Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  352

Published:  January 9, 2018

Format:  E-book from Netgalley

 

 

 

 

I absolutely loved this book!  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

 

Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith~ Book Review

Pages: 358

Published: October 17, 2017

Format:  Hardcover Book

Awards:  Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Science & Technology (2017)

 

 

This book delves into technological realms that the authors feel could see gigantic leaps in our access to and use of in the future.  This novel was written by a brother and sister pair, the former,  a celebrated cartoonist and the latter, a noted researcher.  They interviewed many scientists across various fields of study to learn about up and coming technologies.  They start each segment by explaining where we are with a certain technology, then discuss where research is heading, what the future could  be like, potential advantages, concerns and pitfalls.    Interspersed within this writing are many nerdy scientific jokes and cartoons to help lighten the reading.  The humor is the kind you would expect from scientists, not the laugh out loud kind.  That said, I did appreciate the diversion.

The ten areas explored in the book are: 1. Cheap Access to Space, 2. Asteroid Mining, 3. Fusion Power, 4. Programmable Matter, 5. Robotic Construction, 6. Augmented Reality, 7. Synthetic Biology, 8. Precision Medicine, 9. Bioprinting and 10. Brain-Computer Interfaces.  There were some chapters, especially the medical ones, where I found I knew much of the content, but still the future applications were quite interesting.  Other chapters were completely new to me and I was grateful to this book for enlightening me.  Depending on your background, you may find the presentation of information simplistic or you may find it mind blowing.  For the average lay person without a scientific background, this book is a wonderful introduction to emerging technologies and what we might expect in the future.  I also found myself envisioning ideas for futuristic science fiction novels while reading this.  There is much food for thought here.

I like that the authors are bringing much of what is currently exciting about science and technology to greater attention in a very readable format.  I recommend this to anyone who is interested in learning more about the topics mentioned above.  I am also grateful to the Book Riot 2017 Read Harder Challenge for pushing me to read harder and choose a book in this category.  I’m glad I did!

 

Review by Tasha Robinson in NPR

Review by Chris Lee in ARS Technica

 

The Leavers by Lisa Ko ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  352

Published:  May 2, 2017

Format:  Audiobook

Awards: National Book Award Finalist for Fiction (2017), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction & for Debut Goodreads Author (2017), PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction (2016)

 

Stunning, emotionally charged, socially critical novel about a young female Chinese woman and her American born son.  This novel tackles so much and does it well.  It takes place in China as well as in America.  The voice alternates from first person perspective of Peilan Guo and third person perspective of her son, Deming.

Peilan, fled China young and pregnant, in hopes of escaping the boy who impregnated her as well as the pregnancy, only to find she was a few weeks past 7 months and termination would be illegal.  Her son Deming is born and she falls in love with him, but finds there is no way to work with him alongside of her.   So, like so many other Chinese refugees, she sends her son home to live with her father until he is of age to go to school.  He returns at age 6 and finds himself living with his mother, her boyfriend Leon, Leon’s sister Vivian and Vivian’s son Michael.  It’s crowded and they are poor, but there is noise, friendship, sarcasm, and love aplenty.  Peilan and Deming play fun games with each other like choosing similar looking people to themselves to be their doppelgängers.  They create a whole story around this pair.  Michael and Deming are the best of friends.  Like brothers, they understand each other and look out for each other.

One day, Peilan goes to the nail salon where she works and she never returns.  This comes on the heels of an argument with Leon about her wanting to move to Florida and Leon not liking the idea.  No one knows where she has gone and it remains a mystery until the end of the novel.  Leon disappears, leaving for China, 6 months later.  Vivian is left alone with both Michael, Deming and Peilan’s enormous debt.  The money is tight, there is little food and she is very stressed.  She ends up putting Deming in foster care and then signing him over for permanent placement.

Deming is fostered and then adopted by Kay and Peter and life in Ridgeborough, NY is stale and seemingly lonely.  They change Deming’s name to Daniel, saying it will be easier for him that way.  He makes friends with Roland, a fellow musician who is Hispanic, so also seen as a “different” in this very Caucasian town.  Kay and Peter both work at the University, have no friends in town and have strong ideas about what their son should do and be as he grows up.

The novel takes off from this point, as Daniel struggles with his identity.  At the same time his mother, now Polly, has a completely new identity in China.  Daniel’s life comes to an unravelling point as he makes poor choices with gambling and alcohol, seeming to purposely self-sabatoge.  Michael emails him, and after hesitating to respond, he reconnects with Michael which leads him ultimately to his mother.  He finally learns the truth about his mother, how the salon was raided and she spent 18 months in a detention camp prior to being deported.

I felt like I connected with the characters, found the novel incredibly engaging and I enjoyed the historical aspects and learning about the immigrant experience from this perspective.  Although extremely well done overall, there were a couple of holes in the story I didn’t quite believe.  First, I wondered why no one ever went to the nail salon to learn what had happened.  Surely, someone must have known there.   I also wondered why Polly gave up on looking for Deming once she heard he had been adopted.  Yes, Leon felt that something inside Polly had broken, but she went from anguished over the loss to a new life very quickly.

Discussion Questions:

  1.  How do name changes in this book affect or influence identity?
  2. Compare and contrast Deming’s relationship with his mother versus his relationship with Kay and Peter.
  3. How does the author portray international adoption in this novel?  How does she portray transracial adoption?
  4. What sorts of prejudice do Polly and Daniel experience in America?
  5. What roles do music and gambling play in Daniel’s identity?
  6. Discuss the parental expectations that Daniel experiences from Kay and Peter.  How does this compare to what he experienced with his own mother?
  7. Why do the school systems in both New York and Ridgeborough seem to have low expectations of Daniel?
  8. Discuss the friendship between Daniel and Angel.  Why do they become so close?
  9. When Polly and Leon are gambling, Polly feels that life is a game.  How is this a theme in the book?
  10. This novel brings up very real concerns regarding for profit detention centers.  Discuss the concerns addressed by this novel. Under current administration, these detention centers are increasing in number.  What effect do you imagine the current administration’s policies will have regarding these institutions?
  11. How do you explain or interpret the character Polly and her many life transitions?

 

New York Times Review by Gish Jen

Atlantic Review by Amy Weiss-Meyer

Discussion Questions by Lit Lovers

Interview with Lisa Ko in Hyphen Magazine

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  422

Published:  March 12, 2013

Format:  E-book

Awards:  Man Booker Prize Nominee (2013), Sunburst Award for Adult (2014), Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction (2013), National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for Fiction (2013), The Kitschies for Red Tentacle (Novel) (2013), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction (2013), Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature for Adult Fiction (2013)

This is a beautiful novel that drew me in immediately.  A barnacle encrusted bag washes up on the shores of a quiet island off the coast of British Columbia to be found by Ruth.   Ruth is a character loosely based on the author herself.  Ruth and her husband have lived on the island for decades and never had children.  Her life’s work has been writing, and she is currently working on her autobiography, but she is also suffering memory lapses.  Inside the plastic bag is a diary of a 14 year old Japanese girl written in purple ink on the  pages of what on the outside one would expect to be  Proust’s  A la Recherché du Temps Perdu.  Also in the bag are a second diary written in French, and a watch.   Ruth’s husband, Oliver, immediately questions whether this could be jetsam or flotsam, part of the trash washed into the ocean after the giant tsunami struck Japan years earlier.

Nao, the author of the mysterious diary, states she is writing in these “last days of her life” to tell the story of her grandmother, Jiko.  She never gets to the actual biography of Jiko, but instead details the extreme bullying she has endured, her contemplations of suicide and the spiritual journey she undergoes with her grandmother to develop her own superpower.  Nao spent her younger growing up years in California, but when her father loses his high powered corporate job in Silicon Valley, the family moves back to Japan.  Nao had been living a middle class life, attending school with close friends and enjoying an active social life in California.  Suddenly, she is thrust back to a country whose culture and social norms she is unfamiliar and living with her parents, in a tiny one bedroom apartment.  Her mother initially spends her days staring at jellyfish in the aquarium.  Her father, a seemingly depressed caricature of his former self, is unsuccessful at finding a job and also at suicide.  He actually is arrested for failed suicide.   Nao, although Japanese, is seen as quite different for having grown up in California.  She is mercilessly bullied, both physically and  emotionally, by the students and teachers.

Interestingly, we learn Nao’s story as Ruth is reading it and interacting with it, seemingly affecting changes to the story by actions in her dreams.  In this way the two characters are very much linked in some seemingly real but magical way.  It almost seems like they become one character as the story is being read, two parts of a whole.  This effect is concurrent with the theme of time and Nao being a “time-being.”  Nao, which is pronounced “now,” likes to think of herself as existing in this moment.  The concept and fluency of time within this novel is a key theme.  The connectedness of beings across generations and continents is important.  This is part of the Buddhist philosophy that plays an integral role in the spiritual journey Nao undergoes as the diary unfolds in Ruth’s hands.

Nao’s life is certainly at a pivotal point as she contemplates suicide while sitting in a French cafe trying to avoid “dates” (being pimped out to customers).   However, Ruth also undergoes this spiritual journey alongside Nao.  She had cared for her mother who has recently died and feels like her life is slipping away.  She is contemplating leaving the sparsely populated island and moving to the city.  Reading Nao’s diary has Ruth pondering Buddhist philosophy and engaging in the connectedness of all things.

Nao tells of how she is sent to spend the summer with her grandmother Jiko.  She begins a soul searching journey as she gets to know her grandmother.  She practices zazen meditation, bath rituals, and tries to develop her superpower, because everyone needs a superpower.  She also begins recognizing the superpower in others, even eventually her father whom she viewed as a “freeter.”   Her father becomes an even greater hero, when he finds a new life’s purpose in developing a “mu mu” which will hide one’s past and present on the computer.

I loved the timelessness of this book and the Buddhist philosophy that is life changing for so many of the characters within this novel.  There is real darkness and depths of despair for the characters Nao and Haruki #2 that are overcome through a spiritual journey, where they learn appreciation of ancestors and each other.  They begin to appreciate the duality of all things.  I found it fascinating that the author wrote herself into this book as Ruth, connecting herself with these characters as well.  There are many layers and depths and truths contained within the lovely novel. I highly recommend it to everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Discuss the Japanese culture of bullying.  Compare and contrast this with bullying in the United States.  How does cyberbullying take bullying to a whole different level?
  2. Why do you think that Nao participates in bullying Daisuke?  Why do you think the teacher participates?
  3. Compare and contrast American and Japanese cultures in the areas of intensity of schooling, therapy, self improvement and bullying.
  4. Compare and contrast Haruki #1 and Nao.  Consider how they were bullied, their writing, and suicidal ideations.
  5. Haruki #2 wanted to know what defined conscience.  Discuss the reasons that led to the loss of his job.  In what ways are Haruki #1 and #2 similar?
  6. Explain what a “freeter”  is and who in this novel might be perceived as a “freeter?”
  7. How would you say time is defined in this novel?  What does it mean to be a time-being?
  8. What Buddhist philosophies did you agree with or appreciate?
  9. Jiko teaches Nao and guides her on a spiritual journey by teaching her daily practices and rituals.  How do you think these affect Nao?  Do you think Nao would have done better with some other form of therapy?
  10. What does the presence of the jungle crow represent to Ruth and Oliver?  What does it represent to you, the reader?
  11. There is a theme of global connectedness in this novel.  Discuss the ways in which countries and beings across continents are connected.  How does the internet affect this connectedness?
  12. There is also a theme about social and environmental connectedness on a global level.  Discuss the ways in which this was touched on within the novel.

 

 

New York Times Review by Leslie Downer

Ruth Ozeki’s website

Reader’s Guide  by Penguin Random House

 

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  256

Published:  September 5, 2017

Format:  Audiobook

 

 

 

 

This is hands down one of the best thrillers I’ve ever read. Rene Denfeld is a child of a difficult upbringing who has worked as a private investor helping sex trafficking victims and innocents in prisons. Denfeld talks about her childhood and family life eloquently in The Other Side of Loss. She, like the main character Naomi, has lived a life trying to help others that have suffered like herself. With this background and incredible talent, she is able to create such complete characters that make sense to the reader. So much of the time when I read thrillers, I don’t fully believe in the characters. Here, the author, invests energy into explaining why the “bad guys” became this way, so there is a degree of empathy the reader feels as they begin to understand why characters might be behaving the way they do. She also invests energy into explaining various actions that may seem incongruous on the part of the victims.

In this thriller of kidnapping and missing children, there are multiple mysteries to be solved. “The Child Finder, ” Naomi Cuttle, works as a private investigator finding missing children, dead or alive. It is her life’s work and passion, even though she has not yet faced the mystery of her own childhood kidnapping. Naomi Cuttle is raised by a foster mother from the age of 9 along with her foster brother, Jerome. She has few friends, devotes her life to her work and wakes up in the middle of the night with nightmares from her forgotten past. The novel is sometimes from Naomi’s point of view and sometimes from the perspective of Madison Culver, a missing child taken at the age of 5 three years ago. Naomi is investigating this case alongside of another one. Madison’s family had travelled to get a Christmas tree deep into the Skookim National Forest and Madison had gone missing, presumed dead by the local police. She had in fact been taken prisoner on the brink of death by cold exposure by a man who had been taken prisoner himself many years before, the cycle of abuse continuing. Madison is able to protect herself by hiding her identity inside a fairy tale, creating a story for herself to feel love and make peace with her situation. She becomes “Snowgirl,” a character from a favorite Russian fairy tale of a girl brought to life by the man who creates her.

There is a secondary mystery that Naomi is trying to solve, one that brings up many issues of the justice system and of inequality. The second case demonstrates the unfortunate culmination of many of these missing children cases.

Rene Denfeld is a masterful story teller. She describes the Oregon scenery with such beauty and attention to detail. She creates characters that come alive for the reader, that feel real and true. The mysteries unravel at a steady pace, leaving the reader with hope for a good outcome in the end. Although the subject matter is heavy and gruesome, Rene Denfeld finds beauty in darkness and gives hope to some of the bleakest of situations. In this lovely novel, the human spirit triumphs over dark and evil.

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why do you think Naomi has repressed her childhood prior to living with Mrs. Cottle?
  2. What strategies do victims of kidnapping and abuse use to help them survive terror,  mentally, physically and emotionally?
  3. Discuss how abuse cycles in subsequent generations.
  4. The autistic mother of the missing daughter is charged with a crime against her daughter.  How much of a role does race play in the delay of her autism diagnosis as well as the decision to prosecute her?
  5. What factors contribute to victims’ of abuse/kidnapping/sexual assault having intimate relationships in the future?
  6. Why do you think Naomi encourages Madison’s family to move away once Madison is found?
  7. Discuss the two cases that Naomi takes on.  What outcomes do you think are more typically experienced by PIs working these types of cases?
  8. What effect does a missing child often have on the marriage of the parents of that child?  What can parents do to offset the chances of divorce?
  9. What similarities exist between Naomi’s and Madison’s captivity?
  10. Why does Mr. B become afraid of being found and discovering another world?

 

 

Rene Denfeld’s website

Rene Denfeld discusses The Child Finder on Omnivoracious

Kirkus Review of The Child Finder

The Changeling by Victor LaValle ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  448

Publication Date:  June 13, 2017

Format:  E-book from Netgalley

 

 

 

 

This intelligent, intriguing modern day fairy tale starts out in what seems to be a normal world.   It begins with the birth of the protagonist, Apollo, a child of mixed race to Lillian Kagwa (a Ugandan immigrant) and Brian West (a white parole officer.)  His father had held him as a baby telling him he was Apollo, the God.  This becomes a mantra for Apollo later in life.  Brian West disappears by the time Apollo is four years old, but Apollo continues to have dreams, or maybe nightmares, about his father returning.  In a box of items left behind by Brian is a well-read copy of Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There.  The Changeling becomes a retelling of this award winning children’s book.  Apollo is an avid reader and at a young age becomes a buyer and seller of used books.

Even before the witches and trolls appear in this novel, there are hints of the monsters in the ordinary.   In childhood, “Apollo would find himself wondering if he actually was frightening, a monster, the kind that would drive his own father away.”  Then later, Emma’s friend, Nichelle, explains to Apollo, about the nude photo of Emma hanging in Amsterdam.  Nichelle says of Emma, “She looks like a fucking sorceress, Apollo.  It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”

Race and casual racism is discussed throughout this book.  When Apollo is young and trying to sell his books in the higher end spots in Manhattan, the author writes “Every kid with excess melanin becomes a super predator, even a black boy with glasses and a backpack full of books.  He might be standing at the entrance for fifteen minutes while the clerks pretended not to notice him.”  Later in the novel, Apollo is stopped by a cop in a white section in Queens and says, “that was fast.”

This book also speaks to the new age of parenthood, of more involved dads, and of social media.  Apollo Kagwa is one of these new age dads who is very much involved in the parenting of his child.  He enjoys taking him to the playground and bragging with the other dads about new milestones.  He posts countless photographs of his son, Brian, on Facebook.  Apollo’s wife, Emma, meanwhile, begins showing signs of postpartum depression.   She tells Apollo that she has received strange texts of pictures of the baby that have disappeared shortly after receiving them, which Apollo dismisses.  “You’re what’s wrong with our family, Emma. You. Are. The. Problem. Go take another pill.”   The horror in this novel is the experience of parenthood itself, the no-win situation regarding the expectations facing parents, the feeling of needing to protect your child, and ultimately the loss of a child.

Apollo finds a signed first edition of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird with the inscription to Truman Capote, “Here’s to the Daddy of our dreams.”  He knows that this book could have a great payday, however, it does not pay in the way he expects.  After barely surviving the wrath and rage of his wife, he realizes that perhaps his wife was right.  He ends up on a journey with many twists and turns through mystical realms of witches, trolls and even some human monsters.

This novel warns of the dangers of social media and putting your life out there for all to see, judge, and possibly take advantage of.  William tells Apollo, “Vampires can’t come into your house unless you invite them.  Posting online is like leaving your front door open and telling any creature of the night it can come right in.”  It seems that Emma Valentine and Brian Kagwa were the perfect target for trolls with the publicized birth of their son, followed by continuous Facebook posts by Brian.

This book speaks to deeper truths about the monsters within each of us.  The glamer we are able to superimpose over our own misbehaviors to make us feel better about ourselves.  It warns of trolls lurking in everyday places and people.  This book is not simply a retelling or a fairy tale, there are many layers and depths to it.  The social commentary is sharp, but easily consumed within the context of this fantastical setting.  It is about the stories we tell ourselves as well as our children and the effect these stories have on us.  There is some pretty graphic violence though, so consider yourself forewarned.

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  In the words of Cal, one of the witches, “A bad fairy tale has some simple goddamn moral.  A great fairy tale tells the truth.”  According to Cal’s guidelines, is this a bad or great fairy tale, or somewhere in between?  Explain.
  2. Why did Brian Kagwa become a changeling.  Who was responsible?  Why was he chosen?
  3. How is Scottish glamer or “glamour” used in this fairy tale?
  4. Why do you think Apollo’s father read Outside Over There to Apollo when he was little?  Discuss the similarities and differences between these two books.
  5. What is the meaning of the inscription in Harper Lee’s book in the context of this book?
  6. What is this book’s message about social media?
  7. What is a changeling?  Where else in literature and film do we see changelings?
  8. Discuss the social commentary of this novel on parenthood and expectations of mothers and fathers from this novel.
  9. What genre do you think best characterizes this novel?

 

Utube reading of Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There

New York Times Review by Jennifer Senior

New York Times Review by Terrence Rafferty

Interview with Victor LaValle published in the Los Angeles Times

Victor LaValle’s website

 

 

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  231

Published:  March 7, 2017

Format:  Audiobook read by the author

Awards:  Man Booker Prize Nominee (2017), Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Fiction (2018)

 

 

“The news in those days was full of war and migrants and nativists. And it was full of fracturing too, of regions pulling away from nations and cities pulling away from hinterlands. And it seemed that as everyone was coming together, everyone was also moving apart.”

This novel is a riveting, brilliantly written masterpiece that is about the relationship between a young couple that begins just prior to the eruption of a Civil War in their country.  I was amazed by how attuned to the nuances of relationships this author is.  He describes the falling in, the developing closeness, the emerging separateness and consequent break so eloquently and with such tenderness.

There is a cinematic quality to this novel.  As it focus on these two main characters, Saeed and Nadia, and their struggles during these uncertain times, it also flashes to other parts of the world and small moments in the lives of others.  The writing is razor sharp, profound, full of insight.  There are no wasted words.  I listened to this audiobook in my car, and the number of times I skipped backwards to listen to something again or just in case I may have missed something exceeded that of any other book I’ve listened to.  If I had been reading an ebook or physical book, I would have easily found something to highlight on every page.

The initial setting is in an unnamed Middle Eastern country where Nadia and Said meet in an evening class studying corporate identity and product branding.  Their seemingly normal lives and beginning romance are upturned rapidly as insurgents try to take over the city.  There is a sense of impending doom.  War is raging,  militants are flooding into their city, and people are dying or disappearing.  There are extreme rules in place regarding dress and social conduct with the opposite sex.  Certain religious sects are being persecuted.  People are being hung in the streets.  However, there are “doors,” which even the most reputable journalists are acknowledging the existence of.

Without knowing where these doors may lead, Sayeed and Nadia decide to flee through one of these doors and so begins their journey, first to Mikonos, then London, then Marin.  In these other lands, they are refugees who are kept separate from the nativists.  It’s an uncertain world, but eventually they are working at a camp to building a home for themselves which they accomplish together.  However, the chaos and tumult of the times in the early phase of their relationship has taken a toll.  They see each other differently as their roles change and their location changes.  The excited young lovers from the beginning of the novel have changed as their world has changed.  They have been through so much together, have been codependent by necessity.  They begin to see each other through different lenses.  The chaos of the times and world of being migrants brought their romance along more quickly, but also threatens it.

More broadly, this novel is about people, migrants, immigrants, natives.  The message is loud and clear.  We are all people and should treat each other as such.  There are always people fleeing wars, political unrest, religious persecution, and so on.  We need to be more tolerant.  In this era of Brexit and Trump’s travel bans, with countries fearing incoming people flooding into their homelands, this book offers a radical, beautiful challenge.   Mohsin Hamid has said that he used doors (the only fantastical element in this novel) as the route to other countries, because he wanted to focus on the actual immigrant experience, not the journey between countries.  In this novel, Hamid deftly explores the pain of leaving behind a grieving recently widowed father in hopes of a better life, of escaping premature death.  A quote from the book regarding this: “when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”  He also explores the plight of the immigrant in a foreign land, pushed to the outskirts by natives.  He describes how these situations affect people in different ways and how migrants change through these experiences.  He ends the novel with this final quote: “We are all migrants through time.”   I highly recommend this timely book to everyone!  It is intelligent, insightful and tender altogether.

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why do you think the author used “doors” rather than actual travel between countries?
  2. What do you believe is the author’s message regarding immigration and immigration laws?
  3. In Mohsin Hamid’s essay in the Guardian, he says that the future cannot be left to politicians.  It calls on “radical politically engaged fiction” to muster up wisdom and insight into where we as individuals, families, societies, cultures… must go.  What wisdom is the author imparting in this novel?  Where is he directing us in the future?
  4. What role does technology and social media play in this novel?
  5. Define migrant.   Are we all migrants?
  6. In this book, it says that in this new world, some people felt their lives were better.  Why and how so?
  7. Saeed in this novel is fiercely attached to his family while Nadia is fiercely independent.  How do these character traits affect their relationship?
  8. In the book a passage through a door is equated to dying and being reborn.  Explain.
  9. The old woman in Palo Alto says that when she goes out now, she feels like a migrant, “a migrant through time.”  What does she mean by this?
  10. Some people have compared this book to Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad for employing a virtual form of transportation.  Do you see these as a similar narrative styles?
  11. Why did Saeed pray?

 

Review and interview Mohsin Hamid with Terry Gross

Steve Inskeep’s interview with Mohsin Hamid on NPR

Michiko Kakutani’s review in The New York Times

Discussion Questions by Penguin Random House

 

 

Tales of a Severed Head by Rachida Madani ~ Book Review

Pages:  176

American Publication:  October 9, 2012

Original Publication:  2005 in French

Format:  Paperback book

 

 

 

 

“She speaks of all nights
and all women
she speaks of the sea
of waves which carry everything away
as if everything could be carried away
of waves which begin the sea again
there where the sea stopped.
She goes through the city
she walks with death
hand in hand
and her hand does not tremble…”

This slim volume of poetry is a modern-day One Thousand and One Nights set in Morocco describing the position of women within that country.  It tells of the repression of people, not just women, who are poor, hungry, have little recourse as freedom of expression has been taken from them.  It is about history repeating itself time and time again.  Madani argues that not much has changed since the days when One Thousand and One Nights was written.  In One Thousand and One Nights, the profoundly distrustful King Shehriyar vows to marry a new virginal bride each day only to behead her come morning.  This continues until Scheherazade volunteers to be a bride.  Her trick, however, is to start to tell the King a story and not finish.  He wants to know the ending so does not behead her in the morning.  The next night she finishes the story, but begins another… so this continues saving many maidens in the process.

The author, Rachida Madani, wrote this in French and it was translated to English by Marilyn Hacker.   Hacker’s introduction to the poem is incredibly helpful in framing a reference for it.  Rachida Madani, an activist, began writing poetry during Morocco’s leaden years.  During this time, under King Hassan II’s rule, there was much political unrest and the government was brutal in it’s response to criticism and opposition.   Madani’s writing, though strongly feminist evaluating the role of women in the hierarchy, is more powerfully about the corruption in the society as a whole and the repression and abuses of the government towards it’s people.  Within this poem of three parts, Madani encourages a palace rebellion.  She is encouraging people to protest, speak out, share their voices.

I read this as part of Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge and am happy I did.  It satisfied the following requirement:  read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.  I’m glad I read it and feel that I learned more about Morocco and this time period as a result.