Philip Roth, American Pastoral: 2/18/2010

American Pastoral

The consensus of the group seemed to be that this book is like an onion.  Lots of layers.  Intriguing revelations peeled away one after the other.  Can make one weepy.

Stirred up thoughts about the difficulty of knowing others; the inevitability of loss and disappointment in even the most well-lived lives; the terrible decisions parents of disturbed children must make.

BC put it this way:  “It’s not a book you like so much as a book you absorb.”

RN, a big Roth fan, also recommends Roth’s Indignation.

Ann Patchett, Run: 1/21/10

Ann Patchett, runWe had a lively discussion.

“I was disappointed in Run.  I didn’t find it particularly compelling.  None of the characters drew me in.  It’s nice that the book takes place in Boston, but so what?”

“I thought the book was sappy.  I did not finish.  Mount Auburn Street is not Mount Auburn Drive.  I thought the book was poorly written and the vocabulary was elementary.”

“This is mush…People will come out of this book thinking that Catholics worship statues.  Kenya and her mother, Tennessee, touched me.  I was sorry when the mother died.”

“I can’t believe that this is the same person who wrote Bel Canto.

“I liked this book.  This may be because, after finishing 1,000 Splendid Suns, anything is better.  I did not like the conversation with the dead friend.”

“I found the book very boring and only finished it because the book club was coming up.”

“I loved Bel Canto.  It was one of my favorite books.  I eagerly went to Run and was extremely disappointed.”

“I have a degree in English.  I was wondering what compelled her to write this book.  Was the fish theme related to Jesus and the loaves and fishes?  The book seemed to try to achieve depths that it never quite managed”.

“Maybe this book was meant for a high school audience.  It seemed to be aimed more at women then at men.  Men want to see a central character and a central theme.  Tip’s accident seemed contrived.  Why would he go out into that weather when he was already injured?”

“I liked this book.  I wasn’t looking for fine literature.  I found myself liking the characters.  When Doyle gave Kenya the statue, I was horrified.”

“I thought Doyle held up well when Bernadette died.  The wife was the one who wanted more kids but he took his responsibilities as a father seriously.”

“If you have a priest it’s like God Almighty is in your house.”

“I was offended by the attempt to write about Harvard and not check your facts.  I thought it was lightweight.”

“Tip was a cold fish.”


Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns: 11/12/09

One thousand splendid susnOne member provided halvah and tea for the group this evening, two foods that Laila and Mariam enjoyed in the book.

“Really enjoyed the book. A real page turner….the bombings and the carnage…the burquas.”

“I liked this more than The Kite Runner. It seemed more real.”

One of the group members had heard the author speak in Cambridge. He shared some of the author’s observations with us:

“When the Soviets pulled out ….(it was the) darkest time in Afghanistan’s history because the Taliban came in…..The Qu’oran is actually a beautiful book. The Taliban has perpetrated a violent attitude towards women.”

One member said that the book “seemed empty outside of the events that took place.” Rasheed is a “monster”. Jalil is a “wimp”. Lila’s parents are “ineffectual”.

One person said that they felt “cheated” when Tariq came back and then got over it in the end.

Someone said that the city of Kabul is actually a character in this book.

“I enjoyed the book. It was very sad. I was reading at 2AM. I couldn’t put it down.”

A reader “liked this better than the Kite Runner…. couldn’t believe Rasheed at first. Mariam doesn’t like Laila at first. Jalil acknowledged Mariam to a degree. He had a little bit of sensitivity.”

“I read this right through. Couldn’t put it down. The beauty that happened inside…when they had their tea together. Liked more than The Kite Runner.”

One person commented that they had to put it down during the scene when Rasheed made Mariam chew the rocks. The thing is, she observed, “you can’t go a day without reading about a woman with acid thrown in her face.” This was a “fine and disturbing book”.

People were stunned by the fact that there was no anesthesia for Laila when she was having the baby.

An astute member points out that there were a few “interesting moments when Rasheed was kind. He never got over losing the first child. If you believe what the neighbors say, he was the cause of the death. Even with Zalmai he’s very indulgent and interesting. There’s no ethic for him to be humane.”

“When the Communists came it wasn’t even better”…this person liked the book because it’s about adults and not kids. They also liked Reading Lolita In Tehran. This reader accumulated a vocabulary of Farsi and Pashtu and listened to a biography of Mohammed trying to figure out where the subjugation of women comes from.

One reader liked it less. She felt that is was limited “the plot felt inevitable…like a tidal wave”. She felt that the first half dragged but that the second half was interesting. She noted that it seems like  much of the Muslim world is still caught in the seventh century.

Interestingly, a few people (mostly men) found the plot predictable, the characters wooden. A majority of the group loved the book. None of the women felt that it was a waste of time. Most of the women felt drawn in by the characters.

The facilitator was very taken in by the plight of Laila’s mother who took to her bed while her sons were at war and after their deaths. Others felt annoyed that she couldn’t be more present for her daughter. There, too, one wondered, was there a preference for males over females even on the part of a mother?

The facilitator also was struck by how Mariam saw the picture of Rasheed’s former wife and how she looked like she didn’t want to be where she was. This was very poignant.

Two more books recommended by readers:  Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez, and Places in Between by Rory Stewart.  The author’s web site,, also makes for very interesting reading.


Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex: 10/8/09


Readers were either engrossed or put off by the historical beginning section of this novel, but most ultimately found it to be a beautifully written and absorbing exploration of identity.    Eugenides writes of an unusual condition that could easily be made to appear freakish.  However, he writes in such a way that the reader is able to identify with the ordinariness of this character. The humor and tragedy woven throughout are true to life, as are the stories of being different, keeping secrets, and personal (and urban) transformation.  -KT

Stewart O’Nan, Last Night at the Lobster: 9/10/09

Last Night at the LobsterI’ve lost my notes from this discussion, so all I can say is that this small poem of a book really touched me, although it was not a favorite of the group as a whole.  During our discussion, we were inspired to share stories of our experiences as waiters and workers in the restaurant business.  In this reader’s opinion, Last Night at the Lobster is a beautifully detailed moment in time about a man who finds it much easier to act with integrity and honor at work than he does in his personal life.   -KT

John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath: 8/13/09

The Grapes of Wrath

The reactions to this book were quite varied. Some readers were profoundly moved by the story of sacrifice, desperation, and a world turned upside down; others were put off by the heavy-handed political message or the “biblical” tone.  For those who had been required to read it in school years ago, most commented that this later reading made a much bigger impression.  One reader said she thought every current member of Congress should  be required to read this book for its powerful messages about the environment, economic choices and the impact of hardship on families.  Personally, I enjoy Steinbeck’s writing skill, from the dialect to the humor, the scenic sweep to the human detail.  -KT

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

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:

Garcia Marquez’ 100 Years of Solitude: 5/14/09

100 Years of Solitude

Some quotes from our discussion:

“Fairy tale style.  A lot of free association.  Told in the author’s grandmother’s tone of voice.”
“Not the kind of book I would read if I didn’t have to.”
“A little too bloodthirsty in some scenes.”
“Glad he spelled out the names.”

“The paragraphs are so incredibly long.”

“You can’t be tired when you’re reading this.”

“Ursula had too many people to deal with.  They were too dysfunctional and weird.”

“I spent most of my time trying to remember the names.”

Was Ursula keeping things too nice for everyone?

She did throw out the son who married Rebeca.

“Thank God this is over.”

“This book shows that we are just so stupid.  We keep repeating the same thing over and over.  If the computer doesn’t work in thirty seconds we just buy a new one.  This book is about progress versus not progress.  I feel like if I read it a third time, I just might get it.”

“If you study opera you have to listen to Wagner even if you can’t stand him.   The same is true of this book.  If you study literature, you have to read it.  A survey around 2000 or 2001.  His first line was considered the best opening line.  Most of the story is in that first line.  Breathless drama packed into the beginning and the end.  The middle felt like a bit of a slog.”

“Took a whole month to get through this book.  A drinking from the firehose kind of thing.  Some dark humor.”

“A friend’s most favorite book.  I read and lost interest.  The crazy dreamlike landscape dropped into a Salvatore Dali landscape. “

“I would love to discuss this book with a native of one of the Latin American countries to get their perspective.”

“Didn’t really like the character of Amaranta.  Always going to the chart and wondering if I should finish this book.”

The group concluded that this book is definitely not light beach reading.   One gets more out of the book by reading and then rereading.  It was agreed by most participants that the discussion was helpful.  Together, we understood more clearly some of the elements that make this novel great.  We discussed ‘magical realism’ and the fact that not all Latin American writers use this style.  It was agreed that the writing is absolutely beautiful.  One can go to almost any page in the book and find lovely writing.  Some of the group members renewed the book, determined to give it another go.

Thanks to Louise Goldstein, guest facilitator & blogger.

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.

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