Book Club


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

 Date:
 Thursday, June 14, 2018 (NOTE DATE CHANGE)
 Time:
 7:30 pm
 Place:
Home of Charmaine Detweiler - email c.detweiler@yahoo.com for address and to RSVP
 Book:

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

2018 Schedule

Tue 1/9/2018
Wed 2/7/2018
Thu 3/15/2018
Tue 4/10/2018
Wed 5/9/2018
Thu 6/14/2018
Tue 7/10/2018
Wed 8/3/2018
Thu 9/13/2018
Tue 10/9/2018
Wed 11/7/2018
Thu 12/13/2018
Want to join us? Email Karen

Upcoming books:
6/14/18: Killers of the Flower Moon (David Grann) - NOTE DATE CHANGE
7/10/18: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Karen Joy Fowler)
8/3/18: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Woodminster Theater - details to come
 
Past readings: 
 
EBSC Book Club Reading List

Free Audio and eBooks
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Oakland Public Library Overdrive Link
Berkeley Public Library Overdrive Link
Alameda Free Library Overdrive Link

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April 2018: The Women In The Castle (Shattuck)

posted May 20, 2018, 8:21 PM by East Bay Smith Club

Our last meeting was at Maggie’s house in Berkeley.  Eleven of us gathered to discuss Jessica Shattuck’s novel The Women in the Castle.  The novel depicts the aftermath of World War II from the point of view of its German survivors.  The central character is Marianne von Lingefels, a woman whose husband was executed after a failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.  After the collapse of the Nazi regime, Marianne sets out to find the wives and children of her husband’s co-conspirators and to bring them back to the refuge of her husband’s crumbling ancestral estate in Bavaria.   With a good deal of difficulty she finds Martin, the son of co-conspirator who was also her childhood friend, and his mother, Benita. She also discovers Ania, the wife of another resister, and her two boys.  With flashbacks to life before and during the war, the novel does a good job of portraying what the costs of the war to German families and of illustrating the difficult choices that individuals faced in their attempts to survive or to make their deaths significant.  The novel’s focus, however, is on the way the war shaped the emotional, conceptual and moral landscape of the German people as they tried to rebuild their decimated communities.  What new relationships could be built?  Were these new ties enough to provide healing, hope and new beginnings?  What had to be remembered and what harms had to be redressed?  Were there some truths better denied; some secrets better kept?

 

The members of the book club liked the novel.  We have read a lot of novels about World War II, but little from the point of view of the Germans who made it through the war.  This subject was of particular interest to Maggie and Nancy, both of whom had studied and travelled in Europe while Germany was very much still in this recovery period.  However, the rest of us were also intrigued by the subject and by the questions that the novel raised about how to cope with the traumas of the past.  We enjoyed discussing which characters seemed to be handling the psychological mine field most adeptly.  No one was sympathetic to local villagers who simply denied that the crimes of the Nazis’ had actually occurred.  However, we weren’t sure that Marianne’s devotion to the truth and to the full acceptance of responsibility was always the best method either, especially as it seems to drive other characters to the point of crisis.  

 

Our discussion about such points flowed quite easily, thanks to the author’s skill at developing her three central, female characters.  It was refreshing to read a book depicting women with such richness and complexity.  The structure of the book was slightly less appealing, however, as the author jumps backwards and forwards in time quite a bit, making it very important for the reader to make note of the location and date listed at the beginning of each chapter.  This wouldn’t have been so bad, except we are also transitioning between the stories of the different characters.  In the author’s defense, however, the confusion that can arise as a result of these stylistic choices echoes (in a very modest way) the psychological disorientation of the characters, who were frequently overwhelmed by memories of their traumatic pasts.  Plus, as someone pointed out, we had had lots of practice at jumping back and forth between locations and characters when we read Liar Temptress Soldier Spy in January, so as a book club we were very much up to the task! 

February 2018: Embers (Marai)

posted Mar 17, 2018, 6:17 PM by East Bay Smith Club

Our last book club meeting was held on February 7th at Deebie’s house in Berkeley.  There were nine of us in attendance.  Ginny won the award for longest commute, as she joined us once again during her annual visit to the Bay Area from her home in Southampton, UK.  In a sense, Ginny’s return to the group fit right in with the topic of discussion:  Sándor Marai’s Embers, a novel about two friends who meet after a long absence.

 

Ostensibly, the action of the novel takes place over a single day in the life of an elderly man who lives in an isolated castle in the Hungarian wilderness.   As the novel begins, this man, Henrik (or “the General”), receives a note from Konrad, and old friend who has returned to the area for the first time in 41 years.  Henrik invites Konrad to dinner that night and then spends the rest of the day mulling over the history of their friendship and the events that lead to the friends’ long separation and to the destruction of Henrik’s marriage.  When Konrad arrives, Henrik continues to review these memories, as if setting out a case and inviting his friend to offer a defense.  When the evening ends, Konrad leaves, and it is debatable what exactly has been resolved. 

 

Our reactions to the novel were a little mixed, although we all enjoyed the beauty of the writing.  Through the voice of his main character, Márai describes the declining decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with a masterful combination of nostalgic longing and critical insight that invites the reader to share the sentiments of the characters without slipping into the overly sentimental.   The author brings us convincingly into the mind of Henrik and, once there, the character’s geographic and mental isolation feels both claustrophobic and intimate.  We are given a fascinating view into the complexity and depth of male friendship and into the ways the characters’ relationships were shaped by the cultural conventions of Henrik’s upper-class world, a world in which both Konrad and Henrik’s wife, Krisztina, are outsiders.  

 

As readers, we struggled to determine the degree to which the central tragedy in the book was a result of these conventions as opposed to the character traits of the individuals involved.   This inquiry was important because many of us found it difficult to like Henrik.  Although he seems desperate for some sort of explanation from Konrad, he never gives him an opportunity to speak.  In fact, several times, Henrik asks Konrad a direct question, only to interject and dismiss the question, or to answer it himself, before Konrad can get a word out.  More disturbing, perhaps, is the silencing of Krisztina.  Her voice is almost absent from the novel.  In fact, she is quoted directly only once.  In fact, at one point, Henrik both figuratively and literally silences her by tossing her writings on the fire.   Henrik’s complete domination of the narrative was frustrating, and it led several us to find the novel ultimately unsatisfying.  Still, perhaps this dissatisfaction was part of Márai’s point.  At the end, Henrik accepts that he never fully understood the two individuals that he loved the most.  Nonetheless, he loved them passionately, and perhaps this was enough.

January 2018: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy (Abbott)

posted Feb 3, 2018, 1:19 PM by East Bay Smith Club

On Tuesday, January 9th, ten of us gathered at the home of Linda Grayman in Oakland to kick off another year of literary adventures.  Our topic was Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy:  Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott.  This work of non-fiction describes the actions and adventures of four women who engaged in espionage during the Civil War, two for the North and two for the South.   The bravery and daring of these women was truly amazing, and the complexities of their characters were well depicted.   It was easy to get caught up in the action and to admire their courage and determination.  This could be somewhat unsettling in the case of the two women who fought for the South, as their racist views and comfort with the Southern cause is so evident.  We kept finding ourselves torn between respect for their ingenuity and boldness and disapproval for the values they embraced.  

 

It was fascinating to see how the gender conventions of the day shaped the ways the women participated in the war.    One of the women, Emma Edmonds, directly defied these conventions by disguising herself as a man in order to enlist in the Union Army (as did dozens of other women).  Though frustrated by the constraints that their gender placed upon them, the other three found ways to exploit their position as women in order to conduct their undercover activities, build their networks of smugglers and informers, and avoid serious punishment for their crimes.  For example, at the beginning of the war the seventeen-year-old rebel Belle Boyd shoots and kills a Union officer in the front parlor of her home.  She claims she was defending the honor of mother, and the act is forgiven. In fact, she is considered harmless enough (at least initially) to socialize and flirt with the occupying troops.  In this way, she gathers information about troop movements and obtains passes that allow her to cross enemy lines to deliver this information in person.   Though all of the women ended up paying a high price for their involvement in the war, it was frequently amazing what they could get away with as a result of the protections granted to upper class, white women.

 

Everyone seemed to enjoy the book.  Some felt bogged down in the details about particular battles and/or information about the general progress of the war.  However, rather than cutting down on this background material, we thought it might have helped merely to provide more maps and diagrams to help us keep track of the information and to better follow the paths of the four central figures within these larger events.   Still, the book is most engaging when it directly describes the actions, thoughts and emotions of the four central figures.  In fact, the internal lives of the characters were described with such detail that we wondered whether the book should be billed as a historical fiction, rather than as work of non-fiction.  How could Abbott know what people were thinking and feeling in such detail?   The work is extensively researched and footnoted, however, and presumably one of the reasons that Abbott choose her four main subjects out of the hundreds of women who fought in the Civil War is because their actions and attitudes were so well documented.   In fact, three of the four women wrote their own memoirs, and the exploits of all four women were quite well known after the war.  This fame faded as time progressed, however, and so we commend Abbott for bringing them back into the national consciousness with this New York Times bestselling book.


-Karen B

November 2017: Lab Girl (Jahren)

posted Dec 13, 2017, 7:46 PM by East Bay Smith Club

In November, nine of us gathered at Deebie’s house for a lively discussion of Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl.  As a geobiologist, Jahren spends a good deal of time sorting and labeling samples to make sure she knows exactly what she is dealing with. It is unexpected, therefore, that her memoir defies easy classification. It seems to be part autobiography, part travel diary, part primer on the fascinating nature of plant science, and part a harrowing portrayal of the author’s struggles with mental illness. Above all else, Jahren suggests, the book is a portrait of her friendship with a man called Bill, who has been her best friend, lab partner, sidekick and scientific muse for the past twenty years.

As you might expect from this description, some of us found Lab Girl a bit disorienting. Just as we figured something out about the author and/or Bill, Jahren would introduce a twist that made us question everything we thought we understood. We get enticing glimpses into many aspects of her life, such as her feelings for Bill and for her parents, her teaching style and connections to her students, her research methods and interests, her struggles with mental health and her frustrations with academia. However, her focus on these features is always through a moving frame that makes it hard to get a handle on things. Is she a good teacher or an exhausting and exasperating one? What exactly is her diagnosis and how successfully is she able to manage her condition? How does Bill really feel about her? (He follows her from state to state, sleeping in a van or office to do so, and seems to take it hard when she marries another man, and yet Jahren insists he has no romantic interest in her and finds the prospect nauseating.) How does she really feel about Bill? (She asks her readers to carve his name into tree trunks in his honor but never gives his full name and dedicates the book to her mother.)

Perhaps, it would be too much to expect full answers to these questions. As we learn from Jahren’s evocative descriptions of plants, life is complex and often astounding. Things don’t always fit neatly into boxes. Even if Hope and Bill’s relationship is as hard to classify as the book itself, their fierce loyalty and affection is richly portrayed, and it certainly was enjoyable to get caught up in the frenzied action of their early careers. Even though it is exhausting just reading about the work and sacrifice it took to get their labs going, their enthusiasm for scientific inquiry is contagious. In the end, if pressed to give the book a single description, I’d say it is a dizzying ride-along with a woman whose dedication and limitless energy has led to remarkable success in her field. When you’re done you may not be sure exactly where you went, but you know you saw some fascinating things along the way. [Oh, and thanks to Mary Stapleton’s internet sleuthing we know Bill’s full name. It’s Bill Hagopian ( http://jahrenlab.com/about-bill-hagopian/).  So, I guess some questions are more easily answered.]

-Karen B

October 2017: Homegoing (Gyasi)

posted Nov 2, 2017, 6:02 PM by Sherrill Lavagnino

Six of us gathered Tuesday, October 10th at the home of Nancy Spaeth to discuss the novel Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. This ambitious narrative begins with the tale of two half-sisters born in Ghana in the middle of the 18th century. The sisters never meet and face drastically different futures, as one has an arranged marriage to a British governor who runs the local slave trade and the other is captured and sold into slavery in North America. The story follows the descendants of the two women for six subsequent generations, tracing the damaging heritage of slavery in both Africa and the United States.

Each chapter introduces us to a new person in the family tree and describes a significant series of events in his or her life. Gyasi does an amazing job of describing each new time and place and by the end of each chapter the reader is immersed in the new story and keen to learn what happens next. However, the book alternates back and forth between sides of the family tree, so each new chapter throws the reader back to the other side of the Atlantic and forward in time to the next generation of the family line described two chapters ago. In the new tale that emerges, we are often given glimpses into how the tale of the previous generation ended, but much is left unrevealed and we are soon caught up in a new set of circumstances.

This narrative style is both the novel’s triumph and its biggest challenge. Gyasi covers almost two and a half centuries of history in three hundred pages and new characters and places are introduced at a sometimes dizzying pace. We all found ourselves frequently flipping back to the front of the book to double check the chart of the family tree. This made some of us wish the book had been much longer, so we could have gotten a deeper understanding of the story’s characters and events. However, given the darkness of much of the subject matter, we wondered if we would have finished a longer version of the novel, or if we would have been too turned off by the abundant instances of despair and loss.

Ultimately, I think the fact that the story advances so quickly creates a surprising sense of hope. We see the tragedy and challenge in each person’s life, but we are also witness to moments of dignity and joy. Though chapters often end in moments of darkness, the turn of the page confirms that the family’s story continued and that each new generation offered a new beginning. Perhaps, as the final chapter suggests, the pain of the past cannot be escaped, but it can be controlled and contained so that we can move towards healing. 
 
-Karen B

September 2017: The Book of Unknown Americans (Henriquez)

posted Oct 6, 2017, 9:00 AM by Sherrill Lavagnino

Our last meeting was on September 14th at the home of Kathryn Kasch in Berkeley.  We discussed the novel The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez.  This book was the  “Smith Reads” selection for this year’s incoming students, and we could see why it was chosen.  The novel focuses on the stories of two immigrant families who are drawn together, and ultimately driven apart, by the relationship between their teenage children.  However, as this central story slowly unfolds, a number of chapters are devoted to the voices of other residents of apartment building where the families reside.  Each resident relates his or her own journey to the United States and describes how he or she has built a life here.  Most have come to the country legally, some have not.  All have both good and bad experiences to share.   We supposed that this diversity of perspectives was what drew the administrators at Smith to this book.   Even though it is not overtly political (and perhaps because of that very reason), it can inspire interesting discussions about the status of immigrants in the United States.  It highlights some of the myriad reasons why people might want to come to this country and shows what they can contribute once here.  It also depicts the challenges that immigrants face, as well as portraying instances of both acceptance and rejection on the part of those who are already here.

 

I think the group had mixed feelings about the central story in the novel.  The tale of a boy and a girl who pursue their love against their parents’ wishes seemed a little too predictable, perhaps.  However, the characters were depicted reasonably fully, and it was easy to empathize with most of the people involved, which indicates the story was portrayed with a satisfactory level of complexity and nuance.  Many of us confessed that we were surprised by the ending, so this “boy meets girl story” wasn’t completely formulaic. 

 

There were also details about the families that we found particularly interesting.  For example, one family, the Riveras, came to the United States to seek medical attention for their daughter Maribel, who suffered a traumatic brain injury.   They come here legally, though that status is threatened when the husband loses his job.   The author portrays well the tough choices the parents make and the risks they endure in the hope that their daughter will continue to improve.   The reader also endeavors to understand Maribel’s perspective as she struggles to recover her sense of self while at the same time being separated from almost everything and everyone that she knew before the accident.  She is one of the few characters who is not given a chapter of her own to narrate, so it is hard to be sure what she is experiencing. Still, it is understandable that she is drawn to the neighbor boy, Mayor Toro, who is the only person who treats her as a normal teenager and not as a damaged being.   However, while we sympathized with the teens’ connection, as one of our members pointed out, Maribel’s condition raised concerns about her ability to consent to Mayor’s advances.  I suspect the depth of our discussion of such details indicated the degree to which we all got caught up in the story.   Hopefully, we will be similarly intrigued by stories of the characters in our next novel, a tale of eight generations of a single family:  Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.


Karen B

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.

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