Category Archives: Fiction

The Street Lawyer by John Grisham

When I was younger, I loved reading John Grisham books. I think when I read John Grisham ‘s The Street Lawyer in 1998, I decided I was tired of his books.

But last week I decided to re-read it. I still don’t think much of it.

But having lived in Baltimore and being somewhat familiar with Washington, DC this book seemed better the second time around.

How do y’all feel about Grisham’s books from the last decade?


The Grandmothers: Four Short Novels by Doris Lessing

Four Short Novels by Doris LessingI have just read Doris Lessing for the first time! I picked up The Grandmothers: Four Short Novels at my local library and finished it in just two days.

Lessing’s writing is every bit as delightful and moving as I had been led to believe. So much so that I think I’d like to read some of her more famous works such as The Grass Is Singing, or The Golden Notebook.

The little I’ve read about Lessing makes her sound like such a remarkable woman: born in Persia (now Iran) in 1919, raised in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize in literature, and still actively writing!

The four short novels in The Grandmothers (published 2004) are:

The Grandmothers 1
Two women, close friends, fall in love with each other’s teenage sons, and these passions last for years, until the women end them, in their respectable old age.

Victoria and the Staveneys 57
A poor black girl has a baby with the son of a liberal middle-class family and finds that her little girl is slowly being absorbed into a world of white privilege and becoming estranged from her.

The Reason for It 131
Certain to appeal to fans of Shikasta and Memoirs of a Survivor, it describes the birth, growth, and decline of a culture long ago, but with many modern echoes.

A Love Child 191
A soldier in World War II, during the dangerous voyage to India around the Cape, falls in love on shore leave and remains convinced that a love child resulted from the wartime romance.

Here are some discussion questions I found about this book:

  • Did Roz and Lil do something wrong in loving each others’ son?
  • Why is Victoria wary about Mary receiving the life she, herself, always wanted?
  • Does the final note by the archaeologist vindicate the narrator?
  • What is the significance of James’ final thought?
  • In the title novel — The Grandmothers — an adult Tom briefly refers to his life with his mother, her closest friend, and his closest friend in these terms: “Down there, I’m not free.” Discuss the idea of personal freedom in the novel — who is free to do what, and what choices are the characters “free” to make?
  • The tone in the title novel is noticeably cool and analytical. Why do you think Lessing chooses to tell the story in this way?
  • For a novel so focused on the personal, there is great care given to describing the physical worlds of these people. Discuss the importance of geographical elements in the story: the rough sea and the calm bay, the orderly, “perfect” land around it. The arid climate to which Harold and briefly Tom moves, and the brush thorns that litter the ground outside of the desert town.
  • In Victoria and the Staveneys, the author chooses to withhold the fact that Victoria is black until the fourth page (after much physical description). Why do you feel she delays this revelation?
  • One is tempted to level scorn on the Staveneys, and yet Lessing also shows them to be oddly touching, moral even. What are we meant to think about them? Do you find your response is of a personal, emotional nature of more removed? Furthermore, who is “good” in the family?
  • Does the action of Victoria and the Staveneys feel determined, or proscribed? If this is social commentary, then what are we taught; if this is simply the hand of the author, what does this reveal about her own social vision?
  • Victoria, Thomas and Edward are obviously products of their respective environments. How are they the results of their parentage? Does this parentage play into the above-mentioned notion of determination or fate?
  • What parallels do you see between the world of The Reason for It and our own?
  • The protagonist of A Love Child, James, goes through several transformations, the first, from England to South Africa; the second, from Africa to India. What precipitates these changes? Does James feel like the same person with Daphne as he was with Donald back in England? Is this change believable to you? What is Lessing trying to say about one’s mutability, particularly as a result of one’s caring and compassion for others?
  • What themes connect these novels?


The Story of Edgar Sawtelle Book Club Discussion Questions

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David WroblewskiAs promised, here are some of the discussion questions for David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel that my book club brought up:

  1. It is quite rare that a person is born mute but not deaf. How do you think the fact that Edgar could hear but not speak, added or detracted from this story and his relationships with the people and animals in his life?
  2. Tell us about your pet(s) or comment on how you feel about dogs, dog breeding and training.
  3. Claude is a curious presence in the story. What does he want, when did he start wanting it and how do you feel about the ways he went about obtaining what mattered most to him?
  4. The book contains much symbolism and some unexplained events that are left to the reader’s interpretation to understand. Give one (at least) example of symbolism, or a mystery, and explain how you came to understand this by using your imagination and/or logic to determine how it best fit within the story.


The Alchemist Reading Group Discussion Questions

The Alchemist by Paulo CoelhoFor my own reference, I am pasting the reading group discussion questions for The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, one of my favorite books and one that I frequently recommend to friends (and which I re-read last week):

  1. At the start of his journey, when Santiago asks a gypsy woman to interpret his dream about a treasure in the Egyptian pyramids, she asks for one tenth of the treasure in return. When Santiago asks the old man to show him the path to the treasure, the old man requests one tenth of his flock as “payment.” Both payments represent a different price we have to pay to fulfill a dream; however, only one will yield a true result. Which payment represents false hope? Can you think of examples from your own life when you had to give up something to meet a goal and found the price too high?
  2. Paulo Coelho once said that alchemy is all about pursuing our spiritual quest in the physical world as it was given to us. It is the art of transmuting the reality into something sacred, of mixing the sacred and the profane. With this in mind, can you define your Personal Legend? At what time in your life were you first able to act on it? What was your “beginner’s luck”? Did anything prevent you from following it to conclusion? Having read The Alchemist do you know what inner resources you need to continue the journey?
  3. One of the first major diversions from Santiago’s journey was the theft of his money in Tangiers, which forced him into taking a menial job with the crystal merchant. There, Santiago learned many lessons on everything from the art of business to the art of patience. Of all these, which lessons were the most crucial to the pursuit of his Personal Legend?
  4. When he talked about the pilgrimage to Mecca, the crystal merchant argued that having a dream is more important than fulfilling it, which is what Santiago was trying to do. Do you agree with Santiago’s rationale or crystal merchant’s?
  5. The Englishman, whom Santiago meets when he joins the caravan to the Egyptian pyramids, is searching for “a universal language, understood by everybody.” What is that language? According to the Englishman, what are the parallels between reading and alchemy? How does the Englishman’s search for the alchemist compares to Santiago’s search for a treasure? How did the Englishman and Santiago feel about each other?
  6. The alchemist tells Santiago “you don’t have to understand the desert: all you have to do is contemplate a simple grain of sand, and you will see in it all the marvels of creation.” With this in mind, why do you think the alchemist chose to befriend Santiago, though he knew that the Englishman was the one looking for him? What is the meaning of two dead hawks and the falcon in the oasis? At one point the alchemist explains to Santiago the secret of successfully turning metal into gold. How does this process compare to finding a Personal Legend?
  7. Why did Santiago have to go through the dangers of tribal wars on the outskirts of the oasis in order to reach the pyramids? At the very end of the journey, why did the alchemist leave Santiago alone to complete it?
  8. Earlier in the story, the alchemist told Santiago “when you possess great treasures within you, and try to tell others of them, seldom are you believed.” At the end of the story, how did this simple lesson save Santiago’s life? How did it lead him back to the treasure he was looking for?

Also, here is the plot summary in the Reading Group Guide found in my copy:

Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy, has a dream about finding a treasure in the pyramids of Egypt. A gypsy woman and an old man claiming to be a mysterious king advise him to pursue it. “To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation,” the old man tells him. “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

With the courage of an adventurer, Santiago sells his sheep and travels to Tangiers in Africa. After a thief steals his money, Santiago takes a job with a crystal merchant who unwittingly teaches Santiago important lessons for his long journey ahead. After working at the crystal shop for a year, Santiago earns enough money to cover his losses and return home. But then something unexpected happens. On a desert caravan, Santiago meets an intriguing Englishman. The Englishman’s passion for knowledge and his relentless quest to uncover the secrets of alchemy inspire Santiago to pursue his own dream of finding the treasure. As the Englishman searches for the two hundred year old alchemist who resides in the desert oasis, Santiago falls in love with a young woman, Fatima. Exposed to the greatest and eternal alchemy of all – love – Santiago thinks he has found the treasure. But the greatest test of all is yet to come. With the help of the alchemist, Santiago completes the last leg of his journey – dangerous and infused with discoveries of the most profound kind – to find that the treasure he was looking for was waiting for him in the place where he least expected.

This story, timeless and entertaining, exotic yet simple, breaks down the journey we all take to find the most meaningfultreasures in our lives into steps that are at once natural and magical. It is about the faith, power, and courage we all have within us to pursue the intricate path of a Personal Legend, a path charted by the mysterious magnet of destiny but obscured by distractions. Santiago shows how along the way we learn to trust our hearts, read the seemingly inconspicuous signs, and understand that as we look to fulfill a dream, it looks to find us just the same, if we let it.


The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist by Paulo CoelhoLast week I re-read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, one of my all-time favorite books.

If you haven’t read this beautiful inspirational novel, first published in the early 1990s in Portuguese, you are missing out.

It is a simple book that reminds us to listen to our hearts.

If you loved Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, you will love this book too.

Interestingly, before coming across an old copy of The Alchemist and re-reading it, I started reading Lynne McTaggart’s The Intention Experiment: Using Your Thoughts to Change Your Life and the World; both remind me of the importance of being in tune with yourself, something I need to be reminded of about once a year.

Which is why I like to re-read The Alchemist and Ishmael at least once every two years. I think I last read the former in 2002 and the latter in 2004 so it’s been some time now. I will have to make time to re-read Ishmael in 2009.

Each time I read my favorite books, I also feel like they teach me different things. The quote that stood out to me from this re-reading is this (supposedly a proverb): “Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time.”

Click here to read an excerpt.

Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I found myself thinking about Milan Kundera’s modern classic novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being today.

No reason really, it just came to mind.

I read this a few years ago because I’d heard so much about it, and because I’d enjoyed Kundera’s Ignorance with its themes of memory, loss, and homesickness.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera’s novel of love and politics in his homeland — communist-run Czechoslovakia — between 1968 and the early 1980s.

It’s a must-read, in my opinion.

Click here to read an excerpt of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and here to read an excerpt of Ignorance.

I didn’t read either of his books for book clubs but I think they would be fascinating to discuss. In fact, I think I’ll suggest one or more of his books the next time I’m supposed to lead the discussion!

Here are some discussion questions for The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in case your looking for some for your book club:

  1. What kinds of being carry the attribute of lightness? How is the “lightness of being” of the novel’s title presented? In what ways is it “unbearable”? What is the difference between “the sweet lightness of being” that Tomas enjoys in Zurich, after Tereza’s return to Prague, and “the unbearable lightness of being”?
  2. How does Nietzsche’s myth of eternal return, with which Kundera opens his book, function in the novel? What does Kundera mean when he refers to “the profound moral perversity of a world that rests essentially on the nonexistence of return”? How does what he calls the unbearable burden of eternal return contrast with the “splendid lightness” of our daily lives?
  3. How would you describe the three central relationships of the novel–Tereza and Tomas, Tomas and Sabina, Sabina and Franz? How do they embody Kundera’s primary concerns and themes?
  4. In what ways does Kundera explore what he calls “the irreconcilable duality of body and soul, that fundamental human experience.” In what ways does he show this duality to be fundamental?
  5. Both Tereza and Tomas repeatedly think of the series of fortuitous events that brought them together. What is the rule of fortuity, chance, and coincidence in their lives and the lives of others? What does Kundera mean when he writes, “Chance and chance alone has a message for us”?
  6. In what ways may Sabina’s description of her dual-level paintings–“On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth”–apply to every aspect of the characters’ lives and relationships?
  7. What meanings and importance do each of the main characters ascribe to fidelity and betrayal? In what instances, for each character, do fidelity and betrayal have either positive or negative qualities?
  8. Kundera insists that “the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise.” What visions or versions of paradise are presented in the novel? By whom? How does each vision/version of paradise affect the lives of its enthusiasts and the lives of others?

And here are some discussion questions for Ignorance:

  1. As in his previous novels, Kundera isn’t content to merely tell a story; he also comments on it, via digressions on themes ranging from history to etymology and music. What is the effect of this method? Does it emotionally distance you from the narrative and characters or cause you to see them in a different light? Would you describe Ignorance as a realist novel?
  2. When her Parisian friend Sylvie urges her to go home to her country, Irena replies “You mean this”–meaning Paris — “isn’t my home anymore?” This exchange suggests that “home” may be a relative phenomenon, that today’s home may not be tomorrow’s. How is this theme developed elsewhere in Ignorance? Can any of Kundera’s characters be said to have a true home, or is home in this book always changeable, unreliable, and perhaps even illusory? And is going home a guarantee of happiness?
  3. Even as Ignorance questions the permanence of home, it also raises doubts about the authenticity of the self, as in this moment when Irena glimpses her reflection in a department store mirror: “The person she saw was not she, it was somebody else, or…it was she but she living a different life.” [p. 31] How would you sum up this novel’s view of identity? Have Kundera’s characters chosen their identities or have their identities been imposed on them by outside forces?
  4. Early in the novel Kundera draws a series of correspondences and oppositions: between homesickness, nostalgia, and ignorance; between the longing for a place and the longing for a vanished past or a lost love. How does he develop these themes? Is Irena’s nostalgia, for example, merely an expression of ignorance? Conversely, what is the reason for Josef’s “nostalgic insufficiency?” [p. 74] When do these characters confuse homesickness with other types of longing, and with what consequences?
  5. What is the significance of Ignorance‘s frequent references to The Odyssey? Do any events in this novel parallel those in Homer’s epic? Is Josef’s devotion to his deceased wife, for example, meant to recall Odysseus’s devotion to Penelope? Compare the way Kundera uses The Odyssey in this book to the way Joyce uses it in Ulysses.
  6. “Our century is the only one in which historic dates have taken such a voracious grip on every single person’s life.” [p.11] In what ways are the characters in Ignorance shaped by history and their personal destinies determined by it? Are they ever able to resist history? Does Kundera’s view of historical forces hold out any hope for the freedom and dignity of the individual?
  7. How would you describe Irena’s and Josef’s relationships with their families and old friends? Why are these so often marked by suspicion, incomprehension or outright hostility? In contrast, Irena and Josef seem to share a frictionless instant intimacy, even though they are little more than strangers. Is Kundera suggesting that the intimacy of strangers is somehow superior to the stifling, conventional closeness that prevails within most families? Are some of the characters’ relationships more genuine than others?
  8. What role is played by Irena’s friend Milada who, unbeknown to Irena, was once Josef’s girlfriend? Does Josef’s past treatment of Milada predict his future behavior toward Irena? Is he morally responsible for Milada’s mutilation or has Milada merely sacrificed herself for a sentimental fantasy? What do you make of Kundera’s use of coincidence? Does he seem to view it the way Irena does — as an expression of fate?
  9. Are you surprised by the sexual encounter between Irena’s mother and her boyfriend? Does it strike you as a betrayal of Irena, who at the time is betraying Gustav with Josef? Is Josef himself guilty of betraying Irena by his silence? How would you characterize this novel’s attitude toward sex?

I should probably pick up some of Kundera’s other books — any suggestions?

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle – Message from David Wroblewski

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David WroblewskiJust received this message from David Wroblewski, author of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel, through one of my book clubs:

Message from the author David Wroblewski

In my earliest memory—earliest of any kind—I am kneeling on the couch in the living room of our house in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, looking out the picture window. Our collie, Princess, is perched on the cushion beside me, and together we are watching three women coming up the sidewalk. I can’t be much more than 2 years old, and I don’t recall our visitors’ purpose, but I must have set my hand against Princess as we looked out the window, for I can vividly recall the warmth and reassuring mass of her body and the texture of her fur against my fingertips. I suppose that moment is the beginning of my interest in the canine world, though who can pinpoint such things? Perhaps I was just born with a kind of certainty about dogs and our relationship to them. What I know is this: in my memory of that instant, there is no boundary between us. I am me, yes, and she is her, but we are also somehow the same. We are connected as we watch the women approach. They are talking and laughing, swaying along in a friendly, triangular formation. Then they are at the door. They are wearing woolen coats: It must have been spring or fall. Fall, I think. It may have been my birthday, because they are carrying something, and there must be some reason this otherwise ordinary afternoon has stayed with me all these years. One of the women reaches out. The doorbell rings.

When I was about 12 years old, someone abandoned a half-grown pup on the road near our farm. This pup ran wild through the woods for I don’t know how long, appearing to us periodically as a flash of orange and white bolting through the field. One morning, my father spied him eating the gravel off the road. In time, we were able to coax the dog into the yard, and he become “my” dog, though, considering that he refused ever to come into the house or even allow a collar to be put on him, it was difficult to know who was adopting whom. We guessed he was half collie, half German shepherd. I named him Prince. For some reason, during those years, there was an explosion in the skunk population, and Prince took it as his sacred duty to corner any skunk that trundled into our yard, keeping the animal trapped (often under the bathroom window) with what was to me a mortifying and fascinating single mindedness, an electric ferocity in his movements. My father, worried about rabies, forbade us from going outside when this happened; he would go to the gun case and fetch his shotgun and trudge out the back door. Long before he arrived on the scene, however, Prince would have been soaked with scent, repeatedly. I spent many summer mornings making Prince stand still for a bath, scolding him. I remember his response: an unrepentant, almost prideful, gaze, which seemed to say, “No regrets. I can see what’s right and wrong.”

A final memory: one afternoon, now years ago, as I was struggling to revise a draft of Edgar Sawtelle, my partner, Kimberly, gave me this advice: Imagine someone reading Edgar’s story on a long train ride home from work. That was all she said, nothing more, yet it is probably the single most useful bit of writing advice I’ve ever gotten. Before she turned away, I’d already filled in the details: that person was a man, and he’d had a dispiriting day at work; he’d grown up in the country, but now he worked in the city, and on that particular day he was feeling as if he’d lost his way in life—that his life had been reduced to a train ride from here to there and back, over and over again. I understood that the man was not me, exactly, but rather some version of me, and because this was so I could remind him: you were once connected to the wild world. Don’t forget what that was like. I could see him, alone in his train car. As the fluorescent ceiling lights gradually superseded the dusk outside, the window glass became a long, black mirror. The man’s head was bent over his book. I badly wanted to talk to him, but it was impossible, and eventually, when I had watched him long enough, I turned my attention back to the manuscript and got to work.

These memories reflect, I’m sure, some of my lifelong preoccupations, one being the extraordinary quality of our relationship with dogs, because The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is unabashedly a dog story. A love story, in fact. Writing it has given me a chance to consider how intertwined our species have become. How, over millennia, we’ve changed dogs and how dogs, in turn, have changed us. How the rituals and obligations of animal companionship also grant moments that transcend human experience. Another preoccupation of mine, not unrelated to the first, has to do with the nature of wildness in the human character. We glimpse it in ourselves every day, from the surge of emotion that rises from nowhere to the flash of inspiration we can’t explain. Even memory itself, the very core of our identity, remains slyly feral, heedlessly retrieving all manner of incident and image, indifferent to whether its discoveries are burdens or gifts.

Since the book’s publication, readers have occasionally turned to me with questions. While it’s true that I love talking about Edgar’s story, I’ve also found myself admitting that I don’t want—and don’t have—any final answers, any overarching, ambiguity-smashing point of view. Writing a novel may not absolutely require losing perspective, but I nonetheless have. Edgar, Almondine and the people in their world feel as real to me as anyone I have ever known, and thus, by turns transparent, inexplicable and fascinating. It is as true for the writer as for the reader that any novel worth its ink should be an experience first and foremost—not an essay, not a statement, not an orderly rollout of themes and propositions. All of which is to say: stories, too, are wild things.

Will post some additional discussion questions from my book club over the next week.