Wednesday, September 26, 2012


Most of us
 Ah, the annual weekend getaway.  This year, to reduce the chances of scheduling conflicts we picked our weekend early in the year.  Sadly, one of our members had the crud and didn't join us, but the trick of picking a late summer/fall weekend in January paid off as we were all free.

Unfortunately, our selected location spot was virtually uninhabitable due to the smoke from the Eastern Washington fires, so we (Melinda) scrambled to locate an alternate spot.  She worked her connections and came up with a cabin on the water on Orcas Island.  Sounds awesome right?  Drive up to Anacortes and take the ferry to beautiful, isolated Orcas Island.  We were happy until someone figured out that not only are there only 3 boats a day to Orcas, but that there was a girl scout event taking place and 500 dads and kids were going to be jockeying for the same boats.

Scramble again, and we (again, Melinda) used out (her) super powers and found a THIRD, vacant cabin for the weekend.  This gem was on Whidbey Island, not as isolated, but boats every 30 minutes.   Yeah!

This place was cute as a button. We were warned that it had a "camp kitchen" but other than the tight space and the shorty refrigerator it was perfect.  We whipped up  a couple great dinners, and two marvelous breakfasts.  
Saturday night we sat down to discuss our book club selection. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo.

I don't think I was the only one who was surprised to learn that this story about families living in the slums of Mumbai was not fiction.  The tales of what was happening to them seemed so far fetched that it had to be a conglomeration of events that were molded into an interesting tale.  Nope - all true.  

Let me just say this, the US legal system may be difficult to navigate and skewed to a point where the wealthy have an advantage, but you do not want to be dealing with the legal system in Mumbai.  Everyone you come across has their hand out and are working you for a payment to make your case go away.  Not all of these folks have the authority or ability to do what they say, but they will gladly wipe you out to do it.  
The discussion about the book was good, but there was little controversy and we all seemed to like it equally.   That makes for a quick talk and little fireworks.  Note to authors everywhere:  our write ups will be far more interesting if you can irritate all or parts of us.  This business of writing an engaging, good book is boring.

Other topics discussed over the weekend was our health.  Mostly everyone is fine, but have typical aches and pains associated with not being 22 anymore.  

A discussion arose about affirmations and how women don't typically get all the affirmations they need from their husbands but get (and give) lots of affirmations to friends and colleagues.  Men typically get all the affirmations from their wives and get little if none from their friends and colleagues.  We commented that our one member who has a female partner must get really tired of  must get so tired of validating each other all day long.  She said it was terrible; they can never get up from the dinner table

H: That was a great dinner
G: Thank you for saying that, you’re so nice.
H: It’s so kind of you to notice, you’re very observant.
G: That’s sweet.  I love that about you.
H: Thanks! I noticed that you moved those dirty socks, you’re so tidy.
G: I get it from you, you’re very easy to live with
H: thank you
G: no, thank you
H: No!  Thank you 

During the day Saturday there was a bike ride into Langley while a couple of us took the less active route and stopped by a farmers market.  We met for lunch and enjoyed the Djangofest festivities.  For the uneducated (or regular) people, Djangofest celebrates the gypsy jazz style of Django Reinhardt, who was a Belgian jazz guitarist and composer.  As we dined Al fresco at the Useless Bay Cafe a gaggle of guitarists were jamming on the lawn.  It was very pleasant.

We didn't have time for a fire or a trip to the hot tub, but it was a relaxing get away none the less.

Our borrowed cabin
try doing this at night...

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

In the Garden of Beasts

There comes a time in every readers life when they ask "How many Holocaust books can I stand to read?"  This particular non-fiction book delves into the events during Adolf Hitler's rise to power as witnessed by the American Ambassador William E. Dodd, who arrived in Berlin in 1933 with his family.  If you're only going to read one book in your lifetime about this dark, but significant historical period, In the Garden of Beasts is not the book to read.   The author, Larson, makes the assumption that the reader knows what happened once the war started and how events unfolded.  There are references to the camps, but since the book is about Dodd and his experiences those horrific details aren't delved into.

This focus on the experiences of Dodd and his colorful family (mostly his daughter Martha) is an interesting view.  Larson doesn't take a stand as to weather or not Dodd is a hero or a bumbling fool who could have been more adamant about what he was seeing in Berlin.  It is clear that it was a complicated world and that the messages from the Hitler camp was that they wanted peace.  Sure, there was the slight Jewish Problem but mostly that issue was handled away from the everyday life of "regular" people.   The slow and steady crimp of the freedoms and liberty were so (forgive the phrase) well done that no one felt the need (or ability) to protest.  Those that did, as we know, were promptly dealt with.

As a group, we felt it was an accessible book but hard to read at times.  Hard, not because of the subject matter but because the events were happening and it is so obvious to us with the luxury of knowledge that something needed to be done.  Dodd was in the position to influence the American participation but his focus on diplomacy was maddening.

Larson suggests that Dodd was sent to keep relations with the Germans in good standing because they owed the US money and if the relationship broke down then the likelihood of being repaid dwindled.  It all comes down to money.

Dodd and his adult daughter Martha are the most well drawn characters in this book.  His wife and son are present, but as they didn't keep their own diaries their perspective and participation seem to be to the side.  Martha was busy while in Germany.  She "dated" a number of men, had affairs and was excited to dine with Hitler.   After the truth about what was happening and about to happen in Germany came out I doubt Martha was so thrilled with her encounter.

Perhaps it is because Erik Larson is a local author, but most of us encountered strangers who felt the need to comment on this book when we were seen reading it.  It was good, but not the end all be all WWII political account.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

To the end of the land

To the End of the Land (Vintage International)To over simplify, this book is about mourning someone who is not yet dead, or whose death may be immanent.  In the prologue we meet two young people in an Israeli hospital who have essentially been left on their own due to a conflict raging outside.  Ora and her young friend Avram connect, share secrets and as their time together wears on he brings his silent, and also very ill roommate Ilan into their circle.

Turn the page and it is more than 25 years later.  Ora is devastated to learn that her son has voluntarily reenlisted in order to serve at the West Bank.  Ora's husband, Ilan (what!?) and their son Adam are on a holiday, and rather than stay home and wait for the inevitable knock on the door informing her of her son Ofer's death she drops everything, sort of kidnaps Avram and goes for a walk throughout Galilee.

As the walk, she heals a broken Avram by telling him every detail of Ofers life, his birth, his growth, his stubbornness, and his compassion. As Avram learns more and more about the son he fathered, but never parented (I'm not ruining it, it is not a secret) he is able to shed the pain of his own horrific army experience.

They walk and talk and avoid all news and modern communication in order to delay the inevitable for Ora.

Our readers mostly finished this book (three read to completion, two to almost the end, and one read to a certain point then skipped ahead to the last two chapters) we had one hold out who didn't become engaged.  (There is no judgement from me on that front, sometimes a book doesn't grab you and it is ok to move on!)

My notes from the meeting are as follows:

The narrative was repetitive, with Ora unable to move past her belief that her son was dead but very important details of the characters and their story unfolded when you were not expecting it.

The consensus was that Ora's plight was raw, honest and amazing, but that it was hard to read.

There were several stories that gave insight into what life must be like for people living in this perpetual land of upheaval.   Ora rides the public buses to markets that have been attacked by suicide bombers.  She seems to enjoy stepping on a new bus and having the regular riders assess if she herself is a potential threat, and then as they get to know her she assesses strangers who get on the bus.  Is she facing her fear, or testing fate in order to feel closer to the reality of the conflict?

These episodes point out the fragility of life.  We, in the US for the most part have the luxury of believing we will live into our old age, but the Israeli's don't have that safety.  They are aware that going to the market for milk is a dangerous activity and they have a different relationship with death.  We agreed that a mother would mourn her child to the same level regardless of geopolitical circumstance, but we couldn't decide which would be worse, a constant nagging "it could happen today" feeling or the utter shock of an unexpected death.

So much of this book is centered on Ora and her storytelling, but it is also a lovely tale about fatherhood.

The Master and Margarita

I'll be honest and tell you that this book lost me on about page 3 and I gave it about 50 more pages of total confusion before I gave up the fight.

After attending our discussion (or their discussion) it seems I missed out on a book that was worth the effort.   However, with a character list that includes  a large walking, talking black cat, several slightly odd Soviet writers and Satan.

I gathered there are several plot lines running, including commentary on life in Russia under the Stalin regime and a reworking of the stories of
Pontius Pilate and Faust.

The discussion of the book, especially the Pontius Pilate (or Pilot as I always thought he was named) was nicely timed at our near Easter event.   Pontius Pilate was the judge who authorized the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  At one point he 'washed his hands' to show he wasn't responsible for the execution of Jesus, but still sent him to his death.  In The Master & Margarita he is living with his conscience in a never ending state of penance. 

Of our readers who (mostly) finished the book, the reviews were that it was worth the effort.  I walked away from our discussion with a renewed interest to give it a second try.  It is now on the night stand atop the other book that I didn't read that they loved... War and Peace.  I'll get right on it.

Friday, February 17, 2012

State of Wonder

We've read Ann Patchett's work before, Bel Canto and The Magician's Assistant, and both books were appreciated.  Bel Canto even garnered the oh so coveted Seattle Girls Book Group Favorite Book of the Year title.  It truly is an honor that all authors aspire to achieve, well perhaps that may be overstating it a bit, but you catch my drift.  This is an author that we as a group have liked and are willing to keep reading her work.  I will tell you this isn't the case with all the authors.  I do recall hearing a statement regarding a different author (who will remain unnamed) "I'll never give her another *bleep* moment of my life... EVER!" um... ouch.

State of Wonder is the story of Dr. Marina Singh, a researcher for a pharmaceutical development company, who is sent to the deepest jungle in Brazil to track down a doctor who has been conducting research regarding a possible infertility product.  She doesn't really know where she's going, and her friend and colleague who was sent before her has died doing what she is now being asked to do.

In tracking down the doctor, discovering the status of the research and the details about her lost friend Dr. Singh has to face many issues, the jungle, an intimidating and ruthless head of research, the reality of life in the jungle with a tribe of people with different customs, no common language and the ethics of what is right vs. how things are 'supposed' to be done.

During our discussion, we talked a lot about the story, the plot, certain pivotal events and we were very sad that not everyone finished the book. There's a LOT that happens in the last third of the book and we couldn't discuss anything without giving it all away.

Our discussion quickly turned to a discussion regarding the concept of eliminating infertility.  The question was, what if we had the medical technology to enable women to have a baby at any age?  What would the implications be and who gets to decide how old is too old to have a baby?   Don't look at this for an answer, it was a general discussion with no concrete answers although we did agree that the doctor that facilitated the Octo-mom nightmare acted irresponsibly.

We also discussed and wondered about the level of research Ms. Patchett conducted as she wrote this book.  Beth said that she watched an interview that said that the author spent ten days on the Amazon doing research, but it wasn't clear what if any research she did on the medical aspects of the book.

There was some need to suspend disbelief regarding the subject matter, as some of it conflicted with biology lessons from junior high regarding the female fertility infrastructure (wow, that seems like the wrong word.)  Some of our readers also felt that the twists and turns were heavily foreshadowed and that they weren't shocked or surprised by any of the events in the book.  However, we mostly felt it was an enjoyable read, certainly not as ethereal as Bel Canto, but likable none the less.

Monday, January 30, 2012

2011 Book of the Year

(Oh my goodness, aren't my graphics AMAZING?)

Our Book list for 2011
So Much for That
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
Cleopatra, a life
The Light of Evening
Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
Slaughterhouse Five
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
War and Peace

This year instead of debating openly about our favorites and potentially tainting each other's opinions with our own adamant love for our standouts, we conducted a paper vote.  It was surprisingly fast and efficient, but I would say that I personally missed the debate about the merits of the books, especially the one's we read earlier in the year.  Perhaps next year we'll talk about the books then do the paper vote.  It is very interesting to see what sticks with people.  

The votes were reasonably split between The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Unbroken, but it was really no contest.  Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hildebrand hands down earns our 2011 book of the year title.  (You'll not find a write up for Unbroken (yet) as I had a work event that pulled me away from the meeting and I unfortunately didn't start reading it until this last weekend.  I will say, once I started I regretted my delay. It is quite engaging.)

Our members were also taken with War & Peace and of course Henrietta Lacks, Cleopatra got a nod for being an excellent, and interesting read, but the votes were for Unbroken.

As for what we use to call our "worst book of the year" this title has been renamed "least favorite".  We were called on the carpet by the author of our 'least favorite' last year and we stand by our rights to rank our reading list and yet we intend no disrespect to the talented authors who have published works.   This "least favorite" title is nothing but that, it is the book that we least liked out of our list.  It doesn't mean the book wasn't impactful or important, but we simply didn't like it better than anything else on our list this year.

So, after all that, which of the above titles failed to touch us?  The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.   Sorry Ms. Davis, we've done short stories and liked them, but these did not work their way into our hearts.  

We're looking forward to 2012 and sharing our finds with you.  Thank you for checking in.   Next up, the recap and (maybe) recipes from our annual spousal dinner.


To say our reviews were mixed for this book would be an understatement.  There were those of us who couldn't put it down and others who forced ourselves to finish.   The debate wasn't heated, which can happen when views are so very split on a book.  However, some of the things that one member would call out as frustrating someone else would claim to have appreciated.

We all agree that Jonathan Franzen is a much better writer than our last author, but quite a few of us are weary about reading yet another book describing the angst of (comparably) wealthy middle class white people.   The word bourgeois was actually used in describing the story (not by this re-caper, 'bourgeois' and 'repleat'  are not terms that roll of my fingers or tongue in general conversation. )

The story centers around a trio of people who are in a complicated, but predictable love triangle.  He's a rock star, she's a former collegiate athlete and our other hero is the 'safe and normal guy'' that girls marry.  Throw in some corrupt government contracts, a plot to save a specific bird in exchange for mining rights and you know that no one is happy.  Love is a strong word... their lives are intertwined in an uncomfortable way.

We, as a group, are not put off by unlikable characters, and these did fall mostly into that category.  However, there were glimmers of brilliance in how the characters evolved.  We all tended to appreciate the (forgive me) 'curmudgeonization' of one of the characters who makes it his life mission to rid his neighborhood of free ranging cats.  As someone who is completely obsessed with my idiot neighbors who can't manage their garbage bins, I think everyone should embrace their inner hostile neighbor tendencies from time to time.  Granted, stabbing the tires of the slutty neighbors boyfriend's car is a bit much, but we all have to select our own limits.

While this novel was only mildly well received I think it is important to note that while it did not garner any votes for Favorite book of 2011, it also did not receive any of the dreaded "least favorite" votes.