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Posts Tagged ‘book discussions’

As lockdowns dragged on in late spring 2020, Yiyun Li and A Public Space led a worldwide read-along of War & Peace, which they called “Tolstoy Together;” I wrote about it here. SInce then they’ve led other worldwide reads, now called #APStgeother, which culminate in a virtual conversation about the book. It’s been very interesting and enjoyable to participate in some of these (see my posts about Persuasion and Hue and Cry). This spring, two years’ into the pandemic, Yiyun Li was back, inviting the world to read Moby-Dick, a book she explained that she first delved into at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with Marilynne Robinson and has read annually ever since. One helpful aspect of #APStogether is the plan: each author suggests a reading schedule for their selected work, which makes approaching a sprawling classic like Melville’s tale of the white whale much less intimidating. Moby-Dick took a month, and I found that the daily selections were easily read during my lunch breaks or in the evenings.

If you haven’t read Moby-Dick, you might still know something about it, such as the famous line, “Call me Ishmael,” that has spawned a million riffs. What you may not know is that this novel, now considered one of the greatest in American literature, was more or less a flop during Melville‘s lifetime. In his lovely celebration of the book, Why Read Moby-Dick, Philbrick explains that it sold only 3715 copies between its publication, when Melville was in his 30s, and his death at 72 (it had already gone out of print by that time). He credits the brilliance of the book as the secret to its longevity:

“Reading Shakespeare, we know what it is like, in any age, to be alive. So it is with Moby-Dick, a novel about a whaling voyage to the Pacific that is also about America racing hell-bent toward the Civil War and so much more. Contained in the pages of Moby-Dick is nothing less than the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts, and ideals that contributed to the outbreak of a revolution in 1775 as well as a civil war in 1861 and continue to drive this country’s ever-contentious march into the future.”

Just as Starbuck, the mate on the whaleship Pequod, is unable to stop mad Captain Ahab’s relentless pursuit of revenge on the white whale, even though Starbuck knows it will bring danger to the ship and its crew, so America was unable to prevent the madness of slavery and racism from rending it. Philbrick notes, “As Starbuck discovers, simply being a good guy with a positive worldview is not enough to stop a force of nature like Ahab, who feeds on the fears and hatreds in us all.” Which makes this book, written in the 1850s, relevant in every age, including today.

Both Philbrick’s book and Li’s zoom discussion also touch on Melville’s writing. Philbrick notes, “In its willful refusal to follow the usual conventions of nineteenth-century fiction, Moby-Dick possessed the experimental swagger so many authors were attempting to capture in the years after World War I.” Li referred to the novel as “messy” (as does Philbrick) with no emphasis on a narrative arc, a book that contains what she called “a whole universe” that requires readers to “float along with Ishmael” as he digresses from the loose tale of Captain Ahab and the journey of the Pequod in search of Moby Dick onto a wide range of topics that are both factual and philosophical. Li noted that the book is “craftless” — and that this is an important lesson to writers, that a novel “doesn’t have to be finely crafted to be good.”

As he examines everything from the specific details of whaling to the mysteries of the human mind and spirit, Melville is often poetic, as in this line describing Nantucket: “one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day’s walk a prairie.” And philosophical, as in “Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.” He not only muses about death and the afterlife, but also revels in the minutiae of Ishmael’s here and now.

So, if you haven’t read Moby-Dick, give it a try. Read it slowly, a little at a time, and with a guide such as Yiyun Li or Nathaniel Philbrick to steer you through its turbulent seas. Find someone to read it with you, to talk it over. And enjoy!

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I didn’t set out to read two novels in a week. I was planning to read Ann Patchett‘s The Patron Saint of Liars because the NH/VT chapter of the Companions was having its annual mystery and theology discussion and this was one of the book choices. Then Anthony Doerr‘s Cloud Cuckoo Land became available and I’d been on hold for it for over two months, so I didn’t want to pass up the chance to read it. So read them both, one after the other, rather quickly.

If you are a reader you’ve likely heard of both of these authors. Cloud Cuckoo Land was a finalist for the National Book Award last fall and was on a lot of the end of the year “best books” lists. Although it came out in September, I have heard more about it lately from other readers, especially our older son, who got it just before Christmas and had been telling me I’ve love it. His recommendation was the reason I had placed a virtual hold through the library.

Longtime readers of bookconscious may recall that I didn’t love All the Light We Cannot See. But I really enjoyed Cloud Cuckoo Land. It’s the story of several characters dispersed by both geography and time whose lives are connected through an ancient Greek comedy called Cloud Cuckoo Land. That book is Doerr’s invention, but on his website he talks about the phrase, which is from a real Greek work. In his novel, Doerr tells the stories of:

— Anna, a girl in 1400s Constantinople and Omeir, a boy who is drafted with his oxen into the Ottoman military to sack the city.

— Zeno, a Korean War veteran who decides late in his life to try to translate the known fragments of Cloud Cuckoo Land.

— Seymour, a neurodivergent boy whose love for nature, and in particular an owl in the woods behind his grandfather’s derelict trailer catches the attention of his teacher and a librarian, and also causes him to be radicalized by ecoterrorists.

— and Konstance, a girl from a future time whose family are part of a small group chosen to populate a space ship headed for an earth-like planet where people will try to start over after earth becomes uninhabitable because of climate change.

There are some notable minor characters, in particular a librarian named Marian who makes the Lakeport Public Library a place of welcome and refuge for Zeno (who was also looked after by Lakeport’s librarians as a child) and for Seymour and all her patrons. Seymour’s mother, Konstance’s father, and Omeir’s grandfather also stand out.

The stories are all very compelling, and Doerr’s language can be beautiful. This sentence describes Zeno: “All day, joy has steadily inflated inside his chest, and now, this afternoon, at 4:30 p.m. on a Thursday in February, watching the children run ahead down the sidewalk— Alex Hess wearing his papier-mâché donkey head, Rachel Wilson carrying a plastic torch, Natalie Hernandez lugging a portable speaker—the feeling threatens to capsize him.” And this describes a daybreak Konstance sees: “In front of her, out on the horizon, the blue rim of dawn is turning pink, raising its fingers to push back the night.”

I think this sentence captures how the novel communicates a kind of “chastened hope” (a phrase Ellen Davis uses to describe the narrative arc of the bible in her book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture). In Doerr’s fictional worlds, horrible things happen, but individual people are often generous towards each other. He acknowledges the capacity for greed and even evil, but suggests that those will not prevail. Doerr addresses how the poor and people with disabilities — a cleft lip for Omeir, some kind of neurodivergence for Seymour — are treated by others in society. He also comments on our inability to understand that we’re harming the earth and on our inadequate response to climate change, some of which seems to be ceded in the novel to a large technology company that might be a fictional stand in for Google. People suffer because of all of this. But the innate kindness of most of his characters, even misguided Seymour who atones for his ecoterrorism later in life in some very interesting and benevolent ways, speaks to Doerr’s sense that our “interconnections” can help us.

Which is probably one of the themes of The Patron Saint of Liars. I didn’t like the book very much when I started it. Perhaps because I didn’t give myself time to properly think about Cloud Cuckoo Land and I wasn’t ready to jump into another novel yet. The Patron Saint of Liars is the story of Rose, a young pregnant woman who realizes she doesn’t love her husband and leaves, driving halfway across the country to St. Elizabeth’s, a home for unwed mothers in tiny Habit, Kentucky. There she meets Sister Evangeline, an elderly nun who cooks badly but has a gift for seeing into people’s souls. And June Clatterbuck, whose father found a miraculous spring in the family pasture which attracted people to this rural place, including a wealthy Catholic couple who built a hotel for visitors to the springs and then during the Depression donated the hotel to the church.

When one of the girls decides to hide her labor so she’ll have her twins at St. Elizabeth’s and get an hour in the ambulance before giving them up, Rose unwillingly goes along. The experience seems to move something in her and she wanders out into the snow to try to process what she’s been a part of that night and what will happen when her own baby is born. Son, St. Elizabeth’s caretaker, finds her in the snow and offers her a different future. From that pivotal evening, Rose finds her way onto a new path.

The book is also about Sissy, who grows up at St. Elizabeth’s, and Son, who came, like Rose, not intending to stay and ended up making a life there. Our discussion was very interesting — several women did not feel Rose was a sympathetic character nor that she experienced any growth or redemption. My sense is that she was dealing with deeply ingrained shame, the loss of her father, and a mother who did not really treat her as a daughter, but as a friend; I felt like she saw staying as a kind of penance, and that she loved her daughter and provided what she thought would best prepare her in life, having not felt at all prepared herself. The Patron Saint of Liars is an interesting story with a lot to discuss and a number of unresolved threads at the end. One person said she wished there would be a sequel.

In addressing any theology we saw in the book I wondered if three of the women might have represented a kind of feminine trinity after another participant pointed out that Sister Evangeline might represent Christ. I could see June as the Spirit and Mother Corinne as a kind of Old Testament version of God. But what I didn’t say in the discussion is that the theology of The Patron Saint of Liars is that we’re all interconnected and we have to care for one another. (You thought I’d forgotten that — the way this book and Cloud Cuckoo Land are similar? Nope, I was getting to it.)

I think Patchett is telling us, as Sissy and Sister Evangeline understand, and I think Rose ultimately did as well, that we are all signs from God for each other. Rose very much prays for a sign at the start of the novel, and at the end, Lorraine, a girl who has come to St. Elizabeth’s to have her baby, is praying to Saint Theresa for a sign. But Patchett’s story shows that even Rose, whose connections to others don’t look like what we expect from a wife/daughter/mother/friend, cannot avoid the fact that her life is deeply connected with others’ and that if we stop looking heavenward and start looking at those whose lives we touch and who touch ours, we may see the signs we seek.

Perhaps because of this, I ended up liking The Patron Saint of Liars more than I thought I would. The language is relatively plain, but still quite evocative. Take this passage, for example, where Sissy is describing Rose:

“My mother talked in her car.

If there is any explanation for this in all of science, I can’t imagine what it would have been. She didn’t talk in my father’s truck or the nuns’ station wagon. She didn’t talk on buses. But in that blue Dodge Dart that was hers alone in all the world she sat comfortably. She folded her legs beneath her. She even put her foot up on the dashboard for a minute. She smiled and stretched and said whatever came into her head. It was almost like the car was her house, only she was never like this in her house.”

If you’re looking for a good read with a lot to discuss, either one of these novels would be a good choice.

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I’ve been reading a few other things — I finished A Theory of Liberation by Gustavo Gutiérrez and started The Word is Very Near You by Martin Smith, and I am reading Edmund de Waal’s The White Road. But this past weekend I paused to read James Alan McPherson’s Hue and Cry. I read it because this is the latest book club selection for A Public Space (you may recall they kicked off what has now become a series of worldwide reading “together, apart” events with War & Peace in the spring.

Hue and Cry was James Alan McPherson‘s debut story collection, published in 1968. It is a tough read — about, as Yiyun Li said during the online discussion of the book, epics out of ordinary lives. She and Lan Chang both knew and studied with McPherson, and later taught alongside him, and their insights were really interesting to hear. Talking about “Hue and Cry,” the last story in the collection, the two discussed how overwhelming it felt to read. They shared that this feeling stems from the way McPherson is so honest about the characters, Margot and Eric, who want to change the world and very clearly cannot, and about the forces (as Change said) and fate (as Li said) of society overwhelming them. Hue and Cry also has strange, (Chang and Li called them Greek-chorus like) omniscient passages at the beginning and end of the story, and this voice asks the same question in the first and last lines:

“But if this is all there is, what is left of life and why are we alive?”

Chang notes that the rest of the book prepares us for how devastating this story is, because there are so many little ways the characters deal with struggle and disappointment. There is so much racism, and misogyny, and homophobia. Both Chang and Li commented that McPherson wasn’t these things; he simply noted them and wrote about them honestly.

They both admired “Gold Coast,” about a young Black janitor and an old Irish janitor in a building near Harvard square and said it just has everything a story should have. Several people commented during the discussion that “A Matter of Vocabulary” is striking; both of these stories are really honest about the hardships people face and the harshness in the world. Yiyun Li said something very interesting about the difference between William Trevor, who looked around at the a beautiful town or village and wrote about what was wrong underneath the beauty, and James McPherson, who looked around at the harsh world and wrote about the beauty underneath.

I liked “A Matter of Vocabulary,” which is about two young brothers working in a grocery store, and “On Trains,” which is very short but as Yiyun Li noted still conjures a whole world in a brief train trip. “A New Place” really seems to capture what it’s like to be young, disillusioned by the world and unsure of what to do with yourself but sure a change of scene might help.

I’m glad I read Hue and Cry, even though it is painful, especially at a time when the world’s harshness has been so in focus. But it was interesting to hear the perspective that if we look closely, even at the devastating things, we can see beauty.

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I first meant to read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen when it came out to rave reviews, and then again when The Readers chose it as a book discussion book. What finally got me to move it up to the top of the “to be read” list is that I’m going to hear the author next week. It’s a very powerful read, and a well written book, but it left me with confused feelings. I liked much of it, I learned a great deal about Vietnam and its wars, but the brutality is hard to take (how many times have I said that lately here? I need to read something less appalling, soon!) and very vivid. Chapter 21, in which the main character, The Captain/Sympathizer, is tortured until he recalls in vivid detail a female comrade’s torture, is probably one of the most horrifying depictions of inhumanity I’ve ever read.

That aside, the book is fascinating, and the Captain is an intriguing character. He has two best friends from his school days, one, Man, who is a high ranking communist revolutionary in Vietnam, and the other, Bon, who works with the Captain for a South Vietnamese general and the CIA. So the Captain is the Sympathizer — he sympathizes with communism, to the point of spying for the North, even as he works for the other side. He also admires many things about America and loves and respects both his friends. He’s an orphan, the bastard child of a French priest whose mother was the priest’s maid and had him when she was a young teen, and Man and Bon are family as much as friends to him. The Captain’s outsider status — neither fully American nor Vietnamese, neither fully Occidental or Oriental, neither fully a refugee (legally yes, but he knows California from attending college there) neither fully a soldier nor fully an intellectual, allows him to move within these worlds comfortably as no other character can.

The book begins on the last day before Saigon falls, as the Captain, the General, and their chosen family and associates escape and make their way to America as refugees. It ends with the Captain and Bon in Vietnam as well. In between, we watch the Captain try to adapt to isolation from Man and his comrades, to his refugee status, to his postwar roles serving the General and the CIA and Man, and to his responsibility towards Bon, who has suffered great losses. We also watch his developing realization that post-war Vietnam is not the revolutionary paradise that was promised.

Towards the end of the book, the Captain has wrestled with the meaning of his country’s long struggle against imperialism and is left with questions: “What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around us apparently do, in nothing?” Just as it’s important to face the brutal inhumanity of warfare (open or covert), it’s important to remember this novel isn’t just about war, but about its aftermath. It’s also a book about love, both philia, or “brotherly” love, and agape, or charity, the love that inspires concern for the greater good of mankind. The Sympathizer is unique in this book because he relates to — sympathizes with, and I’d say loves — everyone who has suffered, even, finally, those he made suffer. That he’s haunted by both innocents and his own loss of innocence makes him a sympathetic character.

Still, this book is not for the faint hearted, and was maybe not the best choice after Evicted, which also describes soul-sapping inhumanity.

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I recently reviewed The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain, and I just finished his earlier book, The President’s Hat. Set towards the end of Francois Mitterrand’s presidency, the book opens with Daniel Mercier treating himself to a meal at a brasserie while his wife and son are away. President Mitterrand and his party are seated beside Daniel. He’s amazed by this brush with greatness, and when the president leaves his black felt Homburg hat, Daniel does the unthinkable — he takes it.

As the novel unfolds, three other characters end up with the president’s hat: a woman in an unhappy love affair, a famous perfumer who hasn’t been able to create anything new for years and is in a deep depression, and a wealthy man who has come to disdain all that his familiar world stands for. As each of them possesses the hat for a brief time, their lives are changed. Daniel gets a promotion. Fanny finds the gumption to leave her lover. Pierre rediscovers his creativity. Bernard thinks for himself, and discovers a passion for modern art.

Does the president get his hat back? You’ll have to read the book to see. Once again Laurain transports readers to Paris, brings each scene alive with little details like the “ramekin of shallot vinegar” served alongside the seafood platter Daniel orders. Or a scene in which Pierre describes an African fetish in his analyst’s office.

This story seems a little bit like a fable or fairy tale; there’s the implication that the hat has some sort of magic or power and is bringing changes to each of the characters’ lives, but Laurain never quite says, leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. To me, that makes for better reading. There’s a discussion guide in the back; a book group might enjoy discussing the many social and cultural issues Laurain touches on as well as the charm of the novel itself.

The President’s Hat would be good vacation reading — thoughtful and well done, but not too taxing.

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