Dancing at the Edge of the World by Ursula K Le Guin

(Book 155) Linda hosted four of us this evening; Chris and Susan were out with a stomach bug (probably two different stomach bugs); Mary had hoped to attend despite having a medical procedure scheduled earlier in the day, but didn’t make it; and then the three girls who have been playing hooky all year. Rosalie continues to enjoy the warmer weather of her winter digs; Geri appeared noticeably improved when Linda last visited, even if Geri feels the progress is slow; and Marcia told us that Karen’s husband made it out of ICU at Northwestern and into the Shirley Ryan Rehab Center. We are rooting for Geri and Scott and a teeny (?) bit envious of Rosalie.

We sat in one of two lounge areas in Linda’s lovely apartment. My chair swiveled and almost relaxed me to sleep! We munched on a green pea and mint spread, carrots, blue cheese, Brie, crackers, and smoked almonds while Linda finished preparations for the main course and kept our wine glasses filled! We talked about the fact that we often plan our meal around something in the book, but that Ursula didn’t offer much in that regard. It wasn’t until “Over the Hills and a Great Way Off, in which Le Guin writes about her family’s visit to a friend in England that any food is mentioned. Then it is fish and chips, Chinese food, apples, beer, whiskey, egg and cress sandwiches, crackers, tomatoes and cheese, Dorset Knobs and butter cookies. I have to say, I would have liked to have tasted the Dorset Knob.

Instead of ordering in Chinese, or serving egg and cress sandwiches, Linda chose her own menu and served delicious pork tenderloins with a balsamic reduction (I don’t know if it was a reduction, I was just carried away with culinary lingo) asparagus with butter and garlic, and a delicious wild rice with butternut squash salad. It was all delicious and topped only by the dessert tart which Linda tells us included both lemon and lime. Here is a picture of the girls with the menu in place. There was an extra place because we all hoped Mary might be able to make it.

A closer look at the food! Tart was absent when photo was taken.

After the tart, I no longer longed for the Dorset Knob.

On to the book. Linda started us off by saying that she wished that Chris had been able to make it this evening, because she had communicated that she loved the book, and Linda had hoped that Chris might be able to explain the book to the rest of us. We agreed that it was a much more difficult book to read than we had expected because many of the selections were speeches that Le Guin had given at conferences and university commencements. The writing was imbued with an uncommon level of specificity. The placement of the essay that considered the difference between moral and ethical implications, so early in the book, may have been a poor choice. A few readers may have given up there. After all it had started us off so nicely with The Space Crone. Marcia and I talked last week, and she was so taken with the first essay that she wanted to share it with her daughter. I read a part of it aloud, telling the girls that it had given me a new take on my old age:

“Old age is not virginity but a third and new condition; the virgin must be celibate, but the crone need not. There was a confusion there, which the separation of female sexuality from reproductive capacity via modern contraceptives, has cleared up. Loss of fertility does not mean loss of desire and fulfillment. But it does entail a change, a change involving matters even more important — if I may venture a heresy — than sex. The woman who is willing to make that change must become pregnant with herself, at last. She must bear herself, her third self, her old age, with travail and alone. . . It may well be easier to die if you have already given birth to others or yourself, at least once before. . . It seems a pity to have a built-in rite of passage and to dodge it, evade it and pretend nothing has changed. That is to dodge and evade one’s womanhood, to pretend one’s like a man. Men, once initiated, never get the second chance. They never change again. That’s their loss, not ours. Why borrow poverty?”

We discussed the ways in which Le Guin’s views mesh very clearly with those of the group of us. Her speech to publicize the Oxfam America Fast for the Hungry in 1981 at the Portland Food Bank included: “No home worth living in has for its cornerstone the hunger of those who built it. . . the city we’re trying to build, to found, is not [built] on hoarding and moneymaking and hunger, but on sharing and justice. A house that deserves its children.”

In her address to the Portland branch of the National Abortion Rights Action League in 1982, she shared her personal story within the framework of a princess who needed rescue when it was illegal. When the prince was asked for his help “he went home to his family palace and hid in the throne room.” Her conclusion was oddly prescient in light of recent events: “We are not going back to the Dark Ages. We are not going to let anybody in this country have that kind of power over any girl or woman. There are great powers, outside the government and in it, trying to legislate the return of darkness. We are not great powers. But we are the light. Nobody can put us out. May you all shine very bright and steady, today and always.”

Whose Lathe?” is a piece that Le Guin wrote for the Forum section of her regional newspaper in 1984, after a local librarian informed Le Guin that one of her books was to have a censorship hearing. “The man who was asking that it be withdrawn stated his objections to the following elements in the book: fuzzy thinking and poor sentence structure; a mention of homosexuality; a character who keeps a flask of brandy in her purse, and who remarks that her mother did not love her. (It seemed curious to me that he did not mention the fact that this same character is a Black woman whose lover/husband is a White Man. I had the feeling that this was really what he hated in the book and that he was afraid to say so; but that was only my feeling.)” I couldn’t help but think of Jodi Picoult, who I saw on TikTok recently fighting the same fight to TikTok’s young audience. (No explanation for why I’m there.)

I love Le Guin’s take on trains in “Room 9, Car 1430” that is: ” Why should we be forced to undergo the increasing discomfort, danger and indignity that the airlines inflict on their passengers? Trains are not deliberately overbooked. Train stations are downtown — not in some dreary boondock twenty-five dollars away from where you want to be.” (Those are 1985 dollars.) But my favorite piece was “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction“:

“So long as culture was explained as originating from and elaborating upon the use of long hard objects for sticking, bashing, and killing, I never thought that I had or wanted, any particular share in it. . . Wanting to be fully human too, I sought for evidence that I was; but if that’s what it took, to make a weapon and kill with it, then evidently I was either extremely defective as a human being, or not human at all. That’s right, they said. What you are is a woman. Possibly not human at all, certainly defective. Now be quiet while we go on telling the Story of the Ascent of Man the Hero. Go on, say I, wandering off towards the wild oats, with Oo Oo in the sling and little Oom carrying the basket. You just go on telling how the mammoth fell on Boob and how Cain fell on Abel and how the bomb fell on Nagasaki and how the burning jelly fell on the villagers and how the missiles will fall on the Evil Empire, and all the other steps in the Ascent of Man.” Well, I can’t type the entire essay here, so if you’re going to read only one piece, I suggest the Carrier Bag.

As I told the girls, another piece “Places, Names” gave me a great idea for my family’s Third Annual Summer Road Trip. Le Guin’s VW journey starting in Portland in June of 1981 and her recitation of places and names she saw along the way, gave me the idea of outlining Road Trip Poetry for my grandson. One poem starts with “something he had for breakfast” on the first line, two road signs he saw on the second line, the number of miles to our next destination on the third line, the name of an attraction on the fourth line, two unusual objects seen today on the fifth line and a new word or expression he heard on the sixth/final line. That’s the first one — I’m working on other formats. Madlibs/Roadtrip/Ursula K Le Guin-inspired poetry.

Apologies for not doing this amazing, intelligent woman justice. I’ve admitted to more people than the girls in the club that some of her writing went straight over my head. I’ll hope that some of the girls add their comments. I’m so tired of the comments always being Russian or porn. You know, it was fun at first, but it just doesn’t hold up.

Our next meeting will be at Sharon’s on Tuesday, April 18th to discuss The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander.

The Known World by Edward P Jones

(Book 154) Mary hosted our meeting for The Known World; seven members attended and three played hooky! (OK, maybe they weren’t playing hooky.) We had updates from Marcia about Karen’s husband Scott and from Chris about Geri and we are all praying or thinking positive thoughts for both of them.

Mary started us off with chips, crackers, salsa, guacamole and crudité to nibble with our wine, while she did the final preparations for dinner. The main course was a Southern recipe for Smothered Chicken, a dish of chicken and gravy served over mashed potatoes and accompanied by a delicious salad of mixed greens, beets and pears. Dessert was a triumph! The book mentions apples and apple pie several times which caused Mary to google crustless apple pie. The recipe that came up was a cousin to apple crisp, apple brown Betty, apple crumble, and apple pan dowdy. We are all waiting impatiently for Mary to send us the recipe!

As we sat down to dinner, Chris started the ball rolling with “So, what did everyone think about the book?” There was quite a moment of silence before I said that had a few problems with it and listed: 1) that I was bothered by the very idea that there were free blacks who held slaves and 2) that I found it difficult to read because of the blend of past, present and future within the same paragraph.

Chris added that she is somewhat skeptical of the Pulitzer Prize in general, but that The Known World is a story not that well or artfully told. She said that she thought the writing was dense in a purposeful way to emphasize the slow, heavy, complex nature of the subject.

Sharon was daunted by the massive number of characters in the story, as was Marcia, and wished that her copy of the book had been like others of us who had a Dramatis Personae in the back of the book. She noted that she liked the book as it started, but felt that it was more difficult as she read on. Chris and I felt the other way round, in that the book was at first off-putting but as we immersed ourselves into it, we became more interested in the characters and the interactions between them.

Linda appreciated the time-jumping, particularly when the author jumped to the future to tell us where a character was in old age. I agreed that I became more comfortable with the time issue as I read deeper into the book. Susan said she wished she would have heard what happened to Rita, the woman that Augustus had packed into a shipping crate and sent North. Marcia felt that were several characters whose outcome stories hadn’t been told.

Melissa didn’t finish the book because she misplaced it and hasn’t been able to find it. We imagine it will turn up someday when a customer tries to rent it for a photo shoot!

Mary admitted that she didn’t read enough of it to form a full opinion, but thought that the book was tedious. Everyone agreed that it was a slow read. I was reading the book concurrently with Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and I have to agree with Roxane (as she talked about Django Unchained) that maybe we don’t need another book or movie depicting the atrocities of slavery despite a new angle.

We will meet next month at Linda’s on Tuesday, March 21st to discuss Ursula K Leguin’s Dancing at the Edge of the World.

Come Fly the World by Julia Cooke

(Book 153) It is hard to believe we’ve already had our first meeting in our new year of reading! Five of the girls met at my home, where I made them go deep into a theme of airline travel. Unfortunately for them, it wasn’t the PanAm fine china and lamb chops sliced at your cloth-covered table kind of airline travel. My VIP lounge served bags of nuts, trail mix and other snack items with tiny bottles of wine poured into plastic cups. They received little suitcases with travel-size necessities packed inside, including the all important pill bottle of mini M&Ms. Also included were those hand-powered face rollers, because we have to keep ourselves looking young(ish) and because the product looks so 60’s.

Once dinner service began, the food offering improved significantly. Our menu was Vietnamese, because that was the most fascinating aspect of the book in my opinion. I served the whole meal at once in little dishes on today’s airline-sized trays. I take no credit for making any portion of this meal; the food was brought in from Bon Bon, a Vietnamese restaurant in our neighborhood. The appetizer was a portion each of shrimp and tofu spring rolls served with peanut sauce, the soup was Chicken Pho (Pho Gà), and the main course was three sections of Bánh Mi sandwiches: the Char Siu Pork, Biulgogi Beef and Coconut Curry Chicken. The official dessert was a Lotus Paste Mooncake, because the Vietnamese eat them in celebration of the harvest. Though it is not September or October, one of our absent members recently harvested stem cells for medical treatment and we celebrated Geri’s good harvest with mooncakes, mango and melon. The unofficial desserts were other Asian pastries that I had to buy as long as I was there at the bakery. Below you see the tray and those darn plastic cups!

I want one of the Báhn Mi now, please.

Now to the book. Everyone enjoyed the book. On a five star scale, its average among the six of us was 4 stars. Some of the girls made comments that the research that went into the book was on par with David McCullough or Eric Larsen. There were facts made fascinating. While some of us (Melissa) had exposure to women who had flown in the early days, most of us were not aware of the education and language requirements that PanAm required. Because many of us were “coming of age” in 1972, we were surprised to realize that 1972 was the first year that unmarried women were allowed to obtain birth control pills. I was pretty sure that was the year I started taking them and one of the girls was able to get them at Planned Parenthood the year before.

We were all very intrigued by the connection to Vietnam. Chris talked to a Vietnam veteran about it, who told her that he clearly remembered taking R&R vacations out of Vietnam. We wracked our brains trying to remember whether we were aware of the baby or orphan airlift as it happened or whether it was something we only learned about later. We talked about some of the stewardess’ stories and had a little trouble keeping them straight.

The only negative that I could voice about the book is that the emotional tone is low. This is true even when a stewardess faces a horrible situation when Guinean passengers are removed from the plane. One of the passengers grabs her arm but is wrenched away, yet the aftermath is summed as “Tori stood at the top of the stairs, catching her breath” and later “she wondered what happened” to the women who gripped her arm. Perhaps because the women related these stories to the author so much later in their lives, the original emotional response is missing, but it sometimes felt a bit blasé for the circumstance.

I know I’ve failed to report plenty of information but it’s hard to keep notes when I’m a guest, and it’s even more difficult when I’m hosting I shouldn’t complain though, because I received so much help from my daughter Frances; she helped by getting the meals on the trays and making the “overhead announcements” about dinner service. And to add even more realism, my grandson came downstairs at one point in the evening and bumped into the back of all the girls’ chairs! It was a fun evening.

Our next meeting will be at Mary’s house to discuss The Known World by Edward P. Jones. We have settled on Monday, February 27.

2023: Welcome to W.O.R.R.L.D. S. World Occupancy: Recommended Re-Location & Departure Services

I have to wonder if any of the girls have listened to the songs on the MP3 player. It’s like the soundtrack of my life using only the songs with the word world in them. The songs include:

I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire (1941) by the Ink Spots

Goodbye Cruel World (1958) by James Darren

The End /Ind/ of the World (1962) by Skeeter Davis

What the World Needs Now (1965) by Jackie DeShannon

My World is Empty Without You (1966) by the Supremes

It’s a Five o’Clock World (1966) by The Vogues

There’s a Kind of Hush All Over the World (1967) by Herman’s Hermits

Colour My World (1967) by Petula Clark

Wild World (1970) by Cat Stevens

Hand Me Down World (1970) by the Guess Who

I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (1971) by the New Seekers and all those people in the Coke commercial.

On Top of the World Looking Down on Creation (1972) by The Carpenters

Color My World (1970) by Chicago

Any World That I’m Welcome To (1975) by Steely Dan

Message In a Bottle (1979) by The Police

Imagine by John Lennon

Sweet Dreams (1983) by Annie Lennox

What a Beautiful World It Would Be (1983) by Donald Fagan

World Weary by Noel Coward

Everybody Wants to Rule the World (1985) by Tears for Fears 

We Are the World (1985) by everybody and his brother

It’s the End of the World As We Know It by R.E.M

All Around the World by Paul Simon

What a Wonderful World (1967) sung by Louis Armstrong

Spice World: Spice Up Your Life (1997) by the Spice Girls

The Whole World (2001) by Outkast

Money Makes the World Go Around Fred Ebb and John Kander

Waiting on the World to Change (2007) by John Mayer

All the World is Green (2002) by Tom Waits

When the World’s on Fire by The Carter Family

I’ll Never Find Another You by the Seekers

Viva La Vida (2008) by Cold Play

How the World Works (2021) by Bo Barnham

And the BOOKS, I haven’t forgotten about the books, the books are:

January: Come Fly the World by Julia Cooke (2021)

February: The Known World by Edward P Jones (2003)

March: Dancing at the Edge of the World by Ursula K. LeGuin (1989)

April: The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander (2016)

May: Half a World Away by Mike Gayle (2020)

June: The Toughest Indian in the World by Sherman Alexie (2000)

July: World’s Fair by E. L. Doctorow (1985)

August: Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, The Torments of Low Thread Count, The Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems by David Rakoff (2005) It took him a while but he managed to get the world in there.

September: A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes (1989)

October: Homesick for Another World by Otessa Moshfegh (2017)

November: The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina (2021)

December: An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro (2013)

The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore

(Book 152) We ended our year of Anatomy of a Book Club with The Stars Beneath Our Feet. As is often the case in our December meeting, discussion of the book took a backseat to the holiday cookie exchange and the announcement of next year’s reading list. But let’s take them one at a time.

This book counts as the second time we’ve read a book for young readers. The first was One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. Many of us are, after all, grandmothers and we have to keep our eyes on things to read to the grandchildren. While we all enjoyed One Crazy Summer, only one of us, Karen, enjoyed this month’s read. She said that she appreciated the easy read. (We have tackled some difficult books this year — I’m looking at you An Instance at the Fingerpost.) Chris noted that the book is a strange combination of too many issues. I thought that the story line about the girls starting a detective agency had the feel of a much younger book such as the Nate the Great series. It seemed out of place in the midst of all the other weighty issues.

Chris started a conversation about all of this year’s books by saying that she liked this year’s list better than any of our previous year’s. Our favorites were Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead with three votes (Sharon, Melissa, Teresa), Cat’s Eye with three votes (Susan, Mary, Rosalie) and River Teeth with two votes (Linda and Chris) I could have been in the River Teeth camp as well, it was a difficult choice. Karen chose The Beauty of Your Face and Marcia abstained. Geri couldn’t attend due to her health, but I will be taking her cookies.

Somehow, I failed to get a picture of the cookie exchange and I’m writing this so long after the fact, I will forget what everyone brought. I’m going to use the sign-up sheet my daughter created, but the girls will have to put corrections in the notes. Chris brought us colorful Spritz cookies; Karen gave us bags of Christmas Krack; Linda made her delicious Toffee and something else I can’t remember; Marcia baked us Eggnog Cut-Outs and English Toffee cookies; Mary contributed Christmas Cherry cookies and Spreds; Rosalie made Chocolate Cookies with mint chips and Raspberry Spitzbuben; Sharon baked Walnut Chocolate and Apricot Cookies and Nut Cups (and raised the bar with her packaging); and Susan repeated the excellence of her Cherry Biscotti. Melissa did not use the sign up sheet, so I have no recollection of her cookie treats because I went overboard with the body part theme and still haven’t recovered. My cookies included Rosemary and Orange Marmalade Cat’s Eyes, The Hand That First Held Mine was Wearing a Coconut Lime Mitten, Date and Walnut Bloody Pinwheels, The Stars Beneath the Chocolate Peppermint Boots on our Feet, The Ischl Tart Heart, The Beauty of Santa’s Honey Basil Face, The Peanut Butter and Cinnamon Heads of the Reindeer People, and the Non-Binary Gingerbread Body.

The new reading list will be discussed in full on it’s own page, but for now we will say that in 2023 we will be looking at options for abandoning this world (if only momentarily) and choosing another. All of our titles include the word world. I will be hosting our first meeting of 2023 on January 16, when we will discuss Come Fly the World, the Jet-Age Story of the Women of PanAm, by Julia Cooke.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

(Book 151) Rosalie hosted this event which I was unable to attend because I had to leave the first bad weather days of snow and cold in Chicago to go to Hawaii with my husband. (There was some revenge exacted; I came home with the worst cough and cold of my life.) Typically, if I miss a meeting, Chris picks up on the note-taking and summary email, but Chris had to miss the meeting as well, so Linda was thrown into a baptism by fire, no, wait, by freezing temps. I’ll let Linda speak for herself.

Hi all,

I volunteered to summarize our lovely evening and book discussion. I would put the book discussion on the website, but I didn’t see a way to do that. So here goes. A small but merry (and cold) group assembled at Rosalie’s home to discuss “His Bloody Project”. Rosalie tried to discourage us by not answering her door, but we persisted! And we were glad we did. We entered to a cozy apartment to find delicious appetizers waiting for us. Stuffed crescent rolls, smoked salmon spread and a lovely blue cheese, yum! Assorted white and red wines were poured and we discussed the book.

No one thought to take a poll or get ratings, but the general consensus was positive. I liked the book but wasn’t sure I would recommend it to others – mainly because it was rather depressing. The theme of humans being treated horribly by other humans seems to be a recurring condition – up to modern day. Rosalie mentioned that on a trip to Scotland in the 80’s she visited a small town with a large fancy hotel where the townspeople were not allowed to fish in the waters off their coast. Only guests of the hotel were allowed to fish! And so it goes! Several of our group had wondered about the fiction vs family history aspect of the book. Our conclusion was that the Preface and the use of the author’s surname for the killer’s surname was a device by the author. (We decided it was all pure fiction.)

We moved into the dining room for a delicious dinner – seasonal salad with apples, a fantastic lamb stew, bannock. And a chocolate bundt cake with glaze for dessert (with root beer as a secret ingredient!). What more could anyone want on a cold snowy evening! We opened our monthly gifts – cookie baking tools – very timely. Thank you Teresa. We have chosen Tuesday December 13 for our annual cookie exchange/book discussion extravaganza! We have an open email from Teresa to state what appetizer we will bring. And we will not be celebrating Melissa’s birthday!

To top off the evening with a dramatic display of forgetfulness, I left my phone at Rosalie’s. Thanks to Marcia/Rosalie for notifying me and to Sharon who was kind enough to endure the trip back to collect it. (We were only halfway back to Chicago when we turned around.)

Thank you Rosalie for a wonderful evening, delicious dinner and excellent conversation.

(poor substitute)

In an email after the meeting, Rosalie told us she forgot to give out her Scottish shortbread — two different kinds! But she was reassured by Sharon: “no need to think of the imperfect things……….after a few minutes in your warm welcoming apartment and a few sips of wine then all was well. Also, in my family, it was a running joke to find the missing dish that someone forgot to bring to the table. There always was one. ” Chris and Susan added their stories of forgotten items at dinner parties, and we all take a deep breath and go on.

But, let’s talk about the book just a little more. In her email after the meeting Chris said:

“I personally liked this one a lot. It really made me think about the whole issue—a big one today—of how much a person can endure without losing their mind. Bullying and other forms of oppression never end. I would have loved to be in on a discussion of what “fairness” is and when others should rise up (always, basically).”

This was my second reading of the book. After the first reading, I wrote a short review on Goodreads and gave it 4 stars. “I may come back and give this five stars. I had more desire to read and finish this book than anything I’ve read for at least six months — it is shamefully clever — so much so that it takes a while to realize just how clever it is. It was particularly surprising to be so drawn to this book given my usual avoidance of situations in which a character is powerless to change or protect himself from intimidation, injustice and everydamnotherevilthing!
Really well done.”

After second reading: (11/22)
“Well, i did come back to give it five stars but it took me five years to do it.”

One of the reasons for my higher score was the detail of the footnotes in the trial records. Dr Munro attests: “I have encountered prisoners who spout incomprehensible gibberish; whose speech is nothing more than a stream of unintelligible, unconnected words, or is not even recognisable as language.*** “The footnote attached to this reads “A mischievous sketch in The Scotsman suggested that the prisoners to whom Dr Munro referred might merely have been speaking Gaelic.” I just think that the levels of fictional cleverness are stunning.

The second reason for my higher rating is also based on the quality of writing — one paragraph in particular that just struck me this time. It relates to the grief felt in his family after his mother’s death.

“This event brought about a great number of changes to our family. Chief among these was the general air of gloom which descended on our household and hung there like the reek. My father was the least changed of us, largely because he had never been much given to joviality. If we had once enjoyed some moments of collective amusement, it was always his laughter that died away first. He would cast his eyes downward as though this moment of pleasure shamed him. Now, however, his face acquired an unalterable bleakness, as if fixed by a change in the wind. I do not wish to portray my father as callous or unfeeling, nor do I doubt that his wife’s death grievously affected him. It is rather that he was better adapted to unhappiness, and that to no longer feel obliged to feign pleasure in this world came as a relief to him.” Not having to feign pleasure came as a relief. Stunning.

Finally, I was thinking of the unreliable narrator. As I read the book the second time, I liked Roderick, I wanted to like Roderick. Linda and Chris both mentioned the bullying. How much can a person take? But then there’s this little flash of the unreliable narrator. His neighbor mentions him peeping in windows at her daughters, the violation of Jetta’s private parts never mentioned in Roderick’s confession of his deeds. I’ve spent some time trying to reconcile those aspects with the simple Roderick of his own report. I’ll grant it’s not an easy book to read, but it is genius.

Our next meeting has been scheduled for Tuesday, December 13, at my home. I have to go clean it.

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

(Book 150) Yes, we’ve reached the milestone of having read 150 books together. I gave each of the girls a new framed document displaying the 50 books we’ve read since the idea for Book Club 101 originated. Perhaps, I’ll add a photo later.

Chris hosted this event and there was much discussion over the appetizers of cheese, paté, tomatoes, olives, crackers and fresh figs stuffed with bacon, sherry vinegar and red pepper flakes. There was great discussion about the deliciousness of the appetizers as well as discussion of the book. Most of us who finished the book agreed that there were times when we thought we wouldn’t finish! Many of us were overwhelmed by the detail of each of the four narrators’ accounts. Some of us wanted to stab one or more of the fictional narrators. But those who finished, agreed that they were very happy to have stayed with it, to reach the fourth narrator’s telling of the story. It’s hard to give a book like that a solid recommendation and yet a few of us did!

Chris noted that she found it surprisingly engaging; we were very intrigued that many of the characters were historical figures cleverly inserted into the story: the mathematician John Wallis, the historian Anthony Wood, the philosopher John Locke, the scientists Robert Boyle and Richard Lower, spymaster John Thurloe, inventor Samuel Morland and the Anglican cleric Thomas Ken. I found it interesting that the author took a bit of a shot at John Locke on p. 107 saying there was: “Something about the man which could always inveigle himself into the good graces of the powerful.” I appreciated the bookended quality of the chapter about the dove and the vacuum; the bird trapped of air seems to die, but returns to life when the air is returned. The same is true for Sarah, or we believe it to be. The historical foundation of the book gives way to the premise that in every generation Jesus Christ is born again, and in each incarnation is doomed to be martyred, come back to life, disappear – and be reborn again in the next generation. My mother would have been proud that I recognized the moment of Peter denying Jesus three times when Anthony Wood reports that people came to him in the Fleur de Lys, the Feathers and finally the Mitre, and “I shrugged, said I did not know, none of my concern, she might have done it for all I know.” Later leaving: “a cock crow strange for this time of night,”

We discussed the medical aspects of the book, the concept that at this time, doctors were just beginning to leave behind the “aspect of Venus” — to move beyond astrology in medicine and concern for the humours. We enjoyed that notion that one of the characters stops for a blood-letting, as we might take a Tylenol, to see if that would make him feel better. Yet there were aspects of medical thought that seemed not unlike those one hears espoused today: You can’t get pregnant if you take no pleasure in the act. I can only imagine the serious blow to population growth if that were true.

And of course we talked about the treatment of women: da Cola tells Anne that Sarah is more outspoken than a girl has a right to be. Anne corrects, she is more outspoken than a girl is allowed to be. “Da Cola: Is there a difference?” When I read this aloud at the meeting, Linda, jumped in with “Yes, sir, there is.” Adamant but polite.

We had a little fun talking about the comment on p. 204, “Every man alive can remember exactly what they were doing when they heard that the King had been beheaded.” While we are used to instant news, our reactions all occur in the same moments, or at least the same day. We are spread all over the world but our reaction is almost simultaneous. With the slow travel of news in the time period, there was probably a fairly wide spread of “when” they heard.

A barrage of thoughts and comments. We gave Geri the floor to address the quote: “The Irish use words of honey to disguise their natures.” We marveled a bit at Anne’s battle cry: “Follow, or I die alone!” I particularly enjoyed the really horrible review of the King Lear production. And again, how pertinent to today is: “You wish to guard the integrity of good society, yet you use the habits of the gutter to do so.”

Finally to dinner. Chris made her own ravioli with her own pasta machine. I buried the lede. She made butternut squash ravioli with sage and it was divine. But I should go back and say that Chris took her theme for the night’s cuisine from da Cola’s Venice, a Venetian evening complete with fireworks. The meal was cleverly influenced by Brunetti’s Cookbook, which includes recipes and excerpts from the Guido Brunetti books by Donna Leon, as well as essays on food and life in Venice. I’ve mentioned the first course of butternut squash ravioli with sage, but I did not mention that it was served with a wonderful caprese salad. The main course was turkey breast stuffed with prosciutto, provolone and spinach served with rosemary-garlic potatoes and a bitter greens and pear salad. Dessert included two offerings (pieces of both came home with me) — a Torta al Ciocolato with apricot jam between the layers and an Apple, Lemon and Orange cake soaked in Grand Marnier.

I’ve been giving “body part party favors” this year and tonight’s was witch’s fingers for this Instance of the Fingerpost. I have to include a photo. Just casually listening. Nothing untoward.

As we enjoyed our desserts, I made the girls give their rating of the book on a five star system. Mary and Melissa gave it 3 stars, Linda gave 3 and 3/4 (!) stars, Susan and Geri gave it 4 stars, and Chris and I gave it 5 stars. I reserved the right to remove 1/2 star for wanting to stab John Wallis in any or all of his body parts.

Our next meeting will take place at Rosalie’s home on Thursday, November 17.

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

(Book 149) Geri hosted seven of us for a discussion of The Spinning Heart. She told us about having talked to a friend who suggested she serve three kinds of salmon and three kinds of potatoes. The three kinds of potatoes were clear homage to the Irish setting, characters, author. Many of the book club girls tried to tell Geri that this woman was not her friend, but I understand excessive behavior more than most and I’m going on record as saying it would have been heartbreaking if the salmon en croute had been left out. It had to be.

She started us out with a tray of yummy cheeses while she completed preparations in her kitchen. The meal was a green crunchy salad, boiled potatoes scalloped potatoes, mashed potatoes, salmon with a brown sugar glaze, salmon with a maple glaze, and salmon en croute with cream cheese and dill. I couldn’t have done without it. For dessert Geri made a an amazing Guinness chocolate cake with Bailey’s flavored icing. She put seven candles on it, one for each of my seven decades. (These girls spoil me — Geri sent a huge slice home with me too. If you happen to talk to my husband, however, it was more of a sliver. ) She also served a delicious bread pudding, a dessert her mother used to make. It was way more work than she should have done, but it was hugely appreciated. Each of us is worried about the next time we host.

The Spinning Heart was written in 2012 and is described as follows:

“In the aftermath of Ireland’s financial collapse, dangerous tensions surface in an Irish town. Through a chorus of unique voices, each struggling to tell their own kind of truth, a single authentic tale unfolds.The Spinning Heart speaks for contemporary Ireland like no other novel. Wry, vulnerable, all-too human, it captures the language and spirit of rural Ireland and with uncanny perception articulates the words and thoughts of a generation. Technically daring and evocative of Patrick McCabe and J.M. Synge, this novel of small-town life is witty, dark and sweetly poignant. It was the Winner of two Irish Book Awards – Newcomer of The Year and Book of The Year. It was a Library Journal Best Book of the Year for 2014, a Boston Globe bestseller and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.” 

Mary commented that she appreciated the way the book begins with Bobby and ends with his wife, Triona. Though there is a rumor repeated by two or three characters in between, that Bobby is having an affair, Triona is completely confident in her husband’s love and fidelity as is evidenced by the last line of the book: “What matters only love?” Some of the girls thought the story was just too sad, and while I understand that criticism, it seemed to also offer such hope. More than that, it was riddled with a dark humor that begins with the second sentence. The book starts:

“My father still lives back the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in. I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down. He hasn’t yet missed a day of letting me down.”

Bobby’s appreciation of his marriage was endearing:

“Having a wife is great. You can say things to your wife that you never knew you thought. It just comes out of you when the person you’re talking to is like a part of yourself. We wet to a play in town one time; I can’t remember the name of it. You couldn’t do that without a wife. Imagine it being found out that you went to see a play, on your own! With a woman, you have an excuse for every kind of soft thing.”

Melissa thought that the book was too complicated by the sub-plots that I won’t go into for spoiler purposes. (I’m pretending other people read these posts.) I just thought it was genius the way the story came through the interconnections of the 21 voices. Though we didn’t rate last month’s book, because it was a collection of short stories, we jumped back on the rating bandwagon with this one. Marcia gave it three stars; Sharon and Melissa gave it 3.5; Susan, Geri, Mary and Chris gave it four stars and I gave it five. That gives it an average of 3.88. A couple of the girls complained that they were chastised for giving previous books five stars, and though I don’t think I was ever critical of anyone’s rating, I have often said that it is very hard for me to give a book a five, that I am stingy with my star ratings. I just thought this book was something close to, if not, genius when I read it the first time and I knew that I wanted to share it with my book club pals!

Our next meeting will be hosted by Chris on Wednesday, October 26, when we will discuss An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears. It’s a thick book and I have been advised to start reading it right away, so this will conclude my post for September.

River Teeth by David James Duncan

(Book 148) WOW! This meeting was so long ago! The day after the meeting, my family and I packed a rental car and I drove 2,600 miles from Chicago to Seattle, crossing three major rivers, stopping at four National Parks, four Historical Sites, three National Monuments, two Native American cultural sites, driving through eight National Forests and visiting eight curiosities such as the “Day the Music Died” crash site, the Mitchell Corn Palace, the Irma and Occidental Hotels, the Sierra Silver Mine and of course, Wall Drug. In Seattle, we boarded a cruise ship to Alaska, stopped at four ports in Alaska where I bought a used book from a vending machine in Sitka, we panned for gold, attended a lumberjack show, a salmon bake, saw bears, eagles, and totem poles, and Tom adopted an owl. The ship returned us to Seattle where we took in the Space Needle and Pike Place Market (yes, we saw the fish tossers) and we flew back to Chicago. Denny and I started school a week late and I’ve been putting off trying to remember everything that happened at book club ever since. Since we have had already had our September meeting, I can put it off no longer. I apologize to our hostess, Susan in advance because I’m bound to short-change the incredible evening we spent on her deck.

Starters included a salmon mousse, goat cheese, date nut bread, a lemon ricotta with the texture of cheesecake and a triple brie. There were two amazing salads; one was orzo, spinach, tomato and chickpeas; and the other was arugula, hazelnuts, feta and blueberries. The main course was grilled salmon served with a mustard dill sauce and it was extraordinary. I’ll leave it at that. Dessert was the most refreshing lemon mousse. The food and the weather could not have been better, and we thought Marcia was the only one who could order weather to her liking.

River Teeth is summarized as a “collection of short stories in which characters are undergoing the complex and violent process of transformation, with results both painful and wondrous. Equally affecting are his nonfiction reminiscences, the “river teeth” of the title. He likens his memories to the remains of old-growth trees that fall into Northwestern rivers and are sculpted by time and water. These experiences—shaped by his own river of time—are related with the art and grace of a master storyteller. Author Sherman Alexie offers “David James Duncan is in love with water, the rivers and streams that coursed through his life. Believe me, you will be swept up by his rivers, carried downstream, and deposited in a new place. In that new place, Duncan will build a fire and tell you a bunch of stories. What else could you want?”

We talked first about the concept of ‘river teeth’ and I read part of the definition that Duncan offers at the beginning of the book: “

There are small parts of every human past that resist the natural cycle: there are hard, cross-grained whorls of memory that remain inexplicably lodged in us long after the straight-grained narrative material that housed them has washed away. Most of these whorls are not stories, exactly: more often they’re self-contained moments of shock or of inordinate empathy, moments of violence, uncaught dishonesty, tomfoolery, of mystical terror; lust; preposterous love; preposterous joy. These are our “river teeth” — the time-defying knots of experience that remain in us after most of our autobiographies are gone.

Then, we talked about our favorite teeth. The favorites included Northwest Passage, The Garbage Man’s Daughter, The Mickey Mantle Koan, and Molting. The least appreciated was Kali’s Personal.

Northwest Passage: Sharon, Susan and Geri listed this one as one of their top picks. This story is of two young men (fishing buddies as kids but not as close now in their teens) who drive, then hike to a confluence of rivers. Once there, they were awed by the sight of coho jumping out of the water and splashing back down; as each fish leapt it made a splash followed by an echo. Neither of the boys fished, they just sat and watched. “…for those salmon leaps were language. They were the salmon people’s legend enacted before our eyes.” I think we were all struck by the visual of this one.

The Garbage Man’s Daughter: This is the story of a little girl born to parents whose love for each other was of a fairy tale variety. In stark contrast to her parents, the daughter just wants the straight facts and eschews all the fictional characters that typically bring joy to a child’s life. She doesn’t believe in Santa or the Easter Bunny but one day she gets the idea that her parents have also made up a character they call the Garbage Man and she can’t imagine why. This one was my favorite and it was also on Linda, Sharon and Susan’s list. My favorite moment is when the daughter imagines: “Maybe there was an outright war going on between real Magic and human fraud!” We all thought that the relationship that developed between the daughter and the garbage man was very touching.

The Mickey Mantle Koan: This was at the top of the list for Linda, Chris and me. This is the story of how shortly after the author’s brother John, who was a complete baseball fanatic, died of heart complications, David receives a signed ball from John’s hero, Mickey Mantle. Chris commented on the hypnotic effect of the boys practicing, the rhythm of throwing and catching, and how reminiscent the sports fanaticism was of her own childhood. Though I held up because of narrative such as “I was moved to a state of tearlessness” because the eulogy seemed to be describing someone other than his brother, I finally broke down in tears on page 131 when he solves the riddle on the ball: ” It was autumn when it happened, the same autumn during which I’d grown a little older than my big brother would ever be.”

Molting: Susan and Chris mentioned this one as a favorite. It is a story of a week long storm in Oregon, water and wind coming off the Pacific, with little chance for outdoor activities. A neighbor comes to borrow some dry wood to burn and after the wood is chopped she points to a meadow for another beautiful visual ending:

We are nearly upon it before it moves. And though it is a hundred beings, two hundred wings, that rise up before us, it is one deft gesture that pierces the rain: one mind, cleaving the whole dark valley, as the hundred sun-bright goldfinches rise from the dead brown yarrow.”

Chris commented that this type of remarkable event reminds us — oh, yes, this is why we put up with all the rain! She added that Duncan’s writing just keeps coming back to nature and how nature will proceed as it intends to proceed. Chris also suggested we check out his novels The River Y and The Brothers K as they are even better than his short stories.

I think I did it. I think I’m done. Next month, we continue our Anatomy of a Book Club with The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan.

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

(Book 147) Marcia and Karen hosted the discussion of Cat’s Eye in Marcia’s lovely back yard. We met Marcia’s upstairs neighbor, Terry, who had helped Marcia string the lights over the patio. We also met a new puppy — Neo — who was full of energy and a willing disposition to help if there was food that needed to be wrangled off the table. He was hoping to be well behaved while assessing just how far across the table his nose could reach. He wanted very much to reach the appetizer spread of brie with crackers, veggies with spinach and artichoke dip, and Popcorners, but we were willing to guard it for our own consumption.

As the Fearless Leader of the group, I had to start with a quiz, not an official pencil and paper quiz as I used to do, but a quick quiz about the references to Shakespeare. Because the book is set in Canada, Atwood had opportunity to mention the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and was a bit cheeky in a reference to Tyrone Guthrie! My only quiz question was about the names of the three sisters named for Shakespeare heroines. Chris was the star player identifying Cordelia from King Lear, Miranda from The Tempest, and had help with Perdita from A Winter’s Tale. This lead to a discussion about Cordelia’s need to torment Elaine to which Chris opined that Cordelia had been similarly abused by her sisters. We mentioned that the older sisters in Lear, Regan and Goneril set a precedent for unkindness.

We discussed the larger topic of how girls are unkind to each other. Geri said she had to compartmentalize her feelings in an effort to appreciate the book. She said “I tried not to be traumatized by the way the girls treated Elaine!” Mary foolishly encourages me to read passages from the book, so I read what I thought summed the feelings between little girls: “Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To each other, they are not cute — and they are life-sized.” We enjoyed that, as a child, Elaine realized boys were her secret allies. Geri admitted she was a tomboy and like playing with boys better than with girls.

Melissa shared that she didn’t find the novel as appealing as other books by Margaret Atwood because she thought it was too autobiographical. I thought the parts of the book that were likely autobiographical were the best parts! I enjoyed the moments in the woods with her brother and the way he taught her to see in the dark. This made me go on and on about all the references to eyes and seeing that are included in this novel:

  • the radio with its single green eye that moved along the dial as you turn the knob,
  • the horse chestnuts that could put your eye out,
  • the teacher’s eyes that were hard to see behind steel-rimmed glasses,
  • the cat’s eye marble that caused Elaine to see the way a cat sees: “I can see the way it sees – people moving like dolls – shapes, sizes, colors, without feeling. I am alive in my eyes only.”
  • the turtle’s heart beating in the exhibition — “it’s like an eye”
  • regarding Mrs. Smeath, “Her bad heart floats in her body like an eye, an evil eye- it sees me”
  • on page 242: Cordelia shouts out “the evil eye!”
  • the flasher on page 307: “I looked him in the Eye, the eye and I said…”
  • Josef’s doleful eyes,
  • Susie’s sly-eyed calculating,
  • John’s paintings that made your eyes hurt,
  • the description of Van Eyck’s painting, “a round mirror like an eye, a single eye that sees more than anyone else looking”
  • a painting entitled An Eye for an Eye,
  • on page 408: “He died of an eye for an eye, or someone’s idea of it.”
  • on page 418: “my blue cat’s eye — I see my life entire.”
  • on page 427: “self righteous piggy eyes — defeated eyes, uncertain and melancholy and
  • on page 430: the Cat’s Eye painting self portrait, Unified Field Theory — the Virgin of Lost Things holds the cat’s eye.

There were even more than listed above, but I chose for the variety of reference. I didn’t read all of these at the meeting, but I add them here because I religiously took notes on them all and bygosh, I’m going to use them. Most of the discussion took place before we ate a lovely meal of Mrs. Smeath’s ham, baked beans, and two very fun and refreshing jello salads — one strawberry and one lime with celery and apples. The salads were reminiscent of the book Something From the Oven that we read ten years ago — we’re all happy we still remember! After the lovely meal, we had a gluten-free blueberry cobbler which sparked a short discussion of what makes a crisp, cobbler, Betty, buckle, slump or pandowdy! I’m guessing that Marcia’s cobbler by any other name would taste as sweet. (You see what I did there? We’re back to Shakespeare.) Marcia sent us a link that explains the classifications.

Other thoughts: Melissa loved the answers that Elaine gave the interviewer earning her the adjective ‘crochety’ in the headline. Mary said that though the novel didn’t speak directly to her as some do, the writing was terrific. Susan was amused that Charna put her own interpretation of Elaine’s art pieces on the gallery cards without consulting Elaine. She also appreciated how much the early part of the book reminded her of growing up in a rural area and meeting friends in the woods. Geri loved the powder blue sweat suit! Karen wondered why some aspects of the story were included, thinking some thing to be extraneous to the plot. Chris read the great description of the Frank Sinatra album finding it particularly apt. Chris liked the language and loved the early childhood experiences. We all felt a little horrible about Susie’s DIY solution to her problem given the recent news of of the Supreme Court decision re Roe v. Wade.

Then the ratings: Susan really liked it and gave it an unapologetic 5 stars! We’re not going to intimidate her into lowering her rating! Marcia and Mary both gave it 4.5 stars. Chris, Geri and Karen gave it 4 stars. Melissa gave it 3 stars because of the aforementioned autobiographical aspect, and I gave it 3 stars because I just didn’t like the way the author used the memory loss to allow Elaine to forget what Cordelia had done so that she could become her friend again in high school. Sharon had spent the day volunteering and managed to exit the evening before giving her Russian judge score! She left without collecting her party favor of 2 large squeezy stress eyeballs packaged with several smaller foil-wrapped chocolate eyeballs. She told me in an email that she was sad to later learn that only the smaller eyeballs were the chocolate favors.

Next up: We will be meeting at Susan’s home on Thursday, August 11, to discuss River Teeth, short stories by James Duncan.

Girls, please add any information that I have forgotten.