Tag Archives: Book Club

Book Club Reflection: Old School by Tobias Wolff

4 Dec

I was so excited to discuss Old School by Tobias Wolff with my book club. I was delighted to find many loved the book as much as I did!

Wolff would be just about the same age as the narrator in the time period given so we wondered how autobiographical this book might have been. One of our members commented that Tobias Wolff is a Jewish name so the main character might have been a reflection of Wolff. However, our biographical note included that Wolff has a sister named Mary Elizabeth. That’s not a very Jewish name at all. Wolff also moved to Washington state with his mother. The cover image of the copy we had was supplied by the author and consisted of boys in matching uniforms sitting at rows of tables with their heads bowed in prayer. Reading the legal notices also told us that many of the short stories in the novel were previously published in the New Yorker. We’re assuming this is Wolff’s work. It all points to a fairly autobiographical work.

It was strange that the protagonist didn’t have a name. One of our readers picked the name Arthur for him while reading and we used this for him while we discussed him. Arthur seemed to have some strange ideas about how someone became a great writer. He talked about wanting to be anointed by Frost when he visited as if a touch could transfer his greatness. He later copied Hemingway’s stories, word for word, as if he could learn how to write his own by copying these. He needed to live to have his own ideas on how to write. Later in life, we hear he is a great writer but we’re not sure how he learned to write. The process of becoming a great writer seems to also involve becoming yourself and being unique. There was a danger that Arthur walked in copying those he admired without trying to be original.

A few commented that the kids seemed very well read and mature for high school students. We understood that this book was written in hindsight, but he made his high school self very mature. Arthur talks about the strong literary community at his school but we only see a few people who are involved in it or who Arthur agrees are ‘good.’ It seemed a stretch that high school students would produce writing that was good enough that the likes of Frost, Rand, and Hemingway would want to read it. We find out later they only send a few, but it still seemed a bit odd.

Ayn Rand did not get a good representation in the book. We were surprised she agreed to come at all. She was quite radical, and the school seemed very conservative and traditional. I wouldn’t think she would agree to do something like speak at a private high school, but it did help make a strong point.

A lot of us felt the ending was out of place and that it could have been cut or shortened. It circled back to questions the boys asked Makepeace at the beginning about Hemingway but most of us forgot that had even happened. Focusing on such a different character made it seem like a separate story instead of the ending of a novel.

However, it shared similar themes to the rest of the book. We identified honesty, identity, and insecurities as major themes. Arthur and Makepeace must deal with not being honest about something and pretending it’s true. Arthur is searching for his identity as many teenagers do. He has a lot of insecurities about being Jewish and about being less well off than his peers. This book does an amazing job of telling his story and we all just loved it.

We’re taking December off and have our next meeting at the end of January. We’ve got a 900 pager to keep us busy until then.

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!

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Book Club Reflection: Not Me by Michael Lavigne

26 Nov

I’m always glad to go to a book club meeting and enjoy what my fellow readers have to say about a book I disliked. It’s usually eye-opening and sometimes changes my opinion of the book. I can’t say my mind has been swayed this time, but I have a bit more of an appreciation for the book now.

We started off with a question that I hadn’t thought to ask. When does this book take place? With each year, we have fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors around. We thought this book may be set a few years back, possibly 2000 or 2001. There was a Starbucks and Michael had a flip phone, so it seemed somewhat modern, but still a little dated.

It takes Michael the entirety of the book to start coming to terms with his father’s history and process the story in the journal. He’s a very self-absorbed character. At first, he doesn’t want to learn about his father. The distanced relationship the two have is comfortable for Michael, and he doesn’t want to leave it. He has a similar distance with his son, Josh. The relationship seemed to emphasize how self-centered Michael was. Maybe Heshel’s focus on his philanthropic endeavors kept his focus away from his son. Michael may have assumed such a relationship was normal and formed a similar one with his son. The first time we really see Michael do something for someone else is when he kills Karen and puts her out of her pain.

I wasn’t the only reader who questioned I the journals were factual. Because they’re written in a third-person, novel-like format, it seemed plausible that we’d get to the end of the book and Michael would discover they were from his father’s imagination. He finally believed it was all real when he read his mother’s letter. Writing in a third-person voice may have helped Heshel distance himself from the terrors he witnessed and committed.

We talked a lot about why Heshel made the change he did. He seemed to have a ‘come to God’ moment when he was in the hospital, realizing what he’d done to Moskovitz and feeling responsible for all the other crimes he’d committed. We questioned if he was a con artist his whole life, deceiving others to think he was a great, big-hearted man when his motivation was to make amends for his terrible actions. He felt that his daughter’s death was some form of retribution for his actions earlier. He was given accolades for his actions, but his motivation was far from honorable.

One of the loose ends that bugged us the most was Israel Rosenheim. We assumed he was the one who left the journals for Michael to read, assuming he’s real. We also guessed that Israel was the one visiting Heshel in the nursing home. This would have meant that Israel was in Florida so we wondered why Michael wouldn’t look for him.

This book had a lot of other loose ends. We guessed that Israel and Heshel had a long relationship because of references to money that had been paid to some unknown source. We guessed this was school payments of some sort. The relationship with April was a big question mark at the end. The relationship with Michael seemed superfluous. She seemed to be there just for Michael to find out his father brought orphans over from Europe. April being one of them was a bit too ‘clean,’ especially the way we found out. We all wished that April had been the one to leave the journals. That would have given us a lot more closure.

I didn’t leave this meeting liking the book anymore. I understood why some others may have liked it a lot, but it still wasn’t a book for me. We’re not meeting in December so it will be January when we have another one of these great talks.

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!

When You Don’t Finish the Book

8 Nov

If you’re a book club person, I’m sure you’ve done this. Or know someone who has. Sometimes, life gets in the way or the book just doesn’t grab you and you don’t finish it. Is it the end of the world? No, not at all. I’ve gone to meetings when I haven’t finished the book and I know many people in my groups have as well. Normally, it’s not a problem.

However, I think it can be an issue sometimes. It depends on what you expect out of the meeting when you haven’t finished the book. You should assume the ending will be spoiled for you. If you plan to finish it eventually, this may be a big deterrent but for many, it’s just part of going to the meeting.

Second, you can’t expect the rest of the group to explain the ending of the book to you. It might come out over the course of discussion and you can clarify bits so you understand and can follow the discussion, but sitting down and asking “How did the love story wrap up?” or “What happened to her father?” is going to annoy your fellow readers more than anything. If you want to know, you can still finish the book. The others are there to discuss what happened, not rehash the plot for you.

Personally, I find it best to sit and listen to meetings where I didn’t finish the book. I’m able to remember things earlier in the plot better sometimes because my memory isn’t clouded by the ending like others. I can still add to the discussion but I don’t take up too much time that others want to spend discussing and it helps me to not ask questions that will spoil the ending even more.

How have you handled it when you don’t finish the book? Any further tips? Anything else to avoid? Let’s see if we can come up with a ‘Best Practice’ for when this happens.

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: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

6 Nov

I’ve been looking forward to our group discussion of Dark Matter since I read it. Apparently, not everyone was as thrilled with this title as I was. Some really disliked it and there were others who loved it as much as I did. Some said it read more like a screenplay than a book as if Crouch knew it would be adapted for television. A few complained that the middle dragged while he was going through door after door.

The premise required a solid suspension of belief. It reminded me of The Flash a bit because of the other ‘Earths’ that Jason visited. There was a lot jammed into this book and it left some of us wondering more about dark matter. A few people recommended two books, We Have No Idea by Jorge Cham and Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson. The different worlds showed infinite possibilities and how profound the Butterfly Effect can be.

We started to wonder about our own lives and the different versions we might find. Something beyond our control, like a decision a parent made, could produce a drastically different world. It might not be any relation to you, but that decision could mean you were never born. While there are big decisions in a person’s life that make you wonder, it’s probably the small ones that make large differences. Jason went looking for happiness because he missed it. But the happiest Jason pined after the success he could have had. Everyone lives with regret. For Jason, family was the right choice, but that doesn’t mean it is for everyone.

We had a lot of questions about the box. Jason sees himself at some point. Does that mean there are infinite numbers of every person who’s entered the box somewhere in the box? Is there a doppelganger of Jason 2 wandering around in there? What about the other people who went into the box and never came out? Are they in there, too? In a way, all of the Jasons that return are deserving of Daniela and Charlie. Jason2 is the only one who’s not.

When the plot first switched to Daniela and we see her welcome ‘Jason’ home, it’s not obvious that it’s Jason2. Some of us thought life was continuing like there was a reality split somewhere else and in one version, Jason had come home with no run-in. We wondered if the Daniela in Jason2’s world was happier. Maybe her career and being an artist was her best path. It seemed odd that she completely stopped being an artist to be a mother of one son. We thought she could have kept it up a bit at least.

We wondered about the world Charlie would create for them to live in. Would it be unpopulated? Similar to their own? They were leaving with nothing and taking only memories with them. It reminded us of immigrant stories around the turn of the century. It must have been terrifying.

We’ll be meeting again just after Thanksgiving so I better get reading quickly! 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: Artemis by Andy Weir

30 Oct

Yes, I’m already in two book clubs. Also, yes, I tacked on another one. But just this one time. Probably.

One of my librarian friends told me her SciFi/Fantasy group was reading Andy Weir’s Artemis and I groaned because I knew she would talk me into reading it and coming to the meeting. I loved Weir’s first novel, The Martian, and I had to see how his Sophomore attempt measured up. It seems a few other readers were in the same boat as me.

We had a lot of questions about life on Artemis. At the same time, we didn’t want too many details because it would have weighed down the story. We did wonder about the education system and how you’d put together a school system for so few children. Was there enough demand for teachers?

The book felt a lot like a Western. There was one sheriff, a lot of vigilante justice, and death from the elements was just a hair’s breath away. Only instead of angry Native American tribes, cholera, or snakes, it was temperature, pressure, and lack of oxygen. None of us would want to live on Artemis. First of all, no paper books! That would be hard for bibliophiles like us. But also, the lack of justice wasn’t attractive. We’re not the ones to live in the Old West it seems.

Artemis is the Greek goddess of the moon. We wondered why Artemis was chosen and not the Latin equivalent, Diana. It would have made even more sense for a Kenyan god to be selected. Maybe the name recognition or pronunciation would have been more difficult.

We enjoyed hearing about the small differences in life on Artemis. Coffee didn’t taste as good, stairs were half a meter high, how fun! We felt that these changes and new technology were introduced well into the story.

Of course, we had to talk about Jazz. I’ve already said my share in my review, so I’ll leave that out. One reader was surprised by how rough Jazz’s language was. She was very much the rebellious daughter. She was as opposite her father, a devout Muslim, as one could be.

Despite this, the relationship between Jazz and her dad played a central role in the plot. Her father was very proud of his honesty and trustworthiness. It made sense that he found his criminal daughter hard to get along with.

Jazz’s father was many of our favorite characters. Another liked Rudy and his own brand of space justice.

This group alternates SciFi and fantasy so fantasy is up next. I’m likely passing due to time but I’ll keep an eye out for the next book this group picks. I’ll likely drop in as I’m interested.

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!

The Book Club Dilemma

20 Sep

I seem to have this problem fairly often and I’m wondering if I’m the only one. Reading book club selections on a deadline can be a killer!

It happens every time. I think I have a week free to squeeze in a book I want to read. I’ll get started, I’ll get into the book, and then it happens. This time, it was an audiobook hold coming in that I’ve been waiting two months for. That threw my idea of listening to the audiobook of our selection. Another time, it was losing the hold on the ebook I was reading for fun, starting the book club selection, only to have the ebook become available again a few days later. Almost every time, something comes up.

I try to make it work. I balance ebooks, audiobooks, eaudiobooks, and print books as best I can to enjoy some of my own picks while getting through a book club pick as well. But sometimes it’s a real struggle. I don’t want to put a book on hold or I’m SO CLOSE to finishing it and could be done in four days but I need to get to that book club selection because I only have a week to read it and I’m supposed to be leading the discussion. Something always comes up.

I can’t be the only person who has problems with reading on a deadline. I know many of you read for book clubs and for blog tours. How do you deal with the time pressures and squeezing books in that have no deadline but make you happy? I need some tips.

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 Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

17 Sep

It was a long summer without my book club but we had an amazing book to gather around last week as we discussed The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. We all liked the book and felt it was important, even when some people found fault in the characters and plot. For a YA novel, it was sophisticated and a bit dark. We pondered that if it had been any darker and if the ending hadn’t had its happy elements, it might have been too much for a YA audience. As it is, the book teaches good lessons to readers of any age. One member compared it to Sherman Alexie’s Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian or the movie Lady Bird (which I’m still dying to see!).

One of the complaints from our group was that there was too much content. There were a lot of characters and some of them were very static and seemed more like a representative of a stereotype or ideology. They could have been cut out to simplify the plot a bit. However, it depends on how you view the book. If the book is about Khalil’s death, most characters are superfluous. However, if it’s a biography of Starr, many of the characters were needed because they affected her views and perspective. Still, some could have been combined or simplified.

Another complaint was that some things were too perfect. Starr’s parents were too perfect, busting King was too perfect, and Williamson was too perfect. The Carters may have had difficult pasts but their current situation as almost ideal. They were also nearly perfect parents and always did and said the right things. (This isn’t one I picked up on while reading.) Busting King and getting everyone to snitch at the same time seemed unreal. We felt that the individuals would have been worried about other King Lords trying to get revenge and it was too good for Starr’s story that her father’s store burning down pushed everyone over the edge. Williamson and the suburbs were idealized and almost too perfect while Garden Heights felt too stereotypical of a ‘ghetto’ neighborhood.

Our amazing group moderator found an NPR interview with Thomas. She talked about the inspiration for this book coming from her experience at a liberal arts college during the Oscar Grant shooting and how she felt like Starr does at Williamson. She spoke about the inspiration for Uncle Carlos as well. While the white officer, 115, is shown in a clearly bad light, Thomas wanted to make sure there was an officer in a positive light. She had a cousin that was a cop and he was the one to give her the talk about how to act around police officers.

She also addressed Chris. Thomas says she’s asked frequently why Starr is dating a white boy. Some of us thought his character was unnecessary in the story but Thomas wanted to show him as an ally. He contrasts well with Hailey. I found him very relatable at the end when he was uncomfortable at the protest even though he wanted to be there and believed in the cause.

This book made for a great discussion and I’m so glad our library supported us reading it! Talking about it helped me appreciate it even more.

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: Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

10 Sep

My book club met recently to talk about a book I adored, Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. Thankfully I’m not completely out on my own and almost everyone in our group really liked the book.

Krueger is primarily a mystery writer and has a series focusing on the Ojibwas. He is a back-to-back Anthony Award winner, an award given to mystery writers. He wakes up at 5:30 AM and writes long-hand in wire-bound notebooks. Krueger did not finish his degree at Stanford after he was forced to leave due to some student protests he participated in. He currently lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The first thing to talk about was Bobby Cole’s death. We were all hoping Doyle was somehow involved and that there was a dark side to him after all. With all the sneaking around he was doing, we wanted something more to be afoot. We felt the explanation that Cole was just a spacy kid to be a bit vague and didn’t feel that mystery was completely solved.

Karl’s death was a surprise to us all, too. We debated if it was an accident or suicide. From what we know, both are plausible. We hoped Jake didn’t feel responsible for Karl’s death. He was trying to help Karl by explaining he wasn’t a murderer, he was simply a ‘faggot.’ Too bad he didn’t know what he was saying. He wanted to help so badly.

The Drum family took up most of our discussion. Frank was a great narrator. He was very understanding of people’s differences and gave us a rather unbiased view of people in town. He only briefly mentioned his sister’s harelip and his brother’s stuttering never seemed to phase him. Karl’s sexuality never made him think differently. A lot of people weren’t the person others thought they were and Frank helped the reader see through that. He and Jake were under a lot of pressure to be the perfect sons of a minister and they dealt with the pressure rather well.

Ruth dominated the second half of the book. She never wanted to be a pastor’s wife and felt she gave everything up for Nathan and his way of life. She thought of him as God and she was angry with God and took it out on Nathan. Nathan clearly cared more for his wife than she did for him. It was hard to see how much she pined for the life she could have had with Emil. She seemed to keep her smoking and drinking inside the house as much as possible until Ariel’s death but it seems some people still noticed and didn’t think that was appropriate for the minister’s wife. Ruth is the last one who would care.

In a way, we felt Emil was responsible for the whole book. If he’d never left Ruth, if he’d left Ariel well enough alone, all the tragedy could have been avoided.

I can’t recommend this one highly enough. We all gave it two thumbs up. Our next book has a lot to live up to. Thankfully, I’ve already read it and feel it’s a worthy follower. 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: Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

18 Jun

My book club met last week to talk about Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn. I enjoyed the book a lot myself but it had been almost three weeks since I finished it when we finally met. I was a bit fuzzy on the details of the story so I did a lot of listening.

This book was selected as the National African American Read-In book for Black History Month in February. Our group sponsor had read it for that and enjoyed it so much that she put it on our docket.

Woodson was born and raised in Columbus, South Carolina, and New York City. She currently lives in New York. A lot of her other books are either picture books or ones aimed at a YA audience.

The style was very poetic. Others described it as a dream and feeling like a stream of consciousness. The structure of the book was very non-linear. Some people disliked that structure. One reader described it as a ‘Swiss cheese’ story because of all the holes in the plot. One of the times we talked most about her non-linear writing was when there was a trauma. When Gigi was raped, when Angela’s mother died, the death of August’s own mother. All of these were alluded to, circled around, and the event itself only stated outright after we’d heard the effects and feelings of those involved.

We loved the female friendships in this book. The girls grew from 8 to 16 during the book and it was easy to see the intensity of young female friendships during this time. They acted like mothers to each other when they needed it. This complicated their relationships as well because disappointing a friend or being betrayed by her was as painful as disappointing your mother or being betrayed by family. August had a series of mother figures in the book. Her friends, their mothers, her dad’s girlfriends, and other women served in guiding her to womanhood. One of the few memories she shares of her mother is being warned not to let other women too close to you. We wondered if this influenced her inability to forgive Sylvia on the train. Maybe she was mad Sylvia had children when she didn’t. Maybe she was shutting herself off emotionally, the way she had when her mother died. Or maybe she’d started taking her mother’s advice.

Again, the bits about August’s mother were very cyclical so it’s not completely clear what happened to her. We suspect she may have been paranoid schizophrenic. Maybe just paranoid. She seemed to be suspicious of her husband being with other women all the time and didn’t trust anyone. This may have been the source of her advice to August. We don’t know if she had reason to be suspicious of her husband. We thought it was odd advice to give a daughter not to have close friends so wondered where the anger came from. August had shut down completely when her mother died to the point that she doesn’t remember it. She hints at it many times, remembering the funeral and leaving with her father. We debated if it was a coping mechanism that kept her from realizing her mother was dead or if she was too young to understand what it meant to die and she really believed her mother would follow them to Brooklyn. It seems that her brother was too young to understand but August was at an age right in the middle. Did her father explain to her what happened, or did he hide some of the truth to save his children the pain? Her later interest in anthropology and death traditions seemed to be a way for August to look at how she should mourn and what to do when someone dies.

The father was left with a difficult situation and he did fairly well. They may have been poor but they were clean, fed, and clothed. August comments on how other children were not so lucky. Her father is also resourceful, sending her across the street to a woman who can braid her hair for her since he doesn’t know how. Sister Sonja was a great woman for August and her brother to have in their lives. Their father may have dated a lot of women, but the ones that stuck around were good people. Her father didn’t have the friendships and community that August found in her friends. He and her brother turned to religion for their community.

I thought the title referred to the difference between the Brooklyn August remembers and the one she sees when returning for her father’s funeral. Someone else proposed that it’s a contrast to Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I love this idea, how two stories in the same place can be so different.

The ending was hopeful for August. She had something to look forward to, a life she’d made for herself. The other girls didn’t have as much hope. They were stuck in the new Brooklyn and it was so different from the one August loved.

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 Sellout by Paul Beatty

11 Jun

I went to the book club discussion for The Sellout when I had 50 pages left in the book. I was a bit nervous about the ending of the book being ruined or spoiled in some way, but I learned later that there wasn’t much to ruin in the final pages.

The writing of the book was very good. There were a ton of great references and Beatty had great ways of expressing emotions and descriptions. He was smart and witty. The members of my group who finished the book cited this for why they kept reading. Many put the book down and most said they wouldn’t recommend it.

Many of our readers had an issue right from the prologue. It was so steeped in surreal elements that someone thought it was a dream. Living off drug money and running a farm in LA was a bit too much to handle. It was hard to pull meaning out of a story filled with so much satire. What was real and being mocked? There was a lot that was contrary to US history or US social norms and these parts were clearly satirical, but what about the horse or the bus party?

Hominy was easily a favorite amongst our group. His acting and stories told the story that sometimes you work as hard as everyone else and you get none of the credit. It’s a strong parallel for slavery. The slaves kept the American South’s agriculture alive. But they got no credit for it.

We asked ourselves if the narrator really was a sellout. He didn’t stand up for himself a lot and kind of went with the flow. Though I think you could argue Foy did so even more. The narrator at least tried to re-segregate the city. How much of this is a good goal is up to the reader to decide. Many people only do what they need to do and what is asked of them without going beyond. It doesn’t necessarily make one a sellout.

This book wasn’t a big hit for many of us. I’m glad I read it but it’s not one I’ll recommend. We’re hoping our next book will spark some more 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!