Book Club

The After Party – Books and Bagels and Morning Book Break – October 2019

Books and Bagels and Morning Book Break Book Discussion Groups on
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Ratings:
The Books and Bagels Book Discussion Group members rated the book between a 1.5 and 5.0. The average of the ratings was 3.51.  

The Morning Book Break Book Discussion Group rated the book between a 3.0 and 5.0. The average of the ratings was 4.23.

Review:
For the past seven years during the fall, the book clubs have read selections from the Suburban Mosaic, an organization that “seeks to confront issues of racial and social justice and promote cross-cultural understanding through literature.” (http://www.suburbanmosaicbooks.org/

This 2018-2019 season, Suburban Mosaic selected the nonfiction book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal-practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system.  One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinkmanship — and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.  Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming-of-age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.  Just Mercy is soon to be a major motion picture starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx.

Last year, during the 2018-2019 book club season, the facilitator selected The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult, and Varina by Charles Frazier. (See previous posts for more information about these books)  During these clubs, the facilitator and other members brought to light some of the work that Bryan Stevenson has done at the Equal Justice Initiative.  In an attempt to expose the members to different material, the selector chose An American Marriage as a fiction substitute for Just Mercy.  Tayari Jones attempts to cover different ground by showing readers how mass incarceration affects the family unit, specifically a marriage.

Discussion Highlights:
Club members discussed the title and the cover art. We discussed whether or not the title represents the novel and what about the novel makes it a particularly “American.” Several members thought the author did an excellent job portraying the state of marriage in modern day America.  The novel shows the various states of marriage and the author also shows a couple deciding not to marry, but live in “communion.” The author describes the different stages of romance through various characters—the readers are exposed to first dates, engagements, marriage, divorce, second and third marriages, love affairs, etc. The author did an excellent job in attempting to describe love and marriage—a nearly impossible feat.  The members thought Tayari Jones wrote a well-written, thought-provoking novel that has readers talking about important topics. 

The facilitator told the group members that other book clubs have gotten into fights defending the actions of one of the three main characters.  Book club members have taken sides about what they thought each character should or should not have done. One all male book club disputed the actions between Andre and Roy.  Many in this group felt Andre broke the “bro code” by having relations with Celestial, who was married to his best friend, Roy. 

The group members at the Rolling Meadows Library treated each other very considerately and respectfully.  We talked about the three alternating perspectives in the novel—Celestial, Roy, and Andre. We talked about which perspective we responded more positively towards.  The members felt Tayari Jones wrote vivid three-dimensional characters, which is why readers are responding strongly to the different characters she brought to life.

Celestial’s view of love: (pp.138)
“Much of life is timing and circumstance, I see that now.  Roy came into my life at the time when I needed a man like him.  Would I have galloped into this love affair if I had never left Atlanta?  I don’t know. But how you feel love and understand love are two different things.  Now, so many years down the road, I recognize that I was alone and adrift and that he was lonely in the way that only a ladies man can be.  He reminded me of Atlanta, and I reminded him of the same. All these were reasons why we were drawn to each other, but standing with him outside of Maroons, we were past reason.  Human emotion is beyond comprehension, smooth and uninterrupted, like an orb made of blown glass.”

Tayari Jones attempts to show how marriage is like a tree (the family unit) and the bride and groom are like a sapling.  Marriage attempts to bond two different families into one unit—the next generation, “But home isn’t where you land; home is where you launch.  You can’t pick your home any more than you can choose your family. In poker, you get five cards. Three of them you can swap out, but two are yours to keep: family and native land.” (pp. 4)

Unfortunately, Roy’s prison term ramps up the already present friction between Celestial and Roy and it becomes evident that: “Our marriage was a sapling graft that didn’t have time to take.” (pp.284)

We discussed the structure of the novel, which at times is told through the exchange of letters.  Many members enjoyed this structure. Some members wished the letters were dated; others members felt the author made a good choice in not dating the letters because this allowed for the lengthy passage of time with regards to the incarceration. In the interviews below, the author chose letter writing to eliminate some of the mundane aspects of prison life and to protect the reader from the violent aspects of prison life.  The author wanted her novel to have wide readership, and she felt a dark, gritty prison read would not have wide appeal. She hopes more people will read her book, enjoy talking about the love triangle and will begin to ponder the effects mass incarceration has on the wider community.

In an interview, Tayari Jones did she said, “I don’t see how our prison system is working for anyone—not the people who have committed crimes, not the victims, not the tax payers.  Nobody is winning here.” We discussed whether or not the novel illustrated this point and whether or not our opinions on the American prison system changed after reading An American Marriage.  Many members felt that they did not learn anything new about the prison system, but agree with Tayari Jones’s view.

We talked about Celestial’s business and the symbolism behind the baby dolls she creates.

Without including any spoilers, we talked about the incredibly important person Roy meets while in prison.  Several members thought this was an interesting plot device and other members felt it was too contrived. Even the author was surprised that Roy met this person.  Tayari Jones does not write with an outline; she likens her style of writing to this metaphor: she is the driver in a car with the characters in her novels. As they travel along in the car, her characters make decisions and she lets them, but sometimes she has to take control of various situations. Members enjoyed Tayari Jones’s writing style and would definitely read another book by the author.  A few members disliked the book because it was too contrived and written like a “Lifetime Movie”.

We talked about the two major twists at the end of the novel.  Most members felt the author did a great job of tying up the loose ends.  Although it is not a fairy tale ending—the novel ended in a hopeful manner giving each character dignity.

Resources:

For books and audiobooks in our collection by Tayari Jones, please click here.

Tayari Jones speaks about the inspiration behind An American Marriage:

Tayari Jones talks about letter writing, her love of The Odyssey, and mass incarceration:

Tayari Jones talks about her love of bookstores; she says with every book you can visit a different world and meet new people.   Tayari Jones talks about one of her favorite authors, Toni Morrison. Tayari Jones admires Toni Morrison so much that she has soil from Toni Morrison’s homeland in a jar in her office.

Read-a-Likes:

Members highly recommended watching the film If Beale Street Could Talk, based on the novel by James Baldwin.

Book Club, reader's advisory

The After Party – Morning Book Break and Books and Bagels – September 2019

Morning Book Break and Books and Bagels Book Discussion Groups on
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Ratings:
The Books and Bagels Book Discussion Group members rated the book between a 4.0 and 5.0 with two members giving the book a 3.5. The average of the ratings was 4.62.  Two members did not like the humor and thought nothing could be funny when you consider the trauma Eleanor suffered.

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 4.53.

Review:
In the seven years the facilitator has been conducting these clubs, this book received the highest favorable ratings. The author masterfully wove pathos and humor together, which is a very difficult task. Members have been recommending this novel to everyone.  Everyone rooted for Eleanor and we were not disappointed. Terrific life lessons were presented in the novel, such as; kindness creating a ripple effect in the community and kindness working its own kind of magic.

Discussion Highlights:

  • Club members like that Honeyman developed a good friendship between Eleanor and Raymond. 

We discussed the qualities in Raymond that allow Eleanor to feel comfortable with him which created an atmosphere for her to open up. They were thrilled that Honeyman did not end the novel with a romantic Hollywood ending instead Honeyman allows the relationship to develop naturally, displaying how the two main characters support each other.

  • Honeyman makes a point to show how small acts of kindness have a ripple effect. Raymond insists that Eleanor help Sammy, an old man who has fallen in the street, and at first Eleanor is put off and judgmental, but this is the beginning of her growth. This simple task of helping another changed her life. In the Books and Bagels Book Discussion Group members shared small acts of kindness that were significant to them.  The book points out that not all scars are visible and that kindness works wonders.
  • The novel sheds light on mental illness, depression, survivor guilt and how judgmental people can be. It highlights emotional abuse, physical abuse, and child neglect.  The group discussed Mummy and the effects she had on Eleanor. We discussed why Eleanor continued her weekly phone calls with Mummy.
  • We discuss the meaning of the title.
  • Members discussed the trauma Eleanor experienced as a child and how she easily developed a teenage crush on the musician, Johnnie.  
  • The clubs spent a lot of time discussing the final plot twist. Everyone was surprised by the ending and this evoked even more sympathy and understanding for Eleanor.  The members discussed Honeyman’s skillful writing and her use of red herrings in the novel to create suspense. As members read the novel, they thought Eleanor’s Mummy was either in prison or a mental institution or possibly it was a voice in Eleanor’s head.  Honeyman wrote the novel in the first person, so Eleanor is an unreliable narrator which helps to create further mystery and suspense. Readers tried to figure out what might be going on with Eleanor. Was she on the spectrum? Did she have OCD? Did she hear voices? 
  • The author wanted to braid two related ideas together.  The first was the idea of loneliness and the other strand was that of social awkwardness. “I realized that I wanted to tell a story about someone like this, or, rather, someone who’d ended up like this, living a small life. A lonely person, a slightly awkward person, and someone in whom loneliness and social awkwardness had become entwined and self-perpetuating.  I wanted to tell the story of how this had happened to her, and of what happened to her next, and this became the story of Eleanor Oliphant.” The author explores reasons that explain a person’s awkwardness. “Might there perhaps be something in their background or childhood experiences, some life event that had helped to shape them in this particular way?” We discussed whether or not the author was successful in her purpose and we also discussed the question of nature versus nurture. We discussed whether or not, Eleanor would be socially awkward if she had not had a traumatic childhood.
  • We discussed some of the funniest moments in the novel.  Due to the fact that Eleanor had an abusive childhood, two members did not find anything funny about the novel. Because Eleanor is blunt and has few filters she exhibits moments of astute social commentary, so we discussed these moments.  We discussed what factors contribute to her unconventional personality.
  • We discussed the main theme of the novel, which seemed to be: “I suppose one of the reasons we’re able to continue to exist for our allotted span in this green and blue vale of tears is that there is always, however remote it might seem, the possibility of change.” The book has a wonderful joyful message which is why it is resonating with so many readers.
  • We discussed how Glenn the cat is a metaphor for the change Eleanor experiences and how the simple act of caring for others nurtures us and a healthy cycle is created in society.

Resources:

Gail Honeyman sends a thank you to libraries and librarians:
Interesting Podcast, Gail Honeyman shares in-depth about the UK newspaper article about loneliness in young people and how she incorporated this information into her character, Eleanor.

Read-a-Likes:

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 – 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 – 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

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 – 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.