to open a few eyes. Ben Affleck isn’t the only one who can transport us to Iran and back!

April: I Do Not Come to You By Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani. This debut novel won its Nigerian author the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book as well as the Betty Trask First Book Award. Set in Nigeria, the hilarious story (with some serious undertones) pits education against corruption as we enter the world of Nigerian email scamming. With a controversial nod to Western affluence and influence, this novel will, if nothing else, make you look at your emails with new appreciation!

May: Purity by Jonathan Franzen. Okay, just the author’s name generates controversy. But we’ll be closing out the season discussing the work of another literary…well, if not a lion, then at least a literary cub.   Perhaps we’ll have to don our feminist hats to decide once and for all whether Franzen is a misogynist. Perhaps we should invite Oprah to a salon?

Should Your Book Club Read We the Animals by Justin Torres?

We the Animals is a wonderful little book, one you can easily read in one or two evenings.  It’s about three little boys of mixed-race descent growing up in a household of little income, even less parenting, but, one has to believe, a lot of love.  There’s not a traditional plot; rather, each chapter is a window into the life of this heart-wrenching family.

This is, as I said, a short novel, which I like, but it’s a beautiful one.  The language is almost poetic, and considering that the book is narrated by the youngest brother, the contrast between what he says and how he says it lends a level of poignancy to the story that serves it well.  One can’t help but feel for these little boys, their over-worked and self-effacing mother, and their well-intentioned but frustrated, macho dad.

I don’t want to give anything away, but the end of the book, though in some ways shocking, comes as no surprise at all.  It left me wondering, “when, oh when, will we know what happens to them?  When is the sequel?”

So, should your book club read it?  I’d say this is a book most everyone will like, or at least appreciate, but the lack of traditional plot may pose a problem for those book clubs that don’t approach their discussion in a structured way.  I won’t be selecting this for our Literary Masters book groups, but that is not to detract from the novel.  I highly, highly recommend it for individuals, and if your book club reads it, do let me know how ‘deep’ a discussion you end up having.

Should Your Book Club Read To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf?

This is not an easy book.  It is, however, a brilliant book.  So, forgive my equivocation, but I think my answer to should your book club read To the Lighthouse depends upon…your book club.  I will say that this book almost demands to be read with others so that you can talk about it and make sense of it.

To the Lighthouse was Literary Masters’ December selection, and I found our discussions fascinating.  Like a mirror held up to each individual reader, this book seemed to reflect unique and personal responses.  Each LM member seemed to have a different interpretation of the parts, as well as the whole, of the story, much like the characters within had each an individual response to their lives.  Thus, we readers were like the characters in the book, constructing our perception of reality through the prism of our own perspectives.

I could spend days here going over the themes of the book, and analyzing the imagery, and discussing the characters, and so on.  And the thing is, I could spend each day looking at the above through a different lens: one day I could view the book through a historical context; one day I could do a Freudian reading, one day I could do a feminist reading, one day I could look at it through an existentialist lens, one day I could just analyze the symbolism, one day I could just analyze the colors…I think you get my point.


So what can your book club talk about if you read To the Lighthouse?

Many critics feel this book is highly autobiographical, so that may be a starting point for you if you are up for doing a little research.  Even if you don’t, though, you’ll want to discuss the relationships in the book.  Why does Mrs. Ramsey refuse to say ‘I love you’ to Mr. Ramsey?  Whom does Lily love?  What does Lily feel toward Mrs. Ramsey?  What does James want?

Actually, that’s a good place to start.  What does each character desire?  This may lead you to what I consider an overarching theme of the book, one of the main things this book is “about.”  And what does each character do with that desire?  And what does that say about human nature?

Each reader in your book club may have a different answer to “what is this book about?” and each one may be right.

Talk about the significance time plays in the story.  What is it saying about time?  How do the characters feel about time?  What is each character’s relationship with time?  Perhaps you could consider the most important thing in each character’s life and go from there.

Talk about the imagery and symbolism.  For example, what significance do windows hold?  What about the lighthouse?  Note all the gardens, trees, and other natural phenomenon and how they relate especially to Mrs. Ramsey.  What is the significance of that?  Talk about the house; many of my LM members felt that the house was a character in itself.  What do the waves represent, if anything?  Honestly, I could go on and on, but the above is probably enough to get your book club going.

This book is absolutely poetic and you may want to read passages just for the beauty of the language.  You’ll definitely want to talk about the unique structure: Virginia Woolf was a pioneer of ‘stream of consciousness,’ so you as reader will be inside the flowing thoughts of the characters.  How does this affect you?  And how does this form embed the themes of the book?

I highly recommend this book.  It speaks to the reader on an individual level as well as speaking to us all on a universal level of things that are timeless.  This is probably why it is on every list of “must read” books.  It demands a little more work on the reader’s part, but the rewards are well worth it.

Should Your Book Club Read A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan?

A rather controversial choice–some members loved it and some did not–A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan was Literary Masters’ selection for November, and the bottom line is: yes, this is an excellent choice for your book club, but you need to have a focused, disciplined discussion to get the most out of this very dense book.  This blog post should help you.

One reason this book is so dense is its structure, and you’ll want to explore that at some length.  In an interview, Egan says she wanted to structure the book like a record album, with an “A” side and a “B” side.  Explore this issue, and quite a bit comes up.  You may want to consider the ‘collection of chapters’ as a type of record album–with some ‘songs’ that you like more than others.  Also, consider how each chapter relates to music in its message, mood, and tone.

Some of the themes of the book are actually expressed through the structure, and this will be illuminated if you really ‘dig deep’ as we do in our LM literary salons.  For example, one theme we discussed was how we are all separate yet connected.  Egan wanted each chapter to be able to stand on its own, which each one does, but taken in the context of all the stories, each chapter takes on that much more resonance and meaning. 

One of the most interesting chapters is the one done as a power-point presentation.  Now, your book club will want to talk about what this entire book is saying about technology and its effect on us individually and as a society, but this chapter particularly brings up the idea of the pause and what that signifies.  Now think about all the chapters–what does the “pause” mean?  This brings up all sorts of different and wonderful interpretations!

I found one of the main themes of the book to be redemption.  Each of us has an “A” side that eventually, for a variety of reasons–and your book club will want to explore these reasons with regard to each character–stops.  But, after a pause of some sort, the music starts up again, and you’re on your “B” side.  Another allusion to the record album that will get your book club talking!

You’ll want to consider how this is a book about time.  And also about time and music.  Egan says that nothing can bring you back in time like hearing a song from your past.  How are the characters relating to/ considering their pasts?  Read the epigraph and discuss how it relates to the book.  Egan says that she was heavily influenced by Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past while writing A Visit from the Goon Squad, so your more literary book club members will want to weigh in here.

Consider the title!  and discuss!  What is the “goon”?  You should have more than one interpretation of this most interesting question!

Another theme you’ll want to explore is authenticity versus artifice.  Just how much “spin” is going on in each chapter?  Ha!  Another allusion to the record album–I love it!  Many of my members found this to be a depressing topic to delve into, especially as we considered the last chapter where technology is used to an extreme to manipulate everyone’s desires–and no one seems to be aware of it.  Just how much free will do we have?  How mediated are we in our daily lives? 

This novel is very much an exploration of identity–what it is, how we acquire it, why and how we refashion it.  You can spend an entire meeting discussing this one topic.

I’m just scratching the surface (no pun intended!) in this blog post as to what your book club can discuss when it comes to this highly entertaining and deeply literary book.  One thing you can do to really “dig deep” is take one or two stories and concentrate on them.  My favorite is “Safari, ” but each one is brilliant in its own right.  Happy reading!

Should Your Book Club Read Three Stages of Amazement by Carol Edgarian?

If you’re looking for the bottom line, here it is: absolutely yes.  This is a perfect book for book clubs, and if you don’t belong to one and you’re reading it on your own, you’ll still love it.

Quick plot overview:
The story takes place during one pivotal year, 2009, the first year of Obama’s presidency.  The country is reeling from the financial crash of late 2008, but people are still clinging to the hope they’ve pinned on a new president and on the American dream that is, let’s face it, their birthright.  Charlie, a surgeon, and his wife Lena, a documentary film maker, want their little slice of entitlement and Charlie knows how they can get it.  He’s going to build a medical robot that can be used in remote locations and the venture capitalists in California will fund it and they will all live happily ever richer.

So Charlie and Lena move to San Francisco “ready for luck.”  They have “made their deal.  Charlie would give everything to Nimbus and Lena would handle the rest.”  The slight glitch is that “the rest” is quite a bit, and this puts a strain on the marriage that it may not survive.

Meanwhile, in a beautiful mansion in Pacific Heights in San Francisco, live Cal and Ivy.  Cal is Lena’s estranged uncle, a fact that concerns Charlie immensely.  Because guess who wants to invest in Nimbus and make Charlie and Lena super successful and wildly wealthy?  You guessed it–Uncle Cal.  Charlie is caught between a rock and a hard place, and without giving anything away, let’s just say he risks getting crushed between the two.

The plot thickens as we meet Alessandro, the mysterious Italian who works for Cal but who was once Lena’s lover.  Alessandro’s job puts him in a position to have a direct impact on Charlie’s success–and on his marriage with Lena. 

The opening line of Three Stages of Amazement begins “The modern marriage has two states, plateau and precipice…”  And yes, this novel is about marriage.  It’s not about the wedding, nor the divorce.  It’s about that in-between part, the real thing, marriage.  What creates a marriage, what’s the glue that holds a marriage together, what a marriage does to the couple in it…you could spend an entire meeting over just this issue, but this novel is also about so much more.  What else can your book club talk about when discussing it?

The title, for starters.  The book is divided into three sections: Silence, Disbelief, and Talk.  I was fortunate enough to attend an evening where the bright and beautiful Carol Edgarian spoke about her book, and when asked about the title, she tied it to how people react when they are amazed by something.  First, silence–kind of a stunned silence.  Next, the brain’s not really accepting it, so there’s disbelief.  Finally, as we process what’s going on, we begin to talk.

I love this explanation because it works on so many levels for this book.  Many of the characters go through the three stages of amazement on a personal level as they confront various events of their lives, but also the entire country is going through the same three stages following the catastrophic crash of the financial markets.  Carol Edgarian does an amazing job of capturing the zeitgeist of that little slice of time between when those cataclysmic events occurred and when people finally accepted those events as real, permanent, and part of a new way of life.  You can view this novel as a coming-of-age story for an entire country, when innocence was lost and disillusionment set in.

No doubt you’ll want to discuss the characters in depth, and as you do so, see how each character’s desire is playing a role in the story. And their principles.  And their secrets.  And how all three of these interact to create unexpected results.  A major theme in the book is whether or not we have any control over our lives; is there such a thing as fate, destiny, luck, or are we asserting our own will?

As summer approaches, it is perfect timing to read this book.  It’s fast-paced enough to read on a trip, but literary enough to keep you interested and engaged.  A “cerebral beach read”–now that’s the ticket!  Whether you go to the beach alone or with your book club, you’ll enjoy Three Stages of Amazement.

Bad Nature, Or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marias

Wow, this seemingly simple story packs a powerful punch.  I am constantly lamenting the gaps in my literary life, and one embarrassingly deficient area of knowledge for me is the Spanish-speaking world of literature.  I am trying to rectify this, and one author that I’ve had on my radar for awhile but had never read is Javier Marias.  I mean, Orhan Pamuk has said that Marias should win the Nobel prize for literature, and Orhan should know–he’s won it himself.

One of my favorite bloggers suggested I start with this book.  And I can see why.  This is a quick little book; in fact, one can easily read it in a day.  I think it will take much longer than that to process, however.

Quick plot overview:
The narrator is being hunted.  He makes this abundantly clear to us in the first five pages of the story.  In a kind of stream-of-consciousness style, he tells us just how hunted he is.  For the rest of the story, we learn why there are people out to get him, but the story is so funny, I forgot about his being hunted at all.

The narrator is in Mexico to shoot a movie with Elvis Presley.  There is, as one can imagine, quite a large contingent of people accompanying Elvis, and our narrator is there for one purpose: as a diction coach.  His job is to see that Elvis pronounces the letter “c” as it is pronounced in Spain; Elvis doesn’t want to have a Mexican accent.  An easy job, as it turns out; as our narrator tells us, “Mr. Presley had to pronounce very few Spanish phrases in the course of the film…”

We learn that Mr. Presley is quite a nice guy, but is rather restless as well.  When they aren’t shooting the film, he and his entourage go out in search of a good time. Our narrator is with them, but he’s no longer a diction coach.  Instead, much to his dislike, he is forced into the role of translator.  Seeing as they’ve all stumbled into a local bar full of hostile thugs who are intent upon insulting Elvis and his companions, the job of translator is a dangerous one indeed.  Our narrator must relay the messages from Elvis to the thugs and vice-versa, all the while trying to keep the peace. 

And all of a sudden, this quirky amusing novella becomes seriously intense and psychologically deep.  And impossible to put down.  Suffice to say, I closed the final page and my hands were practically trembling.  The power of words.  The power of image. The power of the medium.  What is real.  What we believe.  I’ve been pondering all this and more thanks to Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico.  And the fact that Javier Marias worked as a translator for years–wow, that just adds more brilliance to an absolute gem of a novel.

The next Marias novel I want to try is A Heart So White.  How about you?  Which Marias novel is your favorite?

Should your Book Club read Emma by Jane Austen?

As you know, I am currently running a Jane Austen Literary Salon, and we just finished discussing Emma, the fifth of Jane’s six novels that we’re reading.  One of the members, let’s call her Diane, had to miss last month’s discussion of Mansfield Park, but she had a good excuse–her first grandchild was born!  And guess what Diane did while helping to care for her new granddaughter?  She read Emma out loud to her–I love it!  A little Janeite in training!

So, should your book club read Emma?  Are you looking for a classic?  Are you looking for one of Jane’s novels to read?  I can recommend Emma for the individual reader and for a book club, but I have to be honest here…this is not my very favorite of Jane’s novels.  Don’t get me wrong–it’s a wonderful, sometimes hilarious novel, with much to appreciate on many levels.  I just happen to prefer Mansfield Park (usually everyone’s least favorite), or Persuasion.  But that’s just me.  Emma is usually everyone else’s favorite, along with Pride and Prejudice.

If you do read Emma, there’s lots to discuss.

You probably know the plot, or some of the plot.  Emma is rich, spoiled, and rather self-absorbed.  She’s also very snobbish, but not when it comes to her new friend and pet project, Harriet.  Harriet’s class and rank are hard to pin down, as she has never known her parents–she is “the natural daughter of somebody”–and has lived at Mrs. Goddard’s school.  Emma, who sees the world as she would like it to be rather than how it is, decides with no evidence whatsoever that Harriet must be the daughter of a gentleman and therefore deserves to marry a gentleman.  But which gentleman will it be?  And will that chosen man see Harriet the same way Emma sees her?  Emma sets her sights on the perfect man (or men?) for Harriet and the hilarity begins!

There’s much more to the plot, but suffice to say that it reads like a Shakespearean comedy with all the confusion of who’s in love with whom, and who’s falling out with whom and who will end up with whom.  As I said, it’s quite funny, but there’s an undertone of serious business going on, and the careful reader will pick up on that.

The serious business of marriage, for instance.  Your book club will have a grand time discussing what this novel is saying about romantic love and marriage.  The class system looms large in this story, and impacts everyone and everything–you can see what you think the novel is saying about class and rank in Jane’s day.

Actually, the list of what you can discuss would be too long to list here.  How genders are being played with in the story, and what this means, for instance.  Or if Knightley has “proper pride” and whether he is an ideal man.  Or how Jane’s use of free indirect discourse impacts the reader’s view of the characters and plot.  Or what to make of the themes of duty, the individual versus society, education, and authority, to name a few.
You could spend hours just talking about the characters, like Emma’s father, a pathetic hypochondriac, or the inimitable and insufferable Mrs. Elton, one of the more loathsome characters in all of English literature.

I read and re-read Jane’s novels because I love her use of language.  She is incomparably brilliant and I am in awe as I read.  I also read her because I appreciate how there seem to be so many different, yet simultaneous, discourses in her novels.  In our Jane Austen Literary Salon, we are trying to get to “know” Jane–through her texts, of course.  But this is tricky, as she can be very slippery–you think you understand what the text is saying only to find it’s saying something quite different elsewhere.

Bottom line, Jane’s novels can be read on many levels, which may be a key to her staying power.  Have a go with Emma and let me know what you think.  No cheating by just watching the movie, however!  As beautiful as the films of all Jane’s novels are, they do not compare to reading the books–I assure you!