Should Your Book Club Read The Lonely War by Nazila Fathi?

Should your book club read The Lonely War by Nazila Fathi?  The answer is absolutely yes!  This wonderful memoir was the 2015-16 season’s nonfiction selection for Literary Masters book groups and salons, and almost everyone loved it.  I say ‘almost’ because some people only ‘liked it a lot’.  Some avid nonfiction readers said it was the best nonfiction book they had read in ages.  Everyone agreed that it is worth reading and also important reading, considering what’s going on in the world today.

So, what can your book club discuss?

Warp-speed plot summary:  Nazila Fathi was born in Tehran in 1970 and was all of nine years old when the revolution occurred and ushered in a whole new world for the Iranian people.  Although many families fled the country, Nazila’s stayed, and she grew into adulthood in the new Islamic state.  Fluent in English, Nazila was eventually hired to write for the New York Times until she and her family (her husband and two children) were forced to flee the country in 2009.  In this memoir, Nazila takes the reader through her journey as well as the journey of the country of Iran and its people.  As the years progress, we witness the growing pains of each as they grapple with new identities.

You’ll want to talk about how/whether this book has affected your view of Iran and the Iranian people.  Literary Masters members are well educated and very engaged in world affairs, but still, almost everyone said they learned quite a bit about the revolution and the people involved–and about what the Iranian people wanted.  You’ll want to discuss the Iranians’ desire for democracy–and what has happened to it since 1979.  You’ll want to think about how US and British historical actions (think Moussadeq) affected the Iranian’s attitude toward the West and helped contribute to bringing about the revolution.  You’ll want to connect all of this to today’s world, of course–a long conversation in itself!

Related to the above, you’ll want to discuss what you think Iran’s main problem is.  And you’ll definitely want to discuss what it is that you admire about Iran.

You’ll want to discuss the class system in Iran and how the regime used it to further their aims.  Was is a mutually beneficial relationship?  Who came out ahead and who came out behind as a result of all the tumult?  Ask yourselves: How responsible is the class system for the revolution?  Also ask yourselves: Does anything like this exist in America?

You’ll want to talk about the various ideologies vying for power in Iran.  Talk about how those who are in power get and remain there.  Also, talk about the ways ordinary citizens survive or thrive under the various power structures.  Also, talk about university students and technology–and the power that resides there!

You’ll want to talk about Iran in relation to its neighbors.  Talk about how you think Iranians feel about themselves in comparison to other countries in the region.  And how they feel about their political leaders, both historical and current.

You’ll want to talk about national security vs. individual freedoms:  how do you feel about this debate with regard to our country after reading this book?  How do we balance the two?  If one side deserves more weight than the other, how do we keep it in check so we don’t topple over?

You’ll want to discuss Ms. Fathi’s parents and how they dealt with all the changes they were going through.  If there was one criticism of the book from Literary Masters members, it was that they wanted to know more of the personal experiences of the family.  (Sequel, Ms. Fathi?)

You’ll want to talk about the experience of women in Iran.  Try to look at is AS a woman in Iran.  And of course, look at it AS a western woman (or whatever you may be).  This was quite the discussion in all Literary Masters groups!  You will definitely want to discuss the veil!

You’ll want to talk about oil and its effect upon the people of Iran.

You’ll want to talk about Ms. Fathi.  Do you think she offers a balanced view or is she biased in her telling of Iran’s recent history?  The subtitle is “One Woman’s Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran.” Is she acknowledging bias on her part?  Does her memoir connect you to the Iranian people or to Islam or to Iranian culture or to anything/anyone else in a new way?

You’ll want to talk about the relationship between the author and her maid.  How do you feel about the choices Ms. Fathi makes?  How do you feel about the choices the maid makes?

Well, this should get you started!  Let me know how your book club enjoys discussing this wonderful memoir!

Should Your Book Club Read Three Strong Women by Marie Ndiaye?

Can a book be beautiful and compelling while being suffocating and depressing?  I found that I couldn’t put this book down, but wonder if I had, would I have resisted picking it back up?  Three Strong Women won France’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt, and Marie Ndiaye, by all accounts, is one of France’s most anticipated, applauded, and astounding authors.  So, I wanted to read this book!

My answer to whether your book club should read it is: it depends on your book club.  This is not a typical book club read, and I can’t imagine everyone loving it…having said that, it is worth reading and worth discussing–if your book club can handle a book that is, well, beautiful but suffocating, compelling but depressing.

So what can your book club discuss?

Warp-speed plot summary:

The book consists of three stories that are very loosely connected.  In the first part, Norah has been called back to her native Senegal from France by her father, a demonic character who has a grip over Norah that she can’t shake.  Or can she?

In the second part, Rudy has brought his Senegalese wife Fanta back to France where only Rudy can legally work.  Although schooled and trained to be a teacher, Rudy works as a kitchen salesman.  His boss is the man with whom Fanta had an affair.  Rudy immediately forgave his boss, but has had trouble forgiving Fanta and has treated her horribly in retaliation.  Rudy is now desperate because he thinks Fanta may leave him for good.

In the third (and most depressing) part, Khady has been kicked out of her deceased husband’s family’s house and told to make her way from Senegal to France.  With no schooling, no family, no home, and no way to make an independent living, Khady has no choice but to do what she is told.  Or does she?

One aspect of all these stories that you’ll want to discuss is the mental stability (or lack thereof) of the three main characters.  Is Norah slowly losing her mind, her grip on reality?  Can we readers trust her as a reliable narrator?  How does her account of her trip to and stay in Senegal change from the beginning of her narration to the end?  Is Rudy losing his mind?  If you think Norah and/or Rudy are losing their grasps on reality, how do you think they end up?  Do they go totally insane?  Do they pull back from the brink and return to reality?  Do they remain just as they are?  Is Khady in touch with reality?  Why or why not?

You’ll want to discuss the symbolism and imagery in the book and what meaning is conveyed to the reader and why.  There is a touch of magical realism in the first and second stories in particular–or is there?  Instead, are we simply listening to the thoughts and rantings of mentally ill people?

Related to the above, you’ll want to pay attention to wings, flight, prisons, and cages.

You’ll definitely want to discuss the language and the way the author creates an atmosphere that is oppressive and claustrophobic–for the characters as well as for the reader.  And what about the dreamlike states the characters seem to drift in and out of?  Are they related to the question of mental illness, or do they have a different purpose?  How do they make you feel as reader?  Like you’re moving in slow motion?

You’ll want to talk about the title.  The word “puissant” in French means powerful.  Why does the English title use the word “strong”?  And who is strong or powerful?  What kind of strength or power is wielded in this novel?  Oh yes, this is a big discussion.  Possibly the biggest.

You’ll want to talk about mothers, fathers, and other relationships in the novel.  Is there a pattern?  Who are the villains and why?  How are the children responding to the legacies left to them by their parents?

Talk about how the stories are connected.  Are the stories more meaningful because they are together?  Are there repetitions?  Are there similar themes?

And of course, you’ll want to discuss the locations.  And dislocations.  Norah’s father forces her to come to Senegal and stay there.  Rudy forces Fanta to come to France, even though he knows she cannot work independently.  Khady is forced to leave her home in Senegal and told to find her way to France.  What is all of this saying, if anything, about colonialism and its legacy?

There’s much more to discuss, but that should get you started.  Let me know how it goes!

Should Your Book Club Read Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn?

Should your book club read Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn?  Well, I am going to say…yes.  I just finished this book–I tore through it and now feel a bit yucky, in need of a shower.  I’d been looking for a light read–something easy for winding down at night–and this was on the “New Books” shelf at the library and caught my eye.  I vaguely remembered having read a review of it in the NY Times and thinking this sounds interesting

Well, it’s interesting, all right.  In fact, I found it fascinating.  I am not a psychologist (although I am drawn to literature because it teaches us so much about human nature and the human psyche) but I
am going to venture a diagnosis here: I feel like I just finished reading a book about a psychopath written by an obsessive narcissist.  How’s that for some armchair psychology?

Warp-speed plot summary:

This is Walter Kirn’s true account (your book club will want to discuss what THAT means!) of his relationship with Clark Rockefeller, the conman who claimed to be part of the famous and wealthy family whose financial roots lie in Standard Oil.  This Clark fellow, as it turns out, was not a Rockefeller at all; he had many aliases and many other identities and lives, and eventually was put on trial for murder.  He had already been on trial for the abduction of his daughter, which evidently was the catalyst for everyone catching onto Clark’s ruse in the first place.  “Ruse,” in this case, is a serious understatement, by the way.

The book is Kirn’s account–and exploration–of his relationship with Clark.  It is also the account of the murder trial.  So, it’s a suspenseful murder who-done-it wrapped up in a psychological (or perhaps pseudo-psychological) study.  I read it with a kind of watching-a-car-crash fascination.  Kirn talks about the hall of mirrors that Clark has created, but I often was wondering whether I, as reader, had fallen into a hall of mirrors of sorts.  As much as Kirn was manipulated by Clark, was I being manipulated by Kirn?  And does wondering this put me in the same position as Kirn and therefore make me as narcissistic as he is???

I won’t tell you how the book ends–maybe you already know–but let’s now turn to:

What can your book club discuss?

Let’s start with the author  You’ll want to discuss the role of Walter Kirn as narrator and how that affects you as a reader–and how far you trust him.  How much of what he tells you do you believe?  What are his motivations for telling this story?  What rhetorical devices does he employ to gain your trust and credulity?

How would you characterize the author?  Some people think this book is more about him than about Clark Rockefeller.  You may want, therefore, to consider Kirn as a character in this book and analyze him accordingly.

In fact, as I just wrote that last bit, it suddenly makes sense: this book IS about Walter Kirn.  It’s ostensibly about Clark, but really about Walter Kirn.  The same sleight of hand move that Clark would have used on Kirn, Kirn uses on us!  Ha!

But there’s more!  The best part is (and I alluded to this above) that Kirn forces the reader into the position that he occupied vis-a-vis Clark!  Wow–that is some artistic manipulation!  And I am at risk of becoming the obsessive narcissist (not just a plain ole narcissist) as I keep repeating this…

You’ll undoubtedly discuss appearances versus reality.  Although I’m not sure you’ll come to many conclusions.  This is quite a broad conversation, but make sure to talk about how we create our own reality from our desires.  Kirn admits repeatedly that he should have seen through Clark’s guise but didn’t necessarily want to do so.  This seems to be a common trait in the people ensnared by Clark.  Why, though?  What was motivating them?  What drew Kirn to Clark in the first place?  (Hint, he admits why in the book.)  Part of this is the posturing that is going on.  By Clark.  And by Kirn.  Oh yes, definitely by Kirn.

You’ll want to discuss the role of language–very important in this story.  Think about how Kirn uses language and how Clark uses it.  And how society uses it.  Turn to page 109 and read Kirn’s words: “…I learned to speak the language of…paradox, of endless loops, of ever-receding, ever-dissolving everything, of “truth claims” instead of truths, of paradigms lost…”  You’ll want to talk about truth.  What is it?  Does it exist?  Can it exist in a story that someone is telling us?  Even if that story is on the non-fiction shelf of the bookstore?  How much of Clark is a creation of Kirn?

Again, as I just finished writing the above, it is striking me: Clark is kind of blank page of sorts; he’s an enigma or code that can’t be cracked.  Kirn refuses to accept this and “writes Clark”; Kirn, as author, presents a Clark to the reader as the definitive version.  The role of creation in non-fiction–taken to perhaps a new level?

You’ll want to discuss the role of class in this story–HUGE–and also the role of power.  And how they relate to each other.  Yes, in many ways, this is what this book is about!  On page 170 Kirn tells us:  “But men compete.”  No question, no gray area, no wiggle room.  Just a definitive: “But men compete.”  Really?  Is that what this book is all about?  Hmm…

You’ll want to discuss how a shocking revelation can throw your sense of history into disarray.  Kirn discusses this on pp.179-80: “When fresh information discredits past perceptions, the underlying memories remain but they no longer hold their old positions; you’re left to draw a new map with displaced landmarks.”

You know, I can’t stop thinking about Kirn as a character as I write this.  He’s quite a lively writer, by the way; as I said above, I tore through this book.  He uses language–manipulates it, one might say–extremely well, and makes for very entertaining reading.  He went to Princeton and Oxford–impressive credentials, if not to you then to him for sure!, and seems very informed on all sorts of matters.  He also seems to be addicted to…what?  The limelight?  Attention?  Approval?  Admiration?  Well, you’ll want to discuss this–get back to me on it if you like.

You’ll want to discuss the literary references in the book; you may or may not find them successful.  (One question: Is Kirn using them to help build his case, his story about Clark?) But you’ll also want to discuss how art is a presence in the book.  (Another question: How much of each person is a creation, an artwork?)  And how psychology is a presence.  Just this could take up an entire discussion!  And don’t forget to talk about theater–and how this life is just a stage upon which we are all actors!  And who is directing???

At the end of the book, Kirn tells us: “I was part of [Clark’s] audience, he thought.  But in truth I was acting much of the time.  He was conning me but I was also conning him.” (252)  I guess I would want to discuss: As reader, just how conned by Kirn do I feel?  And does it matter if he entertained me with this story?  Am I a collaborator as opposed to victim–just as Kirn at one point describes himself?

Elaine from Book Passage WHIRLs!

I went to the wonderfully fabulous independent book store Book Passage the other day to listen to a book talk given by the wonderfully fabulous Elaine Petrocelli.  If you haven’t yet visited Book Passage in Corte Madera, you really are missing out.  It is the literary hub in the San Francisco Bay Area.  You may run into a president, a movie star, or a Nobel Laureate while browsing the shelves in this charming and unpretentious shop.  No doubt about it, all the literary giants pass through here.  Click here for a link to check it out.

Elaine is very entertaining when talking about books, and she had many to recommend.  Here are just a few that she highlighted:


May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis

The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

  • I know many people reading this right now.  In fact, I’m supposed to be reading it for my personal book club!  I’ll let you know what I think at a later date!

The Mirrored World by Debra Dean

  • Elaine suggested that book clubs read this over a two-month period paired with Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie.  What a wonderful idea!

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

  • I can’t wait to read this book!  It is a finalist for the National Book Award (as you know because I told you that in an earlier blog post!).  Also, Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was a HUGE Literary Masters hit!

Round House by Louise Erdrich

  • Also a finalist for the National Book Award!

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

  • Also a finalist for the National Book Award!  I highly recommend this book, although I must warn you, it’s tough to read.  Two American soldiers in Iraq.  Very poetic, moving, and thought-provoking.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

  •  As you know, this little gem of a novel was the September selection for Literary Masters book groups and literary salons.  Everyone loved it!  My blog post on it will be posted soon, so stay tuned.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

  •  This was last season’s Literary Masters selection for May.  Again, a real winner!  Everyone loved this novel, and we had great fun with all the references to Moby Dick–some Literary Masters members were inspired and read Melville’s masterpiece over the summer!  I went to a talk that Chad gave; if you “like” Literary Masters on Facebook, you’ll see a photo of Chad and me!

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers

  • Also a finalist for the National Book Award!  I’m looking forward to reading this one soon.


Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie

  • I am a Rushdie fan, so I’m looking forward to reading his account of the fatwa that was placed upon him due to his publication of The Satanic Verses.

Paris, A Love Story by Kati Marton

  • Kati Marton’s story of her marriages to Peter Jennings and Richard Holbrooke.  It sounds…juicy!  I bet it’s a page-turner.

The Longest Way Home by Andrew McCarthy

Some Girls, Some Hats, and Hitler by Trudi Kanter

Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson

  • An Ethipian boy is adopted by Swedes, grows up in Sweden, and becomes an award-winning chef in America.   This memoir sounds like it’s worth reading.

The latest Book Passage catalogue has even more of Elaine’s picks–check it out!