One-Minute Book Reviews

March 2, 2009

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Spare Room’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Spare Room
A Novel by Helen Garner
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

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

How should we treat terminally ill people who don’t accept that they are dying? Should we support the delusion that they will get better – on the premise that false hope is better than none – or tell the truth? These questions underlie The Spare Room, a prize-winning Australian novel about a friendship between two women in their 60s that is tested when one develops metastatic bowel cancer. After conventional treatments fail, Nicola moves in with Helen for three weeks in order to try the alternative therapies peddled by a sham clinic in Melbourne, including coffee enemas and intravenous vitamin C. At first solicitous, Helen begins to run out of patience as her houseguest’s demands grow. The novel builds toward a confrontation between the two women that raises yet another question: Whether or not Nicola lives, can the women’s friendship survive her illness?

Discussion Questions
All quotations and page numbers below come from the advance reader’s edition and may differ slightly in the finished book. Garner pronounces Nicola’s name NICK-oh-la.

1. Helen Garner says that The Spare Room was inspired by her experience of caring for dying friends. An autobiographical novel has give you something you wouldn’t get from a memoir in order to work. Did The Spare Room do this? What did you get from it that you couldn’t have gotten from a memoir?

2. The title of The Spare Room refers to an unused room converted to a guest room. But it has several other meanings. Who or what is “spare” or “spared” in this book?

3. Garner says that Australians have told her The Spare Room made them “laugh as well as cry.” Did you find parts of this novel funny? Which ones?

4. At first, Helen seems unusually kind. She takes pains to make her spare room comfortable, such as by choosing a pink sheet because Nicola “had a famous feel for color, and pink is flattering even to skin that has turned yellowish.” [Page 1] Later Helen says cruel things to Nicola: “I wait on you hand and foot” [Page 122] and “Can’t you use your brains?” [Page 124] Was this change believable? What made it credible or not credible?

5. Why did Helen work so hard to transform the spare room? Did she do things like choosing a “flattering” sheet just for Nicola’s benefit or because she needed to downplay for herself the reality of her friend’s death?

6. Nicola appears to deny that she is dying. But Liesl Schillinger wrote in a review that “Garner’s narrative makes clear that Iris and Helen are also in denial.” [“A Visit From Death,” The New York Times Book Review, Feb. 15, 2009, page 12.] Do you agree or disagree?

7. Garner depicts relatives of both of her main characters, including Helen’s five-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, Bessie. Do you think she did this to show how different generations view death, to make a point about the women’s ties to their families, or for other reasons?

8. Late in the novel, Helen and Nicola go to a magic show by a German magician [Page 131]. What role does this scene play in the novel? How is the book about the conflict between magic (or illusion) and reality in general? Does the scene relate to an earlier comment by a quack doctor that in Germany many cancer victims live over electromagnetic fields? [Page 31]

9. Two unrelated yardsticks show that The Spare Room is written at fourth-grade (9-year-old) reading level: The Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that come with the spell-checker on Microsoft Word and the online Spache Readbility Formula. Did the novel seem dumbed-down? Why or not?

10. Many American memoirs or semi-autobiographical novels deal with the relationship between the author and someone who is dying. These range from John Gunther’s modern classic about the loss of his teenage son, Death Be Not Proud, to Mitch Albom’s recent Tuesdays With Morrie. How does The Spare Room compare to any you’ve read? What strengths or weaknesses does it have that they didn’t?

Vital Statistics:
The Spare Room: A Novel. By Helen Garner. Holt, 192 pp., $22. Published: February 2009. A review of The Spare Room appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 2, 2009, in the post that directly followed this guide.

About the author: Garner is a novelist and the author of the true-crime books The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation, both bestsellers in her native Australia. Her Wikipedia entry lists some of her awards.

Garner talks about The Spare Room in an audio podcast.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda is a novelist and 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 www.bookcritics.org.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 23, 2009

2009 Delete Key Awards Finalists to Be Announced Feb. 26, Beginning at 10 a.m. – The Year’s Worst Writing in Books for Children and Adults

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:27 pm
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You think the books you read this year were bad? Find out Thursday how they compare to some of the worst writing publishers have flung at us in the past twelve months. The 2009 Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books for children and adults will be announced beginning at 10 a.m. Eastern Time on Feb. 26 with the full list posted by the end of the day.

This year for the first time visitors to One-Minute Book Reviews can choose one of the finalists – the worst of four lines from Denis Leary’s Why We Suck, all included in a recent poll on this site. You can vote anonymously until 5 p.m. Eastern Time Wednesday on the Feb. 21 post.

The winners will be named on March 16 (usually on March 15, which falls on a Sunday this year).  To read other posts about the awards, given to authors who don’t use delete keys enough, click on “Delete Key Awards” in the list of categories at right. Thanks for visiting this site.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 12, 2009

Back to the Diner With Mary Jo Salter — The Unofficial Poet Laureate of Female Baby Boomers Remembers Her Past in ‘A Phone Call to the Future’

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:14 pm
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This was the Fifties: as far back as I go.
Some of it lasted decades.
That’s why I remember it so clearly.

From the title poem of A Phone Call to the Future

A Phone Call to the Future: New and Selected Poems. Knopf, 222 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda
America is full of women who promised themselves years ago that someday they would read more than The Managerial Woman and the owner’s manual for Aprica strollers — maybe even poetry. Now the great day is at hand as many of these baby boomers approach retirement.

Mary Jo Salter awaits them. It would be patronizing — and misleading — to call Salter a “women’s poet.” She has written six books, coedited the Norton Anthology of Poetry and won praise from both sexes. Salter is no more of a “women’s poet” than was Elizabeth Bishop, with whom she studied. And yet perhaps better than any other poet, she provides a narrative arc for the shared experiences of female baby boomers.

A Phone Call to the Future reads at times like an index to the milestones of a generation of women. Looking for a poem about menopause? Try “Somebody Else’s Baby.” The death of a parent? “Dead Letters.” The long-ago crisis that your marriage mercifully survived? “The Twelfth Year.” The wistful feelings inspired by your teenage daughter’s maturity? “For Emily at Fifteen.” The incomprehension you felt when you went back to your once-favorite diner and found that it had become a Chinese restaurant? “Inside the Midget.”

If these poems sound like articles-in-verse for More or the AARP Bulletin, they are far from it: They tell truths that tend to yield in magazines to chipper advice on how to look younger without surgery or have the best sex of your life after 50. But they stay rooted in everyday life — the daily pleasures and anxieties of activities as ordinary as watching a much younger couple at a train station or visiting a beach house and eating corn on the cob, each one “a little rolling pin.”

Salter sets the tone of A Phone Call to the Future in the haunting first poem, “Wake-up Call,” about the yearnings and self-delusions of middle age and beyond. Her nominal subject is leaving Venice, that sinking city – first by boat, then by plane. But the visit that has just ended is a metaphor for the “essence / of what must end because it is beautiful,” including life. The speaker in the poem tries to find solace in the possibility of returning to the city

but you’re not going back to so much, and more and more,
the longer you live there’s more not to go back to …

In the end, the possibility of a return provides false comfort, and not just because the next trip inevitably will be different. What you really want, the speaker knows

is more life in which to get so attached to something,
someone or someplace, you’re sure you’ll die right then
when you can’t have it back …

Salter’s rhymes have grown looser over the years, and some of her poems are much slighter than “Wake-up Call” – little more than vignettes in verse. But A Phone Call to the Future shows a remarkably consistent mastery of varied forms and styles. It has a lament (“Lament”), an aubade (“Aubade for Brad”), and a pattern poem with lines that curve in and out like a slalom course (“Poetry Slalom”). It has several villanelles (“Refrain,” the blues-y “Video Blues,” and part of “Elegies” for Etsuko”) that may nod to Bishop’s “One Art” www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15212. And it has so many other familiar and not-so-familiar forms that poetry classes might use the book with profit.

One of the most appealing qualities of A Phone Call to the Future is that Salter has a gift for storytelling, a trait many poets lack. Classic forms like the sonnet can be a narrative straightjacket. Salter knows how to use them to drive a story forward. In a wonderful sequence of 10 sonnets, she remembers her former therapist, who died when his bicycle struck a barrier and hurtled into a truck during a race. She begins by recalling their first session: The therapist said that what she told him would stay in the room unless, in his judgment, she posed a danger to herself or others:

… It was like being read
my rights in some film noir – but I was glad
already I’d at last turned myself in,
guilty of anxiety and depression.

How many poets could pull off the black humor of that film noir simile in an elegy? In her title poem Salter tells us: “This was the Fifties: as far back as I go. / Some of it lasted decades. / That’s why I remember it so clearly.” How nice for us that Salter, unlike so many baby boomers, hasn’t started forgetting.

Best line: Salter’s description of her mother during cancer treatments in “Dead Letters”: “Injected, radiated, / bloated, balded, nauseated.” And all of the title poem, which begins: “Who says science fiction / is only set in the future? / After a while, the story that looks least / believable is the past.” A Phone Call to the Future also has a memorable narrative poem about the adulthood of the third president, “The Hand of Thomas Jefferson.”

Worst line: Three phrases: “your low, confiding chuckle” from “Dead Letters.” “Munching peanuts, bored” from “Please Forward.” And “a comfy sofa” from “A Leak Somewhere.” “Chuckle,” “munching” and “comfy” are cute words that don’t work in most serious poetry unless it’s satirizing them. And why give a poem as good as “Wake-up Call” such a clichéd title?

Published: March 2008

Recommendation? This is one of the best collections of 2008 for book clubs that don’t normally read poetry but would like to do it occasionally. The poems are of high quality but no so high that they’ll sail over the heads of everybody who doesn’t have a graduate degree in English. Instead of assigning the entire collection, consider asking members to read the sonnet sequence and a half dozen others.

About the author: Salter teaches at Johns Hopkins University. Read “Somebody Else’s Baby” at
www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=179004. Read another poem from the book, “Trompe L’Oeil,” www.blueflowerarts.com/mjsalter.html.

You might also want to read: Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/12/03/. Two villanelles appear in All the Poems of Muriel Spark (New Directions, 2004): “Edinburgh Villanelle” (first published in The New Yorker) and “Verlaine Villanelle.”

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

January 8, 2009

The Four Most Important Questions to Ask About Every Book – The Only Reader’s Guide You or Your Book Club Will Ever Need

Filed under: Classics,How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:01 pm
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A lot of reading group guides are worthless not because they’re unintelligent but because they’re irrelevant. They urge you to talk about everything except what a book is says and how well it says it. Some of their discussion questions aren’t questions but directions that might make you feel as though you’re taking an oral essay exam.

The new paperback edition of Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher (Griffin, 384 pp., $13.95), a novel about a high school teacher forced to use a curriculum she doesn’t support, comes with a guide that has as question No. 5 on a list of 14: “Discuss a time when you felt you had to sacrifice your beliefs or principles.” That might be an interesting topic. But to raise it before you’ve talked about other aspects of the novel – as this guide urges you do to – could only drag the conversation far away from the book at hand.

Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren offer better advice in their classic How to Read a Book (Touchstone, 426 pp., $16.99, paperback), still in print more than 60 years it first won fame as the best all-around guide to reading comprehension. The authors argue there are four main questions to ask about any book.

“1. WHAT IS THE BOOK ABOUT AS A WHOLE? You must try to discover the leading theme of the book, and how the author develops this theme in an orderly way by subdividing it into its essential or subordinate themes or topics.

“2. WHAT IS BEING SAID IN DETAIL, AND HOW? You must try to discover the main ideas, assertions, and arguments that constitute the author’s particular message.

“3. IS THE BOOK TRUE, IN WHOLE OR IN PART? You cannot answer this question until you have answered the first two. You have to know what is being said before you can decide whether it is true or not. When you understand a book, however, you are obligated , if you are reading seriously, to make up your own mind. Knowing the author’s mind is not enough.”

“4. WHAT OF IT? If the book has given you information, you must ask about its significance. Why does the author think it is important that you know these things? Is it important to you to know them? And if the book has not only informed you, but also enlightened you, it is necessary to seek further enlightenment by asking what else follows, or what is further implied or suggested.”

The tone of this passage is didactic by today’s standards. But the advice is as good as ever (and developed at length it in later chapters, which deal with topics such as how to understand what a book is “about”). And although the authors focus on nonfiction, their questions apply also to (or can be adapted for) fiction. Among their greatest strengths is that they keep their focus on asking thoughtful questions – the kind that will help you make a book your own – instead of buying into a publisher’s point of view.

Other quotes from How to Read a Book appear in the Nov. 2007 post on this site, “How Are Reading and Writing Related?,” which dealt with the reciprocal relationship between reading and writing. An excerpt appears on the Touchstone site.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 5, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Laurie Halse Anderson’s Historical Novel ‘Chains,’ a Finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

10 Discussion Questions for Young Readers
Chains (Seeds of America)
By Laurie Halse Anderson
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

On the eve of the American Revolution, thousands of slaves lived in New York City. In Chains, Laurie Halse Anderson tells the story a fictional 13-year-old girl owned by a cruel Loyalist couple with a regal townhouse on Wall Street in 1776. Young Isabel Finch learns of a plot to kill George Washington as she serves wine and cheese on a silver platter to the Locktons’ Tory friends, and she later sneaks away to warn Continental Army soldiers of the danger to their commander. She hopes her spying will persuade the Patriots to free her and her 5-year-old sister, Ruth, also owned by the Locktons. The soldiers have more urgent concerns after the British invade New York, and without reliable allies on either side, Isabel forms a dangerous plan to win her freedom on her own.

Discussion Questions for Young Readers

1. Isabel and Ruth Finch are slaves. How are their lives similar to those of other slaves you’ve read about? How are they different from them?

2. Did you know that slavery existed in places like New York City before you read Chains? Did Laurie Halse Anderson convince you that some New Yorkers really did have slaves? How did she do it?

3. Isabel and Ruth are sold to a married couple after their former owner refuses to honor a promise to free them. Elihu and Anne Lockton are “Loyalists.” [Page 38] Who or what are they loyal to? Who or what is Isabel loyal to? What role do clashing or divided loyalties play in the novel?

4. After moving in with the Locktons, Isabel tries to run away. A judge orders that she be branded with the letter I for Insolence. [Page 145] Branding is both physically and emotionally painful. Why might slaves like Isabel have felt humiliated by it?

5. Elihu Lockton hits his wife, Anne, during an argument. [Page 108] Why do you think the author put this scene in the book?

6. Isabel answers to several names. When the Locktons buy her, she is Isabel Finch. Anne Lockton changes her name to “Sal Lockton” (and calls her “Girl”). [Page 128] Isabel’s friend Curzon calls her “Country” (and has two names of his own). Why do the different names matter? Do you think Anne Lockton just liked the sound of “Sal Lockton” better than “Isabel Finch”? If not, why might she have wanted to change the name?

7. The title of this novel refers to more than one kind of chains. What are some of different types of “chains” it involves? What does Isabel mean when she says, “I was chained between two nations”? [Page 182]

8. The mayor of New York tells Isabel’s owner: “The beast has grown too large. If it breaks free of its chains, we are all in danger. We need to cut off its head.” Who or what was the “beast”? [Page 89]

9. There’s a lot of action in this book, some of it going on in the foreground (what happens to Isabel) and some in the background (what happens in places like Trenton and Princeton). Why do you think the author told you what was taking place in, for example, Philadelphia when this book is mainly about Isabel’s life in New York?

10. Isabel notices that the Patriots are fighting for freedom, but their idea of freedom doesn’t seem to include people like her. A male slave defends the Patriots by saying: “Some Patriots own slaves, yes, but you must listen to their words: ‘all men, created equal.’ The words come first. They’ll pull the deeds and the justice behind them.” [Page 164] What did he mean?

Extras:
11. “‘Freedom and liberty’ has different meanings,” Isabel’s master, Elihu Lockton says. What are some of the different meanings it has for people in this book?

12. Chains includes colorful facts about everyday life in 1776. What are some of the most interesting?

Vital Statistics:
Chains (Seeds of America Series). By Laurie Halse Anderson, 316 pp., Simon & Schuster. $16.99. Ages 10 and up. Published: Oct. 2008
Chains was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html.

A review of Chains appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Dec. 5, 2008, in the post that directly followed this one http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/12/05/.

Laurie Halse Anderson also wrote Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving and other books www.writerlady.com.

If you like historical novels about independent girls, you might also like: Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/10/.

For more on the Revolutionary War era: Jean Fritz has written an excellent series of illustrated books about the American Revolution for 9-to-12-year-olds that includes Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George (Putnam,1996) and Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? (Putnam, 1997). Books by Fritz www.cbcbooks.org/cbcmagazine/meet/jeanfritz.html are available in many libraries and in stock at online bookstores and many others.

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries, which may 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 found this guide helpful, please consider adding One-Minute Book Reviews www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com to your blogroll so you won’t miss others. Reader’s guides appear on the site frequently but not on a regular schedule. One-Minute Book Reviews accepts no advertising and has been approved by and appears on Open Directory lists. It is one of the top 10 book review site in the world on the Google Directory of “Top Arts/ Literature” blogs: www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/.

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

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 25, 2008

A Warm and Sunny Novel in Letters About an Offbeat British Book Club in 1946 — ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:12 am
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A new life begins for a single female journalist in London when World War II ends

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Dial, 278 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

Juliet Ashton realizes as 1946 begins that she can’t finish the book about English foibles that she has promised her London publisher. She knows she should have no trouble writing about groups like the Society to Protest the Glorification of the English Bunny. Hasn’t she found a photograph of the Vermin Exterminators’ Trade Union marching down the street with placards shouting, “Down with Beatrix Potter!”?

But on the first page of this warm and sunny novel in letters, Juliet confesses to her publisher that she has lost interest in the anti-bunny-glorifiers. Four days later, with the remarkable luck that will follow her through the story, she gets a letter from a pig farmer who found her name and address on the flyleaf of a secondhand book of essays by Charles Lamb. Dawsey Adams lives on Guernsey, a Channel Island recovering from its occupation by Nazis, and asks if she can recommend a London bookshop.

Julie begins to correspond with Dawsey and the members of his book club, the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and arranges to visit them, although a handsome American publishing tycoon wants her to stay in London. As she becomes enmeshed in the islanders’ lives, she learns she can’t escape the effects of war as she had once longed to do: “The war is now the story of our lives, and there’s no subtracting it.”

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society lacks the natural charm of books it superficially resembles, such Helene Hanff’s memoir 84, Charing Cross Road and Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey’s novel A Woman of Independent Means. But the book has an earned sweetness that comes close to it — it’s the equivalent of suitor who may lack charm but sends you so many flowers that you almost forget that he does.

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows evoke well the hardships of islanders who made do with wartime rations of one candle a week and cooked their vegetables in seawater for lack of salt. The authors also offer many well-chosen quotes and anecdotes about an eclectic group of poets and writers: Chaucer, Wilkie Collins, Agatha Christie, the Brontë sisters. And in the age of Dr. Phil and Twitter, it’s refreshing to meet characters like the book-club member who finds comfort in the words the Roman orator Seneca: “Light griefs are loquacious, but the great are dumb.”

Best line: “I don’t believe that after reading such a fine writer as Emily Brontë, I will be happy to read again Miss Amanda Gillyflower’s Ill-Used by Candlelight.” — Isola Pribby in a letter to Juliet Ashton

Worst line: Julie writes to a member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: “I no longer live on Oakley Street, but I’m so glad that your letters found me and that my book found you.” Would someone who had always lived in England say “on Oakley Street” or “in Oakley Street”?

Recommendation? This novel has no sex or, as parents say, “bad words.” I gave it to an aunt for her 85th birthday. But it’s also likely to appeal for many younger readers, including some teenagers. And it is much more intelligent than many books popular among book clubs.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society appeared on this site on Nov. 25, 2008, in the post that directly preceded this one.

Editor: Susan Kamil

Published: July 2008 www.guernseyliterary.com

About the authors: Mary Ann Shaffer became ill after selling this novel to the Dial Press and died before it appeared in print. Her niece, the children’s author Annie Barrows, shepherded the book through the editing process www.anniebarrows.com/.

If you like this book, you might like: A Woman of Independent Means us.penguingroup.com/static/rguides/us/woman_of_independent_means.html.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and the former book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2008 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

November 24, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,’ a Novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Filed under: Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:53 pm
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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

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

Early in 1946, Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a pig farmer who found her name and address on the flyleaf of a secondhand book of essays by Charles Lamb. Juliet writes back to Dawsey Adams and learns that he belongs to an offbeat book club, the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, on a Channel Island once occupied by Nazis. She begins to correspond with club members and, after deciding to visit them, becomes enmeshed in their lives – though a handsome American publishing tycoon is courting her back in London. Juliet had been hoping to put the war behind her. But on Guernsey, she gains a deeper awareness that she can’t escape history: “The war is now the story of our lives, and there’s no subtracting it.”

Questions for Discussion

1 The obvious question first: What did you think of the title of this novel? Did you pick up the book despite or because of it?

2 How well did the novel-in-letters format work? Why do think the authors chose it? What do we gain from reading the letters that we might not get from a more conventional narrative?

3 Many critics gave this novel raves. But Wendy Smith qualified her generally favorable review in the Washington Post by saying that the book has a “contrived” premise: “The authors don’t even bother to suggest how Juliet’s discarded book turned up in Guernsey, and the neat way its literary society fits into her Times assignment is highly convenient.” www.powells.com/biblio?isbn=9780385340991 Did you find all or part of the plot contrived? Does it matter whether it is?

4 Juliet has two men interested in her, each of whom has appealing traits, just as the heroines of many romance novels do. Is this novel essentially an intelligent romance novel? Why or why not?

5 Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows weave many details about the Nazi occupation of Guernsey into their story. For example, Eben Ramsey says that late in 1944: “We were rationed to two candles a week and then only one.” [Page 64] Novels based on historical research sometimes read more like term papers than fiction. Did you ever feel that way about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? If not, why? How did the authors keep their research from slowing the pace of the story?

6 Juliet’s parents died when she was 12. [Page 45] Dawsey is an adult orphan who lost his father when he was 11 and his mother just before World War II. [Page 232] Many beloved novels, from Jane Eyre to the Harry Potter books, involve orphans. Why do you think this is so? How does The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society resemble other orphan novels you’ve read?

7 A book club member named John Booker quotes the Roman orator Seneca: “Light griefs are loquacious, but the great are dumb.” [Page 150] What did he mean? Booker was talking about grief for concentration camp victims, but could the quote apply also to people in this novel? Does it express a theme of the book?

8 “Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books,” Isola Pribby writes to Juliet. [Page 53] Is this true? Or are books like food in that a lot of us can savor a five-star meal and still hit the Fritos Scoops during the Super Bowl?

9 The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Peel Society has many amusing lines and scenes. Which did you like most? What role does humor play in the novel?

10 The authors salt their story with quotes or anecdotes about well-known writers. Did these make you want to read some of the authors’ books? Which, if any, would you like your book group to read?

Vital Statistics

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Dial, 278 pp., $22. Published: July 2008 www.guernseyliterary.com and www.anniebarrows.com

A review of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on the day this guide did.

About the authors: Mary Ann Shaffer became ill after selling this novel to the Dial Press and died of cancer in February 2008 before the book appeared in print. Her niece, the children’s author Annie Barrows, shepherded the book through the editing process.

Your group may also want to read:

A Woman of Independent Means us.penguingroup.com/static/rguides/us/woman_of_independent_means.html.

The “Epistolary Novels” page on Wikipedia, which talks about the types of novels-in-letters and gives old and new examples of the form en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistolary_novel.

The “Orphan Novels” page on Wikipedia, which gives an overview of these en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orphan.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. She wrote the comic novels The Accidental Bride and Manhattan on the Rocks.

Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear on One-Minute Book Reviews often but not on a regular schedule. They often deal with books for which publishers have provided no guides or guides that are flawed – for example, because they encourage cheerleading for books instead of thoughtful discussion. They are also intended to be more comprehensive than publishers’ guides. To avoid missing the them, please bookmark the site or subscribe to the RSS feed. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from authors, editors, publishers, agents or others who have a financial stake in books, and all reviews offer views that are not influenced by marketing concerns. If you would like to see the guides continue, it would be extremely helpful if you would link to them.

You can find more Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides at wordpress.com/tag/totally-unauthorized-reading-group-guides/. Thank you for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews, a site for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda

November 17, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Necklace’ by the Women of Jewelia and Cheryl Jarvis

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Necklace: Thirteen Women and the Experiment That Transformed Their Lives
By the Women of Jewelia and Cheryl Jarvis
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

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

A few years ago, thirteen California women agreed to pay $15,000 for a diamond necklace and take turns keeping it for a month at a time. They explain why they did it – and what they got out of it – their collective memoir, The Necklace, a New York Times bestseller.

Questions for Readers

1 The Necklace has the subtitle Thirteen Women and the Experiment That Transformed Their Lives. Did the authors of this book convince you that their lives really had been “transformed”? Why or why not?

2 The authors began to attract media attention when Maggie Hood (“the adventurer”) told KCBS-TV in Los Angeles that she would be skydiving in a diamond necklace — an event that seems to have occurred not long after the purchase. [Page 79] This development makes it harder to tell whether the women’s lives were changed by the necklace or by becoming celebrities. What do you think accounted for any transformations that occurred: the diamonds or the publicity (including the resulting book and movie deals)? Would the necklace have had the same effect without the media attention?

3 Some of the women in The Necklace make pointed comments on how Americans see middle-aged women. Roz McGrath (“the feminist”) says, “I hate it when people call me young lady.” [Page 190] Do you think The Necklace makes a statement about women “of a certain age”? What is it?

4 Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times: “Because Ms. Jarvis writes in the simple, virtual Young Adult format of self-help, The Necklace gives each woman a stereotypical handle: ‘The Loner,’ ‘The Traditionalist,’ ‘The Leader,’ ‘The Visionary’ and so on. (‘The Feminist’ is the group’s only brunette.) It shapes each thumbnail character sketch to fit these stereotypes.” Do you agree that the book stereotypes the owners of the diamonds? Or do you think the handles were just chapter titles?
www.nytimes.com/2008/09/05/books/05book.html?pagewanted=print

5 Maslin also wrote that “real honesty and insight are antithetical to this book’s experiment. It wants to simultaneously exploit and renounce the same craving [for diamonds]. So the diamonds are cannily manipulated throughout The Necklace to both titillate and congratulate readers and to reinforce what they already know.” Do you agree that the authors of the book want to have it both ways?
www.nytimes.com/2008/09/05/books/05book.html?pagewanted=print

6 The Necklace was written before the current financial crisis. In theory, this shouldn’t matter, because good books are timeless – but sometimes it does. How did the economic turmoil affect your view of the book?

7 Each of the 13 owners of the necklace gets similar amount of space in this book. This approach differs from that of most novels and many nonfiction books, which give characters space based on their importance to the “plot.” How well did it work? Would you have liked to hear more about some women and less about others?

8 At one point, a group of men see the diamonds and debate what they could share: “a boat, an RV, a Porsche?” [Page 128] Would a similar experiment have worked with men? Why or why not?

9 Were you surprised by how lonely some of the authors sounded – at least before they bought the necklace – even though they have full lives? For example, Mary O’Connor (“the rock ’n’ roller”) says: “Having these women in my life fills a tremendous void.” [Page 183] Do you think that loneliness is unique to women or to women of a certain age? Or does it affect men?
10 What did you think of Jonell McLain’s “guideline”: “Each woman, when it’s her time with the necklace, has to make love wearing only the diamonds.” [Page 62] Do you think she was serious? How well would this have worked in your circle of friends?

Vital Statistics:
The Necklace: Thirteen Women and the Experiment That Transformed Their Lives. By the Women of Jewelia and Cheryl Jarvis. Ballantine, 240 pp., $24. Published: September 2008

Read an excerpt and more at www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780345500717

A review of The Necklace appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Nov. 17, 2008, in the post immediately following this guide www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/11/17/.

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

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. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

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

October 30, 2008

100 Good Books You Can Read in an Evening, Most With Under 200 Pages – ‘100 One-Night Reads’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:57 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

An antidote to gassy and bloated books that take twice as long as needed to tell their stories

100 One-Night Reads: A Book Lover’s Guide. Barnes & Noble, 312 pp., $7.98. By David C. Major and John S. Major.

By Janice Harayda

America suffers from a literary obesity epidemic. Too many books are too fat, stuffed with far more pages than their stories require.

What’s the solution? David and John Major offer an excellent antidote to the bloat in 100 One-Night Reads, a collection of brief, intelligent essays on 100 good, short books of fiction or nonfiction, most of them 20th-century classics.

You might need heroic quantities of Red Bull to finish some of their choices in an evening. But a typical book on their list would probably have a beguiling 200 pages or fewer in a mass-market paperback edition.

Like Noel Perrin in A Reader’s Delight, the Major brothers write with an appealing clarity and lack of pretension. The Majors don’t have Perrin’s flair and depth of perception but show consistently good taste across more than a half dozen fields. They like Dava Sobel’s Longitude, Henry James’s Washington Square, Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road, George V. Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women. And they aren’t snobs. Lucky Jim makes the cut partly because it has “what might be the funniest description of a hangover in all of English literature.”

Best line: On Peter Brian Medawar’s Advice to a Young Scientist, a collection of linked essays: “All of us read and see things worth noting, but Medawar actually does note them and use them in his work, scientific and literary. Few of us would think to quote, for example, apropos of a grasping careerist, from Francis Bacon (1561–1626): ‘He doth like the ape, that the higher he clymbes the more he shows his ars,’ yet all of us can think of individuals of whom this could be well said.”

Worst line: Breakfast at Tiffany’s tells the story of Holly Golightly, “a classy nineteen-year-old darling of café society in New York City.” In Truman Capote’s novella, Holly Golightly is a call girl.

Recommended if … You’re looking for a reliable guide to good books that speaks to both sexes, not just to women. This could also be a good gift for a book-club member who can never finish the books either because they’re a) so bad or b) so long.

Published: 2001 (Ballantine Books edition), 2007 (Barnes & Noble reprint)

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

September 30, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective
By Kate Summerscale
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

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

Anyone who has slogged through some of the grimmer winners of the Man Booker Prize for fiction may look more kindly on British judges after reading this admirable recipient of the U.K.’s highest award for nonfiction. In The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale uses the conventions of the detective novel to tell the true story of the murder of a three-year-old boy whose body turned up in the servants’ privy of an English country house in the summer of 1860. The case stymied the Wiltshire police, and Scotland Yard sent Detective-Inspector Jonathan “Jack” Whicher to Road Hill House to help with the investigation. Whicher quickly became convinced that he knew who killed young Saville Kent. But in trying to prove it, he faced obstacles that included public scorn for his work, rooted partly Victorian notions of privacy and the sanctity of the family home. Five years later, the killer confessed, vindicating Whicher without answering all of the questions raised by one of the most notorious murders of its day.

Questions for Discussion:

1. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher won the 2008 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction from the BBC www.thesamueljohnsonprize.co.uk/, Britain’s most prestigious nonfiction award. Was it worthy of a prize?

2. In this book, Kate Summerscale tells a true crime story structured like a detective novel that includes a startling twist in the last pages. How well does that technique work? Was the book more or less effective or than the best mysteries you’ve read?

3. Would you have believed the story in The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher if the book had been labeled “fiction”? What does your response tell you about the different requirements of fiction and nonfiction?

4. “Like any novelist, Summerscale follows her storytelling instincts in making the detective the hero of her book,” Marilyn Stasio wrote in the New York Times Book Review. “While her efforts to humanize his sketchy character are limited at best, she does far better at illustrating how he was fictionally transformed, both in the mysteries of his day and in subsequent permutations of the genre.” [“True-Lit-Hist-Myst,” The New York Times Book Review, July 20, 2008, page 19.] Do you agree or disagree with Stasio?

5. Good detective novelists avoid the use of obvious red herrings, narrative devices intended to mislead or distract you from more important facts. Many authors try to avoid even subtle red herrings, which some readers see as cheating. Did Summerscale’s book have red herrings, whether blatant or discreet? If so, how did they affect the story?

6. Some of the Amazon.com reviewers fault Summerscale for what they see as a just-the-facts approach, a literary style similar to that of Agatha Christie and other mid-20th-century mystery novelists. What did you think of that style? How appropriate was it?

7. Summerscale quotes the mystery novelist Raymond Chandler as saying: “The detective story is a tragedy with a happy ending.” [Pages 303–304] How, if at all, does that comment apply to The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher? Does the book have a happy ending?

8. Have you read any other nonfiction books about 19th-century crimes, such as the bestselling Manhunt? How did they compare to The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher?

9. The publisher of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher has revived the practice, little used in the U.S. today, of including floor plans and similar art in a crime story. What did the illustrations add to the book? Would you like to see other publishers revive the practice?

10. After reading the book, what did you think of the use of the small photograph in the oval on the cover of the American edition? Was this fair in book that uses detective-novel techniques? Would this picture have appeared of a work on fiction?

Vital statistics:
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective. By Kate Summerscale. Illustrated. Walker, 360 pp., $24.95. Published: April 2008 (first American edition) www.mrwhicher.com.

Summerscale is a former literary editor of the Daily Telegraph.

A review of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 30, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/09/30. You can find an interview with Kate Summerscale on Bookslut www.bookslut.com/features/2008_09_013387.php.

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

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. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

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

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