Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, 1/20/11

GileadGilead is told by a religious yet realistic old man writing down his story for his young son to read after he’s gone. Those who found Gilead captivating identified with the characters, laughed at the humor, and enjoyed the slow-paced and perceptive stories of John Ames.

We discussed the fizzled storyline involving Jack and Lila, John’s godson and wife. Was it a disappointing aspect of the story structure, or a revelation of the fact that the subplot told us more about John Ames’ fears than the actual feelings of Jack and Lila?

CD didn’t feel that John Ames was a convincing character and was struck by the narrow perspective of the book regarding Jack’s early indiscretion. DC enjoyed the prose, but found the story forgettable; CS skipped over the “tedious” theological reflections, but recommended the audio version of the book. AL struggled to finish Gilead, annoyed by the structure, yet found herself in tears at the end. The scene in which John blessed Jack touched many of us. JS commented on the generational conflict between the fiery, belligerent grandfather and his equally idealistic but pacifist son.

Although JS wasn’t entirely positive about the book, she read aloud from a couple of the funniest bits – the food provided to the bachelor minister by the ladies of the congregation, including the “suspiciously Presbyterian” bean salad and the unwanted yet recurring jello salad. She also pointed to a favorite passage toward the end: “It is worth living long enough to outlast whatever sense of grievance you may acquire. Another reason why you must be careful of your health.”

CS highly recommends Robinson’s book, Home, about the same characters and place, told from a completely different perspective.

Other books and authors recommended during the conversation:

Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain

Penelope Lively

Emma Donoghue, Room

Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge: 10/21/2010

Olive KitteridgeReactions to Olive Kitteridge, the book and the character, seem to depend a great deal on the reader’s history. In our group, there were readers who were happy to spend time in the small town of Crosby, Maine; there were others for whom all stories set in small towns are horror stories. Olive is a complex and difficult character, deeply flawed, with flashes of tenderness.  One in our group called Olive “a monster”; another loved her for “the magnificent job” she did with the rotten hand she was dealt. The short story format appealed to some for the prism-like way it allowed us to come to know Olive and the people of Crosby.  Others would have preferred the story in novel form.  It is not a book for someone seeking a quick pace and page-turning plot!

We were in agreement as to the excellence of the writing and the powerful descriptions of the natural setting.  One reader pointed out the perfection of the first two stories, each of which can stand on its own.  Still, we wondered why this book was selected for the Pulitzer Prize.  According to the Pulitzer Prize website, Olive Kitteridge won in 2009 for “distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life”.  They describe the book as “a collection of 13 short stories set in small-town Maine that packs a cumulative emotional wallop, bound together by polished prose and by Olive, the title character, blunt, flawed and fascinating.”  Take a look at the Pulitzer site for more information, including the other finalists that year.

Don DeLillo, White Noise: 9/16/2010

White Noise
DeLillo’s book won’t win a popularity contest with our group, but it sure got   people talking.  I’d say there was general agreement that the characters and dialogue are shallow and off-putting, but readers’ reactions to the style ranged from bemusement to repulsion.  Although reams of academic articles have been written about it, many of us found White Noise pretentious and sophomoric.  Maybe that’s how DeLillo sees our society… On the plus side, originally published in 1985, the novel seems surprisingly up-to-date, capturing the pervasiveness of advertising and technology that’s so familiar today.  And the humorous bits charmed some of us. The youngest and newest member of the book group spoke articulately about the realism she sees in the story.  She found inspiration in the themes of fear and denial, and excitement in the challenge of reading a difficult yet rewarding work.

Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: 8/19/2010

yiddish policemen's unionJess Walter in Publishers Weekly aptly called The Yiddish Policemen’s Union a “murder-mystery speculative-history Jewish-identity noir chess thriller”. Chabon has imagined a world in which the Jews inhabit a temporary homeland in Alaska, having lost the war for Israel in the 1940’s.

We split down the middle on this unusual detective story. Some readers never wanted the book to end; others had to force themselves to finish.  Those who loved it talked about the vivid setting, the dark yet life-affirming tone, the playfully brilliant writing and quirky characters.  Readers who were not amused found the plot over-complex and the Yiddish vocabulary off-putting. I found it enjoyable yet exhausting.

As always, related titles were part of the discussion. Philip Roth’s alternative history, The Plot Against America asked, what if Charles Lindbergh had been elected President in 1940 instead of Franklin Roosevelt?  Russell Hoban in Riddley Walker and Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange both created new languages for their characters.

Louise Erdrich, The Master Butchers Singing Club, 6/17/2010

Louise ErdrichOn Thursday evening, June 17th, at 7:30 PM, the Waltham Public Library Book Club met to discuss Louise Erdrich’s book, The Master Butchers Singing Club. The book takes place in the fictional town of Argus, North Dakota

Some of the book club members felt that the title was not a good fit. They saw Delphine Watzka as the heroine of this book. In their estimation, the butcher’s singing club was more of a sidebar. Others felt that the juxtaposition of butchers who sing like angels was a good one. We all wondered why there is no apostrophe after the word butchers in the title.

One member opined that this book explores the “violence of war”, the “violence of an abortion.” There is the “quiet beneath the surface of our lives”. Roy Watzka, Delphine’s father and the town drunk personifies the “violence we do to ourselves and others by excessive drinking”.

Click the link below to find out about a stage production of this book.

Many members of the group felt that a lot of what happened in this book could be explained in two words “North Dakota”. For example, when members expressed disappointment at the romance that seemed to be building between Fidelis and Delphine, one person said, “Hey, it’s North Dakota”. Plus, one member noted, “Delphine was always working.”

Group members who were familiar with other Erdrich works, felt that this novel was very different from her overall oeuvre.

Everyone loved to hate the character of Tante. One member even felt sorry for her as she went hunting for a position in her fancy metallic suit.

Some members were sad when Cyprian left and were surprised that Delphine did not miss him more.

The revelation about Delphine’s birth mother horrified some and made sense to others.

One member speculated that the original version of this book must have talked more about the master butchers singing club. She thought that the editor slashed (butchered?) the original.

In any case, we had a lively and interesting conversation. Tonight’s substitute group facilitator is now an ardent fan of Louise Erdrich. I love her use of language and her ability to develop characters who are off the beaten path.

Two butcher’s cleavers up!

Philip Roth, American Pastoral: 2/18/2010

American Pastoral

The consensus of the group seemed to be that this book is like an onion.  Lots of layers.  Intriguing revelations peeled away one after the other.  Can make one weepy.

Stirred up thoughts about the difficulty of knowing others; the inevitability of loss and disappointment in even the most well-lived lives; the terrible decisions parents of disturbed children must make.

BC put it this way:  “It’s not a book you like so much as a book you absorb.”

RN, a big Roth fan, also recommends Roth’s Indignation.

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex: 10/8/09


Readers were either engrossed or put off by the historical beginning section of this novel, but most ultimately found it to be a beautifully written and absorbing exploration of identity.    Eugenides writes of an unusual condition that could easily be made to appear freakish.  However, he writes in such a way that the reader is able to identify with the ordinariness of this character. The humor and tragedy woven throughout are true to life, as are the stories of being different, keeping secrets, and personal (and urban) transformation.  -KT

John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath: 8/13/09

The Grapes of Wrath

The reactions to this book were quite varied. Some readers were profoundly moved by the story of sacrifice, desperation, and a world turned upside down; others were put off by the heavy-handed political message or the “biblical” tone.  For those who had been required to read it in school years ago, most commented that this later reading made a much bigger impression.  One reader said she thought every current member of Congress should  be required to read this book for its powerful messages about the environment, economic choices and the impact of hardship on families.  Personally, I enjoy Steinbeck’s writing skill, from the dialect to the humor, the scenic sweep to the human detail.  -KT

Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants: 7/9/09

Water for Elephants Links:Sara Gruen’s website

Author interview

Reviews on Amazon

Water for Elephants may be the most popular read we’ve had in the past several years: even CD and BC liked this one!   In this novel, Gruen has created a moving portrayal of a frail nursing home resident, and a surprising tale of his younger days as part of the cutthroat Benzini Brothers Circus.

DJ told us that reading Water for Elephants transformed the way she spent time with her stepfather during long stays in a rehabilitation hospital.  Others were reminded of their elderly family members, and the way memory ebbs and flows as time goes on.

We were impressed with Gruen’s research and the vividness of the 1930’s circus setting she created.  The brutality depicted was not gratuitous, but a seemingly realistic aspect of the time and place, and her empathy for all the creatures subject to the circus owner’s cruelty came through clearly.

We were split on the success of the alternating voices of the elderly and the youthful Jacob.  RN enthusiastically recommended the audio version, which features two actors of different ages taking any confusion out of the transition between older and younger narrators.

Tips for related reading from book club members:

Serena by Ron Rash – “a violent story about ambition, privilege, and ruthlessness played out in an Appalachian timber camp in North Carolina during the Depression.” – Library Journal

Circus by Alistair MacLean – a circus performer is recruited by the CIA in a Cold War adventure tale

Jon Papernick, The Ascent of Eli Israel & Other Stories, 6/11/09

The Ascent of Eli Israel Links:

New York Times Review

Papernick’s blog

Reviews on Amazon

Eleven of us met to talk about Jon Papernick’s unsettling collection of short stories.  Several noted the author’s powerful and unique writing style; just about everyone experienced a sense of hopelessness and distress while reading about the characters.  Such darkness isn’t surprising considering that all of the tales take place in Israel, the focus of a great deal of distressing and seemingly hopeless news stories over the years. However DJ, DS & JS were frustrated with the unrelentingly disturbing tone of Papernick’s stories, longing for acknowledgment of the great number of thoughtful Israelis that don’t engage in extreme and bizarre behavior.

Papernick’s stories spurred lively discussion about and tales of members’ travels in Israel.  DJ told us about the dramatic differences in her experiences walking through Jerusalem, depending on her company – Jewish, Arab, or walking solo.  BC reviewed the history of the creation of the state of Israel, pointing out the colonialism, war, and displacement of peoples that have contributed to the apparently unresolvable conflict over the land that exists today.  He felt the stories would be more meaningful to those who are familiar with the history of the Middle East.

This reader was stunned by the story of “An Unwelcome Guest.” A young Jewish settler plays a deadly game of backgammon with an old Arab who mysteriously appears in his kitchen late at night with family in tow.  JW felt this story should be required reading at the United Nations.

Those who wished for more hope and wit in the tales will be interested to know that Papernick’s latest work is full of humor. A Waltham resident, Papernick read from his as yet unpublished novel, Sharpy, at the Library on June 25th.  In the chapter he read to us, the main character, a con artist on the run, meets his girlfriend’s intimidating parents when she brings him to their home to stay for a while. His writing is as fine as ever, and he had us laughing out loud.

As always, we heard tips for related reading from well-read members:

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