One-Minute Book Reviews

November 26, 2010

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

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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 20, 2010

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Tom Rachman’s ‘The Imperfectionists’

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10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Imperfectionists: A Novel
Tom Rachman
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.

Tom Rachman blends comedy and tragedy in The Imperfectionists, a collection of linked short stories about the staff members and others attached to an unnamed English-language newspaper in Rome. His idiosyncratic daily is trying to stay afloat in the digital age. But it has no website because, an editor says, “The Internet is to news what car horns are to music.” Can such a journalistic throwback survive? Rachman withholds the answer until the last pages of a book that reads like a collection of smartly written parables about the human illusions that lie at the intersection of work and love.

Questions for Discussion:

1. The publisher of The Imperfectionists has billed the book as “a novel,” but it reads like a collection of linked short stories. Did the book work as a novel? Why or why not?

2. A character in The Imperfectionists expresses a theme of the book when she reflects that “living overseas changes the rules.” [Page 185] What did she mean? How has living abroad has changed the rules for some of the characters in the novel?

3. Another theme of the book is that human illusions persist in adulthood and that, to some extent, we need them. Rachman’s characters typically cling to a fantasy until jolted out of it (as happens to the corrections editor who believes that he and his old friend Jimmy are “gradations of the same man” until Jimmy visits and the editor realizes that they are “utterly different”). [Page 94] How well does Rachman develop this theme? Were you persuaded, for example, that the corrections editor would cling for so long to his fantasies about Jimmy’s writing talents? Or that the Paris correspondent could be so mistaken about his son?

4. How does living abroad feed the illusions of the characters in The Imperfectionists? Would its story have worked if Rachman had set the story in a city in the U.S.? Why?

5. The stop-and-go format of linked-story collections can work brilliantly, as it does in Winesburg, Ohio. It can also make it harder for an author to maintain a steady pace, because there’s a narrative break at the end of every story or chapter. (One critic said that “desultoriness … is only narrowly kept at bay” in The Impressionists.) How would you characterize the pace of the book?

6. One critic said that Rachman serves up “a procession of biscotti-cutter characters.” Do you agree or disagree?

7. Rachman combines comedy and tragedy, qualities that are often hard to unite in fiction. His story involves the death of child but also entertainingly hapless headlines such as “GLOBAL WARMING GOOD FOR ICE CREAMS” or “WORLD’S OLDEST LIAR DIES AT 126.” How well did Rachman bring comedy and tragedy together in his book? Which characters or events seemed the most amusing and the saddest?

8. Why do you think Rachman set his first story in Paris when most of the rest of The Impressionists takes place in Rome?

9. Christopher Buckley praised the endings of Rachman’s stories in his New York Times Book Review review of The Impressionists, some of which have what’s often called an “O. Henry twist.” Which endings did you find most memorable? Why did they work?

10. Several other linked short story collections have had a lot of attention recently, including the Pulitzer Prize-winner Olive Kitteridge. How does The Impressionists compare to any others you’ve read?

Your book group may also want to read:

And Then We Came to the End (Back Bay, 2008, paperback) by Joshua Ferris. D. J. Taylor wrote in a Guardian review that The Imperfectionists has a “faint yet persistent resemblance” to Ferris’s novel, “much of whose obliquity and ground-down communal spirit it shares.”

Vital statistics:

The Imperfectionists: A Novel. By Tom Rachman. Dial Press, 272 pp., $25. Published: April 2010. Editor: Susan Kamil.

A review of The Imperfectionists appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on July 20, 2010.

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.

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.

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

Tom Rachman’s ‘The Imperfectionists’ – The Graveyard Shift at a Newspaper in Rome

The Imperfectionists: A Novel. By Tom Rachman. Dial Press, 272 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

Staff members at the Christian Science Monitor used to joke when the newspaper had a print edition that “we bring you yesterday’s news tomorrow.” A similarly idiosyncratic worldview links the reporters, editors and others attached to the unnamed English-language daily in Rome that whistles in the dark in Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. The newspaper lacks a website because, the editor-in-chief’s point man believes, “The Internet is to news what car horns are to music.”

The paper is an amiable throwback, and so is The Imperfectionists. Misleadingly billed by its publisher as “a novel,” the book consists of 11 linked short stories that read like smartly written parables about the human illusions at the intersection of work and love. The over-the-hill Paris correspondent for the paper faces a crisis that forces him to confront two long-held fantasies — that he can still write page-one stories and that his son has a worthy job at the French foreign ministry. The corrections editor gets a visit from a schoolmate that upends his romantic notion that his friend could become a great writer and that he and Jimmy are “gradations of the same man – he the middling version and Jimmy the great one.” And the icy chief financial officer learns through a macabre twist that she has been deluding herself about both her sexual allure and the effect of her staff purges. A theme of these stories is not that we are wrong to cherish our illusions – it’s that often we need them, because they’re all we have.

Fittingly for a book about a newspaper founded in the 1950s, the tales in this one resemble good stories from the early-to-middle decades of the 20th century, before the triumph of the cynical, elliptical and ambiguous. Each tale has a clear beginning, middle and end, and if not a moral, at least a point. Each takes as its title a hapless headline of the sort of that appears regularly in American newspapers: The more amusing include “U.S. GENERAL OPTIMISTIC ON WAR” and “WORLD’S OLDEST LIAR DIES AT 126.” And Rachman gives his characters enough humor and pathos to transcend his occasional lapses into journalese or glibness. His most memorable story involves than a widow in Rome who, since the suicide of her husband, has invested much of her emotion in reading the English-language newspaper each day. Through the old woman’s life, Rachman shows a poignant aspect of the decline of newspapers that, ironically, newspapers have scarcely discussed: For some people, the loss of a newspaper is the loss of a world.

Best line: “Blast Kills People Again.” – A headline written by a copy editor at Rachman’s unnamed English-language newspaper in Rome.

Worst line: “a women’s magazine that specialized in recipes utilizing cans of condensed mushroom soup.”

Editor: Susan Kamil

Published: April 2010

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide with discussion questions for The Imperfections was posted on this site on July 20, 2010.

Read an excerpt from The Imperfectionists.

About the author: Rachman was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in Rome and worked as an editor for the International Herald Tribune in Paris.

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

© 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

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

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.

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 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

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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

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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