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Friday, April 8, 2011

GSLIS 763 Book Discussion: The History of Love

The History of LoveAs promised in this post back in February, I finally discussed The History of Love with my students.  It was back on March 23rd, but with my 12 day vacation, this report got pushed back until now.  I will only report on the main discussion points in this post.  For more general comments about the book and readalike suggestions, click here.

On to the discussion:
  • First a general comment.  When I discussed this book back in January with a group of ARRT members, they really did not connect with the book in anyway.  I initially thought it was because of its NYC setting and Jewish cultural issues.  Since I am from the NYC area and Jewish, I thought maybe I connecting with the text in a way which they could not.  However, I was wrong, I think it was more of an age thing.  The average age of the participants in the ARRT discussion was over 40, while the average age in the class discussion was under 40.  The class needed very little prodding to discuss this novel.  They really took off with it, and that is not because they all liked it.  They were evenly spilt 50-50 on liking it and not (9 liked, 4 disliked, 4 so-so).
  • We began by talking about the characters.  Interestingly, the group was evenly split here too.  For everyone who loved Leo or Alma, they was another person who was annoyed by the character for the same reasons.  The students went back and forth.  It was great.  Most of my job was to make sure everyone got a turn to talk.  This could also be why the discussion went better.  With a larger group in class (16) vs less than 10 with the ARRT people, I had more opinions to cull responses from.  Also, the students were being graded on participating, so I shouldn't underestimate that.
  • Here are some of my favorite character comments:  Sasha described Leo as a "quirky, lonely dude," while Jeanne thought he had humor and was eccentric, but Gennie was annoyed by Leo.  Alma got a few counter opinions too.  Some called her brave, they admired her, and others appreciated that she did something while many of the other characters were paralyzed by depression into inaction.  Others thought she was too sketched and a bit annoying.
  • Most people, whether they liked the characters or not, enjoyed watching how the story came together; although a few mentioned that the coming together of the story lines should have come a bit sooner.
  • The excerpts from the book within the book also called, The History of Love, really excited a few students.  For example, for Jenn that was the only part she liked.  She said how she felt the book was a real description of love.  It was full and meaningful, intriguing, and almost brought her to tears.  Carlen said she became more attached to Leo when reading the excerpts of his masterpiece. For others, the book became another character.  A few others did not like the style of the book, The History of Love, but appreciated it as contrast to Krauss' narrative.  Still another participant said that the excerpt from the book made her appreciate Alma's mom as a translator more.  It also made her think about the mom and her love for her dead husband.
  • We talked about the title.  Here are some comments:  The title is about the book within the book-- the book which is the thread that ties Krauss' book together.  The History of Love (both books) is a reflection of actual love.  It is open ended, it will continue.  This is not just romantic love either; both books are about romantic love, family love, friend love, and love in the past, present and future. 
  • One comment I just loved: The beautiful tragedy of the book is that Leo is so worried about not leaving a mark on the world, yet as we the reader of Krauss' book can see, he has.  His work has affected so many people, including his son, and he has no idea.  We liked that at the very end as he dies (although the group was about 75%-25%, leaning toward he died, on this issue), Leo knows how much of an impact he has really had.
  • Another comment, but it will be cryptic so as not to give away a plot twist: people loved Bruno and were crushed when they found out the truth about him.
  • Students gave readalikes along the way.  This novel reminded one student of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marques.  The repeating of names, the doubles and mirroring, the lyrical language, and the South American part of the story all reminded her of Marquez's masterpiece.  Another participant said the older narrator (Leo) reminded her of Jacob in  Water for Elephants.  Click here for a report on when we discussed that title at the BPL.  For more readalikes for The History of Love, click here.
  • Finally, we ended by going around the room.  I asked each student to give me 1 word or phrase to describe this book.  Here is our list:
    • survival
    • eccentric characters
    • beautiful moments
    • poetic
    • bittersweet
    • measured
    • emotional ghosts
    • hope
    • complicated
    • creative
    • Yiddish
    • jigsaw puzzle
    • despondence
    • comic tragedy
    • tragic comedy
    • just tragic

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