Book Review | A Journey Through Literary America

Wednesday, 17 March 2010 17:33

journey-americaRarely do I review new books.  It’s hard enough to get through my own pile for the website, let alone take on brand new ones.  So usually I decline review requests. 

But this book was different.  A Journey Through Literary America looked so intriguing…I couldn’t resist the offer.  And what a smart decision! This has to be one of the MOST gorgeous books ever born.  

Journey is a big coffee-table-sized book, chock-a-block-full of sumptuous photos—the homes of America’s most beloved authors and the locales of their stories.  

With wonderful prose to boot—biographies and personal incidents that make up the authors’ lives, as well as the history and inspiration behind their works. 

This is a gorgeous book—the perfect gift for your favorite book lover. Which is you, of course!

journey-america-lg

 

Short Stories—the long & the short of them

Monday, 22 February 2010 17:16

short-storiesI just finished My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead (see our Reading Guide), a volume of 26 short love stories edited by Jeffrey Eugenides (author of Middlesex).  It’s been a long time since I sat down to read short stories, and I found it challenging.

As my friend Nan says, reading short stories is “like opening a jewel box.”  She’s right: stories are polished little gems…which is what makes them difficult. They’re written with economy—lacking the luxury of 100′s of pages for a more leisurely expansion of plot and character. Everything is compressed—precise—each word or idea contains significance, pointing to something beyond itself. Stories are packed with meaning.

They also tend to be dark, edgy, with more bite than longer fiction. Stories situate a character, an ordinary individual, in a moment of crisis—and within 2 to 20 pages, say, the author must resolve that crisis. Everything is intensified.

Finally, there’s the stop-and-go quality of a story collection, which as opposed to the long arc of a novel can be discomfiting. You get involved with the story and characters…only to have it end quickly. Then on to the next story—working to come up to speed again. It’s like establishing new friends, over and over, only to keep losing them.

But I found, reading through Eugenides volume, that the stories haunted me, out of all proportion to their length. And that’s the beauty of a short story.

For Book Clubs
Take a break from novels and try our LitCourses—each based on a single story.  The courses are short, fun, and packed with good information. You’ll find a study guide for each story—perfect to help with discussion. Take a look!

 

What the Dog Saw made him Blink

Tuesday, 16 February 2010 09:34

blink-outliersIf you’re a Malcolm Gladwell fan, then you’re in luck!  We have Readers Guides—with DISCUSSION QUESTIONS—for all 4 of Malcolm Gladwell’s books.  Read and discuss any of the books at your book club!

The Tipping Point    |    Blink    |    Outliers    |   What the Dog Saw

 

Learn a Little Lit—authorial intent

Wednesday, 10 February 2010 13:34

apple1

You've seen the cartoons in which characters say one thing—but they're thinking another. Authorial intention is sort of like that.

Contemporary literary theory pretty much debunks the idea that authors say exactly what they mean—because the words on the page don't always support their intended meaning. Or readers find additional meanings that author's never considered.

Here's an interview with Peter Carey, author of Parrot and Olivier in America and Oscar and Lucinda. An audience member asked Carey about an espisode in the latter novel that reminded her of Adam tasting the forbidden fruit.

Here’s Carey’s response:

Your way of reading that holds up perfectly, I think, and it’s totally consistent with the book and consistent with my intention, and yet it never occured to me!

Then he said . . .

So isn’ t that the extraordinary thing about literature? It only really works when the reader reads it because until then…it’s words on a page…. Everybody brings their own lives, and their own experience, their own intellect… and then a book is made! And that’s the wonder of literature.


No one
could have put it better. You can listen to the full interview from this 2003 BBC World Book Club broadcast.

 

Honk...if you like geese

Tuesday, 26 January 2010 17:43

gaggle-geeseA recent quip from the New York Times about book clubs caught my ire. It’ll probably catch yours, too. So here it is…

Gaggles of readers get together monthly to sip chardonnay and discuss the latest Oprah selection.*

Ouch. Don’t know about you, but that sounds a little…oh, I dunno… condescending? Not to get too upset about an analogy to unruly geese, but it’s kind of a potshot to all those who get together, out of a passion for literature, to talk (not honk) about something of value—books!

So…are mindless cocktail parties better? I’m just asking…. Besides, I don’t like chardonnay; I like pinot grigio.

And what’s wrong with Oprah selections? —Breath, Eyes, Memory; Edgar Sawtelle; 3 Faulkner novels (Faulkner!); House of Sand & FogWe Were the Mulvaneys. That’s some pretty good reading.

To counter that unfortunate “gaggle” image (nothing against geese…understand?), I offer, again, two defenses of book clubs: one by moi and one by Joshua Henkin, author of Matrimony:

Oh, heck…maybe I’m just over reacting. Honk. Honk. 

Mokoto Rich. ”The Book Club with Just One Member.” New York Times, “Week in Review” section (1.24.10) 

 

Old Wine in New Bottles

Saturday, 23 January 2010 08:30

makeovers1A real challenge for any author is the remaking of a classic story. The new novel might set the older work in the modern era (Hamlet Edgar Sawtelle). Or it might use the older novel as a starting point—for a sequel, or a retelling of the story from a different perspective (Wizard of Oz → Wicked).  Here’s what I’ve come up with so far...

Makeovers
Resetting a classic in the modern era

Anna Karenina .......... What Happened to Anna K by Irina Reyn
The Great Gatsby ...... Netherland by Joseph O’Neill
Hamlet ...................... The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David
                                    Wroblewski
The Illiad .................... The Human Stain by Philip Roth
Howard’s End ............ On Beauty by Zadie Smith
King Lear ................... A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
Mrs. Dalloway ........... The Hours by Michael Cunningham
The Odyssey ............. Ulysses by James Joyce
Pride & Prejudice ....... Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
Sense & Sensibility .... The Three Weissmanns of Westport (added: 1/2011)

Starting Points
Writing a sequel, ”prequel,” parody, or using a secondary character’s point of view.

A Christmas Carol  ...... Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard
Dr. Jekyll &Mr. Hyde  ... Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin        
Gone With the Wind ..... Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley
Gone With the Wind ..... The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall
Great Expectations ...... Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
The Great Gatsby ........ The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian
The Great Gatsby ........ Jack Maggs by Peter Carey
Jane Eyre ................... The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Ryhs
Huckleberry Finn ......... Finn by Jon Clinch
King Arthur ................. The Mists of Avalon
Mansfield Park ............. Murder at Mansfield Park by Lynn Shepherd
Moby-Dick ................... Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund
Pride & Prejudice ......... Pemberley by Emma Tennant
Pride & Prejudice ......... Pride & Prejudice & Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith
Rebecca ...................... Mrs. DeWinter by Susan Hill
The Scarlet Letter ........ Angel and Apostle by Deborah Noyes
A Tale of Two Cities ..... A Far Better Rest by Susanne Alleyn
The Wizard of Oz ......... Wicked by Geoffrey MacGuire
Wuthering Heights ....... Heathcliff: The Return to Wuthering Heights by Lin Haire Sargeant

What have I missed?  Surely, there are more.

 

On the Air...Again

Wednesday, 13 January 2010 09:18

radio micApparently, I’ve got a good face for radio. Two days ago, I was on the air again, this time on Martha Stewart’s Living Radio—Sirius Radio/XM, the satellite radio.

No, it wasn’t Martha but instead two shock-jocks, Kim and Betsy, who banter their way through morning drive time.  They’re a hoot.  We talked about starting a book club, how to talk about a book, etc.—the usual book club stuff. Here’s the short version (6 min.):

 

Read Till Your Heart Stops

Sunday, 27 December 2009 09:21

heart-stops-quoteI just came across this wonderful quote from Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin.

Literature can stop my heart and execute
me for a moment, allow me to become
someone else.*

This is truly fiction’s greatest gift—the chance to crawl inside another being, poke around his consciousness, feel what it’s like to “be” that individual. Often it means changing age, gender, race, or nationality. No other medium does this so completely.

Fun Book Club Exercise
Is there any one particular fictional character you most enjoyed “being”?  Or a book that carried you most completely into the mind of its primary character?

*From “The Decade We Had,” Week in Review section, New York Times (12/2709)
 

Book Club Blues—straying from the book

Monday, 07 December 2009 15:07

book club blues-2Here's a query from the mailbag—from a reader who has a fairly common book club issue.

What do you do with members who stray from the book and talk about…well, whatever comes to mind? We have a couple of members, one in particular, who can't stay focused on the discussion.

This is not an unusual problem for a good many book clubs. A fair amount of socializing is expected...and desireable...but not when it gets in the way of a potentially rich book discussion. Here are some approaches:

1. Delineate social time from book discussion time.

  • Set a strict time limit for socializing—say, 45-60 minutes. Then….ring a bell… make an announcement…clear away food dishes…move to a different room.

2. Keep it light-hearted

  • Turn it into a game. Whoever talks off topic gets a token—a poker chip, a pebble, a raw potato, a burnt candle nub…whatever. The person with the most tokens at the end of the meeting—or year—wins a booby prize.

3. Survey member expectations

  • Discuss among yourselves what you want out of your club—more social interaction or book discussion. If members are divided, then perhaps you need separate clubs. It should be done without rancor or hurt feelings. Everyone has different expectations. It’s life.

Other ideas? We’d love to hear from you.

 

Happy Endings—are they good for us?

Tuesday, 01 December 2009 09:28

happy-sadThis comment caught my eye, from a Publishers Weekly review of Bridget Asher’s The Pretend Wife

It’s more than a little disappointing...that Asher inserts an improbably happy ending.

Ouch. I’m not sure which word is more distressing in that sentence: “disappointing” or “improbably.” And here’s another comment on happy endings, this one from Josh Henkin, author of Matrimony:

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.                                       From I Laughed! I Cried – 9/19/08.

Fortunately, Henkin isn’t discounting happy endings per se, only those that feel forced or “tacked on” (i.e., improbable). Still, there’s the suggestion that happy endings are “easy solutions.”

Some questions for Book Clubs . . .

  1. What kind of books do you like to read? Ones with happy endings—always ... mostly ... sometimes?
  2. What about the great works of literature…so many end on unhappy notes? Does that mean books with happy endings aren’t considered good literature?
  3. Do all happy endings feel manipulative, or as Henkin says, ”tacked on”? Can books end happily in a natural, unforced manner?

 

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