Check It Out Category: Literary

Asked at the Desk: Classic American Novels

Picture of Fiction/AV/Teen desk

When we receive the same question twice in one week, we take note! Here’s what two of your neighbors recently asked:

I haven’t read more than one or two of the classic American novels. Now I’m ready, but I don’t know which are most important. Also, do you have them as audiobooks?

We understand this can be overwhelming. Not only are there differing opinions about the most essential, there are different definitions of classic! Here we’ll suggest American classics in three categories to help you find your gateway.

Shorter American Classics

If delving into classic literature is new for you, try one that is not only short in length but also accessible in story and writing:

Great Gatsby book coverThe Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fahrenheit 451 book coverFahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury
John Steinbeck

 

American Classics by Authors of Color

Too many lists of classics limit the rosters to those authored by white men. Make the choice to invest in other perspectives.

Invisible Man book coverInvisible Man
Ralph Ellison
Their Eyes Were Watching God book coverTheir Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston
W.E.B. Du Bois

 

Most Cited American Classics

If your goal is to be familiar with books likely to be referenced in conversation or in other writing, here are three to know:

J.D. Salinger

 

Audiobooks are a great way to experience the classics! Let a talented voice actor bring great writing to life for you. Click for a sampling of American classics on audio. Lists of British classics and World classics are also available.

Interested in more suggestions? Stop by Fiction/AV/Teen Services on the second floor to ask at the desk yourself, or ask online to visit our virtual desk.

Staff Pick: Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Cathleen from Fiction/AV/Teen Services suggests Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Hag-Seed book coverIf you know anything at all about William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, you likely know that it takes place on a remote island buffeted by supernatural storm. So, the idea of translating this story to a literacy program in a present-day county prison may not be an obvious one.

In Margaret Atwood’s brilliantly envisioned Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold, a very specific play is staged both as class project and as personal vendetta for a director once ousted from a prestigious festival. Watching the action unfold in a clever remix of showmanship, we the audience are treated to parallel dramas that are equally riveting in their creativity, humor, and compassion. To paraphrase a line from the original play, “O brave new world, that has such stories in it!”
 
 
For more contemporary tales infused with Shakespearean theatricality…

Calibans Hour book coverCaliban’s Hour
by Tad Williams

In a fantasy sequel to The Tempest, one that also echoes Beauty and the Beast, the hag-seed Caliban takes Prospero’s daughter Miranda captive and insists she listen to his story.

Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel

Because they believe that “survival is insufficient,” a traveling Shakespearean troupe brings art to those who remain after a global pandemic destroys civilization as it was once known.

 

Gap of Time book coverThe Gap of Time
by Jeanette Winterson

In the first of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, A Winter’s Tale is contemporized as the aftermath of the 2008 recession, following flawed but driven characters from London to the American New Bohemia.
Dead Fathers Club book coverThe Dead Fathers Club
by Matt Haig

An eleven-year old boy is charged with avenging his father’s death, possibly by his own uncle, in a clever and poignant re-imagining of Hamlet.

Sings and Arrows DVD coverSlings & Arrows
(DVD)

Each season of this brilliant Canadian television series showcases the staging of a Shakespeare play that finds its themes oddly paralleled in the current cast’s shenanigans.

 

Book Discussion Questions: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Elegance of the Hedgehog book coverTitle:  The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Author:  Muriel Barbery
Page Count: 325 pages
Genre:  Literary, Fiction in Translation
Tone:  Introspective, Quirky, Bittersweet

Summary:
Renée, the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building, is easily overlooked due to her appearance and her demeanor. Resident twelve-year-old Paloma is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her and decides to end her life on her next birthday. Both will have their lives transformed by the arrival of a new tenant.

SPOILER WARNING:
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

The Library is happy to share these original questions for your use. If reproducing, please credit with the following statement:  2017 Mount Prospect Public Library. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.

  1. 1. We usually make a point of not beginning discussions with this question, but in light of Paloma’s writing

With her it’s as if a text was written so that we can identify the characters, the narrator, the setting, the plot, the time of the story, and so on.  I don’t think it has ever occurred to her that a text is written above all to be read and to arouse emotions in the reader.  Can you imagine, she has never even asked us the question: “Did you like this text/this book?”  And yet that is the only question that could give meaning to the narrative points of view or the construction of the story…  (153)

Did you like this book?  Why or why not?  And do you agree with Paloma that this question is central to discussing or thinking about a book?

2. The story is presented through the interplay of two narrators. Would it have been as effective (or more, or less) if we had only one POV?  Why not Kakuro Ozu as well?  Would you have liked to experience his voice more directly?

3. What do Paloma and Renée have in common? Each has a secret life and a desire to stay hidden.  How so and why?

4. What did you think of Renée’s double life?

5. In the passage from which the title is taken, Paloma writes

Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog; on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary—and terribly elegant.  (143)

Would you agree with her description?  Would Ozu?

6. Were there any of Paloma’s “Profound Thoughts” or “Journal of the Movement of the World” entries to which you found yourself especially responding?

7. What do Paloma and Renée teach each other? Does Ozu teach and/or learn as well from them?

8. In what ways is Paloma still a child? Would you say she is neglected?

9. What of Paloma’s family? What roles do they play in the story?  (mother, sister, father)

10. How is social class reflected in this book?

11. What is the “goldfish bowl” and how is it important to the story?

12. How is identity also a theme throughout The Elegance of the Hedgehog? Think about how Renée might define herself as well as Paloma’s observations about the people around her.

13. Is Ozu a fully-realized character, or is he primarily a catalyst for the two women?

14. How did Renée’s backstory (her husband, her sister) contribute to her understanding of herself? To our understanding of her?

15. Is this a romantic story?

16. How did you react to the shocking event at the end? Why do you think the author chose this development and had it unfold in this way?

17. Would you have preferred a happier ending?

18. Did any of Renée’s parting words resonate with you? What of Paloma’s epiphany and, similarly, her last paragraph?

19. Did the book inspire you to explore literature, art, film, music, manga, language, or philosophy?

20. Would you describe either the book or the characters as pretentious?

21. Did the book surprise you at all? In what ways?

22. This book has been translated into over 30 languages. What do you think accounts for its popularity?  Did the fact it is a translation affect your reading of the book?

23. Where is humor brought into the story? Is it well-chosen?  Ill-chosen?  Distracting?  Needed?

24. Have you seen the film The Hedgehog? How successful is it as an adaptation?  Did you have any reaction to the casting or directorial choices?

25. How might you describe or recommend The Elegance of the Hedgehog to others? What other works might you recommend to one who liked it?

Want help with your book discussion group? Check out tips, advice, and all the ways the Library can help support your group!

OTHER RESOURCES:

interview with author Muriel Barbery
The Elegance of Muriel: An Author Profile of Muriel Barbery” via Publishers Weekly
New York Times book review of The Elegance of the Hedgehog
LitLovers discussion guide
France’s Iconic ‘Concierge’ — a Dying Breed?
video: Critic and educator Robert Adams lectures on The Elegance of the Hedgehog
movie trailer for the adaptation The Hedgehog

READALIKES:

Skylight book coverSkylight
by José Saramago

Cleaner of Chartres book coverThe Cleaner of Chartres
by Salley Vickers

Novel Bookstore book coverA Novel Bookstore
by Laurence Cossé

Staff Pick: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Picture of Jenny In Exit West, Mohsin Hamid mostly mirrors reality to follow a young couple, Nadia and Saeed, thrust into the horrific state of civil war in their home country. Shedding light on this human experience, the somber portrayal of their journey toward safety glimmers with writing that may cause your heart to pause, but at the same time wraps you into wanting to know what will happen next to the two lovers.

 

Staff Pick: Embassytown by China Miéville

Picture of CathleenThe world-building in Embassytown is meticulous yet subtle, and it is a fascinating backdrop for a narrative in which an indecipherable language plays a central role in the dynamic between human colonists and the complicated beings on a distant planet. Complex, graceful, and perhaps perfect for any Arrival fans eager for next-level storytelling.

List: Your Novel is Too Long. It’s Also Great.

Today in the Tournament of Books (You are following, right? If not, let us remind you why you should) the post-judgment debate included advice to authors that no matter what it’s about, “Your novel is too long,” but after further consideration concluded, “Write it anyway.” This made us brainstorm lengthy-but-great books of our experience, and these are a sampling of those that must be mentioned:

Nix book coverThe Nix by Nathan Hill

2016. 625 pages.

Astonished to see the mother who abandoned him in childhood throwing rocks at a presidential candidate, a bored college professor struggles to reconcile the radical media depictions of his mother with his small-town memories and decides to draw her out by penning a tell-all biography.

 

 

1Q84 book cover1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

2011. 925 pages.

An ode to George Orwell’s 1984 told in alternating male and female voices relates the stories of Aomame, an assassin for a secret organization who discovers that she has been transported to an alternate reality, and Tengo, a mathematics lecturer and novice writer.

 

 

11_22_63 book cover11/22/63 by Stephen King

2011. 849 pages.

Receiving a horrific essay from a GED student with a traumatic past, high-school English teacher Jake Epping is enlisted by a friend to travel back in time to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a mission for which he must befriend troubled loner Lee Harvey Oswald.

 

 

Goldfinch book coverThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

2013. 771 pages. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

A young boy in New York City, Theo Decker, miraculously survives an accident that takes the life of his mother. Alone and abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by a friend’s family and struggles to make sense of his new life. In the years that follow, he becomes entranced by one of the few things that reminds him of his mother; a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the art underworld.

 

Seveneves book coverSeveneves by Neal Stephenson

2015. 867 pages.

A catastrophic event renders the Earth a ticking time bomb. In a feverish race against the inevitable, nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity in outer space. Five thousand years later, their progeny, seven distinct races now three billion strong, embark on yet another audacious journey into the unknown, to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth.

 

Luminaries book coverThe Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

2013. 834 pages. Winner of the Man Booker Prize.

In 1866, a weary Englishman lands in a remote gold-mining frontier town on the coast of New Zealand to make his fortune and forever leave behind his family’s shame. On arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men who have met in secret to investigate what links three crimes that occurred on a single day, events in which each man finds himself implicated in some way.

 

Book Discussion Questions: The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

Dovekeepers book coverTitle:  The Dovekeepers
Author:  Alice Hoffman
Page Count: 505 pages
Genre:  Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
Tone:  Lyrical, Thought-provoking, Haunting

Summary:
In 70 CE, 900 Jews held out against armies of Romans on a mountain in Masada. According to an ancient historian, two women and five children survived. Based on this tragic event, Hoffman weaves a tale of four bold, resourceful, and sensuous women, each of whom has come to Masada by a different path.

SPOILER WARNING:
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

The Library is happy to share these original questions for your use. If reproducing, please credit with the following statement:  2017 Mount Prospect Public Library. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.

1. Who was your favorite character and why?

Yael’s Story

2. What had Yael’s life been like when we first meet her?

3. Why was her red hair so important?

4. What does Yael do to break free of Sia and her attempts to ruin her pregnancy? Do you think that acts of contrition have power?

5. Yael says of Ben Simon that of all the people he murdered, he did his best work on me. What did she mean? Why did she then remember him with love?

6. Yael’s father says that he sees her mom when he looks at her, but he treats her horribly. Shouldn’t this have made him more loving?

7. Why did Yael see her pregnancy as a gift instead of another burden in her sad life?

8. What about the Man from the North? Why was he important to the story?

Revka’s (the Baker’s Wife) Story

9. Her story opens with sorrowful looking back. She says, “I didn’t understand what the wind was capable of and how we must bow before it, grateful no matter where it takes us.” What has happened to her?

10. Hoffman does not hold back the details in the rape and torture scene of Zara. Why might the author have made this choice? What was your reaction?

11. Yoav becomes the Man from the Valley, apparently driven by his sorrow to distance himself from his sons and court death in battle. Revka seems to understand. What was your response to how he chose to deal with his grief?

12. It seems like a generous thing that Revka would have breathed her daughter’s soul into the mouth of her husband. Why then, does she call it the 2nd worse thing a mother could do?

13. How does she get back the voices of Noah and Levi?

Aziza’s Story

14. If Rebekah could have truly changed her gender, do you think she would have, or was it the things that men were able to do that she wanted?

15. Do you think she was blessed because she had such unique abilities or was it a burden for her?

16. Rebekah has four key men in her life. Who was most influential? Did any of them really love her?

17. What does withholding her given name say about the power of a name?

18. How would you describe Rebekah based on her relationship with her sister and brother?

19. The Man from the Valley was able to love Aziza because she was a boy. How did this thinking make sense to both of them?  Was he good for her?

20. Did Amram deserve the death he received?

Shirah’s (the Witch of Moab) Story

21. Would the story have been better without the element of magic?

22. What did you think of Shirah’s all-consuming love for Eleazor? Was he her equal?

23. She leaves Moab. What did you think of her decision?

24. Chana says you can’t have my husband and Shirah replies, “I’ve had him all along?” Powerful sentence, but it is true? What did she have?

25. In the end, was Shirah’s death a failure or a triumph?

General Questions

26. Do you have a new awareness of what daily life or warfare must have been like?

27. How did the women relate to God?

28. Were you surprised at the intertwining of superstition, magic ritual, and religious belief? Does that take away from their faith experience?

29. Were any of the father figures in this book reliable? Do you think this book was fair to men?

30. Hoffman has said that she bases her works on fairy tales because she appreciates their emotional truths, the lessons they teach about human nature, love and hatred. What seemed fairy tale-like to you? Do you agree that fairy tales teach valuable lessons?

31. Based on this story, what does Hoffman seem to believe about romantic love? Is it a positive thing?

Want help with your book discussion group? Check out tips, advice, and all the ways the Library can help support your group!

OTHER RESOURCES:

book review from The Washington Post
video:  How I Wrote [The Dovekeepers]: An Exclusive Interview with Alice Hoffman
audio or transcript: A Tale of Forgiveness from the Tragedy of the Masada via NPR
Masada description, photos, and maps via UNESCO
discussion guide from the publisher
additional questions from Southfield Public Library

READALIKES:

Secret Chord book coverThe Secret Chord
by Geraldine Brooks

Antagonists book coverThe Antagonists
by Ernest K. Gann

Women book coverThe Women
by T. C. Boyle

Staff Pick: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Dan from Building Services suggests A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Tale of Two Cities book coverCharles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities combines a colorful mixture of history, adventure, and romance set to the backdrop of the French Revolution. The story revolves around 3 characters: Lucie, a British girl of French descent, her lover Charles, a French nobleman seeking asylum from the bloody revolution, and their friend Sydney, a banker who harbors a secret love for Lucie.

Dickens summons up multiple emotions in the reader as Charles is forcefully extradited back to France in order to stand trial for his family’s crimes. This novel is sure to inspire wonder and horror as the author masterfully depicts this tale of love amidst one of the most unsettling times in French history.

Book Discussion Questions: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Death Comes for the Archbishop book coverTitle:  Death Comes for the Archbishop
Author:  Willa Cather
Page Count: 297 pages
Genre: Historical FictionClassic, Inspirational Fiction
Tone:  Contemplative, Unassuming, Strong Sense of Place

Summary:
In 1851 French Bishop Latour is dispatched to New Mexico to reawaken its slumbering Catholicism. Moving along the endless prairies, he spreads his faith the only way he knows—gently, although he must contend with the unforgiving landscape, derelict and sometimes openly rebellious priests, and his own loneliness.

 

SPOILER WARNING:
These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.

The Library is happy to share these original questions for your use. If reproducing, please credit with the following statement:  2016 Mount Prospect Public Library. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.

1. How would you describe the mood of this book? Did you like it?

2. How does the Prologue set the scene for the story? What attitudes and themes does it foreshadow?

3. Describe the friendship between Jean Latour and Joseph Valliant. How essential is their relationship to the book as a whole?

4. Magdalena’s story is one of the more memorable in their early travels, and she then recurs throughout the book. What impact does her character have on the priests? On the reader?

5. Is this a Catholic book? What does it have to say about the greater theme of faith?

6. Are there aspects of religion (or those who profess to be religious) that are portrayed in a negative light?

7. Was the mission of the priests one of service, conversion, or something else? Did they make a difference?

8. What does Latour have in common with the ideal of the Western hero? What is different?

9. Some readers have trouble with Latour due to his lack of passion and sometimes even coldness. Is this how he struck you?

10. When deciding whom to appoint, it is said

The new vicar must be a young man, of strong constitution, full of zeal, and above all, intelligent. He will have to deal with savagery and ignorance, with dissolute priests and political intrigue. He must be a man to whom order is necessary – as dear as life.

      What do you think of these qualities? Were the Cardinals right? Are there others that proved to be necessary in the position?

11. How would you characterize the ways in which the priests interacted with their communities? With individuals? Was there anything that you think they should have done differently?

12. Did you respond to the vivid descriptions of settings, of landscape, of nature? Were there any that stood out especially?

13. In what ways are art and architecture a theme in the book?

14. What was the prevailing attitude toward Americans? Was this justified?

15. What did you think of Cather’s decision to use several historical names and figures in her story? Does this add credibility? Distract?

16. What instances of humor did you find in the book?

17. How satisfied are you with the title? Why do you think it was chosen?

18. Would you say this is an easy book to read? How difficult is it to describe or summarize?

19. Cather considered this book to be her best and most important. Do you agree? Even if you haven’t read other works, do you see significance?

20. Cather once wrote, “When people ask me if it has been a hard or easy road, I always answer with the quotation, ‘The end is nothing, the road is all.'” What do you think of that statement in general? Is this sentiment effectively illustrated by Death Comes for the Archbishop?

Want help with your book discussion group? Check out tips, advice, and all the ways the Library can help support your group!

OTHER RESOURCES:

Death Comes for the Archbishop as one of All-TIME 100 Novels
Willa Cather biography
The Protestant Who Wrote the Greatest Book About American Catholicism
Cather draws attention to New Mexico history
Footsteps: Entering the World of Willa Cather’s Archbishop (via The New York Times)
Discussion questions from the Classics Reading Group of Algonquin Area Public Library

READALIKES:

Crossing Purgatory book coverCrossing Purgatory
by Gary Schanbacher

Lila
by Marilynne Robinson