1. What did you like / dislike?
2. What is freedom? And is it an option for anyone in this tale? Is there any hope in these "uttered words that felt like prophecy"? ("True freedom is a master too, you see -- one more dogged, more constant, than any ragged slave-driver...What you must now accept is that all of us are bound to something. Some will bind themselves to property in man and all that comes forthwith. And others shall bind themselves to justice. All must name a master to serve. All must choose...You are not a slave, Hiram Walker," said Corrine. "But by Gabriel's Ghost, you shall serve." (155; 157) Is this Corrine's way of saying that if you're not an anti-racist, then you're a racist?)
3. Who is Hiram? What is he? ("But there are so many miracles. As when I was told of a man who did not merely conduct but self-resurrected, who hoisted himself out of the ice, a man who, pursued by the hounds, felt a longing for home so fierce that he blinked and he was there." 269) (And just an aside, but Hiram is always noting when he washes and changes his clothes. Is there any symbolism in that?)
4. What do you make of the terms he uses to designate people -- the Tasked, the Quality, the low whites? Had you heard those terms before?
5. How were the stakes for women different from the stakes for me? ("...if you told me that Hank Powers cried for three hours when his daughter was born, I remembered..." 11) And what do you make of Sophia's question to Hiram regarding his intent towards her? ("I like you, I really do...But I will like you a heap less if your plan is for us to get to this Underground and for you to make yourself up as another Nathaniel. That ain't freedom to me, do you understand? Ain't no freedom for a woman in trading a white man for a colored...If that is your plan to shackle me there...then tell me now and allow me the decency of making my own choice here." 111-112)
6. Did your opinion of Sophia change (as Hiram's did) when you discovered she was pregnant when she ran with Hiram? Was the pregnancy a surprise to you, or did you know all along? ("I think of what it must mean to bring someone, a little girl perhaps, into all of this. And I know it's coming, someday. That it ain't even up to me. It's coming, Hiram, and I will watch as my daughter is taken in, as I was taken in, and..." 99; "I will bring no child into this..." 107; "It's coming, Hiram," you said. "And I will watch as my daughter is taken in, as I was taken in." None can say it was not said. And though I remember everything, I cannot say I always hear it. BUt I hear you now, and I hear much more." 350).
7. What do you make of Hiram's perspective of how the Quality pitted the low whites and the tasked against each other to keep both in their place? ("These men became rich off the flesh trade, but their names were of too recent vintage and their work of such ill repute that they could never rise above their designation. It was the strong association between the jail and the low whites who fed and served it that gave them the name Ryland's Hounds. We feared them and hated them, perhaps more than we feared and hated the Quality who held us, for all of us were low, we were all Tasked, and we should be in union and arrayed against the Quality, if only the low whites would wager their crumbs for a slice of the whole cake." 57) What would it mean for the low whites to "wager their crumbs"?
8. Did Georgie and Amber try to warn Hiram or not? ("Ain't nobody out, son, you hear? Ain't no out. All gotta serve. I like serving here more than at some other man's Lockless, I will grant you that, but I am serving, of that I can assure you." 60) And how does Georgie's insistence that Hiram go home, that his life is a good one, contrast with Hiram's statement that "there was no peace in slavery, for every day under the rule of another is a day of war." (130)
9. What was the Conduction, and why not explain it to Hiram and the reader at the beginning? Why the journey of discovery? Why does Harriet not tell Hiram? (Per Harriet, "The jump is done by the power of the story. It pulls from our particular histories, from all of our loves and all of our losses. All of that feeling is called up, and on the strength of our remembrances, we are moved." 278; "The summoning of a story, the water, and the object that made memory real as brick: that was Conduction." 358).
How is the Conduction similar or different from the idea of The Underground Railroad as depicted in the book of that title by Colson Whitehead?
10. What is a water dancer? His mother, his aunt and Sophia? Or part of the Conduction? ("Stay with me, friend," Harriet said. "No exertions needed. It's just like dancing. Stay with the sound, stay with the story and you will be fine." 271)
11. The prevailing image I hold of slavery in my mind is of laboreres being mistreated in the fields. Do you have a dominant image in your mind? What about Hiram's perspective on slavery was surprising or new? ("Walking down the back stairs, I knew that my father's statement could only be reconciled through the peculiar religion of Virginia -- Virginia, where it was held that a whole race would submit to chains; Virginia, where this same race held the math that molded iron and carved marble to exact proportion and were still called beasts; Virginia, where a man would profess his love for you one moment and sell you off the next. Oh, the curses my mind constructed for my fool of a father, for this country where men dress sin in pageantry and pomp, in cotillions and crinolines, where they hide its exercise, in the down there, in a basement of the mind, in these slave-stairs, which I now I descended, into the Warrens, into this secret city, which powered an empire so great that none dare speak its true name." 70)
I was surprised, as Hiram knew I would be, that train cars were integrated. ("It may be hard to believe now, in these dark days, but there was no "n-- car." Why would there be one? The Quality kept their Tasked ones close the way a lady keeps her clutch, closer even, for this was a time in our history when the most valuable thing a man could own, in all of America, was another man." 188)
12. Was there foul play in Maynard's death? How did they end up in the river that night?
13. What did you make of (Miss) Corrine? Did your opinion of her change? What do you make of Corrine's interpretation of women's role? ("And some of us have been down since the days of Rome. Some of us are born into society and told that knowledge is rightfully beyond us, and ornamental ignorance should be our whole aspiration." 166)
And why is Hiram always surprised to see Miss Corrine? Why is she so hard to figure out? What do you make of his assessment of her at the end? ("Corrine Quinn was among the most fanatical agents I ever encountered on the Underground. All of these fanatics were white. They took slavery as a personal insult or affront, a stain upon their name. They had seen women carried off to fancy, or watched as a father was stripped and beaten in front of his child, or seen whole families pinned like hogs into rail-cars, steam-boast, and jails. Slavery humiliated them, because it offended a basic sense of goodness that they believed themselves to possess. And when their cousins perpetrated the base practice, it served to remind them how easily they might do the same. They scorned their barbaric brethren, but they were brethren all the same. So their opposition was a kind of vanity, a hatred of slavery that far outranked any love of the slave. Corrine was no different, and it was why, relentless as she was against slavery, she could so casually condemn me to the hole, condemn Georgie Parks to death, and mock an outrage put upon Sophia." 370-1)
14. What did you make of the layers of deceit -- how Hiram couldn't even trust other tasking folks -- how they were divided against themselves? ("And then there were even darker tasks. To be their eyes and ears, their intelligence among the other tasking men, so that they, the masters, knew who smiled in their faces and scoffed behind their backs...The effect of all this was a kind of watchfulness among the tasking folks, in particular toward those you did not know." 104-5) This sadly reminds me of what poet and media activist Malkia Cyril explains in the film “13th” that white people aren’t the only ones to view Black men as criminals. It broke my heart as she said, “Let me be clear...Black people also believe this...and are terrified...of our own selves.”
15. In what ways does the author continue to raise the stakes for Hiram that continue to build the story? ("So I must go, for my world was disappearing, had always been disappearing -- Maynard called out from the Goose, Corrine from the mountains, and above all, Natchez." 116)
16. What do you make of Hiram turning the lens back on himself after the boy is sold from the jail and his mother is beaten? ("I did nothing. Understand that I saw all of this and I did nothing. I watched those men sell children and beat a mother to the ground, and I did nothing." 135)
17. What do you make of the tone and perspective of this book? How old did you imagine Hiram to be at the time of its telling? What "dark days" is he in "now"? ("It may be hard to believe now, in these dark days..." 188) (I found the tone reflective and regretful -- at least, that's how the audiobook read it -- slowly, thoughtfully, making me think that Hiram would be an old man at the end...)
18. Was it clear to you what Hiram's new job was? ("First you learn what they know, in the general. And then you learn them in the specific -- their words and their hand. Own the man's especial knowledge and you shall own the measure of the man. Then you might fashion the costume, Hiram, and make it yours to fit." 167) How did Hiram's memory help him on his journey? What else wasn't clear during his journey? Was it clear what they did to Georgie? (175)
19. What is the meaning of memory in this book? ("We forgot nothing, you and I...To forget is to truly slave. To forget is to die...To remember, friend...For memory is the chariot, and memory is the way, and memory is bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom." 271)
How does the author weigh the importance and risks of memory in highlighting Raymond White and his collection of records of runaway slaves? ("Reaching in, I found an assortment of paper, correspondences with fugitives...In the wrong hands, countless agents would be exposed." 223)
What is the price of remembering? ("There is a reason we forget. And those of us who remember, well, it is hard on us. It exhausts us. Even today, I could only do this with the aid of my brothers." Harriet to Hiram, 305).
How do we remember? ("I stopped here and watched, for though the moment was conjured up by me, I wanted to savor it, but when I tried, I saw them begin to fade from me, fade like mortal life and mortal memory, and I knew that I must keep telling the story." 395)
20. What was particularly hard to read? (For me, the story of Benjamin Rush saying that blacks were immune to a fever in Philadelphia (236), especially since recently I heard there was a rumor that blacks couldn't contract COVID, leading who knows how many to fail to take precautions.)
21. How succinctly does Hiram describe structural racism? ("I had never seen either Simpson. But I could not help but imagine the son here among the Northern Quality presenting himself as a man of society, a man of good breeding, reputable connections, and respectable business. But shut away in that foot-locker was his unwashed life -- the proof of a great crime, evidence of his membership in the dark society that underwrote this opulent home, which was, itself, built upon a sprawling grave, in the heart of this alleged slaveless city." 240)
22. Were you aware that the abolitionist movement had so many layers to it? Public meetings existed above the Underground (Raymond White) which existed above the work of people like Corrine Quinn?
23. What did you make of the Convention by the Canada border and the tents of people advocating for freedom for blacks, women, Native Americans, children... What conclusions does Hiram make? ("It occurred to me that an examination of the Task revealed not just those evils particular to Virginia, to my old world, but the great need for a new one entirely." 251)
24. Did Harriet have a vision of the Civil War? If so, what does that mean? ("And then the ash rose with the wind, until it formed itself into a whole company of black men in blue, black men with rifles upon their shoulders...In the eyes of this army assembled before me, I beheld the humiliation of slavery burning like fire...Below we saw the great range of our shackled country, its crops, rooted in flesh and watered with blood. And a song rose up among these men...as they stood in ranks, and the song was that old feeling put to hymn, and on my sign we fell down upon this sinful country, and our battle-cry was as mighty as a great river conducted through a high and narrow valley." 275)
25. Does Hiram make excuses for his father's behavior? ("He was as ill-prepared for repentance as Maynard was for mastery. His world -- the world of Virginia -- was built on a foundation of lies. To collapse them all right then and there, at his age, might well have killed him." 337).
26. What does Sophia mean at the end? ("We are what we always were...Underground." 403)
27. Why couldn't they find Hiram's mom? Would finding her have meant he wouldn't have had the powers of deep memory in order to Conduct Thena?
28. When is this going to be a movie? :)
So nice to see you guys last night. There was a lot to dig into with this book! Thank you for pointing out the SuperHero-like storyline -- and the fact that Ta-Nehisi Coates writes Black Panther for Marvel! We were drawn into this story by its suspense, so some of us were left wanting more at the ending. However, we also commented that the author spends more pages on the emotional violence of the culture than the physical violence, and so perhaps the separation of mother and child was the greatest violence the main character could know... We were fascinated by the idea of the Conduction and were surprised to hear that it is also featured in the 2019 movie "Harriet". Perhaps something to screen this weekend?
For next month, let's read Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires. I'm not sure where or when we'll be meeting...so stay tuned, and in the meantime, enjoy the book!
1. What do you make of Mr. Collins' advice to Emmeline: "Find out what you're good at, Miss Lake, and then get even better." (54) Did Emmy follow his advice?
2. Have you ever zoned out at an inopportune time? (Emmeline's interview with Mr. Collins, p.20)
3. Would you have answered the letters that Mrs. Bird designates as "unacceptable"?
4. Does the premise of a book make sense? That is, could a woman so keen on a career as a war correspondent truly find satisfaction dabbling in relationship advice? How does Emmy change or become more self-aware over the course of the book? (Is she just clueless -- about her relationship with Edmund, her argument with William, her right to reply to letters?)
5. What is the nature of the disagreement between Emmy and William and Bunty? How does the passage of time and our different culture color how we interpret the argument and outcome?
6. Which character did you fear for most during the Blitz? (Me: Thelma...and her kids...)
7. Is the nonchalant attitude of Londoners believable? ("Miss Lake, said Charles, "even if you do enjoy being a moving duck, it will make me feel better if Charles is with you. I should be most annoyed if you were blown up. I'll settle things here. Be careful..." / "Chivalry's all very well," I said through my scarf as we walked carefully along. "But if you get run over, it won't be any good for the war effort." p.104)
And if it's not believable, then does that spoil the big reveal of Emmy realizing they should be allowed to acknowledge their fear? ("I realised I didn't just feel sorry for this girl. I was proud of her. Enormously proud that she was brave enough to admit she was scared." p. 242)
8. Where did you cry? (For me, reading the series of letters from Emmy to Brunty, especially the one about William's memorial service, p. 231-2.)
9. What is Emmy's opinion of Mrs. Bird's Good Works? Also, did your sympathies for Mrs. Bird change over the course of the book?
10. How would you compare Emmy and Brunty's friendship to that of Emmy and Kathleen's?
11. Why is Emmy always saying (to William, to Bunty, to Kathleen), "you will let me explain, won't you, Kath?" (255), when they already know and disagree with the full explanation? What more ground does Emmy hope to gain?
12. What kind of punishment or reward does Emmy deserve in the end?
13. How was this book different from the story you expected to find?
So nice to see you last night to discuss Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce. We enjoyed escaping into this story, even though we found some key elements a little contrived. We will still be interested in checking out the continuing story when AJ Pearce finishes her second novel! This book also inspired us to share other WWII titles we have enjoyed or been challenged by recently, including:
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Maisy Dobbs mysteries by Jaqueline Winspear
Nothing is Forgotten by Peter Golden
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Going forward, I think we're all feeling the need to read some Black literature right now. Please join us in July and August to read The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, followed by Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires.
Hope to see you there!
1. What did you like / dislike?
2. Where did you laugh? ("Topaz said she had never been on the streets and rather regretted it, "because one must sink to the depths in order to rise to the heights," which is the kind of Topazism it requires much affection to tolerate." (8) and "...there were some reflections about life I wanted to record. (I never did record them -- and have now forgotten what they were.)" (138) and "I will pause and search my innermost soul... / I have searched it for a solid five minutes." (196))
3. What do you make of Cassandra's experiment to write in different places? (In the kitchen sink, the hen house, the stairs, in bed, the attic, the barn, the drawing room, Belmotte Tower, the gatehouse desk...)
4. What do you make of the structure of the book -- as a journal; written in three different journals -- the 6 penny book from the Vicar, the shilling book from Stephen, the 2 guinea book from Simon; using the device of shorthand speed writing as a way to get the story onto paper in a timely manner?
5. Cassandra compares her story to Pride and Prejudice. Did you?
6. What does the title mean?
7. Is Cassandra "consciously naive"? (64) Is she "the insidious type -- Jane Eyre with a touch of Becky Sharp. A thoroughly dangerous girl"? (111) How does she change over the course of the story?
8. What do you make of Rose and Cassandra surmising Neil's take on England? ("He thinks England's a joke, a funny sort of toy." (93)) What purpose does the comparison of America to England serve, regarding the Cottons or Mr. Mortmain's American lecture tour, or regarding the description of talkative Mrs. Cotton? ("I got used to the vitality of American women..." / "Do they all talk as much as that?" / "Amazing, their energy...capable of having three or four children, running a home, keeping abreast of art, literature and music -- superficially of course but, good lord, that's something -- and holding down a job into the bargain. Some of them get through two or three husbands as well, just to avoid stagnation....Quite a number of American men are remarkably silent." (100))
9. What do you make of Topaz? ("Her letter is exactly like her -- three quarters practical kindness and one quarter spoof." (194))
10. Do you believe Cassandra when she begins to doubt that she wants money -- preferring the shilling book for the 2 guinea book; questioning the money Rose spends on clothes; wishing for a simple meal before they had meat...? (194)
11. How does the separation of family members (with Stephen, Mortmain, and then Rose and Topaz going off to London) help the characters learn more about each other? Could the novel have progressed if they hadn't left the castle at all?
12. What gives? Simon kisses Cassandra after seducing her and doesn't explain himself? (221-3)
13. How does Miss Blossom enable Cassandra to see herself more clearly? (244,246) Why does she have to be "gone for ever"? (246) How does imagination play a role in Cassandra's development? ("Imagination itself can be a kind of willingness -- a pretense hat things are real, due to one's longing for them." (245)) If hope = faith + imagination, where does that leave Cassandra?
14. What do you make of the Vicar and Miss Marcy and how they open Cassandra's eyes to "by-pass[ing] the suffering that comes to more people -- he by his religion, she by her kindness to others"? (246)
15. How do we really know we've fallen in love with someone? Is it as complicated as Cassandra makes it out to be?
16. What kind of father makes his daughters sell all of their belongings -- including precious necklaces -- before he's motivated to get a job? Is Cassandra -- or the reader -- convinced that he couldn't have written before now, that "it just hasn't been possible"? (303)
17. Did anyone foresee Cassandra's plan to imprison her father? How fitting is it, symbolically?
18. What do you make of Thomas's character? ("I felt dreadful, but Thomas seemed quite unconcerned." (314))
19. What role does Cassandra's mother play -- in memory, in supporting father's writing, as a voice in Cassandra's head, as the travel clock in the gatehouse?
20. "He said he would come back." (343) Will he? How will it end? Why end the book like this? ("When I imagine changing places with [Rose] I get the feeling I do on finishing a novel with a brick-wall happy ending -- I mean the kind of ending when you never think any more about the characters...." (197))
And now: a little puzzle game of our own...
True or False:
1. "I never felt happier in my life... Perhaps it is because I have satisfied my creative urge." (11)
2. "Contemplation seems to be about the only luxury that costs nothing." (25)
3. "Nobel deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression." (38)
4. "What I'd really hate would be the settled feeling, with nothing but happiness to look forward to." (196)
5. "I wonder if there isn't a catch about having plenty of money? Does it eventually take the pleasure out of things?" (197)
6. "And then I wondered if I was a little bit drunk." (240)
7. "Watching sleeping people makes one feel more separate than ever from them." (318)
8. "...the interest so many people take in puzzles and problems -- which often starts in earliest childhood -- represents more than a mere desire for recreation; that it may even derive from man's eternal curiosity about his origin." (337)
9. "I only want to write. And there's no college for that except life." (339)
10. "Perhaps it would really be rather dull to be married and settled for life. Liar! It would be heaven." (342)
11. "Even a broken heart doesn't warrant a waste of good paper." (343)
Great to see you guys the other night to discuss I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. We were happily engrossed in Cassandra's bubble and didn't even pay attention to the fact that the story was set almost 100 years ago. We loved this timeless tale, even though we wished Cassandra might have ended up with Stephen! We also appreciated the similarly timeless English tendency to relate scenarios back to Austen.
We decided we were in the mood for another beautiful book that could transport us to another time and place. So...join us next month as we discuss Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce.
Hope to see you there!
Happy Passover and Easter to those celebrating! If you're looking for an Easter service, my family has been enjoying our church's services on YouTube.
I'm looking forward to "seeing" you this Wednesday to discuss Writers & Lovers by Lily King. Suggested discussion questions below. I think my favorite part is when Casey says during her teaching interview:
This resonates with me because this is what I'm trying to do with my blog most of the time -- to go beyond a book review to where I try to apply the author's ideas to our lives. Anyway...
Looking forward to our discussion!
1. What did you like / dislike?
2. Did the beginning remind you of Sweetbitter? Did the interspersed observations about life remind you of The Little Paris Bookshop?
3. In what ways do artists show their vulnerability? ("I stood against the railing while behind me people creaked into the old rocking chairs and passed out beers and raised their bottles to the filmmaker, who was giggling psychopathethically, the way you do when you've exposed yourself through art." p.29)
4. When did you start liking Casey? (For me, it was when she didn't get back with Luke.)
5. What do you make of Casey's observation that "success rests more easily on men"? (p.69) And how does her comment about authors' photos play into that? ("Why do men always want to look like that [menacing] in their author photos?...Whereas with women...they have to be pleasing." p.51) What of her other observations on the differences between men and women? ("Oscar is studying me. He's make decisions already. I can feel this. Between our call and today he talked himself out of me, and now he is coming back around. I squat there and think about how you get trained early on as a woman to perceive how others are perceiving you, at the great expense of what you yourself are feeling about them. Sometimes you mix the two up in a terrible tangle that's hard to unravel." p.130)
6. Is it possible to have a lover and write well? ("Did David write his book?" I ask. "He didn't even start it." She blows on her tea. "And I've written two hundred and sixty pages since he left." p.61; plus, when Casey was with Luke, she didn't write a thing) When is a lover a muse, and when is a lover an impediment / distraction?
7. What did you make of the commentary on money and responsibility in this book? (pointing out the middle school friend was supported by the men in her life; ignoring debt collectors; yet not embracing freedom of simplicity either -- p. 84-5: "It's the scent of freedom in here, Casey. You won't be able to smell it till you've lost it." / Actually I could smell it. It was the scent of black mold and gasoline that came in from the garage.")
8. What role does writing play in therapy? (Thinking of Casey's writing; her friend's 260 pages after her boyfriend moves out; and the writers' stories she shares on p.86-8 where sometimes they are forbidden to write -- by a family member, by a clinic for nervous disorders.)
9. What is the role of research in this novel -- on Casey's part (Cuba)? On Lily King's part (other writers / titles)?
10. What do you make of the geese? (p.4-5, p.92 -- "chinstraps pale blue" - like her mother's necklace?, p.171, p.189)
11. What is up with Adam, her landlord? Why keep writing about him when so many other characters come and go? (On a related note, that was a critique I had for the book -- since I am character-driven when reading a novel, I had a hard time knowing which characters to invest in with this read.)
12. What is this book about? (The back of the book says "grief". Are the car accident, doctors' visits extraneous information? What did you want less of?)
13. Was p.118-121 a little late to learn about her father and golf? Should we have gotten her story earlier?
14. Is this book a commentary on writing novels? On novels themselves? ("A novel is a long story with something wrong with it." p.138; "Kay Boyle said once that a good story is both an allegory and a slice of life. Most writers are good at one, not the other. But you are doing both so beautifully here." p.167; "Have you always been such an enthusiastic reader?" / "Not really. I liked reading, but I was picky about books. I think the enthusiasm came when I started writing. Then I understood how hard it is to re-create in words what you see and feel in your head. That's what I love about Bernhard in the book. He manages to simulate consciousness, and it's contagious because while you're reading it rubs off on you and your mind starts working like that for a while. I love that. That reverberation for me is what is most important about literature. Not themes or symbols or the rest of that crap they teach in high school." p. 270)
15. Were you rooting for Silas or Oscar or neither?
16. Why set this story in the 90s? To be more dramatic without cell phones??
17. Harvard Square...MFA...Walden Pond...Silas's apartment in North Cambridge!!!! Where there other local haunts you wanted to see Casey visit? :)
So nice to see you guys last night to discuss Writers & Lovers by Lily King. While we found it a fairly easy, compelling read, we appreciated the nuanced characters, especially Casey who drew us into her dreams and had us celebrating with her at the (fairytale) end.
Before we discussed the book though, I asked everyone what they were doing these days to help them feel normal.
My answers: packing kids' lunches the night before (to avoid being a short order cook all day long), reading before bed, and saying hi to my neighbors across the driveway.
You said: riding the Peloton, taking virtual exercise classes (kickboxing seemed particularly appropriate), running (with or without mask)... Hm...exercise seems to be a theme...
Still, it was hard to come up with those responses.
Today, as my kids and I gunned it out of Cambridge along Route 2 on our way to hike Purgatory Chasm in Sutton, Mass, we listened to the soundtrack from Dreamworks' 1998 production of The Prince of Egypt. "Purgatory" seemed like the right tone for today...this week...and was reflected in the music itself as the cast belted out:
"Elohim, Adonai, can you hear your people cry?
Help us now!
Listen now, and deliver us!"
Once we made it to the hike, I held my breath as my kids shimmied in and out of rock crevices too narrow for me to follow. I kept calling after them, Marco Polo style, trying to locate them in the jumble of granite as I skittered back over boulders to try to meet them on the other side of a rock wall. After an hour of this, three of my kids chose to climb out of the chasm a different way from the way we entered. The fourth refused to go that way. ("Too dangerous.") So I made a choice -- I climbed up the cliff with the three kids, saw that they knew to follow the yellow markers back to the parking lot (they hiked there first with Dan last Saturday), and sent them off on their own. Then I descended down to the fourth child, and together, he and I retraced our steps back out to the chasm's entrance.
On the drive home (refueled with pretzels and last year's Halloween candy), filled with the satisfaction of having done something hard, we listened to Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston belt out:
"There can be miracles
When you believe
Though hope is frail
Its hard to kill
Who knows what miracles
You can achieve
When you believe somehow you will
You will when you believe"
Dan started a new job today...after five months of uncertainty about whether there would be a next paycheck...and where it would come from. Those five months were preceded by my mom's chemotherapy, and followed by coronavirus. It's been almost of year of uncertainty in my family, and now, with the virus, it seems there is no end in sight. In this, I know I'm not alone. Some of you know people who are sick. Some of you are afraid of losing your mothers. I have a long and growing prayer list during this time. Please let me know if I can add you to it. While you may not think prayer is for you, I firmly believe that God answers prayers. I also believe that through the act of prayer, we strengthen our faith...and in doing so, find we can grasp more firmly to the hope that too often seems just out of reach.
And if that was all too much for you, please join us anyway next month when we discuss Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle. Our protagonist is a girl who tries to sneak time to write while isolated in a decrepit castle with weird family members. Hmm... Forgive me if I picked a book that I feel describes me too well right now.
Hope to see you there!
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!
The Tipsy Mamas' Book Club is co-hosted by Corinne Foster and myself, though the spirit of our discussions is flavored by many readers.