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Blogging & Musing...

Philip Roth—does the guy never quit?

Sunday, 21 September 2008 14:24

philip-rothAnother book? Philip Roth is 75! Why doesn’t he schlep himself off to Florida, put his feet up, and collect his royalties? It would be the decent thing to do—it’s what the rest of us would do.

Noooooo...... he’s still plugging away, churning out one superb book after another. His latest is Indignation.  “Enough already,” as Portnoy’s mother would say.

I’ve come to Roth late, and now I’m wondering why I deprived myself for so long. If you haven’t read him, run to the nearest library or bookstore. Yes, he can be long-winded, over-the-top, tasteless, and self-absorbed, but he’s also brilliantly inventive, side-splittingly funny, and a dazzling storytelller. Oh, and sexually explicit (hilariously explicit, if you’re up for that...if you’re not, please beware).

Where to start? I can’t direct you, but here’s an outline of his oeuvre:

Philip Roth

  • Portnoy’s Complaint—a Jewish man-child’s coming-of-age.

  • The “Zuckerman novels”—9 in all. In the first 4 (referred to as “Zuckerman Bound”) Nathan Zuckerman, author of the outrageous Carnovsky and stand-in for Roth and Portnoy’s Complaint, is the protagonist. In the last 5, an older Zuckerman observes more than participates in the stories he tells.

  • The “Kepesh trilogy”—3 novels that revolve around David Kepesh, an insecure and sexually fixated literature professor.

  • The “Roth novels”—3 semi-autiobiographical (or not) novels.
     
  • Other novels—another 9—include Goodbye, Columbus; Letting Go; When She Was Good; Our Gang; The Great American Novel; My Life As a Man; Sabbath’s Theater; Everyman; and the most recent, Indignation.

  • Oh, yes—another novel is in the works, The Humbling, due out in 2009.

  • Non-fiction and short stories—had I mentioned that?


Where do critics stand?
He’s been called “the single best writer of fiction of the past 25 years.” * And while all critics have their Roth favorites, most seem to agree that the following are his best (click on titles to see our Reading Guides):

A.O. Scott. “In Search of the Best.” New York Times Book Review , 5/21/2006.

 

I Laughed! I Cried! — how do we talk about books?

Friday, 19 September 2008 13:55

i-laughed--criedMy 3rd post* on Josh Henkin’s excellent essay about book clubs.  Henkin (author of Matrimony) speaks with book groups all over the country, and here’s what he would like to see happen when we talk about books:

  •  
    • Less discussion about which characters are likable: (Think of all the great literature populated by unlikable characters.)
    • Less of a wish for happy endings: (Nothing is more depressing than a happy ending that feels tacked on, and there can be great comfort in literature that doesn’t admit to easy solutions, just as our lives don’t.)
    • Less of a wish that novels make arguments: (The business of the novelist is to tell a story and to make characters come sufficiently to life that they feel as real to the reader as the actual people in their lives.)
                                   Books on the Brain, April, 29, 2008

Dear reader, we’re up a creek. Henkin’s points are well-taken, but since we’re not professional critics, and if we shouldn’t talk about characters, endings, or themes—then what do we talk about when talking about books, especially when it’s our turn to lead the discussion? (Me? Lead the discussion? Please, I’d rather have the flu.)

If it’s high anxiety for you at your book club—give the discussion resources a try on our main website. You may find they help.

Reading Guides for specific titles and discussion questions.
Discussion Tips
Generic Questions for Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk —a guided-reading chart.
LitCourse—our 10 short, free online courses.

See all my posts on Josh Henkin’s book club essay:

  1. Book Clubs—smarter than critics?
  2. So … where are the guys?
  3. Echo Chambers—Are we all reading the same books?

 

So … where are the guys?

Friday, 12 September 2008 14:10

where-are-menBack to Joshua Henkin—this is my 2nd post devoted to his terrific essay about book clubs. Henkin, author of Matrimony (now in paperback), speaks with book groups around the country. Here’s a question he raises:

Where are all the men? . . . My experience has been that women read fiction and men read biographies of civil war heroes. And women join book groups and men don’t. Yet those few co-ed book groups I’ve attended have been among the most interesting. And if, as seems to be the case, book groups have led to an increase in reading in a culture that otherwise is reading less and less, it would be nice to see more men get in on the act.
                                  Books on the Brain, April 29, 2008


Henkin is right:
I read somewhere that 75-80% of book clubbers are women—why is that figure so lopsided? Why do women join book clubs and men don't? And for those few co-ed clubs to which Henkin refers, are the reading lists different from all-women clubs? (See my later post on this very subject—Do Real men join book clubs?—11/7/08.)

Questions for Book Clubs
1. For women’s clubs: do you ever consider inviting men to join your club?
2. How do you think adding men might change your book choices and discussions?
3. Same questions for all-men clubs, too. I know there are a few all-male clubs out there.

See my three other posts based on Joshua Henkin’s book club essay:
1. Book Clubs—smarter than critics?
2. I Laughed! I Cried! — how do we talk about books?
3. Echo Chambers—are we all reading the same books?

 

Can movies be better than books?

Sunday, 07 September 2008 09:29

movies-vs-booksAm I the only person in the US who hasn’t seen Mama Mia?  Probably.  I’m so late on the uptake. Worse, yesterday I finally got around to seeing The Namesake, based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel.  Better late than never.

Sometimes a movie is just better than its book.  I liked Lahairi’s novel.  But I think (at least for now) she’s a better writer of short stories, which is actually a harder craft. (Faulkner claimed short stories to be more difficult than poetry.) 

Namesake, The Film is terrific.  By nature, it lacks the book’s interiority (and therefore some of its depth and insights), but that may be why I liked the movie’s characters better, particularly Gogol, who isn’t as alienated or self-absorbed as he is in the novel.  Granted, the movie doesn’t capture Ashima Ganguli’s isloation from American culture as well as the book, nor her dismay at losing her children to its influence.  But I just think the film holds together better. (See our Reading Guide for The Namesake.)

On the to The Kite Runner.  Beloved as the book is, it has some structural problems, especially toward the end when Ahmed meets his nemisis 15 years later in Afghanistan.  That whole section felt tacked on, manipulative, over-the-top.  Again, the film version was better, somehow managing to handle the rescue section with more elegance and power.  Same with the final kite flying scene on the California beach. (See our Reading Guide for The Kite Runner.)

And finally Atonement.  Wow to both book and film.  But I like the film’s ending better than the book’s. The whole birthday party scene (with Briony’s secretiveness about her to-be-published-book and the bad buys sitting right there) feels contrived.  But Vanessa Redgrave’s beautifully modulated monologue somehow lent the film more credibility and power, to say nothing of stature.  It took my breath away. (See our Reading Guide for Atonement.)

Book Club Questions

  1. What books have you read that also have film versions? Which did you prefer?
  2. Does your club show film clips during discussions?  Do you talk about a book vs. film version?
 

Book Clubs—smarter than critics?

Tuesday, 26 August 2008 09:37

owl-smart-bookclubs1An intriguing blog post by Joshua Henkin, author of Matrimony, raises some interesting issues about book clubs. I’m using only a brief excerpt here, but there’s so much more to his article that I plan to refer to it in future posts.

Henkin speaks with book clubs around the country, and here’s what he says about the many clubs he’s talked with:

From coast to coast and in between, I’ve found a huge number of careful readers . . . who have noticed things about my novel that I myself hadn’t noticed, who have asked me questions that challenge me, and who have helped me think about my novel (and the next novel I’m working on) in ways that are immensely helpful. I’ve certainly learned more from book groups than from the critics, not because book group members are smarter than the critics (though often they are!), but because . . . they bring to the enterprise a great degree of passion.           —Books on the Brain, April 28, 2008.

Be still my heart! Henkin’s experience refutes a disheartening blog discussion I came across a while back. The blogger and her guest were disparaging Oprah and her book selections, as well as the entire book club movement—because they didn’t meet certain standards of literary sophistication (apparently, their standards). Ouch.

Well, I love Josh Henkin’s remarks—they certainly put that ugly assertion to rest. Yea, Josh!!

See my later posts on Joshua Henkin’s book club essay:

  1. So … where are the guys?
  2. I Laughed! I Cried! — how do we talk about books?
  3. Echo Chambers—are we all reading the same books?
 

Chick-lit — enough gum to chew on?

Friday, 22 August 2008 09:44

chick-litHas your book club read any chick-lit?  If so, is there enough meat, or gum, for a good discussion? 

What is chick-lit?  Think young urban women obsessed with men, sex, possessions, travel, and partying. Think Sex in the City, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, or Chasing Harry Winston

The title of a recent New York Times article, “On the Beach, Under a Tiffany Blue Sky,” situates chick-lit smack in the middle of a beach towel—as escapist summer reading.

Beach reading or not, you can imagine older feminists yanking at the bottoms of their bathing suits in disdain.  Is this what all the fuss was about—so daughters could end up as boy-crazy, status-seeking materialists? 

But maybe chick-lit is more serious?  Maybe it’s a reaction against the earnestness of the previous generation.  Here’s author Melissa Banks in a 1999 Salon interview:

The women of my [younger] generation were brought up to think of themselves in terms of what they did rather than of being married or unmarried, and it took on this huge weight.  Work was suddenly supposed to be a much bigger thing than work can ever be. You’re supposed to give your soul to it—and ... to be as dedicated to your work as you would be to another person.

Questions for book clubs:

  1. Is chick-lit a rebellion:  “not-your-mother’s-feminism”?  Or is it a second-generation taunt at men: ”Anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better”?  (If men can take charge of their own sexuality, careers, dreams and desires, why can’t women?)
  2. Should chick-lit be taken with a grain of salt (or sand)?  Or does it offer an interesting insight into a post-feminist era.
 

Venus & Mars—do we write differently, too? (Part 1)

Tuesday, 12 August 2008 10:13

venus-marsA book review this summer got me to thinking about the differences between male and female authors—whether men and women write differently...and whether book clubs prefer one gender over another.

Here’s Liesl Schillinger on Atmospheric Disturbances, a new work by Rivka Galchen:

It’s unusual—in fact, (why be coy?), it’s extremely rare—to come across a first novel by a woman writer . . . in which the heart and the brain vie for the role of protagonist, and the brain wins. While the voice and mood of the novel are masculine, clinical and objective . . . the book’s descriptions of colors, smells, clothing and bodies show feminine perception.

New York Times Book Review, 7/13/08

My favorite part of that quote is “why be coy?”—an implicit acknowledgement that what follows is going to shake up some shibboleths. But do men and women write differently?

This is hard for me to acknowledge, but I think Schillinger is right. Works like Absurdistan, The Brief Wondrous LIfe of Oscar Wao, The Road, even The Corrections seem to display a distinct masculine sensibility. Reading them, I’m decidedly aware they were penned by a male. And there are books written by women that I feel are distinctly feminine: authors like Jody Picoult, Sue Miller, Sarah Gruen, Sarah Addison Allen. But that, I think, is a subject for another blog entirely.

Questions for Book Clubs

  1. Do women clubs read “masculine” works like Absurdistan, Oscar Wao, or The Road? And do men read books that have Schillinger’s feminine perception—say Interpreter of Maladies or The Memory Keeper’s Daughter or The Secret Life of Bees?
  2. Overall, do masculine works like The Road or The Corrections get taken more seriously than feminine works? Or does NONE of it matter.

 

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