The Boys in the Boat Discussion Journal

This month we met to discuss our greatest generation – as revealed through the eyes of Daniel James Brown, Joe Rantz and The Boys in the Boat. The group did not unanimously enjoy it, but everyone seemed to have been moved by it.  Some found it slow, easy to put down. Others were gripped from the beginning. One member believed that the book should be required reading for young adults and several others agreed. We realized that the story had the sheen of a tall tale, like when our grandfathers told us they had walked nine miles to school, in the snow, uphill both ways! And yet we were still awed by the hardship and the resilience, the power, strength, and opportunity.BoysInTheBoatCover

We shared stories from our own parents’ and grandparents’ experiences during the Great Depression. Thula was generally considered a villain. But is it fair to judge her from our modern parenting beliefs? After learning of their struggle, can we imagine what would have happened to the boys in the boat if the United States had boycotted the 1936 Olympics? What about the Olympics in Brazil—the Zika virus and reports of dirty water? How fortunate the boys were to have had each other, to have had their boat builder, George Pocock, and his outstanding insights and skill. How different the world is now, with fiberglass boats and technology for tools and obstacles.  How will our descendants view our world and our struggles in another eighty years?

We discussed the Olympics, sports and fitness.  One of us described the athleticism in elite bicycling. Only one of us had played a team sport in school—basketball—and she corroborated the camaraderie. We discussed how little we knew about the precision and skill necessary for rowing. I had done some minor internet research into the fittest sport and found it to be quite controversial.  ESPN listed boxing first and rowing 39thForbes listed squash first and rowing second. Men’s Fitness reported in 2013 that rowers have the healthiest hearts.[i]

One member found it hard to believe that the anti-Semitism would not have played a bigger role in the story and the boys’ experience; but then we remembered that the ongoing prejudice in the U.S. allowed us to ignore the realities of the Holocaust for as long as we did, to continue to discriminate against African-Americans, even those fighting the war for us, and to relocate and incarcerate Japanese-American citizens – all of which we’ve read about and discussed before.

I first decided to select The Boys in the Boat for our book club because my husband kept exclaiming and reading me sections out loud. Enthusiasm is contagious. One of the members mentioned once that my recap is a lot more organized than our meetings seem. It reflects my memory, just as the book is the author’s impression of a memory. Every member of our group brings something to our meeting – presence, attention, ideas, experience. Thank you for joining the discussion.

  • Other works discussed:
  • Barskins by Annie Proulx (2016)
  • In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson (2011)
  • Miracle at St. Anna by James McBride (2002)
  • Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas (2007)


Quiet: the power of introverts Discussion Journal

Quiet. Sometimes I wonder what that is. Birds and bugs in a forest could drown out the sound of a falling tree, even if someone were there to hear it! Is that a plane overhead? Or a motorcycle? A leaky faucet? Or just the roar of silence in my ears? And in our library, cell phones buzz and spout music and alarms, often without anyone attempting to silence them. Friends and tutors chatter. We answer phones and give directions. Babies even laugh more annoyingly than they cry. And we discuss books and movies QuietBookCoverwith a passion that sometimes needs to be shushed as much as anything else.

Perhaps that’s why Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, seemed like a good fit for our book club. Well, that and the number of best books of 2012 recommendations I read.

I decided to break our discussion group into three smaller groups, with six people each, because Susan Cain mentions that smaller groups are more productive than larger ones. This makes reporting on (and moderating) the discussion quite challenging! In addition, the novelty of the arrangement was off-putting to some members and this book is a new kind of non-fiction for us – informative and anecdotal rather than strictly historical or biographical.

Several members had not finished the book or had only read at it. One member hadn’t read it because it felt like a textbook. For another, it just didn’t hold her interest. Yet another had read it months ago and was enjoying it even more listening to it on audio. One felt that she understood her sound-sensitive grandson better. One was moved to form an action plan to present to her employer to improve working conditions in her office. Still another could not follow the logic. And yet another was so taken with the book that it seemed to rekindle her spirit.

At the end, I asked what had stood out. In review, each group mentioned Susan Cain’s discussion of a culture of character versus personality and how modern politics are plagued by extroverts whose personality reigns. In particular, one member passionately mentioned the rush to war for non-existent weapons of mass destruction—an example of extroverts rushing in where introverts would have waited. Many of us seemed to like the book and find it relevant, although some of us also wanted more solutions!

But that’s just an opinion, based on my observation. I obviously didn’t hear it all! Reading non-fiction reminds me how important accuracy in reporting can be. Susan Cain’s book seemed well researched. But it is not that difficult to find research to fit an opinion. One member mentioned that although the example of Steve Wozniak was inspiring as related, it did not tell the whole story.

My discussion journals never tell the whole story either. We bring with us not only our own life histories and unique perspectives to the discussion at hand, but also our understanding of our discussion group members after years and many meetings. A video couldn’t capture it all. But I hope these journals remind us why we met – and choose to continue . . .

  • Other works mentioned:
  • Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
  • Mindset: the new psychology of success by Carol Dweck
  • Outliers: the story of success by Malcolm Gladwell
  • Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
  • Twenty Miles From a Match by Sarah Olds

The Dog Stars Discussion Journal

This week so far we have a hate-crime killing in Las Vegas which left two police officersDogStarsCover and three other people dead, and another school shooting, this time in Oregon, leaving two people dead and at least one wounded. I’m sure many other violent crimes became known during the same time period, and more remain behind closed doors, hidden for years, if ever even to see the light. Movies in our local theaters include Edge of Tomorrow, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Maleficient, Godzilla, and A Million Ways to die in the West. Pretty violent fare – with something for everyone, good and bad alike. Yesterday was election day, too, which in this social-media world sometimes seems more like spin-the-bottle dare than choice. In this environment our Book Bistro met to discuss the dystopian future presented by Peter Heller in The Dog Stars.

Several book club members liked the novel, one even more so after a second reading. Our first responder found the clipped, journal-like narrative style to be beautiful, like a long poem, and easy to read. Yet some didn’t like the writing style and struggled to read it. One member so fervently disliked the book that she felt if she were ever to ban a book, this would be it! Many of us had mixed feelings, but the majority felt that in a post-apocalyptic world, survival of the fittest, as described by Heller, would rule at first, civilization only later.

Some of the details seemed too easy. This limited point of view left a lot of questions and seemed almost like cheating. If flying out of the valley was too dangerous with the extra weight, why didn’t Hig pick up both father and daughter on the road? Why weren’t more people connecting by radio? We discussed global warming as a continued threat and disagreed about whether the ending was happy or bleak.

The meeting was surprisingly calm, but the members are a respectful group and avoided the potential divisiveness of opposing views—at least outwardly. I have in the past been told that a member was hesitant to speak out because of fear of confrontation. Several members did speak at once, which is unavoidable and even a good sign of passion. But some of us are better at interrupting. After the meeting, one member wondered why the discussion guide did not ask about Hig’s killing his wife. That would have been an excellent discussion point! Why that detail?

One of the reasons I write this journal is to offer an opportunity for members to add comments they would have liked to make. Or maybe, only on reflection, hours or days after the meeting, an answer comes to us! Post a comment here or give it to me at the library to post for you.

We answered only a couple of the questions from the discussion guide and finished early enough to introduce our next book, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall-Smith. Many of us were surprised that this bestseller had not been read by everyone. None of the four men in the group have read it! I asked them to think about the believability of a black, female narrator written by a white male. If you have read the book before, re-reading is a great time to pay attention to the language and how the author conveys his ideas. Reading Dog Stars, I couldn’t help but wonder, where was the library? So many books and all the time in the world . . .

Other works mentioned:

  • The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
  • Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton
  • The Stand by Stephen King
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  • “Time Enough At Last” episode Twilight Zone (DVD)  (Based on the short story by Lyn Venable)

Round House Discussion Journal

RoundHouseCoverRound House by Louise Erdrich was easy to read.  That was the last question I asked, and the consensus seemed to be positive, even if not everyone liked the book. One member was incredulous that thirteen year olds could be so mature.  We started the meeting discussing the age of the narrator, drinking, driving, and sex. We wondered if this was something distinctive to Native Americans, but some of us remembered our own early teen years while another wondered if this freedom isn’t common in white families with two parents working.  Our own experiences growing up—rural, urban, protected, wealthy, poor, free—have a profound impact on our reading and acceptance of a story, and this was clearly evident in a thoughtful discussion in which members referred to each other’s comments with respect and consideration.

One member felt that the tragedy of alcoholism and hopelessness on reservations was treated too lightly in the book. He referenced a recent article in the Review Journal about increases in suicides among Native Americans. Everyone understood that the author’s main concern in writing the book had been Indian law and jurisdictional issues – especially concerning violence against Native American women. We spent a good amount of time discussing respect and violence – how Americans seem to admire rudeness and be obsessed with crime, about the impact of violent video games and the value of positive role models.

Growing up, seeing our parents suddenly as old and flawed, facing Wiindigoos, spirituality and belonging: so many themes and characters that some of us found the book a bit hard to keep straight. One of us said that reading about the camaraderie made her wish she had been a boy growing up! We all agreed that Cappy was a true friend and felt the sorrow of his loss. We could have kept discussing. In many ways, we only touched the surface.

As I read Round House, I could not help but see connections to many other books I have read, in and out of the Book Bistro. The impact of reading on my understanding of the world around me and the variety of people I meet and serve in the library is profound and one of the most valuable, even when I read strictly for pleasure and when a book seems forgotten as soon as put down. I handed out a list of the many books long-time members may have read over the last several years and I encourage all readers to take an opportunity to stop and think about what they have read—as an exercise for the brain as well as because what we read has become a part of us, good and bad, and this shared community experience brings us all closer together.

  • Other Works Discussed:
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  • Jeremiah Johnson (DVD)1972; Robert Redford; Sydney Pollack (Director)
  • Stand and Deliver (DVD) 1988; Edward James Olmos
  • Stand by Me (DVD) 1986; River Phoenix (based on the short story “The Body” by Stephen King)
  • This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Defending Jacob Discussion Journal

As we gathered to discuss Defending Jacob, the room was filled with chattering and DefendingJacobCoverenergy.  Several members noted that the book had been easy to read and kept them engaged. One new member said she was glad she read the book, but she couldn’t say she liked it.  Another was impressed by the realistic picture of our justice system. Yet another felt the book was full of holes and too much foreshadowing. One new member was disappointed by the ending, even angry. Perhaps, like the parents in the story, she had wanted the twist to be exoneration.

Does a murder gene exist? Which plays a larger roll in determining behavior, genetics or environment? We were mixed in our opinions. We asked: What does the author intended for us to get from his novel? Why does it matter? This is fiction, a novel, something to be read for pleasure. True. But many of us want more and our book club challenges us like a lateral thinking puzzle.

We discussed the reliability of the narrator, especially a character who had the “murder gene.” One member suggested that the Grand Jury interview sections were imagined rather than real. Another wondered about the mother—we only heard her side of the story through the narrator. Some felt that the mother’s actions in the end were admirable; others considered her insane. We had several conversations going on at once and the enthusiasm was palpable.

The biggest surprise, though, was when one member mentioned that our discussion had actually made her dislike the book! Quite the opposite of the usual response! Books, like people, are full of surprises.  Our book club keeps us guessing!  Our next book, Round House by Louise Erdrich, is a National Book Award winner.  Give it, and us, a try and join the discussion!

  • Other works discussed:
  • The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout
  • The Sopranos (Television Series)

Beautiful Ruins April 2013 Discussion Journal

BeautifulRuinsBookCoverAt the start of each meeting, I usually ask if people want to share their responses to the book — did they like it, love it, hate it, or any number of possible first reactions to a book.  This can be risky, like a leap of faith, asking people to share what might turn out to be a minority view. Often, many of us can appreciate the book much more after the discussion, looking at it through others’ eyes, discovering meanings missed, and, like laughter, enthusiasm can be contagious.  But that immediate response may be the truest, because it reflects the likely impact of the book — undiscussed, perhaps cast aside in favor of another book, or cherished and passed on among family and friends. 

This month, we discussed Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, and the first responder said she had trouble getting into the book and wondered if anyone had been unable to finish it. Several of us did find the book to be slow to start, and the changing characters and times were frustrating at first. One patron found it repetitious and another wondered about its relevancy, especially since so much concerned the making of the movie Cleopatra in 1962. Who is the audience? Would younger readers even care?

In general, most members seemed to like the book. Characters we dislike at the beginning become more interesting by the end and the last chapter recap of what happened to all of the characters, even minor ones, was mentioned by several of us. Two members had listened to the audio version and said that the reader was excellent.

The discussion questions I had printed from were especially helpful this month, although I forgot to distribute them with the books, so we hadn’t all been able to think about them ahead of time. The intersection of art and life brought up several images–from Pasquale’s vision of the tennis court, the bunker art, reality shows, the movie version of Lydia’s play about Pat, and more.   Many of us remembered the furor surrounding the Elizabeth Taylor – Richard Burton love affair and one member had seen Cleopatra because of the publicity — just like in the book! Art intersecting with the book club!

We continued to jump about among the questions, discussing the theme of love that ran throughout. I hadn’t actually thought of the book as filled with humor, and the question made the group think a moment, but as we discussed it, we found bits of humor, words and images, that made us smile — the battle of insults between Pasquale and his friend, the absurdity of the reality shows. We skipped over many questions that I think would have been great to discuss.  Although meeting for only an hour keeps us on task, it can leave a great many things unsaid; but I like to think of it as jump-starting our brain.

We were left with several questions, about how much of this fiction book might really be true. (according to, Richard Burton died in 1984 and had three children, one with Elizabeth Taylor). Could you really bake lye into a loaf of bread and would it kill you? And who, in 1962, would have nausea, miss a menstrual cycle, and believe cancer over pregnancy? Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction, so we get back to that art intersecting life question.

Beautiful Ruins is a book that spans 50 years and has at least eight main characters and their perspectives. One member’s first reaction to the book was that the main point is that “we want what we want.” Every character and every reader comes back to that reality. In  the book, Alvis Bender tells Dee, “All we have is the story we tell. Everything we do, every decision we make, our strength, weakness, motivation, history, and character—what we believe—none of it is real; it’s all part of the story we tell. But here’s the thing: it’s our  . . . story!”  (pg 266 )  Another member highlighted Pasquale’s mother: “ ‘Sometimes,’ she said,’ what we want to do and what we must do are not the same.’ She put a hand on his shoulder. ‘Pasqo, the smaller the space between your desire and what is right, the happier you will be.’ “ (pg. 304) I certainly want life to continue intersecting art in the Whitney Book Bistro!

Other works discussed:

  • The Stranger by Albert Camus
  • Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (movie recommendation)
  • Beginners Goodbye by Ann Tyler (March selection)
  • Juliet Naked by Nick Hornby (June 2012 selection)
  • Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (March Movie Club selection)

The Beginner’s Goodbye Discussion Journal

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

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

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

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

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

Other books mentioned:

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

When the Killing’s Done Discussion Journal

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

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

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

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