Book Club: The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan

From tragedy comes an opportunity to inspire.

The Opposite of Loneliness | Paper Clips by Maggie de Barra

The story of Marina Keegan is tragic and heartbreaking. Marina died five days after graduating from Yale, while driving home with her boyfriend. Her boyfriend fell asleep at the wheel. He walked away, she died. In an effort to preserve her memory, her parents, friends, and teachers collected pieces of her writing from class assignments and school newspaper articles. They are compiled in a collection of short stories and essays, The Opposite of Loneliness.

Where were you five days after graduating from university? Or college, or high school? You were probably surrounded by friends and family, flooded with a sense of relief after completing such a milestone, enjoying the best summer of your life, and ready to celebrate from now to eternity. Can you imagine such a cruel world? To be ripped away at the ultimate peak of your life so far.

The first half of the book features a series of short stories. I preferred the collection of personal essays in the second half. I think Marina, as a person – who she was and who she could have been, is more interesting than the terrible circumstances surrounding her death which has unfortunately overshadowed her talent and her work. I feel that her voice comes through in the essays. It’s almost like she slips out of the pages to have a conversation with you, about her Celiac disease and trouble with gluten, her memories about the beached whales, or her recent travels abroad. Marina’s story is more compelling than most of the book, and I couldn’t help but mourn the lost opportunities and potential that we will never get the pleasure to experience again. Through her essays, she lives on.

My favourite essay is Even Artichokes Have Doubts published in the Yale Daily News in September of 2011. It showcases the feelings all seniors and new grads have from time to time. Wondering if what we’re doing is really worthwhile or if we will leave an impact on the earth when we’re gone and whether any of it matters anyway because one day the sun will die and we will all wither away. Marina wrote a lot about the impact of death and our own mortality. It’s ironic, but she mused about her legacy and impact without ever believing that her time would be cut short.

Marina lived with a full heart and open eyes. She lived with passion and determination. These should be the things to remember about her life and this should be her legacy.

And above all, to remember that we should treasure every moment and take each and every opportunity that comes our way. Every day is a new day, and every day could be your last.

Book Club: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Now, with discussion questions.

The Girl on the Train

I was responsible for leading the Book Club discussion this month. We had chosen The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. The marketing for this book was insane. There were posters all over the GO train, subways and buses. It must have worked well, because as of now, it’s still on the NYT Best Sellers List. We had to see what all the fuss was about.

Overall, I thought it was an entertaining book. I don’t love modern fiction, and I am not really into the Thriller/Mystery genre, but I really enjoyed this book. It is a great book club selection and an easy read and I would recommend it. I also heard that they’re going to make a movie based on the book starring Emily Blunt, so pick it up now before they re-print the cover with the movie poster.

I had to craft some discussion questions for the group. Please feel free to use these, or modify them to suit your own book club. Obviously, there are spoilers.

The Girl on the Train
Book Club Discussion Questions

1. At first, I didn’t realize that Rachel was an alcoholic. Commuter trains are very common in the UK and I was unsure of the rules. I assumed she was in the dining cart on a VIA Rail train. It took a few pages to realize that she was on the equivalent of a GO Train and constantly drinking – which was a huge red flag. My first impression was that she was a huge loser, and that she was the probably the bad guy, but as the novel went on, I realized that she maybe wasn’t the worst character, and that there were characters who were much worse than her. What was your initial impression of Rachel, and how did it change throughout the course of the novel?
2. One of my favourite novel elements is an unreliable narrator. A narrator who lies to the reader, or who doesn’t tell the whole truth, or whose bias is so strong that it alters how the story is presented. Rachel, as an alcoholic, is unreliable because she has blackout periods and her memories are cloudy. One element of a mystery or a thriller is that we as readers do not know the full story and the author will leave us clues along the way. In this instance, we are especially kept in the dark because what little we do know about the story based on Rachel’s memory is hazy. Rachel is as frustrated as we are because she can’t remember any details. Did you feel that this quality as a narrator increased the mystery/thriller element of the story? How would the story have been different if Rachel was 100 per cent coherent at all times?
3. The structure of the novel is interesting in that it has a morning and evening segment for each chapter. A lot is presented in both segments, but there is a lot of blank space in between the morning and evening to fill in. Why did the author structure the novel to mimic a commuter train, and how did it enhance the story?
4. Rachel thinks about Megan and Scott every day on the train. She is borderline obsessed and envious of their lives. The story takes a dangerous turn when she inserts herself into their story. Do you notice a difference between what Rachel does on the train – watching strangers and projecting thoughts and imagining about their lives – and what we do through social media (Facebook, Instagram, or watching celebrity reality TV)? Why do you think people are so interested in the lives of others, and when does watching go from harmless to dangerous?
5. One theme of the novel is addiction, Rachel is an alcoholic and Megan is also dealing with addictions of her own. What role does the addiction play on shaping their characters? How does it motivate them to act throughout the story?
6. Another huge theme in the novel is infidelity or vice. It seems like everyone is cheating on each other. It seems like everyone is doing something bad. Anna, Tom, and Megan are cheating. Megan enters into a relationship with her therapist, Kamal. Rachel is an alcoholic. They are all very flawed characters. Can you root for a character who does bad things? And, is anyone either good or bad or can you have both elements in the same person?
7. Another huge theme of the novel is about womanhood as projected through being a wife and mother. Rachel, Anna, and Megan have very different experiences being wives and mothers. At one point, Rachel states “I liked my job but I didn’t have a glittering career, and even if I had, let’s be honest: women are still only really valued for two things – their looks and their role as mothers. I’m not beautiful, and I can’t have kids, so what does that make me? Worthless.” This sentence particularly stood out for me. How does this sentence make you feel? Do you think it is accurate or truthful?

Our next book club selection is All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and it comes highly recommended by some people whose opinions I value and trust. I am excited!!   

Happy reading!!

Book Club: The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Sometimes I can’t help but think that Ian McEwan is a one-hit wonder. It pains me to say this.

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I often say that Ian McEwan is one of my favourite authors, but I don’t think I can say that anymore. He is the author of one of my favourite books, Atonement, and some others (On Chesil Beach is also very good). The latest two, however, Sweet Tooth and The Children Act, have largely fallen flat.

The Children Act is about a Judge named Fiona Maye who presides over the Family Law Courts. She has a husband in the throes of a mid-life crisis who has set her aside for someone younger. It’s hard to take her seriously because she is completely devoid of real human emotions. She shows such little distress over her husband leaving her, and even less when he comes crawling back with his tail between his legs. I think an irreconcilable difference warrants at least a conversation. She is in charge of standing up for vulnerable persons in society, and yet, she cannot even stand up for herself. I have a hard time warming up to weak characters (Bella Swan, I’m looking at you) and who wants to identify with a weak hero/heroine anyway?!

There are a few flashbacks to reveal the character’s back story, in the usual McEwan style that I love so much. But Fiona’s character is so flat, I cannot even begin to comprehend her motivations or actions. Her husband’s character is not explored at all. He seems little more than a placeholder. If we had more to go on, it might be more plausible to understand their actions. I can barely accept that, in the throes of a mid-life crisis of her own, she becomes attracted to a dying teenager, based on one half-hour, lackluster encounter at his hospital bedside. The book makes very little sense, overall, and it is such a shame because it really had such potential.

I tried with Sweet Tooth, and again with The Children Act, and maybe I’ll give him one more shot. Unfortunately, I feel like having “A Novel by the Author of ATONEMENT” stamped on the front cover is now simply carte blanche to publish whatever collection of disjointed half-thoughts you want, whether they are good or not.