About Kristine

I am the current moderator of the Whitney Library Book Club

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 detailed. 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

All Adults Here Discussion Journal

All Adults Here by Emma Straub is a novel about communication – about how we think we know how people are and what they intend when we interact with them. But do we really? As I read, without any religious interpretation (just to be clear—I hope), I kept thinking about the phrase, “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” And, can we even really know what an author intends, and does that matter if the reader understands something different?

There were nine of us at the meeting, three who had not finished the book, and we started the discussion AllAdultsHereCoverby talking about misandry. [i]  I was fascinated when I read an interview in which Emma Straub is quoted as suggesting that her novel “may be ‘slightly misandrist, because that’s how I was feeling when I was writing it, that men are the problem.’”[ii] Before I read All Adults Here, I never knew there was a word for the hatred of men.

Most of us were not fans of the book. All of the characters had problems – so many that it was hard to relate and not that interesting. One member felt reading it was a total waste of time, but she did like Cecilia. Rachel was also a nice surprise as Porter’s pregnant long-time friend and Cecilia’s teacher. Another member considered that the author seemed to be covering one social norm after another, but she liked that Astrid apologized for asking Elliot to hide his possible homosexuality. Still another of us felt that Astrid was brave and had improved and softened. When we read Astrid’s perspective, she certainly didn’t seem to be the hard-edged mother her children believed her to be.

We talked about birth order, and nature versus nurture, but we didn’t really come to any conclusions.  One member said that of five boys in his family, three were homosexual, one older, one younger, and one in the middle. He particularly appreciated the sibling relationship. Although he had not yet finished the book, he found it to be as humorous as the reviews indicated, primarily because he could identify with things that happened and knew them to be true, such as Astrid’s reaction to hearing that her son had been seen kissing another boy and her declaration that she was not a lesbian—she was bisexual.  This member said he has known women to consider themselves heterosexual but find that they fall in love with one particular woman. This made us consider what makes us horrified, such as at the twins’ monstrous behavior or Cecelia’s bloody-babysitting adventure, versus finding it humorous.

The characters were definitely privileged. One of us grew up in the Hudson Valley setting and found it accurate. We discussed generational changes – hair washed and set weekly and shoes shined versus today’s torn jeans and bald-shaved heads. We thought Robin’s coming out on the parade, although exemplary, happened too easily.  Several of us considered Barbara’s viewpoint at the end to be unnecessary, making it remarkable, almost pointed, that she left out Jeremy’s, Sydney’s, Juliette’s, or Robin’s parents’ views. I suppose that is how it always is—the author’s views!

Mostly, we were disappointed not to know what Elliot decided to do with the property on the town square. I suppose we need to leave something to the imagination!

  • Other works discussed:
  • This Is How It Always Is (2018) by Laurie Frankel

[i] “hatred, dislike, or mistrust of men” Web accessed 3-9-2022: https://www.dictionary.com/browse/misandry

[ii] Lipman, J. (2020, September 2). “It feels like sometimes you’re living on Mars”. Thejc.com. Retrieved March 10, 2022, from https://www.thejc.com/culture/interviews/it-feels-like-sometimes-you-re-living-on-mars-1.506113

Where the Crawdads Sing Discussion Journal

According to author Delia Owens’ website, Where the Crawdads Sing (2018) spent two and a half years on the New York Times Best Sellers’ List, was number one on the list for more than a year, and will soon be a major motion picture.[i] Even today, our library district owns 32 copies of the hardback book and 22 are checked out! We own 11 e-book copies and 69 people are on hold to read as they become available. People have been mentioning it to me for years and I was excited to have enough copies to select it for our book club.WhereTheCrawdadSingsCover (2)

Reading it now, though, as opposed to three years ago, is bound to be a different experience. How are we influenced by time and hype and expectation? The discussion in general was easy but not gushing. Our first responder had read the book previously, loved it, and enjoyed it even more the second time. Our next quoted not observations of the marsh but of the natural human world – “But these hurried groping hands were only a taking, not a sharing or giving.”[ii] I was surprised that even among those of us who enjoyed the book, the descriptions and language so often mentioned to me at the library were not our focus. We focused on plot and character details. Kya seemed too sweet. What was Chase’s interest in Kya? How could she really survive all alone in the world? We were glad that there was not the expected backlash against Kya’s escape from justice, perhaps because of the town’s guilt for abandoning her. Why hadn’t her grandparents looked for her?

We had one kindergarten teacher and two retired teachers in our midst, so we discussed the current education system. How could the school have placed Kya in second grade and asked her to read on her first day in school. Even today (maybe even especially today) students don’t go to school and those who do bully other kids.  What can we really do? One of us emphasized how we bring our own experiences to what we read. He shared how he came to the United States from Mexico and was put in third grade. He could not speak English. He was bullied and he hit back, only to be taken to the principal’s office, unable to defend himself because he couldn’t communicate.

We wondered about the difference between the urban and rural settings. The storyline started in 1952 in North Carolina. I have since looked up the 1950 population of Clark County to help with our comparison:  48,289.[iii]  I read a comment from an absent member, a marine biologist, who wrote: “One thing I don’t think this book mentioned about the marsh is the smell; it’s often full of the rotten egg sulfur smell and I imagine that can’t quite be captured in words, especially if the author was trying to paint the marsh in an almost idyllic light.”[iv] I recommended an interesting perspective in the review, “Where the Crawdads Sing – are the rural poor noble savages?” [v]

Only one of us had been surprised to find that Kya was the murderer and we had some fun wondering why there couldn’t have been two identical shell necklaces. How would she have been able to find the costumes and the time to commit the murder? She wouldn’t have talked with Tate about it because some things are just better left unsaid! It is an underdog story and everybody loves an underdog!

A visitor had come to hear our discussion specifically because she had been disappointed and wondered what other readers might say to give her new perspective on why it was so popular. She wanted to love it, loved the nature and poetry, but she found it long-winded and predictable. I doubt she found her answer in our meeting. Another member had been unable to stay interested and didn’t finish reading, but she joined our discussion anyway. Where the Crawdads Sing has 1,582,532 ratings on goodreads.com.[vi] We don’t usually rate our books, but we have now joined the discussion!

  • OTHER WORKS DISCUSSED
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) film starring Quvenzhané Wallis
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) by Scott O’Dell
  • The Old Gringo (1985) Carlos Fuentes
  • The Old Gringo (1989) film starring Jimmy Smits, Gregory Peck, James Fonda

[i] https://www.deliaowens.com

[ii] Page 162 (according to the Kindle version of Where the Crawdads Sing)

[iii] https://lasvegassun.com/history/timeline/

[iv] Please see the comments for the entire response from KR, who was unable to attend the meeting.

[v] “Separated from nature, guilty about their excesses, the privileged transform the rural poor into ‘noble savages’, innocent and pure.”  https://artsfuse.org/181345/book-review-where-the-crawdads-sing-are-the-rural-poor-noble-savages/

[vi] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36809135-where-the-crawdads-sing

To Kill A Mockingbird Discussion Journal

In 2018, PBS aired The Great American Read, an eight-part television series in which they showcased 100 well-loved books and allowed viewers to vote on their favorite.  The winner?  To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.[i] To Kill a Mockingbird has been required reading for many since its publication in 1960  but also made the American Library Association’s Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2020 list: “Banned and challenged for racial slurs and their negative effect on students, featuring a “white savior” character, and its perception of the Black experience.”[ii] I also found an article in the National Review in which author Daniel Buck wrote: “Every year, even my most begrudging students glue their eyes to the book and actively engage in conversations about its content. The week before summer, I ask my students to rank every book we’ve read throughout the year, a mix of classics and young-adult fiction; To Kill a Mockingbird has won every year. The novel remains gripping and relevant, and my students notice. Perhaps, instead of banning it, we should all reread it.”[iii]

So, we re-read it. And what did we think?ToKillAMockingbird

Our first responder liked it and noted how rich the writing is. Another reader enjoyed it, especially since she previously saw the stage play, but she found a lot more information in the book than she remembered. An audiobook reader was brought back to her own memories of growing up in Los Angeles, playing in vacant lots that are probably no longer vacant. Sissy Spacek’s narration is perfect for Scout. Our reader particularly noted Lee’s use of a famous line by President Roosevelt, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” as an example of how she smoothly set the time and place.

I think we all agreed that it is a beautiful book, but should it still be required reading? One of us asked a friend who is a high school English teacher. The teacher said that they use excerpts from the book, but they do not require students to read the entire book. Not only can the language be offensive to some black students, as mentioned by another member, but the teacher wants students to read authors that reflect her students’ ethnicities and experiences. One of us felt that youth today are extremely mature, with DVDs and video games, and they need to learn about our history. He believes we need to face the ugliness of our past. This led us into a discussion about kids’ understanding of what they read, their understanding of the subtleties of the historic use of a racial slur. Another member mentioned how terribly influenced we are by our literature. How seeing black-skinned people beating their chests in Tarzan misled many to believe that black people weren’t smart or civilized. Hollywood has been responsible for so many stereotypes, such as that of cowboys and Indians.

Back to the book, one of us was disturbed re-reading the book and the description of the trial in which the black people in the upper gallery stood to honor Atticus when they should have been angry at the unjust verdict. He is glad that we now have more role models for people of color. And what of Boo Radley? One of us isn’t sure he is believable. Another read that he could have been autistic. The prank that children played moving furniture reminded two of us that they used to have pranks on the night before Halloween – one of them called it Beggars Night and the other knew it as Cabbage Night. We all agreed that we did not consider the Finches poor, even though Atticus answered Scout that yes, they were poor. The sense of segregation was actually greater, but in the end, To Kill a Mockingbird is black and white. Lee had to simplify to make a point, during a time when it was much needed.

Now, there are issues more relevant to today and books and authors whose stories and perspectives are more necessary. Previously, we read Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child, which, among other things, is a brilliantly insightful exploration of the effects of childhood experiences on the adult. And An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, in which a black man is unjustly convicted of raping a woman, told through the perspective of him and his wife. Or Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, in which a young girl tells the story of her experiences during the turbulent 1990s in Colombia. I don’t think any of us question the value and beauty in To Kill a Mockingbird, but there are so many books . . . Sixty years from now, what will be our best-loved novel?

Near the end of To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus comments on Tom Robinson’s escape attempt: “I guess Tom was tired of white men’s chances and preferred to take his own.” So, at the end of our meeting, I showed a three-minute video from PBS’s “Brief But Spectacular” segment featuring attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson.[iv] If you didn’t see it, I recommend you check it out!

As usual, I am paraphrasing and am not reporting word for word. We always talk about more, and sometimes less, than I include here. I hope that I am capturing the essence of this very important discussion, but I appreciate any corrections and clarifications! Join the discussion. It matters.

  • Other works discussed:
  • An American Marriage (2018) by Tayari Jones
  • The Children of Sanchez: Autobiography of A Mexican Family (1961) by Oscar Lewis
  • Fruit of the Drunken Tree (2018) by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
  • God Help the Child (2015) by Toni Morrison
  • If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) by James Baldwin
  • Just Mercy (2014 Book and 2019 film)

[i] Public Broadcasting Service. (2018, May 22). Show. PBS. Retrieved January 13, 2022, from https://www.pbs.org/the-great-american-read/about/show/

[ii] Gomez, B. (2021, April 5). ALA Unveils Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020. Banned books week. Retrieved January 13, 2022, from https://bannedbooksweek.org/ala-unveils-top-10-most-challenged-books-of-2020/

[iii] Buck, D. (2021, January 10). The necessity of to kill a mockingbird. National Review. Retrieved January 13, 2022, from https://www.nationalreview.com/2021/01/the-necessity-of-to-kill-a-mockingbird/

[iv] Public Broadcasting Service. (2017, April 14). Bryan Stevenson, equal justice initiative. PBS. Retrieved January 13, 2022, from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/brief/212675/bryan-stevenson

The World That We Knew Discussion Journal

Winter weather hit with a cloudburst before our meeting. It was wonderful and much needed! I certainly appreciate that six readers braved the wet streets, chilly, drippy air, and the library’s full parking lot to join our discussion! We actually met in our cozier Teen Zone, with round tables, carpet, and softer lighting.

I chose Alice Hoffman’s The World That We Knew because it is offered as a kit, which makes getting the books easy, but also because December is a month so filled with Christmas décor and messages, I was happy to have the opportunity to choose a Jewish author and subject, even though I was hesitant to read a book about World War II and the holocaust.WorldThatWeKnewCover (2)

Our first responder liked the book and although she has read a lot about the time period, she felt the author’s descriptions really helped her better understand the experience. A new member mentioned that the magical elements soften the reality of the horror. She had researched the author and been interested to learn that Hoffman was brought back to her Jewish faith by her children. She was particularly moved by the line, “If you are loved, you never lose the person who loved you. You carry them with you all your life.” (p.221)

One of our members dislikes fantasy in fiction, but if you removed the fantastical elements, he appreciated the story and the obviously well-researched details, especially the description of the Vélodrome d’Hiver roundup, which “was the largest French deportation of Jews during the Holocaust. It took place in Paris on July 16–17, 1942.”[i] He thought the book was easy to read and he drew our attention to the author’s acknowledgements, which had been missed by some of us.

Another reader thinks the book is a cautionary tale. This book is black and white—the good characters are good, the bad characters are evil.  In real life and some fiction, it is not so easy. Can we ever really know what we would do? The wealthy families forced from their homes, fighting or not – could be here. The author’s description is simple but chilling: “shoes littered the streets, left behind by those who had struggled.” One of us was reminded about how when you are younger, you can take more risks, considering that if you fall, you can get back up. As you get older, you have to be more careful. We even discussed how much money is needed for happiness. $75,000? We definitely connected with the book in varied ways, mentioning past and present persecutions and the pandemic. One of us recommends the Museum of Intolerance in L.A.

We did discuss more particulars about the book. Ava, the golem, has superpowers that enable Leah and Julien to survive. How might the story have been different had Ava been human? The Heron was symbolic, more than just a bird. Perhaps because people are more than they appear also? More than Jewish? German? French? Ettie could not get past the guilt she felt over the murder of her sister. What if Leah had killed Ava as she had been instructed? In a way, Ava the golem did die; she became human. I was devastated by the death of the heron. I had hoped that Ava would get to become a heron. One of us shared that she sobbed at the end of the book but still found the ending to be uplifting. She thinks the beauty stands out in greater relief because of the tragedy. When we discussed the meaning of the title, we considered three worlds – the past, the present, and the future.

We talked quite a bit about other books and movies.  The tragedy that the United States turned away refugees from the holocaust, shown in the film Voyage of the Damned.  The Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende, which follows refugees from Franco’s Spain to Chile on a ship requisitioned by poet Pablo Neruda. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. Elie Wiesel’s Night has always been a standard for me in showing how one of the greatest horrors of the holocaust was in taking away people’s humanity, not just their lives; but another of us has always been inspired by how the author found meaning in life after such experiences.

At the end of the meeting, someone asked, “What makes you smile in a typical day?” Children. Pets. Nature. I hope you can all find reasons to smile today and every day.

  • Works discussed:
  • Voyage of the Damned (1939 Film)
  • House of the Spirits (1985)by Isabel Allende
  • Long Petal of the Sea (2020) by Isabel Allende
  • Miracle at St. Anna (2002) by James McBride
  • Night (1960) by Elie Wiesel
  • The Reader (1995) by Bernhard Schlink
  • The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018) by Heather Morris
  • Voyage of the Damned (1939 Film)
  • Recommended by a member for those who liked our previous selection Nothing to See Here. The book is different but interesting:  Perfect Little World, also by Kevin Wilson.

[i] Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Web accessed 12-15-2021: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/the-velodrome-dhiver-vel-dhiv-roundup

Nothing to See Here Discussion Journal

Near the end of our discussion of Nothing to See Here, by Kevin Wilson, I asked our group what they thought the book was about—besides, of course, children who spontaneously combust when agitated. Our answers: parental love, the families we choose, acceptance, loyalty. The fire is the most remarkable at first glance, but as we also discussed, is it really when compared to the many possible disorders and problems that can so overwhelm families and caregivers? We considered whether the title referred to the secret to be kept and hidden or the fact that fire power was really not so remarkable after all.NothingToSeeHere

Several members commented that the foul language in the book had initially been off-putting, but as they read on they were won over. Someone mentioned that after a while the language seemed natural and fitting rather than shocking. A few of us apparently hadn’t noticed. Overall, we agreed that the book was easy to read and well written. One of our group even liked the book enough to read it in just a few days and had then started the author’s first novel, The Family Fang. Another reader, who couldn’t attend the meeting, was moved enough to write a detailed response that included an interesting comparison of Lillian to Mary Poppins.

One member did not find entirely believable Lillian’s ability to respond so well to being bitten by Bessie. Another, a teacher who has been kicked and hit and abused by young children, shared that when you know that you will have to come back and deal with the same children day after day, you must be able to forgive and move on. We touched on Lillian’s inexperience with good parenting and how helping these children, even allowing them to sleep in the same bed with her, was something she needed as much as did the children.

Our discussion was thoughtful. We considered the role of wealth in parenting and one of us thought that perhaps the fire was necessary because it couldn’t be so easily hidden or solved with money. How tragic that the children’s abandoned mother, overwhelmed and alone in trying to care for her children, killed herself and tried to kill her children. How horrible is their father, Jasper. We touched on many things, including the beauty of Tennessee, Cedars of Lebanon State Park, the Tennessee Walking horse, Graceland, Dolly Parton, stone soup, and the origin of the phrase Son of a Gun!

We ended the meeting slightly early, with mini Moon Pies and sweet iced tea to go—trying to keep that Southern, Tennessee connection.

  • Other works discussed:
  • The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898)
  • The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware (2019)
  • The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson (2011)

Nothing to See Here Discussion Journal

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup Discussion Journal

When I chose Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup for our October discussion, I had no idea that the company’s founder, Elizabeth Holmes, was on trial starting in September – postponed first by the Pandemic and then by her pregnancy. Our first responder, who also recommended the book, had become aware of the story when she listened to an ABC News podcast called Dropout that originally aired in 2019 and has recently restarted with new episodes covering the Elizabeth Holmes’ trial.[i]

Our discussion was animated, everyone participated, and the majority of us had been unaware of a scandal that was the downfall of a woman who made Time Magazine’s April 2015 list of the “100 Most Influential People in the World,” as well as the cover of multiple magazines, including FortuneForbesINC., and the New York Times Style Magazine.[ii] For me, at least, the book led to a rabbit hole of research! In addition to the podcast, there is also an HBO documentary, Inventor: out for blood in Silicon Valley, and I showed the trailer to share images of the characters and issues mentioned in John Carreyrou’s book.

BadBlood

As members glanced at articles printed from the Wall Street Journal about the trial, we started with the question of whether or not Elizabeth Holmes is delusional or a con artist. One of us mentioned that one of her investors and mentors, Larry Ellison, had set an example for the “fake it till you make it” business model.[iii]Another member has heard that one of Elizabeth Holmes’ defense strategies is to claim that she is being “persecuted/prosecuted because she is a woman.” We agreed that it seems to us that Elizabeth Holmes was in charge, but she did meet her 20-year-old lover and co-conspirator Sunny when she was still in high school.  This led to a discussion of the “Me Too Movement.”  We shared some frustration about punishing people for behavior that happened years ago, expecting people to be more assertive, but many of us spoke up in support of those who were unable to come forth earlier because of the very real danger of repercussions. This is highlighted by the recent news of Raider’s coach Jon Gruden’s resignation after “homophobic and misogynistic emails.”[iv]

Some of us found the book difficult to read because of the sheer number of names mentioned. The author’s research and footnoting was extensive.  With so many characters over so many years, it would be hard to write any other way.  It moved pretty fast. 

And for the story: What if she had listened to the experts who told her they needed more blood? Why did the author make such a big deal about her voice? One member said that Margaret Thatcher had a high squeaky voice and was counselled to lower her voice. Did George Schultz ever reconcile with his grandson? How could you disbelieve your own grandson who was working in the company? How do parents not believe their child when they are told a relative is abusing them? What angered us most? The corruption; the amount of money involved; the board of directors; her black turtle necks; the failure of regulating agencies; the lawyers; the potential loss of life never told. I know I still feel incredulous and I believe many of our members do also. 

One of us was surprised and impressed that Rupert Murdoch would not interfere with the Wall Street Journal’sinvestigation. Another mentioned that Murdoch sold his shares in Theranos for $1 so he could afford the loss (125 million). In the end, we discussed that the story encompasses much larger issues – regulators underfunded and overworked, that justice is NOT blind, our own vulnerability in lost investments and lost retirement.  One member shared that she had been taken in by another kind of scheme and when she went to a lawyer to see how she could have avoided it, he told her that if she had brought the deal to him, he probably would have invested with her.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup is a perfect book for October – it is one scary true story.

OTHER WORKS DISCUSSED:

  • Catch Me If You Can (2000) by Frank Abagnale (film 2002)
  • Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of A President (2011) by Candice Millard
  • Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York City’s Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case That Captivated A Nation (2017) by Brad Ricca
  • Thunderstruck (2006) by Erik Larson
  • Internet Article:  “Confidence never trumps competence: An inventor’s perspective on HBO’s ‘The Inventor’” by Don Smith (2019)[v]

[i] “ABC News chief business, technology and economics correspondent Rebecca Jarvis, along with producers Taylor Dunn and Victoria Thompson, take listeners on a journey that includes a multi-year investigation. You’ll hear exclusive interviews with former employees, investors, and patients, and for the first-time, the never-before-aired deposition testimony of Elizabeth Holmes, and those at the center of this story.”  Web accessed 10-14-2021:  https://abcnews.go.com/Business/nightline-documentary-podcast-dropout-story-elizabeth-holmes-theranos/story?id=60365362

[ii] https://time.com/collection-post/3822734/elizabeth-holmes-2015-time-100/   ;

https://www.vox.com/2015/10/26/11620036/theranos-ceo-elizabeth-holmess-five-best-cover-story-appearances .

[iii] This quote is not about Larry Ellison but references the culture: “The scale of Theranos’ alleged fraud is unusual, but the forces behind it are not. Startup culture venerates the kind of “fake it till you make it” hustling that Holmes deployed.” https://www.wired.com/story/theranos-and-silicon-valleys-fake-it-till-you-make-it-culture/

[iv] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/11/sports/football/what-did-jon-gruden-say.html

[v] I read a few excerpts from this article during the meeting, starting with this quote: “Richard Feynman said, ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.’ . . . Everything about the Elizabeth Holmes story is captured in that quote.”  Web accessed 10-14-2021: https://www.thedrum.com/opinion/2019/04/09/confidence-never-trumps-competence-inventor-s-perspective-hbo-s-the-inventor.

Redhead by the Side of the Road Discussionl Journal

We have read four Anne Tyler books in our club since 2012:  The Beginner’s Goodbye, Digging to America, Clock Dance, and now Redhead by the Side of the Road. None of these are her most famous or award-winning books, but her stories are easy to read, comfortable, like catching up with friends or relatives you haven’t seen for a while.redhead

Most of us seemed to neither actively like nor dislike Redhead by the Side of the Road. Obviously there are gradations of this! Like the autism spectrum one of us feels certain the main character Micah occupies.  Our first responder asked if this book actually is a bestseller because she felt it was a “bunch of nothing.” One of us found it boring, but she still cared about the characters. Another really likes Anne Tyler’s writing and feels that she develops things quietly.  A late-arriving member said that it detailed a mundane, boring life, with some funny things, like “Traffic God.”

We discussed Micah’s actions and motivations and touched on many of the provided discussion questions without even trying. Many of us were uncertain about the title. I read from a couple of email responses, which I have posted in the comments as usual. I tried to draw some comparisons between Eleanor Oliphant coming to terms with reality and Micah’s awakening. Last month’s selection, Eleanor Oliphant engaged us more, with greater dysfunction, more drama, abuse, and a surprise at the end. Tyler’s characters are real and believable, so there was energy and excitement at the relatability and easy understanding, tinged by apathy, perhaps because we wonder “what’s the point?”

Why do we read what we read? Escape, entertainment, education, understanding? I think we take in what we read and it becomes an experience that will inform us in future interactions and decisions—whether we are aware of this or not. Did we identify with Micah, obligated and dreading the circus of activity from a family dinner, or did we identify with the family?  How reliable is our perspective of the past or even the present? How many times do we see a redhead by the side of the road and never know where to find the fire hydrant! Thanks for reading with us and joining our “family” discussion.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

We had a great turn out for our discussion of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. This 2017 first novel by Gail Honeyman has received over 47,000 reviews on Amazon, averaging 4.5 out of five stars, as well as generally outstanding critical reviews. Not that this should deter us from disagreeing! But we didn’t really. A story about a lonely, eccentric, traumatized woman stepping outside of her box obviously resonated with many of us.EOICFcover

Our first responder liked the book and felt that it was timely, given how mental health has been in the news with Naomi Osaka pulling out of the French Open and Simone Biles withdrawing from events in the Olympics. The discussion was energetic, with members piping up simultaneously in agreement and mentioning the mental strain and loneliness of lost jobs and isolation because of the continuing COVID pandemic. At one point, a member said “be careful what you wish for” in reference to her own recent retirement.

Another member had trouble with the negativity in the book, the horrible things the mother would say and the way Eleanor’s co-workers seemed to treat her. A member with a background in social work and the courts felt the book was so real and she loved seeing Eleanor triumph. As the discussion jumped around the table, one member’s main response was that he does not like to be blindsided and that Eleanor was a “nut case” and he wanted to tell Raymond to watch out. About this time someone else remembered that just today in Las Vegas someone had been shot nine times and survived.[i] This book is apparently a triggering book and the connections we make through reading and as we discuss was clearly evident.

We mentioned Eleanor’s scar and how it was both physical and emotional.  Eleanor is an unreliable narrator who doesn’t acknowledge that it is not normal to drink two bottles of vodka every weekend. We discussed plot points and actions and brought it back to our own experiences. One possible criticism of the book is that the author is making humor by allowing us to laugh at a dysfunctional person; but one member thought, no, we weren’t laughing at Eleanor, we are enjoying her unusual viewpoints and vocabulary.

A new member started the book just on Saturday and kept reading to see the high points, the little kindnesses.  This reminded me of an article in The Guardian in which the author is quoted: “It is a story of the transformational power of small acts of kindness, often involving food: complimentary truffles with a cup of coffee, a plate of biscuits to accompany a mug of tea.”[ii]

Someone mentioned that they were glad the author didn’t make Raymond and Eleanor a romantic couple. One of us called it Pollyannish! Did we need the mystery of Eleanor’s trauma to stay engaged? Don’t we all know people who are lonely and different and stuck in ruts.  Someone reminded us that since Eleanor is an unreliable narrator, maybe people weren’t laughing at her—perhaps that is only a perception—just like the haunting voice of Eleanor’s mother is only imagined.

We ended the meeting by mentioning small things: Eleanor’s name for high heels—death sticks[iii]; Eleanor’s mother’s “oozingly oleaginous” voice; Eleanor’s apology to Raymond’s mother[iv]; the image of Eleanor running out of a concert because of how unexpectedly horrible the music is[v]. We watched a short video[vi]of the author answering questions because her thick Scottish accent amazes me. When I read her words, they sound just like American English! One member listened to the book and the audio performer was perfect.

We didn’t discuss everything I had expected and more than I am remembering here. I still wonder how it could have been different if Raymond were a woman and NOT a potential love interest? How would this story play out in Las Vegas? One of us mentioned travelling in Scotland and trying haggis and Irn Bru. If I forgot anything or you have a response to share, please join the discussion!

  • OTHER WORKS DISCUSSED:
  • The Rosie Project (2013) Graeme Simsion
  • Sugar Baby (1985) German film directed by Percy Adlon and starring Marianne Sagebrecht
  • “Wild Nights Wild Nights” — a poem by Emily Dickinson

[i] “LAS VEGAS (AP) — A shooting apparently involving a landlord-tenant dispute left two renters dead, one critically wounded with nine gunshot wounds and their landlord in custody as the suspect, Las Vegas police said Tuesday.”

 https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/nevada/articles/2021-08-10/vegas-police-fatal-shootings-believe-linked-to-unpaid-rent

[ii] Guardian News and Media. (2018, January 12). Gail Honeyman: ‘I didn’t want Eleanor Oliphant to be portrayed as a victim’. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/12/gail-honeyman-didnt-want-eleanor-oliphant-portrayed-as-victim. 

[iii] I couldn’t find a reference for death sticks as a name for high heels, but it sounds like something Eleanor would say and one of our group remembered it that way!

[iv] “Your question was both reasonable and appropriate. My response, however, was not. I’m at a loss to explain it. Please accept my apologies if I’ve made you feel uncomfortable.” Eleanor, page 96.

[v] “Without exaggeration, it could only be described as the cacophonous din of hell. What on earth was wrong with these people?” Eleanor, page 212.

[vi] EasonTv. (2018). Gail Honeyman Answers Questions From Fans #easonasks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32NjWbDDm40.