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“Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J.D. Vance

Pages:  272

Published:  June 28th, 2016

Awards:  Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Memoir and Autobiography;  New York Times #1 Bestseller; Named by The Times as “One of six books to help understand Trump’s win”

Format:  E-book

 

This is a memoir from the point of view of a “hillbilly”  growing up in the Rust Belt of America.  He is an anomaly of sorts in that he was able to escape the circumstances of  his past and become such a success story.  His mother was an addict and abusive.  He, as a child, was a victim of her abuse.  She had a rotation of husbands and boyfriends continuously entering and leaving their lives.  Despite this, he was able to move on.  After high school, he joined the marines and served in Iraq.  Then, he went on to Ohio State and Yale Law School.  His story drew me in right away.  He tells his story through this lens:  “…for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.”

He tells his own life story alongside statistics and study data of the area, its people and culture at large.  I found this a fascinating read from a voice in a corner of the world we do not often hear from.  It provides certain insights and offers plenty of discussion points.  It is incredible that he had the resilience of character combined with the alignment of certain factors that gave him the will and drive to succeed as he did.  He comes across with great humility attributing his success to these factors that did align in the right way for him.  He could have just as easily, perhaps more easily fallen into a life of addiction and poverty.

Mamaw is a crucial supporter for J.D. Vance and a relentless voice encouraging him to be more, to think bigger for himself.  Mamaw and Papaw had moved to Ohio for factory jobs from southeastern Kentucky alongside so many others.  There is a reference to Dwight Yokam’s song “Reading, Rightin’, Rt. 23” and how relatable this was to Mamaw as well as much of Appalachia at that time.  When J.D.’s mother and aunt were growing up, Papaw was an alcoholic and the relationship between the parents was stormy, even violent at times.  Mamaw eventually kicked Papaw out and becomes a guiding force and bright light for J.D. as well as for many other of her grandchildren and great grandchildren, even though this stability was not provided for her own children. Papaw serves as her sidekick, still living in his separate house, sober now.

There is a fair amount of discussion within the book about how Appalachia and the South went from firmly Democratic to firmly Republican in less than a generation.   According to this book, there was a perceived unfairness to unemployment checks, whereby those not working would seem to actually have more luxuries, like cell phones, than those who were working hard.  Also, in the realm of housing, people could live in Section 8 housing with help from the government and be neighbors to others who are paying their full share.  Obama was apparantly unpalatable to the hillbilly people because he was so educated and spoke so differently from them.  They did not feel they could relate to him.  Oh, and maybe there was some racism involved too (but this point was strangely mentioned almost as an afterthought.)  This is a class of people, strongly united in their identity, but left feeling hopeless and disenfranchised with the loss of industry where they were previously employed.

This culture of blue collar worker with their tight knit community has higher than average levels of drug and alcohol dependence, divorce, and poverty.  The children of this community are less likely to go on to college.  The men are more likely not to work.  Those that do go off to college are unlikely to come back to their home towns.  Thus, there occurs a  phenomenon referred to as “brain drain.”  This cycle is self perpetuating and reinforcing.  It is “a culture of social decay” as J.D. Vance puts it.  There is also a “learned helplessness, ” in other words, a feeling that there is nothing these people can do to change their own circumstances.

Politically, this book is very interesting.  J.D. Vance blames the hillbilly culture for their own situation.  He believes in hard work and personal responsibility despite hardships.  His views are very conservative.

J.D. Vance is a venture capitalist in Ohio hoping to give back to the community he came from.  I will be very interested in seeing how he does give back, especially after painting such a bleak outlook for the potentiality of a solution to the problems faced by these people.  He does say that the one thing he’d most like to change about the white working class is “the feeling that our choices don’t matter.”  With his law background, it will be interesting to see if he decides to jump into politics at some point.  He certainly seems interested in public policy, although skeptical of the magic bandaid.  This is an interesting, though provoking book providing insight into a region, a class of people, as well as a pivotal period in history.

J.D. & Mamaw                               J.D. Vance

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Do you feel that you learned more about the culture of Appalacia through this novel?  Do you feel it was accurately portrayed?  Why might some people in Appalacia take issue with this novel?
  2. Discuss the guiding forces in J.D. Vance’s life that allowed him to succeed.  Discuss the role of the military in shaping his perspective and work ethic.
  3. Discuss the psychological effects of J.D.’s background on his current personal life.
  4. Why is social capital important?  How does this change for the author through his life?
  5. How would you describe J.D. Vance’s political views?  If he were a politician, who policy changes would he lobby for?
  6. Explain this “learned helplessness” that J.D. Vance talks about.
  7. Why would Donald Trump as a presidential candidate appeal to this group of people?  What do you think they hope from him?
  8. Discuss Vance’s feeling of dislocation upon graduating from Yale. How does he come to terms with them or does he?
  9. Towards the end of the book, Vance asks himself, “How much is Mom’s life her own fault?  Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?”  What are your thoughts?
  10. Do you think this book would have received so much attention had it not been an election year?  … had Trump not been a candidate?
  11. What does this book say about the American Dream?  Where and for whom is this dream alive?  Where has it died?
  12. Did you feel that that J.D. Vance was blaming the victim as many of his critics have complained?

 

 

Review by Jennifer Senior in the NY Times

Review by Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker

Discussion Questions by LitLovers

Ron Dreher’s interview with J.D. Vance in The American Conservative

 

 

 

“Maybe in Another Life” by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Pages:  342

Published:  July 7, 2015

Format:  Audible

 

 

 

 

Light, fluffy, easy to listen to audible book.  This is a story about a young woman at a critical transition point in her life and how a small decision can lead to two different outcomes in her life.  She is in her late twenties, has just ended a relationship with a married man, is pregnant unbeknownst to her, and has just moved back to Los Angeles from the east coast.  It is the ‘Sliding Doors’ concept of following the characters past this one decision through two alternate realities.  Comparing the two realities, some things turn out differently, others the same.  In fact there are some parts that are repeated verbatim from one chapter to the next adding an element of redundancy.

There are serious life events and crises that occur within this novel, however, I did not feel like I really got to know the characters well.   Hannah, the main character, wears a high bun and loves cinnamon rolls.  These two descriptors seem to be who and what Hannah is, as they are repeated so often.  Despite the potentiality of depth given the crises that occur, it remained superficial.  The characters were G rated, lacking edginess or darkness to round them out or create intrigue for me.  Even the cheaters who hurt the main characters seem to be easily forgiven and possibly even understood by Hannah and her best friend, Gabby.

Gabby is more to Hannah than even Hannah’s family is, as Hannah’s family ran off to London while Hannah was still in high school to support Hannah’s younger sister’s dancing career.  Hannah lived with Gabby and her parents for the rest of high school.  The friendship between Gabby and Hannah is great.  It is supportive and understanding, lacking drama (in a good way).  Gabby is very concerned with wording.  She wants those around her to be politically correct and not be image conscious, to understand what really matters.   This is the part of Gabby that is especially emphasized throughout the novel.  It also contrasted sharply with Hannah repeatedly referring to herself as fat when she was pregnant.  I have to say that drove me crazy.

In all, I think the concept was wonderful, however the execution was lacking.  If you feel like a super easy, no need to think much, beach read, then maybe pick this one up.  Otherwise, I’d recommend skipping it.  

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Do you think that there are decisions you make that affect the rest of your life?  How often are these decisions made?  How about other people’s decisions affecting your life?
  2. Was there a life path that you preferred for Hannah?  Did one of these resonate with you more than the other?
  3. Hannah says “Believing in fate is like believing in cruise control.”  What is the message within the book of fate versus free will?
  4. Why does Gabby feel the need to be so politically correct and make sure that those around her are as well?
  5. Hannah and Gabby have a conversation about soul mates.  Do you believe that there is one person everyone is destined to be with or are there multiple someones that would be good?  What do you think the author believes?
  6. Hannah feels estranged from her parents and sister as they moved to London while she was still in high school and she stayed behind to live with Gabby’s family.  How does her relationship with her family evolve in each of the realities?
  7. Discuss the role that cinnamon rolls play in this novel.

 

Review by Aestas Book Blog

Lit Lovers Discussion Questions

“Woman No. 17” by Edan Lepucki

Pages:  320

Expected Publication Date:  May 9, 2017

 

 

 

 

This book had me cringing, yet I was intrigued and felt compelled to read to the end. The setting is Los Angeles and a great many themes are explored throughout this novel. The two main characters, are at such transitional points in their life, making rash irresponsible decisions. These two women grew up with “bad mothers,” however end up becoming their mothers, either inadvertently or purposely in the pursuit of art. They are brought together in this novel as Lady has separated from her husband and is looking for a nanny. “S,” as Esther is calling herself in her play-act of being her mother, responds to nanny position and is hired on the spot, without even a reference check.

It is about mothering, the different ways a woman may parent different children.  It is about bonds between mother and child and boundaries.  It is about identity, as a mother, as a daughter, as an individual.

It is about relationships between women and how quickly they can change.  The characters in this novel and their relationships with each other are incredibly well developed.  The reader experiences the shifts in the relationship as life changes or new facts come to light.

It is about bad choices in relationships with men that seem exciting, yet leave the women with emptiness.  It is about the possibility of good relationships with good men, that seem boring and easy to throw away.  These women, Lady and Esther, through whose alternating voices the novel is rendered, seem destined to self-sabatoge.  Esther, in becoming her mother, takes the color out of her hair, dresses in frumpy clothing, drinks herself into oblivion, and makes poor rash choices on many fronts. Lady plays with fire on several fronts.  Most shockingly, she revisits the father of her oldest son (whose identity she is hiding from her son) not just once but repeatedly.

It is about art and the subtle shifts that can change the entire tone of the piece.  The title of the book refers to a photograph taken by Lady’s sister-in-law, Kit Daniels.  It was part of a series of photographs taken of ‘regular’ women caught off guard, with clutter in the backgrounds.  Lady’s original photo had been altered for the publication, and the slight alteration made a tremendous difference in the way she presented.  Certain other details were hidden as well.

In the end, this novel is about learning to accept yourself and the life given you, your strengths and weaknesses, not trying to copy or imitate others’, but to work with what life has handed to you.

Even though, I was annoyed with the characters and their alacrity for self-sabatoge, from which they all seemed saved at the end, I do think the novel was incredibly well executed.  It is not a feel good beach read.  It is much deeper and more complicated.   The writing is excellent.  The author develops many themes and there is significant complexity to the novel.  It is intriguing and unique.  It would make a great book club book!  

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Discuss the significance of the title.  Would you have given the novel a different title?
  2. What scene resonated with you most in a positive or negative way?
  3. How do the “roles” of the various characters influence their various interactions?
  4. Were there moments you disagreed with the choices of the characters?  What would you have done differently?
  5. What past influences are shaping the actions of the characters?
  6. Do you think the ending was appropriate?  How would you like to see the ending go?
  7. What is the importance of art and perception in the novel?
  8. Did you relate to either of the main characters?  If so, which one and why?
  9. Discuss the significance of Lady and S each going by alternative names.  What is the meaning of their given names and what are the meanings attached to the names they are going by in this novel?

Edan Lepucki’s website

Review by Kaleigh Maeby at Book Stalker Blog

“Ill Will” by Dan Chaon

Pages:  480

Published:  March 7, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Unique, dark, suspenseful psychological thriller that cycles back and forth in time focusing on 2 separate sets of murders.  In the 1970s, Dustin’s parents and aunt and uncle were brutally murdered while he and his cousins slept in a trailer in the driveway.  It was his and his cousin, Kate’s, testimony that landed Dustin’s foster brother, Randy in prison.  As a result of this traumatic event, Dustin became interested in studying the psychology of Satanic cults and violence expressed through them.  He developed his thesis around it, testified in many cases as an expert, and currently works as a therapist.  In present day, Dustin’s life starts unravelling as the delicate tendrils that were holding it together gradually give way.  His wife dies of cancer at the age of 43, his two sons have graduated from high school, and his foster brother Randy has been released from prison with the help of the Innocence Project working on his behalf.  In current day, Dustin is drawn into investing a possible homicide cluster of drunk college boys who were determined accidental drownings by the police.

The books chapters are narrated by various different characters (sometimes in the first person and sometimes in the third) and they deeply reflect the mindset of the characters.  The characters become more and more isolated from each, so the reader knows more about what is going on with them than they know what is going on with each other or in some cases themselves.

The chapters from Dustin’s mindset are particularly troubling.  His thoughts and sense of reality seem to be losing footing.  He takes up drinking and smoking.  His thoughts are repeating themselves.  He trails off not finishing thoughts or sentences.   He wonders if he’s in a fugue state.   His cousins and foster brother describe the young Dustin as trusting and gullible.  It seems without his wife as an anchor, he has become so again, particularly with regards to his patient Aqil.  Aqil is obsessed with the “murders” of drunk frat boys that have drown in waterways while intoxicated.  Dustin becomes drawn into “investigating” these incidences with Aqil, presenting himself to others as an investigator or writer.  He confides in Aqil so much that it seems there is a role reversal.  In fact, he knows very little about Aqil, but has become emotionally dependent upon him.  Dustin has trouble seeing what is right in front of him.  His son is getting deeper into drugs and pretends to go to a college he never enrolled in.  Dustin becomes an easy victim once again, trusting and gullible as always, without a strong sense of self.

This book brings up many questions.  What are memories composed of?  How reliable are our memories?  Can a fictionalized statement in the past be remembered as a truth?  What defines us?  Is it our perception of ourselves or how others perceive us?  How does grief shape our thoughts and mental stability?

This is a long, dark twisted mystery delving deep into the psychology of its characters.  At points it’s hard to read as the writing reflects the altered and distressed mental states of its characters.  It experiments with writing in chart format, chunking bits of information together in little boxes,  letting the reader grasp that it is not making coherent sense with the character.  I enjoyed the story and the writing, although it felt more difficult to get through because of it’s style.  I felt the quotations at the beginning of each chapter were perfect for setting the chapter up for it’s intended purpose and were very thought provoking in and of themselves.   The last chapter begins with this quote: “In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation.” – Sacheverell Sitwell, For Want of the Golden City.  

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Wave tells Kate that she sacrificed them and that this is her reward.  What does she mean by that?
  2. What do you think happens to Aqil at the end of the novel?
  3. Who are the gibbeners and what do they represent in this novel?
  4. How is the self defined?  By those close to us or by ourself?  Why is Dustin so concerned that Rusty will change his son’s perception of him?
  5. How are these two sets of murders connected?
  6. How were Dustin’s parents and his Aunt and Uncle really killed and why?  Who is killing these boys and why?  What is Dustin’s role in each set of “murders”?
  7. Why do you think Dustin becomes wraps up in Aqil’s investigation?
  8. Why do you believe that Dustin’s reality is decomposing in this novel? What factors are contributing?
  9. Why does Wave stop speaking to Kate after Rusty’s trial?
  10. What is the meaning and importance of memories in this novel?
  11. Why doesn’t Dustin want to read the letter written to his wife that he finds in his son’s desk?
  12. Why is Dustin blind to his son’s heroin abuse?
  13. Discuss the meaning of the title?  Ill will toward whom?  From whom?  Why?
  14. Discuss the little mantras that Dustin is always spouting.  What meaning and importance to these have to Dustin?  What does it say about Dustin that he is always spouting mantras?  Which mantras stick out in your mind?

 

Ron Charles’ Review in The Washington Post

Review by Scott Bradfield in the Los Angeles Times

An Interview with Dan Chaon as conducted by The Millions

Dan Chaon’s website

“All the Ugly and Wonderful Things” by Bryn Greenwood

Pages: 346

Published:  August 9, 2016

Literary Awards:  Kirkus Prize Nominee (2016), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction (2016), Book of the Month’s first Book of the Year Award (2016), Goodreads Best Fiction of Nominee (2016)

 

 

This is a book written by a woman who grew up in Kansas, the daughter of a “very successful” meth dealer who had his own private plane.  At the age of 13, she fell in love with a much older man.  This novel was not meant to be autobiographical, but it definitely draws upon a known past.

This novel has stirred much controversy about the nature of the relationship that develops between the two main characters in this novel.  I admit that as their relationship started to change,  I cringed at the idea of a romantic relationship between Kellen and Wavy, but I grew to love them together.  The book brings up so many questions about the nature of romantic relationships.  Is it better to first experience romance with someone you love and trust or as a fling at a party, like Rene and Amy?  Is engaging in a romantic relationship with a much older man who has been acting as your care-giver breaking boundaries of trust?  Is it morally reprehensible?  Was Aunt Brenda’s extreme reaction to the relationship between Wavy and Kellen due more to her guilt at not being there or true repulsion at the idea of this inappropriate relationship?

I loved Wavy in this novel. I felt she was an angel, a beautiful, bright and intelligent child, trapped in an ugly situation.  Her father is a meth dealer, with multiple girlfriends, not even living at home with her mother.  Her mother has extreme OCD and paranoia which she self medicates with substance abuse.  Wavy is left to her own devices, neglected, ignored, physically injured at times, witnessing the debauchery and reckless behavior of the adults around her.  She appears feral in part due to her neglect and in part due to her mother’s extreme reactions and instructions to her daughter.  Wavy will not speak to people and she will not eat in front of people.  This scares most people around her.  The teachers feel she is a lost cause.  When her parents are in jail, her Aunt Brenda becomes so frustrated by Wavy that she is made to leave.   Only certain special people are able to connect and get through to Wavy.  These include Amy, Donal, her grandmother and Kellen.

I felt so much truth, humanity and love expressed through this book. I loved that this book made me rethink some hard and fast rules that I have for behavior.  I think looking at everything as being black and white is dangerous.  There are always shades of grey.  Wavy and Kellen proved this.  This would make an excellent book club book.  There is so much to discuss and from reading other reviews, there are people with polar opposite feelings about this book!  

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why did Liam treat Wavy so poorly?
  2. Why did Liam often turn his attention away from Wavy?
  3. Why do you think Liam has so much control over those around him?
  4. Why did Uncle Sean kill Val and Liam?
  5. If you had to clinically diagnose Val, what would her diagnosis be?
  6. Discuss the female role models Wavy had in her life and the effect they had on her.
  7. Discuss the title and it various possible meanings?
  8. How did you feel about the relationship between Kellen and Wavy?  Did your feelings about their relationship change over the course of the book?
  9. Did this book make you re-evaluate your belief systems?
  10. Compare and contrast Wavy’s first experience with sexual activity to Amy and Rene’s.  Which is the better?
  11. Discuss the reasons behind which Wavy does not speak initially and will not eat in front of other people.

 

 

Bryn Greenwood’s Blog

LitLovers Discussion Guide

Interesting Viewpoint from Nobody New Yorker

 

“The Association of Small Bombs” by Karan Mahajan

Pages:  288

Published:  March 22, 2016

Awards:  National Book Award Nominee for Fiction (2016); Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction (2016);  One of New York Time’s Book Review’s 10 Best Books of the Year

 

 

“The bomb was a child, a tantrum directed against all things.”

When I started this novel, I was captivated, absorbed, thoroughly in awe of the author’s writing and the subject matter he was tackling.  How often do we try to put ourselves in the shoes of the terrorists?  We are often so appalled by the acts of terrorism happening around the globe we don’t delve deeply into the minds of the terrorists?  What purpose are they working toward? What outcome do they expect?  What events led up to their becoming terrorists?  In this novel, the terrorists are not radicalized islamists, but political activists.  They have tried peaceful demonstrations without success.

The story sets out in Dehli with the Kurana boys (both Hindu) and their Muslim friend Mansoor at the market when a small bomb goes off.  The Kurana boys are dead, however Mansoor survives with an injury only to his arm.  He walks off, not with much direction or purpose, but ends up at home.  His life is forever impacted by the blast.   It is as if by being associated with that bomb, he is never able to be free of it.  The bomb has determined his fate.

The book also follows the terrorists.  Shockie had become a terrorist out of frustration for the way Muslims were treated in Kashmir, his home province.  He feels he is fighting for independence for a land he is in exile from.   The novel poignantly describes his conflicting feelings about setting off bombs.  When he calls his mother beforehand, he hopes to be summoned home to attend to her health.  There is a sense of desperation, a knowledge that not much will be accomplished by the blast, an anger that there is not more money to make a bigger impact.  “They fucking want freedom but this fucking cheapness with never go away.”  Interestingly, he finds closeness with Malik, who is working for the same cause, however believes more in the Ghandian philosophy, and is very much laughed at by the others in their group for his ideas.  Malik tells Shockie, ” What do you think these attacks are going to achieve?  Today when you were talking about the blast not being big enough, I was thinking: It doesn’t matter.  It’s all wrong.  Blasts are a way of hiding.”

The Kuranas lost two sons to the blast.  They deal with the loss in different ways and in various stages.  There is pregnancy and birth of a daughter, there is an arranged meeting with one of the accused terrorists (Malik), there is an affair, there is the creation of a group for victims and families of victims of small bombs.  Finally, there is the realization that even though they have been so active in the world of supporting terrorist victims, they are helpless in trying to get a dear innocent friend out of jail, as this book comes full circle.

As a young adult, Mansoor becomes active in an NGO working for communal harmony.  As part of their mission, this group advocates for speedier trials for accused terrorists and feels that many of those jailed were falsely accused.  Seemingly, the pressure to arrest people in the aftermath of a bomb, leads to many false arrests with torture and inconceivable years in prison prior to trial.  He becomes good friends with Ayub, a Muslim who is very much influenced by Ghandi.  However, after a disappointing break-up and disappointing peaceful demonstrations, he begins to think more like a terrorist.  Is this all it takes?   A theme of excess sexual frustration energizing anger in an ineffective manner is a steady current throughout this book.  After setting off a bomb at another busy market place, Ayub literally becomes the bomb.  The bomb here and throughout this book, is a metaphor for a useless and reckless way of dealing with problems.

This book is fatalistic.  It takes on an enormous task looking at terrorists, victims, families of victims, even the falsely imprisoned in the bomb’s aftermath.  It is dense and extremely well written.  The topic is tough, especially since the moral in this book is that these bombs are an exercise in futility – no one will win, everyone has much to lose.  I needed to take breaks from this book; I just didn’t want to think about the book for a while.  I do think it’s an important book, though.  It raises questions.  It is unique.  

2 Photos on left:  1996 bombing in New Delhi upon which this novel is based  (CNN)

 

 

 

Photo on right:  Ramzi Yousef (Shockie’s hero) – FBI photo of perpetrator of 1993 World Trade Center Bombing

 

 

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does the bomb symbolize in this novel?  What is it a metaphor for?
  2. How do you think the sexual tension and thoughts of sexual violence relate to the terrorism theme?  Shockie calls the New Delhi blast “an anticlimax” because he is frustrated that the first bomb did not go off because of faulty wiring.
  3. Why do you think Ayub becomes a terrorist?  What has driven the other terrorists into doing what they do?  Do you feel that the author empathizes with the terrorists at all?  Why or why not?
  4. The terrorists in this novel are political activists.  How do you think they differ psychologically from those that are not political activists?  What are other motivations in the world today for people to become terrorists?
  5. How does Mansoor’s injury from the blast impact the rest of his life?
  6. Why does Malik stay silent in jail?
  7. Why do you think Ayub becomes the bomb?  Do you think Ayub feels regretful by the end?
  8. In this book, the author says that when a bomb goes off the truth about people is exposed.  How is this true in the novel?  How does the bomb and the death of the Kurana children affect the Kurana’s marriage?
  9. Why do you think Vikas has no affection for his daughter?
  10. Why are the Kuranas so concerned about how the outside world perceives their level of wealth?
  11. Why do you think the Kuranas would get so excited about bombings?
  12. Discuss the meaning of the title?  Does this characterize the people as a whole within the novel?  Does it relate to the association formed by Deepa and Vikas?
  13. Why do you think these small bombings have become a global phenomena?
  14. The novel begins:  “A good bombing begins everywhere at once.”  What does this mean?  What makes for a good bombing?
  15. Were the victims or families of the victims ever able to let go of the bombing, move beyond it in their lives?  Do you think they ever could?
  16. How do you feel about Karan Mahajan’s portrayal of terrorists in this novel?  Do you feel it is fair and accurate?
  17. Does this book offer any possible solutions, better outlet for anger, better means of getting government to listen to the people and end corruption?

Karan Mahajan’s website

Review by Fiona Maazel in the New York Times

Review by Alexandra Schwartz in the New Yorker

LitLovers Discussion Questions

Interview with Karan Mahajan as conducted by Interview Magazine

“Things We Lost in the Fire: Stories” by Mariana Enriquez

Pages: 208

Expected Publication Date: February 21, 2017 (first published December 4, 2014 in Spanish)

 

 

 

 

Wow!  What a macabre, twisted way to get swept up in the life and culture of Argentina.  I love when I read books outside my usual genres and get blown away by them. These short stories invoke living nightmares and nightmarish creatures that dwell just below the surface of normal life and enter into these stories in unexpected ways.  There are ghosts of the past, horrific creatures, and a sense of the clairvoyance  in these pages.  Some of the descriptions within these stories brought to mind Stephen King’s writing, particularly “Adela’s House.”  Certain descriptions of graffiti in repetitive patterns of letters that don’t seem to spell anything and the creature with teeth filed into triangles that eats Paula’s live cat in “The Neighbor’s Courtyard” are two other particular examples that felt Stephen King-esque to me.

The setting for these stories is in various cities in Argentina, including Buenos Aires, Lanus, and Corrientes.  There is a sense of healing in the land, but there are horrors of the past lurking just beneath the surface.  Natalia in “Spiderweb” saw a burning building which 10 minutes later was charred down to the earth.  Someone else in that story saw a ghost rising from the cement of a bridge, within which dead bodies must have been hidden.  In “Under the Black Water” a buried monster dwells in a polluted river, which people had been trying to cover up.  Argentina’s Dirty War took place 1974 to 1983 and though it is not directly referenced in these stories, the horrors lurking just beneath the surface and these ghosts of the past are most certainly from that time.

There are many common themes that wind their way through these stories creating interest and intrigue.  Many of the characters in these stories are depressed, sometimes overwhelmingly so to the point of not being able to work anymore, hurting themselves,  and perhaps hallucinating.  In one story “Green Red Orange,”  Marco becomes locked in, not seeing people anymore.  He only opens his door when no one is there to get the food his mother has left him.  He only communicates with an old girlfriend via chat from his computer where he becomes obsessed with the deep web, where he can find the most horrific things.

Another theme running through many of these stories is dissatisfaction with boyfriends or husbands.  The boyfriends and husbands in these stories are not loved or desired by the protagonist.  They are depicted as being over-confident, arrogant, pig-headed and most importantly useless.  The boyfriends or husbands end up disappearing or leaving by the end of each story.  The final and titular story “Things We Lost in the Fire” begins with women being the subject of fires set by angry significant others.  The women then begin to burn themselves in protest creating a world of disfigured women.  This is a very disturbing brutal ending to this collection of stories.

There is obvious social commentary within the pages of these stories.  The author is definitely a feminist.  She has an interesting way of depicting wealth versus poverty and sane versus mentally unstable.  She definitely delves into a world of darkness and demons, most of us do not think about.  She recognizes horrors within her stories, that don’t even pertain to the main story, but are issues with the society at large.  In “Spiderweb” the soldiers at the Paraguayan restaurant with their large guns are harassing the waitress and are likely going to rape her, however, any intervention would get the narrator and Natalia raped.  However, I feel the greatest social commentary contained within these stories is directed at the horrors and brutality of the Dirty War and how the ghosts of that time continue to haunt the Argentinian people.

Each story, thrilling and terrifying, ends on a cliffhanger.   You, the reader, are left not knowing, still wondering, what was truth and fiction, and where things will go from there.   I highly recommend this collection of short stories from a gifted and talented Argentinian writer!  It will make the hair on your arms stand up.  

 

 

The original, untranslated stories

 

 

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What social commentary is the author making?
  2. What political commentary is the author making?
  3. What literary influences did you find in the author’s writing?
  4. Why do you think depression figures so heavily in these stories?
  5. Discuss the role of female friendship within these stories.
  6. What role do drugs and alcohol play within these stories?
  7. How do these stories reference Argentina’s Dirty War?
  8. Discuss Gauchito Gil, his dark violent mythology and his role in the death of the boy in “The Dirty Kid.”  Why does Gauchito Gil appeal to the people in the neighborhood of Constitucion?
  9. How does Enriquez characterize the police in these stories?
  10. What is the meaning of people disappearing within these stories?
  11. In “Under the Water” the people of the slum are repeating “In his house, the dead man waits dreaming.”  What is the meaning of this?
  12. What do you think the meaning of the title is?  Why do you think the author chose this story’s title to be the title of the book?
  13. In “Spiderweb,” what does spiderweb symbolize?

Interview with Mariana Enriquez by McSweeney’s

Review by Allerdale Reviews

“The Refugees” by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Pages: 224

Publication Date: February 7, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

“I wrote this book for the ghosts, who, because they are outside of time, are the only one with time.” – prologue

What a timely book!  With the public debate about immigration in the forefront of everyone’s mind, with the executive and judicial branches of government battling out the legality of banning people from certain countries, the timing is perfect!   America’s history has been built upon accepting refugees from various countries. Between 1975 and 1995 over 480,000 people had immigrated to the United States.  Of the “boat people,” it is estimated that at least a third died.  This is exquisitely written, profoundly moving compilation of short stories, each one touching on the theme of immigration from Vietnam.

Viet Thanh Nguyen says he is writing these stories for the ghosts.  The first story in this book is most directly to that point.  The narrator is a ghost writer, telling other people’s stories not coming to terms with her own story until the ghost of her brother comes to visit her.   At that moment she confronts the trauma of her past.  Her brother risked his life to try to hide her as a boy when pirates raided their boat.  He was killed for it.  She was gang rapider front of her parents.  Her parents lamented her brother’s death, but never mentioned what had happened to her.  She carried the burden of her own trauma as well as of her brother’s death.  She was made to feel it was her fault.  She finally realizes she died too.  She is a ghost of the past and can write her own story.

The writing is incredible.  The stories themselves are beautiful, emotion-laden, with excellent character development and complexity.  The true nature behind the characters are revealed in unexpected ways.  The tension created by the juxtaposition of vietnamese culture in affluent America (as well as the converse) are explored.  These stories are not simply an exploration of Vietnamese culture and the refugee experience, but transcend that with the stories evoking so much truth about humanity that simply involve refugees as characters.

Rather than detail each short story, I highly recommend reading this brilliantly written grouping of 8 stories.  It is brief book, but packs a powerful punch.  These are stories that will move you and stay with you.  They are simply amazing!  

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Who are the ghosts in each story?  Why is it important to remember them?
  2. What does the term refugee mean?  How does it compare to expat or immigrant?
  3. Why does the father name his first and second set of children the same names in “The Fatherland”?  Discuss this.
  4. Nguyen also quotes James Fenton from the German Requiem in the prologue:  “It is not your memories which haunt you.  It is not what you have written down.  It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.  What you must go on forgetting all your life.”  How does this quote resonate with the stories contained in the book?  How do forgotten memories haunt characters within these stories?
  5. Liem, in  “The Other Man,” sees his mirror image and does not recognize himself.  Why?
  6. What does this statement mean in “The Americans”:  “Smiling at your relatives never got you far, but smiling at strangers and acquaintances sometimes did.”  Why does Claire feel more at home in Vietnam than she did in America?

Joyce Carol Oates’ Review published in the New Yorker

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s website

Review posted by fellow blogger, The Shrinkette

 

 

“The Animators” by Kayla Rae Whitaker

Pages:  384

Expected Publication Date:  January 31, 2017

 

 

 

 

Breathtaking, stunning debut novel!  It is amazing!  It is tragic, heartfelt, tender and brazen all at the same time.  I absolutely loved this!  I loved the journey it took me on.  I loved that I had no idea where this book was headed, but went along for a wild ride that had me laughing and crying.  There were so many areas of gray and missing pieces of information that I was itching to learn more about along the journey. These holes were so often filled in just when you thought you might not get the answers.  However, the missing pieces weren’t ever what was expected, never cliched.  This book is filled with tragedy, horrors, sadness, but also with redemption, hope and love.

The novel begins in art class with Mel and Sharon, two young women not quite fitting the usual mold at the upstate college they attend.  They are poorer, have experienced more hurt and pain, and seem to have no one.  That is, until they find each other.  They bond over old cartoons including Dirty DuckRen and StimpyClutch CargoFritz the Cat, and Heavy Traffic.  They begin working together at school and after graduation spending long days and nights working on their first movie together based on Mel’s mother, who was a drug-addicted prostitute.  They are both artists who have triangulated their futures together through their art.  Ten years later they are experiencing the success of their first film.  Mel is bold, confident, the life of the party.  Sharon is reserved, holding back, the more practical of the two.  Together they have become a great team.  They are best friends and work partners.  However, their friendship is tested by addiction, jealousy, and medical illness.

It is through their friendship with each other that they begin to rebuild themselves.  “She was the first person to see me as I had always wanted to be seen.  It was enough to indebt me to her forever.”  Their relationship is close, nurturing, subject to role reversals and also anger.

It is through their art that they come to terms with their pasts, redeeming themselves through a process of catharsis. Kayla Rae Whitaker beautifully describes how much they pour themselves into their work, how it is transformative, healing, and full of love.  It changes the way they feel about themselves, their childhoods, and it Sharon’s case it changes her relationship with her mother.

I loved the writing, the build-up of tensions, the breaking down of tensions.  I loved the power of the encounters between Sharon and her family.  It is amazing how much was conveyed with so little said, how tone and inaction spoke so loudly between them.  The characters are so vividly and fully developed, the relationships incredibly dynamic, and the storyline itself is unique, bold and exhilarating.

This book is incredible.  It has so much depth, energy, grit.  I highly recommend this to everyone!  This will make an excellent book club choice.  

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What is art to Mel and Sharon?  What does it symbolize?
  2. Discuss Mel’s reaction to her mother’s death.  Do you think she feels guilty at all for creating a movie about her mother?
  3. Discuss the role of drugs and alcohol in this novel.  Who are the addicts and why?
  4. Why did Sharon keep her list a secret from Mel?
  5. Why do you think Teddy features so prominantly in Sharon’s list?  Is it because he was her first friend or because he showed her his father’s pictures?
  6. What do you think it is between Sharon and Teddy that brings them together romantically when she finds him in Louisville?
  7. Why is Teddy so upset that he is portrayed in Sharon’s movie?  Is this rational?
  8. Mel begins losing weight and drinking heavily leading up to her accidental death by overdose.  Why was she so depressed?
  9. Discuss the tension between Sharon and her mother.  How does it finally begin to ease and why?
  10. How do you think this last project that Mel had started and Sharon finally starts to put together will come together?  How do you predict the progression of the story?
  11. Was Mel in love with Sharon?

Kayla Rae Whitaker’s website

An Interview with Kayla Rae Whitaker

Fellow Blogger, Simon McDonald’s Review

“I Let You Go” by Clare Mackintosh

Pages: 371

Published: November 9, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

This book is fabulous.  I don’t usually gush about thrillers, but this one I just might!  The twists are what make this book so interesting, keeping you on the edge of your seat.  I listened to the audible version and loved it.  I thought the two narrators, Nicola Barber and Steven Crossley, did an incredible job, each very compelling in their roles.  The characters in this novel are all so well developed that you quickly begin developing feelings about them, both good and bad.

This is a police thriller.  The novel starts out with a mother walking home with her 5 year old son, Jacob, on a rainy afternoon after school. As he runs ahead of her to cross the street to their home,  a car comes speeding around the corner striking and killing the boy on impact.  The grief-stricken mother does not get a good look at the driver because of the heavy rainfall and the driver backs up, turns around, speeding away.   She withdraws into her own guilt, stating she only let go for a second.

Ray and Kate are two detectives involved in investigating this case.  During their investigation they become uncomfortably close, despite the fact that Ray is married.  Because he and Kate spend so much time together, he finds himself talking to Kate more easily about problems at home and with his children than he does with his wife.

Jenna Gray is so upset because in her mind she is guilty of the murder of her son.  She keeps thinking, “I let you go.”  She runs away escaping to Wales, dropping her cell phone in a puddle, renting out a small cottage, retreating into solitude. One day she rescues a dog that’s been tossed to the side of the road in a bag with another that has already died.  She takes it to the local vet, Patrick, who convinces her to keep the dog, whom she names Beau.  She and Patrick begin spending more time with each other.  It seems she is slowly beginning to recover from her trauma.  She is trusting herself more, developing affection for Patrick, and finding joy in her photography.  It is all interrupted by a knock on the door by Ray and Kate.  Thus ends Part 1 and begins Part 2, which I cannot say anything about without giving away too much.

The novel moves swiftly from there.  It is cunning, well-written and superbly crafted, such that this twist will take your breath away wondering how it could be, how you could have gotten it wrong.  It’s a compelling, thrilling, thoroughly enjoyable book!  I highly recommend it.  

 

Penfach is a fictionalized Welsh town on the lower Gower Peninsula

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What did you expect was going on with Ray and Mag’s son?  Were you surprised at the truth?
  2. When Jenna Gray is narrating in Part one, did you think she was the mother of the 5 year old boy, the murderer or someone else?  I was certain she was the mother of the 5 year old boy.  What clues were present that would have told us this was not the case?
  3. Compare and contrast the relationship Ray has with Mags to that he has with Kate.  What is it about Kate that appeals to Ray?
  4. Which characters do the words “I let you go” apply to?  Explain.
  5. Discuss Jenna’s mental state when she is living in Wales.  She is fearful of people, experiencing nightmares, and does not trust herself to make decisions.  How did you interpret this when you thought she was the mother of the 5 year old boys?  How do you interpret this knowing who she is?
  6. Why do you think Jenna yearns so much for solitude?
  7. Why do you think Jenna finds relief in being accused of murder?
  8. Discuss the reaction of the villagers in Penfach to Jenna’s arrest.
  9. Discuss the relationship between Eve and Jenna.  What has driven them apart and what brings them back together?
  10. We never found out what happened to Marie, Ian’s previous significant other.  Do you think she made it out alive?  What do you suppose happened to her?
  11. What do you make of the epilogue?  Is Ian still alive or is it only the memory of domestic abuse that will never die?
  12. How do you imagine Jenna’s future unfolds?

Clare Mackintosh’s website

Fellow Blogger, Novel Gossip’s Review

Review by “The Bookworm’s Fantasy” Blog