One-Minute Book Reviews

October 29, 2013

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

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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others

The Flamethrowers: A Novel
By Rachel Kushner
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

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

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

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vital statistics:

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

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

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

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

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

May 8, 2012

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

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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others

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

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

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

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

10 Discussion Questions for Carry the One:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 15, 2012

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

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Salvage the Bones: A Novel
By Jesmyn Ward
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

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

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

10 Discussion Questions for Salvage the Bones:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 26, 2011

The Pros and Cons of Book Clubs – Quote of the Day / Francine Prose

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“ … book clubs have had both a positive and negative effect. On the one hand, they do get people reading and talking about reading. But on the other hand, when you’re reading for a book club, the whole time you’re thinking, I have to have an opinion and I’m going to have to defend it to these people. The whole notion of being swept away by a book pretty much goes out the window.”

Francine Prose in an interview conducted by Jessica Murphy for The Atlantic online, July 18, 2006, reprinted in the “About the Book” section of the paperback edition of Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (HarperPerennial, 2007).

October 16, 2011

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

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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Diary of a Country Priest
By Georges Bernanos
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

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

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

Discussion Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 15, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

10 Discussion Questions for Room:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extras:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 26, 2010

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Lionel Shriver’s Novel ‘So Much for That,’ a 2010 National Book Award Finalist

Filed under: Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:54 am
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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
So Much for That
By Lionel Shriver
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

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 make copies to use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups should link to the guide or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

Shepherd Knacker hardly resembles a modern-day Robinson Crusoe. He’s a 48-year-old married father of two who lives in Westchester County, New York, and suffers the daily humiliations inflicted by the new head of the home-repair company he once owned. But for years Shep has been saving money for what he calls an “Afterlife” of subsistence living on an island off the coast of Africa. Just when he has enough cash, his wife develops a rare asbestos-related cancer, peritoneal mesothelioma. Suddenly Shep can’t leave the country or his company because Glynis needs his health insurance. How will the withering physical, emotional and financial cost of his wife’s treatments affect his marriage? Can his dream survive it? And if so, will it be worth it? Lionel Shriver, an American who lives in London, explores these questions and other in So Much for That, a novel shortlisted for the 2010 National Book Award for fiction.

Discussion Questions:

1. Many Americans dream of escaping to the tropics but see the idea as unrealistic. Did Shriver convince you that Shep’s fantasies were plausible for him? How?

2. Glynis tells Shep, when he says he wants to leave the country, “You don’t know what you want out of, much less what you want in on.” Shep says he does know: “I want to buy myself.” [Page 18] Who was right? What did Shep mean when he said that he wanted to “buy” himself?

3. More than half of the chapters in So Much for That begin with a statement of the value of a bank account or investment portfolio. What purpose does this literary device serve? Does Shep strike you as mercenary? If he isn’t greedy, why might Shriver have included financial the statements?

4. In addition to its main plot about Shep’s Afterlife, this novel has three medical subplots: about Glynis’s cancer, Jackson’s botched penis-enlargement surgery, and the degenerative disease familial dysautonomia, which afflicts the daughter of Jackson and his wife, Carol. Did the novel need all three subplots? If not, which could have been cut? What would the novel have lost or gained by eliminating it?

5. The story Shriver tells has parallels with the life of Christ. For example, Jesus is known as the Good Shepherd, and he was a carpenter whom Christians believe will lead them to eternal life. So Much for That is about a good Shepherd who does carpentry and hopes to lead his family to an Afterlife with him. You can read these parallels as a commentary on an America in which people have faith not in Jesus but in a broken health-care system. How would you interpret the similarities? A fuller discussion of the religious parallels appears in a review posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on Nov. 26, 2010.

6. So Much for That deals with timely issues. “But good fiction ultimately has to justify itself in the years beyond its pub date, and such PR lines will become increasingly irrelevant,” Mark Athitakis writes in his American Fiction Notes blog. Will this novel appeal to Americans in 10 or 20 years? Why or why not?

7. Late in the novel Carol asks Shep, “Do you by any chance have a really, really big dick?” [Page 433] Shep reflects that he would “understand the context” of her remark the next day. What was the context? Did Carol ask that question because she hoped to sleep with him or for another reason?

8. Leah Hager Cohen wrote in a review in the New York Times Book Review that So Much for That has merits but lacks “a fullness of wisdom about its characters’ potential for growth.” What did she mean? Do you agree?

9. Glynis rails against the saccharine, kid-glove treatment she gets from people after she gets mesothelioma: “I feel as if I’m trapped in a Top Forty by the Carpenters.” [Page 310] Barbara Ehrenreich raised similar objections to the good cheer expected of cancer patients in her bestselling Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (Metropolitan, 2009). Did either book affect your views of how Americans treat cancer patients? If you’ve read both, which made its case better?

10. On the basis of this novel, you might expect Shriver to favor almost any kind of health care reform. But in an interview she faulted President Obama’s health care plan as well-intentioned but unlikely to help. Does her view surprise you now that you’ve read So Much for That?

Vital statistics:

So Much for That. By Lionel Shriver. HarperCollins, 436 pp., $25.99. Published: March 2010

A review of So Much for That appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on November, 26, 2010, in the post directly after this one.

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

Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are a free alternative to publishers’ guides, which are not unbiased analyses but marketing tools designed to sell books. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please follow Jan on her Twitter feed at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she lists new guides and reviews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 27, 2009

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Janet Evanovich’s ‘Finger Lickin Fifteen’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Finger Lickin’ Fifteen
By Janet Evanovich
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

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

A celebrity chef is beheaded with a meat cleaver in the opening pages of Finger Lickin’ Fifteen, Janet Evanovich’s 15th crime novel about the Trenton-based bounty hunter Stephanie Plum.  After a co-worker witnesses the murder, Plum becomes drawn into the search for his killer, and her ex-boyfriend, the plainclothes policeman Joe Morelli, goes to work on the case. She also agrees to help her sometime romantic interest, Carlos “Ranger” Manoso, find out who has been breaking into properties protected by his security company. As novel builds toward the barbecue cook-off, the questions raised by the plot include: Can Morelli succeed in his dual quest to capture the chef’s killers and to recapture Plum’s heart?

Discussion questions:

1 Many novels fall clearly into a category such as mystery, romance, comedy, or adventure. Evanovich tries to combine all of those genres in one book. How well does she succeed?

2 Does Evanovich handle one genre better than others? If so, which genre seems to suit her skills best?

3 Some series give you a strong sense of place, a you-are-there feeling about the city or town where the action takes place, such as those about Robert Parker’s Spenser (Boston) and Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski (Chicago). How well did Evanovich evoke Trenton, NJ, in Finger Lickin Good? Did she give you the sense that you knew the city? How much does this matter?

4 Finger Lickin’ Fifteen has two parallel plots – one involving the murder of the Stanley Chipotle and another about the break-ins at the properties protected by Rangeman security. It has a third if you count Plum’s efforts to bring in the “skips” or FTAs (Failure to Appears) who haven’t shown up for court dates. Which  plot did you find most interesting or effective? Which was the least interesting or effective?

5 Often in a book with multiple storylines, the plots turn out to be related. You might expect, for example, that Stanley Chipotle’s murder would be linked to the break-ins at Rangeman properties. How, if at all, are the plots in Finger Lickin’ Five related?

6 This novel begins with a decapitation, a risky move given that it might remind people of the 2002 beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan and other terrorist acts. Where you able to step back mentally from any news stories you’ve read and view Finger Lickin’ Five as entertainment? Or was your reading affected by the headlines?

7 Some authors of long-running series allow their characters to age – not just by getting older but by making major changes in their lives. Evanovich hasn’t done this with Plum, who was 30 in One for the Money and seems to have changed little. The critic Marilyn Stasio wrote in a review of Eleven on Top, “Evanovich has kept Stephanie in a perpetual state of sexual arousal, poised between the attentions of Joe Morelli, the hot and hunky cop who has been pursuing her since high school, and Ranger, a coolly lethal mercenary.” What are the pros and cons this approach? Would the series be more satisfying or less so if Plum had changed more?

8 More than most mystery series, the Plum novels have predictable elements. In each book, for example, Plum’s Hungarian grandmother visits Stiva’s Funeral Home. Is the predictability an asset or liability? Has your view of this changed over the years?

9 Respected crime-novel critics, such as Sarah Weinman, have said that the quality of this series has been going down for years. A few reader-reviewers on Amazon.com (such as Jessica Connelly and A. Grund) argue that this has lost so much of its earlier appeal that it Evanovich should kill it. Do you agree or disagree? Why?

10 If you think Evanovich should continue the series, how could she strengthen it? Would you want to read a half dozen more books in which Plum is still torn between Morelli and Ranger?

Vital Statistics
Finger Lickin’ Fifteen. By Janet Evanovich. St. Martin’s, 308 pp., $27.95. Published June 2009.

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

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 12, 2009

Good Free Reading Group Guides From the U.S. Government

On this site I’ve often faulted publishers’ reading group guides for their poor quality –- poor in part because they tend to pander to book-club members with loopy questions like: “The heroine of this novel is a one-eyed snake charmer whose parents were abducted by aliens. Have you ever known a one-eyed snake charmer whose parents were abducted by aliens?” Gee, I’ll have to think about that one! I might have known one-eyed snake charmer, but her parents got in the space ship voluntarily and technically weren’t abducted!  How about you?

So I was heartened to find that the U.S. Government has posted more than two dozen free reading group guides that are more objective and helpful. The guides come from The Big Read, a National Endowment for the Arts program intended to encourage reading, and most cover major American works of fiction for adults or children, such as My Antonia, The Great Gatsby, The Age of Innocence, The Call of the Wild, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But a couple deal with books by authors from other countries — Naguib Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs and Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich – and the NEA plans soon to post companions to the poetry of Emily Dickinson and others.

You can download the guides for free at the site for The Big Read. And some libraries can get printed versions and CDs with more information at no cost. (I learned about all of this when I found a stack of free reader’s guides and companion disks for To Kill a Mockingbird at a small-town library giving them away to patrons.) Along with warhorses such as The Grapes of Wrath, The Big Read guides deal with a couple gems that are less well known, including Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl.

www.janiceharayda.com

April 27, 2009

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘Olive Kitteridge’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Olive Kitteridge
By Elizabeth Strout
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

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

Olive Kitteridge is a collection of 13 linked short stories about a retired junior-high math teacher and other residents of the fictional Crosby, Maine, where whitecaps dot the bay and a dirt road winds down to the water. It won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Questions for Discussion:

1. Olive Kitteridge, the title character, is an angry woman often infuriated by small things, such as her husband’s spilling the ketchup in “Pharmacy.” [Page 7] What is she really angry about?

2. To phrase the first question differently: Many long-married people learn to accept minor flaws in their spouses, such as occasional clumsiness. Why does Olive have trouble accepting Henry’s?

3. Olive Kitteridge includes stories published in very different publications, such as Seventeen and the literary magazine South Carolina Review. How well do the tales fit together?

4. Critics have argued that some tales in Olive Kitteridge work better than others. A reviewer for the New York Times Book Review said that the weakest stories are those that barely mention Olive, such as “Ship in a Bottle”: “Without her, the book goes adrift, as if it has lost its anchor.”
Do you agree? What stories do you find strongest and weakest?

5. Olive and her grown son, Christopher, have spent much of their lives locked into a dance of reciprocal misunderstanding. Olive insists that she loves Chris and seems to believe that she has gotten “all wacky” with him only because of “how scared he was of her.” [Page 71] Is that all there is to it? What is the broader problem between Olive and Chris?

6. Much of the action in Olive Kitteridge involves ordinary events, such as going to church or Dunkin’ Donuts. That’s not true of “A Different Road” (which takes “a different road” from the other tales). In this story, Olive and her husband are taken hostage at a hospital by armed men who want to steal drugs. This scene is an example of what Flannery O’Connor called “the grotesque” in fiction, “something which an ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.” And a critic saw “A Different Road” as the only story in which Strout went “overboard.” How did you react to this usual story? Did it add to or detract from the book?

7. Apart from the hostage-taking, Olive Kitteridge refers to many violent or traumatic events in the lives of its characters or their friends or relatives – suicide, divorce, infidelity, miscarriages, death by drowning, a major stroke, a fatal hunting accident. Books can seem oppressive when painful events pile up, or so dark you can’t finish them. If you read all of Olive Kitteridge, how did Strout keep you reading? Why didn’t the book seem oppressive?

8. The publicity materials for Olive Kitteridge call the book “a novel in stories,” possibly because novels sell better than short stories. But the Pulitzer Prize judges correctly identified the volume as “a collection of 13 short stories” bound together in part by Olive. How does the book differ from a novel with a traditional linear narrative? Would you have enjoyed it more or less if Strout had told Olive’s story as a novel instead of a collection of stories?

9. Olive shows throughout the book that she hates many things about the world. But in the end, as an old woman, she chooses to accept love, in however imperfect a form. [Page 270] How believable was this transformation?

10. For all of its bleakness, Olive Kitteridge does have humorous moments. One occurs at the wedding reception for Olive’s son, where guests clink their glasses and a man says, “A toast to Fidelity Select.” [Page 72] What lines or scenes from the book did you find amusing?

Vital statistics:
Olive Kitteridge. By Elizabeth Strout. Random House, 304 pp., $14, paperback.

A review of Olive Kitteridge appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews in the post just after this one on April 27, 2009 http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/08/27.

You may also want to read …
The literary term for a group of linked short stories like Olive Kitteridge is a cycle of stories or short story cycle. If you like the form, you might enjoy other short story cycles, such as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York.

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

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

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

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter (@janiceharayda), where she writes about books and often comments on book clubs. She satirizes American literary culture on her Fake Book News (@FakeBookNews) on Twitter.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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