One-Minute Book Reviews

October 29, 2013

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Flamethrowers,’ Rachel Kushner’s 2013 National Book Award Finalist

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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others

The Flamethrowers: A Novel
By Rachel Kushner
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
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This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make printed copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Can a weapon be a work of art? Can a work of art be a weapon? Rachel Kusher explores these and other themes in a novel about a young motorcycle enthusiast who moves from Nevada to New York at the end of the Nixon era. Known by her nickname of Reno, Kushner’s heroine has an affair with Sandro Valera, a Manhattan artist and heir to the fortune that his industrialist family in Italy has made by exploiting the poor. Through Sandro, Reno gains access to a downtown art world of dealers, gallery owners and others that is coming alive in the 1970s. But when she and her lover visit his relatives in the Italian Lake District, she becomes swept up in dangerous political currents set in motion by factory strikes and the violence of the Red Brigades.

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others:

1. The Flamethrowers begins — unusually for a novel — not with its heroine but with a brief chapter on T.P. Valera, the father of her lover, Sandro. How well did the opening work? Would you have stayed with the novel if you had not known that it was finalist for a National Book Award?

2. How does Reno change over the course of The Flamethrowers? (Some critics have called the book a coming-of-age novel, a genre in which a character typically gains hard-won wisdom. What has Reno gained by the end of the novel? What has she lost?)

3. If Reno changes quite a bit by the end of the book, Sandro seems hardly to have changed at all. Why do you think this is so? (Or do you think Sandro does change?)

4. The critic Christian Lorentzen wrote that The Flamethrowers “is about machines (motorcycles and guns, but also cameras) and the way they revolutionized the last century (its politics and violence, but also its art).” (Bookforum, April/May 2013, print edition only.) What do you think the novel is “about”?

5.  James Wood of The New Yorker said that The Flamethrowers is “nominally a historical novel” (because its author, born in 1968, would have been too young to experience its events). Many historical novels have a musty air or reek of the author’s research. Did The Flamethrowers? If not, what made it fresh?

6. Kusher tells her story from two points of view. One is clearly Reno’s first-person perspective. What is the second? Whose point of view do we find in the third-person sections that Reno doesn’t narrate? (Suggested answers appears in the One-Minute Book Reviews review of the novel.)

7. Sandro sees machines, especially weapons, as “almost a work of art.” [p. 288] But some of the characters in The Flamethrowers seem to reflect the opposite view: They use art as a weapon. How do they do this? Does our culture encourage artists, including musicians and filmmakers, to use art against others?

8. Women in The Flamethrowers often have second-class status, even in radical groups. What is Kushner saying about their role in the 1970s? Does any of it still apply in 2013? Is there any truth, for example, to T.P. Valera’s observation, that women “were trapped in time” and “moved at a different velocity” than men did? [p. 79]

9. Reno quotes Sandro as saying: “Sex is not about exchange values … It’s a gift economy.” [p. 208] What did he mean? How does this comment reflect their relationship and others’?

10. The Flamethrowers has many sharp images and scenes of New York, Milan and other places. Which ones were most memorable?

Vital statistics:

The Flamethrowers: A Novel. By Rachel Kushner. Scribner, 383 pp., $26.99. Published: January 2012. Kushner also wrote Telex from Cuba, a National Book Award finalist.

A review of The Flamethrowers appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 29, 2013.

Jan Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are a free alternative to publishers’ guides, which are marketing tools designed to sell books instead of unbiased analyses. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the blog.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 9, 2013

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to the ‘The Fault in Our Stars,’ a Young-Adult Novel by John Green

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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Fault Our Stars
By John Green
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make printed copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Sixteen-year-old Hazel Lancaster has metastatic thyroid cancer and wears a nasal cannula attached to a rolling oxygen cart, but former basketball player Augustus Waters thinks she looks like Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta. Gus has lost a leg to osteosarcoma, but Hazel knows he’s hot. Sparks fly when the two meet in a support group for 12-to-18-year-olds with cancer in John Green’s fifth young-adult novel. But will Hazel and Gus live long enough to get together? As they explore their feelings for each other in this cross between a teen weepie and a romantic comedy, they also must come to terms with a central question of human existence: What does it mean to live a good life?

The questions below include spoilers. Please stop here if you would prefer not to see them.

10 Questions for Discussion:

1. Many critics have raved about The Fault in Our Stars. Others have found it “mawkish” and “exploitative.” Where do you stand?

2. Which characters did you find most believable? Why?

3. Which characters did you find least believable? Why?

4. Hazel, the narrator, sounds like a teenager when she says things like: “We said this stupid mantra together — LIVING OUR BEST LIFE TODAY.” She also says things like “my aforementioned third best friend” or “wherein I put my hand on the couch” (which, you could argue, make her sound more like an elderly lawyer drafting a will). Did her shifts in tone make her voice less convincing? Why or why not?

5. One critic said that her main complaint about The Fault in Our Stars was that at times “it’s a little too slick”: “The dialogue between Gus and Hazel is to clever it felt like I was watching an adorable indie comedy.” Do you agree? Did the breezy dialogue clash with the serious subject? How effective was the dialogue overall?

6. Hazel dislikes some of the ways Americans treat people with cancer, which she finds “bullshitty.” What does she implicitly or explicitly fault? Which, if any, of her criticisms did you find valid?

7. The Fault in Our Stars has many references to water, a major symbol in the book. Do any stand out in your mind? Why is water so important in a book about life and death? (Green gives his answer on his website.)

8. John Green foreshadows that Gus will die first in The Fault in Our Stars. Where in the novel does he do this most clearly?

9. Were all aspects of the plot equally well-developed? Or did Green handle some better than others? (Did you buy, for example, that Peter Van Houten would fly to Indianapolis for Gus’ funeral? Or that Hazel’s mother would hide her graduate school plans?)

10. Green has said that a central question of The Fault in Our Stars involves “what constitutes a full and well-lived life”: “I wanted to argue that a good life need not be a long one.” Hazel and Gus differ on what makes for “a full and well-lived life.” How would you describe each of their views on it? Did the book reconcile their views? Are your views closer to those of Hazel or Gus?

Extra:
1. Many references to Jesus appear early in the story (when Hazel and Gus’ support group meets “in the middle of the cross, where the two boards would have met, where the heart of Jesus would have been”). These references might lead you to expect to find religious or explicitly Christian themes in the novel. But Green doesn’t really follow up on them, except in passing references by Hazel to the “Literal Heart of Jesus.” How did you react to this? (A fuller discussion of this point appears at the end of the One-Minute Book Reviews review of The Fault in Our Stars.)

Vital statistics:

The Fault in Our Stars. By John Green. Dutton Children’s Books, 313 pp., $17.99. Ages 13 and up. Published:  January 2012.

A review of The Fault in Our Stars appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 9, 2013 http://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2013/09/09.

Jan Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are a free alternative to publishers’ guides, which are not unbiased analyses but marketing tools designed to sell books. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the blog.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 18, 2012

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ – Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others

Behind the Beautiful Forevers:
Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
By Katherine Boo
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Katherine Boo won the 2012 National Book Award for nonfiction for Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a portrait of a Mumbai slum in which poverty and corruption go hand in hand. She tells the true story of Abdul Husain, a young garbage trader framed for the death of an embittered neighbor, and the rigged judicial system he faced. In doing so she challenges the myth that India’s rapid rise derives in part from the chaotic unpredictability of daily life. “In America and Europe, it was said, people know what is going to happen next when they turn on the water tap or flick the light switch,” Boo writes. “In India, a land of few assumptions, chronic uncertainty was said to have helped produce a nation of quick-witted problem-solvers.” Boo shows that if instability can foster ingenuity, it can also heighten despair in people whose efforts to improve their lives yield few results. A resident of Annawadi summed up a theme of the book when she said: “We try so many things, but the world doesn’t seem to move in our favor.”

10 Discussion Questions for Behind the Beautiful Forevers:

1. If you had been one of the National Book Awards judges, what arguments would you have made for or against giving a prize to this book?

2. This book tells the linked stories of residents of the Annawadi slum, including the Husain family; the slum boss, Asha Waghekar, and her daughter Manju; and Abdul Husain’s friend Sunil. Which people did you find most and least memorable? Why?

3. Janet Maslin praised Behind the Beautiful Forevers in the New York Times but had one reservation: She said that Boo “writes about so many scavenging kids, boisterously quarrelsome families and corrupt officials that the book is too crowded” (although she added that the Mumbai setting justified the density). Were you able to keep the characters straight easily? Or did you have to go back and reread parts to do that? If you had been the editor of this book, would you have suggested any changes?

4. Boo cuts back and forth between the stories of people she writes about, a technique that can slow a book down by breaking its momentum. Did this one maintain a pace that kept you reading? What held your attention?

5. Many of the events in this book are harrowing, such as the suicide of Manju’s friend Meena, a Dalit (the name that replaced old “untouchable”). Meena drank rat poison after being repeatedly beaten for offenses such as refusing to make her brother an omelet, and her parents blamed “Manju’s modern influence” for their daughter’s death. Which events did the book portray most vividly or effectively?

6. Boo has said in interviews that the big question she wanted to explore in this book was, in an age of globalization, “Who gets out of poverty, and why?” What is her answer?

7. Behind the Beautiful Forevers implicitly faults people like Sister Paulette, a local nun who runs an orphanage, for actions such as giving the children ice cream only when newspaper photographers visit. The New Delhi bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal noted that Boo appears not to give the nun a chance to respond to this accusation as the journalistic ideals of fairness and balance usually require. Did Boo portray Sister Paulette fairly? What about other authority figures, such as the Mumbai police?

8. Boo says that the word “corruption” has only negative connotations in Western nations. But in India, graft and fraud are among the few “genuine opportunities” open to slum dwellers who hope to rise above poverty. Is Boo endorsing this reality? If not, what position does she seem to take on the rampant corruption she describes?

9. At the end of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Abdul’s legal case remains unresolved. Did Boo give the book a satisfying ending despite the uncertainty about his face? Why?

10. Boo is clearly trying at times to merge her voice and point of view with that of her sources. For example, at times she uses the word “bitty” for small, and she speaks of a eunuch whose “legs became slithery things” when he danced, language you would be more likely to hear from children or teenagers than from a staff writer for The New Yorker. In other places, she is clearly writing in her own adult voice. How well did her approach work?

Extras:
1. If you have seen the movie Slumdog Millionaire, what image of Indian slums did you get from the film? Did this book change it? Does Behind the Beautiful Forevers complement or clash with Slumdog Millionaire?

2. You may have seen other movies about modern India, such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. If so, what did you learn from Behind the Beautiful Forevers that you didn’t learn from those films?

3. Behind the Beautiful Forevers shows poverty in a different light than do many international relief organizations. These groups often suggest that small donations, such as “pennies a day,” can change a child’s life. Did this book change your view of such promises? Would you be more or less likely to contribute to a charity that helped Mumbai slum children after reading this book?

Vital statistics:
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. By Katherine Boo. Random House, 256 pp., $27. Published: February 2012.

A review of Behind the Beautiful Forevers appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on [Date TK] in the post that directly preceded this review.

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They typically encourage cheerleading instead of a lively discussion of the merits or demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative to publishers’ guides and are intended to give books a fuller context and to promote a more stimulating conversation about them.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can also follow her on Twitter, where she writes about books and often comments on book clubs, by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 14, 2012

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘What Happened to Sophie Wilder’: 10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others

What Happened to Sophie Wilder: A Novel

By Chris Beha

Source: One-Minute Book Reviews

http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may use it in their in-house reading programs. Other groups that would like to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

A young convert to Catholicism faces a test of her faith when she cares for a dying man in the first novel by Chris Beha, an associate editor of Harper’s. Sophie Wilder fell in love with Charlie Blakeman in college and drops back into his life when they are both in their 20s and have had books published. Sophie has re-entered Charlie’s life, it seems, to tell him about her recent, troubling experience of caring for a dying man. What Happened to Sophie Wilder is Charlie’s attempt to make sense of Sophie’s life from his perspective as a New Yorker who has abandoned traditional religious practices. Told from two alternating viewpoints, the novel raises such questions as: Why do we need stories, whether religious or literary? And at what point does an investment in a “story” become irreversible?

10 Discussion Questions for What Happened to Sophie Wilder:

1. A lively debate has occurred online about whether Sophie’s conversion to Catholicism was convincing. How plausible did it seem to you?

2. The publisher of this novel says that it is about “the redemptive power of storytelling.” Do you agree? If so, why? If not, what is the novel “about”?

3. The novel tells Sophie’s story from two alternating points of view. The odd-numbered chapters give Charlie’s first-person point of view. The even-numbered chapters use third-person narration. Who is telling the story in even-numbered chapters? Some critics believe they represent Charlie’s attempt to tell the story from Sophie’s perspective. Do you agree?

4. The phrase “What happened to?” has more than one meaning. It can signify curiosity (whatever became of?) or alarm (what went wrong?). In this novel, the phrase has a third, metafictional meaning: What happens to Sophie Wilder at the end of the novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder? What do you think happens to her at the end?

5. Did you find the ending of the book — really, two endings — satisfying? Why?

6. A critic for Publishers Weekly said it’s hard to sympathize with Sophie even when she’s trying to do the right thing, “because she’s so blatantly indifferent to the harm she causes.” What, if anything, did you admire about Sophie?

7. Chris Beha dealt indirectly with a meaning of the title of the novel in the online magazine the Nervous Breakdown. He wrote: “What Charlie does discover about what happened to Sophie has nothing to do with the success of her first book or her failure to write another. Instead, it has to do with the time she spent caring for her husband’s dying father, and the way the watching him suffer has changed her. That is, it has to do with the world’s hard realities.” Did the novel convince you that Sophie’s fate had more do with Bill Crane than with Charlie or with her writing career?

8. This novel has conspicuous literary symbols, such as the Victorian glass aquarium in the Greenwich Village townhouse in which Charlie and his cousin Max rent rooms. What does the fish tank represent? Who or what are the tropical fish? You might interpret the tank in either a secular sense (it’s an expensive object from earlier era) or in a sacred one (in some contexts, fish symbolize Christianity).

9. “We had been given something beautiful, asked only to watch over it,” Charlie says at the end of the novel. “We’d been careless, and now it was all in ruin.” He’s talking about the aquarium he and Max were supposed to tend, but his words may have more than one meaning. What you think he’s saying in these lines?

10. What Happened to Sophie Wilder has drawn raves from some critics, such as David G. Myers of Commentary, who said that it is “a remarkable first novel” that “should especially be read by those who have given up on contemporary literature.” The book has had mixed reviews from others, including Sarah Towers, who wrote in the New York Times Book Review: “In places the novel suffers from too much distancing exposition — the price of so many flashbacks to Charlie and Sophie’s college days. And yet, like Charlie, I found myself absorbed throughout with the mystery of Sophie.” How would you sum up the novel?

Extras:
These questions relate to the religious ideas in What Happened to Sophie Wilder:

1. Sophie begins to read her dying father-in-law the story of how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, found in the Bible in John 11:1-44. (“Now Jesus loved Martha …) He cuts her off. Why did Sophie choose that passage? Why did Bill reject it?

2. The Bible says that Christians will receive the gifts listed in Galatians 5:22: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering [i.e., patience], gentleness, goodness, faith.” Which, if any, of those traits does Sophie show? Does it matter, in a literary sense, whether or not she shows any?

3. Sophie converted to Catholicism after reading the monk Thomas Merton’s spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, and each of the two main sections of the novel has seven chapters. (The title of Merton’s book refers to the mountain of purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy.) Does the division of the novel into seven-chapter sections have meaning? If so, what is it? In what ways is Sophie in her own purgatory?

Vital statistics:
What Happened to Sophie Wilder. By Christopher R. Beha. Tin House, 256 pp., $15.95. Published: May 2012. A review of the novel appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 14, 2012.

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They typically encourage cheerleading instead of a frank discussion of the merits or demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative to those commercial guides and are intended to give books a fuller context and to promote a more stimulating conversation about them.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books or other promotional materials from editors, publishers or authors, and all of its reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. You can avoid missing the guides by subscribing to the RSS feed or following Jan on Twitter.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the Plain Dealer book editor and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 8, 2012

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Carol Anshaw’s ‘Carry the One’ With 10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs

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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others

Carry the One
By Carol Anshaw
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Time is supposed to “heal.” But do some wounds run so deep that they remain immune to its effects? A tragedy in the first chapter of Carry the One places that question at the center of the lives of the adult siblings Carmen, Alice and Nick Kenney. A 10-year-old girl dies after being struck by a car full of stoned and drunken guests who are leaving Carmen’s wedding near Chicago in 1983. And for the next 25 years, that event will reverberate across the paths of the Kenneys, which are at once separate and intersecting — Carmen’s marriage and motherhood, Alice’s lesbian affairs, and Nick’s descent into drug use and meetings with hookers. Each Kenney seeks redemption in a different way. But all of their lives testify to the words of a guest at Carmen’s wedding. In affairs of the heart, she says, you can never discount the effects of time: “Time is always a player.”

Spoiler Warning! Some of the questions below involve events that occur late in the novel. Stop reading here if you would prefer not to know about these.

10 Discussion Questions for Carry the One:

1. Carol Anshaw took on a big challenge – that of keeping her story moving forward while continually switching back and forth between the stories of Carmen, Alice and Nick. Did she keep you turning the pages? Why or why not?

2. Which of the three Kenneys did you find most and least interesting?

3. Kevin Nance wrote in a review in the Chicago Sun-Times that Carry the One might have been stronger if Anshaw had given her story one main character instead of three. Do you agree or disagree?

4. Each of the Kenneys immerses him- or herself in something after the crash that kills 10-year-old Casey Redman: Carmen in social activism; Alice in art; and Nick in drugs. Why do you think they do this? Are they trying to escape from their memories? To atone for their guilt? Or to do something else?

5. Horace and Loretta Kenney are so self-absorbed that they don’t go to their daughter Carmen’s wedding. [Page 8] Does this affect how their adult children react to the crash that killed Casey Redman? How?

6. All three Kenney children have failed relationships: Carmen with her first husband, Matt; Alice with her lesbian lover, Maude; and Nick with Olivia, the driver of the car that killed Casey Redman. Does this have more to do with their upbringing or with the crash?

7. What parts of Carry the One did you find witty or amusing despite the tragedy at the heart of the novel?

8. Nick dies soon after Casey Redman’s mother, who has “cancer of everything,” forgives him for her daughter death. [Page 243, 245] What is the connection those events? Did Nick need Shanna’s forgiveness in order to die? Or had he been staying alive for Shanna (and lost his reason for living when, presumably, she died, too)?

9. The last line of Carry the One is unusual in that it is spoken by someone who has just appeared on the scene. [Page 253] It is much more common for the final words of a novel to come from someone we know fairly well by then. How do you interpret the last line of Carry the One? Is Olivia “okay”?

10. Michiko Kakutani called this novel “beautifully observed” in her New York Times review of Carry the One. What are some of the things that Anshaw observes especially well?

Extras:
1. The Simon & Schuster reading group guide for this novel says incorrectly that “Mourning and loss are the themes of this book.” “Mourning” and “loss” are not “themes”; they are subjects. A subject tells you what a book is “about” while a theme tells you what a book says about its subjects. So you might express the theme of Carry the One as, “People may grieve for the same loss in different ways” or “Contrary to the popular idea that you need ‘closure,’ you may grieve for some losses all your life.” Can you sum up in a sentence what the book says about loss or grief?

2. Carry the One actually has a larger theme than anything it says about loss or grief (which might be better described as a subtheme.) Anshaw expressed that theme in an interview in which she said that “time both makes a great deal of difference, and no difference at all.” As a character in the novel puts it, “Time is always a player” (though the degree to which it “plays” may vary). [Page 212] How is time a “player” in Carry the One?

3. All three characters in Carry the One have the names of opera characters or variations on them. [Page 40] In what ways is this novel “operatic”? [A discussion of this appears in the review of Carry the One posted on One-Minute Book Reviews.]

4. Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad deals with the effects of time and shares other elements with Carry the One, such as switching back and forth between characters’ stories. If you’ve read that novel, how would you compare it with Anshaw’s?

Vital statistics:
Carry the One. By Carol Anshaw. Simon & Schuster, 261 pp., $25. Published: March 2012. A review of Carry the One appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 8, 2012.

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They typically encourage cheerleading instead of a frank discussion of the merits or demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative to those commercial guides and are intended to give books a fuller context and to promote a more stimulating conversation about them.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. You can avoid missing the guides by subscribing to the RSS feed or following Jan on Twitter.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 15, 2012

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Jesmyn Ward’s ‘Salvage the Bones’ With Discussion Questions for Book Clubs

Filed under: National Book Awards,Novels,Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:54 am
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Salvage the Bones: A Novel
By Jesmyn Ward
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

A pregnant teenager weathers several kinds of storms in Salvage the Bones, a National Book Award–winning novel that takes place before and during the assault by Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast. Esch Batiste has just finished tenth grade in an impoverished Southern Mississippi town, where she lived with her widowed father, her three brothers, and their pit bull, China, who gives birth to a litter in the first pages. The Batistes were struggling before the storm, and all of them will face new and frightening tests in a story that asks: What does it mean to be a mother in the face of disaster?

10 Discussion Questions for Salvage the Bones:

1. The story in Salvage the Bones is told by Esch Batiste, who has just finished tenth grade. Was Esch’s teenaged voice believable? Why or why not?

2. What is the theme of Salvage the Bones or the main thing Ward is trying to say in the novel?

3. Other books about Hurricane Katrina have dealt with broad social or political issues, such as the treatment of evacuees by federal agencies. Ward focuses on one family, the Batistes: Esch and her father, Claude, and her brothers Randall, Skeetah and Junior. How would you describe the Batistes? How does Hurricane Katrina change the family? What do we learn from its story?

4. Sam Sacks of the Wall Street Journal said that the bond between Esch’s brother Skeetah and his dog, China, is “the strongest and most affecting in the book.” Do you agree? Why does Skeetah allows China allow to enter the dog fight described in the chapter called “The Eighth Day” if he loves her so much? [pages 153–176]

5. What race did you assume Manny (the father of Esch’s baby) to be? Many critics seemed to assume that he was black. But Ward says that Manny had a “red sunburn” [page 16]. Black skin can burn, but it doesn’t turn red in the same way that white skin does. Would it make a difference if a black teenager in the Deep South had been impregnated by a white or Latino boy?

6. How would you describe Ward’s writing style? How well did it suit the subject of her book? [Background: Some critics have called that style “poetic.” Ward seemed to agree when she told the Paris Review: “I’m a failed poet. Reading poetry helps me to see the world differently, and I try to infuse my prose with figurative language, which goes against the trend in fiction.” But Salvage the Bones also has journalistic aspects – for example, when Ward describes the onslaught of Katrina by quoting weather reports.]

7. Salvage the Bones links Esch’s story to that of Medea, who murdered her children to avenge her betrayal by her husband, and to other figures from Greek mythology. How effective was this literary technique? Were you persuaded, for example, by Esch’s comment that she slept with boys “because for a moment, I was Psyche or Eurydice or Daphne”? [p. 16]

8. Ward explained the Medea analogies by saying in a Paris Review interview: “Medea is in China most directly. China is brutal and magical and loyal. Medea is in Hurricane Katrina because her power to unmake worlds, to manipulate the elements, closely aligns with the storm. And she’s in Esch, too, because Esch understands her vulnerability, Medea’s tender heart, and responds to it.” Can you give examples of how China is “brutal” as Medea and Esch is “tender”?

9. Have you lived through a hurricane or other natural disaster? If so, how did you react to the portrayal of Hurricane Katrina? What seemed most and least believable?

10. What does the title Salvage the Bones mean? Esch suggests more than one answer when she says of Katrina, “She left us to salvage.” [page 255] What is being “salvaged”?

Extras:
1. Have you read other books about how Hurricane Katrina affected residents of the Gulf Coast, such as Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun? If so, how did they compare to Salvage the Bones? Which book showed the effects of the devastation best?

2. Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award for fiction. Have you read other recent winners of that prize, such as Let the Great World Spin or Lord of Misrule (or earlier ones such as Cold Mountain, The Color Purple or Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories)? If so, how does Salvage the Bones compare to them? Was it one of the stronger or weaker winners?

3. Emma Donoghue’s bestselling Room has many things in common with Salvage the Bones – a young narrator, a disastrous event, a focus on motherhood, and more. If you’ve read it, which novel worked better? Why?

You may also want to read: A review of Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, which talks about the risks of adding many literary references to a novel. It doesn’t mention the Medea analogies in Salvage the Bones but explains how such techniques can backfire.

Vital statistics:
Salvage the Bones: A Novel. By Jesmyn Ward. Bloomsbury, 261 pp., $24. Published: August 2011. Paperback due out March 2012. 

A review of Salvage the Bones appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Feb. 15, 2012, in the post directly after this one.

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They typically encourage cheerleading instead of a frank and lively discussion of the merits or demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative intended to give books a fuller context and to promote a more stimulating conversation about them.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed (http://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/feed/).

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow Jan on Twitter, where she writes about books and reading groups, by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 15, 2012

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Alice LaPlante’s Alzheimer’s Murder Mystery, ‘Turn of Mind’

Filed under: Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:53 am
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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others

Turn of Mind
By Alice LaPlante
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other groups that would like to use the guide may link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Jennifer White has moved from mental derangement to clarity so often since developing Alzheimer’s disease that her friend Amanda O’Toole once said she kept reappearing “like some newly risen Christ.” But the 64-year-old Chicago widow seems to need another kind of miracle after Amanda turns up dead with four fingers surgically removed from her right hand. As an orthopedic surgeon, Jennifer is a person of interest to the police and can’t or won’t remember if she killed her friend. Can she save herself as her mind betrays her? Her effort to understand what happened to her friend becomes, whether or not she realizes it, a journey both psychological and spiritual.

10 Discussion Questions for Turn of Mind:

1. Did you find Alice LaPlante’s portrayal of the mind of a woman with Alzheimer’s disease credible? Why?

2. How would you describe the character of Jennifer White? How does she change – and how does she remain the same – as her Alzheimer’s disease gets worse?

3. Turn of Mind is a murder mystery and a family drama, and some people would argue that in a mystery, the plot matters most, and in a drama, the characters do. On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the plot of Turn of Mind? How would you rate the character development? Do your rankings tell you anything about the book?

4. LaPlante uses the literary device known as unreliable narration, telling a story from the point of view of someone whose account you can’t fully trust, throughout Turn of Mind. And Jennifer is certainly “unreliable” in the sense that her mind is deteriorating. But at times she seems more trustworthy than the people close to her, including her children, Fiona and Mark, and her caretaker, Magdalena. How believable did you find her story? Who was the most reliable or trustworthy character in the book?

5. Jennifer says that she has abandoned the faith of her childhood: “I was raised Catholic, but now I just like the accessories.” [page 165] But she later speaks of friends “Sent by God,” which suggests that she has accepted God. [page 305] How would you explain this change in belief?

6. Amanda compares Jennifer to a “newly risen Christ” after one of her returns from the darkness of Alzheimer’s into the light of clarity. [Page 114] Other characters have names associated with Jesus, including his apostles James and Peter and his faithful follower Mary Magdalene. And the color white – the source of Jennifer’s last name — symbolizes the resurrection of Jesus (which is why many clergy wear white vestments and churches display white lilies on Easter). Details like these are never accidental in a book by a serious writer. In what other ways does Jennifer appear to be a Christ figure or a stand-in for Jesus? How is she “resurrected”? What is LaPlante saying with all of this? What links is she drawing between suffering and faith? [More on this issue appears in a review of Turn of Mind posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 15, 2012.]

7. A key symbol in Turn of Mind is that of the labyrinth, which people have interpreted in many ways over hundreds of years. Some scholars say it represents the maze-like path heaven or enlightenment. In Turn of Mind it could also represent the mind of someone with Alzheimer’s or Jennifer’s search for answers about Amanda’s death. What do you think the labyrinth in Turn of Mind symbolizes?

8. One of the limits of writing from a first-person point of view (having an “I” tell the story) is that you can show only what the narrator sees. You can’t go inside the heads of other characters as you can when you use an omniscient or all-seeing narrator. LaPlante tries to overcome this limit in part by having Jennifer write in a notebook that contains messages left for her by others, including her daughter, Fiona [pages 9, 35, 86]; her caretaker, Magdalena [pages 8, 54]; and her dead friend, Amanda [pages 66–68]. Jennifer also gets a letter from her son, Mark [pages 71–73]. Were the notes in the notebook credible? Why or why not?

9. Did you notice that Jennifer switches from first-person narration (“I”) to second-person narration (“you”) at the start of Part Three? [Page 23] And that she switches to third-person narration (“she”) on page 282? Why does Jennifer start referring to herself as “you” and “she”?

10. What did you think of LaPlante’s decision to omit quotation marks from the book? Were you able always to follow the story or would quotation marks have made it easier?

Extras:

1. Turn of Mind has moments of humor, such as a David Letterman parody in the form of a list of the Top 10 Signs You Have Alzheimer’s. “No. 3: Girl Scouts come over and force you to decorate flower pots with them.” [page 33] Were they appropriate? Which of the humorous moments do you remember?

2. Have you read other murder mysteries with unreliable narrators, such as Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent or Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd? If so, how did Turn of Mind compare to them? An earlier post on One-Minute Book Reviews offered an answer to the question: Why do novelists used unreliable narration?

Vital statistics:

Turn of Mind. By Alice LaPlante. Atlantic Monthly Press, 305 pp., $24. Published: July 2011. Paperback due out in May 2012 from Grove.

A review of Turn of Mind appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 15, 2012.

Alice LaPlante talks to Jane Ciabattari about how she came to write Turn of Mind, which won the Wellcome Trust Book Prize in England. LaPlante has also written The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing.

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They encourage cheerleading more than a frank discussion of the merits and demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative intended to give books a fuller context and to promote a more stimulating conversation.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can also follow her on Twitter, often comments on novels book clubs are reading, by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 16, 2011

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Diary of a Country Priest’ With 10 Discussion Questions

Filed under: Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:06 pm
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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Diary of a Country Priest
By Georges Bernanos
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that want to use the guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

A young French priest bears the cruelty of his parishioners with sublime patience in The Diary of a Country Priest, a modern classic that works as both a realistic novel and an allegory for the Passion of Christ. Its guileless narrator doesn’t know he’s dying of cancer when he becomes pastor of a church in rural Pas-de-Calais in the years between the world wars, and as his health fails, he makes few concessions to his frailty. Through the prism of the fragile priest’s efforts to serve God and his parish, the novel shows the inseparability of suffering and grace.

Discussion Questions

1 Every novelist who writes about faith needs, above all, to tell a story and not turn his or her book into a homily or tract. Did Georges Bernanos succeed? Why or why not?

2 The residents of Ambricourt see little to admire in their new priest. Do you see anything to admire in him? What?

3 Why did the priest’s parishioners dislike him so much? Did their disdain have more to do with them or with him?

4 Even some of the children of Ambricourt seem cruel. What accounts for their hostility?

5 Why does the priest have no name? How might the novel have been different if Bernanos had given him one of the saint’s names that monks tend to assume?

6 Why does the priest tear out diary pages about the death of Dr. Delbende? [Page 107] How do you see the death and its effect on the priest?

7 The priest gets little support from other clergy. His superior, the Dean of Blangermont, lectures him on not getting into debt, and an old friend from seminary turns out to be living with a woman. How does their behavior affect the young priest? Why do you think Bernanos included such unflattering portrayals of the clergy in the novel?

8 French parishes are “being eaten up by boredom,” the narrator says, and the clergy can’t stop it: “Someday perhaps we shall catch it ourselves – become aware of the cancerous growth within us.” [Page 1] Later the priest learns that he has stomach cancer. [Page 273] What do you think Bernanos is doing here? Why does he connect a metaphorical and real form of cancer?

9 The Diary of a Country Priest is a realistic novel that has elements of an allegory for the Passion of Christ or the Stations of the Cross. For example, in the Stations of the Cross, Jesus is condemned to death, takes up his cross, and falls. All of these incidents have parallels in the novel. Did you see any other allegorical elements in the book? What were they?

10 “I believe, in fact I am certain, that many men never give out the whole of themselves, their deepest truth,” the priest says. [Page 108] Does the priest give out the whole of himself, or his “deepest truth”?

Extras
1 The narrator often speaks in pithy phrases or epigrams such as: “Faith is not a thing which one ‘loses,’ we merely cease to shape our lives by it.” [Page 122] And: “There is not only a communion of saints; there is also a communion of sinners.” [Pages 138–139] Did any phrases in The Diary of a Country Priest seem especially memorable?

2 Some critics see The Diary of a Country Priest as a novel about the effects of grace. Some of those effects appear when the embittered countess, after speaking with the young priest, feels “miraculously, ineffably, the peace you’ve given me.” [Page 175] Where else does the novel deal with grace?

3 A challenge of novels about grace is that fictional consequences generally must be “earned” – they can’t result from coincidences or similar devices — while divine grace is by definition unearned. So a novelist must make credible both ordinary actions and occasions of grace. Did Bernanos do this?

4 Flannery O’Connor admired Bernanos and also wrote about the effect of grace on character. If you have read her work, how would you compare it with that of The Diary of a Country Priest?

The page numbers above come from the 1983 Carroll & Graf edition of The Diary of a Country Priest.

Vital statistics
The Diary of a Country Priest. By Georges Bernanos. Translated by Pamela Morris. Introduduction by Rémy Rougeau. Da Capo, 302 pp., $15.95, paperback. Published: 1937 (first English-language edition), 2002 (DaCapo paperback).

The Diary of a Country Priest won two important French literary prizes: the Prix Femina and Grand Prix du Roman, given by the Académie Française. A One-Minute Book Reviews review appeared in the post that followed this guide. The book inspired an acclaimed 1951 film version by Robert Bresson.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are a free alternative to publishers’ guides, which are not unbiased analyses but marketing tools designed to sell books. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the blog.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 3, 2011

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘Empire of the Summer Moon’ – Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others

Filed under: Nonfiction,Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:40 am
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Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History

By S.C. Gwynne
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

No Indian tribe of the Southern Plains had a more fearsome reputation than the Comanches, who terrified generations of frontier settlers with their moonlit attacks and ability to fire a fusillade of arrows while hanging off the sides of their horses. Empire of the Summer Moon tells the true story of their fall through the lives of three people who had entwined roles in it: Quanah Parker, their last great chief; his white mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, kidnapped by the tribe as a 9-year-old and removed from it against her will 24 years later by Texas Rangers; and Ranald Mackenzie, a brilliant Indian fighter. S.C. Gwynne was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for the book, which the judges called “a memorable examination of the longest and most brutal of all the wars between European settlers and a single Indian tribe.”

10 Discussion Questions for Empire of the Summer Moon:

1. Most Americans know the names of few women who lived on the frontier except perhaps for Laura Ingalls Wilder. What did you learn about those women from reading about Cynthia Ann Parker and her contemporaries?

2. A Comanche male was “gloriously, astoundingly free,” but a Comanche woman was “a second-class citizen,” S.C. Gwynne says. [Page 52] Do you agree?

3. Gwynne says it’s hard to avoid making “moral judgments about the Comanches” when you read the memoir of Rachel Parker Plummer, who was captured along with her cousin Cynthia Ann but soon separated from her. [Page 43] Rachel’s story involves gang rape, the torture and murder of her 7-week-old baby, and other horrific acts. What moral judgments, if any, did you make about the Comanches?

4. The stereotype of the “noble savage” has existed since the time of James Fennimore Cooper, and stereotypes may contain a germ of truth. [Page 51] Was there anything noble about the Comanches?

5. Gen. George Armstrong Custer became world-famous after his defeat by several tribes at Little Big Horn, and Ranald Mackenzie became obscure after his victory over the Comanches. [Page 2] Why do you think the two generals had different fates?

6. The U.S. government failed to end Comanche raids sooner partly because many Easterners believed that “the Indian wars were principally the fault of white men” and that “the Comanches and other troublesome tribes would live in peace if only they were treated properly.” [Page 223] Gwynne says they were wrong: No one who knew about the horrors of Comanche attacks “could possibly have believed that the tribe was either peaceable or blameless.” [Page 224] Did he persuade you of that?

7. Gwynne also argues that the U.S. “had betrayed and lied to Native American tribes more times than anyone could possibly count” [Page 230] and that the Office of Indian affairs was “one of the most corrupt, venal, and incompetent government agencies in American history.” [Page 230] To what degree, if at all, were Comanche attacks justified by how the government treated them?

8. Empire of the Summer Moon cuts back and forth between the stories of its major figures (Cynthia Parker and others captured in the 1836 raid on her family’s fort; her son, Quanah, and her husband, Peta Nocona; the Indian fighter Ranald Mackenzie; and others). How well does the cross-cutting work? Could follow the threads of the story easily or did you sometimes have to reread parts of the book?

9. Especially after the Civil War, the extreme violence of the Comanche attacks “amounted to what we would today consider to be political terrorism,” Gwynne says. Is it fair to compare the tribe to today’s terrorists?

10. Empire of the Summer Moon gives many example of Comanche brutality. The first pages of the book note, for example, after the Salt Creek Massacre, an Army captain reported seeing evidence of beheadings and victims whose “fingers, toes, and private parts had been cut off and stuck in their mouths.” [Page 4] Did Gwynne ever go too far or describe violence that seemed unnecessary to the story? Why or why not?

The page numbers cited above refer to the hardcover edition of Empire of the Summer Moon.  A review of Empire of the Summer Moon appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 3, 2011.

Vital statistics:

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. By S.C. Gwynne. Scribner, 371 pp., $27.50. Published: May 2010 (Scribner hardcover) and May 2011 (Scribner paperback).

Noteworthy reviews of Empire of the Summer Moon appeared in the Economist and elsewhere.

A review of Empire of the Summer Moon appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews in the post that directly preceded this review.

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They typically encourage cheerleading instead of a lively discussion of the merits or demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative to publishers’ guides and are intended to give books a fuller context and to promote a more stimulating conversation about them.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow Jan on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 15, 2011

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’ With 10 Discussion Questions

Filed under: Novels,Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:53 pm
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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Room: A Novel
By Emma Donoghue
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Emma Donoghue calls Room a novel about a “battle between Mary and the Devil for young Jesus,” and it’s easy to see why. Her narrator is 5-year-old Jack, who spends his life imprisoned in a garden shed until he emerges from his tomb-like structure on Easter. He escapes with the help of his saintly mother, who has devoted herself to saving him from their jailor, a man who abducted and raped her and fathered Jack. Their story brims with references to God, Jesus and Christian saints.

But many nonreligious readers have embraced Room simply for its plot or the voice of its sunny young hero, whose mother has filled his life with comforting routines such as watching Dora the Explorer and reading Alice in Wonderland. Donoghue has said of the novel, a Man Booker Prize finalist: “Kids delight in ‘magical thinking’, whether in the form of the Tooth Fairy or the saints: whether you see these as comforting lies or eternal verities, they are part of how we help kids make sense of the world. I think that’s why the religious element of Room does not seem to bother non-religious readers; they can just put it on a par with Santa.”

10 Discussion Questions for Room:

1. The narrator of Room is a 5-year-old American who has spent his life imprisoned with his mother in a 121-foot square garden shed. How credible were Jack’s voice and perspective on life? Where did you find Jack’s voice most and least convincing?

2. Jack refers to a woman a “she person” and, in the same paragraph, seems to understand and know how to spell the words “impregnable” and “catatonic.” [Page 165] Did you find this credible? If so, why? If not, what you made keep reading Room, regardless?

3. How would you describe Ma? We see her only through the eyes of Jack and the people he observes interacting with her. This approach limits what the novel can tell us about an important character. Was Donoghue able to overcome any restrictions on point-of-view to portray Ma as well-developed character? Why or why not?

4. Why do you think Old Nick remains a shadowy figure, one we know little about?

5. Ma is still breastfeeding Jack when he is 5 years old. What purpose does this serve in the story?

6. Room has an unusual structure for a novel about captivity: Jack and Ma escape almost exactly halfway through it. [Page 154 of a 321-page book]. Captives or hostages typically win their freedom closer to the end to keep the suspense high. Why did Donoghue have Ma and Jack escape sooner? How well did she maintain suspense afterward?

7. Donoghue says that Room is partly a satire “of modern mores and media.” What people or groups does she tweak? How well does the satire fit into a story rooted in Ma’s tragic abduction?

8. Do you share Donoghue’s view of Room as the story of a “battle between Mary and the Devil for young Jesus”? Why do you think the Christian motifs in the novel don’t bother some readers who aren’t religious?

9. Given all that Jack has endured and how sunny he remains, you could argue that the theme of Room is the therapeutic cliché, “Kids are resilient.” But the novel also develops other ideas. What do you think is the theme or message of the book?

10. Have you read other books with child narrators? How does Room compare to them?

Extras:

1. Janet Maslin wrote in her New York Times review of Room that Jack and Ma “are not the only people in recent books about women trapped in close, sustained relationships with their captors, even to the point of bearing children”: Chevy Stevens’s Still Missing and Laura Lippman’s I’d Know You Anywhere “offer more mainstream, victim-narrated versions of this story.” Have you read other books about victims and their captors? If so, which worked best? Why?

2. Room was inspired partly by the Austrian case of Josef Fritzl, who locked up and impregnated his daughter, Elisabeth, who had son who escaped at the age of 5. James Wood, the fiction critic for the New Yorker, found this borrowing “exploitative and a little cheap” in a review in the London Review of Books. “Does anyone really imagine that Jack’s inner life, with his cracks about Pizza Houses and horse stables and high-fives, is anything like five-year-old Felix Fritzl’s?” Wood asked. “The real victim’s imaginings and anxieties must have been abysmal, in the original sense (unimaginable, bottomless), and the novel’s sure-footed appropriation of this unknowability seems offensive precisely in its sure-footedness.” He added that Jack’s cheerfulness and charm “lend the book an inappropriate lightness.” What did you think of the borrowing?

Vital statistics:
Room: A Novel. By Emma Donoghue. Little, Brown, 321 pp., $24.99.

Room was a finalist for the 2010 Man Booker prize for fiction.

A review of Room appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Feb. 15, 2011, in the post that immediately followed this reading group guide..

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They typically encourage cheerleading instead of a lively discussion of the merits or demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative intended to give books a fuller context and to promote a more stimulating conversation about them.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she writes about books and often comments on book clubs.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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