The Water Dancer Discussion Journal

We had a packed meeting this month – with fourteen people and erupting conversations. Half of us had not finished reading The Water Dancer, by Ta-nehisi Coates, but most of us seemed to have been moved by the subject matter.WaterDancerCover

Ta-nehisi Coates was born in 1975—which makes him older than I guessed during the meeting. He attended Howard University from 1993-1997, and although he did not graduate, “Coates became a journalist, writing for a range of publications that included the Washington Times, Washington Post, Washington Monthly, Entertainment Weekly, Time, Village Voice, and the Atlantic.”  In 2015, Coates’ second book, Between the World and Me, won the National Book Award for nonfiction.[i]

Our first responder this month found The Water Dancer to be an insightful and personal introduction to slavery. He said that he had never before had it brought home to his heart the psychological harm of being torn away from family. Another of us felt the sense of family to be particularly strong and moving.

We also discussed how slavery has existed throughout time – and still exists today. As one of us stated, “whoever has the power. . .”  We could have had an engaging discussion about slavery in general, and slavery in the southern United States in particular, but The Water Dancer was our focus for this discussion. The author did not force us to read detailed descriptions of violence and abuse. One member thought that the understatement of the typical atrocities of slavery made the fact of it more horrifying. Another mentioned that the diverse books we read can  often be traumatizing. The author’s fairness and understanding of humanity reminds me of Toni Morrison, offering white characters like the tutor/spy, fighting and dying to save a friend’s family from slavery.

Coates’ use of the terms “Tasked” and “Quality,” rather than slave and master, enabled us to relate to the story on multiple levels, including relevance to current events, the drudgery of doing laundry by hand, the importance of the family you make as well as the family you lose and the need for elders to keep track of possible relation so you don’t marry your own sister (and other relevant details that memory and history provide!). Did we like Corrinne? Was she a general or just another kind of “Quality,” controlling others?

In theory, the magic transport created through the power of memory and family enabled the author to tie in the myths[ii] created by Harriet Tubman’s astounding success as well emphasize the importance of these connections, but one of our group found it demeaning to Harriet Tubman[iii]. Which is amazing that both of these can be true and we can still be friends!

Several of us had difficulty getting into the book, perhaps because the author was trying to conceal this magic power, but once he was onto the Underground Railroad we were hooked. Still, some details were unclear and we wondered if it is our difficulty with the author’s style. This is his first novel. One member was reading slowly, looking up, learning, and appreciating. We went through the discussion questions to keep us on track and discovered many reasons water is important in the novel: conduction, travel, slave ships, connections, life.

I think in smaller groups we might have had a more in-depth discussion about some of these topics, but our size also gave us so much more to think about. I don’t usually list members names, both for privacy and accuracy, but these discussions and shared reading experiences are our connections and this journal is our memory: Javier, Marie, Paul, Laura, Dottie, Jean, Rose Marie, Phyllis, John, Ken, Mary, Pier, Audrey, me, and anyone else who is reading this! The discussion shouldn’t stop here. And our memories and histories matter! Add your thoughts and keep it going.

  • Other works discussed/related:
  • Between the World and Me (2015) by Ta-nehisi Coates
  • The Black Panther (graphic novels) by Ta-nehisi Coates
  • God Help the Child (2015) by Toni Morrison
  • Harriet Tubman: a Life in American History (2022) Kerry S. Walters
  • Kindred (1979) by Octavia Butler
  • Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York City’s Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 missing Girl Case That Captivated A Nation (2017) by Brad Ricca
  • The Slave Narratives: various collections available
  • The Underground Railroad Records: Narrating the Hardships, Hairbreadth Escapes, and Death struggles of the Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom (1883) by William Still
  • Wench (2010) by Dolores Perkins-Valdez

[i] Ta-Nehisi Coates. (2016). In Contemporary Black Biography (Vol. 131). Gale. .

[ii] Fairly short, interesting reading;

Gross, T. (2019, September 24). Ta-Nehisi Coates on Magic, memory and the Underground Railroad. WBUR. Retrieved March 18, 2023, from .

[iii] The National Parks Services lists myths vs. facts about Harriet Tubman: .

The Dutch House Discussion Journal

Valentine’s Day in Las Vegas this year produced wind, snow pellets, lots of candy, and a fantastic discussion of The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. Some of us loved the book, no one seemed to hate it, and we all agreed that it was easy to read—a few times we even had competing conversations and cheerful chatter. We met in the teen zone and were joined by two new members.Jacket.aspx-4

I started the discussion by introducing Ann Patchett’s variety of well-renowned books, an article she wrote about her three fathers in The New Yorker[i] and inclusion in Time Magazine’s 2012 list of “The World’s 100 Most Influential People.”[ii] Apparently, her novel Commonwealth is relatively autobiographical and dedicated to her stepfather. I have not read any other Ann Patchett books, but knowing more about her experiences from my research gave me extra appreciation of her skill and authority in The Dutch House.

Our first responder was drawn to our group specifically because she read The Dutch House this last summer and loved it. She had a little trouble with the time hopping, but she became an Ann Patchett groupie and has been looking to find someone with whom to discuss the book. She recommended an article in Time Magazine[iii], which I believe answers some of our most pressing questions–straight from the author’s mouth!

Another first-time member said that this was not his “wheelhouse,” but after a while, he found himself wondering what would come next. One of us shared that she liked the way the book flowed, serpentine-like, allowing her to read in bits between other books. It made her think about her own family relationships. Another of us, as a woman of faith, was particularly disturbed by Elna’s abandoning her own children—even to do good work with the poor and the church. Someone asked if perhaps Elna had a mental health issue? Did she lose her faith? Was the father especially cold and distant, or a particularly good provider for his family? Throughout our discussion we had to remember that this was a different time-period. There was, and still is, a double standard for women. We did not answer all of the questions we posed. What would it be like to go from bars on the windows in Brooklyn to living in The Dutch House? Wasn’t Celeste pretentious? Was the author pretentious naming books we may never have read? How could Danny not become a doctor?

Because we were meeting on Valentine’s Day, I asked what role love played in the novel. First response: Andrea loved the house! Considering how she grabs Danny near the end, mistaking him for Cyril, she loved her husband, too. And that the father “was always looking at the space just over Maeve’s head” (pg. 39), did not necessarily mean he didn’t love her, but that she looked too much like Elna, whom he probably also loved. Danny is an unreliable narrator – both because we see only the things he knows and remembers, and because memory is unreliable. The author states this explicitly: “We overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered” (pg. 45).

Our member who recommended we read this book said that he likes Ann Patchett because she always has twists and surprises. He thought that the narrator was selfish and unforgiving. Someone said that was because Danny grew up with learned resentment, so we also discussed how we take good things for granted and dwell on the negative. Early in the novel, Danny says, “The truth is I have plenty of memories of her [Andrea] being perfectly decent. I just choose to dwell on the ones in which she wasn’t” (pg. 73).

The end of the hour discussion was upon us. I feel as if I have left out so much–both that we discussed and that I wish we had discussed! If you are unable to follow the links to the articles in the notes and would like paper copies, see me in the library! Keep the discussion going!

  • Other works/people discussed:
  • Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (2001) novel (2018) film
  • The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James (1896) I read a review[iv] that highlights the Patchett-James connection: “The Spoils of Poynton, [Patchett] cleverly appropriating that book’s use of a coveted house and its treasures as an index to human character.”
  • Actor/Activist Ofelia Medina – a woman who was supported by her spouse in both her career and activism.

[i] Patchett, Ann. “My Three Fathers: My Problems Were Never Ones of Scarcity. I Suffered from Abundance.” The New Yorker, 28 Sept. 2020,

[ii] Gilbert, Elizabeth. “Ann Patchett – the World’s 100 Most Influential People: 2012.” Time, Time Inc., 18 Apr. 2012,,28804,2111975_2111976_2112138,00.html.

[iii] Luscombe, B. (2019, September 26). Why Ann Patchett had to totally rewrite ‘the Dutch House.’ Time. Retrieved February 16, 2023, from 

[iv] Lowry, Elizabeth. “The Dutch House by Ann Patchett Review – an Irresistible Modern Fairytale.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 25 Sept. 2019,

The Alchemist Discussion Journal

Since 2014, the Whitney Book Bistro discusses a literature classic in January[i]. As you can see in the notes, most of our selections have been by British or American authors, because we are limited by the availability of books. We are fortunate that The Library District put together a book club kit for The Alchemist. Diverse selections are essential for us to build a strong community with shared experiences through books.Alchemist

Paulo Coelho wrote O Alquimista in two weeks in 1987.[ii] The first US printing was in 1993 and The Alchemist “eventually became one of the best-selling Brazilian novels ever published, and today it is one of the world’s most widely translated books.”[iii] According to PBS’s 2018 Great American Read, “the book spent more than six years on The New York Times Best Seller’s list.”[iv]

I opened the discussion by reminding us of The Alchemist’s popularity and the importance of everyone’s opinion. I struggled to enjoy this book, and I was particularly concerned that I would allow that opinion to dominate – but I also wanted very much to be persuaded to feel more favorably. Differences often make the best discussions and are the most informative for all of us, perhaps even more so when there is only one dissenting opinion. I read aloud a teacher’s justification that The Alchemist is a diverse and optimistic perspective in contrast to the “pessimistic nature of the body of works widely available and taught at the sophomore level.”[v]

Since no one spoke up quickly to be our first responder, I read aloud an email response from one of our remote readers. I will post her full text in the replies. She found the story initially to be “full of cheap platitudes and easy mystical pseudo-wisdom,” but ultimately “this is a worthwhile read, especially for those who have not yet been exposed to these ideas.” A couple of members were nodding as I read this response. One said that he found it to be an insipid self-help book with lame platitudes, reminding him of The Greatest Salesman in the World by Og Mandino (1968). Another said that she felt that at first, but as she read on, she really liked it! Still another member reminded us that this book was written over 30 years ago.

A library youth department staff member liked the book enough to attend. She had written one of the core principles on our Teen Zone board:  “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it” (pg. 23). She believes this idea is important because untapped talent needs to be encouraged. You don’t have to settle. Another staff member attended. They read it in high school in 2017 and their class focused on the idea that you do not need to settle for the easily achievable. Another member shared that she likes knowing that high schoolers are reading this. In high school, she had no idea what she wanted to do but, as others also agreed, too often we are told to focus on the money, on being able to support ourselves, to suppress our dreams.

One of us then wanted to know how many of us are doing now what we wanted to do in high school. Several people raised their hands. I noticed primarily our young people’s assistant and  thoughtlessly commented that she was too young! She graciously accepted this challenge and said that, for her, this was an auspicious moment to read this book at this point in her life. She particularly liked the part in the book when Santiago is discussing with the Sun and the Wind and finding his answers in the quiet, listening. Another member shared that he had wanted to travel the world and considered becoming a pilot. What he really wanted was to be a flight attendant, something not available to men at the time. Is it really too late for him? His nephew is now following this dream. Many of us moved on from disappointments, sometimes for the better. One member had given up a dream to become a fashion designer because a girl in her school received all the scholarships. She later learned that girl had dropped out! And what about “Maktub” or destiny? Do we really have a choice?

Which brought us to a discussion of The Alchemist and magical realism.  I read aloud one definition, but I had found several slightly different ones online and I encourage us all to look into it further. Basically, it is a primarily realistic world with elements of magic that help to highlight important, contrasting ideas. This term is most notably associated with Latin-American fiction, such as works by Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, and many others.[vi] One of us pointed out that movies, just by the fact that they are not real, are magical realism!

We discussed banned books, sexism, the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, use of alcohol (or marijuana) privately versus publicly, late night tv shows and censorship, and the origin of the phrase “son of a gun.” We also mentioned how you never want to meet your hero, and a visit to the Grand Canyon may be underwhelming.

As always, the discussion was varied and went in ways I couldn’t have imagined and have not fully covered here. Although I did not like many parts of The Alchemist, I continue to see its references in the world around me and I appreciate more than ever the importance of looking deeply into my opinions and accepting lessons and happy endings where I can find them.

Other works discussed:

  • Fates and Furies (2015) by Lauren Groff
  • Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (2022) Film, based on a series of books by Paul Gallico (2010)
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel García Márquez
  • “The Ruined Man Who Became Rich Again Through a Dream” from Tales of 1001 Nights or 1001 Arabian Nights

[i] To Kill a Mockingbird, Our Town, War of the Worlds, The Secret Garden, My Antonia, Puddinhead Wilson, Frankenstein, and we actually had 24 people attend for our first classic pick, Pride and Prejudice.

[ii] Goodyear, D. (2009). The Magus: The Astonishing Appeal of Paulo Coelho. In J. W. Hunter (Ed.), Contemporary Literary Criticism (Vol. 258). Gale. (Reprinted from New Yorker, 2007, May 7, 83[11], 38)

[iii] Explanation of: “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho. (2010). In LitFinder Contemporary Collection. Gale.

[iv] The Alchemist was listed as #70 of America’s most loved books. “THE GREAT AMERICAN READ was an eight-part series that explored and celebrated the power of reading, told through the prism of America’s 100 best-loved novels (as chosen in a national survey)*.”

[v]Lesson plan provided online for a unit written by Gene Brunak with the Portland Public School system.

[vi] The definition I read was from a tenth-grade lesson plan for The Alchemist.  I am posting a link to the Britannica online definition:

The Personal Librarian

Initially, when I asked if someone wanted to be our first responder, the room was surprisingly silent. Many of us had been visiting and chatty for the pre-gathering, so the pause seemed remarkable! With ten of us in the room, and despite the hesitant start, the discussion bounced back and forth revealing our engagement with the subject. The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray sparked our interest and our imaginations, so the discussion was peppered with questions and commentary about Belle da Costa Greene’s life, the idea and necessity of “passing,” and only a few personal connections.  

A snapshot: Belle was definitely smart, with a drive to provide a better life for herself and her family. Her story is reflective of many in which parents use their children to build their own dreams. How heartbreaking to be forced to make passing a choice – to follow your dreams but give up your heritage. She couldn’t even make eye contact with black servants. Was there a percentage of blackness?[i] Her experience in Europe, where shading was allowed was interesting. Everywhere has its caste system. Mexico is prejudiced against indigenous populations. The opulence of Belle’s life, travelling with a French maid to help her dress, was a particularly stark contrast to the life she would have led had her mother not chosen for them to pass as white.

But did we like the book? We didn’t love it; we did like it; we found it interesting. One of us nearly quit reading on page 196 when the description of Belle’s meeting with her long-time lover Berenson was so over-bearing. Many of us found it difficult to get into, but we kept reading to see what happened to her. Some of us were on pins and needles, wondering if she would ever be found out.

Some of were skeptical about a lot of things, which also highlights the difference between a well-documented non-fiction account and a fictionalized version such as The Personal Librarian. Belle burned all of her personal correspondence and we may never know the answer to many of our questions, but a non-fiction book called An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Green’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege by Heidi Ardizzone, was published in 2007. It is currently out of print, but the library does have an e-book available. I showed some pictures from the book as well as from a few internet references listed in the endnotes below.[ii]

We are fortunate to live in an age in which so much information is readily available. How did Belle research the documents she wanted to acquire? How did the auctions work? Why didn’t some of her adversaries find her out? One of us surmised that people assumed Belle was J.P. Morgan’s mistress, so no one would dare! Can we ever know the answers to our many questions? How will we know if it is true? This is a question for so many things these days.

For our final book discussion of 2022, we met in the library’s conference room. Although I like the coziness of the Teen Zone, the conference room’s brighter lighting and our usual large table, which keeps us together in one circle, was pleasant, like the comfort of the friends many of us have become – connected through books, movies and more! I look forward to seeing you all again in 2023!  Happy New Year!

Other Works Discussed:

Belle Greene by Alexandra Lapierre (2022 translation of the 2021 French novel)

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Wilkerson, Isabel (2020)

Gilded Age (2022 HBO Max Series created by Julian Fellowes)

Passing (2021 Netflix Film)

Pudd’inhead Wilson by Mark Twain (1894)

“The White Problem” by Richard T. Greener (1894 Essay)

[i] “The nation’s answer to the question ‘Who is black?” has long been that a black is any person with any known African black ancestry.” Public Broadcasting Service. (n.d.). Mixed race america – who is black? One nation’s definition | jefferson’s blood | frontline. PBS. Retrieved December 15, 2022, from 

[ii] •This is an article focusing on passing and mentions a videoplay performed and available to view by visiting First Baptist Church’s YouTubeChannel. I have not yet watched the video.  Walk through black history: ‘The life of belle da costa greene’., M. I. C. H. E. L. L. E. (2022, February 10). Retrieved December 15, 2022, from 

•The White Problem (PDF) Greener, R. T. (n.d.). The White Problem. Columbia, South Carolina; Christian K. Anderson. I found this online:

•Congress, L. of. (2018, March 20). Belle da Costa Greene: JP Morgan’s librarian & one of the highest paid women in the US ($25K/year in 1921 = $317K/year today) #chronamparty #Womenshistorymonth Twitter. Retrieved December 15, 2022, from 

•Chapter 41 refers to Lord Elgin taking statues from the Acropolis from Athens to London and then the news that the sculptures could return to Greece Pier noticed in the Las Vegas Review Journal!  Kirka, D. (2022, December 4). Parthenon Sculptures Could Return to Greece, pg. 13A

•During the meeting, we also looked up the meaning and pronunciation of incunabulum: “in-kyə-ˈna-byə-ləm  –  a book printed before 1501″

Clark and Division Discussion Journal

It was a dark and stormy night . . .  Well, maybe not so stormy – but the roads were wet, chill was in the air, and it was election day, 2022!  We were fortunate to have nine of us gathered to discuss Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara. We started off discussing food and book clubs, with Baby Ruth candy bars to remind us of the Curtiss Candy Company, dried squid and rice with spam from a Henderson Japanese market. Most of us were not adventurous enough to try the squid or Musabi, but I felt energized by the connections to the book. 

Our response to the story was varied. Some of us liked it, some were disappointed not to have more information about the internment camp experience, some thought the detail about Chicago was lacking, and one of us pointed out that the book would have had to be two to three times as long to accommodate all of that information—like James Michener starting with the creation of the Hawaiian Islands! Some of us enjoyed the mystery, some found the ending unbelievable, and one of us appreciated the coming of age story. For one reader it wasn’t exactly a page turner, but most of us agreed that the book was easy to read.

I shared some images I found in my research: The Lost City of Tropico[i], Manzanar War Relocation Center[ii], the Curtiss Candy Company[iii], the author’s map of important locations from the book[iv], the Newberry Library[v], oni masks[vi]. I had been unaware of the 1907 Expatriation Act[vii] that took away the citizenship of American women who married non-citizens. We discussed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988[viii] that gave redress checks of $20,000 and a presidential apology to 82,219 American-citizens-of-Japanese-decent internment survivors. 

A returning member noted how she only learned of the Japanese-American internment in college. Another how she grew up in Los Angeles and only learned of the internment because she worked for a florist-shop owner who had been interned. This owner, who called all white people “Irish,” explained that an “Irish” friend had saved their property for them. Many of us were surprised to learn that there was an “‘Exclusion Line,’ which demarcated those who would be forced into detention, [and] ran directly through the Phoenix area.”[ix]

I added to question six about Aki’s definition to herself in relation to her sister, wondering how it might have been different had her sister not died. Most of us felt that she might not have blossomed, almost as if her growth came “out of the ashes.” One member, as a child of ten, felt that older children are forced to take on more responsibility. And she would have been forced into that role after her sister’s death. The turning point for Aki came when she got her own haircut style in Chicago. One of us, though, argued the opposite. Aki took care of burying her dog entirely on her own. Rose went her own way in the camp and Aki was able to be her own person. She also was headstrong and probably would have had a break from her sister even without her death.

We asked if she ever really loved Art? Probably not. Why is the book named after the intersection/subway? Just because her sister died there? We didn’t find a strong answer. The details of discrimination seemed generic and could easily have been against any marginalized group. Did Rose kill herself only to save her family? Wasn’t there a bit of pride involved? She had been recently pregnant, had a butchered abortion, was being blackmailed. The stress alone could have caused a rash decision. We still didn’t quite accept that Aki could have roamed safely into drug dens and more.

Our library has a Social Justice Book club that will meet next week and is discussing police abolition. How unexpected that our fiction book should make a connection to this issue! The Japanese-Americans in Clark and Division not only would not report rape to the police but were actively being blackmailed by the police. One of us has had to call 911 on several occasions and finds it eye-opening to imagine what it would be like to be afraid to call for help. Another of us noted how some people just don’t believe that police treat people differently. Do we believe a non-fiction, referenced book more than a fiction story that enables us to empathize with characters whose experiences are different than ours? One of us said that books that bring up shortcomings are an incentive to work toward change. She is also the one who reminded us all that it was election day. I so appreciate how we can talk about such weighty topics with respect. I fully believe from my experience with the Whitney Book Bistro that people who read and discuss fiction, however different their beliefs, are kind and empathetic. We may not have the answers, but I know that I benefit from our discussions!  Thank you!

  • Previous book club books mentioned or related*:
  • The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich
  • Lightning Strike by William Kent Krueger
  • *Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
  • *Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas

[i] Web accessed 11-8-2022:

[ii] One Camp, Ten Thousand Lives; One Camp, Ten Thousand Stories. U.S. Department of the Interior. (n.d.). Manzanar National Historic Site (U.S. National Park Service). National Parks Service. Retrieved November 8, 2022, from 



[v] Yes, the Newberry Library still exists! The picture I showed was from an ebay listing for a postcard of Chicago libraries. 

[vi] This is a site to buy masks, but it gives interesting information about Japanese masks, including the story about the Red Oni Who Cried. I looked this up because of the description on page 134 “Something about his [Hammer’s] facial appearance reminded me of the frightening oni demon masks on the walls of Issei homes. One version of the oni mask looked downright evil, but another, with its downturned mouth agape, seemed tortured.”

[vii] Brown, T. B. (2017, March 17). That time American women lost their citizenship because they married foreigners. NPR. Retrieved November 10, 2022, from 

[viii] Civil liberties act of 1988. Civil Liberties Act of 1988 | Densho Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Retrieved November 10, 2022, from 

[ix] I am not sure we understand how this worked, but it was mentioned in an online article I found and quoted here. Mark, J. (2017, January 5). Tempe and Mesa history: Arizona was ground zero in Japanese internment-camp divide. The Arizona Republic. Retrieved November 10, 2022, from 

The Paris Apartment Discussion Journal

As we entered the Teen Zone for our meeting this month, music started playing. I don’t remember the tune, but the room is decorated for ‘80s Fright Night, with red-paint handprints, scrawled messages on the white board, and other paraphernalia, including a teen’s Bluetooth radio—and a couple of teens were there, adding atmosphere! The stage was set for a spooky discussion of The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley, which began with that misleading bloody hand on the window!

We were a small group and the discussion was quiet and pleasant. I hadn’t even thought ofParisApartmentCover Halloween and capturing the thrill of the season. Instead, we had French Lemonade, macarons, and madeleines. Everyone liked the book, the twists and turns, and the happy ending. Our first responder was new to our book club and noted that the novel was paced like a movie, ready to join other book-to-miniseries adaptations. She would have liked the author to develop characters and situations more fully before moving on to the next turn of events. She did appreciate the various cultural references and she felt like she was in the apartment. The next responder thought it was nice to have a book without a lot of politics and philosophy, and he particularly enjoyed the many surprising twists. Perhaps there were a few too many characters. And how sad that Sophie was outed by her accent. One of us appreciated that the novel was easy to read and another liked seeing how rich people make and spend their money. He mentioned the expense of tickets to the “local” sports teams and the pricing out of locals from the Las Vegas experience in general. He also made the connection that homelessness is harder for people who fall from the top: Nick and Antoine, spoiled, wealthy children, versus scrappy Jess and resilient Ben. And lucky Ben, adopted into a wealthy family versus life-long foster child Jess.

We questioned the believability of some of the plot details. Would Jess, a street-smart woman and bartender, accept a drink from a stranger? Could Ben really have survived the attack as described? We also considered that wine (taste and price!) is really over-rated. A $20 bottle of wine from Costco can be sold for $16 a glass at a nice restaurant. I recommended the book, The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine by Benjamin Wallace. We discussed people’s fascination with violence and the rich and famous, even as they condemn it. We didn’t discuss any of this in such neat order. We didn’t follow any prepared questions. But we did bring a lot of our own understanding of characters and social issues into the discussion!

Reviews I read mentioned how all the characters were unlikeable, but this didn’t seem to bother our group much. So, are they really unlikeable? In fact, thinking about the difference between not-liked and unlikeable highlights another important discussion we had–about language. One member wondered why the author didn’t translate all the French in the book. Did we need it all translated? I was impressed by how well the author did make the various French phrases understood. One of us, whose first language is Spanish, remembered how he thought his Spanish-speaking Cuban coworkers were hard to understand and spoke too fast! He learned English growing up and going to school in the United States and now thinks that proper Spanish is harder than proper English! It’s all a matter of perspective. Another member had known many Puerto Ricans in Ohio, and until she moved to Las Vegas, she believed all Spanish speakers were Puerto Rican. She also recently gave up trying to teach her grandchildren cursive. Cursive is not just about learning to write, but about learning to read and understand communications from the past, emphasizing the differences between generations. One reader listened to the audiobook and heard the story through the voices of different actors. How different was her experience? Reading the same book, we are creating shared experiences, but discussing it helps us realize the benefits even more. I hope you will join us next month. In the meantime, read the comments from one of our absent members and leave one to share!

Other works/initiatives discussed:

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, (2019, July 8). Cleveland had 15 Carnegie libraries: See them then and now. Cleveland. Retrieved September 14, 2022, from 

[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.

[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 

[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, ( 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:

[iv] The CRSP stands for the Colorado River Storage Project. I accessed this article through the 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, url= 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.  “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:

[ii] “Twenty Awesome Things People Saw at the 1964 World’s Fair.”

[iii] “The Forgotten Medieval Habit of ‘Two Sleeps.’”

[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