Tag Archives: Jewish culture

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

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  320

Expected Publication Date:  August 22, 2017

Format:  E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

 

This book felt like just what I needed!  Funny, warm, and engaging, Young Jane Young captures what it’s like to be a woman at various stages of life.  It highlights the stereotypes and cultural biases that we have not moved much beyond since the days of the Puritans and the writing of The Scarlet Letter.  It characterizes several generations of women within the same family and their varied responses and attitudes toward similar situations.   It is told from multiple perspectives and there is even a section from Jane Young’s perspective that puts the reader in the driver seat in a choose your own adventure format.

Young Jane Young is a twenty-something female who was born Aviva Grossman.  Aviva Grossman works as a summer intern for Congressman Levin, who also happened to be a neighbor of hers when she was a child.  They begin an affair despite the fact that he is much older, married and her employer.  When they are found out, there is huge backlash against Aviva, but very little towards the Congressman.  Aviva is unable to even get a job, which is incredibly disheartening as she was hoping to go into politics and had been doing an excellent job during the internship.  The internet serves as her “scarlet letter” ruining her social life and any chances for a career.  She feels there is nothing left to do except change her name and move out of state.

I don’t want to give too much away, but this book comes full circle with redemption, fulfillment, forgiveness and understanding all coming into play towards the end after a bit of a rollercoaster ride.  Aviva is able to triumph over her past, first by escaping it, and later, by facing it head on at a time when she is much stronger and more self assured.   This book is a huge slap in the face to the slut shaming that goes on in situations like these!  This writing is powerfully feminist exposing gender inequalities and casual misogyny in today’s society.  The women have their flaws, no doubt, however, they feel incredibly real and relatable.  Even if the reader may not have made the same choices as these women, I think the reader can empathize with their choices through the context of the writing.  The writing is wonderful, fun and enjoyable.  This is a book out to prove a bit point, but does so with much humor and warmth along the way.  I highly recommend this book to all women, young and old.  It would make an excellent book club book, as there is so much to discuss as well as cheer for!

 

Monica Lewinsky & Bill Clinton, the couple who seemed to be the inspiration for this novel

 

 

Monica Lewinsky, from NBC, where she discusses “the culture of humiliation”

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Compare and contrast Aviva Grossman to Hester from The Scarlet Letter.  In what ways has society and gender bias changed since the writing of that book in 1850  to present day?  How, in effect, does the internet become Aviva’s scarlet letter?
  2. Discuss the fallout of the affair between Aviva and Congressman Levin.    What consequences do each face?
  3. Why do you think Embeth stays by her husband?  Why do you think so many wives in politics stand by their husbands after public outing of affairs?
  4. Compare and contrast the situation of Aviva Grossman and Monica Lewinsky.
  5. Rachel’s husband was cheating on her throughout her marriage.  Why did she put up with it for so long?  Do you think this had an effect on Aviva in her decision to carry on with an affair with the Congressman?
  6. Embeth appears ready to die and even hopeful for it.  She compares her predicament to being a victim of human trafficking at one point.  Do you feel that this is a fair comparison?  Why or why not?
  7. Why do you think that Embeth was never interested in becoming friends with Rachel, when clearly Rachel felt that she had tried?
  8. Why do you think Roz puts her husband’s version of the story (that Rachel kissed him) above Rachel’s version?  Do you think their friendship is mendable?
  9. Do you think Jorge is the father of Jane’s daughter?  Do you think they will ever tell him?
  10. What do you think Wes West’s wife’s secret is?  Why do you think Wes West is such a bully?
  11. Discuss the figure and beliefs of Mrs. Morgan.  How is she pivotal in turning Jane’s life around?
  12. Discuss the meaning of the title.  By the end of the novel, when Jane Young is running for mayor, do you think that Mrs. Morgan would still refer to her as Young Jane Young?  How has she changed or matured?
  13. Did you enjoy the choose your own adventure component to this book?  What do you think it added?
  14. There are so many examples of casual misogyny within this book, such as “douchebag,” and “old wives tales.”  Which other ones can you name from this book and from life?
  15. Aviva and her professor discuss the meaning of feminism.  What is your definition of feminism?

 

Kirkus Review of Young Jane Young

Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk

Gabrielle Zevin’s website

Review by Bookspoils, a fellow book blogger