Check out these entertaining interviews with Alexander Chee:
Check out these entertaining interviews with Alexander Chee:
And now for some discussion questions for our latest book, Queen of the Night…
Throughout her life we see Lilliet in a variety of personae. Which of these personalities comes closest to her true self? Why?
What did you think of the historical portrait of Second Empire Paris? Would you have liked to live there? Is it different than you would have thought? What are some similarities between Belle Epoque Paris and today’s culture? In what ways does the pervasiveness of technology influence our impression of celebrities or other famous people?
Chee used an opera style format (basing the story roughly on The Magic Flute) to tell Lilliet’s story. Did you find it too fantastic or was it enjoyable? Would you have preferred it to be more realistic? Have you ever read a book similar in style to this one? What advantages did this format give the author in the telling of the story? Would you want to read another book written in this style?
Until next time!
Queen of the Night could not be more different than Alexander Chee’s first book Edinburgh. Well reviewed, Edinburgh tells the story of a child’s sexual abuse and its aftermath. It is a much more realistic novel than Queen of the Night which foregoes realism and functions effectively as a fairy tale- and a lengthy fairy tale at that. At 500+ pages, Vogue Magazine called it a “doorstopper of a book.” And one that took its author 15 years to write, years that Chee described as “titanic struggle… a lot of hopelessness combined with periods of breakthrough.”
The genesis of the book was in a conversation that Chee had with a writer friend about 19th century opera sensation, Jenny Lind. Chee was intrigued by the story, and further researched the subject. In doing so, he stumbled upon photos of the Comtesse de Castiglione, an icon of glamour in 19th century Paris. He drew most of his inspiration for the book from photos of her in costume. One of those photos graces the book’s cover. He wondered what the story was behind the photos… who was that woman and how did she get there? He says that he realized in looking at the photos that “the clothes were stagecraft, they were both armor and a weapon.” The more Chee learned about 19th century Paris, the more he became interested in it. He took several trips to Paris for research and used, in his words, a “mixture of museums, novels, bios, letters and histories.”
Additionally as a professionally trained child choir singer, Alexander Chee was also fascinated with the ephemeral quality of the human voice, particularly of women’s voices. He feels that women’s voices have less of a time limit on them, and he says that “I loved my voice so much, I couldn’t imagine who I would be without it, and so that is very much in this book.”
(Sources: Vogue.com/culture/bks/2/1/16, NPR.org/2016/01/30/464866350, Rumpus.net/2016/02/the rumpus-interview-with-Alex-chee/Alex Chee_interview)
Our newest blog book is Alexander Chee’s monumental Queen of the Night. Publisher’s Weekly called it “dreamy and dramatic”. US Weekly said it “enchants”. The Atlantic called it “epic”. These are just a few of the oceans of praise for Alexander Chee’s newest book, an operatic novel, about well, opera. And as in the style of opera with its sweeping technicolor moments of tragedy and comedy, the book demands that we suspend our disbelief as we immerse ourselves in unusual characters, and some dramatic and often outlandish plot twists.
The curtain rises on our story in Paris in 1882 with our heroine, famous soprano, Lilliet Berne, arriving at the Senate Ball. She is approached there by a mysterious stranger who wants her (with her extraordinary “falcon” style voice) to originate the leading role in his new opera… the chance of a lifetime that any singer would embrace. But Lilliet discovers, to her dismay, that this libretto is based on her own life, a life that she has gone to great lengths to conceal. In fact, only four people know her true story, one who is dead, one who loves her, one who wants to control her, and one whom she hopes will never think of her again. And so Lilliet embarks on a search for her betrayer.
The plot weaves back and forth between Lilliet’s past and present. Like any good opera this framework serves to highlight Lilliet’s more fantastic comings and goings. It chronicles her early years as a Midwestern farm girl who flees to Europe and becomes an equestrienne with a traveling circus. And that is just one of her careers. During the course of the book she also works as a high-end prostitute, a seamstress, a maid and an acrobat as well as an opera singer. She survives a war, and escapes criminals. The glittering setting of second-empire Paris also features well known historical figures such as Verdi, George Sand, Chopin and Tugenev all making cameos in Lilliet’s event filled life.
Grown up fairy tale or historical novel? We’ll touch on those topics and more during this month’s blog. Pick up your copy of Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee at the Jericho Library circulation desk today!
Picture source: (http://bolt.cd/board/f34/alexander-chee-queen-night-1260569/)
If you liked Janice Y. K. Lee’s The Expatriates, you may want to check out these other titles:
The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee
Winter Garden by Kristen Hannah
White Ghost Girls by Alice Greenway
A Cup of Friendship by Deborah Rodriguez
Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum
Happy Reading to all!!
Janice Y.K. Lee is wonderful at creating atmosphere in her books. Hong Kong is almost like an additional character in her books. Do you think she conveys what it is like to live there, to live among other expats? What do you think is the most distinctive thing about being of one culture but living in another? What form do the differences take? Additionally, Lee is known for her satiric eye in this book, how do you think she points out quirks in the expat culture? Did you find this amusing, or perhaps sad?
Class distinctions matter a great deal in The Expatriates. How is this demonstrated for Margaret, Mercy and Hilary?
Another central theme of the book is that of forgiveness. Do you think this is represented realistically? Do you believe that the three main characters could have all bonded despite their histories, or was that just artistic license? What did you think of the ending? Was it realistic? How would you have changed it, if you didn’t find it realistic?
Do you think the author was successful in creating a book that ultimately depicts the woman’s experience in the expat community?
Lots of things to discuss so now, dear reader, for our book discussion questions.
How did you respond to Lee’s use of the shifting third person narration? Was it confusing, or did it help you in getting to know each character? How did this type of narration serve each character? Did it help you become sympathetic to each one?
How did the author handle the pacing of each narration? Did you feel her time with each character was about right or would you have preferred that she spend more time (or less) with each character’s viewpoints? Did you like or not like the main characters? Was there one with whom you particularly identified with?
How successful was Lee in depicting the expatriate experience? Did you find anything surprising about the expat lifestyle? After reading the book, did you think you would enjoy the lifestyle or would you find it claustrophobic and limiting? For an active, formerly working woman, how would the notion of being a trailing spouse be defining? How are the husbands in the book portrayed? Do they seem three -dimensional? Is there a way that the husbands might be better represented in the book?
One of the recurring themes in the book was escape. How did this manifest itself in each of the characters?
Here’s a little something about Expatriates author, Janice Y.K. Lee.
Janice Y.K. certainly knows the world that she writs about. though not an expat, she herself grew up in a Korean home in Hong Kong. She told The Wall Street Journal that she often felt that she didn’t fit in. “To be local in Hong Kong you have to be a local Chinese or English and I was neither of those things.” She relocated to the United States to attend boarding school and later Harvard University. After graduation she moved to New York City and got a job Elle Magazine and later on at now defunct Mirabella Magazine. It was there that she realized that if she “stayed on this career track, she would have not time to write her own book.” So she left the magazine to enter an MFA writing program at Hunter College headed by noted author Chang Rae Lee. She began writing short stories , one of which would eventually grow into her first novel, The Piano Teacher. After five years, and the birth of her four children (including twins), she was able to sell a draft of that book. (Lee) says that her books each took five years to write , and that she now considers this her “normal gestational period.”
Though many critics consider The Piano Teacher to be historical fiction, Lee says it was never her intention to continue writing in that particular vein. ” I had always read literature that was contemporary, and that was my first love. She further described her creative process for The Expatriates in an interview with blogger Sara Nelson. “My books always start with an image or character. And for this, it was an image of a woman who was just lying in bed. She didn’t want to get up and it was the daytime, and there had been a dinner party. I didn’t know where it was. I didn’t know what it was, and I just started writing from that. I was reluctant to write another novel set in Hong Kong, because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed…but it just ended up organically that that’s where the story went.” Further I think it’s a very sympathetic book about women. It’s such a female world there. Expat Hong Kong is a community of women during the weekdays…men are not around. So you become very good friends with other women who are leading the same lives as you.” She told The Wall Street Journal, ” This book is about women and mothers–and that transcends nationality and geography. It’s all the stuff we go through and that ultimately binds us.”
WWW.WSJ.com/articles/SB123145869715966177, Goodreads.com/author/show/1605157/Janice y.K. Lee
As an avid reader, I am always interested to see how authors approach their sophomore efforts. Do they continue to write in the same vein or somehow expand into something newer or untried? Janice Y.K. Lee’s new novel, The Expatriates is a case in point. As a fan of Ms. Lee’s first book, The Piano Teacher, I was interested to see how she would handle her second novel. And though she stayed on familiar turf, geographically speaking, she did not disappoint.
While The Piano Teacher was a sweeping tale of passion taking place during and after World War II, The Expatriates is smaller in scope, but no less successful. Set in contemporary Hong Kong, the novel examines the lives of its three main characters who live in or are associated with the expat community. Shrewdly observed and at times sharply satirical, Lee paints a vivid and atmospheric picture of life in the privileged, isolated and at times claustrophobic enclave.
Told in an alternating third person narration, the novel details the intersecting lives of Mercy, Margaret and Hilary. The youngest is Mercy, a recent Columbia University graduate who has come to Hong Kong to escape her lower middle class roots, and the lack of opportunities of her life in New York City. Beautiful Margaret has come to Hong Kong as a corporate wife and mother who tragically loses one of her children about a year after the book takes place. Finally we meet Hilary. In the expat community where motherhood is widely considered the epitome of female success, Hilary struggles with infertility and a collapsing marriage. And so the stage is set for the characters to grapple with loneliness, and grief as well as cultural and class differences. They struggle to find a measure of comfort and redemption in their lives and relationships.
An entertaining and satisfying novel, pick up your copy today at the JPL Circ. desk!
If you enjoyed reading Matthew Dick’s combination of heart warming situations and humor do we have some readalikes for you!
The Rosie Project by Graham Simision
Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper by Hilary Lefton
Days of Awe by Lauren Fox
The Pursuit of Alice Thrift by Elinor Lipman
Where’d you Go Bernadette by Maria Semple
How to be An American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway
You also may enjoy Matthew Dicks other books including Something Missing and Memoirs of An Imaginary Friend
Happy Reading to all!