Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World - Eric Weiner

Final Book Discussion Post

I think the best way to sum up the book and the search for happiness is to use some quotes from Weiner's final chapter:

"Tolstoy turned on his head. All miserable countries are alike; happy ones are happy in their own way." (p.322)

"Yes, we want to be happy but for the right reasons, and, ultimately, most of us would choose a rich but meaningful life over an empty, happy one, if such a thing is even possible." (p.323)

The search for happiness is complicated and ongoing. We make our own happiness. For some, the search is the best part of happiness. While we are all now living in "interesting times" I hope Weiner's happy countries can, someday, once again be happy.

This ends the discussion of The Geography of Bliss.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World - Eric Weiner

The Happiness Effect

Time Magazine (December 11, 2008) just published an article about a recently published 20-year study about happiness:


" showing that emotions can pass among a network of people up to three degrees of separation away, so your joy may, to a larger extent than you realize, be determined by how cheerful your friends' friends' friends are, even if some of the people in this chain are total strangers to you.
If that's so, it creates a whole new paradigm for the way people get sick and, more important, how to get them healthy. It may mean that an individual's well-being is the product not just of his behaviors and emotions but more of the way they feed into a larger social network. "

The results of the study are interesting because they show that an individual may not be happy on his or her own, but is happiest in an environment of other happy people. The Slough experiment in Britain could be the right way to spread happiness. Teach a group of people to change their way of thinking so that they become happier and they will spread it within three degrees. The furthest-away people can spread it another three degrees. Eventually entire counties, and perhaps entire countries,can become happy - but only if the happiness spreads more quickly than the unhappiness.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World - Eric Weiner

Great Britain: Happiness is a Work in Progress

Weiner decided to visit a town in Britain called Slough because a few years ago Slough was featured in a British reality show (it is also the town where the British version of The Office is set). Six happiness experts were sent to Slough to make the populace happier. Weiner is intrigued because "here was a deliberate, ambitious attempt to take an unhappy place and make it happy-or at least happier. Could it be done?"

The happiness experts took fifty Slough residents, tested their happiness levels, which turned out to be average, and then spent twelve weeks giving them happiness training. At the end of the twelve weeks, these newly happy people were to go around spreading happiness through the rest of Slough. The happiness re-test showed that they had gone up the happiness scale by 33% and were happier than Switzerland (p.253-4).

Part of this happiness training consisted of what I view as New Age exercises - hugging trees, doing tai chi, doing yoga, submerging oneself in an isolation tanks. The whole series sounds like an episode of Absolutely Fabulous - the one where Edina is swimming around her bedroom pool with her dolphin, who later dies of fin flop. The fifty visit graveyards and reflect on how even a mundane task like vacuuming, if done well, can be pleasurable.

Weiner then tracks down three people were on the happiness show. Based on his account of them, they are innately happy people, even the one with the really serious heart condition. What they all seem to have in common, besides being happier, is that they are curious people. They use their brain. They learn new things and they think about them.They would be equally happy if they had been taught breadmaking and sheetrocking since learning, not stagnating, is what makes them happy.

Much of the chapter is spent comparing American happiness to British happiness. The Brits (to me) may actually be happier since they are not going to therapists or reading self-help books. They are doing things that make them happier (ie getting cast in reality shows) rather than just thinking about things that make them happy. One guy is even made happy by the cultural diversity in Slough, even though Weiner points out that the more homogenous cultures are happier.I wonder if Americans are happier than the Brits or whether that was just American PR?

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World - Eric Weiner

Thailand: Happiness is Not Being in Control of Your Fate

"This, I realize, is what life is like for most Thais. They are not in control of their fates. A terrifying thought, yes, but also a liberating one. For if nothing you do matters, then life suddenly feels a lot less heavy. It's just one big game." (p. 241).

At the end of Weiner's Thailand chapter, Thailand has what he refers to as a "coup lite". "Coups don't really fit into my search for the world's happiest places, and this is just the sort of unhappiness I've been trying so hard to avoid." (p.241)

When I reread these quotes, I realized that this is where I diverge from Weiner. It is easy to view life as one big game when you are, indeed, in control of your fate and you are just meditively thinking about the universe before you go back to your active life. Many Americans can make choices about their education, careers, where to live, and how to invest their money. However, many Americans cannot. This also applies to Thais. Sitting back and viewing what you cannot change as a game, is, I suppose, one way to stay sane. On the other hand, it is also a way to perpetuate your society's problems. It belittles the people who do try to make changes to improve society - they are not fun, they are not playing the game. And who decided the rules of the game? Usually not the majority of the people in a society - usually the minority in power.

This is a very Western view. Many non-Americans, and even many Americans who study Eastern philosophies, have found happiness by accepting life as something they cannot change. They have embraced their fate.

Do countries need coups in order to become happy? Do people need periods of unhappiness so that they can re-evaluate their lives and improve them? Would we all be happier if we didn't view life as a game and that the one who dies with the most prizes wins that game? We may be able to answer that question after my next post, which will be about Great Britain where happiness is a work in progress.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World - Eric Weiner

Thailand: Happiness is not Thinking

I mentioned to a few of my friends that Thailand is considered to be one of the happiest countries in the world. Their response was to ask whether Weiner had interviewed anyone in the Thai entertainment industry. They had a point - much of Thailand spends its time entertaining wealthy Westerners. Not thinking about their job is probably the only way for many Thai to survive.

Weiner also brings up the concept of the Gross National Happiness Index. The governments of both Thailand and Bhutan are commited to this index. However, in the case of Thailand at least, it doesn't seem to have made anyone happier.

Thailand has recently been overwhelmed by political chaos. One group of protestors took over the Prime Minister's office for several months:


Someone eventually lobbed a grenade at them, but it was amazing that they could actually stay in there for weeks before the government took violent action. Happiness Index at work?

What is impressive is the attempt to revitilize the Thai tourism business, which was hampered by the fact that the anti-government protestors took over the airports, trapping foreigners in country:


Thailand may be a charming country but its population appears to now be thinking and they are not happy about their political structure. Let's see if the happiness index survives a tourism slowdown due to the sinking economies of the countries who once visited Thailand.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Switzerland: Will Happiness Survive Lack of Boredom?

Switzerland's boredom may not survive a financial crisis. As the rest of the world is being sucked into what may be a global recession, Switzerland is also getting worried. One of the reasons, according to Weiner, that the Swiss can afford to be bored is because of low unemployment. People have jobs. However, there are signs that this may be changing:


One of the major Swisss banks, UBS, became involved in the subprime morgage melt-down. The bank had a public meeting which generated a crowd of 6000 people who were expecting the total loss of their lifetime savings. One annoyed elderly shareholder had enough:

"Well, those responsible were plain to see - a phalanx of UBS chief executives in expensive suits, on a raised dais, bathed in spotlights. It was not the best public relations image.
The Swiss know that UBS bosses earned among the highest salaries in Europe. Added to that were huge bonuses which they continued to award themselves even as the financial crisis unfolded.
It was all too much for one indignant shareholder. Leaping to the podium he turned to UBS chairman Marcel Ospel and told him "give back your fat bonus, now. "Here, just in case you go hungry, I've brought you something to eat," he continued.
And reaching into his pocket he produced a string of traditional Swiss sausages and waved them under Mr Ospel's trembling nose. " (see above link)

This is the action of a calm, bored, happy Swiss citizen? Many Americans may share this man's anger as they listen to the news or read papers online or in print form. However, with the exception of those factory workers in Chicago, the average American is not publicly protesting the current financial crisis. I am impressed but not optimistic for much happiness in Switzerland in the near future.

Next post - Thailand: Happiness is Not Thinking.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World - Eric Weiner

Resources For Those Who Have Not Read The Book:


Article and audiofile about the book on the NPL site with Weiner and an excerpt from the chapter on Iceland.


Weiner's own site where he talks about the book.


Weiner's happiness advice from October of 2008, with audiofile.

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World - Eric Weiner

Switzerland: Happiness is Boredom

Weiner's chapter on Switzerland reveals an odd love/hate relationship with the country. On one hand, life in Switzerland functions smoothly. The country is clean, the economy is good, the chocolate is wonderful. However, he also describes Switzerland as a super-nanny country where "In many parts of Switzerland, you can't mow your lawn or shake your carpets on Sunday. You can't hang laundry from your balcony on any day. You can't flush your toilet after 10:00 PM" (p.33) An acquaintance of his even received a note asking her not to laugh after midnight. Why, I wondered, could that possibly be called a happy country?

I then started to do some research on Switzerland. The country is divided into French, Italian, and German cantons, which all have representation in the government. All three official languages are official. How could such a linguistically fragmented country be so conformist? The answer came from one of my sisters. As she pointed out, the Swiss had to create one society and expect everyone to conform to it, or the three different cultures would have divided the country and there would be no Switzerland. Therefore cultural conformity was needed for happiness.

However, as I researched further, some indications of current cultural unhappiness began to emerge. Last year, much tension about foreign immigration into Switzerland began to emerge during campaigns for a general Parliamentary election:



Twenty percent of Switzerland's population is from outside of the country. As the number of foreign-born inhabitants continues to rise, so does tension inside the country between the foreign-born and native-born inhabitants. This makes sense when you remember that Weider notes that "The Swiss are deeply rooted in place. Their passports list the name of their ancestral town. Not their hometown but the town of their roots. Maybe they've never even been there. But it is their home." (p.38) People who have been rooted to one geographic area in one country for so long would understandably have trouble relating to people who have just moved in from Africa or the Ukraine.

Also, Weiner never talks to any recent non-Western immigrants to Switzerland. How do they perceive Swiss society? Do they feel bored? Do they feel stifled by Swiss conformity? Do they want to change Switzerland? What is their happiness level? And then of course, there are the Swiss economic problems...

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner

Iceland continued: Failure = Creativity

According to Weiner, the lack of stigma associated with failure in Iceland allows Icelanders to take creative chances. If their book flops or their band remains obscure, they can just move on with their lives. To quote Weiner, "if you are free to fail, you are free to try." (p.162) Weiner's Icelanders share music and instruments and ideas within the Icelandic community, without envy, because they view such sharing as a way of creating a better community. Everyone is also free to create because they have a safety net if they fail, paid for by the government.

This is the concept that has radically changed my life. Everyone fails. Accept that you fail, accept the consequences of that failure, and move on with your life. That there will be consequences is a given, but consequences, if viewed as creative learning experiences, can be opportunities for growth. Once I embraced the idea of taking chances and allowing myself to fail, I did become a happier person.

The hard part is accepting the consequences and turning them into something creative. At the beginning of October, the British government invoked anti-terrorism laws against two Icelandic banks. As a result, Iceland's money was frozen and ultimately taken over in the UK; its financials funds were also frozen in other countries. Iceland had to apply for loans from the IMF as well as from other countries. People in Iceland have lost their savings and their pensions. Icelandic businesses cannot get other countries to accept Icelandic currency to pay for supplies. The New York Times had a sobering article about a coffee house whose owner could not get her coffee out of a foreign warehouse, although she had enough money to pay for the coffee, since she could not get anyone to exchange the Icelandic money for her:


In response, Icelanders set up :

The Iceland Petition Site: http://www.indefence.is/Home

which provides a Q&A about their financial situation and links to many interesting articles from newspapers and sites around the world about the effects of this financial disaster on both Iceland and the UK. It also asks people to sign a petition protesting the labeling of Icelanders as terrorists, and encourages people to post photo postcards with the message "I am not a terrorist" to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. My personal favorite is the Attack Sheep one.

At the same time, Icelanders are protesting against their government. They are toilet-papering their Parliament and handing flowers to the police. Of course, everyone is posting photos of these protests online. They are demanding accountability from the government and from the banks, as well as from the UK government.

The Icelandic Tourist Board is creatively promoting Iceland as a wonderful cheap place to spend a weekend (even for people from the US)- beautiful scenery, great music and art, cool clothes, very favorable exchange rate - in order to get someone, anyone, in to spend some money. One Icelandic television show even seems to be expanding:


Weiner compares Reykjavik in the early years of this century with Florence in the time of the Renaissance - a golden age. The problem with golden age cities is that they usually meet tragic fates - most of the inhabitants dying of plague, being overrun by rulers seeking to expand empires, having their harbors silt up, or as the casualities of crusades. What remains is often an empty shell dependent on tourists who wish to recapture the beauty and excitement of a lost age. Venice, for example, is still beautiful but its empty streets lack the vitality that they had during the years of the Venetian maritime empire.

Ultimately, many Icelanders will have to leave their country to seek employment elsewhere. Will they be able to continue their creative lives in other countries? How much of their culture will they be able to export with them? How much will be left behind in Iceland's gorgeous countryside?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner

Iceland: Happiness is Failure

I first became interested in Iceland when I started to read the Icelandic sagas. I initially expected them to be long epic poems similar to Beowulf. I was pleasantly surprised to find them to be like intergenerational novels with more politics and fighting and less romance than the usual American ones. I ultimately ended taking a class on Icelandic feuds so that I can recall a fair amount about medieval Icelandic legal and political structure. The only thing I initially knew about present-day Iceland is that Bjork likes to wear fake swans.

The sagas still continue to influence present-day Iceland, which has (or had) a flourishing publishing industry. Weiner comments that Iceland is a very literate and creative society. Everyone in Iceland is writing a book or a poem, forming a rock band, or wearing some kind of fashion innovation (more innovative, I suspect, than the striped briefs that blew Weiner's mind) while drinking coffee in hip cafes and eating rotting shark. He attributes much of this creative energy to Iceland’s willingness to allow people to fail at one endeavor and try again at another. People can start out as web programmers and then become bankers or carpenters as they mature and find their interests changing. Artists actually get government checks and never starve because it is believed that they can create more and better material if they don't have to worry about having a roof over their heads and food on their plate. Life-long learning is embraced.

"Having multiple identities (though not multiple personalities) is, he believes, conductive to happiness. This runs counter to the prevailing belief in the United States and other western nations, where specialization is considered the highest good. Academics, doctors, and other professionals spend lifetimes learning more and more about less and less. In Iceland, people learn more and more about more and more." (p.161)

I found this interesting because American society did not, until recently, accept failure or people who failed. Failures were dropped from the news and fired from their jobs. They were told to pull themselves together, get some career counseling, and go on with their lives after deciding on a definite, possibly very different, preferably specialized, employment path. The higher a specialized degree you earned, the more money you could command in salary. Unless you changed careers, wrote a bestseller about doing so, and had your book chosen by Oprah, you were not applauded for career-hopping and especially not for admitting to failure. Will this change in post-bailout America? Will laid-off financial workers decide to become potters or sous-chefs?

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner


Last April, I wandered into The Strand Bookstore to escape a depressing, drizzly day. While browsing the travel section, my eye was caught by the subtitle of a book – One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World. My initial reaction was to snarl that happiness wasn’t a place – it was a state of mind. But then I thought about it – is it easier to be happier in some cities or countries than in others? Do some cultures facilitate happiness more than others? Would I become a happier person if I read the book and applied Weiner’s words of wisdom to my own life? While considering this, I read part of the chapter on Iceland, which completely won me over. Iceland was obviously the perfect country. I shelled out $20.00 and took my book home, eager to get ideas from Icelandic society on how to transform my life.
The happy countries that Weiner visits (prior to 2007) include Iceland, Switzerland, Thailand, Bhutan, India, Great Britain, and the US. With the exception of Bhutan, which recently crowned a new king, all the other countries have suffered great financial and/or political unrest in the six months since I first read the book. In fact, being included in the book seems to have the same effect as being chosen "most likely to be successful" for a high school yearbook - it guarantees disaster. Now the question in my mind is whether the values that got these countries included in the book are enough to help them battle through the massive unemployment, financial meltdowns, and internal violence. I'll begin the discussion with Iceland.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

"The Devil in the White City: Murder and Madness at the Fair That Changed America" by Erik Larson

During November you have a chance to comment on and discuss this extremely popular book.

The setting is the 1893 Chicago Exposition. The book’s main characters are Daniel Hudson Burnham the architect who is credited with making it ready to open barely in time for the Opening Ceremonies and H. H. Holmes a con artist and serial killer.

The Chicago World’s Fair as it commonly became known truly was a dream and one that everyone knew would not last long. The wealthy and the poor strolled together amazed by the latest technology and beautiful objects from around the world. Outdoors they were awed by the architecture and landscaping.

At the time of the Fair’s construction there were major financial problems, the unions were demanding fair treatment and there was a very bad winter to work through. 19th century Chicago was a booming proud city that was determined to show itself off.

Many readers have found that Burnham and Holmes had traits and experiences in common.

How does Holmes match up to the serial killers of our times?

Which visitors surprised you?

There were exhibits that are offensive to us now. What about the Fair didn’t you like?

What technology at the Fair do you think had the greatest impact?

What about all the household name products that were introduced at the Fair.

Add a comment or reply to someone else’s. I wish we could all meet at the Ferris Wheel!

Additional Resources:

Google Images and Yahoo! Images have nice collections of photographs.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

acts of kindness in a cruel world/office

When Martin tries to take Lynn to the doctor after learning of her lump (P. 219) he does something so gallant, despite his ultimate romantic rejection of her. Tom performs a similarly heroic gesture for Janine. What is the meaning or significance of these kindnesses when “we” do so many cruel or callous things to each other? (for example: writing “FAG” in Sharpie on Joe’s wall, betting on Brizz in the Celebrity Death Watch pool, spying on Janine's mourning ritual at McDonald’s, etc.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

“Soon she has ten bras in her hands, she has twelve, fifteen. She takes them to the fitting room and despite the pain caused by the chafing tries a few of them on. She looks at herself in the mirror. The idea is to look sexy again. And for whom exactly? Yourself, of course. Yes, well, that’s al wonderfully self-affirming and very strong-minded as any decent woman should be these days, but let’s just face facts here and say that when a woman – no, when a person is thinking about feeling sexy, it is always with the idea of someone else in mind.”
--from “The Thing to Do and the Place to Be”

Lynn’s chapter, titled “The Thing to Do and the Place to Be,” comes seemingly out of the blue and offers wonderful insight into one character’s humanity. Lynn has been on the outside and suddenly we see her from the inside. We don’t get this kind of individual insight into any of the other characters.

While you were reading this chapter, did you think, what’s going on here? Who is supplying us with this perspective/information? And then how did you feel about the revelation at the end that this was Hank Neary’s interpretation?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Michael Scott v. Lynn Mason

As Jesse wrote in a previous comment about the relevance of the "office setting" in recent pop cultural touchstones, "'The Office' is beloved in both its British and American incarnations."

How would you compare the experience of reading Then We Came to the End to watching the television show “The Office?” Do you see a relationship between the two, other than the shared office context?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Joe Pope/ dissing your boss

In Then We Came to the End, employees talk frequently about their dislike of Joe Pope, their default supervisor (see page 114 for an example). In real life, is this behavior among subordinates necessary to subvert the humiliation of having a “boss,”or does it just make things more difficult? Is dissing your boss’s every annoying move with co-workers an activity of solidarity or negativity?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Then We Came to the End: Beginning

Welcome to our October book discussion. This month we will discuss the acclaimed debut novel by Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End. Questions and observations will be posted a few times a week, and your responses are greatly appreciated.

One could argue that Then We Came to the End (TWCCTE) is written in the tradition of other “office novels.” For me, it brought to mind the work of Douglas Coupland – Shampoo Planet, Microserfs, and sections of Generation X. Critics have compared TWCCTE to Americana by Don DeLillo, and in fact the title of TWCCTE is taken directly from Americana, Delillo's own debut novel.

Have you read other "office literature," and how did the experience of reading this book compare? How is Then We Came to the End similar to these other novels? How is it different?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

New Understandings of Human Potentials--Introduction

Today there is a growing recognition among educators, neuroscientists, psychologists and concerned others that human beings possess a range of potentials, intelligences and capacities that cannot be easily identified, quantified and developed by “conventional” understandings. As we try to make sense of incredibly complex human nature and immensely violent human history, maybe the notion that there is only one way to teach, learn, think, and assess human potentials is a bit outdated. The challenge for our generation could be to find new ways to ascertain universal individual potentials and to implement different ways of learning which are appropriate to each person so as to make them thoroughly aware of, and help them fully realize their precious potentials.

Many great contemporary thinkers have offered insights about the nature of human potentials and their continual flourishing. During this month, we will discuss ideas of some of those thinkers and ascertain their value for human education and growth. We begin with Harvard University psychologist Howard Gardner who is most famous for his conception and development of the theory of Multiple Intelligences.

According to Gardner, there are at least seven distinct intelligences, and each can be linked to its own neurological substrate in the brain: linguistic intelligence (sensitivity to the spoken and written word and the ability to master languages), logical-mathematical intelligence (the capacity to analyze problems logically and scientifically), musical intelligence (skill in the performance, composition, and appreciation of music), bodily-kinesthetic intelligence (as exemplified by dancers, surgeons, and artists), spatial intelligence (characteristic of pilots, graphic artists, and architects), interpersonal intelligence (a talent for understanding and relating to other people) and intrapersonal intelligence (the capacity for understanding oneself). Gardner also considers several new candidate intelligences — spiritual, moral, existential, and naturalist.

Although human beings are naturally equipped with a variety of complex and powerful potentials, most of our potentials remain untapped or unequally developed. In the words of Anais Nin, "We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations."

Why human beings sometimes grow in one dimension and not in another? What is the relationship between nature of stimuli and type of growth? How can we maximize and measure development in our evolving potentials? How many intelligences can one optimally develop in a short lifetime? What is the difference between an educated mind and an enlightened being?

Please join us this month for a conversation where we hope to discuss and discern the nature and flourishing of complex human potentials from interdisciplinary, cross-cultural and humane perspectives.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Banned Books Across Cultures: Introduction

If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.
-- John Stuart Mill

To prohibit the reading of certain books is to declare the inhabitants to be either fools or slaves.
-- Claude Adrien Helvetius

You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.
-- Ray Bradbury

The First Amendment right to freedom of speech is one of the greatest values that America has to offer to world civilizations. Censored writers all over the world have looked at American ideals of freedom with awe and respect as they struggled for their rights to express their own thoughts even at the risk of their lives. “We are not afraid,” said John F. Kennedy, “to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” Salman Rushdie stated a similar sentiment: "Free societies are societies in motion, and with motion comes tension, dissent, friction. Free people strike sparks, and those sparks are the best evidence of freedom's existence."

Yet censorship has been a part of American history and modern culture as well. Even today school boards, local governments, religious fanatics and moral crusaders attempt to restrict freedom to read. “The censor believes,” said American journalist Heywood Broun, “that he can hold back the mighty traffic of life with a tin whistle and a raised right hand. For after all, it is life with which he quarrels.”

Fortunately America also has a great tradition of fighting censorship whenever it arises. Organizations such as American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, the American Civil Liberties Union , National Coalition Against Censorship, People for the American Way, and the PEN American Center exist to defend the First Amendment, through legal action as well as by raising public awareness.

In our month long discussion on this forum, we hope to explore psychological, social, political, historical, aesthetic and moral dimensions possibly involved in the ubiquitous phenomena of censorship in America as well as across cultures. We will attempt to understand and evaluate the causes and the effects, the personal and the cultural, the universal and the tribal, the conscious and the unconscious, the said and the unsaid, behind suppression and censorship of ideas. More importantly, an informed and respectful debate about ideas and censorship may help us understand the true nature of ideas themselves and their complex interactions with processes of human consciousness as they co-create varieties of cross-cultural realities. One idea can only be opposed by another idea. Only after a spirited disinterested discourse about relation of ideas to each other, and their relation to universal ideals of truth, goodness and justice, can human beings aspire to live an examined life.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Helping Me Help Myself: Conclusion

Thanks to all who have been reading Helping Me Help Myself. This month hasn't focused much on the ten gurus whose teachings Beth Lisick mined during her year of self-exploration -- Jack Canfield, Stephen Covey, John Gray, Richard Simmons, Julie Morgenstern, Thomas Phelan, Julia Cameron, Suze Orman, Deepak Chopra, and Sylvia Browne. (Brooklyn Book Talk did see our heaviest discussion during the month we spent on Browne's Phenomenon.) Rather, I wanted to consider -- as Lisick did in her book -- why we feel the need to look to experts to improve upon ourselves, and what it means that we in the U.S. usually do this as a solitary pursuit.

On a personal note (to conclude discussion of this very personal book), a close friend has told me that a point made in one of this month's posts helped him reach a major decision, to seriously look for other work so that he can leave the job (in a detested field) he's had for a dozen years.

While reading Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, Lisick considers the coddling of the creative life and observes: "This seems like a linchpin of why so many people get sucked into self-help and empowerment programs. They can't trust that what they're doing is the 'right' way to be doing it" (p. 199). Here's to learning to trust ourselves, however we may arrive at that state.

Our next topic will be "Banned Books Across Cultures." This is the first time we'll be using a more thematic approach to a discussion, rather than one focused on a particular title. Please join in!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Helping Me Help Myself: Self-Help and Mutual Aid

What are the differences between "self-help" in its current individualistic connotation and the principle of mutual aid? How does an admittedly idiosyncratic and comedic book like Helping Me Help Myself fit into these ideas?

Micki McGee, in Self-Help, Inc., discusses the morphing of the meaning of "self-help" from referring to "cooperative efforts for mutually improved conditions on the part of a community of peers" to evoking a solitary and apolitical pursuit of individual improvement (p. 18-19).

Stephen Covey has the image of the "trim tab," which he uses to mean that you might look ineffectual but actually have the power to effect a disproportionate amount of change in your area; Suze Orman concludes her talk in New York that Lisick attends with the Gandhi quote that "we need to be the change we want to see in the world." But to what extent are these "gurus" interested in actually changing the world beyond improving the behavior and performance of individuals (and, dare I say, selling their products)?

On the one hand, seeing ourselves purely as individuals, with our own bootstraps to pull ourselves up by (or not), with our own "self" to "help," makes us less likely to conceive of our community, or our entire society, as something that can change in a radical way. Helping Me Help Myself does not challenge, for example, why Lisick and her husband and friends have to scrounge to get by just because they've chosen creative fields of work. Their struggles are their own private problems to deal with.

On the other hand, perhaps our society has benefited from some of the loosening of community bonds in favor of self-actualization. In the case of Lisick, she credits a stable, loving upbringing with giving her the confidence to choose such an offbeat lifestyle as an adult. In her previous book of humor, a collection of essays called Everybody into the Pool, she writes:

"I loved my normal upbringing. I just think the fact that I had a stable childhood was precisely what let me stray pretty far away from it without ever landing in therapy, rehab, or jail or having an identity crisis, eating disorder, drug problem, or prescription for antidepressants." (p. ix)

So the family support network was crucial, but living in self-contained American homes and fragmented urban environments also means that you can do weird things without risking alienation from the community as a whole. In other cultures, this would not be as possible.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Helping Me Help Myself: Introduction

Suddenly, an idea struck. I would learn how to do the splits on both sides. From an audience standpoint, it would look a lot better if I could slide down on one side, pop up, and then slide down on the other. Goofier. Plus, more symmetrical and showbizzy....I'll do something involving the splits, I thought. I lay back in bed, satisfied for a second with my bout of reflection, and took a sip of coffee. Then, as I started imagining how I would train for such a thing, what kind of stretches I could do to accomplish this feat, a scared, empty feeling took hold....I mean, let's reflect for a minute: That was now my goal for the new year? My resolution? (p. xii-xiii)

Thus spin Beth Lisick's thoughts during her first hour of being awake on January 1, 2006. Now with a new, true resolve, she will look to acknowledged gurus of self-help in order to make sense of her life and work out long-standing issues. Over the next twelve months, she will read books, attend conferences, go on a cruise, reach out to friends and family, and contemplate the knee-jerk cynicism and self-disgust that well up at the idea of "self-help" and "life-coaching." The product of this year of action and reflection is Helping Me Help Myself: One Skeptic, Ten Self-Help Gurus, and a Year on the Brink of the Comfort Zone. (This title is also on BPL's Adult Summer Reading booklist this year, fitting in with the theme of "metamorphosis.")

Beth Lisick is a writer and performer based in California's Bay Area. Among other creative projects, she co-organizes the Porch Light storytelling series in San Francisco and is one half of a comedy duo. She's been possibly the only straight performer invited to go on a Sister Spit tour, and she has even led a band with my vote for best eponymous name ever: The Beth Lisick Ordeal.

Helping Me Help Myself is a funny, easy read, but it's also a deeply personal work. Why is it that so many people are willing to put out into the public sphere their private self-betterment? And why are so many of us eager to read it? People make life goal lists on 43 Things for all to view and comment on (to give an idea of the wide scope here, among the "recently cheered goals" on the day I'm writing this are "NEVER apologize for who I am!" and "Apply to become a glass teacher"). Fortunately, it's beyond the scope of this discussion to get into why ordinary people want to put out into the public sphere parts of their private lives in the first place (though, speaking as someone who finally opened a Facebook account a few days ago, this has indeed been on my mind; incidentally, Lisick is on MySpace, too).

On this end, Lisick's book has two things going for it -- there's the usual voyeuristic/competitive fun time of having someone else's life hanging out in front of you (at least I can clean out my damn closets), and she's an appealing and amusing enough writer to make you want to read about her year anyway.

Stephen Covey, Suze Orman, Deepak Chopra, and Sylvia Browne are among the gurus whose teachings Lisick explores (also Richard Simmons -- which explains the cruise). Using light humor to describe her stumbles through the year, she proves herself a likeable guide into self-helpdom. (On the phone with Julie Morgenstern, author of Organizing from the Inside Out: "'We keep most of our shoes in this wire wine rack thing that we got at a garage sale.' 'Oh.' She sounds amused. 'And is that working for you?' 'Well, no.' 'Okay...' I feel reflective. 'I think it's because a shoe and a bottle of wine are not really the same shape.' 'Good.'" [p. 149])

But another element of Helping Me Help Myself is watching the self-consciously edgy, artsy, Left Coast-er Lisick take part in pursuits valued in mainstream American culture -- including the concept of self-help itself. Sometimes she still comes out on the outside (as with most of John Gray's essentialist philosophies of gender, for example), but she always does try hard to start open-minded. Enjoying this book also requires acknowledging that we're focusing on a particularly privileged, mostly middle class American perspective here (something Lisick does touch on in one chapter).

In the end, despite bouts of near-bankruptcy and depression, Lisick has improved in some ways. She realizes that becoming aware of oneself and how we relate to others opens one's eyes to the synchronicities that show how "there is something cool and mysterious about being alive. A random element that can shock and surprise." (p. 260)

We'll take more in-depth looks at the particular gurus who appear in Helping Me Help Myself, so to start I'll repeat these questions: Why is it that so many people are willing to put out into the public sphere their private self-betterment? And why are so many of us eager to read it? Also, has anyone found a public recounting of your foibles and attempts at redemption to be helpful in self-improvement? Any life coaches out there who have comments on Lisick's journey?

Click on the comments link at the end of this post to participate.

Monday, June 2, 2008

A Cosmopolite In A Cafe by O Henry

Welcome to this month’s selection of Brooklyn Book Talk. We will discuss some of the short stories of O Henry, most of which are also available online.

Let’s begin with A Cosmopolite in a Café. It can be accessed at:


Here is an excerpt:

“…for I held a theory that since Adam no true citizen of the world has existed. We hear of them, and we see foreign labels on much luggage, but we find travellers instead of cosmopolites.”

A Cosmopolite can be defined as someone who is at home in every place; a citizen of the world; a cosmopolitan person.

On first consideration, the concepts of “home” and “belonging” are insipid and innocent. Our home is where we belong, where our community is, where our family and loved ones reside, where we can identify our roots, and where we long to return when we are elsewhere in the world. In this sense, belonging is a notion invested with imaginative, romantic and nostalgic ideas. Although it circumscribes feelings of “being at home,” it is also a significant determinant of identity, that real and ubiquitous psychological state of being which is strongly “attached” to a meaning system, from where originate and derive our most significant political, cultural, romantic and aesthetic perceptions, interpretations, assumptions and “choices.”

The notions of home and belonging therefore can be emotionally and normatively significant forces rather than territorially or culturally defined concepts only. The seemingly innocent statement “home is where we belong” really means “home is where we feel we belong.” This is where considerations of belonging can get really complicated for they may lead to all sorts of divisions and boundaries—self and other, social and political, conscious and unconscious.

O Henry’s fascinating Cosmopolite lends itself to several insightful meanings and interpretations especially in times like ours when the world is being aggressively shaped by conflicting trends of globalization and identity. There is a widespread surge of powerful expressions of ethnic, regional and cultural identity that challenge globalization, peace and cosmopolitanism.

By what processes and conditions are human children given specific identities which may become their lifelong pressing concerns? Is identity destiny? Does identity inadvertently lead to pride and prejudice, inclusion and exclusion? Is it possible to subscribe to several identities without causing conflict, within or without? Are there such norms and values which can integrate all humanity regardless of their differential identities? Are you a Cosmopolite? What kind of an education will a Cosmopolite make?

Please join us here to explore issues of identity and belonging which are inextricably intertwined with the historical considerations of truth, goodness and beauty.

Maya Angelou is saying something similar in the following excerpt from her immortal “On the Pulse of Morning.”

There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing River and the wise Rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African, the Native American, the Sioux
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek,
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheik,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.
They hear the first and last of every Tree
Speak to humankind today.
Come to me,
Here beside the River.
Plant yourself beside the River.
Each of you, descendant of some passed-
On traveler, has been paid for.
You, who gave me my first name, you,
Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you
Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then
Forced on bloody feet,
Left me to the employment of
Other seekers -- desperate for gain,
Starving for gold.
You, the Turk, the Arab, the Swede,
The German, the Eskimo, the Scot,
The Italian, the Hungarian, the Pole,
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought
Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am that Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.
I, the Rock, I, the River, I, the Tree
I am yours -- your passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes
Upon this day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands,
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For a new beginning.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space
To place new steps of change
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out and upon me,
The Rock, the River, the Tree, you country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes,
And into your brother's face,
Your country,
And say simply
Very simply
With hope --
Good morning.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Art of Loving: Introduction

Is love an art? Or is love a pleasant sensation, which to experience is a matter of chance, something one "falls into" if one is lucky? Erich Fromm in his 1956 classic suggests that real love "is not a sentiment which can be easily indulged in by anyone." He claims that it is only through developing one's total personality that one attains the capacity to experience real love, which should be considered a rare achievement.

Fromm's acknowledged masterpiece offers a penetrating analysis of various types of love ranging from brotherly love to motherly love to erotic love to self-love to the love of God. He notes that most people see the problem of love primarily as that of being loved rather than that of loving. In pursuit of this aim they follow several paths. One, which is especially used by men, is to be successful, to be as powerful and rich as the social margin of one's position permits. Another, used especially by women, is to make oneself attractive, by cultivating one's body, dress, etc. However, the capacity to love truly, according to Erich Fromm, involves the basic elements of care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge which need to be cultivated with discipline, concentration, patience, and a supreme concern for mastering love.

Please join us here for a month long exploration of love and the art of loving. We will approach the subject not only from classic but also contemporary and inter-disciplinary perspectives since today love can be understood far more holistically than it was in the times of Erich Fromm who was especially quite influenced by the ideas of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. Since then we have made great progress in understanding the phenomena of love. Although, socioeconomic and psychoanalytic approaches offer useful insights into the puzzle of love, they become far more illuminating when integrated with cross-cultural social and cognitive neuroscience. If love is mysterium tremendum then learning to love is nothing less than our summum bonum. As Bertrand Russell said so succinctly: "The good life is inspired by love and guided by knowledge…Love brings ecstasy and relieves loneliness. In the union of love, I have seen in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heavens that saints and poets have imagined."

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

As the month ends

I've developed a short bibliography that I hope leads you to more reading about Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre and the world of women in the Victorian era.

Thank you for reading the entries to this month's book.

A Short Bibliography of Web Sources and Interesting Reads


Flanders, Judith. Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England.
New York: W. W. Norton, 2003

Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the
Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale Nota Bene, 2000

Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, vol 3 “Bronte, Charlotte” Detroit: Gale Research Company,

Vicinus, Martha, ed. Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age. Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1972


The Bronte Parsonage Museum and Bronte Society. http://www.bronteinfo.com/
This site includes photos of the parsonage and surrounding countryside, layout of house plan,
upcoming events, gift shop items and more.

“The Enthusiast’s Guide to Jane Adaptations” http://eyreguide.bravehost.com/
This has photos and film reviews by web host. Mentions a Lux Radio Theater 1948
version that lasted 42 minutes.

The Internet Movie Database. Titles search “Jane Eyre” http://www.imdb.com/
The database lists versions starting in 1910 and includes 5 televisions productions made
between 1955-1963.

Internet Public Library. Online Literary Criticism Collection. Sites about Jane Eyre. This has a
collection of essays written about every aspect of the book.

Yahoo Groups. Jane Eyre. Members can join lively discussion between the over 200 members.
Topics discussed range from the book, Bronte, film versions and any other related topic. Membership is free. http://groups.yahoo.com/groups/janeeyre/

Please join us for May's discussion on Erich Fromm's The Art of Loving.


Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte: Introduction

Dear Reader, welcome to our discussion of this classic and loved novel. Like Jane Austen’s novels Jane Eyre still has loyal fans and has survived the changes in thought and society in the 151 years since its publication. Readers still identify with Jane, Mr. Rochester, Mrs. Reed, Bertha, St. John Rivers and other characters and events in the tale.

Published in 1847 it is the oldest book in the online book discussion series.

Although gothic novels had been written before Jane Eyre it is considered one of the best examples and the basic outline of the story has become the plot for so many novels that they have been given a name, or genre: historical romances or gothic romances.

A Brief Biography

Charlotte Bronte was born in 1816 and grew up in the dramatic landscape of England’s Yorkshire area. Her father was a rector and her mother died when she was only 5 years old. The children of the family: Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Emily (author of Wuthering Heights), Anne (author of two novels), and the only boy, Branwell became very close.

Their education was seriously influenced by their father’s wide-ranging collection of books which he encouraged his children to read. From an early age the children made up fantasy lives and worlds and were writing stories and poems. However, paralleling her real life, Charlotte and her sisters did attend a boarding school much like Lowood in the book. The harsh conditions there contributed to the childhood deaths of Maria and Elizabeth.

Charlotte and Anne worked as teachers and governesses but hated the separation from the family. Hoping to open their own school they studied in Brussels. Charlotte fell in love with the married head of the school who refused to respond to the open expressions of her feelings. The school idea failed and they had to return to working as teachers and governesses.

Supporting themselves by writing seemed one avenue by which they could stay together and be employed, so under their masculine pseudonyms they sent a first work, a book of poetry, to a publisher. It was a dismal failure but the immediate success of Jane Eyre was encouraging. Their years of childhood writing and reading and personal experiences became in their creative minds wonderful stories.

Charlotte also wrote Shirley, Villette and The Professor.

She died during her first pregnancy within two years of marriage.

Don’t know how to begin discussing the book? Here are some ideas:

● The book had a heroine who was not pretty and a hero who was not handsome and yet the book is considered romantic. This was unusual for its time and for the gothic romances of today. Why did it work?

● Why is the book still read? Are you one of the book’s fans? How many times have you read it?

● How is the first person narrative style an important way to tell the story of Jane’s life?

● Jane’s conscience will not allow her to remain with Rochester no matter how deeply she loves him after becoming aware of Bertha’s existence so why, when she hears him calling to her, does she return without hesitation?

● Readers developed, as they still do, affection for Jane. The 19th century reader would have wanted the best for her: to be a wife and mother. This was believed to be the only place where a British woman could attain true happiness and have clear and acceptable position in society. However Jane never expresses this as her goal but speaks instead of respect and love in a more general sense. Do you think the ending is so romantic that Bronte could
speak out about the role of women in that society?

● How is Jane Eyre different from the books that copied it? Why have so many books been written that a genre has been created?

● What are the examples of the supernatural and superstition in the novel; what do they contribute to the story?

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston: Introduction

Brooklyn Public Library is honored to host Zora Neale Hurston's masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God. This book has also been selected for The Big Read campaign -- an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts, with the intent of revitalizing the role of literary reading in American popular culture. The initiative's purpose is to bring people together to read one great American classic at the same time, to better understand through discussion how its themes are still alive and relevant today. Throughout the month of March, book talks and movie screenings will be held in branch libraries all across Brooklyn.

Here, we welcome and invite you to the online discussion of Their Eyes. Together we will explore the novel through various critical, creative and literary perspectives and discover its many complex, latent and manifest meanings.

We begin with the biographical perspective and will look at some of the salient aspects of author's life such as class, race, birthplace, ethnicity, education, sex, gender, language, family history, spiritual values and political persuasions--and discern how they illuminate our reading and interpretation of the work.

Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7, 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama, the fifth of eight children. Her mother died in 1904 when Hurston was thirteen, causing dramatic and unexpected changes in her life. She recalls the events surrounding her mother’s death: “That hour began my wanderings. Not so much in geography, but in time. Then not so much in time as in spirit.” Her father quickly remarried, and Hurston discovered an "adversary" in his new wife. Because of the conflict with her stepmother, Hurston left home at the age of fourteen. She moved to her brother’s house and took care for his children, and was able to continue her education, thanks to her brother's financial aid.

Hurston arrived in New York City in 1925, and played an active role in the Harlem Renaissance along with her friend Langston Hughes. Soon after her arrival in New York City, she received a scholarship to attend Barnard College where she studied Cultural Anthropology under the famous anthropologist Franz Boas, who later influenced much of her anthropological research. Boas is also renowned for arguing that the notions of race are culturally constructed and politically sustained, and that skin color does not suggest innate differences. Boas not only inspired Hurston’s work in anthropology but also supported her trip back to Eatonville to conduct formal folklore research. While studying at Barnard, Hurston worked as a secretary for Fannie Hurst who later wrote Imitation of Life, a story of a black woman passing as white.

Some critics have claimed that in Their Eyes, Hurston embodies much of her own chaotic and creative emotional life in the character of her protagonist--the passionate, restless and rebellious, Janie Crawford. Both Hurston and Janie, left their hometowns and what was left of their families. And both became wanderers. Hurston explains it through Janie: “…sittin’ still worries me. Ah wants tuh utilize mahself all over.”

In the words of critic Yvonne Johnson, Their Eyes is “the first self-conscious effort by an American ethnic writer to simultaneously subvert patriarchal discourse and to give voice to women of color.” But Hurston’s life has been surrounded by questions and controversy as she was not without "ambivalence." Hurston continued throughout her life to make, what another critic Mary Helen Washington called "unorthodox and paradoxical assertions on racial issues." It is not without some reason that Maya Angelou once wrote : “It is difficult, if not impossible, to find and touch the real Zora Neale Hurston.”

In her last years, Hurston moved back to Eatonville, Florida where she worked as a newspaper journalist, substitute teacher and finally as a domestic servant. Her several books were out of print and she was beset by an incapacitating poverty. She continued to write, published three short stories in the early 1950s and worked on a final novel, The Life of Herod the Great. She never completed her final novel, as she sank into a major depression. She suffered a stroke in 1959, and died in a nursing home on January 28, 1960 and was buried in an unmarked grave.

In August, 1973, Alice Walker, who described Hurston as her literary "foremother," traveled to Florida to locate Hurston’s unmarked grave. She had a marker placed on the spot that was most likely Huston’s grave, and then dedicated herself to calling attention to Hurston’s genius. Through Walker’s efforts, Hurston’s work received the critical acclaim that it deserves.

Hurston’s creative and complex life story is contained in her three major works: her “official” autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road; her famous anthropological work, Mules and Men; and her acknowledged masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God. Her books are now back in print, and being taught in university literature courses. Also, Eatonville, Florida is now home to the annual Zora Neale Hurston festival. As Palahniuk said so well, "We all die. The goal is not to live forever, the goal is to create something that will." Zora Neale Hurston certainly did.

Following are some questions from various literary perspectives that will lead us deeper into the text and its context. We hope to explore them here in the course of our month long discussion of Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Biographical Questions:

1. Are facts about the writer's life relevant to your understanding of the work?
2. Are characters and incidents in the work versions of writer's own experiences? Are they treated factually or imaginatively?
3. How do you think the writer's values are reflected in the work?

Formalist Questions:

1. How do various elements of the work--plot, character, point of view, setting, tone, diction, images, metaphors, symbols, and so on--reinforce its meanings?
2. How are the elements related to the whole?
3. What issues does the work raise?

Psychological Questions:

1. How does the work reflect the author's personal psychology?
2. What do the characters’ emotions and behavior reveal about their psychological states? What types of personalities are they?
3. Are psychological matters such as repressions and desires presented consciously or unconsciously by the author?

Historical Questions:

1. How does the work reflect the period in which it is written?
2. What literary or historical influences helped to shape the form and content of the work?
3. How important is the historical context to interpreting the work?

Socio-economic Questions:

1. How are the class differences presented in the work? Are the characters aware or unaware of the economic and social forces that affect their lives?
2. How do economic conditions determine the characters' lives? Does the work challenge or affirm the social order it describes?
3. What ideological values are explicit or implicit in the work?

New Historicist Questions:

1. What kind of documents outside the work seem especially relevant for shedding light on the work?
2. How are social values contemporary to the work reflected or refuted in the work?
3. How does your historical moment affect your reading of the work and its historical reconstruction?

Cultural Studies Questions:

1. What does the work reveal about the cultural behavior contemporary to it?
2. How does popular culture contemporary to the work reflect or challenge the values implicit or explicit in the work?
3. What kind of cultural documents contemporary to the work add to your reading of it?
4. How do your own cultural assumptions affect your reading of the work and the culture contemporary to it?

Gender Studies Questions:

1. How are the lives of men and women portrayed in the work? Do the men and women in the work accept or reject these roles?
2. Is the form and content of the work influenced by the author's gender?
3. What attitudes are explicit or implicit in 'unconventional' relationships? Are these relationships sources of conflict? Do they provide resolution to conflicts?

Mythological/Archetypal Questions:

1. How does the story use symbols?
2. Are archetypes presented, such as quests, initiations, scapegoats, withdrawals or returns?
3. Do the characters undergo any kind of transformation such as a movement from innocence to experience that seems archetypal?
4. Do any specific allusions to myths shed light on the text?

Deconstructionist Questions:

1. How are contradictory or opposing meanings expressed in the work?
2. How does meaning breakdown or deconstruct itself in the language of the text?
3. Would you say that ultimate definitive meanings are impossible to determine and establish in the text? Why? How does that affect your interpretation?
4. How are implicit ideological values revealed in the work?

Reader-Response Questions:

1. How do you respond to the work emotionally?
2. Do you respond in the same way to the work after more than one reading?
3. What is the work's original or intended audience? To what extent are you similar to or different from that audience?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Chronicle of a Death Foretold, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Welcome to our discussion of Chronicle of a Death Foretold. The novel was first published in the Spanish-speaking world in 1981 under the title Cronica de una muerte anunciada. The U.S. edition appeared in 1983. Between those two dates, Marquez won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the most prestigious literary award in the world. Marquez's reputation at that time rested chiefly upon One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967, English translation 1970), a sprawling family saga spanning seven or eight generations, which tells the entire history of a small town and seems to contain stories within stories. Chronicle of a Death Foretold, on the other hand, is a remarkably controlled, taut, tense little book, concentrating on one event that takes place in the course of a few hours.

The story is a murder mystery of sorts, and yet we find out very early who committed the crime, and we even know the motive: Pedro and Pablo Vicario kill Santiago Nasar to avenge the honor of their sister Angela when her husband returns her to her family the night of their wedding because he learns that Angela was not a virgin. What, then, is the mystery of this story? What is it that we really crave to understand as we watch Santiago Nasar's final hours and the brutal killing at the end? How does the author create such suspense when we already know what is going to happen?

Chronicle of a Death Foretold: A culture of contradictions?

The novel portrays a town full of contradictions: It is a religious community that flocks to see the bishop, but the bishop sails by indifferently. Santiago Nasar's mother is famous as an interpreter of dreams, but she fails to interpret Santiago's dream correctly in the hours before he is murdered. Virginity is such a sacred value in this culture that it is worth murdering over, and yet a house of prostitution (Maria Alejandrina Cervantes' House of Mercies) is open day and night, even during the wedding, and many of the main characters go there. What other contradictions and ironies are there in the book? What do they suggest about this community?

The Women in Chronicle of a Death Foretold

The brutal crime is committed by men, but some of the key women in the story actually encourage the reluctant murderers. Which women do this, and how? What motive might they have?

Angela and Santiago (Chronicle of a Death Foretold)

Did Angela really lose her virginity before the wedding? If so, was Santiago Nasar really the one who deflowered her? If it wasn't him, why might Angela have named Santiago? Is the family satisfied with her answer?

Based on a True Story

The story in Chronicle of a Death Foretold is based on actual incidents that occurred in Sucre, Colombia, where Gabriel Garcia Marquez lived. On January 22, 1951, the brothers Victor and Joaquin Chica Sales murdered Cayetano Gentile Chimento, a 22-year-old medical student, son of the richest family in town. The brothers murdered him because he allegedly deflowered their sister, who was returned to her family on her wedding night. As in the novel, the rejected bride continued to live alone for years after the murder. These events occurred while Gabriel Garcia Marquez was in college studying journalism (like the narrator of the novel) and he knew some of the people involved.

Did you know beforehand that the novel was based on true events? How does it affect your reaction to the book? Does this suggest anything about Garcia Marquez's motives for writing it, or the tone or technique he chose? What, finally, is the point of the novel? What is Gabriel Garcia Marquez saying about his culture?

Gabriel Garcia Marquez and William Faulkner

The influence of William Faulkner upon Latin American writers is widely acknowledged, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez has called the Mississippian author, with some exaggeration of the geographical facts, "my fellow Caribbean writer." This is most evident in Garcia Marquez's most famous novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, but we can also see traces of Faulkner's influence here as well. Which themes in Chronicle of a Death Foretold are similar to Faulkner's themes? How about the narrative technique and point of view? Which characters seem particularly Faulknerian? Compare Chronicle of a Death Foretold with, say, Absalom Absalom?

Some recommended resources for Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Random House Academic Resources
Plot summary and introduction, from the publisher of the U.S. edition.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez' Nobel Prize acceptance speeches in English and Spanish (with a recording in Spanish only).

There are plenty of biographies of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but if you don't want to know every detail of his life and just want to read something short, I highly recommend Sean Dolan's richly-illustrated book, simply titled Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It has dozens of photos of the author, his hometown, and the one-room shack he grew up in, all of which help the reader to visualize the settings of his novels.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Cast of Characters in Chronicle of a Death Foretold

We are not told his name. He is a longtime friend of Santiago Nasar and Pedro and Pablo Vicario. He was a college student at the time of the murder, but a journalist years later when narrating the story. (Gabriel García Márquez also began his career as a journalist.)

Age 21. Only child of Ibrahim Nasar, an immigrant from Syria. Family owns a cattle ranch and is wealthy. His father taught him about guns, horses, falconry, and prostitutes. His parents have arranged for him to be married to Flora Miguel. He is fascinated by church rituals. The night before he is murdered he dreams of walking through a grove of pine trees in light rain.

Mother of Santiago Nasar. Interpreter of dreams and omens. Cynical about religion. Her marriage to Ibrahim was arranged and she never loved him.


A very wealthy young man who moves into town suddenly and mysteriously, marries Angela Vicario, and buys the house of the widower Xius. His father, General Petronio San Román, fought in 19th century civil war and was an enemy of the Buendía family (from One Hundred Years of Solitude). His mother was a mulata from Curaçao.


The cook in Santiago Nasar’s house. She was raped by Santiago’s father when younger; now she hates Santiago as well, fearing he will do the same to her daughter, Divina Flor. Denies knowing about the planned murder, but years later Divina Flor admits that they both knew.

Youngest, and last unmarried, daughter in a large family. Beautiful but weak-spirited. Her parents force her to marry Bayardo San Román, whom she finds arrogant. After being rejected by her husband on her wedding night, she remains single the rest of her life, but comes to love Bayardo San Román retrospectively, and writes him hundreds of love letters which he never answers. She never wavers from her allegation that it was Santiago Nasar who deflowered her. “He is my perpetrator.” ["Fue mi autor."]

Twins, brothers of Angela, 24 years old at time of murder. Butchers by profession. Friends of the narrator since childhood. Pedro was in the military and is more decisive. He suffers from blennorrhea, which he caught in the military. After their three years in jail, Pablo gets married, and Pedro rejoins the military, and his entire troop disappears one day. Their father, Poncio, was a goldsmith but is now blind and cannot work.

Mother of Angela Vicario, very religious and traditional. Taught all her daughters sewing and calligraphy. She was a schoolteacher before marrying. She beats Angela when she is returned by her husband, and she orders her sons to redeem the family honor by killing Santiago Nasar.


Owner of a dairy shop / bar across the street from the Nasar house. She tried to get the mayor to stop the Vicario brothers, and exhorts Cristo to warn him.

Owner of a brothel, “The House of Mercies”, where many men went on the night of the wedding. She relieved a generation of young men of their virginity. Her doors are always open.

The town priest. He was busy preparing for the bishop on the morning of the murder and so did nothing to prevent it. He performed the autopsy.

Mayor of the town, and unenthusiastic about his position. He takes away Pedro and Pablo’s knives but does not arrest them, and does nothing when he learns that they acquired a second pair of knives.

A friend of Santiago Nasar and the narrator. Medical student. He was one of the last people to see Santiago, since he was taking a walk with him that morning. He is the only one who tries to do something to help Santiago.

Doctor and man of letters. Witnessed Bayardo trying to buy a house from the widower Xius He was out of town at the time of the murder, so he could not perform the autopsy.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Road by Cormac McCarthy: Introduction

Welcome to BPL's January Online Book Discussion of The Road by Cormac McCarthy. The author was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the book was an Oprah Book Club selection.

Cormac Mccarthy was born in Providence RI in 1933 and grew up in Tennessee where his father worked as a lawyer for the TVA. Never a great student, he dropped out of college and joined the Air Force. After his service he re-enrolled in college but dropped out to write full-time. He has written 10 novels.

McCarthy is known for his unique prose style often ignoring grammar and punctuation rules. His language can be plain and forthright yet also picturesque and descriptive. The narratives also sometimes can be extremely violent.

A private man, McCarthy shuns interviews and book tours. However, he agreed to appear on Oprah and The Road was selected for her book club. Why do you think he made this decision? Was it a way to get his book out to more people?

McCarthy currently lives with his third wife and young son in El Paso.

Some of McCarthy’s early novels are set in Tenn., where he grew up and later ones written following his arrival in Texas reflect traditions of American western life.

His current novel, The Road, is vague as to time and setting. It is evidently post catastrophe and takes place in a devastated world. “The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.” We find ourselves in a gray colorless atmosphere of ashes and death. Bleakness surrounds everything. We meet survivors and remnants of mankind and observe how they cope and “live.”

The two main nameless characters man and his son the boy are on the road. They are on a journey to safety and to the future. We see their daily lives and their search for food and other materials to live. Some quests are successful for food and temporary shelter and yet some discoveries are horrifying, revealing what the world and humanity have become. What is good and what is bad? Who is good and who is bad?

The man and boy are on the same road, but are they on the same journey? Are they learning from each other?

What do you think? Looking forward to hearing from readers of The Road.