Book Club, reader's advisory

The After Party – Books and Bagels – March 2019

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Books and Bagels Book Discussion Group on The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Rating:
The Books and Bagels Book Discussion group rated the book between a 3.0 and 5.0. The average of the ratings was 3.79.

Rationale for Selection:
“The Alchemist has become a modern classic, selling millions of copies around the world and transforming the lives of countless readers across generations. Paulo Coelho’s masterpiece tells the mystical story of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who yearns to travel in search of a worldly treasure. His quest will lead him to riches far different—and far more satisfying—than he ever imagined. Santiago’s journey teaches us about the essential wisdom of listening to our hearts, of recognizing opportunity and learning to read the omens strewn along life’s path, and, most importantly, to follow our dreams.”

“Paulo Coelho, born in Rio de Janeiro in 1947, is one of the bestselling and most influential authors in the world. His books have sold more than 165 million copies worldwide, have been released in 170 countries, and been translated into 80 languages.”

“Originally written in Portuguese, The Alchemist holds the record as the most translated book by a living author, published in 80 languages including Xhosa, Vietnamese, Hebrew, and Persian.”

“The book spent more than six years on the New York Times bestseller list.”

“THE GREAT AMERICAN READ was an eight-part series that explored and celebrated the power of reading, told through the prism of America’s 100 best-loved novels (as chosen in a national survey)” and The Alchemist was on this list.

Last year, members voted for which novel they would like to read in March. They could choose The Woman in the Window or The Alchemist.  The Alchemist was the overwhelming winner for Books and Bagels using an anonymous paper ballot.

Review:
The discussion was fantastic! Members stayed longer to continue to discuss their thoughts on The Alchemist.  Members had various points of view and different interpretations about the novel. Both the facilitator and one member, unbeknownst to each other, likened the discussion to the poem, The Blind Men and The Elephant:

I.
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant 
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation 
Might satisfy his mind.

II.
The First approached the Elephant, 
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side, 
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me!—but the Elephant 
Is very like a wall!”

III.
The Second, feeling of the tusk, 
Cried: “Ho!—what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp? 
To me ‘t is mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant 
Is very like a spear!”

IV.
The Third approached the animal, 
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands, 
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant 
Is very like a snake!”

V.
The Fourth reached out his eager hand, 
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like 
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“‘T is clear enough the Elephant 
Is very like a tree!”

VI.
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear, 
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most; 
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant 
Is very like a fan!”

VII.
The Sixth no sooner had begun 
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail 
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant 
Is very like a rope!”

VIII.
And so these men of Indostan 
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion 
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right, 
And all were in the wrong!

MORAL.
So, oft in theologic wars 
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance 
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Needless to say, we all got something very different out of the novel.  Three members loved The Bible references and two of these members plan to recommend The Alchemist to their bible study groups.  One member felt it was an interesting religious self-help book.  One member thought it was a deeply philosophical book. One member thought it was a fairy story and another member thought it was a fairy tale.  Many members felt it was a parable or fable about finding your personal destiny with which the universe conspires to help. A few members thought it addressed metaphysical principles, New Age principles, and Western esotericism.  One member thought the book had inspiring principles which would be better served by a younger reading audience. One member is still waiting to be inspired. One member felt that many other self-help books do a much better job addressing the principles covered in the book.  One member, just didn’t get it. One member enjoyed the book, but was disappointed in the ending.
(Spoiler Alert!) She was surprised that Santiago found real gold at the end; she felt that the true treasure obtained was love and enthusiasm for living. The facilitator told the group that this novel is beloved in many different countries by a wide variety of religious beliefs—we later discussed why this might be the case.

Discussion Highlights:

  • Most members in the discussion group read the 25th Anniversary edition of The Alchemist.  The facilitator read the 20th Anniversary edition which included A Reader’s Guide, a Map of Santiago’s Journey, and An Interview with Paulo Coelho. The facilitator used the questions in A Reader’s Guide to conduct the discussion and highly recommends the 20th Anniversary edition for book facilitation purposes. The discussion highlights revolved around the questions presented in the 20th Anniversary edition.
  • The group discussed the Prologue and the alternative story of Narcissus which gives the reader clues as to the themes and relationships the reader should watch for in the Santiago story.  The group agreed that there is an element of narcissism in the pursuit of one’s Personal Legend.
  • We discussed the natural elements in the story and connections we as humans have with nature.  We talked about the healing properties of nature. We discussed Stanford University’s mindfulness studies and how nature and mindfulness can be used to reduce stress and anxiety.
  • We discussed the one-tenth payment asked for by the gypsy woman and the old man.  We discussed the difference between the payments and the meaning of the up-front payment.  We discussed the sacrifices that Santiago makes in order to pursue his dream, additionally, we talked about how those sacrifices can teach us other skills and attributes along the way.  As we move through barriers and dangers we acquire wonderful traits (great treasures) such as determination, courage, confidence, and unconditional love.
  • We discussed the old man’s premise that people believe “the world’s greatest lie—that we all lose control of our own lives and must then be controlled by fate.”  We talked about how people in pursuit of their dreams are so often knocked down that they come to believe life is all luck and fate; they give up control and stop trying to pursue their destiny.  Santiago throughout the story is constantly asked to give up things he has acquired to pursue his destiny. At one point, Santiago has the choice of having a comfortable life with Fatima and being an honored counselor at the oasis or continuing to pursue his dream.  The Alchemist assists him by telling him what would happen to him four years down the road if he chooses this comfortable path. The Alchemist assures him that “true love” (unconditional love) will wait as he pursues his dream. When Santiago finally chooses to pursue his destiny “he immediately felt peace in his heart.” (p. 121)
  • The group discussed who they thought the old man, Melchizedek, and the Alchemist were and if they were the same being.  We agreed that they were symbolic of strangers/mysterious people who enter our lives and offer us help and guidance. As we pursue our quest, we are all assisted by strangers on our journey.
  • Paulo Coelho once said “alchemy is all about pursuing our spiritual quest in the physical world as it was given to us.  It is the art of transmuting the reality into something sacred, of mixing the sacred and the profane.” The facilitator asked the following question from the list of questions in the back of the book, “With this in mind, can you define your Personal Legend?”  The facilitator followed up with this question by stating that it is fine if no one wants to answer the question, but the facilitator thought the group should be aware that this was one of the major points the author was attempting to make. One member talked about a conference she attended for retired people and the speaker asked members to make two columns on a sheet of paper; on one column, they attendees listed their dreams and in the second column, attendees listed how those dreams were achieved.  The purpose of the exercise was to see that often our dreams are realized, but not always in the ways we expect.
  • We talked about which is more important, the dream or its fulfillment.
  • We compared and contrasted the Englishman’s search for the alchemist to Santiago’s search for a treasure.  Much of the contrast deals with the difference between learning about the physical world & its interactions and spiritual pursuits.
  • In The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho writes about a universal language and so, the group briefly discussed what the author implies.  The Universal Language is part of the Soul of the World, requiring no spoken words and is a part of pure love.
  • Everyone agreed it is possible to attain more than one treasure in their personal quest of their ultimate calling.  
  • We discussed the intimacy between the spiritual and material worlds and the connections between alchemy and evolution.  Coelho uses alchemy as an analogy to show how the physical and spiritual world are connected. Just as raw metal (lead) is purified and transformed into a pure metal (gold); the human heart is also transformed/purified into “pure love” and a pure faith. (p. 150-151)
  • We discussed the story the alchemist tells Santiago about a Roman citizen who was visited in a dream by an angel telling him that his son’s words would be remembered for generations to come.  We talked about the lesson Coelho is teaching us; dreams aren’t always what they seem and we may interpreted the dream differently than the actual reality of how the dream is fulfilled.
  • We discussed the ending.  Earlier the alchemist told Santiago, “When you possess great treasures within you, and try to tell others of them, seldom are you believed.”  We talked about how this simple lesson saved Santiago’s life. Members shared their like and dislike of the conclusion of the fable—we basically had two camps; members who enjoyed the ending and members who disliked the ending.

Resources:

To view Paulo Coelho’s blog, click here.


Oprah Winfrey interviews Paulo Coelho


Documentary about Paulo Coelho


Start at 1:03 to get a summary of Paulo Coelho’s top 10 Rules for Success.
These rules resonated with the members in the discussion group. 1) Don’t Be a Part-Time Dreamer, 2) Live In the Moment, 3) Discover Yourself, 4) Pay Attention to Life, 5) Take Risks, 6) Find Your Personal Legend, 7) Nurture Innocence, 8) Find Enthusiasm, 9) Treasure Everything, 10) Dive Into the Universe

For books and movie in our collection by Paulo Coelho, please click here.

Read-a-Likes:

The Alchemist

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 – Books and Bagels and Morning Book Break – May 2018

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Books and Bagels and Morning Book Break Book Discussion Groups on
Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Ratings:
The Books and Bagels Book Discussion group members rated the book between a 4.0 and 5.0. The average of the ratings was 4.64.

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. The average of the ratings was 4.49.

Review:
Several members are huge Jodi Picoult fans and they were glad the facilitator finally chose a Picoult book.  Members knew right away that this “issue-oriented” Picoult novel would be perfect for book discussion.  Readers liked that the book was beautifully researched and they thought the Author’s Note at the end showed the author’s careful construction about the sensitive issue of racism. Members thought that they would recommend the Author’s Note to readers who would not read the novel (the Author’s Note does contain spoilers).  Members appreciate that Picoult used her readership/fan-base to promote a difficult topic that is close to her heart.  Members liked that the reading was accessible while challenging readers to recognize subtle racism.  Ms. Picoult involves her readers in a gentle way, asking them to ponder some very difficult questions.  Jodi Picoult is well-known for getting readers to develop empathy for her characters with her use of descriptive language.  She takes readers on an emotional journey as she writes well-drawn believable characters.  Readers genuinely care about her characters which contribute to them being memorable.  Even the secondary characters are well-drawn, such as the mothers of Ruth and Kennedy. Members like that Picoult used the main characters names as chapter titles—no guessing is required to understand which voice is being presented.

Members thought Small Great Things would be terrific as a movie and indeed, Viola Davis and Julia Roberts are slated to star in the movie version.

Several members thought the book was too long, which conflicted with the ending.  Members thought the novel wrapped up too quickly.

Many members felt the discussion was timely in light of current events and felt the overall message was hopeful.  Members think the book is an important read and members commented on the fantastic line-up of books the past several months at club which in combination gave historical and current views.

Discussion Highlights:

  • The group discussed ways they related to the three main characters.  Many members related to Ruth as an intelligent, hard-working single mother.  Members related to Kennedy as a liberal minded woman juggling the roles of motherhood and her career as a lawyer.  Like Jodi Picoult, all of the members were disgusted by Turk’s behavior, but some members felt Picoult showed how his troubled childhood contributed to his radicalization. We discussed what the role of parenting meant to each of the three characters.  We discussed the ways each of the three characters changed over the course of the novel.  We discussed how Ruth’s relationship with her sister Adisa changed over the course of the novel.  We spent a good deal of time talking about Turk’s transformation.  Many members thought his transformation was too incredible to be believable and yet, Picoult spent time interviewing past members of white supremacist groups to get the voice right and draw a clear picture of how it is possible for members to leave the group and work to undo racism.
  • Several members are regular Jodi Picoult readers and they enjoy her signature twists, however several other members felt the twists to be so contrived that they actually lowered their overall score.
  • In the novel, Kennedy seeks out a neighborhood in which she is the only white person to help her gain some perspective. Members were asked to think of a time when something about their identity made them an outsider and how were they affected by that experience.  Members shared many intimate anecdotal stories—through her Social Justice research Jodi Picoult discovered that open discussions about racial issues are vital and important.
  • The title of the book comes from a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote that Ruth’s mother mentions on p. 173: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” We discussed what the quote means to us and cited some example of small great things done by the characters in the novel.
  • Finally, we discussed the difference between “equity” and “equality” as explained in the novel.  We discussed whether or not our perspectives on racism or privilege were changed or challenged by the reading of the book.

Resources:

Read Jodi Picoult’s website to learn about her
and her other fantastic novels:  https://www.jodipicoult.com/

PBS Books interviews Jodi Picoult on small great things at Book Expo 2016—Chicago:

For books and audiobooks in our collection by Jodi Picoult, please click here.

Read-a-Likes:

Small Great Things

Book Club, reader's advisory

Morning Book Break and Books and Bagels Book Discussion Groups: Up-Coming Events and The Great American Read

The Morning Book Break and Books and Bagels Book Discussion Group 2017-2018 season will end in June at which time members will receive the 2018-2019 book club list.  The 2018-2019 season will resume in September and we will discuss The Book That Matters Most by Ann Hood.  Members will be asked to bring 1-3 most beloved book titles to their club meeting and the facilitator will compile a list to be distributed to the groups in late 2018.  Members will discuss their own favorite books and we will briefly discuss what “books have to say about our diverse nation and our shared human experience” as presented on the PBS program The Great American Read which begins May 22 and concludes in October 2018.

“THE GREAT AMERICAN READ is an eight-part series that explores and celebrates the power of reading, told through the prism of America’s 100 best-loved novels (as chosen in a national survey).  It investigates how and why writers create their fictional worlds, how we as readers are affected by these stories, and what these 100 different books have to say about our diverse nation and our shared human experience.”  (http://www.pbs.org/the-great-american-read/about/show/

Official Trailer: “America’s 100 best-loved books are revealed, launching the campaign & the nationwide vote.”

Book Club, reader's advisory

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

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Books and Bagels and Morning Book Break Book Discussion Groups on
Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Ratings:
The Books and Bagels Book Discussion group members all gave the book a 4.0 with the following exceptions: one member gave the book a 4.5 and another member gave the book a 5.0. The average of the ratings was 4.12.

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. The average of the ratings was 4.32.

Review:
All of the members felt the book was graphic and brutal in its description of slavery in the United States. They all agreed that the book was well-written but it was difficult and uncomfortable to read.  It was written with such vivid language and imagery that many members stated that the scenes will forever remain in their minds.  All of the members expressed a hope that someday we can move beyond racism, but agreed that acknowledging the past is essential in moving forward. The Underground Railroad assists readers in acknowledging the past, but also leaves readers with this question: where do we go from here?

Where Do We Go From Here? is the theme at the National Civil Rights Museum for the year-long commemoration of Dr. King’s assassination.  This was the title of Dr. King’s final book as well as the title of the speech he delivered on August 16, 1967 at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Several members had difficulty with Whitehead’s use of the metaphorical Underground Railroad.  They had difficulty transitioning between the magical realism of the Underground Railroad and the historical elements of the novel.  Many members were disappointed with the flow of the book and found it to be a challenging read.  Some members thought Whitehead rambled too much and his composition included too many characters which made the novel convoluted and difficult to track.

Many members felt the discussion was timely in light of current events.  Members felt the book is an important read and that it should be a part of required high school curriculum.  Members agreed that the serious nature of racism requires that books continue to be written to address the issue and to never allow the past to be forgotten.

Discussion Highlights:

The group discussed the concept of freedom as presented by Whitehead in this novel. The group also discussed what freedom meant to Cora and how her view changes over the course of the novel. The group talked about Cora’s personal view of freedom especially after her sexual assault by a group of other slaves and her personal journey to freedom with fear as a constant pursuer (personified by Ridgeway the slave catcher).

The above discussion led to discussion about Ridgeway’s perspective as a slave catcher. We discussed whether this added to a better understanding of the historical period.  We discussed the significance of Ridgeway’s behavior and treatment of Cora when he bought her a dress and took her out to dinner.  Many of the members were puzzled at this behavior and troubled by the insertion of it into the narrative.  It definitely doesn’t fit the narrative of historically cruel slave catchers.  One member thought of Ridgeway as a bounty hunter whose goals were purely financial and that he seemed to personally distance himself from the brutality of slavery.  Additionally, he dehumanized the slaves by calling these human beings “it.” He considered them property.  Colson Whitehead in an interview said, “I wanted to create a proper villain (Ridgeway) and a proper hero (Cora).”

We discussed the cruelty and brutality in the novel and how this affected us as readers. Many members had to take breaks while reading and many felt they needed to skim/skip sections.

We discussed the state-by-state structure of the novel and we discussed issues presented in each state that Whitehead created.  We discussed the “South Carolina” section and the presentation of the doctor’s offices and the museum designed to help “black uplift” and yet, they were corrupt and unethical. Whitehead’s “South Carolina” addresses eugenics, sterilization, and medical experimentation without consent. The group discussed how this mirrors what is still happening in America today.  One member is currently reading Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington.  This nonfiction book provides a provocative study of the history of medical experimentation on African Americans, from the colonial era to the present day, revealing the experimental exploitation and poor medical treatment suffered by blacks, often without any form of consent, and offering new details about the infamous Tuskegee experiment and other medical atrocities.

The experiments without consent reminded some members of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.  This nonfiction book documents the story of how scientists took cells from an unsuspecting descendant of freed slaves and created a human cell line that has been kept alive indefinitely, enabling discoveries in such areas as cancer research, in vitro fertilization, and gene mapping. It has been made into a major motion picture starring Oprah Winfrey.

As we continued to discuss the state-by-state structure, we included discussion about Whitehead’s “North Carolina.”  This state addressed genocide and alludes to Nazi Germany with the main character, Cora hiding in an attic, much like Anne Frank.

We discussed Whitehead’s “Indiana” with its presentation of black utopia and philosophical underpinnings regarding strategies for political movement forward.

The club discussed Cora’s mother’s decision to escape the Randall plantation and how our opinion of her changed after we learned about her fate.

We discussed how the depiction of slavery in The Underground Railroad compared to other depictions in literature and film.  Several movies mentioned were: Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Amistad, Amazing Grace, and The Abolitionists.  The Morning Book Break book discussion group had previously enjoyed and discussed The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd.  The story follows Hetty “Handful” Grimke, a Charleston slave, and Sarah, the daughter of the wealthy Grimke family. The novel begins on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership over Handful, who is to be her handmaid. “The Invention of Wings” follows the next thirty-five years of their lives.  It is inspired in part by the historical figure of Sarah Grimke (a feminist, suffragist and, importantly, an abolitionist).

We discussed how Whitehead creates emotional instability for the reader and how this sense of fear impacts the reading of the novel.  This led to talking about the end of the novel.  We discussed why Cora accepts help from one man but not the other men who are willing to assist. We also discussed the ambiguous ending.  Some members disliked this ending and other members felt it was a great choice to make the novel impactful.  One member noted the cycle of freedom and visiting different states will most likely continue for Cora as this is perceived as being part of the struggle of black people in America.  Sadly, Cora was on her way to “Missouri,” a slave state in Whitehead’s arbitrary cut-off of 1850 for his novel.

Members discussed the timely reading of this novel and the relationship to current events such as;
Martin Luther King Jr. Assassination – 50th Anniversary
National Geographic– April 2018– Race Issue—featuring fraternal twins Millie and Marcia (The Race Issue)

Several members mentioned they watched the 60 Minutes report Inside the Memorial to Victims of Lynching: “Oprah Winfrey reports on the Alabama memorial dedicated to thousands of African-American men, women and children lynched over a 70-year period following the Civil War.”  Additionally, 60 minutes visited the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice which will open its doors for the first time on April 26, 2018.

Resources:

Read Colson Whitehead’s website to learn about him and his other fantastic novels: https://www.colsonwhitehead.com/

The facilitator selected the novel for book clubs for all the following reason stated below and to allow the reading of the novel to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination.  

“THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD had quite a year.

It won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal for Fiction, the Heartland Prize, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Hurston/Wright Fiction Award, was longlisted for the Booker Prize, and was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize. It became a #1 New York Times Bestseller, got picked by Oprah for her book club, President Obama chose it for his summer reading list, and it was a Best Book of the Year for the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Newsday, GQ, Publishers Weekly, Esquire, and Buzzfeed. It’s being translated into 40 languages.

Now I’m back to work, I think.”
—Colson Whitehead

The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee has been honoring MLK with a yearlong celebration starting on April 4, 2017 and ending on April 4, 2108.  http://mlk50.civilrightsmuseum.org/


PBS Books interviews Colson Whitehead on The Underground Railroad at
Book Expo 2016—Chicago


Colson Whitehead is interviewed at Politics & Prose Bookstore
(A Washington D.C. favorite)

Read-a-Likes:

The Underground Railroad

For books and audiobooks in our collection by Colson Whitehead, please click here.

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.