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.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

Our Operation themed cards seem particularly disrespectful for this book!

(Book 146) Melissa sent us an invitation to a pow-wow under the stars on her roof deck, but because of ‘low-reader turnout’ we decided to stay cool and comfy inside. We applaud Melissa for coping with such a big change — as we were leaving she remembered: “You didn’t get to see my lights!” Melissa was dressed for the evening with beaded and turquoise jewelry adorning a cotton dress and the mood was set with a background of Native American music. She served appetizers of fresh vegetables with a spicy Southwestern cauliflower dip as well as chips and salsa. For the main course, we enjoyed bison burgers with grilled onions and mushrooms, bison sirloin tips, a colorful corn and bean salad, and a lovely green salad. For dessert, we had ‘wild berries’ served over a slice of pound cake and topped with vanilla ice cream. Everything was delicious!

The book discussion was short and sweet because many of us had difficulty reading about the way white men (and by extension, white women) promised, then lied, then killed, then burned, then relocated, then promised something else, then reneged, then slaughtered, then lied again, then confined, then repeated all of the above. I tried to divert the girls with a discussion of the way the Native Americans named the moons, because Brown always referred to the time of year as “during the moon when ponies shed their shaggy fur” rather than May. I’d made a chart of the moons as they were named in six native languages and I won’t include them all here but I have to do a few.

  • January – Moon of Strong Cold (Cheyenne) Moon When Snow Drifts Into Teepees (Omaha)
  • February – Moon When Trees Crack of Cold (Lakota)
  • March – Sore Eye Moon (Dakota) Moon of the Snowblind (Lakota)
  • April – Geese Laying Moon (Dakota) Moon When Ducks Come Back and Hide (Lakota)
  • May – Moon When Ponies Shed Shaggy Hair (Arapaho)
  • June – Moon of Making Fat (Lakota) Hot Weather Begins Moon (Ponca)
  • July – Moon When Choke Cherries Ripe (Dakota)
  • August – Moon of Red Cherries (Lakota) Corn is in the Silk Moon (Ponca)
  • September – Drying Grass Moon (Cheyenne) Moon When Deer Paw the Earth (Omaha)
  • October – Moon When Wind Shakes Off Leaves (Lakota)
  • November – Deer Rutting Moon (Dakota and Cheyenne)
  • December – Moon When Deer Shed Horns (Dakota) Moon When Wolves Run Together (Cheyenne) Moon of Popping Trees (Arapaho)

Next was a short discussion of Manifest Destiny. When I came upon the phrase while reading this novel, I could picture the social studies book with the heading: Manifest Destiny. Linda remembered learning about it and Sharon said it must not have been a Catholic concept cause she doesn’t remember learning about it. It was amazing to me to think that generations after the fact, young white Americans were being taught that this expansion into all the areas originally inhabited by the Native Americans or promised to the Native Americans was really not so much theft and murder as it was Destiny. Yes, that sounds good, let’s call it Manifest Destiny! That sounds even better!

We talked about how we appreciated that the chapters began with a list of other events that were happening in the world at the same time and we were all a little surprised to realize that these battles with the Native Americans were taking place while the Civil War was going on. We came back a few times after to talk about the repetitive nature of promise, reneg, murder, but there were Supreme Court decisions to talk about, so little more was said about the book. Below are a few things we might have talked about:

This quote in The Long Walk of the Navahos:

“The exodus of this whole people from the land of their fathers is not only an interesting but a touching sight. They have fought us gallantly for years on years, they have defended their mountains and their stupendous canyons with a heroism which any people might be proud to emulate, but when at length, they found it was their destiny, too as it had been that of their brethren, tribe after tribe, away back toward the rising of the sun, to give way to the insatiable progress of our race, they threw down their arms, and, as brave men entitled to our admiration and respect, have come to us with confidence in our magnanimity and feeling that we are too powerful and too just a people to repay that confidence with meanness or neglect — feeling that having sacrificed to us their beautiful country, their homes, the associations of their lives, the scenes rendered classic in their traditions, we will not dole out to them a miser’s pittance in return for what they know to be and what we know to be a princely realm.”

Brown attributes this unctuous support of Manifest Destiny to Star Chief General Carleton and the reader wonders how he could even say (or write) the words. There was no doubt in his mind that he/ his race was superior. Where do you get that kind of confidence?

Another bit I would have liked to discuss is the origin of the horrible aphorism: The only good Indian is a dead Indian. Clearly we’ve come a long way from Carleton’s ‘admiration and respect’ speech above! The quote was attributed to General Sheridan though not word for word. His comment was “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” Lieutenant Charles Nordstrom remembered the words, passed them on and through time they became “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Sheridan was the guy who implemented the “Total War” strategy against the Southern Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Comanche.

Third on my list of things to discuss was the Cochise quote: “Why is it that the Apaches want to die, that they carry their lives on their fingernails?” I tried to Google search the expression ‘to carry your life on your fingernails’ and after several articles about healthy fingernails, I found the quote but no discussion. It’s just a very poetic way of saying you aren’t guarding your life as you once did? akin to “wearing your heart on your sleeve” maybe? Discuss in the comment section.

Finally, I wanted to discuss the fact that at some point during the 1880’s Sitting Bull spoke to Annie Oakley and shared an opinion of the white man that is just as true today. He told her he could not understand how white men could be so unmindful of their own poor. “The white man knows how to make everything, but he does not know how to distribute it.” After I finished reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I started reading a book we considered reading once before but it wasn’t chosen for our list, Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. I’m not trying to diss Christianity but I found this thought-provoking: “Christianity separated the people from themselves, it tried to crush the single clan name, encouraging each person to stand alone, because Jesus Christ would save only the individual soul: Jesus Christ was not like the Mother who loved and cared for them as her children, her family.” Again, discuss, in the comments.

The Party Favor: This month’s party favor didn’t inspire the humor that the tiny hands did for last month’s book, but Sharon has told me that she’s already found it useful. The party favor was a small Foam Kneeling Pad. Attached to the pad was an acetate bag that contained two Warming Herbal Pain Plasters for knee pain, two American Meadows Wildflower Seed Packets and an assortment of Solid Milk Chocolate Pansies. The sign on the package said: “We can’t undo white man’s misdeeds*, but we can restore a little nature. BURY THIS SEED ON AGED KNEE.” Marcia asked if she could take one for Karen and I allowed it this time — but girls, the party favors are for those who attend the party! Linda said it might be based on how many I want to take home, but I’ve had knee surgery on both knees and chocolate is my best friend. (Sorry to any of you who thought you might be,) You don’t have to have read the book, but you DO have to come to the party to get a party favor! It’s a reward, just in case the wine, great food, and sparkling conversation isn’t enough! Oh and next month’s favor might be a coupon for free blepharoplasty, so y’all come.

The next meeting is Tuesday June 26 at Marcia’s home with Karen and Marcia hosting a discussion of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye. It’s a long one: start reading right after you read this last part!

Happy Birthday to Chris! Happy Anniversary to Marcia! And Happy _____________ to anyone I’ve forgotten!

*I don’t mean to suggest there is nothing we can do, but you know, it was a gift tag.

Book Club 101 Has a Little Free Library!

My daughter, Frances, made this happen for me. After the weight gain of the early pandemic, Frances and I took walks around our extended neighborhood and I was charmed to find two Little Free Libraries in our area. I began exchanging books with both, while Frances secretly worked on getting me one of my own. She painted it to match our home, the lighter cream color represents the bricks. Frances is not as interested in reading as I am; she’s more into movies, British TV and radio shows; but she is ever so gracious about allowing me to read favorite passages to her. She once had me watch just a portion of the movie About Time because a father (one of my favorite actors, Bill Nighy) and son shared the same reading relationship. I’m a lucky mom.

This picture was taken on its very first day just after a friend, Chris, dug the post hole, leveled it, and secured the library to the post. He wasn’t interested in any of the books I had available at this time, but I’ll find one he’ll enjoy the next time he comes over to fix something for me. I am lucky to have gotten to know Chris and his wife Kathy at St. Josaphat Summerfest back in the day.

On Day 2 of its existence outside my home, my grandson and I checked on it before walking to school and found that six books were already off to new homes. Today, Day 3, three more books are gone and TWELVE new donations have joined them. As you may be able to guess, I feel lucky to be SO fascinated by this new addition to my life!

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones 

Our books for 2022 are part of an anatomical theme and each includes a body part in the title. The titles were presented as part of the game Operation: Book Club Edition using many of the game’s original idioms.

(Book 144) Mary was originally scheduled to host on the 22nd, but graciously accommodated our request to change it to the 27th so that all could attend. As it turned out, Geri and Karen were not able to join us, but we tried. Mary started the evening with an array of appetizers including salsa, guacamole, tortilla chips and two kinds of Terra chips. I am not the investigative journalist I should be, because I can not tell you what the two kinds were. She greeted us and then ran off to the condo of a friend in the building, a little bit like an episode of the Dick Van Dyke show in which Laura didn’t have oven space for the entire dinner. Mary was making two kinds of lasagna which required different temperatures, so one pan was baking one floor down. First she went down to remove the foil and later when it was time to bring it up, I accompanied her. Her friends had returned by the second trip and they gave me a little tour of their place. The floor plan is just like Mary’s but they converted the back part of the large front room with wall/partitions to create and office.

The two lasagna’s were both excellent. One was butternut squash, mushroom and sage from the website Feasting at Home and the other was spinach, artichoke and garlic from Cookie and Kate. These were served (Yes, we had both, some chose smaller portions of each, but I was not among that number.) with crusty bread and a salad. Dessert was a frozen mousse pie with graham cracker crust made with Noosa strawberry rhubarb yoghurt. It was delicious and as my sister Dodie likes to say “refreshing!”

On to the book. Most of the members really enjoyed this quirky novel. Most agreed that it is so cleverly written (and translated) and though the central character Janina is bristly, dark and querulous, she is completely engaging. Even the two Russian judges, Sharon and Chris, gave it a 5 star rating! [Please forgive the political incorrectness of the use of “Russian judges.” It dates back to when the judges from Russia were the hardest to please in the Olympics and of course it’s inappropriate, but it’s meant in good clean fun. Unlike the Russian invasion of Ukraine.] Rosalie said that she didn’t like the central character at first, but warmed to her. Linda said she didn’t like her either because she just “seemed crazy” to which Chris responded “I like crazy!” (Yes, I think there was an exclamation point there.) I don’t want to give anything away to the two or three people who might read this, so I will just say that Rosalie referred to Janina as the classic unreliable narrator. Most of us did not see the ending coming the way it did.

We loved the characters and the personal naming system Janina used such as Oddball and Bigfoot. Susan loved that Janina cared more about the the Animals than people and that the Animals were uprising and getting revenge! We loved her desire to know animal script so that she can leave little notes saying “Don’t go over there, that food is lethal!” Linda was worried about the use of the term “Little Ladies” and worried that something truly awful had happened. A great quote about the animals: “‘Its Animals show the truth about a country,’ [Duszejko] said. ‘Its attitude toward Animals. If people behave brutally toward Animals, no form of democracy is ever going to help them, in fact nothing will at all.”

Chris read us one of her favorite quotes:

“It’s hard work talking to some people, most often males. I have a Theory about it. With age, many men come down with testosterone autism, the symptoms of which are a gradual decline in social intelligence and capacity for interpersonal communication, as well as a reduced ability to formulate thoughts. The Person beset by this Ailment becomes taciturn and appears to be lost in contemplation. He develops an interest in various Tools and machinery, and he’s drawn to the Second World War and the biographies of famous people, mainly politicians and villains. His capacity to read novels almost entirely vanishes; testosterone autism disturbs the character’s psychological understanding.”

We also appreciated Janina’s belief that we should get to know more in advance: “The fact that we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future is a terrible mistake in the programming of the world. It should be fixed at the first opportunity.” And I don’t think we talked about this one but it’s one of my favorites:

“Nowadays no one still has the courage to think up anything new. All they ever talk about, round the clock, is how things already are, they just keep rolling out the same old ideas. Reality has grown old and gone senile; after all, it is definitely subject to the same laws as every living organism — it ages. Just like the cells of the body, its tiniest components — the senses, succumb to apoptosis. Apoptosis is natural death, brought about by the tiredness and exhaustion of matter. In Greek this word means ‘the dropping of petals.’ The world has dropped its petals.”

Everyone gave their star rating for the book. Chris, Melissa and Sharon gave it 5 stars, Marcia gave in 4.5, Mary, Susan and I gave it 4, Linda gave it 3.5 and Rosalie gave it 3 for an average of 4.22. We read a great book. We ate some delicious lasagna. We are some lucky Little Ladies.

I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron

Our books for 2022 are part of an anatomical theme and each includes a body part in the title. The titles were presented as part of the game Operation: Book Club Edition using many of the game’s original idioms.

(Book 143) Sharon hosted our March meeting; she sent out this invitation. Subject: I Feel Bad About My Neck . . . . . . . neck, chins, droopy eye lids, extra 20 pounds, etc, etc, etc.    You are invited to an evening of celebrating the wit and humor of Nora Ephron, and as previously mentioned, you are encouraged to wear the neck covering of your choice.  In honor of our Nora discussion, our spiritual entertainment host will be Lee Bailey, who will guide us though the genuine joy of sharing a meal with family or friends.  Theme–an effortless early spring dinner for the book club ladies.

As soon as we stepped off the elevator, we knew we were in for a delicious evening. An amazing aroma was wafting down the hall in the actual shape of a finger beckoning us toward Sharon’s apartment. You see it in cartoons all the time but, this was real.  Even though Melissa’s friend, Lee Bailey said “Never Serve Appetizers,” Sharon broke with such nonsense and served cruidité, root vegetable chips, crackers and a pimiento spread made from the Craig Claiborne recipe. We started talking about the book, story by story. The first, the title story had most of us dressed in turtlenecks or scarves, but our hostess outshone us  all in a lovely scarf covering her head and neck (almost befitting last month’s book.) Many of us share the same hatred for our purse that Nora described in her second story. Chris responded quickly to the topic with a Bermuda Triangle-like description of her bag; Karen told us about the origin of the Hermes Birkin Bag; we all harrumphed a little bit at the idea of carrying a plastic bag to put your purse in, just in case it rained, and I admitted to having worked up such a hatred for my purse that I left it on the L on the way out to O’Hare. “Serial Monogamist” included a discussion of the famous Lee Bailey. Melissa had all his books to pass around while we told Insane Culinary Tales. Let’s test our Senior Memory Skills and play a matching game at the top of the next page! Draw lines to match the menu to the chef.

  • Insane Culinary Tale
  • Two parts of a lobster hopped around separately in the kitchen avoiding the bouillabaisse.
  • Meatloaf eaten after the Pyrex dish it was baked in broke coming out of the oven.
  • Saw a live chicken “getting ready” for dinner, then no longer had an appetite
  • Black and Decker Sauerbraten
  • Wounded while wielding a clam knife, she had to eat dinner holding her bandaged finger up in the air.
  • Coming to a table of rings of flour and eggs to make pasta after two hours of doing funny stuff.
  • Cornish hens with Really Wild Rice Stuffing
  • Serving Oxtail Soup that caused lips to stick together while a cockroach provided a free floor/wall show.
  • Member Who Cooked It Up
  • Chris
  • Chris
  • Chris
  • Marcia
  • Melissa
  • Susan
  • Teresa
  • Teresa

After the crazy cooking stories it was time for an  extraordinary meal. Sharon served a salad of Gotham Greens Baby Butter Lettuce, a Mediterranean sheet pan recipe of chicken, roasted potatoes and caramelized vegetables. It was all so good. Conversation moved to “On Maintenance” which caused many of us to admit that COVID moved us into the category of looking like “a person who no longer cares.”    For dessert we enjoyed two versions of a Dorie Greenspan recipe — one full gluten and one gluten-free Carrot Cake. Here is Sharon serving  dessert at her lovely spring table.

Conversation wandered away from the book several times, as it will, but I think we all agreed that the last chapter moved from light-hearted fun to the hardest of all subjects and many of us were moved to tears by her words. I cried at the loss and disbelief of “I’m still here without her.” (My translation was I can’t believe I’m still here without them – my brothers.) I tried to buy into Nora’s  advice to leave no expensive bath oil behind, but rather splurge while we can. I gave our hostess a gift of Nora’s favorite Dr. Hauschka’s Lemongrass Shower Cream (Nora’s was bath oil, but Amazon couldn’t get that to me in time) and all of the girls received some Champagne bath sugar, and a tiny bottle of champagne’s Italian cousin Prosecco to treat themselves. It was doing double duty as their thanks for getting their votes for next year in so early!

Star Ratings for this time:  Susan: 5, Mary: 3, Karen: 3, Sharon: 4.2, Melissa: 4, Geri: 3, Linda: 4.5, Chris: 4.5, Teresa: 3.5, Karen thought Marcia would probably give it 4 stars, and I saw on Goodreads that Rosalie gave it 2 stars, which gives this book an average of 3.7 stars. I think Linda and Chris said they wanted to be on a sub-committee to decide what the star system really means in our terms. Goodreads uses 1. Didn’t like it.   2. It was OK.   3. It was good.   4. It was really good. and  5. It was amazing.

Many other news items were discussed and it seems we need a section for Happy News and News We Could Do Without. In Happy News, Moira was married to ZB (??) on March 5th at the Botanical Gardens. I put this in Happy News even though Moira’s mother-in-law is likely planning seriously dangerous evil things to happen to Geri ,because it’s all Geri’s fault that her son is staying in America. Other Happy Though Unplanned News, Alex is pregnant with Susan’s third grandchild! 

In News We Could Do Without, Jeff was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and Sharon was way too conversant on the topic because Rich is going through the same thing. Add to that the fact that Marcia had to leave because Gwyn had to be admitted to ICU and we had a heck of a night. Thanks to Susan for giving Karen a ride.

When I was a child I pouted my way into the ditch across the road from our rural home. I stayed in the car because I’d been good in church but Mom didn’t take us to get candy bars. I managed to put the car in neutral and it rolled backwards down our driveway, across the road and into the ditch. Mom ran out, hugged me, asked me “Where were you heading?” then told my siblings to take me out to the backyard so I could look at the turtle. I have a recollection of looking at the turtle but what I really remember is the repetition of the phrase “Look at the turtle! Look at the turtle!” It’s become the family’s way of dealing with trauma — distraction. Well, distraction and Dilly Bars, which are a chocolate-dipped form of distraction. I recount this story to say thank goodness we had Stevie Ray in a babushka last night to distract us from the truth of the last chapter and the News We Could Do Without!  Thanks to our wonderful hostess and her canine assistant.

Next month Mary will host Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk. The date was set for Wednesday, April 20th, but Chris has a conflict with that date. [It was changed to April 27.]

Thanks for hanging in there with me, girls!

Teresa, Fearless Leader (as long as there’s a turtle or a dog in a babushka nearby)

The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah

Our books for 2022 are part of an anatomical theme and each includes a body part in the title. The titles were presented as part of the game Operation: Book Club Edition using many of the game’s original idioms.

 (Book 142) Linda hosted our February meeting after recovering from a bout of COVID. If there was a point system, she’d get way more points for that. We were greeted with several bottles of wine that were all chosen to be paired with the cuisine so often mentioned throughout the book. The appetizers included stuffed figs, hummus, beet hummus and baba ganoush with crackers, pita chips and red pepper chunks. The meal was informed by the book and most of the recipes were taken from the cookbook Zaitoun: Recipes from the Palestinian Kitchen by Yasmin Khan.  Oh look, here’s the book cover now! 

The dishes included roast chicken with sumac and red onions, rice with pine nuts and possibly other crunchy things that I didn’t make a note of, roast rainbow carrots with herbed yogurt, and a winter salad with mixed greens and mandarin oranges. 

 Dessert was Pomegranate Passion Cake that Linda altered to make gluten-free. It was all amazing, the cake was particularly extraordinary and oh look, here’s a picture of it now!

I will apologize to Rosalie for the sparse description, as you were the only one unable to attend. The rest of us have very fond  memories of the night’s cuisine. Most of the book discussion was conducted at the dinner table, oh look, here’s the dinner table now!

We started off with a discussion of all we learned from the book. Chris was happy to have read it on her Kindle so that she could find the definition of all the Arabic words and phrases. We talked about the many types of head coverings that Muslim women wear, the burka, the niqab, the hijab, and Melissa suggested that the head piece (the coif) and veil that Catholic nuns wear have their origin in the same sacred vow to their creator, expressed in their devotional attire. 

Criticisms of the book included that some of the writing choices were a bit pat, that the perpetrator found the information he needed online. Chris wanted to know more about what it was about Islam that attracted Afaf when she had grown up without organized religion in her home. Others of us wondered why the mother was so generally angry and why she behaved as though the other children didn’t exist even before her older daughter ran away. Karen spoke to a kind of neglect of the remaining children due to the trauma of one child leaving.

On the positive side, most of us felt that the book kept us engaged and wanting to come back to it. Geri mentioned that it was a stark reminder of the sad repercussions of being different, failing to fit in, on the individual, the family, as well as what it does in our society. I read some of the passages that I thought were well-written:

“Their daughter is gradually turning into a stranger, like a kaleidoscope morphing into a new image, the same colors taking a different shape.”

When Afaf tells her parents about her sister’s diary it is likened to “a script she’s delivering, a part she isn’t old enough to play.”

About her sister’s return:  And as soon as Afaf says it, she knows it’s true, like someone on your doorstep, someone you hadn’t been expecting, but you know has been waiting there for some time before they finally ring the bell.”

We asked everyone for a star rating on a 5-star scale and the average of the scores is 3.65.  Susan rated it the highest at 5 stars. Linda gave it 4.5. Marcia, Karen, and Melissa gave it 4 stars. I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads (because you can’t give it half-stars) but on a half-star system, I’d be more inclined to give it 3.5 as did Mary. Geri gave it 3, and the two Russian judges (Chris and Sharon) gave it 2.5.

Our next meeting is set for March 22nd at Sharon’s place where she asks that we all wear something around our necks as we discuss Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck.

Qadimt Mae Alaihtiram,



Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Our books for 2022 are part of an anatomical theme and each includes a body part in the title. The titles were presented as part of the game Operation: Book Club Edition using many of the game’s original idioms.

 (Book 141) I hosted the first meeting of 2022 and sent the invitation email as an invitation to a Jack and Jill chapter meeting. I apologize again for the cultural appropriation.


Dear Prospective Members,

Hello! Happy New Year!  As you may know, I am the Events Coordinator for the Jack and Jill, Wicker Park Chapter and your names were on a list of women/mothers/grandmothers interested in our chapter. Our founder, the late Marion Stubbs Thomas incorporated Jack and Jill of America, on January 24, 1938, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Twenty mothers came together to discuss creating an organization to provide social, cultural and educational opportunities for youth between the ages of 2 and 19. Here we are just days away from the 84th anniversary of that inspired beginning and I will be hosting a potluck on Thursday, January 20, to welcome you, the women who will carry our organization on to celebrate its 100th (150th?) anniversary! 

Now when I say potluck, I don’t mean to suggest that you will be bringing your culinary skills to bear on the evening. Those of us on the Events Committee, Jayne, Bessie, Charlotte, Letta, Celestia, Della and I will be doing all the cooking. You just bring yourself and an appetite — Della says “a big one!” The evening will introduce you to the rousing foodie delights of our potluck events.

Our evening won’t be without it’s usual cultural thread, though this time it will just be for adults. As was mentioned in the bulletin, we will be discussing the book Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires as we get to know each other.

Please plan to arrive by 6:30 and may I ask that you send a return email to let me know whether you will be able to attend? I look forward to a long and lasting friendship with each and every one of you.

Most Sincerely,

Dr. Teresa Yohnka Anderson, PsyD, Licensed Therapist, Welcome Wagon, A.N. Pritzker Elementary School, Events Coordinator, Jack and Jill, Wicker Park Branch

(Please excuse the cultural appropriation.)

Minutes from the January 20, 2022 meeting of the Jack and Jill Wicker Park Chapter: 

The meeting took place at the somewhat chilly home of Events Coordinator, and note-taker for the evening, Teresa Yohnka Anderson (me) with six prospective members in attendance. The cultural aspect of the evening was a discussion of the book Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires. The hostess took her food theme from the short story The Subject of Consumption whose main character blogged about nutritional lifestyles. With the help of the potluck committee members, a vegetarian menu was served. I bribed the committee members with extra points if the word head appeared in the recipe! My daughter, Frances created the centerpiece for the evening. The crudité was served with two dips, one was a spinach dip and the other was an artichoke-parmesan. In addition to the vegetable platter, an appetizer called Head on a Pike was served but we think Charlotte may have used too little avocado and too much chili pepper! 

Most of the book discussion was conducted over the appetizers, while I was still juggling the oven temperature and timing of the potluck dishes, so I may not have caught all the comments that were made but we’ll start by saying that the reaction was generally positive. There was discussion of the author’s young age and the youthfulness of her writing. The humorous  aspects of her writing were appreciated by many of the prospective members. (I must also admit, I didn’t quite have their names down yet. I should have had name tags.) I believe it was Chris (Christine?) who told the origin story of Belles Lettres. Apparently, when the author was a child and away at camp, the author’s mother received a letter from the mother of another girl who was at the same camp which was not at all complimentary in its references to the author. For whatever reason, the author’s mother included the letter in a package of items sent to her daughter at camp!

Chris (Kris?) also noted that many of the stories had the little twist of macabre, not unlike the writing of Flannery O’Connor. This Todd was mentioned as an example, and Sue (Susan) mentioned that she feared the possibly grim ending of Wash Clean the Bones. Others mentioned the number of stories with eating disorders.

At this point there was a hypothetical discussion about white guilt — if we were white women discussing the book what would our reaction be? There was a great deal of discussion here which I won’t go into but there was some talk of a white woman letting her white grandson give an essentially black-face nutcracker with big google eyes as a Christmas ornament gift to his black teacher. Crazy stuff.

One of the prospective members arrived a little late and it was just about time for dinner, so I will describe the potluck offerings. Letta made her blue ribbon Macaroni and Five Cheese casserole: sharp white cheddar, colby, Monterey jack, provolone and cream cheese. She said she should get the extra points because she made it a-head of time. She also brought the corn bread, regular and jalapeño, no head jokes with that recipe. Della brought a tortellini pasta salad with cherry tomatoes, red pepper and mozzarella pearls, but she left out the Kalamata olives so it needed salt. She also made the party bread but we think she overdid it with the mustard. (Not a good night for Della, but she’s got a lot going on with that neighbor of hers and his anti-vac nonsense.) Charlotte (who gave us the Heads on Pikes) also brought the Cheesy White Bean Tomato Bake. Now, in fairness to Charlotte, I didn’t put the mozzarella cheese on at the end. She’d given the mozzarella to me in a tupperware container but we had so much cheese going on already, I put it the dish in the oven with just the parmesan with which she’d topped it. Here is the recipe for that: 

Celestia provided a Cauliflower Casserole which she modified (leaving out the broccoli because she’d talked to Jayne who was bringing a broccoli slaw.) It was tasty as it was but may have been even better with the broccoli. Here’s the unmodified recipe:

As I mentioned, Jayne gave us a broccoli slaw and one of the girls asked for the recipe. I was trying to protect Jayne’s image at dinner but I could tell that it was the Taylor Farms Broccoli Crunch Chopped Kit salad you can buy at the Jewel! She also provided the Vegetable Frittata which she said could be served at room temperature, but I think my room was a little too cold for that. Bessie’s offering was the Quinoa, Beet and Arugula Salad. Here is that recipe:

Bessie also brought some gluten free brownies to be served with your choice of two Ben & Jerry ice creams. We’d heard one of the girls had a gluten allergy, but she wasn’t able to attend. We hope nothing terrible prevented her from coming and we hope the young woman with the positive Covid result just had a false positive! 

The last item on the menu was the famous in the 70’s Strawberry Pretzel Salad and no one asked for the recipe but I know you want it:

I’m certain more was said about the book but I went right to bed after you left and tutored all the next day, while explaining to everyone why I wasn’t there the previous day, so I’m out.