One-Minute Book Reviews

June 26, 2008

Another Meeting of the One-Minute Book Reviews Online Book Club on Tuesday

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Last night I had dinner with some of my most literary friends, and we had an interesting conversation on the subject of: Are we supposed to take seriously the reading lists in books like 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die? One of my companions — who used to be the top editor at an esteemed imprint — argued that we weren’t. He said that he thought editors published those lists to spark arguments, not to make a definite statement. And he may be right. But I suspect that whether or not editors intend it, a lot of people do take the lists seriously.

A new discussion will begin Tuesday on the online book club that started on this site on June 1 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/01. And this might be a good topic to explore there: Did you ever buy a book because it had turned up on a lot of those “best of” lists (or even on one list)? What was your reaction?

You can also use the comments section of Tuesday’s post to bring up other books you’ve enjoyed recently (or would like to warn others away from), whether or not they’ve been reviewed on this site.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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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June 19, 2008

Overrated Book-Award Winners – Now Being Debated on the Ruthless Book Club

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Is The Inheritance of Loss overrated? Is The Worst Hard Time underrated?

We’ve been talking about overrated and underrated book-award winners over on the Ruthless Book Club, a new online reading group with no required reading. Among the books that may qualify, based on vistiors’ comments: Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction (overrated) www.themanbookerprize.com/prize/archive and Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction (underrated) www.nationalbook.org/nba2006_nf_egan.html.

What award-winners do you think are overrated and underrated? You can let others know by leaving comment during the month of June at www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/01/. A new conversation will begin on July 1.

© 2008 All rights reserved. Janice Harayda.

June 5, 2008

Ha Jin, James Jones, Jane Hamilton … Now Being Discussed on the Ruthless Book Club

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It’s not to late to join the conversation at a new guilt-free online book club

A new online book club – one with no required reading – began on June 1 on One-Minute Book Reviews. It’s a place where you can tell others about books you like or don’t like, whether or not they’ve been reviewed on this site or any other.

You can take part by leaving a comment on the June 1 post, which you can do by clicking on this link www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/01. Some of the authors who’ve been mentioned so far are Ha Jin, James Jones and Jane Hamilton.

My sense is that a lot of serious readers have strong views on books that they don’t share with others because the books don’t relate to blog posts they’ve read. So I’ve created a space where you can do that.

You can leave a comment on any day during the month and, even if no other visitor has read the book, you’ll probably get a response at least from me. A new discussion will begin on July 1.

Thanks for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews, home of the Delete Key Awards for the Year’s Worst Writing in Books and the Gusher Awards for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing.

Jan

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 1, 2008

The Ruthless Book Club – June 2008 Meeting

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Okay, everybody. Time to start the first meeting of the Ruthless Book Club, the reading group for people who don’t like reading groups. Did you bring the cake and coffee?

The Ruthless Book Club is a guilt-free online book club with no required reading. All you have to do to take part is to leave a brief comment about a book that’s on your mind or that another visitor has mentioned. (The book can’t be one you got for free from the publisher or anyone else with ties to the book – that’s one reason this is called the Ruthless Book Club.) You can bring up another book at the July 1 meeting.

I promised to get the discussion started, so here’s my comment:

Not long ago, I reviewed John Buchan’s classic spy novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, which Alfred Hitchcock made into one of his best movies. I hadn’t read the book sooner partly because I thought I “knew” it from the film. But Hitchcock made so many changes in the plot and other aspects of the story that I didn’t know it at all. That experience reminded me of how often movies affect our perceptions of novels. Some films keep us away from books because they’re so good, we imagine that they are definitive. Other films keep us away because they’re so bad they mislead us about whether we might enjoy the books that inspired them.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 31, 2008

The Ruthless Book Club — the Online Reading Group for People Who Don’t Like Reading Groups — Starts Tomorrow

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A guilt-free, no-required-reading book club starts tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews.

To take part, all you have to do read the post that will appear on this site on the first day of each month. In the post, I’ll start the conversation by mentioning a book I’ve reviewed that made an unusual impact for good or ill.

Then it’s your turn to leave a brief comment on a book you’ve read that made an impression on you. The book doesn’t have to have to have been reviewed on this site. At the Ruthless Book Club you can share a discovery or warn others about an overrated book.

Here are the rules:

You may talk about “your” book on the first day of the month or any other day. Visitors may comment on your post or mention another book at any time during the month, or until a new discussion starts on the first day of the next month.

You may bring up any kind of book – children’s or adult, trade or scholarly, in-print or out-of-print. Please keep comments brief – you can expand them if people have questions – and don’t paste in reviews or other material.

You may bring only one book to the club, not a roster. You can bring up other books at later “meetings.”

You may not comment on a book you’ve received for free from the author, agent, publisher or anyone with ties to the book. Book publicists are barred from taking part the discussion.

You may not comment on a book by a friend, enemy or anyone else with whom you might appear to have a conflict. The Ruthless Book Club will follow the rule observed by journalists: You don’t just avoid conflicts of interest but the appearance of conflicts of interest. That’s one reason the club is called “ruthless.”

Thanks for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews, and hope to see you at the club.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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

The Book Club for People Who Don’t Like Book Clubs – Coming June 1 to One-Minute Book Reviews

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Imagine: a book club with no required reading.

It’s coming soon to this site. On the first day of each month, beginning June 1, One-Minute Book Reviews will provide an space where you can recommend any book you like or vent about one you didn’t like. The book doesn’t have to be new or to have been reviewed on this site. You may leave comments about “your” book on the first day of the month or any other in the month.

I’ll get the discussion started by adding a few comments on a book that I’ve reviewed recently on this site that made an especially strong impression for good or ill. Then you can jump in with comments on that book or any other: new or old, children’s or adult, mass-market or scholarly.

Hope to see you there, and thanks for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews. To learn more about the club, please click here www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/23/.

Jan

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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

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