2014 Books and Discussions

January 17 Main Street, Sinclair Lewis

For our discussion of Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis, Natalie had done some research and provided maps of Minnesota for us to look at and on which we could follow the routes out to the small towns from the cities. The reactions to the book were varied. Jean was pleasantly taken with the similarities to the stories she remembered her dear friend Vivian David telling about her childhood in a small town.  Natalie recalled her own mother having feelings of being suffocated in the cultureless atmosphere of the small town in which she lived her life, very similar to the main character in the novel. Amanda mentioned that the book was banned in several places when it was published in the 1920′s and we speculated about what could have been so offensive to the populace at that time. Natalie writes: “There are a million Main Streets and I swear they are all alike–gossip, unfaithfulness,  life disappointments etc.  Lewis was brave enough to expose all that. ” Marion was disappointed that the main character didn’t seem to mature during the novel until the very end. Everyone had a reaction to the book even if she hadn’t yet finished it. I will be glad to add the comments of others if you will send them to me.
February 7 The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
On Friday, February 7, twelve of us gathered to discuss The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. There was a lively sharing of reactions to the story. Thanks to Pat for the great bread, Anne for the wonderful salad, and Amanda for a chocolate flourless cake that was mouth-watering. Thanks to Dave for cleaning up the kitchen, as usual. Thanks to all who came and listened thoughtfully. Thanks to all who responded to the imagery and challenge of following one’s dream as expressed in this story. How sweet the reward (treasure) is when one is willing to learn and grow and change along the way. Watching the Olympics has made me even more appreciative of the effort required to overcome the inevitable obstacles when one responds to an inner hunch and “goes for the gold.” May we each nurture dreams within ourselves and others.
March 14 The Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline

After a delicious dinner, it was difficult to think about the thousands of young orphans sent from New York to unknown families in the mid-west on their mostly empty stomachs.  Most of us had never known the true story of the Orphan Train, but could relate to the topic of adoption through friends and family members.  Vivian and Molly portrayed these issues of shame, feeling like an outsider, anger toward and from others and mostly living in fear.  In different times and circumstances, both girls were able to maintain some of their own identity through memories and cherished possessions. They each were also helped by understanding teachers and by each other.

Even though none of us had gone through a similar dislocation, we all had “portage”, possessions kept over the years.  We all have kept photos, letters, furniture, books that enhance our memories and make us feel secure and connected to our pasts.  We wished that the current foster home/adoption system would really support children and families adequately.

April 11 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith

After a delicious meal of now traditional Spring Pea Soup, healthy salad, bread and wonderful bread pudding; we discussed another book about desperate poverty and under-nourished children. We all realize the gulf that still exists between those of us who feel secure and those in desperate situations still today.

We talked about how families managed to survive on their wits and also strong family bonds at the turn of the century as Irish immigrants. The women in Francie’s family (including herself) held things together and supported each other. They may not have expressed their love, but their actions showed how they cared about each other. There was some disagreement about why Francie’s mother favored Neeley and the baby and was so hard on Francie.

We talked about the pros and cons of accepting charity. Katie states she would rather kill herself and her children before accepting charity. We talked about the current system of Welfare, which is inadequate to meet the needs of a family today. It may come down to an individual decision to accept charity or not.

We also talked about gender discrimination in pay then and now. Anne shared a personal experience from her career in a major corporation where a male superior took credit for her work and the pay discrimination that still exists.

We talked about the role of education is lifting people out of poverty and how teachers can either support or crush a child’s ambition. Where does the drive to succeed come from? Is it inborn or encouraged or both?

The book was filled with rich human experiences – the fishing trip, Dad’s roses at graduation, the shooting of a rapist, the symbol of the tree.

One last question lingers: What makes us “rich”?

May 16 The Last Runaway, Tracy Chevalier

For a mediocre literary piece (our humble opinion), this book certainly generated a spirited exchange among the 10 of us who gathered last evening.

While it was a quick and easy read, entertaining and illuminating, the novel left many of us wanting more. We would have liked more depth of information about Honor’s life in England, a more realistic picture of the experience of slaves in the Underground Railroad and a broader explanation of the contribution of the Quakers to the Abolitionist Movement. The issue of the quilts was so interesting and some of us would wanted even more explanation of the patterns and the differences in styles and how they developed.

But the liveliest discussion centered around the main character: Honor. Was she a vulnerable young woman running away from the experience of being jilted or an immature self-centered girl with an attitude? Did she stand up for her principles as she understood them from her Quaker faith or was she judgmental and inconsiderate of her in-laws? Many of us were sympathetic to her situation: new to the area, the culture, the families; we shared similar experiences of our own. We admired her willingness to take the leap of faith to travel to America, to stand up for her beliefs about slavery, and to adjust to this new situation by herself.

This may have seemed like a “phoned-it-in” novel, but it sure got us talking!

June 20 The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls

Ten of us enjoyed our last gathering to discuss The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.   What a discussion we had!  Reading the book presented challenges in itself!  All of us could associate in some unique way with the people in the book, especially the children.  We acknowledged that every family, in some way or another, is unique, to say the least.

There were so many strands of thinking that went on throughout the evening.  I hope I have hit upon the major comments.

Mrs. Wells:  We commented on the fact that Mrs. Wells often avoided situations that required her to interact with the family and the outside world.  She usually didn’t take responsibility for taking care of the children or responsibilities for her work.  For example, providing enough food or clothing for her family did not seem to be a priority of hers. When she had been hired to teach she did not take control over her class. She let her students have free reign in the classroom without control. She did not grade work that her students turned in.  She would, instead, have her children grade the work.  For a while when she was teaching, she would get out of bed and get dressed for school at the insistence of her children.  However, she then started refusing to get up to go into work.  She eventually lost her job.  At one point in her life, she seemed pleased to display her “rejection” notices.  It did not seem to bother her that she was not helping provide for her family.  Despite her lack of contributing monetarily to the family, she always had enough money to buy her art supplies.  We wondered whether her art work was ever recognized.  We realized that Lori’s art work was recognized, but we’re uncertain about Mrs. Wells’ work.

Mr. Wells:  Mr. Wells also exhibited little responsibility towards his family, often losing jobs due to his alcohol abuse.  He would take money to support his life style.  We found it amazing that, all of a sudden, he would uproot the family to go live in the desert or to go back to West Virginia.  Our hearts went out to Jeannette when she was taken to bars with her father and encouraged by her father that the men would take good care of her.

We realized that we could have gone on much longer about the negative qualities of both Mr. and Mrs. Wells!  They did have their “better” qualities.  Mrs. Wells taught the children how to read before they entered school.  Both Mr. and Mrs. Wells were intelligent.  Mr. Wells, especially, taught the children about science, as well as teaching them that each experience they had lessons in them.

The Wells Children:  Despite the very challenging situations in which the children found themselves, we were quite impressed with the resiliency of the children, especially of Jeannette.  Instead of “bad-mouthing” their parents, the children actually tried to support them as much as possible.  For example, when the child welfare department came to the house, the children said that everything was “OK”.

We found Jeannette amazing that she was brave enough to write about her life, sharing more than what some of us thought we would share.  How did she feel when she saw her parents in the street, sometimes picking through garbage?  Jeannette was quite insightful when she commented to the professor that not all homeless want to be helped.  She would not answer the professor’s question, “How would you know that?”  Jeannette did a wonderful job “managing” the family, in that she was able to set forth a budget and feed the family.  Probably out of respect, she was unable to tell her father “no” when he wanted more money.  Jeannette learned the importance of trying to take care of others’ needs before taking care of her own needs.  This was shown when she encouraged her older sister to go to New York first, then she would follow when she was able.

For some of us, the relationship of Jeannette with her father as an alcoholic was very similar to that of the daughter and father in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

In a brief summation, we stated that we are grateful for the lives we have and want to treat others as we would want to be treated.  We were glad to have the opportunity to discuss this thought-provoking, nonfiction book!

The Learned Ladies“  Shakespeare Outdoor Theatre

On Friday evening, four of us ate our supper on the lawn, before watching “The Learned Ladies” at the Shakespeare Outdoor Theatre on the campus of The College of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station. What a fun time. The play was in rhyme and spoofed the pursuit of knowledge at the expense of using common sense (particularly in affairs of the heart.)  The costumes and set added much to the enjoyment as did the usual cast attention to the occasional interruption of an airplane overhead.

September 19        Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver

Marion shared an interview with Barbara Kingsolver in which she stated the Flight Behavior is not about butterflies.  We all speculated the theme to be global warming, the human tendency toward hope and rebirth, or how events can turn a life completely around.  According to Kingsolver her message was that people tend to avoid or deny unwelcome news even to their own detriment

    There was disagreement about Dellarobia’s character – whether or not she should have left her husband, whether she was hopeful or enterprising. We felt she was a strong woman to survive within her environment by being creative and having a best girlfriend to help her along. We wondered whether her lower status as a woman was part of regional culture or if we had also experienced being regarded as less able than men.
    Most agreed that the imagery and understanding of people (in all of Kingsolver’s books) is excellent and makes the reader feel they are right in the setting.  Some of the language was too wordy or metaphorical for some.
    We gave personal examples of how a teacher or mentor has the power to change lives, encourage, and build self esteem.  Anne gave an example of a supervisor that really let her discover for herself that she was capable of doing her job.  Natalie changed the life of an impoverished young drop out by setting her on the path to complete her education and support herself and her child.  Some offered the mantras- “Everything is hard before it’s easy” and “Practice makes permanent.”
    We also discussed the role of religion vs science in the book and in our world today.  How do we know which evidence to believe when there is so much information?  How also do we compare our opinions and actions to those of people who live in poverty or are barely scraping by?  It was very hard to stop talking about the themes of this book!


October 24           Among the Shrouded, by Amalie Jahn

On Oct. 24, eight of us gathered to enjoy Ilse’s wonderful beef barley soup and talk about Among the Shrouded. Thanks to Anne for offering the blessing, Pat for the salad, Amanda for bread, Elaine for dessert, and Dave for cleaning up. We were also treated to a little “emergency “ bag of goodies from Donna. Thanks, Donna for getting us in the Halloween spirit. Ilse started our discussion off with an excellent summary of the book, since some of us had not finished it. But, we had problems with the book, right away. We couldn’t imagine that in this age of technology, the women described in this story, from the Ukraine, would be so gullible. Even though we do know that, in reality, some women are actually in quite desperate situations. Also we didn’t buy into the romance between the aura-less busboy and the detective. We agreed that the topic of sex trafficking is an important one, but that the author did not write a plausible story.

November 14         The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd

Rehab in Long Branch, NJ?? One of the many surprises from our gifted author. Nine of us gathered for a fine meal (Donna’s Butternut Squash soup, Connie’s fruit and veggie salad, Kathy’s hearty bread and Amanda’s chocolate trifle, preceded by Sooni’s Baked Brie with walnuts). Perhaps we read books just so we can eat together?

General consensus: well-written and we loved it!. We found wonderful discoveries in Kidd’s imaginative, yet historically faithful novel of sisters, mothers and their daughters and strong-minded women. We are invited to an awareness of our culture and to an awareness of what we ignore. It is not for the weak of heart.

What follows are some of our impressions, comments and what for us were defining moments:

  • Charlotte – strong and sly. Spiteful (she stole things like the bolt of cloth, or chose not to sew buttons back on tight). Perhaps her way of establishing herself, but definitely doing whatever it took to survive.
  • Mrs. Mary Grimke, Sarah’s mom – mean. Typical southern Mom? Was a bit better to Charlotte because she needed Charlotte’s skills as a seamstress. Image to her peers was important to Mary.
  • Sarah – how different in temperament she was from her older sister and brothers. We questioned whether it was her influence as “adopted mother” to Nina that created or fed Nina’s independent spirit.
  • Mary, Sarah’s older sister, who later became Little Mrs. – how mean-spirited she was. Yet even when Mary discovered Charlotte’s story quilt and its horrors, she seemed convinced that the Grimkes (and Mary herself) had “happy slaves” and treated them well. We thought that was hard to reconcile but concluded that Mary truly believed what she said.
  • We noticed just how different Sarah and Nina both were from the rest of their family. Suggestions were made that more information on the other siblings might have been helpful.
  • Education, particularly learning to read, had a profound and indelible impact on a person’s freedom.
  • Strong, independent women and their ability to stand firm despite formidable opposition from family and culture.
  • Women as witness to the ability of human beings to get outside of their own culture, both for the southern society and for those enslaved.
  • Giving his daughter access to books, Mr. Grimke gave Sarah a chance to become a free-thinking person. Sarah, in turn, passed this gift to Hettie.
  • Mr. Grimke then removed books and access to his library as Sarah’s punishment for teaching Hettie. We questioned if Sarah was a boy might she have gotten away with teaching a slave to read?
  • Even without books, Charlotte taught her daughter Hettie stories through the quilts, oral traditions, and through the power of the Spirit tree.
  • Respect for females in the 1800’s US and Korea was limited at best to hearth, home and “being seen but not heard”.
  • But women’s roles, at least in the US, were to change with the impact of WWII and the call of women to jobs formerly held only by men.
  • We were disappointed with Quakers, particularly their treatment of women.
  • Red squares and black triangles formed one of the primary patterns in Charlotte’s quilts, which Hettie, in turn, learned. Just as the black triangles represented the wings of a bird, perhaps Sarah and Nina between them formed one pair of wings. Hettie and Sky another. Never to be separated.