June, 2014: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

(Book #50)  Geri gave shelter to five starving refugees off the road from Grozny and we were humbled by her generosity. We ate bread, borscht, lamb and rice stuffed peppers — an unexpected feast. She provided us with maps of Chechnya and surrounding area to make our way…  Not everyone enjoyed the book as much as I did, but I mark it as one of my Teacher’s Pets. I think Anthony Marra’s writing is genius and one of my favorite aspects of his writing is the way he writes in time, jumping into the future to explain all that would take place over time:

In twelve and a third years, the girl, now a woman, would accompany Sonja on a five-day holiday to London. When the night porter asked ‘Would your daughter care for an herbal tea?’ it wouldn’t cross Sonja’s mind to correct him. It wouldn’t have crossed her mind for some time. At the end of five days, they would leave London. Sonja would never see the city again. Havaa would.”

“In twenty years Sonja would find Natasha’s name beside her own in the final sentence of the acknowledgements of Havaa’s dissertation.” 

On the morning he left, he wore a red sweater with golden diamonds woven across the chest. He had never filled it out, as her mother had predicted he would when she had given it to him five Christmases earlier. He would be wearing that sweater two and a half years later, just north of the border, when a stolen cement mixing truck would slam into his lorry cabin, cutting short his life, his final haul, and his five-week odyssey to return home to his girls.”

“Six days later the Feds would enter the city. They would launch a single mortar round at the hospital in retaliation for sheltering rebels. That round would hit the fourth-floor storage room. Maali would be searching for clean sheets. She would land atop the rubble, four floors below, her pulse slowing in her wrist.”

Occasionally he used time comparisons to date things going on concurrently:

“Mirza died when she was thirty-nine. Akhmed was seven. The cancer in her stomach was just eight months old.”

And now I’ll just add some favorite quotes:

“For months they’d run their fingers around the hem of their affection without once acknowledging the fabric.”

“When he reached the end, he did not die. He called your name and began to live in you.”

And of course the very last line of the novel which one shouldn’t give away other than to say despite all circumstances, the book ends with “an immense spinning joy.”

September, 2018: John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead

(Book #101) There are so many impressive things about our book club, but when I realized Susan made prime rib I was still overwhelmed. In the novel one of the journalists who loads up on free food, was eating seconds, thirds, fourths of prime rib when he choked. When Susan sent out her invitation and request for rsvps, I replied “No prime rib for me, thanks.” Susan sent a return email, “Teresa, we would never let you choke!” Even then I couldn’t imagine she would actually serve it, but she did. The evening email subject line was Tragedy Averted at John Henry Days Gala:

Only a small group of five junketeers showed up at the John Henry Days Gala to cover the 101st book read by a Chicago based book club.  FB Eye, Props and T. showed up in the first wave and were joined later by Ed. and Mickie. Arlene was down with a sinus headache so her sister Susan took control of the evening and had very capably set up the venue to allow for dinner to take place either indoors or out. The usual square cheese and crackers were replaced by an incredible goat cheese covered in honey, fig and pistachios.  T. almost consumed the plate of goat cheese before Mickie showed up. Another platter offered brie with apples and grapes; three bowls were filled with crackers, toasts and almonds.                                            “How are they going to pay for all this?”                                                    “Emptying the book club coffers.”
“No new bookmarks for the varsity book club.”                                                “Not the new bookmarks!”                                                                                         “Any of you writing this up?” Props asked.                                                             “I’m writing it up for a new website, Book Club 101” T. informed her.        The junketeers were more impressed when they saw the dinner menu. “This may be the big city, but this doesn’t look organic, vegan, or sustainable.” Ed. said.                                                                                            “Amen to that!” T. said and lit out for the food. The red light was calling her. Set above the cutting plate like a divine illumination, the red heating lamps warmed the sweet meat. [Poetic license taken here — there wasn’t actually a red light.] The salad declined her invitation, but T. savored the potatoes dauphinoise and the wonderful taste of perfectly cooked and innocent green beans. And the prime rib, the prime rib aloft in its own juice and glorified by creamy horseradish! 
Mickie and T. both took seconds and then they heard Susan’s husband starting to set up to sing “The Ballad of John Henry.”  [This part didn’t actually happen but I hoped it would, so I’m including it.] T. attacked the prime rib. She cut off a piece, a big piece, dipped it in the horseradish and put it in her mouth.
Susan’s husband sings: John Henry told his captain, Captain go to town And bring me back two twenty pound hammers, And I’ll sure beat your steam drill down. Lord, Lord, And I’ll sure beat your steam drill down.”
T. cut another piece of meat, dipped it in horseradish, put it in her mouth and everything was fine. It was all delicious, no one choked on anything.  [It’s lucky Colson Whitehead went another way with this because this is just boring.] Then Susan served the dessert of warmed spiced peaches (from her niece’s farm) topped with vanilla ice cream. After our meal we sat in Susan’s lovely back yard and drank a little more wine. 

No one wanted to talk about the book as much as I did because I LOVED this one. Chris (Ed.) said she felt she was reading a 30 year old who was talented, but mostly being 30 –but I was duped. I thought it was funny and beautifully written. I did admit to having written a Dramatis Personae in the front of my book so that I could refer to the names of the characters as I started a new “chapter.”  Chris thought the Altamont free concert story was too long and wondered what its contribution was to the story — and I said that both the young black man (whose name was Meredith Hunter, by the way) who was killed at Altamont and Alphonse, the stamp collector at the unveiling of the John Henry stamp both said:  “I wasn’t going to shoot you.” Melissa (Props) thought he needed a better editor but the only story that I wanted to push along was the one about Godfrey Frank, Fire Drill and the Orderly Fashions. Melissa thought he lived and returned on the earlier flight to New York. I voted for the more depressing option. Geri (Mickie) and Susan (Arlene’s very capable sister) did not say a great deal or maybe I didn’t hear them because I was talking or thinking too hard.Sharon (FB Eye) mostly skimmed the book because her reading was off while she was working at Whole Foods but she’s been forced to give up her employment to take care of her fictional sister — so maybe she will have more to say about The Accidental Tourist when she hosts (again) on MONDAY, October 15.
Respectfully Submitted, T. (and you know what that stands for)

My review on Goodreads: “I’m just stunned that anyone could be so critical of this book as to give it only one star! OK, OK, I know there is no arguing over matters of taste, but, Colson Whitehead is a genius. It’s strange that I didn’t come to this conclusion when I read Underground Railroad as it seems the public at large gives him more credit for Underground Railroad than for John Henry Days. The multiple stories all blending into one is just incredibly well done — I want to say genius again. There was only one “chapter” that I had to push through, the last of Part Four at which time I didn’t want to hear about Godfrey Frank; I wanted to know how it was all going to end. And I wasn’t disappointed.
The stage directions in the chapter written like a play are worth the price of the book!”

November, 2016: The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

(Book #79) I grew up with Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Boris and Natasha and elementary school bomb drills during the coldest part of the Cold War. I’ve taken a train from Vilnius, Lithuania into St. Petersburg and had the life scared out of me by a squat female border guard who asked me (rather than my husband) all the questions at the crossing and handed back my passport with the words “Good luck to you.” We visited Moscow and took their underground amazed at its depth and for at least 20 years a Moscow-born Russian, who vividly remembers Stalin’s funeral, did my nails. I just can’t read enough about Russia. I haven’t read nearly everything by Russian writers but I’ve read Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, The Master and Margarita, The Twelve Chairs, and I saw a great theatrical production of The Brothers Karamazov in Stratford, Ontario. I love the Arkady Renko series by Martin Cruz Smith that started with Gorky Park. The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean was great and one of my favorite books of all time is David Benioff’s City of Thieves. Anthony Marra’s first book Constellation of Vital Phenomena is my definition of genius, so I couldn’t wait to host The Tsar of Love and Techno.

My invitation: The Miss Siberia Beauty Pageant will still to take place as before announced even with bins of sulfur waste yet waiting to remove from the backstage and dressing room, for day of Tuesday, November 22, 2120 W Schiller Ulitza. If you are wishing to strive for crown, please to complete below form and return. Name: Date for Birth: Show for Talant:

When the girls arrived we poured Georgian wine, a nod to Stalin’s Georgian roots. For starters we had Russian black bread, pickled herring and beets.  For dinner I made Kulebyaka, a kind of salmon pie, cabbage rolls, and the Olivier salad, but bought the pelmeni from Ann’s Ukrainian Bakery and Deli. For dessert I made a Russian Korolevsky cake (King’s Cake) a three-layer cake, one layer flavored with cocoa powder, one with poppy seeds and one with walnuts.

Sadly, there was very little discussion of the book, because our book club is comprised of liberals and the election results pulled the rug out from under us. If you haven’t read this book yet you must. If you don’t like the short story think of each of them as a chapter and you’ll see how they all weave together. As the Goodreads blurb says:  “This stunning, exquisitely written collection introduces a cast of remarkable characters whose lives intersect in ways both life-affirming and heartbreaking.” 

As an homage to Roman Markin, a retoucher in the Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation,  who blots out and replaces the faces of the disfavored from photographs, I gave each of the girls a framed photo of our membership. The original photo is missing Mary and me — though I was able to place Mary in between Marcia and Linda for her photo.  In each of the photos I gave the girls, the recipient’s face has been replaced by Stalin’s.

A favorite quote:  “Endurance, I reminded myself, is the true measure of existence.” 

August, 2016: The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

Geri wrote the email about this gathering because I didn’t attend. This was the horrible month that I lost my brother Dennis.

(Book #76) August 23, 2016: Well Melissa really went for the gold tonight. She treated us to a meal of Olympic proportions — pork medallions served with golden potatoes and sauerkraut slaw. And what could be more American than apple pie for dessert? A la mode no less. To round out the event, it was served on her roof deck with a beautiful view of the city. We all wore our “Live Like Dennis” buttons and paid homage to a great man, and his ever wonderful sister Teresa.

Everyone loved the book, complimenting the writing style and the character development. We all agreed it read like fiction. We also decided the younger generation has to toughen up. It’s not like they have been left to fend for themselves in the wilds of Washington! Thank you Melissa for a fun evening and delicious food.

What I loved about this book was the cross section of history — this crew competed in the 1936 Olympics where their lives intersected with Jesse Owens, Louis Zamperini, Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler, of course, and more important than Hitler, Hugh Laurie’s dad! The other aspect that pushed it up to a five star book for me was the author’s apparent appreciation of these boys/men and the way he was able to capture their spirit on paper.

April, 2015: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

(Book #60) Susan hosted our discussion of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and everyone agreed that this book is just full of beautiful imagery of childhood scenes. So many passages evoke a full rich moment in time. You see it and feel it. This book is clearly an American classic.

Papa would have been sad if his job as a singing waiter would have kept him from Susan’s delicious beef stroganoff and none of us had to pretend, as the children did, that we were explorers at the North Pole stuck in a blizzard in a cave when food supplies ran low because Susan prepared quite a feast.

January, 2013: City of Thieves by David Benioff

(Book #33) Melissa hosted our first book of 2013 and we started right off with vodka shots — that will get your book club going! And of course we had dozens of deviled eggs, no shortage of eggs here. For dinner, we had borscht, rye bread, sausage, sauerkraut, meatballs and pelmeni.  It was hardy winter fare for those who had been many days without food in the freezing cold, or more accurately, for those who had been reading about many days without food in the freezing cold.

Melissa and I both LOVED this book. With a mock Russian dialect, Melissa announced that all authors should be made to write books as good as this one or sent to Siberia! One of my favorite aspects of the book is the source of Lev’s appreciation for Kolya: In spite of all his irritating qualities, I couldn’t help liking a man who despised a fictional character with such passion. The book is so clever and well written and yet so stark because, in the end their victory is pointless.

Other favorite quotes:

In certain ways I am deeply stupid. I don’t say this out of modesty. I believe that I’m more intelligent than the average human being, though perhaps intelligence should not be looked at as a single gauge, like a speedometer, but as a full array of tachometers, odometers, altimeters, and the rest.

Too many words for one book — truth might be stranger than fiction, but it needs a better editor. 

You couldn’t let too much truth seep into your conversation, you couldn’t admit with your mouth what your eyes had seen.”

The partisans would continue picking off Nazis; the Nazis would continue massacring noncombatants; and eventually the Fascists would learn that they could not win the war even if they killed thirty civilians for every one of their dead soldiers. The arithmetic was brutal, but brutal arithmetic always worked in Russia’s favor.

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.