Monthly Archives: March 2010

The Monsters of Templeton

by Lauren Groff

My friend Andrea Gough is a great reader.  Here’s what she had to say recently about one of her favorite recent books:

As is the case with many readers, I’m a sucker for a good opening line, and Lauren Groff’s The Monsters of Templeton immediately hooked me: “The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.”  The character is Willie Upton; the disgrace, an unplanned pregnancy resulting from an illicit affair with her Ph.D. advisor.  The monster is a sort of upstate New York Loch Ness Monster, the discovery of which runs as an undercurrent to the narrative (and which provides the perfect, melancholy epilogue).

Back to hide in her mother’s home, Willie mopes until presented with this challenge: the story she’s always been told of her absent father is untrue.  He was a descendent of the town’s founding fathers and still lives in the small town she grew up in.  Willie, an archaeologist, jumps at this mystery as at a lifeline, and begins sifting through the archives of the town.  In hindsight, one of the things that surprised me about The Monsters of Templeton is how perfectly realized each character’s voice is.  As Willie searches for her father, she reads journals, letters, and newspaper accounts of her diverse and dynamic ancestors, all presented in the novel, and the voice in each of those parts is totally unique.  Groff excels at populating her story with vibrant, living people, both historical and contemporary.  As a reader who loves characters, I feel as though The Monsters of Templeton is a book that was written for me.

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Good Books for Reading Groups

One of the questions I am frequently asked is about what I think makes a good book for discussion.  There are, of course, lots of worthwhile books that discuss this very issue and offer suggestions—including Rachel Jacobsohn’s The Reading Group Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Start Your Own Book Club and Good Books Lately:  The One-Stop Resource for Book Groups and Other Greedy Readers by Ellen Moore and Kira Stevens for two.  (And the librarian at your local library can help you find others.)

When choosing a book for a discussion, it’s important to realize that there’s quite often a difference between a book that’s enjoyable to read and one that makes for a good discussion.  The latter should be a book with enough substance to warrant a discussion longer than 5 or 10 minutes.  Many people have told me that they think every book is “discussable,” and maybe that’s true to a certain extent.  But if I’m devoting 45 minutes or more to talking about a book, I want there to be something to say about it beyond “I really enjoyed it” or “I hated the main character” or “I didn’t like that the author never used quotation marks for dialogue.”  I want a discussion that helps me understand what the author’s intent might be, why the characters made the decisions they did, and what the significance of the title is to the book, to name just a few topics a group might consider.

I think the book’s discussablity is much more important than whether people liked or didn’t like the book.  When I’m leading a group, my last question is always, “So what did you think of the book?”  You’d be surprised at how many people will talk about how their feelings about the book changed because of the discussion.  Or how people will say that they didn’t finish the book but now plan to do so, all because of how people talked about it, or what they said.  Too often, we tend to start book discussions by asking whether or not people liked the book, but that’s a dead-end question.  And, in addition, it polarizes the group so that every further statement is prefaced by “I liked it and” or “I hated it but.”  I always start off every discussion I lead by asking what the title has to do with the book.  Sometimes it’s the only question I need to ask—we’re off into a great discussion for the next forty-five minutes or so.  That happened both with A Dangerous Friend by Ward Just and Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying.

There are some qualities to look for when you’re choosing a book for your group.  When we’re discussing a book, we’re really talking about everything that the author hasn’t said—all that white space between the lines.  If the author tells you everything, there’s not a lot to speculate about.  Discussing books that are plot driven often leads nowhere, while books that are character driven frequently yield up thought provoking questions and answers.  And the most discussion worthy character driven books are those in which the character has to make a decision that will change the course of his or her life.  A good example of this is Ann Packer’s The Drive Dive from Clausen’s Pier.

Another thing you might look for are books with ambiguous endings.  (Be warned, though, that this is going to really rile readers who want their stories tied up neatly.  But remember also, that the best discussions arise when some of the members enjoyed the book and others didn’t.  It’s too boring if everyone liked it!)  Try Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods or Tana French’s In the Woods to get a feel for these kind of books.

Some books just beg to be talked about, including the Gaines, O’Brien, and Just novels.  Here are others: Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge; Lionel Shriver’s We Have to Talk About Kevin; Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart; and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, for just a few examples.  One of the things that makes these books so good is also what will turn some readers off:  they’re not light reading.  They deal with big issues—death, family, politics, history, and love—but all offer them up to readers in different ways.  Just as Tolstoy said in the first line of Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Light or happy fiction tends to be all alike.  It’s in the deeper, perhaps more uncomfortable, novels that we will find the best works for discussions.

But “deep” or “serious” fiction doesn’t mean the book is impenetrable.  All the books I mentioned above are pretty hard to put down because you become so interested in the characters (although you may not like them). 

People often ask me to recommend a mystery for discussion.  There’s a great resource for this, by librarian Gary Warren Niebuhr, called Read ‘Em Their Writes: A Handbook for Mystery Book Discussions.   But if you’re choosing a mystery, I’d suggest selecting a book by an author who has created three-dimensional, interesting characters who move the plot, rather than having characters that are more-or-less ciphers and are there simply to make the plot move along at a good clip.  It’s the difference between trying to discuss an Agatha Christie mystery (what is there to say, really, other than what page you were on when you figured out who the murderer was?) and an Elizabeth George mystery, like For the Sake of Elena, in which all sorts of issues are laid out for possible discussion.  Another good mystery for discussion is Monkeewrench by P. J. Tracy.

In my books, Book Lust and More Book Lust, I made it a point to mention when a particular book, including both fiction and nonfiction, would be good for discussion, so you might want to check those out, as well.

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February

by Lisa Moore

I kept thinking about the famous Salvador Dalí painting called “The Persistence of Memory” while I was reading Lisa Moore’s marvelous new novel, February, which could easily be subtitled “The Persistence of Grief.”  Moore, who lives with her family in Newfoundland, takes a historical event as the foundation block of her novel: the 1982 sinking of the oil rig Ocean Ranger in a huge storm and the drowning deaths of its entire 84 member crew.  Moore explores, often in fragmentary or elliptical and always in evocative language, the effects of that terrible occurrence on the lives of Helen, whose husband Cal’s death by drowning leaves her a young widow with three small children.  Moore takes us back and forth in Helen’s life, from the early years of her marriage to the present, from the immediate sense of being struck down by unbearable grief to her constant awareness of having to move through the days without Cal’s presence in her life.   This is a book for those who enjoyed getting into the head of the eponymous Olive Kitteridge in Elizabeth Strout’s collection of linked stories, or those who appreciated the writing of Christine Schutt’s All Souls.  I loved February:  it was moving (but not soppy) and insightful.   When I finished it, I went back to find Moore’s two earlier fiction titles—a novel,  Alligator, and a short story collection,  Degrees of Nakedness.  I’m really looking forward to reading them.

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A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean

by Tori McClure

Tori Murden McClure is an incredibly accomplished woman: she was one of the two women (out of a total group of six) who skied 750 miles to the South Pole; she was also the first woman to summit Lewis Nunatak, which is part of the Queen Alexandra Range in Antarctica.  She has several advanced degrees (including law and divinity) and has had a variety of interesting and challenging jobs (including working with the boxer to set up his Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky).  But after reading her memoir, A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean, I have to believe that of all her achievements, the one that she’s proudest of is that she was the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean.  How and why she chose to attempt the crossing (twice, actually, since her first trip was halted by a hurricane) is uplifting without being at all sappy.  You can see why she must be a terrifically inspiring speaker, especially for teen audiences.  I was fortunate enough to meet Tori at a rather large dinner in Chicago a year or so ago,  and felt that there were many questions I wished I could have asked her in order to learn more about the incredibly diverse experiences that she’s had.

As always, the first line of a book is incredibly important to me, and Tori’s is pretty great:   “In the end, I know I rowed across the Atlantic to find my heart, but in the beginning, I wasn’t aware that it was missing.”  And I was taken by the fact that it was Muhammad Ali who, knowing her well, encouraged her to try a second time, by saying to her that she didn’t want to be the first woman who “almost rowed across the Atlantic.”

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