About Kristine

I am the current moderator of the Whitney Library Book Club

The Alchemist Discussion Journal

Since 2014, the Whitney Book Bistro discusses a literature classic in January[i]. As you can see in the notes, most of our selections have been by British or American authors, because we are limited by the availability of books. We are fortunate that The Library District put together a book club kit for The Alchemist. Diverse selections are essential for us to build a strong community with shared experiences through books.Alchemist

Paulo Coelho wrote O Alquimista in two weeks in 1987.[ii] The first US printing was in 1993 and The Alchemist “eventually became one of the best-selling Brazilian novels ever published, and today it is one of the world’s most widely translated books.”[iii] According to PBS’s 2018 Great American Read, “the book spent more than six years on The New York Times Best Seller’s list.”[iv]

I opened the discussion by reminding us of The Alchemist’s popularity and the importance of everyone’s opinion. I struggled to enjoy this book, and I was particularly concerned that I would allow that opinion to dominate – but I also wanted very much to be persuaded to feel more favorably. Differences often make the best discussions and are the most informative for all of us, perhaps even more so when there is only one dissenting opinion. I read aloud a teacher’s justification that The Alchemist is a diverse and optimistic perspective in contrast to the “pessimistic nature of the body of works widely available and taught at the sophomore level.”[v]

Since no one spoke up quickly to be our first responder, I read aloud an email response from one of our remote readers. I will post her full text in the replies. She found the story initially to be “full of cheap platitudes and easy mystical pseudo-wisdom,” but ultimately “this is a worthwhile read, especially for those who have not yet been exposed to these ideas.” A couple of members were nodding as I read this response. One said that he found it to be an insipid self-help book with lame platitudes, reminding him of The Greatest Salesman in the World by Og Mandino (1968). Another said that she felt that at first, but as she read on, she really liked it! Still another member reminded us that this book was written over 30 years ago.

A library youth department staff member liked the book enough to attend. She had written one of the core principles on our Teen Zone board:  “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it” (pg. 23). She believes this idea is important because untapped talent needs to be encouraged. You don’t have to settle. Another staff member attended. They read it in high school in 2017 and their class focused on the idea that you do not need to settle for the easily achievable. Another member shared that she likes knowing that high schoolers are reading this. In high school, she had no idea what she wanted to do but, as others also agreed, too often we are told to focus on the money, on being able to support ourselves, to suppress our dreams.

One of us then wanted to know how many of us are doing now what we wanted to do in high school. Several people raised their hands. I noticed primarily our young people’s assistant and  thoughtlessly commented that she was too young! She graciously accepted this challenge and said that, for her, this was an auspicious moment to read this book at this point in her life. She particularly liked the part in the book when Santiago is discussing with the Sun and the Wind and finding his answers in the quiet, listening. Another member shared that he had wanted to travel the world and considered becoming a pilot. What he really wanted was to be a flight attendant, something not available to men at the time. Is it really too late for him? His nephew is now following this dream. Many of us moved on from disappointments, sometimes for the better. One member had given up a dream to become a fashion designer because a girl in her school received all the scholarships. She later learned that girl had dropped out! And what about “Maktub” or destiny? Do we really have a choice?

Which brought us to a discussion of The Alchemist and magical realism.  I read aloud one definition, but I had found several slightly different ones online and I encourage us all to look into it further. Basically, it is a primarily realistic world with elements of magic that help to highlight important, contrasting ideas. This term is most notably associated with Latin-American fiction, such as works by Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, and many others.[vi] One of us pointed out that movies, just by the fact that they are not real, are magical realism!

We discussed banned books, sexism, the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, use of alcohol (or marijuana) privately versus publicly, late night tv shows and censorship, and the origin of the phrase “son of a gun.” We also mentioned how you never want to meet your hero, and a visit to the Grand Canyon may be underwhelming.

As always, the discussion was varied and went in ways I couldn’t have imagined and have not fully covered here. Although I did not like many parts of The Alchemist, I continue to see its references in the world around me and I appreciate more than ever the importance of looking deeply into my opinions and accepting lessons and happy endings where I can find them.

Other works discussed:

  • Fates and Furies (2015) by Lauren Groff
  • Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (2022) Film, based on a series of books by Paul Gallico (2010)
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel García Márquez
  • “The Ruined Man Who Became Rich Again Through a Dream” from Tales of 1001 Nights or 1001 Arabian Nights

[i] To Kill a Mockingbird, Our Town, War of the Worlds, The Secret Garden, My Antonia, Puddinhead Wilson, Frankenstein, and we actually had 24 people attend for our first classic pick, Pride and Prejudice.

[ii] Goodyear, D. (2009). The Magus: The Astonishing Appeal of Paulo Coelho. In J. W. Hunter (Ed.), Contemporary Literary Criticism (Vol. 258). Gale. (Reprinted from New Yorker, 2007, May 7, 83[11], 38) https://link-gale-com.lvccld.idm.oclc.org/apps/doc/ZBESIJ386907721/LCO?u=lvccld_main&sid=bookmark-LCO&xid=7dce5fcd

[iii] Explanation of: “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho. (2010). In LitFinder Contemporary Collection. Gale. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/LTF4000000495CE/LITF?u=lvccld_main&sid=bookmark-LITF&xid=bcf1ac51

[iv] The Alchemist was listed as #70 of America’s most loved books. “THE GREAT AMERICAN READ was an eight-part series that explored and celebrated the power of reading, told through the prism of America’s 100 best-loved novels (as chosen in a national survey)*.”  https://www.pbs.org/the-great-american-read/home/

[v]Lesson plan provided online for a unit written by Gene Brunak with the Portland Public School system.


[vi] The definition I read was from a tenth-grade lesson plan for The Alchemist.  I am posting a link to the Britannica online definition:  https://www.britannica.com/art/magic-realism.

The Personal Librarian

Initially, when I asked if someone wanted to be our first responder, the room was surprisingly silent. Many of us had been visiting and chatty for the pre-gathering, so the pause seemed remarkable! With ten of us in the room, and despite the hesitant start, the discussion bounced back and forth revealing our engagement with the subject. The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray sparked our interest and our imaginations, so the discussion was peppered with questions and commentary about Belle da Costa Greene’s life, the idea and necessity of “passing,” and only a few personal connections.  

A snapshot: Belle was definitely smart, with a drive to provide a better life for herself and her family. Her story is reflective of many in which parents use their children to build their own dreams. How heartbreaking to be forced to make passing a choice – to follow your dreams but give up your heritage. She couldn’t even make eye contact with black servants. Was there a percentage of blackness?[i] Her experience in Europe, where shading was allowed was interesting. Everywhere has its caste system. Mexico is prejudiced against indigenous populations. The opulence of Belle’s life, travelling with a French maid to help her dress, was a particularly stark contrast to the life she would have led had her mother not chosen for them to pass as white.

But did we like the book? We didn’t love it; we did like it; we found it interesting. One of us nearly quit reading on page 196 when the description of Belle’s meeting with her long-time lover Berenson was so over-bearing. Many of us found it difficult to get into, but we kept reading to see what happened to her. Some of us were on pins and needles, wondering if she would ever be found out.

Some of were skeptical about a lot of things, which also highlights the difference between a well-documented non-fiction account and a fictionalized version such as The Personal Librarian. Belle burned all of her personal correspondence and we may never know the answer to many of our questions, but a non-fiction book called An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Green’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege by Heidi Ardizzone, was published in 2007. It is currently out of print, but the library does have an e-book available. I showed some pictures from the book as well as from a few internet references listed in the endnotes below.[ii]

We are fortunate to live in an age in which so much information is readily available. How did Belle research the documents she wanted to acquire? How did the auctions work? Why didn’t some of her adversaries find her out? One of us surmised that people assumed Belle was J.P. Morgan’s mistress, so no one would dare! Can we ever know the answers to our many questions? How will we know if it is true? This is a question for so many things these days.

For our final book discussion of 2022, we met in the library’s conference room. Although I like the coziness of the Teen Zone, the conference room’s brighter lighting and our usual large table, which keeps us together in one circle, was pleasant, like the comfort of the friends many of us have become – connected through books, movies and more! I look forward to seeing you all again in 2023!  Happy New Year!

Other Works Discussed:

Belle Greene by Alexandra Lapierre (2022 translation of the 2021 French novel)

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Wilkerson, Isabel (2020)

Gilded Age (2022 HBO Max Series created by Julian Fellowes)

Passing (2021 Netflix Film)

Pudd’inhead Wilson by Mark Twain (1894)

“The White Problem” by Richard T. Greener (1894 Essay)

[i] “The nation’s answer to the question ‘Who is black?” has long been that a black is any person with any known African black ancestry.” Public Broadcasting Service. (n.d.). Mixed race america – who is black? One nation’s definition | jefferson’s blood | frontline. PBS. Retrieved December 15, 2022, from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/mixed/onedrop.html 

[ii] •This is an article focusing on passing and mentions a videoplay performed and available to view by visiting First Baptist Church’s YouTubeChannel. I have not yet watched the video.  Walk through black history: ‘The life of belle da costa greene’. TelegraphHerald.com. michelle.london@thmedia.com, M. I. C. H. E. L. L. E. (2022, February 10). Retrieved December 15, 2022, from https://www.telegraphherald.com/news/features/article_d573668b-632a-57cf-acae-90e52ba25124.html 

•The White Problem (PDF) Greener, R. T. (n.d.). The White Problem. Columbia, South Carolina; Christian K. Anderson. I found this online: https://www.christiankanderson.com/uploads/2/4/3/3/24332121/thewhiteproblem.pdf

•Congress, L. of. (2018, March 20). Belle da Costa Greene: JP Morgan’s librarian & one of the highest paid women in the US ($25K/year in 1921 = $317K/year today) #chronamparty #Womenshistorymonthhttps://t.co/TQCFT1HGJ4 pic.twitter.com/5hkc7clbim. Twitter. Retrieved December 15, 2022, from https://twitter.com/librarycongress/status/976216823053127681?lang=en 

•Chapter 41 refers to Lord Elgin taking statues from the Acropolis from Athens to London and then the news that the sculptures could return to Greece Pier noticed in the Las Vegas Review Journal!  Kirka, D. (2022, December 4). Parthenon Sculptures Could Return to Greece, pg. 13A

•During the meeting, we also looked up the meaning and pronunciation of incunabulum: “in-kyə-ˈna-byə-ləm  –  a book printed before 1501″


Clark and Division Discussion Journal

It was a dark and stormy night . . .  Well, maybe not so stormy – but the roads were wet, chill was in the air, and it was election day, 2022!  We were fortunate to have nine of us gathered to discuss Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara. We started off discussing food and book clubs, with Baby Ruth candy bars to remind us of the Curtiss Candy Company, dried squid and rice with spam from a Henderson Japanese market. Most of us were not adventurous enough to try the squid or Musabi, but I felt energized by the connections to the book. 

Our response to the story was varied. Some of us liked it, some were disappointed not to have more information about the internment camp experience, some thought the detail about Chicago was lacking, and one of us pointed out that the book would have had to be two to three times as long to accommodate all of that information—like James Michener starting with the creation of the Hawaiian Islands! Some of us enjoyed the mystery, some found the ending unbelievable, and one of us appreciated the coming of age story. For one reader it wasn’t exactly a page turner, but most of us agreed that the book was easy to read.

I shared some images I found in my research: The Lost City of Tropico[i], Manzanar War Relocation Center[ii], the Curtiss Candy Company[iii], the author’s map of important locations from the book[iv], the Newberry Library[v], oni masks[vi]. I had been unaware of the 1907 Expatriation Act[vii] that took away the citizenship of American women who married non-citizens. We discussed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988[viii] that gave redress checks of $20,000 and a presidential apology to 82,219 American-citizens-of-Japanese-decent internment survivors. 

A returning member noted how she only learned of the Japanese-American internment in college. Another how she grew up in Los Angeles and only learned of the internment because she worked for a florist-shop owner who had been interned. This owner, who called all white people “Irish,” explained that an “Irish” friend had saved their property for them. Many of us were surprised to learn that there was an “‘Exclusion Line,’ which demarcated those who would be forced into detention, [and] ran directly through the Phoenix area.”[ix]

I added to question six about Aki’s definition to herself in relation to her sister, wondering how it might have been different had her sister not died. Most of us felt that she might not have blossomed, almost as if her growth came “out of the ashes.” One member, as a child of ten, felt that older children are forced to take on more responsibility. And she would have been forced into that role after her sister’s death. The turning point for Aki came when she got her own haircut style in Chicago. One of us, though, argued the opposite. Aki took care of burying her dog entirely on her own. Rose went her own way in the camp and Aki was able to be her own person. She also was headstrong and probably would have had a break from her sister even without her death.

We asked if she ever really loved Art? Probably not. Why is the book named after the intersection/subway? Just because her sister died there? We didn’t find a strong answer. The details of discrimination seemed generic and could easily have been against any marginalized group. Did Rose kill herself only to save her family? Wasn’t there a bit of pride involved? She had been recently pregnant, had a butchered abortion, was being blackmailed. The stress alone could have caused a rash decision. We still didn’t quite accept that Aki could have roamed safely into drug dens and more.

Our library has a Social Justice Book club that will meet next week and is discussing police abolition. How unexpected that our fiction book should make a connection to this issue! The Japanese-Americans in Clark and Division not only would not report rape to the police but were actively being blackmailed by the police. One of us has had to call 911 on several occasions and finds it eye-opening to imagine what it would be like to be afraid to call for help. Another of us noted how some people just don’t believe that police treat people differently. Do we believe a non-fiction, referenced book more than a fiction story that enables us to empathize with characters whose experiences are different than ours? One of us said that books that bring up shortcomings are an incentive to work toward change. She is also the one who reminded us all that it was election day. I so appreciate how we can talk about such weighty topics with respect. I fully believe from my experience with the Whitney Book Bistro that people who read and discuss fiction, however different their beliefs, are kind and empathetic. We may not have the answers, but I know that I benefit from our discussions!  Thank you!

  • Previous book club books mentioned or related*:
  • The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich
  • Lightning Strike by William Kent Krueger
  • *Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
  • *Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas

[i] Web accessed 11-8-2022: https://www.kcet.org/shows/lost-la/the-lost-city-of-tropico-california

[ii] One Camp, Ten Thousand Lives; One Camp, Ten Thousand Stories. U.S. Department of the Interior. (n.d.). Manzanar National Historic Site (U.S. National Park Service). National Parks Service. Retrieved November 8, 2022, from https://www.nps.gov/manz/index.htm 

[iii] https://www.madeinchicagomuseum.com/single-post/curtiss-candy-co/

[iv] https://www.naomihirahara.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Hirahara-Clark-Division-Points-Map-2.pdf

[v] Yes, the Newberry Library still exists! The picture I showed was from an ebay listing for a postcard of Chicago libraries. 

[vi] This is a site to buy masks, but it gives interesting information about Japanese masks, including the story about the Red Oni Who Cried. I looked this up because of the description on page 134 “Something about his [Hammer’s] facial appearance reminded me of the frightening oni demon masks on the walls of Issei homes. One version of the oni mask looked downright evil, but another, with its downturned mouth agape, seemed tortured.” https://japaneseonimasks.com/blogs/magazine/japanese-masks-18-types-story-of-every-japanese-mask

[vii] Brown, T. B. (2017, March 17). That time American women lost their citizenship because they married foreigners. NPR. Retrieved November 10, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/03/17/520517665/that-time-american-women-lost-their-citizenship-because-they-married-foreigners 

[viii] Civil liberties act of 1988. Civil Liberties Act of 1988 | Densho Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Retrieved November 10, 2022, from https://encyclopedia.densho.org/Civil_Liberties_Act_of_1988/ 

[ix] I am not sure we understand how this worked, but it was mentioned in an online article I found and quoted here. Mark, J. (2017, January 5). Tempe and Mesa history: Arizona was ground zero in Japanese internment-camp divide. The Arizona Republic. Retrieved November 10, 2022, from https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/tempe-history/2017/01/05/tempe-mesa-history-arizona-ground-zero-japanese-internment-camp-divide/95957302/ 

The Paris Apartment Discussion Journal

As we entered the Teen Zone for our meeting this month, music started playing. I don’t remember the tune, but the room is decorated for ‘80s Fright Night, with red-paint handprints, scrawled messages on the white board, and other paraphernalia, including a teen’s Bluetooth radio—and a couple of teens were there, adding atmosphere! The stage was set for a spooky discussion of The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley, which began with that misleading bloody hand on the window!

We were a small group and the discussion was quiet and pleasant. I hadn’t even thought ofParisApartmentCover Halloween and capturing the thrill of the season. Instead, we had French Lemonade, macarons, and madeleines. Everyone liked the book, the twists and turns, and the happy ending. Our first responder was new to our book club and noted that the novel was paced like a movie, ready to join other book-to-miniseries adaptations. She would have liked the author to develop characters and situations more fully before moving on to the next turn of events. She did appreciate the various cultural references and she felt like she was in the apartment. The next responder thought it was nice to have a book without a lot of politics and philosophy, and he particularly enjoyed the many surprising twists. Perhaps there were a few too many characters. And how sad that Sophie was outed by her accent. One of us appreciated that the novel was easy to read and another liked seeing how rich people make and spend their money. He mentioned the expense of tickets to the “local” sports teams and the pricing out of locals from the Las Vegas experience in general. He also made the connection that homelessness is harder for people who fall from the top: Nick and Antoine, spoiled, wealthy children, versus scrappy Jess and resilient Ben. And lucky Ben, adopted into a wealthy family versus life-long foster child Jess.

We questioned the believability of some of the plot details. Would Jess, a street-smart woman and bartender, accept a drink from a stranger? Could Ben really have survived the attack as described? We also considered that wine (taste and price!) is really over-rated. A $20 bottle of wine from Costco can be sold for $16 a glass at a nice restaurant. I recommended the book, The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine by Benjamin Wallace. We discussed people’s fascination with violence and the rich and famous, even as they condemn it. We didn’t discuss any of this in such neat order. We didn’t follow any prepared questions. But we did bring a lot of our own understanding of characters and social issues into the discussion!

Reviews I read mentioned how all the characters were unlikeable, but this didn’t seem to bother our group much. So, are they really unlikeable? In fact, thinking about the difference between not-liked and unlikeable highlights another important discussion we had–about language. One member wondered why the author didn’t translate all the French in the book. Did we need it all translated? I was impressed by how well the author did make the various French phrases understood. One of us, whose first language is Spanish, remembered how he thought his Spanish-speaking Cuban coworkers were hard to understand and spoke too fast! He learned English growing up and going to school in the United States and now thinks that proper Spanish is harder than proper English! It’s all a matter of perspective. Another member had known many Puerto Ricans in Ohio, and until she moved to Las Vegas, she believed all Spanish speakers were Puerto Rican. She also recently gave up trying to teach her grandchildren cursive. Cursive is not just about learning to write, but about learning to read and understand communications from the past, emphasizing the differences between generations. One reader listened to the audiobook and heard the story through the voices of different actors. How different was her experience? Reading the same book, we are creating shared experiences, but discussing it helps us realize the benefits even more. I hope you will join us next month. In the meantime, read the comments from one of our absent members and leave one to share!

Other works/initiatives discussed:

The Library Book Discussion Journal

Our first responder for Susan Orlean’s The Library Book gave his opinion to me at the end of last month’s meeting. He attends several library-sponsored book clubs and because we all have the need for books with a lot of available copies, ones that are well-reviewed, diverse, relevant, enlightening and engaging, if not entertaining, we often share and read the same books. He said The Library Book was “all right,” but the mystery of the fire wasLibraryBookCover underwhelming and not actually solved. When I found myself falling asleep as soon as I tried to read, I started to worry  about how the group would like the book – but there was hope – our next responder mentioned that it started slow but would get interesting at page 150!

So what did we think? Our responses were varied, personal, and mostly positive. I had two responses emailed to me that I will post in the comments. I read them aloud at the meeting. One was nostalgic and the other noted specific details. I was particularly glad to be reminded of “the story of deaf and autistic CJ [whose] ability to index the maps gave us a better understanding of autism. Very impressive.”

One of our group lived in the Los Angeles area as a youth and enjoyed the familiarity. His family nearly moved to Harry Peak’s hometown of Santa Fe. The area was filled with orchards and more open space than many of us probably picture when we think of L.A. His first job was working in a theater in downtown Los Angeles. Another member shared how she remembered visiting the La Brea Tar Pits as a newlywed and at that time it was basically a vacant lot with black puddles.

The same reader who found the book initially slow was engaged by the story of Harry Peak. She shared how she has loved every library everywhere she has ever lived, with particularly fond memories of the Cleveland library, built by Andrew Carnegie.[i]

Another member liked the book because she could tell the author’s “whole heart was in it.” She admired the author’s passion and ability to capture the librarians’ suffering because of the fire. Before reading this book, our member had always taken libraries for granted. She didn’t understand how much went into a library system or how much history is lost from fires in libraries.

I asked what stood out from other book club discussions, and one of us said that his other group had focused on the fire and arson – on the revelation that fire investigators act more like police looking for a firebug rather than investigators, sending innocent people to prison (and death). A couple of members had already mentioned that the library had been a fire trap, with crowded combustibles, faulty wiring, and ignored, redundant fire alarms. I think most of us agree that Harry Peak did not set the Los Angeles Central Library fire. Looking for a guilty party distracted from the library’s responsibility.

We discussed politicking, kicking out a woman director in favor of a man, Ray Bradbury educating himself in the library, Richard Wright’s story of being denied a library card,[ii] eccentric Lummis walking from Ohio to Los Angeles, the evolution of libraries, and the MGM Grand fire of 1980[iii].

I had been so inspired by the reviews[iv] at the library’s opening that my husband and I made a day trip to see the Los Angeles Public Library. It was amazing. We really don’t have anything like it in Las Vegas. The combination of art and architecture, the reverence for the building, its contents and its purpose is inspiring. I shared a video I found online to give visual support to the book’s description and my own enthusiasm.[v]RotundaChandelier

As I read the book, I was often disturbed by a bit of pretentiousness, the lack of footnotes, a lack of precision, and during our tour of the library, the docent mentioned that the book had some inaccuracies. But the stories in spots are like collections in libraries. And listening to our stories I feel fond and appreciative of the commitment to create something worthy of preservation.  For December, we are scheduled to read The Personal Librarian, so we may touch on some of these topics again. Please join us.

  • Other Works Discussed:
  • Black Boy (1945) Richard Wright
  • Desk Set (1957) Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy
  • The Public (2018) Emilio Estevez. This film was not actually discussed at our meeting, but it is an interesting film because it captures well how urban public librarians often see themselves.

[i]  Emily Bamforth and David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com. (2019, July 8). Cleveland had 15 Carnegie libraries: See them then and now. Cleveland. Retrieved September 14, 2022, from https://www.cleveland.com/news/g66l-2019/07/b1757ad91c2440/cleveland-had-15-carnegie-libraries-see-them-then-and-now-.html 

[ii] This story is NOT told in The Library Book. It happened it Georgia and is told in the autobiography of Richard Wright, Black Boy. This story is often told by librarians, but the impact is much more profound.

[iii] Javier worked at the MGM during this time. I am pasting a link to an LVRJ article in case you are interested.


[iv] The Library Book Page 91: “‘Like all creative art, it is disturbing: it leaves and impression that is satisfying yet mystifying. I follows no accepted order of architecture but through it strains of the Spanish, of the East, of the modern European, come and go like folk songs in a great symphony, rising to new and undreamt of heights in an order truly American in spirit.’ Another writer described the building as being ‘as frank and open and honest as the eye of a little child. It looks one in the face and knows no fear or shame. It has nothing to explain and need make no apologies.'”

[v] I am pasting three video tours that show slightly different perspectives. I showed the 10 minute one without sound. It had an ad in the middle that had to be skipped.


Lightning Strike Discussion Journal

I didn’t choose Lightning Strike, by William Kent Kreuger, for the name, but it’s August and we’re having monsoony weather for what seems like the first time in ages. Dark storm clouds break the monotony of the haze and glare that usually accompany our hundred-degree plus weather, with thunder and lightning sneaking into our afternoons and sometimes evenings. Although the air outside is also sticky and uncomfortable, breezes blow cooler and our conversations are charged. As we waited to start, I overheard discussion of a thousand people stranded in Death Valley by thousand-year floods.

Our reading and discussions are always impacted by time and place, as are the stories LightningStrikeCoverthemselves. Lightning Strike starts briefly in 1989 and then flashes back to 1963. Our first responder loved the book, the multicultural themes, the father-son relationship, and the nostalgia it evoked. As a gay man, he could also identify with the anger, conflict, and discrimination between the Ojibwe and the White townspeople. His partner had listened to the audiobook and been struck by the anger the narrator portrayed, highlighting one of the benefits of listening to a book.

Our next responder brought up how much he enjoyed the nostalgia from hearing about Route 66 and more, little brothers and sisters acting as the television remote. Someone commented on the shared experience of watching the same shows together because there was only one television and fewer choices. Another of us enjoyed following the boys around town. Many of our comments during the discussion brought back memories from our own experiences, especially childhood memories.

One of us came from Minnesota, so she appreciated the descriptions but was driven to investigate locations and names. She confirmed that there is no Tamarack County, but there are probably several Iron Lakes and she spent some time viewing videos of the Boundary Waters.

Although one of us was highly critical of Cork’s disobedience, especially sneaking out at night when he was specifically told not to investigate, another of us was envious of his freedom, remembering her childhood in Los Angeles, playing in empty lots and using clods of dirt and grass as toys.

One of the library’s young adult staff joined our meeting for the first time, although she has been reading along with us for several months. She read the book mostly in one sitting. Like most of us, she found it easy to read and was impressed by the multitude of themes the author covered. She identified with Cork because she had been curious and mischievous. She appreciated how the author shared the familial conflict as well as the mystery – every relationship mattered. The story was masterfully, even cinematically, told.

Some of us acknowledged that the first half of the book is slow, but the second half held us through the end. How can anyone be absolutely certain about anyone else’s behavior, particularly in assuming that only white people could commit heinous crimes?[i]  Still, we weren’t all certain that the anger of Liam’s family, his wife and mother-in-law, was believable. We felt that Liam’s integrity was being questioned more than necessary. Yes, he needed to open his mind but he also needed more recognition as an ally, especially from family and close friends. This part of our discussion highlights the importance of our reading diverse literature to help us understand varying viewpoints, to help us connect in reality as well as in fiction – and not just in anger.

One of us was interested in our responses to the spirituality in the novel. He is a Christian minister and has no difficulty believing in ghosts and miracles as presented. Another member noted that there are plenty of supernatural, miraculous stories in the Catholic bible. Two of us noted how common it is for people to feel the presence of those who have died for some time after they have passed. Still another shared how he had nearly drowned as a child and the sense of being saved had felt miraculous. He also felt the presence of something extraordinary while visiting the Basilica in Mexico City. So we discussed how much of our belief is perception. Some of us were less convinced, even critical of the supernatural in the novel, yet another member felt that the spirituality lends gravitas. She said you can’t have a story about Native Americans without it and it reminds us to be open minded.

We met in the Teen Zone, which is a softer, closer environment than our sterile conference room. As always, we discussed more than I covered here and I am sure less than we could have.[ii] The author has seventeen more books that expand on the life of our young hero, Cork, so we can keep going if we want! One of the discussion questions asks if there are any places in our city with spiritual significance similar to Lightning Strike, where Big John is found murdered. Our first responder called out Valley of Fire, a place he takes all visitors. None of us added any other location, but I wonder, now that we have discussed this and upon reflection, if any of us have considered another? I know that I have a sudden desire to make a visit to Valley of Fire.

[i] “Although the exact number of victimizations per person is unknown, it is clear that most American Indian and Alaska Native victims have experienced at least one act of violence committed by an interracial perpetrator (97 percent of women and 90 percent of men). Fewer victims (35 percent of women and 33 percent of men) have experienced one or more acts of violence by an American Indian or Alaska Native perpetrator.”

U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs National … (n.d.). Retrieved August 11, 2022, from https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/249815.pdf 

[ii] I played a clip from a video so that we could hear the Ojibwe language spoken. I also showed a short clip introducing the significance of the language and I recommend an interview with the author in his hometown that shows his great admiration for his father.

The Night Watchman Discussion Journal

I am not exactly sure why, but we didn’t delve too deeply into Louise Erdrich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Night Watchman. The mood in the room was friendly and fond, with seven of us spread around the large table. Our first responder said the book reminded her of Jim Fergus’s One Thousand White Women, which is an engaging novel that imagines the attempt to assimilate Native Americans through a brides for Indians program.[i]  Another of us was moved by the idea of the bear, found by accident and killed while hibernating. This brought in Patrice’s family’s gamey diet, potentially necessitated by poverty as much as by culture, as well as the frequent mention of Bannock bread, itself an import from Scotland. Still another member was struck by the idea that their ancestors had placed the dead in trees so that they would be “eaten by crows and vultures instead of worms. Your body went flying over the earth instead of being distributed to the tiny creatures living under the earth” (page 321).

Two members kept notes!

One of us mentioned the trouble keeping up with all the characters and the jumping between viewpoints. Multiple views of sex stood out, including that of two horses in heat. We did not discuss in detail the relevance of these multiple sexual experiences, from the horror of Vera’s abuse to Patrice’s sexual awakening. We were glad that Erdrich did not describe the horror with the graphic detail some authors use, and we appreciated the humor, too, such as when one of the Mormon missionaries opened the backseat door of a car and Norbert went shooting outside: “He skidded off her body and flailed his way belly down onto the slick road” (383). Most of us did not relate to the mystical experiences. Could they have been drug induced? Why would the author include in her bio that “a ghost lives in her creaky old house?”[ii] We liked many elements of the story, though—good character development, strong women, good follow-up detail from the author, and we were especially impressed with Thomas (working nights, days, and writing all those letters!). We were fairly skeptical that Patrice could have survived the trip to Minneapolis, not believing Jack would have driven her around and acquiesced to her many demands.

But we learned a lot about a different culture. We noticed how these same issues are in the news today. From Supreme Court decisions to a recent Las Vegas Review Journal Article about “Indian Boarding Schools’ Legacy: ‘Pain,’ ‘Hell.’”[iii] We asked, what do you use a jeweled bearing for? Apparently, they are used when low friction, non-magnetic materials are required, such as in watches. I also shared information I learned about senator Arthur Watkins, whose New York Times biography did not even mention his involvement in the Indian Termination policy while the entry in the Encyclopedia of the American Indian that indicated “Watkins agreed to step in as the much-needed hatchet man against Senator McCarthy only on the condition that the president would support the CRSP, which was passed in 1956.”[iv] Erdrich noted that in 1970, Richard Nixon called for an end to “the long messy nightmare of termination” (page 448).We also got side-tracked onto a discussion of postal service changes! All in 45 minutes, because we also discussed upcoming library programs and our next book, which I chose to introduce us to a series character by William Kent Kreuger, only to find that “a significant element of this story involves the Indian Relocation act of 1956.”[v]It’s a small world after all. 

[i] I have found no indication that the brides for Indians proposal was ever made or taken seriously if so, but the story is not only captivating, it does capture the very real conflict of resettling Native Americans that continues to this day.

[ii] The bio I included with the discussion questions came from the author’s publisher, Harper Collins Publishers, (https://www.harpercollins.com/blogs/authors/louise-erdrich). The statement about the ghost is not included in the book. 

[iii] The article I saw was in the LVRJ, including a picture of “U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary in U.S. history.” Murphy, S. (2022, July 11). Indian boarding schools’ legacy: ‘Pain,’ ‘hell”. Las Vegas Review Journal, p. 2A. The full article can be found online: https://lasvegassun.com/news/2022/jul/09/tribal-elders-recall-painful-boarding-school-memor/

[iv] The CRSP stands for the Colorado River Storage Project. I accessed this article through the lvccld.org website.

Ewen, Alexander, and Jeffrey Wollock. “Watkins, Arthur Vivian.” Encyclopedia of the American Indian in the Twentieth Century, Alexander Ewen, Facts On File, 1st edition, 2014. Credo Reference, https://lvccld.idm.oclc.org/login? url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/fofindian/watkins_arthur_vivian/0? institutionId=1492. Accessed 04 Jul. 2022. 

[v] Krueger, W. K. (2021). Author’s Note. In Lightning strike. Thorndike Press, a part of Gale, a Cengage Company. 

Harlem Shuffle Discussion Journal

Few copies of Harlem Shuffle checked out this month, so I didn’t expect a large turnout for our meeting. Out of five readers, two had been too disinterested to finish, one finished despite her dislike, one of us found it entertaining, and I was awed by it. Because of how much trouble I encountered reading initially, I started the discussion to acknowledge both the difficulty and my overwhelming admiration of Colson Whitehead’s skill.Screen Shot 2022-04-16 at 10.39.21 AM

When I first started reading Harlem Shuffle, I found myself re-reading passages multiple times. I couldn’t quite understand why. The sentences were neither convoluted nor obscure, just unusual, and at the end of the day, I was likely to fall asleep or get distracted! I stuck it out, skimming much of the second half only because I waited too close to our meeting–otherwise, I would have savored the prose, the descriptive analogies, the historical references, the ideology. I did not identify with the world these characters live in, I have never been to New York, but unlike our previous selection, Fates and Furies, I found the story believable and, after the first section, compelling.

Our next responder didn’t finish the book, but she appreciated the glimpse of a different culture and its morals. She looked up some of the online reviews and found that many of the negative comments came from readers who recommended Colson Whitehead’s two Pulitzer Prize winning novels, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys. Another of us disagreed with the many descriptions of the novel as “hilarious.” She found it realistic and sad. Our one male reader thought it was easy to read because you didn’t know what was coming next. So, I asked the classic question: “But did you find it entertaining?” He did! He was particularly interested in why Carney, believing his wife would leave him if she knew about his criminal activities, would have continued to take such risks.

How different is our perspective of the world when we are comfortable calling the police for help versus paying them bribes? How many of us can imagine what it would be like to need to leave an extra hour before an interview, just in case we were stopped by police? One member shared how she had once been terrified by a gunshot and called the police–who never arrived. When she went to the police station to inquire why, they explained that the address was marked do not respond because of previous repeated domestic abuse calls. I was encouraged to visit New York by one member and warned that New York City was crowded and dirty by another. The paradox reminds me of the author’s description of “the wall of Riverside Drive, that jagged line of majestic red brick and white limestone. The perimeter of a fort, to protect the good citizens of Harlem. Wrong again—a cage to keep the mad crowd who called those streets home from escaping to the rest of the world.”

This led to a discussion of both plot and reality. Did everything work out in the end? Yes, sort of. Carney is still in business, still married, considering a move to a new street, and finally landed that new furniture line he wanted. Was Carney’s wife really ignorant of his crooked bent? Could any of them survive without being a little crooked? The book was broken into three sections: the heist, revenge, carrying on. And what about Pepper, the enforcer, asking for a recliner and lamp as payment for his participation? What business other than furniture could have allowed such realistic success, survival, and symbolism? Clothing? One of us thought the book sounded so interesting she almost wished she could finish it!

The historical details were amazing–cultural references to movies, places, and streets that could provide endless discussion, as well as insight into the 1943 and 1964 riots[i], the 1964 New York World’s Fair[ii], and “the forgotten medieval habit of ‘two sleeps[iii].’” I was particularly impressed by the author’s language and read a few passages aloud.[iv] Once he described the descent into drugs as if it were living on a submarine. I finished the book, reading for the resolution of plot, stopping to wonder over passages, but still missing much, I am sure. We have read such a variety of books these last months. I appreciate the opportunity to share them with you!

[i] Carney describes his father stealing pants in the 1943 riots as he experiences the 1964 race riots. There are many sources online, and the references are so eerily familiar to today. Kids.britannica.com:  “When the rioting died down and peace had been restored, 1 person was dead, more than 100 had been injured and more than 450 had been arrested.”  Web accessed 6/12/2022:   https://kids.britannica.com/students/article/Harlem-race-riot-of-1964/633302

[ii] “Twenty Awesome Things People Saw at the 1964 World’s Fair.”  https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/56322/20-awesome-things-people-saw-1964-worlds-fair

[iii] “The Forgotten Medieval Habit of ‘Two Sleeps.’” https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20220107-the-lost-medieval-habit-of-biphasic-sleep

[iv] Whitehead, C. (2021). Harlem Shuffle. Doubleday Books. Here are just a few shorter ones.:

“Everyone had secret corners and alleys that no one else saw—what mattered were your major streets and boulevards, the stuff that showed up on other people’s maps of you.” Page 31.

“It had been a crowbar-shaped disappointment.” Page 76.

“Carney’s companion had his face zipped up in contentment.” Page 85.

“Each time he got out he returned to the streets with renewed dedication, chasing criminal renown the way musicians pursued Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.” Page 129.

“The city took everything into its clutches and sent it every which way. Maybe you had a say in what direction, and maybe you didn’t.” Page 131.

“The staff decided when you were a regular, not you.” Page 132.

“Like an illustration in a National Geographic story about the global weather, showing the invisible jet streams and deep-fathom currents that determine the personality of the world.” Page 154.

“Over the decades the street side of the apartment had settled in a slant, but her room was level.” Page 159.

“The little man was the white system hidden behind a black mask. Humiliation was his currency, but tonight Miss Laura had picked his pocket.” Page 197.

“One generation’s immaculate townhouses were the next’s shooting galleries, slum blocks testified in a chorus of neglect, and businesses sat ravaged and demolished after nights of violent protest.” Page 212.

“One thing I’ve learned in my job is that life is cheap, and when things start getting expensive, it gets cheaper still.” Page 244.

“Gnaw on disappointment long enough and it will lose all flavor.” Page 269.

“It was Wednesday night, family supper, both sides of him at the table, the straight and the crooked, breaking bread.” Page 283


Mexican Gothic Discussion Journal

We read Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s 2020 novel, Mexican Gothic, to challenge our group with genre fiction and to give us a Mexican perspective from a Hispanic author. “She has an MA in Science and Technology Studies from the University of British Columbia. Her thesis … is titled  ‘Magna Mater: Women and Eugenic Thought in the Work of H.P. Lovecraft.’”[i]

Our first responder said it certainly was “different.” Not bad, not unlikeable. Way too MexicanGothicdetailed. Another member found that it started out believable, but then it became too wild, reminding her of a B-Flick horror film. Fun to read, though different. One of us was listening to the audio book and only got part way through, uncertain about whether she wanted to finish it. We should have asked her how the narration held up – did that make a difference in why she might not be interested? She hadn’t yet gotten to the really creepy sequences! Still another member had been afraid that it might have won some awards.[ii] He often couldn’t tell whether the narrator was dreaming and it was comforting to get back to people and reality.

We liked Francis. We liked how Noemi stands up for herself. She stayed resolved. The setting was cold, gloomy, moldy. One of us wondered if Catalina took too much of the tonic because she wanted to kill herself – or was it just an accident? Was Virgil or Francis the actual intended vessel for Howard Doyle? We discussed only slightly the fairytale connections, gothic romance conventions, and eugenics.

One of us has been to Mexico City and found the setting highly relatable. He recognized people and places the author mentions, such as Katy Jurado, known in the United States for her performance in the film, High Noon. He was not surprised that author Silvia Moreno-Garcia says that she is “Mexican by birth, Canadian by inclination.” He said that in Mexico, people with money send their children to school in Canada or Boston. He reminded us that Mexico is a melting pot of cultures. He shared information that I can’t quite explain here. Sometimes you just have to be there!

I was particularly impressed by the author’s knowledge of fungus, of the history of the gothic genre, and her accuracy regarding period details. The kindle version offered a book club guide that included an interview in which the author discusses more, including that the villain’s name, Howard Doyle, came from Howard (H.P.) Lovecraft and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Another tidbit:  “Hysteria wasn’t declassified as a mental health disorder by the American Psychiatric Association until the 1950s.”[iii] I definitely recommend looking up some interviews with the author, as well as some of the amazing places she mentions:

  • Parque Nacional Desierto de los Leones (National Park near Mexico City)[iv]
  • Las Pozas (Surrealistic garden created by Edward James)[v]
  • Real de Monte (the town and cemetery that inspired the story)[vi]

One of us wore a colorful shirt with Día de los Muertos skulls and we added tamarind fruit ice bars and conchas to our snacks to mix things up. We talked about how the Anniversary of the Battle of Puebla (Cinco de Mayo) is celebrated more in the United States than in Mexico.

I believe everyone agreed that Mexican Gothic is a worthwhile read. It is difficult to recommend without a caveat – it will get creepy. Sometimes our expectations can make or break the experience.

  • Other works discussed:
  • American Dirt (2020) Jeanine Cummins
  • Encanto (2021) Film – Academy Award for best Animated Feature
  • Frankenstein (1818) Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
  • Fruit of the Drunken Tree (2019) Ingrid Rojas Contreras
  • High Noon (1952) Film
  • Jane the Virgin (2014) Television Series
  • Poetry by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
  • Rebecca (1938) by Daphne Du Maurier
  • Three’s Company (1976-1984) Television Series used to learn English
  • Books by Ken Follett
  • The Boys in the Boat (2013) by Daniel James Brown
  • Caravans (1963) by James Michener

General recommendations discussed at the meeting!

Books by Ken Follett

Robert Mitchum’s Caravans

[i] https://silviamoreno-garcia.com/about-2020/

[ii] It has won mostly genre awards: “Horror novel prize, Locus Awards, August Derleth Award for best horror novel, British Fantasy Awards, and best novel prize, Aurora Awards, all 2021, all for Mexican Gothic.” “Silvia Moreno-Garcia.” Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2021. Gale Literature Resource Center, link.gale.com/apps/doc/H1000316141/GLS?u=lvccld_main&sid=bookmark-GLS&xid=0c0ea765. Accessed 12 May 2022.

[iii] I have not found this interview anywhere other than the kindle version of Mexcian Gothic, which references a Book Club Guide copyright © 2021, although this book club kit from Random House does NOT include it. http://www.randomhousebooks.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Mexican-Gothic.pdf

[iv] “A short, hour drive west from Mexico City takes you to the fresh air and the dense pine and oak forests of Desierto de los Leones, Mexico’s first national park.” https://www.planeta.com/desierto-de-los-leones/

[v] “Las Pozas (“the Pools”) is a surrealistic group of structures created by Edward James, more than 2,000 feet (610 m) above sea level, in a subtropical rainforest in the Sierra Gorda mountains of Mexico. It includes more than 80 acres (32 ha) of natural waterfalls and pools interlaced with towering surrealist sculptures in concrete . . . . Las Pozas is near the village of Xilitla, San Luis Potosí, a seven-hour drive north of Mexico City.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Las_Pozas

[vi] The author talks about this town in the book club kit referenced above, but if you just do an image search of Real del Monte Mexico you’ll see some inspiring pictures. If you add the word cemetery to your search, you’ll get a feeling for the High Place cemetery in the novel.

Anxious People Discussion Journal

I started the meeting this month with a little background information about Anxious People author Fredrik Backman. Not the usual background. On his professional Facebook page, he wrote that he is “really bad at meetings.” “I either talk too little or talk too much and eat all the snacks and I get into too many fights because I’m apparently ‘too emotional’ and ‘take everything personal’ and a couple of other things.”[i] And in an interview with Publishers Weekly, he acknowledged his personal history with counseling for anxiety, that he was shot in the leg during a robbery, and that he came up with the idea for Anxious People because he and his wife had been house hunting.[ii]AnxiousPeople

I asked if people had been aware that they were reading a story that was imagined outside the USA and translated from Swedish. Most of us had not considered that it was in translation. We discussed the difficulty of translation and how you can know what is lost? One of us has read Gabriel García Márquez’s work in Spanish and wondered how the poetry could ever be captured. Yet many translated classics are still beautiful to us. Did the Anxious People translator Neil Smith anglicize any of the situations as well as the words?[iii]

Our first responder had noticed the varied meanings and humorous use of Stockholm and Stockholmers. We enjoyed the book, although most found it confusing initially.  Really, who talks to the police the way these hostages did! Another of us had even gone back to re-read and take notes so that she could keep things straight! Three readers listened to the audiobook and found it well done and enjoyable. Some of us had watched at least a few episodes of the Swedish television series on Netflix (dubbed), but we had mixed reviews.

One member had discussed Anxious People with another book club in which someone noted that Zara had signs of Asperger syndrome. In his youth, he had known a wealthy woman much like Zara. We considered why Zara would not open the letter – because she feared it would make her responsibility for the man’s suicide real and permanent. Instead, she lived for ten years with the guilt. We believe “It’s not your fault” was the perfect observation.

The non-linear storytelling and wisecracking tone could not hide the sometimes heart-wrenching impact of suicide, anxiety, and fear of failure, especially for parents. As with our previous selection, All Adults Here, we found humor in the accuracy of some of the situations and one of us noted that loneliness is a societal problem – not just in romantic relationships. People need places to go and things to do and chances to interact with others. We accepted and were pleased that the author tied all the characters together.

Who was our favorite character? Most of us couldn’t choose! The most remarkable answer was not an active participant in the story:  Knut, Estelle’s husband. We got to know him through her memories. As I write this, I am moved to think how people live on and leave a mark they may never realize.

We did not discuss as much as I would have expected about the twists and unexpected characterizations such as a female bank robber, Roger the stay-at-home dad, and the other “worst hostages ever!” After an hour, we could have kept going. Reading and discussing are just the start. Will we ‘read’ a situation or person with more empathy and understanding now? Like Knut, does the impact of what we read rise in our memories and in our future discussions? I certainly hope so.

  • Other Works Discussed:
  • Thirteen Reasons Why (2007) by Jay Asher
  • A Man Called Ove (2012) Fredrik Backman
  • A Man Called Ove (2015) Swedish film based on the book
  • A Man Called Otto (2022) forthcoming film starring Tom Hanks

[i] December 28th entry, web accessed 4-10-2022:   https://www.facebook.com/Backmanland

[ii] Doll, J. (2020, July 3). Fredrik Backman steals from himself. PublishersWeekly.com. Retrieved April 10, 2022, from https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/profiles/article/83761-people-are-strange.html

[iii] Just in case you’re interested, I discovered that translator Neil Smith is Canadian. Here is an interview:  Admin. (2020, November 27). Book translation: An insider’s perspective. Dead Good. Retrieved April 14, 2022, from https://www.deadgoodbooks.co.uk/book-translation-an-insiders-perspective/  Publication date listed on article is November 28, 2012