Book Club


We have switched from in-person to online meetings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Updates will be posted to this page.

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

 Date:
12/10/2020
 Time:
 7:30pm    
 Place:
Online - email karen.e.bardsley@gmail.com for info
 Book:

No book - bring a favorite piece of poetry to read aloud!

2020 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:
12/10/20: Bring a favorite piece of poetry to read aloud!


 
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 2020: Black is the Body (Bernard)

posted Nov 22, 2020, 2:37 PM by East Bay Smith Club

 Last month, sixteen of us gathered on-line to discuss Emily Bernard’s book Black is The Body:  Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine.  Dr. Bernard is a professor at the University of Vermont, where she teaches courses in American and African American literature, critical race and ethnic theory, and women studies.   Before taking this position, she taught briefly at Smith College, where Nancy Bucy, a member of our book club, took one of her courses on the Harlem Renaissance.  Deeply impressed by the course, Nancy eagerly read Bernard’s book when it came out, and recommended it to our group.

 

Although Dr. Bernard is an award-winning scholar, Black is the Body is not an academic work.  It is a collection of twelve, deeply personal, autobiographical essays.   The collection begins with an essay on a traumatic and shocking incident that inspired her writings.  In 1994, Bernard was in a café near her graduate program at Yale when she and several other patrons were viciously attacked by a knife wielding white man.  Stabbed in the stomach, the damage from the attack lingered for years, requiring several surgeries.  While recovering from one of these surgeries in 2001, a friend visited her in the hospital and suggested that she should write about her experiences.  The friend proposed that her body was speaking to her, telling her “that it was time to face down the fear that had kept [her] from telling the story of the stabbing, as well as other stories that [she] needed to tell.”

 

In response, Bernard began to write a series of essays.   Recognizing that she was not yet ready to discuss the stabbing, she reflected on her experiences as an African American woman teaching race theory in Vermont, one of the whitest regions in America.   She explored stories about growing up in the American south, her own stories and those of her mother and grandmother.  She reflected on her interracial marriage to her Italian American husband, and how her marriage has, and has not, been accepted by her family and her community.  She described the challenging and infinitely rewarding process of adopting their two daughters from Ethiopia.  Eventually, she found the strength and perspective required to write about the attack in the coffee shop.  

 

Although some of the material had been published before in magazines, she gathered twelve of these essays together to form Black is the Body.  The result is a moving and insightful reflection on the realities of race in America told from one woman’s unique perspective.   Bernard declares that the essays in the book were “born in a struggle to find a language that would capture the totality of my experience, as a woman, a black American, a teacher, writer, mother, wife and daughter.”  She wanted “to contribute something to the American racial drama besides the enduring narrative of black innocence and white guilt.”  She wanted to explore “blackness at its borders, where it meets whiteness, in fear and hope, in anguish and love.”  This is not to say that she downplays the dangers and harms of racism in America. In fact, she comes to see her stabbing as “a metaphor for the violent encounter that has generally characterized American race relations.”  However, she recognizes the healing potential in sharing her stories and those of the people she loves.  She writes:

 

“Blackness is an art, not a science.  It is a paradox: intangible and visceral; a situation and a story.  It is the thread that connects these essays, but its significance as an experience emerges sometimes randomly and unpredictably in life as I have lived it.  It is inconsistent, continuously in flux, and yet also a constant condition that I carry in my body.  It is a condition that encompasses beauty, misery, wonder, and opportunity.  In its inherent contradictions, utter mysteries, and bottomlessness as a reservoir of narratives, race is the story of my life, and therefore black is the body of this book.”

 

Everyone in the group enjoyed the book.  Some of us were a bit worried at first by the amount of violence and trauma in the opening essay about the knife attack.  However, we were quickly impressed by Bernard’s ability to discuss even the most harrowing events with grace and insightfulness.  We were astounded, for example, by the amount of understanding she showed for her attacker. 

 

Overall, Bernard’s light touch and positive tone made the book inviting and enjoyable to read, even though she discusses serious events that trigger strong emotional reactions.   A few of us were a little uncomfortable with the way she handled a class-room discussion of the use of the ‘n-word,’ however, we could see why she is such an effective and provocative educator.   We discussed who the target audience of the book might be and noted how certain incidents described in the book poignantly highlighted the legacy of segregation and the enduring presence of racial prejudice in America.   For example, we were all struck by a story about a flat tire on the way a family reunion in Mississippi.  Bernard’s white husband immediately pulled the car over and changed the tire, much to the wonder and discomfort of Bernard and her parents.  In much of America, African Americans are still too vulnerable to feel safe on the side of the road, and they choose their stopping places with more care.  “Somewhere between the clarity of [my husband’s] focus and the complexity of my father's anxiety, perhaps, lies the difference between living white and living black in America,” Bernard writes, “I see the difference. Mostly I despise it. But my belief that difference can engender pleasure as well as pain made it possible for me to marry a white man.”

 

Considering the subject matter, I suppose one could criticize the book for not being more difficult and challenging.  Certainly, many of the issues that the book raises call for remedy and response, and a higher amount of discomfort might be more effective at prompting this positive action.  However, I think there is a lot to be said for Bernard’s even tone and philosophical approach.   Again and again, Bernard shows a talent for seeing the humanity in herself and others, even while recognizing the complexity of the human condition and our propensity for mistakes and misunderstandings.   As I read, I found myself feeling deeply akin to Bernard, even as she described ways in which her experience in America is different from mine.  Perhaps, this delicate balance between connecting with others while confronting and, even, embracing difference, represents some of the book’s greatest healing potential.  Bernard is right, storytelling can open old wounds, but it can also be the salve that begins to heal them.

September 2020: Educated (Westover)

posted Oct 11, 2020, 8:09 PM by East Bay Smith Club

Like many, I first came to Tara Westover’s Educated expecting a moving story of one woman’s educational journey.  I knew she was largely self-taught, and I figured she would describe what it was about academia that motivated her to pursue an advanced education.  What I was not expecting was the nightmare of abuse and terror that characterized her childhood.   

 

Born in 1986, Westover was the youngest of seven children in a fundamentalist Mormon family that lived on an isolated mountain in rural Idaho.  Dominated by her tyrannical and mentally unstable father, the family ekes out a living doing the occasional construction job and selling scrap metal from the junkyard on their property.  Westover’s mother brings in additional funds by midwifery and selling herbal remedies.   Growing increasingly distrustful of the government and certain that the collapse of American society is immanent, Westover’s father pulls his older children out of school and does not register the births of his youngest ones.  The children are supposed to be homeschooled, but this obligation is almost completely neglected as the parents focus on the family’s self-sufficiency and on preparing for the imagined conflicts to come.  Westover’s father delights in pushing limits and working in unsafe conditions, and he and his children suffer a series of horrifying injuries, almost none of which receive proper medical attention. 

 

Terrorized by an abusive and manipulative older brother and cut off from her peers by her father’s paranoia, Westover seems destined to spend the rest of her life on the family’s homestead.  However, inspired by another brother’s example, she embarks on a project of self-education, takes the ACT and gets into Brigham Young University at the age of 17.   Although her complete lack of formal schooling creates great challenges for her, her dedication and intelligence impress her professors, leading to opportunities to study at Harvard University and the University of Cambridge.  Throughout her higher education, she struggles to free herself from the hold that her family has on her life and self-image.  It is only when she breaks ties with her most of her family completely, that she finds the focus and energy she needs to complete her Ph.D. in History.

 

As with J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Westover’s tale of unlikely academic success is inspiring.   Also, as with Vance’s book, Westover’s book is not really about academia and the value of an education, except in so far as it offers a pathway to both physical and psychological escape.  Both books present us with an unflattering and troubling portrait of a family living in poverty in rural, small-town America.  Both books can be difficult to read.  The vivid descriptions of the violence and abuse that Westover experienced turned off some of our members.   It felt almost voyeuristic to be witnessing such events, and some of us grew frustrated by the fact that Westover kept returning to her abusers, that she did not sever ties sooner.   By her own admission, Westover lied to protect her family, both to herself, in her own journals, and to others.  We were not sure if we could trust her writing now.  After all, she was quite open about the fact that her relatives remember some of the events quite differently.   If things were really as bad as she describes, we wondered, how was it possible that Westover and two of her brothers went on to earn Ph.D’s?  If her parents were so difunctional, how were they eventually able to turn her mother’s herbal remedies into a successful business?

 

At the beginning of our discussion, the criticisms of Westover became so intense that we had to do a conversational reset, reminding ourselves that Westover was a victim of abuse and that it is by no means uncommon for people who are abused to return to their abusers and/or to find it incredibly difficult to get away.  Westover’s admission that she may not have all the details of her childhood right, reveals her underlying honesty as much as indicates the unreliability of some of her narration.  After all, memories are notoriously inaccurate, and history usually involves some process of guesswork and reasoning from the available evidence.   Perhaps it is her Ph.D. in History that has made her so open about this process in her own work, and even though her parents have publicly challenged Westover’s book, there are others who support her version of events, and the work was independently fact checked before publication.

 

Perhaps the best insight into the book comes from reflecting on its title: Educated.  We are not surprised by the education that she receives at university and by the ways it expands her world view and self-image.   More surprising are the lessons she learns from the family she must eventually abandon.  As we get drawn into the world of her childhood, it is easy to focus on the various sources of trauma.  However, there is also clear evidence of her family’s strengths. They taught her self-reliance, resilience, and persistence.  Her parents may have struggled with mental illness and self-denial, but they were clearly intelligent, as their ability to get by with so little reveals.  Perhaps somewhat ironically, these strengths explain both the fact that Westover found it so hard to get away from her family and the fact that she, ultimately, had the personal and intellectual resources necessary to craft her own path in the world.

August 2020: A Gentleman in Moscow (Towles)

posted Sep 12, 2020, 5:30 PM by East Bay Smith Club

Not everyone will enjoy A Gentleman in Moscow.  Some might say its tone is too light, its plot too slow moving and too implausible, its refusal to dwell on the horrors of Soviet history too unforgiveable.    My cynical side suspects that some readers will simply be turned off by the book’s optimism and by the fact that most of the characters are fundamentally decent, kind and even charming.  In the opening sentence of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy famously wrote that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”   A Gentleman in Moscow was inspired by Amor Towles’s love of Russian literature, and Anna Karenina is a work that the main character adores.  However, in a sense, the book offers a respectful refutation of Tolstoy’s claim.   Some families are born in the most singular of circumstances, and some families discover happiness in the most unique of ways.  

 

A Gentleman in Moscow begins in 1922, as Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to house arrest by a Bolshevik tribunal.   An unrepentant aristocrat, Rostov is saved from the firing squad by the fact that he wrote a poem that helped to inspire the revolution.  Instead, he is told that he cannot leave the confines of his current residence:  the Hotel Metropol in central Moscow.  If he steps foot outside of that building, he is assured, he will be shot.  He remains in the hotel for thirty-two years.

 

One of the original grand hotels of Europe, the Hotel Metropol is permitted to preserve much of its luxury and elegance because Soviet officials want to make a good impression on the visiting diplomats and foreign reporters who stay there.  However, the struggles faced by the greater Soviet Union still reach the hotel and its staff and residents, including Count Rostov.  Having been moved to a small room in the attic and deprived of most of his possessions, he quickly begins to feel the weight of his confinement.   As the Russia that he knows and loves slowly disappears outside his small window, Rostov is saved from despair by the human connections that he makes within the hotel and by the complex world that he discovers within its walls. 

 

As a story about one man thriving in the face of extended confinement, A Gentleman in Moscow seemed a fitting choice for our book club this summer: a perfect panacea to a pandemic.   The fifteen members who attended our last zoom meeting all enjoyed the book and appreciated its optimism and fairytale like qualities as a pleasant break to the doom and gloom on the evening news.  Some found the opening chapters a little slow and said they had to adjust to the mindset of the novel.  Once they did, however, they felt captivated by the book’s charms and intrigued by, and invested in, the fates of the characters.  Others loved the book from the get-go, falling almost instantly in love with Rostov and his effortless, though sometimes borderline pompous, gentility.   Towles creates several other richly drawn characters, and we enjoyed discussing their strengths and failings.   We also pondered upon the book’s reoccurring themes and its accordion-like temporal structure, which reminded us of a set of nesting Matryoshka dolls. 

 

Perhaps our most critical discussion centered on the plausibility of the novel and of its ending.   At one point, Rostov declares himself the luckiest man in Russia and, in the moment, the reader believes it.  How likely, we later wondered, was it that an aristocrat such as Rostov would have been able to survive the persecutions of the Soviet era?  Many critics fault the book for glossing over the worst horrors of these times.   In response, we noted that the book recognized much of this history and that several of the characters lives were tragically shaped, or even destroyed, by these events.   Still, A Gentleman in Moscow is not, nor is it intended to be, a work of historical fiction.  It is a work of the imagination and an exploration of the human spirit.  Towles claimed that he did most of his historical research after the writing the first draft.  His primary relationship was not with the historical setting of the book, but with the intellectual and emotional lives of his characters. 

 

In an interview with NPR’s Lois Reitzes, Towles discussed a passage where Rostov muses on the importance of second chances and on the time that it takes to understand the complexities of any human heart.  This is not a piece of philosophy, Towles insisted, that he had ever propounded before or taught to his children.   Instead, he insisted, he discovered this wisdom alongside the Count and inspired by the events he found himself describing.   Perhaps it is this ability to learn from the book’s characters and relationships, and to be surprised by its hard won moments of optimism and happiness, that have prompted so many millions of people to read this novel, and to read it more than once.  Several of our members noted that this was their second reading of the book and that they appreciated it in new ways on the second time around.   To echo Rostov’s insights, great novels also reveal new depths to us upon repeat acquaintance, and I suspect that A Gentleman in Moscow is a friend several of us will revisit again.

July 2020: Commencement (Sullivan)

posted Aug 5, 2020, 9:11 PM by East Bay Smith Club

On Tuesday, July 7th, fifteen of us gathered via Zoom to discuss J. Courtney Sullivan’s novel Commencement.

 

Commencement is a novel about four friends from Smith.  Set in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, it covers their years at the college and their first five years after graduation.   I suppose it would be appropriate to place the book in the “chick lit” genre, though I hesitate to do so.  I am not sure the label has ever been considered a literary honorific, but perhaps that is changing.  After all, there is a movement amongst some feminists to champion and reimagine the romance genre, and many of the leaders of this movement are Smith graduates.  I know this because the Smith Alumnae Quarterly told me so, and because The Sophian has posted several interviews with prominent Smithie romance writers online (e.g. https://thesophian.com/never-judge-a-smithie-by-her-cover-sarah-maclean-on-the-romance-genre/). 

 

Commencement is not a romance novel, though the characters’ romantic lives provide many of the plot’s key developments.  Instead, it is a novel about female friendship and the tight bonds that form between young women who journey into to adulthood together.   Although it contains plenty of drama and conflict, and some surprising moments of violence, one reviewer described it as “a beach book for smart women” and another as a “fun, fresh… and insightful read.”   So perhaps, “chick lit” is the right label, and perhaps that isn’t so bad.  We certainly turned to the book hoping for a break from the doom and gloom of some of our previous selections.  


I suspect the book was a nice break, but not in the manner that we expected.  In many ways, the book was a lot like the last four novels that we have read.  For example, each new chapter brought a change in the narrative’s point of view, shifting back and forth from each of the four characters.   Also like our previous four novels, Commencement had a central storyline concerning a traumatic series of events involving all of the main characters, but the novel also jumped back and forth in time a lot, showing us scenes from the characters’ years together at Smith and from their lives apart both before and after college. 

 

For the most part, Sullivan successfully interwove these various threads.  However, I think most of us found that she was not as masterful at the task as the other novelists we have read recently.    Some said they could tell that this was Sullivan’s first work.  One person said they “could see behind the curtain too much,” as if they could sense the author checking off boxes as she pieced her book together.  Another person added that the character development had started off strongly, but that it had plateaued.  As the book drew to its dramatic conclusion, some storylines seemed too heavy-handed, some too underdeveloped.  We wondered what readers who did not have a link to Smith would have found compelling in the book.  In the end, the work seemed promising, but unsatisfying, and our members who are fans of Sullivan’s work encouraged us to try some of her more recent work.  I certainly found enough to like in Commencement to make that sound inviting.


These observations notwithstanding, I think most of us were glad that we chose the book.  One of its key strengths was its depiction of the powerful and abiding friendships that arose between the four women, who just happened to find themselves housed next to each other in their first year in college (on the third floor of King House, to be precise).   This triggered lots of memories of the life-long friendships that we had formed at Smith.  We also eagerly absorbed all the details that Sullivan provided about Smith’s student culture and traditions (who knew that Convocation now involves so much nudity?).   We enjoyed comparing the Smith that Sullivan described to the Smith of our experiences.   So much has changed, yet so many of the essential things have remained.   It is easy to feel isolated during this pandemic, and I felt that the joy of this shared nostalgia trip alone made Commencement well worth reading.  

 

Speaking of nostalgia, a couple of our longterm members found the book oddly familiar as they started reading it.  It turns out that the book club read it in 2010.  Oh well, perhaps that’s only fitting for a novel that brought back so many memories of the past.    

June 2020: The Power (Alderman)

posted Jul 6, 2020, 8:12 PM by East Bay Smith Club

Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power is a work of dystopian science fiction that imagines a world where women suddenly become the more physically powerful sex.   Perhaps due to an environmental contaminant, young women develop a skein across their collarbones that allows them to dispense large amounts of electricity with their touch.  The young women discover that they can awaken this power in older women, and soon almost all the world’s females acquire the ability to incapacitate or kill anyone who threatens them.    The consequences of this change in power dynamics are extensive, leading to acts of self-defense and unprovoked aggression and, eventually, to large scale political revolt and violent backlash.  Told from the point of view of five different characters (four women and one man), the novel explores the nature and dangers of power, as we watch society slowly transform and collapse.  

 

Alderman’s novel made a big impression when it came out in 2017.   It made it to The New York Times’ best seller list, was praised by the likes of Margaret Atwood and Barack Obama, won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK, and was greenlighted to be turned into a television series by Amazon.  Perhaps this is not surprising.  In 2017, dystopian fiction was all the rage.  The election of Trump and the spread of populist movements around the world had prompted heightened interest in the genre. This was perhaps most visible in the renewed popularity of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the success of the tv series that it inspired.  However, it also fueled increased attention on the expanding category of young adult, dystopian science fiction, much of which is marketed to girls.  (I know that my four nieces were reading little else at the time.)    In this context, Alderman’s novel was praised (and also criticized) for exploring themes concerning power, exploitation and sexual violence that assumed that men and women would be equally abusive given the opportunity.  In fact, Alderman insisted that her novel is only as dystopian as our current society is, since she did not describe women doing anything to men in the novel that is not already being done to women.   By calling attention to this fact, Alderman hoped, we will rethink the power imbalances that characterize our society and question whether or not we can find ways to address them, ways that don’t simply replace them with different inequities.

 

Given these themes, I figured this would be a book that our members would find interesting.  However, what a difference a pandemic makes!   The book is strikingly dark and violent, and many of us found we were simply not in the mood for such material, given the stress and challenges characterizing our current situation.  We want to escape, many noted, and not to a dystopian world full of physical and sexual violence.   This made it a tough book for many to finish, and I have to admit I wouldn’t recommend that you rush out to read it, if you find these times are dark enough as it is.

 

Given this initial reaction, I feared we would not have much to say about the book.  However, in the end we had quite a good discussion.   Even without the pandemic as a background, some insisted that they would have found the book too violent and its points too heavy handed.  Others praised the book’s more subtle qualities, noting that Alderman is often quite clever in the ways she turns patriarchy on its head and finds parallel ways for the new matriarchy to exploit its tools and methods.  For example, in an afterword set thousands of years in the future, a female intellectual casually appeals to evolutionary science to justify the claim that women must always have been the more powerful gender.   

 

Overall, reactions were more mixed with this book than with most of the books we have read recently.  There was a big divide in the group between those who thought that women would not abuse their newly found powers in the ways that Alderman describes and those who thought she had gotten human nature just about right.   Some were frustrated that almost all the main characters become anti-heroes, making morally questionable and psychologically disturbing decisions.  Some thought this made the them caricatures and made the book’s themes too simplistic.  Others disagreed, pointing to numerous individual moments that made the characters highly relatable and sympathetic.   People do both good and bad things, morality is complicated.  Sometimes there are no obvious good guys or clear answers.

 

I know some of our members would disagree, but in the end, I would say that The Power deserves the praise and recognition that has received.  If you can tolerate the novel’s explicit descriptions of sexual and physical violence, then it can provide an evocative catalyst for discussions about the nature of power and of human beings.   As Alderman stated in her interview with the BBC’s World Book Club (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3csyx6g), if you think she has gotten these things wrong, then that’s okay.  At least, in disagreeing with her, you will have thought them through.  With our current global health crisis and with the increasing attention being paid to long-standing societal power imbalances, perhaps more conversations about people and power are long overdue.

May 2020: The Overstory (Powers)

posted Jun 14, 2020, 6:11 PM by East Bay Smith Club

The shelter in place order may have compelled us to cancel our April meeting, but we seem to have adjusted nicely to the virtual format by May.   In fact, seventeen members participated in to our Zoom call on Wednesday, May 6th.  This was a pretty impressive turnout, and we had a numerous regulars in attendance, as well as some new faces.  Former regular attendee, Nancy B joined our meeting from Seattle, thus highlighting one of the advantages of meeting on-line.  (I am certainly grateful for such silver linings, whenever I spot them these days.)   Our selection for the month was Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory.  

 

At times it seemed like The Overstory had too many people in it.   It was hard to keep track of the novel’s nine central characters, let alone their numerous relatives, friends and colleagues. However, despite this cast of dozens, The Overstory came across primarily as a tale about trees.  For one thing, the main events of the novel occurred during the “Timber Wars” in the Pacific Northwest during the 1980’s and 1990’s, when environmental activists struggled to protect old growth forests from logging.  For another, the book was full of fascinating facts about trees.  The main characters were all associated with a different species tree, and we learned about these trees while getting to know the characters.  Furthermore, the novel itself was structured like a tree, with four main sections labelled “Roots,” “Trunk,” “Crown” and “Seeds.” 

 

The “Roots” section contained eight chapters, which introduced us to our nine main characters, typically including details about their family histories that anchored them in both human and natural history.   In the “Trunk” section, the lives of these nine individuals overlapped like concentric circles, some more closely nested than others, to form the central narrative of the book.  In the “Crown” section, a traumatic event forced the characters to separate, causing their stories branch off in different directions once more, ensuring only limited and fleeting contact between them.  Finally, when the main action of the novel was over, the brief “Seeds” section gave us glimpses into a future that seemed uncertain and intimidating, but which was not without possibilities for renewal and regrowth.

 

By interweaving these stories of humans and trees, Powers explores questions about perception, meaning, responsibility and survival.   The book highlights the damages that humans are causing to the environment that nurtures them.  It also introduces us to the sorts of people who are willing to sacrifice their lives and livelihoods to try to halt this damage and to save us from ourselves.  In so doing, it invites us to consider why certain people take up such causes.   Why do some people form strong moral convictions that are so distinct from the beliefs of the society that surrounds them?  Why do some grant moral status to a wider range of individuals and things than others?  Are environmentalists delusional, or overly sentimental, when they accord moral status to all forms of life or are they simply able to see certain truths more clearly than most?   If the latter, how do they gain this vision?  Through an interesting stylistic mix of science and mysticism, Powers suggests that there are more ways of “perceiving” than you might think.  Perhaps there is a sense in which trees, forests, and (perhaps even) life itself can perceive and respond to the world, sending messages that attentive humans can receive.

 

The Overstory has received numerous positive reviews lauding its scope and ambition and recognizing its importance in the growing genre of “climate fiction.”  However, it has also received a fair bit of criticism.  Covering millennia of evolutionary history, the book’s frequent digressions into the lives of trees expand the narrative to dimensions that dwarf human lives and concerns.  This is surely part of Powers’ point, but it sometimes made it difficult to stay emotionally engaged with the book’s nine central characters.  This was especially true of some of the more peripheral characters who were never fully integrated into the main plot of the novel.  Powers tries to keep the reader engaged by including plenty of action in the central parts of the novel, some of which is quite tragic and violent.   Certainly such things happened during the environmental struggles of the past decades, but some find the novel both too high concept and too heavy handed, reading sometimes like an academic lecture and sometimes like a sensationalistic melodrama.   

 

Judging by our book club discussion, I think some of us would agree with these criticisms.  People talked about parts of the book that they struggled to get through and parts that left them dissatisfied and confused.  Some mentioned that they found the violence in the book troubling and gratuitous and that they bemoaned the fact that so many people in the book met sudden and disturbing ends.  However, I think that all of us could also understand why so many people love this book.  The natural history in the book is fascinating.  The book’s call to action on climate change and environmental destruction is both compelling and timely.  Finally, and despite the criticisms just mentioned, there are parts of this book that are quite simply beautifully written, especially in the opening chapters where we meet the main characters.  In fact, one of our members commented that the first chapter was one of the best short stories that she had ever read.   Thanks to such moments, I suspect there are lessons, images and ideas from this book that we will find ourselves returning to in the months that follow, whether or not we agree with those who call it one of the most important novels of the new century. 

 

In June we are talking about another novel that has made a big impression and that is considered a notable contribution to a growing literary genre.   Billed as a cross between The Hunger Games and The Handmaid’s Tale, Noami Alderman’s dystopian novel The Power explores themes of power, gender, culture and society by asking what would happen if young women woke up one day with the ability to incapacitate anyone who threatened to harm them.  Yet again, it is a novel with a large cast of central characters, and yet again there is much darkness and violence.   It will be interesting to see how we feel these elements tie into this book’s themes, before we (thankfully) turn to some much lighter summer reading!

February 2020: Beloved (Morrison)

posted Mar 21, 2020, 1:51 PM by East Bay Smith Club

In February, we read a novel that is almost universally recognized as a modern classic:  Toni Morrison’s Beloved.  This haunting account of the traumatic legacy of slavery deserves its place in the pantheon of great literature.  In describing their experiences, more than one member remarked that they had been “blown away” by the story and by the power of Morrison’s prose, a reaction that seemed the same whether individuals were reading the book for the first time or rereading it after a break of a few years.  (If you have not yet read the book, be forewarned that the following description contains a spoiler or two.) 

Morrison based her book on the true story of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who murdered one of her children and attempted to kill the others, in order to save them from being returned to bondage by the slave hunters who had found them.   In an interview that she gave to the BBC’s World Book Club, Morrison explained that she had been thinking about the sacrifices that women make in caring for others.  When she read of Garner’s case, she tried to get her head around how something so horrible and grotesque as murdering one’s own child could come from something as lovely and nurturing as a mother’s love.  She began her writing with that question, but the story really took shape when she realized that, as she puts it: 

“the person who ought to answer that question would be the girl she killed.  Nobody else had that legitimacy. And so, when she surfaced, then everything else was clear.  That is to say, I knew that I had to have a ghost, but I also wanted her to have a plausible real life. And, you know, everything emanated from there."  

(To hear the interview:  go to https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00qbnhs)

The novel that grew from this starting point beautifully explores this dichotomy between otherworldly elements and reality, leaving the reader constantly struggling to figure out which is more terrifying and which the more likely source of sanity and redemption.  Set in the years just after the end of slavery, the narrative begins with a description of a house that is full of the spite of a murdered child, an ominous, invisible, and restless spirit that breaks things and causes unease.  The family that live in the house deal with the spirit as best they can, until two sons run away and the elderly matriarch dies, leaving only Sethe, the middle-aged mother of the long dead child, and Denver, her teenaged daughter.   Into this haunted household, walks Paul D, a man who was enslaved at the same farm as Sethe in Kentucky years before.  Angered by the spirit’s hijinks and the effect that they have on the women of the house, Paul D orders it to leave.  Surprisingly, it obeys his command and the three of them settle down into what might become a normal family life, until the day a strange young woman appears at their home, a young woman who remembers nothing of her past except that her name is “Beloved,” the same word that is carved on the tombstone of Sethe’s murdered child.

Beloved is not an easy novel to read.  Not only is the subject matter difficult, the narrative shifts back and forth in time and from the point of view of several different characters.   As we learn details about Paul D and Sethe’s lives, we realize that the murdered infant is only one of many things haunting the characters in the novel.  Their experiences have left behind traumas that shape their thoughts and emotions in ways that no supernatural force could achieve.  We come to learn about these traumas in bits and pieces.  Some we come upon unexpectedly, some are hinted at but withheld so long, we are not sure that we’ll ever learn the truth.  The result is disorienting and sometimes confusing.  Morrison planned for the reader to struggle with the book.  As she wrote in the foreword to the 2004 edition:  

“I wanted the reader to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population—just as the characters were snatched from one place to another, from any place to another, without preparation or defense. [… ] In trying to make the slave experience intimate, I hoped the sense of things being both under control and our of control would be persuasive throughout; that the order and quietude of everyday life would be disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive. To render enslavement as a personal experience, language must get out of the way.”

In our discussion, several members commented on the book’s confusing nature, though most found it suitable to the subject matter in the ways Morrison describes.  We felt that the book understood the nature of trauma and was able to explore themes of loss, love and recovery in ways that a non-fiction book, or a more straightforward novel, could not.  We also talked about whether we thought Beloved was a ghost.  Morrison provides another possible account for her origins, and we discussed how much would change, if she had a non-supernatural, though equally troubling, backstory.  We were glad that Morrison kept both options open, leaving it for the reader to decide for themselves, or to leave it an open question, if they choose.  

In the BBC interview, Morrison mentions that she never wants to write a book without a happy ending and Beloved is certainly not devoid of hope.  About two-thirds of the way through the book, Sethe asserts that Beloved’s return has made everything all right.  Sethe can forget about everything that has happened to her and about everyone outside of her house.  All she wants to do is to explain things to Beloved, to tell her what happened, though she reassures herself that no explanations are needed, that Beloved already understands.  However, her focus on Beloved brings Sethe close to madness and, eventually, to starvation.  In the end, the real hope for Sethe is to be found in the living.  It is her daughter Denver, her lover Paul D, and the members of the community in which she lives, that can save her from the pain of her memories.   

As outlined above, Morrison began the novel with questions about how women can lose themselves in their love for others and with the idea that only the dead might be in a position to judge the living.  However, the novel ends with Paul D’s call for Sethe to value herself before others.    “You your best thing, Sethe,” he tells her, and it seems possible that one day she might actually believe him.  Rather than passing judgement, it seems, Beloved has merely passed on.  The book closes with the claim that she will be forgotten, but as a reader who had been drawn so masterfully into the world of these characters, I found it hard to believe that part was true.

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.  

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