Book Club

Next book club meeting (scroll down for blog of past meetings):

Thursday, December 12
The home of Ruth MacNaughton - email for address and to RSVP

Bring a favorite poem to read to the group!

2019 Schedule

Tue 1/7/2020
Wed 2/5/2020
Thu 3/12/2020
Tue 4/7/2020
Wed 5/6/2020
Thu 6/11/2020
Tue 7/7/2020
Wed 8/5/2020
Wed 9/10/2020
Thu 10/6/2020
Wed 11/11/2020
Thu 12/10/2020
Want to join us? Email Karen

Upcoming books:
12/12/19: Bring a poem to read to the group!

Past readings: 
EBSC Book Club Reading List

Free Audio and eBooks
Many local public libraries have downloadable audio and eBooks:

Oakland Public Library Overdrive Link
Berkeley Public Library Overdrive Link
Alameda Free Library Overdrive Link

Love Smithie authors?
"Books by Smithies" Website and Facebook Page

25th Anniversary Book Club 

October 2019: Circe (Miller)

posted Nov 8, 2019, 6:04 PM by East Bay Smith Club

Our October meeting was quite exciting, as we had to relocate to avoid PG&E’s
planned power outages.  Fortunately, we found an island of electricity at
Sherrill’s house, and several members used the opportunity to recharge their
cell phones before returning to their own darkened domiciles.  Fortunately,
our book selection prompted a lively discussion, so there was plenty of time
to get batteries back to full strength.

Our book for the month was Madeline Miller’s novel Circe, an epic tale
spanning thousands of years in the life of a Greek immortal: Circe, goddess
of magic. The child of the Titan Helios and the naiad Perse, Circe spends
a lonely childhood in the halls of her grandfather, the Titan Oceanus.
Circe is largely rejected and ignored by her parents and siblings, since she
is less lovely than her mother and the other nymphs and she seems to have
little power compared to her Titan forebearers.   To break her isolation,
she befriends a mortal fisherman.  In an attempt to win his affections,
Circe experiments with magic and discovers that she has a talent for it.
However, the tragic results of her sorcery bring down the wrath of the
Olympian Gods, who consider her use of potions a threat to their dominance.
In response, Helios exiles his daughter to the island of Aiaia, where she
hones her magical abilities and develops her psychological resilience and
independence.  Though she spends most of her days in solitude, fate and
interfering immortals bring others her way, most significantly the wandering
warrior Odysseus, who is slowly making his way back from the siege of Troy.

Madeline Miller is a scholar of antiquities and Circe has small, though
significant, roles in a number of ancient Greek myths and epics.   Her
origins, characteristics and personality vary from telling to telling;
however, she chiefly functions as a source of danger and temptation to male
heroes.  She is often depicted luring visitors in with food and drink, only
to use her magic to rob them of their humanity (turning them into swine or
other animals).   Some see her as a cautionary tale against the dangers of
drunkenness or, even, prostitution.  Oddly, one could say that Miller’s
decision to place Circe at the center of her own story is equally as
transformative, turning the goddess from something quiet monstrous into
something much more fully human.  The novel is as much a tale of mental and
emotional development as it is an epic adventure.  In fact, many of our
members appreciated the book primarily as a story of a woman’s life, a
journey of self-discovery that wasn’t just about negotiating fraught
relationships with family, friends and romantic partners (though there’s
certainly a fair share of that).  At heart, Circe is an exploration of
self-empowerment, self-mastery and, ultimately (and quite dramatically at
the end), self-definition.

Everyone at the meeting said they enjoyed the book, and a few went as far
as to say they loved it.  For some, Miller’s poetic language and mastery of
the Greek mythical landscape was almost irresistibly enticing.  For others,
it was almost too much.   Setting the novel in the world of gods and goddess
tended to exaggerate everything.  Emotions like vengeance, envy and lust
were taken to the extreme, and the consequences of these emotions were
dramatic and lasted for generations.  Sometimes the resulting chaos,
especially as it affected the lives of Circe’s colorful siblings, seemed a
like a soap opera or, perhaps,  like the “Real Housewives” of the Aegean.
However, one could argue, these parts of the novel match the exaggerated
feel of many of its classical sources, and at times they provided a welcome
break from the nuanced and sensitive character study that made up the core
of the book.   

We definitely found plenty to talk about concerning the motivations of the
characters and the wisdom of their decisions.   We argued over how
sympathetic various characters were, and whether or not the tone of the book
was pessimistic or optimistic.   Judging from the discussion, I would
suspect that the novel will most appeal to readers who are already in love
with, or at least intrigued by, the classical myths and literature of
ancient Greece.   Two plays about Circe written in ancient Athens have been
lost, and Madeline Miller’s modern take on this fascinating character does a
lot to help keep her in the literary landscape and to reassess the role she
may play within it.

September 2019: How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate (Hoffman)

posted Oct 7, 2019, 1:37 PM by East Bay Smith Club

Our September meeting was held on Wednesday, the 11th of September.   We had
originally been scheduled for the following day, however, we changed dates
in order to avoid conflict with a Democratic candidates debate.   Most
people preferred the new night, and we had ten members in attendance.  

Perhaps as a result of the debate the following day, our discussion shifted
over to politics and to our hopes and worries about the 2020 presidential
campaign.  However, we did a pretty good job of talking about the book as
well.  Fortunately, our September selection set the stage for our inevitable
political tangents nicely.  It was this year’s Smith Reads book:  Andrew J
Hoffman’s How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate.

Hoffman begins his book with an insightful critique of academia and its
fixation on specialization and on promotion through peer review.  This focus
may be effective in generating vast quantities of specialized knowledge;
however, it often makes it difficult for this knowledge to be disseminated
and explained to the general public.  In the case of climate change
research, this disconnect between the scientific community and the average
citizen may have troubling consequences indeed.   Hoffman has a background
in environmental engineering.  However, his current work focuses on
understanding environmental issues with the resources of sociology,
psychology and the other social sciences.  In this book, he tries to
identify the reasons why people accept or reject the science of climate
change.  His goal is to develop insights that might help to move the public
discourse forward.   

In the first chapter of the book, Hoffman discusses how the climate change
debate became a cultural debate, and how our beliefs are shaped by the
various cognitive filters that we all use to understand the world.
Attitudes towards climate change tend to be strongly influenced by political
affiliation and thus map onto the divides that we are all aware of in
American political life.  We may not have much chance of changing the minds
of the most dismissive climate change deniers.  However, Hoffman believes we
can convince some of the more cautious, disengaged and doubtful members of
our society to take climate change more seriously.  To show how, Hoffman
explains how we make sense of complex scientific information, discusses
which organized movements are denying climate change, explains how cultural
change happens, and reviews examples of large scale social changes that have
occurred in the past.  He ends with some specific strategies for the current
moment, such as advising climate change activists to describe the danger of
climate change, and the benefits of addressing it, with “frames,” such as
“national security, health and economic competitiveness,” that appeal to the
individuals they are trying to persuade.  

After reviewing some facts that illustrate how pressing the issue of
climate change is, Hoffman concludes by noting that the mere statement of
these facts is not going to be enough to spur society into action.  “When
engaging the debate,” he writes, “we must think not only of the science of
climate change, but also about the sociopolitical processes and tactics
necessary to get people to hear it.” 

Though the book is quite short, some of our members found they had to force
themselves to finish it.  Most of us felt that it covered ground that we had
been over before.  Hoffman’s analysis of the American cultural divide echoed
a lot of what we read about in Hillbilly Elegy and Strangers in Their Own
Land.  Hoffman’s goal of applying the social sciences to the climate change
debate seemed admirable indeed, but many of his observations and insights
struck us as obvious and not particularly innovative.  Still, each of us
identified some part of the book that we found useful and/or
thought-provoking.  I think we all understood why Smith choose this as the
book that all incoming first-year students would be asked to read and
discuss.   It is probably helpful to start one’s undergraduate education
with an exploration of the importance of open-mindedness and empathy and
with a reminder of the essential role of effective communication in efforts
to change the world for the better.   Perhaps our group has become a little
too cynical to embrace the book fully.  However, it did spark a fascinating
evening of political discussion, one which highlighted our anxiety and
anger, but which was also not devoid of hope.

Fortunately, our next book is taking us far away from the troubles of our
current political crisis.  Instead of lamenting the conflict between the
Democrats and the Republicans, we turn back to an ancient, but perhaps
equally intractable, conflict: the struggle between the gods of Olympus and
the Titans.  

August 2019: Milkman (Burns)

posted Sep 14, 2019, 4:01 PM by East Bay Smith Club

Anna Burn’s Man Booker Prize winning novel Milkman was
an exploration of cultural and political divisions.   In particular, it was
a harrowing account of one young woman’s life in Belfast during the
turbulent and violent sectarian struggles of the 1970’s.  The book has
received mixed reviews in the press, and our members also had quite divided
reactions.  It is written in a challenging, stream of consciousness style
that involves long, clause-rich sentences and paragraphs that can stretch on
for pages.  The action jumps back and forth in time, which mirrors the way
memory works when recalling traumatic events, but which also can make it
hard to follow the central events of the story.  

In the end, however, the plot is relatively straight forward.  The novel’s
narrator, who we only ever know as “middle sister,” is eighteen and living
in Belfast (though the city is never named) with her mother and three “wee
sisters.”  She tries her best to ignore the political tensions which
surround her and which have taken the lives of two of her brothers and have
caused two other siblings to flee the country.  She prefers to escape to the
pages of novels set in the 18th and 19th centuries, reading them as she
walks home from work or class or from visiting her “maybe-boyfriend,” who
lives in a different part of town.   

This habit of walking while lost in a book seems strange and crazy to her
family, friends and community.   Doesn’t she know the streets are a de facto
war zone?  Is she oblivious?   Arrogant?  Insane?   This odd behavior draws
the attention of one of the most powerful local para-militaries:  the 41
year old “Milkman,” a shadowy, menacing figure, who despite his nickname,
has never delivered anyone’s milk.   Pretending to be concerned for her
safety, he begins to stalk the narrator, offering her rides home (which she
refuses) and eventually threatening to kill her maybe-boyfriend if she
continues to refuse his advances.

The novel’s meandering and densely descriptive style provides an effective
and emotive method for conveying the psychological consequences of the
narrator’s increasing trauma and desperation as she tries to resist the
Milkman and to navigate the difficult social landscape of her community in
crisis.  The narrator’s disjointed, and yet deeply revealing, inner
monologue highlights the long term effects of living in a city that is torn
in two by a vicious conflict, one which demands fierce tribal loyalties and
which requires strict social controls to maintain loyalty and to care for
those caught up in the violence.   It is almost a master class on the costs
of such divisions, and on the terrible things that humans do in such
circumstance and the resources that they have to survive and, on occasion,
to resist.   

Perhaps, one of the clearest examples of this cost is represented by the
novel’s almost complete lack of proper names for people and for places.  It
is a society where names are vitally important, so much so that each
community has individuals who supervise the naming of all children to make
sure that no baby is given a moniker that more properly belongs to the
culture of the “other side.”  However, it is also a place where secrecy is
absolutely essential, a place where anyone could be a paramilitary operative
or, worse, an informer.  Therefore, all the characters are known simply in
terms of their connection to the narrator (e.g. third brother-in-law), their
distinguishing characteristic (e.g. Chef, the guy who liked to cook), or
their role in the community (e.g. real milkman, who actually delivered the
milk).   This stylistic device is thus appropriate to the book’s setting.
However, some reader’s may find it distracting and difficult.  (In the end,
I found it surprisingly helpful.  It meant I never had one of those moments
where I was wondering “Bill? Now, who was Bill again, was he the cousin…”)

Given these sorts of considerations, the novel’s distinctive style has
received much praise for being uniquely appropriate to its subject matter.
However, it is clearly not to everyone’s tastes, and even those of us who
loved the novel confessed to finding it difficult to get into at first.
Some never warmed to the book, and found a slog until the very end.
Perhaps we can then sympathize with the New York Times reviewer who said
that he “found Milkman to be interminable,” and that he “would not recommend
it to anyone [he] liked.” Judging by our discussion of the novel, I suspect
our members would find this condemnation too harsh.  Instead, we might
suggest reading a chapter or two and then quitting, guilt free, if you just
don’t warm to it.   

I would agree to this recommendation, with one caveat.   The novel focuses
on the narrator’s internal monologue, however, Burns has a remarkable talent
for dialogue, and through this dialogue she introduces us to some amazingly
complex and memorable characters.  The book is also incredibly funny and
poignant in parts, and in sharing a few of these passages during our
discussion, some of group discovered that they enjoyed the book and liked
its inhabitants far more than they realized.   In fact, someone suggested
the book might be like one of those movies or outings with friends that you
don’t think much of at the time, but that you come to treasure in hindsight
through remembering and retelling.  Therefore, I would add that there might
be benefits to keeping up with the book and pressing on through all the
narrator’s seemingly endless musings and frustrating moments of inaction.
In the end, as the narrator’s own psychological journey reveals, some things
cannot be adequately processed in the moment, some things only become clear
after a process of reflection.  

July 2019: The Left Hand of Darkness (Le Guin)

posted Aug 9, 2019, 5:56 PM by East Bay Smith Club

Our July meeting was on July 9th at Charmaine Detweiler’s house in
Lafayette.  There were ten of us in attendance, which seemed a pretty good
showing for a summer meeting.  Our book for the month was Ursula K. Le
Guin’s 1969 science-fiction/fantasy classic The Left-Hand of Darkness.  The
novel’s central character is a man named Genly Ai, a representative of a
confederation of planets who is sent to a distant and largely ice-bound
planet called Gethen.  Ai’s mission is to inform the inhabitants of Gethen
of the existence of life beyond their world and to ask them to join his

The planet is populated by humanoids who are not that different from Ai,
except that the Gethenians are naturally androgynous.  They develop male or
female sexual organs for only a few days a month, and they can never be sure
which organs will develop.  So, the same individual can both father and
mother children.   The novel is, in part, an exploration of the differences
that this sort of gender fluidity creates in the societies of Gethen, and
how those differences puzzle and challenge Genly Ai.  However, such matters
are only part of the story, and Ai soon gets caught up in, and almost
destroyed by, the complicated political tensions between the two largest
nations on the planet.  To save his life and mission, Ai has to take a
perilous, 80 day journey across a large and uninhabitable ice field with the
help and guidance of a single Gethenian ally, a political exile named
Estraven.   Slowly, the challenges of surviving in this harsh environment
breaks down the differences between them.  What was in opposition becomes
complementary, what was incomprehensible becomes deeply familiar.  

In one way, the novel is a love story.  Life on Gethen is almost constantly
a struggle for survival, and this sometimes drives the people on its surface
apart.  However, as Genly Ai and Estraven’s journey proves, sometimes the
struggle against death and despair is what brings finite beings most closely
together.  It reveals the value and strength of life, while highlighting its
ultimate fragility and vulnerability.   It can give rise to deadly conflict,
but it can also inspire trust, fellowship and remarkable acts of

Our reactions to the book were pretty mixed.  I think it is fair to say
that some were turned off by the genre of the story.   Not only was it
science-fiction, but it was a strange sort of science fiction.  It was set
in the future of interstellar travel, and the people of Gethen were a
relatively advanced civilization technologically, but still the book read as
if this was a medieval world, with some quite primitive habits and social
structures.  (Genly Ai must appeal to king’s and negotiate court politics,
for example.)  The book was heavy with description, but still some of us
found it hard to imagine themselves into this world.    This wasn’t true for
all of us, however.  I grew up reading both fantasy and science fiction and
I found Le Guin’s descriptions so compelling, that the novel played like a
movie in my head as I read the pages. 

We all shared some reservations, however, about the degree to which this
can be classified as a feminist novel.   Le Guin is definitely a hero to
many feminists for her success in the extremely male dominated field of
science-fiction and for her role in improving the literary merits of her
field.  It is also clear that her portrayal of an ambisexual alien species
with fluid gender identities and, thus, without traditional gender roles,
was absolutely ground-breaking at the time.  It is no wonder that this book
continues to gain new fans today.  Nonetheless, to many of us the book
seemed very male focused.  Genly Ai is a man, and he uses male pronouns to
refer to the Gethenians that he meets, unless they are pregnant or clearly
show feminine traits.  The book also reads like a boy’s adventure tale,
echoing at first tales of kingdoms and knights and, then, tales of artic and
mountain explorers.  It is sometimes not clear if gender roles have
disappeared from Gethen, or just one gender.    

In the PBS documentary on LeGuin, she recognized the fairness of this
concern.   She said that the feminist critiques of The Left-Hand of Darkness
made her realize that she had crafted a space for herself in science fiction
by proving that she was a woman who was really good at writing men.   In
subsequent books, she strived to find a more meaningful way of writing women
into the genre.

That being said, there is much still to admire in The Left-Hand of
Darkness.  If you have any interest in science fiction or fantasy, I think
it is definitely worth reading.  Ursula Le Guin had an amazing talent for
turning thought experiments into rich, evocative and dramatically compelling
fictions.  (Read “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” to see her do this
masterfully in a few short pages.).    It was fascinating to contemplate how
the world would be if gender identities were only ever temporary.   The
world Le Guin described was harsh, unappealing and cruel in many respects,
but it was also rich, captivating and, ultimately, deeply human.

March 2019: Sing, Unburied, Sing (Ward)

posted Apr 13, 2019, 5:41 PM by East Bay Smith Club   [ updated Apr 13, 2019, 5:42 PM ]

Set in rural Mississippi, Sing, Unburied, Sing is an intoxicating blend of coming of age tale, road trip saga and ghost story.  The novel rotates between the voices of three different narrators.  The first, Jojo, is a thirteen-year-old, biracial boy struggling to become a man in the face of the increasing frailty of the grandparents who care for him and for his three-year-old sister, Kayla.   The second narrator is Leonie, Jojo’s frequently absent and drug-addicted mother, who is both figuratively and literarily haunted by the violent death of her brother.  The third is Richie, the ghost of a young man who played an important, and tragic, role in the life of Leonie’s father.  


In the beginning of the novel, Leonie learns that Michael, her white boy-friend and the father of her children, is being released from prison.  Together with a friend, she loads Jojo and Kayla into her car and drives north to pick him up from Parchman Farm, Mississippi’s notorious state penitentiary.   The trip is an effort to reunite and repair the family, but this journey to the future transforms into a trip into the past, forcing them to confront painful and unspoken truths.


Like Faulkner and Morrison, Ward describes both the natural and social landscape of the American South in an evocative, and almost palpable, detail that is at once both beautiful and harrowing.  The book weaves through a fabric of trauma, both personal and systemic.   In an interview with NPR, Ward commented that she was interested in exploring the intimacy of a lot of the racial violence in the South, the fact that crimes are often committed by people who know each other and who share a community.   Certainly, we see the strength and love that ties the various characters in the book together, but we also see how vulnerable they are to each other and deeply they have been wounded.  Though not without hope, the novel highlights the devastating legacy of slavery, racism and social injustice and the horrifying costs of our modern drug crisis.   


These themes were so grim and lugubrious, that it made the novel difficult to read at times.  In fact, one of our members found it so dire that she marveled at the fact the book had received such critical acclaim.  However, most of us found the book as emotionally rewarding as it was taxing.  Perhaps, this was because the central characters were so richly developed.  Whether empathizing with them, getting angry on their behalf, or becoming frustrated with their choices, we felt a deep connection to them, and this tie made us want to push through the pain and trauma to see if some sort of healing or reconciliation was possible.  After all, the tragic history that shapes this book is a history that we all share as Americans, and it seems right that Ward has us face it in all its complexity.  As she masterfully illustrates with her storytelling, the signs of hope are uncertain, hazy and sometimes even ghost-like, but that doesn’t mean they are not there.

Our March meeting also marked the 25th anniversary of our book club - read more about that here.

February 2019: A Pearl In The Storm (Murden McClure)

posted Mar 7, 2019, 1:31 PM by East Bay Smith Club

At our last book club meeting, eleven of us gathered at Nancy’s house to discuss Tori Murden McClure’s book A Pearl in the Storm:  How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean.  McClure is the first women and first American to have rowed solo across the Atlantic and the first woman and first American to ski overland to the geographic south pole.  She has a bachelor’s degree from Smith College (yay!), a Master of Divinity from Harvard, a law degree from the University of Louisville, and a Master of Fine Art from Spalding University.  Clearly, her life has been full of achievement.  However, A Pearl in the Storm focuses on one of her biggest failures:  her first attempt to row across the Atlantic in 1998, a year which would turn out to have one of the worst hurricane seasons in recorded history.  


After rowing two-thirds of the way to Europe, McClure is hit by a series of high-powered storms, with waves up to seven-stories high.  Her communications are knocked out and her boat capsizes numerous times, injuring her seriously.   Unwilling to ask others to risk their lives to save her, she waits for a lull in the storms before triggering her emergency beacon.  She is rescued by a cargo ship and brought back to America.  


Although her safe return from such terrible conditions is celebrated by her friends, family and the American public, McClure is haunted by feelings of failure and helplessness that threaten to drive those who care about her away.  Fortunately, with the help of a new relationship and with her work with the Muhammed Ali foundation, McClure comes to terms with what has happened.  She realizes that her voyage across the ocean taught her unexpected lessons, ones that it will take her time to learn and accept.  Inspired by a conversation with Muhammed Ali, she finds the strength to try again, successfully becoming the first woman to row across the Atlantic in December of 1999. 


We all enjoyed reading the book, though getting through the vivid descriptions of McClure’s experiences in the hurricanes was tough.   It certainly left me feeling like I’d had a bit of a virtual beating, and I felt my mind yelling out “Activate the rescue beacon!!!” again and again as McClure was tossed and torn in the cabin of her boat.   I wasn’t the only one who felt this, and others mentioned being puzzled and even annoyed by her unwillingness to ask for help, especially when she refused all but the most basic medical assistance when she was finally rescued.   Of course, she wouldn’t have attempted such an incredible feat without incredible amounts of drive and independence.  Still, as she recognizes, her abhorrence for feelings of helplessness, was one of the greatest challenges that she faced both on her trip and in her life.


McClure’s description of her voyage is intermingled with discussions of her childhood and her educational journey.   Someone commented that they were glad of the breaks, because the descriptions of the journey itself were so intense.   However, McClure’s personal history also included a fair amount of turmoil.   I think this background information made us understand and like McClure all the more.   However, some of us felt that McClure could have done more to tie the themes of this personal history in with the lessons of the failed trip, so that we could fully understand her emotional transformation.  Perhaps, it would have helped if she had included a little more about her successful journey, which is covered only briefly in the final chapter.  We had spent so much time accompanying her through the trauma, perhaps a little more triumph would have been nice, though it is certainly not needed to make McClure’s story an inspirational one.   


These days there is a great focus on accepting failure as an important part of eventual success, and so McClure’s book seems a perfect tale for our times.  In fact, as Veronica discovered, someone is working on turning the book into a musical.  You can see a short TED talk about this here. (If this link doesn’t work search for “Dawn Landes TED talk”.)   Veronica also found some short clips from McClure’s video diary here.


At one point in her book, McClure notes that our culture rarely remembers the names of the first women to achieve various amazing things.  However, as her book’s success attests, and these video clips indicate, perhaps she’ll be an exception to that rule or, even better, a catalyst for its demise.

January 2019: Being Mortal (Gawande)

posted Feb 7, 2019, 10:12 PM by East Bay Smith Club

I don’t know if it was the effect of all our New Year’s resolutions or if the topic of mortality is just a good seller, but we had a stupendous turn out at our January meeting.  Eighteen members showed up, and I was impressed that Betsy, our host, found enough chairs to seat us all comfortably in her living room!  


Our topic was Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal:  Medicine and What Matters in the End.  Gawande is a practicing surgeon, a public health researcher and advocate, and a popular author.  In this book, he explores the ways that Western societies have “medicalized” the realities of aging, frailty and death.   Although driven by understandable and admirable desires to care for an ever increasing population of elderly adults, the priorities of our medical interventions often fail to address the needs and values of the individuals involved, frequently causing genuine harm to peoples’ mental and physical health.  For example, Gawande charts the development of nursing home care over the past one hundred years.   Prior to this time, most seniors were cared for at home or in poor houses or other similar institutions.  Our changing society and economy has made the first option less and less viable, and no one is advocating for a return to the latter.  However, the development of nursing homes has not been without growing pains.  They have had to change and evolve in order to accommodate the needs of their residents.  For example, a focus on patient safety and ease of care, created situations that compromised patients’ sense of autonomy and purpose, driving some to the point of despair.  The changes in care home design and organization that address these problems may seem quite obvious now, but they took some pretty creative leaps on the part of health care innovators, who had to work tirelessly to change the system.    Gawande describes these efforts and discusses issues that have not yet been addressed.


Gawande also explores other aspects of human mortality, such as the creation of advanced directives and other decisions about whether particular health interventions are worthwhile.  As well as discussing such matters in the abstract, he gives numerous examples of the personal journeys of patients that he treated or knew.   In the end, he explores his own struggles with his father’s final illness.  These examples help to give emotional salience to the historical material and statistical information Gawande provides.  The result is a compelling call to action.  No matter how uncomfortable the topic, we need to have hard conversations with ourselves, our loved ones, and our society about how we can address the needs of the elderly, the frail, and the terminally ill without sacrificing the things that make our lives worth living.


The book gave our group plenty to think about, and our discussion was lively and, at times, quite emotional, especially when members shared personal recollections of the illnesses and deaths of loved ones.  We were also really fortunate to have a couple of members who provide palliative care professionally and who were able to give us detailed information about how some of these end of life decisions are negotiated.   There were not too many comments on the structure of the book or on its writing style, though most approved of the use of stories to clarify the facts and figures.  In fact, many of the specific points in the book that we recalled most vividly were contained in these personal stories.   We also saluted  Gawande’s decision to discuss his own family’s experiences.  Some commented on the humility evident in his account of his own thought processes.  Despite all his professional knowledge and his theoretical understanding of human mortality, he still found himself struggling to come to terms with the his father’s final illness and to separate his own desires as a son from his father’s wishes as a man facing his own death.    I guess Gawande’s difficulties at that moment are a powerful illustration of one of the themes of the book.  Death reveals, perhaps all too clearly, the fact that we are only human.  The challenge is to retain and respect our humanity as fully as possible until the end.

December 2018: Poetry Night!

posted Jan 8, 2019, 6:33 PM by East Bay Smith Club   [ updated Jan 8, 2019, 6:34 PM ]

Members seemed excited at the prospect of our first poetry night, and a dozen of us were in attendance at our December 2018 meeting.  Ruth MacNaughton treated us to a real feast of snacks and appetizers and it felt like quite the festive occasion.   The poems presented a nice range of styles and subjects, and it was lovely to hear them read aloud.   After each reading, we spent a few minutes discussing our reactions to the piece before moving on.  The discussion was pretty lively at times, and I really appreciated the opportunity to learn about new poets and to revisit the work of some old favorites.   For the curious, and as a reminder to those who attended, here is a list of the poems that were shared.


  1. “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver
  2. “The Names of Birds” by Carrie McCarthy
  3. “The Solstice” by W.S. Merwin
  4. “Good Work” by Maggie Kraus
  5. The Warm Stone by Sasha Wright
  6. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot
  7. Excerpts from Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
  8. Excerpts from Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
  9. “Them Moose Goosers” and “Them Toad Suckers” by Mason Williams
  10. “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry
  11. “Living in the Body” by Joyce Sutphen 
  12.  “Once By the Pacific” by Robert Frost
  13. “Women’s Work” by Jacqueline Bardsley


Carrie McCarthy, Sasha Wright and Jacqueline Bardsley (my mom 😊) are relatives of members of our group.   Sasha Wright is the daughter of Pat Wright and a graduate of the Smith School of Social Work.  Pat read her book, The Warm Stone, at the December meeting.  Some attendees expressed an interest in buying a copy.  You can get one by sending a request to .  She accepts  PayPal/venmo/checks.  It costs $8 (shipping included).  Details about The Warm Stone and another book, Porcupine Woman, are posted on her website:


I think it is fair to say that our poetry night was a success and that it is worth turning it into a yearly tradition.

September 2018: From Krakow to Berkeley (Rabkin)

posted Oct 12, 2018, 3:58 PM by East Bay Smith Club   [ updated Aug 16, 2019, 7:42 PM by Sherrill Lavagnino ]

Our book for September was Anna Rabkin’s fascinating memoir: From Kraków to Berkeley: Coming Out of Hiding, An Immigrant’s search for identity and belonging. If Rabkin’s name sounds familiar, it might be because she was Berkeley’s City Auditor from 1979 to 1994. She is also quite active in an East Bay organization for retired women called Free Agents at Berkeley (F.A.B.). Our Nancy Spaeth is a F.A.B. member too and, thanks to her invitation, Rabkin came to our meeting to talk about her book and to answer our questions. Perhaps in anticipation of her visit, we had a pretty good turnout, with 12 of us in attendance plus our speaker.

In the famous “All the world’s a stage” speech in As You Like It, Shakespeare wrote that “one man in his time plays many parts.” I thought of this passage often as I read Rabkin’s book, as her life seemed divided into such distinct acts. She was born in Poland in 1935, and the first few years of her life were spent in upper class comfort in Kraków. After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, her family fled east to the city of Lwów, where they were forced into a Jewish ghetto and eventually into hiding. Of the 200,000 Jews living in the city, only 1,000 survived the war. Rabkin and her brother were among them.

Rabkin’s understanding of what was happening during these dark years was limited by her young age and the narrow confines of her life in hiding. However, what she remembers, she describes in vivid, and often harrowing, detail. As disturbing as this description is, most of us found ourselves tearing through these early chapters, caught up in the story and eager to discover the fates of Rabkin’s family members.

There is enough in these early pages to fill a whole book. However, Rabkin’s early life in Poland takes up only the first of the book’s four parts and only five of its forty chapters. The other parts describe her adolescence in boarding schools in England, her young adulthood in New York, and her marriage, family and career in Berkeley. Some of us were surprised to note that our enthusiasm for the book continued unabated as we read about Rabkin’s life after the war. I guess we have read numerous descriptions of the horrors of World War II, but we haven’t as often seen how these traumas shaped the years that followed and how survivors coped with their losses and reconstructed their lives and their senses of identity.

It was a privilege to share in this remarkable woman’s story and to learn of her setbacks and regrets as well as her successes and triumphs. It was a reminder of the power of the human spirit and of the value of a single human life. Thus, Rabkin’s book helps us both to remember the Holocaust and to realize just how much was lost when so many millions of lives were cut short.

We really enjoyed the chance to talk with Rabkin at our meeting. She told us a lot about her writing process and how much she relied on her working relationships with the other women in her writing group. She talked about how she did her research for the book, and how family members responded to her writing. She also stressed her motives for publishing the book. In particular, she is horrified by the anti-immigrant rhetoric that surfacing in our society and shaping our country’s policies. Her story is a story of immigration, and in many ways, it is a quintessentially American story. It is also a stark reminder of what can happen when people let xenophobia and racism drive their politics. We mustn’t forget our history. We mustn’t turn our back on refugees and people in need.

June 2018: Killers of the Flower Moon (Grann)

posted Jul 14, 2018, 9:29 AM by East Bay Smith Club   [ updated Jul 14, 2018, 9:29 AM ]

At our June meeting, seven of us gathered at Charmaine’s house to discuss David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.  At the time of the Louisiana Purchase, the Osage nation stretched across much of the central part of the United States, from Kansas to the Rockies.  However, by the 1870’s the Osage were forced to sell the last of their land to white settlers.  They used the proceeds from this sale to buy land in Oklahoma that they hoped was too rocky and sterile to be attractive to the whites, and indeed few settlers showed any interest until substantial oil fields were discovered there in 1917.  By the 1920’s, the Osage had become some of the richest people in the world.  However, this astounding wealth did little to protect them, for as more outsiders poured into the area, numerous members of the tribe were murdered and/or died in mysterious circumstances.  Local authorities and various private detectives hired by the Osage were unable to solve the crimes, and several key witnesses also met grisly ends.  Finally, as the death toll rose, the federal government sent in investigators from the newly created FBI, who worked together with the Osage to uncover a most horrifying and deadly conspiracy.


Apparently, in the 1920’s the nation was fascinated by these murders and followed the resulting trials closely.  However, in the intervening decades the crimes seem to have been largely forgotten, and no members of our group had heard of them before.  Perhaps this is not surprising, considering our nation’s general amnesia about the persecution and destruction of Native American nations.   Nonetheless, Grann’s book has succeeded in bringing these events once more to the national consciousness, and his book has been on “The New York Times Bestsellers” list for weeks.    


Certainly, Grann does an admirable job of setting out the history of these terrible crimes.  In fact, his work is so diligent that he ends up uncovering details (and likely perpetrators!) that the original investigation missed.  However, this comprehensive analysis also makes the book depressing tough to read at times.    It is difficult to dwell on just how vicious and cold-hearted people can be. 


Nonetheless, in the end most of us were glad we had read the book, and we found it interesting to discuss why, at this particular moment, so many Americans are finding it worthy to revisit this dark time in our history.    Are we finally ready to own up to the genocide of America’s native population and to make amends?  After all, the book demonstrates that the effects of such trauma do not easily fade and that they are felt in subsequent generations.  Given the current political climate, are we keen to find fault with the federal and state governments whose policies made the conspiracies possible and made it impossible for the Osage to protect themselves?  Alternatively, are we simply eager to find heroes in the FBI, an organization that has recently come under attack.  Or, is it that our current turbulent times are leading us to turn to such a “true crime” tale as an attention grabbing means of escapism? 


Perhaps, it is ultimately not that important to understand why the book has become so popular.  Maybe it is enough that the victims of these crimes are remembered once more and that we recognize that the justice they deserve has not yet been fully delivered.  Perhaps humans have a moral duty to remember certain things, a responsibility which literature, both non-fiction and non-fiction, can help us fulfill.   


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