December, 2012: Half-Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

(Book #32) Once again we came to Geri’s Christmas Book Club and Cookie Exchange Extravaganza. Geri started us off with glasses of Prosecco garnished with frozen cranberries and sparkling white grape juice for those who preferred a non-alcoholic option. She served delicious ham and cheese mini sandwiches which are baked in the oven [I’ve taken these to my family Christmas party ever since!] and mushroom and cheese quesadillas. She had many requests for both recipes. This year there were 17 varieties for the cookie exchange. I gave the girls the new bookmark with 2013’s reading list — not only was it laminated, but it had a bit of a lanyard laced through the top with a trinket or beads attached. I was evolving, slow-ly. In addition to the new bookmark, I gave out Christmas ornaments a miniature copy of the book each of the girls had hosted.

Many of the girls had previously read Jeannette Walls book The Glass Castle and loved it, so we chose to read her lesser known Half Broke Horses. Those who had read both said that reading Half Broke Horses helped to explain Rosemary’s seeming lack of maternal instincts in The Glass Castle. I think everyone agree that the life of Lily Casey Smith was well worth the novel her granddaughter wrote about her.

Favorite Quotes:

If I owned hell and west Texas, he said, I do believe I’d sell west Texas and live in hell.

if people want to steal from you, they get you to trust them first. And what they take from you is not only your money but also your trust.

and a great quote for book clubs:

Sometimes after I finished a particularly good book, I had the urge to get the library card, find out who else had read the book, and track them down to talk about it.

November, 2012: The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht

(Book #31) Rosalie hosted and started the evening by saying she’d decided against raw meat, even as steak tartare, assuming none of us had ever married a tiger, unless metaphorically. She opted instead to put together a meal of the kind she served as a young wife cooking for guests. For starters we had a cheeseball that hid deviled ham inside. The main course was chicken in wine sauce served over noodles, accompanied by buttered broccoli, and fennel and apple salad.  We had delicious pots de creme for dessert.

We all liked the book and thought Obreht and amazing writer, especially for one so young. We talked about the power of myth and the extent to which it colors our lives. We talked about the scene in which Natalia and her grandfather follow the elephant through the sleeping city streets. Rosalie opined that we think of war as only those who are doing the fighting or mourning those who died, but the book depicts the way war affects everyone, the people who live next to it, the animals in the zoo.

Favorite Quotes:

Zora was a woman of principle, an open atheist. At the age of thirteen, a priest had told her that animals had no souls, and she had said, “well then, fuck you, Pops,” and walked out of church.

Eventually, my grandfather said: 
– You must understand, this is one of those moments.
– What moments?
– One of those moments you keep to yourself.
…The story of this war… that belongs to everyone… But something like this -this is yours. It belongs only to you. And me. Only to us.

Everything lies dead in his memory, except for the tiger’s wife, for whom, on certain nights, he goes calling, making that tight note that falls and falls. The sound is lonely, and low, and no one hears it anymore.

October, 2012: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

(Book #30) Susan hosted for the first time and was a great hit! She served a beef roulade, a wonderful rice dish and a salad. I waited too long to record the events of the evening and I can’t remember what was served for dessert but I remember wanting a second helping, so I’m just going to leave it at that.

It seemed that everyone liked the book but we agreed it is unusual to have both an omniscient narrator as well as first person narration by Esteban, the least likable character in the book. We talked about how the political parts of the book did not capture our interest as much as the spiritual aspects, though some of us were not particularly fond of the magical realism. We thought it was fun to think of the house in its heyday with all of its comings and goings even without the spirits.

Favorite Quotes:

They were dressed in black, silent, and dry-eyed, as befits the norms of sadness in a country accustomed to the dignity of grief.

He hoped that none of his descendants would get mixed up in politics, which was a trade for butchers and bandits.

My son, the Holy Church is on the right, but Jesus Christ was always on the left.

September, 2012: Travels With Charley In Search of America by John Steinbeck

(Book #29) Sharon hosted the gathering in her new condo in Evanston [2nd of 5 residences] and there were six of us who sat on the terrace drinking (as Steinbeck would have wanted, though we were drinking wine and not hard liquor) and we watched the sun go down. Sharon served some 60’s food — meatloaf, pasta and cheese, peas, salad and we had our choice of apple or mixed berry pie for dessert.  For our coffees, there was apple liqueur!

The book: though it was more travel journal than novel, it was Steinbeck’s travel journal and was a great read in many ways. We enjoyed Charley communicating with the letter /f/, the stated differences in state road signs, the adjective replacing the adverb, the horrible ‘cheerleaders’ in New Orleans protesting integration and the three conversations that followed. Some of our books had an extra chapter about Steinbeck being invited to Kennedy’s inauguration and some didn’t. 

Favorite Quotes:

I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found.

I am happy to report that in the war between reality and romance, reality is not the stronger.

I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love. And it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.

When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ships’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, once a bum always a bum. I fear this disease incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself….A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we not take a trip; a trip takes us.

“You don’t even know where I’m going.”
“I don’t care. I’d like to go anywhere.”

August, 2012: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Stroud

(Book #28) Mary hosted this lovely evening serving a plum chicken recipe with rice and a great salad. For dessert she served bite-size brownies just like the ones Olive was putting out for the funeral reception while at first wondering why anyone would cut brownies so small and later finding it so handy to pop one and then a second into her mouth!

We thoroughly enjoyed the book — the way each story only gives some information, some information is held till much later and sometimes we hear it communicated more than once, just as it often happens in life — and we have to piece the parts together. We agreed that the chapters were less successful, less captivating when Olive is only mentioned tangentially.  In the end, we felt we would have liked to know more about her relationship with her son, why she was so hard on him — but we liked her, and we liked the book.

I handed out summaries of 24 books to be considered for next year at this meeting, getting organized for 2013. And the other auspicious event related to this gathering is that Olive Kitteridge seems to be the first book I reviewed on Goodreads — as paltry as my review may have been!

July, 2012: Wench by Dolen Perkins Valdez

(Book #27) Marcia hosted this gathering outdoors in her lovely backyard and we added a new member! Melissa invited Susan to join us and we were happy to have her with us. It was quite a coincidence to realize that Marcia had previously bumped into Susan in her business life before tonight’s book club meeting.  Just as we lost one and gained one in June, we did the same in July. Rosemary will be taking  a leave of absence as her daughter starts the college process. 

Marcia started us with a lovely salad but the show stopper was the gumbo. It was fantastic. For dessert we had Louisiana crunch cake with berries and ice cream.

Most of us agreed that we were glad to have read the book even though parts of it were hard to bear. Much of our discussion focused on the reasons for the friendship betweem Lizzie and Mawu and the eventual betrayal  — the rationale for their actions — their  bonds as women, slaves and mistresses. We were all so intrigued and more than a little disgusted to learn that there was such a place where white plantation owners vacationed with their black mistresses — and we all hoped we would have been brave enough to be like the character Glory.

June, 2012: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

(Book #26) Melissa hosted this meeting and we had a new member tonight — Cheryl joins us just as Ellen has decided to sign off from the group — so our number is unchanged.  [Cheryl was only with us for two or three book clubs before she moved out of Chicago but it was nice to have her with us.]  Melissa asked a young woman who helps take care of Melissa’s mother to do the cooking tonight. The woman was born in Morocco and is very talented in the kitchen. The first course was mint tea and two salads, one with a variety of peppers and the other with chick peas garlic and tomato. The main course was chicken and vegetables with couscous served with an amazing combo of onions and raisins. For dessert she served a fruit salad with rose water and oranges with cinnamon. Please assume that I haven’t done justice to the meal with my paltry description.

Everyone LOVED the book — we admitted that it starts off perhaps a teeny bit slow for some and the seasickness wasn’t all that pleasant to read, but once you are past that, it is one amazing read. First of all, the characters: we loved Ghosh, and Matron. We talked about Ghosh’s medical instruction — the use of the senses in medicine; we loved Matron’s closets filled with Bibles, labeled as operating theaters and dedicated to a benefactor. We read our favorite quotes, talked about the political climate, and praised the way in which Verghese captured the frailty of life as well as the strength of the spirit.

Favorite Quotes:

God will judge us, Mr. Harris, by what we did to relieve the suffering of our fellow human beings. I don’t think God cares what doctrine we embrace.

The world turns on our every action, and our every omission, whether we know it or not.

Tell us please, what treatment in an emergency is administered by ear?”….I met his gaze and I did not blink. “Words of comfort,” I said to my father.

There is a point when grief exceeds the human capacity to emote, and as a result one is strangely composed-

According to Shiva, life is in the end about fixing holes. Shiva didn’t speak in metaphors. fixing holes is precisely what he did. Still, it’s an apt metaphor for our profession. But there’s another kind of hole, and that is the wound that divides family. Sometimes this wound occurs at the moment of birth, sometimes it happens later. We are all fixing what is broken. It is the task of a lifetime. We’ll leave much unfinished for the next generation.

May, 2012: Something from the Oven by Laura Shapiro

(Book #25) I’m not sure what possessed me to add this book to our list — it was such an odd choice — but I was very taken by it. The gathering was at my house. Melissa loaned me Melmac dishes and fancy jello molds and I whipped up recipes from a variety of 50-60’s cookbooks mentioned in the book. We started with a salmon mousse and tomato aspic* recipe that came from a Sears Coldspot recipe booklet. For the main course, we had a meatloaf ring, made sturdy with Quaker Oats; a macaroni ring from Poppy Cannon’s famous cookbook; a Jello ‘Under the Sea’ mold with lime jello and pears;  a spinach soufflé made with Hellman’s mayonnaise and from the Pillsbury Bake-off Cookbook, Marcia made Herb Stickles and I made Maryland Corn Bread.  For dessert there were three options all made with Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk — a cheese-less cheesecake, magic fudge and macaroons.

The book was loaded with interesting details about the way the food industry had to find a way to push all the food in cans and boxes that had gone into production as part of the war. Somehow, they had to convince housewives that they didn’t want to spend all that time in the kitchen — that it was easier to open a can of this and a can of that and make a casserole or better yet put it into a molded pan!  They also learned they could sell more product if they put a recipe on the label and launched competitions for recipes like the Pillsbury Bake-Off. We discussed recipes from our youth — Rosalie even brought some cookbooks for show and tell. I’d purchased a number of period cookbooks for the evening and let everyone choose one to take home. It was a strange choice of book, but it was every enlightening and entertaining.

(*I will never understand how tomato aspic was ever a thing.)

April, 2012: Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton

(Book #24) Ellen hosted a gathering of seven of us. Sadly, her cook was ‘on holiday’ and she was forced to have the luncheon catered: finger sandwiches, olives, pickles, potato salad and berries followed by three kinds of tart desserts from Bittersweet. With the meal, we enjoyed wine, champagne and sparkling fruit juice.

We all fully enjoyed the writing — particularly such depictions as “the breathless pursuit of repose.” Though it’s difficult to really ‘like’ any of the characters, we talked about our favorites — Arthur, the ex-husband, affectionately called Exhibit A, and Mrs. Landish who couldn’t start a fire because her andirons weren’t right. We discussed how little we seemed to know about Jim except through the eyes of other characters. We spent some time sorting out just what happened at the end of the book (and why?). Though perhaps not one of Wharton’s best, it is glamorous and clever.

March, 2012: The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

(Book #23) A small group of us met at Rosalie’s home tonight to discuss The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow.  This was the One Book One Chicago choice for Fall of 2011, which earned it a spot on our 2012 list.  Rosalie copied the dinner menu of food that Mrs. Renling wanted Augie to know.  She served veal kidney in cognac sauce, a pork roast, potatoes, carrots and asparagus, and topped off the meal with a peach and apple flambé over ice cream.

We talked about the description of Augie that characterized him as ‘the kind of guy who fit into other people’s schemes’. That kind of guy may have had his beginning when the Russian border, Grandma Lausch told Augie exactly what to do and say when taking his mother to the dispensary.  I mentioned that every time a character is introduced, there is a great rush of description in a staccato sort of syntax.  The character comes to us fully formed.

We were joking about how one of the girls decided to skip to the last chapter to find some kind of resolution to Augie’s long string of adventures, only to find more of the same!  It isn’t really the kind of book any of us would have picked up to read on our own, but I’m glad One Book One Chicago encouraged us to take it on.