Book Club


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

 Date:
Tuesday, April 9th
 Time:
 7:30 pm
 Place:
TBD
 Book:

A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

2019 Schedule

Tue 1/15/2019
Wed 2/6/2019
Thu 3/7/2019
Tue 4/9/2019
Wed 5/8/2019
Thu 6/6/2019
Tue 7/9/2019
Sat 8/7/2019
Thu 9/12/2019
Tue 10/8/2019
Wed 11/6/2019
Thu 12/12/2019
Want to join us? Email Karen

Upcoming books:
04/09/2019: A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
05/08/2019: Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
06/06/2019: Circe by Madeline Miller


 
Past readings: 
 
EBSC Book Club Reading List

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

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25th Anniversary Book Club 



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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

January 2019: Being Mortal (Gawande)

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

December 2018: Poetry Night!

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

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

              

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

 

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

 

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

September 2018: From Krakow to Berkeley (Rabkin)

posted Oct 12, 2018, 3:58 PM by East Bay Smith Club

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

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

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

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

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

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


June 2018: Killers of the Flower Moon (Grann)

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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