Thursday, November 29, 2007
Monday, November 26, 2007
Yesterday, The New York Times weighed in on this issue in the "Week in Review." Motoko Rich's article, "A Good Mystery: Why We Read," begins the discussion by bringing up one of the sleeper hit books of the year, The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. Here Bennett creates a fictional world in which the Queen of England gets obsessed with reading after finding the "right" book. The article then goes on to recount other author's recollections of the book(s) that turned them into voracious readers themselves.
I think this adds another twist to the RA interview. As I have said before, we usually begin by asking a patron about a book s/he has recently read and then follow up with , "Are you in the mood for that or something different?" Sometimes patrons cannot articulate exactly what they want to read at that precise moment, so maybe now, we could take the pressure off their present needs by delving into their pasts. Something like, "What are the first books you can remember which really captured your imagination?" might be a good place to start this new line of questioning.
The idea is to get people talking about story, character, pacing, tone, style, etc... in order for us to get a sense of where to take that reader next. What a great idea for getting a patron to open up and begin talking about why they read. I think it will work too since there are already 97 reader comments posted about this article.
By the way, this now validates my reading of the "Week in Review" a few minutes past my lunch break. And for the record, the first books I can remember falling in love with were Shel Silverstein's A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Compare that to my current profile. Not too far off. Interesting.
Monday, November 19, 2007
Today my book group discussed Kazou Ishiguro's dystopian novel Never Let Me Go. The story takes place in the 1990s in an alternative reality England. Sometime in the not so distant past there was a war and afterward science evolved to the point where human clones were created and successfully used to cure cancer and other non-specified diseases.
Although this is the set-up, in true Ishiguro form these "facts" are slowly revealed and not fully realised until the novel's closing chapters. The reader is along for the ride as our narrator Kathy takes us through her life at Hailsham, a British boarding school. Kathy, her best frenemy Ruth, and Ruth boyfriend/confidant to Kathy, Tommy are being raised and trained to be carers and then to give donations. Kathy narrates the story as an adult, but makes it clear that as children, the kids at Hailsham knew they were different, but had no idea how different.
Basically, the story unfolds as both a coming-of-age tale and a dystopian novel. These children are clones, raised to voluntarily become carers, caring for those giving their donations, and then becoming donors themselves until they "complete," or in our terms, die. Scary stuff, but great for a book discussion.
Obviously this is an excellent book discussion choice because of its provocative subject matter. Our group loved Kathy as a narrator since she was the most even keeled of the group. Also, we enjoyed how she relates the story in a very conversational tone, mentioning something new and promising to go back to it after she has finished her current line of thought.
The group also appreciated Ishiguro's slow unveiling of the story's details. He gave everyone just enough to catch onto the "big secret," (they are going to be donating body parts until it literally kills them), but not so much as we could figure everything out before the end where Kathy and Tommy's confront their old Headmistress.
Because so much of the book took place during Kathy, Ruth and Tommy's school years, we had a good discussion about childhood, growing up, and how the experiences of these clones was the same and/or different from "regular" kids. We also discussed how Hailsham could be a play on "hell sham."
One participant brought up the recurrence of the theme of "garbage" throughout the novel, including the last scene where Kathy looks at a fence which has "rubbish" caught up in it. We then went back and found other places where "garbage" was used to symbolize these kids' place in the larger world.
Of course we ended by attacking the issue of human cloning head on. It was an interesting discussion. We not only talked about the what ifs and the we better nots, but we also discussed how the clones in the novel's world could be best handled/raised/treated. As Miss Emily discusses late in the novel, once there was a way to cure cancer, no one wanted to give that up as long as they can just keep the clones providing that cure in the background where the larger world does not have to see them.
Readers who enjoyed Never Let Me Go should try Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood in which a scientist annihilates the entire human race and replaces it with a genetically engineered one. Or the classic cautionary tale of what comes from man artificially creating life, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
Along another line of appeal, those who enjoyed the menacing atmosphere of Hailsham, might also enjoy The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman. In this psychological suspense novel a teacher looks into the dark past of a secluded private school.
One final fiction note, My Sister's Keeper is also a good choice as a readalike. Check out the link to see my student's discussion of it from this month.
In terms of nonfiction, obviously books about cloning would be a good choice. Books that are widely available through my library system and well reviewed include Understanding Cloning from the "Science Made Accessible" series and After Dolly: The Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning by Ian Wilmut and Roger Highfield.
I also tried to locate some boarding school expose books that were not fiction, but aside from reference books rating boarding schools, there were none in my library system's holdings. However, this looks promising and is available on Amazon.
Next month it is our end of the year party and the reading and viewing of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Guilty Pleasures by Laurel K. Hamilton
This is a good annotation for a book in the very popular Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
One of the most striking things about My Sister's Keeper is the way in which Picoult tells the story. She jumps around and relates the tale through many points of view. Anna, Kate, their brother Jesse, both parents, Anna's court appointed guardian, and her attorney (Campbell), all have their say. Our class discussed how this enhanced the story. Many students mentioned that they found some of the voices less sympathetic, and that at times the shifts in narrator was abrupt. But they all appreciated how each character had their own font; in fact, one student mentioned how the fonts were good visual representations of the characters. For example, the Mom spoke in bold and many found the Dad's font weak. And even those who were bothered by the constant shifting of pov, agreed that it helped to enhance the story, both because we saw many sides of the story, but also in that there was no one path that was absolutely correct here. The abrupt shifts, underlined the difficult nature of the issues.
The bulk of our discussion centered around the Mom, Sarah. She is the most complicated character. One student even called her a villain to unite all readers against someone. Sarah is the single-minded mother who, in her efforts to save Kate, has ignored her older son (he becomes an arsonist), shut out her husband, and created Anna just to be "spare parts" for Kate. She can never be happy because Kate is sick and she never takes anyone else's "trivial" pain seriously because, well her daughter has cancer. These are representations of the type of comments that were made. We developed a pro-Sarah contingent and a anti-Sarah one.
I tried to bring out some lively conversation about some of the other characters, but none caught on like the Sarah discussion. We did bring up Campbell, Anna's attorney, and one male student had been waiting the entire time to talk about how much he liked Campbell. Another student mentioned how Campbell and his back story were a welcome respite to the intense family drama between Anna and her parents. His self-deprecating humor and satiric comments are what kept her going.
One of the biggest issues surrounding this novel is the idea of genetic engineering and even stem cell research (using parts of discarded embryos to save living people). My students we less comfortable discussing this issue. One did mention that she was against stem cell research in general but did not go into detail. This can be an uncomfortable and personal topic, but it is always worth pursuing in an discussion of the book.
My Sister's Keeper is a great choice for any book group. I have used it many times, and since their are so many characters and issues, there is usually plenty to talk about.
Those who enjoyed this book may also want to check out another book club fav, The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards. During a snow storm twins are born. One has Down Syndrome. The father gives this child to the nurse and asks her to send the baby to an institution. The healthy son, a boy, is raised without knowledge of his sister. This novel spans 25 years and follows both families affected by this secret.
Those who were intrigued by the genetic engineering issues should try Double Helix by Nancy Werlin. Here an 18 year-old boy, working for a Nobel Prize winning geneticist, learns a shocking truth about himself and his family.
In terms of nonfiction. I would suggest a popular science treatment on stem cell research such as The Stem Cell Divide: The Facts, the Fiction, And the Fear Driving the Greatest Scientific, Political And Religious Debate of Our Time by Michael Bellomo. Many others are available and listed on the Amazon page.
Every Parent's Guide to the Law by Deborah Forman is also a good choice for those interested in Anna's legal battles. This book got very good reviews from professional sources and covers a wide range of topics, including emancipation of a minor.
Sunday, November 4, 2007
All participants need to have read Atonement by Ian McEwan. The first half of the class is a lecture on how to plan and run a library book discussion group. The second half is the discussion itself.
I will be giving the same lecture to my students the night before; however, they are reading My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult.
Hopefully, I will have time to post Book Discussion notes on each discussion. Plus I still have the regularly scheduled BPL discussion on November 19th. So look for lots of book discussion posts in November.
Thursday, November 1, 2007
Here are two annotations for nonfiction books:
Bill Bryson's Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe
Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India