Tag Archives: Book Club

Book Club Review: The Sense Of An Ending, Julian Barnes

1-IMG_1250

It was my turn to host the book club and I had chosen Julian Barnes’s Man Booker Prize winning novel The Sense of An Ending. When I read the book last year, prior to my decision that it would be my book club pick, I came to the last but two pages, and the ending took me by surprise. I said to myself, “Did I miss something?” and I re-read the book–it was only 150 pages long. I then decided that it would be the book I would share with my friends.

Later I came across a review by Geoff Mak, who commented that “The Sense of An Ending has gained itself a reputation for being the novel you must read twice”, and the director of the 2012 Man Booker Prize did so as well. It was very good to know that I was not alone.

At our book club meeting, I first asked my friends whether they found the ending a surprise and unanimously, nobody expected the twist, although one or two suspected that it might not be a straightforward ending. Our discussion quite naturally moved to  the mystery aspect of the book. We thought that Tony Webster was unreliable as a narrator.  He was forced to re-walk and rewrite his life history with he inheritance of the diary that belonged to his friend Adrian through the mother of his ex-girl friend Veronica. Adrian committed suicide after they finished school and parted ways. Even then, how much could he remember events of forty years ago, let alone recall them accurately? As one book club member opined, our memory was what we wanted to remember.

Not only that, a few of us echoed what Veronica kept commenting about Tony that he “just did not get it”, although we could not figure out what he did not get, because that would solve the puzzle regarding his relationship with Veronica, Adrian and Sarah Ford (Veronica’s mother).  We felt we had to accept the fact that this was Tony Webster, resigned and somewhat unable to understand relationship issues, struggling to remember what happened in his younger days. With our all-female member book club, we even ventured into generalizing that this could be a male perspective. As for Tony, the book gave the impression that he was constantly lost and uncertain about himself. Margaret, Tony’s ex-wife, continued to be his counsel and confidante.  We speculated that his weekend at Veronica’s home was significant, but our interpretations differed. One wondered about the imagery of Sarah flipping the egg and throwing it away, and its implication.  Another person read more into Veronica’s asking her brother Jack whether “this one (Tony) would do”.

The personality of Veronica did not appeal to us. Tony warned Adrian that she was “damaged goods”, but her personal history was sketchy in the book. She was spiteful after she had slept with Tony, and that was also after they had broken up. I wondered what the story would be like if Veronica was writing it.

It seemed that Tony had almost forgotten the vicious letter he wrote to Adrian, after Adrian told Tony about him and Veronica. He wanted to find out why Adrian had committed suicide. Veronica told him that the money bequeathed to him by her mother was “blood money”. However, the ending did not help us, who were trying to play sleuth. After all, Sarah Ford’s letter to Tony mentioned that Adrian died happy.

We were very involved in our discussion, and everybody attempted to create a version of exactly what had happened. This little book spanned Tony Webster’s life time from youth to retirement age, yet what was not written– except that he got married and then divorced– in between did not seem to matter. He was an ordinary fellow trying to make sense of his life.

Julian Barnes adeptly wove the class discussion of history into the theme of his book. It was Adrian who said, ” We need to know the history of the historian I order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.” (p.13). With Tony, who seemed uncertain at times about what exactly happened in his life, the irony rang home.

One thing was certain. Several book club members decided to re-read the book. Our discussion actually continued into the next day, when one person sent out an email giving yet another interpretation of what had happened in the plot. I could not be more pleased.

Book Club Review: Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

The youngest member of our book club has chosen this book for us, because she wants to challenge us to read a book that is not in our usual genre, and yet this book is a classic, and has won both the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award, both coveted awards in science fiction. Furthermore, The Ender’s Game has been made into a movie and will be shown later in the year. What’s better than bringing a group of women who are the age of her aunts and mother up-to-date by reading The Ender’s Game? 

We all read the edition with an Introduction by the author written in 1991, six years after the book was published, and we all like it. Our only reservation is how difficult it is to visualize the games that Ender and his school mates are playing.  We remember the time back in the 70’s and early 80’s when computer games only meant Pong (although other games were developed but not widely distributed) and a little later Atari’s Space Invaders. Obviously Orson Scott Card is describing much more sophisticated “games” than those of his time and they are more like the games people are playing today.

We are more familiar with Peter and Val asking their father for his account number to post online using pseudonyms and pretending to be adults. Isn’t it amazing that the author has written about chatroom and blogging when the did not exist forty years ago?

The plot of the book is straightforward. Ender Wiggins, a young boy of six, is selected to join Battle School and later promoted to Command School to be trained to fight the Buggers, some insectoid enemies from space. He leaves his parents, his older brother and sister, who are also gifted but considered unsuitable for the purpose and he is mentored by the person who won the last war against the Buggers to win the ultimate battle.

We discuss the “power” theme of the book. The book is all about Power: from parents being forced to reproduce to fulfill the purpose of the state, to children being removed from their parents, to the winning of “games” which allowed the young people to move up the ranks. When I read the book, I feel I am reading something like Animal Farm or 1984. Then there is Peter, Ender’s brother, who thirsts for power, his sister Valentine, who knows that power also means being influential and Ender, who although peace-loving, becomes the powerful conqueror in the Battle. We are taken by the irony the Ender somehow has to struggle with his conscience that he has killed his school mates and the Buggers, whereas Peter becomes known as the peace maker on Earth.  We can only take comfort in that although lacking parental love (and we wonder whether his parents are holding back from loving him knowing that one day he will be taken away from them), Ender is nurtured by Val and by General Graff–tough love–in a way.

“He’s not a killer. He just wins…thoroughly.” However, the winning is deceived in the form of a game, unknown to Ender. On the one hand, we question the morality of deception–Ender, who does not want to kill, is deceived into playing a game in which to win means killing. One person mentions that she has come across a report on  Prince Harry commenting on his pilot training, the simulation aspect of which is shooting objects on a computer screen to destroy them. Isn’t that what Ender is doing? On the other hand, we also question whether the innocent killer is really innocent, but we did not have time to delve into a discussion on the philosophy of the act and the intent.

It is brought up that Card is a devout Mormon and this sparks the discussion on the implication of his religious practice on his writing. We are speculating, but does calling the enemies “Buggers” implies homophobia or a disrespectful attitude? Another interesting observation is that some Mormon communities are known to send their young male members away to live in a community very much like Ender and his friends. The people in command are all male. This has got us speculating again.

Then someone observes that in the movie, Viola Davis plays the role of General Alexander. Our conversation drifts to the cast and the anticipation of watching the games that Ender plays on the movie screen.

At the end of the book, Ender travels with Valentine, and he finds the cocoon of the Bugger Queen, which he carries with him until he finds a place for it to hatch. He also writes in the name of Speaker of the Dead. One thing is sure, many of us are going to read the sequels of The Ender’s Game.

Book Club Review: The White Tiger. Aravind Adiga

1-IMG_0719

The White Tiger, written by Aravind Adiga, won the Man Booker Prize in 2008. Our book club host chose it because it is set in India, where she had grown up in but left many years ago to live in the West. She wanted us to take a glimpse into the new India as it was known since the influx of western technology and without doubt, we were fascinated by the India that was depicted in the book.

Balram, the protagonist, was a self-made entrepreneur who ran a taxi company driving employees of call centres  to and from their work in Bangalore. He rose to this position in society from the darkest dumps in India among poverty and dirt, but not without his desire to escape what he was born into in order to climb in society combined with a bit of cleverness and a ruthless criminal mind.

We were all interested in the characterization of Balram Halwai. When the story began, we were reading his letter to the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, full of sarcasm and scorn and then came an open slash out on his employer and his home village. As the story unfolded, Balram brought the readers through retrospective narrative following his journey to success in the India we know of today, where there was uncountable riches among some people in big cities like Delhi and Bangalore, and rotten poverty in the smaller villages. Balram was proud that he had made it.

His employer, Mr. Ashok.  joked that he was “half-baked” due to his lack of formal education. We reckoned that as a village boy, he only knew what he had been taught, but there was so much he did not know. However, Balram did not stop educating himself.  He eave-dropped. There was a street-smartness in him which enabled him to watch his surroundings, and picked out cues to please the people who had authority over him. He found his break when he learned how to drive, and got into his chauffeur job by back stabbing the one in service at the back. He had no qualms. He was an opportunist. The only sign of goodness in him was his care for the little boy who joined him to work in the big house.

He was a complicated character, and one whom none of us liked. We however were trying to imagine if we had been in his position, would anyone of us had done something similar. It was one thing to understand what Balram’s development, but another matter to sympathize with what he had done.

Funny though in places, this was a tragic story to most of us. Our Indian host confirmed the rigid class system in which some human beings were treated with contempt by others and   the bullying around the place for survival. It was hard to imagine Balram being sent off by his grandmother to make money, and when he stopped doing so, she threatened to marry him so as to get the bride’s dowry.

We questioned the value of human life as revealed by this novel. The wife of Balram’s boss ran over somebody. They did not care for the victim, and they made Balram signeda paper to admit that he committed the offense. That seemed to be the moment of revelation to Balram, a turning point where he began to set bigger goals. He killed his employer and ran away with the money. He gloated about his achievement, He was blatantly exposing the inequalities in his society, the lack of respect for fellow human beings and the value of life.

We began to wonder the intent of the author in portraying such a character. One member suggested the author was writing from outside of the Indian society from a lens of a western educated journalist. The economic success of the modern Indian did not pass the gauntlet of his critical eyes which searched for social equality. The rich tread down on the poor, and Balram, symbolizing the poor, justified the murder of his employer as an act of vindication.

Personally I was drawn to how Balram address to the Chinese Premier throughout and his irreverent and pointed remarks he made.  I opined that there was a political agenda in the context of the tense Sino-Indian relationship alluded to by the author. There is such irony that the two most populated countries in the world are going through economic development with the unprecedented polarization of the rich and the poor, measured in monetary terms. Do we not know that within both societies, there is bribery and corruption, and in both societies, outsiders and foreigners are treated with greater respect than one’s own people, and human life is never valued? China has always portrayed itself to be a better place than it is. Here comes Adiga, speaking to the Chinese Premier in the face, short of accusing his target as a hypocrite through the voice of the protagonist, Blaram Halwai.

We all liked the book. Adiga’s may not have fulfilled all the requirement of the novelist in giving due treatment to the various characters in the book, but his acumen in perceiving the dilemma of Indian society today (and his clever reference to China’s parallel situation ) is a winner.

At the end of our book club, we felt we should all continue with some Indian flavour by arranging a date for an Indian meal and to visit a temple in Toronto. My dear readers, please  keep an eye out for my post.

A BYOB Book Club: In One Person, John Irving

IMG_0226

If you think that you have to “bring your own bottle” to this book club, sorry, you are off the mark! This was the catchy title of the book club hosted by the Burlington (Ontario) Central Public Library. Essentially this is to say that they do not provide the book, and to attend the book club, you have to at least have read the book and if possible, bring a copy along.

This was the first time I attended a public book club. I signed up simply because I came across the notice soon after I had read John Irving’s In One Person and felt interested in hearing what other people had to say about it. The library seemed well-prepared on their part. They had available for downloading a list of the rules and a dozen or so questions for attendants to ponder ahead of time.

I also invited my friend AK, who had never been to a book club, along. It turned out there were only six people present, plus a librarian who led the discussion. The atmosphere was friendly and open, and everybody got a chance to speak out on the issues. The librarian commented that attendance to this book club was not high, compared to a few that were held in the evening in a pub. I wondered whether this was a reflection of the preference for the time or for the venue.

We went around the group to talk about our overall impression. One member had read many John Irving’s books and noted the similarity with his previous work The World According to Garp (1982) in which a boy grew up with a single mother in the absence of a father figure. My friend opined that she actually gave up after the third chapter, because it was not her genre–she loved mystery and crime stories—-and that the topic was outside of her imagination and interest. I found myself feeling divided throughout the book. It was a gripping book emotionally, but when I put on my analytic hat, I frequently questioned how much the message that the book conveyed about gender orientation running in the family would stand up to scientific scrutiny. A reader who was a student in gender studies agreed. One reader found the book emotionally intriguing and she liked particularly the author’s treatment of how Billy and his family members talked to each other, and what they said suggested the affection they had for one another.

We seemed able to identity several salient themes in the book to examine more closely. At the same time, the majority of us wanted a glossary in the book to explain the sexual behaviour of the LGBT (gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and trans-sexual) and the transvestite communities, and more medical details about the transsexuals.

The story is about Billy’s journey in discovering his sexual identity. He has grown up in a family which seems loving and tolerant enough, and yet he is left to himself to feel like a misfit regarding who he is and why he has all those strange feelings about the opposite sex and his same-sex friends. One of his wakening episodes is his friend Elaine’s bra, to be followed by more sexual experiences in his years abroad. There is tension throughout, because his family apparently knows about the secret of Ms Frost, and yet Billy is being left totally out of it. Richard (his mother’s boyfriend, hence an outsider of his family) takes Billy to the library, and just imagine the irony embedded in his remark, “I just want to read about me.” (Isn’t John Irving a clever writer?) So comes Ms Frost to give him the book. Essentially Ms Frost gives Billy the key to his gender identity.  It is also another outsider, his friend Gerry’s father, who tells Billy that he is a “double whammy”.

So what is the role of Billy’s family in the story (Library Book Club Question #8)? It seems that his mother and his sister are not directly instrumental to Billy’s journey. The family unit is a vehicle to explain Billy’s sexual orientation and therefore gives Billy meaning in identifying himself after the realization that he is bi-sexual; but to the readers, an excuse or reason for who Billy is, depending how one looks at it.

Miss Frost asks, “Goodness me, what makes a man?”  What makes a man or a woman in the book (Library Book Club Question #1)? Billy’s story and those of Ms Frost and the other characters lead to the answer “You are what you think you are”. Yet there is a tragic component in all these characters to be what they are. We read throughout the book how the characters in the book face being ostracized, or suffer from AIDS and death. To the title In One Person, John Irving’s choice of epigraph is from William Shakespeare’s Richard II, “Thus play I in one person many people, And none contented” (Library Book Club Question #4), It is a suggestion how unhappy the characters are, fighting between whom they think or want themselves to be, and trying to fit into society’s expectations.

The theme of play or playing a certain role on stage runs throughout the book. (Book Club Question #9). The characters seem more at ease when they assume a role on stage than being who they are in real life. Is life, particularly the lives of people with a different gender orientation playing the roles of multiple persons in one person? They must be rather lost as to what they are. That they are performing the roles in Shakespeare’s and Ibsen’s plays further echoes the line “life is a stage”.

We attempted to imagine what it would be like for Billy to grow up in a small town in the United States in the 1950’s. It would be a tight community in which everybody knew everybody, and there was no secret to hide. This heightens the tension in the development of the story.

Thus confusion between what is masculine and what is feminine is brought about by the sport wrestling, which is conventionally perceived as a masculine game. It is also a tactile game with body contact that may attract individuals such as Ms Frost and Kittredge. John Irving uses wrestling, a sport he knows very well, to illustrate the contradiction between belief and reality.

A novel of sexual orientation and extreme behaviour cannot steer away from writing about sex (Book Club Question #10). John Irving handles the subject matter brilliantly. Our group agreed about his openness but did not accuse him of poor taste. We may not agree with the morality of the novelty, but his treatment of sex was well written. In fact, Irving is so clever in his craft that he becomes persuasive. He arouses the readers’ sympathy towards his characters even when they look upon GLBT issues in our society differently.

A few book club questions (#14, 15 and 16) ask if the reader is  shocked and what is disturbing about the book, and how it contributes to society’s ongoing debates about sexuality, gender and identity. Some of us find it confusing, some feel uncomfortable, and my friend AK does not enjoy the subject matter. While we can approach the book as fiction, we are disturbed by the morality it represents. Why can’t Ms Frost leave Billy alone? Why the seduction of Billy? When they first met, Billy was only seventeen.  In One Person is undoubtedly a controversial novel, and it is going to play an important part in society’s ongoing debate about gender and sexual orientation and identity. John Irving has an agenda, and his personal agenda is fulfilled in arousing sympathy among the readership irrespective whether they endorse the behaviour of the characters. The caveat, however, is whether the implicit message that individuals are born with or inherit certain gender orientation is the reason or just an scientifically unproven excuse.

Our discussion went on for one and a half hours. There were still topics we could not cover, such as the AIDS era and other characters in the book, such as Tom Atkins, Kittredge, Elaine, etc. Immense interest was shown in our discussion, whether we had enjoyed reading the book or not.

Related Site: The Burlington Public Library Book Club Guide

Book Club Review: The Red Tent, Anita Diamant

RedT

We finally had a book club meeting in which the votes split the group into half, with one group liking it so much that they want to re-read it and one group simply did not like it albeit acknowledging some interesting points the book contained.

Our host jokingly said that the lesson she learned was “not to pick a book for book club until you have read it yourself”. She said that because her mother had raved about the book, and she recommended it for all of us and read it just before the meeting. It did not turn out to be her cup of tea. She led us through the discussion about the life led by the women in the book, the relationship between Dinah and her four mothers (Leah, Rachel, Zilpach, and Bilhah), the relationship between the women and Jacob, and how the novel differed from the Bible version. This book actually had motivated most of us to re-read Genesis Ch. 34 for a comparison.

Since Dinah’s story was written up in the Bible, and was considered some form of history, some of us felt that we were unsure whether we were reading fiction, which the book claimed to be, or non-fiction at times. We trusted that the author was an authority in Jewish culture, having written several on this topic, yet those of us who tried to research more on the red tent, where the women would retreat to monthly and as well for childbirth, could not find references to it anywhere else.

While half of us felt that the book is a celebration of womanhood and sisterhood, the other half felt that life must be rather miserable to be a Jewish woman in those days, perhaps unless one could be a midwife like Rachel, and that was what Dinah had become to make her life respectable and fulfilled. However, we also wondered if the Jewish women were aware of other options and they seemed to be making the best of what they had. Another possibility, of course, is that the book was just the fictional alternative to the Bible if it had been written by women.  We opined about the girl or woman being regarded as a commodity, her value rated in terms of the dowry she was worth. That quite naturally introduced some cross-cultural comparison, since we had members familiar with the South Asian and the Chinese culture. While women in these cultures, as with the Jews, had little status in society, they were even being discriminated against during their menstrual cycles. Unlike Jewish women who could celebrate monthly in the Red Tent, Chinese women and Indian women were segregated traditionally because the period was regarded as  “dirty” and the men did not want ill fortune to be inflicted on them by associating with them.

The book seemed to dwell on the relationship between Dinah and her mothers, it did not say much about her relationship with her son, and we tried to explain it by the sad fact that her son was being taken away from her by her mother-in-law.

One of our members had gone into the trouble of verifying the authenticity of Dinah’s story. She found that the rape of Dinah was added much later and it was done to create tension among the tribes. Even if Dinah had willingly given herself as the book had described, the fact that a woman lost her virginity in those times would have angered her father and her brothers anyway.

The group that liked book felt that it was a celebration of feminism. The group that did not like the book cited reasons such as the slow pace in plot development, uninteresting style of writing and dull subject matter. We had a good discussion and this was a meeting in which everybody had a chance to speak up her mind.

Book Club Review: A Walk Across The Sun, Corban Addison

WalkSun

A Walk Across the Sun, written by Corban Addison, traced the ordeal of two sisters in their teens after they had lost their family in the tsunami of 2005, which destroyed their coastal town in India. While they were attempting to walk to their convent school, they were abducted by human traffickers. Ahalya, the older girl, was forced into the sex trade. Her younger sister, Sita, was coerced into drug trafficking.

At the onset of our book club meeting, a few members, including myself, opined that we  approached the book initially with some apprehension, as we were aware that the subject matter involved sex and violence. Nonetheless  we all felt that we were spared of the gory details of the horror of sex trade and drugs. We were drawn into the gripping development of the story line and breathed a sigh of relief at the end of the story. Author Corban Addison has a personal interest in international human rights and the abolition of modern slavery or trade in human being, as he has stated in the Afterword, A Walk Across The Sun is a fitting expression of his passion and a wake-up call to the readership of the heinous crime of human trafficking.

Our host prepared well for our meeting. She posed three questions which not only opened up the discussion but guided it to progress to other issues.

We first talked about the thematic significance of the title of the novel, which came from a poem that Thomas Clarke composed for his estranged wife, Priya, near the end of the story. Thomas’s development throughout the novel ran parallel to the journeys of Ahalya and Sita. Thomas was asking for reconciliation with his wife. His own experience in overcoming his despondency to become a crusader to free the girls had awakened his feelings, blunted probably as a result of losing his child. He and Priya grew apart after their loss of their baby as a result of SID. In his travels to help the sisters, he journeyed across a good part of the globe. He achieved personal growth meanwhile, and the sun was a sign of hope. Equally Ahlaya and Sita (especially Sita) was forced into travelling to conduct illicit acitivites. The title also reflected their finding freedom in the end. The Sun, or the bright side, prevailed.

Even so, the story also highlighted the contradictions that existed in society. Another question brought up involved the road trip to Atlanta, and Sita find out the story of Elsie, the runaway from Pittsburgh. Elsie was impressed by Sita’s command of English and Sita replied that the whole world spoke English, to which Elsie exclaimed, “That’s because America is the best country on earth.” Given the circumstances both girls were going through, the remark was indeed an irony to how America (or USA, which symbolizes the so-called civilized western world) really was.

This also opened up our discussion on whether some people willingly compromised their integrity to just be in America. Are there the willing and unwilling drug traffickers? Are there the willing and unwilling prostitutes? Personal observations were shared, including the methods of drug detection at the customs across borders, thanks of a member of our book club who worked as a customs officer.

At this point, the youngest member raised a question that we had to think of a response. She challenged the plot by commenting that to her, it was hard to comprehend why neither Ahlaya nor Sita made any attempt or even contemplated how to escape given their ability to speak English. Was this cultural, in that they came from a reasonably well-to do background and were sheltered by their family when they were growing up? We could only speculate that they were still in shock and lacked the coping mechanisms to deal with the trauma of losing their families and their personal tragedies.

Then comes the questions about the girl’s future. Thomas asked, “Will Sita ever want to marry a man after all that she has seen?” And for Ahalya, will she be accepted by her own culture after her tragedy and exploitation. The story does conclude with a note of hope. The sisters are re-united. Ahalya seems happy and wants to keep her child. The future is again open to speculation, depending on where the sisters will settle down, the availability of love and support and professional counselling. There is mention of a professional support worker involved and we can only hope that fictional as the characters are, they can overcome their adverse experience and move forward. This is what I would like to see, because I do believe in the resilience of the human soul.

Book Club Review: Ru, Kim Thuy

I went to my first book club meeting, and sat down with nine ladies to talk about Ru by Kim Thuy. It was a beautiful book, from the lacy-like cover to the contents inside. We all felt that it was a very feminine book. It also was the winner of the  2010 Governor General’s Award for French language fiction. (Nobody mentioned chick lit here.)

The theme of the book was the memoir of the author, who left Vietnam at a young age during the Vietnamese War and settled down in Montreal to start a new life. It evoked some shared experience among many of us, because there were at least six persons in our group who were either immigrants to Canada or had close family ties overseas. Personally, I had poignant moments reading the book when the author wrote about an altered sense of the past, present and future when she landed in a foreign land. I also related to her need to share with her children the culture and the history of her home that she left behind. As she switched between past and present her vignettes, the emotional journey moved between that of an innocent young 10-year girl to that of a loving mother with two sons to raise. How true is the realization that not until one becomes a mother can one appreciate what maternal love means.

I knew that what she wrote about the hardship leaving Vietnam in a boat, how fellow travellers hid their money, gold and in her case diamonds, and the life in the refugee camp was real. I had professional contacts with Vietnamese immigrants in the camps in Hong Kong and in my work in Canada and they had similar stories to tell. What surprised me though was given this terrible war and  the atrocities that had happened to many refugees that she was aware of, the author was able to treat it in the same dream-like and lyrical style as she did with her other material. Were the details too painful to recall? Or was it that the memory had become distant–like a dream now?

Again, our discussion revolved around personal immigrant experience and sense of identity among our children. Our sentiments ranged from dismay, frustration to resignation. This made me think of Banana Boys, written by Terry Woo. Actually the book was brought to my attention by my children. I was glad to have read the book, and talked about it with them. For lack of a better description, we had a cathartic moment.

In the end, our book club members all agreed on one thing. The best way to be introduce a culture to someone is the food–what could be better than a dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant for all of us down the road.