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.

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

Jon Papernick, The Ascent of Eli Israel & Other Stories, 6/11/09

The Ascent of Eli Israel Links:

New York Times Review

Papernick’s blog

Reviews on Amazon

Eleven of us met to talk about Jon Papernick’s unsettling collection of short stories.  Several noted the author’s powerful and unique writing style; just about everyone experienced a sense of hopelessness and distress while reading about the characters.  Such darkness isn’t surprising considering that all of the tales take place in Israel, the focus of a great deal of distressing and seemingly hopeless news stories over the years. However DJ, DS & JS were frustrated with the unrelentingly disturbing tone of Papernick’s stories, longing for acknowledgment of the great number of thoughtful Israelis that don’t engage in extreme and bizarre behavior.

Papernick’s stories spurred lively discussion about and tales of members’ travels in Israel.  DJ told us about the dramatic differences in her experiences walking through Jerusalem, depending on her company – Jewish, Arab, or walking solo.  BC reviewed the history of the creation of the state of Israel, pointing out the colonialism, war, and displacement of peoples that have contributed to the apparently unresolvable conflict over the land that exists today.  He felt the stories would be more meaningful to those who are familiar with the history of the Middle East.

This reader was stunned by the story of “An Unwelcome Guest.” A young Jewish settler plays a deadly game of backgammon with an old Arab who mysteriously appears in his kitchen late at night with family in tow.  JW felt this story should be required reading at the United Nations.

Those who wished for more hope and wit in the tales will be interested to know that Papernick’s latest work is full of humor. A Waltham resident, Papernick read from his as yet unpublished novel, Sharpy, at the Library on June 25th.  In the chapter he read to us, the main character, a con artist on the run, meets his girlfriend’s intimidating parents when she brings him to their home to stay for a while. His writing is as fine as ever, and he had us laughing out loud.

As always, we heard tips for related reading from well-read members:

Three Cups of Tea by Mortenson & Relin: 4/16/09

Three Cups of Tea

We agreed this was not great literature, but a story worth reading about a complex charismatic with an important lesson for anyone interested in international relations. I was struck by the thought that if Greg Mortenson had appeared in my library during the days he was living out of his car and writing fundraising letters to famous people one by one, I probably would have figured he was a well-meaning dreamer with a very loose hold on sanity and no chance of succeeding with his “project.” Another reminder that appearances can be profoundly deceiving.

Members expressed admiration for Mortenson’s courage and perseverance, and appreciation for some insight into life in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. While the tone of the book was very flattering of Mortenson in many respects, there was also enough revealed about his setbacks and weaknesses that many questions came up in discussion. Will his organization be able to continue its work once he’s not there to lead it? DJ noticed that when he had the chance to speak with Rumsfeld at the Pentagon back home, Mortenson was not able to bring the open-hearted attitude of respectful listening he so notably offered when traveling abroad. She observed that tends to be a challenge for all of us…

We talked about the familiar profile of a powerful progressive leader who is far less than ideal to those he or she lives and works with. All the same, DV praised Mortenson as a great example of “why nerds are so wonderful!”

B suggested that we need a similar champion for schools in distressed communities in our own country.

W gave us sobering food for thought with a brief outline of the story of Afghanistan’s last 100 years, including the expulsion of the British – twice – then the defeat of the Russians, followed not long after by the arrival of United States troops.

Other titles suggested by book club members: Leaving Microsoft to Change the World;Michener’s Caravans.

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).

Never Let Me Go: 10/11/07

Never Let Me Go Never Let Me Go
A Novel by Kazuo Ishiguro

Most of us had a hard time getting through this book. In fact, a few people gave up on it all together — but being true book lovers, they came to join in the discussion all the same. Even those who admired Ishiguro’s writing found the narrator’s evasiveness and passivity irritating.

CD complained that the book requires a passive reader. Some asked why the characters never tried to escape once they understood what was in store for them. Some found the question of science getting ahead of ethics a worthwhile one, but were frustrated that the author didn’t take a clearer stand.

DV pointed out that the story can also be about the ways we are capable of dehumanizing and using others – especially those at a distance, like the workers who make our inexpensive clothes or the farmworkers in the fields.

In some ways, Kathy and the other characters are facing a more extreme version of our own situation. Our time is limited: what will we do with it? Some accept whatever they’re handed, some struggle for change, but none live forever.

Kazuo Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro Interview with Ishiguro from NPR
Reviews of Never Let Me Go
  For more articles on Ishiguro and his books, try Infotrac Onefile, available at the library, or from home (with a Minuteman Library Network card).
More on Never Let Me Go:  
  Video Interview with Ishiguro from publisher Faber & Faber
  A Review by Margaret Atwood
  Satire from The Guardian
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