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).

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
    (with a Minuteman Library Network card).

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).

2009 List: January – April

Books are available at the Main Circulation Desk during the month before the meeting.

January 8
Anne Tyler , Digging to America
2006, 277 pp.
“Two Baltimore couples, one American and one Iranian-American, meet at the airport as they receive the Korean babies whom they will adopt.” Cynthia Lasker

February 12
Geraldine Brooks, March
2005, 280 pp.
“From Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic Little Women, Brooks takes the character of the absent father, telling a tale of an idealistic chaplain in the little known backwaters of a war that will test his faith in himself and in the Union.” From

March 12
Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française
Translated by Sandra Smith
2004, 395 pp.
An unfinished historical novel sequence written during the very period that it depicts, telling of daily life in northern France during the German occupation.

April 16
Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, Three Cups of Tea
One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time
2006, 368 pp.
“The journey that led Mortenson from a failed 1993 attempt to climb Pakistan’s K2, the world’s second highest mountain, to successfully establish schools in some of the most remote regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Titles for May through November 2009: To Be Announced…

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason: 10/16/08

The Piano Tuner The Piano Tuner

by Daniel Mason

Mason’s novel takes place in the ethnically and militarily fractured Burma of the 1880’s. Sadly, over a hundred years later, the situation has many similarities – witness the military government’s refusal of international aid after this year’s devastating cyclone. JOS was in Burma few years ago and even then her driver would not venture into Shan territory after dark.

Our group had many questions after reading this book:

    Why did Drake stay so long ? Many readers were surprised he didn’t go right home, although a reference to the Lotus Eaters gives a clue.
    Why a piano? Why a piano tuner?
    Why didn’t Carroll ever play the piano after it was tuned?
    Was Drake a pawn from the beginning?
    Where were the other Englishmen serving with Carroll in Mae Lwin?

Many of us enjoyed the portrayal of Drake’s character: a man dedicated to and absorbed by his craft, overwhelmed by the contrast between his familiar middle class England and the seductions of Burma. But the English characters “sounded” as if they were speaking in American rhythms, and many readers found the long letters tedious. Most found the relatively abrupt ending jarring and distressing. RP started the discussion by exclaiming, “What a dirty trick!”

CD has read that Werner Herzog is developing a movie based on this book. He feels this is a perfect match, as Herzog is known for bringing “borderline crazy actors to remote locations” and pushing them to the limit for excruciatingly long times.

Daniel Mason
Daniel Mason
Danel Mason Asian Review of Books on The Piano Tuner

More about Mason & The Piano Tuner:
  • For more articles on Mason and his 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
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).

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