Tag Archives: Literary Fiction

“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

“Commonwealth” by Ann Patchett

28214365Pages:  336

Published:  September 13, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

The opening scene is set up like artwork. You understand the background of the characters, the pace of their movements, the absurdity of their choices. You feel the heat of the summer day, understand the lives that the characters lead and the small town that they live in. You feel the music, the alcohol, the excitement, the dramatic turn of events that awaits. You feel some characters sliding out of focus while others are becoming more intensely illuminated even electrified. It’s as if a magic spell has been cast over the christening party with the the arrival of the handsome uninvited DA, his enormous bottle of liquor and love of oranges. The tension and magic builds feverishly until the kiss between Bert Cousins and Fix Keating’s beautiful wife, Beverly.

“Commonwealth” starts out as a gorgeously written story about two families disrupted so casually, so brutally by this kiss at a christening party.  The writing is so tight, so vivid, and the storyline is riveting.  It follows the lives of the children and the parents in the aftermath of divorce.  Each chapter is it’s own short story, jumping in space and time from the last. There are characters to love, to pity, to sympathize with, to worry about, to mourn for.   The characters are all so human and the essence of humanity is explored through each of them.

The chapters pertaining to the children growing up together, especially the ones taking place during the summer when all six children are together are astonishing.  They are so well written and seem to contain so much truth.  The amount of abandonment experienced by these children and hatred for their parents is astounding.  The children were on their own to do as they pleased and Albie, the youngest, was the only thing holding them back.  So, what did they do?  They drugged him.

Interestingly, this book is semi-autobiographical with many parallels to Ann Patchett’s life.  She grew up in a blended Catholic family.  Her father was a policeman.  Then, there is a chapter about how Franny becomes Leo Posen’s muse.  This writer, who is Franny’s lover, basically manipulates her life story into a novel, entitled Commonwealth, which is entirely her life and at the same time, not at all her life.

This story asks so many existential questions.  How important is a moment in time?  What would have happened if that one day had gone differently?  Would the outcomes have been similar?   What is important in the end?  How does family shape us?

As much as I adored the character development and the first three quarters of the novel, I must admit that some of the magic of it had departed by the end, for me.  The characters were dispersed geographically and emotionally.  As much as Ann Patchett gave me exactly what I wanted in the end, which was an understanding of all the mysteries and a knowing of how each character of these two families fared in life, this part was far less interesting to me.  Still, Ann Patchett is a brilliant, gifted writer and I was awed and amazed for at least the first three quarters of this book.  images-2

family-tree

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.   Fix tells the story of Loomis, how he died at age 29.  Which is better: to die young and healthy or old and sick?  How do he and Franny each feel about this question?
  2. Were there any characters you truly disliked?  Who and why?
  3. Why do you think that certain moments or parties are more susceptible to life-changing events or do you?  For instance at the Christening party, the lives of the Cousins’ and the Keatings’ were forever changed.  Additionally, the priest and Bonnie also came together at the Christening party.
  4. Did you realize the manner of Calvin’s death immediately or did you discover it later?  What clues were there?
  5. Discuss how each child handled and was affected by the divorce and resulting neglect.  Were there any characters that you felt were unaffected by it?
  6. Franny, the law school drop out, who loves reading, fall for Leo Posen, the acclaimed novelist.  Why do you think she is willing to share her story with him?  Is this therapeutic for her?  Is there guilt associated with it?
  7. Why is there such a cover-up associated with Cal’s death among the children?  Why is this necessary?
  8. How does Cal’s death eventually destroy the marriage of Beverly and Bert?
  9. Who are the children most loyal to in adulthood?  Who do they confide in?
  10. What do you make of Holly’s decision to live in Switzerland and meditate?  Is this therapeutic, escapist..?
  11. How are Fix Keating and Teresa Cousins affected by the divorce?  What changes does the divorce bring about in them?
  12. What was your favorite chapter (or short story) and why?
  13. Discuss the title and it’s meaning in the context of this novel.

 

Ann Patchett’s website

Jennifer Senior’s Review Published in the New York Times

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Review Published in the New York Times

Lit Lovers Discussion Questions

Zero K by Don DeLillo

 

26154389

 

 

Pages: 274

Published:  May 3, 2016

 

 

 

“Everyone wants to own the end of the world.”  Thus, opens this newest novel by Don DeLillo and these are the words of the protagonist’s father, Ross Lockhart, who becomes obsessed with cryogenics when his wife becomes ill.   The novel begins with the narrator traveling to the Convergence, located somewhere in Russia, so that his step-mother can be frozen, so that she might return many years later.  At Convergence, there is no sense of time or even identity.  People there are cut off from the rest of the world.  Jeffrey Lockhart’s room where he stays is referred to as his “introversion box.”  It forces one to wonder what creates a human identity.  Is it something deep within oneself or is it one’s associations with other people and the world.  Formless meals are eaten in isolation.  Mannequins are a continuing theme and ubiquitous decoration at Convergence.  The films showings scenes of horror and death, pointing to an inevitable apocalypse are the only other break from the quiet and solitude at Convergence.

The cryogenic process itself is brutal.  The bodies are decapitated, organs removed, and they are kept in pods.  The body expected to return would be void of memories, identity, even perhaps, gender.  They seemingly become mannequins.

When Jeffrey leaves Convergence and returns to NYC, there is dramatic contrast of noise, people, lights, and action.   Jeffrey, in his early 30s, is struggling with his identity.  He is jobless, seemingly insecure in his romantic relationship, and he is rejecting living in association with his father.  He is constantly wanting the name things.  He is constantly counting.  These attributes make him seem like he is watching and evaluating the world around him, but not fully living within it.

This is my first Don DeLillo book in over 20 years, since reading Libra which I loved.   Don DeLillo is obviously a brilliant mind, but the darkness and foreboding of this novel was a bit much for me to truly love this novel.  It is a novel that depresses the reader, especially as you get only feelings of emptiness or numbness from the characters portrayed.  However, it is brilliantly written and leaves much to discuss.3-stars

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why did Jack limp as a child and then again as an adult?
  2. In what ways does this serve as a cautionary tale?
  3. Why does he call his parents by their first names?
  4. What is the role of the monk and his self-punishing life?
  5. What role does art play in this novel?
  6. What is your impression of the films playing within the convergence?
  7. Do you envision the Convergence as a opportunity for new life or as a mass grave or catacomb?
  8. Why is Jack obsessed with the woman in the stylized pose?  What does he suppose her message to the world is?
  9. Why are names so important in this novel?
  10. Was there an uplifting interval in this novel?
  11. Why do you think Ross Lockhart changes is last name?  Why is Jeffrey upset about this?
  12. What is the role of religion within this novel?
  13. What are the author’s feelings toward cryogenics?  What are yours?

Review published in The Atlantic

Review published in The Guardian

“Forty Rooms” by Olga Grushin

25716695-1

 

Pages:  352

Published:  February 16, 2016

 

 

 

 

Brilliant, insightful, imaginative,  philosophical and unique!  This novel, written by Russian born Olga Grushin is an incredible read.  It is a collection of short stories each taking place in a room that the narrator has lived in or spent time in during her lifetime.  The stories initially are set in Russia and then move to America when the narrator travels there for college.  There are so many life truths illustrated beautifully within this novel:  the twists and turns life takes us on; it’s meaning;  the perceptions of others as well as ourselves;  the changing vision and perspective of life as we age;  the rooms we choose to inhabit and their impact on us.  This was so despite, or perhaps as a result of, the overwhelming use of fantasy/magical realism within the book.

This novel is so powerful and rich with language, metaphors, imagery, mirrors and reflections.  There is so much depth to the novel added by the insertion thoughts that the various other characters are having; by repeating scenes with different scenarios, leaving it open to interpretation what might have actually transpired and what was fantasy;  and of course by the magical or fantastical characters.  The whole novel has a “dizzying,”  dream-like quality to it.  Many of the scenes occur, followed by Mrs. Caldwell waking up.

The novel is divided into parts which represent different time periods in Mrs. Caldwell’s life.  Within each part are chapters representing the rooms within which each of the short stories occur. Forty rooms was very purposely chosen.  As the narrator’s mother tells her: “Forty is God’s number for testing the human spirit.  It’s the limit of man’s endurance, beyond which you are supposed to learn something true.  Oh, you know what I mean- Noah’s forty days and nights of rain,  Moses’ forty years in the desert, Jesus’ forty days of fasting and temptation.  Forty of anything is long enough to be a trial, but it’s man-size too.  In the Bible, forty years makes a span of one generation.  Forty weeks makes a baby.”

In the beginning of the novel, the young Mrs. Caldwell hopes to achieve immortality.  She wants only to write poetry and devote herself fully to that art.  She is told by her Apollo that “the meaning of a single individual human life,.. consists of figuring out the one thing you are great at and then pushing mankind’s mastery of that one thing as far as you are able, be it an inch or a mile.”  She really does work hard at her poetry and it seems all-consuming until she meets Paul and settles into married life, not even telling him her aspirations or love of writing poetry.  She becomes a mother in a foreign country, with no friends and does not even learn to drive for quite some time.  She seems to have lost herself and is trapped in her family life, and in so doing, her marriage starts to fail as well.

I loved that this novel encompassed an entire life.  The reader is able to observe the changes occurring from childhood through adulthood to the very end.  It leaves you wondering how Mrs. Caldwell’s  life might have been under different circumstances or had she made different choices.  As a mother to young children who has made career concessions of my own, I felt swept away with this novel eager to hear the author’s final message or verdict on what might the right path be.  I think this book is amazing!  It is wonderfully written, incredibly insightful and sends many powerful messages!  I must say, this book would appeal much more to women than men and would make a great book club read.  images

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What do you think is the meaning of life?  How does it change as we age?  Do you think that meaning is different for men and women?
  2.  Where is truth in this novel really found?  In the real life circumstances or in fantasy?
  3. What is the perspective on the “showing of wealth”:  the large house and the many belongings and how it affects people?
  4.  Paul makes a statement about how easy it is to stay at home.  How easy is it really?  What sacrifices are made?
  5. Why don’t you think Mrs. Caldwell ever confronted Paul about his affair?
  6. Do you think her poetry was ever any good?
  7. Who is Olga to her?  Does she exist or is she fantasy?
  8. Do you think the man who visited her mother in the afternoons was real or fantasy?  Do you think this is the same person as her Apollo?
  9. How might her life have been different had she gone back to Russia?
  10. How might her life have been different had she gone to Paris with Adam?
  11. Why do you think she kissed Adam in the wine cellar?
  12. Do you think Mrs. Caldwell ultimately led the life that made her happy?
  13. What are Mrs. Caldwell’s reasons for having children?
  14. Her grandmother tells her she won’t find happiness unless she gets greedy and looks for it.  Does she follow this advice?
  15. What do you think makes for a happy life?  Is it the small moments as Mrs. Caldwell alludes too?
  16. What do you think the author’s opinion is of the institution of marriage?

Olga Grushin’s website

New York Times’ Review

“Fates and Furies” by Lauren Groff

 

61F+t-ywhCL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Published: September 15, 2015

Pages: 400

Awards: National Book Award Finalist (2015), Kirkus Prize Nominee for Fiction (Finalist) (2015), Amazon’s 2015 Best Book of the Year

 

 

“Fates and Furies” unfolds and reveals itself like a piece of art.  It is so multi-layered, deeply complex and philosophical that it left me spellbound, awed, & utterly impressed with this author.  It is a sexy, brilliant, exquisitely written novel that pivots around the intensely bright love and marriage between two people, who seem so different, but love each other so fiercely.  The husband, Lotto, is exuberant and narcissistic, but alternates between extreme highs and lows in his moods: between mania, with extreme passion and love for others and creativity; and depression with suicidal thoughts.  The wife, Mathilde, is so loving and devoted to her husband, but also has a cold, calculating, manipulative side that she conceals.  There are striking differences between the two:  he is always bathed in light and she in darkness.

Appearances can be deceptive in his book.  Mathilde feels that she is evil to her core, which stems from her childhood memory of being implicated at the age of 4 in the death of her younger brother.  Lotto, however, saw kindness at the very core of Mathilde.    There are so many twists and turns in this novel, making it an exciting read, one that keeps you thinking, guessing, and questioning what you know about the characters and people in general.  It is told in two parts:  the first, “the fates”, is from Lotto’s perspective and the second, “the furies” is Mathilde’s perspective.  The two halves read very differently complimenting the protagonist whose story it is.  Everyone is bathed in warmth and light from Lotto’s perspective and you begin the see the evil hidden side of the characters revealed when reading Mathilde’s story.  You also realize how she is the bedrock of his success, his glory, his glamorous life.

Lauren Groff’s command of the English language (as well as French) is incredible.  The inlaid humor, wordplay,  many layers of imagery, stories within stories,  parallel characters, and juxtapositions of character traits are fascinating.  It was a pure delight to read.  I recommend this book to anyone who loves high quality literature.  All the pieces come together perfectly like a puzzle, but it is never trite.  images  I also love the autobiographical element:  in the afterward the author speaks to how she told her friend that she would marry her now husband of many years after her first glimpse of him.

While reading the first half of the book, I keep being reminded of “The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides which was a book about a couple who marries right out of college.  It is revealed that he is bipolar in the course of getting to know him.

Discussion Questions:

  1.  How did you feel about Antoinette sending Lotto off to boarding school?
  2. There are several suicides that occur within this novel.  What do you think their significance is?
  3. Chollie accuses Mathilde of being the “predator” and Lotto, the “prey” in their relationship.  What do you think he means by this?  Do you agree?  Is it the reverse as Lotto suggests?
  4. What do you make of Antoinette’s transformation from beautiful mermaid to “sucker fish gobblemouthing the glass?”  What has caused her to change so?  Why is she always in an aquarium?
  5. Why do you think that Lotto thinks back to his relationship with Gwennie on his way to see Leo?
  6. Did you think Lotto was a misogynist when regarding his comments about the difference between genders?  Why do you think that Mathilde walked out?
  7. Why do you think Mathilde did not want to have children?
  8. If Lotto and Mathilde had children, how do you imagine it would have affected their marriage and love for each other?
  9. Why did Chollie never tell Lotto that Gwennie’s death was a suicide?
  10. Mathilde thinks that by becoming a wife she became invisible.  Is this what she wanted?
  11. When Mathilde moves to the United States as a young girl, she changes her name.  Is she pretending to be someone else from that point forward?  Why else might she be changing her name?
  12. How do you feel the plays add or detract from the novel?
  13. Why would Land steal “The Springs” manuscript?  What was it about that play that spoke to him?
  14. Is Mathilde a “pathological truth-teller”  as Lotto accuses her?
  15. What do you make of the letters exchanged between Mathilde and Antoinette?
  16. Why do you think Phoebe Delmar finally comes around to writing a good review of one of Lotto’s plays?
  17. Do you think that Mathilde maliciously tripped her brother to his death down the stairs as has been told to her all her life or is her more buried vision of the story the truth?  Do you believe that a 4 year old can be that intentionally evil?
  18. What do you suppose the author’s view of marriage is?

Lauren Groff’s website

Review published by The New Yorker magazine

Discussion Questions by LitLovers