About Kristine

I am the current moderator of the Whitney Library Book Club

Lady in the Lake Responses

Since we were unable to meet in January, members stopped by the library and emailed their responses to Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman.  I am pasting them here in the order I received them.  I also asked for suggestions and recommendations for us to read (as a LadyInTheLakeCovergroup or individually). I did not make a traditional journal this month and am sorry that I did not post this sooner. I cannot emphasize enough how important are our varied responses and experiences!  Thanks!

CB: I have just started reading Lady in the Lake. So far, I like it and I am impressed by how well the author switches narrators without confusing the reader. I will send you an email with my evaluation when I have finished it.

  • Suggestions for future books:
  • Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amada Foreman
  • About Your Father and Other Celebrities I Have Known by Peggy Rowe
  • Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
  • Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
  • Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch
  • Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky
  • The Reckoning by John Grisham
  • An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
  • Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family… by David McCullough
  • The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
  • Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky
  • Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
  • The Reckoning by David Halberstam   (Yes, I know that I have two books with the same title, but they are vastly different books.)

MM:    I am sorry for taking so long getting my thoughts about the book to you. I have read the book in bits and pieces. I guess I couldn’t get that into it, which is probably why it’s taken me so long to finish, which I did just last night! The first question in the discussion questions wants to know who we thought was the main character. I think it’s a toss up between Maddie and Cleo. In the beginning I would have said it was Maddie, but at the book’s end I’d say it might also be Cleo since she actually was not dead and wove herself in the story throughout the book.

I disliked Maddie for being selfish, especially in regard to leaving her son at the age of sixteen.  At the end of the book, she stated that she was now a grandmother, but didn’t mention the relationship she had with her son and grandchildren. I wonder if that is so because she really wasn’t that interested in them? I did admire her courage for leaving a marriage in which she no longer loved her husband. She was determined to make it on her own, which is what she accomplished.

Maddie never seemed to know who she was, and therefore it was hard for us to get to know her. She seemed interested in living alone and having sex all the time.

DP:    She liked the book.  The characters were believable and reminded her of people she knew when she lived in New York.

CH:    I read Lady of the Lake. Enjoyed but did have some trouble following who was talking. Would like to have reread but expired before I got around to it. What did you think?

JT:    I really enjoyed the book.  It was an easy read, kept my attention.  I also liked the surprise ending.  The main character of the story was definitely Maddie Schwartz.  Her life, what she was doing everyday.  Cleo was just part of her story.

I liked that Lippman added the thoughts from incidental characters.  I think it added to the development of the story by allowing them to tell the story themselves.  I wish she would have included a paragraph by Milton.  I would have liked to know his thoughts on why his wife left after so many years and how it made him feel.  And one by Seth, explaining his feelings and why he was so hostile to his mother.

As far as her secret, I don’t know that her secret changed her life in any way.  Maybe if others had found out, she wouldn’t have married Milton and her path would be different.  But having this secret still allowed her to marry and do whatever she wanted to do in her future.  She consented to the affair, it’s not like it was done against her will.  I don’t really see her guilt changing the way she lived.  If her secret from high school had a profound effect on her life she might not have engaged in the secret affair with Ferdie.

I was surprised by Ferdie.  The book leads you to believe that he is married because he only comes around at night.  And they never seem to talk about their lives, (not even knowing each other’s birthdays).  It seemed like he was only interested in 1 thing.  It was surprising to find out he loved her.  And I have to object to the whole idea that there was no such thing as biracial marriages or encounters at that time.  My neighbors, who are in their 70’s, and married for many years would have started dating about that time.  According to my neighbor, (she’s white, he’s black), they would sometimes get looks but no one seemed to be too bothered about it.  At least not anyone who said anything to them about it.  So it’s not like it was an insurmountable obstacle.  Maybe it was different in the Midwest!  I think the issue was more that Maddie wanted to be “satisfied” but not encumbered!

KC:   He really liked the book. He didn’t like the main character, but it was an interesting mystery, with some surprises, and dealt with the important issue of discrimination. It had many  throwaway lines, such as how women were raised t understand that life wasn’t going to be fair.  He didn’t find it quite believable that Cleo would go to all the trouble to stay hidden and then appear to a newspaper reporter.

CB:   Lady in the Lake is well-written. The author is able to switch between narrators without any confusion. That was masterfully done. The descriptions of people and places seem realistic and vivid.

Now for the big criticism: I just couldn’t care much about any of the characters. When Maddie was scheming and manipulating to become a journalist, I kept thinking, “Girl, there are easier careers.”

I did find myself cringing when she has having trysts with Ferdie. I kept thinking that she was going to be found out and publicly exposed and it would be disastrous for her, for him, for Milton, for Seth, etc. I guess I’m glad that didn’t happen. Her final non-average sex life didn’t scandalize me – life and let live.

I think that Spike/Tommy’s prison term of 8 years seems long for someone who didn’t do anything other than tampering with a body. However, if he really had killed someone, 8 years seems like a short time. I guess killing a Black woman wasn’t very serious then, to the legal system.

To sum up, the book shows us how interconnected we all are. It’s well done, but I don’t feel inclined to read any more by this author.

The Turn of the Key Discussion Journal

Early responses to The Turn of the Key were generally favorable. Here are some excerpts:

  • “Loved the book. However, the end made me feel as though I missed something. It was as if the required number of words had been written so THE END.”  (KP)
  • “It was a highly suspenseful book! I didn’t start reading it until a few days ago, but once I did, I had a hard time putting it down. The writing was good and kept the interest high.” (MM)
  • “Do not know if it was because of listening to the story rather than reading, but I found the whining, begging letter from Rowan rather annoying. Not very far into the story my reaction was: never mind all these details – just get to the point.” (RM)
  • “Really enjoyed this book. Easy read. Enjoyed the format of storyteller writing letter to lawyer and reciting the plot. Didn’t seem as “deep” as many of our books but an interesting read.” (CH)
  • “I liked the suspense and the way that the old Henry James story is re-set in a way I can relate to. . . .The obvious first dislike is the ambiguous ending. Whenever I encounter a book with this kind of ambiguity, I picture the author hunched over a keyboard, evilly chuckling: ‘They won’t get it. HA! They’ll never get it. I’m too smart for them.” (CB)

I chose the Ruth Ware thriller as a break from our more challenging award-winning reads; plus, we started it in October and an updated take on Henry James’ classic ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, fit the season.

JT and CB read The Turn of the Screw, so they shared how difficult it had been to read, with long, paragraph-length sentences and an uncertain ending. Henry James’ story has been studied and taught for over a century now, so it has stood the test of time.  What about The Turn of the Key? – from our responses, unlikely!

We only directly discussed the book for half an hour, and we spent much of that time punching holes in the story.  As with our early responses, we were disappointed in the ending. KC thought it was an “insult to the reader.” We didn’t believe Rachel would have gone to jail because a five-year old couldn’t have kept the secret and Ellie wouldn’t have been in trouble.

SO could not believe that an eight-year old would be capable of the nightly haunting, let alone surviving the poison garden. She was particularly disturbed by the garden. JK said it reminded him of a spooky, creepy take on The Secret Garden by Frances Hodges Burnett. KC and CB both got tired of the detailed descriptions of the house. JK couldn’t see Rachel as a good nanny when she would leave the children to go off with Jack. DC wondered how the mother could allow such young children to play alone around a pond.

I may have mixed up who said what because our discussion this month was back and forth, much like it used to be. Why would Rachel write such a long story if she wanted to get a lawyer? That made her unreliable. Why cheat to get the position? Bill was a Harvey Weinstein type. The author is playing a trick by withholding information.

Despite the magnitude of disbelief, most everyone liked the book! Check out the comments for emailed response details and send an email if you’d like to add something!

In past years, when we have met in the theater, the shadowy stage and empty seats lent a provocative atmosphere that should have been perfect for discussing a ghost story, but instead, the darkness mixed with spotlights seemed awkward and emphasized the mask-wearing social distance that is necessary as we face our own on-going horror story.

We met the night before Veteran’s Day, on the anniversary of World War I’s armistice day, honoring those who have served our country through war and peace and everything in between. Thank you to all who have served and those who are still serving!

Other works discussed:

  • The City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert (2019 — recommended for upcoming selection)
  • Endurance by Scott Kelly (2017 – recommended for upcoming selection)
  • The Secret Garden (1911) by Frances Hodgson Burnet
  • The Turn of the Screw  (1898) by Henry James
  • The Warmth of Other Suns (2011) by Isabel Wilkerson
  • Beecham House (DVD) (2019 – TV series by Gurinder Chadha)
  • Ted Lasso (2020 – Apple TV/not yet available on DVD or through the library)

Less Discussion Journal

“‘What is love, Arthur? What is it?’ she asks him. ‘Is it the good dear thing I had with Janet for eight years? Is it the good dear thing? Or is it the lightning bolt? The destructive madness that hit my girl?’” p. 189

We gathered on Tuesday evening to discuss Less, the book and the man, love, romance, relatability, writers, language and Pulitzer Prizes.  Actually, we didn’t even mention one of the most memorable phrases for me – “magniloquent spoony.” Magniloquent, a word that combines both magnificent and eloquent turns out to mean “pompous; bombastic; boastful.”[1]  The Pulitzer Prize made us want to sit up and pay attention, to look for meanings and to wonder what we might be missing. 

Prior to the meeting, I heard from several people who had been unable to finish the book. Most just couldn’t relate to the character – his sexuality, his vanity, his self-absorbed whininess. He was a published author, an award winner, able to travel the world, turn fifty in Morocco, riding camels and ruminating with others about their failed romances. In the end, he gets paid to eat and review traditional kaiseki cuisine in Japan[2], which can be very expensive.  When we have so many books to choose from, depressing politics in the news, a scary and threatening pandemic keeping us locked up in our homes and food not allowed in our library book club, are Arthur Less’ woes provocative enough?

Less was not DC’s, our first responder’s, favorite, but she enjoyed it more than our last tale of urban Indians in Oakland. Some of the scenes were funny – the language gaffes during his travels, such as the volcano is closed (like a museum)—and the scene in the market when Arthur loses his ring.  Our connection was evident as we each thought back and remembered scenes, chuckling lightly and then turning back to the discussion.

CB enjoyed the book, but she found it at first confusing.  She believes she would need to read it three or four times to understand it fully. She wondered about possible connections to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, since Arthur’s story is full of poetic remembrances.[3] The gay sex was toned down. The story was romantic and sentimental. She liked Arthur and was moved that he didn’t know how to be gay and 50.

JG thought the book was good but weird. Quirky.  She is a fast reader, but this one took her a long time to read. The movement in time through memories was confusing. The story was thought-provoking enough to distract from the plot elements.

JT didn’t like the book. It didn’t keep her interest.  KK quit reading after a little more than 100 pages. Less also wasn’t a favorite for SO, but she had been intrigued by the little village in Morocco enough to discover that it is based on a real village. But Arthur was disappointing.  He never acknowledged his real feelings. He never seemed connected with himself. SO felt that losing the blue suit to the dog in the end was losing himself, finally growing up. She saw an interesting depth in Arthur’s story of low self-esteem, but isn’t it hard to like someone who doesn’t like himself?

KC used the word tortuous when he mentioned reading the book twice, since he had read it previously. He found Less’ story relatable because he had lived in San Francisco and knew how scary HIV had been for the gay community. How fortunate he feels to have donated blood and yet never needed to have a transfusion. How lucky he feels in general. Arthur, however, engaged in risky, casual sex, with no mention of protection. He was promiscuous. KC does not want to judge, but he could not relate to this behavior. Arthur lived a minor-league life. He was juvenile.

Nor could many of us relate to Arthur’s angst at turning 50. We wondered about gender roles and vanity; about stereotypes and homosexuality; about our own experiences and last year’s book club selection This Is How It Always Is.

We returned to interpreting the ending. We had mixed feelings about Arthur and Freddy’s future together.  KC felt that Freddy had imprinted on Arthur, but that Arthur hadn’t learned yet to commit. We discussed whether Arthur was whiny or fearful with low self-esteem. Had he changed? He did have a new, sparkly, gray suit.

I felt truly moved by this discussion.  I had not liked Arthur, but I began to wonder at the reliability of a narrator who loved Arthur trying to explain Arthur’s fears adequately. And during the discussion I quit wondering whether or not the book deserved a Pulitzer Prize. I asked if anyone understood what was meant by so many people in Germany getting sick? I was looking for some profound connection. Then JG said she thought it was just coincidence. All that self-absorption is rather contagious after all!

So much more was in this discussion, but you’d have to have been there.  Would we be able to capture it virtually? The silent, thoughtful pauses, the excited energy as we sit up and pay attention? The interruptions that never quite make it as we discuss or comment with a neighbor—lost in the single-speaker zoom.  Thanks for sending your comments, attending our meeting and continuing the discussion.  We may never figure out the meaning of love, but the discussion matters.

Other works discussed:

  • This Is How It Always Is (2017) by Laurie Frankel
  • There There (2018) by Tommy Orange
  • Moonflower Murders (2020) by Anthony Horowitz (sequel to Magpie Murders)
  • In Search of Lost Time (1909 -1927) by Marcel Proust
  • Blackout: How Black America Can Make Its Second Escape From the Democrat Plantation (2020) by Candace Owen
  • Call Me By Your Name  (2018) DVD
  • Love Is Strange (2015) DVD

Excerpt from Less by Andrew Sean Greer page 161 (read aloud during the meeting):

“What does a camel love? I would guess nothing in the world. Not the sand that scours her, or the sun that bakes her, or the water she drinks like a teetotaler. Not sitting down, blinking her lashes like a starlet. Not standing up, moaning in indignant fury as she manages her adolescent limbs. Not her fellow camels, to whom she shows the disdain of an heiress forced to fly coach. Not the humans who have enslaved her.”


[1] Dictionary.com full definition:  “speaking or expressed in a lofty or grandiose style; pompous; bombastic; boastful.”

[2] “Japanese cuisine is among the most highly regarded in the world, and nowhere is Japan’s culinary prowess better demonstrated than in kaiseki elegantly presented dishes.  It started as a simple meal meant to accompany Japanese cuisine. Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese tasting course comprised of many small, tea ceremonies, but over the centuries this culinary tradition has become the pinnacle of Japanese haute cuisine.” Web accessed 10-15-2020: https://savorjapan.com/contents/more-to-savor/kaiseki-cuisine-japans-artful-culinary-tradition-explained/

[3] ““Arthur Less’s life with Robert ended around the time he finished reading Proust. It was one of the grandest and most dismaying experiences in Less’s life—Marcel Proust, that is—and the three thousand pages of In Search of Lost Time took him five committed summers to finish.” p. 237

There There Discussion Journal

Here we were, discussing There There, with fires raging in California and winds blowing the heat and haze out of our Las Vegas valley. Tommy Orange’s powerful tale of Native Americans in Oakland California captures a bleak existence of loss and longing with such realism and altering viewpoints that it is easy to be overwhelmed and unable to stay immersed. There There is not a fun read. In addition, the downside of such “polyphonic”[1] stories is that it can be difficult for a reader to keep the characters straight and to stay connected and immersed, regardless of the content. One reading of the book is hardly enough to understand the complexity of the themes covered in the author’s essays and vignettes, which culminate in a modern-day massacre. Our one-hour discussion could barely touch the surface of possibilities, but it was enough to show how thought-provoking and timely we found the novel.

Our first responder, SO, didn’t like the constantly changing voice and characters. She found the characters not likeable. She also shared her experience at the Bryce Canyon Visitor’s Center where she heard stories told by various Native American peoples who consider the area sacred and she recommended that we visit if we can.

JT had to force herself to read.  She didn’t like the ending, did not find the characters likeable and had a lot of questions.  She started us on a discussion about those spider legs! What was the meaning? The story is so realistic that this touch of supernatural seemed too surreal. As I write this, I wonder now if this incongruity doesn’t capture the discordance of being Native American in America, of longing for something special and then not understanding or recognizing it when you find it. Never underestimate the challenge of discussing such weighty issues under the pressure of time and judgement!

A new member, DP, loved the book and couldn’t put it down.  She has been a social worker, so she recognized the issues of identity, abuse, and poverty. She had hated Memoirs of a Geisha because the descriptions of abuse were too detailed. She had dreaded the ending here and appreciated author Tommy Orange’s handling of the violence.

MF didn’t like the book, but she really enjoyed the author’s description of feelings. Even as she spoke of it, you could see the power of the sentiment in her eyes above her mask. She had many questions and was disappointed in the ending. She wanted an epilogue. She wanted to know what the drone saw! No character stood out, but the story was interesting and definitely out of her comfort zone.

KK found the first three stories so hard that she quit reading; but when she went back, she enjoyed it. She found it realistic and admired Opal, a single grandma raising three boys. She appreciated the discussion of suicide and brought up thoughts about alcoholism, heredity and Native Americans.  We discussed how the author references a lot of information that we couldn’t understand without a previous knowledge base and how his admonition that we could easily look it up[2] is not so easy given the proliferation of realistic-looking false news.

CB was glad to have read it. The author had an important message and she learned a lot of new information. She forwarded a link to a 2011 American Psychological Society recommendation for the retirement of American Indian mascots[3], which highlights how the author’s reference to this issue is both enduring and timely. She liked the characters but there were too many. It reminded her of our previous selection, Spoonbenders.  She was particularly confused by the relationships surrounding Octavio.  She felt that the author did better with male characters and that the females weren’t as clear. MF wondered if this was because of the cultural relationship between men and women. CB also questioned why the author made such a point of highlighting white violence against Native Americans and then had the violence at the PowWow be perpetrated by Native Americans?  SO brought up the idea of self-hatred. We also discussed that we lump all Native Americans together, despite their different heritages, just as we lump other ethnicities together despite their differing personalities.

DC did not enjoy the book and, like many of us, wanted to have a more definitive ending. The author’s description of the PowWow made her feel as if she were there. His description of the near-death experiences seemed particularly realistic.

At the start of the meeting, I read the responses I had received from two members who couldn’t attend:

  • KC had read the book last year for another book club and was particularly moved by the issues in the news today about the effect of COVID 19 on reservations – poor access to health facilities and doctors, restricted voting and distance for the Census, in addition to the Native American communities’ struggles with suicide, abuse of women, diabetes, alcoholism and obesity.
  • MR wrote, “I tried reading There There but found it so depressing, I stopped after the second story. I reread your email where you said that the Dene and Opal stories were the best.  Those were the only ones I read.  I know life has not been fair to the Native American Community. But I want to read something good coming out of all those hard life experiences.”

I am certain that many of our group agree with both of these statements—even when we love the writing and the story, sometimes we want/need answers. CB said that the author must have hit every problem associated with Native Americans, which I believe highlights how overwhelming this complex narrative can be. The overall response to the novel was one of empathy and concern.

  • Other works discussed:
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2012) by Sherman Alexie
  • LaRose (2016) by Louise Erdrich
  • Memoirs of a Geisha (1997) Arthur Golden
  • News of the World (2017) by Paulette Jiles
  • Round House (2012) by Louise Erdrich
  • Spoonbenders (2017) by Daryl Gregory


[1] I saw this reference to polyphonic in a New York Times review and then subsequently in a few others.  According to dictionary.com, polyphonic is an adjective “consisting of many voices or sounds.”

[2] “We’ve been defined by everyone else and continue to be slandered despite easy-to-look-up-on-the-internet facts about the realities of our histories and current state as a people.” Prologue page 7.  There There by Tommy Orange.

[3] https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/indian-mascots

Full resolution:  https://www.apa.org/about/policy/mascots.pdf

What Rose Forgot Discussion Journal

Our discussion of What Rose Forgot by Nevada Barr was pretty straight forward. We didn’t talk much about themes, language or writing. Our small size made the discussion easier, and we all seemed to find the story engaging at least, even if Rose’s escape, battle on the roof and in the garage seemed unbelievable. We talked about the humor in the book, enjoyed the characters – the diet-cola drinking nurse, the granddaughter, the sister, the friend, the would-be assassin. Echoes of comments I had heard by email or in person.

Our first responder found What Rose Forgot to be the most enjoyable book club read WhatRoseForgotCoversince The Rosie Project. Our next found it engaging enough for her to want to get to the end, but it was too descriptive, the unrealistic battles of our heroine going on too long. Another found it far-fetched but humorous. A new member was disappointed by the ending, feeling it had been rushed.  Another thought it was an unusual book and mystery. He also thought some scenes were too descriptive, but he didn’t think Rose was old at 68 and found her roof-top escapade to be possible if not probable. Still another thought it started off slow but she ended up liking it enough to try out one of the author’s park ranger mysteries.

Even in our masks, we laughed about a knife so sharp that it could cut a finger off through a glove. One of us had listened to the audiobook and didn’t find it slow or too descriptive. She said that the beginning was like a horror story. She also shared that the author was born in Yerington, Nevada and had worked as an actor and a park ranger. In the midst of this discussion, we looked for comparative stories— Miss Marple and Agatha Raisin or The Little Old Lady Who Broke All The Rules and Stephanie Plum.  We talked about vulgar language and obligatory sex in modern fiction. We discussed other books we have read and recommend.

Although I spend my working days at the library wearing a mask, talking through my home-made mask felt awkward, like talking with cotton in my mouth, but no one complained. We were a group of seven. Five months since our last, the meeting felt both exhilarating and sad. Any other year, we might have had a small group simply because of summer vacation or heat or disinterest. We started out socializing, and it didn’t feel as difficult as I had imagined—even in a normal meeting, some members would be twelve feet away from others.

But it wasn’t a normal meeting.  I know that many more wanted to attend and had shared their comments with me.  One of us attends book clubs around the valley and is frustrated that some may not be able to restart. I hope that we will be able to begin a virtual book club to include more of us. If you haven’t tried out virtual meetings, they can be highly satisfying when it is not possible to get out. Consider getting a family member or friend to read with you. And then share it with us! So, I hope you will keep reading with us and sending me your comments. I look forward to them!

For some comments from some of us who couldn’t attend:

  • R.M.P.:“Previously I said that Nevada Barr was one of my favorite authors;   All of her books that I have read previously were from her series with Anna Pigeon, a National Park Ranger who was kept busy solving mysteries in various National Parks throughout the US.   What Rose Forgotis a bit different.  Sorry to say I was able to read/listen only as far as chapter 14 before I lost interest in the story and gave up in frustration;  Read/listened to the last chapter and the epilogue to determine it did have a happy ending (I think).”
  • M.M:  “I enjoyed the book, and here are my answers to the questions on the flyer:— I didn’t really identify with any of the characters. If any, Mel would be the closest because of her sense of adventure, but I am nowhere near as brave as she is.

    — I found the storyline and most of the characters believable, although Rose on the roof of her house successfully fighting off her attacker was a bit of a stretch! I also have to scratch my head over Chuck’s help calling attention toward the end. It all made for good fun and excitement, though.

    — I’m not sure what a traditional mystery is. There have been so many mystery writers Over the years who have their own style, but I don’t know which is traditional.

    — It was a compelling read. It was easy to get into the book right from the start. I was interested to see how events would play out throughout the story.

    — I didn’t notice anything left unexplained. Maybe I would have if I reread it…

    — The author could make a series with Rose, her sister, Marion, her “granddaughter, “ Mel, and Mel’s friend, Royal, and maybe even Mel’s dad, Flynn.

  • M.R.:  “What did you find believable or not?I almost quit reading during the description of the hired killer on the roof. I thought she was hallucinating-it was unbelievable.  

Finding her way to her son’s house when she escaped the first time was hard to believe as well.

The scene at her home when she was trapped and injured but still managed to escape was hard to imagine as well.

Her relationship with the hitman was curious.

Was it a compelling read? Why or why not? It was compelling because she kept saying she wasn’t done yet.  She sure had a lot of ideas!

I enjoyed the book.”

  • P.M.: “I didn’t find the roof-top scene to be unbelievable. I thought that Chuck and Rose would get together. What a surprise that he was a judge and went back to his wife! I thought the thug was believable. More like a real person instead of as a crazy stereotype.”
  • D.C.: “What a crazy and ingenious lady Rose is!”
  • K.P.: “Enjoyed the book.”
  • C.H.: “I enjoyed What Rose Forgot.”

OTHER WORKS DISCUSSED:

  • The biggest bluff: how I learned to pay attention, master the odds, and winby Maria Konnikova
  • Caste: the origins of our discontentby Isabel Wilkerson (2020)
  • The warmth of other suns : the epic story of America’s great migrationby Isabel Wilkerson (2010)
  • China Bayles cozy mystery seriesby Susan Wittig Albert (herbs)
  • City of girlsby Elizabeth Gilbert (2019)
  • Gaslight mysteriesby Victoria Thompson (turn of the 20thCentury New York)
  • Lilac girlsby Martha Hall Kelly (2017)
  • The little old lady who broke all the rulesby Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg ; translated from the Swedish by Rod Bradbury (2016)

The Leavers Response Journal

Our April book club selection was The Leavers by Lisa Ko. Winner of the 2016 Pen/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, the novel was also a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award. Although I chose the book last year to give us insight into immigration issues and to celebrate Asian Pacific Heritage Month (May), reading it in March as the world reacted to the new coronavirus with fear, loss, disbelief and even xenophobia was challenging.

The language was clear and easy to follow, but the time-line and perspective jumped around enough to keep me uncertain, at least at first, who, where and when the characters were. Was it the story and characters that disinterested me or the distraction of reading in the midst of what seemed to be a possible end to civilization as we know it? I had trouble liking either Polly or her son, although I appreciated their angst, their desire to control their own destiny, their need for something that is missing – a parent, a calling, relevancy. I identified more with the adoptive parents. I felt that their characters were treated shabbily, barely developed—shallow in comparison to the adoptive parents in our previous selections, TheTea Girl of Hummingbird Lane or Digging to America. In contrast, I very much admired Michael, Vivian, even Leon. Perhaps that was easier because we saw their final successes without living through their struggles.

Lisa Ko started writing The Leavers in 2009 after travelling to Fuzhou and researching immigration. She wanted to capture “the story behind the story, a tribute to heart, sweat, and grind.”[i]I think she succeeded in writing compelling fiction rather than political commentary. However, I would have liked more information about the detention centers.  I find it horrifying that we would hold someone over a year in a detention center, with only minimal explanation, but the final reveal and explanation for Polly’s leaving was disappointing.  Lisa Ko’s essay, “A Better Life,” has the same title as the 2011 film about an Hispanic-American immigrant father and son,[ii] a film we showed in our Second Sunday Movie Club and one I definitely recommend.

I know there is more I could discuss here, but I miss the community of our group.  Often, when I am disappointed in a book, our members surprise me with a new perspective.  They help me find what I didn’t know I liked.  They teach me to be less critical or challenge me to defend my praise. As we are locked down in our homes, communicating by phones and computers, I miss the feel of energy in a room with people, kinetic, the haze through our overhead lights, even the anxiety of beginning.

Our next scheduled book is The Tattooist of Auschwitz, which has a huge list for the e-book.  The downloadable audiobook is available through HOOPLA with your library card. I suggest, though, that we read something else and pass on the recommendation – more like a book circle. Keep notes on what you are reading – I want to hear about it!

Until we meet again . . .

[i]http://lisa-ko.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Ko-essay-THE-LEAVERS.pdf

[ii]https://lvccld.bibliocommons.com/item/show/1802331134    A Better Life (2011) Directed by: Chris Weitz, Cedric Kahn  PG-13

 

Hello . . . and reading during the library closure.

Hello Everyone!

     I have been reading the current book club selection and thinking about book choices — and all of you. I hope you are well, cared for and connected somehow.
     Reading The Leavers amidst the lockdown, frightening news reports and uncertainty, was not easy. I had trouble staying interested and could not connect with the characters. How much of this is the story, the writing, or the reading environment?
     I am currently reading Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and thinking a lot about Magpie Murders. I have also thought a little about our 2016 selection Station Eleven, which was about a world-altering pandemic.
     As I’ve thought about future selections, I am even more interested in what you have been reading and how this lockdown has changed your experience of the books you read, the movies you watch and the news you experience, through social media, television, magazine or newspaper. Do you have recommendations? Do you need help accessing more free content, from magazines and newspapers to movies and books? Even though we are closed, the library is providing help with accessing electronic media.  Please check out our website at lvccld.org.
     Even though we won’t be meeting in person, at least through June, I hope that we will still be able to exchange thoughts and comments by email — I can collect them and post them to the Whitney Book Bistro Journal.  You could also post them directly here below.  Perhaps we can even find a way to meet through our computers, once the library reopens. This is a brave new world and we can and should make the most of it!

Hillbilly Elegy Discussion Journal

We met this week to discuss Hillbilly Elegy: a memoir of a family and culture in crisis by J.D. Vance.  The book made the top of the New York Times Non-Fiction Best Sellers List in August of 2016.[1]  According to the Washington Post, by February, 2017, Hillbilly Elegy had sold “half a million copies in hardcover and 280,000 digital and audio editions.”[2]  A film version, directed by Ron Howard and starring Glenn Close and Amy Adams, is due to be released in November this year. HillbillyElegyCover

Our first responders liked the book and most seemed to find it easy to read, although one of us almost stopped reading because it seemed too sad. The first and most powerful part of our discussion was about poverty.  Were the problems Vance described because of the hillbilly culture or because of a culture of poverty?  One of us noted that the author’s mother is not the only nurse to have an addiction problem. Another member has worked most of her life in welfare/social-type work and she felt that the author gave one of the best explanations of the behavior she has read. We discussed the importance of mentors and a support system. One of us shared her own sense of loss in not having a support system. Several of our members are grandparents who participate heavily in their grandchildren’s lives.

Nevada is filled with settlers from around the country, the world even, yet I am always amazed by how many connections we find.  One member grew up in South-Western Ohio, in a town very similar to Middletown, with a lot of transplants from Kentucky. He said that the author did not emphasize enough how the Kentucky/Southern accent made people stand out. He also felt that the author over-emphasized the problems and dysfunction of the area.

We still weren’t sure if the author explained well enough why people would change from democrats to republicans.  One member mentioned that the change had taken place with Reagan. We discussed that the author’s relatives could not identify with the polish and education, even elitism, of the democratic candidates, identifying more with Trump’s rough edges. The discussion got a little tough and I intervened to remind us that we needed to try to stay away from politics and get back to the book.

One of us wanted to talk about question six[3], which asked what we thought about Vance’s difficulty with neighbors who were on welfare and yet had a cell phone. She was particularly disturbed at how much help from the government people get – free phones and food stamps —while not working. Others brought up that food stamps are intended to help children, although this varies by state. I mentioned the free food distributed at the library on Thursdays, available to anyone. The discussion was heated and emotional. I moved us on because we can all share stories that frustrate us, much like the author does, but the need is great and the intent is to help.

Another member directed us to question seven, that “critics of Hillbilly Elegy accuse Vance of blaming the victim rather than providing a sound analysis of the structural issues left unaddressed by government.” She believed that the author was trying to show that government policy cannot solve the problem.  People have to want to change.

It was a difficult discussion.  One of my coworkers had read the book, liking it at first and then deciding that the author was just patting himself on the back. A couple of people around the table seemed to agree.  When I mentioned that the author had moved back to Ohio and started a non-profit[4]to help with the issues he identified in Hillbilly Elegy, one member said she like him better knowing that.

One of us had watched several videos, including a Ted Talk by J.D. Vance. I played a short clip in which Vance had a discussion with country singer Kacey Musgraves[5]. In this video, he shared family pictures and a story about how, after his grandmother died, they found 19 loaded guns all over her house, strategically placed so that she could always reach one easily. We laughed and commented that Vance doesn’t have an accent.

When I left the library after the meeting, the night was dark, drizzly and smoky – an unusual combination that made me think of the fires in Australia over our winter and last summer’s devastating fires in California.  Yesterday, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 “the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus.”[6] I write this blog as a snapshot of our discussions, to remind us what we read and what we thought, including the atmosphere. We don’t always agree, there may never be answers to our most pressing questions, but we have made connections.  Check out the other works discussed—most of them were previous book club selections and are experiences we can all share.

  • OTHER WORKS DISCUSSED:
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) by Sherman Alexie
  • Fruit of the Drunken Tree (2008) by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
  • The Namesake (2004) by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Perfectionists (2018) by Simon Winchester
  • The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (2017) by Lisa See
  • There There (2018) by Tommy Orange (July 2020 selection)
  • Winter’s Bone (2006) by Daniel Woodrell

 

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An American Marriage Discussion Journal

I am often asked how I choose our book club selections.  Do members make recommendations?  Do I favor any genres? Members do make recommendations, but we try to find titles for which I can get a lot of copies through the library – enough so that we could perhaps catch the attention of new members to bring new perspectives to our discussions, enough copies in large print and in audio versions for different needs.  I try to make sure I choose books by female and male authors equally throughout the year, including at least one non-fiction book.  I think mysteries and historical fiction tend to be popular, but we also like to learn and be challenged.  Some members don’t finish a book if they don’t like it, others read our selections like homework. AmericanMarriageCover

I chose An American Marriage by Tayari Jones for our February selection because the book came highly recommended, longlisted for the National Book Award, winner of the 2019 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Fiction, winner of the 2019 Women’s Prize for fiction, and the February 2018 Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 selection.  February is also African-American Heritage month and it’s Valentine’s Day week!

Our discussion got off to a bit of a rocky start. We had been discussing movies and the Oscar winners when we seamlessly slid into our book, with mixed reviews. Different. Not interesting. Liked.  Since none of our members are black, I shared that one of my coworkers felt that the story captured well the African-American woman’s sense of being subjugated to black men.  The subjects of innocent incarceration, prison in general, infidelity, abortion, and women’s rights are huge and we rambled.

So, earlier than usual, we referred to the publisher’s discussion questions to give us direction, starting with the appropriateness of the title.  Which marriage? Several of us seemed to think that the story was primarily about Roy.  And he was unfaithful during the short marriage, so if Celestial had been incarcerated . . . He didn’t even wait when he wanted to save his marriage.  Andre was sweet.  We didn’t like Roy or Celestial much.  I think we liked Big Roy and Olive.  What did the tree Roy attacked represent? Was Roy attacking Celestial indirectly?  Why did she go into the house and watch Roy beat up Andre? Why did she have the abortion so quickly?  Was the author just proselytizing? Why didn’t they communicate better?  Do we communicate any better in our own lives?

One of us had worked in a prison in Utah and felt that it was highly unusual for an innocent person to be in prison.  She understood Celestial’s unwillingness to be treated like the majority of women who visited, smuggling in drugs made to look like M&Ms or who knows what.  We believed in Roy’s innocence and one of us said she had expected me to bring pears for our snack.  If only I had thought to bring pears and M&Ms!

We ended by discussing the writing.  We had mixed opinions here, too.  Well-written, with interesting metaphors, yet we wondered if the author wasn’t trying too hard. One of us had read reader reviews and said that the book seemed to be rated either a five or a two – they either hated it or loved it.  My impression is that if you averaged our responses, we would rate the book a three.  One of us ended by reading  the following excerpt:  “Human emotion is beyond comprehension, smooth and uninterrupted, like an orb made of blown glass.” What does that mean?  Our hour was up. But the discussion doesn’t have to stop here.  What do you think?

  • Other Works discussed:
  • Just Mercy (1919) film and book by Bryan Stevenson

Our Town: a play in three acts Discussion Journal

That place where everyone knows your name. Where milk bottles are delivered to your door and the horse doesn’t let the driver miss your house. Ice blocks are delivered, too; and the deliveryman breaks off pieces for children in the street. Everyone leaves doors unlocked.  At delivery, the birthing mother first learns that her newborn will come out the same way it got in! Such is the nostalgia that opened our discussion of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Our Town.

The week before our discussion, some of the book club members joined a few other TableReadingDistancelibrary patrons for our first Table Reading.  We read out loud, sitting around a table on the stage of our beautiful theater – not as a performance, but as a chance to step outside our comfort zone and do something different and challenging. As a bonus, I found that hearing the play read, imperfectly and yet movingly, helped me appreciate this outwardly nostalgic and simplistic play all the more. For those of us who participated in the reading, our experience and understanding could not be but different than those who did not. During this month, as people at the library noticed the book selection, several stopped to share that they had performed in this play during high school!
[i]

OurTownWe discussed how the play’s stage manager role, minimalistic set and lack of props was groundbreaking for 1938. Our Town won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938 “For the original American play, performed in New York, which shall best represent in marked fashion the educational value and power of the stage, preferably dealing with American life, $1,000.”[ii] Does “in marked fashion” mean obvious?  One of us had trouble visualizing the story through reading. Was the author the stage manager? Thornton Wilder did actually portray that role on stage.[iii] We discussed the change in gender roles and society over time.  If Emily had lived, would she have achieved her “dream of greatness?” Probably not. [iv] What did we think Mrs. Webb meant when she says that sending girls into marriage is cruel?[v] Work? Sex? Dr. Gibbs doesn’t want to travel because he might then be dissatisfied with Grover’s Corners. Well, what about Mrs. Gibbs and her dream? If the town takes care of those who can’t take care of themselves, why does the drunken choir director commit suicide?

None of us had seen the 1940 film version and I believe all of us were surprised that the dream-sequence third act was not a Hollywood happy ending but a choice by Thornton Wilder: “He wrote to Sol Lesser, the film’s producer, ‘Emily should live … in a movie you see the people so close ‘to’ that a different relation is established. In the theatre, they are halfway abstractions in an allegory, in the movie they are very concrete … It is disproportionately cruel that she die. Let her live.’”[vi] Ah, allegory. Life. Love. Death.

We discussed many more things in snippets. Comparisons with previous book club selections, films, our wages over the years. One of us wondered if anyone else had found the play just too saccharine. No real drama or action, compared to say, Tennessee Williams.[vii] I had researched the relevance of Our Town in the Twenty-First Century for that very reason! Our discussion helped, but we wondered about the validity of updating such a classic to reflect modern times.[viii] Perhaps it should remain as a time capsule.

We could have continued, but our discussion lasts for just an hour. And like the characters in the play, I don’t remember all the details. We ended with one member’s comment about something like a dose of daily joy.  If we take anything away from this play, it should be to notice the joy in what appears to be mundane, everyday life. And for many of us, that is certainly not simplistic.

Other works discussed:

  • The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Clock Dance by Anne Tyler
  • War of the Worlds by HG Wells
  • A Street Car Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
  • Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
  • Paterson 2016 film starring Adam Driver

 

[i] Even in 2019, Our Town, first produced in 1938, made NPR’s list of Top Highschool Plays and Musicals #4: https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2019/07/31/427138970/the-most-popular-high-school-plays-and-musicals. The play came to my attention because one of the main characters in the  2017 film Wonder plays Emily in her high school production. The play ranked sixth in a 2010 list of most important American plays https://www.denverpost.com/2010/02/11/the-10-most-important-american-plays/.

[ii] https://www.pulitzer.org/winners/thornton-wilder-0

[iii] The Stage Manager, played by Wilder himself for two weeks in the 1938 Broadway production, breaks the fourth wall by directly addressing the audience. http://www.twildersociety.org/works/our-town/

[iv] Discussion question 2: https://www.arts.gov/national-initiatives/nea-big-read/our-town

[v] Discussion question 5: https://www.arts.gov/national-initiatives/nea-big-read/our-town

[vi] https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/528278/15-remarkable-facts-about-thornton-wilders-our-town

[vii] Two of Williams’ plays made the Denver Post’s list of top ten American plays:  A Street Car Named Desireand Glass Menagerie. https://www.denverpost.com/2010/02/11/the-10-most-important-american-plays/

[viii] Here we discussed the alteration of Mark Twain’s classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jan/05/huckleberry-finn-edition-censors-n-word.