The Annual Fictional Friends Book Club Christmas and Don’t Forget Hanukkah Cookie Exchange Extraordinaire (of which there are sadly no pictures)

The girls said: “We probably can’t do a cookie exchange this year.” Susan said: “Hold my beer.” No, wait, it was “Hold my champagne.”

Susan opened both her front and back doors, lit a fire in her fireplace and set her beautiful dining room table with a lovely appetizer, warm apple cider (with a choice of things with which to spike it), champagne for a toast to 2021, and a little tree adorned with book club ornaments from years past. We put eleven large reusable shopping totes (one for each member) on her enclosed front porch and all of the girls came prepared with their cookie offerings already bagged to drop into the totes. We kept our coats on, socially distanced and we wore our masks except for when we sipped our cider or champagne. It was lovely. I passed out the Christmas ornaments for 2020, embroidery hoops, which my talented daughter, Frances filled with a bird image and a phrase from a Christmas song that substituted a bird name for a lyric such as “Now we don our jay apparel”, “Let it Crow”, and “Owl be home for Christmas”. Susan purchased a lovely cake for Melissa’s birthday which we didn’t think to consume until after Melissa had already left to get on the road to Indiana. I do have a picture of the cake, well, I have a picture of my slice of the cake! I had to show Melissa what she had missed.

After the short gathering there was a flurry of emails. Chris said: “Just wanted to say thank you for a really nice gathering yesterday. Susan, I hope your beautiful home warmed up not long after we left. Everything was so pretty and festive, and the drinks and snacks were wonderful. Thanks to all for the Christmas spirit and the delicious cookies! And Fran (please pass this on, Teresa), your ornaments are really gorgeous. Thank you so much for your contribution. Also, I couldn’t stop looking at those fantastic boots. What a great look with your black coat! This gathering made my holiday. There really aren’t going to be any others except an occasional huddle around someone’s fire pit, so it meant a lot to me.”

Sharon wrote: “I agree with Chris. Susan, your event was just what I needed for this Christmas Season. I think we will all look back at this as being a very perfect Christmas cookie exchange in spite of this years drama. Thanks to everyone for their cookies too. It’s hard to pick a favorite. I only have a few cookies left and I’ve made my distribution stops. For those interested, I’ve given most of my cookies to the 18th Precinct Police Department. If you can’t make it to Geri’s to add to her shelter donation, I’m sure your local police district or fire stations will be very accepting. I know mine was.”

Mary added: “It was the best. I am thankful to everyone who was there and especially to Susan. Your home was so resplendent in festive attire that it put me in the Christmas mood. And thank you to Fran. You are following in Mom’s footsteps.”

Well, I was going to stop with those three, but I’m going to add them all. You can tell how thankful we were to have a tiny bit of normal.

Rosalie: “I really enjoyed it, too, and Fran’s ornament look just perfect where it’s hanging— in my kitchen as I pack some of these yummy and good/looking cookies for my neighbors in the building!  Thanks, Susan, for your gracious and creative hospitality!  Blessed advent and Merry Christmas to all!”

Geri: “Ditto to the comments before this. It finally felt like Xmas. Susan, everything was perfectly warm and festive. The cider with a dab of rum hit the spot. Thank you. Teresa, the cookies and references to the books were superb. Fran’s ornaments were outstanding. The only thing that could have topped the afternoon was if you had brought vaccines for everyone.( I wouldn’t have been surprised.)Merry Xmas and Happy Hanukkah everyone!”

Linda: “Well said everyone!  Saturday afternoon was a wonderful respite in this very strange time.  Once I got home and had a chance to look through my bag I was very impressed with the baking, decorating and creative skills of this group.  I have already begun distributing the cookies to grateful family and friends! Thanks to all. And special thanks to Susan for hosting us in her beautiful home with delicious food and drink.  It almost seemed like normal.

Melissa: “Linda said it wonderfully. It was wonderful.

If Susan ever needs any references for her Christmas spirit and hospitality, she can direct inquiries here.

The Wings of the Dove by Henry James

(Book 128) Our zoom to discuss the book was actually scheduled after our brief, in-person cookie exchange this year, but I wanted to save the best for last. I have waited too long to add this summary to our web site, my brain hasn’t been the same since late October and I’ve misplaced the notes I scribbled. Those are all my excuses for how short this summary will be. A number of the girls couldn’t make the zoom, and Karen commented that she would look forward to hearing the commentary. I guess she will be the most disappointed by my lapse. Though the book has some remarkable writing, those of us at the meeting were not at all attracted to any of its characters. Milly Theale, the doomed American heiress is generally lackluster, while Kate Croy and Merton Densher, the couple who conspire to obtain her fortune are somewhat despicable. I was also insanely bothered by the character’s downright refusal to give a straight answer. The only passage I recall mentioning for its deftness was: “When Milly smiled it was a public event—when she didn’t it was a chapter of history.”

Rest assured that my New Year’s Resolution will be to take notes and post a meeting summary in a strictly timely fashion for each of our meetings of 2021!

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

(Book 127) This is the first book of 127 that I did not read. I wanted to read it but just couldn’t do it. At the end of last month, I lost my brother Paul after a very short illness that no one knew he had. I grew up in a very conservative, very small town sixty miles south of Chicago. There was an ordinance on the books that prohibited any person of color from living there. When I met African Americans in first grade, I asked my mother where they came from and she answered “Otto.” Otto Township was a small community a few miles outside of our town limits. For several years “Otto” was akin to Oz in my mind — there were horses of different colors in Oz and there were people of different color in Otto. My mother worked for the Republican precinct committeeman, a wonderful man named Louis Schultz. I thought we were Republican. In the mock election at school in 1960, I voted for Nixon and he won in the microcosm of West Acres Grade School. In 1962, Paul, the oldest of my siblings graduated from high school and went to college. In 1966 he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr in Chicago as part of the Chicago Freedom Movement and regaled us with the story that stood out for him, an angry white woman, holding an infant and viciously yelling “mother-fuckers” repeatedly at the marchers as they passed. Because of Paul, the 8 year-old who voted for Nixon became the only person in her 8th grade Civics class to take the opposing side in the class debate: Should the US be involved in Vietnam? Paul was the oldest of us and he set the direction we would all take. After losing him on October 26, I couldn’t bear to read Alexander’s book and realize how little had been gained in his lifetime. I will read it, just couldn’t do it this month.

Finally, I’ll get to our discussion. Marcia arranged the meeting for Rosalie, who would have hosted if we were in a non-COVID world. Karen started us off by mentioning that the author’s preface clearly identifies Trump as being such a set-back for racial equality and given that he has not yet conceded the election to Biden, we acknowledged that he is a set back to democracy as well. Rosalie commented that it is difficult to read the book and have no ready solution because the problems are too complex and ingrained in our society. Marcia mentioned that she has also read the book Caste by Isabel Wilkerson which speaks to how deeply entrenched racial inequality is in our country. Chris noted that the one revelation of Caste that everyone is shocked by is that those who would be responsible for the Holocaust in Germany first studied America’s laws and systems for invalidating a race.

Solutions were offered. Some felt that the decriminalization of pot will reduce the incarceration rate. Marcia noted the frightening statistic that in one year 900 young people graduated from college and in that same year 7000 young people were incarcerated. Rosalie talked about the possibility of expungement which would allow felonies to be expunged so that the individual would be able to get a job. Linda added that we have to work on our attention spans, that it seems that news and our reaction to it drops off with each new wave of information. She noted that at the time of the protests for the George Floyd murder that 60% of Americans felt that there was a problem with racial profiling in the police force, but that by election time that percentage had dropped to 30%. Melissa offered that reading history was part of the solution, read it and don’t repeat it. Chris suggested how important it is to stay in touch with your deepest values and continue to fight for what really matters to you.

We discussed how difficult it is to move forward with a country so divided in spirit. We talked about the dissemination of misinformation or alternative facts and Marcia observed that it was Reagan who made Fox News possible and started the War on Drugs, both issues at the bottom of our biggest problems today. Sharon admitted her shock on election day at how many Americans were still voting for Trump and felt we should make an effort to understand one person (Trump supporter) at a time. Linda mentioned articles she’d read that the people voting for Trump felt that Democrats had stopped talking to them, that they went to school, did what they were supposed to do, but don’t have the life they thought they would have. Rosalie said she hoped Biden could find a way to bring more jobs to the country.

Geri opined that it is such a difficult time because of the deep divide in our country and Trump’s refusal to concede, that its hard to deal with the real sadnesses, the deaths from COVID and the two personal deaths that hit our little group this month. In addition to my brother’s death, Chris lost her beloved dog and our fellow book club participant, Archie. I think it was Marcia who added at this point that 1866 people had died of COVID today.

Well, that’s enough of that. It’s time for cookies. We discussed if we still wanted to make an effort to exchange cookies this year and I came this close to doing my Angela Lansbury impression singing “We need a little Christmas, right this very minute, candles in the window, carols at the spinet!” We have decided to do it in a drop off format using Susan’s house, because she was the designated Christmas hostess and is a fairly central location. I must email her about that now.

Typically I put the picture that my brother painted here at the bottom of the post, but I will put the picture that Rosalie sent me of it displayed on her wall next to the photo of her and her two co-defendants after their release from prison. The three of them were arrested for having crossed the line in Omaha, NB, at the airbase which controls all nuclear weapon strikes (after the president pushes the button). They were given a charge of six months, she told me, but at the trial, the charge was reduced to a fine, which she didn’t pay and they never bothered to collect. “All I really remember is that I didn’t go to prison so, unlike most young black men, I was never caged.”

The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich

(Book 126) As I mentioned in my last post, I had hoped and hoped to host this meeting in my back yard with the addition of a fire pit or two, but when the weather forecast added rain to the equation, I gave up the dream. Too much had been planned to give up on the meal completely, and so it was that on Tuesday, October 20, I delivered meals on wheels to eight club members. Marcia was kind enough to take delivery for and additional two meals for Rosalie and Karen. They were delivered on metal compartmental trays stolen from the North Dakota State mental hospital and included:

a bee motif napkin and plastic cutlery from the 4-B’s cafe and a honey stick made by the bees in Judge Antone Coutts back wall,

a Cornish hen (half) standing in for the doves that “were roasted, baked up in pies, stewed, salted down in barrels… “

a container of salsa pinto beans from the bag of contraband pinto beans that Mooshum and Junesse lived on for a summer,

mashed turnips from the state mental hospital dining room,

frybread from the six-kinds-of-frybread supper in the Knights of Columbus hall after Shamengwa’s burial,

wine homemade by a congregation member for Billy Peace served in a mason jar,

and for dessert, a slice of white on white cake from the wedding of the Judge and Geraldine (which may have been Pepperidge Farm Coconut cake which tested my dietary willpower like few things have lately.)

Later that evening, we met via Zoom. Rosalie was able to join us even though she recently tested positive for COVID. Luckily she has not been sick and we are all happy for that favor in this year of few favors. We started by talking about the complex family tree found in this novel and offered our favorite character. Most early replies, (the ones I heard) were for Mooshum, closely followed by Schemengwa and the funeral sermon/eulogy was noted as a high point. I noted that having grown up with a mother who is a twin, the relationship between Mooshum and Schemengwa was reminiscent of the natural repartee between my mother and aunt. Susan noted that she was very impressed with Erdrich’s descriptions and beautiful prose.

As for the structure of the book, Linda commented that there seemed to be a rush to the finish, to tie up the loose ends, some of which she didn’t know were there. She also wondered why it was necessary for Coutts to refer to his married lover as just “C.” Marcia commented on characters who were introduced and not followed to a conclusion and I think it was Chris who suggested that because this book is the first of a trilogy, that those characters may continue into the next book.

Susan complimented the mashed turnips and we diverged from the book into a discussion of root vegetables and impromptu root cellars. Geri invited herself over (not sure where) for a root vegetable roast and offered professional knowledge that the root cellar would have to be below 42″ to be below the Chicago frost line. The conversation naturally flowed from root cellars to canning. Chris noted that she canned tomatoes; Rosalie reminisced about her mom’s big crocks for pickles; and Linda expressed a basic fear of canning and the concomitant botulism. The final turn in this subject sojourn was the upswing in the purchase of freezers for the next phase of the pandemic. We considered purchasing a freezer as a group, but not to any conclusion.

I mentioned some of the moments that I particularly appreciated in the book and I’ll add my Goodreads review here:

There is so much to unpack in this novel, but let’s just say first that the writing is exquisite — is that the word I want to use? Yes, I think so. In Evelina’s first chapter there are many quick and clever turns of phrase:
“In a corner of that one-room cabin, his younger brother, who he had saved from a life of excessive freedom slept on a pallet of fir boughs and a mattress stuffed with grass.”
(referring to Mooshum’s first look at a woman’s lower limbs) “Instantly, he was struck on the forehead by a bird hurtled from the sky with such force that it seemed to have been flung directly by God’s hand to smite and blind him before he carried his sin of appreciation any farther.”
“But if there was embellishment, it only had to do with facts.”

Then the chapter concludes with this lovely passage:
“The air was filled with falling down and the ditch grass and gutters were plump with a snow of light. I had expected to feel joy but instead felt a confusion of sorrow, or maybe fear, for it seemed that my life was a hungry story and I its source, and with this kiss I had now begun to deliver myself into the words.”

Though the story of The Expedition had me a bit bogged down, the rest more than made up for it. I’ll just talk about two of my favorite moments. One is when Judge Antone Bazil Coutts reflects on the violin finding its way from Henri and Lafayette Peace to Corwin Peace via Shamengwa:
“For what stuck in my mind, what woke me in the middle of the night, after the fact of reading it, was the date on the letter: 1888 was the year. But the violin spoke to Shamengwa and called him out onto the lake in a dream almost twenty years later. ‘How about that?’ I said to Geraldine. ‘Can you explain such a thing?’ Then she looked at me steadily. ‘We know nothing’ is what she said.”
Short and sweet sagacity.

The second one was a moment that hit me in the heart because I’d experienced a similar moment when I went off to school:
“I do not remember our final embraces, but I watched my mother and father as they stood beside the car. They waved to me and that moment is a clear, still picture. I can call it up as if it was a photograph. My father, so thin and athletic, looked almost frail with shock, while my mother, whose beauty was still remarkable and who was known on the reservation for her silence and reserve, had left off her characteristic gravity. Her face, and my father’s face, were naked with love. It wasn’t something that we talked about — love — and I was terrified of its expression from the lips of my parents. But they allowed me this one clear look at it. Their love blazed from them. And then they left. I think now that everything that was concentrated in that one look — their care in raising me, their patient lessons in every subject they knew to teach, their wincing efforts to give me freedoms, their example of fortitude in work — allowed me to survive myself.”

There was so much more, but don’t even get me started on the paragraphs about the grave digging, or I’ll never get to bed tonight.

Back at the meeting, Mary was given the award for the most dramatic lighting, and Sharon received the nod for appearing the coziest. We discussed our Christmas Cookie Exchange Extravaganza and it was suggested we could still do a quick one if we were to divide all the cookies beforehand (as some of the girls have always done) and do a quick outdoor or in an open garage toast and exchange. Geri is considering how much to remodel her garage to reclaim her Christmas hostess title, but we can’t forget that Susan was originally scheduled to host Christmas and has the paper placemats and napkins!

Along with the meals on wheels delivery, the girls were also given the reading list for next year, because I couldn’t wait or count on a Christmas get-together. The conveyance for 2021 reading list is a scrapbook of Family that I will describe fully in another post. We will be on Zoom again on November 19, to discuss The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

(Book 125) As mentioned in last month’s summary, Linda was scheduled to host, but if we were to meet in person, we had to reassign the hosting duties to someone with an outdoor space. Chris graciously took it on and we enjoyed an unseasonably warm evening on her back deck. There were eight of us, socially distanced, with our own designated tongs for serving our food. Those not in attendance were Melissa, who was in Kansas, Geri, who was recently in contact with someone who was recently exposed (#!%&^*#) to COVID and Rosalie, who had a better offer!

As the book is set in Texas, Chris served up a Texas BBQ with brisket, pulled pork, two kinds of sauce, rolls, macaroni and cheese, cole slaw, heirloom tomatoes, and watermelon. I have always had an appetite as big as Texas, but my recent A1c score limited my participation, or at least tried to. The meal was delicious and the atmosphere on the deck was perfect. Chris was even so kind as to send some mac and cheese home with me for Denny, yeah, that’s right, it was for Denny.

Our talk about the book may have been the shortest discussion ever, not that the book wasn’t appreciated, but for many of us it had been way too long since any in-person contact. Karen commented that my ESP was working again, because the book is all about the racial tension that sparked everywhere across the country this summer. I read my favorite passage:
“His uncles adhered to those ancient rules of southern living, for they understood how easily a colored man’s general comportment could turn into a matter of life and death. Darren had always wanted to believe that theirs was the last generation to have to live that way, that change might trickle down from the White House. When in fact the opposite had proved to be true. In the wake of Obama, America had told on itself.”
Marcia said that it had been a compelling read; that the writing was very cinematic. I agreed and mentioned that the author has written for TV and Chris added that she was a writer and producer for Empire. Linda mentioned that it was frightening enough that she was unable to read it at night alone in her cabin in Michigan — and after that we were on to politics, mail-in ballots, early voting, a scary article in the Atlantic, new polling places, and a variety of things we’d never heard of until this year!

For dessert, Geri had purchased cupcakes to celebrate my birthday, but as I said, she wasn’t able to attend and she didn’t tell Chris what varieties they were. Luckily, I can spot carrot cake across the length of a football field, which made my choice an easy one. (I took just about all the delicious frosting off of it and carrots are a vegetable!) The girls gave me flowers, (cut and potted) gifts and cards and it’s really not fair that we don’t do everyone’s birthday, so I will work on that. I gave Linda her hostess gift and painting and I gave Chris the painting for October:

September’s calendar art: Rise
October calendar art: For the Birds

I will be hosting The Plague of Doves on October 20. We are keeping our fingers crossed for more warm weather and if not I’m lighting up the fire pits!

Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata

Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata

(Book 124) Marcia was bold enough to host us in person, our first time together since our February meeting, which coincidentally was also at her home. She sent out this email: You are invited to a tea ceremony this coming Thursday evening at 6:30. The cicadas promise to serenade. I don’t know if it is convenient for you to visit in person or if we will again need to practice our stirring and balancing of the cup via alternative methods. I can accommodate either or both depending on your preferences.  I believe I have sufficient everyday shino cups for all. The tea cottage and gardens have been well tended and aired out so are free of moldiness.” Due to minor illnesses and family issues, it was a small turn-out. Marcia hosted Melissa, Sharon and Susan in person and Linda via Zoom. Here is a photo of Marcia’s dog, Shadow greeting guests to the back yard.

I was one of those not in attendance, so I can’t look to my own notes. Linda told us that the mixed setting worked great; that she was able to hear everyone and see most of the girls. She reported that those in attendance appreciated the book and enjoyed an interesting discussion. She also noted that it caused some to realize a gap in their knowledge of Japanese culture and history. Sharon reported that God always works with Marcia to give her perfect weather and Susan added that it was lovely to be under the maple tree candelabra in Marcia’s back yard. Those in attendance were happy for a small piece of normal back in their lives.

Marcia reported that the girls talked about Mrs. Ota and what her reason might have been for seducing Kikuji. Most thought that she was probably using him as a surrogate for his father whom she had loved. When they were making love, was she imagining the father? What of Kikuji for going along? Curiosity? Flattered that she would find him desirable? Basic male response to the offer? It was clearly complicated since he was aware that she had been one of his father’s “women”. They talked about the Japanese cultural roles at the time for men and women, that it was an accepted thing that men would/could take mistresses and that the wife would accept the arrangement even if she wasn’t happy about it. All agreed that Chikako was a lying, manipulative, vile and bitter person. She wielded her knowledge of people and their weaknesses to suit her plans. Revenge? A woman scorned? Did Kikuji ever have sex with Fumiko? Most thought no. She was so timid and closed down, that it’s hard to imagine it of her. Of Fumiko’s exit from the book – no firm conclusion was reached that she had committed suicide like her mother, but it was considered a possibility. Sharon noted that she enjoyed the book enough to pick up Snow Country, another book by Kawabata.

I’m also going to add my review from Goodreads: At the beginning of the edition that I read, there is A Note on the Tea Ceremony, the Backdrop for This Novel, and the last line of the novel’s description on Goodreads summarizes: “Death, jealousy, and attraction convene around the delicate art of the tea ceremony, where every gesture is imbued with profound meaning.” This suggested that there would be attention paid to the “every gesture” of the tea ceremony, which is simply not the case. Don’t read the book if you are a fan of the tea ceremony. The author goes so far as to provide footnotes about the implements used in a tea ceremony, yet the only formal ceremony is glossed over with more reaction to those in attendance than to the ceremony. My reaction to the book may have been different without preparation for ceremonial “gestures imbued with meaning.”
On the other hand, the “sensual nostalgia that binds the living to the dead” also mentioned in the summary, was clearly evidenced. Perhaps the best moment for me was the exchange between Kikuji and Fumiko about responsibility and regrets after a loved one has died: “Regrets and second thoughts only make the burden heavier for the one who has died.”

Though I didn’t attend, Melissa was able to deliver Marcia’s hostess gift, a small scarf with multicolored cranes in the design, along with my brother’s artwork shown below. Remember he’s not the kind of guy to do things on a special order basis, so I had to pick one that said 1000 Cranes to me.

Next month, Linda is scheduled to host Bluebird, Bluebird, but we may reassign it to someone with an outdoor space. We’ll work this out and get back to you!

Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

Birds of America: Stories (Vintage Contemporaries): Moore, Lorrie ...

(Book 123) As I was reading one of the stories in this collection, People Like That Are the Only People Here, I had a faint feeling of familiarity as I read, but it wasn’t until an emotional moment that seemed a bit shocking to me, that I finally remembered reading the story before. Our very first book was a collection of short stories chosen by David Sedaris and entitled Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules; it included this story by Lorrie Moore. When I joined our Zoom meeting tonight, the only two attendees already online were the same two who would have been around when we read the first book. I asked if they remembered reading one of the stories before and when both reported that they hadn’t recognized, I didn’t feel so bad.

Chris joined the meeting from her back yard and provided an urban sound track; while both Rosalie and Linda appeared from remote locations — their cabins in Michigan. Once everyone was on, all but Geri, who was unable to join us, agreed that the book was a great read. Chris asked if anyone had a favorite story. Rosalie answered first with the story I mentioned above, People Like That Are the Only People Here. She wondered if the author had had a similar medical experience because the characters seems so real. I had looked that up while reading and found that Moore does have an adopted child who experienced a major medical event and that when the story was first published, Moore received some blowback for her comments about the way certain things were handled at the hospital, as though she was directly criticizing the staff that delivered care to her child.

Chris said that her favorite was What You Want to Do Fine, saying she just loved those guys. I loved the bit when Quilty pretends to read from the brochure noting that Hemingway shot his subjects before writing about them. that it was “a not unheard of creative method.” But mostly, I was distracted by the comment that Vicksburg didn’t celebrate the 4th of July until 1971. I had to look it up, and the information I found indicated they started celebrating again after WWII but it was called the Carnival of the Confederacy. (Oh, and the answer to the question is the Rain is Tess and the Fire is Joe.)

Susan chose Which is More Than I Can Say About Some People, the story about the mother-daughter trip to Ireland. The daughter works writing questions for a standardized testing company and you have to love Moore’s: “Blank is to heartache as forest is to bench.” All of us agreed that the mother has some adorable moments culminating in the lovely conclusion when she blushes at her daughter’s toast having never before been courted. Susan was the only one among us who has indeed kissed the Blarney Stone and could confirm it is as hard to do as depicted in the story. I have to add the wonderful prose that came after the daughter’s turn to kiss the Blarney Stone: “Finally, these dares one made oneself commit didn’t change a thing. They were all a construction of wish and string and distance.”

Marcia listened to the book on Audible and found that she was so displeased with the reader’s voice that she felt all the stories were tragically alike. (I looked it up and those of us who listen to books may want to avoid those read by Natasha Soudek. ) Rosalie replied that she felt all the stories were so dissimilar that it was as if there was no unifying theme. Chris disagreed, saying that the stories all relate to the loneliness experienced in the random events of this life and the extent to which we are lucky enough to find some kind of anchor.

Melissa said that she liked Dance in America and I’m so glad she did because I have an opportunity to include the raccoon story! Describing Simone, the dancer/ narrator says: “There are people who talk with their hands. Then there are people who talk with their arms. Then there are people who talk with their arms over their heads. These are the ones I like best. Simone is one of those.” Knowing this makes it even more of a spectacle to hear Simone tell the raccoon story:

“The thing to remember about love affairs, says Simone is that they are all like having raccoons in your chimney. . . We have raccoons sometimes in our chimney, explains Simone. . . And once we tried to smoke them out. We lit a fire, knowing they were there, but we hoped that the smoke would cause them to scurry out the top and never come back. Instead, they caught on fire and came crashing down into our living room all charred and in flames, and running madly around until they dropped dead. Simone swallows some wine. Love affairs are like that, she says. They all are like that.”

Karen talked about Charades and the way the couple could read each other after their many years of marriage. I said that my favorite might be Real Estate even though the married couple have so little relationship left. It is terribly sad, but the writing is beautiful:

“She would lie in Terrence’s arms and he would be quiet and his quietness would restore her. There was music. There was peace. That was all. There were no words in it. But that tiny spot — like any season, or moon, or theater set; like a cake in a rotary display — invariably spun out of reach and view, and the quarreling would resume and she would have to wait a long time for the cake to come around again.”

Linda agreed that the writing was lovely but it left you in a lonely place of life going on even if it wasn’t that great.

Someone (Chris?) asked about our thoughts on Beautiful Grade and we enjoyed the description of the OB/GYN’s job description as having something to do with “things dropping into the vagina!” We only briefly discussed Terrific Mother, the story with the most terrifying premise. And one that wasn’t discussed at all was Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens, which was one of my favorites for its depiction of cat grief:

“He had limited notes to communicate his needs, she said. He had his ‘food’ mew, and I’d follow him to his dish. He had his ‘out’ mew, and I’d follow him to the door. He had his ‘brush’ mew, and I’d go with him to the cupboard where his brush was kept. And then he had his existential mew, where I’d follow him vaguely around the house as he wandered in and out of rooms, not knowing exactly what or why.”

Then the conversation veered off track and the ensuing highlights were Susan modeling her ‘Stay the Fuck Home’ mask; Linda reporting that all of her work in the garden had really just established a food kitchen for the deer and bunnies; and Rosalie scaring us about her dinners made from five-year-old canned goods!

We talked about other books. Mary enjoyed Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture that Rosalie had recommended to her. Rosalie recommended The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett and Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

Our hostess, Melissa sat next to her hostess gift, the painting shown below, with her Birds of America placemats serving as her backdrop. She admitted that she had considered no menu at all. The woman who always has a complete environment established for us had considered no menu at all! We are all going to be so out of practice. Marcia is our designated host for next month and we have hopes that we will feel comfortable enough to meet in her lovely backyard on August 20 to discuss Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata.

At Swim -Two- Birds by Flann O’Brien

(Book 122) Chris hosted another meeting for us via Zoom. Chris reminded us that it was Dylan Thomas, whose said that At Swim-Two-Birds is “Just the book to give to your sister, if she is a dirty, boozey girl.” This prompted my email summary.

To all my loud, dirty, boozy girlfriends, you know who you are, as well as the quieter, cleaner, more temperate members of book club, Thanks to Chris for her amazing technological skills, and to her continued amazement at being considered a person with technological skills. Thanks to all the girls who joined last night’s meeting, particularly to Melissa, who brought her own moog synthesizer. (Audio issues)
Chris’s fictional meal of the seafood pie she had in Caherdaniel a couple summers ago, which would have been served with an abundance of porter, was a much bigger success than the book At Swim-Two Birds by Flann O’Brien. I joined our zoom meeting a teeny bit late, so I didn’t hear the early comments. but my impression was that most of us found it hard to get into and harder still to keep going. Marcia told us that she made it three chapters in and no one jumped to encourage her to pick it back up after the meeting. I suggested that while there was some very clever writing, the needle on the nonsense meter was ruthlessly banging the upper limit of the scale. Some of us thought it might have been very funny if we’d read it at the time of its writing, in Ireland, with a full understanding of Irish folklore. 
We discussed whether we’d read anything that we did like and Chris mentioned the book The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. Baldwin’s book was recommended in an article in the New York Times which was about the protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder and the conversation about race in America today.
Melissa told us she was rereading The Accidental Tourist because it is calming. I didn’t discuss the book I’d intended to because it was less pertinent to the times, but I will add it here. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell, while perhaps not a perfect book, has some lovely writing and encouraged me to purchase two more books by Ms. O’Farrell, thinking that perhaps she was the Irish writer I was meant to read this month, though there are unfortunately no birds in her titles.
Our next meeting will be held July 21 to discuss Birds of America by Lorrie Moore which will be hosted by Melissa. The jury is still out as to whether it will be virtual or in person, but I think many of us are hoping that conditions will allow for us to finally get together in the real. Stay healthy,Teresa

This is the painting Chris received. It’s entitled Wade Awhile.

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

(Book 121)

Our third virtual book club meeting took place on Tuesday, May 19, virtually hosted by Susan with technological hosting support by Chris. Susan’s home was festively decorated with the Jayber Crow cloth napkins displayed behind her framing the original art “Hope” from the book club calendar. (If I’m not jumping to conclusions, it was this effort to move her computer to focus in on the lovely display that made necessary a call to IT to restart all her computer settings.)  All were in attendance (eventually) though Rosalie had a still photo of herself holding her place while she finished eating dinner. It had that vibe as if she wasn’t able to attend the Oscars.
The book was almost a unanimous hit with the group. As the 121st book the club has read together, it made the top ten list of our first ten years, coming in at #2. Sharon who wasn’t originally enamored by the book, has since purchased the audio version to see if she might find more appreciation for it; and Marcia who very much enjoyed it is considering reading it aloud with her husband Andrew as an evening activity. We appreciated the spiritual aspects of the book and I believe it was Mary who compared it to Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Rosalie remarked that she had never taken so many notes on a book as she did for this one. Marcia was the second person to ask me how I knew we’d be in the middle of a pandemic when I chose this book about a man who lost both parents to the 1918 flu pandemic and I just told her she’d be better off staying inside during the third week of May next year.  Linda first mentioned (and other small-towners agreed) that she enjoyed the familiarity of the names and small-town ways. Those of us who grew up without front porches and small town familiarity wondered how life would have been altered had they grown up with Port William-like surroundings.It was noted that Berry revisits this town and its inhabitants in other books and some of us expressed interest in further reading. There are nine more: The Memory of Old Jack, Hannah Coulter, Whitefoot, a Story From the Center of the World, Nathan Coulter, Remembering, A World Lost, A Place on Earth, A Place in Time and Andy Catlett: Early Travels. Most of agreed that it is a beautifully, as well as intelligently written book and was a sigh of relief from an exhausting world. 
Some favorite quotes; (some mentioned, some just added here)

Clever expressions, small town in nature: “three-thirds drunk,” “from off,” “give it a lick and a promise,”
“Back there at the beginning, as I see now my life was all time and almost no memory… and now, nearing the end, I see that my life is almost entirely memory and very little time.”
“The squeak between living and not living is pretty tight.”
“They sat there as if not a man in Port William has ever paid for anything without taking off his shoe.”
“I knew that he had subtracted Troy Chatham’s talent as a basketball player from Troy Chatham, and had found not enough left over.”
“Where do dead soldiers die who are killed in battle? They die at home — in Port William and thousands of other little darkened places, in…houses like Miss Gladdie’s where The News comes, and everything on the tables and shelves is all of a sudden a relic and a reminder forever.”
“In Port William, more than anyplace else I had been, this religion that scorned the beauty and the goodness of this world was a puzzle for me.”
“I have always loved a window, especially an open one.”
“And there was no use thinking of that fluid, glistening instant that always seems, in looking back, to have come between what might have happened and what happened, when one might have made some little choice that would have changed forever the course of things.”
“There was never much room between what he said and what he thought.”
(like social media encounters today) “It was not a situation in which you would enjoy carrying on a serious argument with an idiot.”
“In this enduring lineage had been a kind of dignity, the dignity at least of knowing that the work you are doing must be done and that it does not begin and end with yourself.”
“Both sides in making war, agree to these deaths, this dying of young soldiers in their pride. And afterward it becomes possible to pity the suffering of both sides and to think of the lost, unfinished lives of boys who had grown up under hands laid with affection on their heads.”
“I was listening to myself with some interest, for I certainly had not thought it through.”
“The world doesn’t stop because you are in love or in mourning or in need of time to think. And so when I have thought I was in my story or in charge of it, I really have been only on the edge of it, carried along.”

Chris added these quotes:

But you could not be where I was without experiencing many such transformations. One of your customers, one of your neighbors (let us say), is a man known to be more or less a fool, a big talker, and one day he comes into your shop and you have heard and you see that he is dying even as he is standing there looking at you, and you can see in his eyes that (whether or not he admits it) he knows it, and all of a sudden everything is changed. You seem no longer to be standing together in the center of time. Now you ae on time’s edge, looking off into eternity. And this man, your foolish neighbor, your friend and brother, has shed somehow the laughter that has followed him through the world, and has assumed the dignity and the strangeness of a traveler departing forever.

About the cop who let Jayber cross the bridge during the flood: Some troublesome kindness was working in him. (I love the idea of troublesome kindness.)

The preachers were always young students from the seminary who wore, you might say, the mantle of power but not the mantle of knowledge.  (Still makes me laugh)

About Alfred Pindle, at the dance: He trotted along rather quietly, with his eyes filmed over as if he heard an entirely different music far off. Before long, his girl began to have the limply resigned and submitted look of a small animal carried by a cat.

Right, well, if you’ve made it here, the next part of the meeting was our Ten Year Anniversary Celebration and I will include all of the lists as attached files. [For the two of you reading this on the website — please look for those lists in Ten Year Anniversary Celebration.] Our next meeting will be hosted by Chris to discuss At Swim – Two Birds and the actual or virtual meeting will take place on June 23.
Yours in ten years of great reading with great friends.

Teresa aka Fearless Leader

This is the art “Hope” from our 2020 calendar:

And here is the screenshot of our Zoom;

This was a screen grab Susan sent me and I had to include it because Linda is laughing so hard at something. Wish I knew what. And you can see the display of Jayber Crow napkins!

And the one below happened after Karen and Rosalie had already signed off. In response to a notion of something we didn’t have, Susan said “But we have alcohol.” I said “OK, let’s do that again, and this time everybody say it and start to fall off your chair at the end.” My sister Dodie will tell you, I love it when people buy into my nonsense.

Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman

(Book 120) Still under lockdown, we met again via Zoom for Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman. For the record our first meeting was via Go to Meeting provided by Geri, and this month’s Zoom was hosted by Chris though the meeting was hosted by Sharon. Wait, I’m so confused. This was how Sharon started our meeting. She used one of the placemats I’d given as Christmas gifts last year and origamied it into a mask. Such a clever one!

This is lovely Sharon in her blackbird mask. Just the right touch for the meeting.
(The bricks you see around the meeting our from a street in Odessa, for anyone who was wondering.)

All eleven of the Book Club birds met online (a telephone line) for the April meeting to discuss Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman. The meal: cranberry salsa with goat cheese on sweet potato chips, hardy fish soup with potatoes and other vegetables, and oyster crackers, spinach salad and Boston Creme pie, that Sharon was going to make was by far the best meal that anyone has ever planned but not been able to serve! Sharon wore one of the blackbird placemats from her table as a mask and it put all the other masks to shame.
We want to thank both Sharon and Chris for hosting, as it was Chris who brought most of us together on Zoom, though she did leave a few of us in the waiting room as her eyes were taunted by the sight of actual people other than her husband. We’d like to thank Geri, Chris, Melissa’s son and whoever it was who helped Rosalie for getting us to full attendance, everyone seen and heard eventually. The real miracle is not the science/technology behind Zoom, but the notion that 11 women our age (and older) (I don’t know what that means — I just had to type it) can manage to get ourselves connected on such a platform. (I don’t typically connect or stand on platforms for fear of falling.)
Everyone seemed to be in agreement that Alice Hoffman is a very capable writer. Though I disappointed everyone (possibly an exaggeration) by not having any quotes at the ready, the stories were filled with beautiful imagery, and lovely insights into people as well as places. Chris mentioned that the way the stories linked reminded her of the serialization of our last book, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and we were all proud of her for finally finishing the Murakami, particularly because she is one of the few of us still having to work during this. We talked about the short story form and though some of us think of the short story as the perfect bite of literature, two of our former members DID NOT LIKE short stories and didn’t mind telling us so. We also mentioned that even though there were often depictions of very bleak lives/situations, there was also the description of neighbors who helped in usual and unusual ways. This may have been what led to the discussion of the quarantine we find ourselves in. Our hostess, Sharon asked us what our comfort foods are. Karen insulted everyone including God by saying she’s lost 12 pounds, while the rest of us talked about our baking achievements. (Mary made raisin sauce, Chris made bread, Rosalie made a too sweet dessert (?) Marcia’s going to try smoking a chicken, and other girls baked other things but I couldn’t listen because I was too busy muttering about the indignity of losing 12 pounds during a quarantine.) Then Sharon asked about what store we miss being able to visit and Mary told us about how much she misses her fame with the baristas at the local Starbucks. Marcia prompted Linda to talk a bit about having lost her mother in the midst of this and Linda told us that her mother’s memorial may take place in separate visits to her mother’s two remaining siblings which is just about the best idea ever. Melissa’s audio didn’t join us until later in the evening, but she said a few things about the bird-watching she’s been doing on her walks, in this Book Club Year of the Birds.
Rosalie left the meeting a bit early because she was hungry and was not online with us when it was decided we would meet next month on the 19th whether on line or less likely at Susan’s home. Susan and I were very much hoping for being able to meet at her place because as I told Susan a few months ago, May will mark the 10th anniversary of the original book club members being together! And I have Top 10 lists to read!
OK that’s all I’ve got. Please add to this summary with all that I’ve forgotten.
Your Fearless Leader,

The April Bird from our calendar: Don’t Look Back