One-Minute Book Reviews

May 13, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Susan Coll’s ‘Acceptance’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Acceptance: A Novel

This guide 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 reading programs. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to the site or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

Susan Coll sends up the college-admissions race in Acceptance, a novel set in a Washington, D.C., suburb that seethes with brainy students and overinvolved parents. Will the junior class president nicknamed AP Harry (for all his Advanced Placement courses) get into Harvard? Will the troubled Taylor regret sending a kinky essay to a school that’s flying high after a statistical error raised its ranking in U.S. News & World Report? Will the athletic Maya impress any college after she quits the high school swim team? Behind these questions lies the larger one that drives Acceptance: Can any of these students — or their parents — emerge from the year-long frenzy with a scrap of sanity?

Farrar, Straus & Giroux has posted an extensive readers’ guide to Acceptance at www.fsgbooks.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 suggest that you compare the novel to others on similar topics. For these reasons, the FSG guide may have less depth or promote a less lively conversation than you or your group would prefer. The following Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide is not intended to be comprehensive but to raise questions not covered by the FSG guide.

Questions for Readers

1. In a blurb on the cover, author Kurt Andersen rightly calls Acceptance a “satire.” What does it satirize besides the college-admissions race at a suburban high school?

2. Acceptance has a strong element of social commentary. Early on Coll writes:

“Study after study showed that there was no correlation between where a person went to college and his or her future happiness, or even earning power.” [Page 12]

But some Verona parents act as though their children’s lives will implode if they don’t get into certain schools. Later the admissions officer Olivia Sheraton reflects on the inequities of being female when she notes that “with a skewed ratio of girls to boys applying to liberal arts schools,” the female applicants “were at a disadvantage before they knew what hit them.” [Page 263]

One test of whether social commentary works in a novel is that even if you disagree with the opinions in the book, you accept them because they fit the characters. Another test is whether a book still reads like a novel instead of an editorial. How well does the social commentary work in Acceptance?

3. The most popular satirical novels of recent decades include Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Jane Smiley’s Moo and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. If you’ve read any of them, how effective was their satire compared with that of Acceptance? Why?

4. Coll uses omniscient narration, going inside the heads of at least five people (Harry, Taylor, Maya, Grace, Olivia). Directly showing more than one character’s point of view is common in novels. But this technique can have a drawback: Unless handled with skill, it can create distance between the reader and characters or keep you from identifying with any of them. How well does Coll handle this issue?

5. Grace, the mother of AP Harry, is the moral center of the novel. Would Acceptance have been more effective if Coll had told the story from just Grace’s point of view or from hers and Harry’s? Would it have been possible to tell the story that way? In Bridget Jones’s Diary Fielding tells her story strictly from Bridget’s point of view. What effect does this have on how well each novel works?

6. A reviewer on Amazon.com (Constant Reader — Richmond, VA) thought that the “dozens of characters and several subplots muddy this satire about insecure teenagers (and their more insecure parents).” Do you agree or disagree? If you agree, which subplots or characters would you cut to strengthen the story?

7. One of the challenges of using multiple story lines, as Coll does, is that you have to tie them together at the end. How well did Coll do this?

8. Coll sprinkles her novel generously with clichés, such as when she writes that Grace “deduced that despite his best efforts to get a leg up on his peers, at the end of the day a Harvard acceptance was just going to boil down to the luck of the draw.” [Page 127] That sentence has at least five clichés. Clichés can be justified in fiction if they have a literary purpose – for example, if they are used for comic effect or to show that a character is dim. But using clichés is tricky. If you use too many, your writing may seem stale or your characters unoriginal. Does Coll justify her use of clichés? How?

9. Acceptance is set in the fictional suburb of Verona, a name with a literary history: Romeo and Juliet is set in Verona, Italy. Serious writers typically have a reason for making such links. Why do you think Coll might have called her suburb Verona? Does this lead you to expect a tragedy? If so, is this misleading given that the novel is a comedy? Or does the novel also involve a tragedy?

10. Some people say that “real life isn’t like college – it’s like high school” (an idea that Meryl Streep used in a speech at Smith). How, if at all, does this apply to Acceptance?

Extras:

11. Acceptance is similar in its title, structure and themes to Nancy Lieberman’s Admissions (Warner, 2005), a novel about the race to get into elite New York private high schools. If you’ve read Admissions, how would you compare the books?

12. Acceptance also has similarities to Tom Perrotta’s Election (Berkley, 1998), a comic novel about a New Jersey high school election made into a movie with Reese Withersoon. Both books deal with teenage ambition in suburbia. If you’ve read Election, how would you compare the books? What conclusions might someone who knew nothing about American teenagers (or suburbs) draw from the novels?

13. Coll tells us on the dust jacket that she has a child in college but doesn’t say where. What effect would it have had on your view of the novel if you knew that Coll had a child at Harvard or another school in the book? What effect would it have had if you knew that she had child who had been rejected by Harvard?

14. How do you think the Harvard admissions office and others with strong ties to the university would react to this novel?

A review of Acceptance appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com
on May 13, 2007, and is archived with the May posts and in the “Novels” category.

You may also want to read:

Admissions. By Nancy Lieberman. Warner, 365 pp., $13.95, paper. Published: September 2005 (paperback edition). Students at Manhattan “feeder” schools (for grades kindergarten through eight) struggle for spots at top private schools in this light social comedy. Admissions has parallels to Acceptance that your group may want to explore. For example, the first sentence of Lieberman’s book calls the admissions race a “blood sport.” Acceptance uses the same phrase to describe the competition for spots at elite colleges. [Page 47] Coll has also used a format similar to Lieberman’s in following several students through the application process. Which author uses this technique more effectively? Why?

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic 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. If this guide helped you, please consider linking to this site or telling others about it. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 7, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Dea Birkett’s ‘Serpent in Paradise,’ a Memoir of Life on Pitcairn Island

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs
Serpent in Paradise
By Dea Birkett

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and intended only for your personal use. The sale or reproduction of this guide in any form is illegal except by public libraries that may copy 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 it.

In 1991 Dea Birkett spent four months living among the 38 residents of Pitcairn Island, where Fletcher Christian and other mutineers settled after casting Captain William Bligh adrift from the Bounty in 1789. Birkett hoped to find a vestigial Eden on a volcanic crag 3,000 miles from the nearest hospital, supermarket or pay phone booth. But within days of her arrived she had skirted death at least twice, and her fears grew as she explored an island that seethed with omens – a black albatross, an infestation of rats, the sound of gunfire in valleys where residents shot down breadfruit. In Serpent in Paradise, Birkett tells what was like to be one of the few people permitted to visit the storied refuge of the mutineers, whose exploits have inspired movies that include The Bounty with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins. She describes some of her experiences on the island in articles on www.deabirkett.com that also update material in this remarkable 1997 memoir.

Questions for Reading Groups

1. What did you know about the Mutiny on the Bounty before you read Serpent in Paradise? How did reading the book affect your views of the historical events?

2. Who or what was the “serpent” on Pitcairn?

3. Some people might argue that Birkett violated the privacy or trust of Irma, Ben and Dennis Christian by writing a book about them. If she had their permission to do this, she doesn’t say so. Do you believe that, in this case, the end justifies the means?

4. Many best-selling memoirs describe the experiences of single female travelers. The most recent include Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia (Doubleday, 2006) and Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy (Chronicle, 1996, and Bantam, 2004). How would you compare Serpent in Paradise to such books?

5. Everybody on Pitcairn apparently called a dark-skinned police officer by his nickname, the “N-word,” also used in Serpent in Paradise. American newspapers generally will not print this term. Is its use in the book was justified? What does the word tell you about the islanders?

6. Birkett had a relationship with the married police officer, whose wife and child were away, that she describes through ambiguous lines such as, “Our hands danced across the tabletop.” [Page 219]

She elaborated in an article: “I’ve never had an affair with a married man, before or since. But Pitcairn can make you act in ways that break your principles.” (“My Hell in Paradise,” Sunday Mirror, October 3, 2004.)

Did Birkett persuade you that such the island could make you “break your principles”? Or did you think she was rationalizing?

7. Near the end of Serpent in Paradise, Birkett quotes from Return to Laughter, in which the anthropologist Elenore Smith Bowen writes about her life among the Tiv of West Africa:

“It is an error to assume that to know is to understand and to understand is to like. The greater the extent to which one has participated in a genuinely foreign culture and understood it, the greater the extent to which one realizes that one could not, without violence to one’s personal integrity, be of it. “ [Page 272]

Birkett uses Return to Laughter as a touchstone and takes it “on every journey.” [Page 31] What assaults to her integrity did she face on Pitcairn? Do you agree with Bowen that “it is an error to assume that to know is to understand”?

8. In some ways, Pitcairn was permanently changed by the arrival in 1886 of a Seventh-day Adventist missionary, who caused residents to cut their ties to the Church of England. [Page 16] In other ways, the island seems unaffected by that visit. What role did religion play in residents’ lives?

9. Birkett offers many striking details of life on Pitcairn. Which do you remember best?

10. Less than a decade after Birkett’s visit, the British government investigated charges that rape and child abuse were endemic on Pitcairn. The probe led to the convictions in 2004 of six of its adult male residents. The guilty included Dennis Christian, son of Birkett’s host couple, who was 36 and lived at home during her visit. You can learn more about the scandal by going to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia www.wikipedia.org and searching for “Pitcairn rape trial of 2004.” Is it plausible that Birkett didn’t suspect what was happening on Pitcairn while she was living there? Did you sense that she was pulling punches, either because she chose to or because editors or lawyers required it? What difference does this make to the book?

Extras:

11. A number of movies have been made about the 1789 mutinty. These include Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton; Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) with Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard and Laurence Olivier and The Bounty (1984) with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins. [Pages 262–263] Why do you think the story has so much appeal for filmmakers?

12. When she applied for permission to visit Pitcairn, Birkett was a young single woman. How might her story have differed had she been older, married or a man?

13. Birkett also wrote Spinsters Abroad: Victorian Lady Explorers (Sutton, 2004). And she clearly has some of the spirit of the women in that book. How do her experiences compare to those of any of these women you’ve read about?

14. Can you extrapolate from Pitcairn to other closed or self-contained communities, such as age-specific retirement communities or co-op buildings that require prospective residents to get the approval of a board of the directors?

Vital Statistics:
Serpent in Paradise. Serpent in Paradise. By Dea Birkett. Anchor, 320 pp., $12.95, paperback. Hardcover edition: Doubleday/Anchor, 1997.

A review of Serpent in Paradise appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews, http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com on May 7, 2007, and is archived with the May posts and in the “Memoirs” category.

If you found this guide helpful, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. The guides are posted frequently but not on a regular schedule, because they are posted only for books that need or deserve them.

© 2007 By Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 21, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘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

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.

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.

April 9, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House,’ a Modern Classic by Eric Hodgins With Illustrations by William Steig

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

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. Reading 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.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is a sparkling exception to the rule that bestsellers tend to become dated within a generation. This modern classic first appeared in 1946 and has never lost the droll charm that made it in an international hit. Eric Hodgins (1899–1971) satirizes the modern lust for property in a comic tale of Jim Blandings, a Manhattan advertising executive, and his wife, Muriel, who decide on a whim to buy and restore a 170-year-old farmhouse in Connecticut. When house turns out to be too decrepit to restore, the couple resolve to tear it down and build another on the site. This decision sets up a plot in which they square off against bankers, lawyers, architects, contractors, hostile neighbors and the local historical society – all the people who still bedevil home-buyers. Cartoonist and children’s author William Steig (1907–2003) adds to the comedy with more than three dozen fanciful drawings.

Questions For Reading Groups

1. Yesterday’s bestsellers tend to look outdated quickly, and comic novels age faster then others because so much humor hinges on references to current events. Most novels from the era of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House have gone out of print. Why do you think this one still appeals to people?

2. Eric Hodgins tweaks the naiveté of Jim and Muriel Blandings throughout his book. Did you find the two appealing even though they often make bad decisions? Why?

3. Many contemporary novelists make heavy use of brand names in describing new homes. Hodgins doesn’t. Why do you think he avoided filling his book with references to specific products? How does his novel benefit or suffer from this approach?

4. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House satirizes the modern lust for property. But it lampoons other things, too. What are some of them?

5. Jim and Muriel Blandings tangle with tradespeople and others. But their main antagonist is the house they are building. How does Hodgins give the place enough character to keep you from feeling as though you’re reading an extended article in Better Homes and Gardens?

6. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House was published at the beginning of the baby boom, when families were expanding. How do you think people might react to the novel if it were appearing in print for the first time today?

7. Much of the humor in this book springs from its tone. Sometimes the tone is ironic:

“The evil days were behind them. The delays had been galling; the mistakes costly. The experience had been bitterly won, but it won it was. Their plans were perfect, their money was in sight, and now, thank God, work had at last begun. Nothing was so cozy, Mrs. Blandings thought, as the sight of workmen plying their trade on behalf of a home …” [Page 141]

At other times, the humor is more direct and involves local speech or a play on words, as when a man refers the Lansdale Historical society as “the Hysterical Society.” [Page 178] How would you describe the overall tone of the novel? How well does it serves the book?

8. What do William Steig’s drawings add to the novel? What do you think Steig was trying to do with them? Was he trying stick closely to the text or add a dimension?

9. Other satirical novels that you may have read include Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and Christopher Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking. All of these differ in many ways from Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. How would you compare their humor? What do they all the book have in common? What makes all of them work?

Extras:
10. Roger Kimball, co-editor of The New Criterion, wrote that the 1948 movie Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy is “charming … but nothing compared with the novel.” [The Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2006] If you’ve seen the movie, do you agree or disagree?

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. By Eric Hodgins. Illustrated by William Steig. Simon & Schuster, 228 pp., $12, paperback.

A review of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews, http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com on April TK, 2007, and is archived with the April posts and in the “Novels” category.

Movie Links: Eric Hodgins’s novel inspired two movies. The first was the 1948 Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy www.imdb.com/tt0040613/. The second was the 1986 The Money Pit with Tom Hans and Shelley Long www.imdb.com/title/tt0091541/.

If you found this guide helpful, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing others. The Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guides cover fiction, nonfiction and poety and are posted often but not on a regular schedule, because they are created only for books that need or deserve them.

© 2007 By Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 3, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘Infidel’ by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

10 Discussion Questions
Infidel

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. Reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to this site or use the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

In 2004 a Muslim fanatic shot the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh on an Amsterdam street and used a butcher knife to stab into his chest a five-page letter to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then a member of the Dutch Parliament. Hirsi Ali had worked with Van Gogh on a film of about female oppression under Islam, entitled Submission, that included shots of a naked, battered woman covered with writings from the Koran. Her memoir, Infidel, begins with an account of the murder and deals with Hirsi Ali’s childhood in Somali and elsewhere, her flight to Holland to escape an arranged marriage, her election to Parliament and her eventual move to the United States. When this book came out, she worked for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Questions For Reading Groups

1. Some of the practices that Hirsi Ali describes, such as female circumcision, have had wide publicity in the U.S. and may have lost some of their shock value. How did Infidel affect your view of them?

2. Did Infidel change your views of any other events that have had extensive media coverage in the U.S., such as tensions in Western Europe between longtime residents and recent immigrants? How did it affect your views?

3. One of the themes of Infidel is the liberating power of books. Hirsi Ali says that at the Muslim Girls’ Secondary School in Nairobi, she read books like 1984, Wuthering Heights and Cry, the Beloved Country. “Later on there were sexy books: Valley of the Dolls, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steele [sic]. All these books, even the trashy ones, carried with them ideas – races were equal, women were equal to men – and concepts of freedom, struggle, and adventure that were new to me.” [Page 69] Some people might say women aren’t equal in the novels like those of Susann and Steel – that the goal of their female characters is above all to get a man. Is Hirsi Ali is accurately characterizing any of those books or authors that you’ve read?

4. Ian Buruma, a Dutch author who has met Hirsi Ali and wrote A Murder in Amsterdam (Penguin, 2006) about the Van Gogh case, said in a review of Infidel: “I know from having spoken to her on several occasions that she resents people attributing her views, including her conversion to atheism, to personal experiences. She insists that she arrived at her opinions intellectually and not because she was traumatized, say, by being painfully circumcised as a child, or brutally beaten by her religious instructor or tormented by guilt whenever she was touched by a boy.” [The New York Times Book Review, March 4, 2007, p. 14] Did Infidel convince you that Hirsi Ali arrived at her opinions that way? Why or why not? How much, if any, difference does her ability to do this make to the overall success of the book?

5. Buruma says in the same review that Hirsi Ali’s descriptions of life in the West “have an idealized, almost comic book quality that sounds as naïve as those romantic novels she consumed as a young girl” and “offers up the West as a caricature of sweetness and light, which is then contrasted not to specific places, like Somalia, Kenya or Saudi Arabia, but to the whole Muslim world.” Do you agree? Or do you think she was describing Holland as she saw it at first, a view that later changed?

6. Generations of American school children were taught, and some may still learn, that in the Crusaders went to the Holy Land to fight the “infidels.” The word that Americans once applied to people in other parts of the world, some now apply to us. How, if at all, does this affect your view of the use of words like “infidel”?

7. Hirsi Ali says that “a new idea crept up on me” on her first day in Bonn, a stopover on her way to Canada to join a husband she had been forced to marry: She didn’t have to go to Canada but “could disappear here.” [page 187] Did you believe that this idea suddenly occurred to or that she’d been planning all along to defect? Why?

8. After arriving in Holland, Hirsi Ali went to the Refugee Aid office and learned that the authorities wouldn’t give her asylum just because she had been forced to marry a man she didn’t love. So she cooked up another story about why she wanted to stay: “This story was detailed, consistent, but it was an invention. With hindsight I’m not proud of this fact but, but yes, it is true that I did not tell my full story to get into Holland.” [Page 193] Later she invents another story so her sister can stay in the Netherlands. What makes much of Infidel credible despite these admissions?

9. Hirsi Ali says that the Dutch government treated her well while reviewing her application for refugee status. She received free meals and housing in a tidy bungalow in a compound with a swimming pool and tennis and volleyball courts. Hirsi Ali also had free laundry services, legal representation, and health care, and got a “weekly allowance” to cover her basic needs. [Page 192] Did any of this make you say, “I want to move to Holland! Where’s my plane ticket?”

10. Some critics have referred to Hirsi Ali a “feminist” because of her strong advocacy of the rights of Muslim women. Yet she took a job with an American conservative think tank. Are these two incompatible? ["No Rest for a Feminist Fighting Radical Islam," by William Grimes, The New York Times, Feb. 14, 2007, p. E1.]

Extras:
11. Some of the ideas in Infidel relate to those in Reading Lolita in Tehran, which is popular with reading groups. If your club has read that book, what similarities and differences do you see between the two?

Vital statistics:
Infidel. By Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Free Press, 353 pp., $26. Published: February 2007.

A review of Infidel appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews, http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com on April 2, 2007, and is archived with the April posts and in the “Memoirs” category.

Most reading group guides come from publishers or Web sites that accept advertising from them or fees for preparing the guides. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books or ads from publishers. All of its reading guides offer an independent evaluation of books by award-winning journalist Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com that is not influenced by marketing concerns.

If you found this review helpful, please see the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category on One-Minute Book Reviews for others and bookmark the site so you don’t miss future reviews I would also be grateful if you would forward a link to the site to others who might like to know about it.

© 2007 By Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 26, 2007

A Totally Authorized Reading Group Guide to ‘Manhattan on the Rocks’ by Janice Harayda

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Novels,Reading,Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:10 pm

10 Discussion Questions
Manhattan on the Rocks
A Comedy of New York Manners

[Note: After more than 200 posts about other authors' books, I have the right put up one about my own, right? A movie option on this novel would make it easier for me keep posting reviews, so I have to get the word out to those Hollywood high-rollers. And how do I know that you aren't Steven Spielberg or George Lucas, or Kate Hudson looking for her next starring role? You did get invited to the Vanity Fair Oscars party, didn't you? Unlike the Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides on One-Minute Book Reviews, this one is just shameless self-promotion ... Jan]

Laura Smart has thrived in her job as a writer of quirky stories like “Bowling-Trophy Wives,” an article about the wives of Ohio’s best bowlers, for a Cleveland magazine. But she can’t resist an offer to move to Manhattan and work for a talk-show-host-turned-magazine editor. She hopes her job at Cassandra will improve her troubled romance with an aspiring screenwriter and turn her into “Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s without the foot-long cigarette holder.”

Instead, Laura finds that she must deal with the alpine cost of New York apartments, a flirtatious corporate power broker, and a boss who wants her to track down elusive pop star. She also has to decide whether to break ranks with co-workers who see their cascade of perks from advertisers — free clothes, makeup, trips, and even cars — as fair compensation for their low salaries. The result is a sparkling comedy that sends up the sex-and-celebrity-driven world women’s magazines, written from the insider’s perspective of a former editor of Glamour.

1. Many works of fiction deal with young women who are transformed after moving to New York City. One of the most famous is Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Why do the best of these books have an appeal that lasts for generations?

2. Laura Smart, the heroine of Manhattan on the Rocks, dreams of becoming “Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s without the foot-long cigarette holder.” Does she achieve her dream? What similarities and differences do you see between Laura and Holly Golightly of Breakfast at Tiffany’s?

3. If you have read Breakfast at Tiffany’s and seen the movie, you know that the novella is darker than the film. In the book, Holly Golightly is a call girl, a high-priced prostitute. In the movie Audrey Hepburn appears to have no fixed occupation. Why do you think filmmakers made this change? What changes might be necessary in a film of Manhattan on the Rocks?

4. Novels about characters who step outside their usual setting are often called fish-out-of-water novels. These books include some of the most respected novels of the past century, such as Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (about a naive young man who attends an elite English university). They also include recent fiction such as The Princess Diaries. Why do these books have so much potential for comedy? What pitfalls do authors need to avoid in writing them?

9. Harayda calls Manhattan on the Rocks “a comedy of New York manners.” Some people say that New Yorkers have no manners. Can you write a comedy of manners about a city perceived as “rude”? Why?

5. The catch to many fish-out-of-water novels is that characters who at first appear to be out of their element may turn to be more at home in a new setting than in an old one. Is this true of Laura? Why?

6. Laura leaves Ohio to work for a magazine run by a television personality who hopes “to become the next Oprah or Martha.” Is Manhattan on the Rocks mainly about the cult of personality that surrounds those two stars? Or is it about something different?

7. Olivia Goldsmith, author of The First Wives Club, described Harayda’s first novel, The Accidental Bride as “satire with heart.” Does this description also fit her second? What does Manhattan on the Rocks satirize?

8. Manhattan on the Rocks brings back Brad Newburger, a public relations executive from The Accidental Bride who represents a condom boutique called Condom and Gomorrah. The author also writes about a law firm called Soke and Bilkem (inspired partly by the firm of Dunning, Spongett, and Leach in The Bonfire of the Vanities). She clearly likes to have fun with words. What is the effect this kind of playfulness? Can wordplay be satirical? Your group might want to compare The Accidental Bride and Manhattan on the Rocks to Wendy Holden’s comedies of manners, Bad Heir Day and Farm Fatale.

10. Like Manhattan on the Rocks, the bestseller The Devil Wears Prada involves a young woman who works for a fashion magazine and sees her co-workers receiving perks such as free clothes, makeup, and more. Discuss the different points of view that the authors of the two novels have toward this practice.

“Sophisticated chick lit.”
Pamela Redmond Satran, The New York Times

“Harayda, a former senior editor of Glamour, provides an inside look at the life of a New York magazine through an appealing heroine’s eyes.”
Kristine Huntley, Booklist

“Laura’s voice in this novel is spunky, and Harayda draws on references to both pop culture and literature to give Laura an intelligence that is the most compelling aspect of this novel. As her name indicates, she’s smart.”
Kelly Magee, Ohioana Quarterly

“Harayda teasingly pokes fun at the differences between Cleveland and Manhattan.”
Linda Feagler, Obio Magazine

A “blockbuster… autumn’s hot new book.”
Complete Woman

“Manhattan on the Rocks will make readers laugh out loud.”
Vince Brewton, ForeWord Manhattan on the Rocks

Vital statistics:
Manhattan on the Rocks: A Novel. Sourcebooks, 297 pp., $14, paperback. By Janice Harayda. Published: October 2004. Also by Janice Harayda: The Accidental Bride: A Romantic Comedy (St. Martin’s/Griffin, 1999). Please visit the “For Book Clubs” page of the Web site below for the reading group guide to The Accidental Bride.
Links: www.janiceharayda.com

Janice Harayda enjoys speaking to reading groups in Manhattan and parts of New Jersey, when her schedule permits, about this novel. She speaks to groups in other places by speakerphone.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 23, 2007

Complete List of Reading Group Guides Available on One-Minute Book Reviews

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Reading,Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:48 pm

Can’t find a good reading group guide to a book your club is reading?

One-Minute Book Reviews posts its own reading group guides to the some books reviewed on the site. These lists of discussion questions have no connection to publishers’ guides and may be more comprehensive or take a different view of books. You can find the guides archived in the Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides on One-Minute Book Reviews. The original reviews are archived both by category and date of posting.

Here’s a compete list of guides available as of March 22, 2007. Many more will be coming in 2007. Each title is followed by followed by the date of the original review, the category in which it’s archived, and a link to the review. If a direct link to a review doesn’t work, you can find the review by going to the site and searching for the title.

Stuart: A Life Backwards. By Alexander Masters. A charming biography of an “ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath” that has won or been short-listed for several major literary awards. (March 22, 2007, Biography) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2207/03/22/alexander-masters/

The Second Child: Poems. By Deborah Garrison. Rhymed and unrhymed poetry about the intersection of work and motherhood, including classic forms such as the sonnet and sestina. (March 12, Poetry) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/12/deborah-garrison-finds-poetry-at-the intersection-of-work-and-motherhood/

Born Twice: A Novel. By Guiseppe Pontiggia. One of the great recent novels about fatherhood, which won Italy’s highest literary award, the Strega Prize. (March 8, 2007, Novels) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/08/

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. By Ishmael Beah. A young writer’s story of his experiences as a fighter in the government army during the civil war in Sierra Leone. (Feb. 27, 2007, Memoirs) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/07/

The Higher Power of Lucky. By Susan Patron. Ages 10 and up. The controversial winner of the 2007 Newbery Medal that has the word “scrotum” on the first page. (Feb. 19, 2007, Children’s) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/19/that-scrotum-book-for-children/

The Birthday Party: A Memoir of Survival. By Stanley N. Alpert. A former federal prosecutor’s account of being kidnapped on a Manhattan street and held for thugs who showed a gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight ineptitude. (Jan. 30, 2007, Memoirs) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/01/30/stuart-alperts-25-hours-in-hell-with-a-turkey-sandwich/

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughs on Being a Woman. By Nora Ephron. Witty and trenchant essays by the author of Heartburn and the script for When Harry Met Sally … . (Oct. 14, 2006, Essays and Reviews) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/10/14/ms-ephron-regrets/

An authorized reading group guide to Janice Harayda’s novel Manhattan on the Rocks, a comedy of New York manners, also appears on the site. It was posted on March 26 and is archived with the March 2007 posts and in the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 22, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘Stuart: A Life Backwards’ by Alexander Masters

10 Discussion Questions
Stuart: A Life Backwards

This reading group guide 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 may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Other reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to this site or the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

“Charming” isn’t a word often applied to books about “an ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath,” as Alexander Masters describes his subject in Stuart: A Life Backwards. But it fits this biography of an intelligent and self-aware but physically and mentally impaired man – half Jekyll, half Hyde — whom the author met when both were living in or near Cambridge, England.

Masters has enriched his tragicomic story with quirky, New Yorker-ish line drawings of Stuart Clive Shorter and others in which people’s heads seem too big for their bodies. And whether or not the distortion was intentional, it’s a visual metaphor for the man described on its pages: Stuart was a someone whose brain always seemed to be about to burst out of his body and, apparently, in the end, did.

Questions For Reading Groups

1. One of the challenges faced by any biographer of a violent criminal is: How can you depict someone’s terrible crimes accurately while also maintaining enough sympathy for the person that people will keep reading? How does Masters do this?

2. Masters found that Stuart changed constantly and acted in “amazingly inconsistent” ways. “At first I thought he was lying or stupid,” Masters said in an interview. [“The Madman on Level D,” by Anne Garvey, the Times of London, June 10, 2005.] Did you ever think Stuart was “lying or stupid,” too? What changed your mind? How would you interpret Stuart’s behavior?

3. Stuart has an unusual narrative structure for a biography – it moves backwards. Masters begins when Stuart is an adult – “an ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath” – and doesn’t give his date of birth until Chapter 25. [Pages 1 and 291] But the story doesn’t always move in a straight chronological line. Masters describes some of Stuart’s ancestors in Chapter 24 before he tells you when his subject was born in Chapter 25. How well does this structure works?

4. Masters often criticizes mental-health professionals or popular views of mental illness, such as when he writes: “ … It is wrong to assume that a failed [suicide] bid is, as the nauseating cliché will have it, only ‘a cry for help.’ It could be – is usually in Stuart’s case – just the opposite. Its failure is the result of too great desperation to get the job done.” [Page 160] How did Stuart affect your ideas about mental illness or any aspect of it, such as suicidal tendencies?

5. One of the characteristics of great biographies is that they are usually “about” more than one person’s life. They may deal with subject’s profession or social circle or the era in which he or she lived. What is Stuart “about” besides Stuart?

6. Stuart disliked a version of the book that Masters showed him. He called it “boring” and wanted something “like what Tom Clancy writes.” [Page 1] How do you think Stuart would have liked the final book?

7. Biographies typically include only photographs of their subject and others. What do Masters’s drawings add to the book?

8. Masters is an advocate for the homeless who has worked in hostels for them and run a street newspaper. Biographers who support a cause are sometimes faulted by critics ax-grinding, special pleading, or slanting their facts. Has Masters done any of those things? How does he keep Stuart’s story fro becoming strident or sentimental?

9. Critics have disagreed on whether Stuart is biography, memoir, or something else, such as a true-crime story. Blurbs on the cover of the hardcover edition call the book a “biography.” The directors of the National Book Critics Circle said that Stuart “defies categorization” and named it a finalist for the 2007 NBCC award in the autobiography/memoirs category. You can find one board member’s comments on this issue by searching for the words “Stuart: A Life Backwards” on Critical Mass www.bookcriticle.blogspot.com. How would you categorize the book? How do such classifications affect your perceptions of Stuart and other books?

If you have time …
10. Stuart resembles James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the first great modern biography, in that it may tell you as much about its author as it does about its subject. So you might enjoy comparing the two books. Is fair to say that Masters was Stuart’s Boswell? Why or why not? What does Masters have in common with Boswell?

Vital statistics
Hardcover edition: Stuart: A Life Backwards. By Alexander Masters. Delacorte, 300 pp., $20. Published: June 2006. Paperback edition: Delta, 320 pp., $12, paperback. To be released in May 2007.

A review of Stuart: A Life Backwards appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 22, 2007, and is archived with the March 2007 posts and in the “Biographies” category on www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com.

Other reviews: “Shaking Down a Violent Jekyll to Find the Gentle Hyde,” Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times, June 9, 2006, p. E.2:36.

Most reading group guides come from publishers or sites that accept advertising from them. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books or promotional materials or ads from publishers. All of its reading guides offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns.

If you found this review helpful, please check the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category on One-Minute Book Reviews for others and bookmark the site so you don’t miss forthcoming guides. I would also be grateful if you would forward a link to others who might like the site.

Links: Alexander Masters site: http://www.alexandermasters.net/new/
[Note: SNAP Preview is enabled on One-Minute Book Reviews. This means that you can see an example of the art in Stuart just by putting your cursor on the preceding link to Masters's site. You don't have to click on the link and go to his site.] Publisher’s site: www.bantamdell.com Critical Mass, the blog of the board of directors of National Book Critics Circle http://bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com/. Click on the Critical Mass link, then search the site for “Stuart: A Life Backwards” for posts on why the book was a finalist for its 2007 NBCC awards.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 20, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘I Feel Bad About My Neck’ by Nora Ephron

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Essays and Reviews,Reading,Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:42 pm

10 Discussion Questions
I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman

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 may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to this site or the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

Nora Ephron is our Ironwoman of the keyboard. Perhaps no living female writer has excelled at a broader range of literary forms: reporting, fiction, screenwriting. Ephron made her name with witty and trenchant articles for Esquire and other magazines, collected in books such as Wallflower at the Orgy (Viking, 1970) and Crazy Salad (Knopf, 1975). She earned Oscar nominations for her screenplays for When Harry Met Sally …, Silkwood, and Sleepless in Seattle, which she also directed. And she wrote one of the signature novels of the 1980s, Heartburn, which included recipes (although, she admits. she left the brown sugar out of her directions for making pears with lima beans, so the recipe in the first edition didn’t work). I Feel Bad About My Neck collects 15 personal essays on topics from cabbage strudel to her internship in JFK’s press office.

Questions for Reading Groups

1. Ephron says that aging isn’t what you might think from all those “utterly useless” books for older women that are “uniformly upbeat and full of bromides and homilies about how pleasant life can be once one is free from all the nagging obligations of children, monthly periods, and, in some cases, full-time jobs.” [Pages 128–129] What is her view of aging?

2. Ephron seems to enjoy her life. But she says that “the honest truth is that it’s sad to be sixty.” [Page 128] Were you persuaded that she thinks it’s “sad”? Or might she have said that because friends had died recently or for other reasons? How well does she make her case that it’s “sad”?

3. Novelist Anna Shapiro said that Ephron isn’t “just writing about vanity or even grief” in I Feel Bad About My Neck: “What she’s really writing about is the insult to our identity that we suffer when we see that unfamiliar face in the mirror—pouchy, crumpling—a face that’s too strong and exaggerated to be our own, and that also seems to have, with all those dark, complicated areas, too many features.” [The New York Observer, Aug. 14, 2006, page 20.] Do you agree with Shapiro? Why or why not?

4. Ephron offers advice about life in “What I Wish I’d Known,” a list that directly precedes her chapter that dismisses as “useless” books that are “uniformly upbeat and full of bromides.” Her list has many lines that might qualify as bromides, such as, “You can order more than one dessert.” [Page 125] Do you see these sections of the book as contradictory? Why or why not?

5. The essays in I Feel Bad About My Neck first appeared in a half dozen publications, including Vogue, The New Yorker and The New York Times. Which essays work best? Does this seem to relate to the publications in which they appeared? Why or why not? How does Ephron’s writing change and stay the same from one publication to the next?

6. Many people have said that women, more than men, have to be what others want them to be. Do you agree? Did you get the sense from I Feel Bad About My Neck that Ephron, successful as she is, had to accommodate her editors? Did she have to accommodate others? In what ways?

7. Ephron called her first book Wallflower at the Orgy because, she said in the introduction, “working as a journalist is exactly like being the wallflower at the orgy.” She added: “I always seem to find myself at a perfectly wonderful event where everyone else is having a marvelous time, laughing merrily, eating, drinking, having sex in the back room, and I am standing on the side, taking notes on it all.” [Page ix] Would you say after reading I Feel Bad About My Neck that her life still has something of that wallflower quality? Why or why not? How do you think Ephron would answer that question?

8. You may have noticed that most of the reviews of I Feel Bad About My Neck were written by women. How do you think men might have reviewed this book?

9. Could – or would – a man have written a book like I Feel Bad About My Neck? Why or why not? What does this say about our culture?

If you have time …
10. Ephron returns in I Feel Bad About My Neck to some topics she explored in earlier books. “The Story of My Life in 3,500 Words or Less” deals with her second marriage, to the journalist Carl Bernstein, and the novel inspired by their divorce, Heartburn. [Pages 105–107] And “Serial Monogamy” is partly about Craig Claiborne, whom she wrote about in “The Food Establishment” in Wallflower at the Orgy. If you have read any of her earlier books, how would you compare her work then and now? How have her views of people or situations changed?

Vital statistics

Hardcover edition: I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman. By Nora Ephron. Knopf, 137 pp., $19.95.

Paperback edition: Vintage, 160 pp., $12.95, paperback. To be released April 8, 2008 [not 2007], according to the listing for the book on Amazon.com.

A review of I Feel Bad About My Neck appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 14, 2006, and is archived with the October 2006 posts and in the “Essays and Reviews” category on the site.

To learn more about Ephron’s articles, books, and movies, search the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia www.wikipedia.org, where you’ll see a short biography and many helpful links.

To learn more about movies for which Ephron has written screenplays, go to the Internet Movie Database www.imdb.com and search for the titles of movies listed in the introduction to this guide. Please note that while Wikipedia links always seem to work, links to IMDb may be less reliable. If an IMDb link doesn’t work, you can reach the site by Googling “Internet Movie Database.”

Most reading group guides come from publishers or Web sites that accept advertising from them. They do not encourage criticism of books, quote unflattering reviews, or suggest that an author’s writing might be anything but flawless. The reading group guides on One-Minute Book Reviews are different. They encourage you and your group to look at books from all angles that might make your discussion interesting or enlightening. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books, advertising or other promotional materials from publishers. All of its guides and reviews offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns.

If you found this review helpful, please visit the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category on One-Minute Book Reviews for others and bookmark the site so you don’t miss future guides. I would also be grateful if you would forward a link to reading group members.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 12, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Second Child: Poems’ by Deborah Garrison

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Libraries,Poetry,Reading,Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:54 am

 

10 Discussion Questions for Reading Groups
About Deborah Garrison’s The Second Child: Poems

 

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

Deborah Garrison’s The Second Child is a collection of 33 poems about the intersection of work and motherhood in an age of large and small anxieties – from fears of another terrorist attack to regrets about missed chances to be playground monitor. A former senior editor of the New Yorker, Garrison is an editor at Alfred A. Knopf and Pantheon books. She also wrote A Working Girl Can’t Win: And Other Poems (Random House, 1998).

Questions For Reading Groups about The Second Child

1) The title poem in a collection often expresses a theme or the prevailing mood of a book. Is this true in The Second Child? What ideas in the poem “The Second Child” recur in different forms in other poems in the collection?

2) One of the strongest poems in this book, “September Poem,” deals with the events of Sept. 11, 2001. After the attacks, Garrison decides to have another child. But she says didn’t do that for the obvious reason that when people die “ … we want, crudely pining,/ To replace them with more people.” Why did she have another child? How does this poem differ from other things you’ve read about Sept. 11? What does this poem show you that newspaper and other reports didn’t?

3) The dust jacket of The Second Child calls the book “a meditation on the extraordinariness resident in the everyday – nursing babies, missing the past, knowing when to lead a child and knowing when to let go.” What are some poems in which Garrison shows the extraordinary in the ordinary? What details illustrate that quality?

4) David Orr said that what’s known as “the New Yorker poem” consists “basically of an epiphany-centered lyric.” [“Annals of Poetry, The New York Times Book Review, March 11, 2007, p. 31.) Seven poems in The Second Child appeared first in the New Yorker. Do those poems fit that definition? Which poems involve an epiphany?

5) Some poems in The Second Child, such as “A Drink in the Night,” resemble anecdotes in verse. How does Garrison turn these into something more than cute the stories about children that you might find in a women’s magazine? In “A Drink in the Night,” does she use the invented “cup” as a metaphor for something else? What?

6) One of Garrison’s more unusual poems is “Sestina for the Working Mother.” A sestina is a fixed verse form in which six end-words recur in a set order in six stanzas and a three-line envoi (a coda or postscript). This centuries-old form might seem an odd choice for a modern woman who reflects, in part, on her reduced opportunities to listen to public radio and be a PTA mother. Why might Garrison have written a sestina instead of, say, a sonnet or haiku? How do the lives of working mothers resemble sestinas? For example, do mothers do tasks that may vary in order from one day to the next?

7) Garrison uses other traditional forms, such as the sonnet. But she doesn’t follow the familiar rhyme scheme the Shakespearean sonnet, abab cdcd efef gg. The end-words don’t start to rhyme until Lines 7 and 8 in “Unbidden Sonnet With Evergreen” and until Line 11 in “Song After Everyone’s Asleep.” What might explain this? Do the changes in rhyme relate to shifts in the tone or ideas of the poem?

8) You could argue that the most Shakespearean poem in The Second Child is the first, “On New Terms,” which uses the blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) that Shakespeare often used. In this poem some words or syllables rhyme in unexpected places (“most/ghost”). How do the forms of these sonnets add to or detract from their effects? Could Garrison be using these forms to express something about the role of women caught between traditional and new roles? [If you see an emoticon instead of the number 8 in front of this question, it is accidental.]

9) Although often meditative, the poems in this book can also be jaunty. The Cole Porter-ish “Goodbye, New York” sounds like a Broadway show tune: “You were the pickles, you were the jar/ you were the prize fight we watched in a bar.” It sounds that way partly because Garrison uses the bouncy anapestic meter (two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed) instead of the iambic (one unstressed followed by one stressed) of “On New Terms.” Anapestic is one of the most popular meters in children’s poems. You can almost hear an echo of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” in lines like: “my skyline, my byline, my buzzer and door/ now you’re the dream we lived before.” Have you read any children’s poems that use anapestic meter? (Hint: This was Dr. Seuss’s favorite.) Do you see other places where Garrison uses meter to achieve an effect?

10) If you’ve read A Working Girl Can’t Win, how does The Second Child resemble or differ from that one in tone and content? How is Garrison evolving as a poet?

Vital statistics:
The Second Child: Poems. By Deborah Garrison. Random House, 76 pp., $19.95.

A Working Girl Can’t Win: And Other Poems. By Deborah Garrison. Modern Library, 80 pp., $7.95 , paperback. www.randomhouse.com

A review of The Second Child appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 12, 2007, and is archived in the “Poetry” category and with the March posts.

Your book group may also want to read:

Late for Work. By David Tucker. Mariner, 64 pp., $12, paperback. Tucker, a newspaper editor, writes about his work in a witty and poignant book of poems that won Breadloaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Poetry Prize. www.houghtonmifflinbooks/mariner/

Late Wife: Poems. By Claudia Emerson. LSU Press/Southern Messenger Poets Series, $54 pp., $16.95, paperback. Emerson writes about divorce and remarriage in a collection that won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. www.lsu.edu/lsupress/

Reference Books:
The Poetry Dictionary: Second Edition. By John Drury. Foreword by Dana Goia. Writer’s Digest Books, 374 pp., $14.99, paperback. A guide to the different types of poetry (including the most common rhymes, meters, stanzas, and more) with more than 250 poems that illustrate the terms. This book describes many forms or techniques that Garrison uses, such as sonnet, end-rhyme, and sestina.

If this guide helped you, please check the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category on One-Minute Book Reviews for others and forward this link to members of book clubs. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books or other promotional materials from editors, publishers, agents, or authors. And its reviews and reading group guides are completely independent and do not reflect the marketing concerns that may influence creators of other guides.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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