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Cordell
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values and connections

In so many countries, writers must be deeply involved in events of their times--in order to live and write at all they can't ignore revolution,violence, danger for writers and other intellectuals, the clash of cultures, fanaticism, the loss of homeland for millions, ,perhaps exile. Why should I or anyone else, including the author,care for hundreds of pages about characters who are so self-absorbed,so indifferent to anything outside their order of things, so superior in matters of taste---their menus, their clothes,the perfect wedding. Annabel is wallpaper,we don't get enough of her to believe in so she is not an effective foil for the others ; Murray is, of course the pundit who doesn't seem to know anything about the world or even contemplate the suffering of ordinary lives not his. What does 9/11 mean? the end of the affair, the loss of a magazine, a retreat to one's country home? I realize that is part of the point of the Emperor's children, perhaps the point,and the writing is superb, but still...?
Cordell
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Rachel-K
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Re: values and connections

I'm interested in your comment, Cordell, but a bit taken aback by it, too. I'm not sure I can think of many novels that don't spend hundreds of pages on the small concerns of their characters, even War and Peace. Do you wish that the novel ran more along the vein of social realism? What are some favorite novels you thought of while reading? What lead you to keep reading?
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Walrus
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Re: values and connections

I knew that if I stayed in long enough someone would exactly express what I felt and was trying to say. THANK YOU CORDELL. It's very hard to write what was unsettling about the book. It certainly gave food for thought. Many books have trivial beginnings and go on and on (like War and Peace) and then slowly build up to an event. Perhaps, in T.E.C. we are still too close to the event and resent any change- little or big. It was not exactly a let down feeling, but something close to it. Hate to keep dwelling on 9/11 since that was not the author's intention. If not what do we have and what did the book tell us or make us think about? Any other thoughts anyone- I enjoy your remarks and it makes me feel not so alone with mine. Thank you all again.
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Peppermill
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Re: values and connections

I thought this excerpt from a review of Edith Wharton's House of Mirth might strike a nerve or two in the discussion of this thread on TEC:

"If this is American society, the American House of Mirth, it is utterly unsuitable for conversion into literature. Literature demands all that such society has not--ideas, intellectual interests, sentiment, passion, humor, wit, tact, and grace; it can get along perfectly well without money, which is the only desire or possession of such society, its only claim for recognition even by the newspapers. A feeling for fair play obliges us to protest Mrs. Wharton's picture as a prejudiced one, yet it is not consciously unveracious. Though depressing, it is not wholly unprofitable. A perusal of Miss Bart's melancholy history will hardly incite those who are in society to pause and examine themselves, but it may cause those who are outside the ring to praise God for that he has been pleased to make them 'dingy.'"

From a 1905 review in The Nation (London). Reprinted in the Norton Critical Edition of HOM
"Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly. It is the one thing we are interested in here." -- Leo Tolstoy
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IBIS
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Re: values and connections

I think we do literature a big disservice when we expect it to have specific "useful" messages. Good writing by itself is an accomplishment, and should not be burdened by expectations it was never meant to satisfy. I think many readers of THE EMPEROR'S CHILDREN had expectations that the author never intended to address.

I didn't like most of the characters in THE EMPEROR'S CHILDREN because they reflected core values that don't appeal to me. But Claire Messud observed these people very closely, reported what she found, and eloquently laid bare, for my perusal, aspects of human nature that only come to light when observed very closely. I, for one, don't have that talent, that skill, to unveil, in eloquent style, WHY some characters are unlikeable.

Unlikeable as I found Murray, Marina, Julius, Danny and Bootie, they were fascinating to meet. Their flaws were very clearly exposed to us. Isn't that the real reason we read, to meet others whose imperfections mirror our own. Their flaws are on display for us, so that we can understand ourselves.

That is a fine enough reason for good writing to exist.
IBIS

"I am a part of everything that I have read."
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Katelyn
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Re: values and connections

Very well said IBIS. You make a very important point. We can distinguish between liking the characters in a book and liking the book. The book provides materials to structure an experience and that experience can be of value in a variety of ways -- ideas it invokes, the entertainment it provides, its complexity and intensity, the truths in advocates, the lies its exposes (and this list can go on and on)...



IBIS wrote:
I think we do literature a big disservice when we expect it to have specific "useful" messages. Good writing by itself is an accomplishment, and should not be burdened by expectations it was never meant to satisfy. I think many readers of THE EMPEROR'S CHILDREN had expectations that the author never intended to address.

I didn't like most of the characters in THE EMPEROR'S CHILDREN because they reflected core values that don't appeal to me. But Claire Messud observed these people very closely, reported what she found, and eloquently laid bare, for my perusal, aspects of human nature that only come to light when observed very closely. I, for one, don't have that talent, that skill, to unveil, in eloquent style, WHY some characters are unlikeable.

Unlikeable as I found Murray, Marina, Julius, Danny and Bootie, they were fascinating to meet. Their flaws were very clearly exposed to us. Isn't that the real reason we read, to meet others whose imperfections mirror our own. Their flaws are on display for us, so that we can understand ourselves.

That is a fine enough reason for good writing to exist.


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ClaireMessud
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Re: values and connections

Perhaps it's inappropriate for me to toss my 2 cents into the ring, here, when this discussion seems perhaps one best continued in my absence. Like Ibis & Katelyn, I'm a great believer in literature for its own sake: I think a novel justifies its existence by being truthful, not by painting a more appealing but artificial picture. (Then again, I seem to have a fairly dark view of the world - always have done. And reality is always keen to reinforce it...) In experiencing the various responses to TEC, I've been fascinated to discover, repeatedly, how many people seem to think that characters need to be (a) likeable & (b) morally edifying. And how readily readers leap to equate the moral values of the characters with the values of the book itself.

Perhaps you might like to consider the possibility -- which was, in naming the book, my intention, odd as it may seem -- that not Murray but our American culture is the Emperor of the title?

And I come back, as ever, to one of my favorite lines from Baudelaire: "Hypocrite reader, my similar, my brother." Is it conceivable that the actions & inactions, the frivolities & pettinesses of these characters are distressing at least in part because they mirror those of millions of Americans -- not just privileged ones, but everyday ordinary people too? Does the rest of America look so much better than these guys do? Aren't we all guilty of complacency and self-interest and petty ambitions, at some point or another? What makes any of us think we're so likeable, and so edifying, and such good people?


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Peppermill
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Re: values and connections

[ Edited ]
Claire -- is it time for you to re-read Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth?

ClaireMessud wrote:
Perhaps it's inappropriate for me to toss my 2 cents into the ring, here, when this discussion seems perhaps one best continued in my absence. Like Ibis & Katelyn, I'm a great believer in literature for its own sake: I think a novel justifies its existence by being truthful, not by painting a more appealing but artificial picture. (Then again, I seem to have a fairly dark view of the world - always have done. And reality is always keen to reinforce it...) In experiencing the various responses to TEC, I've been fascinated to discover, repeatedly, how many people seem to think that characters need to be (a) likeable & (b) morally edifying. And how readily readers leap to equate the moral values of the characters with the values of the book itself.

Perhaps you might like to consider the possibility -- which was, in naming the book, my intention, odd as it may seem -- that not Murray but our American culture is the Emperor of the title?

And I come back, as ever, to one of my favorite lines from Baudelaire: "Hypocrite reader, my similar, my brother." Is it conceivable that the actions & inactions, the frivolities & pettinesses of these characters are distressing at least in part because they mirror those of millions of Americans -- not just privileged ones, but everyday ordinary people too? Does the rest of America look so much better than these guys do? Aren't we all guilty of complacency and self-interest and petty ambitions, at some point or another? What makes any of us think we're so likeable, and so edifying, and such good people?

Is "The Emperor Has No Clothes" a fable about shallowness or a fable about fear? If the "emperor" in THE EMPEROR'S CHILDREN is America, its cast of characters did not provide a convincing argument to this reader.

Perhaps many of us have the failing of joy at a sunrise, of elation at tiny acts of kindness (but not necessarily "do gooders" ), of finding something we enjoy or like or respect or sorrow for about the most despicable of humans we meet. And that does not mean they need to be "morally edifying." They just need to be believable as fully conceived human beings.

I don't mean to be negative with these comments -- I was gifted by your writing and was glad to have read this book. But I increasing have a sense that I "didn't get it" -- or perhaps rejected an intended "message."

And, I appreciate very much your participating in this discussion.

Message Edited by Peppermill on 10-16-2007 08:03 AM
"Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly. It is the one thing we are interested in here." -- Leo Tolstoy
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Pat_T
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Re: values and connections

I agree that a book doesn't need likeable characters to be good, or even great. But I don't think great writing skills should be the primary reason for writing. As a reader, I also look for characters I can connect with on some level, or sympathize with, or cheer on, or even love-to-hate. I also look for their story to unfold in a way that makes me care what happens to them. Then, great writing is icing on the cake.

I also agree that, at times, and by necessity, we are all guilty of complacency and self-interest and petty ambitions. But isn't that why we produce great works of art, literature, music etc- to lift us out of the mundane, and show us what we are capable of doing?

I can appreciate The Emperor's Children as a look at 9 months in the lives of a cross section of society in New York city during a time that is pivotal in their lives and also in the life of the United States. I also am glad that Claire Messud has joined in the discussion with questions and comments to guide the discussion and point out things we may have missed.
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IBIS
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Re: values and connections

[ Edited ]


Claire Messud wrote:
Is it conceivable that the actions & inactions, the frivolities & pettinesses of these characters are distressing at least in part because they mirror those of millions of Americans -- not just privileged ones, but everyday ordinary people too?



I was taken aback by Claire Messud's comment that America is the emperor of the book's title. I'm not sure that I "get it." Why limit your characters to this select, privileged group, basking in the rarified atmosphere of New York City? They're hardly the group that would pass for, or remotely, represent grass-roots Americana.

You're absolutely right, I was distressed by the frivolousness and petty concerns of Julius, Bootie, Murray and Danny because I recognized these self-same traits in myself.

I just wish that their unlikeability was not their main attraction. In real life, even the most obnoxious people have redeeming qualities that make them tolerable. Wouldn't it have been more realistic to have characters whose obnoxiousness was realistically blended with likeable characteristics? Maybe I might have become more engaged in their concerns when their affairs went south.

THE EMPEROR'S CHILDREN was a literary treat. I fully appreciate the honors your writing is garnering. They are well deserved. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

Edited by Admin. for formatting only.

Message Edited by Jessica on 10-25-2007 03:49 PM
IBIS

"I am a part of everything that I have read."
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Katelyn
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Re: values and connections

The idea that is America, not Murray, that is the Emperor exposed in a state of undress works for me. I think making the wealthy and privileged the focus of the book is effective perhaps because the very rich are an amplification of the average American. The point is that they average American shares (although perhaps in a fairly unconscious way) the same values but doesn’t have the means to make them as manifest. Think of it in terms of making a costume. If you have only a dollar, it is hard to realize, make manifest, your vision in the form of the costume, but it you have a lot of money at your disposal it is relatively easy to make manifest, that is make into a visible and tangible reality one’s internalized vision. In a certain way the rich also make manifest the hollowness at the core of certain American/ contemporary values. If you have a lot of resources and still can’t be happy, it is clearer the problem is elsewhere not just a matter of not having the means. Even the little Jean Benet Ramsey’s of the world are only an amplification of ideas already in our culture if you look at children’s fashion today.

In the beginning of the book, Danielle is so concerned with her make up it is like a mask; she doesn’t feel comfortable with revealing herself She studied Literature and Philosophy, but is caught creating shallow pieces for television. While her inner dialog shows perceptiveness and an intelligence that does not entirely glides over the surfaces in life but also reflects on her experience, she can break out in high-brow cultural clap trap at any moment, which functions as a source of protection, a screen that prevents others access to thoughts that would make her more vulnerable . Her thought has been diverted by the trite, trivial, or sensationalistic; she takes refuge in a false self and only when alone with her books (which she no longer even reads) in the personal space of her apartment can she approach being herself (with Murray she has moments of genuineness also that break that shine through the cracks of her self-protective shell.

Marina has an easy confidence in the effect/affection her beauty causes in others, but doubts her intellectual abilities. Her father is so caught up in his own myth of himself that he undermines her confidence, and trivializes her vital thought and explorations of something very real in the explorations of children’s fashion and its underlying culture meaning. Like Bootie, who is initially rather amorphous inside and out, Marina’s has trouble giving shape to her ideas because of so much self-doubt. Her book seems to me a triumph over this amorphousness and an act of self-definition.

Julius wants love and pursues it at great personal cost. He is correct when he says it is different for gays as there is not a centuries old tradition or model that is set up in our culture for romance and building a life together, but rather that one has to invent it for oneself. This may be true, but invention can be a cruel business that ends in disaster. While seeming easy or benign or a liberty, this obscures the fact that invention can be very, very hard and can end in disaster.


I don’t see Murray as a villain. With his insatiable desire for more, more, more he is really very human. No matter what he has, he can’t really possess it, and he is empty inside. He too is alienated from himself. Even his wife Annabelle (who does indeed seem like a worthwhile person) is flawed in that she is always trying to help others sometimes at the expense of her own family or to preserve her autonomy and not get too enmeshed in intimate relationships with others with others who she truly cares about and whose futures she has something at stake.

The book describes people preoccupied by surfaces, whose true selves have been hijacked. To me, the book is about the construction of selves that have no reality, a world where a constructed and false selves are on parade. Every one is in their own narrative that has its own story line, but it is difficult from their culturally and self-imposed cages to make real and enduring connections with each other than have authenticity. The good life is not really all that good.
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Peppermill
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Re: values and connections

Katelyn -- these comments "work" for me. Thanks!

"The good life is not really all that good." -- I might replace that with "The good life requires trust, and that can be a fearful place to go when a semblance seems to allure without the risk."


Katelyn wrote:
The idea that is America, not Murray, that is the Emperor exposed in a state of undress works for me. I think making the wealthy and privileged the focus of the book is effective perhaps because the very rich are an amplification of the average American. The point is that they average American shares (although perhaps in a fairly unconscious way) the same values but doesn’t have the means to make them as manifest. Think of it in terms of making a costume. If you have only a dollar, it is hard to realize, make manifest, your vision in the form of the costume, but it you have a lot of money at your disposal it is relatively easy to make manifest, that is make into a visible and tangible reality one’s internalized vision. In a certain way the rich also make manifest the hollowness at the core of certain American/ contemporary values. If you have a lot of resources and still can’t be happy, it is clearer the problem is elsewhere not just a matter of not having the means. Even the little Jean Benet Ramsey’s of the world are only an amplification of ideas already in our culture if you look at children’s fashion today.

In the beginning of the book, Danielle is so concerned with her make up it is like a mask; she doesn’t feel comfortable with revealing herself She studied Literature and Philosophy, but is caught creating shallow pieces for television. While her inner dialog shows perceptiveness and an intelligence that does not entirely glides over the surfaces in life but also reflects on her experience, she can break out in high-brow cultural clap trap at any moment, which functions as a source of protection, a screen that prevents others access to thoughts that would make her more vulnerable . Her thought has been diverted by the trite, trivial, or sensationalistic; she takes refuge in a false self and only when alone with her books (which she no longer even reads) in the personal space of her apartment can she approach being herself (with Murray she has moments of genuineness also that break that shine through the cracks of her self-protective shell.

Marina has an easy confidence in the effect/affection her beauty causes in others, but doubts her intellectual abilities. Her father is so caught up in his own myth of himself that he undermines her confidence, and trivializes her vital thought and explorations of something very real in the explorations of children’s fashion and its underlying culture meaning. Like Bootie, who is initially rather amorphous inside and out, Marina’s has trouble giving shape to her ideas because of so much self-doubt. Her book seems to me a triumph over this amorphousness and an act of self-definition.

Julius wants love and pursues it at great personal cost. He is correct when he says it is different for gays as there is not a centuries old tradition or model that is set up in our culture for romance and building a life together, but rather that one has to invent it for oneself. This may be true, but invention can be a cruel business that ends in disaster. While seeming easy or benign or a liberty, this obscures the fact that invention can be very, very hard and can end in disaster.


I don’t see Murray as a villain. With his insatiable desire for more, more, more he is really very human. No matter what he has, he can’t really possess it, and he is empty inside. He too is alienated from himself. Even his wife Annabelle (who does indeed seem like a worthwhile person) is flawed in that she is always trying to help others sometimes at the expense of her own family or to preserve her autonomy and not get too enmeshed in intimate relationships with others with others who she truly cares about and whose futures she has something at stake.

The book describes people preoccupied by surfaces, whose true selves have been hijacked. To me, the book is about the construction of selves that have no reality, a world where a constructed and false selves are on parade. Every one is in their own narrative that has its own story line, but it is difficult from their culturally and self-imposed cages to make real and enduring connections with each other than have authenticity. The good life is not really all that good.


"Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly. It is the one thing we are interested in here." -- Leo Tolstoy
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Katelyn
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Re: values and connections

Yes! Great word choices as usual Peppermill. I agree. The book deals a lot with "seeming" /semblence. I also like what you have to say about trust, fear, and risk.



Peppermill wrote:
Katelyn -- these comments "work" for me. Thanks!

"The good life is not really all that good." -- I might replace that with "The good life requires trust, and that can be a fearful place to go when a semblance seems to allure without the risk."blockquote>
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Charity10
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Re: values and connections



Katelyn wrote:
The idea that is America, not Murray, that is the Emperor exposed in a state of undress works for me. I think making the wealthy and privileged the focus of the book is effective perhaps because the very rich are an amplification of the average American. The point is that they average American shares (although perhaps in a fairly unconscious way) the same values but doesn’t have the means to make them as manifest. Think of it in terms of making a costume. If you have only a dollar, it is hard to realize, make manifest, your vision in the form of the costume, but it you have a lot of money at your disposal it is relatively easy to make manifest, that is make into a visible and tangible reality one’s internalized vision. In a certain way the rich also make manifest the hollowness at the core of certain American/ contemporary values. If you have a lot of resources and still can’t be happy, it is clearer the problem is elsewhere not just a matter of not having the means. Even the little Jean Benet Ramsey’s of the world are only an amplification of ideas already in our culture if you look at children’s fashion today.

In the beginning of the book, Danielle is so concerned with her make up it is like a mask; she doesn’t feel comfortable with revealing herself She studied Literature and Philosophy, but is caught creating shallow pieces for television. While her inner dialog shows perceptiveness and an intelligence that does not entirely glides over the surfaces in life but also reflects on her experience, she can break out in high-brow cultural clap trap at any moment, which functions as a source of protection, a screen that prevents others access to thoughts that would make her more vulnerable . Her thought has been diverted by the trite, trivial, or sensationalistic; she takes refuge in a false self and only when alone with her books (which she no longer even reads) in the personal space of her apartment can she approach being herself (with Murray she has moments of genuineness also that break that shine through the cracks of her self-protective shell.

Marina has an easy confidence in the effect/affection her beauty causes in others, but doubts her intellectual abilities. Her father is so caught up in his own myth of himself that he undermines her confidence, and trivializes her vital thought and explorations of something very real in the explorations of children’s fashion and its underlying culture meaning. Like Bootie, who is initially rather amorphous inside and out, Marina’s has trouble giving shape to her ideas because of so much self-doubt. Her book seems to me a triumph over this amorphousness and an act of self-definition.

Julius wants love and pursues it at great personal cost. He is correct when he says it is different for gays as there is not a centuries old tradition or model that is set up in our culture for romance and building a life together, but rather that one has to invent it for oneself. This may be true, but invention can be a cruel business that ends in disaster. While seeming easy or benign or a liberty, this obscures the fact that invention can be very, very hard and can end in disaster.


I don’t see Murray as a villain. With his insatiable desire for more, more, more he is really very human. No matter what he has, he can’t really possess it, and he is empty inside. He too is alienated from himself. Even his wife Annabelle (who does indeed seem like a worthwhile person) is flawed in that she is always trying to help others sometimes at the expense of her own family or to preserve her autonomy and not get too enmeshed in intimate relationships with others with others who she truly cares about and whose futures she has something at stake.

The book describes people preoccupied by surfaces, whose true selves have been hijacked. To me, the book is about the construction of selves that have no reality, a world where a constructed and false selves are on parade. Every one is in their own narrative that has its own story line, but it is difficult from their culturally and self-imposed cages to make real and enduring connections with each other than have authenticity. The good life is not really all that good.


I appreciate your articulate observations and agree. I picture the characters as tiny on a grand elaborate stage. When you have less, you are forced to work from the inside out in developing a sense of self. The characters seem to be working from the outside in and finding much emptiness. Murray Twaite particularly strikes me as sad and empty. Searching for more life, it seems even having it all is not enough for him. I don't really see them as characters who lack values but victims of a less than meaningful elite society.
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Peppermill
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Re: values and connections

Katelyn -- It might interest you to know that Annabel, more than any other character, led me to the comments about trust, fear and risk. To me, it seemed as if it was easier for her to reach out elsewhere than with her own husband and child. Almost like hiding. Not that Murray doesn't have his own hang-ups about commitment and intimacy. And, other characters, too.

Thank you for your kind words.

Katelyn wrote:
Yes! Great word choices as usual Peppermill. I agree. The book deals a lot with "seeming" /semblance. I also like what you have to say about trust, fear, and risk.



Peppermill wrote:
Katelyn -- these comments "work" for me. Thanks!

"The good life is not really all that good." -- I might replace that with "The good life requires trust, and that can be a fearful place to go when a semblance seems to allure without the risk."

"Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly. It is the one thing we are interested in here." -- Leo Tolstoy
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Fozzie
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Re: values and connections

If I only read books about likeable people, about people who shared my core values, about segments of society in which I am a member, about countries with which I am familiar, or about time periods in which I live, I would be a poor excuse for a reader. To me, books are meant to take me to places and times and people that I would not be able to experience otherwise. The Emperor’s Children is one such book. I am always glad to visit, but always glad to come home to my reality too.
Laura

Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are.
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Fozzie
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Re: values and connections



ClaireMessud wrote:
Perhaps you might like to consider the possibility -- which was, in naming the book, my intention, odd as it may seem -- that not Murray but our American culture is the Emperor of the title?



Ah ha! I like that idea much better!
Laura

Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are.
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Cathykinn
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Re: values and connections

when I read fiction, I enter into a different world, one created by the author. If it is well-written, I feel privileged to get to know the characters, their environment, their motivations and words and the events they bring about. I don't need for them to leave this world in order to inspire me or befriend or teach me. I think the only obligation the author has is to maintain truth within the framework of the novel.
When I leave that experience, I am better because I have been allowed to enter the lives of people I would otherwise never have met; my understanding is expanded as is, I can hope, my empathy.
Cathy
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