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

March by Geraldine Brooks: 2/12/09

March March

by Geraldine Brooks

Brooks’ story explores the Civil War, marriage, and passionate idealism. Her main character, March, sparked a fair amount of controversy in our group. Is he a sanctimonious, narcissistic loser, or an admirable idealist with the courage to keep on trying even in the face of setbacks?

March strikes me as a (less successful) version of a class of men – including Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King – whose ability as charismatic leaders comes with a corresponding lack of ability to behave as reliable husbands and fathers.

Several readers wondered how his wife tolerated him. The change to Marmee’s voice toward the end was a great relief to them. March and Marmee’s thorough misunderstandings at several profound moments in their marriage struck some as laughably familiar.

Overall, we were impressed by Brooks’ research and her writing skills. JS was touched by her clear depiction of individual freed slaves, many of very high intelligence in spite of a lack of formal education, all struggling to determine what aspects of their freedom they could trust.

For TL the key point to the story comes on page 268 when former slave Grace Clement says,
“Go home, Mr. March. If you sincerely want to help us, go back to Concord and work with your own people… Be a father to your daughters. That, at least, you can do. They are the ones who need you.”

Geraldine Brooks
Geraldine Brooks
Geraldine Brooks From Wicked Local Watertown
More about Brooks and “March”:
  • For more articles on Brooks and her books, try Infotrac Onefile, available at the library, or from home
    (with a Minuteman Library Network card).

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason: 10/16/08

The Piano Tuner The Piano Tuner

by Daniel Mason

Mason’s novel takes place in the ethnically and militarily fractured Burma of the 1880’s. Sadly, over a hundred years later, the situation has many similarities – witness the military government’s refusal of international aid after this year’s devastating cyclone. JOS was in Burma few years ago and even then her driver would not venture into Shan territory after dark.

Our group had many questions after reading this book:

    Why did Drake stay so long ? Many readers were surprised he didn’t go right home, although a reference to the Lotus Eaters gives a clue.
    Why a piano? Why a piano tuner?
    Why didn’t Carroll ever play the piano after it was tuned?
    Was Drake a pawn from the beginning?
    Where were the other Englishmen serving with Carroll in Mae Lwin?

Many of us enjoyed the portrayal of Drake’s character: a man dedicated to and absorbed by his craft, overwhelmed by the contrast between his familiar middle class England and the seductions of Burma. But the English characters “sounded” as if they were speaking in American rhythms, and many readers found the long letters tedious. Most found the relatively abrupt ending jarring and distressing. RP started the discussion by exclaiming, “What a dirty trick!”

CD has read that Werner Herzog is developing a movie based on this book. He feels this is a perfect match, as Herzog is known for bringing “borderline crazy actors to remote locations” and pushing them to the limit for excruciatingly long times.

Daniel Mason
Daniel Mason
Danel Mason Asian Review of Books on The Piano Tuner

More about Mason & The Piano Tuner:
  • For more articles on Mason and his books, try Infotrac Onefile, available at the library, or from home
    (with a Minuteman Library Network card).

Doctorow’s The March: 3/13/08

The March
The March by E.L. Doctorow

As often happens, there was a range of reactions to this month’s book, from enthusiastic to lukewarm. Less typically, some of the most positive comments were from CD, who really enjoyed this one. He was intrigued by the combination of historical and fictional characters, and did some research to find out which was which. (Sadly, my notes aren’t detailed enough to tell you what he found — maybe he’ll write in and remind us.) He did point out that at least one of the fictional characters makes a repeat appearance in another Doctorow books: and older and possibly more cold-blooded Wrede Sartorious appears in the earlier novel Waterworks.

RN told tales of his civil war battlefield tour and what he’d learned about the southern perspective on the Civil War, which he says was referred to even recently as the “War of Northern Aggression”. For more on those times, RN recommends Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels, Geraldine Brooks’ March and Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson.

Others voiced frustration with the lack of character development, the lack of quotation marks and the presence of grammatically incorrect – or at least awkward – writing. DS was itching to take her red pen to the manuscript and help out with some editing. Some mentioned characters they particularly enjoyed: Arly & Will were entertaining and intriguing, and Pearl was inspiring. But was Pearl too empowered and insightful to be believed – for a young woman born and raised in slavery? We missed Emily when she dropped out of the story too soon.

Some enjoyed the wide sweep of the story and the cinematic writing enough not to be bothered by the lack of depth. TL couldn’t put it down, and I sure found it entertaining. GC, BC and B all commented on how vividly the book described aspects of the military undertaking: the gore of battle and surgery, the boredom of an endless march, and the enormity of the troop movements and losses.

In related reading, GB recommends Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin; B enjoyed Ben Ames Williams’ House Divided and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain.

Doctorow fans will want to mark their calendars for his appearance in Concord, MA on May 20,2008 The Concord Festival of Authors and The Walden Woods Project’s Stewardship Lecture Series.

Author Biography from BookBrowse E.L. Doctorow
E.L. Doctorow NPR Review and links to Doctorow interviews

More to read and hear by and from E.L.D.

  More on The March:
  • For more articles on Doctorow and his books, try Infotrac Onefile, available at the library, or from home (with a Minuteman Library Network card).

The Lost German Slave Girl: 1/10/08

The Lost German Slave Girl The Lost German Slave Girl:
The Extraordinary True Story of Sally Miller and Her Fight For Freedom in Old New Orleans

by John Bailey

This book was a surprise! Several book club members didn’t expect to enjoy reading a legal history book they’d never heard of by an author unknown to them. Many of those same members ended up staying up very late at night to finish what turned out to be a real page-turner.

The characters of the ambitious Yankee lawyer, the cantankerous blind judge, the imperious slave owner, the determined German immigrants and the mysterious Sally/Salome drew us all in. The city of New Orleans itself in all its antebellum wildness came to life: the circus atmosphere of the wharves, swarming with goods and people from all over the world and all levels of society; performances of high opera as well as shows featuring dogs, bears, bulls and tigers matched in bloody fights to the death; the Quadroon balls at the doors of which men checked their bowie-knives and revolvers as casually as they checked their coats.

If the detailed picture of life in New Orleans in the early 1800s fascinated everyone, many confessed to skimming over the legal details. Even so, Bailey never lost anyone for long, skillfully drawing us into the complex, foreign yet familiar situation.

CD wanted Bailey to spell out more clearly the horrors of the legal and social system serving as the context for his story. As Bailey’s editor, CD would have asked him to be more pointed, more clearly articulating the insanity of a legal system that protected the rights of some residents to own others as if they were nothing but property, based on clearly arbitrary “racial” distinctions.

No one in our group was very concerned about the liberties Bailey took in creating conversations, scenes and character’s states of mind – Bailey states up front that he uses these techniques, and we were glad he used them so effectively alongside all of the historical documents he did have available.

Not everyone agreed with Bailey’s conclusions about Sally’s true identity – JS didn’t want the author’s opinion; CD didn’t care what the author thought. In any case, the truth of Sally’s origins is something no one will ever know for certain.

About John Bailey
Washington Post Logo Washington Post review
Q & A with John Bailey  from Grove Press John Bailey
  For more articles on Bailey and his books, try Infotrac Onefile, available at the library, or from home (with a Minuteman Library Network card).
More on The Lost German Slave Girl:  
  Reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist & School Library Journal
  A Reading Guide from Borders books
  A Review from

Great Short Works of Mark Twain: Thursday, July 12, 2007

Great Short Works: Twain I have been an author for 20 years and an ass for 55.
Mark Twain, a Biography

We had a small group this time, but as always, a mix of reactions. A couple of us were delighted with the merciless “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” CD plans to use part of this rant in his writing class. Then we wondered what all the fuss over the “Jumping Frog” was about, and CL pointed out the fun of reading it “Clawed back into a Civilized Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil” after a translation into very bad French.

Some marveled at the vividness of “Old Times on the Mississippi,” with its wry description of the dreams of young boys, the lesson of the Pilot’s Association, and a poignant portrait of a young man slowly mastering what seems to be an impossibly large and changing body of knowledge. GC found this section to be tedious and discouraging, with so much detail about the river. We wondered why the most dense and lengthy piece was placed first. MG suggested it was because of its significance as the story of Twain’s name and identity, and as a breakthrough series in the 1875 Atlantic Monthly.

We laughed at Twain’s disfigured little conscience in “The Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut” and groaned in sympathetic agony with “The Story of a Speech.” Not everyone made it through to the end of the “Mysterious Stranger,” but we’re told it has a mind-boggling twist at the end.

As often happens, even those of us who aren’t real fans come away glad to have had a chance to read and reflect on some writing we can really sink our teeth into.

Mark Twain in His Times:Full of images and information
“Written and Directed by Stephen Railton, Department of English, University of Virginia”
Twain reading Directory of Mark Twain’s maxims, quotations, and various opinions
by Barbara Schmidt
The Mark Twain House in Hartford, CT:A required trip for all Twain fans The Hartford House
Scrapbook PBS – Mark Twain: A Film Directed by Ken Burns