Tuesday, November 26, 2013

2 for 1

Ok, I'm super behind again.

During the annual weekend away, an accounting was done of the books from this year and it turns out I missed the write up for The Snow Child.  So here we go:

The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey

Fiction is so wonderful when it can make you set aside what you know to be real and allow you to live in a world where anything is possible.  It's Alaska in the 1920's and Jack and Mabel are barely making it.  He works and works and works to keep their Alaska homestead alive and she's doing her part but lonely and heartbroken for the child they didn't have.  They find a moment to play in the snow and form a snow child.

Either through magic or fortune soon they encounter Faina, a lovely girl with blonde hair and a fox for a friend.  Faina saves them, or they save her - either way it's charming and regardless of all the evidence it's never really clear if she's real.

Among our group there was great debate upon the meaning of the ending of this tale, which leads me to believe that the ending was intentionally misleading. Consensus was positive on this particular book.

Weekend away!

Every year we try to plan two extra curricular activities.  The first is the spouse dinner.  This is a challenge to find a night when fourteen people can gather at one time and child care can be obtained for eleven shorties.  We've managed it for the last four years and will keep booking it.

The other event is even harder to arrange.  A weekend where we ladies zip away from our broods and gather in a cozy cottage to dine on chocolate and other yummy foods, hike, do some yoga and of course, talk about the book du jour.   Last year, we were warned away from our hosts cabin in Leavenworth because of late season fires and terrible air quality and this year an early winter storm kept us on the west side of the state.  Lucky for us, our group has some great connections and we fell into comfortable lodgings both times.   This year found us in a charming water front cabin on Vashon Island that snuggly sleeps twelve or very comfortably sleeps seven.


One of the things about the cabin that added to its wonderfulness is that you can't simply drive to the door.  There is a group parking lot and then you have to walk about a third of a mile to the 11th house on the shore.  The walk was quiet and with each step the hustle of life "on land" faded away.

Our book for discussion was "How To Be a Woman".   Part memoir, part stand alone essays on feminism it opened the door for a lengthy discussion on topics that we ladies seldom get into with each other.

I'm sure it would be an easy thing to assume that when gals get together and shut the door they talk about body hair, dating and their weight.  We really don't delve into those areas very often.

Filled with funny moments and a rather long discussion about what to name your vagina (Oh yes, I went there.) this isn't the Susan B. Anthony women's suffrage version of feminism.  It's a straight forward look at our lives today and what it means as we navigate a world where we have to balance people like Kim Kardashian who are famous for goodness knows what, and Nancy Pelosi who is demonized for I'm not sure what maybe being a prickly woman with opinions and being moms, women who have serious jobs.  We're told that we're equal, but the tend to typically fill the board room in the Communications and Human Resources positions.

While the book evoked a long discussion that lasted well into Sunday, we soundly didn't think we liked the author.  The tone of the book was chatty and casual.  Perhaps that's her way of balancing the deep topics she was tackling.

I do give her kudos for not shying away from an unpopular topic.  She and her husband chose to terminate a pregnancy after they had other children.  She writes about this with complete openness and acknowledgement that her decision will be (was) questioned and reviled by many.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Still Alice

As food themes go, I'd like some credit for finding a wine called "Educated Guess" for a story about a Harvard professor with early-onset Alzheimer disease.

With that out of the way, let's talk about this book.

Heartbreaking, amazing, moving, scary and thought provoking.  These are just some of the comments from last nights discussion.

Alice is a respected and beloved Harvard professor who is asked to speak all over the world.  She notices that her reliance on her notes is becoming critical, so she gets it checked out.  The diagnosis, early onset Alzheimer's.

We follow her through the journey of telling her husband, her kids, having to step down at work and the shrinking of her social and physical world.   We are equally frightened of the truth regarding her situation and the terrible impact to Alice and her family.

Because the story is told from her perspective, as things become confusing or 'new' to her our understanding of the narrative shifts.  At first Alice is giving us the nuanced details of a complicated mother & daughter dynamic which eventually devolves into her describing her daughter as that woman with the baby.

Some of us powered through this book in a couple sittings and were moved to tears (me publicly on an airplane) and others were so torn apart by the devastation that they had to read it in small chunks just to not be brokenhearted.

Our appreciation for the research and effort put into this book is great.  We can understand why it is recommended to the caregivers of patients with early-onset Alzheimer's.  

This type of Alzheimer's has a high probability of being genetic, and if you have the gene the likelihood of developing the disease is almost certain.  The author explored the implications of these facts with Alice's three children.  Would you want to know?  It's hard to say.

Our discussion moved to assisted suicide, to estate planning and to the dreaded question of 'who will raise our kids if we're gone.  So many real life issues.

 The book was so well done that it is easy to think of it as non-fiction.  That's a compliment Miss Lisa Genova.  Good work!

Albert of Adelaide


If you want to sound like a crazy person, please describe the book Albert of Adelaide to someone.

Well, it's about this platypus who escapes from a zoo and heads to the Australian outback and along the way is embroiled in an old western shoot out, makes friends with a wombat and has to deal with a gang of kangaroos, thieves and deadly dingoes.  Yes, a gun slinging platypus.

It's been a while since we've read a western, and this one is superb.  The author Howard Anderson has written a fun, and engaging novel.

Our discussions ranged from surprise over the depth of appreciation for the story and the depth of character development to the nuances of social norms and mythical stature that grows when you only know one dimension about an individual.


And The Mountains Echoed

Khaled Hosseini has produced a third book that is equally worth reading.  Author of the Kite Runner and A thousand splendid suns, Hosseini tells us a winding story of intersecting lives that spans continents, generations and families.

Each chapter is told from a different persons point of view and slowly the truth about a father's dreadful choice becomes known and the broad impact unfolds.

We enjoyed this book and I'm sorry to have to admit that it's been 3 or 4 months since our discussion and any remarkable or notable comments from the group have been pushed aside in my memory.

We did note that the style of story telling was remarkably different than his other two novels, and that it took a while for some of us to realize that he was never going to circle back and repeat a narrator.  Freed of that expectation, the story began to crystallize as the characters started overlapping into the chapters and the overall story became clear.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Quiet The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Oh my, this book set some of our hair on fire and it has seems to have themes that will be popping up all year long.

Ms. Cain has researched and written an interesting book about some of the most powerful people in our collective history.  She writes generously about people like Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Charles Schwab, Gandhi, and Eleanor Roosevelt who have made enormous impacts on the world even though they would more likley prefer to spend time with a friend than attend a gala in their honor.

Ms. Cain theorizes that society tends to reward the likes of Tony Robbins' and Dale Carnegie over those of us who would rather eat our shoe than speak publicly.

It was interesting to go around the room and let each of us describe where we fall on the introvert / extrovert scale.  Many of us called ourselves ambiverts as we embrace  equal number of introvert and extrovert tendencies. (There was an assessment in the book.)   An ambivert is  likely to be excited to attend a party, but instantly wants to escape upon arrival if social groups have already formed.

The book describes several people and their experiences, the authors dread of public speaking, a parents attempts to help their 'shy' child and a married couple's struggle with how often to entertain.

Ms. Cain lost some of our members with her unflattering descriptions of extroverts.  As detailed as she was with the nuances of the varied introverts in our midst she surprised us with sweeping generalizations and statements to the effect that extroverts are easily distracted by bright shiny things, overconfident, impulsive, and prone to divorce.  Obviously there is more to her research regarding extroverts, but the minimal attention to positive traits was offensive to our most outspoken extrovert.  Of course as she started to loudly blather on about her indignation we dangled a silver Christmas ornament and a cookie and she quickly lost her train of thought.  See, she's an extrovert, but clearly not very bright.

The purpose of the book wasn't to delve into extroverts so perhaps we're misguided in getting lost in this point.

Towards the end of the book Ms. Cain gives some interesting advice to parents and educators regarding how introverts react differently to things like group projects.   She also gives tips for public speaking that are actually pretty good and don't start with "how to fake your own death to get out of talking to a crowd."

It's clear that one point is that we shouldn't count the quiet person out as a valuable contributor, because you never know what's going on with them:

Monday, May 20, 2013

To The Lighthouse

After our gathering to discuss Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse I stand by my previous post, but acknowledge that the discussion it invoked was robust and intriguing.  

Indeed, large portions of the story occur inside the minds of each of the characters.  Melinda pointed out that it was a great study in how different reality is from what we think is happening.  While they had dinner each of the dinner guests had a completely different take on the conversation and interactions.  No one really had a clear take on the others motivations – and in most cases the assumptions being made were 100% removed from the true thoughts of the other persons.

As for my frustration with the pace and flow of the narrative, Christine was adamant that the details that Mrs. Woolf left out simply didn’t matter.   Yes, character A was dead and we don’t need to know why or how, or even what the others thought or experienced when it occurred.  They were dead and it is final.   We didn’t all (me) agree, but I respect her take on the narrative.

It is probably safe to predict that T.T.L. will not earn our Book of the Year prize as less than 50% of us managed to finish it.  That says something when the book is only 175 pages – sure they are serving soup for 100 of those pages, but still.

Mrs. Woolf did have an amazing gift for describing the details of regular life.  In Mrs. Dalloway, which we read in 2000,  a good portion of the story is devoted to preparing for a party, so it should be no surprise that dinner and an eventual journey to the lighthouse would be the plot of an entire book.   In our connected world, we certainly don’t spend this much time analyzing the details of daily life. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

To The Lighthouse **

**written before our discussion. Ergo all thoughts are my own.

Virginia Woolf to me, is one of those authors whose works are known as capital L - Literature.  She was an important figure and her works are significant.  At least, this is what I think I'm supposed to think.  I find her work challenging to follow, mundane and rather... boring.  I know, as a modern reader I'm tainted by my love of fast media, rapid plots and Sixth Sense type twists.  I'm sure I'm also made lazy by the ability to look up any concept on Google rather than do actual research.  I'm sure I'm also shallow for never needing to spend time speculating the depth and meaning of actions.  I feel a sense of pride for having read Mrs. Dalloway and now To The Lighthouse.  I certainly cannot say I read War and Peace or finished some of the other capital L - Literature selections of late.  I do attribute some of my failures to the lack of forced downtime in the form of a daily bus commute.  However, I will admit that when I am captivated by a book, I find time in my busy life to read.  Oh shoot, I lost my broach.  Mrs. Woolf has a style of story telling that is as brief and stark as it is filled with languid descriptions of everyday tasks.  As I was reading it felt as though Mrs. Ramsay was serving soup to her guests for about 5 pages.  This may not seem overly long, but in a short story of only 117 pages, it was interminable. However later on we are only offered brief but extremely important plot points in the form of editorial notes,and then back to the soup we go.  Furthermore, the narrator will change mid-paragraph and always in the form of internal dialog.  "Gosh, this paragraph seems to be never ending and jumps from idea to idea." Thought the bright, exceedingly beautiful Terri.

[Terri finished the book at 9:00 at Starbucks while drinking a latte.] I had a terrible thought that if Mrs. Woolf spent as much time in her real life going over the details of every conversation and action then it's no wonder she filled her pockets with rocks and went for a swim in an icy river.  GOOD LORD the detail.  Also, and I'll mention this at book group tonight, would it be possible for Mrs. Woolf to loathe women more? She does not write of them kindly, they come across as flighty and useless.  Mrs. Ramsay can't seem to follow a simple discussion about taxation and is completely at at a loss when trying to understand a 20 line poem about the ocean.  Lily, one of the mystery guests at the Ramsay's summer house knows that there is an implicit rule for women to make their across the dinner table partner feel manly and boost his ego, so while he prattles on and on about poetry and heavens knows what, she make a point to smile.  TO SMILE!?  Well done little miss, well done!  For a woman who cannot write or paint, you are very accomplished.  Have some soup.  Wait, don't have a second bowl as Mr. Ramsay becomes angry when others eat when he has finished, I mean how long can this dinner go on?  All the talking and smiling is seriously getting on my nerves. Not that I would ever say anything about it.  You might wait sixteen years before ever hearing "hey, good work - that soup was really good."  Mrs. Ramsay, while not able to follow dinner conversation, very involved in the relationships of others.  Not her own children mind you,  [Sally went up the hill and broke her neck after less than a year.]  Perhaps she should have spent some of her free time at dinner thinking about her match making skills, looking inward at her own situation before deciding to put others together.  Taking driving lessons from the crash test dummies is not a wise choice.  I'm just saying.

Oh, and don't get me started on the Lighthouse.  Are we there yet? Are we going?  When can we go?  We should go.  Oh let's go tomorrow.  Why!?  I DON'T KNOW.  When we get there what will we do?  I DON'T KNOW.  Will it be nice there?  NO.  Will there be food or friends? NO.  Sounds awesome, let's pack up some shitty sandwiches, our painting supplies and some sullen teenagers and get to it!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

2012 Wrap up: Book of the Year

2012 Books
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Luka and the Fire of Life: A Novel , by Salman Rushdie
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson
To the end of the land, by David Grossman
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

We didn't read as many books in 2012 as in previous years, but the year end discussion was as lively as ever.

In the end The Round House earned the most votes (through a process of elimination votes) to beat out The Master and Margarita for book of the year.  The Night Circus and To the End of the Land had very strong support.

Our least favorite book was Luka and the Fire of Life.  Sorry Mr. Rushdie.

We think we'll try doing a secret ballot next year.  Our plan is to set those votes aside, do a discussion, then a live vote and see where the differences are.  However, we believe the live voting will be the deciding vote.  All this will be worked out before we discuss.

Dead Souls, Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol

Ah...Russian literature.

The inside cover of this book touts:  Since its publication in 1842, Dead Souls has been celebrated as a supremely realistic portrait of provincial Russian life and as a splendidly exaggerated tale; as a paean to the Russian spirit and as a remorseless satire of imperial Russian venality, vulgarity, and pomp. As Gogol's wily antihero, Chichikov, combs the back country wheeling and dealing for "dead souls"--deceased serfs who still represent money to anyone sharp enough to trade in them--we are introduced to a Dickensian cast of peasants, landowners, and conniving petty officials, few of whom can resist the seductive illogic of Chichikov's proposition. This lively, idiomatic English version by the award-winning translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky makes accessible the full extent of the novel's lyricism, sulphurous humor, and delight in human oddity and error.

Doesn't that make you want to curl up with a hot cup of tea and get reading?  I mean, who can resist sulphurous humor?  Heck, my spell check doesn't even like it.

So, as with our other tromps into the land of Russian lit, I can say that I've read Tolstoy, Chekov and now Gogol.  I can't say that I've finished many (any) of their greatest works, but I've lived for a moment in their worlds.

There are far better summaries of historical literature than I could ever muster, but the gist of the story is that the hero Chichikov (Chick) has a scheme to make money by purchasing the ownership rights to the slaves of land owners.  However, he only wants the ones that have died.  It's a strange, complicated plan where he saves the landowners from paying taxes on dead people and he ends up looking like a very wealthy man because he owns all these people, that he can mortgage to buy an estate.  Sounds like it should work - not quite.

In making all the transactions we get a commentary on all the different types of people in Russia.  We meet the trusting people, the suspicious people, the vain, stupid people, the drunk nationalists and on an on and on.

We found it entertaining and challenging and even a little repetitive at times.  The book is unfinished and ends mid-sentence.  That can be really frustrating for a reader who needs

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Night Circus

Oh what a fun book to read.  It was genuinely enjoyed by all members of our group.  Opening comments that were captured were:

I unabashedly liked it.
It was fluffy and not deep, but took intelligence to follow. 
Incredibly imaginative & vivid.
It's like what a smart goth girl would write when she was all grown up.

Insert picture of author here:

Erin Morgenstern Author Erin Morgenstern attends Summit Entertainment Comic-Con Party at the Hard Rock Hotel on July 21, 2011 in San Diego, California.

We noted that the time shifting between chapters took a while to catch onto.
We liked the Yin & Yang relationship with the various characters, that there were pairs but not couples.

As for the characters, aside from the primary couple, whose love story seemed a little weak and obvious we loved the clockmaker, who was exceptionally well developed and the modern day Bailey.  He seemed like a real person with real world motivations in a fantastical world.

We understand that a movie is already in the works and we discussed if it should bend more towards a Harry Potter feel or Tim Burton.  Either way, we hope Helena Bonham Carter is not cast as the main character.

On the personal side of the discussion we decided that we like short chapters because we can knock them out and it keeps things moving.  Also, I head this quote "I love how our conversations about books mostly evolve to just about us."   True... so true.

The bad post-master


I am so behind in updating the blog.  I know that it's not life or death, but how sad to have missed a few titles.

These are the 2012 titles that I have in my notes:

  • The Round House by Louise Erdrich
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo
  • In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson
  • Luka and the Fire of Life: A Novel , by Salman Rushdie
  • To The End of the Land by David Grossman
  • The Master and Margarita By Mikhail Bulgakov, et al
The Round House is being read right now and cannot be commented on.  I owe you a write up of the Night Circus and will have to defer to another member for the Luka book - I tried to read it and walked away.