Tag Archives: Book Club Reflection

Book Club Reflection: Once in a Great City by David Maraniss

16 May

I’m back to my book clubs! My class is over for the semester which means I’m free on Monday nights again and can join in on the discussions. I read Once in a Great City a couple of weeks ago and I’ll be posting about it again in a few weeks when author David Maraniss comes to speak in my area.

One issue some people had with the book was the title. We felt it implied that Detroit was no longer a great city, that it had lost that greatness. Our moderator likened it to watching the Titanic movie. This thing is so wonderful and great and you’re looking at it thinking, “Wow! How incredible is this!” and the whole time, you know it’s going to sink because that’s history and you can’t change it. Seeing Detroit built up as this pillar of American modernity and progress just to know that it will be home to terrible race riots, high murder rates, government corruption, economic depression, and bankruptcy feels like watching a beautiful ship sink to the bottom of the ocean. Many of our members remembered when Detroit’s offering of steady employment and strong industry was a draw and sense of price for the city. That’s since faded.

The best description of the book a member gave was “interesting and tedious.” The topics were interesting and Maraniss picked a good time in Detroit history to focus on. It was very well researched, maybe too much so. The level of detail made it dense. For someone from Detroit, the topic was engaging enough because we are around the thing he’s talking about. For someone from another area, they’d likely get bogged down in the details and not want to continue.

Speaking of being from here, many of us were surprised to hear about the Ford Rotunda. It does help explain the road in Dearborn called Rotunda, though. The number of tourists and fame described was astounding and those in our group who were alive to see it feel it may have been a bit exaggerated.

We enjoyed the chapters about Detroit’s Olympic bid. We were all surprised to hear about it. The way Maraniss built it up it seemed like it would be a close battle between Detroit and Mexico City, but the results were a blowout. I wonder if Detroit will ever be a serious contender for the Olympics again.

There were some things we felt were missing from the book. The mob story was glossed over a bit. People think of Chicago when they think of the mob in America but Detroit has a strong mob background as well. The book also focused very strongly on Ford, ignoring General Motors and Chrysler culture. Maybe GM and Chrysler are less controversial and scandalous as they’re not run by a single family. The Fords have dark sides like anti-Semitic backgrounds, affairs, and a distaste for immigrants. That makes for a good book in the times leading to a race riot.

It was great to be back with these ladies and discuss a book again. We’re moving back to fiction next month and I’ll be reading that book 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: South of Broad by Pat Conroy

7 Feb

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: Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

17 Jan

My book club had very split opinions about Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River. I was a huge fan. Others disliked Margo and by default, didn’t like the book. With such a strong narrator, it didn’t surprise me we were polarized.

Bonnie Jo Campbell is a Michigan-born author from the West side of the state. She was born in Kalamazoo in 1962 and for those out of Michigan, yes, a lot of our cities have awesomely fun Native American names. She got her Bachelors’ in Chicago, the closest big city to that side of the state. Her Masters’ is in Mathematics and her MFA is from KZoo’s own Western Michigan University (undefeated in the regular season this year!). She’s married but our moderator couldn’t find if she had children or not. Her other books, which have been well received, are primarily short story collections. We were able to find that her first book is about a girl born on the river with a mother named Margo. Um….! I might have to read that.

Being a Michigan-based author, we felt Campbell did a great job creating rural Michigan. The East side, where I’m from, is very different from the Michigan Campbell describes, but it reminds me of the parts of Northern Michigan I visit, where my parents own a cottage. It’s fun to remember how diverse a single state can be.

Though the Stark River and Murrayville, the settings Campbell created, are fictional, they were great representations of the state. The water is very important to the story and it’s used in a lot of ways. Margo is cleaned in it, eats from it, and recognizes that on it, she can be cleansed of her past. It’s also lethal (spoiler ahead). Smoke is literally dragged down into the river and couldn’t be saved. The river is always moving and changing. When Margo needs to run away, she can follow the flow downriver or make her way upriver to find a change and that’s what she likes about the river. Lakes are different. Her mother lived on a lake and Margo didn’t like the feel of it. She craved a river.

One thing we noticed is that while rape and sex were present in this book, they weren’t focal points. Especially when Cal raped her, it didn’t feel terrifying and victimizing. It was confusing and uncomfortable which we felt was likely more life-like. Margo used sex with various men as a survival tactic. She wasn’t looking to have a good time, she was trying to find her next meal and some shelter. I really enjoyed her character and strength.

Not everyone liked Margo as much as I did. We all agreed she was mature for her age and was very resourceful. A lot of people saw her as a misfit who didn’t fit in. I felt she fit in on the river but there were several references to her not fitting in amongst her peers. She was trying to get herself in order and have her life together and as a reader with a much different lifestyle, it was hard for us to recognize at first, but she had her life in order by the end of the book. She had what she wanted as far as a boat and a place to hunt and she was ready to start a family and settle down. Margo didn’t talk much. She was alone a lot so there weren’t a lot of people to talk to. There were some people who wondered if she was mentally impaired. A reporter asked Campbell if Margo had Autism. Campbell didn’t purposefully create a character with Autism but has said it’s possible Margo does. It wasn’t her intention.

A lot of Margo’s luck seemed to come to her because she was beautiful. She never says this about herself, but the men in the story and her mother say she is. She might not have been able to find shelter with men if she wasn’t, but it seemed incongruent with her rugged lifestyle. If she’d spent as much time looking good as her mother did, she would have been a knock-out.

Each of the men who loved her had a different name for Margo. It was a nod to how she recreated herself each time she was with another guy. All the time, she was trying to recreate the best relationship she’d had with a man until then, the relationship she had with her grandfather. In this respect, Smoke was the closest she found. He and Fishbone were the only ones who didn’t try to have sex with her and some of us think it’s because they’re gay. It’s implied in the story that the two loved each other but Fishbone wouldn’t admit to it. It reminded me of Brokeback Mountain. It’s hard to admit to a different lifestyle if there’s a lot to lose and Fishbone stood to lose his family and didn’t want to risk it.

Paul and Margo’s father were both shot in the book. In the case of Paul, Margo was in control instead of her cousin. We wondered if she noticed this. Michael was at risk and she stepped in the way her cousin did to save someone she loved. The difference was that she pulled the trigger instead of watching.

The Indian was the most confusing character for many of us. He was a personification of the river, something Margo loved. He gave her money and a ride, much like the river. With him, she leaves the river for the first time and maybe she needed someone who reminded her of the river to get away from it. We found it funny that he was trying to find his culture and, though Margo was in no way a Native American, she was living the culture he was looking for better than anyone else he’d found.

I’ll be missing my book club for a few months due to my class falling on the same night until May. I’m sad about this, to be sure, but I’m sure they’ll be fine without me. I’ll miss writing these for a few months but they’ll be back! 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: Stiff by Mary Roach

15 Dec

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: Still Alice by Lisa Genova

7 Nov

Our group met to talk about Still Alice on Halloween so it as a bit shorter of a discussion than we usually have. We also picked our next set of books which ate up a lot of time. It was bittersweet for me because due to my classes next semester, I’ll be missing the February, March, and April meetings! Sad puppy face.

I wasn’t the only one who felt this book wasn’t very well written. It seemed jerky which, while more appropriate at the end, didn’t make sense at the beginning. It was nice to be inside Alice’s head, though. We could see things happening to her that she sometimes couldn’t see herself.

Alice’s three children finding out if they were carriers was a sticking point for a lot of us. Would Tom have had ‘survivor’s guilt’ for not being a carrier when he knows Anna is and that Lydia might be? He seemed to disappear from the book a bit so it’s hard to tell but we felt it would be hard for him. Genetic testing like the children went has been around for years, some of our members remembering it back to the 1970s. We wondered about the impact of the testing on Anna and Lydia’s insurance rates. Would they have trouble getting coverage? Would it be different for Anna who knows or Lydia who doesn’t? I wondered if knowing she was a carrier affected Anna’s dedication to starting a family. She knows that her children will have to go through what she’s going through with Alice and how hard it will be. Is it better to have children who can help take care of her? I thought that would be hard for her and her husband.

John kept trying to fix everything. He wanted to do what he knew, study and research and was determined it would fix his wife. A few in our group suspected he was having an affair at the beginning with how dedicated he was to be out of the house and how much he avoided Alice. I still think he might have been. But he was a bit underdeveloped so we don’t know much for sure.

When Alice’s Blackberry stopped working, she cried as if on some level she knew what she was losing. She was so close to the level where she couldn’t answer the questions and in reality had gotten some of them wrong already. She seemed to know she was losing something about herself. We noticed that John seemed to have found the questions because on page 266 (our copy), he asks her the questions. If he got her phone working or if he found the Butterfly file, we’re not sure, but he seemed really concerned about Alice not wanting to be around anymore. What would he have done if she said she didn’t want to be there?

One of our members recommended The 36-Hour Day by Nancy Mace as a non-fiction account of caring for an Alzheimer’s patient. This book was unique in sharing from the side of the patient instead of the caregiver and that novelty was appreciated.

Our next meeting is in December and we’ll be discussing The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante. I’m about 1/4 through it now so I’ll be done well in time for the 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: Slade House by David Mitchell

13 Oct

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 Discussion: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

4 Oct

I’d finished The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks just in time for my book club meeting! It could not have turned out better and I was primed and ready to discuss with the women in my group.

I wasn’t the only one who’d never heard of HeLa before we read this book. Only one person in my book club had heard of HeLa cells or knew anything about Henrietta. I had seen the book countless times but never bothered to turn it over and read what it was about.

Skloot was a very active character in her own book. We were fascinated that she could remember something a community college professor said to her in high school and be so driven by it later in life. What an impactful educator! Skloot had a great relationship with the Lacks family, especially Deborah. I think I would have lost my patience more than the one time Skloot did! They really appreciated that she taught them what they didn’t understand and that she was patient when it came to answers. Her style of writing the book was great for a topic that could be so dense. She kept the ‘science-y’ parts moving and flowed well between times and places so that we didn’t get bored or lost as readers.

Race was obviously a big part of the story. What we wondered is if the modern part of the story would have been any different if Skloot was black. We think the family might have talked to her sooner. They said a few times that white people only came poking around when they wanted something and they were all very distrustful of Rebecca at first. We don’t know if she would have been as successful with the hospitals and getting information there. Being so starkly different from the family made her seem more like a researcher.

It was hard to hear about Henrietta’s upbringing and life. She lost her mother when she was so young, it mimicked Deborah’s distraught feelings about her mother. But it wasn’t just Henrietta, but her whole family that suffered so much. We wondered how Henrietta’s experience in the hospital would have been different if she was white. If she was the same socioeconomic status, we don’t think her experience would have been much different. She still wouldn’t have had the money to pay for a lot of treatments and would have been viewed as a charity case. If she’d been middle class, her treatment would have been the same (it was all they knew), but we think she would have been better educated about what was happening to her and her family would have been more involved in the treatment steps.

We all loved Deborah’s dedication to her mother. Unlike her father and brothers, she wasn’t worried about the money she could get from her mother’s legacy, she just wanted people to know what Henrietta had done. I was particularly moved by the explanation of why the family thought Henrietta was an angle. It was a really beautifully drawn comparison.

The scene where Zakariyya and Deborah seen their mother’s cells was really moving to all of us. To anyone, it would be a moving experience, but for these two, who didn’t understand well what cells were and only knew what they saw was a part of their mother, it effected them in a different way. It was so great that they were able to have a positive experience at Johns Hopkins.

Of course, we had to talk about the ethics of selling human samples. We agreed with one of the proposed solutions, which was a part of the profits going back to disease research. If there’s so much money to be had from selling these cellular samples and always a need for research money, why not shade the ethically grey area with using the money earned to fund the disease research? It seems like a win-win situation.

Our next book will be another disease-focused read with Still Alice by Lisa Genova. We need a happy read eventually!

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

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: In One Person by John Irving

6 Sep

After taking yesterday off to enjoy the holiday weekend, I’m excited to come back to you today with a book club discussion of John Irving’s In One Person. This is a book I was excited to read because I really enjoyed so many of Irving’s novels and this was one I hadn’t had time to open yet, even though I’d bought it as a Bargain Book from B&N for $7. I always try to exert some minor influence over my book club’s choices and it worked swimmingly this time.

I didn’t realize that one of Irving’s sons is gay. Another reader brought that up and we wondered if his son was part of the influence for Irving to write this book. He could have been exploring, as writers do, his thoughts and feelings on having a gay son. We wondered if it was difficult for Irving to accept his son and if writing this book helped. Others felt the book felt almost autobiographical. A lot of Irving’s characters share characteristics with him and Billy was no exception. Perhaps he was considering some feelings he repressed growing up. Either way, we felt Irving was very understanding of LGBTQ people and the emotional discomfort his characters went through.

One of our members didn’t finish the book and didn’t intend to. She stopped reading it early on because she felt there was too much sex and that it was too detailed. Having read other Irving books, I guess none of this surprised me as he’s always very graphic when it comes to sex. I shared with our group one of the reviews I read when writing mine. It suggested that he had done so much research about gay culture and was so excited about it that he couldn’t help but include each little detail, down to the origin of the ‘top or bottom’ question.

We felt there was a lot of Shakespeare in the book and that most of it weren’t tied in well, falling flat for many of us, especially those who didn’t know all of the plays as intimately as the characters. The one thing we gleaned from it was that many of the plays had a character like Billy, someone with a ‘mutable gender.’ We guessed the point was that there had been LGBTQ people since Shakespeare’s time.

Billy’s family was very understanding of him and who he was with the exception of his mother. We thought the others were more comfortable with him because of Grandpa Harry. It was hard to understand why his mother was so intolerant and angry until the end of the book

Billy father and Bovary hand one of the best and longest-lasting relationships in the entire book. Richard and Martha had a very positive relationship as well, but we found it odd that two people we didn’t meet until the end were so admirable. I felt that Billy was being compared to his absent father for a lot of the book but when we met him, I almost liked the father better than Billy.

Many of the women in the book were depicted as weak or stupid. Billy’s mother was never portrayed well and many of Billy’s girlfriends turned out to be bad people. Martha was the only woman any of us liked the whole way through. Even Elaine had times when she was hard to like. However, she was a good friend to Billy. She was consistently there for him no matter what he was going through.

We felt there were many ways men dressed as women in this book. Billy would always comment on how ‘passable’ a man could be as a woman. Donna was passable to the point that many didn’t realize she was born a man. Others, like Grandpa Harry, dressed as women because it was comfortable or that’s how they wanted to be seen. Whereas Billy’s father dressed as a woman for entertainment, the type of entertainment that annoyed Donna so much. It was hard to find a point in what Irving was saying about cross-dressing and transgendered people because of how differently all of his characters treated it.

As with many Irving novels, the side characters are many times more interesting than the protagonist. Tom Adkins appeared frequently and most of our readers were really annoyed by him. He was clingy when he was a boy and when he was grown up, he asked Billy to look after his son, which we found ridiculous. Just because he thought his son was gay he thought Billy was the only one who could look after him. It didn’t seem like a fair or smart thing to ask.

None of us were big fans of Larry, either. He reminded us of those college professors we didn’t like that always insisted they were smarter and knew better than everyone else because of their experience. In this case, it was Larry acting like he knew more about love and loss than Billy because he was older and lost his boyfriend. It seemed unfair to make that a competition with Billy.

Kitteridge fell flat to a lot of us. One member who couldn’t make it to the meeting emailed me to say how frustrated he was with Kitteridge’s resolution. Having his son come and represent him wasn’t enough for us. There’s a quote on page 188 of my copy (second page of Chapter 8) where Billy is reading Giovanni’s Room and a passage makes him think. “I immediately thought of Kitteridge- how my dislike of him was completely entangled with my dislike of myself for being attracted to him.” This thought persists for so much of the book that not bringing the character back was a huge let down.

Irving’s hints about Miss Frost at the beginning of the book didn’t trick one of our readers. Aunt Muriel says that Miss Frost ‘used to be very good looking’ and that ‘the available men in the town used to fall all over themselves when they met Miss Frost’ (page 2). Not many of us figured this out but upon learning about Big Al, these lines came back to our minds and we had an ‘Ah ha’ moment.

One reader thought at first that it was Miss Frost on the cover. The hips are very straight and the hands are quite big so many of us thought it was a man. I thought it was Billy wearing Elaine’s bra and many others think this might be the right answer (if there is a right answer).

The title has a great meaning as well. It appears in the epitaph of the book, “Thus play I in one person many people, And none contented.’ It’s a quote from Shakespeare and like Shakespeare’s character Ariel, Billy had a more fluid sexuality, almost mutable. We were also reminded of the wonderful quote from Miss Frost and memorably included in the last line of the book. “My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me- don’t make me a category before you get to know me!”

I’m not sure I created any more Irving fans but I’ll see if I can try again! We’re reading a non-fiction next month and I’m very excited for a short fiction break. Hope to have you all reading again then.

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

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!