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.
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.
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.
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
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
This month we ventured to Zucu’s house in El Cerrito where
nine of us discussed Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me
the US Justice Department’s Report on the Investigation of the Ferguson
. We started with Coates’s book, which is
presented as an extended letter to his teenage son. Coates describes the
realities that shape and often destroy the lives of African American men and
details how his past experiences revealed these realities to him in ways that
were often harrowing. We were moved by Coates’ recollections
and found ourselves horrified by the violence and fear he experienced even as a
young child. In fact, the strength of our reactions caused some of us to
wonder if Coates’ remarks represent too heavy a burden to place on the
shoulders of an adolescent. Still, we admired his desire to awaken his
son to the truth about the society in which he lives, and we were deeply saddened
that the parents of African American children have to prepare them for dangers
that most of the rest of us are unlikely to ever face. Although the
subject matter was disturbing at times, Coates’s style made the book an
engaging read. In fact, the writing was often quite lyrical and
metaphysical, and for some of us this served to temper our visceral reactions
to the facts being presented and left us uncertain whether or not the book was
ultimately hopeful or merely resigned.
We did not spend as much time talking about the Justice
Department’s report, though we found it informative and disturbing. Particularly infuriating was Ferguson’s blatant policy of raising millions of
dollars of city revenue by over-policing and over-ticketing their African American
community. The report also highlighted the institutional and personal
racism behind the police department’s various policies, leading our group to
discuss the duty of “white” Americans to recognize and eliminate this racism
and the injustices that it creates.
A group of eight of us gathered at Sherrill’s house to discuss Jill Lepore’s book The Secret History of Wonder Woman. For the most part, the book is a biography of William Moulton Marston, the comic strip’s creator. However, it includes a good deal of historical detail and social commentary on the feminist movements of the first half of the 20th century, the development of the field of psychology, and the birth of comic books as a popular entertainment. There are also a liberal amount of historical photographs and reprints of early Wonder Woman comic strips distributed throughout the book.
The members of the group all seem to enjoy the book. Most of us found William Marston to be a complicated, controversial and yet ultimately sympathetic character. He was a feminist and promoter of women’s rights from an early age, and certainly he surrounded himself with amazing and talented women. However, his beliefs about women and their “morally superior” and “angelic” natures, his polygamous relationship with at least three women, and his apparent obsession with female bondage (which shaped many early Wonder Woman plots) gave us pause. Ultimately, though, most of us liked Marston. He was definitely ahead of his time, the people in his unconventional family clearly loved him and cared for each other, and he managed to imbue the early Wonder Woman comic strips with an often blatant feminist and progressive agenda.
Although feelings about Marston were somewhat mixed, we had pretty positive reactions to the two main women in his life: Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne. Elizabeth Holloway Marston was a gifted academic, editor and executive assistant, who became the main financial support of the family, as Marston drifted from job to job. Olive Byrne, was a former student of Marston’s and the niece of Margaret Sanger, the early feminist and proponent of birth control. Byrne originally entered the family to care for Holloway and Marston’s two children, though she went on to have two children of her own with Marston (though they kept his identity as their father a secret). Our group’s discussion about Olive Byrne’s decision to stay home and care for the four children, even though she was a talented writer in her own right, lead to an interesting conversation about the changing attitudes within the feminist and progressive movements towards childrearing and how those attitudes shape women’s lives and choices today. This wide-ranging discussion of the connection between politics, popular culture and individual lives seemed a fitting testament to the value of reading Lepore’s fascinating and surprising history of Wonder Woman.
Write-up by Karen Bardsley
A small and enthusiastic group met on May 11 at Nancy's to discuss Patrick Symmes’ book, Chasing Che. Overall, the group found the book, which was written by Deebie’s brother, interesting, informative and easy to read, giving a good sense of the motorcycle journey and his overall experience in following the path of Che Guevara. Everyone agreed that the attitude of the writer was a positive change from that of the writer of last month’s book, also set primarily in South America. Several people commented on the physical difficulties that the writer encountered and “endured”….riding a motorcycle for so many hours at a time, sleeping “rough,” eating what he could, often fed by locals.
The group was also interested in learning more about Che Guevara. Most were surprised that he was a medical doctor. Then, of course, there were questions about what led him to Cuba and beyond. At this point Deebie called her brother, and he answered questions by telephone. A lot of the discussion with him centered around Cuba, as he was in Cuba during President Obama’s recent visit. The book, The Last American in Cuba, was recommended.
(write-up by Nancy & Jane)
Thanks to Deebie for hosting our group of around 10 long-time book club members on Tuesday April 12 to discuss Heading South, Looking North, Ariel Dorfman's memoir of growing up in linguistic and cultural conflict. It's too bad Maggie wasn't at the meeting, since this book was her suggestion, and Dorfman could certainly have used a supporter. Nobody at the meeting loved the book, and we had a wide variety of complaints.
Nancy was distracted and put off by all the jumping back and forth in time. Many (all?) felt that he was repetitive. As Jane said, "He thanked so many people; too bad none of them told him to edit more heavily."
All of us found him too self-absorbed, and his whole obsession with English versus Spanish seemed forced. The events surrounding the rise and fall of the Allende government are interesting, but since this is about Dorfman's personal story, his discussion of that is quite limited in scope. My summary of the book: Ariel Dorfman lists things he feels guilty about, then tries to rationalize them.
Sandy was encouraged when Dorfman lands in Berkeley and meets various members of the counter-culture, thinking "finally something interesting" but was disappointed once again since after a promising beginning he offers only a superficial account of his sojourn at Cal.
Katherine was living in France during the coup and remembers well a flood of exiled Chilean poets, writers and other leftists arriving on scene. Dorfman's early experiences switching languages reminded her of her own time living in Paris, speaking academic French well but always somewhat on the outside--trying to use as much local slang as possible to be accepted as "in".
In spite of all this griping, we were not actually sorry to have read the book, just frustrated that it was not more engaging. None of us have read any of Dorfman's other writing, and it is entirely possible that were you a fan, this book would be more compelling.
A group of stalwart book club members braved a dark and stormy night to meet at Jane's on Thursday March 10 to discuss Taleb Salih's short novel set in a small village in Sudan in the 1960s. Season of Migration to the North has received wide acclaim, but our members found it difficult to like. Many found the overlapping narratives and timeframes hard to follow, and mostly found Mustafa so unsympathetic that it was hard to understand how to interpret the novel. He seemed to us to be a sociopath unable to make any human connections from an early age, and thus we found it difficult to understand how to interpret his actions or story as a part of a larger story of post-colonial relations between Africans and British. Readers did find a some lovely and evocative passages--the description of our narrator's experience of entering his grandfather's house, and the impromptu party on the roadside on the way to Khartoum, for example, but all in all, nobody loved this book, and a few really disliked it. Most of us skipped the introduction as it was full of spoilers, but Karen said she'd gone back and read it after finishing the book, and found it helpful in setting context and that it made her give the book another chance in her mind, so perhaps the rest of us need to do the same thing.