Book club

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

 Date:
 Tuesday, July 11, 2017
 Time:
 7:30 pm
 Place:
 The Lafayette home of Charmaine Detweiler (directions to book club mailing list)
 Book:

 The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as six other awards, The Sympathizer is the breakthrough novel of the year. With the pace and suspense of a thriller and prose that has been compared to Graham Greene and Saul Bellow, The Sympathizer is a sweeping epic of love and betrayal. The narrator, a communist double agent, is a “man of two minds,” a half-French, half-Vietnamese larmy captain who arranges to come to America after the Fall of Saigon, and while building a new life with other Vietnamese refugees in Los Angeles is secretly reporting back to his communist superiors in Vietnam. The Sympathizer is a blistering exploration of identity and America, a gripping espionage novel, and a powerful story of love and friendship. (from Amazon.com)

Reviews:

“A layered immigrant tale told in the wry, confessional voice of a ‘man of two minds’—and two countries, Vietnam and the United States.”—Pulitzer Prize Citation

“[A] remarkable debut novel . . . [Nguyen] brings a distinctive perspective to the war and its aftermath. His book fills a void in the literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless . . . The nameless protagonist-narrator, a memorable character despite his anonymity, is an Americanized Vietnamese with a divided heart and mind. Nguyen’s skill in portraying this sort of ambivalent personality compares favorably with masters like Conrad, Greene, and le Carré. . . . Both thriller and social satire. . . . In its final chapters, The Sympathizer becomes an absurdist tour de force that might have been written by a Kafka or Genet.”—Philip Caputo, New York Times Book Review (cover review)

“This is more than a fresh perspective on a familiar subject. The Sympathizer is intelligent, relentlessly paced and savagely funny . . . The voice of the double-agent narrator, caustic yet disarmingly honest, etches itself on the memory.”Wall Street Journal (WSJ’s Best Books of 2015) 


2017 Schedule
Tue 1/10/2017
Mon 2/6/2017
Thu 3/9/2017
Tue 4/11/2017
Wed 5/10/2017
Thu 6/8/2017
Tue 7/11/2017
Wed 8/9/2017
Thu 9/14/2017
Tue 10/10/2017
Wed 11/8/2017
Thu 12/14/2017
Want to join us? Email Sherrill
 
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
 



June 2017: The Handmaid's Tale (Atwood)

posted Jul 7, 2017, 1:17 PM by Sherrill Lavagnino

Summertime reduced our numbers a bit, but it did not dampen our enthusiasm.  On June 8th, five of us met at the home of Nancy Bucy in San Leandro to enjoy some delicious hummus and decadent mini-cupcakes and to discuss Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  The book is a dystopian tale of a future America ruled by a fundamentalist and puritanical religious sect.  Environmental degradation causes birth rates to plummet, prompting the ruling elite to enslave fertile woman to bear their children.   The novel centers on one of these enslaved “handmaidens.” Her real name is never revealed in the novel.  Instead, she is called “Offred,” indicating her relationship to “Fred,” the master of her household.   We follow Offred as she remembers her life before the regime took power, mourns the loss of her husband and daughter, and revisits the process of becoming a handmaiden.  In between these reminiscences, Offred navigates her strictly controlled life and tries to maintain her sanity in the face of both boring mundanity and spine-chilling horror.  

Nancy S. and Mary S. both read the novel when it came out in the mid-eighties and neither liked it much at the time.  They might have been turned off by the graphic descriptions of the rape of Offred during elaborate, quasi-religious, impregnation ceremonies or by Offred’s relative passivity compared to other character’s more active resistance.   On this second reading, however, both Nancy and Mary appreciated the novel more.   We all understood why it is popular once again and why it has been made into a new TV series.  In the novel, a tyrannical regime seizes control of the government as a necessary measure to fight “Islamic terrorists,”  it harkens back to an earlier time in American history where the nation had a values that must be regained, and it forcibly imposes a strict moral code supposedly based on “traditional” and “Biblical” values.   Given the current political climate, many people see Atwood’s dark vision as more realistic than ever.  In fact, as Ruth MacNaughton pointed out to me in an e-mail, women are beginning to dress as handmaidens during protests against the current administration and in defense of women’s reproductive rights.  (See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/30/us/handmaids-protests-abortion.html?modul&_r=0)

 

There were still things about the novel that we weren’t that keen on.  For example, there’s a final section set in the even more distant future that is written in an annoying, mock academic style that we weren’t sure was necessary.  Also, Offred’s character still seems unsympathetically passive at times, though it is clear that she has very few choices open to her.  Nonetheless, given the book’s added relevance, we had a greater tolerance for the novel’s graphic portrayal of the oppression of women, as it is provides a framework for discussing the ways women’s lives are controlled and manipulated in our own times that seems to resonate with so many people.  Perhaps, the book can also point out vulnerabilities that we may not have fully appreciated before.  For example, in the novel, the regime takes dramatic control of the lives of its female citizens by seizing their financial assets and transferring them to their closest male relative, a process made easier by the fact that most people’s wealth existed only virtually in a computer network.  Surely, this is even more true of us today than it was when the book came out in 1985.   No wonder the book seems to have aged so well.


-Karen B

May 2017: The Door (Szabo)

posted Jun 5, 2017, 8:41 PM by Sherrill Lavagnino   [ updated Jun 5, 2017, 8:41 PM ]

We had a lovely and cozy book club meeting on May 10th, as eight of us gathered around Ros’s dining room table for some tasty lentil and coconut soup and a lively discussion of Magda Szabo’s novel The Door.  The novel describes the tempestuous relationship between a young writer and her elderly housekeeper.   There is an intriguing collection of secondary characters, including the writer’s husband, several local residents and a few members of the housekeeper’s extended family.   However, the only other character to rival the two women in importance is an intelligent, and almost human, male dog named Viola.  

The housekeeper, Emerence, is a force of nature indeed. Fiercely independent, she has an almost superhuman capacity for work.  She seems to disdain the intellectual labors of the writer and her academic husband, though over the years she develops a respect for their efforts which almost amounts to acceptance.  The different values and experiences of the two women lead to a variety of intense arguments and abusive fights.  Still, they develop a deep affection for, and loyalty to, each other.  The novel begins with the writer’s confession that she will ultimately betray this affection and loyalty, with tragic consequences.  It is our curiosity about this betrayal that drives the narrative forward.

Everyone in our group enjoyed the book.  We were all entranced by Emerence, though we had an interesting discussion about whether or not she was likeable.  To be in a relationship with Emerence is to cede control to her.  Her unique perspective and passion for life on her terms would certainly be hard to resist.  However, her manipulative behavior would drive most of us crazy, as would her pride and her reluctance to trust the people closest to her and to accept their help.  The writer certainly struggles to figure out how to sustain her relationship with Emerence.   As readers, we sympathized with her difficulties, but in the end, it was hard not to share some of Emerence’s disapproval of the writer’s choices and values.   In a sense, this is one of the triumphs of the book, since most reader’s values probably align more closely with those of the writer, so in siding with Emerence we are compelled to reanalyze what we think really matters.   This is just one of the many ways the book triggers philosophical reflection, and several of us commented that we wished that we knew more about  Hungarian history so that we could have had a deeper understanding of the novel’s mythical, symbolic and cultural significance.  Surely, this intellectual curiosity is evidence that this was a great book club choice indeed.

Literarily Yours, 

Karen B

April 2017: The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (Böll)

posted May 7, 2017, 5:52 PM by East Bay Smith Club   [ updated May 7, 2017, 5:52 PM ]

On April 11th, six of us gathered at Ruth’s home in the hills above Oakland to enjoy an impressive array of treats, a beautiful sunset and a lively discussion of Heinrich Böll’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum.  At the beginning of the novel, the main character confesses that she has shot and killed a reporter in her apartment.  The rest of the book describes the sequence of events that led to this murder.  As we discover, Katharina Blum is transformed from a hard-working and somewhat conservative young woman to a cool and unremorseful killer over the course of four eventful days.   This metamorphosis begins when she takes a man home from a party.  Unbeknownst to her, the man is being hunted by the police as a gangster and possible terrorist.  When he slips out of Blum’s apartment the next morning without being caught by the police, she is brought in for questioning.  The tabloid press immediately publishes articles about her, speculating on her relationship with the young man, her sexual proclivities, and her political leanings.  They suggest that she too may have a criminal past.  This unfavorable press attention soon involves her family, employers, friends and acquaintances.  The consequences are devastating, and Katharina’s carefully built world is pulled apart at the seams.

The book was written in the 1970’s and was in part a response to the sensationalism surrounding West Germany’s hunt for members of the ultra-left wing terrorist organization known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang.  Böll’s criticisms of the tabloid press are clearly aimed at the right wing Bild-Zeitung newspaper.  Perhaps predictably, the novel’s attack on anti-terrorist hysteria prompted the journalists he was satirizing to accuse him of defending the aims and murderous actions of the Baader-Meinhof Gang.  Perhaps somewhat more surprisingly, the leftist terrorists agreed.  Their leaders claimed that the meaning of the novel is that “the shooting of a representative of the ruling power apparatus is morally justifiable.”  To be fair, Böll condemned the terrorists’ violent methods and championed less extreme, though still demanding, leftist values.  Still, it is interesting to contemplate what the ultimate message of Katharina Blum is.  Are we meant to accept Katharina’s actions as correct and understandable?  If not, what else should she have done?  Is she merely a victim of a society addicted to media fueled gossip and paranoia?  If so, what can be done to make our society less cruel and dehumanizing?

Most of us enjoyed the book.   Despite its age, the book felt very relevant to the current moment, especially considering the growing influence of social media and of “fake news.”   For the most part, we sympathized with Katharina Blum and found her story compelling and her ultimate act of violence understandable.  However, given her self-discipline and reserved nature, some of us found her passionate affair with the gangster puzzling.  Perhaps Böll went too far in his attempt to set his main character up as the antithesis of the scandalous, fallen woman that the press eventually describes her to be.  On the other hand, her moment of passion could simply reveal the complexity and humanity of her character. 

In part, our difficulty in getting a complete handle on the character of Katharina is a result of the novel’s style.  The story is narrated by someone who is closely acquainted with the people and events described, though he is probably not directly involved in those events (though this is not completely clear).  The narrator says that he pieced the story together based materials open to public record and private interviews with key figures involved.  As a result, he is clearly not omniscient, and he frequently discusses his limitations and the logic behind his decision to tell the story in a certain way.   At times, some of us found this self-consciousness style of narration annoying.  However, it contributed to the uniqueness of the novel and was yet another factor which, we ultimately agreed, made it well worth reading.

-Karen B.

March 2017: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Loos)

posted May 7, 2017, 5:50 PM by East Bay Smith Club

Our record of having book club meetings during torrential downpours was finally broken on March 9th when we gathered once again at Nancy Spaeth’s house in Berkeley.  Perhaps because of the clement weather, our ranks swelled to ten Smithies and included Ginny Levett who was visiting from Southampton, England, thus making my commute from Danville look like small potatoes indeed!

Our book for the month was Anita Loos’s 1925 comic novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  Judging by the liveliness of our discussion and by the number of times it was interrupted by laughter, I think it is fair to say that Loos’s humor has aged well, even though the book is undeniably a product of its times.   The book is presented as the diary of Lorelei Lee a former chorus girl and self-proclaimed “professional lady,” who travels from New York to Europe and back again in an effort to educate herself and to secure her financial future through the manipulation of rich and gullible gentlemen.    This description might make Lorelei Lee seem unsympathetically mercenary, and Loos allows her main character to be unabashedly open about her calculations concerning the value of the gifts she receives from a gentleman when weighed against the tediousness of the attention she must endure in return.  Nonetheless, Lorelei is attractive and entertaining company, and she has an uncanny ability to make those around her happy, even as the expenses mount.

Loos was inspired the write Gentlemen Prefer Blondes after watching her male friends, and in particular the journalist H.L. Mencken, fall for “stupid little” blondes while ignoring the women who were their cultural and intellectual peers.  Given this starting point, one might expect Lorelei to come across as quite dim.  She certainly has had little formal education, as the creative spelling in her journal attests.  At times, she is also quite adept at missing the blatantly obvious.  Nonetheless, she has a basic understanding of human motivations that allows her moments of pure genius.   As her best friend Dorothy comments, Lee’s “brains reminded her of a radio because you listen to it for days and days and just when you are getting ready to smash it, something comes out that is a masterpiece.”   These moments of cleverness and the fact that they allow Lee to be the master of her own fate, transform her into one of the more interesting heroines in modern literature.  Lee never seems pay a price for doing what she wants or for seeking what she desires.   Sadly, we could think of few other female characters where this is the case.

In our discussion, we talked about the uniqueness of Lorelei’s character and of the unusualness of the book itself.  Most of us enjoyed reading it, though one member couldn’t handle the prose’s “stream of consciousness” style, which can be challenging but which also fit both with the book’s format as a personal diary and with the literary trends of the 1920’s.  A couple other members also failed to read the book because our libraries seem to have few copies of it available.  This seems a bit odd considering how popular the book once was.  In fact, Edith Wharton called it “the great American novel” and it sold out several printings in succession.  Perhaps this popularly attests to the truth of Mencken’s comment that in writing the book Loos was “the first American writer ever to poke fun at sex.”  As someone pointed out, it is actually not clear how much sex there is in the book; however, Loos’s comedic exploration of the relations between men and women, whether sexual and otherwise, still provided us with plenty to laugh at and to ponder.   We also enjoyed discussing Lorelei Lee’s rich and often refreshingly non-competitive relationships with the women in her life, like her best friend Dorothy and her maid Lulu.  All in all, I think most of us would agree that it is worth keeping this novel alive in the American canon and that several of us are interested enough to read the sequel:  But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes. (And here I promised I would mention one woman’s comment that the combination of the two books’ titles reminded her of the old saying: “Smith to bed, Holyoke to wed.”  A shocking epigram, perchance, but if it implies that Smith somehow embraces the spirit of Lorelei Lee, then I’m o.k. with that J.)

Literarily yours, Karen B.

February 2017: Why I Wake Early (Oliver)

posted Mar 25, 2017, 10:59 PM by Sherrill Lavagnino   [ updated Mar 25, 2017, 11:02 PM ]

We are three for three when it comes to holding book club meetings on the same night as massive rain storms!  Still, that did not dissuade eight of us from gathering at Susan Strom’s house in Oakland last week to discuss Why I Wake Early, a collection of poetry by Mary Oliver.  Everyone seemed to like the book, and we all recognized our own feelings and reactions in some aspect of Oliver’s work.  We praised her ability to find beauty in the seemingly mundane.  For example, she describes the act of freshening a vase of flowers in a way that turned a chore into an artistic performance.  

 

Most of the poems focused on Oliver’s experiences in the natural world, often describing things encountered on walks in the woods or on the beach or plants and animals spotted in her backyard.   Some of us felt this gave the book a solitary air, as Oliver had most of these experiences alone and other people are rarely mentioned in the poems.  Still, this lonely mood is countered by the sense of connectedness that Oliver highlights between herself and the natural world she inhabits.  At times, she describes this connection in religious terms, though often in a nuanced way.  

 

It has been a really long time since our book club read a book of poetry together, but we enjoyed it so much that I would not be surprised if we do it again.    The book provided a very different reading experience compared with that of reading a novel or work of non-fiction.  For example, someone said she found that reading the poems naturally altered and regulated her breathing in a way that she found calming.  Several of us had read the poems aloud to ourselves, and we read some pieces aloud to each other at the meeting.  This led to a discussion not only of the meaning of those poems but also of the conventions governing poetry in general.  For example, we were curious about the thought processes governing how a poem was laid out on a page and whether these choices determined the way the poem was supposed to be read.   It was clear from these remarks that reading Oliver’s work had left many of us keen to read more of her work and, perhaps, to learn more about this literary art form.


-Karen B.

January 2017: Hillbilly Elegy (Vance)

posted Jan 17, 2017, 7:35 PM by Sherrill Lavagnino   [ updated Mar 25, 2017, 11:01 PM ]

Once again, the weather provided a dramatic backdrop for our book club meeting.  Despite the downpour, eight of us washed ashore at Maggie’s house on January 10 to discuss Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance.  The book chronicles Vance’s difficult childhood in southern Ohio and eastern Kentucky.  Vance’s early years are shaped by his mother’s substance abuse and combative personality.  In his harrowing descriptions of her erratic behavior, Vance highlights the characteristic actions and attitudes prevalent in his family and his Appalachian community that helped to nurture his mother’s destructive qualities.  At the same time, he points to other elements within his family and community that helped him to take control of his own future, to get a quality education and, ultimately, to become a successful lawyer.  Sadly, Vance notes, various socio-economic factors seem to be making his story of social mobility increasingly rare.

 

We began by discussing the importance of certain key figures in Vance’s life.  In particular, his grandparents were a source of stability and inspiration for him, even though they had often been a disruptive force in the life of his mother.  The significance of such individuals in Vance’s story makes it difficult to see what sort of policy changes might help others to follow his path of success.  After all, you can’t legislate that everyone should have a sympathetic, yet demanding, grandmother.  There might be other ways, however, to provide more mentors to young people.  We also noted the social services policies and laws that prevented Vance from being placed in the custody of his grandparents when that would clearly have been in his best interests.  (He faced only the options, he believed, of staying with his mother or being separated from his sister and placed in the foster care system.)   Someone noted that policies these days would be more amenable placing children with relatives.  

 

It is also not clear how policies could address some of the other factors that Vance pointed to as impediments to his progress, such as the opinion amongst many in his community that pursuing an education was a betrayal of his roots and an evidence that he thought he was better than everyone else.  This culture of non-achievement seemed to baffle most of us, especially as it goes against typical American narratives about the importance of bettering oneself.  It’s hard to know how to change this outlook, especially without seeming patronizing.  One wonders, however, if these attitudes merely reveal a sense of pessimism and desperation that is a result of the economic decline that has plagued these regions for decades.  Pursuing educational and economic advancement can only be labelled as distancing oneself from one’s peers, after all, if it is assumed that those peers will be left behind.  If there is a general sense that success is open to all, then surely it would not be seen as odd to pursue it.  Vance’s book doesn’t suggest any specific ways to return optimism and hope to these communities.  However, as the recent election highlighted, we need to understand the challenges that these regions of our country our facing and to discuss ways that we can help them, or perhaps merely stop hindering them, from facing these problems.  As the success of his book attests, many feel Vance’s book provides a good place to get this conversation started.


-Karen B.

December 2016: The Arab of the Future (Sattouf)

posted Dec 17, 2016, 8:25 PM by Sherrill Lavagnino   [ updated Jan 17, 2017, 7:40 PM ]

It was a dark and stormy night, this Thursday, December the 8th, and yet a dedicated group of seven book club enthusiasts wended their way into the mist-shrouded hills of Berkeley to Nancy’s house.  Our book this month was the graphic memoir The Arab of The Future:  A Childhood in the Middle East.  Reactions to the book were mixed, but it certainly provoked a lively discussion, thus proving its merits as a book club selection.  It was also a delightfully quick read, which was perfect for the holiday season.

 

Riad Sattouf is a cartoonist, filmmaker and former contributor to the magazine Charlie Hebdo.  In this book, he uses cartoons to describe the first six years of his life as he moved with his Syrian father and French mother to various towns in Libya, France and Syria.   The illustrations are charming, and yet the life he describes is often disturbing.   His father has a strong influence on the young boy, but he is a complex and not all together likeable character.  His mother seems a more sympathetic, yet we found her somewhat of a mystery.  For example, we couldn’t see why she put up with some of the more uncomfortable aspects of their lives in Libya and Syria.   Of course, the narrator of the story is supposed to be Sattouf’s six year old self, so he would have had a limited understanding of his parents’ thoughts and of the dynamics of their marriage.   In fact, this “child’s eye” view is one of the most intriguing aspects of the book, as the reader also has a child’s limited access to the world of the story and, like the protagonist, we are forced to guess at the various forces and power dynamics shaping this world.  It also reveals a child’s focus, which was both endearing and sometimes frustrating.  For example, when the family relocated the main character would often provide vivid details about the smells of his new home and the way strangers reacted to his appearance (he had long, blonde hair).  This was wonderful, but often left us in the dark about other important details about the move, such as what the family’s motivations were for making it. 

 

The limitations of the central character’s understanding certainly made sense given his age.   This book is the first in a series, and it will be interesting to see how the main character’s understanding of his circumstances is developed in the books to come.   I think a few of us enjoyed the book enough to want to read future volumes.  Others are interested in reading more about Syria and Libya during the early 1980’s, as the book’s descriptions peaked our curiosity about the political and social landscape of that period and how it shapes the region today.   There was some concern, however, that the book’s portrayal of Libya and Syria could be deemed offensive, as there were many disturbing scenes in the novel involving, for example, the treatment of women and the blatant anti-Semitism of both adults and children.  It definitely was not the most flattering portrait of life in the Middle East.  Since this was a memoir of the author’s own childhood, however, we discussed if he was obligated to portray things as honestly as he remembers them, or if he should strive to correct existing cultural stereotypes and biases, which, after all, might be shaping his own processes of self-refection.


-Karen B

November, 2016: Burial Rites (Kent)

posted Nov 20, 2016, 4:09 PM by Sherrill Lavagnino

Perhaps still a little shell-shocked from the previous evening’s events, seven of us gathered at Betsey’s house last Wednesday, the 9th of November.  Although we were not shy about sharing our thoughts and feelings about the election, I am proud to say that we spent a good deal of time discussing our book for the month:  Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.   

 

Set in rural Iceland in the 1820’s, the novel is inspired by the real life and death of Agnus Magnusdottir, who was the last person executed in the country.  There being no jails in the area, Agnes is forced to wait for months at the home of a local farmer while her conviction and death sentence are reviewed and approved by the king of Denmark.   Kent does an admirable job of portraying the relationships that develop between Agnes, the family that is forced to house her, and the priest charged with ministering to her.  As the characters work, eat, and sleep closely together in the stark, challenging and often beautiful Icelandic landscape, their fear and distrust slowly transform as the hidden pieces of Agnes’s story are gradually revealed.  

 

Once again we marveled at an author’s ability to create suspense even though we knew how the story would end.  Perhaps in this case, the effect was heightened by our hopes for a different outcome.  Agnes’s story is a compelling one, and Kent says she wrote the book in part to reintroduce compassion into accounts of these historical events.    

 

This is Kent’s first novel, and it is an impressive start.   We certainly weren’t short on topics to discuss.  For example, we were fascinated by the role of storytelling and of literacy in the community.  Religion seemed to play an important role in maintaining these skills.   However, the priest is a somewhat ineffective character, and though he is ultimately the catalyst that gets Agnes to tell her story, it is not clear that the religious authorities would approve. 

 

We also noted the importance of the Icelandic climate and landscape in shaping the lives of its inhabitants and the events in the novel.  For instance, for warmth all the members of a household, including servants, sleep in the same room.  As you can imagine, this heightens tensions at the beginning as the family must deal with the convicted murderer in their midst.  However, this forced intimacy also makes it difficult for her captors to deny the humanity of Agnes as the days progress.  The swinging back and forth between the closeness and claustrophobia of such moments and the agoraphobic lonesomeness of the expansive Icelandic countryside is one of the many things that makes the book so emotionally engaging. 


--Karen Bardsley

October 2016: The Lady in Gold (O'Connor)

posted Oct 24, 2016, 6:01 PM by East Bay Smith Club

On Tuesday, October 11th, seven of us gathered at the home of Mary Ann Campbell to discuss The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Anne-Marie O’Connor. The book centers on the story of one extended Jewish family and their attempts to regain artworks that were stolen from them during the Nazi occupation of Austria.  However, in presenting this story, the author provides a lot of detailed information about the cultural and intellectual milieu that flourished turn of the century Vienna, the persecution of the Jewish community in Vienna by the Nazi’s and their Austrian collaborators, and the legal struggles of the survivors to regain what was left of their property.   

This historical detail was fascinating, but it also was a bit overwhelming at times.  It became difficult to keep track of all the people that were mentioned and to remember how they tied back to the family at the heart of the story.   Similarly, the material on Gustav Klimt got a bit lost in the discussion of Vienna’s vibrant artistic community.  Some of us would have appreciated a more narrow focus, if it had allowed us to learn even more about the sources of Klimt’s artistic style and his contributions to the development of modern painting. 

That being said, the book certainly creates a vivid impression of the splendor and value of the Viennese society that was destroyed, and it provides a harrowing and haunting description of that destruction.  Given the richness and importance of that history, it is easy to sympathize with the author’s desire to pack in as much information about as many different people as she could.

--write up by Karen Bardsley

September 2016: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold in the 1936 Olympics (Brown)

posted Sep 16, 2016, 10:56 AM by East Bay Smith Club

Katherine Gavzy kindly hosted the book club this month, and so a group of about nine of us wound our way up to her home in the Berkeley hills on September 8 to discuss Daniel James Brown’s book The Boys in the Boat:  Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold in the 1936 Olympics.  Everyone seemed to enjoy the book.  We were surprised to learn how popular and influential collegiate rowing was in the first half of the twentieth century.  Thousands of spectators showed up to watch races and tens of thousands more followed along on the radio.  The growing success of the crews of the University of Washington and their main rivals, UC Berkeley, helped to build the reputation of West Coast institutions in a country still focused on the East Coast and the Ivy-League.   One of the main themes of the book is the contrast between the mostly poor and working class rowers from the University of Washington and the privileged students and programs of their competitors.   We were impressed by the hard work and perseverance displayed by the “boys in the boat.”   In particular, the book centers on the story of one of the rowers, Joe Rantz, a young man who was abandoned by his family while still a boy.  Getting himself to the University through an admirable combination of grit and determination, Rantz struggles to find the sense of trust and belonging that will allow him to succeed as part of the crew team.   

The book’s descriptions of life in the Pacific Northwest during the depression were fascinating, and the stories of the young men’s struggles and triumphs were inspiring.  However, many of us were most taken by the accounts of the elegant beauty of rowing and of the incredible effort and co-ordination required to create and sustain that beauty.

Of course, the book ends with the tale of the team’s gold medal winning race in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  Even though you know that they win from the beginning of the book, it is amazing how suspenseful many of us felt in reading the account of that final race.  You can see the race on-line on YouTube.  In fact, if you have time, I recommend the PBS American Experience film based on the book’s events:  The Boys of 36’  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OEb7rVADZso

- Karen

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