The Library Book Discussion Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://www.reviewjournal.com/local/the-strip/hell-on-earth-40-years-ago-a-historic-fire-at-the-mgm-grand-2181965/

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

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

 

Lightning Strike Discussion Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Night Watchman Discussion Journal

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

Two members kept notes!

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Harlem Shuffle Discussion Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

Mexican Gothic Discussion Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General recommendations discussed at the meeting!

Books by Ken Follett

Robert Mitchum’s Caravans


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

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

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

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

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

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

Anxious People Discussion Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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