Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, 1/20/11

GileadGilead is told by a religious yet realistic old man writing down his story for his young son to read after he’s gone. Those who found Gilead captivating identified with the characters, laughed at the humor, and enjoyed the slow-paced and perceptive stories of John Ames.

We discussed the fizzled storyline involving Jack and Lila, John’s godson and wife. Was it a disappointing aspect of the story structure, or a revelation of the fact that the subplot told us more about John Ames’ fears than the actual feelings of Jack and Lila?

CD didn’t feel that John Ames was a convincing character and was struck by the narrow perspective of the book regarding Jack’s early indiscretion. DC enjoyed the prose, but found the story forgettable; CS skipped over the “tedious” theological reflections, but recommended the audio version of the book. AL struggled to finish Gilead, annoyed by the structure, yet found herself in tears at the end. The scene in which John blessed Jack touched many of us. JS commented on the generational conflict between the fiery, belligerent grandfather and his equally idealistic but pacifist son.

Although JS wasn’t entirely positive about the book, she read aloud from a couple of the funniest bits – the food provided to the bachelor minister by the ladies of the congregation, including the “suspiciously Presbyterian” bean salad and the unwanted yet recurring jello salad. She also pointed to a favorite passage toward the end: “It is worth living long enough to outlast whatever sense of grievance you may acquire. Another reason why you must be careful of your health.”

CS highly recommends Robinson’s book, Home, about the same characters and place, told from a completely different perspective.

Other books and authors recommended during the conversation:

Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain

Penelope Lively

Emma Donoghue, Room

Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: 11/18/2010

Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoDiaz is a smarty-pants of a writer (like Chabon and DeLillo), showing off his wit and knowledge in a story that goes outside our expectations of a novel.  A few Book Club members liked the combination of playfulness and intellect, comedy and tragedy. Readers put off by extensive footnotes, untranslated Spanish slang, and allusions to characters from comic books and science fiction stories didn’t enjoy it so much. Not a crowd-pleaser, this book was most appreciated by readers familiar with Spanish.

A couple of people commented that they preferred Julia Alvarez’ In the Time of the Butterflies for a novel about the Dominican Republic.

Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge: 10/21/2010

Olive KitteridgeReactions to Olive Kitteridge, the book and the character, seem to depend a great deal on the reader’s history. In our group, there were readers who were happy to spend time in the small town of Crosby, Maine; there were others for whom all stories set in small towns are horror stories. Olive is a complex and difficult character, deeply flawed, with flashes of tenderness.  One in our group called Olive “a monster”; another loved her for “the magnificent job” she did with the rotten hand she was dealt. The short story format appealed to some for the prism-like way it allowed us to come to know Olive and the people of Crosby.  Others would have preferred the story in novel form.  It is not a book for someone seeking a quick pace and page-turning plot!

We were in agreement as to the excellence of the writing and the powerful descriptions of the natural setting.  One reader pointed out the perfection of the first two stories, each of which can stand on its own.  Still, we wondered why this book was selected for the Pulitzer Prize.  According to the Pulitzer Prize website, Olive Kitteridge won in 2009 for “distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life”.  They describe the book as “a collection of 13 short stories set in small-town Maine that packs a cumulative emotional wallop, bound together by polished prose and by Olive, the title character, blunt, flawed and fascinating.”  Take a look at the Pulitzer site for more information, including the other finalists that year.

Don DeLillo, White Noise: 9/16/2010

White Noise
DeLillo’s book won’t win a popularity contest with our group, but it sure got   people talking.  I’d say there was general agreement that the characters and dialogue are shallow and off-putting, but readers’ reactions to the style ranged from bemusement to repulsion.  Although reams of academic articles have been written about it, many of us found White Noise pretentious and sophomoric.  Maybe that’s how DeLillo sees our society… On the plus side, originally published in 1985, the novel seems surprisingly up-to-date, capturing the pervasiveness of advertising and technology that’s so familiar today.  And the humorous bits charmed some of us. The youngest and newest member of the book group spoke articulately about the realism she sees in the story.  She found inspiration in the themes of fear and denial, and excitement in the challenge of reading a difficult yet rewarding work.

Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: 8/19/2010

yiddish policemen's unionJess Walter in Publishers Weekly aptly called The Yiddish Policemen’s Union a “murder-mystery speculative-history Jewish-identity noir chess thriller”. Chabon has imagined a world in which the Jews inhabit a temporary homeland in Alaska, having lost the war for Israel in the 1940’s.

We split down the middle on this unusual detective story. Some readers never wanted the book to end; others had to force themselves to finish.  Those who loved it talked about the vivid setting, the dark yet life-affirming tone, the playfully brilliant writing and quirky characters.  Readers who were not amused found the plot over-complex and the Yiddish vocabulary off-putting. I found it enjoyable yet exhausting.

As always, related titles were part of the discussion. Philip Roth’s alternative history, The Plot Against America asked, what if Charles Lindbergh had been elected President in 1940 instead of Franklin Roosevelt?  Russell Hoban in Riddley Walker and Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange both created new languages for their characters.

Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, 7/15/2010

St. Peter PortOn the whole, the group enjoyed learning about relatively unknown aspect of World War II, savoring the revelation of character and plot through the long-lost art of letter-writing.  Most of us had known nothing about Guernsey – except the cows.  We enjoyed the characters, although a few were skeptical about the attraction between Juliet and Dawsey.  One of our members recalls the days when letters were so precious she would read them over and over again, practically memorizing the contents.  The Potato Peel Pie Society came close to being precious, but everyone took great pleasure in it anyway.

Readers were reminded of other recommended titles:

  • Irene Nemirovsky, Suite Francaise (tells of the relationships between occupied and occupiers)
  • Island at War (2004 British TV series based on the lives of Channel Islanders during the occupation)

Louise Erdrich, The Master Butchers Singing Club, 6/17/2010

Louise ErdrichOn Thursday evening, June 17th, at 7:30 PM, the Waltham Public Library Book Club met to discuss Louise Erdrich’s book, The Master Butchers Singing Club. The book takes place in the fictional town of Argus, North Dakota

Some of the book club members felt that the title was not a good fit. They saw Delphine Watzka as the heroine of this book. In their estimation, the butcher’s singing club was more of a sidebar. Others felt that the juxtaposition of butchers who sing like angels was a good one. We all wondered why there is no apostrophe after the word butchers in the title.

One member opined that this book explores the “violence of war”, the “violence of an abortion.” There is the “quiet beneath the surface of our lives”. Roy Watzka, Delphine’s father and the town drunk personifies the “violence we do to ourselves and others by excessive drinking”.

Click the link below to find out about a stage production of this book.

Many members of the group felt that a lot of what happened in this book could be explained in two words “North Dakota”. For example, when members expressed disappointment at the romance that seemed to be building between Fidelis and Delphine, one person said, “Hey, it’s North Dakota”. Plus, one member noted, “Delphine was always working.”

Group members who were familiar with other Erdrich works, felt that this novel was very different from her overall oeuvre.

Everyone loved to hate the character of Tante. One member even felt sorry for her as she went hunting for a position in her fancy metallic suit.

Some members were sad when Cyprian left and were surprised that Delphine did not miss him more.

The revelation about Delphine’s birth mother horrified some and made sense to others.

One member speculated that the original version of this book must have talked more about the master butchers singing club. She thought that the editor slashed (butchered?) the original.

In any case, we had a lively and interesting conversation. Tonight’s substitute group facilitator is now an ardent fan of Louise Erdrich. I love her use of language and her ability to develop characters who are off the beaten path.

Two butcher’s cleavers up!

Asne Seierstad, The Bookseller of Kabul: 5/20/2010

Bookseller of KabulMany in the group found ourselves thinking, “not another book about Afghanistan!” as we approached this month’s selection.  After reading it, we were glad to have read Seierstad’s journalistic book about a place that is so unfamiliar to us, yet so familiar to thousands of American troops.

We had some discussion about how non-judgmental the author really was (or wasn’t), how satisfying such episodic storytelling is (or isn’t), and how much license Seierstad must have taken in reporting the thoughts of participants in such incidents as Mansur’s pilgrimage.  Several readers were impressed with Seierstad’s vivid descriptions of of Kabul, down to the dust in the houses and the intimate smells within a burka.

We struggled to understand the tribal nature of life for the bookseller’s family, and found ourselves angered by the effects of such a strongly hierarchical and patriarchal society.  Leila’s thwarted efforts to establish a place for herself as a teacher, away from the constant demands of her family, were heartbreaking to read.  It was painful to read of Sultan’s mercilessness toward the impoverished man who stole some of his postcards.  The report of the girl killed by her brothers with her mother’s consent, for sitting with a man on a park bench, was enraging and unfathomable.

We talked about the difference between Islam and fundamentalist tribal culture, considering that patriarchal religious fundamentalism and extremism appears in connection with Christianity and other religions as well.

Some readers found the book a reminder of their doubts that our country’s involvement in Afghanistan can have a positive outcome for either nation.  One mother of an Iraq war veteran spoke up about her need to believe that the military effort is making some difference for the better.

Members suggested a few other titles:

James Michener, Caravans
David Baldacci, The Camel Club
Rory Stewart, The Places In Between
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel
Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses

Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin: 4/15/2010

Not everyone got through this book in time for our book club meeting, and the book’s length wasn’t the only reason.  Discussion revealed a range of reactions to this multi-layered tale.  Many enjoyed the richly evocative writing and the historical setting of the story.  A couple of readers found the book positively dripping with strained metaphors and similes.  The science fiction tale was the least successful thread of the book for most of us.

None of the characters was terribly popular, but Laura’s concrete thinking made her charming to one reader with an affection for kids who have different ways of learning and seeing things.  Readers drew a range of different conclusions about which of the sisters were visiting Alex in his rooms.

Atwood captures well the friction and affection between siblings.  Her portrait of a father and his family coping with the pain of losing his factory in the face of the Great Depression is poignant. But the same father that is driven to drink and despair at the loss of all of those factory jobs shows stunning insensitivity to his daughter when he arranges her engagement to a business partner, in an inept attempt to save the business.

The most animated discussion came at the end of the meeting, when people tossed around recommendations for other books they liked better than this month’s book club selection:

Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood

The Dante Club, Matthew Pearl

The Swan Thieves, Elizabeth Kostova

The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson

The Art of in Racing the Rain, Garth Stein

Scribbling the Cat, Alexandra Fuller

Alexandra Fuller, Don’t Let’s Go To the Dogs Tonight: 3/18/2010

Alexandra FullerFuller has done an amazing job of writing candidly and lovingly about her childhood in rural Rhodesia. Readers came away with an appreciation for the skill and independence of the white ranching family and the wonderful adventures of her childhood, while the searing racism, violence and squalor of the situation stayed in clear focus all along.

Her connection to the land comes through in gorgeous descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood home.  Fuller managed to convey the best and the worst of her parents and sister, with mind-boggling subtlety and clarity.  Our group commented on the portrayal of such unorthodox parenting, alcohol abuse and the disturbing state of race relations.  Fuller managed to write with humor and matter-of-fact compassion for individuals, even while clearly describing a situation fraught with tragedy and brutality.

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