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Book Club Reflection: South of Broad by Pat Conroy

7 Feb Cover image via Goodreads

My book club met last week to discuss a book I loved, South of Broad by Pat Conroy. I was surprised to find most people who were big Conroy fans hated the book. Apparently, this one is considered one of his worst! Critics say it’s melodramatic and the prose is over the top at times. A favorite criticism our group read was from author Chris Bohjalian:

It’s possible that the sobbing and sniveling occasionally felt inauthentic to me because I am a priggish New Englander who is uncomfortable with what may be a Southern penchant for drama. But as a novelist, I know all too well that there are few easier ways to wrest sniffles from a reader than to have a couple of real men cry like babies in each other’s arms or a good woman stoically sniff back her tears. Been there, done that.

I’m a fan of Bohjalian and despite the negativity, I would say I’m not a fan of Conroy. As always, we started with a little background on the author. Conroy lives in San Francisco and went to Citadel. His father was in the military and he moved a lot as a child. His father was violent and abusive and Conroy wrote about this in his book, The Great Santini. The book was presented as evidence in his parents’ divorce case. Conroy taught English and was fired from one of his jobs for pointing out racial problems in the school. So much of this made it into the story of Leo King and I’m amazed one person could experience so much and turn it into a story, let alone the number of books Conroy has written that draw inspiration from his life.

It was hard to ignore all the terrible things Leo and his friends had to face in the book. All the bad parts of their high-school years and adulthood came up: AIDS, child abuse from the clergy, Hurricane Hugo, racial integration, and racism. Some people thought it was over the top that all of these things happened in the same novel, but I think leaving them out would have been an omission of the times.

The one thing that could have been left out might be Steve’s abuse at the hands of Monsignor Max. Steve was the perfect son to his parents and I think that put a lot of pressure on him to act perfectly. That almost set him up to fail. It’s hard to maintain that level of expectation. If Steve had told his parents, we’re not sure they would have believed him anyway.

Leo was a very kind person and unfortunately, some of the other characters took advantage of him. He was used by Molly, Starla, and Sheba most notably. Maybe it was him not willing to stand up to a woman. He would do things for people that were beyond what was asked of him, like making benne wafers for his new neighbors when it could have been simple chocolate chip cookies. He cleaned and washed Mr. Cannon’s feet in an obvious impersonation of Mary Magdalen and Cannon appreciated it so much he gave him a house.

Starla used Leo more than anyone else. No one wanted them to stay together, even his staunchly Catholic mother. Mrs. King might have preferred seeing him with Sheba! We thought he only stayed with Starla because of his strong Catholic beliefs. This was as much a criticism of marriage as it was of the church.

The group of friends was such a rag-tag bunch that it seemed strange. They had to overcome socioeconomic status (the twins and the Rutledge’s) and race (Ike) but it somehow worked. Fraser and Niles’ relationship was a big bond for the group and Chad was roped in because of football despite his racist father and upbringing.

The twins’ father’s death seemed almost a little convenient. Someone wondered if Niles knew he was in the shed and that’s why he locked him in there. I proposed that Charleston killed him. The city was brought to life so much in the book it was almost a character. Maybe this was the one thing Charleston could do for our human characters.

I’m going to be missing this group until May because of school and I’m very sad about that. I do look forward to reading some books of my choosing, but I’ll miss having someone to discuss them with.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Book Club Reflection: The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante

22 Dec Cover Image via Goodreads

I’m not alone in my dislike of the characters in this novel but it seems a lot of my fellow readers didn’t dislike the whole book because of it. I was surprised at the mixed reactions of our group when we got together to discuss The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante. We wanted to read this one because Time Magazine lists Ferrante as one of the most influential people. She’s also called the ‘best known least known’ writer in Italy. Despite her popularity, no one knows who she is, only that she lives in Naples. She’s credited with linking the old Italian writing style with a new style. I’m going to have to give her writing another try.

One of the women who attended our group was a guest to us. She’s active in other groups in the area but hadn’t been to one of our meetings before. She decided to come because she lived in Italy for a part of her childhood before moving to the US and had wanted to read one of Ferrante’s books. She read a few more after this one before our group met and loved them all. She said she wanted to know what American-born readers thought. Listening to her talk about her experience with the book made me like it more, to be honest. There was a lot about modern Italian culture that I didn’t pick up on because I’ve never lived there. We couldn’t picture the people and setting very well because it wasn’t something familiar to those of us who didn’t grow up in Italy. We didn’t understand the class and regional differences in the writing. Leda was brutally honest, but the focus of her wrath was not always very apparent to us.

Part of what I didn’t like about the book was that Leda was so selfish and unlikable. Yes, she was honest, but to most of us, that could only go so far. She seemed damaged by her own childhood with a mother who continually threatened to leave her. Leda had the nerve to do what her mom always talked about and actually left. We found it odd that she made a point of being meticulous in her pregnancy (page 122) but once her daughters were born, seemed to neglect them. It was hard to read (listen) to her talk about not comforting her children when they cried. She wanted people to like her and understand why she did what she did, which was hard to do. She wanted Gino to like her and think she was right and she grew so mad when he didn’t agree. It was like when she flirted with her daughter’s boyfriends and was mad when they didn’t return her affection. She was so selfish.

The doll said a lot about Leda. She wanted to be the hero to the Neapolitans on the beach, the lower class people who Leda thought should look up to someone educated like herself. She seemed jealous of Elena and Nina. They were close like her family never was and was likely to never be again. She wanted to make them suffer, to be as unhappy as she was. Once she had the doll, she kept trying to fix it, to make it pretty, but what was inside it was so dark and dirty, coming out over and over unendingly. We felt she inserted herself into their story so she could be a part of it just to feel important.

There was something I caught that some didn’t so I wanted to see if anyone else caught it. Nina’s family was part of the Camorra, the Italian mafia based in Naples. It’s implied when Gino talks about them being bad people. Did anyone else catch that? Only some of our group did.

A few people pointed out that if you reread the first few pages after finishing the book, you can see that the whole thing is told in flashback after Leda gets into a car accident. She has a pain in her side and wakes up in a hospital seeing her family around her. The pain is a reference to her stab wound but we couldn’t decide if we thought her family had come from Canada to see her or if she was hallucinating. My vote was for hallucinating. Thoughts?

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Book Club Reflection: Stiff by Mary Roach

15 Dec stiff

I was apprehensive when our book club picked Stiff for our November selection but I could get the audiobook and I decided not to complain. The audiobook turned out to be amazing and I really loved the book. I was wondering what my fellow book-lovers would say. This is a book that’s hard to talk to people about unless they’re reading it too!

Mary Roach has written several books about unusual topics though Stiff was her first. She’s lived most of her adult life in California and her background is in magazine writing. She stuck mostly to travel writing and light science before Stiff.

A lot of the things covered in the book were things we hadn’t considered. The decay studies stuck with us all. I will say that the Wayne State Universities studies lasted the longest with me. I actually went to Wayne State for a work trip and got it all set up to see their crash barrier before my appointment. Unfortunately, the professor didn’t want to take me into the cadaver prep area. I’m actually kind of glad. The book seemed to oddly focus on my area of Detroit because the McCabe Funeral Home mentioned in the book is less than a mile from my library and I drive by it every time I go there. For anyone else who is interested, a librarian called them to ask about their new cremation techniques. It turns out the state shut them down before it could ever get off the ground. They objected to human remains going into the water supply.

The ethical distinctions between if the soul resided in the brain or heart were really interesting to us. Roach did a good job of explaining why it mattered so much. Another thing she made very clear was that decisions on what happens to a cadaver ultimately should be left up to the family. The living are the ones who have to live with either respecting or going against the desires the deceased had about what to be done with his body. We also discussed where a person is buried and if it’s done in the manner he or she asked for. The deceased won’t have to live with the decisions, but the family does.

A lot of our members felt there were parts of the book that were hard to read. The black box chapter was hardest for a lot. Roach tried to use humor in a lot of the book and sometimes it wasn’t enough to distract from the gruesome topic, the black box being one of those times. Most of the time, the disrespect seemed to be more about what was being done to the cadavers, not in Roach’s writing. She did keep a very detached style which must have helped her deal with her topic. One reader complained that in addition to being detached, the writing seemed to jump subjects a lot and felt a bit disjointed. We wondered if that was how Roach’s brain worked.

Hearing about grave robbing made it easy to see where Mary Shelly came up with Frankenstein. We thought the chapter on cellular memory had the same creepy feel to it. It was almost a disappointment to hear that those who claimed they had characteristics of their donors did not have corresponding claims. We wondered what someone with an animal donor might claim!

A few of our members had personal connections to the book. One reader had done a cadaver lab in college. She found it was hard to cut the body ad disassociate it from a living person. She recalls that not all of the students were as respectful as she had been or had wanted everyone to be. The procedures described in the book sounded different from her memories and she thinks protocols have changed since her time in the lab.

Another member had a family member who had been a breathing cadaver. She remembers that the staff had been very respectful of her family member, talking to him while they were waiting for all the doctors who would be receiving the donations to arrive at the hospital. Like Mary describes, the donor is treated more like a patient than a cadaver.

We’re not meeting in December but we’ll reconvene in January to talk about Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell. I’ll be starting it soon.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Book Club Reflection: Slade House by David Mitchell

13 Oct Cover image via Goodreads

The day after I finished reading David Mitchell’s Slade House, my book club met to discuss it. As much as I don’t like pushing it to the last minute, it’s nice to have it fresh in my head. I realized only after finishing it that it’s set in the same world as one of Mitchell’s other (much lengthier novels) The Bone Clocks. One reader in our group had read both and said they were both enjoyable.

As always, our moderator gave us some great background on the book. This is Mitchell’s seventh novel and several of his have been shortlisted for the Man Booker award. He currently lives in Ireland and we wondered if the Irish folklore had influenced his writing of this novel, dealing with reincarnation and dueling beings across generations. Like Nathan in the first story, Mitchell has an autistic son.

Many liked the short story format, something I wasn’t completely fond of. Nathan’s story was the most confusing for us because of the location jump to Africa seemingly randomly and having an autistic narrator who was hard to follow. After that, they seemed to flow better. I thought it was wrong that Norah narrated the last story, but someone pointed out how the victim always narrated and in the final story, Norah was the victim. That convinced me and now I think it’s genius to have Norah narrate at the end. Yay for book clubs.

Horror is a genre where books are generally more plot driven than character driven but this title had a lot of character development. Each of the characters had his or her weakness exploited to make him or her vulnerable. They would have their desires fulfilled just to be ripped away from them. Nathan had a friend and saw his dad, Gordon had a woman lusting after him, Sally had a by crushing on her, and both Freya and Marinus were getting answers they had searched out for so long. We noticed that, except for Marinus, the characters all thought they were at least slightly intoxicated. Maybe that was the effect of the banjax.

We thought of the number of victims there must have been prior to Nathan. If that was 1979, then we’re looking at likely victims in 1970, 1961, 1952, and 1943. Nathan sees them we realized; the girl in the pinafore, the soldier, the pinched lady in the hat, the man in his 20s, and the woman whose ghost he’d seen. That’s four times and five victims. Maybe they had to kill to create the orison? Or is one of them Norah or Jonah? I’m only realizing this now so I didn’t have time to ask my book club. Thoughts?

There were a lot of things that showed up through the novel that were only slightly explained. I missed that the hairpin Sally got was from Nathan, now I see that. The Fox and Hounds shows up over and over and must be a place the Greyer twins were familiar with. The jogger in neon showed up over and over as well and was never explained. We wondered if it might be Jonah directing the victims toward the ally. There were things from other Mitchell novels as well. I recognized Spyglass magazine from Cloud Atlas and another reader recognized Marinus and the Chetwynd family from other books as well.

There were a few things that made us scratch our heads. The first was why the soulless bodies of past guests would care to interfere in later times. Was it revenge or were they saving others? Either way, could they do this without a soul? We didn’t understand why they got physical bodies anyway. How would a soulless ghost grasp a hairpin? We didn’t get it. We were also a little lost with Gordon’s story. It seems that he was the only one who went to the house and was able to leave again. Why was he able to do that?

One of my issues with the book was the info dump in Freya’s story. Some others didn’t mind the story and we agreed it made the twins much less frightening. Some wondered if the story Fred told was all lies when we found out it wasn’t really him.

Our member who had read The Bone Clocks explained that her character had shown up in that book as well. She gave us some details about the character that I won’t go into detail here so as not to ruin another book. I do, however, want to talk about the ending so if I haven’t ruined Slade House for you yet, please finish reading here. Bye! Anyway, the ending. We debated if Marinus let Norah get away or if Norah managed to escape. It seemed obvious there was something darker in Norah that was more than what had been bound by Norah’s physical body. But did Marinus think she’d destroyed it or was Marinus outplayed? We couldn’t decide.

It was, as always, a great discussion. We’re reading Stiff by Mary Roach next and I think it will be a good one for discussion.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Book Club Reflection: Boy, Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

19 Sep Cover image via Goodreads

The day after I finished reading Boy, Snow, Bird, I was sitting in Starbucks writing my review and knowing I was heading to our book discussion. I always try to write reviews before my book club meets because, many times, that changes my feelings on the book. However, I don’t really feel much differently about Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi after discussing it with my book club. Many of the others were caught off guard by the ending and how quickly it came about. We know that some of her fans like this, but we were frustrated and confused. We wished it would tie up nicely. The insight one of our members gave was that Snow was told she was going to live with her aunt for just a week and she never came back. If Boy is taking the girls away for ‘just’ a week, we don’t think they’re ever coming home. A few readers compared the book to The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman, which we read about a year ago. I think it’s a fair comparison but if you read my review, you’ll see I wasn’t a fan of that book either. While some liked the book more after our discussion, I wasn’t one of them.

Newspaper reviews of this book were very positive. Many of us felt lost. There were several times we just didn’t ‘get’ what was going on and through our discussion, we realized it was because there were often several layers to the plot, comparisons we didn’t see, and thus what happened didn’t really make sense. We didn’t get deep as the reader wanted us to. The majority of readers missed the comparison to Snow White. Oyeyemi said she found the original Snow White an odd character because when she was sent to live with the dwarves, she seemed to be a ‘blank slate’ with little reaction to being sent away. I’d say Snow had slightly more emotions about being sent away, but now many.

There were times we felt the plot was a bit out of line from what we know of American culture in that era. Wearing the US flag, nose piercings, and hoolahoops didn’t seem to line up. The book covers three decades, so maybe we were a bit lost with what time it was. Maybe the author’s background made the US an odd choice for a setting. She was born in Africa and lives in Europe. What kind of research did she do in American culture for this book? Another thought was that she wanted it to feel like a fairytale and grounding the book in culture wasn’t important for that. It was better to create a utopia for the characters.

Some readers found the book hard to read because of the ugly reminders of real life. Sending away a child, parental abuse, and disliking a child or grandchild are ugly realities of the world we live in. The book spoke a lot about wealth, marriage, race, beauty, and motherhood, but it used ugly examples of human flaws to bring these up.

We wondered if the town ever realized Arturo and the Whitmans were black. The doctor at the hospital thought Boy had an affair. Did the rest of the town? This is never addressed head-on. Olivia continued to host her gatherings of neighbor women. Did they let go of their prejudices and include her or never accept that she was a black woman?

The snake seemed like an odd image through the book. The story Mia and Boy told each other involved a woman with a snake coming out of her heart. The woman couldn’t be changed by a magician. When Arturo gave Boy a bracelet with the same image, it struck us as an odd choice for someone he loved. Maybe, we thought, Arturo knew she was like the woman in the story and wouldn’t be changed when someone told her something to try to change her, like finding out her husband’s black.

We tried to reason Frank’s hatred for Boy. We think Frank had a dissociative personality disorder (spit-personality) and that while he was pregnant with Boy, he fluctuated back and forth between his masculine and feminine personalities. His male personality won in the end and despised everything feminine, possibly as a repercussion for the rape Francis suffered. In a hope to keep a daughter from being too feminine, he named her Boy.

Frank was looking in a mirror when he had his first break. The image continued on through the book. We felt that the reflection characters saw represented how they thought the world saw them. Boy thought the mirror was her friend because she felt isolated. Snow and Bird thought the world didn’t see them. Maybe this is because of the status of women in that time. More likely, it was because they felt the world overlooked them because they were black. The world would see them if they passed but once Bird was born with dark skin and Snow was raised by her black relatives, they weren’t passing, they were out and they were overlooked. We wondered how Olivia saw herself in the mirror.

The women in this book had polarized relationship. There was the wicked stepmother in both Olivia and Boy. Whereas Boy is described as so sweet and beautiful, she acts very harshly and wicket. The blonde hair of Boy and Snow’s dark hair are compared often, as is the angelic feminism of Boy and the tomboy attitude of Bird and Frank. Women were very key and central in the book while men seemed to disappear into the background.

I can’t find the page, but someone read a quote about Sidonie where she was described as not wanting to come inside the house (or store?) but how she didn’t want to stay outside. We thought this was a good analogy for how Clara, Bird, and Snow didn’t like the negative prejudice and discrimination of being black but didn’t want to pass as white either. They were in the middle, especially Snow, who could go either way depending on who she was standing next to. It was a battle of what was best for her and what was easy.

This wasn’t my favorite book, but few are. Our next selection has a slightly spooky/eerie theme to get us in the mood for Halloween. And best of all, it’s short.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Book Club Reflection: Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

7 Jul Brooklyn

As has so often happened with my book club selections, what I liked, everyone else was iffy on or didn’t like. This was one of my favorite books of the year so far and a lot of people felt it fell flat. Sigh.

The majority of us had seen the movie as well as read the book and most of us agreed that the two were pretty similar. It was a nice touch for me after so many movies I’ve seen have strayed so far from their book origins. We had an interesting question from the reader guide that said we should compare the book to the TV show I Love Lucy because the two were set in the same era. It seemed an odd comparison when Lucy was trying to make us laugh and show the funny side of life while Brooklyn was a reality that wasn’t fun at all. The only thing we could really pull from the exercise was how well Ricky Ricardo was received by a television audience that was rejecting Italians and Irish in stores. It seems that Cubans were better accepted than many European settlers.

There is a lot to say about the author. Colm Toibin was born in Enniscorthy, Ireland and set part of the novel there for that reason. This was his sixth novel and he’s written another book, Nora Webster, which employs some of the same characters but is set in Ireland. Many people were surprised that a male author wrote with a very feminine vision, a surprise I expressed in my review. Toibin is heavily influenced by Hemingway and I could easily see that in his sentences and rhythm. There was a lot unsaid that the reader had to infer. Some readers didn’t like that and wanted some more from Eilis. I’m a big Hemingway fan and it was right up my ally. Toibin writes most of his books in an uncomfortable chair with a pen and paper, transferring his words to a word processor later on. Brooklyn, however, was his first book not written longhand, which he composed during a residency at Stanford.

This story resonated with many because while it’s the story of one girl, the things Eilis went through mirror what many immigrants go through. A woman in our group shared her immigration story and said Eilis’s desire to find a purpose in Brooklyn and belong there was something she went through as well. Members of our group who had moved around the country on their own felt the same way. Eilis was a reluctant immigrant, sent to America against her will almost. Rose seems to have sent her away knowing that she herself was ill and didn’t want Eilis stuck at home taking care of their mother but living. The path she followed was set for her, work, school, and later on, Jim. She was very passive in the book and only stood up for herself when Mrs. Kelly forced her hand and she decided to leave Ireland.

We contemplated if Eilis would have stayed and married Jim if she hadn’t been found out. Jim didn’t look her way at all before she went to America, giving her the cold shoulder. She was only interesting when she had a story. She says that she didn’t think Jim could accept her if he ever found out and we think that was true. The relationship she had with Tony was hard for us to understand. Eilis felt, to some, very flat and we wondered why he was so attracted to her. He seemed to like Irish girls but doesn’t really say what it is about them. She seemed attracted to him because he felt safe. She didn’t feel she fit in America but Tony made her belong and she loved him for that. We were bothered that once he was out of the picture, she didn’t even read his letters. We couldn’t decide if it was because it would make her miss him too much or because he was easy to forget.

The edition our library handed out had an excerpt from Nora Webster in the back that brought up a good question. We felt that Mrs. Lacey was proud of Eilis for being successful in America when she returned, but when Eilis left, she was both angry and sad. We wondered how their relationship would be after. The quotes from Nora Webster talk about May Lacey being unable to look at pictures of her daughter and her American husband, much the same way Eilis couldn’t read Tony’s letters. It’s too painful and forces up a lot of repressed memories.

Our next book is another historical fiction, this time from the early 1800s. I’m liking this trend! Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Book Club Reflection: Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

9 May Child44

I promise this is my last post about Child 44. I’ve already done the book review and the movie review. Last is the book club reflection. If you recall, I wasn’t a big fan of the book (mostly because of the narrator) and I thought the movie was okay but was disappointed by a few missing parts that I thought made the book bearable. It seems I was alone in my opinion because my book club found it gripping.

The scary thing is how many of the details of the murderer were real! There was a murderer known as the Butcher of Rostov who had a similar background to Leo’s brother. His name is Andrei Chikatilo and he killed from 1978 to 1990 before being executed. There was an HBO series about him called Citizen X. Reading about him in Wikipedia, it’s terrifying how similar the case Leo chased is to this man’s life story.

Tom Rob Smith was born in London and went to Cambridge. He’s written for British TV shows and found out about Chikatilo while researching for a show he was writing about. Child 44 is his debut novel.

We learned a lot about life in Soviet Russia, assuming what we read is all true. The biggest takeaway was the fear and status of a criminal state that these people lived in every day. One of our members read that the mentality of turning people in, the fear of persecution, is returning to Russia again under Stalin and this book comes at a good time to remind people how damaging that can be.

There were parts of the book that were really hard to believe. Surviving the escape from the train was a big one for us (and maybe why it was cut from the movie). Vasili ending up in the basement at exactly the right moment was a bit convenient as well. We didn’t understand why he was able to take on such a big role in the investigation in the first place. His status didn’t seem to deserve that.

I brought up my biggest complaint about the book, which was Leo’s motivation. He had no children so he wasn’t afraid for their safety: why did he begin the investigation? Why did he feel such a personal connection to these crimes? We decided he felt guilty, likely as far back as his war service. He also had a major shift in his worldview when Raisa was charged. He was traumatized by the idea that his family could be the target of suspicion and rough treatment. If that could happen to him, what else could happen in life? He wanted to do something to make the positive impact he thought he was making as a KGB. When he realized officials were lying about interrogations and that there was no virtue or honor in his position, he changed and started to see the world differently.

Raisa’s charge was a big change in the book. We wondered who turned her name in because we seriously doubted that the veterinarian actually gave her name. I thought it was his commander trying to see how far he would go for the state. Others wondered if it was Vasili or the doctor she refused to sleep with.

Leo and Raisa adopting the girls at the end seemed a little too ‘pretty,’ wrapping the story up with a nice bow on top. We thought about it and it’s a new beginning for Leo. He was adopted by two parents who originally meant to do him great harm. Leo didn’t have it out personally for the girls, but it’s easy to see why they might be afraid of him. He knew from experience that they could grow to have a good relationship. He was living proof of that.

Our next read is The Virgin Blue by Tracey Chevalier which I’ve almost finished! I love her writing.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Book Club Discussion (Round 2): Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

11 Apr Cover image via Goodreads.com

Because Lisa See is coming to my area to speak this week, both of my book clubs decided to read her title Shanghai Girls. You can read my review and previous book club discussion for some of my other opinions on the book.

Most of the group liked this title. See made us care about the characters, especially the sisters, and they were well-developed. I don’t have sisters, but those who did said the fighting between the characters reminded them of growing up with their siblings. It felt like See knew Pearl and May well and we wondered if they might be based on members of See’s family.

The first thing we had to talk about was May turning Sam in. None of us could believe she’d do something so stupid. It was hard to believe that she honestly thought she was helping. If she did, then she would have told Pearl and Sam. By keeping it a secret, it’s very evident that she’s trying to hide what she did. May is too modern and open in the American style to keep her mouth shut. If Pearl had done something similar, she never would have told. She would have died with the secret. The fight the two had at the end was a very central part of the plot and adds to my frustration of the book seeming unfinished. We were really shocked that it took 19 years for May to throw in her sister’s face who Joy’s real mother was. It seemed like something May would have resorted to it much sooner. A lot of us hadn’t realized how much Pearl was martyring herself until May brought it up. It wasn’t something that Pearl ever complained about. She almost seemed to enjoy her life and felt safe being a martyr. It was unlike Pearl to erupt at May the way she did and we wondered if some of her anger were misplaced and was really anger at Sam more than it was at her sister. We asked ourselves if May and Pearl could have repaired their relationship if Joy hadn’t run off. Would they have cut each other out of their lives if they didn’t have Joy to pull them back together? Pearl is always upset that their father preferred May though we felt that their mother preferred Pearl. The way their mother acts toward Pearl before she dies felt that way.

A lot of us hated May for what she did to Pearl in having an affair with ZG. I was alone in being blindsided by this twist. Everyone else saw it coming! I guess I’m blind to it all.

Several times, it was pointed out that May wasn’t as smart as Pearl. We didn’t really agree with that. On Angle Island, May shows us how smart she is and how she kept them there long enough for the baby to be an American. She didn’t let on when she was doing something smart. Only when it benefited her did she let on. May was good with money and found ways to keep the family going. She hid money away for an emergency the same way their mother had. She was resourceful, even if she wasn’t as book smart as Pearl.

One of the things that seemed inconsistent to us when it came to the girls was being Beautiful Girls at the beginning. We couldn’t believe that their parents would allow them to do that in Shanghai. The money must have been good for their parents to allow it. It seemed to be very against the cultural expectations they had for the girls.

In my last book club discussion, we focused on the Zodiac signs of Pearl and May. This time, we focused on Sam. He was the Ox, one who would plod along and be reliable, working for the family and doing what was needed of him. His suicide fits into this role, in a way, because it was a selfless thing for him to do in order to protect his family. We questioned if the Zodiac sign of a person morphed him or her into what they were instead of being a prediction of their personality type.

A lot of us learned a lot of history from the book. We weren’t aware of the Paper Son phenomenon and were a little blown away with how meticulous and thought-out the process was. We were equally shocked at the number of people claiming citizenship after the San Francisco Fire. I’d never heard of that! Most of us were familiar with Ellis Island immigration stories but Angel Island was something new. The holding and treatment of the women described sound terrible and we were shocked it hadn’t come to our attention prior.

Lisa See is 1/8 Chinese. She had writers in her family but never wanted to be a writer. She was told that you had to have sadness in your life to be a writer and didn’t want to be sad. I think it worked out for her anyway.

It was a really good discussion for us and we had a big turnout. Our next book is Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith. We’ll see how the discussion goes, soon.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Book Club Reflections: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

22 Mar Cover image via Goodreads.com

As part of the local library coalition’s Everyone’s Reading program, I had my first book club discussion about Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls. The second one will be in mid-April and I’m excited to meet her soon after!

A lot of the people in my club had mediocre reactions to the book. They liked it but weren’t blown away. I think the ending ruined a lot of people’s opinions of it like it did to me. Several others brought up being disappointed with it. I’ve heard that the sequel makes you like Shanghai Girls better and that her solo book, Sun Flower and the Secret Fan, is enjoyable as well. I have both, but I’m not sure when I’ll have the time to read them!

See herself has a unique background. She was born in Paris but raised in LA Chinatown. If you look at her, you wouldn’t guess that she’s Chinese but she says a lot of the family she was raised with don’t look like her. We felt that she felt the need to teach the reader a lot about Chinese culture and wondered if feeling disconnected from her heritage had something to do with it. At times, it was a bit preachy instead of feeling like a fiction novel.

No one in our group knew much about Chinese history in the early 20th century. We felt that See created a really good image of what life was like, depicting the clash between tradition and modern. It was clear Pearl loved her city though as time went on, it lost its shine in her memories and she remembered the death on the street and the unfair ways rickshaw pullers had to live and the smell of too many people crammed into the city. We got to see the good and bad of the city through Pearl.

Vern was a unique character in the book and we wondered if he’d come into play more in the second book. He didn’t have an effect on the plot other than giving May a sure claim to citizenship. He didn’t further the plot in any other way and took a lot of time in the book. He wasn’t well fleshed out as a character and it felt like he could easily have been dropped. Oh well.

Because Pearl told the story and was a very strong character, our group thought the story was unfair to May. When they had their blow-up at the end, it was easy to see how Pearl was focused in her own world and didn’t notice the world the way May saw it. It’s true that Pearl had stopped living and was in survival mode. They represented two very different paths of life, Pearl having the traditional loving husband and a daughter while May had freedom but no husband or child to love her. We suspect that each was jealous of the other. There was a lot of contrast between the two in their zodiac signs, as well. May the sheep was very sheepish at the beginning, following what had to be done while Pearl dragon fought tooth and nail for what she wanted. Once they arrived in America, they acted like the other. Pearl didn’t fight May when things between them were strained. We would have expected so much more tension between sisters considering what they went through.

We were all surprised by the suicides associated with verifying citizenship status. It seemed a very sudden thing but our leader did some research and found that it was a common practice at the time. If there wasn’t someone to tell the truth, if they were dead, then everyone else was safer. Sadly, it was a sacrifice to make things better for the rest of the family.

I’ll have another discussion in a few weeks. It will be interesting to see if there are different opinions from that group.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Book Club Reflection: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

10 Mar Station Eleven

Because it was chosen as the 2015-2016 Great Michigan Read, both of my book clubs have read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I think it’s a fun book to discuss and I really enjoyed hearing what this other group had to say about the story.

Though he dies in the opening paragraphs, Arthur seemed to be the central character of the book. Everything that happened revolved around him and many of the characters are brought together because of him. Most of the characters were a bit underdeveloped but for a dead man, Arthur makes a huge impression on the book and could be considered the main character. Jeevan is a well-defined character at the beginning of the book because of his interactions with Arthur and what happens the night Arthur dies. Unfortunately, he disappeared for a large chunk of the timeline and only makes a brief appearance at the end. The jumpy timeline was a little off-putting for some members of my group who would have preferred a chronological story.

Arthur wasn’t very likable. One reader suggested we didn’t like him because he was the only character we got to know. He’s described by his best friend as acting through life, even in his social life. He felt he was only ‘real’ when he was home, on the island he grew up on. He marries his first wife because they share that and she makes him feel ‘real.’ Toward the end of his life, he years for that reality and seems to be trying to share it with his son. Celebrity had been his dream for so long and he realized in the end that it was worthless and didn’t give him anything. Kind of like an iPhone after the collapse of civilization.

We had a long debate over the prophet. If you haven’t read the book, this paragraph will spoil the ending so skip on down to the next. We wondered when he became so radical. My school of thought is that his mother radicalized him before the collapse. She gave up celebrity and fame and moved to Jerusalem, the heart of three faiths. To me, this shows he might have had a very sheltered upbringing with Elizabeth and could point to him being inclined toward radicalization very young. Another argument is that he began developing his school of thought after the fall on his own. When he ran out of battery in his game, he picked up the Bible that his mother gave him and ended up preaching to a plane full of flu victims. He rationalized in his brain why he had survived and others had perished. The final thought was that Elizabeth had radicalized him after the fall by telling him he was special and chosen by God and that if she were still alive, she would be his strongest follower. I’m curious what any readers of this post think, please leave a comment below.

The book made us very aware of the things we take for granted. We’re not very many generations removed from people who lived with the technology of those after the collapse. However, we’ve lost the survival skills those ancestors 1000 years ago lived by. We know what conveniences we’d have to give up with a collapse which would be more emotionally trying than not knowing they ever existed. Though some people might claim they’d miss television or cars most, we thought running water, medication, and communication would be the hardest to live without.

The troop clung close to Shakespeare but we wondered if there was a reason. The message in the stories didn’t ring true with the life situations they were in so why was it so popular? I’m sure this is not the right forum for why Shakespeare has stayed relevant for 500 years so I’ll say only that there’s something about him that’s survived this long so it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think he would still be a favorite in twenty years. If they weren’t going to perform Shakespeare, we thought Greek tragedies would also be popular. And everyone loves a musical!

Our other long debate was about history. Should the survivors teach their children about the old world? Or is it better not to know? Those who remember are looking back on a horrible incident from their past, something that has scared them. They’ll likely view ‘before’ as a bad thing. However, having the knowledge of what has been discovered before has the potential to rocket the society through scientific discoveries faster than the original discovery took. Instead of learning how to make penicillin, we already know and only have to duplicate the process. Instead of learning the most efficient ways to make a product, we would already now. The society after the collapse had already advanced enough to have a class system where Clark didn’t have to work because he somehow achieved a class status where he didn’t have to do that. The symphony could survive without putting down roots. Everyone was headed back to what they’d had before.

Mandel will be in my area in May so I’ll be able to meet her and have my books signed then. I’m very excited to talk with her about how she started writing.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!