WHIRL (What Have I Read Lately) Books is a site for readers to find books for themselves and their book clubs. Liz at Literary Masters runs book groups and literary salons where we "dig deep" into literary treasures.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

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!

Monday, October 6, 2014

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.


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

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!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Liz and Literary Masters in the News!

Just in case you don't get the Marin Independent Journal delivered to your door, here's a link to last Sunday's article on Literary Masters!  Kudos to Greer Gurewitz and a special tip of my hat to Alan Dep, photographer extraordinaire!

http://www.marinij.com/marinnews/ci_26389068/marin-snapshot-love-literature-leads-new-business

Friday, August 8, 2014

Last Minute Summer Reading List!

Hey!  If you haven't yet checked out North Bay Woman Magazine, you should do so now because yours truly has written a little article for them.  Here's the link:

http://blogs.marinij.com/northbaywoman/2014/08/08/last-minute-summer-reading-list/

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

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.