March by Geraldine Brooks: 2/12/09

March March

by Geraldine Brooks

Brooks’ story explores the Civil War, marriage, and passionate idealism. Her main character, March, sparked a fair amount of controversy in our group. Is he a sanctimonious, narcissistic loser, or an admirable idealist with the courage to keep on trying even in the face of setbacks?

March strikes me as a (less successful) version of a class of men – including Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King – whose ability as charismatic leaders comes with a corresponding lack of ability to behave as reliable husbands and fathers.

Several readers wondered how his wife tolerated him. The change to Marmee’s voice toward the end was a great relief to them. March and Marmee’s thorough misunderstandings at several profound moments in their marriage struck some as laughably familiar.

Overall, we were impressed by Brooks’ research and her writing skills. JS was touched by her clear depiction of individual freed slaves, many of very high intelligence in spite of a lack of formal education, all struggling to determine what aspects of their freedom they could trust.

For TL the key point to the story comes on page 268 when former slave Grace Clement says,
“Go home, Mr. March. If you sincerely want to help us, go back to Concord and work with your own people… Be a father to your daughters. That, at least, you can do. They are the ones who need you.”

Geraldine Brooks
Geraldine Brooks
Geraldine Brooks From Wicked Local Watertown
More about Brooks and “March”:
  • For more articles on Brooks and her books, try Infotrac Onefile, available at the library, or from home
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Digging to America by Anne Tyler: 1/8/09

Digging To America Digging to America

by Anne Tyler

All agreed this is a fast read with many rich themes. Many of us wished those themes had been developed more thoroughly. We did find writing to admire: descriptions of Susan and Jin-Ho as they grew (apart); the exaggerated behaviors of the two families from different cultures, and Maryam’s heartbreaking aloofness. Yet most of us wanted more depth.

That the friendship between the two families endured at all was not believable to some. The question of Connie’s sudden disappearance came up more than once. We all tired of Arrival Day, but read on, hoping for some compelling dramatic conflict to appear and be resolved.

One of our most soft-spoken members apologetically declared Digging to America “a dud,” but highly recommends Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler New York Times Book Review on

Digging to America


More about Tyler, the book, & Korean-American adoption…
  • For more articles on Tyler and her books, try Infotrac Onefile, available at the library, or from home
    (with a Minuteman Library Network card).

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer: 9/11/08

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

by Jonathan Safran Foer

Our group had an extremely varied and incredibly wide range of reactions to this book. Several book club members found Oskar, Foer’s troubled young main character, lovable and compelling.  Others were more interested in the story of tragedy passed down through generations.  There was a very small overlap between these two groups, with few people who rated the book positively overall.

Apparently Oskar is a character one either likes or dislikes.  The same might be true for Foer’s style of writing here. Many found the grandparents’ stories distracting, seeming to intrude from some other book altogether.  Some of us initially enjoyed the author’s cleverness, but even so, found it tiresome before long.  DS suggested that the gimmicky writing might be a way to convey Oskar’s break from reality, the madness he experiences with the loss of this father.  But she recommends Daniel Tammet’s Born on a Blue Day as a much more successful (nonfiction) exploration of an unusually gifted yet impaired young mind.  CD and I found ourselves thinking back fondly to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.

Some readers were distressed by the way Foer writes about (and illustrates) the events of September 11, 2001.  JUS questioned whether the book was really about 9/11 – she felt it was just a theatrical setting for these intellectualized characters to inhabit.  This may be one of the very things the others were objecting to.

JSI, RN and JOS did approve of the book: they appreciated the tale of loss and tragedy written with such imagination and humor.  CT fell in love with Oskar, the little guy with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Others wondered about Oskar’s epic search for the lock and whether it had any convincing meaning for us.  Many of us had really “heavy boots” by the time we got to the last page.  As CD said, a great novel will be written about September 11th, but we are still waiting for it.

Jonathan Safran Foer Jonathan Safran Foer
Jonathan Safran Foer Up Close and Personal with Book Page


More about Foer & Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
  • For more articles on Foer and his books, 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 TimelessHemingway.com
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

Toni Morrison’s Sula: 4/10/08

Sula
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 Bio.com Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison University of Minnesota’s Morrison page


More about Morrison & Sula
 
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Doctorow’s The March: 3/13/08

The March
The March by E.L. Doctorow

As often happens, there was a range of reactions to this month’s book, from enthusiastic to lukewarm. Less typically, some of the most positive comments were from CD, who really enjoyed this one. He was intrigued by the combination of historical and fictional characters, and did some research to find out which was which. (Sadly, my notes aren’t detailed enough to tell you what he found — maybe he’ll write in and remind us.) He did point out that at least one of the fictional characters makes a repeat appearance in another Doctorow books: and older and possibly more cold-blooded Wrede Sartorious appears in the earlier novel Waterworks.

RN told tales of his civil war battlefield tour and what he’d learned about the southern perspective on the Civil War, which he says was referred to even recently as the “War of Northern Aggression”. For more on those times, RN recommends Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels, Geraldine Brooks’ March and Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson.

Others voiced frustration with the lack of character development, the lack of quotation marks and the presence of grammatically incorrect – or at least awkward – writing. DS was itching to take her red pen to the manuscript and help out with some editing. Some mentioned characters they particularly enjoyed: Arly & Will were entertaining and intriguing, and Pearl was inspiring. But was Pearl too empowered and insightful to be believed – for a young woman born and raised in slavery? We missed Emily when she dropped out of the story too soon.

Some enjoyed the wide sweep of the story and the cinematic writing enough not to be bothered by the lack of depth. TL couldn’t put it down, and I sure found it entertaining. GC, BC and B all commented on how vividly the book described aspects of the military undertaking: the gore of battle and surgery, the boredom of an endless march, and the enormity of the troop movements and losses.

In related reading, GB recommends Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin; B enjoyed Ben Ames Williams’ House Divided and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain.

Doctorow fans will want to mark their calendars for his appearance in Concord, MA on May 20,2008 The Concord Festival of Authors and The Walden Woods Project’s Stewardship Lecture Series.

Author Biography from BookBrowse E.L. Doctorow
E.L. Doctorow NPR Review and links to Doctorow interviews

More to read and hear by and from E.L.D.

PEN
  More on The March:
 
  • For more articles on Doctorow and his books, try Infotrac Onefile, available at the library, or from home (with a Minuteman Library Network card).
 
 
 
 

The Lost German Slave Girl: 1/10/08

The Lost German Slave Girl The Lost German Slave Girl:
The Extraordinary True Story of Sally Miller and Her Fight For Freedom in Old New Orleans

by John Bailey

This book was a surprise! Several book club members didn’t expect to enjoy reading a legal history book they’d never heard of by an author unknown to them. Many of those same members ended up staying up very late at night to finish what turned out to be a real page-turner.

The characters of the ambitious Yankee lawyer, the cantankerous blind judge, the imperious slave owner, the determined German immigrants and the mysterious Sally/Salome drew us all in. The city of New Orleans itself in all its antebellum wildness came to life: the circus atmosphere of the wharves, swarming with goods and people from all over the world and all levels of society; performances of high opera as well as shows featuring dogs, bears, bulls and tigers matched in bloody fights to the death; the Quadroon balls at the doors of which men checked their bowie-knives and revolvers as casually as they checked their coats.

If the detailed picture of life in New Orleans in the early 1800s fascinated everyone, many confessed to skimming over the legal details. Even so, Bailey never lost anyone for long, skillfully drawing us into the complex, foreign yet familiar situation.

CD wanted Bailey to spell out more clearly the horrors of the legal and social system serving as the context for his story. As Bailey’s editor, CD would have asked him to be more pointed, more clearly articulating the insanity of a legal system that protected the rights of some residents to own others as if they were nothing but property, based on clearly arbitrary “racial” distinctions.

No one in our group was very concerned about the liberties Bailey took in creating conversations, scenes and character’s states of mind – Bailey states up front that he uses these techniques, and we were glad he used them so effectively alongside all of the historical documents he did have available.

Not everyone agreed with Bailey’s conclusions about Sally’s true identity – JS didn’t want the author’s opinion; CD didn’t care what the author thought. In any case, the truth of Sally’s origins is something no one will ever know for certain.

About John Bailey
Washington Post Logo Washington Post review
Q & A with John Bailey  from Grove Press John Bailey
 
  For more articles on Bailey and his books, try Infotrac Onefile, available at the library, or from home (with a Minuteman Library Network card).
More on The Lost German Slave Girl:  
  Reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist & School Library Journal
  A Reading Guide from Borders books
  A Review from BestofNewOrleans.com
 
   

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

Amazon

MLN Holdings

   
 
   
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