Month: October 2009

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown — My Review

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I greatly enjoyed The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown. The topics introduced by that book were fascinating, and, one in particular, I had always privately considered, that being the marriage between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, and so I was excited to have this ‘controversial’ discussion with people outside of a religious forum.

And now there’s The Lost Symbol. Once you begin reading you will see that the format and storyline is very similar to DaVinci. There’s a villian, a dear friend in trouble, a race against the clock, symbols to decipher, old secrets to uncover. You’re left wondering, haven’t I read this all before?

If Da Vinci had not come first, this would have been a great book on its own. But following Da Vinci, it seems to rehash a succssful formula, and I wanted more.

In addition, I found the reason why the CIA was involved and the issue of “national security” to be ridiculous. And, the ultimate solution to the meaning of “The Word” was something that I have known for decades. In The Lost Symbol, Brown off-handedly mocks the Prophet Joseph Smith and the translation of the Book of Mormon, but he really shouldn’t. We are so ahead of him.

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What I’m Reading: Sing Them Home

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This week I have started Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos. So far I find the characters very hard to enjoy let alone relate to. But, I am going to keep reading and home for a better storyline!

Here’s a summary: Hope Jones, Nebraska mother of three, is whisked away by a 1978 tornado, her body never found. The novel opens 25 years later, when Hope’s children—grown but not grown up—gather for their father’s funeral after he’s killed by a lightning strike. Llewelyn’s death is one of many quandaries haunting his children: daughter Larken, an overweight professor beset by fear of flying; son Gaelan, a television weatherman with too many women in his life; and the youngest, Bonnie, who stays in Emlyn Springs working odd jobs. Alvina Viney Closs, Hope’s best friend, also has issues to resolve. Themes of family bonds and conflicts, secrets and sorrows also marked Kallos’s debut, and this time she weaves in an idiosyncratic view of the role of the dead in the lives of the living, sharp takes on business, academic and sexual politics, and a palpable empathy for small Midwestern towns. This novel will find a welcome audience in anyone who has experienced grief, struggled with family ties or, most importantly, appreciates blossoming talent. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. sing

The Elegance of the Hedgehog Discussion Questions

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1. True life is elsewhere…
One French critic called The Elegance of the Hedgehog “the
ultimate celebration of every person’s invisible part.” How
common is the feeling that a part of oneself is invisible to or
ignored by others? How much does this “message” contribute to the book’s popularity? Why is it sometimes difficult to show people what we really are and to have them appreciate us for it?

2. This book will save your life…
The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been described as “a toolbox one can look into to resolve life’s problems,” a “life-transforming read,” and a “life-affirming book.” Do you feel this is an accurate characterization of the novel? If so, what makes it thus: the story told, the characters and their ruminations, something else? Can things like style, handsome prose, well-turned phrases, etc. add up to a life-affirming book independently of the story told? To put it another way—Renée Michel’s way—can an encounter with pure beauty change our lives?

3. —a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet. Both Renée and Paloma use stereotypes to their benefit, hiding behind the perceptions others have of their roles. Our understanding and appreciation of people is often limited to a superficial acknowledgement of their assigned roles, their social monikers—single mother, used car salesman, jock, investment banker, senior citizen, cashier… While we are accustomed to thinking of people as victims of stereotypes, is it possible that
sometimes stereotypes can be useful? When, under what
circumstances, and why, might we welcome an interpretation
based on stereotypes of our actions or of who we are? Have you ever created a mise en place that conforms to some stereotype in order to hide a part of yourself?

4. “One of the strengths I derive from my class background is that I am accustomed to contempt.” (Dorothy Allison)
Some critics call this novel a book about class. Barbery herself
called Renée Michel, among other things, a vehicle for social
criticism. Yet for many other readers and reviewers this aspect is marginal. In your reading, how integral is social critique to the novel? What kind of critique is made? Many pundits were doubtful about the book’s prospects in the US for this very reason: a critique of French class-based society, however charming it may be, cannot succeed in a classless society. Is the US really a classless society? Are class prejudices and class boundaries less pronounced in the US than in other countries? Are the social critique elements in the book relevant to American society?

5. Hope I die before I get old…
Paloma, the book’s young protagonist, tells us that she plans to commit suicide on the day of her thirteenth birthday. She cannot tolerate the idea of becoming an adult, when, she feels, one inevitably renounces ideals and subjugates passions and principles to pragmatism. Must we make compromises, renounce our ideals, and betray our youthful principles when we become adults? If so, why? Do these compromises and apostasies necessarily make us hypocrites? At the end of the book, has Paloma re-evaluated her opinion of the adult world or confirmed it?

6. Kigo: the 500 season words…
Famously, the Japanese language counts twelve distinct seasons during the year, and in traditional Japanese poetry there are five hundred words to characterize different stages and attributes assigned to the seasons. As evidenced in its literature, art, and film, Japanese culture gives great attention to detail, subtle changes, and nuances. How essential is Kakuro’s being Japanese to his role as the character that reveals others’ hidden affinities? Or is it simply his fact of being an outsider that matters? Could he hail from Tasmania and have the same impact on the story?

7. Circumstances maketh the woman…
Adolescent children and the poor are perhaps those social groups most prone to feel themselves trapped in situations that they cannot get out of, that they did not choose, and that condition their entire outlook. Some readers have baulked at the inverse snobbery with which the main characters in The Elegance of the Hedgehog initially seem to view the world around them and the people who inhabit it. Is this disdain genuine or a well-honed defence mechanism provoked by their circumstances? If the later, can it therefore be justified? Do Renée’s and Paloma’s views of the world and the people who surround them change throughout the book? Would Paloma and Renée be more prone to fraternal feelings if their circumstances were different?

8. “Unprovided with original learning, unformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition, I resolved to write a book.” (Edward Gibbon)

In one of the book’s early chapters, Renée describes what it is like to be an autodidact. “There are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere, weaving together all the disparate strands of my reading—and then suddenly the meaning escapes, the essence evaporates, and no matter how often I reread the same lines, they seem to flee ever further with each subsequent reading, and I see myself as some mad old fool who thinks her stomach is full because she’s been attentively reading the menu. Apparently this combination of ability and blindness is a symptom exclusive to the autodidact.” How accurately does this describe sensations common to autodidacts? What are the advantages and disadvantages of being self-taught?

9. The Philosopher’s Stone…
Much has been made of the book’s philosophical bent. Some feel that the author’s taste for philosophy and her having woven philosophical musings into her characters’ ruminations, particularly those of Renée, hampers the plot; others seem to feel that it is one of the book’s most appealing attributes. What effect did the philosophical elements in this book have on you and your reading? Can you think of other novels that make such overt philosophical references? Which, and how does Hedgehog resemble or differ from them?

10. A Bridge across Generations…
Renée is fifty-four years old. Paloma, the book’s other main character, is twelve. Yet much of the book deals with these two ostensibly different people discovering their elective affinities. How much is this book about the possibilities of communication across generations? And what significance might the fact that Renée is slightly too old to be Paloma’s mother, and slightly too young to be her grandmother have on this question of intergenerational communication?

11. Some stories are universal…
The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been published in thirty-five languages, in over twenty-five countries. It has been a bestseller in France, Spain, Germany, Italy, South Korea, and America. In many other countries, while it may not have made the bestseller lists, it nonetheless has enjoyed considerable success. In the majority of these cases, success has come despite modest marketing, despite the author’s reticence to appear too often in public, and her refusal to appear in television, and despite relatively limited critical response. The novel has reached millions of readers largely thanks to word-of-mouth. What, in your opinion, makes this book so appealing to people? And why, even when compared to other beloved and successful books, is this one a book that people so frequently talk about, recommend to their friends, and give as gifts? And what, if anything, does the book’s international success say about the universality of fictional stories today?

12. “…a text written above all to be read and to arouse emotions in the reader.”
In a related question, The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been described as a “book for readers” as opposed to a
book for critics, reviewers, and professors. What do you think is meant by this? And, if the idea is that it is a book that pleases readers but not critics, do you think this could be true? If so, why?

(Questions issued by publisher.)

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

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Summary: When we first meet Susie Salmon, she is already in heaven. As she looks down from this strange new place, she tells us, in the fresh and spirited voice of a fourteen-year-old girl, a tale that is both haunting and full of hope. In the weeks following her death, Susie watches life on Earth continuing without her-her school friends trading rumors about her disappearance, her family holding out hope that she’ll be found, her killer trying to cover his tracks. As months pass without leads, Susie sees her parents’ marriage being contorted by loss, her sister hardening herself in an effort to stay strong, and her little brother trying to grasp the meaning of the word gone. And she explores the place called heaven. It looks a lot like her school playground, with the good kind of swing sets. There are counselors to help newcomers adjust and friends to room with. Everything she ever wanted appears as soon as she thinks of it-except the thing she most wants: to be back with the people she loved on Earth. With compassion, longing, and a growing understanding, Susie sees her loved ones pass through grief and begin to mend. Her father embarks on a risky quest to ensnare her killer. Her sister undertakes a feat of remarkable daring. And the boy Susie cared for moves on, only to find himself at the center of a miraculous event. The Lovely Bones is luminous and astonishing, a novel that builds out of grief the most hopeful of stories. In the hands of a brilliant new writer, this story of the worst thing a family can face is transformed into a suspenseful and even funny novel about love, memory, joy, heaven, and healing.

My Thoughts: The premise of this book was fascinating; I have really not read anything like it. I loved that Susie stayed close to her family in her “heaven”. It rings true to what I think of heaven as well. I loved that there was an element of suspense of the father working with the police to apprehend her killer. I did not like the sections involving Ray and Ruth. I thought that their sections were a little dry, and I tended to want to skip over them. I was surprised by what Susie chose to do with her few hours back on earth, but hey, to each their own. lovelybones

Can’t Wait To Get To Heaven

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Can’t Wait To Get To Heaven by Fannie Flagg

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Summary:  Life is the strangest thing. One minute, Mrs. Elner Shimfissle is up in her tree, picking figs, and the next thing she knows, she is off on an adventure she never dreamed of, running into people she never in a million years expected to meet. Meanwhile, back home, Elner’s nervous, high-strung niece Norma faints and winds up in bed with a cold rag on her head; Elner’s neighbor Verbena rushes immediately to the Bible; her truck driver friend, Luther Griggs, runs his eighteen-wheeler into a ditch–and the entire town is thrown for a loop and left wondering, “What is life all about, anyway?” Except for Tot Whooten, who owns Tot’s Tell It Like It Is Beauty Shop. Her main concern is that the end of the world might come before she can collect her social security.

In this comedy-mystery, those near and dear to Elner discover something wonderful: Heaven is actually right here, right now, with people you love, neighbors you help, friendships you keep.

My Thoughts: This was a hard book for me to get through. The chapters are all very short, I do not think that any of them really extend beyond six pages, and so it was really easy to put down. A lot. For weeks on end. I loved the characters; Flagg’s ability to develop characters is truly amazing. They are very well-developed, so likeable and each one has its own voice. Since I recently finished Lovely Bones, I did not like Elner’s heaven. And I really did not like Elner’s version of God. But, I started to warm up to it as I realized it was her heaven, and she could have what she wanted. The book did pick up toward the end, and I did want to finish it. Flagg even put in a little mystery toward the very end which did make the story more interesting. A good summer read, but far from a page-turner.