Clock Dance Discussion Journal

Our group has now read three books by Anne Tyler: The Beginners Goodbye, Digging to America, and Clock Dance.  I chose Clock Dance because, after our last few serious books, we could all use the subtle humor and optimism for which Tyler’s literary fiction is well known, especially as we head into the winter holidays.

The group’s reaction was low key, perhaps indicative of the calming effect of a good story, boredom or a reaction to the early darkness. Our first responder took exception with the title. Why Clock Dance? We discussed the girls’ slow, ticking movement versus Willa’s vision of a “spinning blur of color.” One of us used her Kindle to look up the actual passages, helping us to remember and understand. She suggested that the Clock Dance was important because the girls’ dance represented society’s expectation and later the “racing . . . madly whirling” dance was Willa breaking free.ClockDanceCover

One of us had listened to the audiobook and gave a concise yet negative summary of the story.  She hadn’t liked any of the characters and had not been hooked. She even found the young girls at the beginning to be annoying.  Although one member agreed with that unfavorable assessment, we wondered if the audiobook performance was less engaging than it could have been.

We discussed why Willa was willing to fly across the country to help a stranger. Would any of us? Not only did Willa desire purpose, she needed to be needed. I was particularly struck by a member’s observation that Denise and Cheryl cared for Willa. One member was glad that Willa finally wised up! How could she have put up with Peter so long?

One of us had been so appalled by Willa’s mother that her passion jumped onto the table, drawing our attention to the fact that Willa’s turbulent, traumatized, childhood made Willa a mother “whose prime objective was to be taken for granted.”  We disagreed about Willa’s father’s innocence. Was he truly clueless about his wife’s madness? Shouldn’t he have protected his children?

Willa took after her father. Her son seemed to have chosen a new girlfriend like his mother. Neat, perhaps obsessive Cheryl was not like her messy mother Denise – but she obviously loved her.  And was Denise a bad mother? Negligent? Especially in comparison with Willa’s mother? We discussed cleanliness and someone said, “Nobody’s headstone says she went to heaven for a clean house!” Still others mentioned how they were raised to keep the house “company ready” or remembered keeping the house ready for the minister’s unexpected visit!

The majority of us liked the novel. We found it easy to read.  Anne Tyler is a “good stylist.”  We discussed funny parts.  There is no such television show as Space Junk—we know because one of us looked it up. And can’t we just imagine crime tips in the back of comic books?  We knew how things would likely turn out, but we enjoyed the telling. Anne Tyler makes the ordinary interesting. I know that I found myself looking forward to reading Clock Dance, not for the suspense of the story so much as for a visit with a friend.

Before the meeting we discussed books and trains and grilled cheese sandwiches. You’d just have to be there to see how it all fit together!

  • Other works discussed before and after:
  • Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles
  • The Indian Lawyer by James Welch
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  • Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
  • Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
  • The Whistler by John Grisham

Fruit of the Drunken Tree Discussion Journal

Fruit of the Drunken Tree was inspired by author Ingrid Rose Contreras’ experiences in Colombia, South America, from 1989 – 1994 during the reign of drug lord Pablo Escobar. Reviews for the book include “simple but memorable prose and absorbing story line” (NY Times Book Review), “dazzling and devastating” (San Francisco Chronicle), “simultaneously propulsive and poetic” (Entertainment Weekly), “politically daring and passionately written” (Vogue), “a seemingly unlimited reservoir of striking details” (Booklist).1  I was concerned that the book might be a little too devastating, a little too timely and political; I had been warned that another library book club had universally disliked the book, or as our multi-book clubber member said: “it wasn’t hated, it just wasn’t a favorite.”FruitOfTheDrunkenTreeCover

We had a good attendance for our meeting. Out of fifteen, only two of us hadn’t read it. Our first responders seemed to like the book – not gushing as many had for The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane or The Rosie Project, but reflective and thoughtful. Our discussion was personal. We remembered the hardships of our parents and grandparents. We shared our own experiences with domestic abuse. We wondered how we could ever leave the house with such reality of kidnapping and violence outside our doors. We wondered about the impact of media that keeps violence in front of us, whether or not it is even in our community. We compared it to other book club selections: the drought in The Dry, the potato famine in News of the World, American complicity in The Lost City of the Monkey God.

Some of us were disappointed in missing details. We considered the young narrators and how their innocence heightened our sense of fear and dread. We discussed more details than I remember. Were the characters fully developed? We didn’t understand the mother’s behavior entirely. Did we prefer Chula or Petrona as a narrator? Gorrión seemed to truly love Petrona, but still he allowed her to be brutally raped.  Can and should we ever be forgiven for our mistakes? There was so much we could have discussed. Layers and layers.

We reviewed a list of some of the many books we have read together over the years. We chatted and snacked and discussed the Sacred Datura plant that grows wild in SouthernSacredDatura Nevada and is related to the Drunken Tree used for the title – another shared experience through a book!

1 Litlovers.com website offers summaries, author bios, and reviews from various sources, discussion questions and more.  I often refer to their popular book list for ideas and we have read several books on their lists.

Lundquist, M. (n.d.). Fruit of the Drunken Tree (Contreras) – Book Reviews. Retrieved from https://www.litlovers.com/reading-guides/fiction/11333-fruit-of-drunken-tree-contreras?start=2

 

News of the World Discussion Journal

Our usual meeting place was in use, so we met on our concert hall stage to discuss News of the World by Paulette Jiles. A painted black wooden floor, a table made of four smaller tables surrounded by sixteen chairs, a single bulb on a stand, centered at the edge of the stage, both a lure and a warning! The air seemed foggy, the overhead light filtering down to us unevenly, the back and edges of the stage in relative darkness. A grand piano, heavy curtains, and 250 empty seats. In retrospect, it helps me imagine Captain Kidd setting up to read in strange venues, lit by lanterns, collecting dimes and performing. The news of the world he read was as fantastical to many of his audience as this story seemed to us today, depicting a post-Civil War Texas where handguns were illegal and abducted children wanted to stay with their captors.NewsOfTheWorldCover

Our first responder volunteered by email: “This is an incredible reminder of just how tough ordinary life was for our ancestors. I wish everyone who complains about their quality of life could read this book. I didn’t suspect it was based on a true story until the very end. My only criticism is that the title led me to think that this would be an ordinary novel about contemporary life. It needs a much more dramatic title. Can we put our heads together and come up with a better title? I’ll start the ball rolling. The Kiowa Maiden.” Later she added: “Return of the Kiowa Maiden.”

After some discussion, we decided against changing the title. Some of the appeal of the book was thinking about the news of the world, in the book and in today’s reality: immigration, political polarization, gun control.

We considered why the author wrote without using punctuation for dialogue – again with mixed results. Some of us hadn’t noticed it, some had been annoyed, mostly it didn’t seem to matter. One of us found the story predictable. Another was pleased to have a book that “moved.” It was refreshing, easy to read, informative, and with a happy ending. However, one of us wondered if Captain Kidd’s rescuing of Johanna in the end was a bit out of character. We seemed to feel that the author was reliable, but we did not delve in to many details. Discussing the publisher-provided questions, we did feel the author followed the arc of the hero’s journey, much like the story of Odysseus, with some of us championing Captain Kidd, some Johanna, and some for both. We felt that Johanna had benefited from her captivity, learning much needed life skills and then adapting to her return. One favorite scene was when Johanna used dimes for ammunition and then later charged forth, ready to scalp her attacker.

Our discussion bounced around considerably, including comparisons with previous book club selections Orphan Train, The Perfectionists, Mrs. Sherlock Holmes, and Dragon Teeth. One of us had read parts of Captured by Scott Zesch, the book Paulette Jiles recommended for further study. We came back repeatedly to the topic of why children would not want to return home, wondering about the appeal of the native lifestyle and religion, even to people today.We briefly discussed Stockholm syndrome and the Irish Potato Famine (An Gorta Mor)[i]

Although I’m fairly certain our club liked News of the World, it’s only an impression. An impression intensified by the birthday cake we shared before the discussion started and the good feeling of friendly, caring people surrounding me.

  • Other Works discussed:
  • Dragon Teeth (2017) by Michael Crichton
  • Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) by Viktor Frankl
  • “A Modest Proposal” (1729) by Jonathan Swift
  • Mrs. Sherlock Holmes (2017) by Brad Ricca
  • Orphan Train (2013) by Cristina Baker Kline
  • The Perfectionists (2018) by Simon Winchester
  • Book Circle recommendations:
  • Historical fiction by Susan Wittig Albert

 

[i] The author says in her afterword that Doris best explains Johanna’s situation by comparing it to the Irish Potato Famine: “You can put her in any clothing and she remains as strange as she was before because she has been through two creations. . .”(pg 56).

The Perfectionists: how precision engineers created the modern world

I was the first responder this month because, although I enjoyed parts of Simon Winchester’s book, awed by the talent, dedication, and obsession that made our world possible, the detail was sometimes overwhelming—enough that I skimmed much and worried what I was missing. Before the meeting, I wrote on our white board over 60 words I had looked up or highlighted while reading. Simon Winchester is the author of one of my favorite books, The Professor and the Madman, and his use of language is superb, inspiring, and intimidating.PerfectionistsCover

Many of our next responders seemed to agree with my assessment. Many of us hadn’t finished, though we might keep reading. One had finished it just that afternoon; another considered it homework; one of us had divided the page count by days between meetings and set a goal of 13 pages a day, still finding herself five pages short! We are glad we read it. Nods about the room agreed that we were educated by it. I also heard the comments: too wordy, too much detail, repetitive.

Still, we found much to contemplate. Fascinated by the section about cars, we discussed Ford’s choice to make his cars affordable, the details between the precision that created the assembly line and the perfection of the Rolls Royce; and details from other resources than this book, such as that Ford gave his workers a wage higher than the minimum wage and praise for the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.[i] One of us remembered the deployment of the Hubble Telescope and particularly enjoyed reading those details. We wondered at how much they don’t teach us in school, such as the chicanery of Eli Whitney. We discussed greed versus altruism in invention, the affordability of silicon, the absence of women, the woman who wrote the first transistor calculator code on the back of a napkin, and the woman who died in a box warning about the Japanese tsunami of 2011. We reviewed Simon Winchester’s list of books, amazed at the depth of knowledge and wondering how many research assistants he employs.

Simon Winchester celebrates the precision that created the modern world, but by the end, he seems to join the luddites in a fear for the future and an appreciation for the beauty of craftmanship and its inherent imperfection. In comparison to other non-fiction books we have read, one of us felt that The Wright Brothers by David McCullough had more personality. Many felt that The Perfectionists is more scientific than historical. How much more science and history might we have learned in school if our textbooks had been this appealing? Yet Winchester has been criticized for writing “popular science.”[ii] How thick would a book be that had all the necessary information. One of the strengths of our book club, as with any discussion in general, is in making us think about what we read, to challenge us and give us new perspectives, to encourage us to search further and deeper, to make connections.

I hope you choose to connect with us next month!

  • OTHER WORKS DISCUSSED:
  • The Reckoning (1986) by David Halberstam
  • The Wright Brothers (2015) by David McCullough
  • Becoming (2018) by Michelle Obama
  • Enders Game (1985) by Orson Scott Card
  • The World is Flat: a brief history of the 21st Century (2005) by Thomas L. Friedman

 

[i] https://www.thehenryford.org/

[ii] https://www.wired.com/2011/03/writing-popular-science-books-doesnt-make-you-a-scientist/

The Dry Discussion Journal

Whitney Book Bistro’s June selection, The Dry, is Australian journalist Jane Harper’s debut novel. The internet is an amazing tool for readers and at the start of the meeting we looked at some pictures of Victoria, Australia, including zooming in on Google Maps, watching perhaps just 60 seconds of a video about Australia’s drought[i], and just ten seconds of a potentially harrowing video of someone driving on the wrong side of the road![ii]Published in the US in 2016, members were interested that The Dry won the 2015 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript.  In a video we didn’t watch, Jane Harper describes her writing process, from taking a Curtis Brown Creative Course in 2014 to motivate her to write it, through five drafts to bring the book up to its current 90,000 words.[iii]

Most of us did not know the background information before reading the novel.  One TheDryCovermember wrote from Alaska that she couldn’t make the meeting but really liked the book and was sorry to miss the discussion! Around the table reviews were favorable. Many read the book quickly and at least one of us skimmed ahead.

We liked reading about Australia but found the small-town dynamics to be the same as here in the U.S. The flashbacks were difficult in the audiobook, and alternating between Aaron and Falk in the audio made it sound like it was two different people! Someone mentioned that the author did a good job describing the atmosphere of the drought and another noted that it was a woman writing a male lead character. One of us thought the characters were one-dimensional, another found them interesting. We still wanted to know more about them.  Would the principal really have killed people? What was Gretchen’s backstory? We didn’t agree about whether Luke was the father of Gretchen’s baby or if Falk would use the information from Ellie’s backpack.  We shared some of our own stories about abuse, neighbors, and fear of retribution.  Aaron was lucky to have gotten away, despite the suspicion that remained.

We agreed that the author kept us guessing throughout.  One of us knew that we didn’t learn about the gambling until page 272!   Another remarked that the biggest red herring was that the person who killed Luke and his family would be the same person who killed Ellie. Still another had been disturbed by the fire at the end but upon reflection and re-reading found it to be redemptive.  One member read a descriptive passage that stood out:  “Luke Hadler may have had a light on waiting for him when he came home, but something else from this wretched, desperate community had seeped through that front door and into his home. And it had been rotten and thick and black enough to extinguish that light forever.”

I couldn’t help but mention our John Grisham selection and comparisons with his first books. I am intrigued no one at the meeting seemed repulsed by the descriptions of violence as they were in God Help the Child or The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. Is it the mystery and suspense that allows us to plow ahead undisturbed?

Before the meeting, the room was abuzz with discussion. An Australian theme gave us interesting opportunities for snacks.  We tried Australian-made root beer and ginger beer (nonalcoholic!), mango licorice, chocolate honeycomb candy, and Vegemite on crackers. None of these related to the story, but it’s all part of the shared experience.

  • Other Works Discussed:
  • The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (2018)
  • The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough (1977)
  • Law and Order television series
  • A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute (1950)
  • John Grisham (author)
  • Kate Atkinson (author)
  • Tana French (author)

 

[i] Blue, Circle of. “The Biggest Dry Australia’s Waning Rivers & Worried Towns.” YouTube, YouTube, 1 Apr. 2009, www.youtube.com/watch?v=bNLek0FPmZo.

[ii] Slater, Aaron. “10 Minutes Driving in the Australian Countryside.” YouTube, YouTube, 3 Sept. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=PafkrgDQ-BU.

[iii] •Creative, Curtis Brown. “Curtis Brown Creative Talks to Jane Harper, Bestselling Author of The Dry (Part 1).” YouTube, YouTube, 2 May 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=pd6ZgYy2YvI.

•Creative, Curtis Brown. “Curtis Brown Creative Talks to Jane Harper, Bestselling Author of The Dry (Part 2).” YouTube, YouTube, 6 June 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMvSU6M6YWQ.

 

Spoonbenders Discussion Journal

Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory did not receive glowing reviews during the book club discussion, but most members present seemed to like it or find it interesting. We were thoughtful.  Our first responder liked it and particularly mentioned the writing style. For many of us, the multiple character shifts led often to confusion. For some, the psychic powers were too much fantasy.  At least two readers let me know they disliked it enough to stop reading and not attend the meeting. A couple of others didn’t like it, but they accepted the challenge!SpoonbendersCover

We discussed how to classify the novel, and how important that can be to help us filter the multitude of reading options down to manageable and rewarding selections.  One or two mentioned fantasy and science fiction, because of the family’s special powers.  Yet one of us thought it was realistic fiction. He thought that patriarch Teddy, conman and non-psychic, actually seemed to possess all the powers of his children without the magic! In his afterword, the author actually states, “. . . none of it’s real, folks.”  Which makes me think of Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law:  “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”[1]

We discussed personal experiences with psychics and the real-life government program called Star Gate[2]. During our meetings we have often discussed how things we read open our eyes to the world around us, and just this morning, the front page of our local newspaper reported, “A lawyer was steadily swindled out of $1.5 million after authorities said she responded to a flyer for ‘Psychic Readings’ she found on the door of her Summerlin home.”[3] Science fiction, fantasy fiction, realistic fiction or all of the above?

We discussed details, like why Teddy chose the name Telemachus, the name of the son of Odysseus and Penelope.[4] Irene is a favorite character. Buddy is endearing. Characters are absolutely original (if not believable?). As funny as the book is, the hand crushing detail is jarring. And why did Buddy’s first intimate experience have to be with a man? Which brought us to recent library staff Gender training and our previous book club selection, This Is How It Always Is. What seems odd to one of us might not to another of us.

I read a passage that had stood out for me:  “The problem with getting old was that each day had to compete with the thousands of others gone by. How wonderful would a day have to be  to win such a beauty contest?” Another member read “Wide awake in the thin hours of the night, her mind churning along on the All-Star Tour of Embarrassments and Mistakes. The tour could visit any decade, and feature any number of characters from her past . . .”

Time in Spoonbenders was the most interesting concept for me.  At the end of the book, I realized how the author had given clues for the ending that I only enjoyed on a second reading. My mother, who lives in Missouri but still often reads our selections, suggested that the confusing nature of the book is like reality, never so clear as in hindsight. I researched the concept of time in books and came across an article listing the Top 10 Books About Time. The author highlights the fourth century Confessions by St. Augustine, “He [Augustine] noted that what we call three tenses are really just shades of one: our present experience of the past (otherwise known as memory); our present experience of the future (anticipation), and our present experience of the present (attention).”[5] Spoonbenders is rife with anticipation.

  • OTHER WORKS:
  • Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) Film
  • This Is How It Always Is (2017) by Laurie Frankel
  • Water for Elephants (2006) Sara Gruen

[1] This quote is well known and many sources can be found. This is just one:

Mascarenhas, K. S. (2011). Arthur c Clarke: Father of Satellite Communication. Science Reporter, 48(03), 14-15. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from http://nopr.niscair.res.in/bitstream/123456789/11159/1/SR 48(3) 14-15.

[2]               ESP: Inside the government’s secret program of psychic spies. (2018, March 18). Retrieved May 16, 2019, from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/esp-inside-the-governments-secret-program-of-psychic-spies/

Burton, B. (2017, January 20). CIA releases psychic experiment documents. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from https://www.cnet.com/news/cia-releases-psychic-experiment-documents-online-stargate-project-stranger-things/

[3]               Ferrara, D., & Ferrara, D. (2019, May 15). 3 charged in Las Vegas swindle that scammed attorney out of $1.5M. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from https://www.reviewjournal.com/crime/courts/3-charged-in-las-vegas-swindle-that-scammed-attorney-out-of-1-5m-1663714/

[4]               Britannica, T. E. (2018, February 07). Telemachus. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Telemachus-Greek-mythological-character

[5]               Burdick, A. (2018, January 10). Top 10 books about time. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/10/top-10-books-about-time

St. Augustine quote:  “In you, my mind, I measure time.”

 

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane Discussion Journal

When I chose The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane for our book club, I was hoping for a crowd-pleaser – a popular author and a diverse story that opens our eyes to a different culture.  I was not disappointed. Lisa See has written much about the Chinese-American side of her family and is the author of such best-selling novels as Shanghai Girls, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and China Dolls. She includes on her website information about her research into The Tea Girl story with pictures and videos of the people and the countryside she describes. TeaGirlCover

The majority of our members seemed to really like the book, despite the fact that several had quit reading for a while after the murder of the twin babies.  One member actually thinks it might be her favorite book club read so far! Even acknowledging that some of the coincidences seemed contrived, we accepted the happy ending and discussed our fascination with different aspects of the story.  How true do we think the story is? Do the Akha people really encourage youth sexual encounters as described in the book? Why was their zodiac sign so important[i]that they would have to leave their community? What if the book had been told through the male A-ba’s perspective? One of us particularly liked the way the author told Haley’s story through doctors’ notes and letters. We seemed to agree that the novel was easy to read. Another member recommended the audio book, which used four different readers.

Of course, the book was not the favorite of everyone. One of us said that his interest in tea was only one on a scale of one to ten!  Too much talk about tea!  We looked at some of the pictures on Lisa See’s website and we had some tea bags of Pu’er tea for people to sample at home.  One of us had a friend who regularly buys high-quality tea from China and let her try some Pu’er tea (loose-leaf—not bagged). She said it was delicious and markedly not bitter. Another member shared a remarkable experience she had when she and her daughter were invited to a Buddhist tea ceremony. She still seemed awed.

We touched on immigration, biodiversity, bathroom integration in the South, the Trash queen of Asia, and adoption. I was particularly moved when one of us, a mother of two adopted children, asked why people consider how a child’s life was improved by adoption, as if there aren’t myriad things that could change any person’s life. I never fail to be amazed by the diversity of experiences and viewpoints that enrich me through the book club selections and our discussions.

  • Other works discussed:
  • Call the Midwife(2002) Jennifer Worth
  • Digging to America(2006) Anne Tyler

 

[i]This short Ted Talk gives an interesting explanation of the Chinese Zodiac and its importance:  https://www.ted.com/talks/shaolan_the_chinese_zodiac_explained

Mrs. Sherlock Holmes Discussion Journal

This week, the Whitney Book Bistro met to discuss Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York City’s Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case That Captivated a Nation by Brad Ricca.  Our first responder eagerly raised her hand, ready to share a Good Reads review by Phair that captured our member’s assessment in a book that looked enticing but “turned out to be a dissatisfying, unfocused ‘creative non-fiction’ book full of rambling, tedious detail . . .”mrssherlockholmesmarch

The room had already been energized by the buzz of quiet discussion as we started and heads were nodding about the table as she read the full review.  The book read more like a research paper.  The story faded away, as if the author just lost interest.  One of us was disappointed that it wasn’t as good as our previous non-fiction, David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers.  The author could have put more of the story in his own words.  Grace Humiston’s character just wasn’t developed.  Was the author even a native speaker? His sentence structure was awkward and full of errors.

But did we really all dislike it?  Could the book be a nominee for 2018’s Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime book[i] if it didn’t have merit? One of us had treated the book as a series of detective stories, not looking for a novel. He was ready to try Erik Larson after some of our comparisons with Devil in the White City.  A couple of other nods and the detail of our discussion told another story about our engagement with the book.

Grace Humiston denounced any likeness to Sherlock Holmes because of her belief in common sense and persistence over deduction. One of us read the definition of common sense from Wikipedia, which emphasizes the meaning as “sound practical judgement . . .shared by nearly all people.”[ii]  Many of us had never heard of peonage. We were astounded by the barber in Italy who recruited his fellow countrymen into such slavery. Some of us were amazed that sex trafficking was such a concern at the beginning of the twentieth century. One of us had heard that criminals are now making more money from the sex trade than from drugs. We discussed how little things change:  the unreliable and even misleading reports from media, police corruption, victim blaming.  Ruth Cruger was dead so quickly that even had the police performed better, what would it have mattered? We compared the stories to recent cases such as that of Jayme Closs,[iii] and the 1981 killing of Adam Walsh[iv].

Many of us continued to criticize the book, questioning its reliability and its construction as well as comparisons with other books we are reading or have read.  One of us offered to lend her copy of the silent film, Traffic of Souls, referenced inaccurately in the book.  One member also shared how the book had resonated with him because of his father’s experiences of nearly dying from the flu in 1918, and how at that time Italian immigrants were so poor that Catholic priests ignored them.  Whatever our opinion of the book, though, what a discussion!  Thanks for joining in.

  • Other works discussed:
  • Becoming (2018) by Michelle Obama
  • The Black Hand : the epic war between a brilliant detective and the deadliest secret society in American history (2017) by Stephan Talty
  • The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness and the Fair That Changed America (2003) by Erik Larson
  • Educated : a memoir (2018) by Tara Westover
  • Messing with the enemy : surviving in a social media world of hackers, terrorists, Russians, and fake news (2018) by Clint Watts
  • The reckoning (1986) by David Halberstam
  • The Warmth of Other Suns : the epic story of America’s great migration (2017) by Isabel Wilkerson
  • The Wright Brothers (2015) by David McCullough

 

[i] 2018 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime:  Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann.  Web accessed 3-15-19: https://mysterywriters.org/mwa-announces-the-2018-edgar-award-winners/

[ii] Wikipedia definition of Common Sense web accessed 3-15-19: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_sense

[iii] “The suspect charged in the kidnapping of Wisconsin girl Jayme Closs and killing her parents in cold blood confessed to investigators that he targeted the 13-year-old after seeing her board her school bus and decided ‘he knew that was the girl he was going to take,’ according to a criminal complaint.”  Hutchinson, B. (2019, January 14). Chilling details emerge in Jayme Closs kidnapping as suspect makes first court appearance. Retrieved March 15, 2019, from https://abcnews.go.com/US/man-accused-kidnapping-13-year-wisconsin-girl-killing/story?id=60343911

[iv] Waxman, O. B. (2016, August 10). Adam Walsh Murder: The Missing Child Who Changed America. Retrieved March 15, 2019, from http://time.com/4437205/adam-walsh-murder/

 

God Help the Child Discussion Journal

God Help the Child is Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s eleventh novel.  Despite the serious subject, her prose is so elegant and lyrical that I was surprised several of our book group found the book too brutal.  Compared to the constant barrage of violence and sexuality in our news, movies and books, I am still not certain how this book was exceptionally brutal, unless it is a testament to the effectiveness of Morrison’s delivery, the power of the truth she reveals.GodHelpTheChildCover

Just as Morrison barely scratches the surface of her character’s lives, our discussion was mostly skin deep but telling. We were fascinated by the genetics of skin and eye color, trading stories of children and grandchildren. One of us mentioned the current controversy of the Virginia Governor having performed in blackface. Wasn’t blackface just a musical performance made famous by Al Jolson in Jazz Singer?  How could you be judged about something you didn’t know was wrong? When did blackface become offensive?  An African-American member said that it had always been offensive – they just weren’t allowed to say anything about it.  She also reminded us that it is experience that teaches how shades of skin color makes a difference. Sweetness’ reaction to her daughter’s blackness was learned behavior from her own mother, who chose passing for white over her children.

We discussed the characters’ names and how African Americans choose nicknames for themselves because for so long they had names chosen for them that did not fit them.  They are more often now to have odd names that better reflect their appearance, their history, their reality. We discussed how common names change. How in the past there were so many women named Mary that several of our members go by their middle names instead.  We did not discuss the possible literary significance of names, as suggested by one member in an email: “Names are like red herrings.  Booker makes me think of Booker T. Washington, and Sofia (I looked it up: Wisdom).” And what about the significance of Rain? Or of Adam?

We touched on parenting, on the priest abuse scandals in the news, on the even more recent Southern Baptist abuse scandal.  We discussed the fairy-tale quality of the story, in which Bride goes into the woods, reverts to the little black girl, and discovers her happy ending.  Although we didn’t discuss it so straightforwardly.  We wanted to know more. Was Brooklyn really Bride’s friend? Why did Booker throw his trumpet into the water? Did he finally just realize that he couldn’t play the trumpet so he gave it up? Was it to honor Queen? What happened to the $5000 and the plane ticket? Are we sure that Sofia wasn’t guilty?

Some of us loved the book, others did not, some were in the middle.  None denied the power of Morrison’s prose:

“Her clothes were white, her hair like a million black butterflies asleep on her head.”

“. . .the raindrops falling from a baby-blue sky were like crystal breaking into specks of light on the pavement.”

“Sweet Jesus had given her a forgetfulness blanket along with a little pillow of wisdom to comfort her in old age.”

“Scientifically there’s no such thing as race, Bride, so racism without race is a choice. Taught, of course, by those who need it, but still a choice. Folks who practice it would be nothing without it.”

February is African-American Heritage month. Heritage months are intended to make sure that everyone has a chance to see themselves reflected, importantly, in the world around them.  It gives some of us a chance to see the world through another lens. Obviously, this could happen at any time, all year round.  We read a renowned author this month who offered us an inclusive fairytale for our times that I hope broadened our horizons, if only because we got together and talked about it.

  • Other works discussed:
  • May Angeleou quote:  “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” (multiple attributions online)
  • The Road Beyond Ruin (2018) by Gemma Liviero
  • The four agreements : a practical guide to personal freedom (1997) by Miguel Ruiz
  • Educated : a memoir (2018) by Tara Westover
  • Black-ish (Television Series) Season 5, episode 10, Black Like Us

 

War of the Worlds Discussion Journal

Every January we discuss a classic novel that is always available in e-book format, to challenge ourselves with reading and technology.  As much as most of us love the feel of a book, the ability to access our books on modern devices is increasingly acceptable and even desirable—particularly when it comes to reading in large print without holding a heavy book and reading in the dark. Plus, from our library’s viewpoint, it is the way of the future.

A week ago today, the Whitney Book Bistro met to discuss H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.WarOfTheWorldsCover  Our first responder had put off reading the book until the last minute, dreading the gravity of the story, but she accepted the challenge (an assignment she took seriously!) and finished it just two hours before the meeting.  She paused, “It was rather imaginative.”

Two of us had read The Complete War of the Worlds Book: Mars’ Invasion of Earth From H.G. Wells to Orson Welles (2001), which included a CD recording of Orson Welles 1938 radio broadcast, sharing details about that production as well.  The hysteria created by Orson Welles’ broadcast is credited with cementing Wells’ story in history.

We discussed the language, vocabulary that was fascinating – from the use of wonderful[i]to archaic words that kept us looking in our dictionaries. I particularly liked phrases such as, “amidst the scattered splinters of a fir tree it had shivered to fragments in its descent” and “rhythmic shocks that had kept our ruinous refuge quivering.”   Another liked the description of the British gung-ho approach to fighting the aliens.   Some of us found the book depressing through the middle. We all laughed when one person mentioned Wells referring to the curate “as lacking in restraint as a silly woman,” and another answered with – “page 185!” One of us liked the narrator’s brother best, and we all wondered why Wells just dropped that character.

We discussed that science fiction has always been predictive, impressed that Wells imagined the future of warfare with tanks and gas and atomic bombs.[ii]One member who joined the discussion even though she hadn’t read the book said that the novel seemed like an “adult fairytale.” This was an apt description given Wells’ moralizing: “And before we judge of them [the Martians] too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought.”

One of us likened the nightmares our narrator suffered to what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). We discussed how reality mirrors our reading, such as the recent headlines about the explosion in New York City that turned the sky blue, prompting people to fear an alien invasion.[iii]  Another member voiced what many of us feel, which is that our news today is unreliable. News used to seem credible. Walter Cronkite. Tom Brokaw. Who can we trust now? Which led to a discussion of other books we have read, particularly a book club favorite, Destiny of the Republic. Sometimes, books remind us how little things change.

As usual, we discussed more than this.  Wonderful things. Mundane[iv]things.  Contradictory things.  In my research for this discussion I was both impressed and appalled by what I learned about H.G. Wells.  All because of this group.  Sometimes it’s work, sometimes it’s play, always it’s worth it.

ENDNOTES:

War of the Worlds quoted here is the Ibook, Inc., 2002 edition, kindle version

[i]“The early morning was wonderfully still.”

[ii]“HG Wells first imagined a uranium-based hand grenade that “would continue to explode indefinitely” in his 1914 novel The World Set Free.” “Was HG Wells the First to Think of the Atom Bomb?” BBC News, BBC, 4 July 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33365776.

[iii]New York Sky Turns Bright Blue After Transformer Explosion.” By Matt StevensRick Rojas and Jacey Fortin.New York Times, 28 December 2018, http://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/27/nyregion/blue-sky-queens-explosion.html

[iv]adjective

  1. common; ordinary; banal; unimaginative.
  2. of or relating to this world or earth as contrasted with heaven; worldly; earthly:mundane affairs.
  3. of or relating to the world, universe, or earth.

“Mundane.” Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, http://www.dictionary.com/browse/mundane. Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2019