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Blogging & Musing...

Echo Chambers—are we all reading the same books?

Saturday, 22 November 2008 12:49

echo-chamberHello…ello…lo……..  Are book clubs like echo chambers—reading and talking about the same books?  Joshua Henkin (Matrimony) worries that we are: you know, books like Water for Elephants; Eat, Pray, LoveKite Runner. We’re all reading them and reviewing the same ones.

Here’s how Henkin puts it:

There are a lot of great books out there that people don’t know about . . . . [At the same time] fewer books have more and more readers. . . .  For that reason, it has become harder for all but a handful of books to get the attention they deserve.   
                                        —Books on the Brain, 4/29/08 

Henkin makes a strong case. Pity new authors trying to get their books noticed. It’s got to be disheartening.

Nonetheless, there’s something delightful that so many of us are on the same page. The book club movement is like the city that promotes a single book for its residents to read. Meet someone at the water cooler, at the mall, on the bus…and a conversation gets started. “Hey, how do you like Eat, Pray, Love? Have you read such & such yet?” It’s suddenly easy to find commonality, even with total strangers.

And while Henkin is right—many more authors deserve our attention—perhaps book club lists have more variety than expected.

Take a look at the list below. It’s a sampling of titles that have cropped up recently on LitLovers website—some are mentioned by our featured book clubs, others come from people who email me to request a reader’s guide. It’s an interesting list.

Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie — Half of a Yellow Sun
Murray Bail — Eucalyptus
Lynne Cox — Grayson
Ivan Doig — Whistling Season; the McCaskill trilogy
Jennifer Cody Epstein — The Painter from Shanghai
Dorothea Benton Frank — Sullivan’s Island
Victor Fankl — Man’s Search for Meaning
Tana French — In the Woods
Beth Gutcheon — Good-bye and Amen; Leeway Cottage
Jim Harrison — Returning to Earth
Kent Haruf — Plainsong; Eventide   
Robert Hicks — Widow of the South
Paulette Jiles — Enemy Women
Lesley Kagen — Whistling in the Dark
Aryn Kyle — The God of Animals
Sinclair Lewis — Main Street
J. Nozipo Maraire – Zenzele: Letter for My Daughter
Roland Merullo — Breakfast with Buddha
David Mitchell — Ghostwritten
John O’Hara — Appointment in Samarra
Tom Perotta —  Little Children; The Abstinence Teacher
Nancy Pickard — The Virgin of Small Plains
Anthony Powell — Dance to the Music of Time
Richard Powers — The Echo Maker
Reynolds Price — Kate Vaiden
Tatiana de Rosnay — Sarah’s Key
Mary Doria Russell — The Sparrow
Helen Santmyer — And Ladies of the Club
Carol Shields — Stone Diaries; Unless
Ahdaf Soueif — The Map of Love
Nancy Turner — These Is My Words
Larry Watson — Sundown, Yellow Moon; Montana 1948 

See all posts on Joshua Henkin’s book club essay.

 

I Have a Kindle!!!

Friday, 14 November 2008 13:28

kindle2Let me tell you how easy it is to get over your attachment to books—the kind with paper pages?  Once you hold this gorgeous book-machine (yes, machine) in your hand, you won’t want to let go.  Ever.

It’s surprisingly easy on the eye—so you can read for hours, even even bump up the type size. It’s easy to flip from page to page and back again.  You can bookmark pages, highlight passages, even make notes!  You’re automatically connected to Amazon, so with a click of a button, you buy your books—and they’re downloaded within a minute.  Ooooooooh… I’m in love!

But dear librarians, here’s the question: what will you do? If our books become electronic, what’s the future for libraries? I know librarians all over the country are asking this very question—I read your blogs. (Wow, do you guys blog!) And what will become of bricks-and-mortar book stores? 

Oh, how did I get my Kindle?  After all, they’re not cheap.  Well, my dear friend Lynne presented it to me as a gift!  Give her a call.  Maybe she’ll take a liking to you and get you one, too.  Here’s her number: 202-555-1234.  Good luck.

 

Do REAL MEN join book clubs?

Friday, 07 November 2008 13:31

real-menCheap shot, that title. I suspect there are a healthy number of men who do join book clubs — in fact I read about one just recently. 

The Second Monday Men’s Book Group in Melbourne, Florida, is featured in the Nov-Dec ’08 issue of Bookmarks magazine.  Funny story—before they formed their group, they thought they’d see if they could join one of their wives’ book clubs. Here’s what happened:

We brought it up.  They shot it down.  We’d change their dynamics by merely being present—and what would happen if we opened our mouths?

Which brings to mind the joke: If a man is alone in the forest and he speaks ... is he still wrong? Apparently so. Anyway, the guys decided to form their own club, now numbering around 7.

In an earlier post, I wondered what kind of books men read.  Well here’s how the Second Monday group weighs in:

Nonfiction

Tuxedo Park (radar)  |  Cadillac Desert (dam-building)  |  Soul of a New Machine (computers)  |  Jungle (meat packing)  |  Washington’s Crossing (history)  |  American Theocracy (politics)  |  Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman (physicist’s memoir)  |  Everglades, River of Grass (history)  |  West With the Night (female aviator’s memoir)  |  Why Americans Hate Politics (politics).  


Fiction

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan  |  Saturday by McEwan  |  Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brien  |  My Antonia by Willa Cather  |  Foundation by Isaac Asimov (sci-fi)  |  Maltese Falcom by Dashiell Hammett  |  Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler  |  Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon  |  Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky  |  The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

Observations? 

  1. Heavy on non-fiction—50%. 
  2. Preponderance of male writers—80%. 
  3. Similar novel choices to female clubs—along with sci-fi (Asimov) and action-adventure /historical fiction (O'Brien).  

Question:  Is this a typical list for men’s book clubs—with 50% of the books nonfiction and 80% of the writers male?

Also, see So…Where Are the Guys? — an earlier post about men and book clubs.

 

Audio Books—as good as reading?

Sunday, 26 October 2008 13:46

audio-books

Question:  Can you really say you’ve “read” a book when you’ve listened to it?   Does listenting count as “reading”—and does it work for a book club discussion?

Answer:  Well, at least we get through the book!  In a busy life, that counts for something.

On the other hand. . .we’re usually multi-tasking when listening, which means the book doesn’t have our full attention.  Second, we read at our own pace:  pause, ponder, re-read, or jot a note.  Hard to do with audio while driving.  Third, in a book discussion, it’s easy for everyone to turn to a particular passage on a particular page.  Not so easy with audio.

Two other considerations:  purists say a narrator’s voice can unfairly influence how we experience a work.  And finally, it turns out our memories work better when reading rather than listening.  That’s especially true for adults and older students (though the research isn’t definitive).

So not being a purist, my advice is to enjoy audio books whenever you feel like it—but read the printed version when it comes to your book club selection.  (See LitLovers Discussion Tips.)  

 

Daughters, Daughters Everywhere

Friday, 10 October 2008 13:51

daughter-novelsA little fun:  have you noticed—pretty hard not to—all the books entitled Somebody’s Daughter?  Recognize any of these?   

The Abortionist’s Daughter          The Memory Keeper’s Daughter
The Bonesetter’s Daughter          The Optimist’s Daughter
The Courtesan's Daughter           The Pirate’s Daughter
Galileo’s Daughter                       Vermeer’s Daughter

Just how many daughterly titles are out there?  Turns out, about 360—titles like “Somebody’s Daughter” or “Daughter(s) of the Something-or-Other.”  Here's the full list.

So why this fixation on female offspring—a marketing scheme to appeal to women?  But one title is nearly 200 years old.  It also turns out that Balzac, Dumas, Hawthorne, D.H. Lawrence, Orwell, Walter Scott, and Zola were in on it, too. Did they even have marketing firms back then?

D.H. Lawrence’s short story, “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter,” suggests the young woman of the title inherited her father’s personality and will dominate her fiance as her father did his horses—a title that suggests a belief in familial determinism.  (See LitCourse 9.) 

Okay, one down, but that leaves 359 titles unexplained. Any theories?

 

Brideshead Revisited…and revisited and revisited

Monday, 06 October 2008 14:14

bridesheadI revisited Brideshead again last week—rereading the book after 25 years—because something about the newest film didn't sit right. 

There’s also the 1981 version with Jeremy Irons, the sumputuous mini-series that clocks in at 11 hours.  Why remake a perfectly fine wheel?  Well, after my marathon reread, I’m even more curious.

I actually like the new 2008 version, primarily because of the performances.  They’re terrific!  But the two-hour format distorts the storyline and the work’s ultimate meaning. 

The biggest problem is the timing of Julia and Charles’s love affair.  In the book,  the two don’t fall in love until they meet onboard the ship—10 years after they first met at Brideshead.  The new film has them fall in love early on—at Brideshead.  It’s a serious misreading because it leads to the premise that Sebastian’s unrequited love for Charles is what sucks him into a self-destructive vortex.  His decline is far more complicated—and goes to the heart of the book.

The story appears, on the surface at least, to be critical of religion, certainly Catholicism.  But the book’s chapter titles provide a real tip-off:  “Et In Arcadia Ego” and “The Twitch Upon the Thread.”  The novel has to do with the operation of divine grace in the world: 

an invisible line which is long enough to let [ the unrepentant ] wander to the ends of the world and still bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.  

Willful disobedience gets both Charles and Sebastian thrown out of Arcadia—the paradise / Eden that was Brideshead during the summer of 1923. Only after suffering and disillusionment do the two feel the “twitch upon the thread”—even Charles does at the novel’s end, though it’s unclear whether he’s actually reeled in. 

For Book Clubs
Why not revisit Brideshead by reading Waugh...then seeing the 2008 film version?  Or for real die-hards watch the 11-hour 1981 version! Choose a weekend—and pack a sleeping bag and pillow! Invite me, too.

 

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.

 

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