Nature Girl Discussion Journal

For the last ten years in the library, I have heard people mention Carl Hiaasen’s books as funny and environmental. His young adult book-to-movie, Hoot, was inspiring. Nature Girl did not come with ready book-discussion questions, and although the book covers aNatureGirlCover plethora of issues we could discuss — mental illness, sexuality, telephone sales, marriage, religion, and parenting — I found myself researching satire, parody, and humor. I was repulsed by the crudity and disturbed by the light-hearted treatment of a serious mental illness. A co-worker tried to encourage me to lighten up! Surely I had to admit that sewing a man’s chewed-off fingers onto the wrong parts of his hand is funny! And I suppose it is as absurd as suggesting we eat children to solve the Irish potato famine.

Book Bistro to the rescue! Everyone seemed to agree that the book was so absurd that I shouldn’t take anything in it too seriously. One member liked that Hiaasen’s female characters have substance. Another new member suggested that society is so used to absurdity that we require even more outrageous behavior and images to be shocked enough to respond. She was so enthusiastic and reminded us of parts that made us laugh out loud. I felt as if we were discussing a different book, and yet I recognized the story. It was cathartic, which is perhaps the point. In an interview with 60 Minutes, the author states that he likes writing fiction because he can make the bad guys have the ending they deserve, “and then light a cigarette.”

Carl Hiaasen is a journalist who writes a column for the Miami Herald. His work has also appeared in many well-known magazines. One member liked the bits of political and topical issues that pop into the story throughout and another had researched the story on the internet and drew our attention to the author’s name choices. Another member grew up in Miami and thus we discussed the area, the climate and the environment. After we watched the ten minute interview with 60 Minutes, drawing our attention to the reality in Carl Hiaasen’s absurdity, one member wondered if anyone else had noticed the similarity of Las Vegas to the maligned Miami!

Although we had mixed reactions to the book, we had a great discussion.

  • Other works discussed:
  • There’s Something About Mary (1998) (DVD) Cameron Diaz, Ben Stiller, Matt Dillon
  • Beauty Queens (2012) by Libba Bray (satire)
  • Edge of Eternity and Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
  • A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift
  • Potato Factory by Bryce Courtenay
  • Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  • Jack Reacher books by Lee Child

The Language of Flowers Discussion Journal

I chose The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh because it covered a serious topic, aging out of foster care, and included an engaging subtopic, the language of flowers. In addition, over 3,000 Amazon reviewers had given the book 4.5 stars out of 5. Potentially, something for everyone.LanguageOfFlowersCover

The first responders could not identify with the main character. The overwhelming majority seemed to be unable to sympathize with Victoria’s abandonment of her baby, of her refusing assistance. The story was romanticized and unrealistic. And yet, didn’t that make it readable? Some members shared personal experiences. Others wondered how a professional midwife could not have known that Victoria needed more assistance and helped her with the constant nursing. One new member wanted to know more about Meredith, the social worker. Another felt that Meredith had set Victoria up for failure as she warned each family how difficult she was. We discussed mental illness and drug addiction. Even though the author has experience with foster children, we didn’t feel the book gave us a good picture of the foster system. So what was the point? We didn’t really get there.

One of the discussion questions asked us to define what makes a family. Catherine and Elizabeth were related, but were they family? As I listened and watched the discussion, about families now including all manner of support systems, not just blood relations, I couldn’t help but think about communities as families. Work families, library families, book club families. All needing support in different ways. All communicating in different ways. It makes me think of a story in Robert Fulghum’s All I need to know I learned in Kindergarten about a kid who plays hide-‘n-seek too well — “Get found kid!”

The room seemed filled to the brim with familiar and new faces, attentive and engaged. Although I know that everyone did not speak, the discussion moved between members and no one seemed to dominate. A large group has both the potential to bring in a lot of viewpoints and to make it more difficult for some to speak out. After the meeting, one member shared that she really liked the book. Another commented on learning about the Camellia Network, co-founded by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, “a support net(work) for youth aging out of foster care” (https://camellianetwork.org/). I wonder now, looking back, if we shouldn’t have broken into smaller groups. It’s a work in progress!

  • Other works discussed:
  • Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth
  • White Oleander by Janet Fitch

 

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Discussion Journal

I chose The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency for July because I knew that the series is No1LadiesDetectiveAgencyCoverincredibly popular, funny yet substantive, and I hoped its ease would make good summer/vacation reading. The ready availability of many books, including sound recordings, is also a big plus for our book club!

Since I heard Alexander McCall Smith speak at the American Library Association conference here in Las Vegas, I was ready to show some YouTube clips of his comedic routines, a YouTube sample of Botswana pumpkin cooking, and the sweeping shots of Botwana shown at the start of the HBO television series adapted from the book. We had cookies and bush tea (red rooibos from South Africa).

Then we had some technical difficulties. W-fi, plugs, connections, laptop, i-pad, dvd, television. In hindsight it is rather funny to think of taking a seemingly simple story, people who have chosen to take time reading and coming out to discuss a book, and then throwing in technical media! It all worked out in the end, but not necessarily as planned!

I had anticipated enthusiastic, devoted readers and some skeptical newcomers. What we had was a rather quiet group. Those who had re-read the book found it appealing again. Others seemed to like it as well. Since none of us have been to Africa, we couldn’t truly judge its reality.

Before the meeting, one member commented that he found the narrator to be unreliable, since he knew that it was a white male writing about a black female detective. In general, since the author was raised in Africa, we accepted his narration. We discussed the accuracy of the dialogue. I was enamored of the author’s language and read several sentences that I had highlighted throughout. I also mentioned his use of many archaic words I appreciated. We discussed HIV and how it is not spoken of directly. About how positive a view this is of Botswana. We noted that the book is more like a collection of short stories than a novel, and how the author himself says he is afflicted with “serial novelism.”

Every member spoke and brought out interesting aspects prompted by the discussion questions and on their own. As we wondered about Mma Ramotswe’s youthful acceptance of her abusive husband, one member mentioned reading Of Human Bondage. Another compared the opening lines of Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa with the opening lines “Mma Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of Kgale Hill.” I marvel at the common association we all now share.

As always, if there is something I have missed or something you’ve thought of that you would like to add or share, make a comment!

  • Other works discussed:
  • Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham
  • Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

Wicked: the life and times of the wicked witch of the West Discussion Journal

Wicked was published in 1995 and over the years several people have told me I just “had” to read it. The musical has a great soundtrack and a happy ending, so the book seemed like a good pick for our group. And it was. Although not in the way I had anticipated!WickedBookCover

I struggled reading it, at least for the first half. Little seemed familiar to me—the descriptions were coarse and sexual, and the gnarly baby teeth gave me serious nightmares. I could tell that it was heavy with symbolism, religious and political innuendo, and much that seemed to pass directly over my head. I struggled to keep names and locations straight, and nearly panicked at the thought of my book club members’ responses!

Of course, I shouldn’t have worried. Although I wasn’t alone in my struggles, most members had tried to finish it. Some had read it before, liked it, and wondered why it was more difficult this time. Another still considered it one of her favorite books and had found even more to savor at this reading. Reading it for the first time, one member was ready to start on the second book in the series, although he had been disappointed in the ending.

Most of us were not surprised that the Witch was not as evil as she was portrayed in the Wizard of Oz. We discussed whether any fairy tales are intended only for children and what could be found with deeper analysis. Our last two books dealt with the nature of evil and I can’t help but wonder how much of our understanding and tolerance is because we are a well-read group. Does this transfer to our understanding in real life? How could it not?

On several occasions the room was quiet with thought. Several members agreed that the use of Animals vs. animals as a theme was not just a statement for animal rights, but for the rights of all societal outsiders – and Elphaba is the ultimate outsider. We disagreed whether Elphaba would ever really add wings to monkeys. The author was working with popular source material and he stays true to things not assumed, although more is inferred than we might otherwise imagine! The opening prologue served not just to set the stage, letting us know that the story would eventually lead to a known world, but showed us how people use gossip to help them understand their world, explaining things that don’t make sense.

We were surprised that Frank L. Baum’s classic was first published in 1900 as America’s first original fairy tale. We did not discuss the nature of science fiction and fantasy and how it serves to point out moral truths, creating a recognizable world that is still separate enough to keep our defenses down and penetrable. I am glad I read Wicked, and like others in the group, I would like to know how the story is continued. One member who has read more of Gregory Maguire’s books said that this was his heaviest. Perhaps one day . . . .

  • Other works discussed:
  • Defending Jacob by William Landay
  • Round House by Louise Erdrich
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum
  • The Wizard of Oz (DVD)
  • Oz the Great and Powerful (DVD)
  • Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
  • Saving Mr. Banks (DVD)
  • Fairy Tales and Nursery Rhymes
  • Other Gregory Maguire books

 

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)

Pride and Prejudice Discussion Journal

Pride and Prejudice Discussion Journal

I was surprisingly nervous going in to our discussion about Pride and Prejudice by Jane PrideAndPrejudiceFlyer2014Austen.  Her books have been so widely read – loved and hated!  Made in to movies. Adapted. Imagine Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith. She was the favorite author of my English Novel professor in college.  Sir Walter Scott’s quotes make him seem smitten. Twainquotes.com shares many negative comments, ending in this excerpt from a letter written by Mark Twain in 1898, “Everytime I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” I just can’t get past, “Everytime I read . . .”!

Fortunately, several members had either never before read Jane Austen, or had read Pride and Prejudice in school and no long remembered it – perhaps even forgot it because it was required reading! Many of us asked, why is this considered great literature? Or, it was laborious to read, how in the world do high school students get through it?

I am not sure that Jane Austen’s works are considered great literature. One of the library’s Great Courses DVD sets, Classic Novels: Meeting the Challenge of Great Literature, does not include any of her books. We discussed the importance of considering the time the book was written, a period of great social change. The American Revolution. The French Revolution. Not a political book, but definitely a social one. A book of manners, behaviors, and opinions about the time during which it was written.  It is not an historical novel, but it gives us a glimpse of history. One member pointed out that we cannot be sure that the words pride and prejudice even had the same meaning to the author as they have to us!

We discussed whether or not technology, such as washing machines, has decreased the need for men to find a wife. How men can now stay home and care for the household. About arranged marriages and the role of Internet dating. About the time spent walking. And walking. And walking. To town. Through gardens and around the estate grounds. About the quiet – compared to teenagers walking in malls or meeting for coffee (and a donut!). About lust versus love. How great a role did the wealth of Mr. Darcy really play in Elizabeth’s sudden change of heart? Jane Austen was only 21 when she first wrote this story, how did that influence her characterizations? Why is Pride and Prejudice the most popular of Jane Austen’s novels?

One member asked about the name Jane.  Why did Jane Austen use it in her novel? Did she identify with that character? Although I imagine this question has been asked and researched somewhere, we were stumped. I think the consensus was that it must have been a common name. Yet, I have come back to that question again and again. Although I had always assumed that Jane Austen identified with the spunky character of Elizabeth Bennet, the one character who showed the least pride and prejudice was Jane Bennet. Names are always important. As are the questions. Thanks for joining the discussion.

  • Other Works Discussed:
  • Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
  • Emma by Jane Austen
  • Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Bronte
  • Classic Novels: Meeting the Challenge of Great Literature (Great Courses DVD) by Arnold L. Weinstein
  • Pride and Prejudice (DVD BBC mini-series) Colin Firth
  • Multiple other film versions of Jane Austen’s works

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian Discussion Journal

We started the discussion about Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-AbsolutelyTrueDiaryBookCoverTime Indian by listening to a few passages from the audiobook, read by the author. One member had recommended the sing-song, story-telling rendition, which is particularly effective in bringing the narration to life. I then mentioned the book as a winner of the 2007 National Book Award for Young Adult fiction, which prompted the questions: What makes a novel young-adult versus adult? Illustrations? Style? Audience? Economics? Geography (mentioned by a member after the meeting)?

When I finally got around to asking if anyone wanted to share first impressions, the room was silent. This was the first time in 18 months that no one spoke up! Slowly, we began discussing the young-adult focus, friendship, poverty, and personal experiences. One member wondered how many of us had ever thought of Indian reservations as the Rez before. Human greed, current events, books and movies — as usual, I found new and interesting perspectives throughout. Clearly most, probably all, members enjoyed the book — but the discussion was challenging. We were just hitting our stride as it was time to go. One member brought up the author’s strong emphasis on the destructive prevalence of alcoholism. Someone mentioned the changing perceptions of names, lyrics, and slurs. Another mentioned that he has read much about Native Americans, but that he learned more about life on Indian reservations from this book than from any other.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian is an engaging and powerful novel – as straightforward as its title – filled with humor, tragedy, hyperbole, and truth. I would definitely categorize the book as young adult; but, like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, or To Kill a Mockingbird, it should be read by adults. Although I wouldn’t want to lose anything shared, I wish we could have kept discussing! But we can always do so, here, or on our own, with family and friends. The thing about a good book is that it can – and should – be passed around and brought up again and again and again.

So, if you were unable to attend the meeting or would like to add your thoughts about the book, please comment here and continue the discussion!

  • Other works mentioned:
  • Zelig (DVD) Woody Allen, 1983
  • Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington, 1996
  • Rabbit Proof Fence (DVD) 2002
  • Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon, 2003
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, 1960
  • The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka, 2011

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.

Miracle at St. Anna Discussion Journal

MiracleAtStAnnaCoverThis past Tuesday, the Whitney Book Bistro discussed Miracle at St. Anna by James McBride. The discussion brought forth stories from our members—stories about segregation and race, about war, politics, and remembrance.  The immediate reaction from the group was that the story was just too sad. And many found it confusing, difficult to keep the characters straight and filled with an odd depiction of miracles/spiritualism. Yet the discussion was full and varied; and we only referred to one question from the discussion prompts.

Everyone seemed to find Miracle at St. Anna educational and worthwhile, but not all of us would have chosen to read it. I chose the book because, although I don’t generally read war novels, or violent crime novels, I had been impressed by McBride’s bestselling memoir, The Color of Water.  I was equally impressed by his first novel, Miracle at St. Anna. I found it beautiful and uplifting—from the simplicity of Train, who thinks rubbing a statue head can make him invisible, to the decency of a German soldier amidst inhuman cruelty, through the continuing miracle of life and love through the ages. Of course, in between is some ugly fighting, deception, and politics.

Our views of the things we read are so often tempered by our moods and experiences. We may love a book on a first read and despise it on a second! One of the great things about discussing and sharing books is that it can bring new understanding to the books and in many ways, to the world around us.

At the meeting, one member remarked that perhaps we should discuss the books before we read them. Discussion makes a difference.