1. What did you like / dislike?
2. What did you make of the writer's tone and the points of reflection?
3. What did you make of the writer's childhood family life? How do you think it influenced her path into and through poverty?
4. What did you think of the writer's mother? Did your opinion change when you learned about the writer's grandmother?
5. What did you think of the writer as a mother herself? Did you judge her like the doctors (and some others) seemed to? What do you make of her admission after Mia's surgery that she "needed someone to hold my hand, be there for [her]. Sometimes mothers need to be mothered too." (139)
6. Was something about Jamie missing? A description of another side of him? A description of how he got partial custody rights and why he wanted them?
7. Were you satisfied by the ending?
8. Who is the intended audience?
9. What does the writer suggest about the lives of the people whose houses she cleans?
10. What did you think of the books structure -- having the chapters mostly centered on descriptions of houses she either lived in or cleaned? What is the through line?
11. At Wendy's house in chapter 13, the writer comments that she "admired her, as weird as it seemed, hoping [she'd] feel the same peace at the end of [her] life, calmly sorting piles instead of scrambling to make amends or cross experiences off of a list." (128) How does the writer's dream for creating the life she wants drive the story?
12. What did you want to know more (or less) about? (I wanted to know more about the relationships she had in her life -- she does date and talk to friends occasionally -- and less about the details of the lives of those whose houses she cleaned. I felt those parts took away from time she could have told me more of her story.)
13. Does she adequately talk about her family? Or does it leave you wanting more? Do you think she leaves them out for privacy reasons or because she didn't want to talk about them?
14. This is probably way out in left field, but did anyone wonder if the writer and Kurt were going to end up having an affair? (I'm so sorry to even hint at this; I just felt her descriptions of him showed a stronger interest than any interest she had in the men she dated.)
15. Skim milk doesn't actually have any added sugar. Where else did you want to help educate her?
16. Where did your heart break for people living in poverty?
17. Did you read the foreword by Barbara Ehrenreich before or after the text? How did it influence your reading of the story?
I hope this finds you all healthy and surviving the changes. It was so nice to see so many of you the other night on our Zoom call. Thank you again to Lilli for "hosting" us! You provided a wonderful oasis from the scary things that are happening around us right now. My emotions have been hitting in waves as I transition my life from real connections to virtual church service, Bible study, writing class, writing group, and book club. I felt immensely better after praying with my women's Bible study on Thursday night over Google Hangout. Then Dan and I watched Outbreak last night (#5 trending movie on Netflix right now), and I had unsettling dreams all night long.
What sucks right now:
-stir crazy kids (one who draws all over the couch with green sharpie and bites his brother)
-not being able to get my son's vision checked when I think he needs glasses
-my daughter's cancelled birthday party
-figuring out how to home school
-having my writing conference cancelled...and also, you mentioned:
-fears of food shortages
....bearing all of our kids disappointments....
What's good about right now:
-hiking with my kids* and also, you mentioned:
-talking on phone with friends and family
-less air and water pollution (while there aren't actually dolphins in the Venice canals, the water is clearer and fish have returned)
-less time spent getting to appointments, finding parking, etc.
-forced slow down
-chance to practice gratitude, trying to remember that we just need to have enough for today
-remembering that isolation shows we are cared about and is our way of caring for others; our reminder that we are all in this together
And we will keep reading as we are able!
We found Maid to be a readable, compelling memoir, if not the best writing we've ever seen. Our eyes were opened to what is it like to live on government assistance, and some of us will start paying our babysitters more because of reading this. We questioned whether this was really the most powerful and effective story Stephaine Land might have told. We wonder whether she will write about the men in her life at some point. We questioned whether she was the best person to represent maids as she didn't seem to feel like a true member of this group. We wanted more self-reflection from Land. We'll be curious to see what she chooses to write next!
We've had a request to pick a lighter read for April, given the state of the world. It seems I am not the only one bursting randomly into tears.
We're going to bump The Ministry of Utmost Happiness back, likely to June.
In the meantime, join us in April to read Lily King's Writers & Lovers.
Hope to see you on Zoom!
1. What did you like / dislike?
2. Did anyone else feel like they were reading a ghost story? ("Even in death the boys were trouble." 3) What constitutes a ghost story?
3. What did you make of the use of foreshadowing -- ominous or too heavy? ("On the day he was arrested, just before the deputy appeared, an advertisement for Fun Town came on the radio." 27..."Elwood was asleep when a different roar commenced. It came from outside...Forbidding and mechanical...torrential. A voice across the room said, "Somebody's going out for ice cream," and a few boys snickered." 54)
4. Was the album Martin Luther King at Zion Hill the key to Elwood's "undoing"...or was it the encyclopedia prank?
5. What do you make of the contradictions -- of what Elwood was attempting to understand about the world...and the assumptions he made? "Elwood asked his grandmother when Negroes were going to start staying at the Richmond, and she said it's one thing to tell someone to do what's right and another thing for them to do it." 18..."He'd kept his movement dreams so close that it never occurred to him that others in his school shared his need to stand up." 35..."One boy looked like a thirty-year-old man, but Elwood knew that was impossible since they let you out when you turned eighteen." 53
6. Were you surprised that Whitehead completely omitted the legal investigation, and a trial if there was one. We at least know he had a lawyer: "Elwood had gotten off lucky, his lawyer said. Stealing a car was a big-ticket offense for Nickel." (53)
7. Why give Elwood glasses? What could that represent?
8. What do you make of the cover art? Two shadows becoming one?
9. What did you think of the pacing in this book? (Part 1: pre-Nickel; Part 2: Nickel; Part 3: post-Nickel)
10. Does the narrator change at all? Or is part 2 from Turner's perspective?
11. When Turner balks at giving out his business card, is it because he doesn't want Nickel to follow him, or because he just remembered it doesn't have his real name on it? "He started for his wallet and his ACE MOVING business cards -- "Mr. Elwood Curtis, President"-- but thought better of it." (167)
12. Who was this book written for? What do we readers do with this new knowledge?
13. Is the ending "enough"? Do we need a stronger connection between Turner and Elwood and Harriet? "If he had been less tired he might have recognized the name from a story he heard once when he was young, about a boy who liked to read adventure stories in the kitchen, but it eluded him. He was hungry and they served all day, and that was enough." (210)
14. What's true? (Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, reported by Ben Montgomery in the Tampa Bay Times in 2014) The most recent article from Tampa Bay Times that comes up in the Google search begins like this:
"This story was initially published on April 19, 2009 with the headline “For Their Own Good." It was the first installment in what would become an award-winning series that resulted in the unearthing of dozens of previously unidentified graves. The Dozier school would close in 2011."
Check out this excerpt from 2015:
"Opened on Jan. 1, 1900, the reformatory on 1,200 acres just south of Marianna was meant to be a school, not a prison, and wards were students, not inmates. But that concept fell apapart in its earliest days. Farming on school property proved profitable. And soon, officials at the predominantly black school, under Milton's leadership, were asking the state for ways to make the children's sentences longer and to stiffen laws so more kids would be sent to Marianna."Having so few inmates makes the crop come in slow," one superintendent wrote in 1906.
Milton asked the governor to authorize that "incorrigible children be sent, without conviction, for an indefinite period, leaving the term to be fixed by the management."
The state complied and numbers shot up. So did the problems. In 1903, when the school held boys and girls, investigators found children as young as 6 locked "in irons, just as common criminals." Six years later, in 1909, investigators found no desks in the schoolhouse. The superintendent had been falsifying inventory and keeping kids past the age of 18, presumably for labor. Two years later, in 1911, they found kids crowded, hungry, sick, and another superintendent was beating them with a leather strap.
Three years later, in 1914, some eight boys and two staff members (there are conflicting reports) burned to death locked in a dormitory. A grand jury learned the superintendent was in town on a "pleasure bent" when the fire started. The superintendent lost his job.
The following year, 1915, the Tampa Times published a scathing exposé, quoting former inmates who said that girls and boys were raped by guards; that boys were forced to labor in fields owned by private parties; that incurable and filthy diseases had been contracted by inmates. In 1918, with a population around 220, at least 11 boys died from influenza and another exposé prompted calls for the state to close the school. The Tampa Tribune called it a "holocaust."
"How long will the intelligent and God-fearing people of Florida stand for a thing of this kind?"
Ninety-three more years."
It was so nice to see you last night to discuss The Nickel Boys. Thank you, Corinne, for the cocktails and the cozy fire!
This book was a challenging read, but people who made it through said they were glad to have read it, even if it wasn't the kind of thing you could "enjoy". When I talk about injustice with my kids -- slavery, the Civil Rights movement and the like -- I try to impress upon them that this isn't history of long ago but rather the current state of our country. Recent books like Just Mercy, Locking Up Our Own and The New Jim Crow make it clear that our country suffers from an ingrained culture of racism. The school that Whitehead depicts in The Nickel Boys didn't close until 2014, and during our discussion last night, we wondered how many other schools might still exist that operated in a similar fashion -- exploiting and abusing youth from came from broken families or who had committed petty crimes.
If you haven't finished it yet, push through, then ask yourself Jadyn's poignant question: Is the ending hopeful...or not?
For March, we are going to shift gears back to memoir and read Maid by Stephanie Land.
Then, if you want to get a head start, we will discuss The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. This is a longer read, so we want to give you a head start. Thank you to the mom who brought to our attention this book and the issue of oppression of Muslims in Kashmir.
If you have an issue close to your heart, let us know. We'd love to read about it. I apologize to those who are busy on Wednesdays that we need to schedule the next two months on Wednesdays.
Hope to see you there!
Happy New Year to you! Ah yes...that time of year when we make new goals and want to move forward with them...if only we weren't held back by old baggage...
Let's debate the meaning of the title among other things as we gather to discuss Old Baggage by Lissa Evans, a novel loosely based around events leading to the UK's Equal Franchise Act of 1928 which gave women over 21 the right to vote, making women's voting rights the same as men. Stats say this increased the number of eligible voters by 15 million. Suggested discussion questions are below.
Drop us a line and let us know if we can hope to see you!
1. What did you like or dislike about this book?
2. If this book is "timely" as some reviews suggest, what do you make of Mattie's response to Jacko's nostalgia for their fight for suffrage? Is it in the past? What work is yet to be done? "I'm not in the business of nostalgia, Jacko. The lecture is supposed to be a clarion call to those who think that feminism is safely in the past. / "Well, isn't it? Aren't there other fish to fry?" (40)
3. What do you do when, after fighting for the right to vote, you realize you don't like any of the options? "Mattie hesitated, rather as she's hesitated in the polling booth in 1918, the ballot sheet before her, a pencil in her hand. The grand and glorious fight had shrunk to this: three choices on a scrap of paper, three parties who had consistently lied, prevaricated and backtracked on their promises to women, three potential governments who would make laws which she, Mattie Simpkin, would then be obliged to obey, under threat of further imprisonment. It was as if the sun had risen after an age-long night only to illuminate a landscape littered with traps." (43)
4. Have you ever sat down with an old comrade, someone you went to war together, only to find them now on a path you can't follow? "Which organization? / "The Empire Fasciti." / There was a sharp clink as The Flea set her cup down.... / "I shan't leave before my steak arrives," said Mattie, "but that's solely because I'm hungry." (45-6)
5. What do you make of the Flea's assumption of antisemitism, broadened to outsiders -- at the beginning and end of the book? "And whenever they talk about the "enemy", they always mean Jew -- "outside influences" means Jews, "Bolshevik" means Jews, "foreign" means Jews, "wealthy" means Jews." (49) "Almost every other house on the lane was sporting Balfour's card in their front window, and the Allard-Browns had a poster showing a respectable lady and gentleman being throttled in the coils of a giant snake labelled 'SOCIALISM' while a Jew, a woman in a tie and a girlish-looking man stood by and laughed. 'As usual,' said The Flea, 'the enemy consists of those who do not fit the mould.'" (284)
6. Could you be an Amazon? First, "name three great women of history." (56) Next, "name a personal ambition -- a career or an achievement that might currently seem to you no more than a daydream." (67) Then, aspire to "javelin throwing, archery and the use of the slingshot." (78) Finally, among other things I've left out, "think of an historical personage to whom we would like to have spoken and decide what we would have asked them." (168)
7. Had you already judged Mattie as being past her prime when Jacko accuses her of "dabbling"? ("The mimsy, ephemeral implication of dabble was almost unbearable; it was a word that walked hand in hand with trifle and dilly-dally, flirt, toy and tinker -- terms that could scarcely be uttered without an enervated sigh. And, of course, that accusation was untrue, completely untrue. Was it possible, though, that she had lost a degree of momentum...?" 50)
8. Why, for God's sake, nickname a woman "The Flea"? What does that mean -- for Mattie, for Florrie?
9. What do you think of the image Mattie paints of the traditional women's sphere? When she lists her reasons for refusing Pomeroy, she says, "And neither did she choose to share the reason that underpinned it all -- a kind of horror at the idea of standing still, of choosing a single existence, as if life were a sprint across quicksand and stasis meant a slow extinction. Long ago, as a child in a pinched and stifled century, she had seen her own mother gradually disappear." (85)
10. How much of this is factual? The Amazons and the Empire Youth League are fictional. Some background from Wikipedia:
"Women's Suffrage in the United Kingdom": Founded in 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was tightly controlled by the three Pankhursts, Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928), and her daughters Christabel Pankhurst (1880–1958) and Sylvia Pankhurst (1882–1960). It specialized in highly visible publicity campaigns such as large parades. This had the effect of energizing all dimensions of the suffrage movement. While there was a majority of support for suffrage in parliament, the ruling Liberal Party refused to allow a vote on the issue; the result of which was an escalation in the suffragette campaign. The WSPU, in contrast to its allies, embarked on a campaign of violence to publicize the issue, even to the detriment of its own aims."
11. Were you transported to 1928? I wondered only about the use of the word "treadmill" on p.140 "She walked fast...using the uphill path as if it were a treadmill." Still, Dictionary.com claims that the word treadmill dates from 1815-1825. Otherwise, I believe completely that Lissa Evans's writing sets us squarely in 1928.
12. What do you make of the plot device of giving Angus a lost daughter -- to both connect Mattie's past and present AND to give her a connection to Jacko's group? Brilliant? Or too neat?
13. What do you make of The Flea? Has she found satisfaction in her life? "And she loved Mattie. Living with her in simple friendship might be akin to dancing the Charleston when what you really ached for was a slow waltz -- but the music still played; it was, in its way, still a dance." (122) And at the end, "as she walked along the passage toward the kitchen, she could still feel herself being swung through a waltz, the world a bright blur, the music playing." (291)
14. How did you react to Mattie's transformation with Inez's arrival on the scene? Flea's observation: "There had been several occasions lately when she had witnessed Mattie missing a chance to educate or to quote or explain; her friend's focus seemed to have narrowed, as if previously she had scanned the horizon with the naked eye and was now using a telescope." (152) Do we each of us have an Achilles' heel?
15. What do you make of the contrast between Ida and Inez? Is the author commenting on the necessity of education across all social lines?
16. Do our memories change when we fix them to the page? When asked why she didn't finish her memoir, Mattie writes, "I found the task...counterproductive.' She could remember the precise moment that she had stopped writing. Angus, propped up on pillows, had slipped sideways, and she had risen to help him and had seen, revealed by his disarranged pyjama jacket, the burn on his shoulder incurred by a childhood accident. She had written about that accident just days before, her recollection of it both detailed and panoramic, but now, she realized, now, she could recall it only from the single angle of her prose; in a moment of horrid clarity, she saw that each memory she had pinned to the page had become fixed and lifeless, the colours already fading. She was narrowing her past to a series of sepia vignettes, her brothers as footnotes to her own life." (163)
17. Do we get any say in how we're remembered? Mattie brags about Mrs. Pankhurst early on, but on her deathbed, other ladies spew venom, "she betrayed us...joined the Tories. And opened a teashop. In France." (166)
18. "It is never too late to be who you might have been." (276) What do you make of this sentiment? How does it apply to Mattie?
19. What is this book about? Inspiring a new generation of women? Or about nurturing present day friendships over past obsessions? "Besides, she thought, as her torch beam slid through fallen leaves, besides, I have a close, true family of my own." (277)
20. What does the title mean?
21. Did you have a favorite quote? Mine: "Abused patience turns to fury." (297) I felt this described The Flea.
22. What do you make of the final image of Mattie and the boy using the summer house to follow the sun?
Thank you for joining us the other night to discuss Old Baggage by Lissa Evans. It was so nice to see so many of you -- and to meet some new faces! We had mixed reviews of this novel. Some enjoyed the quaint detour into the past whereas others found the pace too slow. Some enjoyed the complexity of the predominantly female characters whereas others felt there were too many flat or unnecessary minor characters that could have been cut with a little more editing. I liked it overall, especially what I interpreted to be an optimistic ending.
I apologize I mistakenly said that this was a prequel or sequel. I was misremembring this quote from the Guardian:
"Evans’s previous comic novel, Their Finest Hour and a Half, about the making of a wartime propaganda film about Dunkirk, was justifiably acclaimed and filmed as Their Finest. Set amid bombs and blitzes, it evoked a gripping sense of peril and a strong period feel. Old Baggage is less sweeping, a study of aftermath and let-down rather than wit and optimism, but no less affecting for that. The indomitable Mattie is a creation as amusing as she is blinkered and egotistic."
In her novel Crooked Heart, you can read more about Ida's son following Mattie's death! Ms. Evans's novels Their Finest Hour and a Half, Old Baggage, and Crooked Heart walk through time from WWI to WWII, touching on themes of education, feminism and women's suffrage.
As we shift gears to Black History Month, please join us next time at Corinne's for a housewarming party centered around her new living room fireplace where we will discuss The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Really looking forward to this!
Hope to see you there!
1. Early in her work in philanthropy, Melinda confesses that she became overwhelmed by it all and was ready to quit. When has saying "I quit" let you to accept a deeper commitment? ("I suspect most of us, at one time or another, say "I quit." And we often find that "quitting" is just a painful step on the way to a deeper commitment." 24)
2. "Wisdom isn't about accumulating more facts; it's about understanding big truths in a deeper way...What do you know now in a deeper way than you knew it before?" (27)
3. At the end of her book, Melinda provides a resource guide of organizations that work to empower women and children. What groups would you add to this list?
4. "American billionaires giving away money will mess everything up!" (30) Do you agree or disagree -- where do you fall on that scale? Has this book changed your views? (Also see p.171.)
5. "Saving lives starts with bringing everyone in. Our societies will be healthiest when they have no outsiders." (53) What would it look like in your community to "bring everyone in" -- including children in discussion, saying hi to neighbors, greeting the homeless...?
6. "It's not enough to help outsiders fight their way in-- the real triumph will come when we no longer push anyone out." (53) How does 'fighting their way in' look different from 'no longer pushing anyone out'?
7. "No matter what views others may have, I am the one who has to answer for my actions, and this is my answer." (74) What do you make of Melinda's tone throughout the book? How does she strike a balance of firm, yet humble (and vulnerable)?
8. "There will never be a system that captures everything, so there will never be a substitute for hearing women's stories. But we have to keep working to get better data so we can understand the lives of the people we serve." (77) What is the role of data versus stories? How do you feel about the balance of data and anecdotes in this book?
9. "Sometimes the best thing a mother can do for her children is not have another child." (78) Melinda sets this sentence apart so we can process it. How do you react?
10. "I've come to learn that stigma is always an effort to suppress someone's voice. It forces people to hide in shame. The best way to fight back is to speak up -- to say openly the very thing that others stigmatize. It's a direct attack on the self-censorship that stigma needs to survive." (79) How have you seen this play out in your own lives and your own culture?
11. Reading Melinda's description of tenuous policy in the USA, how shocking is the precarious state of progress? (see p. 84-88)
12. Regarding 10-year-old Sona's request to have a teacher, Melinda makes it sound simple enough to talk to the government and make it happen. How much hard work and red tape is involved in this work really?
13. How do you feel Melinda balances the stories from the USA with those around the globe? Are the sides lopsided? Are we really so different from each other?
14. Remember Vicki's story about growing up in rural Kentucky and her stepdad threatening to disown her for going to college. How do you react to Melinda's observation that "as they see it, their culture doesn't hold people back; it holds people together. In their eyes, pursuing excellence can look like disowning your people”? (97)
15. What do you make of her statements regarding the importance of love? "The first defense against a culture that hates you is a person who loves you." and "Only love can safely handle power." (113) What does that look like in practice?
16. Melinda writes, "If there is any meaning in life greater than connecting with other human beings, I haven't found it." (119) Do you agree or disagree? What do you find meaningful?
17. "According to MenCare, stay-at-home dads show the same brain-hormone changes as stay-at-home moms, which suggests that the idea that mothers are biologically more suited to take care of kids isn't necessarily true." (130) What are these hormone changes? Anything like insanity?
18. Melinda enters very private, sensitive conversations. Indeed, what gives her the right to get involved? (see p. 171)
19. What do you make of the writing style and organization of this book? Where did you want more or less of Melinda's personal story?
20. What do you make of Charlotte's critique of the culture -- "It's not okay for women to cry at work, but it's okay for men to YELL at work. Which is the more mature emotional response?" (211-212)
21. Melinda talks about how her faith influences her work. How did you react to this, given your religious or non-religious background? (see p.73 and p.212-3 and elsewhere)
22. What do you make of her assertion that tech will decide how we live, therefore necessitating contributions of a diverse group of people? (see Joy's work on facial analysis software, page 228)
23. What do you make of the study that found gender diversity good for results? "...collective intelligence of a workgroup is correlated to three factors: the average social sensitivity of the group members, the group's ability to take turns contributing, and the proportion of females in the group...Gender diversity is not just good for women; it's good for anyone who wants results." (229)
24. What do you make of the data that the USA is one of only 7 countries that does not provide paid maternity leave? (see p.237)
25. What do you make of her take on successful social movements, asserting that they are driven by "strong activism and the ability to take pain without passing it on." (256) She adds that "the most radical approach to resistance is acceptance -- and acceptance does not mean accepting the world as it is. It means accepting our pain as it is." (259)
26. Do you share her belief in the power of women's groups? "I believe women's groups are essential for each of us individually but also for society generally -- because progress depends on inclusion, and inclusion begins with women...This is not about bringing women in and leaving others out. It's about bringing women in as a way to bring everyone in." (261-2)
27. Melinda claims "the supreme goal for humanity is not equality but connection." (263) Do you agree or disagree? Could humanity have a supreme goal?
Thanks so much for coming out to discuss The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates. We were a smaller group but managed to have a spirited conversation about this one!
I personally identified with Melinda Gates so much (aside from her billions of dollars and apparently incredible help with childcare) that when I finished it I found myself hoping for the same kind of closeness and longevity that she has found through her women's groups (spiritual group, jogging group, coworkers). Also similar to her, looking out to the world causes me to reflect on what kind of change I want to see in myself and in my own community.
Critics and book club members alike wished at times for more of a memoir from Ms. Gates, when, to me, it seemed her goal was to present situations where empowering women led to stronger relationships and communities. She could have co-written this book with one of the workers on the ground in India (as some suggested would have been more interesting) in order to hear more about the process of the work, and yet, while that would have been a valuable message, I wonder if her structure as is opens doors to a greater opportunity: As Ms. Gates learned these lessons from her foundation's work, she was convicted to turn inward and examine gender equality in her own marriage, in her own workplace. And I felt her invitation to us, to seek connection and equality in our own lives.
Ms. Gates is a philanthropist, a software engineer, a businesswoman. But she has an incredibly hard time expressing herself, which is perhaps one reason why we don't hear more personal reflection and anecdotes.
But she put herself out there, and I am glad she did. Ms. Gates seemed influenced by Brene Brown who she describes as "a genius in stating big truths with few words" (231). I was fortunate to be rereading Daring Greatly for a book group at church while reading The Moment of Lift, so Brown's definitions were fresh in my mind. And I think Ms. Gates dared greatly, despite not being a writer or being comfortable with vulnerability.
At the end of her book, Ms. Gates lists organizations that work to advance the rights of women and children. Some were more familiar to us than others, and we entered an honest discussion about the struggle of how to decide where to give money. Should you give a dollar to the woman on the side of the road? We had valid arguments for yes and for no.
I want to pass along the advice of a mom who recently told me she believes that "if you are moved to give, then give. You don't have to worry about where that money will go. You meant it for good and God will honor that." If that's too religious a statement, then consider this. I believe that at the very least, when you give, you cultivate a spirit of kindness and generosity that you want to see in the world. I like the way Brene Brown puts it in Daring Greatly, that sacrifice means to make sacred or to make holy. Whether you give to individuals or organizations, locally or abroad, I believe your gift is similarly set apart.
I share Ms. Gates' belief that the ultimate goal of humanity is connection. To use Brene Brown's analogy of twinkle lights, I believe this book club is more than reading books together. I believe that when we come together as women, we are the twinkle lights that remind us of the hope we have in dark places.
And as we enter a literally dark season...please join us in December for a party and book swap! Grab any old or new book from your shelf and look forward to hearing about titles from everyone else. Also, please bring a suggestion for January's pick if you have one -- we'll place them in a hat and draw a choice. If you can't make it, feel free to email in your suggestion, and I'll make sure it gets in the hat. If you have a chance to bring a drink or treat to share, that would be wonderful too.
Hope to see you there!
I am interested to hear what you thought about this book. In the beginning I found it slow, dragging and predictable, but around page 266, as the Yale and Fiona plots started to come together, I found that the characters' emotions and my investment grew and only accelerated towards the end. There is much we could discuss, and you can find suggested discussion questions below.
Drop us a line and let us know if we can hope to see you!
1. What did you like / dislike?
2. What was the best part? (Stylistically, I really liked the July 15, 1986 chapter when Yale learns he tested positive.)
3. How did you reconcile the Fiona of 1985 with the Fiona of 2015?
4. What did you make of the narrative structure -- the merging of two times and places?
5. "Ageism is the only self-correcting prejudice, isn't it?" says Richard, p.113. What do you make of his assertion? Does it make you realize who you expected to survive? ("How utterly strange that Julian could have a second life, a whole entire life, when Fiona had been living for the past thirty years in a deafening echo. She'd been tending the graveyard alone, oblivious to the fact that the world had moved on, that one of the graves had been empty this whole time." 360)
6. When did you know Charlie cheated? Did he cheat?
7. What do you make of the book cover art?
8. Fiona comments that Jake couldn't understand the trauma of the 80s AIDS epidemic. What is the author's message to young people today? What should we remember and understand about inter-generational trauma by retelling the stories from that time? ("Julian came up there every single day. He wasn't the smartest guy, but he was loyal and he felt things more than other people. You, you numb out with alcohol, right? Some people actually feel things." (165) "I've been processing for thirty years...since you were watching Saturday morning cartoons in your pajamas." 171)
9. After Nico's father kicks him out of the house, Fiona blames her mother for not standing up to him. What do you make of her mother's response: "You'll never know anyone's marriage but your own. And even then, you'll only know half of it." (201)
10. If the defining relationship of the book is Yale and Fiona's, then how does it work that there is no conflict between them? What keeps this story and set of stories moving?
11. What did you make of the character development in this book? Who did you know well? Who did you want to know better?
12. Was it the author's intent to remind readers that AIDS is still a serious killer? ("A million people in the world had died of AIDS in the past year, and she hadn't cried about it once. A million people! She spent a long time asking herself if she was racist, or if it was about the width of the Atlantic Ocean...And maybe, too, she only had room in her heart, in this lifetime, for one big cause, the arc of one disaster." 345)
13. How is judgment portrayed in this book? Did you want to judge? Is there any room for judgment? ("The thing is," Teddy said, "the disease itself feels like a judgment. We've all got a little Jesse Helms on our shoulder, right? If you got it from sleeping with a thousand guys, then it's a judgment on your promiscuity. If you got it from sleeping with one guy once, that's almost worse, it's like a judgement on all of us, like the act itself is the problem and not the number of times you did it. And if you got it because you thought you couldn't it's a judgment on your hubris. And if you got it because you knew you could and you didn't care, it's a judgment on how much you hate yourself. Isn't that why the world loves Ryan White [hemophiliac, AIDS poster child] so much? How could God have it out for some poor kid with a blood disorder? But then people are still being terrible. They're judging him for being sick, not even for the way he got it." 326)
14. Is the author trying to make a distinction between or comment on sex and love and friendship? What roles do each play? And what do you make of Yale finding friendship at the end? ("And was friendship that different in the end from love? You took the possibility of sex out of it, and it was all about the moment anyway. Being here, right now, in someone's life. Making room for someone in yours." 383)
15. Are there any honorable parents? Are there any dishonorable parents?
16. What do you make of Fiona and Claire's relationship? Why do you think the author chose to use the Hosanna cult as a mechanism to show the disconnection between Fiona and Claire? Why the added layer of another belief system?
17. What do you make of the quotes at the beginning of the text?
"We were the great believers. I have never cared for any men as much as for these who felt the first springs when I did, and saw death ahead, and were reprieved -- and who now walk the long stormy summer." -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, "My Generation"
"the world is a wonder, but the portions are small" -- Rebecca Hazelton, "Slash Fiction"
18. Did you want Asher to return to Chicago when Yale was dying?
19. Is that really what Yale believes of love? As he looks at Ranko's self-portrait: "But here it hung, and it was an artifact of love. Well--of a homeless, doomed, selfish, ridiculous love, but what other kind had ever existed?" (395) What about Fiona's love for Yale?
20. How do we remember a life? By it's ending? By going back to the beginning? "As he got sicker, it was more and more often how he thought of people--of Charlie, certainly, and of everyone else here or gone: not as the sum of all the disappointments, but as every beginning they'd ever represented, every promise." (396)
21. What did you appreciate of the ties between Yale and Nora? The link of death by congestive heart failure.... Nora's assertion that life is time travel and Yale's desire to visualize parallel lives... Nora's love for Ranko compared to Yale's love to ...? Neither Nora nor Yale living long enough to see themselves in a famous art show...
22. Both art shows revisit the past. How do they play into Nora's wish for reincarnation?
23. How much better can you describe heartache than this: "If we could just be on earth at the same place and same time as everyone we loved, if we could be born together and die together, it would be so simple. And it's not. But listen: You two are on the planet at the same time. You're in the same place now. That's a miracle. I just want to say that." (401)
24. What is it about the hype of your last meal? "One of the volunteers had told him a long time ago that whenever someone had a good breakfast, that was it--the patient only had a few hours left." (402) My dog also ate breakfast the day she died...and I remember a patient of mine whose diet I liberalized at the end -- she immediately ordered grilled cheese and fries and died a few hours later.
25. What do you make of the parallel description of the opening of Nora's show at the Brigg and Richard's at the Pompidou?
26. What do you make of the symbolism of water and death by drowning in this book?
Every mention of Lake Michigan.
Yale swimming at Hull House where Asher was.
All of the bodily fluids.
"She stopped and looked at Yale before she left the room, a look you'd throw a drowning man as you took the last life preserver." (300)
"The room was dark, and Roman smelled like honey and cigarettes, and Yale walked through the door like he was diving into a sunken ship." (314)
"He drowned. I said that to the doctors and they said, no, that wasn't quite it, but I know what I saw. He drowned." (388)
"Your pupils were just so dilated. It was like watching someone trapped in a tank of water." (403)
"Yale had a dream that he was swimming at the bottom of the Hull House pool, looking up but unable to surface--and when he awoke, it was to struggle for breath in a room devoid of air." (404)
Thanks for coming out in the drizzle last night to discuss The Great Believers and celebrate the Tipsy Mamas' Book Club turning three! Thank you for bringing such delicious treats and beverages! If you didn't get a chance to swipe a goody bag on your way out, I have extras!
While we had some critiques about plot points along the way, we appreciated Rebecca Makkai's effort to tell a compelling story of inter-generational trauma. Thank you so much for sharing your personal histories with the AIDS epidemic -- how it influenced your education...and your families...
For next month, please join us for a discussion of The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates. We hope this will be an uplifting report at a time of year (and life) when we could all use a boost. However, it seems that we might have some readers in our midst who have worked with philanthropy and so might bring a more complex perspective to the table. We don't want to cause undue angst through our book choices, but if you can stomach facing something hard, please, please bring your voices!
Hope to see you there!
The second reason is this: As I was reading, I found much to chew on...but I thought if I highlighted what really jumped out to me, I may reveal my issue. :) I mean, this is book club, right? Not therapy? Then again, maybe there are aspects of book club that dovetail therapy -- see questions #3 and #17.
Drop us a line and let us know if we can hope to see you!
1. Did you like this book?
2. Is this a memoir or a self-help book? What did you make of the format?
3. What stood out to you from the text?
4. Did it change your perspective on therapy (or a bad breakup)? He [Wendell] knows what all therapists know: That the presenting problem, the issue someone comes in with, is often just one aspect of a larger problem, if not a red herring entirely. He knows that most people are brilliant at finding ways to filter out the things they don't want to look at, at using distractions or defenses to keep threatening feelings at bay. He knows that pushing aside emotions only makes them stronger, but that before he goes in and destroys somebody's defense -- whether that defense is obsessing about another person or pretending not to see what's in plain sight -- he needs to help the patient replace the defense with something else so that he doesn't leave the person raw and exposed with no protection whatsoever. As the term implies, defenses serve a useful purpose. They shield people from injury...until they no longer need them. / It's in the ellipsis that therapists work. (47-8)
5. Have you ever associated numbing behavior with being overwhelmed? People often mistake numbness for nothingness, but numbness isn't the absence of feelings; it's a response to being overwhelmed by too many feelings. (56)
6. Lori describes a therapist's work as imagining her patients down the line. We do this not just on that first day but in every single session, because that image allows us to hold for them the hope that they can't yet muster themselves... (58) What does holding hope look like in your line of work?
7. What do you make of her concept that the future is also the present? We tend to think that the future happens later, but we're creating it in our minds every day. When the present falls apart, so does the future we had associated with it. And having the future taken away is the mother of all plot twists. But if we spend the present trying to fix the past or control the future, we remain stuck in place, in perpetual regret. By Google-stalking Boyfriend, I've been watching his future unfold while I stay frozen in the past. But if I live in the present, I'll have to accept the loss of my future. / Can I sit through the pain, or do I want to suffer? (66-7)
8. Did anyone else want her to name her Boyfriend? At least a pseudonym so we wouldn't have to keep reading Boyfriend?
9. Did anyone else feel a certain irony when she quotes Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Worried All the Time, suggesting, as these sources do, that there's no need to write yet another helicopter-parenting book when it's already been written (132)...except that she is writing another memoir about a breakup...that surely has already been written! Plus, I gather she would never tell her parents to just "get over it" when they present with common problems that ail the human condition. To me, it seemed like she was searching for a more "legitimate" reason for not writing the parenting book than the simple fact that she didn't want to. She wanted to write a therapy book.
10. Recently, one of my pastors suggested that we don't lash out because we are angry. We lash out because we are empty. That really resonated with me. Lori echoes the sentiment here: So many of our destructive behaviors take root in an emotional void, an emptiness that calls out for something to fill it. (135) How does this concept sit with you?
11. Lori writes that she is: a writer - it's not just what I do but who I am -- and if I can't write, then a crucial part of me goes missing. (130) What do you do regularly that you would consider to be a crucial part of yourself?
12. Was it just me or was it hard to read (aka cringe-worthy) the sexual references in descriptions of therapy? (John saying Lori was his hooker (5); Wendell suggesting she could have an orgasm but it wouldn't help her long-term (124) or her calling Skype "doing therapy with a condom on" (136))
13. Not that we can't talk about sex. But maybe a better place to start would be to consider her point that touch is: a deep human need. It's well documented that touch is important for well-being throughout our lifetimes. Touch can lower blood pressure and stress levels, boost moods and immune systems. Babies can die from lack of touch, and so can adults (adults who are touched regularly live longer). There's even a term for this condition: skin hunger. (168) So...along that theme, have you read a good sex book that you'd recommend?
14. Lori says she made the best decisions of her life when she was nearly forty -- to have a baby and to become a therapist. What have been the best decisions of your life?
15. Did you lose interest at all throughout this long text? Where there places you wanted to edit? For me, I slowed down a bit in Part 2. But she hooked me again on p.214: It takes awhile to hear a person's story and for that person to tell it, and like most stories -- including mine -- it bounces all over the place before you know what the plot really is.
16. There are several pastors at my church and a different one from the one I mentioned above once recommended that we (the congregation) listen to his sermons and consider their application to us personally. He knew that too often we tended to identify someone else in our lives who would really benefit from the message (an "ah, this sermon must be for him!). And so, I wonder... As you read Lori's book, did you reflect more on your own life? Or did you more often find yourself wishing you could pass along her advice and insights to other people in your life? (Did you think of recommending the book to those people?!)
17. What do you like about book club...and why do you keep coming back? :) (I know it's not the low-budget wine because there's always plenty of that left over!)
Thanks so much to Lara for hosting a lovely discussion of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb.
Thank you to Angelica for pointing out this book's focus on connection. In the opening line to her acknowledgements, Lori Gottlieb stresses the importance of understanding how our lives are "peopled", as she calls it. I may be paraphrasing a combination of Lori Gottlieb and also the authors of another book I'm reading right now (Making Small Group Work), but I think both highlight the truth that we grow through our connection with others.
We spoke last night about the importance of acknowledging our individuality, and how that sense of self might not be as black and white as traditional options offer. I agree with the importance of the individual.
But I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest a philosophical thought that perhaps isn't well defined at this point...
I also think of individuality as a double edged sword, a place where we can too often focus on our problems and fail to see the good in ourselves and in the world around us. Is it not our sense of feeling alone (our disconnection) that is drawing our society (and young people) towards addiction and depression and suicide?
I think movements that support individuality are worthwhile...but I am very curious to see how our culture develops ways of connecting to each other and bridge the gaps across the distance between our islands of self-reflection. Sebastian Junger's Tribe comes to mind.
And so, in the spirit of building connection, I will confess what I was too tongue-tied to say last night -- that I too, like Lori Gottlieb, let a bad break-up direct my emotions and my life for a long time. For sure, her idea of having the future being taken from you really resonated with me. And I would love for my ex-boyfriend to read her book!
For next month, please join us as we journey to understand connections across culture and time in Rebecca Makkai's acclaimed work The Great Believers. (N.B. This is on the longer side, apologies...and is in high demand at the library. I just ordered a copy off Amazon -- it's cheaper in hardcover ironically...and would be happy to lend it after I finish...)
And, for those of you who like to read ahead, in November we will discuss The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes The World by Melinda Gates.
Hope to see you there!
Come and join us this Thursday for a little get together...and unveiling of our survey winner! If you haven't had a chance to enter your votes for your favorite fiction and non-fiction reads for this past year, use this link to access the survey. Just do it before Thursday! All participants will be entered for a raffle during the social night -- winner need not be present to win. As always, if you'd like to see what we've read and discussed, check out the list and discussion questions here.
Hope to see you there!
Thanks so much for coming out last night for our social! So nice to see you guys and chat about the summer and what everyone's been reading. A lot of good titles out there...
Congratulations to Lisa who won our drawing for a gift from Porter Square Books! Thanks to everyone who participated in the survey! The overall non-fiction winner was Educated, although Becoming received the most #1 votes. The overall fiction winner was The Hate U Give, although Crazy Rich Asians received the most #1 votes. I think the long and short of the data analysis is that we picked a lot of good ones last year. Here's to hoping for another year of the same!
We are looking forward to reconvening in September to discuss Lori Gottleib's Maybe You Should Talk to Someone.
Hope to see you there!
Did you get to Bad Blood this month? Or watch the documentary? Do you have any experience in lab science? Psychology? Medicine? Law? Tech start ups? Have you lost faith in America?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, please join us Wednesday evening for a discussion of John Carreyrou's investigative report of the Theranos scandal. (And then, if you've read anything particularly uplifting this summer, will you share that title?! Because I could use an antidote right now!*)
Suggested discussion questions are below...but I believe these really only crack the surface. I know there are several people traveling this week. Please send in commentary by email if you'd like! We will miss you!
Drop us a line and let us know if we can hope to see you!
*I have read a few other books since I originally drafted this email, so I feel better about things in general, but I always love hearing about new titles!
1. Did you like this book?
2. For expository writing, there is a heavily slanted tone to this book, even from the get-go (Author's Note) when Carreyrou writes that Holmes declined to cooperate with any interview. He cites examples of her behavior that paint a picture of possible mental health issues and manipulation. Was there any other side to the story? What tale would her parents tell?
3. "Imagine detecting breast cancer before the mammogram..." (83). Um, was I born yesterday? Is there a known protein marker for breast cancer?! Why does no one see how flawed this system is!? And how do we not get an actual doctors' opinion on this until deep into the book -- with Kate's wife opinion that is only described as, "Tracy asked some questions that no one on the Theranos end of the line seemed able to answer. That evening, she told Kate she was dubious that the company had any truly novel technology" (157).
4. How did this go on for so long without Holmes being found out? (Perhaps because people are motivated by greed and the fear of death?? Just a thought.) Was it really that everyone understood the importance of keeping information confidential? (Referring to the advertising agency hired in 2012, "In Patrick's experience, all tech startups were chaotic and secretive. He saw nothing unusual or worrisome in that" (160).)
5. What was the real draw to Holmes' pitch? Apparently there were already devices on the market (that may not have been able to perform so many tests), like the Piccolo Xpress, that only used a few drops of blood. What did she say that convinced so many people to invest in her? (97)
6. Similarly, did anyone else think it was odd that new employees only interviewed with Elizabeth and Sunny? Normally, employees meet several members of the team they will be working on, to see if they will fit into the culture. But I get the sense that they skipped that and just focused on controlling one-off hot shots who could be seduced by her "deep baritone".
7. And besides their technology, why isn't a doctor making a comment that one blood test is just one tool in the work up of a patient. In terms of saving lives, I can only think of two tests -- the hematocrit and blood type and screen -- that could be used to make immediate life-changing decisions, such as whether or not to transfuse a patient. Other tests aren't usually so urgent. Medicine moves slower than people think. Or am I missing something?
8. I was really struck by the unhealthy nature of the competition between Walgreens and CVS. Have you ever been exposed to that kind of rivalry or fear of failing to make a profit?
9. "Even though the startup had never said anything about outsourcing some of the testing, [Safeway CMO Kent Bradley] discovered that it was farming out some tests to a big reference laboratory in Salt Lake City called ARUP" (112). How did he find this out? What information leaked and what didn't under Elizabeth's web of security?
10. Anyone else get the sense when reading the "Lighting a Fuisz" chapter that the parties involved were behaving similarly to the cats in that children's tale, Millions of Cats in which the disgruntled characters all kill each other off?
11. How much did your stomach turn to find out that Holmes was paying Boies in stock? She's a magician! (139)
12. What do you make of how the story unfolds -- the back and forth in time as Carreyrou follows different threads? In particular, what do you make of the placement of Ian Gibbons' story? For someone as influential an employee as him (ten years there! they were his patents!) with such a heartbreaking story (especially when coupled with his wife's story with her own grief over her mother's death), why place this deep into the book?
13. What was missing from the book? What else did you want to know about? (For me, what other research was she building on? "The ability to perform so many test on just a drop or two of blood was something of a Holy Grail in the field of microfluidics. Thousands of researchers around the world in universities and industry had been pursuing this goal for more than two decades, ever since the Swiss scientist Andreas Manz had shown that the microfabrication techniques developed by the computer chip industry could be repurposed to make small channels that moved tiny volumes of fluids." 181. Were LabCorp and Quest working in this area? Was there any underlying truth to her paranoia that they would develop this technology first or steal hers?)
14. Does Carreyrou imply that Silicon Valley start-ups operate on an unethical premise? Or is he making excuses for tech start-ups as he distinguishes Theranos as a healthcare company? ("The term "vaporware" was coined in the early 1980s to describe new computer software or hardware that was announced with great fanfare only to take years to materialize, if it did at all. It was a reflection of the computer industry's tendency to play it fast and loose when it came to marketing. Microsoft, Apple, and Oracle were all accused of engaging in the practice at one point or another. Such overpromising became a defining feature of Silicon Valley. The harm done to consumers was minor, measured in frustration and deflated expectations." (296))
So nice to see you tonight. For those of you who couldn't make it, we loved hearing your thoughts on Bad Blood via email and would love to hear more in person next time!
I don't know what scandalized us more -- the fact that had she not picked a medical device to develop, Elizabeth Holmes' scheme might have gone on indefinitely...or the fact that so many knowledgeable people failed to see what was going on for so long...or the fact that it seems like it's nearly impossible to gain any protection as a whistle blower when corporations seem to have all of the leverage. As one of you pointed out, thank goodness for the continued life of hearty investigative reporting.
We are changing gears for next time...back to memoir... Please join us next time (date TBD) for a discussion of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb.
Hope to see you there!
How's it going? I have to stare at the calendar each day to remember what to do. This is such a busy time of year. This Wednesday, please unwind with us and take a night off from worrying about what you're going to bring to the next potluck. And no reading required (not that it ever is) for this one.
Drop us a line and let us know if we can hope to see you on Wednesday!
Good to see you last night. Corinne, the lights and table were beautiful -- even with that pesky spider who thought he was invited to the party.
Did anyone discuss Becoming any further? I didn't get a chance to bring it up. But I wanted to share a story that is sort of related.
A couple of weeks ago I took my son to his swim class at the Arlington Boys and Girls Club. He spotted a poster of a famous person on the wall and asked, "Is that the president?" I did a double take and said no. Trump is white, last I checked. But then I realized that my son was asking if the black man on the poster was Barak Obama. "No," I added, pausing for a moment to jog my memory, "That's Shaquille O'Neal. He's a famous basketball player." (N.B. The poster was large, but not life-sized.)
The culture is changing. Even if just regionally. At the school spring concert last week, the kids concluded their selections by inviting the audience to join them in singing "Lift Every Voice and Sing" which African Americans have dubbed the Black National Anthem (originally written in 1900, set to music in 1905, adopted by the NAACP in 1919, performed by famous black singers every since).
I didn't know there was a Black National Anthem.
Okay, it's raining and I'm expounding on the state of the nation, but we do have room in this email for less serious matters -- like frivolous and escapist summer reading and viewing recommendations! One of you mentioned Mira T. Lee's Everything Here is Beautiful which I found to be a breath-taking, poignant debut, so I feature it here. Please click here to view the entire list I've compiled so far on my blog**. (Since there are several newcomers to this list, I have a note about the blog below.) If you have other recommendations, please send them my way and I'll add them to the list!
Next month, join us for a discussion of Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. You may also want to check out the HBO documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley.
Hope to see you there!
**Note: While I hope to uphold the opinions and recommendations of the Tipsy Mamas as a separate entity from my blog, I am aware that there is other content on the site that does not represent the views of the Tipsy Mamas. If you like, dislike, or disagree with something, please feel free to comment directly on the blog or otherwise more personally offline. As always, I love discussing books and ideas with you all!
I hope you had a chance to pick up a copy of Michelle Obama's Becoming. If not, I hope you get to it at some point. She tells her story with incredible humility, downplaying all of her accomplishments and all of the sacrifices she made to be successful in her work. She made me believe that anything is possible, that the everyday (wo)man can take intentional steps to change the world in concrete ways.
As the plot accelerates towards the end she encourages her reader to "bear with me here, because this doesn't necessarily get easier. It would be one thing if America were a simple place with a simple story. If I could narrate my part in it only through the lens of what was orderly and sweet. If there were no steps backward. And if every sadness, when it came, turned out at least to be redemptive in the end. But that's not America, and it's not me, either. I'm not going to try to bend this into any kind of perfect shape." (379)
And yet, I thought it was perfectly crafted to show we are all a work in progress, that if we would just choose to do so, we could all "become."
She writes with increasing passion as she describes how she loved her country "for all the ways its story could be told." She writes:
"For almost a decade, I'd been privileged to move through it, experiencing its bracing contradictions and bitter conflicts, its pain and persistent idealism, and above all else its resilience. My view was unusual, perhaps, but I think what I experienced during those years is what many did-- a sense of progress, the comfort of compassion, the joy of watching the unsung and invisible find some light. A glimmer of the world as it could be. This was our bid for permanence: a rising generation that understood what was possible-- and that even more was possible for them. Whatever was coming next, this was a story we could own." (416)
I have never been a political person, but, reading her words, I thought maybe I could be. At the very least they made me wonder what more I could do in my own life to "invite one another in" as she admonishes in her epilogue.
Come on over on Tuesday and let us know your thoughts on Becoming. Suggested discussion questions are below.
1. Did you begin this book with any assumptions regarding what this book would be about or how the story would be told? (For me, I sort of expected a story of struggle, of rising above discrimination -- racial and possibly gender related. I also wondered how much would be truthful -- how do public figures choose what to tell about themselves?)
2. What did you make of the title Becoming? How does it relate to her writing: "I was ambitious, though I didn't know exactly what I was shooting for. Now I think it's one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child -- What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that's the end." What should we ask our children instead? Compare to later when she writes about making the transition to becoming a First Lady: "If I'd learned anything from the ugliness of the campaign, from the myriad ways people had sought to write me off as angry or unbecoming, it was that public judgment sweeps in to fill any void. If you don't get out there and define yourself, you'll be quickly and inaccurately defined by others" (285). And later, at the end, "becoming isn't about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn't end." (419) And how do we become? "Let's invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us. Maybe we can better embrace the ways we are the same. It's not about being perfect. It's not about where you get yourself in the end. There's power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there's grace in being willing to know and hear others." (421)
3. What did you make of Michelle's mother and her parenting mind-set that Michelle describes as "a kind of unflappable Zen neutrality"? (46)
4. What happens to the Michelle Robinsons of Chicago who don't get to attend Whitney Young Magnet School? As Michelle's mother points out about her own children: "They're not special at all. The South Side is filled with kids like that." And Michelle adds that "we just needed to help get them into [VIP] rooms." (355)
5. What do you make of her memory of her guidance counselor saying "I'm not sure that you're Princeton material," and her observations about overcoming the doubts of others: "The noise doesn't go away, but the most successful people I know have figured out how to live with it, to lean on the people who believe in them, and to push onward with their goals" (67). Was there a time when someone doubted you? Were you able to push through that doubt?
6. Does the "burden of integration" fall mainly to one group over another? "The hope was that all of us would mingle in heterogeneous harmony, deepening the quality of student life across the board....But even today, with white students continuing to outnumber students of color on college campuses, the burden of assimilation is put largely on the shoulders of minority students. In my experience, it's a lot to ask." (74) (It's funny but I feel a burden to seek out people of color, to understand different people groups and feel like a failure when I can't break through cultural or language barriers.)
7. What do you make of Suzanne's story? Cautionary tale? Reminder that life is short? Reminder not to judge others' decisions?
8. While Michelle is suffering through law and realizing she wants a different path, what do you make of her mother's response: "I say make the money first and worry about your happiness later." Is there any truth to Michelle's statement that "fulfillment, I'm sure, struck her as a rich person's conceit"? (135)
9. When Michelle decides to set strict dinner and bedtimes for her girls and not wait up for dad, she writes: "I didn't want them ever to believe that life began when the man of the house arrived home. We didn't wait for Dad. It was his job now to catch up with us." (207) Is this extreme feminism? Is it really playing to patriarchy to wait for dad? Or is it just about wanting to include the whole family and operate as one unit?
10. Michelle writes that her "goals mostly involved maintaining normalcy and stability, but those would never be Barack's", repeatedly pointing out how they differ from each other. (211) But does she give herself credit? Is she not brave and adventurous herself in her pursuit to improve the lives of those around her and engage in the world? How about the number of times she reinvents herself -- as a corporate lawyer, as a city hall employee, in a community relations role at the University of Chicago, in a community relations role at the University Medical Center, working her way up to be a vice president?
11. She shares many personal details. What is she not saying? About how she made her job decisions? About how she decided to move out of her mother's house (finally) to her own apartment, then condo, then house? About what her working mother home/work balance was like?
12. Relatedly, who is her audience? She writes that during the first presidential campaign she noticed that reporters "rarely asked about my work...[and speculated] that I'd been promoted at the hospital not due to my own hard work and merit but because of my husband's growing political stature" (241). And now? In her own book? Why spend so much time on his campaigns and not devote the same detail to telling the reader about her careers?
13. Were you as sheepish as I was when she wrote: "Along the [campaign trail in Iowa], reporters and even some acquaintances began asking me some form of the same questions: What was it like to be a five-foot-eleven, Ivy League-educated black woman speaking to roomfuls of mostly white Iowans? How odd did that feel? / I never liked this question. It always seemed to be accompanied by a sheepish half smile and the don't-take-this-the-wrong-way inflection that people often use when approaching the subject of race. It was an idea, I felt, that sold us all short, assuming that the differences were all anyone saw." (237) She continues to describe the ways she connected with those around her through what they shared. "These interactions felt natural, genuine. I found myself hugging people instinctively and getting hugged tightly back." (238) Did you make the same assumption? That the differences would stick out more than the similarities?
14. Have you read American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld? It's fiction (about Laura Bush), but I was struck by the difference in Michelle's reaction to voting for her husband. (274)
15. How hilarious is it that Michelle's mom was able to keep such a low profile in Washington that she could even deny her identity?! "Anytime a stranger commented that she looked exactly like Michelle Obama's mother, she'd just give a polite shrug and say, "Yeah, I get that a lot," before carrying on with her business. As she always had, my mother did things her own way." (296)
16. What did you make of the theme of being "good enough" and how it connects her to others? Michelle wonders this when she matriculates to Whitney Young. She wonders this when Barack begins each campaign. And then she hears the same question from within the girls around her at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in England...and she encourages them, acknowledges that they are enough, each and every one of them. (318-320)
Thank you so much for a great discussion of Michelle Obama's Becoming!
As readers, we found ourselves struggling with an interesting tension -- that of wanting to hold this First Lady to a certain ideal and preserve her story to be read for all time...versus craving more of the parts that were personally relatable to each of us in unique ways -- as daughters, wives, mothers, lawyers, natives of Chicago, Princeton alum, community organizers, and hopefuls for a better world. For me, I think this is a book I will be recommending to people for a long time -- and probably for different reasons since it speaks to so many kinds of people. That will be my small testament to her wish for us to discover our similarities rather than letting presumed differences divide us.
For next month...let's have a party! We traditionally skip a book in June in order to wind down and blow off some steam in the midst of a busy season. Then let's meet in July to discuss John Carreyrou's Bad Blood, a read that sounds salacious, thrilling and perfect for summer!
Hope to see you there!
The Tipsy Mamas' Book Club is co-hosted by Corinne Foster and myself, though the spirit of our discussions is flavored by many readers.