One-Minute Book Reviews

September 3, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle’ With a Key to ‘Hamlet’ Characters Represented in the Novel

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel
By David Wroblewski
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 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.

Edgar Sawtelle has spent his childhood on a mid-20th-century Wisconsin farm that raises its own breed of dogs, known as “Sawtelle dogs,” for private buyers. Born mute, Edgar communicates with his parents and others through sign language while raising his first litter of pups. But an air of menace seeps into his peaceful life when, in the summer of his 14th year, his father dies after a paternal uncle named Claude moves in with the family. Edgar vows to learn the truth about his father’s death and, when his effort ends in another disaster, flees with three of his dogs, hiding out in the Chequamegon National Forest. The plot of this first novel by David Wroblewski has similarities to that of Hamlet, where corpses litter the stage at the end of the play. So the question is not just whether Edgar will learn how his father died but how many people — or dogs — will die by the last page.

A Note for Book Clubs:
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has 562 pages in its hardcover edition — twice as many as an average novel, which has about 250 pages — and Stephen King has said that he “spent 12 happy evenings” with the book. So it’s probably safe to say that some book-group members won’t finish it. If you’re reading the novel for a group, you might want to deal with this issue up front — for example, by agreeing to read the book over a summer. If you lead a club, you might also want to let members know how much of the book they would need to read to get a sense of the whole. Would the prologue do it? If not, how much would members need to read?

A Key to the Hamlet Characters in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle:
Some of the humans and dogs in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle are surrogates for characters in Hamlet. The human stand-ins include: Edgar Sawtelle (Hamlet, Prince of Denmark), Trudy Sawtelle (Gertrude, Queen of Denmark and Hamlet’s mother), Claude Sawtelle (Claudius, King of Denmark and Hamlet’s paternal uncle), Gar Sawtelle (the late King Hamlet of Denmark and Hamlet’s father), Doc Papineau (Polonius, Lord Chamberlain), and Glen Papineau, son of Doc (Laertes, son of Polonius). The canine stand-ins include Almondine (Ophelia, daughter of Polonius), Tinder and Baboo (courtiers Rosenkrantz, sometimes spelled Rosencrantz), Forte (Fortinbras) and Essay (Horatio). This is a starter list. If you see other parallels, why not mention them in the comments section on this post so that book clubs can benefit from your observations?

Questions for Discussion:

1. Early readers of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle characterized the novel in different ways. Publishers Weekly called it “a literary thriller.” [Feb. 18, 2008] Kirkus Reviews said it was “an Odyssean journey.” [April 15, 2008] Novelist Mark Doty described it as a hybrid: “both ghost story and melodrama” and “a coming-of-age tale.” [Dust jacket] How would you characterize the novel?

2. The plot of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has obvious similarities to that of Hamlet, which critics often describe as “a revenge tragedy.” Would that label fit this book? Is the novel about revenge? If not, what is the novel “about”?

3. David Wroblewski told Publishers Weekly: “It was not my intention to do a literal retelling [of Hamlet]. It was more interesting to allow the stories to coincide where they could. Ghosts and haunting and poison are motifs of the Elizabethan stage.” [PW Daily @ pw.com, April 14, 2008] How well does his “nonliteral” approach work?

4. For someone who didn’t intend to do a “literal retelling” of Hamlet, Wroblewski lays on the parallels pretty thickly. Apart from similarities between characters, many scenes resemble those in Shakespeare’s play. Near the end of the chapter entitled “The Texan,” Edgar stages a demonstration of his dogs’ talents that corresponds to the play-within-a-play that Hamlet believes will prove his uncle killed his father. [The chapter begins on page 311.] If you’re familiar with Hamlet, what other scenes resemble those in the play?

5. Reviewers often overpraise novels that allude to great works of fiction, because the allusions can give a gloss of sophistication pop fiction or worse. If you’ve read the reviews for this novel, do you think that might have happened here? Did the book deserve so much praise? Or were critics perhaps too influenced by the Hamlet parallels or other factors?

6. A major challenge of writing a 562-page novel is keeping up a strong pace. Does Wroblewski do this? Did you find the pace lagging in any places? Where?

7. Wroblewski takes a risk by telling part of his story from the point of view of dogs and part from that of humans. Does the risk pay off? Would the novel have been stronger if he had stuck to the point of view of one species? [Sections told from a canine point of view include the chapters called “Almondine” that begin on page 30 and page 460.]

8. The author takes another risk by introducing paranormal elements, such as Edgar’s conversation with his dead father. [Beginning on page 235 with, “He saw a man …”] Apart from reinforcing the parallels to Hamlet, what – if anything – do these scenes add to the novel? Would the book have been stronger or weaker without them?

9. Stephen King said of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, “Dog-lovers in particular will find themselves riveted by this story, because the canine world has never been explored with such imagination and emotional resonance.” [Blurb.] If you love dogs, do you agree or disagree? If you disagree, what books about dogs are better? You might consider fiction such as Jack London’s White Fang and nonfiction such as John Grogan’s Marley and Me.

10. It’s been said that all dog-lovers fall into one of two groups: those who think dogs are wonderful animals and those who think they are furry, four-footed people. Did you sense that Wroblewski falls into either camp?

Vital statistics:
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel. By David Wroblewski. Ecco, 562 pp., $25.95. Published: June 2008 www.edgarsawtelle.com

A review of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on August 28, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/08/28. It is saved both with the August posts and in the “Novels” category on the site. The review takes the form of a parody of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com 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 www.bookcritics.org.

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 RSS feed.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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June 24, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Joseph O’Neill’s ‘Netherland’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Netherland
A Novel by Joseph O’Neill
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 copy it 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

Netherland is an elegant study in unreliable narration. Ostensibly it is the story of Hans van den Broek, a Dutch-born banker in New York, whose his wife and son return to London without him after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 force the family out of their Tribeca loft and into the Chelsea Hotel. But it’s unclear how much, if any, of Hans’s account of his life you can credit. As the dust jacket notes, Netherland is about a city that has become “phantasmagorical,” or characterized by shifting illusions and deceptive appearances. Joseph O’Neill never resolves a mystery at the heart of the book: Who killed Chuck Ramkissoon, the streetwise Trinidadian dreamer and cricket umpire who has involved Hans in an illegal business? Partly because of its ambiguous ending, Netherland is the rare novel that years from now may still inspire debate.

The publisher of Netherland has posted on its site a reader’s guide to the novel that your group may want to use as a starting point for discussion www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780307377043. That list of questions is better than many, partly because it encourages you to consider such things structure of the novel – a vital aspect of fiction that often receives no attention in publishers’ guides. In other ways, the Pantheon guide reflects a tin ear for the kinds of things that book clubs enjoy discussing. In this case the most obvious is the question of who killed Chuck Ramkissoon. For this reason, although many Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are more comprehensive, this one focuses on that issue.

Questions for Readers

1. The first pages of Netherland say that the remains of Chuck Ramkissoon have been found in the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. “There were handcuffs around his wrists and evidently he was the victim of a murder.” [Page 5] When a dead body turns up early in a novel, you usually find out by the end who killed the person. In Netherland, you don’t. Why do you think Joseph O’Neill left that issue unresolved?

2. A reviewer for a British newspaper said that the identity of Chuck’s killer is “beside the point.” Do you believe it is beside the point? Why or why not? How did not learning the identity of the killer affect your view of the novel?

3. As in a traditional murder mystery, the victim hadn’t led a spotless life, and many people might have wanted him dead. Do you believe Chuck was killed by one of the characters in the novel or by someone who never appears in it? Why?

4. The dust jacket says that Netherland is about a city that in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, has become “phantasmagorical.” How, if at all, might this relate to Chuck’s killer?

5. Netherland is to some extent a study in the literary technique known as “unreliable narration.” This involves a narrator we can’t fully trust. Narrators can be unreliable for many reasons. They may be mentally unstable, pathological liars, criminals who want to hide their crimes, older people who have fading memories, or children who are too young to have a clear understanding of events. Or they may be under so much stress that they can’t accept reality, or in what a psychiatrist would call “denial.” (You can read more about the technique by searching for “unreliable narrator: on sites such as Answers.com or Wikipedia en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unreliable_narrator). Might any of these apply to Hans van den Broek, the narrator of Netherland?

6. O’Neill hints early on that Hans may be an unreliable narrator. Hans gets a call from a New York Times reporter who wants him to confirm a fact in her notes — that he was Chuck’s business partner. [Page 5] Hans denies this. We’re only a few pages into the novel, but already it’s clear: He’s lying (or “in denial”) or someone else is. Did you see other signs that Hans may not be telling his story straight up?

7. Not long afterward, the man at the Chelsea Hotel who wears angel’s wings tells Hans that his cat has disappeared and may have been kidnapped. What do you think happened to the cat? Could Hans have killed it? Why is this scene in the novel? [Page 36]

8. Later Hans takes home a woman named Danielle whom he has met in a diner. He has sex with her and beats her with a belt — “a pale white hitting a pale black” — because, he tells us, he “understood her to need” this. [Page 115] Hans says he was “shocked” when she later failed to return his phone messages. This scene tells you a number of things about him. First, he is capable of violence. Second, his perceptions of reality are “off.” Third, he may have beaten her more severely than he lets on, and this may explain why she didn’t call back. How would you explain his behavior in the scene? Does it affect your overall view of his trustworthiness or lack of it?

9. What did you make of the fact that Hans had never told his wife, Rachel, about Chuck and helping him collect bets for his numbers game? [Page 238] Did you attribute this simply to problems in their marriage? Or do you think something else was going on?

10. Given all of this, could Hans have killed Chuck? If so, would the meaning of the novel be different than if Chuck had been killed by, say, the angry husband of his mistress or by someone who felt Chuck had cheated him in his numbers game?

Extras
11. Many well-known novels have unreliable narrators. These include Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. (Some critics disagree about the last en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Turn_of_the_Screw.) If you’ve read any, how would you compare them to Netherland?

12. Why does Netherland open with Hans “boxing up” his possessions when he appears to have a high enough position that he could have had someone do this for him? [Page 3] Are the boxes a metaphor for how he boxes up or compartmentalize parts of his life?

Vital statistics:
Netherland. By Joseph O’Neill. Pantheon, 256 pp., $23. 95. Published: May 2008

Furthermore: Additional comments on Netherland appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on June 9 and June 10, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/09/ and www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/10/. A review appeared immediately after this guide on June 24, 2008.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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May 30, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Last Lecture’ by Randy Pausch

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Last Lecture’ by Randy Pausch

10 Discussion Questions
The Last Lecture
By Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow
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 the guide.

After learning that he had terminal pancreatic cancer, Randy Pausch gave an upbeat valedictory lecture at Carnegie Mellon University, where he teaches computer science. He called his talk “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” and explained in it how he had accomplished most of what he set out to do in life. Enlivened with humor and showmanship, his lecture drew millions of visitors to its posting on YouTube and made Pausch a star on the Internet. His talk also inspired The Last Lecture, a collection of short essays written with Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow, which became a No. 1 bestseller on the New York Times “Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous” list.

Discussion Questions

Please note that the page numbers below come from the large-type edition of The Last Lecture (Thorndike, 2008), the only one available when this guide was prepared.

1. When someone asked what he wanted on his tombstone, Pausch said: “Randy Pausch: He Lived Thirty Years After a Terminal Diagnosis.’” [Page 247] If you were to write his epitaph, what would it say?

2. Summing up a theme of his lecture and book, Pausch writes: “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.” [Page 32] This is one of many clichés he admits he loves and uses liberally in The Last Lecture. Did he succeed in making any old ideas fresh? How did he do it?

3. Pausch began his lecture “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” by saying he wasn’t going to deal with big questions of religion or spirituality, and he sticks to that pattern in The Last Lecture. How does the book benefit or suffer from his decision?

4. The Last Lecture recycles much of what Pausch said in his valedictory lecture at Carnegie Mellon and expands some of it. Should people who’ve watched the talk also read the book? Why? What does the book give you that the lecture doesn’t?

5. Pausch could have called his book The Last Lectures, because he structures it as a series of mini-lectures instead of one long lecture. How well does this technique work?

6. The Last Lecture balances general advice such as “dream big” with specific tips – for example, about how to work well in small groups. “Instead of saying, ‘I think we should do A, instead of B,’ try ‘What if we did A, instead of B?’” [Page 190] Which, if any, of the tips struck you as most helpful?

7. Many cancer patients are bombarded with the advice to “be optimistic” or “think positively.” This approach has led to a medical backlash alluded to in the chapter “A Way to Understand Optimism.” Pausch says his surgeon worries about “patients who are inappropriately optimistic or ill-informed”: “It pains him to see patients who are having a tough day healthwise and assume it’s because they weren’t positive enough.” [Page 249] What is Pausch’s view of this? Is he appropriately or inappropriately optimistic? Why?

8. Many people who have heard about The Last Lecture may be tempted to give the book to someone who has had a devastating diagnosis, or who is perhaps dying, hoping it will provide comfort or cheer. What would you say to them? Is this a book for the living or the dying?

9. The Last Lecture comes from Mitch Albom’s publisher and literary agent and has a small format similar to that of Tuesdays With Morrie. These similarities – let’s face it – could be a kiss of death for some people, especially critics who see Albom as an icon of saccharine and dumbed-down writing. What would you say to someone who didn’t plan to read The Last Lecture because, “One Mitch Albom is enough”?

10. If you were going to give your own “last lecture,” what would you say?

Vital Statistics:
The Last Lecture. By Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow. Hyperion, 224 pp., $21.95. Published: April 2008.

A review of The Last Lecture appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 30, 2008. If you are reading this guide on the home page of the site, scroll down to find the review. If you are reading this guide on the Internet, click on this link to find it www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/30/.

Watch Pausch’s talk “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” and read an excerpt from The Last Lecture at www.thelastlecture.com.

Furthermore: Pausch posts updates on his health at download.srv.cs.cmu.edu/~pausch/news/index.html.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear on the site frequently but not on a regular schedule. They usually deal with books for which publishers have provided no guides or guides that are inadequate – for example, because they encourage cheerleading for books instead of thoughtful discussion. To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark the site or subscribe to the RSS feed. If you would like to see the guides continue, it would be extremely helpful if you would link to them.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

May 28, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Jiang Rong’s ‘Wolf Totem’

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A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Jiang Rong’s ‘Wolf Totem’

10 Discussion Questions
Wolf Totem
By Jiang Rong
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 the guide.

At the age of 21, Jiang Rong left school went to live and work among the nomads of the Inner Mongolian grasslands. He stayed for 11 years and, in his first novel, fictionalizes his experiences in the region, including that of raising an orphaned wolf cub. After leaving Mongolia, Jiang became a professor and activist for democracy who was jailed after the Tinananmen Square massacre. He won the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize for Wolf Totem, which reportedly has had a readership in China second only to that of Mao’s little red book.

Discussion Questions

1. Most Americans have read few, if any, books by living Chinese authors. What ideas did you have about Chinese fiction before you read Wolf Totem? How did the novel affect your ideas?

2. Jiang tries in this novel to refute stereotypes of wolves, including those in fairy tales such as “Little Red Riding Hood.” [Page 329] How effective is that effort? Does he ever trade one stereotype for another?

3. Translators often have trouble translating gracefully slang that relates to sex or other bodily functions (which may sound comical enough in the original language). For example, the well-regarded translator Howard Goldblatt has a native Mongol say, “I nearly peed my pants [sic].” [Page 133] While reading Wolf Totem, how aware were you of the translation? Did the translation seem to enhance or undermine the book?

4. A blog for China-watchers, the China Beat, calls Wolf Totem “nostalgic drivel” thechinabeat.blogspot.com/2008/03/coming-distractions-wolf-totem.html. Do you see parallels between Jiang’s descriptions of nomads and the romanticized portrayals of American Indians or other groups that are common in the U.S.?

5. Wolf Totem isn’t a pure allegory like Animal Farm, a novel widely regarded as a critique of Stalinism. But the book does have allegorical elements. Wolves and sheep are extended metaphors for, respectively, the vigor of China’s lost nomadic cultures and the passivity of recent generations. How would you compare Wolf Totem with any other novels that make use of extended metaphors or allegorical techniques?

6. China has violated human rights so aggressively that you may have been surprised by Jiang’s characterization of its people as passive and weak-natured. His stand-in, Chen Zhen, believes that “China’s small-scale peasant economy and Confucian culture have weakened the people’s nature” and hindered the country’s ability to develop. [Page 304] He also faults other aspects of the culture. How credible is the critique of modern China that runs throughout the novel?

7. A critic for the New York Times Book Review found it remarkable that Wolf Totem had become so popular in China when it’s “so relentlessly gloomy and ponderously didactic.” The critic wondered if the novel had sold well because it exhorts the Chinese “to imitate the go-getting spirit of the West” or because it “captures a widespread Chinese anxiety about their country’s growing physical and moral squalor.” [“Call of the Wild,” by Pankaj Mishra, the New York Times Book Review, May 4, 2008, page 11.] Why do you think the novel sold well in China? Why might it sell well in the U.S.?

8. The same NYTBR review also said that the novel proceeds at a glacial pace. What accounts for the slow pace? Is it the repetition? The set pieces? The lack of a strong narrative arc or sustained conflict? Is a slow pace always a detriment to a novel?

9. Characters in Wolf Totem attribute “powers of intellect” to wolves [Page 130] and sometimes go so far as to say, “Wolves are smarter than people.” [Page 240] Americans have a fascination with books, movies and television shows about animals that appear to be smarter than humans, such as the old TV dramas Lassie and Flipper. What do you think explains this? What does Wolf Totem have in common with other tales of animals that seem to have a higher I.Q. than the rest of us?

10. Wolf Totem reflects conspicuous editing lapses. One sentence appears in almost identical form on back-to-back pages: “In the end, Chen had to abandon his desire to touch the cub while he was eating” [Page 264] and “In the end, Chen abandoned his desire to pet the wolf while he was eating … ” [Page 265] And the book lists the “four destructive pests of the grassland” as “field mice, wild rabbits, marmots, and gazelles” on page 237 and as “squirrels, rabbits, marmots, and gazelles” on page 251. Jiang may have written and Goldblatt translated those sentences. But it’s an editor’s job to point out such redundancies and inconsistencies, which conscientious authors will usually fix. If you had been the editor of Wolf Totem, what changes would you have suggested?

Vital statistics:
Wolf Totem. By Jiang Rong. Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. Penguin, 527 pp., $29.95. Published: April 2008 www.penguin.com. Jiang Rong is the pen name of Lu Jiamin. A review of Wolf Totem appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 27, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/27. For more on the Man Asian Literary Prize, click here www.manasianliteraryprize.org/2008/index.php.

Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear on One-Minute Book Reviews frequently but not on a regular schedule. Please bookmark the site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing the guides.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 19, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Max Hastings’s ‘Retribution’ for History Book Clubs and Others

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10 Discussion Questions
Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–45
by Max Hastings
Source: 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 reproduce it 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 the guide.

How did the Allies achieve victory in the Pacific in World War II? Max Hastings tells the story of the cataclysmic events leading to V-J Day in his latest work of military history, Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–45 (Knopf, 615 pp., $35) www.aaknopf.com. Here are some starter questions about the book for history book clubs and others.

Discussion Questions

1. You could argue that, as used in the title of this book, the word “retribution” has more than one meaning. What are some of them? Which do you see as the most important?

2. The War in the Pacific differed from the War in Europe in many ways, including in its scale. “In the Pacific there were no great battles resembling Normandy, the Bulge, the Vistula and Oder crossings, exploiting mass and maneuver. Instead, there was a series of violently intense miniatures, rendered all the more vivid in the minds of participants because they were so concentrated in space.” [Page 119] This reality of the War in the Pacific poses an obvious challenge for military historians who need to create drama in order to maintain interest a long book. How does Hastings create that drama?

3. Hastings tries to debunk a number of myths about World War II, one of which involves the American decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some people believe that this act caused a needless loss of life because the Japanese would have surrendered if warned about the bomb. Hastings disagrees. “The myth that the Japanese were ready to surrender anyway has been so comprehensively discredited by modern research that it is astonishing some writers continue to give it credence,” he writes. “Japanese intransigence does not of itself validate the use of atomic bombs, but it should frame the context of debate.” [Page xix] How – and how well — does he make the case for this point of view?

4. What myths about the war does Hastings try to banish? How effective are his attempts?

5. Parts of Retribution may be controversial. In some of these, Hastings compares the nature if not the scope of Japanese atrocities to those of the Nazis, who used some similar methods of torture or death, such as vivisection of unanesthetized prisoners. “In the face of evidence from so many different times, places, units and circumstances, it became impossible for Japan’s leaders credibly to deny systematic inhumanity as gross as that of the Nazis,” Hastings writes. [Page 236] Based on the evidence in Retribution, is this comparison justifiable?

6. Hastings is British journalist born a few months after World War II ended. Apart from the British spellings retained in the American edition of Retribution, do you see any evidence that his nationality affected his telling of the story? Given the current political climate in the U.S., would an American writer have spoken so bluntly about the reluctance of the Japanese to come to terms with the atrocities committed in World War II?

7. The former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw has called those who lived through World War II “the greatest generation.” Hastings challenges this view. “The phrase ‘the greatest generation’ is sometimes used in the U.S. to describe those who lived through those times,” he writes. “This seems inapt. The people of World War II may have adopted different fashions and danced to different music from us, but human behavior, aspirations and fears do not alter much. It is more appropriate to call them, without jealousy, ‘the generation to which the greatest things happened.’” [Page xx] Some American writers have also faulted Brokaw’s view as romanticized. How, if at all, did Retribution affect your view the phrase “the greatest generation”?

8. Hastings explores in some depth the motives of kamikaze pilots who crashed their planes into American aircraft carriers and other ships in the last days of World War II. “Suicide attack offered a prospect of redressing the balance of forces, circumventing the fact that Japanese pilots were no longer capable of challenging their American counterparts on conventional terms,” he writes. “Instead, their astonishing willingness for self-sacrifice might be exploited. Here was a concept which struck a chord in the Japanese psyche, and caught the Imperial Navy’s mood of the moment. Officers cherished a saying: ‘When a commander is uncertain whether to steer to port or starboard, he should steer towards death.’ An alternative aphorism held that ‘One should take care to make one’s own dying as meaningful as possible.’ The suicide concept appeared to satisfy both requirements.” What parallels do you see between the tactics and motives kamikaze pilots and those of contemporary suicide bombers in the Middle East and elsewhere? [Pages 164–65]

9. In reviewing Retribution for the Wall Street Journal, Peter Kann responds to Hastings’s view that only total war enabled the U.S. exploit weapons of mass destruction. “As we have repeatedly discovered since – World War II – in Korea, Vietnam and now Iraq – limited war is much more likely to favor belligerents of limited means,” Kann writes. What, if any, implications does Retribution have for wars like the one we are fighting in Iraq? [“Total War in the Pacific,” by Peter R. Kann, the Wall Street Journal, March 15-16, 2008, page W10.]

10. Hastings says that he didn’t want to write another history of the war in the Pacific so much to describe ‘a massive and terrible experience, set in a chronological framework.’ Did he succeed? How does Retribution benefit or suffer from the approach he chose?

Your book group may also want to read: The Railway Man, a memoir by Eric Lomax of working as a prisoner of war on the Burma-Siam railroad, and Hiroshima, John Hersey’s classic report on six Hiroshimans who survived when the atomic bomb fell on their city.

This guide may be expanded soon. If you have read Retribution, please feel free to suggest additional questions. A review of the book appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 19, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/19. One-Minute Book Reviews is a site for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights recovered.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 26, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to the 2008 Newbery Medal Winner, Laura Amy Schlitz’s ‘Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!’

10 Discussion Questions for Young Readers
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices From a Medieval Village
By Laura Amy Schlitz
Illustrated by Robert Byrd
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

Laura Amy Schlitz calls Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! “a book of miniature plays – 19 monologues (or plays for one actor) and two dialogues (for two actors).” Strictly speaking, she’s right. The speakers in Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! are young people between 10 and 15 years old who live on or near an English manor in the 13th century, the time of the religious wars known as the Crusades. They include girls like Nelly, who helps to support her family by catching eels, and boys like Hugo, who has to track down a wild boar as his punishment for playing hooky. But some characters know one another, so their stories overlap and at times read more like a collection of linked short stories than a series of plays. This unusual format may have helped the book win the 2008 Newbery Medal, given by the American Library Association to “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”

Questions for Young Readers

1. The speakers in Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! live in medieval times, also known as the Middle Ages. Many people first learn about that era from fairy tales about princesses and others who live in castles. What ideas did you have about the medieval life before you read this book? How did your ideas change after you had read it?

2. Most books of fiction have a main or most important character. Does this book have one? Why or why not? How did the presence or absence of a main character affect your enjoyment of the book?

3. Why do you think Laura Amy Schlitz began the book with the tale of “Hugo, the Lord’s Nephew”? What aspects of this story would grab your attention right away?

4. Schlitz made up all the stories in this book. If you didn’t know that, would you have thought that some of the tales were true? What makes them seem believable?

5. “Camelot, it’s not.” These were the first words of a review of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! that appeared in a New York newspaper. What did the writer mean? [“You Are There,” by John Schwartz, The New York Times Book Review, Dec. 16, 2007.]

6. Some of the characters in the book speak in prose (such as “Nelly, the Sniggler,” “Pask, the Runaway” and “Will, the Plow Boy”). Others speak in poetry (such as “Lowdy, the Varlet’s Child,” “Thomas, the Doctor’s Son” and “Otho, the Miller’s Son”). Why do you think they do this? Might the book have become monotonous or less interesting if everybody spoke the same way?

7. What does Otho mean by: “There’s no way to retrace our steps, / the mill wheel’s turning — ”? How does this line relate to his life? How does the line relate to the theme of the book as a whole? [Page 29]

8. Pictures can have different purposes in a book. For example, they can show you exactly what you see on page (acting as a mirror), or they can or focus on and enlarge a detail (acting as a magnifying glass). What purposes do Robert Byrd’s pictures serve in Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!? Why might the sun and moon have human faces on pages x-1 and elsewhere?

9. Before you read Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, did you ever think that you might have liked to live in medieval times? How did the book affect your view?

10. The characters who speak in poetry in this book use different verse forms. Thomas speaks in iambic pentameter when he says: “A healthy man is careless with a bill — / You have to make them pay when they are ill.” (The two lines form a heroic couplet, a specific type of iambic pentameter.) [Page 18] Lowdy speaks in a different verse, dactylic, when she say: “Fleas in the pottage bowl, / Fleas the bread.” [Page 60] If you’ve studied verse forms, how many can you find in the book?

Extra Credit
Schlitz writes about the “Children’s Crusade”: “In 1212, a French shepherd boy had a vision that the Holy Land could be recovered by innocent children. Thirty to forty thousand children from France and Germany set off to Palestine, believing that God would favor their cause because of their faith, love, and poverty. They believed that when they reached the Mediterranean, it would part, like the Red Sea. They were mistaken. Most of them starved, froze to death, or were sold into slavery.” [Page 37] Some scholars aren’t sure that this “crusade” occurred in the form Schlitz describes. You may want do some research on the “Children’s Crusade” and decide what you think might have happened.

Vital Statistics
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village. By Laura Amy Schlitz. Illustrated by Robert Byrd. Candlewick, 85 pp., $15.95. Ages 10 and up.

Published: August 2007 www.candlewick.com

Furthermore: The American Library Association has posted information about 2008 Newbery at www.ala.org/ala/alsc/awardsscholarships/literaryawds/newberymedal/newberymedal.htm .
Schlitz is a librarian at the Park School in Baltimore. She also wrote the text for the 2007 picture book The Bearskinner (Candlewick, $16.99) www.candlewick.com, illustrated by Max Grafe, and an excellent neo-Gothic novel for ages 10 and up, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/10/.
Robert Byrd’s site is www.robertbyrdart.com.

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries that many reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to this site or use “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

If you are a librarian and found this guide helpful, please consider adding One-Minute Book Reviews www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com to your library blog or ready-reference links, so patrons can find other guides and reviews. One-Minute Book Reviews accepts no advertising and appears on Open Directory lists. It is the sixth-ranked book-review site in the world on the Google Directory of “Top Arts/ Literature” blogs: www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and the vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 16, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Sherman Alexie’s ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’

10 Discussion Questions
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel
By Sherman Alexie
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 reproduce it 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 the guide.

Arnold “Junior” Spirit endures taunts that he’s “an apple” – “red on the outside and white on the inside” – when he leaves his reservation to go to better high school in a nearby town. But he knows he can’t let the jeers stop him. At the age of 14, he’s attended 42 funerals, and most of the deaths were alcohol-related. So Arnold tries to fit in at his new school – by going out for basketball, dating a popular white girl and befriending a fellow bookworm – while coping with tragedy at home. And if some Indians continue to see him as a traitor for leaving the reservation, Arnold eventually learns that the world has many kinds of tribes and that more than a few of them have a place for him.

Questions for Young Readers

1. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian shows a different side of American Indian life than do many other books. What did you learn about Indians from it?

2. Why does Alexie call his book the diary of a “part-time” Indian?

3. On his reservation, Alexie’s main character is known as “Junior.” But when he switches to a new high school, Reardan, people call him by his formal name, Arnold. “I felt like two different people inside of one body,” he says. Do you think Junior/Arnold was just talking about his name? Or did he feel split in other ways, too?

4. Arnold misses his best friend, Rowdy, after he starts his new school. But Rowdy doesn’t seem to want to join him there. How do Arnold’s and Rowdy’s views of the reservation – and their own lives – differ? What do you think Alexie is trying to show you through those differences?

5. At his new school, Reardan, Arnold gets to know a book-lover named Gordy, who says that “life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community.” How does this idea relate to Arnold’s life?

6. Arnold tells Gordy that some Indians taunt him: “They call me an apple because they think I’m red on the outside and white on the inside.” What did they mean? Did their comment describe Arnold accurately?

7. What’s the purpose of the humor in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian? Why does Alexie use it when Arnold is clearly angry about a lot of things?

8. Arnold’s math teacher at Wellpinit High School, Mr. P, tells him that the teachers at the school used to beat the Indians with a stick: “That’s how we were taught to teach you. We were supposed to kill the Indian to save the child.” What did he mean?

9. Alexie uses a racial slur (the “n” word) and strong language (the “f” word) in a joke on page 64. He repeated the words in a talk at an Illinois high school, and some students walked out. Alexie apologized to anyone he had offended but stood by his use of the words in his novel “because that was what was said. And to blunt the hatred of that insult blunts the incredible obstacles my character had to face,” a newspaper reported. (“Author Defends Using Slur, but Apologizes to Students,” by Melissa Jenco, Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, IL, October 6, 2007.) Do you agree with Alexie that in order to make his point, he had to use words that would offend some people? How do these words relate to the rest of the novel?

10. What did you think of Ellen Forney’s pictures for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian? What is their purpose in the book? Do they provide a mirror for the text, reflecting back only what you read on the page? Or do they expand it? How?

10. Arnold falls in love with Penelope, a beautiful white student. In Greek mythology, Penelope married Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s The Odyssey. If you’ve read about Penelope in that book or others, how does she resemble the student in this novel?

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel. By Sherman Alexie. Illustrated by Ellen Forney. Little, Brown, 229 pp., $16.99. Ages 12 and up.

Published: September 2007. A review of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 16, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/16/. A paperback edition is scheduled to appear in September 2008.

Links: You can hear Sherman Alexie read from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian at www.lb-teens.com, which also has reviews of the book and a list of the honors it has received. You may also want to visit the Alexie site www.fallsapart.com.

Furthermore: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won the 2007 National Book Award for young people’s literature. Alexie lives in Seattle and grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. 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 that is not influenced by marketing concerns.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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January 14, 2008

A Reader’s Guide to the 2008 Caldecott Medalist, Brian Selznick’s ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’

 

10 Discussion Questions for Young Readers
The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures
By Brian Selznick

Source: One-Minute Book Reviews, http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

[This is a repost in full of a Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Invention of Hugo Cabret that appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on April 21, 2007. The novel won the American Library Association's 2008 Caldecott Medal, which honors the most distinguished American picture book for children, on Jan. 14, 2008.]

Take a 12-year-old orphan whose name begins with H. Write a novel about him that involves magic, a train station and a female sidekick. Get Scholastic Press to publish it … and what do you have? No, not a new Harry Potter book. You’ve got The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a novel about a young thief who lives in a Paris train station and tries to finish a project begun by his father – fixing a broken wind-up man or automaton that may contain a secret message. In this innovative book, Brian Selznick merges the picture- and chapter-book formats. The Invention of Hugo Cabret has 533 pages, but the text would fill only 100 or so pages of most novels. Why? Selznick tells Hugo’s story alternately through words and 158 black-and-white pictures. The illustrations are mostly pencil drawings but include memorable stills from the movies of the filmmaker Georges Méliès, whose life helped to inspire the book.

Question 1
This book is called The Invention of Hugo Cabret. What is Hugo’s “invention”? Could the word refer to more than one thing? Could Hugo have “invented” a new life for himself (or for someone else) in addition to a mechanical man?

Question 2
Brian Selznick tells Hugo’s story in a unique way. He uses a lot more pictures than you find in most novels. Sometimes he tells Hugo’s story in words and sometimes in pictures. Why do you think he did this? How did you like it? What are some advantages and disadvantages of having so many pictures in a novel?

Question 3
Selznick also uses only black-and-white pictures on the pages of in this novel, no color ones. What are some reasons why he might have done this? Some authors say that they like to use black-and-white art because it lets people use their imagination and fill in the colors in their minds. Did you “fill in” any colors while you were reading the book? What are some of the colors you saw in your mind? Why?

Question 4
A lot of other authors have at times used only black-and-white pictures. For example, Chris Van Allsburg has done this in some books. And all of the pictures that Matt Phelan did for Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky, winner of the 2007 Newbery Award, are black-and-white. What books have you read that have only black-and-white illustrations? How do they compare to The Invention of Hugo Cabret?

Question 5
You may have noticed that a lot of the drawings in this book look as though they have something draped over them. It’s as though you’re looking at the pictures through a veil or net. Can you think of any reasons why Selznick might have used this technique? Does it make the story seem a little more mysterious? Does it remind you of the lenses you can put on a camera, including a movie camera?

Question 6
Hugo loves a movie called The Million that he and Isabelle go to a theater to see. It has an “amazing” chase in it. “He thought every good story should end with a big, exciting chase.” [Page 202] Why do you Selznick wrote that? What happens right after it in The Invention of Hugo Cabret?

Question 7
Hugo spends a lot of time trying to fix things like clocks or the mechanical man, or automaton, that he finds on the street. He likes machines because each one has a purpose. “Maybe that’s why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do,” Hugo says. He adds, “Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose … it’s like you’re broken.” [Page 374] How does this relate to the rest of the novel?

Question 8
The story of Prometheus is important in The Invention of Hugo Cabret. There’s a picture of Prometheus on pages 344–345. We learn that he was “finally set free” from his chains. What character or characters in this book does he resemble?

Question 9
Hugo’s friend Isabelle loves looking at photographs. She says, “You can make up your own story when you look at a photo.” [Page 193] Pick a photograph in The Invention of Hugo Cabret and make up a story to go with it. You might start with the picture of the man hanging from the clock on pages 173–174 or with the picture of the rocket crashing into the moon on pages 352–353.

Question 10
Hugo thinks it’s his fault that his father had died in a fire. [Page 124] Do you agree or disagree with him? Why?

Extras:
Question 11
If you’ve read any of the Harry Potter books or seen the movies, you may have noticed that the Invention of Hugo Cabret has some things in common with them. What are some of them?

Question 12
Often a novel is written by one person and illustrated by another. That’s because not many people are equally good at writing and drawing. Most of us are better at one or the other. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is unusual in that Selznick both wrote and illustrated it. Do you think he was better at writing or drawing? Which did you like better in his novel, the words or the pictures? Why?

Vital statistics:
The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures. By Brian Selznick. Scholastic, 533 pp., $22.99. Ages 9–12. Published: January 2007. Winner of the Caldecott Medal from the American Library Association www.ala.org on January 14, 2008.

Links: www.theinventionofhugocabret.com

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. This guide is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries that many reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to this site or use “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

If you are a librarian and found this guide helpful, please consider adding One-Minute Book Reviews http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com to the “Ready Reference” links at your library. One-Minute Book Reviews accepts no advertising and has been approved by, and appears on, Open Directory lists. Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 16, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Katha Pollitt’s ‘Learning to Drive’

10 Discussion Questions

Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories
By Katha Pollitt
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 reproduce it for use in their in-house reading programs. Others who 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.

Katha Pollitt steers into the skids of female experience in Learning to Drive, a collection of 10 elegant and often witty essays about her many roles – wife, mother, daughter, girlfriend, Upper West Sider, psychotherapy dropout, writer. Like Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck, this book deals in part with the ironies and absurdities inherent in cultural expectations of women, particularly those over 50.

Questions for Readers

1. Pollitt says in her first essay that she’s 52 and learning to drive a car because a man she lived with for seven years has left her. At the end of the book, she still doesn’t seem to have passed her road test. But she has learned a few things about life. Which impressed you the most? What did you learn from Learning to Drive?

2. We find out on the second page that Pollitt’s lover was cheating on her almost from the start. From then on, a central question of the book becomes the one posed in different form on page 57, “How could I have been so stupid?” What’s Pollitt’s answer? What’s yours?

3. “They say philanderers are attractive to women because of the thrill of the chase – you want to be the one to capture and tame that wild quarry,” Pollitt writes. “But what if a deeper truth is that women fall for such men because they want to be those men? Autonomous, in charge, making their own rules.” [Page 63] Do you think that women are attracted to philanderers? Or do you think they simply put up with them? If so, why do they tolerate them? In those lines Pollitt deals only with the psychological reasons why women stay with philanders. Might there be other reasons – sexual, financial, social? What are they? How does Pollitt’s view of womanizers differ from those you’ve seen on Sex and the City and in other media?

4. In “After the Men Are Dead” Pollitt reflects on what life will be like for women when they have outlived their husbands and other men. Would it be “restful” not to have to think about “love, romance, sex, pleasing, listening, encouraging, smiling at the old jokes” and all the ways in which women accommodate men’s needs and expectations? [Page 79] Would you find it restful, sad or both?

5. The essay “Beautiful Screamer” deals partly with a paradox of having an infant or young child. As Pollitt sees it, motherhood was “so important, so necessary” that it placed you at the center of life: “At the same time, it marginalized you totally.” [Page 112] Pollitt felt sidelined partly because she faced new physical limits – the post office banned strollers. [Page 114] She also felt excluded in more subtle ways. What were they? If you’re a mother, do you agree that motherhood isolates you? Why?

6. Single or childless people who live in suburbs or small towns that are billed as “family-friendly” might disagree with the views Pollitt expresses in “Beautiful Screamer.” They might say that they feel isolated because so much of the social life revolves around children’s school, sports or other activities. How do the views of the mothers in your group differ from those of the childless members?

7. Pollitt writes about her father in “Good-bye, Lenin” and her mother in “Mrs. Razzmatazz.” Does either parent come off better than the other? Why?

8. Pollitt laments that there are no good words to describe her time of life. “‘Older’ raises the question of ‘older than whom?’ Midlife is the upbeat new euphemism – there you are, in the thick of it! – but a 55-year-old person is in the middle of his life only if he’s going to live to 110. ‘Middle-aged’ sounds tired and plodding, almost as bad as ‘aging’ – and ‘aging’ is sad an pitiful, an insult even though it’s actually universally applicable. A 50-year-old is aging at the same rate as a baby or a tree or a bottle of wine, exactly one second per second.” [Page 196] What effect do these terms have on you? On our society? What word or words would you use for what some people call “the last trimester of life”?

9. A backlash may be growing against those magazine articles with titles like “Fabulous at Fifty.” Pollitt challenges this kind of aggressive cheerleading. So did Nora Ephron in her essays in I Feel Bad About My Neck and Virginia Ironside in her comic novel, No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club. Is the backlash overdue or unfair? Which of the books that you’ve read makes the best case for a more nuanced view of life after 50?

10. Pollitt writes from a feminist perspective. This is clearest in lines such as: “Feminism was supposed to be about the things women had in common, and I had always thought of myself as someone who liked women. When someone – usually a woman; in fact, always a woman – said I ‘thought like a man’ I felt insulted for both women and myself; it was as if I was being expelled from the tribe.” [Pages 61-62] What do you think feminism is “about” in 2007? How would you react if someone said that you “thought like a man”?

Vital statistics:
Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories. By Katha Pollitt. Random House, 207 pp., $22.95. Published: September 2007. A review of Learning to Drive appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 16, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/16/.

Links: www.kathapollitt.blogspot.com and www.randomhouse.com

Your book group may also want to read:

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman. By Nora Ephron. Knopf, 137 pp., $19.95. Review: Essays about being over 60 by the author of Heartburn. Ephron covers some of the topics that Pollitt does — faithless men, life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the pressure to conform to idealized images of women – and your group might compare their views on these. Review: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/10/14/ms-ephron-regrets/. Reading group guide: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/20/.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an 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. 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 that is not influenced by marketing concerns.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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September 21, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Sara Gruen’s ‘Water for Elephants’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Water for Elephants
A Novel by Sara Gruen
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it 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 the guide.

Algonquin Books has posted a reading group guide to Water for Elephants at www.algonquin.com that you may want to use at a starting point for your discussions. But like most publishers’ guides, that guide is part of a publicity campaign designed to sell books. It does not encourage criticism, quote negative reviews or compare the novel to others that you might enjoy more. The following Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide is not intended to be comprehensive but only to raise questions the Algonquin guide doesn’t.

A few generations ago, many Americans dreamed about escaping from humdrum lives by joining a traveling circus. Sara Gruen describes the tawdry allure of a Depression-era Big Top in her historical novel, Water for Elephants, a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. Her narrator is Jacob Jankowski, a widowed nonagenarian who lives in an assisted living facility and looks back on his work for a traveling circus after his parents’ deaths forced him to leave veterinary school. Young Jacob is intelligent and hard-working. But if he expects those traits to help him avoid brutal hardship, he is corrected by the equestrian director of the Benzini Brothers circus. “The whole thing’s an illusion, Jacob,” his co-worker says, “and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s what people want from us. It’s what they expect.”

Questions for Readers

1. Historical novels are often overpraised, because good research can mask or distract you from flaws in the plot, characterization or structure of a book. Do you think Water for Elephants deserved all the praise quoted in the front matter of the paperback edition? Or do you believe some critics might have been willing to overlook its flaws because of interesting material that Sara Gruen turned up in her research? Were you willing to overlook any flaws you found in the novel? Why?

2. Susan Cheever, the novelist and memoirist, says in the same front matter that Water for Elephants is “a book about what animals can teach people about love.” Do you agree? If so, why? If not, what is this novel really “about”?

3. “Despite her often clichéd prose and predictable ending, Gruen skillfully humanizes the midgets, drunks, rubes and freaks who populate her book,” a reviewer for the trade journal Publishers Weekly wrote. Algonquin omits the first part of that sentence and begins with “Gruen” when it quotes from the review in the paperback edition. This kind of editing is considered fair – or at least standard – in publishing. It’s also fair to ask: How did you react to that “often clichéd prose”? (There are at least five clichés in the first one-and-a-half-pages: “thunderous applause,” “screeched to a halt,” “My heart skipped a beat,” “No one moved a muscle,” and “ ‘you’ve got a lot to lose.”) If you had been the editor of the novel, would you have suggested that Gruen lose a few? Or is the book is strong enough that it doesn’t matter?

4. Did you find the ending of the book as “predictable” as the PW reviewer did? Or did you find it surprising? Why?

5. Authors of historical novels usually try to avoid anachronisms such as modern language used by characters from other eras. How well did Gruen do on that count? Would Depression-era characters say things like, “So, did you two manage to hook up?” [Page 158] Does this matter? Why or why not?

6. Many novels that are popular with book clubs come from female authors who write in the voice of a female character. Water for Elephants is different in that its narrator is a man in his 90s. How well did Gruen portray Jacob? Did she portray characters of one sex better than the other?

7. Historical novels are traditionally defined as books in which the action takes place before their authors were born. Pride and Prejudice, for example, isn’t considered a “historical” novel because Jane Austen was writing about her own times. But many of the most popular American novels of the past 100 years, from Gone With the Wind to The Clan of the Cave Bear and Cold Mountain, are historical novels. How would you compare Water for Elephants with some of your favorites?

8. Gruen says in an interview in the back matter of the paperback edition that the “backbone” of her novel “parallels the biblical story of Jacob.” [Page 350] For example, the biblical Jacob works for seven years for his uncle Laban. In Water for Elephants, Jacob Jankowski “worked on circuses for nearly seven years” [Page 4], one of them owned by a man named Uncle Al. Apart from the appearance of “Jacob’s ladder,” the best-known part of the biblical story occurs when Esau sells his birthright to Jacob, his younger brother, for food. [In the time of Esau and Jacob, on the death of the father, the oldest son received twice as much property as any other child, known as the “birthright.] Does Water for Elephants have a counterpart to Esau?

9. Many people might consider the prologue to Water for Elephants to be controversial, because you could argue that it deceives you about the killer of August Rosenbluth, the superintendent of animals at the Benzini Brothers circus, in the scene in which he dies. How did you react to the scene? [Page 4] Was it fair or unfair given what happens later?

10. One way to judge the prologue is to compare it with mysteries you’ve read. A canon of mystery-writing that authors must “play fair” with readers. This means, in part, that a writer must give you all the clues you need to solve the mystery and provide them at appropriate times. (For example, a writer can’t withhold all or most of the important clues until halfway through the book or later, because this would deprive you of a pleasure you expect from a mystery – the chance to figure out “who did it” as you go along.) A mystery writer must also write as clearly as he or she can. That is, the the identity of the killer can be uncertain until the end, but the language can’t be unclear because of murky pronoun antecedents or other intentional grammatical lapses. How does all of this relate to the prologue and what comes after?

Extras:
1. James Michener, who did heavy research for his own books, said: “The greatest novels are written without any recourse to research other than the writer’s solitary inspection of the human experience. Flaubert, Dostoevski, Jane Austen, Turgenev, and Henry James exemplify this truth.” [Literary Reflections: Michener on Michener, Hemingway, Capote, & Others (State House press, 1993), p. 74.] Do you agree or disagree?

2. If you agree with Susan Cheever that this is “a book about what animals can teach people about love,” what do the animals teach us? What do we learn from this book that you couldn’t get from movies and television shows like Babe or Lassie, which involved intelligent and loyal animals?

Vital statistics:
Water for Elephants: A Novel. By Sara Gruen. Algonquin, 335 pp., $13.95, paperback.

Published: April 2007 (paperback), May 2006 (Algonquin hardcover). A review of Water for Elephants appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 21, 2007. If you are reading this guide on the home page for the site, scroll up to find the review. If you are reading it elsewhere on the site or on the Internet, click on this: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/09/21/.

Your book group may also want to read:

Genesis, Chapters 25:19–37:35. The biblical story of Jacob appears in these.

Horton Hatches the Egg, by Dr. Seuss, first published by Random House www.seussville.com in 1940 and also available in other editions. The epigraph for Water for Elephants comes from this book.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an 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 www.bookcritics.org. 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 that is not influenced by marketing concerns. If this guide helped you, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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