The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  352

Published:  January 9, 2018

Format:  E-book from Netgalley

 

 

 

 

For me this wasn’t quite a five star read, but I absolutely loved it!  It was incredibly well written and forces the reader to ask important questions of themselves.  It is a wonderful exploration of mortality what comprises a good life or a life well lived.  Most of all, it was simply a delicious read… a book that pulls you in and unravels beautifully.

The premise is that 4 siblings living in New York City in 1969, aged 7,9, 11 and 13, set out to visit a psychic to learn their futures.  They enter her apartment one at a time and are each told the date of their death.  They do not share this information with each until about a decade later when they are all up on the rooftop of their home chatting one night, while home for their father’s funeral.  The only one who does not share his death date is Simon, the youngest, who simply says “young.”  From here, the book tells the story of the life lived by each sibling in chronological order of death dates.  Unbeknownst to them, this marks the last time the four of them are all together.

Simon’s story is first.  Klara, the only family member recognizing that Simon is gay, invites Simon to run away with her to San Francisco the following morning.  Simon does and embraces the freedom to be openly gay, practice ballet and sleep around.    He does enter into a serious relationship with Robert, a handsome dancer.  However, Simon feels that he is not meant to have the life with a career, house and partner.    “If the prophecy is a ball, his belief is its chain;  it is the voice in his head that says Hurry, says Faster, says Run.”   Just when he seems to have accepted that he might deserve love, Simon dies of AIDS before AIDS even has a name.  He has lived life fully and sometimes recklessly.  He has run away from home without finishing high school.  He hasn’t seen any of his family members in all the years he was in San Francisco, aside from Klara.  Has the knowledge of his death date forced him to live recklessly and hard, to take chances?  Or have these things just led to early death?

Klara’s story follows.  Klara, named after her maternal grandmother, has been obsessed with magic from a young age, having looked up admiringly at the life of this woman (her namesake) who had performed the “jaws of life” through Times Square.  It is a death defying act where she would slide from the top of a circus tent to the bottom suspended only from a rope that she holds in her teeth.  Klara begins performing her own act in San Francisco and calls it “The Immortalist.”  Klara ends up marrying Raj and has a daughter.  As Raj takes more and more control over the act and the magic, Klara slips more and more away and into alcohol.  Klara has always believed in the magic.  She begins to believe in the reality of it as well.  She hears Simon and Saul talking to her through raps in the floorboards.  She produces a strawberry during a magic trick that she hadn’t expected herself.  Her magic is her religion.  The reason she practices magic is the same reason a rabbi practices Judaism:  to give people faith.  “Klara has always known she’s meant to be a bridge: between reality and illusion, the present and the past, this world and the next.  She just has to figure out how.”  She feels that she must prove that the old woman’s prophecies were correct.  In taking her own life, does she accomplish this?

Daniel is an atheist because of the old woman.  He feels angry and ashamed.  He has vowed that no one could have so much power over him, whether it’s a person or a deity.  Daniel feels wounded and bitter over the drift of family.  He is married, childless, and recently suspended from his job when he invites Raj and his daughter to visit them over Thanksgiving.  Daniel’s job has been working for the military deciding which men are fit to go into combat.  Daniel and Raj end up fighting bitterly criticizing either other deeply.  He, like Klara, begins drinking more.  He becomes obsessed with old woman as the date of his death approaches.  Upon learning that the FBI has stopped their pursuit of her, he pursues her himself.

Finally, Varya who has been granted the longest life, has devoted her life to her career which focuses on aging and longevity.  Varya worries that her primary motivation is fear.  “Fear that she had no control, that life slipped through one’s fingers no matter what.  Fear that Simon and Klara and Daniel, had, at least, lived in the world, while Varya lived in her research, in her books, in her head.”  She works with primates and part of the research is to show that by restricting  food, the monkeys they will live longer.  The monkeys are stressed, emaciated and now self-harming.  A young journalist, named Luke, has been granted the rare opportunity to interview and follow Varya over the course of a week to learn more about the research in this highly secure facility.  At the end of the week, Luke finally reveals to Varya that he is not a journalist, but works at Sports Basement in retail.  He is her biological son, the one she gave up for adoption after a brief affair with her professor in college.  Varya is forced to re-examine her life.  She connects with Robert, Simon’s parter.  She admits to Gertie the story of the fortune teller.   She finally comes to accept her own mortality.

Intelligent, moving, magical and lovely… there is just so much to enjoy within this book.  The premise is awesome.   The writing is excellent.  This is a book full of characters to love, empathize with and worry about.  It brings up all kinds of questions for the reader, making it an excellent book club book.

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Discuss the title and it’s meaning/s in the novel.  Consider the Immortalists Jews, the Roms, Klara’s act and the characters themselves.  Do the characters wish to be mortal or immortal?
  2. How does knowing the date of their death affect the way they live?
  3. Daniel feels that the woman who gave the children their dates of death should be punished.  Why do you think he feels so strongly about this?   Does he believe her?
  4. Is it human nature to assume we will live a long life until faced with a life threatening diagnosis?  Does not knowing the date of our death confer a certain momentary immortality?
  5. Eddie O’Donoghue is like a thin thread that weaves through the siblings’ stories linking them together in some way.  Discuss the significance of this character and what he adds to the novel.
  6. When Daniel is researching the Roms, he writes down two proverbs: “our language is our strength” and “thoughts have wings.”  Why?
  7. Raj argues that magicians are analysts.  Klara tried to reveal some greater truth through her magic.  Discuss the contrast between these two ideologies, how it affected their marriage and lives.
  8. What is the relationship like between Raj and Ruby?  Does Ruby seem more like her mother or her father?
  9. Ruby develops a closeness with Gertie.  Why do you think she does this?
  10. The children are afraid all their lives to share their visit to the old woman with their mother Gertie.  When Varya finally tells Gertie about the visit, how does she respond?  Did this surprise you?  Do you think that hearing such a prediction in childhood versus adulthood would affect the person differently?  In other words, do you think that because they were children they gave this old woman’s words more credence?
  11. Do you think the old woman’s predictions were accurate or that the siblings’ reactions to the predictions made them accurate?
  12. Would you want to know the date of your death?  Why or why not?
  13. How do you think that knowing the date of your death would affect the way you lived?
  14. The children having grown up in a very religious household each abandoned religion.  Why?
  15. Do you feel that the old woman was doing a magic trick in giving the children their dates of death or was their some real  truth and foresight to her predictions?

Chloe Benjamin’s website

Review by Jean Zimmerman on NPR

LitLovers Discussion Questions

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  564

Published:  September 16, 2014

Format:  E-book

Awards:  Women’s Prize for Fiction Nominee (2015), Specsavers National Book Award Nominee for UK Author of the Year (2014), Walter Scott Prize Nominee (2015), Kirkus Prize Nominee for Fiction (Finalist) (2014), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Historical Fiction (2014) Europese Literatuurprijs Nominee (2015)

 

Wow!  What an incredible book.  Sarah Waters has created a marvelous piece of historical fiction set in England 1922 in a genteel Camberwell neighborhood.  The war has ended.  Many have died, including the protagonist’s two brothers and her father.  Those that returned from the war are disillusioned.  Frances Wray and her mother are left bankrupt by their father who squandered away their money.  They have dismissed the servants and are now taking in boarders.  Frances does all the cleaning and cooking herself, while her mother is out, so that she will not have to watch her daughter stooping to that occupation.

The boarders who become “the paying guests” are a young couple of the clerk class, Mr. and Mrs. Barber (Leonard and Lilian.)  Mr. Barber is talkative and makes Frances uncomfortable with his innuendos.  Mrs. Barber hides herself away at first, but soon she and Frances develop a close friendship.  As they grow closer, Frances divulges to Lilian that she had been in love with a woman, Christina, but was made to put an end to the relationship by her parents.  In a time when London has been devastated by war, the family brought down by multiple deaths and financial ruin, certain societal norms are not to be challenged.

The knowledge that Frances is a lesbian or had a lesbian lover seemingly creates a tension or barrier to their friendship.  Lilian avoids Frances until the night of Lilian’s family party which she had invited Frances to many weeks prior in Mr. Barber’s stead as he had a supper to attend that evening.

At the party, Mrs. Barber dances freely with several gentleman and even with Frances.  After returning home, they find Leonard has been assaulted and is in the kitchen with a bloodied nose and face.  Later that evening, Frances and Lilian return to the kitchen and embark on their steamy sultry love affair making love in the pantry.  The love affair continues and their feelings continue to grow until Leonard is accidentally murdered which is ruled a homicide.  This leads to a coverup, incredible tension, outing of other affairs, and the need for deep secrecy of their own love affair.

This book is amazing on so many levels.  The historical piece seems so spot on and well done.  There was never a point where anything seemed even questionably out of the time period.  I felt as if I were dwelling in London in the 1920s alongside these characters.  The character building and tension that was created were so well done.  I must admit I was getting antsy during the investigation and the trial that seemed to go on for so long, but that was the point.  It keeps you on the edge of your seat.  It keeps me questioning Lillian’s motives while still hoping the romance will last.  This novel would make an excellent independent film with sexy enthralling characters.  It would be amazing!  It is an incredibly written book that I highly recommend to everyone.  The one caveat is that this book can seem to be going very slowly at some points, which didn’t bother me, but might not appeal to some readers.

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What role does domestic work play in this novel?
  2. Discuss the role of class on the characters and their situations.
  3. How has war impacted these characters?
  4. Did you begin to doubt or question Lilian’s motives after Leonard dies?
  5. How do you imagine Lilian and Frances’ relationship will progress now that the trial is over?
  6. What impact did the murder and trial have on their relationship?
  7. Did you suspect Len of cheating?  Why don’t you think Lilian shared this information with Frances?
  8. Frances compares the notes of Lilian to the letters from Christina.  Discuss the similarities and differences.  Why is this important?
  9. Frances’ mother begins to treat Frances differently after Leonard dies.  Why do you think this is? What are her suspicions?
  10. Discuss the perception of lesbianism during this era.  Why was this out of the question for Frances’ parents to accept that she wanted to be with a female?
  11. Frances accuses Lilian of wanting to be admired which Lilian denies.  What do you think?
  12. Before Lilian arrives on the bridge after the trial has ended, Frances contemplates jumping off.  Do you think she was seriously considering suicide?   Why or why not?
  13. What is the significance in the end of Frances and Lilian being united by the words “I can’t?”
  14. There were several instances where Lilian wishes Leonard would die.  Do you think that his death was fully an accident?

 

Review in New York Times by Carol Anshaw

Sarah Waters’ website

Sarah Waters speaks about The Paying Guests in The Guardian

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  352

Published:  June 6, 2017

Format:  Audiobook

Awards:  Goodreads Choice Award for Historical Fiction (2017)

 

 

 

This novel is based on the real horrors of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and Georgia Tann’s role there. It is set up as a mystery with two alternating points of view, May Crandall in the the past and Avery Stafford in the present.  Avery Stafford runs into May Crandall in a nursing home during a political event.  May recognizes Avery’s dragonfly bracelet and the connection between these two women slowly emerges.

May Crandall, who was born Rill Foss, begins telling her story to us from a riverboat on the Mississippi in 1939.  Rill Foss is the oldest of 5 children living on the Arcadia with her parents Briny and Queenie and her 4 younger siblings.   Her mother, pregnant with twins, is taken to the hospital after unsuccessful delivery at home and Rill is left in charge. While the parents are gone, the police come and take the children to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, where they are subject to all manner of mistreatment and abuse.

The second narrator is Avery Stafford who speaks to us from present day Aiken, South Carolina.  She is a DA in Washington, but is currently being groomed to be the next Senator should her father’s health take a turn for the worse.  She is engaged to childhood friend Elliot, however no plans have been put forth for an actual wedding.  Her life seems to be about appearances:  marrying the right person, dressing the right way, being sure not to get involved in anything that could be misconstrued.  She feels her life has been planned out for her.  She lives her life concerned with outward appearances, propriety and political implications.

Avery Stafford is thrown off guard by an encounter with May Crandall, a resident of the nursing home she visits for political reasons.  May steals her bracelet and asks about Avery’s grandmother when Avery comes to retrieve it.  Avery questions her grandmother about their connection and realizes there is more to the story.  She wants to uncover the truth to protect the family name.  Avery’s investigating leads her to Edisto Island, where she tells her family she is going for a bit of relaxation.  There she meets Trent and a slow burn of a romance develops between them as they unravel the secrets that have been kept hidden by these women all these years.

I loved reading May’s story.  It is compelling and written with a lot of heart.  I felt that Avery’s part was overwritten, and did not feel as believable or true.  There was too great an emphasis placed on her social and political position.  The romance felt like an unnecessary add on, somewhat cheapening the more important part of the story.  I also found that several of the facts didn’t quite make sense.  It very much bothered me that Grandma Judy was the baby girl twin given away.  If she has Alzheimer’s and remembers those best from early childhood, then May would not have been one of those people, as they did not meet until adulthood.  But, I guess Lisa Wingate’s point was that: “the love of sisters needs no words. It does not depend on memories, or mementos, or proof. It runs as deep as a heartbeat. It is as ever present as a pulse.”  Overall, this book is definitely an enjoyable read containing a historical piece that is both fascinating and horrific.

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why do you think the sisters hid the fact of their adoption and their friendship with each other from their families and friends?  What role do you think Avery imagines her family could be implicated in as concerns the Tennessee Children’s Home Society?  Do you think those who adopted from Georgia Tann were complicit in her crimes?  Do you think they had some inkling of her nefarious practices?
  2. What clues did the Seviers have that Georgia Tann was not operating a morally sound operation?  What recourses were available to them to address the situation?
  3. What do you think motivated Georgia Tann in stealing children for adoption?  Why do you think she was able to get away with what she did?
  4. How did Georgia Tann change the face of adoption?
  5. Name the ways in which Georgia Tann’s industry violated the civil rights of the children and families involved?  Do you think that such injustices continue in modern day?
  6. May is surprised to be welcomed home by the Seviers.  She even learns that she can trust and love them.  Do you think it was necessary for her to return to the Arcadia and see Briny to feel this way?
  7. What is the symbolism of the dragonfly bracelet?  And what is its significance to this novel?
  8. Lisa Wingate has written more than 20 novels.  What was it about this one that made it such a hit and bestseller, do you think?
  9. I found myself wanting to edit to book in certain ways to enhance it.  If you could change this book in any way, what would you change?
  10. How did the inclusion of Avery’s story affect this novel for you?  Did it enhance or detract from the meatier story which was May’s?
  11. What are some of the morals that Lisa Wingate, a Christian inspirational writer, is attempting to get through to the reader in this novel?

Georgia Tann: Memphis Baby Adoption Scandal – Tube

Random House Book Club Kit

Lisa Wingate’s website

 

TTT: Top Ten 2017 Books I Have Not Yet Read… but Hope to Soon

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday is about books not read in 2017, but ones we hope to get to soon.   This is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.    Below are 10 books that piqued my interest in 2017, but I haven’t had the chance to read yet.  I have included the Goodreads blurb or an excerpt from the Goodreads blurb about each in italics.  Have you read any of these?  Any suggestions on which to read first?

  1.  Pachinko by Min Jin Lee – This was a National Book Award finalist and has been receiving rave reviews on Goodreads.  Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan.  So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.
  2. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward – This was the winner of The National Book Award for Fiction.  Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.   When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.
  3. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders  – This was the winner of the Man-Booker Prize and is the first novel by an author whose short stories I have read previously.  February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returned to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.  From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a thrilling, supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory, where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.
  4. We Were Eight Years in Power:  An American Tragedy by Ta -Nehisi Coates – This is an essay anthology about the Obama era by National Book Award winning author of Between the World and Me.  “We were eight years in power” was the lament of Reconstruction-era black politicians as the American experiment in multiracial democracy ended with the return of white supremacist rule in the South. Now Ta-Nehisi Coates explores the tragic echoes of that history in our own time: the unprecedented election of a black president followed by a vicious backlash that fueled the election of the man Coates argues is America’s “first white president.”
  5. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – This book has been widely read and acclaimed this year as warm, smart, and uplifting.   Meet Eleanor Oliphant: She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding social interactions, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy. All this means that Eleanor has become a creature of habit (to say the least) and a bit of a loner. But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen on the sidewalk, the three become the kinds of friends who rescue one another from the lives of isolation they have each been living. And it is Raymond’s big heart that will ultimately help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one.
  6. Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – I love Adichie’s books, both fiction and non-fiction, so as a mother of a daughter, I feel this is a must read.  Here are fifteen invaluable suggestions–compelling, direct, wryly funny, and perceptive–for how to empower a daughter to become a strong, independent woman. From encouraging her to choose a helicopter, and not only a doll, as a toy if she so desires; having open conversations with her about clothes, makeup, and sexuality; debunking the myth that women are somehow biologically arranged to be in the kitchen making dinner, and that men can “allow” women to have full careers, Dear Ijeawele goes right to the heart of sexual politics in the twenty-first century. It will start a new and urgently needed conversation about what it really means to be a woman today.
  7. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman – Master storyteller, Neil Gaiman, presents his own version of norse mythology in this novel.  Neil Gaiman has long been inspired by ancient mythology in creating the fantastical realms of his fiction. Now he turns his attention back to the source, presenting a bravura rendition of the great northern tales. In Norse Mythology, Gaiman fashions primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds; delves into the exploits of the deities, dwarves, and giants; and culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and the rebirth of a new time and people. Gaiman stays true to the myths while vividly reincarnating Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredibly strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki, the son of giants, a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator. From Gaiman’s deft and witty prose emerges the gods with their fiercely competitive natures, their susceptibility to being duped and to dupe others, and their tendency to let passion ignite their actions, making these long-ago myths breathe pungent life again.
  8. American War by Omar El Akkad – This is a dystopian debut novel that sounds interesting to me.  Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be. Eventually Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike.”
  9. Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin – This horror novel written by an Argentinian author was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.  A young woman named Amanda lies dying in a rural hospital clinic. A boy named David sits beside her. She’s not his mother. He’s not her child. Together, they tell a haunting story of broken souls, toxins, and the power and desperation of family.  Fever Dream is a nightmare come to life, a ghost story for the real world, a love story and a cautionary tale. One of the freshest new voices to come out of the Spanish language and translated into English for the first time, Samanta Schweblin creates an aura of strange psychological menace and otherworldly reality in this absorbing, unsettling, taut novel.
  10. Killers of the Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann – This true crime novel was a National Book Award Finalist for Non-Fiction.  In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.  Then, one by one, they began to be killed off. One Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, watched as her family was murdered. Her older sister was shot. Her mother was then slowly poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances.  In this last remnant of the Wild West—where oilmen like J. P. Getty made their fortunes and where desperadoes such as Al Spencer, “the Phantom Terror,” roamed – virtually anyone who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll surpassed more than twenty-four Osage, the newly created F.B.I. took up the case, in what became one of the organization’s first major homicide investigations. But the bureau was then notoriously corrupt and initially bungled the case. Eventually the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to try to unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including one of the only Native American agents in the bureau. They infiltrated the region, struggling to adopt the latest modern techniques of detection. Together with the Osage they began to expose one of the most sinister conspiracies in American history.

T5W: 2018 Reading Resolutions

  1.  Read more middle grade novels aloud with my children.  I’ve started a certain practice where I get 3 middle grade books that I’d really like to read from the library and present them to my kids to choose which one we will read as our next book.  We are currently reading Wonder, and it is so amazing.  I cannot believe I waited this long to read it.  The experience of reading it with my kids and discussing various points along the way is so rewarding.
  2. Complete Book Riot’s 2018 Read Harder Challenge. I have completed this challenge the past two years and while sometimes I am annoyed by having to do certain tasks, I  mostly love that it adds to the diversity of what I read.
  3. Read and review more cookbooks, particularly ones with healthy recipes.  I get into cooking ruts, so I love exploring new recipes to make dinners more interesting and healthy.  However, more interesting usually means less appealing to the kids, so this is a delicate balance.
  4. Read a new book release each month of the year.  Why?  Because it is fun to be one of the first to discover a great book and to form my own opinions about it without first having been influenced by hype or other opinions out there.
  5. Don’t stress about reading or achieving any of the above mentioned goals.  If it doesn’t happen, so what?  I read because I love it and setting goals is only intended to give me structure.

Top 5 Wednesday is a Goodreads group run by Lainey and Samantha.  Each week a topic is suggested and bloggers may post their picks.  If you are interested in checking it out, click here.  What are your reading goals for 2018?

TTT: New to Me Authors I Read in 2017

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday is about “new-to-me” authors read in 2017.   This is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.   Many of these authors published debut novels which I read.  Others have been long established, but I was just getting to their work.  Most biographical information has been paraphrased or quoted directly from wikipedia.  Are you familiar with these authors?  What authors did you read in 2017 that were new to you?

  1. Ruth Ozeki (born March 12, 1956) is an American Canadian author, filmmaker and Zen Buddhist priest.  Her books and films, including the novels My Year of Meats (1998), All Over Creation (2003), and A Tale for the Time Being (2013), seek to integrate personal narrative and social issues, and deal with themes relating to science, technology, environmental politics, race, religion, war and global popular culture. Her novels have been translated into over thirty languages. She is a Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College.                                                                                                     I read A Tale For Time Being, a novel taking place in two countries decades apart yet simultaneously, which was published in 2013.
  2. Viet Thanh Nguyen (born March 13, 1971)is a Vietnamese American novelist.  Nguyen was born in Buon Me Thuot, Vietnam in 1971, the son of immigrants from North Vietnam who moved south in 1954. After the fall of Saigon, in 1975, his family fled to the United States. Nguyen’s family first settled in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, which was one of four American camps that accommodated refugees from Vietnam. Nguyen’s family then moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania until 1978.   His family later moved to San Jose, California, where they opened up a Vietnamese grocery store, one of the first of its kind in the area.  Nguyen  briefly attended the University of California Riverside and UCLA before finally deciding to finish his studies at the University of California, Berkeley, from where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in May 1992 with a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree in English and Ethnic Studies.  He went on to receive his Ph.D. in English from Berkeley in May 1997. That year, he moved to Los Angeles for a teaching position as an assistant professor at the University of Southern California in both the English Department, and in the American Studies and Ethnicity Department. In 2003, he became an associate professor in the two departments.  Nguyen’s debut novel, The Sympathizer, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction among other accolades.  He received a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2017.                                                                                                   I read Nguyen’s short story collection, The Refugees, published early in 2017.
  3. Dan Choan was adopted and grew up in a village of 20 people outside of Sidney, Nebraska. His father was a construction worker and his mother was a stay-at-home mom. As a middle schooler, Chaon wrote a fan letter to Ray Bradbury, beginning a correspondence that continued for several years. Chaon graduated from Northwestern and received his MA from Syracuse. He was married to the late writer Sheila Schwartz and has two sons. He lives in Cleveland Heights, Ohio and teaches creative writing at Oberlin College.                                               I read Dan Choan’s Ill Will, a psychological thriller, published in the first half of 2017.
  4. Jenny Zhang (born 1983) is an American writer, poet, and prolific essayist based in Brooklyn, New York.   One focus of her work is on the Chinese American immigrant identity and experience in the United States.  Zhang was born in Shanghai, China. When she was five years old, Zhang immigrated to New York City to join her father, who was studying linguistics at New York University, and mother, who had come to the United States after the Chinese Cultural Revolution.                                                                                                                          I read Jenny Zhang’s debut short story collection, Sour Heart, published in 2017 under the LENNY imprint.
  5. Zadie Smith (born on October 25, 1975) is a British novelist, essayist, and short-story writer.  Smith was born Sadie Smith in the north-west London borough of Brent to a Jamaican mother, Yvonne Bailey, and an English father, Harvey Smith.  At the age of 14, she changed her name to Zadie.   Her mother grew up in Jamaica, and emigrated to England in 1969.  Smith’s parents divorced when she was a teenager. She has a half-sister, a half-brother, and two younger brothers (one is the rapper and stand-up comedian Doc Brown, and the other is the rapper Luc Skyz). As a child, Smith was fond of tap dancing, and in her teenage years, she considered a career in musical theatre. While at university, Smith earned money as a jazz singer, and wanted to become a journalist. Despite earlier ambitions, literature emerged as her principal interest.                                                                             I read Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, which seems very autobiographical based on her biography.
  6. Mohsin Hamid (born 23 July, 1971) is a Pakistani novelist, writer and brand consultant.  Hamid spent part of his childhood in the United States, where he stayed from the age of 3 to 9 while his father, a university professor, was enrolled in a PhD program at Stanford University. He then moved with his family back to Lahore, Pakistan, and attended the Lahore American School.  At the age of 18, Hamid returned to the United States to continue his education. He graduated from Princeton University summa cum laude in 1993.  Hamid wrote the first draft of his first novel for a fiction workshop taught by Toni Morrison. He returned to Pakistan after college to continue working on it.  Hamid then attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1997.  Finding corporate law boring, he repaid his student loans by working for several years as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company in New York City. He was allowed to take three months off each year to write, and he used this time to complete his first novel Moth Smoke.  Hamid moved to Lahore in 2009 with his wife Zahra and their daughter Dina. He now divides his time between Pakistan and abroad, living between Lahore, New York, London, and Mediterranean countries including Italy and Greece.          I read Hamid’s Exit West, about the experience of refugees and migrants, which was published in 2017.
  7. Rupi Kaur (born October 5, 1992) in Punjab, India, to a Sikh family and emigrated with her parents to Canada when she was four years old. As a child, she was inspired by her mother to draw and paint, especially at a time when she was unable to speak in English with the other children at school.   She used to write poems to her friends on their birthdays or messages to her middle school crushes.  Kaur’s first performance took place in 2009, in the basement of the Punjabi Community Health Centre in Malton.  Among her more notable works is her photo-essay on menstruation, described as a piece of visual poetry intended to challenge societal menstrual taboos.  Common themes found throughout her works include abuse, femininity, love, and heartbreak.                                                                               I read Kaur’s Milk and Honey, which was originally self-published, but later picked up by Andrews McMeel Publishing company.
  8. Karan Mahajan (April 24, 1984) is an Indian-American novelist, essayist, and critic.  Mahajan was born in Stamford, Connecticut, and grew up in New Delhi, India.  He studied English and Economics at Stanford University, before receiving an MFA in fiction from the Michener Center for Writers. In addition to his writing, he has worked as an editor in San Francisco, a consultant on economic and urban planning in New York City, and a researcher in Bangalore. He currently lives in Austin, Texas.  His second novel, The Association of Small Bombs, was a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction.                                                                                                                                   I read Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs, about terrorists and their victims.
  9. Victor LaValle (born February 3, 1972) is an American author.  Lavalle was raised in Queens, New York by a single mother who had emigrated from Uganda in her twenties. He attended Woodmere Academy and went on to earn a degree in English from Cornell University and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Columbia University.  LaValle is an Associate Professor at the Columbia University School of the Arts. He lives in New York with his wife, novelist Emily Raboteau, son and daughter.                                                                                                             I read LaValle’s The Changeling, a modern day horrific fairy tale, published in June 2017.
  10. Amor Towles (born 1964) is an American novelist. He is best known for his bestselling novels Rules of Civility (2011) and A Gentleman in Moscow (2016).  Towles was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts. He graduated from Yale College and received an M.A. in English from Stanford University, where he was a Scowcroft Fellow.  From 1991-2012, he worked as an investment professional in New York.  Towles resides in Gramercy Park, Manhattan, New York City, with his wife, Maggie, their son, and their daughter.                                                                                      I read A Gentleman in Moscow, about an aristocrat under house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in the 1920s and 1930s.

Summary of 2017: Year 2 of Book Blogging

This year was a great one for connecting with other bloggers.  I loved participating in some linkups, especially Top Ten Tuesday, and the conversations that ensued. I participated in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge again, which I have decided I love more than hate.  Occasionally it keeps me pressing on with a book I would rather not read, but for the most part I’m happy that it has diversified my reading.  I will most likely be participating in this again this year.

This year I have reviewed 69 books:  26 adult fiction books, 6 adult non-fiction books, 4 adult other category books (2 poetry, 1 comic, and 1 cookbook), 2 middle grade books, and 31 children’s books.

My Five Favorite Adult Fiction Books of 2017 (in no particular order) were:

  1. Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
  2. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
  3. The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
  4. The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
  5. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

My Favorite Non-Fiction Book Read in 2017:

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall

My Favorite Middle Grade Book Read in 2017:

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson

My Favorite ‘New-to-Me’ Children’s Book Read in 2017:

The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson, Illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton

Statistics From Year Two of Book Blogging

Now, my full second year of blogging has come to a close.  This year I branched out and participated in Top Ten Tuesday and Top Five Wednesday periodically.  This was a great way to connect with other bloggers.  I had very few followers or commenters during my first year.  It was a simple pleasure reviewing books that year as far as the blog went, and any commenting or conversation occurred only on Goodreads, where I would post my reviews as well.  Now that I have more conversation happening with other bloggers on my site and theirs, I am spending less time on Goodreads.  For me, book blogging is pure enjoyment.  I feel I gain more from books if I take time to think and write about them afterwards.  Then there is the added benefit of discussing them with other bloggers.  Thank you to all of those who’ve become friends with me and engaged in discussions this year!  Happy New Year!

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Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  288

Published:  May 30, 2017

Format:  Hardcover Book

Intended Age of Reader:  9-13

Awards:  A National Book Award Longlist Title

Upon finishing this novel with my children, I visited the author’s webpage where she had the following quote from Madeleine L’Engle prominently displayed, “When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable.  But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.”  I thought this was an interesting quote to ponder in light of this novel that is a coming of age story, about growing up and accepting the vulnerability that comes with it.

This novel has a fascinating premise.  Nine children live on an island, where no one comes or goes except for once a year when a green boat comes carrying one very small child, and at that time the eldest leaves the island.  No one knows where that boat comes from or where it goes, just that there is a nursery rhyme that says the sky will fall if they do not comply.  There are many rules in place to ensure that all goes smoothly, either handed down from the previous generations of children or via nursery rhymes.  As the novel begins, Jinny loses her best friend Deen, whose turn it is to leave the island.  Jinny becomes the eldest and Ess, who has just arrived, is her Care, meaning she will live with and learn from Jinny over the next year all that she needs to in order to survive.

After being brought to this magical world where children can play safely and set up with this mesmerizing, delicious premise, not much happens over the next year.  It seems there is a lot of waiting, of expectation, and in between time.  Is this what childhood feels like?  I would think probably so, in the island’s non-technology driven world.   During this year, unlike in Lord of the Flies, things go along just fine.  Overall, the children are quite well behaved and keep each other in check.

Anyway, things finally start to get interesting when Jinny refuses to leave the island when the boat returns the following year.  She takes the newly arrived youngest, Loo, as her Care and continues to keep Ess under her wing as well.  The weather changes, the island becomes more threatening, and Jinny begins to change and develop into a woman.  Finally, she realizes that she must leave as the reader is realizing that this whole novel is a metaphor for growing up.  It is a metaphor for leaving childhood and entering adulthood.  I will say I was mildly disappointed not to be able to find out the story behind Orphan Island, why the children ended up there, and where they went to after.  However, if we knew all that.. the metaphor would be lost.  This is a magical book that transports the reader to another realm.  It will leave you satisfied, but wanting more!  This is a book that the more I thought about it in hindsight, the more brilliant I felt it was.

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you imagine Deen is saying to Jinny as he leaves the island that she can’t quite make out?
  2. Where do you suppose this island is?  Where do the children come from?  Do they have parents?  Why would the parents send them off to this island?
  3. Who do you suppose made up the rules?  Why do the rules work so well?
  4. What are some of the varying teaching methods that the children employ to teach Ess to swim and read?  Which ones work and which ones don’t?  Why?
  5. When Jinny decides to stay on the island when it is her turn to leave, why do you suppose the others do not make a bigger deal about it?  Does she owe it to them to leave?
  6. Why do you think Jinny wants to stay?  Is it that she wants to hold on to her life on the island (childhood) or is it that she is afraid of moving on (adulthood)?
  7. Jinny was wearing Ess’s bracelet, called ‘Mama’ that goes missing.  What is  the significance of the bracelet, it’s disappearance, and its recovery?
  8. Why does the island become more sinister after Jinny’s decision not to leave the island?  Do you think the island is really changing or is it just Jinny’s perception of it?
  9. Did you enjoy the metaphor that the novel was?  What other books can you think of that serve as metaphors for something?
  10. In this novel there are no other adults.  What other books have you read where there are no adults?  How do they compare to this book?
  11. What religious allegories are present in the novel?  What is their meaning and significance?

 

 

Laurel Snyder’s webpage

Review in the School Library Journal by Elizabeth Bird

Interview with Laurel Snyder in Writer’s Rumpus

 

TTT: Top Ten Most Anticipated Books of the First Half of 2018

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday is about the most anticipated books to be published in 2018.   This is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.   Since many of the books that will be published in the latter half of next year have not yet been announced, I’m dedicating this to only those books I’m most excited to read in the first half of 2018.   Which of these appeals to you?  Are there any books that you are most looking forward to reading in 2018?

  1.  A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee –  This is a collection of short stories set in contemporary India by an author whose previous novel, The Lives of Others, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014.  The Goodreads summary is as follows:  “Can we transform the possibilities we are born into? A State of Freedom wrests open the central, defining events of our century: displacement and migration. Five characters in very different circumstances—from a domestic cook in Mumbai to a vagrant and his dancing bear—find the meanings of dislocation and the desire to get more out of life.”  (January 2, 2018)
  2.  The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin – Chloe Benjamin is the author of The Anatomy of Dreams which won several prizes.  This new novel is summarized by Goodreads as, “It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.  Their prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11, hoping to control fate; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.”  (January 9, 2018)
  3. Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee – This debut novel has recently been named a Top Ten Debut of Winter/Spring by the American Booksellers Association.  Goodreads summarizes the novel as follows: “Two sisters: Miranda, the older, responsible one, always her younger sister’s protector; Lucia, the vibrant, headstrong, unconventional one, whose impulses are huge and, often, life changing. When their mother dies and Lucia starts to hear voices, it’s Miranda who must fight for the help her sister needs — even as Lucia refuses to be defined by any doctor’s diagnosis. Determined, impetuous, she plows ahead, marrying a big-hearted Israeli only to leave him, suddenly, to have a baby with a young Latino immigrant. She will move with her new family to Ecuador, but the bitter constant remains: she cannot escape her own mental illness. Lucia lives life on a grand scale, until inevitably, she crashes to earth. And then Miranda must decide, again, whether or not to step in — but this time, Lucia may not want to be saved. The bonds of sisterly devotion stretch across oceans, but what does it take to break them?”  (January 16, 2018) 
  4. Red Clocks by Leni Zumas – The premise of this feminist dystopian novel reminds me so much of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel I loved.  The Goodreads summary is as follows: “In this ferociously imaginative novel, abortion is once again illegal in America, in-vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo. In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers alongside age-old questions surrounding motherhood, identity, and freedom.  Ro, a single high-school teacher, is trying to have a baby on her own, while also writing a biography of Eivør, a little-known 19th-century female polar explorer. Susan is a frustrated mother of two, trapped in a crumbling marriage. Mattie is the adopted daughter of doting parents and one of Ro’s best students, who finds herself pregnant with nowhere to turn. And Gin is the gifted, forest-dwelling homeopath, or “mender,” who brings all their fates together when she’s arrested and put on trial in a frenzied modern-day witch hunt.”  (January 16, 2018) 
  5. The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea – This is a Mexican-American immigrant novel by an author whose previous novels have been on my TBR list for a long time.  He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005, along with winning numerous other literary awards.  The Goodreads summary of this novel is as follows: In his final days, beloved and ailing patriarch Miguel Angel De La Cruz, known affectionately as Big Angel, has summoned his entire clan for one last legendary birthday party. But as the party approaches, his mother, nearly one hundred, dies herself, leading to a farewell doubleheader.   Across one bittersweet weekend in their San Diego neighborhood, the revelers mingle among the palm trees and cacti, celebrating the lives of Big Angel and his mother, and recounting the many tales that have passed into family lore, the acts both ordinary and heroic that brought them to a fraught and sublime country and allowed them to flourish in the land they have come to call home. The story of the De La Cruzes is the American story. This indelible portrait of a complex family reminds us of what it means to be the first generation and to live two lives across one border. Teeming with brilliance and humor, authentic at every turn, The House of Broken Angels is Luis Alberto Urrea at his best, and it cements his reputation as a storyteller of the first rank.”  (March 6, 2018)
  6. Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan – Clarissa Goenawan is an Indonesian-born Singaporean writer and this is her debut novel taking place in a small town in Japan.  The Goodreads summary is as follows: “Ren Ishida is nearly finished with graduate school when he receives news of his sister Keiko’s sudden death. She was viciously stabbed one rainy night on her way home, and there are no leads. Ren heads to Akakawa to conclude his sister’s affairs, still failing to understand why she chose to abandon the family and Tokyo for this desolate town years ago.  But Ren soon finds himself picking up where Keiko left off, accepting both her teaching position at a local cram school and the bizarre arrangement of free lodging at a wealthy politician’s mansion in exchange for reading to the man’s catatonic wife.  As he comes to know the figures in Akakawa, from the enigmatic politician to his fellow teachers and a rebellious, alluring student named Rio, Ren delves into his shared childhood with Keiko and what followed, trying to piece together what happened the night of her death. Haunted in his dreams by a young girl who is desperately trying to tell him something, Ren struggles to find solace in the void his sister has left behind.”  (March 6, 2018)
  7. The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer – I am very excited to read Meg Wolitzer’s newest novel.  According to Goodreads, “Greer Kadetsky is a shy college freshman when she meets the woman she hopes will change her life. Faith Frank, dazzlingly persuasive and elegant at sixty-three, has been a central pillar of the women’s movement for decades, a figure who inspires others to influence the world. Upon hearing Faith speak for the first time, Greer–madly in love with her boyfriend, Cory, but still full of longing for an ambition that she can’t quite place–feels her inner world light up. Then, astonishingly, Faith invites Greer to make something out of that sense of purpose, leading Greer down the most exciting path of her life as it winds toward and away from her meant-to-be love story with Cory and the future she’d always imagined.”  (April 3, 2018)
  8. Circe by Madeline Miller – I grew up loving Greek mythology, but have not yet read any of Madeline Miller’s retellings on the subject.  I greatly look forward to reading this one.  The Goodreads summary is as follows: “In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child–not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power–the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.  Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.  But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.”  (April 10, 2018)
  9. Florida by Lauren Groff – I’m excited to read this collection of short stories about Groff’s feeling about the state of Florida.  According to Goodreads: “Lauren Groff’s next book, FLORIDA, a collection of stories, will be published next year by Riverhead. The New Yorker has a story, Dogs Go Wolf, that will appear in that collection. She says in an interview: “The collection is a portrait of my own incredible ambivalence about the state where I’ve lived for twelve years. My feelings for Florida are immoderate, and I love the disappearing natural world, the sunshine, the extraordinary and astonishing beauty of the place as passionately as I hate the heat and moisture and backward politics and the million creatures whose only wish is to kill you. I wrote this collection very slowly and was surprised when it came together to find that the stories built into a ferocious protracted argument.” (June 5, 2018) 
  10. The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner -This newest novel by twice National Book award nominated Rachel Kushner sounds intriguing.  According to Goodreads, “It’s 2003 and Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, deep in California’s Central Valley. Outside is the world from which she has been severed: the San Francisco of her youth and her young son, Jackson. Inside is a new reality: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive; the bluffing and pageantry and casual acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike; and the deadpan absurdities of institutional living, which Kushner evokes with great humor and precision.”  A cover is not yet available to preview.  (June 7, 2018)

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