Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants: 7/9/09

Water for Elephants Links:Sara Gruen’s website

Author interview

Reviews on Amazon

Water for Elephants may be the most popular read we’ve had in the past several years: even CD and BC liked this one!   In this novel, Gruen has created a moving portrayal of a frail nursing home resident, and a surprising tale of his younger days as part of the cutthroat Benzini Brothers Circus.

DJ told us that reading Water for Elephants transformed the way she spent time with her stepfather during long stays in a rehabilitation hospital.  Others were reminded of their elderly family members, and the way memory ebbs and flows as time goes on.

We were impressed with Gruen’s research and the vividness of the 1930’s circus setting she created.  The brutality depicted was not gratuitous, but a seemingly realistic aspect of the time and place, and her empathy for all the creatures subject to the circus owner’s cruelty came through clearly.

We were split on the success of the alternating voices of the elderly and the youthful Jacob.  RN enthusiastically recommended the audio version, which features two actors of different ages taking any confusion out of the transition between older and younger narrators.

Tips for related reading from book club members:

Serena by Ron Rash – “a violent story about ambition, privilege, and ruthlessness played out in an Appalachian timber camp in North Carolina during the Depression.” – Library Journal

Circus by Alistair MacLean – a circus performer is recruited by the CIA in a Cold War adventure tale

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky: 3/12/09

Suite Francaise Suite Francaise
by Irene Nemirovsky

Nemirovsky’s story of war and occupation impressed our group. Her writing skill was formidable, especially when considering the fact that the work is incomplete, interrupted by her arrest and eventual murder in a Nazi camp. Several were struck by the author’s vivid descriptions of nature – life going on about its business on breathtakingly beautiful days at the same time that the war and its horrors took over the lives of the people of France. DS was reminded of another image of terror with a beautiful backdrop closer to all of us – planes flying into towers on a crisp fall day.

We were charmed by Nemirovsky’s humorous view of her characters, most of whom were shown in quite a critical light. We wondered that this book about the German occupation of France – written by a woman with Jewish heritage – has no Jewish characters or even a reference to the Jews.
There is quite a contrast between the two parts of the novel; the first full of the frenzy and chaos of displacement, the second slowing to the languid tension of occupation in the countryside. Nemirovsky has given us a stunning exploration of the intimate, complex relations between occupied and occupier.

The appendices are almost as interesting as the rest of the book, giving us insight into the author’s process and plans for her characters, and providing a heartbreaking record of her husband’s efforts to find her and free her after her arrest.

I highly recommend CD’s comment below, written in response to several members’ request for his reaction to this book. He brings a writer’s perspective to our discussions, and people were curious to hear his thoughts about this book in particular, which is unfinished and accompanied by the author’s notes. He hadn’t finished the book before our meeting, so he wrote on the blog.

Book club members also recommend Nemirovsky’s other novel, Fire in the Blood, and the nonfiction Is Paris Burning? by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.

Irene Nemirovsky
Irene Nemirovsky
Irene Nemirovsky New York Times Book Review
More about Nemirovsky and “Suite Francaise”:
Irene and her daughters
  • For more articles on Nemirovsky and her writing, try Infotrac Onefile, available at the library, or from home (with a Minuteman Library Network card).

In Revere, in Those Days by Roland Merullo: 8/14/08

In Revere, in Those Days In Revere, in Those Days by Roland Merullo

Everyone in our group had good things to say about this book; even the ever-skeptical B called it “fabulous, the best we’ve read so far.” Merullo’s intimate novel about coping with loss – and failing to cope with it, leaving home and finding one’s place, is full of powerful nostalgic images from 1960’s Revere. References to Orangeade, the kids’ table, and triangular car windows evoked strong responses from readers.

We agreed that Merullo is a master at creating a vivid setting and lifelike characters. We could hear Uncle Peter’s voice and see his tics; we saw it clear as day when Grandmother put the gangster in his place with one gentle, dignified gesture.

Revere itself is a central character in the story. Several group members, treasuring their own memories of trips to Revere and of growing up in their own Italian-American families, felt that local readers would get more out of the story because of our familiarity with the territory. Others argued that the universality of the story and the characters and the skill with which they are described makes the book accessible to readers worldwide. Evidence of the book’s wide appeal came from a member who grew up with grandparents from India, whose storytelling grandfather had a penchant for tall tales. She identified very strongly with the family in Merullo’s story.

There was some discussion about the divergent paths of Tonio’s and Rosalie’s lives. Why did Rosalie fare so poorly? One reader pointed out that merely being a girl in such a time and place came with clear disadvantages. Another referred to the difference in upbringing between the two cousins: Tonio’s devoted grandparents and uncle versus Rosalie’s inconsistent mother and struggling father.

We wondered about Tonio’s black roommate Joey and his sister, Tonio’s future wife. Many expected race to be described as a bigger point of tension in a story about life in the 60’s and 70’s.

If Tonio’s grandfather was the character most widely enjoyed, Lydia was the most controversial. Was the sexual nature of her relationship with Tonio necessary to the story? Was it realistically portrayed? They were both grieving, but it wasn’t a convincing enough bond for many. K wondered how Tonio could recover so quickly after their breakup. JW wanted to find the author to smack him and question his values to his face!

On the other hand, this reader was awestruck by Merullo’s description of Tonio’s grandmother comforting him in the kitchen in the middle of his first night as an orphan. Many wept while reading the scene in which Tonio says goodbye to this grandfather. And we all smiled when DS read a wonderful passage about Uncle Peter:

For a person so constitutionally incapable of bringing any amount of order to his own life … he was in possession of a certain intuitive wisdom that rose into view at difficult moments, a little sandbar of sanity that showed itself only at the lowest tides.

Well done, Roland Merullo.

Roland Merullo
Roland Merullo
Roland Merullo Random House Reader’s Guide & Suggested Reading

More about Merullo and In Revere, in Those Days
  • For more articles on Bryson and his books, try Infotrac Onefile, available at the library, or from home (with a Minuteman Library Network card).

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson: 7/10/08

A Walk in the Woods
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Bryson’s tale of the Appalachian Trail, with its mixture of light-hearted adventure and journalistic exploration, was a light summer read.  As always, our members’ reactions varied a good deal, with ratings ranging from “mildly amusing” to “hilarious.”

Most of us enjoyed the informational and critical sections about subjects including bear behavior, acid rain, the decline of the under-funded national park service, a decades-long underground fire, the geology of the Appalachians and the biology of trees.

Some readers, hikers themselves, were reminded of their own experiences of hiking as a spiritual experience.  For all that, just about everyone enjoyed Bryson’s pudgy junk-food junkie hiking companion Katz.  One of us wondered aloud if he got any revenue from the book to which he provided so much humor and pathos. 

One member was unsettled to be signing grim waivers full of alarming fine print for her teenage son’s impending camping trip to New Mexico after reading so much about bear attacks. 

Another reader wondered where Bryson’s allegiance really is: while he writes thoughtfully about so many issues affecting the Trail, his behavior regarding safety, diet and ecology were “appalling.”

Many found Bryson’s failure to stick to the Trail from start to finish a disappointment; some of us found it endearing.  For those who laughed out loud reading this one, the good news is that Bryson has written several other humorous travel memoirs.

Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson Salon’s Interview with Bryson

More about Bryson & A Walk in the Woods
  • For more articles on Bryson and his books, try Infotrac Onefile, available at the library, or from home (with a Minuteman Library Network card).

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway: 6/12/08

For Whom the Bell Tolls
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

On the plus side, we had a couple of readers who just couldn’t put this one down. There was admiration for Hemingway’s skill at bringing us into the minds of “minor” characters like the sentries and the cavalry captain, making a powerful human connection in the middle of a war story. We marveled at the unique Spanish obscenities used by the characters. I liked Jordan’s reflections on the idealists on the ground and the Russian-trained realists running the war from a hotel in Madrid.

On the other hand, at least 6 of our 17 readers couldn’t bring themselves to finish the book, finding it too ponderous. Even the people who enjoyed the book found themselves exclaiming half-way through the book, “Blow up the un-nameable bridge already! I obscenity in the milk of this bridge!”

We thought a good editor could have made this a much better story. CD pointed out that Hemingway was in Spain in the late 30’s and the book was published in 1940, so it was put out very quickly. It would have benefited from a few more drafts.

One reader questioned the speed with which Maria seemed to recover from her trauma and be able to respond to Jordan’s attentions. Another was skeptical of the engineering involved in the demolition of the bridge – when it was finally described. TL thought Pablo was a lot like Manny Ramirez. The Spanish/English hybrid language was not a success for most readers in our group.

JS was a big Hemingway fan in her youth. After this recent reading, her feelings about it were similar to those she might feel upon running into an old boyfriend after many years, finding it impossible to remember what was so fascinating about him before.

Several readers encouraged the disenchanted not to give up on this author until reading A Farewell to Arms, a much shorter and more successful Hemingway novel.

A brief biography from
Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway in Spain, 1937

Ilya Ehrenburg and Gustav Regler with Hemingway, 1937, Spain

Michael Palin’s Hemingway Adventure Palin travels the globe to recapture the world of Hemingway

More about Hemingway
  • For more articles on Hemingway and his books, try Infotrac Onefile or Contemporary Literary Criticism, available at the library, or from home (with a Minuteman Library Network card).

Reflections on Hemingway by Tom Stoppard

Information about Hemingway and his writing

Atonement by Ian McEwan: 5/8/08

Atonement by Ian McEwan

We had an interesting and thought provoking discussion about Ian McEwan’s
Atonement. Some of our members thought that the beginning of the book was
‘too descriptive, too flowery’. Others felt that the book showed the ‘messiness of
life’ and was not ‘facile’ like Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper. Some members
‘hated’ Briony. One member said that she had taught thirteen-year-old students
and that they were old enough to take responsibility for their actions.

It was interesting to some of us that the effects of class were so strong that a
thirteen year old’s word was taken over an adult from a lower class. One group
member pointed out that it took one hundred words in the old days to say what
we say now in ten words. Someone noted that this book was reminiscent of
Rashomon. You never quite know what happens as everyone is telling another

One participant was inspired by Briony thinking about ‘how do you describe a
flower’. This made her think about how would she describe different things to
really paint a picture of what she was trying to portray. A group member who has
suffered from migraines pointed out that Emily Tallis’ section contains the best
description of migraines she has ever read. One reader wondered if Jack Tallis
had an affair with Grace, Robbie’s mother and if this might explain why Jack
Tallis was willing to fund Robbie’s education. This person had just read The Kite
that perhaps made him think of this angle.

The family name Tallis was chosen by McEwan after the English composer
because the overlapping stories strikes him as a kind of polyphony. It is
interesting to note that Ian McEwan grew up in a working class family and
became a very successful and literary writer. This might be reflected in the
character of Robbie, a lower class person who is very educated and talented.
Also, McEwan’s father fought in the battle of Dunkirk that is described very vividly
in this book. Overall, our group would highly recommend this book as worthwhile
reading. Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan Powell’s Interview with McEwan

More about McEwan & Atonement
  • For more articles on McEwan and his books, try Infotrac Onefile, available at the library, or from home (with a Minuteman Library Network card).


Toni Morrison’s Sula: 4/10/08

Sula by Toni Morrison

We all agreed that the book is full of disturbing episodes, but disagreed about their meaning. Is it a story of allegorical characters struggling with poverty and oppression or a tale of neglect and mental illness? Is Sula the embodiment of evil or an artist without a medium, a force of nature? Is Morrison’s vivid writing enough to carry the reader through this difficult story about love, friendship, gender, race and identity?

Morrison maven JW contends that Sula is not Morrison’s best work. She recommends Love and Song of Solomon (and the new PBS American Masters program on Zora Neale Hurston).

On Sula’s deathbed:
“I know what every colored woman in this country is doing.”
“What’s that?”
“Dying. Just like me. But the difference is they dying like a stump. Me, I’m going down like one of those redwoods. I sure did live in this world.”
“Really? What have you got to show for it?”
“Show? To who? Girl, I got my mind. And what goes in it. Which is to say, I got me.”
“Lonely, ain’t it?”
“Yes. But my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain’t that something? A secondhand lonely.”

Author Biography from Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison University of Minnesota’s Morrison page

More about Morrison & Sula
  • For more articles on Morrison and her books, try Infotrac Onefile, available at the library, or from home (with a Minuteman Library Network card).


In the Time of the Butterflies: 2/14/08

In the Time of the Butterflies
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

The group was split on this one. Some were engrossed by vivid writing, strong characters and the tragic setting. They were inspired by the story of sisters from a “good family,” transformed into political radicals, and the tragedy of the one who survived.

Others were disappointed to find such rich material – location, subject matter, plot – falling so flat for them. A few mentioned the Hussein’s “The Kite Runner,” saying they found his writing much more compelling. CD and BT both called Alvarez’ book boring.

JW and HF disagreed, feeling that Alvarez succeeded in writing a book that is “not, after all, a historical document, but a way to travel through the human heart.”

The Legendary Butterflies: The Mirabal Sisters’ Legacy of Resistance by Margaret Michniewicz The Mirabal Sisters
Julia Alvarez Biography of Julia Alvarez

Visit the author’s website

julia alvarez
  More on In the Time of the Butterflies:
  • For more articles on Alvarez and her books, try Infotrac Onefile, available at the library, or from home (with a Minuteman Library Network card).

Waiting by Ha Jin: 11/8/07

Waiting Waiting
A Novel by Ha Jin

17 of us met to talk about Ha Jin’s book, and most comments were very positive. I was not so enthusiastic about it, however, which may explain the ridiculously long time it’s taken me to post this summary!

Many in the group were fascinated to read about life in China during the Cultural Revolution. In Never Let Me Go the protagonist’s passivity drove people crazy, but in the case of Lin Kong, it seemed to make sense, given the power of centralized political, economic and social control in China at the time. We struggle to imagine living in a place with strict rules governing every aspect of our existence, from our job assignment to which people we are allowed to walk with and where.

Our group generally empathized with Lin’s disappointment with his situation and with himself. We noted that his gentlemanly behavior poorly hides his fear and selfishness. At the same time that he is trying to get along well with everyone, he is causing great pain to the most important women in his life.

J told us about the interview with Ha Jin she heard on the radio that very morning, and talked about the culture of shame to which Lin belongs, where the power of other people’s opinions can be crushing.

JS pointed out that the story can be seen as a tale of urban versus rural cultures. To be from the country seems so shameful to the urban educated Lin. But his ex-wife Shuyu – illiterate, with tiny bound feet – is the one who is able to adapt well to life in the city when she finally gets there, and she’s the one who knows how to treat his new wife’s seriously ill babies. In the end, Shuyu strikes us as the strongest character, even though she also seems the most subservient.

Shuyu went through years of pain to have her feet bound, creating perfection to be shown only to her husband, only to have him refuse to look at them. She gathered the courage to offer herself to him so that she could give him a son, only to have him send her back to her own bed.

Speaking of beds, TL wondered about the brick beds they slept on. Turns out they’re known as Kang, and they are heated from underneath!

As CS said, the book raises many questions. For us these include: What does it mean that the one violent and ruthless character is the one who achieves fame and riches? How could Lin have so little insight into himself? Does he really learn to appreciate Shuyu or is he just in love with waiting and yearning for the greener grass on the other side of the fence? Are we also sometimes in love with waiting? Why wasn’t Lin able to try bringing Shuyu along with him, teaching her to read and to live in the city? And JW wants to know what about all the insects flapping around the characters in this story?

Ha Jin
Ha Jin Interview with Ha Jin
Review of Waiting
  For more articles on Ha Jin and his books, tryInfotrac Onefile, available at the library,or from home (with a Minuteman Library Network card).
*Wikipedia on Ha Jin  
*Other Books by Ha Jin
*New book released October 30, 2007: A Free Life


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