By the time I made my decision to quit my career in clinical medicine, I had convinced myself that I wasn’t enough of a science person to remain engaged. Most clinicians around me seemed fascinated by the disease processes we monitored, whereas I only saw horror and despair as my patients’ lives were taken from them, severely altered or, at best, inconvenienced.
This month, however, when my daughter needed extra sources in order to study cell biology, I had the tools to help – two old textbooks that would explain everything there was to know about organelles. And as I flipped through to mark the pages, I skimmed several lines. Surprisingly, this was enough to spark my interest. Perhaps writing English papers had been more interesting, but there was a time when science made sense as a choice.
Project Hail Mary was Mr. Weir’s chance to totally geek out on the page, so if you’re someone who likes conducting physics, chemistry or microbiology experiments in your garage lab on the weekends, you’re going to love this book. You’re also going to love the offhand comments about the state of the world we live in – like how we might be need be concerned about what pronouns to use should we need to refer to any aliens we meet on our space ventures, or whether sexual orientation should be a consideration when choosing astronauts for a save-the-world type of mission.
Still, I was left with many questions, mainly about the humans left on earth during this space mission. Certain key characters remain oblique (Ms. Stratt!), and while Weir touches on climate change, he conveniently avoids any discussion of conspiracy theory or other barriers to achieving large coordinated efforts to save a suddenly dying Earth.
I will give Mr. Weir this, however: his main character grows and changes over the course of the book, and the ending (while fantastical) is both unexpected and satisfying. (Going back to the English geek in me, the choice of ending reminded me of a short essay on endings that I read for my writing course last summer. Writer Jennifer De Leon points out that frequently there are two obvious choices for endings, but that writers have an option to imagine a third, divergent way to resolve their stories.) For these two reasons, I’m glad I stuck it out. Also, if the book offers any moral, the ability to hold Earth loosely and continually seek other possibilities in the universe, is an optimistic message, one that you could argue holds even spiritual significance.
There is only one mention of God in this entire 476 page book. It’s a bit buried, and in the words of a minor character, but actually, ends up holding weight:
“Do you believe in God? I know it’s a personal question. I do. And I think He was pretty awesome to make relativity a thing, don’t you? The fast you go, the less time you experience. It's like He’s inviting us to explore the universe, you know?” (305-6)
The protagonist makes no mention of his own beliefs, but he somehow – through the spontaneous creation of friendship and love – attains the faith he needs to remain forward-facing, attacking the next problem at hand, and always looking towards future possibilities, never ruling anything – or any other life – out.
For all of you science geeks out there, you might want to take a chance on this one. It’ll give you something to think on, and make you consider who all your science work that you love so much is actually for.
This was the Tipsy Mamas’ Book Club’s pick for this month, and I would have loved to join them for the discussion. I know I need to find a new book club here where I am now, but I find myself dragging my feet. I met a mom recently who invited me to her book club, although she wasn’t the host so it was that weird “I’m sure it would be okay if you came” type of invitation. I decided to wait a few more weeks to get to know the moms better first.
So instead, I picked up a title that my local library was set to discuss. Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid was definitely the light, end of summer type of read I had in mind – as I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by my kids’ intense fall schedule, and which orthodontist to hire, among other things, and really just needed an escape at the end of the day. However, in my experience, library book clubs tend to attract mostly geriatric women, and since there was a lot of sex among 20-somethings in Reid’s book, I decided I wanted to meet this new crowd within the confines of a more serious text. Then again, once I finished the book, I really wanted to discuss the ending with someone, so if any of you have read this book, please reach out to me so we can chat. (Did it fall flat to you? Why were there now consequences to the fire?)
The thing is, there probably was a lot to discuss in even this “light” read, and if I would admit it, my biggest hangup about going to the book club was that it was new.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been new, and I don’t like it at all. So for this month, I decided to hang on to the Cambridge crew.
Happy discussion, Cambridge! I miss you!
When Corinne and I first launched the Tipsy Mamas' Book Club in October, 2016, we wanted to create a space to discuss books as well as a place where moms could gather as our children aged out of playgroups and other early childhood experiences that had brought so many of us together in the first place.
Over the years, we have drifted apart at times, moved to new towns, changed jobs, and changed schedules. We had more children, and we got busier.
For five and a half years now, we have been returning when we can in order to discuss the book choice. Reading in common makes us feel a part of a community and gives our bright minds something to chew on aside from the shopping list or the next meeting at work.
But we have been apart more than we have been together.
I know I'm not the only one who has felt isolated during this pandemic. I tried to accept the shift to Zoom, and yet, I have felt increasingly distant from so many of you. For me, regular in person structures provided comfort and friendship, and I miss those. I have not hosted an in-person gathering, not even a playdate, since January 29th, 2020 when we discussed Old Baggage by Lissa Evans. (Anyone remember that feisty protagonist Mattie?)
And I have missed it more than I can say (without sounding melodramatic, that is, to say that not-hosting felt like a part of me had died).
I'm sorry I sort of ghosted this group in recent months, and I thank Abby and Corinne and others for taking charge. Thank you to Nadia for hosting the discussion of Jesmyn Ward's Men We Reaped. An incredible read, and I'm glad I was able to join you.
Since I haven't talked with many of you in a long time, I wanted to share three updates from my life, which will lead me to the reason for this mass(ive) email:
1. This year, I completed the Memoir Incubator at Grub Street, an MFA-level program that offers me no credentials but suggests I may be pseudo-qualified to teach writing to a group with moderate expectations.
2. I have fulfilled my dream of becoming a published writer, having published three essays since December.
3. My family is in the process of buying a house north of Chicago, near where I grew up. We plan to move there in July after the school year ends.
2. What is this book about?
3. Is there an intended audience?
4. Is any of this autobiographical?
5. Were there commentaries on our times that resonated with you -- either regarding relationships or the state of the world or the interaction between the two?
6. Did the sexual scenes take you into the story or remove you from it? How explicit should sex and violence be in books?
7. Alice and Eileen exchange long, detailed emails about their lives, almost as if they are writing diary entries. Have you ever exchanged emails like this with a
friend? What type of friend was it, and how often did you write to each other?
8. Is this a commentary on consent culture?
9. What does this book say about sex and intimacy?
10. Does Felix work at an Amazon factory?
11. The main characters are Alice, Eileen, Simon and Felix. Eileen's parents and sister, Simon's parents, and Felix's brother and friends appear at times. Why didn't we meet Alice's character? Did we need more about Lola or Damian at the end? Or more of any of the other secondary characters?
12. The last couple of chapters take place about a year into the pandemic. Was there a gap in Sally Rooney's writing and this was the result? Or was this intentional on part of the author?
13. What do you make of Eileen's thinking at the end as she wonders whether to have a baby:
"Even shelving that more immediate concern [of having a baby in a pandemic], neither you nor I have any confidence that human civilisation as we know it is going to persist beyond our lifetimes. But then again, no matter what I do, hundreds of thousands of babies will be born on the same day as this hypothetical baby of mine. Their futures are surely just as important as the future of my hypothetical baby, who is distinguished only by its relationship to me and also to the man I love. I suppose I mean that children are coming anyway, and in the grand scheme of things it won't matter much whether any of them are mine or his. We have to try either way to build a world they can live in. And I feel in a strange sense that I want to be on the children's side, and on the side of their mothers; to be with them, not just an observer, admiring them from a distance, speculating about their best interests, but one of them. I'm not saying, by the way, that I think that's important for everyone. I only think, and I can't explain why, that it's important for me. Also, I could not stomach the idea of having an abortion just because I'm afraid of climate change. For me (and maybe only for me) it would be a sort of sick, insane thing to do, a way of mutilating my real life as a gesture of submission to an imagined future. I don't want to belong to a political movement that makes me view my own body with suspicion and terror. No matter what we think or fear about the future of civilisation, women all over the world will go on having babies, and I belong with them, and any child I might have belongs with their children."
14. What do you make of Eileen's conclusion at the end:
"I suppose I think that having a child is simply the most ordinary thing I can imagine doing. And I want that -- to prove that the most ordinary thing about human beings is not violence or greed but love and care."
Thank you for stopping by last night to catch up...and to talk a little about the book. We had mixed feelings about this one. The structure was a bit collage-like (thanks to Clara for that term, which makes sense perhaps due to Rooney rewriting the book several times with different structures), and the tone was hard to pick up on at times (though Alisa tells us the audiobook is quite dramatic and guided her through the conversations very well). Mixed feelings about the ending -- which tied things up quite optimistically, which some readers felt perhaps unrealistic.
In any case, we hope you enjoy it if you aren't through yet and then move on to the next! Later this summer, we'll gather to discuss Chemistry by Weike Wang.
Hope to see you there!
1. What did you like / dislike?
2. How are art and beauty celebrated in this book?
3. The darkness, when conjured, appears exactly like the dreamlover in Addie's sketches. Is this book trying to suggest we create our own demons?
4. True or false: Most people pass through the world without leaving their mark on history. And: What does a life mean if you can't leave a mark?
5. Which are longer lasting and more likely to leave a legacy -- ideas or memories?
6. What do birds represent in this text?
7. This book immerses you in the story of one young woman. What did you make of the introduction of the Henry character? Jarring? Why after only 300 years does she meet someone like him?
8. I had expected a story about a woman who could not be remembered, a survival story of sorts. Yet, at its core, the situation is a dreamer who doesn't want to conform to the duties of a woman in her society. What expectations did you have as you approached this text?
9. What does true freedom look like? (I think I asked this last summer when we discussed The Water Dancer.) How do conventional norms inhibit or allow for certain freedoms and/or protections? If true freedom is attainable, is it at the expense of protection? What is the right balance?
10. The darkness mocks Addie for only saying what she doesn't want. Do you understand what Addie wants? How can a reader get behind a character who doesn't know what she wants, who doesn't have a goal? At what point did you figure out what Addie wants? Was she passive or active in this process of figuring out what she wanted?
11. When Addie visits her favorite stall at the NYC market, a bakery owned by two women, she says they remind her of Estelle, if she had been born a little kinder, or if she had been born to a different time. In what ways are the characters hemmed in by the time periods they are born into? Do Addie or Henry experience any more or less freedom than they would have in the 1700s?
12. What major world events are mentioned in this book (WWII...and)? Why are these included? What else did you expect to be included and weren't? (Could Addie have been on the Titanic?) Similarly, what liberties were taken with famous people, i.e. why suggest Shakespeare and Beethoven made deals with the devil?
13. What do you make of Addie's observations of Sam, how she acts like reasons come second to needs and sees people as skies?
14. What is the significance of charcoal in this book? It seems to be the most commonly used medium throughout the text.
15. What is a life with no past or future and only presents?
16. Why does she steal The Odyssey of all the texts she could have stolen?
17. What roles does Addie assume through the text that help her or protect her? What do you make of her thought that she feels "safe in the armor of men's fashion" and how jealous she is of how easily men move in the world?
18. What does Addie discover in the world that silences the darkness? (elephants, music, champagne, art)
19. How does this book compare to Circe?
20. Did it bother anyone else how many times the narrator notes that Addie "doesn't care" or Henry "doesn't care" (about whatever circumstances are in front of them)?
21. I thought Addie's devil took the shape of her daydream from youth. So why did the devil have the same appearance when he appeared to Henry?
22. How do Addie's and Henry's deals "nest like Russian dolls"? Why did Addie conclude that they could understand each other clearly?
23. This novel has been described as a "tour de force". What does that mean to you? To me, I think it must describe something wordy that was detailed on a corkboard with index cards that were meticulously shuffled and reorganized many many times.
24. What does the afterlife look like in Luc's world? What is the cost of selling a soul?
25. At the end, Addie seems confident that eventually she will be free. What do you think this looks like for her? Do you believe it will happen?
I know this Zoom thing is getting old, so thanks for coming out to the discussion of Addie Larue last night! Overall, people really liked this one, even though we were a little stumped by some of the terms of her "deal." In the end, we hope she makes it and finds the freedom she seeks. For us, we ended up with a pretty awesome quote from the discussion -- first spoken as an idea by Abby, then shaped into this phrase by Corinne:
"Self-expression is the ultimate manifestation of freedom."
For next month, we're going to read Intimacies by Katie Kitamura. We'll meet in the fourth or fifth week of September. Stay tuned for date and location.
Hope to see you there! Happy Summer!
2. Is Mallard a real town? (Founder Alphonse Decuir, 1848) Were there other towns populated by light-skinned blacks that weren't recognized by the state? "She rode a Greyhound all the way from a town that existed on no maps." (81) (Mallard wasn't a real town, but according to this article: "In this powerful, storied examination of the complexities of racial identity in the US, Bennett reaches back to literary ancestors who could never have dreamed of such mainstream success. It develops, elaborates and updates a theme explored by Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen in her 1929 novel Passing about a light-skinned coloured woman, a "tragic mulatto" who marries a white man and passes for white in a segregated America.") I did find this other article about a real town called East Jackson, Ohio, where many white-appearing residents identify as black.
3. What do you make of this: "Negroes always love our hometowns," [Sam] said. "Even though we're always from the worst places. Only white folks get the freedom to hate home." (21)
4. What did you appreciate about the storytelling? the braiding? the building on scenes? i.e. p.21-22: Desiree looking back many years later: "During training, she'd practiced reading her own fingerprints, those intricate designs that marked her as unique. Stella had a scar on her left index finger from when she'd cut herself with a knife, one of many ways that their fingerprints were different. / Sometimes who you were came down to the small things." (Did you think that scar was going to be important later, like I did? Like they might switch places or that Desiree might impersonate Stella at some point??)
5. What do you make of the barber's reflection (presumably as a representative opinion of the town)? "As far as he was concerned, both [girls] were a little crazy, Desiree perhaps the nuttiest of all. Playing white to get ahead was just good sense. But marrying a dark man? Carrying his blue black child? Desiree Vignes had courted the type of trouble that would never leave." (59) What do you make of this type of racism? What do you make of the stylistic choice and placement of these foreboding phrases?
6. Did the format (five parts, moving around in time) work for you? (1968, 1978, 1968, 1982, 1985/6)
7. What role do secrets and detectives and mystery play in the book? (Stella's secrets, Early's huntin', Jude's detective mysteries...)
8. Early remembers getting smacked at church for putting his finger in the holy water ahead of a man's wife. "Like I ruined it somehow. I thought my uncle was gonna stick up for me. I don't know why, I just thought. But he told the man sorry like I done somethin wrong." (71) In what ways do social norms help or harm us from teaching our kids about their own dignity?
9. According to Jude, "Gratitude only emphasized the depth of your lack, so she tried to hide it." (99) Do you agree? Isn't this the opposite of what we think gratitude does for us?
10. What were you feeling and thinking when you found out Reese was Therese just one page after "his hand cupped the back of [Jude's] knee"? (100) Was that deception? Or was Jude supposed to embrace someone regardless of physical features? Did it feel to anyone else like that tone of the book changed or that the story took a left-hand turn?
11. "Finally," she [Maman] said. "One good picture of you." / In all her school pictures she'd either looked too black or over-exposed, invisible except for the whites of her eyes and teeth. The camera, Reese told her once, worked like the human eye. Meaning, it was not created to notice her." (108) Anyone else read about how Kodak film was oriented toward white skin when it was first invented?
12. Here Jude reflects on a party she helped cater: "She couldn't imagine living like this -- hanging on a cliff, exposed by glass. But maybe the rich didn't feel a need to hide. Maybe wealth was the freedom to reveal yourself." (129) Is that true -- to reveal yourself -- or to show off?
13. How did the perspective shifts work? Was there someone you wanted to hear (more) from?
14. How did you react when Stella walked back into the story? "Fun's over," she said, and drained her martini in a gulp. / Then she set her empty glass on the bar and started toward the entrance, where a woman had just walked in. Mr. Hardison was helping her out of her fur coat, and when she turned, passing a hand through her dark hair, the bottle of wine shattered on the floor." (141)
15. Regarding how Stella thought Blake viewed her when she lied about her family who was long gone: "If he pitied her, he wouldn't be able to see her clearly. He would refract all of her lies through her mourning, mistake her reticence about her past for grief." (152) Could Stella have really thought this out so well, to consider the role of pity in shaping how Blake and the world viewed her? Is this believable?
16. How's that for a white fragility moment when Loretta says to Stella: "You think I want your guilt?" she said. "Your guilt can't do nothin for me, honey. You want to go feel good about feeling bad, you can go on and do it right across the street." (178)
17. What does this book have to say about feminism?
18. "But sometimes lying was an act of love. Stella had spent too long lying to tell the truth now, or maybe, there was nothing left to reveal. Maybe this was who she had become." (259) This reminds me of Alix in Such A Fun Age, clinging to her own truth. And yet, is that true? Is it ultimately okay to ignore the absolute truth? At this point in the book, how many of you were hoping for Stella to come clean?
19. How do these lines get down to the crux of what this book is about? "Would you still love me," [Kennedy] said, "if I weren't white?" / "No," [Frantz] said, tugging her closer. "Because then you wouldn't be you." (297)
20. At the end, after the funeral, what do Jude and Reese want to forget? "...they waded into the cold water, squealing, water inching up their thighs. This river, like all rivers, remembered its course. They floated under the leafy canopy of trees, begging to forget." (343)
So nice to see you last week. Thank you again to Abby for the fairy world setting, delicious treats, and warm hospitality.
We all found The Vanishing Half incredibly engrossing. I noted how I was sucked into the story on page one and kept reading as if mesmerized...until I reached part two and felt like the book took a left turn. I wanted to read about Desiree for about 200 more pages. Still, the rest of you said, hands down, that your favorite character was her daughter Jude, whom we admired for her steadfast acceptance of who she was in the midst of great antagonism and racism. A fascinating inquiry on what it means to be successful and how certain characters are able or unable to separate that from attaining whiteness, this book is definitely one to try if you haven't.
Still, once I confessed that I prefer books that focus on one character or one relationship and go deep into that, Abby had the perfect suggestion for me...which means all of you must read it too...and convene to discuss The Invisible Life of Addie Larue by V.E. Schwab later this summer.
But first -- a party, to toast being vaccinated, to toast the END of the most difficult and ridiculous school year ever, and to toast friendships that kept us going through it all.
Hope to see you there!
2. What does the title mean?
3. What do you make of the quote at the beginning of the book? ("We definitely wait for birthdays. Or even an ice cream. Like [my daughter] has to earn it. Yesterday we promised her an ice cream, but then she behaved horribly. And I said, "Then I'm sorry, ice cream is for girls who behave. And that's not you today. Maybe tomorrow.")
4. Did these characters seem real to you or did the descriptions feel forced? Did you feel like you knew the characters? And if you didn't know Alix, did you think that was intentional because she was trying to find herself?
5. Did Kelley have a black fetish? ("Kelley had a penchant for othering black culture that had started in high school and continued to develop in adulthood. He still didn't think that what he was doing was wrong." p.219) Was what he was doing wrong?
6. Did anyone else find it interesting that the author focuses on handwritten letters so much in a story where the characters could be more centered on texting and social media? What does this mean? (Letters like Alex's high school letters to Kelley, her letters for products, the thank you notes for Briar's birthday party, the hand-written card for Emira after the grocery store.)
7. Why does the author repeatedly point out that Emira doesn't use social media? Was Emira's detachment from technology believable? Would Emira's impressions of Alix and Kelley have been different if she had used social media?
8. Have you ever lied about a goldfirst death? How, if at all, do you wish you had handled it differently? ("And most importantly, why did Mrs. Chamberlain have to lie to Briar as if she couldn't handle the truth?" p.127)
9. Is Alix racist? --for how she treated Claudette? for being impressed with Emira's speech/word choices? for hiring a black sitter? for being proud that she had five African Americans at Thanksgiving dinner? for trying to help Emira take charge of her life? Why does Alix feel the need to take Emira under her wing? (p.261) Is that racism or classism?
10. Anyone notice that Emira is always crossing her legs? to type, to talk with Kelley, to take a picture with Santa, to confront Alix at the end? A comforting reflex?
11. Did the perspective shifts work in this book?
12. What do you make of Zara calling Tamra "Uncle Tom"? (p.267) (I'm getting your sh-t, and then I hear that woman ask if she'd done the right thing." Zara put aggressive air quotes over the right thing. "And then that Uncle Tom Tamra woman told her, 'one hundred percent,' and that this video is the best thing to ever happen to you.")
13. This story all started when a sitter was asked to take a child to a grocery store at 11pm. Alix says in her TV interview, "I think other parents understand...that the grocery store is typically an excellent place to kill time with a toddler." (p.282) Do you agree or disagree? Was this a Pemberton type place with a koi pond? How does this premise of a situation impact how you read the rest of the story?
14. At the end of the story, the author writes that "Emira would think of Mrs. Chamberlain many times on election night, and pray that she had enough room in her heart for both a devastating failure and her firstborn child." (p.304) Does this mean that Emira was hoping Clinton would lose?
15. What do you make of Emira's lack of ambition and lack of need to be connected online? How do those contrast with Alix's need for both?
16. Which characters did you want to learn more about in this book? (Peter Chamberlain? Emira's family?)
17. Did Alix remind anyone else of the girl in Bad Blood?
18. What did Emira have to wrestle with "deep into her thirties"? Do you believe Alix hired someone to "find herself"? ("Deep into her thirties, Emira would wrestle with what to take from her time at the Chamberlain house. Some days she carried the sweet relief that Briar would learn to become a self-sufficient person. And some days, Emira would carry the dread that if Briar ever struggled to find herself, she'd probably just hire someone to do it for her." p.305)
19. Did Alix like being a mom? What do you make of Emira's accusation before she left the Chamberlain house for the last time? ("Sooo...right now it's probably whatever 'cause she's only three?" she said. "But you gotta act like you like Briar once in a while. Before she like...really figures it out."..."I know I'm not a mom or whatever," Emira said, "But you gotta stop looking at her like you're just waiting for her to change, 'cause umm...It is what it is, you know? You're her mom." p.294-5)
Thanks so much for coming to discuss Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. Most of us found this a compelling read, and yet, if we had difficulty with it, it was often because we wished for rounder characters who demonstrated growth. We found Alix absolutely detestable...until some of us started to admit that we could identify with her to an extent...before her antics and thoughts turned extreme. Thank you for sharing vulnerably about parenting struggles or times when we may have operated from a position of racial and/or class privilege. We wondered if there should be something more attractive or ambitious about Emira, something to help us get to know her better, and yet, perhaps this only emphasizes the point that we may be more like Alix than we thought. Or maybe the author needed to work on her characters a little more! Anyway, thanks again for sharing.
Many of you have read our pick for next month, but the word is there is much to discuss. Please join us in May when we read The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.
Hope to see you there!
1. What did you like / dislike?
2. What do you make of the title? Who is searching? Trey (for Brendan)? Cal (for a new start)? Mart (for a sheep slayer)?
3. Why did Cal go to Ireland? Does his character work for you? Do you need to know his story earlier in the text?
4. Can a woman write a male cast? Does it work here?
5. What do you make of Cal's comment that "nineteen is the right age for a lot of things that can start misfiring inside someone's mind"? (172)
6. What do you think of learning of Cal's marriage through Donna intruding into Cal's thoughts?
7. What does it mean to be a morning person? "Cal has always liked mornings. He draws a distinction between this and being a morning person, which he isn't: it takes time, daylight and coffee to connect up his brain cells. He appreciates mornings not for their effect on him, but for themselves." (155)
8. What/who did you think was killing the sheep?
9. Was Cal running from something in his past? "His four best buddies were among the reasons he left Chicago; the depth and detail with which they knew him had come to feel unsafe..." (202) Later, the guys at the pub, while talking about his beard: "This fella thought you were on the run." (214)
10. What is the difference between manners, etiquette and morals? "Etiquette is the stuff you gotta do just 'cause that's how everyone does it...Manners is treating people with respect...Morals...is the stuff that doesn't change. The stuff you do no matter what other people do." (264-5)
11. What do you make of Cal's assertion that Ben never helped a guy in a wheelchair or that "everyone was always talking about talking, and the most moral person was the one who yelled at the most other people for doing the talking all wrong." (265)
12. How does the author allow current affairs / issues to seep into the story through Cal's past?
13. Why put questions of manners and morals in the book? What purpose do they serve?
14. Did you ever suspect Trey of any crime? How did your impression of Trey change over the course of the book?
15. What do the weather and terrain have to do with the pace and direction of the story / plot? "Cal doesn't like the stark contrasts in this terrain. They have the same feel as the weather, of an unpredictability deliberately calculated to keep you one step behind." (276)
16. What do the rooks represent?
17. In what ways are we influenced by our environment? "The morning has turned lavishly beautiful. The autumn sun gives the greens of the fields an impossible, mythic radiance and transforms the back roads into light-muddled paths where a goblin with a riddle, or a pretty maiden with a basket, could be waiting around every gorse-and-bramble bend. Cal is in no mood to appreciate any of it. He feels like this specific beauty is central to the illusion that lulled him into stupidity, turned him into the peasant gazing slack-jawed at his handful of gold coins til they melt into dead leaves in front of his eyes. If all this had happened in some depressing suburban clot of tract homes and ruler-measured lawns, he would have kept his wits about him." (368)
18. Cal is really hard on himself, kicking himself every time the others "outsmart" him. Did Cal really make any mistakes when trying to help Trey find answers?
19. How creepy is Mart? He just gets to walk away after burying Brendan and not telling his mother he's dead -- and after making Sheila beat Trey? Why does Cal conclude that marching Mart to the police "wouldn't be the slightest bit of use"? (419) Because no one could prove it?
20. According to Cal, morals are having your own code and sticking to it. Does that mean that Mart's actions are justified by his own personal code?
21. Which book did you find more disturbing, this or Disappearing Earth?
Good to see you last night to discuss Tana French's The Searcher. Some of us were pulled in by the scenery, and one mom could verify that the author did a great job nailing the cadence and dialect of the Irish characters' speech. Some of us felt it was slow to start, so I appreciated hearing about how that might have been intentional given various characters' tendencies to "play their cards close to the chest".
If you guys are in the mood for more of Tana French's mysteries, I wanted to pass along what one mom shared last night: Rather than tell each book of the Dublin Murder Squad series from the perspective of one detective, each subsequent book is told from the point of view of a particular character mentioned in previous books. I thought that was an interesting technique and one that would draw me into a group of people even deeper than only getting one viewpoint. One mom's favorite of those is The Likeness.
I'm not sure where we'll go next, so please feel free to write in with recommendations or suggestions.
Hope you all have a good weekend!
3. Is this story more character driven or themes driven and why?
4. How does the author use the forces of suspicion, doubt, insecurity and home to drive this narrative?
5. Is there a main relationship in this book? Or is it a constellation of female relationships?
6. Why are the girls and women repeatedly described as small or tiny?
7. Anyone ever been to Russia? Or read about native peoples in that part of the world?
8. Did this seem like present/modern day to you? Why or why not?
9. What did you make of the title?
10. Does Julia Phillips write short stories? These chapters seem like individual stories.
11. What was so risky about Ksyusha chasing Chander? Why is her chapter (December) twice as long as the others to that point?
12. Who "disappears"? Alyona, Sophia, Lilia, Masha, Gleb, Artyom, Malysh (dog)...
13. Yegor is in which chapters? First with Lada (New Year's), then with Nadia (p.152 described as "soft-bodied, sitting alone" and obsessing over Lilia, willing to drive long distances)....
14. What is the role of the volcano and its symbolism in this book? The researchers, Artyom's death, Nadia's heart: "her heart had been fragile, its chambers shifting as easily and dangerously as volcanic earth. Slava got in there before the ground hardened." (158)
Thanks for Zooming in to discuss Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips last week. We found it an engaging read, though a bit infuriating to see side story after side story of women getting the short end of the stick (and men getting off the hook). Ethnic tensions were also frustrating and saddening to take in...as we learned about the far-flung desolate place of Kamchatka. We wondered what the people of Kamchatka might think of the book...or what they have thought of the book if it made its way there. We recommend it if you haven't read it yet.
For February, we are going to meet in Ireland. I mean, we're going to follow Cal Hooper there in Tana French's The Searcher. I'm not the only one in the mood for a getaway, right?
Hope to see you there!
Anyway! I hope you can join us to chat and catch up and discuss the finer points of this...literature...on Thursday evening at 8:15!
1. What did you like / dislike?
2. Why do we selectively hear criticism of ourselves over praise? (I'm thinking of Chloe's reaction to Jeremy around page 110-114...and elsewhere.)
3. Did you feel like Chloe and Jeremy had chemistry?
4. Could you picture the town? (Or anything else?)
5. Did the opening at all remind you of Mattie in Old Baggage?
6. How did the perspective changes allow for the surprises in the plot? (Mr. Fong's identity; who knew Jeremy's identity...)
7. When did you wonder whether people suspected Jeremy's identity?
8. Is this rubbish or just a typical romance novel?
9. What was the last trashy novel you read?
10. Can we take the discussions of racism in this book seriously given the racy sections? Could we consider this a way to reach a different sort of audience with these concerns?
11. The author at times describes what dialect of Chinese the characters are speaking (and, given the detailed author's note, it seems this subject matters much to the author), but what form of English are they speaking? Some kind of blend of 19th century and modern day?
12. When did a "board clip" become a "clipboard"? (Wikipedia: "The earliest forms were patented in 1870-71 and referred to as board clips.")
13. What didn't the Duke do? Can someone help me with that nickname the town gives him?
14. Are there any real accounts of half-Chinese dukes? Or other non-white dukes? (Wikipedia's list of famous British Chinese people:
15. What was the Chinese presence in Britain in the late 1800s/early 1900s? (Wikipedia: "At the turn of the 20th century, the number of Chinese in Britain was small. Most were sailors who had deserted or been abandoned by their employers after landing in British ports. In the 1880s, some Chinese migrants had fled the US during the anti-Chinese campaign and settled in Britain, where they started up businesses based on their experience in America. There is little evidence to suggest that these "double migrants" had established close ties with Britain's other, longer-standing Chinese community. By the middle of the 20th century, the community was on the point of extinction, and would probably have lost its cultural distinctiveness if not for the arrival of tens of thousands of Hong Kong Chinese in the 1950s.")
16. Was the 2nd epilogue / the revenge necessary? What about Jeremy's point to name the sauce after something Chloe loves and to be free of her revenge? Isn't that the way she is supposed to live up to her name? Why writhe in it at the end?
I hope you are all enjoying the snow. My kids were a mess getting out the door to go sledding this morning, but Dan just texted some videos of them having a blast...so, guess it worked out.
In any case...I forgot to say the other night that I feel like we did Ms. Courtney Milan a service in reading her independently published The Duke Who Didn't. No, it isn't going to win any awards, but we were mildly entertained, mildly moved and only mildly scarred. She got readers and we got a laugh. So I think it was a win win all around. If you missed this one, there's still time to sign up for my paper copy on our book exchange spreadsheet (or email me separately)!
And don't worry, for January, we are going to read something truly spectacular and award-worthy. Please join us for Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. (Corinne picked it, but I think she's really on to something here! It's going to be great!!)
I hope you have a good winter break. May your children only scream outside of the house and give you a bit of rest.
At a time when the earth is going to sleep for winter and things feel a little dark in a few ways, I am finding this book uplifting and heartwarming. I hope it gives you a boost too.
Looking forward to seeing you next Thursday the 19th!
* * * *
I'm looking forward to our discussion of Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass. Join us on Zoom this Thursday at 8:15pm.
Last week, when I encouraged you to try at least a few chapters, I was at the point in the book where I was falling in love with the earth. Kimmerer details the gifts of the world so vividly that your heart can't help but overflow with gratitude. And so, by the time I got to chapters more explicitly explaining human actions that have thrown life out of balance, I found myself on a roller coaster of heartbreak. Kimmerer writes that "Anishinaabe elders like Stewart King remind us to always acknowledge the two faces -- the light and the dark side of life -- in order to understand ourselves," and she does this in her writing. (306) By the end of the book, I understood the book's structure to be intentional on the part of the author -- to draw you in so that you are moved to act when you hear about brokenness. I look forward to hearing how the roller coaster treated you...
As always, suggested discussion questions are below. This time, many of them are Kimmerer's own questions that she posits to the reader throughout the book.
Hope to see you there!
1. What did you like / dislike?
2. From Kimmerer's student survey: Rate your understanding of the negative interactions between humans and the environment. Rate your knowledge of positive interactions between people and land.
3. Kimmerer says that "in a way, [she] was raised by strawberries." (22) Is there a point in nature from your childhood that "gave [you your] sense of the world, [your] place in it?
4. What do you make of the "fundamental nature of gifts: [that] they move, and their value increases with their passage"? (27) How does this compare to "Western thinking, [where] private land is understood to be a "bundle of rights," [versus] in a gift economy [where] property has a "bundle of responsibilities" attached"? (28)
5. How do the "stories we choose to shape our behaviors have adaptive consequences"? (30)
6. What does Kimmerer say is left of her people? "The one thing that was not forgotten, that which could not be taken by history: the knowing that we belonged to the land, that we were the people who knew how to say thank you." (37)
7. What is the purpose of ceremony? ("That...is the power of ceremony: it marries the mundane to the sacred. The water turns to wine, the coffee to a prayer." (37) How could you apply Kimmerer's definition of "ceremony" to ceremonies you have witnessed or participated in during your own life? ("Ceremony focuses attention so that attention becomes intention. If you stand together and profess a thing before your community, it holds you accountable." 249)
8. "Why is the world so beautiful? It could so easily be otherwise: flowers could be ugly to us and still fulfill their own purpose. But they're not. It seemed like a good question to me." (41)
9. What is Kimmerer's purpose in presenting scientific and Indigenous teaching side by side for us to examine? ("Might science and traditional knowledge be purple and yellow to one another, might they be goldenrod and asters? We see the world more fully when we use both?" (46) Similarly, "what good is knowing, unless it is coupled with caring?" (345) ("Science can give us knowing, but caring comes from someplace else." 345)
10. What does reciprocity for the world's goodness look like? ("When I am in their presence, their beauty asks me for reciprocity, to be the complementary color, to make something beautiful in response." (47) Other ideas for how to restore the relationship between land and people? Kimmerer says "plant a garden" (126). I say be in a place where I can admire nature. Later, Kimmerer mentioned "political action, civic engagement." (174) Later, she mentions entering reciprocity "through gratitude, through ceremony, through land stewardship, science, art, and in everyday acts of practical reverence." (190) At the end of the book, she adds to this list the power of storytelling: "Language is our gift and our responsibility. I've come to think of writing as an act of reciprocity with the living land. Words to remember old stories, words to tell new ones, stories that bring science and spirit back together to nurture our becoming people made of corn." (347)
11. On language: What do you make of Kimmerer's observation that English is a noun-based language "versus Potawatomi which is verb-based? And based on whether an object is animate or inanimate" where inanimate is restricted mainly to things made by humans. Everything else is alive.
12. Regarding Kimmerer's 12 years of work to clear the pond and the last summer with a child at home, do you imagine you'll have a work or project that will define your child-rearing years? Could you imagine one that you would want to define them? (96)
13. What do you make of the spiraling changes of life that Paula Gunn Allen describes for women's roles -- as daughter, then self-reliant ("the necessary task of [learning] who you are in the world"), then as mother, then as mother to community and then to the earth? (96-7) Anyone else feel pressure when trying to picture "mothering the earth" in old age?
14. Kimmerer buys a kayak and heads to Labrador Pond when her youngest child goes to college. Will you "celebrate your freedom" or grieve your loss? What will that look like?
15. Kimmerer's cousin leaves her messages to help her in her sadness as an empty-nester, messages like "take comfort", "to find your new path" and "because they always come home" and "celebrate having time to write". What would the notes left for you say? (103-4)
16. Allegiance to Gratitude / Thanksgiving Address: Who would you greet and who would you thank if you were to create your own ceremony of Greeting and Thanks to the World? (107-117)
17. What does it mean to be a good leader? Kimmerer, quoting Freida Jacques at the Onondaga Nation School, says it means "'to have vision, and to be generous, to sacrifice on behalf of the people. Like the maple, leaders are the first to offer their gifts.' It reminds the whole community that leadership is rooted not in power and authority, but in service and wisdom." (112)
18. Do you agree or disagree: "You wouldn't harm what gives you love." (124)
19. Kimmerer says "the most important things each of us can know is our unique gift and how to use it in the world." (And she later says that language is humans' unique gift.) Does this message of individuality surprise you coming from a culture which stresses the group? How do you feel about this message? (134)
20. What do you make of John Pigeon's observation that "the work of being a human is finding balance, and making splints will not let you forget it" as Kimmerer is trying to learn basket weaving? (146)
21. How does this apply when speaking to children...or political opponents...or fill-in-the-blank: "To be heard, you must speak the language of the one you want to listen." (158)
22. Kimmerer writes: "Getting scientists to consider the validity of Indigenous knowledge is like swimming upstream in cold, cold water. They've been so conditioned to be skeptical of even the hardest of hard data that bending their minds toward theories that are verified without the expected graphs or equations is tough. Couple that with the unblinking assumption that science has cornered the market on truth and there's not much room for discussion." (160) Has science cornered the market on truth? In what circles? To what implications? (This makes me think of Mary Karr's assertion in "The Art of Memoir" that "The American religion--so far as there is one anymore--seems to be doubt. Whoever believes the least wins, because he’ll never be found wrong.” (88-89) While not exactly talking about the same thing, to me, the statements seem related.)
23. In the chapter Mishkos Kenomagwen: The Teachings of Grass, what do you make of how Kimmerer pairs traditional teaching with scientific investigation to weave a new, cross-cultural story? (156-166)
24. What more do you need in life besides "duct tape to hold things together and WD-40 to get them apart?" :) (167)
25. Laurie wrestled with whether her method of harvesting sweetgrass "really duplicated the traditional harvest." How do non-native people learn to show respect and honor for plants and the earth in general when they are "not qualified to speak to sweetgrass?" (160-1) Relatedly, "can Americans, as a nation of immigrants, learn to live here as if we were staying?...What happens when we truly become native to a place, when we finally make it a home? Where are the stories that lead the way?" (207)
26. True or False: "We get the government we deserve." (174) ("But the maples, our most generous of benefactors and most responsible of citizens, do not deserve our government. They deserve you and me speaking up on their behalf. To quote our town council woman, "Show up at the damn meeting." (174)
27. How are the guidelines of the Honorable Harvest similar to what we teach our kids about table manners and hospitality? (183)
Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.
Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
Never take the first. Never take the last.
Take only what you need.
Take only that which is given.
Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.
Give thanks for what you have been given.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.
28. Did you feel any pressure to change or any shame around your consumption habits? For me, I appreciated her comic relief when she writes, "I don't have much patience with food proselytizers who refuse all but organic, free-range, fair-trade gerbil milk." (196)
29. How would we approach our days differently if we arrived at them with empty hands? "[Nanabozho's] gratitude for their abilities grew and he came to understand that to carry a gift is also to carry a responsibility. The Creator gave Wood Thrush the gift of beautiful song, with the duty to sing the forest good-night. Late at night he was grateful that the stars were sparkling to guide his way. Breathing under water, flying to the ends of the earth and back, digging earthen dens, making medicines. Every being with a gift, every being with a responsibility. He considered his own empty hands. He had to rely on the world to take care of him" (211)
30. Would you sign up for her ethnobotany class and wade in the marsh to pick cattails? (223-240)
31. Can you really eat dirt? And what does that say about medical conditions like pica? ("There is nothing "dirty" about soil. This soft black humus is so sweet and clean you could eat it by the spoonful." 234)
32. What do you learn about successful partnerships...from lichens? Or from Franz and Dawn who plant 13,000 trees over 11 years? (And how ironic and sad that Franz Dolp was killed in a collision with a paper mill truck on his way home? 291)
33. What monsters does our society create, and how do they reflect the "collective fears and deepest values of our people?" (305) (As Kimmerer writes, "Born of our fears and our failings, Windigo is the name for that within us which cares more for its own survival than for anything else.")
34. How can we think of Windigo through the consumerist lens of today's society? ("a Windigo was a human whose selfishness has overpowered their self-control to the point that satisfaction is no longer possible." 306)
35. How can we have joy in creation in the midst of despair over its destruction? (Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift. 327) How do we act in the midst of "paralysing despair"? (328) What was hopeful in her message? ("The land knows what to do when we do not." 333)
It was so nice to see you on Thursday and check in on the pulse of our lives these days. Thank you so much to our reader who suggested Braiding Sweetgrass and to all of you for bringing your varied perspectives and your courage to contribute to sensitive conversation.
During this Thanksgiving Week, I am particularly remembering our discussion of Kimmerer's comparison of our nation's Pledge of Allegiance with the Onondaga Nation's Thanksgiving Address. If you get a chance this week, reread the chapter Allegiance to Gratitude. What a beautiful reminder of how our wounded world continues to sustain us despite our best efforts to destroy it! I appreciated the broader views of citizenship on the part of the Onondaga Nation, and thinking more about it raised further questions in my mind. Let me admit a little vulnerability here as I poke around topics for which I have incomplete knowledge. To my understanding, Indigenous peoples like the Onondaga lived independently from one another, at times warring between nations. I would like to learn what they teach about diversity of people groups. We know from Kimmerer's writing the high value they place on diversity in nature in general. I wonder how this translates to people groups.
Bear with me. Someone suggested recently to me that diversity is hard. And I have to say that I found relief in her startling words. Perhaps long ago we were content to live in our own tribes. And for sure, when a group of white men and their families founded the USA, they founded it for white men and their families. And while the Pledge of Allegiance has a dubious history, with revisions to its language that were compromises to reflect the desires of those (white men) in power, I will still say it -- not to perpetuate a lie, but rather to declare a hope that our nation of polarized and varied groups might still work toward unity, with liberty and justice for all. This is not to be "nationalistic" in a negative sense, but rather to work to make this home welcoming to all who still seek to build their lives here. To me, it's a declaration of resolve to stick it out, even when there are problems or people we would rather ignore. As Kimmerer writes about the light and dark sides of life, we can similarly acknowledge both in this simple 15 second Pledge.
But to return to the Earth. Like the daunting topic of racism, some of us felt equally paralyzed by the challenge in front of us to DO SOMETHING to help restore and appreciate the planet. Keep in mind that Kimmerer herself spent most of her adult life circling back to her roots and appreciation for the natural world. She wasn't born fully formed on this. (Here's a glance at where she is now -- thank you to one of our members for this article.) So, some potential baby steps:
-When We Were Alone by David A. Robertson (children's)
-Debbie Reese's website "American Indians in Children's Literature" (https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/) Thank you to one of our members for suggesting this website. In her words, this is "a great place to find books by and about Native Americans. There are reviews of a lot of books that detail what authors get right or wrong. This may be especially helpful for books like the Little House series; I know a lot of people like to read these because they tell a very "American" story, so it's useful to be able to add details about the Indigenous side of that story."
-Louise Erdrich's Birchbark House series as well as books for adults
-Books referring to boarding schools in Canada: Fatty Legs by Margaret-Olemaun Pokiak-Fenton and A Stranger at Home by Christy Jordan-Fenton (older kids)
-Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann (adult)
-Window shop at O'Neill Branch Library (A shout out to the librarians who are curating Native American stories for our youngest readers!)
2. Appreciate nature:
-Hike, thank the grain of rice, etc.
-Try the app PictureThis to identify plants, flowers and trees
-Plant a garden (cucumbers and tomatoes?)
-Learn about the wonders of science (We have a recommendation for the Cambridge program Science Club for Girls!)
3. Reduce waste:
-Try the app PaperKarma as a way to reduce the junk mail coming into your home and filling up your recycling bin
And with all of that said, we realize that it was a lot. So continue to bear with us as we take a break from the heaviness and escape in December with The Duke Who Didn't by Courtney Milan. Join us for discussion over Zoom!
Also, we typically have a book exchange for our December club. I would love to do something along those lines this year. I will be in touch about a box I will set up on my back porch with several of our books from this year (in case you want to try one that you didn't get a chance to read!) and maybe a few surprise titles. I would love to invite you to come and take a book and leave a book and participate in this exchange. Perhaps, at the risk of generating more waste, we could exchange them in ziploc bags so the books could be easily quarantined before transitioning to the next reader.
Until then, Happy Thanksgiving to you! Wishing you a safe and merry modified holiday season!
The Tipsy Mamas' Book Club is co-hosted by Corinne Foster and myself, though the spirit of our discussions is flavored by many readers.