Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Leave the World Behind Discussion Journal

Our July selection was chosen and the discussion led by a colleague who is more aware of new and diverse books than anyone I know. Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam was easy to read, well-reviewed, timely, multi-layered, and for many of us, frustrating. A family goes on vacation in Long Island and is joined by the owners when the power in New York City goes out, as well as all other communication – cell service, internet, and television. The reader is given insights the characters don’t have, but few answers. LeaveTheWorldBehind

Our first responder listened to the audiobook and skipped forward to find out what happened, only to realize that she couldn’t find the answer.  The uncertainty drove us crazy, even if that was possibly the author’s point—especially now that we are so addicted to technology and immediate answers. Why didn’t George and Ruth go to find their daughter? Why did they still have electricity in the country? Unending whys. Could we even know what we would do in such a disaster? Which is scarier – knowing or not knowing?

One of us was particularly interested in the extraordinary movement of deer and felt that Rose was an explorer, a survivor. She thought the story had the feel of a Twilight Zone.  A new member had seen how highly recommended this book was and isn’t sure why. She could see this as a film by M. Night Shyamalan and was particularly disturbed by the boy’s loss of his teeth. Another of us did not read the blurbs and had no idea what it was about.  He was reading along and the kid lost his teeth with only 60 pages left! It was just sad.

Several people mentioned the grocery purchases that were a page long, going on…and on…and on. Was this to show their wealth, indulgence, the mundanity of their lives about to be upended? We still didn’t really understand or believe their behavior. Was the screaming Hispanic woman even real? Clay’s behavior was odd and selfish enough for him to have been hallucinating. Amanda’s casual nudity was aberrant. The author stated in an interview “We just want to be told what to do and when we aren’t, it is scary. We’ve always needed to know.”[i]

One of us was particularly moved thinking about how lucky we are in the United States.  This story is terrifying because everyone in the story is out of control of their known world.  Yet people all over the world have experienced similarly life-changing events. He specifically referenced the 26th Anniversary of the Srebrenica Massacre recently in the news.[ii] He came back to the helplessness of parents and terrible things that happen every day, including the number of people who die every year of excessive heat or influenza.

We also took a moment to think of books and movies similar to Leave the World Behind, and I brought up our previous selections of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and Dog Stars by Peter Heller. Our new member recommends The End of October by Lawrence Wright. Our moderator mentioned Age of Miracles, a 2012 book by Karen Thomas Walker that also focuses on how humanity deals with the changes caused by the impending end of the world.

Our moderator ended the meeting by asking from the discussion questions: “If you had read the novel before 2020, do you think you would have had a different response to it? If so, in what way?” Most of us did not think that we would have read the book any differently, considering the reality of record-high lows, which we are experiencing now; the need to bring our desert tortoise into the house for survival; and the freaky dependence on technology that says, “I noticed you are awake, would you like me to turn off your alarm?” In addition, our newest member had been looking primarily for racial issues, something we didn’t discuss but that could give us plenty of fodder for further conversations.  Please read the comments for email responses and add your own if you think of something!

  • FILMS: Andromeda Strain (1971), Love and Monsters (2020), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 and 1978)
  • BOOKS:
  • Age of Miracles (2012) Karen Thomas Walker
  • Dog Stars (2012) Peter Heller
  • End of October (2020) Lawrence Wright
  • Station Eleven (2014) Emily St. John Mandel

[i] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/nov/06/rumaan-alam-what-we-are-experiencing-now-is-part-of-a-bigger-moment

[ii] “The slaughter of more than 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks, most of them men and boys, by Bosnian Serb forces was commemorated in speeches, prayers and song, followed by the reburial of victims whose remains were found in mass graves and recently identified through DNA analysis.” Web accessed 7-14-2021.  https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2021-07-11/bosnia-commemorates-26th-anniversary-of-srebrenica-massacre

The Satapur Moonstone Discussion Journal

The Satapur Moonstone is the second in a series by Sujata Massey about a female lawyer in India circa 1921. Although Perveen Mistry is fictional, she is based on “two women lawyers in India who practiced between the 1890s and into the 1930’s.”[i] For our readers, the historical setting and period details are both the most appealing and off-putting elements of the novel. We all agreed that it was tedious to look up so many words and many of us did not discover the glossary until too late! Our discussion included the usual first response, ease of reading, inquiry into character development, believability, and associations – personal and fictional.SatapurMoonstone

I started the meeting by reviewing materials we have available through the library to further our understanding of the setting, as well as to showcase some of the author’s historical accuracy.  One of her references is to a collection of letters written by E.M. Forster, the author of A Passage to India who served as secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas Senior in 1921. Forester’s The Hill of Devi describes a similar world to that of The Satapur Moonstone as a primary resource rather than fiction!

All of us at the meeting liked the book. Our first responder was particularly moved by reading about India at the same time we have been inundated with news coverage of the devastation Covid is wreaking there.[ii]  She also has been watching The Resident, and the book increased her understanding of the television character Devon Pravesh. Another member finds that reading about different cultures has always shown her that people everywhere are not having the same experiences and helps her appreciate what she has. When we discussed crowds, one of us mentioned how when visiting India he found you could never be alone. This is another reason why personal memories triggered by associations with books are an important aspect of our book club, in addition to shared experiences of the same books.

We touched on the Indian caste system and the limited opportunities for the Anglo-engineer character to fit into either the Indian or the British Royal world, as well as the impact of so many religions. How did they have parties while practicing Purdah? We looked at the distances travelled, carried in a palanquin, the lack of access to roads and transportation keeping people trapped in the palaces as much as did their caste. We also discussed the increased interest in genealogy because of DNA testing. One of our member’s grandsons had assumed that he was of Mexican heritage but was excited to learn that he is nearly a quarter Native American. Understanding ancestry, like a glass half full or half empty, depends on the perspective. This was not said in the meeting, but it seems apropos.

Although those of us at the meeting found the story compelling to read, we didn’t quite understand how both the doctor and the grandmother accepted that the young maharajah was killed by a tiger. We liked the young princess, her and her mother’s ways of getting what they wanted in a world that limited them, that could not allow them a compliment if the chosen son did not receive a better one first. One of us thought the story was like Beauty and the Beast: the palace was gay and full of life before the curse that killed the Maharajah and trapped them until the mystery was solved and the evil vanquished! We did not discuss the romance, which was definitely left as a teaser for the next book, The Bombay Prince.

We met on the stage again and I didn’t turn on the overhead lights in order to keep it cooler, but the shadowy atmosphere seemed stuffy and grim.  Although we no longer have limits on attendance or social distancing, and vaccinated attendees do not need to wear masks unless they so choose, we still have not added snacks back into our meetings.  I missed it here especially, since the setting is perfect for a taste of something exotic. I will add some of our emailed comments and hope you will continue the discussion!

  • The Namesake (2003) by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • The Resident (2018) television series

  • A Passage to India (1924) by E.M. Forster (Book and Film)
  • Maharanis: A Family Saga of Four Queens (2006) by Lucy Moore
  • Ayurveda: The Ancient Indian Medical System, Focusing on Prevention of Disease Through Diet, Lifestyle and Herbalism (2013) by Gopi Warrier
  • Ayurveda for Modern: a Practical Guide to Understanding & Nourishing Your Body (2020) by Eminé Ali Rushton

[i] Excerpt from an interview: “Sujata Massey on Her New Novel, The Satapur Moonstone. Reading Women discuss 1920’s India and the woman lawyer who inspired the Perveen Mistry Series. By Reading Women – July 31, 2019.” Web access 5-8-2021:  https://lithub.com/sujata-massey-on-her-new-novel-the-satapur-moonstone/.

[ii] Today’s, June 10th, CNBC headline:   “India reports more than 6,000 daily Covid deaths — highest ever in the world.”  https://www.cnbc.com/2021/06/10/india-covid-crisis-more-than-6000-deaths-recorded-in-24-hours.html

Exhalation Discussion Journal

What makes a story science fiction? We didn’t discuss this at our meeting, but we probably should have.[i] In the past ten years, our group has read about twelve books I would classify as speculative fiction and fantasy, with War of the Worlds, The Martian, and Frankenstein the most technology based. And two of those were written in the nineteenth century! In addition, I believe this is only our second collection of short stories.EXHALATION

I encouraged everyone to read at least the first story, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” because I believed it was the most likely to be enjoyed. According to the Author’s “Story Notes,” he set out intentionally to make a story in which the inability to change the past was not “necessarily a cause for sadness.”[ii]

In general, the majority of our responders liked this story, and several mentioned the author’s final sentences: “Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.” During the meeting, we few discussed the idea of destiny and free will, a theme in most of the stories in this collection. If you can travel into the future but not do anything differently in the past when you return to change that destiny, do you still have free will? At what age is traveling to view the future less appealing? KC identified with the desire to revisit the past in order better to understand and perhaps find closure for histories that are hard to let go.  I also mentioned Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist (1988), an oft-requested allegorical novella that concerns making one’s destiny happen. Why did Chiang choose an alchemist as the creator of the time portal?

As we discussed this first story, we segued into other stories as well as personal reflections. Ted Chiang’s stories, even when they are filled with technology as is the title story “Exhalation,” are primarily philosophical. Our science fiction readers have noted that some of the ideas covered in this collection—time travel, artificial intelligence, multi-world theory—are not new, but the author’s humanity impresses me even as the science and philosophy make my brain hurt!

Several responders could not get interested in many of the stories beyond “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.” So much has been lost this year that I would like to include these excerpts from this story, even though we did not discuss them:

  • “like eternal fire, grief burns but does not consume, instead it makes the heart vulnerable to further suffering.”
  • “grief owes no debt.”

I miss our larger meetings, even though sometimes in the past the group size was overwhelming. I appreciate how connected we have stayed, at least through email, and I will post responses for Exhalation in the comments. A good story or idea may return to us for years and be very different when revisited! This journal may not be as accurately recorded as the video from the story “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling,” but I hope you will find it a reliable catalyst for these times of our lives and our reading. Thank you for sharing your time and memories with us.

  • (Descending order when read by Whitney Book Bistro)

  • Spoonbenders (2017) Daryl Gregory   MAY 2019
  • Elevation (2018) Stephen King  DECEMBER 2019
  • The Martian (2014) Andy Weir  MARCH 2018
  • The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007) Michael Chabon  MAY 2017
  • Station Eleven (2014) Emily St. John Mandel    MAY 2016
  • Frankenstein (1818) Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley   JANUARY 2015
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013) Neil Gaiman   JUNE 2015
  • Wicked (1995) Gregory Maguire   APRIL 2014
  • Dog Stars (2012) Peter Heller   JUNE 2014
  • Flight Behavior (2012) Barbara Kingsolver  DECEMBER 2013

Previous Short Story Collection selected:  This Is How You Lose Her (2012) Junot Diaz

  • Classic Sci-Fi:  War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells
  • Fantasy: Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey
  • If you want to think:  Dragon’s Egg, Robert L. Forward and Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein
  • Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
  • If you want to read a very long saga, try the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov
  • [i] According to dictionary.com, Science Fiction is “a form of fiction that draws imaginatively on scientific knowledge and speculation in its plot, setting, theme, etc.” Based on the THE RANDOM HOUSE UNABRIDGED DICTIONARY, © RANDOM HOUSE, INC. 2021. Web accessed 5-13, 2021:  https://www.dictionary.com/browse/science-fiction.   Several other definitions include more specifically “fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals.” Similar definitions were found through Google and Britannica.com.  This particular definition came from Merriam-webster.com and was web accessed 5-13-2021: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/science%20fiction.
  • [ii] At the end of the book, the author includes “Story Notes” in which he explains his inspiration for writing each story and reading these can not only help with understanding the stories, but is interesting in general.

Fates and Furies Discussion Journal

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. . . . . From the title, I expected something epic.  From the publisher’s description, “And sometimes, it turns out, the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets,” I expected something revelatory. From the acclaim, I expected to be impressed. Perhaps great expectations are meant to be dashed.

As I started reading, I was worried about members’ reactions.  I even thought quite a bit about the story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”[i] Then, only one week after our last meeting, JT wrote a scathing review that gave me even more pause.  I will include it in the comments. Fates and Furies has been the first, and I hope only, book I have withdrawn. I don’t regret writing to warn readers how difficult the book is – CH wrote that she was glad to know that she was not the only one! RMP wrote that she was going to give it a try, but after starting the audiobook, she wasn’t so sure. I had quite a few other readers concur.

At our in-person discussion, KC reminded me that we read the book because of the book club and accept the difficulty. We read, looking for something about which to comment. He mentioned Carol B., who always came with pages of notes! Well, that commitment is not always true, especially now that our meetings are down to just three or four of us! We miss the varying points that bounce around. I still remember when, in response to Landline by Rainbow Rowell, one of us said she threw the book across the room when the author introduced a magic telephone. And Carol moved out of state in February. 

So what did we think of Fates and Furies? JG hadn’t read the book, but she made a good contribution when talking about character motivations and the value of books outside our box. Although the language and descriptions are remarkable, they were not enjoyable for me. There There by Tommy Orange had some unidentifiable characters, but his descriptions seemed important and his language beautiful or necessary.  I did not enjoy reading descriptions of a dog’s penis as a “tube of lipstick all the way extended.” Perhaps, if we were immersed in classical themes, mythology, and Shakespeare, which often have a lot of bawdy humor, incestuous and devious behavior, we might be better prepared to appreciate the grandiose treatment. KC chose this description to share, “Like most deadly attractive people, he had a hollow at the center of him.” Ha!

Since the secrets Mathilde kept stemmed from her childhood, it particularly reminded me of Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child, in which the adult reverted to the child to heal her trauma. KC and I agreed that Lotto’s sister and aunt were the only likeable characters. Lotto is a narcissist and Mathilde is both a fate and a fury. KC felt the intrusion of Lotto’s plays seemed too much, but the book is packed full and we might need to read it again. But will we? I think not.

I certainly expect us to fare better next month as we read a collection of short stories by Ted Chiang. Exhalation is still a challenge, since we have only seldom read science fiction or fantasy, but sometimes reading something outside of this world can help us understand it even better!

At the meeting I shared a list of themes as well as other book club selections that seem related to me. It can be a great challenge to look back at what we read. Please comment or send me a message if you would like to continue the discussion!  Thanks always.


  • Marriages:
    • –Lotto and Mathilda
  • –Chollie and Danica
  • –Antoinette and Gawain
  • –Samuel and three wives
  • –Mathilda’s parents
  • Children – parental/environmental/economic/genetic influences
  • Gender roles
  • Mythology – Grandiose
  • Literary Pornography
  • What makes an award winner?


  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
  • Less by Andrew Sean Greer
  • Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
  • Landline by Rainbow Rowell
  • Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple
  • Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler
  • Netherland by Joseph O’Neill
  • Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman
  • Circling the Sun by Paula McClain
  • There There by Tommy Orange
  • God Help the Child by Toni Morrison
  • This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
  • Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware
  • Defending Jacob by William Landay

[i] There are many versions of this story, perhaps dating back over 1000 years.  The one I think of is by Hans Christian Anderson (1837). 

Next Year in Havana Discussion Journal

I did not receive as many responses for Next Year in Havana as I have for some of our other selections and our discussion group included just four of us. We haven’t been so few in many a year.  And all of the responses have been positive. That is not to say that we weren’t critical at times.  I can be a very critical reader, especially since I am responsible for choosing the books and want them to be a magical combination of diverse, educational, and engaging enough to keep readers coming back.  As usual, I learned more from our group’s response than I did from any of the reviews I read!NextYearInHavanaCover

When I read Next Year in Havana, I was disappointed.  I liked it in spots, particularly the historical view through Elisa, but the modern counterpart seemed more like a predictable romance novel when I read “a tremor slides through me” as Marisol and Luis’ hands touch.  I was concerned that political views were too one-sided.  I finished the book quickly and didn’t return to it.

Our first responder reminded me immediately why we read such a variety and can have such divergent responses.  Visiting Cuba is on her Bucket List.  I will post her response as a comment because she included salient points that made a difference. At the meeting, another member was immersed in the location and had recommended the book to a neighbor who had visited Cuba. Our connections to a locale, to each other, always make a difference and collective reading just strengthens these connections.

I was surprised how many responders were particularly glad to learn more about Cuba than just the Cuban Missile Crisis and refugees.  It was a nice love story, educational, surprising to some and left several wanting more. The writing was engaging and the parallel story kept readers hooked – although one of us admitted that he would occasionally skip an alternating chapter to keep up with one character’s story.

One member was particularly moved by a passage on page 160 that talked about loss – the kind of loss that creeps up on you:

“You lose your favorite pair of shoes, but there is still another, and the baby needs to be fed, . . . and this goes on for a long time until you realize you’re down to your last pair and they have holes in them, . . . and when you’re finally able to replace them, there’s an overwhelming sense of relief, and you forget that you once had twenty pairs, that once you lived like kings, and now you serve on bended knee, fighting for every inch.”

We still had a lot of questions.  Why didn’t Elisa tell her granddaughter about her romance with Pablo?  Why did the Cuban government fear Luis? What was Pablo’s family like? Who was visiting Cuba when U.S. Americans could not?  How did life for peasants, especially those in the country, change?  How awful it would be to live where there was no hope for improvement, no dreams other than revolution and war. Doesn’t Cuba have an exemplary educational and medical system? Don’t they have a strong artistic and sports community? How lucky are we to have so much information available to us if we want to search it out?

Since the Pandemic started, just one year ago, we have lived in a new library world of social distance, electronic books, and virtual meetings elsewhere, but not for the Whitney Book Bistro. Several people, not just book club members, have shared with me that their ability to focus has changed.  Books don’t hold their attention, the mind wanders.  Some read articles, or laugh that “fluff” reigns; others may actually have greater focus on what matters to them most, whatever that is.  In the first chapter of our selection, Elisa says that “the entire airport holds its collective breath” as they prepare to leave Cuba, and I imagine many of us are holding ours, not just wondering whether our vaccinations will make a difference but what our new lives will be like in a country we have never left, but from which over half a million others are permanently gone.

Down the River and Unto the Sea Journal

Usually, this journal is the result of our group discussion of our monthly selections, tempered of course by my own reading of the book. Since we have not met for the last two months, DownTheRiverUntoTheSeaCoverthis has been challenging.  One member explicitly stated that he would have finished Down the River Unto the Sea, despite his lack of interest, if we had been meeting in person.  Our library book club is particularly important for motivating us to get outside our usual book box, expanding our horizons in addition to creating shared experiences and a broader, diverse community.

I chose Down the River Unto the Sea because Walter Mosely is a well-renowned author of a variety of genres, though he is best known for his gritty detective novels that feature Easy Rawlins.  I also wanted to choose a book that could “deepen the understanding and appreciation of Black life in the United States.”[i]  With the pandemic isolating and terrorizing us, political polarization, the Me Too Movement and Black Lives Matter, among many other challenges, greater understanding and empathy offered through reading and discussion, in small, local groups that remind us of our humanity are needed more than ever.

That said . . .

As with some of the few responses I received, I was initially disturbed by Walter Mosely’s lead character’s actions as he is all too easily seduced by a woman he is supposed to arrest and then spends his entire working shift with her, not working.  He is bitter and angry and protests that “law for me was scripture.” But what law? He was a married man.

Morals. I read in a travel guide once that retiring to Belize has a lot of benefits, as long as you are okay with a little bit of larceny.  Who would be okay with a little bit of larceny? Down the River Unto the Sea made me think about that a lot.  I also skimmed through several brutal scenes, especially near the end.  I am not a usual reader of police thrillers. Like several of our book club members, I am much more likely to read cozier literary mysteries.

However, Walter Mosley’s prose is easy to read, his descriptions fresh and realistic:

  • “. . .you don’t feel the blows through the rage, but that night the bone bruises hurt like hell.”
  • “. . . time congealed around me like amber over a mosquito.”
  • “The dollar is my master, but I ain’t no slave.”
  • “When it came to cops as victims I was just another brick in the Blue Wall.”
  • One of his characters says that “his greatest wish, when he was a child, was to change into something different; like wolves had become dogs or dinosaurs birds.”
  • I was particularly moved by his description of being “chained in a metal chair to the table and the floor.” In a tour of the Clark County Detention Center, I twice saw men chained to such a chair, howling, with people moving about as if nothing was happening.

When my husband was reading the novel, he kept chuckling at the descriptions. He commented that every time new characters were introduced, their skin color was described.  I had not noticed this: “gray-eyed with olive skin and kinky blond hair;” “fair-skinned;” “black like the Spanish Madonna;” ”white like aged ivory;” “bronze-red skin;” “His dark brown skin could have been mine.” And many more.

I mentioned to a black co-worker how remarkable I found Walter Mosley’s description of every character’s skin color.  He responded nonchalantly that yes, in most books characters are just assumed to be white.  I will definitely be looking for this in the future.

It is easy to find more comprehensive reviews of Down the River Unto the Sea online—just like most of our books.  If you read it, what did you think? Even if you didn’t like it, will you read or perceive the world any differently? Walter Mosely has a short story collection called, The Awkward Black Man (2020). I haven’t read it, but, sometimes, short stories are bite-sized enough to give us a taste of something different.  I look forward to your responses – to this or any other books you care to share.  It matters.

[i] Walter Mosely’s website, accessed 02-11-2021:  https://www.waltermosley.com/bio/

Down the River Unto the Sea (2018) by Walter Mosely. Publisher: Mulholland Books. Kindle version: Hatchette Book Group

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