Wonder–ful Paris!

You all know how much I love the book Wonder by R.J. Palacio, right?  If not, here’s my post on it–and my call for you to read it!  There’s a part in the book where Auggie’s mom tells him that “…there are more good people on this earth than bad people, and the good people watch out for each other and take care of each other.”  I couldn’t stop thinking about this when I saw the following clip on the news.  A father is discussing the events of last Friday in Paris with his son near the site where people have been leaving flowers and candles:

How WONDERFUL is this?  And WONDROUS!  He made me feel better, too.

Well, just in case you needed more evidence that reading and being part of a book group are good for you, here’s an article by David Brooks of The New York Times that should satisfy you and set you looking for the nearest Literary Masters book group or salon!  Feel free to pass it along!

Should Your Book Club Read The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton?

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!!!

Language Matters

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!

And the Golden Flannel of the year award goes to . . . 

Lucy Kellaway Lucy Kellaway



On New Year’s eve, just before the final judging session of my 2014 Golden Flannel awards, I put out a last minute plea on Twitter. What were the most irritating new phrases uttered by business people last year?
Reach out, lots of people replied. Lean in. Going forward. Push back. Space. Learnings. Passionate. Content. My ask of you.
As I read these suggestions I started to get pretty irritated myself. These phrases were aggravating in 2014. But they were also annoying in 2013 and earlier. Reaching out and going forward started grating back in the last millennium.
Yet the response proves something about the jargon space last year. If it was a feeble one for innovation, it was one in which existing guff spread wider and got more bothersome than ever.
This year I’m awarding a special prize to an organisation that ought to have risen above jargon, but has been dragged down into it. Winner of the inaugural Fallen Angel award goes to the Church of England, which in a paper on training bishops talked of “a radical step change in our development of leaders who can shape and articulate a compelling vision and who are skilled and robust enough to create spaces of safe uncertainty in which the Kingdom grows”. Our Lord, looking down on a sentence in which His Kingdom was obliterated by a dozen dreary management clichés, must have found his genius for forgiveness sorely tested.
My next award is given to a big name chief executive who has delivered standout services to guff during the year. One has to admire the actually baffling way in which Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T said: “We actually think that the industry is at a place where you can actually see line of sight to the subsidy equation just fundamentally changing in a very short period of time.”
But in the end the judges actually felt that Tim Cook — who spookily was also chosen as the FT’s person of the year — deserved to be the 2014 Chief Obfuscation Champion. Under his leadership, Apple, hitherto the world’s only example of a successful company that uses words elegantly, succumbed to drivel.
As he took the stage at Cupertino he declared “At the end of the day . . . this is a very key day for Apple”, thus combining two empty, clashing phrases. More bafflingly, when all those topless pictures of stars escaped from their iCloud, he said: “When I step back from this terrible scenario . . . I think about the awareness piece. I think we have a responsibility to ratchet that up. That’s not really an engineering thing.” Maybe it isn’t. But it makes Mr Cook my 2014 COC.
One of my favourite prizes every year is the best euphemism for firing people; this year I’ve decided to withhold the award, as no entries were worthy of it. ABN Amro fired 1,000 people to “further enhance the customer experience”, which was good, but nowhere near the brilliance of EY, which in 2013 sacked people explaining it was “looking forward to strengthening our alumni network”.
Instead I’m giving a new prize for the least appropriate start to an email. Stephen Elop began a 1,200 word message in which he axed thousands of jobs at Microsoft with “Hello there.” But he was beaten to the prize by Uber, which started a message to customers concerned by the alleged rape of an Indian woman by an Uber driver with the jaunty salutation: “Hey”.
The next category is the Communications Cup, given out for the ugliest new way to describe the simple activity of talking to people. Here the competition was fierce: during the year I was asked to “hop on a call” — grating for its false jauntiness — and to “send me dates, and we can lock in”. Better than either was “circle back with”, which though not new, got worse in 2014 as the preposition “to” was replaced by the cheesy and nonsensical “with”. But then, in an email from a PR, I found something even better. To reach out is yesterday. The new and more fashionable way of using this hateful term is back-to-front: “I’m outreaching to you . . .”
The next award is for the silliest job title. The judges admired the way that Tesla calls its car salesmen “Delivery Experience Specialists”, but after fierce debate, have given the prize to PwC in Switzerland for calling its HR head: Territory Human Capital Leader. The first three words are intolerably pompous, and the fourth is a lie. HR people don’t lead.
In choosing my overall Golden Flannel phrase of the year, I considered the dementing “does that resonate with your radar?” but quickly saw it was puny compared to the terrific new verb “to action forward” which I heard an otherwise sensible manager utter last month. “Actioning forward”, with its dazzling combination of two of the most irritating bits of jargon ever, resonates with my radar so powerfully I fear I may have broken it.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!

Happy 2014 to you all!  Have you made your new year’s resolutions?  Have you made your new year’s reading resolutions?  Hmm…I’ll have to do another post about that one of these days.  Today, though, I want to share a little gem of a book with you:

 I saw this in a book store and immediately bought it to give to my friend, Kim.  She’s always drinking out of a mug that say Keep Calm and Carry On; it kind of fits her personality, to be honest.  She has an aristocratic demeanor about her.  I thought I’d give her this book to show her how we non-nobles cope.

When I went to the counter to pay, the clerk asked me if I wanted it wrapped, and I said ‘no’ so I could enjoy the book first.  (Is that a bad thing?)  Well, days later…hmm…weeks later…I am still enjoying it! 

It’s a collection of maxims from various people, one on each page.  Let me share one or two with you:

“The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on.  It is never of any use to oneself.”  ~Oscar Wilde

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.” 
~Albert Einstein

Or how about this zinger:

“Forget the past–the future will give you plenty to worry about.”  ~George Allen, Sr.

Or:

“Hard work never killed anybody, but why take a chance?” ~Edgar Bergen

Or:

“Experience is a comb that life gives you after you lose your hair.” ~Judith Stern

If you. like me, find wisdom in pessimism, this book will crack you up.  And if you’re an optimist, read it and see how the other half thinks.  As for Kim, I think I’ll let her just Keep Calm and Carry On for a bit longer…

National Book Award Finalists!

I told you that I just love this time of year!  Crisp mornings, sunny and warm afternoons, the Nobel Prize, the Man Booker, and now the National Book Award has released its list of finalists!  Click here  for all the info; I mainly pay attention, as you know, to the fiction category:

 The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
 The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
 The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
 Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon
 Tenth of December by George Saunders

As you also know, this season Literary Masters book groups and salons are reading Rachel Kushner’s previous novel Telex from Cuba and The Lowland by Lahiri.

Have you read any of these books?  Your thoughts?

The Nobel and the Man Booker

I love this literary time of year!  Literary Masters book groups and salons have started up again, the Nobel committee awards its prizes, and suspense builds for who will win the Man Booker Prize.  If this blog is the first media that you turn to each day

you’re just learning that Alice Munro is the 2013 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.  Congratulations to a master of the short story!

Now we can all look forward to next Tuesday, when the winner of the Booker will be announced.  In case you need to be reminded of the short list, here it is.

Enjoy!