Tag Archives: Book Club

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!

Advertisements

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!

Book Club Reflection: Mister Monkey by Francine Prose

22 May

My book club got together last week to discuss a fun book, Mister Monkey by Francine Prose. Many of us found the book light and fun, but that was after finishing it with hindsight. While reading it, the piece felt somewhat heavy. All the characters have some rather serious flaws and they struggle. But in the end, it ended happily for most of them. Well, mostly.

There was an interview with Prose that our group shared (link here). In it, she talked about the number of things in the book that were pulled from her experiences. The first was her granddaughter asking her during a show if she was interested in what was going on during a quiet moment in the plot. The second was observing a really bad date, though the one she witnessed involved a man calling his friend to complain about his blind date while she was in the bathroom. The final was a dinner party she went to with her granddaughter’s classmates’ parents. She felt like any question she asked about something non-school related was treated as ludicrous and that the parents talked down to her the same way they did her granddaughter. I love that all these things were brought together in one book.

The structure of this book was very unique. It allowed us to see how the characters saw each other. Rather than just Margo’s opinion of herself as a washed-up aging actress, we see Mario admiring her and Leonard’s impression that her costume is ridiculous. Sonya tries to rationalize her date and thinks that maybe Greg isn’t terrible but Ray and Mario can both clearly see that it is awful. The cast thinks Eleanor is a terribly brusque person but she’s staying in character and is very polite. The character’s stories are resolved, but not in their own plot line. Roger resolves Lakshmi and Eleanor resolves Edward and Leonard. We felt like we could reread the book and get something else out of the nuances we missed the first time. A good comparison to the structure would be Lakshmi’s play where we learn about one character through the stories of the others. Talking about this made us all a bit worried about how others see us.

The Chekhov quote that is sent to Margo at the beginning of the book sums the whole plot up. It’s on page 20 in my copy and reads, “Failures and disappointments make time go by so fast that you fail to notice your real life, and the past when I was so free seems to belong to someone else, not myself.” Many of the characters are wrapped up in their own lives so much that they don’t notice what’s going on around them.

There were two stories we talked about at length. The first was Ray. The story he wanted to write about his experience in Vietnam was so twisted that it bears no resemblance to the story in the play. His experiences are lost and he feels happy at his success but also a bit disappointed with what has become of the book. He seems to regret having been so successful.

Eleanor struck us as the only person in the book who was happy with her life. She wasn’t looking for her next unhappy love affair and she wasn’t trying to be at a different stage in her life. Everyone else wanted to be older or younger, in love or out of it, but Eleanor was happy.

There were some themes in the book we hoped would be flushed out a bit more. The monkey theme was obvious but seemed unfinished. With how much Darwinism and evolution were brought up, we thought they’d play a bigger role in the book and were a bit let down when they didn’t.

I left with a ‘lighter’ impression of this book than when I’d finished it. I love being able to flesh out the book with the other readers in my group! We have one more meeting before our summer break and I’m looking forward to it.

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 Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

10 May

My book club met last week to talk about a book I really enjoyed, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. I wasn’t the only one who’d enjoyed this book via audio and the others who had agreed with me that the narrator was great and she kept us engaged the whole time.

The copy of the book we had contained an interview with Hannah. She talked about how she was inspired by the story of a Danish woman who created an escape route for downed airmen, much like Isabelle. She doesn’t have a personal connection to WWII but this story inspired her to do research about it. She did extensive research and consulted her notes to write almost every scene. She mentions that in one iteration of the novel, Isabelle fell in love with a downed airman. One of our readers thought this was going to happen. One of the men was from Oregon, where we know one of the sisters ends up living. We thought the US setting for the 1995 plotline meant she’d be with him. I wonder if it was the first airman she helped, Torrance. He seemed rather well-developed for a character that disappeared.

The first line of the book is, “If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.” The narrator is making a point that love is ideal and we can be our ideal selves, while war is the reality and the bad side of humanity. It sets a tone early on that the narrator has done something she feels she needs to be forgiven for.

One of the hardest moments for me as a reader, and when my waterworks of tears for the rest of the book started, was when Ari was taken away. A Jewish woman in my group said it was a hard scene to read. She could see the good side of that decision and know that Ari would be raised in the Jewish faith. But she could also see how wrong it was to take him away from a woman who loved and raised him. It’s a hard decision to make and we were all glad we didn’t have to make it.

Beck’s death was a very conflicting time. It was obvious that Beck had a moral compass and knew what was happening was wrong. He was a prisoner, much like Vianne. He was stuck doing something he didn’t want to under the guise of serving his country. He recognized that it was wrong and went so far as to put himself in harm’s way to help Vianne and Ari. It became even more complicated because he clearly had feelings for Vianne despite having a wife and child at home. We were sad when he died, even if he was a German.

The father’s death was another hard moment. A few women in my group said they figured out that he was part of the resistance before he revealed that fact to Isabelle. When she broke into his bookshop, the one room that was under a good lock and key had a printing press. They realized that meant he was printing material and reasoned that it was for the resistance. Good eye, ladies!

Isabelle’s death was clearly an emotional scene. Hannah has said that this was her favorite scene to write. Isabelle had said to Vianne that her life had been enough so we feel that she’s at peace when she passes. However, being reunited with Gaëton so short a time makes us question what more she would have wanted. I had some issues with the relationship between Isabelle and Gaëton. I felt it was very rushed and flat and I felt it was more like lust than love. Some others felt the same but others thought that it was an accurate depiction of a relationship grown out of a time at war. Things happened faster because there was no guarantee of a future. He was in and out of the book so often that I felt you didn’t get attached to him.

Learning who the narrator was and who Julian was were good twists. Many of us thought it was Isabelle. Mainly, it was due to the line on page 384 where the woman says, “Juliette hasn’t existed for a long time.” I thought she was talking about her persona, Juliette, not her sister, Isabelle. Kudos to Hannah for keeping us guessing up to the end!

Learning the truth about Julian made us ask the obvious question, Did Antoine know? We think he did. On page 510, he talks about choosing to see miracles. Vianne questions if this is his way of saying he knows. He’s choosing not to admit or say aloud that Julian isn’t his. Surviving the war is more important than grudges or being angry. He’s rejoicing in the fact that they’re all alive.

The book forced you to ask yourself if you would put yourself in harm’s way to save someone. What if that person was a stranger? Both sisters risked their lives for total strangers in the end which is an amazing feat. The book built a world where those actions seemed necessary, but they were incredibly risky.

It was a great discussion and I was so glad to talk more about this incredible book with fellow readers. Our next book is Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and I’m looking forward to it.

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: History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

19 Apr

My book club met last week to talk about a book I really enjoyed, History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund. The consensus was that we liked the book but it wasn’t what we expected. The title and the first few chapters gave us a different sense of what we would read than the rest of the book delivered. The young protagonist gave the sense at times that this might be a YA novel, but the themes and writing were clearly not YA. Fridlund has said in an interview that she likes writing the YA perspective but that it didn’t mean her books were YA novels.

The structure of the book was somewhat unusual. We know from the first few pages that Paul will die. The story is like a mystery because we’re trying to figure out why and who. Knowing that he’s going to die gave the whole book a sense of foreboding that kept us on our toes. We kept waiting for it to happen and we didn’t know if he’d be attacked in the woods or fall into the water on a canoe trip. It also made Linda seem sinister. She always seemed a little off and while I personally doubted she would hurt Paul, it made me feel like she’d be complicit somehow. In a way, she was. A bit.

The book was split into two sections, Science and Health. The titles seem to come for the Christian Science text, the book of Science and Health. The book also had two plot lines which some of us struggled with (see my review for my personal grievances). We talked about how they were intertwined. The biggest was grappling with action versus inaction. In both cases, there was someone who felt guilty for doing nothing. Linda struggled with feeling that she should have done more to help Paul. Mr. Grierson struggled with convictions for something he didn’t do but thought of doing. They both felt guilty. When Linda is angry after the trail, she wants to lash out at Patra but she can’t. Instead, she thinks of lashing out at Lilly. The two plots also played with the idea of the predator being prey. While Leo seems like an alpha male predator, he also suffers the death of his son. While Lilly is the teenage girl who ends up ‘in trouble,’ she also ruins Mr. Grierson’s reputation and gets him sent off to jail. The punishment in the two plot lines contrasts as well. Both the Gardner’s and Mr. Grierson did nothing wrong. However, Mr. Grierson’s other crimes were dragged up and he ended in jail. The Gardner’s inaction resulted in their son’s death and they didn’t serve any criminal charges. Christian Science convictions of negligence have varied by state, per one of our group members. In another state, it might have ended differently.

Linda’s home life did not prepare her well for the life she experienced with the Gardners. She finally felt loved in their home and she felt like Patra needed her. She was afraid to act against Patra because she didn’t want to be rejected from the first place she felt loved. Linda was an outcast at school and since Tamika left, she hadn’t had a female friend. She was so desperate to be Patra’s friend that at some points, we wondered if there was anything sexual between them, but ultimately decided there must have been just Linda’s lack of understanding. Linda’s relationship with her mother seemed strained as well. After the trial, the emotional turmoil Linda had to go through, her mother wouldn’t comfort her. We debated if they were really related (we don’t understand the beliefs of their commune very well) and if her mother was mentally stable. The anecdote of her living in the shed for a winter doesn’t emphasize sound judgment.

For anyone interested, I do encourage you to look up a bit about Christian Science. There was some confusion in our group about the differences between Christian Science and Scientology. They are quite different!

We’ll meet once more in May before taking a break for the summer. I always miss these fine folks during my summer adventures!

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: X by Ilyasha Shabazz (2)

5 Apr

As promised, here’s another post about Ilyasha Shabazz’s novel X. This title was the Great Michigan Read selection and I believe I’ve missed all the author appearances so this may be my last post on the book. You can read my first book club discussion and book review as well.

I wondered if the discussions between these two groups would be different but they were surprisingly similar. In both, we admitted some ignorance about Malcolm X overall. Some had read the Biography of Malcolm X or seen the movie, but to many, this was new information.

There was agreement that the time jumps started to have more impact on the plot as the book went on. The farther he was from Lansing and his childhood, the more those memories seemed to guide his decisions and actions, especially upon his return to Boston and his time in jail. Malcolm’s criminal actions were a way of rebelling against what he’d been told when he felt pushed down.

We felt Malcolm was a lot like his father. Both were not afraid to speak up and be strong and loud. Sometimes, what they had to say upset people and unfortunately, we see the way that was punished in both cases. They recognized that they may run a risk but it was the best way to advance the cause they were fighting for.

We continually reminded ourselves how young Malcolm had been when he left home. We thought it would be hard to leave at any age, especially a young 15. It was probably easier to leave because he had been in a foster home and separated from his siblings. If he’d been with his mother or with more family, he would probably have stayed. He didn’t feel great times to his foster family or the system he was living in and it was easy to pick up and leave.

One of the hardest character changes for us to see was Laura. She had been dreaming so high and her aspirations were ripped right out from under her, the way Malcolm’s had been. She was also not able to land on her feet.

We had a lot of questions about Malcolm’s mother. Was Mrs. Little really mentally insane? There were things that pointed to yes and others that were a resounding no. We wondered if she was suffering from depression. The way she let her garden grow and seemed to buckle when she lost her job seemed like she’d lost hope and was no longer the vocal woman we get an impression of in Malcolm’s earlier years. She was a victim of circumstances during the depression so it’s easy to see why she could be in such a difficult position. Her decision to try to ‘pass’ as white when she was so proud of being black seems very planned and we felt that pointed to her not being mentally unstable. It was purposeful for her to act that way as a way of working and providing for her children. She was capable of that so she could be capable of caring for them.

Our next book is one many of you have commented about: The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah! I’m enjoying it so far.

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: X by Ilyasha Shabazz

20 Mar

Here is the first of my two book club discussions that focused on Ilyasah Shabazz’s novel X about her father, Malcolm X. I think it’s worth noting that my two book clubs are a bit different in focus. This club tends to focus a bit more on ‘strange’ books, ones that make you think and take a very different point of view. The other is a much more traditional book club. I think it will be interesting to see how the two different groups perceive the book.

Our leader told us that people in other discussion groups had a hard time with reading a fictionalized account of an actual person. Like the last book our group read, The Paris Wife, this book had to take great liberties as to exact dialogue and fill-in action to account for what’s not known. No one in our group had specific complaints about this, but some in different discussion groups believed that without accurate details, the whole thing was too fictionalized to be taken as fact. I can see that, but I feel that it’s the overall truth, where and who and when, that tells the story, not the specific words that tell the story. The book is aimed at a YA audience and children of this age may be slightly more inclined to believe that every word was true. We thought to call out that the book is a novel on the cover may have been aimed at that age cohort.

I mentioned my opinion that the end of the book seemed rushed and another reader felt that it was more like a teaser for learning about the rest of Malcolm’s life. A few recommended his biography to continue learning about him. The conversion he experienced in prison is true, but we felt the men who pushed him on that path were a bit too convenient, saying things exactly when he was ready to hear them. It was a return to his roots and probably a more gradual process than the book had time for.

Louise Little’s institutionalization was a catalyst in Malcolm’s life. We questioned if she really should have been institutionalized but it’s hard to tell from this novel. She could have been an activist who was deemed a threat to public stability. Or, if she really did need to be institutionalized, she could have suffered from post-partem depression or even PTSD. Given the time period of the depression, it’s easy to see how taking care of eight children would be hard. We questioned the fine line between being too proud to accept public handouts and having hungry children at home. We did notice the comments about the vegetable garden and chicken coop having fallen apart since their father died so maybe she really was neglectful.

There were so many times that Malcolm made the wrong decision when you felt things were finally going to turn around for him. Like many young people, he thought he was invincible. He would never be the one to be lynched or go to jail. That happened to other people, but not him.

The comment Malcolm’s teacher made to him destroyed him and set him on a poor path into the future. He had a very high opinion of that teacher and until that moment he hadn’t experienced much racism in the classroom. He felt like what his father and mother had preached was true, that he could raise himself up on merit. When his teacher said that to him, he internalized it as his father lying to him, not as the teacher pushing him down. When he saw the pride Ella had, he felt like she wasn’t being truthful either and that being pushed down in the dirt was where he was going to end up. It’s so disheartening to see how the comments of one man could steer a boy’s life onto such a destructive path. It really makes you think about what you say and how you can hurt another person.

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 Paris Wife by Paula McClain

19 Feb

Author Paul McClain is coming to my local area to speak next month so my book club decided to read The Paris Wife in anticipating of hearing her speak. I read this book a number of years ago and I heard McClain speak a while back as well. I didn’t re-read the book and I’m not able to go to the presentation so I went to my book club more to listen than anything. I remembered not liking the book and re-read my review before going. I’m not sure if I came away with anything different from what I thought after my initial reading, but it’s always great to hear what these women and men have to say.

McClain was born in 1965 and her background is in education. She taught English and, obviously, taught Hemingway to her students. She said it was when she was revisiting A Moveable Feast that she got the idea for this novel.

There were some readers in the group who were shocked to hear Hemingway lived in Michigan! He’s so often associated with Florida and Paris that Michigan, especially rural Michigan, seems like a stretch. Horton Bay, MI is located close to Boyne and Charlevoix for anyone who knows their Michigan geography. For those who only know a Michigander’s annoying habit of pointing out locations on their hand, it’s the fingernail of the ring finger.

With so many books written about Pound, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, it was refreshing to have something written from a female perspective (Stein excluded). This group was ‘lovingly’ dubbed the Lost Generation. The survivors of World War I, even those who didn’t see battle, were a bit lost and directionless. Many lost friends and family and there was a feeling of no future and no reason to plan for it. It created a sense of carefree living that bordered on recklessness and these writers were defining the lifestyle.

Some readers, like me, felt Hadley was a little flat and a lot of things happened around her without her taking part in them. She tried to fit in with Hemingway, this wonderful younger man, and his friends by drinking and partying. She came off as a saint because she dealt with Ernest’s antics. This plays into my personal frustration with the ‘Famous Wives’ phenomenon we saw a while back (Under the Wide and Starry Sky, The Aviator’s Wife). These women are defined by the men they married. The books do not develop them enough to make the woman herself vivid and interesting to read about. To be fair, I’ve enjoyed books about Zelda Fitzgerald (Z, Call Me Zelda) because she’s her own woman and not defined by Scott. Anyway, I’ll step off this soapbox now…

Someone asked if anyone thought Hadley got pregnant on purpose. A few had suspicions and it seems somewhat plausible. She didn’t want to be alone and wanted to solidify her marriage to Ernest. Some of us were bothered by her not being involved in Bumby’s upbringing, but that was likely a product of the times. We wondered as well if their hands-off parenting was a reaction to their domineering mothers. Instead of being overly involved in their son’s life, they wanted to give him space. We also noted on how that hands-off/hands-on parenting can swing back and forth through time and after a hands-off time with Hippy culture in the 70s, we’ve moved to a very hands-on helicopter parent culture. Hm.

The same reader asked if we thought Hadley lost Ernest’s work on purpose. Her logic was thinking Hadley was jealous of Ernest and the time he spent writing and that if he didn’t have his work, he’d stay home and be near her. It was later admitted that losing his worth started the irrevocable change to their relationship. There wasn’t anyone else in our group who suspected this might have been on purpose.

Many suspected that Ernest suffered from PTSD and that others in the group may have as well. He was very sure of himself and cocky but there were moments when he was weak, crying uncontrollably and an emotional wreck. We also wondered if he had depression. With the number of suicides in his family, it’s likely it could have been a genetic condition.

The affair rubbed many of us the wrong way. There were so many affairs in their circle of friends that Ernest saw it as normal while Hadley hadn’t changed her perspective enough to see it this way. Sections of the book written in Ernest’s voice rationalized it, saying how his friends were able to do it so he should have no problem having an affair as well. What bothered a lot of us was that they were living off Hadley’s money and she should have just cut him off!

I’ve already heard McClain speak and it didn’t sway my opinion of her book much. I wonder if others in the group will have their impressions changed at all by hearing her.

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: Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

6 Feb

I feel like it’s been forever since I went to a book club meeting but I realize it really hasn’t been that long. The holidays always make things seem longer than they are. Our last meeting was to talk about Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin.

We had some background information on the book and author from our discussion leader. This is Shin’s first novel. She started writing short stories and published her first novella at age 22. Her husband is a poet, literary critic, and professor. Shin is the fourth child and oldest daughter of six children. She, much like Chi-hon, moved to Seoul at age 16 to live with her eldest brother.

Shin obviously had a very strong understanding of human relationships and interactions. The characters all had distinct and different reactions to their mom’s disappearance and the way they dealt with one another was well written. The style she chose, writing in 2nd person, was very off-putting when we started reading. Some readers said they got used to it quickly, others over some time. Many of us got so used to it that we didn’t realize the father’s section was written in 2nd person after acclimating to it in Chi-hon’s section.

Some of us saw Mom as a saint while others viewed her as a martyr. She was a good mother, but at a cost to herself that seemed almost unhealthy. We wondered if her headaches were because of a brain tumor if it’s not the commonly speculated Alzheimer’s. We thought it was interesting that she was most like her youngest daughter, the stay-at-home mother. There was a beautiful moment when the daughter is describing for her mother how the food in the kitchen is prepared for the kids, very reminiscent of mom in the kitchen for much of her life.

Food kept appearing in the book at many critical moments. It was a family gathering point, especially for a family that didn’t have much. Food was important to the family when they were growing up poor, not always having the food they needed to eat. It had a bigger meaning in their lives than it has in mine or my fellow readers.

I had the unpopular opinion of not liking the section mom narrated. She kept appearing as a bird, which I found odd. The daughter’s children eventually buried the bird, but it didn’t seem to give mom closure. We continued to learn more about her life, things no one would ever learn about her, as she watched and commented on the world after she disappeared.

We questioned if the children ever accepted their mother’s death. It seemed that Hyung-chol had, and Chi-hon criticized him for going golfing, for doing something with his time other than looking for her. It seems like Chi-hon accepted her death at the end of the book, asking the Virgin to look after her mother the way she looks after her son in death in the Pieta statue.

The next selection is one I’ve read already so I’m going to be picking my own books for a while now. Honestly, it’s a bit of a relief! I get to work on bringing down Mt. TBR!

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 Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

18 Jan

My book club met last week to discuss The Professor and the Madman. We usually read at least one nonfiction book per year and I’m glad we picked this one. The subject was one few of us knew about before reading the book so we were all amazed at what we were reading.

Our discussion leader is a library and we meet at a restaurant on the other side of the parking lot from her location. She was able to grab the compact version of the Oxford English Dictionary with her to our meeting. If that’s the compact version, I’d hate to lift the full version! This copy had the text of nine pages printed on each one. It comes with a magnifier so you can read it!

We started off discussing the author, Simon Winchester, in detail. He’s written a lot more than I realized. The title listing at the beginning didn’t cover all his titles. He picked up his pace of publication in the 1970s and this title is twenty years old. His focus seems to be accessible and readable nonfiction. I’ve heard this referred to as narrative nonfiction and these characteristics are the same things I enjoy in Erik Larson’s books. We found it interesting that Winchester dedicated the book to George Merritt. One of the complaints that several members had about the book was that Winchester’s opinions and voice came through strongly. It was clear he sympathized with Minor. He heralded all of the things he was able to accomplish despite his illness and this rubbed some people the wrong way. Minor was a murderer, even if he was ill. He continued to show signs of illusions and even harmed himself. He may have been a genius, but he needed to be in that facility. He wasn’t misunderstood or unrightfully prosecuted, he was ill.

We looked at the book as having three main characters: Minor, Murray, and the dictionary. Murray was a unique man in that he was so dedicated to a single project and didn’t waver for 58 years. He was also very accepting of Minor despite his housing. We wondered how he would be received today. If it was found out someone with schizophrenia had contributed to a project like the OED, would people react more severely now or in the 1800s?

Minor was one of the top contributors to the OED. While many came and went and some seemed in it for the free books, he kept on. A large part of that was the free time he had in his home. He’s very fortunate that he had the money to receive treatment in that facility. His life would have been very different with his condition if he’d been in a different setting. Presently, paranoid schizophrenia like we conjecture Minor suffered from is treated with ‘upper’ and ‘downer’ pills. We wondered how Minor would have lived with modern treatment. Would the pills have hampered his mind and made it impossible for him to contribute to the project like he did?

The dictionary was a truly massive feat. We were impressed that it was not abandoned during the long effort. It made us really think about life before a dictionary. It’s crazy to think that men like Shakespeare wrote without that resource that many of us take for granted. It’s relatively recently that the dictionary was completed so much of human history was lived without such a resource.

Our next selection is one I’ve already read and really didn’t like. I’m interested to see if the discussion sheds any positive light on it.

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!