Book Club, reader's advisory

The After Party – Morning Book Break – February 2019

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Morning Book Break Book Discussion Group on
Varina by Charles Frazier

Rating:
The Morning Book Break Book Discussion group rated the book between a 1.0 and 5.0. The average of the ratings was 3.65.

Review:
Charles Frazier grew up in the South and felt like after Cold Mountain, he did not want to return to the Civil War era. Yet, he felt the subject matter continues to be relevant; we are a country that still hasn’t healed and still hasn’t made peace with the past.  Charles Frazier had no interest in writing about or learning more about Jefferson Davis, but he was interested in the little known Varina Davis.  He thought she was interesting because she said publicly that the right side won.  It was interesting to him that this woman who had benefited so greatly from the plantation in Mississippi was still evolving in her thinking up to her death in 1906.  She became friends with Julia Grant and they wanted to be seen together in New York as symbols of reconciliation.  Charles Frazier said in an interview with the Raleigh News & Observer, “She would have days when she would say something incredibly retrograde, and then she would say something so positive and progressive. She was struggling with what had become of her life, being on the wrong side of history…It’s only the greatest heroes in history, who are able to totally rise above the values of their culture.  She certainly wasn’t. But she was trying.”

As always, the discussion was stimulating and interesting.  Several members increased their ratings based on the discussion.  Overall, members felt like they had to work too hard to enjoy the novel.  One member thought it would have been helpful to have a timeline in the front of the book—this would assist the reader in tracking the story of Varina.  Most members really enjoyed the fugitive story section (the escape of Varina and her children from Richmond).  This story was an educational technique to introduce readers to the tumultuous and chaotic South right after the fall of Richmond.

All group members were impressed with the talented writing of Charles Frazier.  They found his prose lyrical and moving.  They enjoyed his descriptive writing.  Some members thought his writing style was exquisite, but felt the novel was too lengthy and jumped around too much.  So, while sentences were beautifully constructed; it was too hard to follow.

The group spent a fair amount of time discussing the narrative choices of Charles Frazier.  Most members found the narrative confusing and disjointed.  They did not like the way he wrote the novel.  They especially disliked the lack of quotation marks and the stream of consciousness-like writing and the memory flashbacks.  Two members were not bothered by the punctuation.  The facilitator has a special fondness for the “hyphen,” so she loved the punctuation choice.  To her, the use of the hyphens felt like the waxing and waning of memories—they are random and they come and go—they are not linear or formal.

Surprisingly, the members who gave the novel low marks were still interested in pursuing more information about Varina Davis.  So, the author did a good job in sparking interest in the story of a relatively unknown woman. One member stated that she considers a historical novel a worthy read if the novel causes her to want to learn more about the subject matter or the characters presented.

The facilitator really connected with the writing of Charles Frazier.  She read the novel in four sittings and thought that the back and forth nature of memories felt just like the way people remember events.  Memories are not linear but they move and shift. The facilitator thought that any author that can fully connect a reader with characters from the past is worth their weight in gold.

Discussion Highlights:

  • We discussed Varina Howell’s upbringing and her parents. We discussed the expectations and the choices women had in the 1800’s.
  • We discussed Varina’s marriage with Jefferson Davis. We talked about their differing personalities and how this affected their marriage. We discussed Varina’s strength of character to insist on in being named in her husband’s will.
  • The novel Varina has been compared to Gone With the Wind. The group talked about how the novels are similar.  The group thought that Frazier depicted The Fall of Richmond much like Mitchell depicted The Burning of Atlanta. In some ways, Varina is like Scarlett — they both are strong woman and survivors.  They both naively dream about their debutante past—without realizing this structure was built on slavery. We discussed Varina’s hopes and dreams and contrasted this with the life that was forced upon her — similar to Scarlett’s trajectory.
  • We discussed Varina’s view of slavery as depicted by Charles Frazier and we discussed how this view evolved over the course of the novel. In an interview, Frazier talks about why he was intrigued with Varina Davis—she was born in the South and lived with slavery all around; as she lived into old age she seemed to wrestle with her past and her complicity and this is definitely addressed in the novel.
  • The groups spent a good deal of time talking about Varina’s complicity and views. From p. 101 – “Varina has never made any claim of personal high ground. She grew up where and when she did. From earliest memory, owning other people was a given. But she began feeling the strangeness of it about nine or ten—not wrongness or the sin of it, but the strangeness only.”
  • We contrasted the above view with another passage from the novel on p. 39, “Being on the wrong side of history carries consequences. Varina lives that truth every day. If you’ve done terrible things, lived a terribly way, profited from pain in the face of history’s power to judge, then guilt and loss accrue.”  The group discussed Varina’s version of the truth and whether or not her understanding/perception of it has changed over the years.
  • Early in the novel on p. 6, Varina states, “If you haven’t noticed, we’re a furious nation, and war drums beat in our chest. Our leaders proclaim better than they negotiate. The only bright spot is, the right side won.” In light of this quote, the group discussed what they thought Varina would think about today’s removal of the South’s many Civil War statues, including her husband’s.
  • Charles Frazier uses an interesting device to tell Varina’s story; he uses a real life black child, Jimmie Limber, as a character. Jimmie Limber lived with the Davises for several years during the Civil War. When the novel opens we meet Varina Davis in 1906 in Saratoga Springs.  Varina is living at The Retreat (a rehabilitation facility).  She is in the midst of trying to overcome her opium addiction and while there James Blake (Jimmie Limber) comes to find out about his past.  It is a this time, readers are introduced to the adult Jimmie Limber who is a fictional character that Charles Frazier has created to move Varina’s story forward while addressing and gently critiquing her past.  James keeps Varina’s recollections moored in others’ reality.  So, readers are introduced to an unreliable narrator—an older woman with a drug problem.  James Blake interviews Varina over the course of seven Sundays and readers must trace the back and forth nature of memories and recollections.  In light of how the narrative is written, we discussed how Varina and James’ memories reveal their different experiences.  We discussed what insights we gained from each of the characters’ revelations.
  • The novel’s timeline shifts frequently. We discussed whether or not we found this confusing or distracting.  We discussed how this shift reveals the fractured nature of memories, as well as the way the past bleed into the present.

Resources:

https://charlesfrazier.com/

Charles Frazier was interviewed at Appel Salon (Toronto Public Library)
on November 7, 2018 (If interested, this interview can be accessed on YouTube).

For books and movie in our collection by Charles Frazier, please click here.

For a nonfiction title recommended by Charles Frazier, check out:

Jacket

Read-a-Likes:

Varina

Book Club, reader's advisory

The After Party – Books and Bagels and Morning Book Break – December 2018

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Books and Bagels and Morning Book Break Book Discussion Groups on
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Ratings:
The Books and Bagels Book Discussion group members rated the book between a 3.5 and 5.0 with one member giving the book a 2.5. The average of the ratings was 3.79.

The Morning Book Break Book Discussion group rated the book between a 3.0 and 5.0. The average of the ratings was 4.33.

Review:
The novel was 502 pages long, so sadly during the holiday season not all members were able to finish the novel.  Some members thought that the book demanded a lot of time and that there were too many characters and the book was too long. The facilitator promised a shorter book for the 2019-2020 book club season.

Many members enjoyed the cozy British mystery compared to the contemporary mystery.  Members found that the cozy British mystery reminded them of Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes novels.  Members definitely would recommend this novel to people who enjoy cozy mysteries written in the vein of Christie.  One member, who has read all of Christie’s books, thought Horowitz followed the pattern and pitch of Christie, but Magpie Murders was his own style—she found this very intriguing. One member felt the book in a way offered a tutorial on murder mysteries.

Overall, members who were able to read the novel in bigger chunks seemed to be more satisfied with novel.  Members found the book very cleverly written and that it generated good discussion even for members who do not read mysteries.  On the whole, members were satisfied with the ending and no one was able to solve the mystery in its entirety.

Two members had read the book previously as it received high recommendations from Book Pages.  These members thought the book was a cut above and very cerebral.  They thought the book accurately portrayed the English community and that the descriptions of the characters were vivid.  One member thought about whether or not the book could have been published as two books.  The members resolved her own inquiry, by stating that she believed for the novel to work it need to be published as two mysteries in one book.

Several members were frustrated that Horowitz led them so far afield and indeed, he pulled scenarios out of the bag to throw readers off the track.  Nevertheless, Horowitz attempts to calm the reader’s frustration by inserting statements in the novel to encourage the reader to continue.  On p. 145 (cozy mystery) Atticus Pund wrote in his masterwork, The Landscape of Criminal Investigation: “One can think of the truth as eine vertiefung—a sort of deep valley which may not be visible from a distance but which will come upon you quite suddenly.  There are many ways to arrive there. A line of questioning that turns out to be irrelevant still has the power to bring you nearer to your goal.  There are no wasted journeys in the detection a crime.”

Finally, several members who are not fans of mysteries really enjoyed the novel.  They enjoyed trying to solve the puzzles and felt this was a great brain exercise.

Discussion Highlights:

  • In Magpie Murders, Anthony Horowitz gives occasional commentary comparing literary fiction and popular fiction and the artist’s endeavor in a commercial world. The facilitator posed some general questions regarding these topics. The facilitator created these questions to cover the overall questions about why mysteries are so successful in the publishing world.
  • Using characters, Anthony Horowitz talks about the public’s need for mysteries. He speaks to the obsession the public has for murder mysteries.

The group was asked to comment on these sections of the book:

p. 70 – Susan Ryeland, editor of Cloverleaf books
“…It’s strange when you think about it. There are hundreds and hundreds of murders in books and television. It would be hard for narrative fiction to survive without them.  And yet there are almost none in real life…Why is it that we have such a need for murder mystery and what is it that attracts us—the crime or the solution?  Do we have some primal need of bloodshed because our own lives are so safe, so comfortable?”

p. 159 Detective Inspector Richard Locke
“All these murders on TV…Every night…People have some sort of fixation. And what really annoys me is that it’s nothing like the truth…There are only three motives. Sex, anger and money…And you know how we catch them? We don’t ask them clever questions and work out that they don’t have an alibi, that they weren’t actually where they were meant to be. We catch them on CCTV.  Half the time, they leave their DNA all over the crime scene.  Or they confess. Maybe one day you should publish the truth although I’m telling you, nobody would want to read it.”

The facilitator further responded from the book.  On pages 183-184, Susan Ryeland speaks to the power of mysteries.

The group was asked to offer commentary about this statement from the book:

“In a world of full of uncertainties, is it not inherently satisfying to come to the last page with every i dotted and every t crossed?  …We are surrounded by tensions and ambiguities, which we spend half our life trying to resolve, and we’ll probably be on our own deathbed when we reach that moment when everything makes sense.  Just about every whodunnit provides that pleasure.  It is the reason for their existence.”

The facilitator addressed the comments made in Magpie Murders about the value of mysteries.

Andreas, Ancient Greek scholar, debates Susan regarding the literary value of mysteries on pp. 164-165.

Andreas said, “’I read them because you worked on them and obviously I cared about       you.  But I thought they were crap.’I was shocked.  I didn’t know what to say.

‘They made a lot of money.’

‘Cigarettes make a lot of money.  Toilet paper makes a lot of money.  It doesn’t mean            they’re worth anything.’

‘You can’t say that.’

‘Why not? Alan Conway was laughing at you, Susan.  He was laughing at everyone.  I           know about writing. I teach Homer…He knew what those books were—and he knew        when he was putting them together.  They’re badly written trash!’

‘I don’t agree.  They’re very well written.  Millions of people enjoyed them.’

‘They’re worth nothing! Eighty thousand words to prove that they butler did it?’

‘You’re just being snobbish.’

‘And you’re defending something that you always knew had no value at all.’”

Then the facilitator asked the group whether mysteries have any lasting value to our society.

Melissa Conway, Alan’s ex-wife talks to Susan about her role in getting Alan to write detective fiction.  Melissa loved Alan’s literary work, but it wasn’t getting published.  She convinced Alan to write mysteries because he always had a fascination with tricks and trompe l’oeils.  Melissa helped him to write his first mystery, Atticus Pund Investigates and as his mysteries became publishing sensations, Alan changed and was no longer fulfilled.  Alan hated his main character, the noble, Atticus Pund.  Melissa states on page 198, “Of course, it wasn’t as good as his other work.  It was lighter and completely pointless, but I thought it was beautifully written…”

The facilitator asked the group if they read mysteries or watch mysteries, if so, why do they enjoy about them.

  • The group discussed clues that were hidden in plain sight and how skillful Horowitz was in burying those clues.
  • The group discussed at length the many red-herrings Horowitz used to lead the reader astray.
  • We discussed how the author ratcheted up the suspense.
  • We discussed at what point in the book the members began to unravel the mystery.
  • Finally, we discussed the skill necessary to write this novel. We compared and contrasted the Golden Age mystery set in the 1950’s with the Contemporary mystery.  We compared the language, tone, style, pace, and typeface used. We discussed the use of character counterparts in each novel.  We discussed the significance of the anagram.  Also, members stated they would like to know the meaning behind the cover of Magpie Murders.

Resources:

Anthony Horowitz, the author, cleverly uses two different typefaces to assist the reader in distinguishing between the two mysteries. The Cozy Mystery pages are numbered at the bottom of each page and the Contemporary Mystery pages are numbered at the top of each page.

1) Cozy Mystery set in 1950’s (pp. 3-212 and near very end of entire book—Chapter entitled, A Secret Never to be Told (pp. 217-241))

2) Contemporary Mystery—very beginning of book (pp.1-4) continues in middle of book (pp. 5-232) and epilogue entitled, Agios Nikolaos, Crete (pp. 233-236)

(pages correspond to Regular Type Hardcover copy)

Characters in Cozy Mystery:

Sir Magnus Pye: Lord of Pye Hall
Lady Frances Pye: Magnus’s wife
Jack Dartford: Lady Frances Pye’s lover
Frederick (Freddy) Pye: Magnus and Frances’ son
Clarissa Pye: spinster sister of Magnus and local schoolteacher
Dr. Redwing: Local Doctor
Arthur: Artist husband of Dr. Redwing
Dr. Edgar Rennard: Dr. Redwing’s father who has dementia
Mary Blakiston: housekeeper at Pye Hall
Matthew Blakiston: Mary’s estranged husband
Tom Blakiston: one of Mary and Matthew’s sons
Robert Blakiston: one of Mary and Matthew’s sons
Joy Sanderling: Robert’s fiancé
Neville Brent: groundskeeper at Pye Hall
Diana Weaver: local cleaning lady
Jeffrey Weaver: elderly gravedigger
Rev. Robert Osborne: local vicar
Henrietta Osborne: Vicar’s wife
Johnny and Gemma Whitehead: owners of local antique shop
Arthur Reeve: recently burglarized and medal collection missing
Detective Inspector Raymond Chubb: local policeman
Atticus Pund: Poirot-like character for this mystery
James Fraser: Atticus’s sidekick

Characters in Contemporary Murder Mystery (counterparts from Cozy mystery in parentheses):

Susan Ryeland (Atticus Pund): editor, Cloverleaf books
Andreas Pataks: Susan’s professor boyfriend
Charles Clover (Robert Blakiston): CEO and founder of Cloverleaf books
Jemina Humphries: Charles Clover’s secretary
Alan Conway (Sir Magnus Pye): author of Magpie Murders
Sajid Khan and wife: Alan’s lawyer and friend
Rev. Tom Robeson (Rev. Robin Osborne): local vicar
Mark Redmond (Matthew Blakiston): TV and Film producer of Red Herring Productions/possible developing The Atticus Adventures
John White (Johnny Whitehead): hedgefund manager and Alan’s neighbor
Claire Jenkins (Clarissa Pye): Alan’s sister
James Taylor (James Fraser): Alan’s boyfriend
Melissa Conway (Lady Frances Pye): Alan’s ex-wife
Frederick/Freddy Conway (Frederick/Freddy Pye): Alan and Melissa’s son
Detective Superintendent Richard Locke (Detective Inspector Raymond Chubb): detective who helped Melissa and Alan with research for mystery novels

https://www.anthonyhorowitz.com/

 

Read-a-Likes:

Magpie Murders

Anthony Horowitz is well known for creating and writing Foyle’s War and his wife,
Jane Green, is the producer.
Horowitz has also written many screenplays for Midsomer Murders.

For books and DVDs in our collection by Anthony Horowitz, please click here.

Book Club, reader's advisory

The After Party – Morning Book Break and Books and Bagels – November 2018

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Morning Book Break and Books and Bagels Book Discussion Groups on
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Ratings:
The Books and Bagels Book Discussion group members rated the book between a 3.5 and 4.0 with one member giving the book a 2.75. The average of the ratings was 3.75.

The Morning Book Break Book Discussion group rated the book between a 1.0 and 4.0. The average of the ratings was 2.53.

Review:
As always, the discussion was stimulating and interesting.  Several members increased their ratings based on the discussion.  The members see value in book discussions as they play a role in helping the individual see a variety of viewpoints that they would not have discovered during their individual reading.  This was definitely the case during this discussion.

The evaluation of the novel revolved around two camps. One group of members really disliked the novel.  They got lost with the shifting points of view.  Overall, members found the book depressing and would not recommend it to others.  However, those that disliked the story kept reading because they wanted to find out what happened to Lydia. Some members found the book a chore to read, but they loved the discussion.

Another group of members were impressed with the talented writing of Celeste Ng.  They were surprised that this was a debut novel as her prose is both mature and moving. The members found the family dysfunction disturbing, but compelling and haunting.  The material was complex and the group felt empathy for the entire family and yet, they found the mother and family completely selfish and self-absorbed.

The facilitator mentioned that she enjoys human behavior and patterns that exists in human interactions.  She enjoys trying to figure out the ways people are misunderstood.  She likes to explore why miscommunications often happen.  She thought the author superbly explored this main dynamic.

Discussion Highlights:

  • The groups discussed the sibling relationships within the story.  We discussed why Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James, her parents.  Marilyn pressures Lydia to study hard to obtain the goal of becoming a doctor and James pressures Lydia to be social and popular.  We discussed the reasons why her parents apply this pressure and how this attention affects her.  We discussed how this attention affects her siblings Nathan and Hannah, and how they are often overlooked.
  • We discussed how James and Marilyn’s childhoods informed their parenting style.  James struggled with his identity throughout his life and this affected his relationship with his family.  We talked about the ways James could have coped with his identity crisis.  We talked about the influence parents can have on their children.  We discussed communication patterns in this family and how improvements in communication can improve navigation for a new generation of young people.
  • We discussed what we wished the characters would have shared with each other and how these interactions could have changed the outcome of the novel.
  • On pp. 89-93 James watches as his son Nathan is teased at the pool.  We discussed the “Marco Polo” pool scene and talked about how we felt about James’s reaction.  We discussed how it feels to be an outsider and how parents’ can help children cope.
  • The book is set in Ohio in 1977, so it touches upon the role of stay-at-home mothers and the notion that that motherhood and keeping a home was more satisfying that and important than having a career.  We talked about how the story might have been different if it was set in present day Ohio.  We discussed whether or not women today can have it all—meaning both children and careers.
  • We discussed the role of Jack—a minor character in the story.
  • We discussed the shifts in points of view and we discussed the structure of the novel.
  • (Spoiler Alert) We discussed what the possible outcomes would be for each member of the family if Lydia had reached the dock.
  • We talked about the title and to whom the “I” and “you” refer.

Resources:

https://www.celesteng.com/about/

Worth watching in its entirety, Celeste Ng is a dynamic speaker.

For books in our collection by Celeste Ng, please click here.

For readers interested in current authors who use omniscient narrator technique, Celeste Ng highly recommends:

Jacket (6)

Jacket (7)

Jacket (8)

Read-a-Likes:

Everything I Never Told You

Book Club, reader's advisory

The After Party – Books and Bagels and Morning Book Break – October 2018

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Books and Bagels and Morning Book Break Book Discussion Groups on
Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran

Ratings:
The Books and Bagels Book Discussion group members rated the book between a 3.5 and 4.5 with one member giving the book a 3.0 and another member rating the book at 5.0. The average of the ratings was 4.03.

The Morning Book Break Book Discussion group rated the book between a 3.0 and 4.0, with one member giving the book a 2.0 and one member giving the book a 5.0. The average of the ratings was 3.69.

Several members gave the book a higher rating because the discussion was so poignant.

Review:
Overall members enjoyed this read and learned a lot about the immigrant experience. Members were conflicted about parts of the book. Many members had a hard time getting into the book.  Some members liked the first half better and some members liked the second half better. Some members liked the way the book ended and some members strongly disliked the way the book ended.  Overall, members were thankful that the story was not a Hollywood ending. Based on September’s book club read (a Hollywood ending), one member did not want to read the last 10 or so pages, she was worried that the author was going to wrap-up the book and all the characters into a nice neat little package—so, finally, when the member read the end, she was happily surprised that it was not a tidy ending.  The ending is complex and rang true to real life, in that, issues and people are multi-faceted without simple solutions. Most members agreed with this member’s assessment.

Some members thought the book was well-written and others thought the book needed editing.  One member thought that maybe the author had fallen in love with the sound of her own voice.  Although, members thought the author did a good job of developing sympathetic characters; the book was still too long.

Members appreciated the research the author did to bring readers the story.  Members enjoyed learning about both cultures. Members thought this was a timely book and they enjoyed exploring multiple sides to an issue.

Discussion Highlights:

  • The groups discussed how the novel explores motherhood from the main character’s perspectives and from minor character’s perspectives.  Although, the title is Lucky Boy, the author states, “This story, this fight for a boy—it wasn’t about the boy.  It was about his mothers.” The author created sympathy for both Kavya and Soli, by spending so much time developing their characters.  We discussed the key differences between Soli’s and Kavya’s approach to motherhood. We discussed which woman we most related to.
  • Soli travels to America riding on La Bestia, while Kavya’s family arrived by more traditional means.  So, we discussed the novel’s portrayal of privileged versus unprivileged immigration. We briefly discussed Soli’s treatment in immigrant detention.
  • When Rishi is asked if he wants a child, he thinks “Children had seemed like a project planted permanently in the future.  A certainty about which he never thought he’d be asked. Had anyone asked his own father if he’d wanted a baby?” We discussed how the novel portrays fatherhood and whether it is different than motherhood.
  • The group discussed how the novel portrays class stratification.  We also talked about whether the classic idea of the American dream is still attainable.
  • The story was set on the fictional Weebies campus in Silicon Valley and we discussed how the setting shaped the novel.
  • The facilitator asked the group, how they felt about the ending and whether, or not, they were surprised.  (Spoiler alert) We talked about Kavya’s decision to fight to keep Iggy. We talked about whether or not Soli should have made a different choice.
  • We discussed the title and if, indeed, Ignacio was a lucky boy.

Resources:
Each year the clubs read the Suburban Mosaic selection.  The Suburban Mosaic is a Community Reading Program for suburban communities in Cook and Lake County with the mission of fostering cultural understanding through literature.
The participating organizations are: Des Plaines Public Library, Elk Grove Village Public Library, Lincolnwood Public Library, Mount Prospect Public Library, Palatine Public Library, Prospect Heights Public Library, Rolling Meadows Public Library, Schaumburg Twp. District Library, School Districts 15, 23, 25, 26, 54, 57, and 63, District 214 Community Education, Harper College, National-Louis University, and
the Daily Herald Newspaper.

Lucky Boy
was the adult selection for 2017-2018.

For further information, please see flyer below:

suburban-mosaic-2017-june21-page-001

suburban-mosaic-2017-june21-page-002

Read-a-Likes:

Lucky Boy

Book Club, reader's advisory

The After Party – Morning Book Break and Books and Bagels – September 2018

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Morning Book Break and Books and Bagels Book Discussion Groups on
The Book That Matters Most by Ann Hood

Ratings:
The Books and Bagels Book Discussion group members rated the book between a 3.0 and 4.0 with one member giving the book a 1.5. The average of the ratings was 3.61.

The Morning Book Break Book Discussion group rated the book between a 2.5 and 4.0, with one member giving the book a 1.5. The average of the ratings was 2.91.

Review:
Members enjoyed the premise of the book.  They liked the idea of reading about a book club which allows members to communicate, grow, and change.  They liked that book clubs have the potential to support and uplift others and form friendship.  Members thought Books and Bagels and Morning Book Break Book Discussion Groups are much more engaging than the club portrayed in the novel. Members really, really enjoy our sessions!

The novel as a whole did not receive the marks that other novels discussed at book club have received.  Several members have recommended this book to others as a “nice read.” Several members were not impressed with the author’s writing ability.  Many members didn’t care about any of the characters—this is a tell-tale sign of dislike for these book discussion groups.  The groups really enjoy stories when they care deeply about the characters. Members felt there were too many dysfunctional people in the book.  Some members had great expectations for the book and were highly disappointed.

Several members disliked the book and found the characters poorly developed, shallow, and flat.  They found the structure too loose and the writing seemed padded.  They felt the book needed more editing.  The facilitator shared with the groups that Ann Hood’s original submission was twice as long as the published novel.  The groups laughed as they definitely would not read her 720 page novel and they still agreed that the novel needed more editing.

A few members were conflicted about the book. They felt the main character, Ava, whined throughout the book and they were sick of her attitude. Members disliked the chapters which showed Ava’s daughter’s addiction to drugs. They felt those were too graphic. The facilitator noted in Ann Hood’s interview, her editor actually cut large portions of the addiction scenes out the book.  The editor told Ann Hood that the public wouldn’t be able to handle it. One member felt the addiction segments were accurately portrayed until the ending—she felt if Ann Hood truly understood drug addiction, Ava’s daughter Maggie would not be on the mend at the end of the novel.

Members had much to say about the ending.  Many thought the ending was too contrived and abrupt.  Members thought the author got tired of writing and wrapped all her characters up in the last five pages. They found the ending lacking and disappointing.  Members could not understand how a mother could fake her own death while her child was young, only to show up when her daughter was an adult. The mother and daughter did not have any kind of severe reaction to this trauma—this scenario did not ring true in any way to real life, so it felt contrived.  Members thought the ending seemed like a Hollywood ending which did not match the tone of the rest of the book.

The novel addressed the power of book clubs:
On page 356, “Ava looked around at these people {the book club} who had brought her into this group, who had watched her struggle and try and fail and, finally, stand here with them, more confident.  Even, she realized, hopeful.  She imagined the year ahead, watching movies at Kiki’s and bringing in snacks one night and helping Diana through radiation after her surgery.  She imagined books, dozens of them, piling up on her shelves, growing dog-eared and worn, read and reread, highlighted and scribbled on.  She imagined books and this book group getting her though whatever was coming next.”

Members liked that in tandem with the PBS series The Great American Read, we discussed our personal favorite reads.  This was a heartwarming and touching portion of the discussion group.  We extended our meeting time for an additional hour to cover this portion of the meeting.  The facilitator is compiling the list of books for each member to keep. Members felt this was the best part of the discussion.

Discussion Highlights:

  • The members discussed Ava’s reasons for joining a book club and the discussion centered on members’ own reasons for joining book club.  Members enjoy having deeper discussions about the books they read.  Club is a safe place to explore ideas, change, and grow.  Often other members bring new insights and thoughts to the selection. Members enjoy developing relationships with other book lovers. Members also find that prior to joining a book club; they would read basically similar types of books.  They wanted to join book club to expand their reading tastes and read books they would not pick out on their own.
  • We discussed Ava’s book club journey coupled with her emotional journey, which is a coming-of-age story.  Ava initially “couldn’t remember the last book she’d read that mattered at all.  In fact, she purposely chose books that didn’t matter to her.” Ava, as a child, got lost in books, but after the death of her sister and mother, Ava ignored books. We discussed how the death of her mother influenced her and her own parenting.
  • The theme for Ava’s book club is the book that matters most.  Over a ten month period, each book club member is asked to pick the book that is most significant to them.  We discussed the lessons Ava and the other members learn from each book selected.
  • We discussed how Ava is transformed as she reads and discusses each book.  Ann Hood, the author, had the book club premise in mind and decided to select 10 books that the club would read.  Ann Hood did research by asking everyone she encountered, what the most important book was to them.  Ann Hood had a large notebook to compile the list, but what she found is that the same 24 books repeated themselves.  Based on the plot, she selected 9 books from the list of 24 and reread the books for The Book That Matters Most.
    • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is selected by Penny Frost, Radcliffe ’47.The facilitator spent a decent amount of time explaining possible ways the main character, Ava is transformed by reading each book presented at book club.  Below are short summaries of the facilitator’s main points:The book deals with courtship and marriage—issues Ava doesn’t want to read about since she is recently divorced and this topic is hurtful.  Ava decides not to read the book, but supplements by watching the movie.  At book club, Ava is embarrassed because she is caught cheating and to fit in with the members, she states she is bringing the author of her book selection, From Clare to Here (a fictional book) to the meeting.
    • Luke selects The Great Gatsby as his favorite book as it had given him the courage to hope beyond his own circumstances. Ava is transformed by this selection in that she realizes that the American dream is an illusion, so she opens up to John about her divorce and John assures her that there are many types of grief.
    • Diana, a breast cancer survivor and local actress, selects Anna Karenina which deals with adultery and the restrictions of society on women. Ava is currently dealing with her husband who committed adultery and Ava is impressed with the thought that we “fool ourselves into believing that we are happy.” This resonates with Ava and she begins to wonder why she has tricked herself.
    • Ruth, mother of the year with six children, selects One Hundred Years of Solitude (meant to be ironic). When Ava reads this book at the beach, the words rush over her mind and the solitude of reading is creating a place for the suppressed memories of Ava’s past to come forward.
    • Honor, previous babysitter for Ava, now working as English literature professor, selected To Kill a Mockingbird as she wrote her dissertation on Atticus Finch. She feels that Finch is a perfect example of a moral compass in that, he never loses faith in human kind. Ann Hood uses this novel to show the readers that Ava and daughter, Maggie, are like Scout (character in To Kill a Mockingbird) in that, they are also going through a transformation.  The readers realize that The Book That Matters Most is a coming-of-age story.  Ava begins to confront the memories she had before the death of her mother and sister.
    • Monique, Ava’s school friend, selects A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. A tree is chopped down in this novel, but there is still a living branch, which is symbolic of hope.  Ava at this point in the novel is in need of hope for her daughter, Maggie.
    • Kiki, a counter girl, who Ava thinks is inept, selects the coming-of-age story, Catcher in the Rye. Holden (character from Catcher in the Rye) is angry at the phoniness in the world, which made Kiki think about the anger she felt when her parents divorced. This discussion at book club makes Ava think about her daughter who first started having issues when she and her husband were having marital difficulties.
    • Jennifer selects The Unbearable Lightness of Being which deals with the dichotomy of light vs. heavy and paradoxes that cannot be resolved. At this point, Ava is reminded of the paradox in her own life—how could her own mother leave her—this is the main issue Ava has been working through most of her life which is why the fictional book From Clare to Here is so meaningful.  Ava is becoming more independent and stronger; she realizes that even though her husband would like to get back together, she does not have to make this choice.
    • John, a recent widower, selects Slaughterhouse 5 because it is how he met his wife in college. She helped him with a Slaughterhouse 5 college assignment and they were together from that day until her death.  In Slaughterhouse 5, the main character Billy is unstuck in time and every moment of time is occurring and reoccurring simultaneously in his life.  This is how Ava feels; she is now fully evolved and realizes that she is not a victim and she tells her daughter that, “the choices we make are own.”
    • Ava chooses the fictional book From Clara to Here, which Ava discovers is a book her mother wrote in an attempt to explain why she left Ava as a young girl.

Many members thought Ann Hood’s use of great literature throughout the book was too simplistic and shallow.  One member stated, “I read the novel, as it was written, with little insight into the great works of fiction and in that way, the books were just a part of the story.  They were not meant to be symbolic or deep.”

Resources:
Listen as Ann Hood discusses her novel The Book That Matters Most:

Visit Ann Hood’s website to learn about her
and her other fantastic novels.

For books and audiobooks in our collection by Ann Hood, please click here.

Read-a-Likes:

The Book That Matters Most

As a tie-in to the PBS program The Great American Read and the novel The Book That Matters Most, members were asked to bring 1-3 most beloved book titles to the September club meeting. Members discussed their favorite books. Titles only will be shared at a later date. The Great American Read concluded with the Grand Finale on October 23, 2018 revealing To Kill A Mockingbird as the best-loved book.

 https://player.pbs.org/viralplayer/3017588458/

Book Club, reader's advisory

The After Party – Morning Book Break and Books and Bagels – June 2018

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Morning Book Break and Book Discussion Groups on
The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

Ratings:
The Books and Bagels Book Discussion group members rated the book between a 4.0 and 4.5 with one member giving the book a 3.5 and another member rating the book at 3.75. The average of the ratings was 4.13.

The Morning Book Break Book Discussion group rated the book between a 4.0 and 5.0, with one member giving the book a 3.0 and one member giving the book a 3.5. The average of the ratings was 4.10.

Review:
Most members found the novel to be well-written and enlightening.  Members liked learning about Germany in the aftermath of World War II.  Members felt the book shed light on how difficult it is to rebuild after a war. Many members gained new insights into the complexities of life that many ordinary Germans experienced.  Members somewhat sympathized with decisions made by ordinary Germans living in dangerous, unsettling times. The groups discussed how difficult it is to make decisions without prior knowledge of consequences farther down the road.  Members enjoyed Shattuck’s ability to make the reader really care about these flawed women. One member thought that she had her mind made up about the three women, only to change her opinion at the end—the member gives Shattuck credit for creating well-drawn characters.

Many members liked the novel more than they thought they would.  They enjoyed learning new information about life for ordinary Germans during this period of time and they thought the author did an excellent job of painting humanity with a gray brush.

Several members found the structure of the novel confusing.  They found it hard to keep track of the characters and the time-line.  The story is not told in a linear format—the author moves around in time with the characters.  The facilitator felt Jessica Shattuck did a wonderful job with the format—she created a nonlinear novel that grabs the reader’s attention.  Several members did however, like that the book had a beginning, middle, and end.

Additionally, several members were confused by the novel’s geographical shifts; they found this difficult to track—this could have been mitigated by having access to the map included in Jessica Shattuck’s website—they wish the map had been included in the book.  

Some members found it difficult to understand how Ania obtained a new identity. This was only covered in a cursory way in one paragraph on page 269 (paperback version).

Several members were unable to finish the book; the novel brought back too many difficult memories and horrors of the war.  These members bravely attended book discussion and still brought their experiences and insights which were helpful and inspiring.

According to Jessica Shattuck the novel is as much about “complicity as it is about resistance.  It is a story set at the edges of the Holocaust, rather than at its darkest center—in the gray area of everyday lives.  It is also a book about the period after the war rather than the war itself, a time when guilt of having supported Hitler—of having been complicit in the Holocaust—was driven underground and inward.  And this private space of the subconscious and repressed has always been the province of novels.”

Jessica Shattuck attempted to answer the following questions from three characters’ points of view: “How did the forces of the time shape the everyday moments of people’s lives?  How much did “ordinary Germans” know of what was happening in concentration camps and small Polish villages?  How did some people recognize evil as it unfolded while others remained blind?”   Members believe Shattuck answered these questions through the three characters’ circumstances and choices—which was a remarkable feat. Members thought Jessica Shattuck achieved her goal by offering readers a different glimpse at life for Germans from 1938-1991.

The book posits the following questions: What would I do in similar circumstances?  How do I stand up for injustices today? After reading The Women in the Castle, the answers are not as black and white as one might think.

Members have read other novels about Nazi Germany which they felt had insights, like The Lilac Girls, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and Sarah’s Key.  In contrast, members felt The Women in the Castle offered new insights that these other novels did not.  In other words, The Women in the Castle covered new ground.  Only one member had read a nonfiction book which addressed this period of time in a similar way.  The member highly recommended this book, Two Lives: A Memoir by Vikram Seth. “Widely acclaimed as one of the world’s greatest living writers, Vikram Seth — author of the international bestseller A Suitable Boy — tells the heartrending true story of a friendship, a marriage, and a century. Weaving together the strands of two extraordinary lives — Shanti Behari Seth, an immigrant from India who came to Berlin to study in the 1930s, and Helga Gerda Caro, the young German Jewish woman he befriended and later married — Two Lives is both a history of a violent era seen through the eyes of two survivors and an intimate, unforgettable portrait of a complex, abiding love.”—from Amazon

Discussion Highlights:

  • The groups discussed ways they related to the three main characters and discussed which character they identified with the most.  Members talked about how each woman’s past influenced their decisions during the rise of Nazi Germany. We discussed whether the women would have been friends if not for the war and how the events of the war shaped each of the women and their perceptions of themselves.  
  • The groups discussed whether Marianne was a good protector and friend to Benita and Ania. We discussed how Marianne may have reacted if Ania and Benita had been more honest with her.
  • The groups discussed whether Benita’s beauty helped or hurt her and we discussed her true feelings for both Connie and Franz Muller.  We discussed Benita’s final choice and the implications for her son, Martin.
  • The groups discussed whether Ania was like most ordinary Germans of the period.
  • At the end of the war, each woman was in a different place emotionally.  We discussed the choices they made to survive and whether it’s possible for anyone to put the past behind and create a new beginning.  We discussed whether we felt the women were victims or whether they had responsibility for Hitler’s rise to power and therefore responsibility for their own plights.  We also discussed whether people are accountable for the actions of their leaders.
  • The groups were asked whether they learned anything new about the conditions in post-war Germany.
  • Finally, the groups responded to the following statement by Martin, “Americans can face the world with open arms, Marianne had once said, because the world hasn’t yet come to knock it down.”   Additionally, the groups were asked if The Women in the Castle holds any insights for our own time.

Resources:

Jessica Shattuck’s website includes a YouTube clip which is essential to understanding the personal nature of this novel for the author.  The website also contains book discussion questions and an extremely helpful map with sound bites about The Castle, Displaced Persons Camps, POW Camps, Rheinwienlager (US army camps built to hold German soldiers) and the Landjahr Lager (country service camp).

http://jessicashattuck.com/

If you decide to read The Women in the Castle, please be aware that the paperback copy has an additional chapter which further explains Ania’s identity—some members found this very useful. The facilitator agrees with the editor’s choice to remove this chapter from the original manuscript.  While this additional chapter is interesting and descriptive, it does not provide for a seamless storyline and creates additional questions which remain unanswered in the rest of the text. The facilitator said, “The additional chapter is like having an antique hammer in a sock drawer, while interesting, it is a misfit in the sock drawer.”

Book club members also expressed that the relationship between Martin and Mary in 1991 should have been edited out of the novel—it was out of place with the rest of the novel according to the members.

The paperback includes a fascinating and helpful Author’s Note.  The facilitator highly recommends reading the Author’s Note after completing the novel.

Tie-In DVDs in RML’s collection

 

Read-a-Likes:

The Women in the Castle

Book Club 2016-2017 Season Wrap-Up:

Members praised the facilitator for providing a stellar selection of diverse books this season. Members appreciate the selections as the books offered topics rich for discussion.  Members thoroughly enjoy attending discussion days and while many would not have pick-up these reads on their own, they were so thankful to be stretched intellectually by reading other genres.  Last season (2016-2017) there was several least favorite reads, but this season all the selections were enjoyed by the members.

Several Morning Book Break members were only slightly disappointed with Beartown as they were hopeful it would have been as heartwarming and touching as A Man Called Ove.  Many members stated that it was hard to pick a favorite read of the season, as the books on the list were all well-liked.  Some of favorites for this season were:  A Gentleman in Moscow, The Rosie Project, Before We Were Yours, News of the World, The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, and Small Great Things—almost the entire selection were book club favorites!

Finally, members were asked to cast a vote on which of the two novels they would most like to read for the upcoming season.  The novels were: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn.  The Books and Bagels Book Club voted for the The Alchemist and The Morning Book Break Book Club voted for The Woman in the Window.

Members are sorry to see the season come to a close and they can’t wait until September for the first discussion of the 2018-2019 Season.  A few members feel like they are going to go into Book Club Withdrawal!  If you’re interested in attending, stop by the Readers’ Advisory Desk for the 2018-2019 Flyer, which will be available in mid-July, and sign-up with a Readers’ Advisor. If you’re already signed up, check out the blog page for September’s title!

Book Club, reader's advisory

The After Party – Morning Book Break – March 2018

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Morning Book Break Book Discussion on
Beartown by Fredrik Backman

Ratings:
The book received ratings between a 0 and 5.0. The average of the ratings was 4.43.

Review:
This novel was selected for many reasons.  A primary reason was this club’s real love for Fredrik Backman’s novel A Man Called Ove.  This was, without exception, a club all-time favorite.  Additionally, selections are made by the facilitator with potential discussions in mind.  This club had never explored the role of sports in the US. The facilitator presented the TIME magazine (August 24, 2017) article entitled, “How Kids’ Sports Became a $15 Billion Industry.” The article states, “Across the U.S., the rise in travel teams has led to the kind of facilities arms race once reserved for big colleges and the pros. Cities and towns are using tax money to build or incentivize play-and-stay mega-complexes, betting that the influx of visitors will lift the local economy.”  This is the backdrop of Beartown with the addition of a sexual assault which changes the dynamics of the town and its people.

Positive comments:
Many members have fond memories of their children and grandchildren participating in sports.  Sports were a part of family bonding and life-long lessons were imparted. Sports offered real opportunities for teachable moments.  Several members recall their own pathetic partnership with sports. The members came from an era, where girls sports did not count and many are glad to see that girls have equal opportunities in this arena.

Members felt the author did a wonderful job describing the area—the member saw the winter scenes in their minds.

Negative comments:
Members felt the writing was choppy and uneven.  Members wondered if part of the problem was the translation from Swedish to English. The members felt the book was in desperate need of editing.  One member felt 200 pages could be cut—members thought there was too much information presented about hockey. Facilitator shared that Fredrik Backman relayed information about his writing process. “Maybe I could put it like this: I have learned to build a box for me to play within.  Which means I decide the world my character gets to explore, and the limits of it, and I try to write a beginning and an ending to the story first of all. That way I’m free to have new ideas within it, but I have certain boundaries that force me to actually finish the story at some point.  Otherwise I would probably just keep on going and every novel would be 60,000 pages long.” Members laughed aloud as they could barely read his 400+ pages let alone 60,000 pages.

Members thought Backman used too many characters and they felt the characters were underdeveloped.

For the most part, members were not that interested in a novel that revolved around sports, particularly hockey.

Several members disliked the constant use of profanity throughout the novel.  Some members wonder whether young adults really talk like they are portrayed in the novel.  

Members would not recommend this novel to others.

Discussion Highlights:

  • The group discussed what hockey means to the people of Beartown and what kind of community has been built by the people of Beartown.  
  • Discussion about the presentation of social classes in Beartown and the ways hockey can cut through class distinctions or reinforce them.
  • We discussed the pressures applied to the hockey team by the town and the parents.  We discussed what hockey demands from the boys. We discussed which parents were most successful at preparing their children for the real world.
  • The group discussed the portrayal of several marriages in the novel and the views of various characters regarding working mothers.  
  • The group discussed the role of secrets in the novel.
  • The author often chooses to not use first names, and we discussed how this decision affected our opinion of the various characters.
  • In reading the novel, we saw that playing on a sports team teaches young people values like loyalty, responsibility, and commitment and it can also promote exclusion, aggression, and entitlement.  We discuss whether there are behaviors that are rewarded in a sports competition but considered inappropriate in real life. We talked about which characters had difficulty navigating these behaviors.
  • We discussed how Maya’s final act shapes her future and Kevin’s future. We talked about the characters who find the courage to go against the grain of the tight-knit Beartown community.  
  • We discussed whether the tradition of the Beartown Hockey Club will continue and if it will change going forward.

Resources:

Barnes and Noble interview with Fredrik Backman

Fredrik Backman’s website which includes an interesting Q & A courtesy of Shelf Awareness:
http://fredrikbackmanbooks.com/about-fredrik-backman.html

For books and audiobooks in our collection by Fredrik Backman, please click here.

Read-a-Likes:

Beartown

Everyone who attend both Books and Bagels & Morning Book Break Book Discussion Groups appreciated delving deeply into the current pulse of small town America.  The groups explored the plight of “brain drain” through reading the following literature; Nobody’s Fool, Everybody’s Fool, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, and Beartown.  It was a pleasure to explore this matter in a deeper way and make literary connections to current events.

Book Club, reader's advisory

The After Party – Book and Bagels – March 2018

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Books and Bagels Book Discussion on
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

Ratings:
The book received ratings between a 4.0 and 5.0. The average rating was 4.33.

Review:
Many members have stated they are not nonfiction readers and with that in mind, they stated they were not looking forward to this memoir.  Some members thought the story would be too depressing to read. Once the members starting reading, they couldn’t put the book down.  The members found Vance’s story both enlightening and engaging. For many members, this journey was unfamiliar and therefore interesting and informative.  Life-long learners found this to be engaging new information. Several other members were looking forward to reading this memoir, as it had been on their personal reading list for some time.

Several members have Scots-Irish backgrounds, so they were able to connect with the culture on some level.  These members also shared positive contributions and stories from this culture. The members felt this memoir used accessible language and they thought this could be required reading for high school students.

One member read an editorial from a high school classmate who has continued to live in the same small town in Iowa for the past fifty years.  His letter to the editor documents the decline of this particular small town and the lack of opportunities available. This is a document of the phenomena entitled “brain drain.” Brain drain happens when educated, career-oriented people leave small towns, never to return.  

One member stated that Hillbilly Elegy was an interesting perspective from a young author, but she would like to see a memoir from Vance in thirty-five years from now.  She wonders how his individual perspective would shift.

One member complimented Vance in that he was not pompous in his rise out of poverty, but generously gave credit to all the people who assisted him on this journey.

One member reflected on her immigration to the US and the US growing pains of past generations.  This member was hopeful for the next generations and sees our current turmoil as a cycle of growing pains all generations of people must go through to achieve a better future outcome.  

Many members agreed the problems addressed in the memoir are not easily solved.  One member thought more people should follow John F. Kennedy’s advice, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”  This member felt personal contributions and efforts towards problems are a must.

Discussion Highlights:

  • The group discussed the way the Appalachian culture described in Hillbilly Elegy is a culture in crisis.  The author suggests that unemployment and addiction are self-inflicted and often the culture promotes “learned helplessness.” The group contrasted this previous part of the round-table discussion with thoughts about the criticism received about Hillbilly Elegy, which includes accusations of Vance “blaming the victim” rather than providing a sound analysis of the structural issues left unaddressed by the government.  Continued discussion at this point addressed the positive values imparted by this loyal culture.
  • Discussion about Vance’s personal escape from the cycle of addiction and poverty.  We discussed the role Vance’s mother and her addiction played in the life of the author. Also, we reflected on the violence displayed by her parents and the effect this had on her life.  Discussion led to the reasons why the American Dream seems elusive for many Americans. The group discussed poverty as a nationwide epidemic and the cycle of generational poverty.
    Sadly, we discussed the drug epidemic facing America and the effects this had on Vance and those in his community.
    Facilitator passed around the current TIME magazine (February 22, 2018) which via photography documents the drug epidemic faced in America.  The entire magazine is devoted to the crisis which is entitled The Opioid Diaries. The worst addiction epidemic in America is currently claiming 64,000 lives per year.
    Vance cites a report that states well over half of working-class people had suffered at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE), and over forty percent had experienced several (p. 226-7).  We discussed the implications of ACEs for Vance and others, as well as, Vance’s eventual ability to break free from such a difficult childhood. We talked about what contributed to Vance’s successful transition and how these skills could be translated to others in similar circumstances.
  • Fortunately, Vance was able to successfully navigate the Marines and eventually graduate from Yale Law School.  On one level, Hillbilly Elegy recounts Vance’s socio-economic journey and although his income bracket has shifted, his identity remains tied to his working-class roots.  In light of these factors, the members discussed whether it is possible to shift one’s identity from one social class to another. We discussed systems which discourage upward mobility and we brainstormed possible solutions.
  • In the introduction, Vance provides various reasons for writing his memoir.  The group discussed his reasons and the group was asked whether the book was more successful as a memoir, or as a cultural analysis.
  • J. D. Vance has been interviewed by many media outlets to assist in explaining the results of the 2016 election.  Members discussed whether there are challenges in using one individual’s experience to explain larger social shifts.

Resources:

J. D. Vance’s TED talk on America’s forgotten working class

Peter Robinson interviews J. D. Vance for the Hoover Institution

J. D. Vance interview with Megyn Kelly

Read-a-Likes:

Hillbilly Elegy

Amy Chua was J.D. Vance’s Yale Law School advisor and she encouraged him to write Hillbilly Elegy. Amy Chua was the best-selling author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and her newest book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, offers a prescription for reversing our foreign policy failures.

For books and audiobooks in our collection by Amy Chua, please click here.

Last month, Books and Bagels discussed Nobody’s Fool and Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo.  It was interesting to see the parallels between these fictional novels and the memoir, Hillbilly Elegy.  The erosion of small towns across America is a theme in both of these writings.  It is fascinating to witness the interplay of entirely separate and different works.

Book Club, reader's advisory

The After Party – Morning Book Break – February 2018

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Morning Book Break Book Discussion on
The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore

Ratings:
The book received ratings between a 4.0 and 5.0+. One member gave the book a 2.75. The average of the ratings was 4.59.

Review:
Many members have stated they are not nonfiction readers and with that in mind, they enjoyed this nonfiction read. The members felt this narrative nonfiction read was written in a very accessible way and they thought this could be required reading for high school students. The members applauded Kate Moore for bringing the personal stories of each radium girl to life. The members thought the author helped the reader to experience all the emotions of these young girls—from exuberant joy to deep sorrow and anger.  Members are lifelong learners, so they really engage with writing that brings them new information.  Many members could not put the book down; they were entranced. The members felt rage and anger at the corporate greed and legal dysfunction.  Members were inspired by the strength of these women in the face of corporate giants. Members relayed other disasters where the disadvantaged get a raw deal; i.e. Flint, MI (lead in water), Chernobyl (nuclear disaster), St. Louis, MO (nuclear waste site),US tobacco companies: Phillip Morris,etc.

Many members made positive comments regarding the photos included in the book. Members found themselves looking at the photos while reading and thinking of the girls. In an interview, the author stated she posted the girls’ photos around the room while writing this book.  Kate Moore said this: “Every time I talk about the women, I tell myself: do it for them. Make it good, communicate their story, because they deserve this. They do feel like friends to me. When my husband and I had a glass of prosecco after I typed THE END on my first draft, before either of us drank a drop we first turned to the wall on which their pictures were pinned and raised our glasses to them.”

7

“This is the memorial statue to the Radium Girls, which stands in Ottawa, Illinois. At Christmas time, locals drape the statue with a red homemade knitted scarf, to keep her warm in winter.  The statue is dedicated not only to the Ottawa dial-painters, but also to ‘dial-painters who suffered all over the United States … in recognition of the tremendous perseverance, dedication and sense of justice the Radium Girls exhibited in their fight’. May they rest in peace.”

Discussion Highlights:

  • The group traced the emotional trajectory of the Radium Girls—from their initial excitement about their jobs to the realization that their exposure to radium was killing them.
  • Discussion about the horrible suffering the girls endured and their tenacity as they sought to find out what was causing their individual medical issues.
  • Discussion about the persistent pursuit of the Radium Girls to get medical care and legal justice.
  • Discussed the different responses between the United States Radium Corporation and the Radium Dial Company and whether or not they understood the hazards of radium. The group further discussed the reactions of the companies even after they realized that radium was proven poisonous.
  • Discussion about modern companies who have behaved ruthlessly and how the Radium Girls’ story is still relevant today.
  • Discussed why this story hasn’t been widely explored even though it takes 1,500 years for the effects of radium to wear off and parts of the towns in which the girls worked remains poisonous to this day. Members were shocked to learn clean-up was still taking place in 2015.
  • The members discussed how the girls were inspirational and brave. Members praised the girls for the work they did to help future generations.
  • Members discussed the gender issues contained within the non-fiction book.  We discussed whether or not, considering the time period, did their gender help or hinder them?
  • Radium has changed the world in positive ways, so has its uses been worth the sacrifice?
  • Discussion of other discoveries which have led to tragedy.
  • In an interview the author, Kate Moore stated: “And for me, what was compelling about the story was what these women suffered. And it was very much that they had done this remarkable thing, standing up against these incredibly powerful corporations, standing up against the face of their communities, battling for justice, even though they knew that they themselves were going to die. They didn’t lie down and take it quietly. They stood up and they fought for justice. And I just thought they were so extraordinary, and it was wrong that we don’t know their names and no one has ever traced their stories before—the individual tragedies that they feel. I think it’s really important to put a human face and a human experience behind the history that we see. Even the headlines we see today when we read about environmental damage or scandals. I think it’s only when you know that this was the person’s name, this is what their hopes were, that were then thwarted by what happened to them, this is how their families suffered. I think it’s only then that you can truly appreciate what the human tragedy is, and so that’s why I wanted to write it in the way I have done, because I want the women, the girls themselves, to be remembered.”

Members were asked whether or not author accomplished her purpose in writing Radium Girls.  Overall, members felt that Kate Moore definitely did justice to the girls’ personal journeys.  Members were impressed by her extensive research and attention to all the intimate details of each girl’s life.  

Surprisingly, members were not confused by the sheer overwhelming number of girls portrayed in the nonfiction narrative. Facilitator wondered if a historical fiction novel with a compressed time-line and compressed characters would have had more wide appeal among the general public, thereby bringing the Radium Girls story to the attention of even more people.  Several members hope this nonfiction narrative will be made into a movie, so that a wider audience can learn about the girls and have further exposure to the serious nature of environmental issues which can be dealt with for the good of all humanity.

Resources:

Local bookstore owner Becky Anderson interviews Kate Moore.

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Killer Chemistry, a documentary which provides a fascinating look into early forensic science based on the non-fiction book: The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum. The Radium portion of the DVD is particular appropriate to the discussion of Radium Girls.

In the early twentieth century, the average American medicine cabinet was a would-be poisoner’s treasure chest. There was radioactive radium in health tonics, thallium in depilatory creams, and morphine in teething medicine and potassium cyanide in cleaning supplies. While the tools of the murderer’s trade multiplied as the pace of industrial innovation increased, the scientific knowledge (and the political will) to detect and prevent the crimes lagged behind.

Kate Moore discusses her book with Anne McTiernan at Seattle Town Hall

Kate Moore’s website: http://www.kate-moore.com/writing/4583697052

Website devoted to The Radium Girls (the website literally glows): http://www.theradiumgirls.com/

Read-a-Likes:

The Radium Girls

Audiobooks, Book Club, reader's advisory

The After Party – Morning Book Break – November 2017

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Morning Book Break Book Discussion on
Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Rating: This book received a variety of scores between 2.0 and 5.0.  In scoring, the mode was 4.0 and the average rating was 3.79.

Review: Only two members were aware of the abuses suffered under Georgia Tann and her adoption organization, the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. The book club members really appreciate learning about events in history, therefore, they found the historical information Wingate presented to be very interesting, heart-wrenching, and compelling.   All members were willing to give this novel a high score (5.0) for the research and historical material presented.

The fictional facet of the novel received mixed reviews. Many members loved the book and they have been recommending it to friends and family. They found the topic fascinating and they spent time conducting further research on the events presented. Many members said the mysterious aspect of the novel grabbed them and they looked forward each day to reading the book. Many found it to be a well-written, easy-read.

The discussion was interesting in that an equal number of members found the writing to be sophomoric and contrived. Many criticized the novel as it was more like a script for a sappy Hollywood or Lifetime movie as opposed to a literary read.  One member thought this might be a YA novel due to the writing style.

Members had differing opinions about the structure of the novel.  Some members were frustrated that the author shifted from 1939 to Present Day throughout the novel. Many thought this would be a tremendous book without the Present Day chapters and they wished the novel just covered the historical material about the shanty boat children—everyone was invested in the Foss children. Some members questioned why so many contemporary novels utilize dual-narration.  Members were confused by the amount of characters presented. One member said she took notes on the names of the characters and had to constantly revise the list. Members chuckled because they want to enjoy a book without having to take copious notes. Other members thoroughly appreciated the structure and felt it added an element of suspense to the novel.

Discussion Highlights:

  • The dual-narration structure of the novel and clarification of some of the roles of the main characters.
  • Discussion about the sisters’ decision to keep their family history secret. The group discussed whether family secrets should remain secret.
  • Discussion about whether the birth parents were responsible or careless individuals.
  • Was the ending realistic or unrealistic? What happens to Avery and Trent’s relationship?
  • Why the novel received worldwide interest? What themes are universal?
  • What can society do to prevent people like Georgia Tann from taking advantage of the most vulnerable?

Resources:

http://www.lisawingate.com/

A 60 Minutes report on the Tennessee Children’s Home Society scandal:

For other books by Lisa Wingate in our collection, please click here.

 

Read-a-Likes:

Before We Were Yours