Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Nine, Inside The Secret World of the Supreme Court

Fall is a spectacular time in the Northwest, especially before the rain comes. The trees turn the most magnificent colors of red, orange and yellow and the nights are crisp and cool. This comment is in no way related to the book that we read in the month of October, but an undisputed fact.

The Nine, Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, by Jeffrey Toobin was our pick and it was universally approved by we readers. Book group usually starts with a half an hour to an hour of simply catching up with each other, we discuss life events, kids, work, politics before we get down to the discussion. This night was different, as soon as our last member arrived the discussion started before we even sat down to dinner.

The Nine is an apt and accessible description of the inner workings of the Supreme Court, how the Justices are selected, confirmed and how they approach their work. Toobin interviewed staffers of the Justices and gives us insight into the not often seen personalities of some of the most powerful people in our nation.

We were unsure as to how the book was structured, as it wasn't chronological and it didn't quite follow the life of the major cases i.e. Roe v. Wade or Bush v. Gore, but we found this book to be interesting and enjoyable none the less.

It is also our opinion that some of the Justices staffers must have been more forthcoming with anecdotes and information, or that some of the Justices just didn't have that much to offer. The description of Clarence Thomas and how he reached the end of the 2007 session without asking a single question at any of the cases was amazing to us.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Highest Tide, Jim Lynch

The Highest Tide is a fiction story told from the perspective of a 13 year old boy who has a love of the Pacific Northwest waterways. He combs the tidal flats of the bay near his Olympia home. During his late night explorations he encounters unusual marine life that brings him attention.

Miles has a collection of interesting friends including a funny peer that provides comic relief and a fun insight into how teen boys educate each other about sex. Miles has a sweet relationship with a neighbor whom is a surrogate mother figure. She is also a seer and predicts some unusual activities that change the face of their small community.

In addition to Miles’ buddy, and psychic neighbor he is in love with the 18 year old hip and troubled neighbor and is mentored by her father. The relationship with his parents is strained and he struggles with the fact that their marriage isn’t as stable as he would prefer.

We didn’t have a lot to discuss regarding this story. We analyzed the relationships and reviewed the incredible amount of information provided about marine life. There didn’t seem to be an underlying message for the reader, but the story was enjoyable, the characters were diverse.

Unlike most discussions, we relied on the “book group questions” in the back of the book. That generally happens when we like the book, but the story is unremarkable.

Creative Writing

Oh gosh, the primary poster on this site has been distracted and is a book group meeting recaps behind. She will try to catch up before leaving for a 3 week holiday, but you may need to be happy with the following poem written by one of our members:

we’ve traveled the globe
from the Northern Territories
to the Congo,
from Mao’s China to Lincoln’s Civil War.

witnessing histories…mysteries…hilarities…atrocities.

we’ve delighted in
fish raining from the sky
and talking cats…and talking dogs
and bridges to counties
that span laughter
for more than a decade

we’ve become more human
by seeing life through the eyes
of gorillas,
and know-it-alls.

sixteen years of forty
have we shared this mutual admiration

of exploring new worlds

between the pages
of the past
the future
and within ourselves.

Friday, September 12, 2008


Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the stunning story of a young woman who was born into a strict Muslim family in Somalia and whose life took her to Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands and ultimately the US.

She questioned her upbringing, the interpretations of the Koran, stood up for herself and others, she got out of an arranged marriage, sought asylum, earned her college degree and even became a member of the Dutch Parliament.

She describes in detail the female castration ceremony. The act is described as painful and is frankly hard to read, but Ali also describes for the reader the cultural and social aspects of the act.

Throughout her story, Ali struggles with the incongruity she finds between the culture and norms she is born into and what she finds in real life. Her questioning of the "rules" costs her the relationship with her father, and the rest of her family. When she comes to the Netherlands she finds that her voice is one that people long to hear. She speaks out and becomes the target of death threats and is placed into protective custody - a protection that she finds oppressive.

Infidel is inspiring and in spite of the subject matter accessible. We discussed at length Ali's ability to change her narration style as her story progressed. When writing about life in Somalia as a young child Ali's 'voice' doesn't sound like that of a college educated member of Dutch Parliament.

Ali also does not vilify Muslims and takes care to honor them while she openly questions and discounts many of the teachings that she finds inconsistent.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Under The Banner of Heaven

June 26th we gathered together at Heathers to discuss Under The Banner Of Heaven, A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer. Before we could get to the book we had to celebrate the addition to our book group family, baby Rees. Greatly anticipated and very early we are all thrilled for his arrival, and to see mom up and around and off bed-rest.

UTBOH tells the story of a brutal murder of a woman and her infant daughter whose lives were ended by the brothers of her ex-husband. They believed that God told them what they needed to do and thus are not guilty of any crime.

In telling this story, Krakauer presents the history of the Mormon church and how some of the more radical branches came about. It is not an entirely unsympathetic view of the main Mormon church but the offshoots aren't so easily presented. Krakauer describes the marriages of men to young girls (14/15) and rituals associated with that as "rape" - which it very much appears to be from an outsiders perspective.

He also highlights some of the more incongruous 'laws' handed down from God as convenient. Men may marry as many women as he is attracted to, because God has made the attraction, but a woman may only be with her husband. (a paraphrase.) So, if he's hot for some other woman it has been divined by God, but if she is attracted to another man it is a sin worthy of severe punishment. Sweet! Sign me up.

Krakauer devotes most of the book to the non-traditional Mormon groups and our book group was left with wanting more information on the primary church. Our discussion was robust and covered many topics including the nature of religion, how people just accept what is presented to them as facts and the "indoctrination" of children into all religions.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Travels with My Aunt, Graham Greene

Oddly enough, for a gaggle of well read 29+ year olds (see how funny we are) most of us hadn't read much, if any of Graham Greene's work. Mr. Greene is, for those of you who live under a rock, the author of Orient Express, The Quiet American, and Our Man in Havana - to name only a few.

Travels with My Aunt is a metamorphosis story of a retired banker (aka DULL) who meets his quirky, demanding and lawbreaking aunt at his mother's funeral. Henry is the narrator and story teller, but Aunt Augusta is the heart and driver of the story that spans multiple continents. Henry is uptight, pierced and distanced from the world while Augusta is, at the age of 74, still squeezing out every drop of excitement and drama from life.

We all found the writing accessible and truly enjoyable. The characters were well drawn, and complex. They were also interwoven into each others experiences with ease. The humor of Aunt Augusta that was extolled on the dust jacket didn't quite translate into laughter, but she is quite amusing.


1) Mr Greene's resolution of the "status" of our main character was distasteful to us. Perhaps in the golden age of 1969 morals aren't what they are today -- but we sincerely doubt we have progressed so far in (sigh) 39 years.

2) The Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, Celebrating the Graham Greene Centennial 1904-2004 with Introduction by Gloria Emerson was disappointing to put it mildly. Ms. Emerson's "introduction" was a complete plot summary rather than the expected background and stage setting. Within four paragraphs she gives away the first major bombshell of the story and then goes on to work her way through the entire cast of characters explaining their ultimate end states. She doesn't hold back ANYTHING.. . who dies, how, when and why. If you're a high school student and don't want to be bothered to read this novel (although it is enjoyable) feel free to just read the introduction. *grrrrr* Shame on you Ms. Emerson!

Before you start posting comments that we've given away that someone dies, just try to think of an adult novel where someone doesn't die. Heck, even in Peter Pan someone gets it!

Next up for us... Under the Banner of Heaven.

Friday, May 16, 2008

An Unquiet Mind, Memoir of Moods and Madness

An Unquiet Mind, a Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison is the story of a young woman's decent into mental illness and her struggle to not only survive but to thrive personally and professionally.

Jamison spends a good portion of her book on her professional life and how her bi-polar disorder was accepted and not accepted by colleagues and mentors. She does craft a sympathetic view of the thought processes and drivers behind behaviors of individuals living with this illness. Her descriptions of the manic highs are dizzying whirlwinds of activity and thoughts. The description of the depressive lows were a little less first person.

Her descriptions of the suicidal thoughts and justifications behind her personal attempt were unique and interesting. (For this BG member, provided a little relief regarding the suicide of a family member that occurred more than 30 years ago. Not a fresh wound, but a wound none the less.)

Our discussions centered on her story telling methods, the level of support needed to maintain , and a little grousing about her lack of build up of new "characters." She experiences a profound loss and within 5 pages is three years down the road. (I don't have my copy of the book so I'll beg forgiveness if my number of pages and years are off.)

Next up: Graham Greene. We're headed to the classics.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

This book, like Eat, Pray, Love is everywhere. People on the bus are reading it, folks at work are carrying it around in their bags, bookstores have it on the shelf of staff favorites. The New York Times rated it one of the ten best books of the year - how could we not read it?

STiCP is a clever novel about a girl, a smart girl in her final year of high school. This description sounds trite compared to the intricate plot the author tries to weave for us. A plot that contains murder, suggestions of inappropriate teacher / student relationships, lies, horrors of high school boys kissing and telling and worst of all...trying to make friends in a small town school.

The author was able to capture with acute accuracy some of the social inner workings of high schoolers. Our heroine, Blue, has a connection with a boy in her circle of kind-of-friends which he not only denies, but mocks in a public forum as a way to keep the social stigma is hanging over her squarely off him. This small and not important scene has played out in high schools and junior high schools forever, and the author uses it as a way to show just how important not being the outcast is.

STiCP is filled with flawed and unflattering characters. Even our heroine is not without an irritating trait. Marisha Pessl (the author) uses a device to show us how smart and clever Blue is. All throughout the book as Blue is narrating her story she adds annotations and references to help us better understand her story. This device gets old (see your kid asking you "Are we there yet?" for the 90th time in an hour.) Some are quite funny, but mostly they are over used and quickly ignored.

Pessl does foreshadowing well, giving us snippets of events that appear to be one thing but after we are clued in to reality are definitely something different. Some of those nuances were missed by a few of our readers, who are very bright and because of that we (I) believe that STiCP is one of those books that is better after discussing it with others.

STiCP wraps plot points up quite neatly, maybe too much so, and even though we have had almost 400 pages of evidence that Blue is bright, her great epiphany doesn't completely ring true. This reader suspects that no kid, no matter how bright could pull all the given clues together and end up with the masterful conclusions attributed to our hero.

Next book... a non-historical, non-fiction. Having had some serious issues with some of the novels we've been reading lately we're taking a break from fiction. We'll be back in April! See you then.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

2007 Favorites & Least Liked

The discussion for 2007 Book of the Year was not a simple one. It took a long time to vote and it was clear we were torn. Even the title of Worst Book of the year wasn't a violent decision for some. For others there were emphatic reminders to the undecided about the most ridiculous plot points in an effort to sway the vote.

2007 Book of the year went to Omnivore's Dilemma (with a close second to Team of Rivals.)

Snow and The Worst Hard Time had some strong backers for least liked, but in the end Peony in Love garnered the least favorite title.

2007 Book List

The 2007 official book list:

  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami
  • The Looming Tower, Al-Qaeda And The Road To 9/11, Lawrence Wright
  • Snow, Orhan Pamuk
  • Water For Elephants, Sara Groen
  • Peony in Love, Lisa See
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini
  • Team of Rivals, The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, A.J. Jacobs
  • The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Eagan
  • The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

We finished out 2007 with another book by Haruki Murakami whom we read last year. (Kafka On the Shore) Wind-Up Bird follows the journey of a man whose marriage is in trouble. His search for his missing cat brings into his life an odd grouping of people - a 16 year old girl, a war veteran, a mute boy, faceless people, prostitutes and the worst... in-laws.

Set in modern Tokyo, Murakami deftly introduces a world that is neither real nor fantasy. His introduction of such things as alternate worlds under the ground are so well done that the reader doesn't question the reality presented even when the characters question it.

Murakami's style is very accessible in spite of the sometimes odd direction. He is very good at ending a chapter in the middle of a story which keeps you reading. He also intersects multiple stories together so while you're hanging on to finish one story Murakami sucks you into another. The connection between the story lines are subtle and if the two books we've read are an indication of his style, the subtlety is intended.

Our discussion of the book ranged from a debate about the metaphysical world, the nature of defilement, the translation of the book, and reoccurring themes. Cats are prominent, phone-sex pops up, baseball and many western references from music to popular culture.

The biographies of Murakami explain that he was (is) influenced by and enjoys western music, he was inspired to write his first novel while at a baseball game and that his writing style (short succinct chapters) is partly due to the fact that he wrote his first novel during breaks while at work. There are a few roaming cats on the Murakami website, which doesn't explain the significance.

Looking up Japanese mythology and cats the main reference is to the Beckoning Cat, or the manekineko . This cat, long long ago, stood in the door of the Gotoku-ji temple and raised her paw in the traditional Japanese beckoning gesture to a feudal lord who was passing by.

The feudal lord followed the cat into the temple and instantly, a lightning bolt struck the place where the lord had been standing. Thus the cat had saved his life. From then on, the manekineko was considered as an incarnation of the Goddess of Mercy.

The Gotoku-ji Temple now houses dozens of statues of this Cat, and owners of lost or sick cats stick up prayer boards with the image of the Beckoning Cat in this temple.

In business the manekineko is said to bring success. This is because her raised paw beckons in customers. It also welcomes in personal happiness and harmony. A black Beckoning Cat brings health, while a gold one, which is quite rare, brings in riches. Beckoning Cats are often sold as money boxes and in a house they are supposed to beckon in good friends.

Finally, our discussion came around to the purchasing of the book itself. More than two of us had the experience where the book was not for sale on the shelves of the bookstore. We also had a similar experience with the Kafka book. Combing through the Internet (google) the best reference to this amazingly references a Seattle bookshop owner. (Just a guess Michael Coy.)

The New York Times examines what books are shoplifted the most.

At a major independent bookstore in Seattle, the senior buyer said graphic novels, as well as books about the Beats and tattoos, disappear pretty often. He added, interestingly, that the enigmatic novels of the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami (pictured) have begun to disappear at a fast clip. His explanation: “In his own way, Murakami is a subversive writer with an outlaw sensibility. His characters have this Everyman thing going on, but they are also working against the grain.”

During the course of the evening only one major complaint was raised and that was related to the seemingly unrelated story lines, although not everyone had the same experience. Some of u s (me) missed a major plot point in a "minor" story chapter and so we say to you... pay attention!