Billy Collins is the master of casual, accessible poetry. He can make Cheerios poetic. No joke! His poetry is especially charming when he is reading his work out loud. Aimless Love is a collection of Collins’ new and selected poems. It is an astoundingly reflective and joyful audiobook read by the poet himself. Collins, a former two-term U.S. Poet Laureate, is the king of plain speech in contemporary poetry. He pens poems on subjects as diverse as living in the digital age, ancient history, and eating alone. This playful yet serious work is an excellent introduction for those who don’t normally read or listen to poetry.
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Spring — finally! — and with it, a renewed appreciation for beauty and promise. Tickle your eyes and ears with the soul-stirring Sound the Deep Waters: Women’s Romantic Poetry in the Victorian Age. Editor Pamela Norris has collected verse from both familiar wordsmiths (the Brontë sisters, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti) and those equally deserving but less renown. Each poem in this slim keepsake volume is mirrored in a lush illustration of Pre-Raphaelite painting. Grouped into timeless themes which celebrate the loves, delights, dreams, and sorrows of life, the lyrical phrases speak to kindred spirits as well as to quiet contemplation. Snuggle into a window seat and discover modern truths in classic words and vibrant portraits.
Looking for something a little more substantial in your reading diet? Check out the newly-named honorees of the National Book Critics Circle Awards. The NBCC “honors outstanding writing and fosters a national conversation about reading, criticism, and literature.”
Nonfiction: Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink
Fink provides a landmark investigation of patient deaths at a New Orleans hospital ravaged by Hurricane Katrina–and a suspenseful portrayal of the quest for truth and justice. Also available in audio, e-book, and e-audio.
Fiction: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A young woman from Nigeria leaves behind her home and her first love to start a new life in America, only to find her dreams are not all she expected.
Autobiography: Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti by Amy Wilentz
Describes the author’s long and painful relationship with Haiti before and after the 2010 earthquake, tracing the country’s turbulent history and its status as a symbol of human rights activism and social transformation.
John Leonard Prize: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
In a rural village in December 2004 Chechnya, a failed doctor Akhmed harbors the traumatized 8-year-old daughter of a father abducted by Russian forces and treats a series of wounded rebels and refugees while exploring the shared past that binds him to the child.
Also available in large print, audio, and e-book.
SPOILER WARNING: These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points, if you have not read the book.
Title: The Great Gatsby
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Page Count: 172
Genre: Modern classic
Tone: Lyrical, atmospheric
1. Rarely does anyone write a book hoping it will be deconstructed in a lit classroom. Authors write to provoke thought and feeling and to create a story that will speak to readers. So, in those respects, how was this reading experience for you?
2. Who is in the running for the most tragic character(s)?
3. What distinguishes Gatsby and Tom? Would you argue they are more alike or different? What about Daisy and Myrtle? Do you find yourself more accepting of certain characters’ behavior? Are we supposed to?
4. What about the book is relevant to our post-Great Recession world?
5. How would you characterize the tone of the novel? Fun? Sad? Idyllic? Angry? Something else?
6. Have you seen the latest film adaptation? Reportedly, the budget for Luhrmann’s film was over $120 million. Is that fitting? Ironic? What did you think of the film? Did you see the Robert Redford version? Which did you like better? Are the films similar in tone?
7. Robert Redford explains that he wanted to play Gatsby because at the time he had not before “played a desperate man.” Would you agree this is a defining characteristic for Gatsby?
8. In his 1931 essay “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” Fitzgerald wrote, “It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire.” How are these perceptions reflected in The Great Gatsby?
9. Did you find any humor in the story?
10. One word often mentioned in regards to The Great Gatsby is “romantic”. What do you think?
11. What do you know of Fitzgerald’s life? In what ways could The Great Gatsby be considered autobiographical? What might explain our fascination with this era and/or the Fitzgeralds in particular?
12. The Great Gatsby’s title was not Fitzgerald’s choice and never his favorite. How would the book’s reception be changed if it were instead called Trimalchio in West Egg, The High-Bouncing Lover, Gold-Hatted Gatsby, or Among Ash Heaps and Millionaires?
13. Critic Thomas C. Foster argues that this book isn’t about Gatsby. It’s about watching, seeing, and blindness (Twenty Five Books That Shaped America). What do you think he means?
14. Who is the protagonist of the book? Is it Gatsby? Nick?
15. How would you characterize Nick Carraway? Do you trust his perceptions? Is Nick Carroway an outsider, or is he one of them? Is this consistent throughout the story? How does this affect us as readers?
16. Could Daisy and Gatsby have had a happily-ever-after?
17. Is Daisy more a symbol than a character? What does her statement, “I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool” reveal about Daisy?
18. “[Gatsby’s] death preserves his greatness, and justifies the title of his story, a title that is anything but ironic.” (Harold Bloom, Jay Gatsby) Yet, other sources specifically point out the irony. What do you think?
19. In your experience, which of the other characters made the greatest impression on this reading: Jordan, Tom, Myrtle, Wilson, Meyer, Mr. Gatz?
20. Is The Great Gatsby an indictment of the American Dream? Or is Fitzgerald championing it?
21. In what ways are illusion and disillusionment prevalent in the novel?
22. Would this have worked just as well (or even better) as a short story?
23. What did you notice about the language? The dialogue?
24. Gertrude Stein bestowed the label the Lost Generation on the group of American expatriate artists of the ‘20s. What qualities does this bring to mind? How does it inform the characters of The Great Gatsby?
25. Would you say that this is a fable of the 1920s? Are the characters merely caricatures? Either way, does this add to or detract from the story?
26. Do any of the characters learn a lesson? Change for the better or for the worse?
27. What are we to take away from the ending, especially considering who survives the book? Is it better not to dream? To be a Tom? What does the book have to say about being great? About being successful?
28. The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, more than four years before the Wall Street crash. Why might this affect our understanding of the story and themes? Would it mean as much if it were published in the 1930s?
29. Why is this book so often taught to teenagers? What does it have to say to us at that age? How might your experience with the story differ as an adult?
30. Final words: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” With what thoughts or feelings does this leave the reader?
The Big Read reading group guide
Simon and Schuster reading group guide
Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library reading group guide
F. Scott Fitzgerald documentary
NPR interview with Baz Luhrmann
Reading The Great Gatsby as an adult
24 Things You Might Not Know about The Great Gatsby
7 Life Lessons from The Great Gatsby
SPOILER WARNING: These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points, if you have not read the book.
Title: The Turn of the Screw
Author: Henry James
Page Count: 134
Genre: Literary horror
Tone: Ambiguous, leisurely, literary
1. The job: to tend to two orphans in a country mansion full of rarely-seen servants with absolutely no oversight from the children’s remaining family. Do you think this job was unusual for the Victorian era? Why did the governess take the job? Would you have taken the job?
2. Is the Governess the first person to her position or were there others before her?
3. How would you describe the Governess as a person? Do you think she cared for the children?
4. What did you think of the children’s uncle? Do you think he cared for the children? Why do you think he never wanted to be contacted about their conduct or progress?
5. There are several unnamed characters in this book – the Governess and the Uncle. Why do you think Henry James never named them? Did you notice the characters were unnamed? What power does a name have?
6. Who is Mrs. Grose? Do the children trust her? Does the Governess trust her? Does Mrs. Grose trust the Governess?
7. The Governess has an ideal start with Flora and then Miles comes home from boarding school for the summer. A letter appears shortly after from Miles’ school saying he was expelled. Why was he expelled? Did the Governess talk to Miles about his expulsion? Why or why not? Would you have talked to Miles about it?
8. Did the Governess write Miles’ uncle about his expulsion? Why or why not?
9. What are other examples of people being vague or unnecessarily mysterious in The Turn of the Screw?
10. Who is Mr. Quint? Who is Miss Jessel? How were they connected to one another? How did the Governess first come across knowledge of Quint and Jessel?
11. Do you think the ghosts of Quint and Jessel were real?
12. Do you think the children saw the ghosts of Quint and Jeseel?
13. Was the Governess a heroic woman trying to protect the children from evil influence…or do you think she was hallucinating and losing her mind?
14. Why do you think the governess was so slow to write the children’s uncle? Did she ever actually write him? If she did, what happened to the letter?
15. Did the children write their uncle? What happened to their letters? Is there a reasonable explanation for why the Governess did not post them?
16. Did you find the children, Miles and Flora, to be lovely or sinister?
17. Did the children ever turn on the Governess? If so, how and why?
18. Miles asks the Governess when he is going back to school. It is here that we start to see his personality. What is Miles like? How does the Governess respond to his inquiries?
19. Corruption is a word often used by the Governess. What do you think this word means to her and to this story?
20. The Governess and Mrs. Grose find Flora playing outside. The Governess swears she sees the ghost of Miss Jessel across a stream from them. Can Flora see the ghost? What happens to Flora and the Governess’ relationship after this sighting?
21. Where does Mrs. Grose take Flora?
22. What happens between Miles and the Governess while Mrs. Grose and Flora are gone?
23. Do you think Miles’ death was an accident? Do you think it could have been averted?
24. What are words you would use to describe The Turn of the Screw? What genre is it?
25. What makes a good suspense novel? What makes a good horror novel? Did The Turn of the Screw make a good horror or suspense novel?
26. What is the meaning of the title?
If you liked The Turn of the Screw, try…
Jane Austen wrote, “How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book,” and her fans surely agree when it comes to the much-beloved Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps your own devotion has led you to read all the books, watch all the movies, and still it isn’t enough. May we suggest enjoying the story in Marvel comic form? That’s right! Graphic Novels for Grown-ups Month is the perfect time to sample Pride & Prejudice as adapted by an award-winning romance author and skilled illustrators. Much of Austen’s language and wit are smartly preserved, and the drawings add insight into the characters’ personalities and foibles. This is a delightful way to revisit a favorite, and don’t forget to enter for prizes after you reach the happy ending!
Want a gritty, dark horror novel? Last Days by Adam Nevill is the leisurely tale of an indie filmmaker shooting a documentary on the cult The Temple of the Last Days, all of whose members were murdered. As the shoot progresses, evil has awoken and people start dying.
How about literary, uncanny short stories? Try Nalo Hopkinson’s anthology of dark fantasy and horror, Mojo: Conjure Stories. Nineteen authors, from Neil Gaiman to Tananarive Due, explore the tricky, powerful, and dangerous nature of magic.
What about an unlikely monster? Brood X by Michael Philip Cash shows what happens when cicadas take over the world. Billions of cicadas wreak havoc on the electric grid, wi-fi, food, and water for Seth and his family in this original, fast-paced read.
Finally, how about something funny? This Book is Full of Spiders by David Wong is a small town Armageddon in the form of giant, invisible spiders that only two hopeless, sarcastic heroes can see and fight.
Still not enough horror for you?
Ghosts in the graveyard. Knocks at the door when no one is there. Houses cursed with madness. In our experience, horror that is only hinted can be much more terrifying than outright gore. Let the masters add an extra thrill to otherworldly nights with Edward Gorey’s Haunted Looking Glass. Fall under the spell of “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs or of “The Dream Woman” by Wilkie Collins. Stories from none other than Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens, and Robert Louis Stevenson will make you think twice about trusting your own eyes and ears. Each gothic chill is prefaced by one of Edward Gorey’s original creepy-cute illustrations. Whether you prefer the odd or the truly frightening, this collection will satisfy your hunger for spooky.
The winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature is Alice Munro, lauded by the Swedish Academy as a “master of the contemporary short story.” She is the first Canadian citizen and only the thirteenth woman to be awarded this honor. Earlier this year Munro stated that Dear Life (2012), her fourteenth collection, would be her last. Many know her story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” about a devoted couple’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, through the film adaptation Away from Her. Other successes include The View from Castle Rock (2006) and Too Much Happiness (2009). Often likened to a modern-day Chekhov, Munro was praised by the Academy’s Permanent Secretary as “a fantastic portrayer of human beings.” What better invitation might a reader need?
Southern Gothic fiction is sinister and sometimes surreal writing that takes place in the American South. Flannery O’Connor, a leading author in the genre, said, “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, and brutal.”
Click here for the work of O’Connor and other Southern Gothic writers.