Go Set A Watchman Discussion Journal

From reviews and buzz I had read about Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee’s much anticipated second novel, I had expected more dissent, dislike of the sometimes rough writing, disillusionment with the change in Atticus, disgust with the publishing hype, and perhaps even open political warfare! Nothing quite so exciting happened at our meeting, yet, like the book, it was an inspiring and moving discussion.GoSetAWatchmanCover

Two of our members had read the book previously and had not liked it; but reading it again, they really liked it. One member hadn’t liked the first half, but by the end he understood why his wife had been compelled to read it twice in a row. Another felt that he now understood more about the South and the Civil War. Still another found it easy to read.

We discussed a bit about the development of character: Atticus from the beloved icon in To Kill A Mockingbird to the more realistic older lawyer; Scout to Jean Louise, a spoiled and lucky Finch; Henry, the suitor and young, Southern “white trash.”  Would Uncle Jack have hit Jean Louise? Was Atticus racist? Was Jean Louise color blind? We weren’t all clear on how the book ended.

We agreed that there wasn’t actually a plot. We were so much more taken with the philosophy, the history. We all seemed to be watchmen, reporting on what we’ve seen – and read — over our varied lives. We wondered if the concept of “white trash” still exists. We wondered about the right to vote and one member suggested that politicians should be required to take a literacy test! We remembered being in all white schools and towns. We were amazed at the idea that there actually had been places with separate drinking fountains and bathrooms.

One of us remembered that she had been in a school with people of all the same race, but that they were mostly Christians, and Muslims were not understood, different.  She had parents with good, Federal jobs, so she had been able to afford the bus, riding past three Caucasian schools, literally looking down on those who had to walk.

Go Set A Watchman made us think and recall and wonder. We’ve wondered much of this before. We didn’t resolve anything. We didn’t always agree. We don’t all know if we were changed because of what we read. Yet we made an us, without needing a them, all because of a book.

  • Other Works Discussed:
  • To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Puddin’head Wilson by Mark Twain
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  • When The Killings Done by T.C. Boyle
  • Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard
  • The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills
  • Same kind Of Different As Me by Ron Hall
  • The United States Constitution

The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson Discussion

I first read The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson  over thirty five years ago in an high school English class on Mystery Fiction.  I remember only two works, Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain and a short story, A Nine Mile Walk, by Harry Kemelman (1947). Classic fiction is always particularly inspiring to me because it is often a snapshot from a time and place and attitude, rather than historical—and the test of time tends to weed out insubstantial works.  This does not mean that everyone will like it or find value, and PuddnheadWilsonCoverour discussion was exemplary!

Our first responder found the sentences in the book to be extraordinarily long! Another found the writing to seem more modern than he had expected, and still others found the vocabulary antiquated.  We had a lot of discussion about how confusing and unbelievable the story line was, almost as if Mark Twain had just thrown it together – which fit with his own afterword explaining that he had wanted to write a farce about Siamese twins but was forced to throw out the farce in favor of the tragedy! Many of us felt that the story still depended on the Siamese twins, others finally proved that the author had taken “those twins apart and made two separate men of them.”[i]

We discussed issues of race and Mark Twain’s intention, as well as some of his other works. One member felt that the racial issues and local attitudes were similar to Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman. Several members had read that book and we discussed it a bit more than we would usually stray. I think we may need to read and discuss Go Set a Watchman on its own this year!

Despite many of the negative comments, the majority of the group seemed to like the book or were at least glad to have read it.  One member referred to the discussion question about what had been happening in 1894. She had researched it and gave us a great picture of the time period – depression, bank failures, and the obvious failure of reconstruction after the Civil War.

The novel, and our discussion, has given me a lot to think about over the last few days. Which is as it should be. What connections will we make or see in the days and years ahead? Nature versus nurture? What prejudices are we harboring that will seem so obvious in hindsight? The discussion never really ends.

  • Other Works Discussed:
  • Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee
  • Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen
  • Striptease by Carl Hiaasen (film and novel)
  • To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
  • Authors:
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Herman Melville

[i] Twain, Mark.  The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson. Author’s note to Those Extraordinary Twins. Signet Classic Edition 2007.

The Yellow Birds Discussion Journal

The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers, was not easy to read – and not just because of the subject matter. It is definitely not a book to read late at night, when you are tired and falling asleep. I re-read pages, sometimes just trying to understand content, but other times just to savor the concept or imagery. “Where little drifts of snow sketched the December wind.” “When I got fed up with nothing.” “Empathy is an imaginative act.”YellowBirdsCover

I was not surprised at all that our first responder emphatically shared that she hated it – and several members agreed. Several had not finished the book, and one member had nearly vomited trying to read it. I had skimmed through many of the hardest scenes, but members were often able to clarify what happened, even quickly find the necessary passages. One member liked the book. She found the writing beautiful, and several others then agreed. Some of us would want to have our children’s bodies returned to us, whatever the condition.  Others adamantly would not. All seemed to agree that Bartle should not have been imprisoned for his part. Fifteen people at our meeting – the same yet different.

We discussed how family members and friends never talk about what happened during their service and how different our wars have been.  The world wars were fought to fight great evil and veterans are generally admired.  The Vietnam and Korean war veterans met disdain at home; their wars seemed lost and purposeless to those at home.  Veterans of our current wars are often met with gratitude and thanks for their service, even though we may disparage the war itself. Yet the author shared his own sense that in fighting a senseless and purposeless war, he was ashamed and uncomfortable with the gratitude. “It was a sign and we knew what it meant, that hours had passed, that we had drawn nearer to our purpose, which was as vague and foreign as the indistinguishable dawns and dusks with which it came.”

The Yellow Birds was a National Book Award finalist. But the author is primarily a poet, and as we discussed whether his writing was any good, I read from an interview in which Kevin Powers was asked about “the deeply lyrical quality” of his prose. He responded in part: “In trying to demonstrate Bartle’s mental state, I felt very strongly that the language would have to be prominent. Language is, in its essence, a set of noises and signs that represent what is happening inside our heads.” (Kindle Version)*

One member mentioned that to truly understand the author’s intent, she would have to read it again and again.  Another member said he would like to read it, now that we had discussed it. But would we? Could we? Does our understanding make a difference? Do we have any power? One member said that we should give the book to our politicians to read.

Even then, the author often describes rather than tells, and the reader’s perception is everything.  I read aloud a passage that had moved me, “I knew that at least a few of the stars were probably gone already, collapsed into nothing. I felt like I was looking at a lie.” One member quickly responded, “Why a lie. History.”

Our next book is more main stream, the sixth in a mystery series that includes dogs. After The Yellow Birds, I think we are all ready for something lighter. I seldom read books before I select them. I have read reviews, looked at lists, thought about themes, diversity, and content. If I read them first, I’d be hard pressed to choose a book I didn’t like, so we’d be limited. As one member commented, “We’re all in this together!” Thanks for joining the discussion.

*A conversation with Kevin Powers and Jonathan Ruppin of Foyles Bookshop, London

All book and interview quotations taken from the electronic version of The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2012.

  • Other Works Discussed:
  • All’s Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
  • Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves
  • Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford
  • Rudyard Kipling
  • Wilfred Owen (Poems by)
  • Redeployment by Phil Klay (Short Stories – 2014 National Book Award Winner)
  • Thank You For Your Service by David Finkel (2013 Non-Fiction)

We discussed a few more, but I didn’t get the names. Most of these are from the First World War. If you have additions, please comment!

The Namesake Discussion Journal

NamesakeCoverImageThe Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri brought out a nice crowd for our meeting. The room seemed smaller than usual, the atmosphere both relaxed and animated. Although we had a few observers, almost everyone contributed and I was impressed by how naturally and respectfully members disagreed, expounded, and added to the discussion.

Our first responders enthusiastically liked the book. One member had seen the movie, considered it a close adaptation, and had been so impressed by the acting and imagery that she was still moved just thinking about it. Most reviews I have read about this book considered the son, Gogol, to be the main character, but many of our group seemed most impressed by the parents. Gogol seemed distant, passive, unambitious, compared to his father. We discussed whether or not this was common to second-generation immigrants. Many of us identified with the story, not as immigrants, but as humans. And some of us did consider him the main character, the namesake, the representative of the journey.

One member had been struck by the symbolism of the train, used throughout, as a sign of self-discovery. Gogol’s father is nearly killed in a train; his mother loses and then abandons her gifts to her father on a train; Gogol meets his first girlfriend and then loses his wife on a train. Certainly there are more. I had been struck by the incongruity of Gogol’s Indian relatives not having indoor hot water and other “conveniences” while still having servants. Other members shared stories – from the Philippines, where not dropping trash on the ground could be considered depriving someone of a job, to a not-so-distant past when people in the United States would take in family, friends, and immigrants in exchange for services.

Although everyone seemed to agree that the novel was easy to read, some of us found the story to be more detailed than necessary regarding everyday experiences while not describing Indian clothing, food and experiences in enough detail. We differed in how immersed we felt in the story, in the language, in the culture. Understanding references and symbolism can make a big difference in our appreciation of any novel, but particularly when we are trying to learn about a different culture. This particularly highlighted the benefit of e-readers in allowing instant definitions of unusual words. Looking things up continually can interfere with the flow of the language, though, even with an e-reader.

We had the longest discussion about names, which is appropriate given the novel’s title! Two members had been given different names at school because of how common their names were. Another identified with Gogol because she had hated her first name. One man asked how the women in the group felt about changing their names for marriage, and we had several interesting stories, including that in Sweden a man may choose to take his wife’s last name.

We covered many more things. In retrospect, it seems impossible that we discussed so much in just an hour.

Our snack for the evening was Jhal Muri, adapted from the book with help from Ally Johnson in “Reading, and cooking, with The Namesake”:

  • 2-3 cups Rice Krispy Cereal
  • 1 cup diced red onion
  • ½ cup dry roasted peanuts
  • ½ can mild, diced green chiles
  • ½ tsp garam masala (spice)
  • Juice squeezed from one small lemon over the top and then stirred—not so much to make it soggy. Just enough to hear it “snap, crackle, and pop!”

Other works discussed:

  • Chef [2014] (film)
  • Chocolat [2000] (film)
  • Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol [1842]      The overcoat, and other tales of good and evil by Nikolai V. Gogol [1842]
  • Eat, pray, love : one woman’s search for everything across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert 2006 (also 2010 film version)
  • The hundred-foot journey : a novel by Richard C. Morais [2011] (also 2014 film)
  • Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (Pulitzer Prize Winner 2000)
  • Life of Pi : a novel by Yann Martel [2001] (also 2013 film version)
  • Like water for chocolate : a novel in monthly installments, with recipes, romances, and home remedies by Laura Esquivel [1992] (also 2000 Spanish-language film version)
  • The Lunchbox [2013] (Hindi-language film)
  • The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall-Smith [1998]
  • Tortilla Soup [2001] (film)
  • This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz [2012]

The Ocean at the End of the Lane Discussion Journal

At the end of our discussion of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, we all laughed as one member asked if we ever thought an author was just pulling random ideas and images out of the air. We had discussed meaning and mythology, repressed OceanAtTheEndmemories, reality and more. The group’s review of the book was mixed – some found it hard to understand, depressing, even purposeless; others found it better than they had expected – but no one seemed particularly impressed.

One member asked why I had chosen it. This was a difficult question because I considered many factors – genre, gender, diversity, subject, awards. Neil Gaiman has crossed my radar for years. According to UXL Graphic Novelist database, “many consider Neil Gaiman to be one of the greatest writers in the field of comics and graphic novels, and he is certainly one of the comic industry’s biggest stars . . . His works American Gods and Coraline dominated the New York Times best-seller list, and both were honored with the Bram Stoker Award and Hugo Award.”[1] I had actually expected The Ocean at the End of the Lane to be harder to read, more like Wicked, and at only 181 pages, I considered it a good choice to challenge ourselves.

One member had researched the mythology of the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. She gave us some good information regarding symbolism and the author’s Sandman series. Another had researched the name Hempstock and although she hadn’t found anything definitive, she couldn’t help but wonder if by using the prefix hemp, the author was referring to a drug-induced dream. Many of us remained unclear about whether anything in the story was real. Several members noted how incongruent the father’s constantly serving burned toast seemed, especially once he admitted hating it.

Two members talked about vultures. One had been disturbed by the image of black birds tearing apart Ursula. Another offered her own memory of seeing vultures standing, orderly, like perfect gentlemen, carefully taking their portion of road kill. It is amazing what memories are triggered from our readings and meetings.

I was impressed by the imagery and kept picturing surrealist art – but art can be constantly viewed and considered, as I pass it in a hall or visit a gallery. I would have to keep reading and re-reading to pick up all the subtleties! I actually found The Ocean at the End of the Lane quite uplifting. I am fascinated by how the human mind might perceive and explain the horrors and wonders of the world.

Stories can entertain us, educate us, and make us think. We discussed how, no matter what the author intended, our reception is what matters. If it confuses us, if we miss the point, is it the same as if there never had been a point?

[1] “Gaiman, Neil.” UXL Graphic Novelists. Tom Pendergast and Sara Pendergast. Ed. Sarah Hermsen. Vol. 1. Detroit: UXL, 2007. 127-135. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 10 June 2015.

  • Other works discussed:
  • Author Amy Tan
  • Author C.S. Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia)
  • Wicked by Gregory Maguire
  • Life of Pi by Yan Martel
  • Neverwas (DVD) 2005 Aaron Eckhart/Ian McKellen
  • Grimm’s Fairy Tales
  • Red Riding Hood origin stories
  • Greek Mythology

Where’d You Go Bernadette Discussion Journal

Our discussion of Where’d You Go Bernadette was shorter than usual. Several people had been initially turned off by the epistolary format, but many had been hooked by the laugh-out-loud scene descriptions. Without looking at the discussion questions, we naturally covered many of them. It seemed for most to be an enjoyable read with some sharp WheredYouGoBernadetteCoverinsights into character and a fascinating description of Bernadette’s art – the Twenty Mile House.

But what was the point? I was most taken by that question. A couple of members drew a comparison with Carl Hiaasen. But is this book satire? Caricature? Realism? Bernadette was over the top in general, but we all agreed that she had been severely depressed since her loss of the Twenty Mile House, untreated, and self-absorbed. We agreed that she had a close relationship with Bee, but we were divided on her relationship with Elgin. Was it salvageable? How much of everything that happened is simply a plot device?

We discussed the different characters and agreed that the story was being told by Bee because she was the most likeable and steady. We laughed at various scenes and looked for parallels in other books. We all liked the virtual assistant – even if it was a member of the Russian Mafia! And to my surprise, no one seemed interested in Antarctica!

A pleasant read and a pleasant discussion! Our next book will be Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. I read aloud an excerpt from a lecture he gave in 2013 about the importance of libraries and the value of Science Fiction in opening doors to possibilities. His story may be different than those we’ve read before. We’ll meet next month and know.

  • Other works discussed:
  • Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen
  • Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain
  • The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

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 Rosie Project Discussion Journal

I’m pretty sure everyone liked The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. Some of us really liked the book. I suppose there is a spectrum of likeability. I hear and remember RosieProjectCovercomments. With fifteen smiling and reflective faces around the table, I make a judgment call and record it here. We didn’t take a survey.

Perhaps our discussion seemed quieter because we were on the stage. Sounds were muted and the air had a foggy quality—diffused light from high ceilings and shadows behind thick dark curtains. When I mentioned we were meeting in the theater, one member had worried that our group had gotten so big we needed an auditorium!

When I asked for someone to offer the first response, quiet chatter reigned. Finally, one member drew our attention and our discussion began. She found the book to be utterly believable and lifelike. Another had never before heard of Asperger Syndrome. Yet another described his experience with an obviously much-loved brother.

We spent much of the hour discussing spectrum disorders. Not just autism, though mainly so. The autistic stage is universal. Autism was not identified until 1944. Do all people with Aspergers have a good memory? Most also have SID (Sensory Input Disorder). Early training and socialization make a difference. Why are so many more boys diagnosed with Autism? Some previously diagnosed schizophrenics are now found to have autism. And in the future it may be schizophrenia again. How do we really know? Is psychology a science?

Bill Gates. Vladamir Putin. Steve Jobs. Our family members, friends, maybe that obnoxious man or woman we try to avoid. And my favorite – Mr. Darcy.

Loveable to some of us, obnoxious to others, Don Tillman described communication issues that made us laugh out loud. One member said the book had been written as a play and polished over eight years. Even though the main characters were from Australia, it seemed very American. Those who listened to the audio book said that the reader sounded American.

We discussed a lot of other books and movies, although none of the same ones Don Tillman mentions. Several of us mentioned The Big Bang Theory television show and the ever-more culturally recognizable Sheldon. Now our group has Don Tillman. And we are part of an even larger group. As of today, Amazon had 6,873 reviews of The Rosie Project—4072 five-stars ratings and 2034 four-star ratings.

Working in a library, I’ve had people ask about the value of fiction. Is it just entertainment, escape, relaxation? Aren’t we any different now that we have read this book, alone and as a group? Do we view the world any differently? Are we less biased or more accepting? The Rosie project was an engaging, easy to read story. Although it’s main character is Gregory Peck-handsome and perhaps not truly as awkward and obnoxious as many people we encounter, the issues raised are pertinent and brought us together. We didn’t always agree, but we listened and shared, exercised our brains and our hearts.

  • Other works discussed:
  •  Big Bang Theory (television show)
  • Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon
  • Defending Jacob by William Landay
  • House Rules by Jodi Piccoult
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • Some very interesting read-a-likes — just ask at your local library!

Frankenstein Discussion Journal

Frankenstein is what I consider a shared cultural icon. If we saw a squared head with boltsFrankensteinSpanish on the side, many of us, around the world, would think of Frankenstein. And many of us might even know pertinent details, having seen only snippets of the story in print, film, or costume. But would we know Frankenstein? And does it even matter?

Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was written and published nearly 200 years ago. Considered by many to be the first science fiction novel, the book is short, readable, often requested by students for reading assignments – and yet only five people out of the 20 at our discussion had read the story before it was selected for our book club. And were we surprised! Most of us agreed that the story was not at all what we had expected. Sad–yes–but so much more than horror, murder, and mayhem!

One member had read the annotated version, which included pictures of some of the handwritten pages and detailed information about the historical setting, style, and more. FrankensteinBookCoverSince the original story was published anonymously with an introduction by Shelley’s husband, many people had assumed the poet was the author – and he did contribute to the prose. Handwriting differences indicate his poetic influence on word choices and meanings. This member highly recommended the annotated version and was able to give us authoritative information to some of our questions.

We all agreed that Frankenstein is philosophical, filled with literary references, science, politics and religion. I had been particularly captivated by Shelley’s references to the discovery of the Americas and by such beautiful language as “inspirited by the wind of promise.” Another member wondered about Shelley’s knowledge of Judaism. Discussions of God figure prominently in the work. We wondered about the ornate language and the use of the epistolary form. Was Mary Shelley writing about her own search for parental validation through Frankenstein’s monster? Who has time or energy to philosophize like this any more? She was only 18 when she wrote the story, but for that time she was nearly middle-aged and had already lost a parent and one child. In addition, what was the moral, if Robert Walton only turned back because his crew insisted? Perhaps it has something to do with knowing when to cut your losses.

One of us even wondered whether Victor Frankenstein couldn’t have also been the monster – an intriguing suggestion that might solve some of the problems with the story. Victor Frankenstein wasn’t likable. He abandoned his family, not writing for months during his obsession. He made a big and dangerous monster. He fell into fits for months. He didn’t share his knowledge of the monster to help others. And he abandoned his orphaned brother. We all laughed when one member mentioned how Victor Frankenstein’s ramblings and musings (sigh!) seemed just to go on and on.

And of course, we discussed science. Several times we came back to the question of how Frankenstein could find so ugly something he created. Yet aren’t we still so blinded by possibilities that we don’t recognize the dangers until too late? Mary Shelley was kept indoors during the cold summer of 1816. No television. No video games. No internet. What a different world it might be . . .

Fortunately we do still get together and discuss philosophy and literature and life. Our discussion was full and self-sustaining. As always, not to be missed.

  • Other works discussed:
  • Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker
  • On the Origin of Species (1859) Charles Darwin
  • “Yes, Frankenstein really was written by Mary Shelley. It’s obvious – because the book is so bad.” article by Germaine Greer (The Guardian. April 12, 2007)

Twenty Miles From A Match Discussion Journal

Creating shared experiences through books is my primary objective for our book club. Reading can be pleasurable, educational, and more! But in a large community, especially TwentyMilesFromAMatchone populated from around the world, it can bring us all a little bit closer, give us a reason to get together, help us understand each other, make us all insiders — privy to a history and legacy that is much more than the “Sin City” outsiders see. Participating in this year’s Nevada Reads: First All State Community Group Read is exactly the kind of experience I feel privileged to share.

We had over 20 library patrons and eight staff members read Twenty Miles From a Match by Sarah E. Olds. Staff members shared (and continue to share!) their thoughts — often with a smile or laugh. One staff member was particularly taken by Sarah Olds’ “great determination.” She was impressed by how “a positive attitude goes a long way in making our lives happier and contented.” Another was more unbelieving that the tall tales were actually true!

At our meeting, we had the same mix of awe and incredulity: Pollyanna, Eyeopener, Superwoman! Several members commented that they like their “city life” and couldn’t imagine choosing to head out into the desert wilderness. This was pioneering, not just homesteading! One felt that the book was “like a window into another world.” Another loved the silence in the story. Our world today — with television and internet — is always demanding our attention. He said that the book “hit me and gave me a sense of loss.”

We discussed our own experiences.  One member grew up in rural Hawaii, laughingly sharing with us how the word macadamized seemed made for the macadamia nut shells they used to cover roads. We all seemed to be struck by the sense of community. Thirty-five miles from Reno and twenty miles from a match, Sarah Olds’ family seemed more a part of a community than we are with neighbors ten feet away. Another member had taken her children in the 1970s to rural North Dakota to escape city life — a fabulous experience but hard. Bad things can happen anywhere.

Which brought us back to the importance of that positive attitude. That horse that never died! A one room school — basically in your own house! Can you imagine dancing all night long? We thought longingly over these possibilities. I asked about the feminism in the book and many seemed to think women had it easier in the West.  Sarah Olds was accepting of the prostitutes as a business, even if she didn’t want associate with them. A few of us wondered about A.J. He seemed certainly a crotchety old man, who just kept living despite being seriously ill! But he made sure everything was in her name before he died. One member felt that songs and hymns seemed to keep Sarah’s spirits up throughout. She was the quintessential supermom. One staff member shared the quote: “Mama, you can think the queerest things are fun! My back aches, my eyes are full of dirt, and my fingers are sore. I intend to stay with this job till it’s finished, but it isn’t a bit of fun!”

We spent a lot of time discussing fiction versus nonfiction. How can we know what is true or not?! How true is any memory? Any memoir? We agreed that the story was easy to read. Sarah Olds had a great voice. She was a natural storyteller. There were no literary pretensions. We decided that she was writing oral history. We discussed the differenceI was surprised to learn than none of the members present had read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. I was a huge fan and even though her books are marketed as fiction, the people, places and stories are seemingly as real to me as those of Sarah Olds — if not more so because she has a museum with pictures and artifacts.

I cannot emphasize enough how important sharing our history can be. In a scrapbook, in a journal, in short written anecdotes. At one of my first book club meetings a member TwentyMilesMtgDec2014mentioned that she didn’t think her grandchildren would care about her stories. Maybe not now, but in twenty years. . . Whose stories will we be reading in another fifty years?

We never reviewed any of the book discussion guide questions. Time flies — and in my memory, it was wonderful. I still haven’t covered everything. As always, the discussion can continue here, or wherever we meet someone who shared this experience. It matters!

  • Other works discussed:
  • Works by Willa Cather
  • David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (book and dvd)
  • Death Valley Junction : the story of the Amargosa Opera House by Marta Becket.
  • Gold Camp Drifter, 1906 – 1910 by Emmet L. Arnold
  • Friendly Fallout 1953 by Ann Ronald.
  • Lazy B : growing up on a cattle ranch in the American Southwest by Sandra Day O’Connor
  • Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Little house in the Ozarks : the rediscovered writings by Laura Ingalls Wilder ; edited by Stephen W. Hines.
  • Martha and the Doctor : a frontier family in central Nevada by Marvin Lewis ; edited by B. Betty Lewis.
  • “Portraits of an Antique West” by William J. Shepperson. Nevada Historical Society Quarterly Fall 1980. web accessed 12-4-2014 nsla.nevadaculture.org