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Generosity

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FROM THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD?WINNING AUTHOR OF THE ECHO MAKER, A PLAYFUL AND PROVOCATIVE NOVEL ABOUT THE DISCOVERY OF THE HAPPINESS GENE
When Chicagoan Russell Stone finds himself teaching a Creative Nonfiction class, he encounters a young Algerian woman with a disturbingly luminous presence. Thassadit Amzwar?s blissful exuberance both entrances and puzzles the melancholic Russell. How can this refugee from perpetual terror be so happy? Won?t someone so open and alive come to ...

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Overview

FROM THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD–WINNING AUTHOR OF THE ECHO MAKER, A PLAYFUL AND PROVOCATIVE NOVEL ABOUT THE DISCOVERY OF THE HAPPINESS GENE
When Chicagoan Russell Stone finds himself teaching a Creative Nonfiction class, he encounters a young Algerian woman with a disturbingly luminous presence. Thassadit Amzwar’s blissful exuberance both entrances and puzzles the melancholic Russell. How can this refugee from perpetual terror be so happy? Won’t someone so open and alive come to serious harm? Wondering how to protect her, Russell researches her war-torn country and skims through popular happiness manuals. Might her condition be hyperthymia? Hypomania? Russell’s amateur inquiries lead him to college counselor Candace Weld, who also falls under Thassa’s spell. Dubbed Miss Generosity by her classmates, Thassa’s joyful personality comes to the attention of the notorious geneticist and advocate for genomic enhancement, Thomas Kurton, whose research leads him to announce the genotype for happiness.
Russell and Candace, now lovers, fail to protect Thassa from the growing media circus. Thassa’s congenital optimism is soon severely tested. Devoured by the public as a living prophecy, her genetic secret will transform both Russell and Kurton, as well as the country at large.

What will happen to life when science identifies the genetic basis of happiness? Who will own the patent? Do we dare revise our own temperaments? Funny, fast, and finally magical, Generosity celebrates both science and the freed imagination. In his most exuberant book yet, Richard Powers asks us to consider the big questions facing humankind aswe begin to rewrite our own existence.

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Editorial Reviews

Jay McInerney
…an excellent introduction to Powers's work, a lighter, leaner treatment of his favorite themes and techniques…Powers is, when he chooses to be, an engaging storyteller (though he would probably wince at the word), and even as he questions the conventions of narrative and character, Generosity gains in momentum and suspense. In the end, he wants to have it both ways, and he comes very close to succeeding.
—The New York Times
Ron Charles
Sixteen years after Peter Kramer's Listening to Prozac, Richard Powers has heard the alarming implications of treatments that let us buy better moods and personalities. His cerebral new novel offers a chilling examination of the life we're reengineering with our chromosomes and brain chemistry…Although you might expect a novel so weighted with medical and philosophical arguments to flatten its characters into brittle stereotypes, ultimately that's the most impressive aspect of this meditation on happiness and humanness. As Generosity drives toward its surprising conclusion, these characters grow more complex and poignant, increasingly baffled by the challenge and the opportunity of remaking ourselves to our heart's content.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

About halfway into Powers's follow-up to his National Book Award-winning The Echo Maker, a Nobel Prize-winning author, during a panel discussion, talks about how "genetic enhancement represents the end of human nature.... A story with no end or impediment is no story at all." This then, is a story with both. Its hero, at least initially, is Russell Stone, a failed author of creative nonfiction turned reluctant writing instructor who cannot help transmitting to his students something of his flagging faith in writing. One of them, a Berber Algerian named Thassadit Amzwar, is so possessed by preternatural happiness that she's nicknamed "Miss Generosity" by her prematurely jaded classmates and has emerged from the Algerian civil war that claimed the lives of her parents "glowing like a blissed out mystic." After Stone learns that Thassadit may possess a rare euphoric trait called hyperthymia, her condition is upgraded from behavioral to genetic, and Powers's novel makes a dramatic shift when Thassadit falls into the hands of Thomas Kurton, the charismatic entrepreneur behind genetics lab Truecyte, whose plan to develop a programmable genome to "regulate the brain's set point for well-being" may rest in Miss Generosity's perpetually upbeat alleles. Much of the tension behind Powers's idea-driven novels stems from the delicate balance between plot and concept, and he wisely adopts a voice that is-sometimes painfully-aware of the occasional strain ("I'm caught... starving to death between allegory and realism, fact and fable, creative and nonfiction"). Like Stone and Kurton, Powers strays from mere record to attempt an impossible task: to make the world right.(Oct.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal
Algerian refugee Thassadit Amzwar has witnessed a great deal of violence in her young life, yet she radiates joy. Now attending college in Chicago, she meets Russell Stone, writing instructor and all-around slump of a guy, who is fascinated by Thassadit's glowing countenance. After consulting with campus counselor (and eventual love interest) Candace Weld, Stone theorizes that Thassadit may be the carrier of a gene that produces happiness. Once the story makes its way to the media, all hell breaks loose. The cheerful refugee is publicly sanctified, vilified, and sought after—especially by genome companies that want to market her genetic good fortune. Offering some very meaty ethical issues, this fast-paced, science-laden story offers each character a chance to become heroic in his or her own way. VERDICT Intelligent, thought-provoking, multilayered, and emotionally engaging, this follow-up to Powers's National Book Award winner, The Echo Maker, astonishes with its depiction of our annoying cultural habit of creating, exalting, and disposing of celebrities within the span of a few minutes. Master storyteller Powers has a keen eye for the absurdity of modern life. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/09.]—Susanne Wells, P.L. of Cincinnati & Hamilton Cty.
Kirkus Reviews
Nothing less than the phenomenon of happiness is explored in this rich, challenging novel from polymathic Powers (The Echo Maker, 2006, etc.). Think of it as an extended Socratic or Platonic dialogue, animated and communicated by three generously imagined characters. The central contrasting figures are Thassadit Amzwar, an inexplicably optimistic and upbeat refugee from the horrors of ongoing ethnic and other conflicts in the northern African powder keg of Algeria, whose student visa brings her by way of Canada to Chicago and the "creative nonfiction" adult-education class ("Journal and Journey") taught by failed fiction writer and generally downcast would-be autodidact Russell Stone. Thassa's fellow students, a motley gathering of borderline-hopeful underachievers, suspect she's nuts and dub her "the Bliss Chick." But Russell believes there's something really different about this irrepressible survivor of unthinkable calamity, as does the novel's third major character and de facto antagonist, Thomas Kurton, a young scientific phenom who grows up to become a celebrity geneticist whose search for a "happiness gene" is chronicled in a widely seen film and who hopes to appropriate the luminously cheerful Algerian to star in his researches. A lesser writer might have made this a 21st-century Frankenstein. Powers instead channels his heady confluence of ideals and motives into suspenseful intellectual drama, set in painstakingly realistic Middle-American urban jungles populated by intelligent, well-meaning people who aim to do good by any means necessary. Even the irresistible Thassa comes abrasively alive, in her exasperated response to Christian fundamentalists determined to claim her as oneof their own: "I'm a Maghreb Algerian Kabyle Catholic Atheist French Canadian on a student visa. I can't help these people." The mystery of Thassa's impermeable optimism is never explained; it neither should nor could be. Exuberant, erudite and satisfyingly enigmatic.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781848871274
  • Publisher: Atlantic
  • Publication date: 3/28/2011

Meet the Author

Richard Powers is the author of nine novels. The Echo Maker (FSG, 2006) won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Powers has received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award, and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction. He lives in Illinois.

Biography

It isn't easy to characterize Richard Powers in a single sentence. The MacArthur grant recipient and award-winning novelist suffers from what Powers himself, in a Salon interview, called "a restlessness of theme"—his books feature everything from molecular genetics and neural networks to soap manufacturers and singers. What they have in common is something Powers refers to as "the aerial view": a perspective that sees humankind as one small element in a complex universe.

As a child in Chicago's northern suburbs, and later as a teenager in Thailand, Powers had no thoughts of becoming a writer. He believed he was destined to be a scientist and explored paleontology, archaeology, and oceanography before he finally enrolled as a physics major at the University of Illinois. But an honors literature seminar helped inspire him to change fields, and he ended up earning his M.A. in English. Powers then moved to Boston, where he found work as a technical writer and computer programmer. He embarked on an omnivorous, self-directed reading program and spent his Saturdays at the Museum of Fine Arts, where he came across a photograph titled "Young Westerwald Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, 1914."

"The words [of the title] went right up my spine," he later told an interviewer for Cultural Logic. "I knew instantly not only that they were on their way to a different dance than they thought they were, but that I was on the way to a dance that I hadn't anticipated until then. All of my previous year's random reading just consolidated and converged on this one moment, this image, which seemed to me to be the birth photograph of the twentieth century."

The photograph also engendered Powers's career as a novelist. His first book, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, was followed by Prisoner's Dilemma and The Gold Bug Variations, which was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book and as Time magazine's Book of the Year for 1991. Gerald Howard, writing in The Nation, called Powers "one of the few younger American writers who can stake a claim to the legacy of Pynchon, Gaddis, and DeLillo." The Gold Bug Variations, which includes the story of a Bach-obsessed scientist who abandons his quest to crack the genetic code, established Powers as a writer who could articulate questions about science and technology—which emerge again in novels like Galatea 2.2, about a writer trying to teach literature to an artificial-intelligence program named Helen, and Plowing the Dark, which explores virtual reality and the human imagination as different means (or possibly the same means) of escaping the physical limitations of life.

Powers's works are packed with puns, parallels, and allusions; as Daniel Mendelsohn noted in The New York Times Book Review, each novel is "a kind of literary installation in which art objects, theoretical musings, plots and subplots, disquisitions on intellectual and literary history, histories of countries and corporations" illuminate an underlying theme. For some critics, Powers's brand of literary gamesmanship can be too much of a good thing: "He is quite capable of fluent sequential narrative, and readers will be relieved when he lapses into it after all the self-conscious brilliance and endlessly impressive allusion," noted a Publishers Weekly review of Operation Wandering Soul. But for his fans, part of the pleasure of a Powers novel comes from its dazzling and unexpected fusions of intellect and imagination. "It's instruct and delight, right?" Powers asked in the Salon interview. "You gotta give both."

Good To Know

Powers holds the Swanlund Chair in English at the University of Illinois, where he has taught classes in multimedia authoring and the mechanics of narrative.

On the Internet, he has been the subject of several hypertext essays, along with a hypertext vignette titled "Richard Powers Eats Peanut Butter Sandwich."

Several of Powers's novels have been finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, including Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, The Gold Bug Variations, and Galatea 2.2. Operation Wandering Soul was a National Book Award finalist.

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    1. Hometown:
      Urbana, Illinois
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 18, 1957
    2. Place of Birth:
      Evanston, Illinois
    1. Education:
      M.A., University of Illinois, 1979

Reading Group Guide

Questions for Discussion
1. Writing and the role of the imagination are central to Generosity. What is creative nonfiction? How does Russell's course -- Creative Nonfiction 14, Sect. RS: Journal and Journey -- relate to the novel you are reading? 2. On page 12 Richard Powers writes, "Blogs, mashups, reality programming, court TV, chat shows, chat rooms, chat cafés, capital campaigns, catalog copy, even war-zone journalism all turn confessional. Feelings are the new facts. Memoir is the new history. Tell-alls are the new news." Do you agree with this analysis? What does it mean for popular culture to be so dominated by "true confessions" and "memoir"? How does this relate to our emphasis on "reality" television? Where does this leave the novel? 3. On page 181 there is a press conference to announce:
Happiness gene identified? Did you think it would evade detection forever? The Alzheimer's gene, the alcoholism gene, the homosexuality gene, the aggression gene, the novelty gene, the fear gene, the stress gene, the xenophobia gene, the criminal-impulse gene, and the fidelity gene have all come and gone. By the time the happiness gene rolls around, even journalists should have long ago learned to hedge their bets.
What does the idea of a happiness gene mean to you? Do you agree with Thomas Kurton when he says, "Why shouldn't we make ourselves better than we are now? We're incomplete. Why leave something as fabulous as life up to chance?" Do you want to reverse the aging process and live forever? 4. Why does Russell's moment of celebrity as a magazine writer end so soon? 5. Why do you think Richard Powers made Thassa Algerian? What did you learn about Algeria from the novel that you didn't know before? 6. Why does John Thornell attack Thassa? What do you think of Russell's reaction to the attack? 7. Does your view of Thomas Kurton change in the course of the novel? 8. What role does the idea of prophecy play in the novel? 9. What is Powers's view of free will? What's your view of our future if genetic determinism prevails? 10. What was your first impression of Thassa? What did you decide was the root of her happiness? And how much did you change your view by the end of the novel? 11. How are Russell and Candace good for each other while also being an unlikely couple? How fair or unfair do you think it is for Candace to be asked not to see Thassa? Did she surprise you by complying, and why do you think she did? 12. Discuss the happiness experiments that Candace tells Russell about on pages 125-27. How do their careers -- his as a writer and hers as a psychotherapist -- shape the way they interpret life's circumstances? Is it easy for you to approach good surprises without worrying, applying the mentality of "A dime's a dime. Grab it when you see it"? 13. Ultimately, what is Tonia's role in Thassa's life? 14. Discuss Thassa's appearance on Oona's television show. What does Thassa's experience with the media say about the way we gather information, and the way identities (of celebrities and regular viewers alike) are manufactured in the age of new technology? 15. Should Thassa have been allowed to sell her eggs? Was Truecyte entitled to a licensing fee? Discuss the need for boundaries between science, medicine, and big business. 16. How did you react to the novel's closing scene? Who did you think was narrating the novel up until that point? Were you surprised by Thassa's final appearance? 17. Who are the novel's most generous characters? Are these also the happiest ones? 18. How would you respond if you tried some of Russell's writing assignments, such as "Find one thing in the last day worth telling a total stranger," or to Candace's suggestion -- "Close your eyes and write a sentence in the air. Use your left hand. Just one sentence. A simple one"? 19. What do you believe about the nature of happiness? Which factor is stronger in determining whether someone will be happy: genetics or generosity? What (or who) brings you the most happiness? Would you be willing to take a pill or participate in genetic-engineering experiments if it meant being happier? 20. Are there themes and ideas in Generosity you recognize from other books by Richard Powers? And in what ways is this novel a departure or different from his other books?
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