Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Some Luck

That was possibly the briefest book discussion we have ever had.  We found the beginning impossibly tedious and the overall story dull and mundane.  Kareen said that she grew up on a farm and it sounded like her life, which had been just about as interesting.  Mary found the silk purse from the sow's ear when she thought that the slow nuanced character development is meant to carry these characters all the way through three books.  She said this is not a stand-alone book and plans to read all three.  Several of us were unable to finish this first book!

We turned our discussion to development of the list we're building of book titles for 2016.  At 1:45 Jana, the programming librarian, came in to talk to the group and answer any questions they might have about how to continue without a moderator after my move.  They talked first about the character of our group and how they would like to see it continue as it is.  Jana suggested that we develop some simple rules that can be read at the beginning of a meeting so any new person can know what to expect.  She is going to prepare something and bring it to the next meeting.  Meanwhile Angela asked that we return to using name tags and I will bring them next time also.

Mary has been thinking about why our group has been so successful and why her granddaughter's book club hasn't so wrote down four elements that she thinks are key:  1) Neutral meeting place; 2) Set time and day; 3) A list is developed in advance so what to read next is not in question; 4) No refreshments are served.  We talked a lot about how to keep small discussions from breaking out and overshadowing the main discussion.  Kathy said she worries that when everyone gets so excited, that we'll start talking over one another.  Jana will put something about that in the "rules."

As we were concluding with Jana, I asked who would be our library liaison.  She laughed and said she supposed it would be her, but then she had a second thought - or Aurora she offered.  I was delighted and said so.  I am on Good Reads with Aurora so already know that she reads many of the same books that we do and would be a great asset.  And then Jana stunned us all by offering Aurora as a meeting participating facilitator.  Of course, she first had to go talk to Aurora who came into the room looking a little like a deer in the headlights.  But she instantly warmed to the idea and enthusiastically agreed.  She will come to the next meeting as an observer, and Lord willing and the creeks don't rise, I'll be in Oregon by the following meeting.  Or not.

After Jana left we talked about books in general and how we use them.  Mary had heard it said that a home without books is a house without a soul.   JoAnne contributed that although she never rereads a book, she had about 25 books that she has kept over the years, regarding them as friends and reminders of times gone by.  The Tuesday Book Club is alive and well and set to continue to 2016 and beyond!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Once we got past this not being a literary work, we settled down to talk about the book.  Maureen said she thought it was a book club light weight, the group concurred because it certainly is that. I reminded them that we said that year we'd like a couple of books that don't leave us wrung out and exhausted.  Aurora, one of the library staff asked me afterwards how the group liked it because she had loved it and she's a hearty reader.  The publisher wrote, "In the spirit of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (we have read both), Gabrielle Zevin's enchanting novel is a love letter to the world of books - and booksellers."

We actually had started today's discussion with a throw-back discussion to All the Light We Cannot See.  Angela asked the group why they loved it so much when all she could say was that she didn't dislike it.  Oh boy, did we line up the reasons because the rest of us had loved it.  She thanked us and said that made more sense.  Patricia said the same about this book - she didn't love it but she didn't dislike it.  The rest of us had really enjoyed it though were taken aback by it's "beach read" quality, and it is a solid beach read.  Patricia then back pedaled and said that on the other hand, this would be an excellent book to place in the hands of a reluctant reader.

We talked some about the authors comments in the afterward which she echoed in A.J.'s voice.  She said she readers faster on an e-reader but she forgets more than when she's reading a paper copy and questioned if it's the act of turning pages that solidifies the story in our minds.  We commiserated with her about wanting to share a book we enjoy which is complicated if we've don't have a physical copy.

I told Kathy I thought about her many times in the book since the author addressed "reader response" on a number of occasions.  The delicious element was that we had book discussions in the story about books that we have read.  Jenny said she liked it, all but the ending.  But the twist had been predicted from the beginning.

It's one of the oddest books we've read and I say that based on the discussion.  I felt the story heading in a predictable direction, though I certainly didn't expect the twist, and it ended on a happy note.  So many books we read do not.  With all the book discussions throughout the book, it was a very satisfactory read for me.

They can tell when I like a book by all the yellow stickies across the top of the pages, and I read from a half dozen of them today.  The last one I read was "What bothers me in a story more than anything is a loose end," Deputy Doug Lippman says, selecting four mini-quiches from the hors d'oeurves Lambiase has provided.  After many years of hosting the Chief's Choice Book Club, Lambiase knows that the most important thing, even more than the title at hand, is food and drink."

I told the group that I chose that to show that there are book clubs without a facilitator, because they will soon be in that situation.  We are in the process of moving to Bend, Oregon when we have two sons and two grandsons.  We're going to the wedding of the youngest son this weekend and have decided that we need to live where they are.

The only reason this group has a facilitator is because it's a library program and I continued to perform that role after I retired as a library volunteer, which requires fingerprinting and the whole nine yards.  But the library is willing to offer the space for free if the group wants to continue.  Kareen suggested that once the group selects the books for the year each member chose the book they'd like to facilitate.  Kathy felt like that might be a stretch since our lives change from month to month.  I said the book clubs I've been in before were unfacilitated, that we read the book and came prepared.  Maureen said that has been her experience in past book clubs, but a person offered to moderate the book and came prepared with a little history behind the story or author bio.  Mary thought that we were already doing some positive things:  we meet in a neutral space, we sit around a table which provides a barrier and feeling of safeness, we create a list in advance so we know what we're reading, we have a set time to meet each month, and we come prepared to talk about the book.

Jana, the programs librarian, is going to come in and address our concerns next month.  The two things the group needs to figure out is how to manage book selection and how to organize meeting facilitation.  It's doable.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Orphan Train

We had the unusual experience of everyone liking the book and while that often leads to a short discussion, we found plenty to talk about  today.  The history of orphan trains was new to Kathy and several others said the same thing, wondering how this piece of American history had slipped by them.  And while both stories were interesting, we found Vivian's to be more compelling.  Claudia noted that Molly's response to her circumstances was angry rebellion whereas Vivian threw herself into each experience, learning and acquiring skills along the way.  We liked how the author paralleled their experiences and used the class project of portaging as another parallel.  The Indians knew the value of traveling light, understanding that it required leaving some things behind, as both Vivian and Molly learned

We talked about how the children were expected to step into the work roles as adults, cleaning, cooking and tending children.  Joanne felt it was as much cultural as anything.  She began cooking with her Italian grandmother when she was three and by the time she was six, she could put out a whole meal.  She began by making bread.  She said breaking an egg into flour and kneading it into dough was fun play for her.

Vivian who was our favorite character, was quite feisty for a 91-year-old woman, trotting up the stairs to the attic each day with Molly.  Joanne said there was one thing that didn't ring true to her and that was giving up her baby when that was all she had left of Dutchy, the love of her life, and especially after her experiences, thrown on the kindness and not-so-kindness of strangers.  Kathy said she realized the end was probably a little too convenient, but she was glad when Vivian found her daughter.

There were things mentioned and then not followed up on, like if Molly was Indian, was she dark skinned?  And Jack's dad was Dominican yet we don't know what he looked like.  He must have had some Negroid features which would certainly set him apart, but for the big role he played, we know more about his mom than him.

We spent quite a bit of time trying to get our heads around the concept of putting children on a train and sending them off, like darts to a dart board, with little or no accounting system.  Angela read that between 1854 and 1929 the trains delivered an estimated 250,000 orphaned and abandoned children to 45 states plus Canada and Mexico.  Patricia brought in a nonfiction book about the orphan train movement and read to us about Reverend Loring who founded the movement in an attempt to address the needs of children living on the streets of New York City.  Mary noted that social welfare fell to the churches, and while the two things expected of families taking children was to send them to church and school, it's clear that many didn't.  Kathy questioned why the trains stopped and wondered if one of the FDR's New Deal programs addressed this problem.  We were as interested in the history behind the story as much as the story.

Per Kathy's request, here's a repeat of the Reader Response:

I found the Kelly Corrigan quote which was in the March post.  The term is Reader Response:  "I remember a lecture from one of my lit classes about a theory called “Reader Response,” which basically says: More often than not, it’s the readers—not the writers—who determine what a book means.  The idea is that readers don’t come blank to books.  Consciously and not, we bring all the biases that come with our nationality, gender, race, class, age.  Then you layer onto that the status of our health, employment, relationships, not to mention our particular relationship to each book—who gave it to us, were we read it, what books we’ve already read—and, as my professor put it, “That massive array of spices has as much to do with the flavor of the soup as whatever the cook intended.”

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Me before You

This is quite a departure from the type of book we usually read and I wasn't sure what to expect since in essence this is a romance novel. Though we wrapped up within an hour, I was still pleased and surprised by the discussion.  We spent quite a bit of time on the question of assisted suicide, including people we know who have opted out of treatment and chosen hospice.  As Maureen noted, some diseases progress more quickly than others, like  Parkinson's versus end-stage cancers.  Which brought us back around to assisted-suicide.  We hadn't heard about Dignitas, which is a real place in Switzerland.  Kareen said that it's also legal in Oregon though the terminally ill patients to take the "cocktail" of this own volition.  So I was wrong when I thought it was just a romance.

Patricia didn't care much for the book, feeling the characters to be contrived and flat, but Maureen loved it.  The author has written ten in all and Claudia says she has read seven of them and loved them all.  She teased Maureen that she has a lot of look forward to.

We found it easy to criticize Louisa for her anger and nonacceptance of Will's decision.  Then we thought about her  background and the fact that she had never known him before his accident, and by her own admission, he would never have given her the time of day then.  Angela also noted that he never told her that she loved her, even after she told him she loved him.  He loved it that she gave him a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

We weren't in agreement on Camilla, Will's mom, though Dianna said she came to like her more.  I thought she was the saddest character in the book because in the end she lost her career, her son, her husband and her marriage and was utterly alone. None of us liked Mr. Traynor.  And though Lu left Patrick after seven years, we found his character completely flat and unbelievable.

Angela thought the author's choice of two characters from such different walks of life is the chemistry that made the story work.  Will introduced her to books, movies and music and encouraged her to set goals for herself, to think about college and maybe a career in the fashion industry.  Then he left her the wherewithal to accomplish it.  The closing chapter is bittersweet because she has all that but not that love of her life.

I didn't understand the title and asked for comments.  Darlene said she thought it mean Will before he met Louisa, me before I met you.  Elaine thought it meant I choose me before you, i.e., I choose the right to die.  Interesting!

I have an interesting email from Mary Bruns who said that she had company and was unable to make the meeting.  "Others throught the past few books have been "sad."  I thought they were grim but not really sad.  BUT "Me before You" made me cry tears, real dribbing, sad, tears.  It was an emotional roller coaster for me.  I felt ho-hum before starting it and ended up really liking it.  I'm sending the book to my granddaughter who I think will love it."  I think that sums us the spirit of the book.  It wasn't about issues as much as it was about emotions.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Burial Rites

A great deal of the early discussion today was how we managed to put two difficult and very sad books back to back.  Peggy suggested that we go around the table and state how many stars we gave the book and why.  This gave everyone an opportunity to give an assessment without accompanying discussion and it was interesting how many loved the writing and would have given five stars, but ultimately downgraded it to a three because of the harsh and desperately painful story.

I suggested that we compare and contrast it with last months book, The Orchardist, since both dealt with abandoned and orphaned children who ran afoul of the law in the 19th century. That thread was brief and promptly expanded to include modern examples of neglect and abuse.

Darlene had some insights as her grandparents are from Iceland and it's her background that brought the book to her attention.The Museum of Iceland has an exhibit of this final execution and I found information that you can read here.  The exhumed bodies are now buried in a churchyard.   Both Jenny and Connie T. did some online research on the country and said that now Expedia sends them emails and wants to help them plan their upcoming visits.  Mary couldn't help contrast this harsh life with the Iceland of today which is a world leader in social justice and responsibility.

And as Joanne noted, this account is fictionalized so we simply cannot know if the real Agnes had goodness in her heart or was in truth a cold-blooded murderer.  Kathy asked us what we would have done were we in that circumstance.  Could we dispatch a loved one with a knife?  It seems unimaginable to us in our 21st century lives.

Joanne thought it was cruel to give Agnes hope and a life and then abruptly notify her that her time was up.  She wondered if she would have been better off before she was moved because Magret's kindness and fairness made her think about what might have been.

We could only talk about the Agnes that Hannah Kent wrote for us, who had learned Nathan's apothecary and was a competent herbalist.  We felt that Bjorn Blondal selfishly wanted her execution to incur favor with the Danish government.  Her death was no skin off his teeth but the community lost a healer that they could sore afford to lose.  One thing we did all agree on was an appreciation for the history and for what we learned, especially the dependency on Denmark, the mud hovels that they lived in with a badstofa living/sleeping room, the hunger and the never-ending cold.

We talked about the reason we belong to a book group - to read the books that we don't normally gravitate to and then on our own read the popular and fun books. Kareen said that we all need to look for more books like "Where Did You Go Bernadette" to put on our list for next year.  That was our homework assignment.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Orchardist

We had a large group today and finally a mixed response to like/didn't like.  Joanne's first comment was that she didn't think there wasn't a happy page in the book, but that's because in an interview, Coplin said that when she decided to write this book, she knew it would a book about grief.  It took her eight years to write it to which Patricia quipped, how could she live with this unhappiness for eight years?!!  Eileen is from that area and said she was just happy that Coplin got the territory and landscape correct.

There was little divergence in opinion really.  The writing was beautifully eloquent, but that didn't diminish the fact that we had just finished a 448 page book on loneliness, grief and solitude.  There was no dialogue in the writing and someone suggested it's because there wasn't much dialogue between the characters. Each of the characters, other than Caroline, grew up without much adult guidance, practically raising themselves.

Really the only mother to speak of was Talmadge and Elspeth's mom, and he was nine when she died in 1857.  We admired her determination to carve out a life outside of mining for her children.  In contrast, when Jane and Della's mother died, they ended up being sold.  We mentioned the "orphan train" and that children without parents were nothing.  We talked about the lack of empathy from the towns people toward Jane and Della, and that instead, they were appalled that they were stealing food though clearly in desperate need of help. We talked about why Jane and Della behaved like feral animals, grabbing food from the porch as Talmadge fed them and refusing to come indoors - was it because so much bad had happened to them indoors?  We thought that in the end Talmadge regretted not fighting harder to keep Della with he and Angelene instead of letting her ride off with the horsemen.  We thought it might have been guilt somehow associated with Elspeth's disappearance - a kidnapping?

The townsfolk weren't sympathetic to Angelene whom Talmadge sent to school three days a week.  Talmadge weren't totally isolated either since he also went to town on weekends to sell his produce and he felt comfortable with Caroline, our favorite character - a midwife, herbalist and nurse as well as confident.  Joanne mentioned that Caroline had been mentoring a student who died of consumption.  She asked if anyone else picked up on a sense that this might have been a lesbian relationship.  Mary said she thought she had probably been the love of Caroline's life.  We wondered if Talmadge had shown more gumption earlier if this might have been a different story, or if he had listened to Caroline who told him not to go to Chelan, or if Clee hadn't been a mute.

Mary asked why Della hadn't killed Michaelson the first time if that had been her intent, because afterwards it only her helpless obsession.  After the meeting I thought about Clee's confidence, that she could never kill him or anything.  I questioned if Della's death might have been a suicide but the group resoundingly rebuffed that.  Jenny said she was just reckless, that's just the way she lived.

Without a book club, this is probably not a choice most of us would have made.  However, we ended up with a deeper feeling and appreciation for that time and the circumstances.  Mary said that she never dreamed that a place like Michaelson's would be acknowledged yet tolerated by a community. We agreed too that the ending left us disappointed.  What happened to Angelene?  Peggy said she had a confession to make, that when a book is slow reading, she flips to the back and reads the last page.  She saw that everyone was there together in that large house and assumed it had a happy ending, so she flipped back and returned to reading.  I don't think it's a title we'll put into the hands of friends as a must-read recommendation but we did agree that it was a remarkable book.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See

I don't know how it works, but it seems like we always have twelve people at a meeting.  Kareen is wandering in the wilderness so I knew she wouldn't be there today and I got emails from three of the usual suspects, notifying me that they would be absent, and thus we were an even dozen.  For a book that was enthusiastically embraced by all, I was surprised that we still spent an hour and half in discussion - before moving onto measles and other childhood illnesses for another half hour.  I can't remember how we segued into that discussion.

Connie, Jenny and I agreed that the chapters moving back and forth in time was difficult until we got the hang of it and that's perhaps the only criticism we had.  Kathy commented in an email that she loved the short chapters and Doerr's style of writing. That's the first thing Joann said today and we immediately agreed.  Patricia quipped that you can tell Doerr isn't a historian because they write dense prose, making a sentence last for a whole paragraph. The thing we came back to again and again was how this was a story of the children, victims of the regime, and as Patricia was quick to point out, this is a universal story, not limited to WW II.

We talked about how the Nazi youth, the Jungmanner, were measured to be worthy by their Teutonicness, i.e., blond hair, blue eyes and no glasses. And how cruelty was honed amongst a camp of 400 boys as in the Lord of the Flies.  And we talked about Frederick and what the war did to dreamers.  We talked about the model villages Marie-Lauren's devoted father made so she would be able to competently navigate on her own, knowing that Nazis hated flawed people.

We all wanted so much more for Werner.  Claudia said, he had so much potential!  We romantics had hoped for a liaison in the future, but Joann noted that he was dying of dysentery and was clearly doomed.  In that case Patricia said she preferred the landmine to a slow decline.  We compared Volkheimer's haunted life to what Werner's might have been, had he lived.  Would he escape the ghosts of the murdered woman and her daughter?  Would he have been capable of a liaison??

We loved the group of ladies at the bakery, especially Madame Manac, and their decision to take a stand against the Nazis.  Doerr wanted to write about occupied France and their subversive use of radios which he wrote convincingly through this group of ladies, including the blind Marie-Laure. Madame Manac justified her rebellion to Etienne when she asked, "Don't you want to be alive before you die?"

And the whole tie-in between Werner and Jutta and the radio broadcasts they covertly listened to as children that changed the course of their lives - that it should be Etienne's house they were broadcast from, and now the no-long-terrified Etienne used that same radio to broadcast information to the Allies.  Brilliant!

Joanne asked if we thought the curse myth around the Sea of Flames had merit.  She said she thought it was hinted at but wasn't dealt with conclusively, though everything around Etienne's house was bombed, yet it stood.  She said that's how von Rumpel knew it was there.  Darlene said that in the museum it was guarded by 14 locks. And then there was the loaded meeting of Werner and Marie-Laure, the house, the jewel and the key.  Werner knew nothing of the stone's history but why did Marie-Laure give him the key and why did he take the house, leave the jewel and replace it with the key??  If the jewel is cursed, though covered in algae and barnacles, Joann wondered if the curse was just percolating, waiting for an unwitting discoverer.

We didn't have any conclusions to that scenario, but fast-forward to 2014.  We felt the book would have successfully closed with Frederick and his mother - "Oh Freddie.  We're just sitting. We're just sitting and looking out at the night."  Why did Doerr introduce just four pages in the future?  We thought it might have been an editorial note.  Her grandson talked about getting "killed" in his video game.  And Marie-Laure - "Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was a memory falls out of the world."  He leaves you to decide.