Book Club

The Seasonal Edit Book Club: Winter 2019

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By Juniper Books Curator Elizabeth Lane

As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall”, and this seasonal fresh start marks a new beginning at Juniper Book here on the blog – our own book club! We hope this will be a shared space to come together, discover new books, share insights and walk together within different characters’ stories. We will feature books from our seasonal edit and other books we just happen to be reading – some that are hot-of-the-press and some gems ready to be rediscovered. (And we are always open to suggestions!)

To kick off our book club, we’ve just launched our Winter Edit with three excellent books, diverse in both subject, writing style and scope,  yet sharing this common thread – once begun, each is incredibly hard to put down and calls for a long, lingering weekend spent reading.

Pour a glass of wine (or a cup of tea) and let’s get started!

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The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

In 1935, Ethiopia was invaded by Mussolini’s army, marking the beginning of the second Italio-Ethopian war. With this event as the novel’s starting point, The Shadow King centers its story on two women, Hirut and Aster. Hirut is a maid in Aster’s home and Aster is married to an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army. When Selassie is exiled, Hirut and Aster, alongside other women, step up in ways heroic and unimaginable to fight for and save their beloved country as warriors.

Equally traumatic and tender, chaotic and psychologically acute, Mengiste’s tremendous novel gracefully reveals the relationship between two women at close-scale, and also the larger view of a country at war, through the eyes of fighters who, until now, have largely been absent from history’s retelling. As I finished The Shadow King, I stared at the picture on the last page for quite some time, unable to leave Hirut with the story’s final sentence. To say The Shadow King lingers is an understatement. Mengiste tells the story of war with necessary horror, yet couples this with grace, lyricism, and tenderness that is absolutely exquisite.  

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie

Quichotte is Salman Rushdie’s retelling of Don Quixote, and here, Rushdie is at his playful best. Sam DuChamp, an average contemporary spy novelist discovers his next great idea – a novel based on Don Quixote. And so Quichotte is born — a 70-year-old former pharmaceutical sales rep whose life has been reduced to just watching television, lots of television. It is through this medium that falls in love with Miss Salma R., a beautiful young star. With this new obsession taking flight, Quichotte begins a road trip cross country to meet Miss Salma R. Thus Quichotte’s journey begins, concurrent with Sam Duchamp’s (the author) own personal journey and journey as a novelist.

A strange, meandering and incredibly ambitious story within a story, I found myself wandering from this dream to that one, sometimes trying to find a foothold within the narrative. And yet, whenever I felt a little too lost, Rushdie anchors the book with such tenderness that I instantly found grounded again. That’s what makes this novel work so well – the tenuous balance between the chaotic and the tender, the profound and the farce. As with much of Salman Rushdie’s work, Quichotte is wholly original, absorbing and well worth a read, especially as a meditation on our present times. There’s nothing quite like it. Perfect for book clubs with endless avenues for discussion.

The Cheffe: A Cook’s Novel by Marie NDiaye (translated from the French by Jordan Stump).

Marie NDiaye’s latest novel tells the story of a great female chef, called “The Cheffe” throughout, as remembered and told by her former assistant, a man whose feelings for The Cheffe grow from admiration, adulation,  then to an obsession. This particular obsessive tension creates a narrator that is not totally reliable in his recollections – particularly when describing The Cheffe’s complex relationship with her own daughter, thereby bringing an unsettled sense of foreboding to the story, an unease that surprises and propels the narrative to the dizzying end. NDiaye’s prose is stunning and her characters are nuanced and wholly human. This is one of my standout favorite books of 2019.

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A few questions (to ponder yourself, or bring to your own local book clubs):

1.   The format of Quichotte is chaotic, rambling and at times confusing. Does this prose style reflect our present day, creating that same feeling within the story that we now feel daily as we read the newspaper? If so, does this construct work? Do you feel there is hope at the end? A final message to carry?

2.  One theme that The Shadow King brings forth is the human capacity to both inflict and receive violence, with scenes that were at times incredibly hard to read. Yet, The Shadow King also brilliantly shows the tenderness inherent in the relationship, the bonds made permanent through shared experience and ultimately, the strength of the human spirit when all else seems stripped away. How did you feel The Shadow King navigated these different planes – violence and compassion.  Did you feel the violence depicted drew you deeper into the story or pulled you out as a reader?

3.  What was your sense of the Assistant and The Cheffe’s relationship in the end. How did you feel The Assistant’s relationship with his own child mirrored The Cheffe’s relationship with her daughter? How do you think your own life story would shift by its telling through other perspectives? How open and subjective is one’ s own life to multiple interpretations outside of our own?

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