Beartown Discussion Journal

Last year, in July, the Whitney Book Bistro discussed The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, a book about baseball. Since the Golden Knights took Las Vegas by storm this year, reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in June during their first season as a hockey team, it seemed fitting to read and discuss Beartown by Fredrik Backman, a book about hockey.  Although, of course, the books are never just about the sport.  They are about the players and the spectators, the lovers and the haters, with a lot of details in between. And Beartown is more about the culture of hockey and the community that relies on it.BeartownCover

Our discussion group was small—five women, one who hadn’t read the book and four who don’t care too much about sports in general. Our first responder had not liked the first part of the book at all, but had become more interested as the plot started to develop in the second half. Another had been a pediatrician in Minneapolis and shared how children had to start skating at four years old if they were to be able to play hockey in junior high. Kids would come in with injuries and parents would be angry that their children couldn’t keep playing. We continued to discuss our personal experiences with sports and injuries.  I was incredulous that people could experience the injuries and pain as described and continue to play. Another one of us was angry that people can allow someone to compete when injured or ill, as happened in The Boys in the Boat by Dan Brown.  One member reminded us how Benji would step on his broken foot because the physical pain was easier to deal with than the emotional pain.

We discussed the movie Concussion, starring Will Smith, “based on the true story of the doctor who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known as CTE in football players, and the uphill battle he faced in bringing the information to the public.”[i]We also discussed Dick Francis, who as a professional jockey probably understood the injuries and pain he describes in his heroes. One of us thought that people too often watch the sport specifically for the injuries and fighting, or the crashes in NASCAR. But then one of us is a NASCAR fan and described the skill and talent necessary to successfully drive a sports car at high speed. As always, issues and perspectives are so much more complex than they first appear.  If ever we needed more people in a discussion, it was then!

The second half of the novel deals with the aftermath of a rape and its effect on the girl, the family, the team and the town. We wondered how backward the town seemed in dealing with the rape, especially considering the evidence produced by the girl’s bruising.  Since I worked for several years at the Rape Crisis Center in Tucson, I felt that the author dealt with the rape too stereotypically.  We discussed the MeToo Movement, Bill Cosby, and more.

I liked the book because it explained the town’s obsession with hockey, but others found it not interesting enough and depressing. Hockey is a violent sport, especially as described in Beartown. It was a hot, humid and melancholy July evening.

I started moderating the Whitney Library book club over five years ago.  The group has been meeting for many more years.  I learned just before the meeting that one of our long-time members, Norm Henderson, passed away. He will be sorely missed.  My husband always reminds me to find out what Norm thought of the book! Our heartfelt condolences go out to Carol and her family.

  • Other Works Discussed:
  • The Art of Fielding(2011) by Chad Harbach
  • The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics(2013) by Daniel James Brown
  • Author Dick Francis and son author Felix Francis
  • Concussion(DVD) Will Smith, 2015
  • Smooth Talk(DVD) Laura Dern, 1985


[i]Landesman, P. (Director). (2016). Concussion[Video file]. United States: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Retrieved July 12, 2018, from


Go Set A Watchman Discussion Journal

From reviews and buzz I had read about Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee’s much anticipated second novel, I had expected more dissent, dislike of the sometimes rough writing, disillusionment with the change in Atticus, disgust with the publishing hype, and perhaps even open political warfare! Nothing quite so exciting happened at our meeting, yet, like the book, it was an inspiring and moving discussion.GoSetAWatchmanCover

Two of our members had read the book previously and had not liked it; but reading it again, they really liked it. One member hadn’t liked the first half, but by the end he understood why his wife had been compelled to read it twice in a row. Another felt that he now understood more about the South and the Civil War. Still another found it easy to read.

We discussed a bit about the development of character: Atticus from the beloved icon in To Kill A Mockingbird to the more realistic older lawyer; Scout to Jean Louise, a spoiled and lucky Finch; Henry, the suitor and young, Southern “white trash.”  Would Uncle Jack have hit Jean Louise? Was Atticus racist? Was Jean Louise color blind? We weren’t all clear on how the book ended.

We agreed that there wasn’t actually a plot. We were so much more taken with the philosophy, the history. We all seemed to be watchmen, reporting on what we’ve seen – and read — over our varied lives. We wondered if the concept of “white trash” still exists. We wondered about the right to vote and one member suggested that politicians should be required to take a literacy test! We remembered being in all white schools and towns. We were amazed at the idea that there actually had been places with separate drinking fountains and bathrooms.

One of us remembered that she had been in a school with people of all the same race, but that they were mostly Christians, and Muslims were not understood, different.  She had parents with good, Federal jobs, so she had been able to afford the bus, riding past three Caucasian schools, literally looking down on those who had to walk.

Go Set A Watchman made us think and recall and wonder. We’ve wondered much of this before. We didn’t resolve anything. We didn’t always agree. We don’t all know if we were changed because of what we read. Yet we made an us, without needing a them, all because of a book.

  • Other Works Discussed:
  • To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Puddin’head Wilson by Mark Twain
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  • When The Killings Done by T.C. Boyle
  • Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard
  • The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills
  • Same kind Of Different As Me by Ron Hall
  • The United States Constitution

The Yellow Birds Discussion Journal

The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers, was not easy to read – and not just because of the subject matter. It is definitely not a book to read late at night, when you are tired and falling asleep. I re-read pages, sometimes just trying to understand content, but other times just to savor the concept or imagery. “Where little drifts of snow sketched the December wind.” “When I got fed up with nothing.” “Empathy is an imaginative act.”YellowBirdsCover

I was not surprised at all that our first responder emphatically shared that she hated it – and several members agreed. Several had not finished the book, and one member had nearly vomited trying to read it. I had skimmed through many of the hardest scenes, but members were often able to clarify what happened, even quickly find the necessary passages. One member liked the book. She found the writing beautiful, and several others then agreed. Some of us would want to have our children’s bodies returned to us, whatever the condition.  Others adamantly would not. All seemed to agree that Bartle should not have been imprisoned for his part. Fifteen people at our meeting – the same yet different.

We discussed how family members and friends never talk about what happened during their service and how different our wars have been.  The world wars were fought to fight great evil and veterans are generally admired.  The Vietnam and Korean war veterans met disdain at home; their wars seemed lost and purposeless to those at home.  Veterans of our current wars are often met with gratitude and thanks for their service, even though we may disparage the war itself. Yet the author shared his own sense that in fighting a senseless and purposeless war, he was ashamed and uncomfortable with the gratitude. “It was a sign and we knew what it meant, that hours had passed, that we had drawn nearer to our purpose, which was as vague and foreign as the indistinguishable dawns and dusks with which it came.”

The Yellow Birds was a National Book Award finalist. But the author is primarily a poet, and as we discussed whether his writing was any good, I read from an interview in which Kevin Powers was asked about “the deeply lyrical quality” of his prose. He responded in part: “In trying to demonstrate Bartle’s mental state, I felt very strongly that the language would have to be prominent. Language is, in its essence, a set of noises and signs that represent what is happening inside our heads.” (Kindle Version)*

One member mentioned that to truly understand the author’s intent, she would have to read it again and again.  Another member said he would like to read it, now that we had discussed it. But would we? Could we? Does our understanding make a difference? Do we have any power? One member said that we should give the book to our politicians to read.

Even then, the author often describes rather than tells, and the reader’s perception is everything.  I read aloud a passage that had moved me, “I knew that at least a few of the stars were probably gone already, collapsed into nothing. I felt like I was looking at a lie.” One member quickly responded, “Why a lie. History.”

Our next book is more main stream, the sixth in a mystery series that includes dogs. After The Yellow Birds, I think we are all ready for something lighter. I seldom read books before I select them. I have read reviews, looked at lists, thought about themes, diversity, and content. If I read them first, I’d be hard pressed to choose a book I didn’t like, so we’d be limited. As one member commented, “We’re all in this together!” Thanks for joining the discussion.

*A conversation with Kevin Powers and Jonathan Ruppin of Foyles Bookshop, London

All book and interview quotations taken from the electronic version of The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2012.

  • Other Works Discussed:
  • All’s Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
  • Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves
  • Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford
  • Rudyard Kipling
  • Wilfred Owen (Poems by)
  • Redeployment by Phil Klay (Short Stories – 2014 National Book Award Winner)
  • Thank You For Your Service by David Finkel (2013 Non-Fiction)

We discussed a few more, but I didn’t get the names. Most of these are from the First World War. If you have additions, please comment!

The Beginner’s Goodbye Discussion Journal

On Tuesday, the Whitney Book Bistro discussed The Beginner’s Goodbye. I had chosen BeginnersGoodbyeCoverthe book because Anne Tyler is a remarkable and well-liked writer. The book is a 2012 Booklist Editor’s Choice selection, was given a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, and Library Journal called it “essential reading.” Every book we read has some detractors, and Beginner’s Goodbye was no exception. The Kirkus reviewer called it “an uncharacteristically slight work by a major novelist.”

Although one member didn’t like the book and another found it to be an easy read but wondered at the end why he had read it, we found plenty to discuss – almost as if we were discussing friends and neighbors. One member found the first part of the book slow and said she would not have finished if it hadn’t been a book club book. But by the end, she liked it.

I wondered at the end of last month’s journal how our expectations would inform our reading, and I definitely sensed a fondness for Anne Tyler that superseded this particular work. One member felt the author wrote a male narrator convincingly, another remarked that it was no wonder since Tyler was the older sister of three brothers!

Nothing really extraordinary happens in the book, and that is perhaps its strength. We can so easily identify with the ordinariness. Even the narrator’s visits with his deceased wife are not the spectacular hauntings of a ghost but the subtle insistence of memory. Perhaps. One member wished that there was a companion book, telling the story from the wife’s viewpoint, and most of us seemed to agree.  We even joked that we should contact Anne Tyler to make the suggestion.

The Beginner’s Goodbye is a book about loss and regret, and I was moved by the members who were willing to share their own losses with the group – parents, children, spouses. When I choose a book for the group to read, looking at award winners, popular authors, well-regarded authors, diverse topics, I often worry about wasting our time or missing something great. The Beginner’s Goodbye made me think about missed opportunities, and I’m glad the book club isn’t one of them.

Other books mentioned:

  •             A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon (2011 book club selection)
  •             Netherland by Jospeh O’neill (Sept. 2012 book club selection)
  •             The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman
  •             Author Wally Lamb
  •             Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard
  •             Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
  •             Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

When the Killing’s Done Discussion Journal

WhenTheKillingsDone3During our discussion of When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle, the words most often used were — too much detail; and the majority of those present didn’t seem to care for the book. One member mentioned that in other book clubs, members have rated the books they read, and that on a scale of 1 to 4, she would have rated it a two. Another member wished she had researched a little more about the islands, so we watched a short National Parks Service video about bringing the island of Santa Cruz back into balance, which we all agreed was exactly the kind of video that the antagonist in the story would have called propaganda! At least one member really liked the book, though, especially because of the great detail. Even as we discussed how unlikable the environmentalist Dave LaJoy was, one member felt that he was the character that kept the book interesting. A necessary plot device.

We nostalgically discussed farms, animal rights, and meat. Do animals who have never known the outdoors and freedom know the difference? The unknown dangers of chemicals, from DDT to penicillin tooth paste, cigarettes to the next wonder drug. One member brought in a recent article from the Las Vegas Review Journal about the over abundance of Ravens and the damage they cause, which directly relates to the ravenous scavengers in the book. The story certainly has topical appeal. We all agreed that the significance of the title, When the Killing’s Done, is that the killing is never done.

I was interested in the beauty of the language Boyle used, which often stood out to me almost as strikingly as that used by Daniel Woodrell in Winter’s Bone; and one member agreed that you could open the book up to most any page and find a beautifully descriptive passage. But even as the group raved about the descriptions in Winter’s Bone, Boyle’s language barely registered in our discussion. One member described reading the book as simply laborious. Perhaps, the language gets lost in the detail.

Other books mentioned during our discussion:  Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver and Ape House by Sara Gruen.  So many books, so little time! Our March discussion will be Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler. The group seemed excited by the choice. I wonder how our expectations will inform our reading? Check back next month.

Miracle at St. Anna Discussion Journal

MiracleAtStAnnaCoverThis past Tuesday, the Whitney Book Bistro discussed Miracle at St. Anna by James McBride. The discussion brought forth stories from our members—stories about segregation and race, about war, politics, and remembrance.  The immediate reaction from the group was that the story was just too sad. And many found it confusing, difficult to keep the characters straight and filled with an odd depiction of miracles/spiritualism. Yet the discussion was full and varied; and we only referred to one question from the discussion prompts.

Everyone seemed to find Miracle at St. Anna educational and worthwhile, but not all of us would have chosen to read it. I chose the book because, although I don’t generally read war novels, or violent crime novels, I had been impressed by McBride’s bestselling memoir, The Color of Water.  I was equally impressed by his first novel, Miracle at St. Anna. I found it beautiful and uplifting—from the simplicity of Train, who thinks rubbing a statue head can make him invisible, to the decency of a German soldier amidst inhuman cruelty, through the continuing miracle of life and love through the ages. Of course, in between is some ugly fighting, deception, and politics.

Our views of the things we read are so often tempered by our moods and experiences. We may love a book on a first read and despise it on a second! One of the great things about discussing and sharing books is that it can bring new understanding to the books and in many ways, to the world around us.

At the meeting, one member remarked that perhaps we should discuss the books before we read them. Discussion makes a difference.