Tuesday, 26 January 2010 17:43
A 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.
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)
Saturday, 23 January 2010 08:30
A 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...
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
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)
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.
Wednesday, 13 January 2010 09:18
Apparently, 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.):
Sunday, 27 December 2009 09:21
I 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
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?
Monday, 07 December 2009 15:07
Here'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.
2. Keep it light-hearted
3. Survey member expectations
Other ideas? We’d love to hear from you.
Tuesday, 01 December 2009 09:28
This 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 . . .
Friday, 20 November 2009 11:04
English—what a great language to have fun with! Here’s a silly little grammatical conundrum for which I have no explanation . . . except that it’s idiomatic. Nonetheless, rules are rules—and rules must be obeyed.
Don’t You Just ♥ Words?
You can say
Take the garbage out. —or— Take out the garbage.
And you can say
Take it out. —but not— Take out it.
You can say
Butter Mom up. —or— Butter up Mom.
And you can say
Butter her up. —but not— Butter up her.
You can say
Turn the lights on. —or— Turn on the lights.
And you can say
Turn them on. —but not— Turn on them.
Verbs and prepositional adverbs—you would think they’re like infinitive verbs—to be or not to be—you’re to never split one of those. I mean “you’re never to split one.” (But we all do.)
But prep-adverbs are different from infinitives. If you use a pronoun, you have to split them up”—not ”split up them.” Strange.
It's a wonder anyone ever learns English.
Tuesday, 10 November 2009 13:51
Olive Kitteridge got me thinking about point of view—who gets to tell the story. Elizabeth Strout’s book shifts from character to character, a narrative technique that lends her work its depth and beauty.
We see Olive, not only as she sees herself, but as she’s seen by the community. The pay-off is a richer, far more complicated portrait of Olive than if she alone—or any single narrator—had told us the story.
Point of view, or perspective, is one of the most important decisions an author has to make. Whoever tells the story shapes the story.
A little game: take a couple of novels, change the narrators…and see what happens. Try this as a book club activity. Here are some ideas to get started:
- Remains of the Day: what if Miss Kenton told the story rather than the butler Stevens? We’d miss the rich irony of a hopelessly naive narrator. In fact, if we weren’t inside Stevens’s head, he would seem a pitiless monster of a being.
- Gilead: if we were to see the story through shifty, unreliable Jack Boughton, the story’s prodigal son, we would never experience our own sense shame as we, along with Reverend Ames, willfully pass judgment on a misunderstood character.
More on point of view at a later date. In the meantime take our free LitCourse 8 on Point of View. It’s fun…quick…and informative.
Sunday, 01 November 2009 15:19
Here's a query that showed up in my mailbox recently. It's a common problem for a lot of book clubs—The Dominator.
How do you handle a member who tends to dominate the book discussion? We have someone who hogs the conversation. Worse, she always feels free to interrupt others.
This is by far the toughest problem facing any book club...and one with no easy solution. Still, here are a few approaches to try:
1. Use a special token. Pass an object—a branch, painted stone, or small pillow, say—around the room. ONLY the member who holds the token may talk. Those who aren’t holding the token cannot interrupt. You could even limit the number of times a person can hold the token. (I personally don’t like the token method, but groups who use it say it works.)
2. Limit comment time. Use a timer to restrict comments. No one should talk more than two (2) minutes for openers—and certainly no more than one (1) minute to comment on someone else’s ideas. The goal for all is to learn to talk succinctly so that there’s time for everyone to voice an opinion.
3. Take charge of the discussion. The leader can interject with comments like, “Great, Bill. Thanks. But let’s give others a chance” or “Can we hear from someone else?” or “What do the rest of you think” or “Mary, you haven’t said anything.” It takes an active, fairly skilled, leader to move the discussion from one person to another, without letting a single individual dominate. It’s not easy.
4. When all else fails…be direct.
• Initiate a one-on-one conversation, either face-to-face or phone—never, never email. Choose someone who has diplomatic skill.
• What to say? Assure the person that he/she is a valued member of the club, but some feel they don’t get to have their ideas heard...or that while the group appreciates the person’s insights, there’s a tendency to over-do. Ask him or her to give others a chance...or not to interject so frequently...or to limit the length of his/her comments.
• The worst case scenario is to ask the offending member to leave the group. This is painful, but for the sake of the overall group it may be necessary. If the problem isn’t resolved, members may start dropping out and finding other groups. Suggest—kindly—that the member move on.
Is this a problem in your club? Any suggestions?
Sunday, 25 October 2009 09:38
Were you like me, wondering what the World’s Fair looked like in Erik Larson’s book? The book’s photos didn’t help much. Take heart: Below is a photo that appeared in today’s New York Times, front page of the “Week in Review” section. Now we can see what all the fuss was about!
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