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


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 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

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.