Wednesday, December 16, 2009

2010 Reading List

January: Plainsong - Kent Haruf
February: East of Eden - John Steinbeck
March: Pillars of the Earth - Ken Follett
April: A prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving
May: The Chosen - Chaim Potok
June: Fried green tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe - Fannie Flagg
July: A yellow raft in blue water - Michael Dorris
August: A tree grows in Brooklyn - Betty Smith
September: The Women - T.C. Boyle
October: The gathering - Anne Enright
November: The inheritance of loss - Kiran Desai
December: March - Geraldine Brooks

Tortilla Flat

In spite of the last minute rescheduling of yesterdays meeting, we had eight intrepid book lovers. I would characterize the mood as a cross between hilarity and conviviality. Madelon brought a crockpot full to the brim with magnificent soup that was so fragrant we were compelled to eat first, then discuss later, which was almost a mistake. After an hour of food and laughter, it was apparent that this book wasn't fore in anyone's mind. Finally, Madelon sat back, folded her arms and challenged me to bring the group into control. I'm watching, she said. We laughed at that too. We laughed at everything and I can't remember what was so funny - maybe everybody? And who knew Jeanette could sing and used to have a band?!

To everyones credit, we did have a discussion, albeit brief. No one truly enjoyed the book and we wondered how it has maintained its status as a classic. It was one of his earlier works and we felt the transition from chapter to chapter was choppy and stiff, though we agreed that it was a brilliant chronicle of characters he had encountered in Monterrey.

Dolores said that if there was one character she could say she liked, it would be The Pirate because of the care he had for his dogs. We agreed. Leslie said the paisanos reminded her of the Portagees in Mendicino, also a fishing based economy where the red wine flowed. Since it didn't feel like a story with a beginning, middle and end, we talked about the people and their lifestyle.

Dolores felt it was a chronicle of desperate and chronic poverty. No one had clothes decent enough to go to Danny's funeral. I had never understood the Bible story about going to a funeral without appropriate clothes until I as driving home and then it made sense, except in Tortilla Flat, it wasn't a matter of choice but dictated by empovrishment.

Madelon read from the foreword of her copy written by an Arthurian scholar and comparing The Round Table with Danny's paisanos. It's clear from Steinbeck's occasional use of Elizabethan English that he had intended the comparison. Is this the key to this book's continuing classic status and high school required reading?

We finalized the reading list and assigned months which I will put in a separate post so you can find it again in the future. Some book discussions have taken an hour and a half. This one was about a half hour and then we went back to hilarity and convivality. I think the Christmas potluck has to be a tradition.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Leslie asked me who picked out this book and I have to confess that it was me. We can’t blame Libby for this one. I bought it at Costco about a year ago. I had read it years ago, remembered it fondly and realized that I really wanted to read it again. I recalled it being a love story with a little suspense. Those of us who had read it before had the same feeling. None of us came to the discussion today feeling that we had just read “a classic tale of romantic suspense,” which is what it was billed as on the cover of my copy.

We realized by Mrs. Danvers revelation in talking to Favell that Rebecca may well have had lesbian relationships, which the author herself was known to have. We weren’t quite clear on the relationship between Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca, but it certainly might have been more intimate than just housekeeper and madam, since Rebecca was carrying on with her own cousin. Madelon pointed out that while Favell was deluded into thinking that Rebecca was going to marry him, she would never have given up her plush life for a bounder.
The narrator is never given a name and the book is named for the deceased wife, two powerful and effective conventions. We questioned whether Maxim ever loved either of his wives or anyone for that matter. We talked a little about the role of the Oedipus/Electra complex and certainly part of the girl’s infatuation was transference for her lost father. Interesting that Max’s proposal was “instead of being companion to Mrs. Van Hopper, you become mine, and your duties will be almost exactly the same.” We agreed that she remained a paid companion, just to another paid companion.

Maureen labeled Maxim was ineffectual and weak, treating the girl with the same affection he showed to Jasper, his dog. We felt that the change came from him being the caretaker/parent shifted when she agreed to be complicit with his crime, and at that point she gained power and became the caregiver/parent. Leslie said that the novel creeped her out, and I’d have to agree with her, although I did read it in two sittings. Wasn't it cool that the whole unfolding played out in a monstrous storm?!

“Last night I dreamed I went Manderley again.” What a powerful opening sentence and what a powerful setting. The estate was another one of the characters. Linda was impressed by the tower of blood red rhododendrons and thought them a good analogy for Rebecca, she who had the West Wing overlooking the sea with its power and sound. The girl’s room was the East Wing, overlooking the garden – a reflection of her timidity? (Note that in her opening line she used the pronoun “I.”)

We felt for the girl whose choices never were very good. Madelon wondered how the girl could ever feel safe, knowing that her husband had already committed a murder. How easily it was rationalized – she made me do it. We all really liked the book, though I have to agree with Sherry that the pace lagged a little near the end with all the discussions in the parlor, ala Agatha Christy. We also talked about how it fits the criteria for gothic novel. Dolores felt that the ghost was the spirit of Rebecca, even if it weren’t a supernatural ghost. Certainly it was her story.

I can’t do our discussion justice in a few short paragraphs when we talked about the book for an hour and a half. We decided that the book wouldn’t transfer to a newer time setting since forensic evidence would convict Maxim. Realize that all of this happened in four months and then they had the rest of their lives to live it out. While Maxim didn’t go to prison, weren’t their ex patriot lives a sort of prison? Linda said she was reminded of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. If you haven’t yet Rebecca, don’t read on because this ending will ruin the book for you.

My copy of Rebecca has du Maurier’s original epilogue which the publisher chose to omit when the book was published in 1938. Since only I had read it and I do think it fleshes out the open ending, I read parts of it out loud to the group. It really closes the author's tone of the opening. It is several pages and I can’t type all that so will share selections with you.

“If you travel south you will come upon us in the end, staying in one of those innumerable little hotels that cling like limpets to the Mediterranean shore….You see then that he is crippled, he walks slowly and awkwardly with the aid of sticks, and it is some little time before I have settled him for the afternoon….I sit down beside him and open my bag of knitting.”

“The devil does not ride us any more. But we are shorn of our little earthly glory, he a cripple and his home lost to him, and I, well, I suppose I am like all childless women, craving for echoes I shall never hear, and lacking a certain quality of tenderness. Like a ranting actress in an indifferent play, I might say that this is the price we have to pay for our freedom. But I have had enough of melodrama in this life, and would bereave my Maxim of his five senses if it would ensure him his present peace and security until eternity.”

She reveals that Manderley is being reopened as a country club and that she had received the prospectus for it. Ugh, I can’t shorten the following without ruining it, so just for you guys, here goes:

“As we sit today at our table in the window, quietly working our way through from hors d’oeuvre to dessert, I think of that other hotel dining room, larger and far more splendid than this, that dreadful Cote d’Azur at Monte Carlo, and how, instead of having Maxim opposite me, his steady, well-shaped hands peeling a mandarin in methodical fashion, I had Mrs. Van Hopper, her fat bejeweled fingers questing a plate heaped with ravioli, her small pigs’ eyes darting suspiciously from her plate to mine for fear I should have made a better bargain.

Only a few years ago – far fewer than you would suppose – she dominated my small work, the salary she paid me was one hundred and fifty pounds a year, and Manderley was unknown to me. There was I, with straight bobbed hair and youthful unpowdered face, trailing in her wake like a subdued mouse. Now, with Maxim by my side, in spite of all we have lost, in spite of his maimed body and scarred hands, those days, the terror, the distress, are over, and I feel a glow of contentment come upon me. His maimed boy and my disfigurement are things of no account, we have learned to accept them, we live, we breathe, we have vitality, the spark of divinity has not passed us by. This factor alone should be enough for us, we have been spared to one another, and because of this we shall endure.

Dejeuner is over. The little waiter wipes the last crumbs from our table, and when I have helped Maxim to his feet we make our usual pilgrimage to the verandah. The sun has lost its morning brilliance and is streaking to the west, leaving an afterglow which is easier to bear. Maxim draws the rug over his knees, throws away his cigarette, then closes his eyes. I fix my dark glasses, reach for my bag of knitting. And before us, long as the skein of wool I wind, stretches the vista of our afternoon.”

Goosebumps anyone??

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Inner Circle

I was going to start by saying, that Tuesday was an interesting discussion, but that would be redundant since all our discussions are interesting. It was a little unique in that we celebrated Frankie's birthday with cupcakes and had a couple of folks straggle in as time went on. I think that says something - that we're comfortable with each other and would rather come late than not at all.

What a breath of fresh air after The God of Small Things, where you almost had to read the book in a single sitting to keep track of the all the story lines. Circle had a slim cast of characters and was easy to read, compelling in fact.

We agreed that the first person narrative and the small character list helped demonstrate the peculiar control that Prok (Dr. Kinsey) had over those who were "privileged" to be his confidants. The terms Mephistopheles and Svengali came up in our conversation over Prok.

Someone asked if we felt that Prok's research was as landmark as its reputation. Leslie pointed out that the data he collected was all anecdotal, so the results had to be subjective.

Boyle elected to not demonstrate character development in the narrator, John Milk. The only character we liked and whom Boyle developed, was Milk's wife Iris. Prok's wife Mac, was colorless by comparison and seemed to become more so.

Madelon pointed out that Milk seemed quite appropriate for John's surname, since he had absolutely no spine. Other than Iris, none of the characters were likable. We questioned whether Iris would have stayed with John after the end of the book, but given the time period, we thought that she probably would have, since divorce was still uncommon. The beginning of the book, however, indicates that their relationship was not harmonious.

Boyle has a reputation as a satirist and while I struggled to understand what he was satirizing, Leslie felt that it was of the workplace. Carolyn said that she had read Boyle's Tortilla Curtain and enjoyed it very much. It was very clearly satire of class structure in America. A future book??

I think we all agreed that this is an author we would read again. We concluded by saying that while we enjoyed reading The Inner Circle. it wouldn't be the book we'd pass on to a friend, saying - you have just got to read this.

We ended by selecting our books for the first two months of 2010. January will be Plainsong by Kent Haruf and February will be East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The God of Small Things

Ten of us met Tuesday to talk about this book and eight of us went to lunch afterward, where we talked some more, and sometimes about books. No surprise there.

Kathy had a doctor's appointment and wasn't able to be with us. I hope you'll share your thoughts with us in the comment section, Kathy. We were sad to say farewell to Dawn for the school year, but she wants to continue reading with us and will share her thoughts in the comment section as well.

This was the first time of all the books that we've read where I came to book group disliking the book and leaving it, actually liking it. We were pretty much in agreement that we didn't like it, wouldn't read it again nor would we have finished it, were it not for book group. Leslie asked me to be sure and point that she did like it - Leslie liked it.

I ended up having to read it in a sitting because the time jumps made the story hard for me to follow. Dawn said that the time jumps were effective in producing a fractured and disjointed effect, much the same as the characters were experiencing. And Madelon reminded us that the actual story itself took place in one week, from the time to Sophie Mol arrived to the time she drowned, and Velutha was blamed. We ached for the pathetic unloved live of Estha and were stunned at the evil genius of Baby's manipulations - a nun gone over to the dark side, one would surmise.

We all liked Velutha and felt he was the only sympathetic character. He reminded me of Robbie in Ian McEwan's Atonement. Carolyn pointed out that, no matter how much Robbie achieved, he was still always the gardener. In all of Velutha's creative skills and prowess at running their company, he was still an Untouchable.

The book ended without offering hope and certainly was a jarring conclusion after reading 300 pages of unhappiness. Ms. Roy is an activist in India and we thought that her goal in writing this novel was to unveil to the Western world the unhappiness in India and the helpless hopelessness that so many of the country's people experience, from the time they're born, to the time they die. It did seem that the parallel sex scenes at the conclusion were to show us that as abhorrant as incest is to the Western world, inter-caste sex is even more so in India.

In an interview, Roy said, "I don't see a great different between The God of Small Things and my works of nonfition." That is pretty much the conclusion that we came to by the end of the discussion.

Our September book is Inner Circle by T.C. Boyle - a much different book than this one. We will be selecting the books for next year by October. I will send a list of books that we have talked about in the next couple of weeks for you to look over and add your suggestions. Be thinking of things you'd like our group to read together.

Friday, July 17, 2009

People of the Book

We had an amazing turnout at our first morning meeting of book group - 13 people - and everyone loved the book. It always seems to me that the best discussions are from mixed feelings about a book, but this discussion could not have been more interesting or stimulating. I was intimidated by the large size but you guys are awesome, the way you provide insight, comments and listen to each other.

I'm sorry to have let so much time lapse between the meeting and this recap - I have forgotten who said what. It's been a little exciting out here with the wildfire, but the danger to us has passed. We just have to live with the smoke.

Several said that they enjoyed the historical interludes and would have liked more expansion on those stories. A great deal of discussion was on Sarah Heath and her strange relationship with her daughter. Someone pointed out that Sarah had chosen career over family and didn't want to raise a child. The accidental pregnancy was unwelcome and then was followed shortly thereafter by the death of her lover, Aaron. It seemed that Sarah was punishing Hanna for being Aaron's daughter when she couldn't have Aaron.

We also wondered what damage the decision to let Aaron die had done to her emotional health, if any of her odd behavior came from that. Jeanette was particularly appalled that she chose death for him over blindness.

We felt sorry that Sarah denied Delilah the joy of her granddaughter. We also felt that Hanna became a much stronger woman for having to face down her mother and sever the ties. As Leslie pointed out, the dynamic between mothers and daughters is always changing and that the severance might not be as permanent as it seemed in the book. The old Hanna might not have the ability to deal with the aftermath of the deception, had she not stood up to Sarah. The new Hanna was willing to face down the lie told to her by the two people she trusted.

We entertained the question, who was your favorite character and I think we all agreed that it was Zahra, the Moor. Because of Sarah's push for leadership in a man's world, feminism was an element in this book. We thought that Zahra was certainly the strongest female character and the only one who self-actualized her life, given its limitations. Kathy said that this book reminded her of Galilleo's Daughter, which we read last year. We were reminded again how little entitlement women had then.

Brooks referred to "the people of the book" as those who had handled the book along its 500 year history. Kathy told us that actually "people of the book" is the term that in Islam, is used for non-Muslim peoples who received scriptures which were revealed to them by God before the time of Muhammad, most notably Christians and Jews. So actually the title is a bit of a double entredre.

Ozren said that not every story has a happy ending, and there certainly weren't very many happy endings in this book, except for the actual ending. I know I've forgotten a lot of the discussion. Please feel free to add what I can't remember in the comments.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Forum: People of the Book

Dawn kicked off the People of the Book discussion to I'm moving the Forum to a new post:

I'll go ahead and start the forum on "People of the Book". I did not care very much for Hanna, the protagonist. I had some sympathy for her with her rocky relationship with her mother, but other than that, I couldn't empathize with the character. I much preferred the historical aspect with the various "people of the book". I liked Lola's and Ruti's stories the best, although going through history such as the Spanish Inquistion was interesting. After each reading of history, I didn't want to go back to reading of Hanna's plight. Aside from the Jewish/Muslim/Christian relationships, this book appears to be focused on each of the character's self-discovery of finding themselves through their beliefs and values of their religion and making their own marks through the Haggadah. I was interested to see that the author wrote a Pulitzer Prize novel named "March", which supposedly is related to the March family of "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott? If I'm wrong about that, let me know, for the "Little Women" series is one of my all time favorites.

Overall, a pretty decent book; but I would have liked more historical stories and less of Hanna... :) Dawn

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Confederacy of Dunces Recap

Confederacy of Dunces was met with mixed reviews last night. A couple of us absolutely loved it and thought it was the funniest book we had ever read, a couple of hated it and weren't sure it was worth finishing, and a couple of us thought it was weird but slogged through in order to participate in the conversation. That dynamic makes for animated discussion, and lively it was.

Jenny and Jeanette found the unappealing characters overwhelmed their ability to enjoy the writing; Maureen wouldn't have chosen it were it not for book group; Leslie, Cathy and Dawn loved it - Dawn thought Ignatius exhibited characteristics of Aspergers' Syndrome, an interesting perspective; Carolyn said she didn't like it until it was over. As for me, I was very surprised to enjoy this quirky book, so much so that I laughed out loud.

We did agree, however, that Toole had brilliantly crafted his characters and deftly wove them together to create a pace in a story that really had little plot, ending with the "hero" riding off into the sunset. While the story needed the New Orleans setting, Leslie felt that it didn't really represent New Orleans - at least as it was then.
We will be reading Geraldine Brook's People of the Book for our July 7th meeting, which I'm sure you remember will begin our daytime schedule of 11:00 on the second Tuesday of the month. Because another group is also reading the book, it may be another week or two before a copy gets checked in. I know that Caroline still needs a copy of the book and I don't know who else.

Your (nearly retired) book group facilitator,