Category Archives: Book Reviews

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  320

Expected Publication Date:  August 1, 2017

Format:  E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

 

An intense collection of stories, each one told from the perspective of a young girl living in NYC in the 1990s with parents who had immigrated from Shanghai.  The stories demonstrate the manifestations and aftermath of the trauma experienced by the parents in Mao era China and the varying coping mechanisms they utilize.  Some parents drink excessively, others work such long hours such that they almost never see their children, while others cannot get enough of their children and are by their sides at all times.  One father is physically abusive to his wife while another has an endless string of girlfriends.  There is a grandmother who feels the only worthy thing in life is being a mother, so attempts to become the mother to her grandchildren, confabulating about the days when she breastfed them.  She demands that they love her to an extreme.  These are stories that show how the horrors of a generation (the Chinese in 1960’s China) affect future generations of children (American-Chinese growing up in NYC in the 1990s.)

It is about the children of immigrants in a country where English is not their primary language.  It is about the interaction of these girls with both their families and the outside world.  One girl is made to go back to ESL classes with each move and new school district, even though she has placed out them them repeatedly.  There is an intensity to childhood friendships, a pushing and pulling, a competition that feels far more negative than positive.  The stories delve into the girls’ exploration of their bodies and developing understanding of sex.  It is often vulgar and disturbing.  The emotional aspect of keeping up with peers about sex and foul language is a weight on some of these girls.  The language the children use, both in conversation with each other and with their parents,  is often angry and vulgar.  There is desperation and depression felt through these characters.  These girls are coming of age, learning about themselves and their bodies, learning about their place in the world.  It is all at once confusing, disastrous and exciting for them.

In addition to portraying 1990’s NYC, the author offers glimpses of the year 1966 in China, when schools were out and children ran wild.  The children were given the freedom and power to turn on any adult, accuse them of being counterrevolutionary, and proceed to torture and even kill them.  One disturbing scene had a teacher tortured while tied to a tree by her students out of revenge for shaming one of the students in school.   Anyone could be named counterrevolutionary.  Particularly, anyone who wore their hair long and loose, anyone thought to be an intellectual, a member of the bourgeois class… or simply as a personal vendetta.

The writing is marvelous.  Jenny Zhang is a masterful storyteller.  However, the content is graphic.  It is often horrifying, disturbing and seemingly distasteful. There is no sugar coating on these stories.  These stories are full of grit, grime and dirt.  There is anger, depression, sadness and sometimes joy.  For me, Zhang was a unique original voice.   I am glad I read these stories, but I caution others who might be sensitive to foul language or graphic subject matter.  Sour Heart is the first book to be published with the LENNY imprint, a new imprint, in partnership with Random House, led by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner.

 

Jenny Zhang, the author, her twitter image

Discussion Guide:

  1.  Do the characters in this book face discrimination?  In what forms did it manifest?  Who feels self hatred because of race  and why?
  2. Explain the title of the novel.  Which character is referred to as sour?  Why do you think she is this way?
  3. Many of the characters in this novel are searching for ways to be love or people to love them.  Why is this such a strong theme within this book?
  4. How do you think most of the characters felt? What was their emotional state of mind?
  5. These stories are all told from the female perspective.  Would you describe the writing as feminist?  Why or why not?
  6. Zhang does an excellent job illustrating various experiences of Chinese American families in NYC in the 1990s.  How does she portray/sterotype other races (Dominican, Caucasian, Taiwanese, Hispanics, Blacks) within her stories?
  7. Did you feel that the vulgarity within this book was over the top or genuine to the experience?
  8. What is the motivation for Lucy’s mother to take Frangie in?  How does Lucy retaliate?
  9. In many of these stories there is a competition to be loved most.  Why do you think Annie’s mother needs to be the center of attention and feel the most loved?  Why is this also true for Stacy’s grandmother?
  10. Discuss the evolution of Jenny’s relationship with her brother and how this changes with age.
  11. Mande’s parents have a physically abusive relationship.  Mande and Fanpin become friends because of their mothers.  Why do you think Fanpin becomes domineering over Mande?
  12. What do you suppose happens after Mande’s mother gets pushed out of the car?  Do they go back for her?  Does she survive?
  13. Discuss some of the self destructive behaviors exhibited by the characters in these stories.  Why are these characters becoming self destructive?
  14. We know that the author was born in Shanghai and grew up in Queens.  In one story the protagonist is Jenny.  In another, the family name is Zhang.  How autobiographical do you think these stories or any one story might be for the author?

 

Jenny Zhang’s website

Interview with Jenny Zhang by Charlotte Shane in Medium

Kirkus Review of Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  462

Published:  September 6, 2016

Awards:  Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Historical Fiction (2016)

Format:  Audiobook

 

 

This was a gorgeously written book reminiscent All the Light We Cannot See in the beauty of its writing and the descriptiveness of its prose.  Count Alexander Rostov has come before a tribunal in the year 1922 because of a controversial piece of poetry written back in 1905.  If found guilty of inciting action against the current Bolshevik regime through the writing and distribution of this poem, which he is,  he could be killed or sent to Siberia.  However, instead, he is  placed under house arrest.  As he had been living in the Hotel Metropol, this is where he will remain.  Upon receiving his sentence he is moved up to a small room in the attic and out of his luxurious suite.  He must  choose among his belongings which to take with him.

After the tribunal, the Count seems to shrink himself away and even contemplates suicide briefly,  However, very soon he returns to life again and the reader begins to know the real Count.  The Count is first and foremost a gentleman.  He is a man of intellect, with exquisite manners and refined tastes, a loyal friend, and a man who believes in doing things the right way.  He is charming and charismatic.  He is a man to love throughout this novel.  When he takes on a task, he does it to his utmost ability.  Once he has come to terms with life within the confines of the hotel, it becomes a mini city for him.  Young Nina, the Eloise of the hotel, becomes his tour guide creating a playground of the landscape.  Willowy Anna Urbanova becomes his lover.  He begins to work in the Boyarski, one of the hotel’s restaurants.  He develops close relationships with Emil the chef, Andrey the matre’ d, and Vasily the concierge and they begin to have nightly meetings together.

It is within the confines of the hotel, that the Count must view Russia, the war and it’s changing political landscape.  His friend Mishka from school visits off and on, and seems to suffer from the changing times.  Nina, an idealist and thinker, grows up and marries.  She returns asking the Count to care for her daughter, Sofia,  while she seeks out her husband who has been taken away.  These are just a couple of the Count’s visitors through whose eyes the Count must view the outside world.  The Count while under house arrest for these 30 years, actually seems to be the  one who has been privileged.  He has escaped World War II.  He has escaped the replacement of a Tsarist aristocracy with Bolchevism.  Within the Hotel, the Count gains privilege as the head waiter of the Boyarsky.  He sets table arrangements for members of the Communist party and gains access to their conversations.  At the same time he is secretly councils one of the high ranking Soviet apparatchik in American and European language and culture.

There are many developments and twists as the story evolves, so I will say no more. It is an excellent book with well developed characters and interesting historical backdrop.  I listened to this, however, I would have much preferred to have read it.  Given the lengthy descriptions, I found myself tuning out at times and thinking of other things.  This is a novel that demands a lot of attention.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why do you think the Count was ordered to house arrest rather than a more severe punishment?
  2. What does Nina teach the Count?
  3. How do you think the Count was able to get away with meeting all the various people that he did?
  4. Who wrote the poem for which the Count is arrested?  Why do you think the Count protects his friend?  Why does he feel that by protecting his friend, he was actually the more protected?
  5. Describe life for Mishka during the Count’s 30 years in the hotel.  Compare and contrast this with the Count’s life.
  6. Why are the wine labels removed?
  7. Why do you think the Count is allowed as much autonomy as he does under house arrest?  Do you think this is realistic?
  8. What qualities make the Count a gentleman?  How do society’s negative connotations of aristocracy compare to the positive qualities of a gentleman?
  9. Why do you think Casablanca the Count’s favorite movie?  What does it suggest about the Count’s perception of his situation?
  10. Discuss the Count’s role as a father.
  11. At one point, the Count is accused of keeping all of his eggs in separate baskets.  Explain this.
  12. Discuss the scene on the rooftop with the beekeeper.
  13. Why is the reader asked to remember Prince Petrov?  How is his role important towards the end of the book?
  14. Discuss the ending of the book.  Where do you think Sofia and the Count will end up living?

 

Craig Taylor’s New York Times Review

Amor Towles Website

LitLovers Discussion Questions

Penguin Random House Discussion Guide

 

milk and honey by Rupi Kaur ~ Book Review

Pages: 204

Published: November 4, 2014

Format:  Paperback Book

 

 

 

 

this is the journey of 

surviving through poetry 

this is the blood sweat tears 

of twenty-one years 

this is my heart 

in your hands 

this is 

the hurting 

the loving 

the breaking 

the healing 

– rupi kaur

What a lovely collection of poetry that contains so much depth, beauty, love, pain, insight, wisdom and kindness!  It was amazing to me how much emotion, feeling and wisdom could be contained in so few words.  There is so much empowerment contained within this collection:  of women, femininity, and race.  While reading this, I wanted to be absolutely alone with the book without fear of interruption, so I could fully focus, digest and enjoy these poems.  The poem above is featured on the back of the book and is a brief synopsis of the book.

The poetry in this collection is divided into 4 segments.  The first labelled “the hurting” touches on topics of rape, sexual abuse, and abusive parenting.  It describes feelings of emptiness and suppression, however, also the ability to transcend the hurt with kindness.  It describes the fractured relationship left as a result of abuse.  “The loving” portion is about hope, qualities of a lover, love making, women’s bodies and sex.  “The breaking” is about heartbreak, games young lovers play, the bitter aspects of relationships, and relationships that break you down or want you to be someone you aren’t.  Rupi Kaur speaks of intense extremes of feelings and emotions.  Finally, “the healing” is about loving yourself, the strength within oneself, being contented with being alone.  It is about loving one’s own female body in it’s most natural form and all of the way it functions.  It’s about the power of vulnerability, openness and kindness.  It’s about celebrating and supporting other women’s successes rather than their failures.  It is about celebrating feminine beauty in all its different colors, shapes and sizes.

Beautiful, kind, loving!  The sketches throughout this book are perfect and add to the poetry, almost seeming to be poetry in and of themselves.  I highly recommend this to every woman, especially the late teen and twenty-something set.  I recommend buying the actual book, to enjoy the words, the sketches and probable re-readings.

Rupi Kaur is a Canadian who has created a lot of attention for herself through the use of social media (#poetryisnotdead).  She was born in Punjab, India and moved to Canada at the age of 4.  Not speaking any English, she was inspired by her mother to draw and paint.  In 2014, Kaur self published milk and honey,  however it was so popular that a publishing company picked it up and republished it in 2015.  Kaur posted a picture on Instagram in March 2015 of herself in bed with a menstrual stain on her sweatpants as part of a project aimed at destigmatizing menstruation.  Instagram removed the photo and others in the series, which Kaur argued proved her point.  Instagram later restored the picture, saying it had been removed by mistake.

 

 

Rupi Kaur’s website

 

The Drive: Searching for Lost Memories on the Pan-American Highway by Teresa Bruce ~ Book Review

Pages:  320

Published:  June 13, 2017

Format:  E-book care of Netgalley

 

 

 

 

“It isn’t practical, my quest to find my rolling childhood home and say a thirty-years-too-late goodbye to a four-year-old-boy.”

This is a memoir of Teresa Bruce who travels the Pan-American Highway in an avion camper with her husband Gary shortly after marriage.  This trip mirrors the trip that Teresa went on as a young girl in 1974 with her parents and her sister 2 years after the death of her younger brother.  The ultimate goal of the trip is to find the camper that her family had travelled in and eventually sold before heading home.   Ulterior motives include recollecting memories, exploring South America, reconnecting with people whose paths they crossed 30 years prior, understanding her parents better, and coming to terms with her brother’s death.  She seems particularly interested in learning about her parents’ motives and grieving process during this journey.  She does not recollect her parents talking about the death of her brother or even mentioning his name.  It is obvious when meeting people along this journey that her mother spoke to others very much about her dead brother, a realization that surprises the author.

To me, this journey felt very foolish.  Both trips contained near death experiences.  The travelers were pitted against corrupt police demanding bribes.  The travelers made poor choices.  For instance, Teresa brings a gun along, which haunts her the entire trip. They are continuously embarrassed by their apparent flaunting of wealth in their Avion with American plates as they drive through poverty stricken regions.  The writing is disjointed, the characters are coming undone…  So, for me, it was a tedious unenjoyable read.

The journey begins after a visit to Teresa’s home and parents.  What I couldn’t understand was why Teresa never engaged her parents in conversation about the past rather than decide to relive this journey, that for her, didn’t seem enjoyable the first time.  I took a chance on this book from netgalley knowing that I needed to read a travel memoir as part of the BookRiot 2017 reading challenge.  I almost gave up so many times.  I’m surprised that I actually read to the end.  The writing felt disjointed.  It read like diary entries that had been slightly reworked with some facts and tidbits thrown in about the history & geography of the area that didn’t necessary fit with the driving themes of the book.


Map of the Pan-American Highway from Brilliant Maps

 

 

 

 

 

Photo of Teresa Bruce, her husband Gary, and her dog, Wipeout, who accompanies them on the trip until her death in front of the Avion.  Picture taken from the Facebook page for “The Drive.”

 

We Shall Not All Sleep by Estep Nagy ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  288

Expected Publication Date:  July 4, 2017

Format:  E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

 

I thought this book was quite brilliant, very literary, and highly intriguing.  It takes place over a few days, however, there are flashbacks to earlier times such that the reader gets a much longer and larger view into the lives of the characters.

The setting is July 1964 during the era of McCarthyism on Seven Island in northern Maine.  Seven is a fictional island home to two very wealthy families whose history is interconnected dating back to  the 1700s.  In present day, each family owns a beautiful house on the island, one yellow and one white.  There is a barn for the animals and outbuildings for the staff, all in bright red.  The Hillsingers are in one house and the Quicks are in the other.  Interestingly, although their histories are connected and the men of these houses married two sisters, their lives have been very separate until these 3 days spent on the island where past and present collide.  There is a huge cast of characters which includes  Billy Quick, Jim Hillsinger, their immediate families, their guests, and the staff.  Within each chapter past and present are described  and the narration jumps from one situation to another.  At first I found this confusing and difficult to track, but fairly quickly on, I had figured out who was who and reading this book was like watching a movie unfold.  It really had a cinematic quality of switching from one scene to another as in a movie.  I can’t compare this quality of the book to another like it, it seemed quite unique.  The effect was tantalizing and compelling, making this a very quick read.  The storyline builds and compounds as the novel progresses reaching the crescendo point by the end.

I won’t say much more as I don’t want to give too much away.  I would definitely recommend this book.  It would make a great beach read as well as a great book club choice.  It contains many historical elements without feeling like it is beating you over the head with them.  They simply exist in the book only because they are important to explaining the characters and their situation.    There are no wasted words in this novel.  It is written succinctly, beautifully and intentionally.   However, the reader, needs to pay close attention, or will miss something.  In short, well written, well researched and well worth the read!

Discussion Questions:

  1.  John Wilkie says “Seven Island is impossible.”  What does he mean by this?  Why does lila enjoy this comment?
  2. In the ARC version, lila’s name is not capitalized while the other characters names are.  Why do you think this is?  What effect does it have on the reader?
  3. “We shall not all sleep” is part of 1 Corinthians “Behold, I tell you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.”  which is also part of the dedication of this novel.  Explain the title and it’s meaning in the context of this novel.
  4. Jim Hillsinger’s father is referred to only as “Old Man.”  Why do you think this is?  Does this have the effect of building him up or diminishing him?
  5. Catta dreams of an eagle dropping out of the sky hunting a rabbit.  Why do you think this it?
  6. Why was it important to Catta to know whether or not the eagles’ nest was a lie or not?
  7. Why was it important for the Old Man to have Catta spend the night on Baffin?
  8. Why does lila find herself now in love with Billy Quick when previously she had merely tolerated him?   What has changed?
  9. In the final conversation between Jim and Billy, Billy is left with the impression that Jim had traded his wife for a list of names.  What do you think the future holds for Billy, Jim and Lila?  Where will there relationships go from here?
  10. Describe the character of James.  Why does he get away with his violent schemes?

Practicing Normal by Cara Sue Achterberg ~ Book Review

Pages:  336

Expected Publication:  June 6, 2017

Format: E-book from Netgalley

 

 

 

 

As with most ‘women’s literature’ I found things to love and things to hate within this novel.  I think the title is brilliant.  What family isn’t practicing normal?  Every family has it’s own struggles and issues that it is dealing with.  Society expects certain behaviors from people and many families struggle to live up to expectations, both expectations they hold for themselves and those they perceive others to hold of them.

This novel is told from three perspectives:  that of the Dad, Everett;  that of the mother, Kate; and that of the daughter, Jenna.  Within this family unit, there is also an autistic brother, who does not serve as a narrator.

One of my biggest struggles with “women’s literature” is this theme of putting up with an awful male partner for the sake of the family.  This book is a prime example of this.  Kate, the mother, has given up a nursing career she very much enjoyed in order to be there for her family and care for her mother who lives down the street.  She has no friends or outside interests that she pursues.  Her whole life revolves around her family.  However, her husband is absent and deceitful.   One of her his mistresses has already shown up on the doorstep introducing herself and she’s very suspicious he’s cheating again.  He is “working” all hours and constantly checking his phone.  Kate’s mother thinks he’s a louse, but Kate would rather continue putting up with it all, denying the obvious.  Maybe this is to keep up appearances, maybe to prove something to herself, maybe to prove something to her mother.. maybe she is practicing some kind of normal she had hoped for.  The thing that made me most angry about the relationship between Kate and Everett is when she relates a story where Everett raped her.  Since then she is more submissive  to his sexual advances, not wanting a repeat incident.  Kate’s son requires a lot of attention due to Asperger’s and only she and her daughter Jenna seem to know how to relate to him.  Kate’s mother also is increasingly relying on her, refusing to leave her home down the street and refusing to cook for herself.

Everett is an egomaniacal child in an adult’s body.  He is always putting himself first.  He has no real relationship with his children.  He has been caught in one affair and is currently in the midst of another.  He is constantly exchanging text messages while at home with the other woman, Veronica.  He is continually visiting his mistress under the guise of woking late or needing to run out of the house at all hours for something that just came up at work.  He is also attempting to understand Kate and her sister’s blood relationship to their parents through DNA evidence, without first consulting Kate in this matter.

Jenna seems to be the most self-honest and most relatable character to me.  As she is capable of taking care of herself, she is largely left to her own devices.  She is fully aware of her father’s infidelity.  She avoids him and refers to him by first name.  She is angry, dresses in black, has short spiky hair, multiple piercings and spends her days breaking into neighbor’s houses.  She doesn’t break in to steal per se, but to check things out, spend time with cats, experience someone else’s domain.   She gets caught breaking into the neighbor’s house across the street around the same time that their son, the high school football star, is taking a break from football because of his grades.  She begins spending time with this unlikely friend, Wells. The woman with the cats, Cassie, also aware of Jenna’s presence in her home, begins paying Jenna for her time spent playing and feeding her cats.  Wells and Jenna spend time with each other in Cassie’s home, which becomes a refuge for them and their developing closeness.  Jenna, who had seemed such a misfit starts to come of age, grow and become happy with herself.

In the end, Kate does finally awake from her self-delusion.  It is interesting how Kate’s life and her mother’s were similar in their solitary confinement as they tried to practice normal and hide from the glaring problems their family was built on.  If you enjoy “women’s literature,” you will probably love this book.  It is well written and there is a nice metamorphosis of the characters as they are developed within the novel.

 

Cara Sue Achterberg’s Blog

Review by Olga, author, translator, forensic psychiatrist

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall ~ Book Review

Pages:  287

Published:  January 2009

Awards:  Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction (2009)

Format:  Audiobook

 

 

 

 

“You don’t stop running because you get old, you get old because you stop running”

This book is an insightful, fascinating and inspirational look into the world of long distance running.  There is a group of people, known as the Tarahumara, who live in the cliff sides of Copper Canyon in Mexico.  This is a lawless area where Tarahumara enjoy relative isolation.   The only other people who spend time in this area are the drug lords.  The Tarahumara run long distances as part of their culture and tradition.  They are a peaceful people who enjoy longevity and a life without crime or mental illness.  They are mistrusting of the outside world, as in the past they have been exploited, enslaved and even decapitated.  They eat a diet composed mostly of corn and corn beer. This novel seeks to understand the world of ultra marathoners, both of those who run as part of their culture in the case of the Tarahumara and those who are drawn to it despite their culture.

I always felt that running great distances was a detriment to one’s health, that running should be done in moderation so as not to wear out one’s body.  However, this book changed my thinking.  The feats that the runners in this book were capable of was awe inspiring.  This book makes the reader believe and understand that we were made to run, we should run and furthermore, that running should be enjoyable.

A group of researchers back in the 1980s came to the realization that human beings were not evolved to be walkers like their closest relative, the chimpanzee.  Human beings were evolved to be runners, to track their prey over long distances.  This is why humans have nuchal ligaments, achilles tendons, an amazing foot structure,  a stride greater than a horse’s, and a pattern of respiration that is not fixed to their stride.  The injuries we see now from running did not exist prior to the advent of the modern running shoe.  With the modern running shoe, feet become weaker.  With the modern running shoe, pain signals are not sent to the brain to indicate improper form.  Thus, poor form and injuries result.  The modern day running shoe has led to an increase in heart disease, knee replacements, and more sedentary lifestyles.  If we trained and ran more like our ancestors we would be much healthier and happier.

Listening to this audio book, I was enthralled by the stories, especially of the races.  Who knew that telling of an account of a 100 mile race could be so riveting and exciting?  Not I.  At least, not until I listened to the tales of the races in this book, including Leadville races and the ultimate race in Copper Canyons.  This is one sport where women can excel and often prevail over the men.  Consider this statistic:  90% of females finish ultra marathons, while only 50% of the men do.  There is great psychology involved in these races according to the author.  The racers often think of themselves as hunter or prey in order to motivate themselves.  In the case of the Tarahumara, there is the joy of sharing a tradition, running together as a people.    It is “character” that the author concludes makes a truly great runner.  Scott Jurek was able to find his tribe wherever he went, transcending cultures and communities, always demonstrating tremendous character.

There was were amazing pearls of advice streaming throughout this novel.  I was mentally storing those I thought would be important for myself and will share some of them here. Stretching leads to more injuries.  It is best to skip it.  The more cushioned the sneakers, the more likely they will lead to injury.  If you are running in a cushioned sneaker, try to add in some barefoot runs in dewy grass.  If you start running long distances, diet should come about naturally to aid the running lifestyle.  A nutrient rich vegan diet is best for a leaner, healthier body.  In the beginning, especially if you are looking to take off some weight, you should run below the aerobic threshold, in the fat-burning zone.  Building up endurance in this zone will make you stronger on longer runs.  The best form when running is to run with a short stride and quick foot turnover.  You should feel as if you have a rope tied around your middle and you are pulling something heavy.  Being a good person, it seems makes you a better runner.  Improving personal relationships and practicing abundance by giving back are pieces of advice given by running coaches.  Vigil, a long time running coach, also advises “ask nothing from your running and you’ll get more than you ever imagined.”

The Tarahumara, a culture of the greatest runners on earth share the following core virtues:  patience, strength, dedication, persistence and cooperation.  Other great runners seem to share these same characteristics, bringing them together in a beautiful community.  The Tarahumara is perhaps the last remaining culture on earth that still incorporates long distance running into their life and culture.  They reap the benefits in health, community and joyfulness.  As scientists have discovered, we were evolved to be runners.  As Dr. Bramble puts it, “Just move your legs.  Because if you don’t think you were born to run, you’re not only denying history.  You’re denying who you are.”

This book convinced me that “running is our superpower, entrenched in the human imagination.”  I have already started to run more because of this book.  I am trying not to be obsessed with heart rate and pace, but to enjoy the meditative aspects of it more.  I highly recommend this book to everyone who runs or is even thinking about running.

The Tarahumara

 

Ann Trason

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scott Jurek & Arnulfo running in Copper Canyon

 

 

Barefoot Ted

 

 

 

 

Jenn Shelton and Billy Barnett

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review of Born to Run by Dan Zak from the Washington Post

Review by Pete Larson on his Runblogger website with some great links

 

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  272

Published: April 25, 2017

Format: E-book from Netgalley

 

 

 

 

5 HUGE STARS!  AMAZING!  INCREDIBLE!  FULL OF KINDNESS, COMPASSION AND HUMANITY!

I have been looking forward to this book ever since I heard it was coming out.  It is a companion book to ‘My Name is Lucy Barton which was published last year.  ‘My Name is Lucy Barton’ largely involves conversation between Lucy Barton and her mother in the hospital where Lucy remains hospitalized with complications of appendicitis. It is what is unsaid that is so powerful in that book. The reader becomes aware of extreme poverty and abuse in Lucy’s childhood. Lucy and her siblings were mostly shunned by the other children of their town. However, Lucy has made it out of Amgash, Illinois. She is married though that marriage is failing. She is a writer. She is looking forward, but during this time with her mother, she is also looking back. ‘My Name is Lucy Barton’ is so intriguing, but it leaves the reader with so many questions. So, I could not have been any happier upon hearing that this book was being published.

Anything is Possible, published about one year after My Name is Lucy Barton is told in short stories focusing on different people’s lives in adulthood who had lived in the town Lucy had grown up in. It reminds me so much of Olive Kitteridge in the manner in which it is written. Each short story could be published in it’s own right, however, the flow of these stories and their connections to each other make for an incredible read.

It is heartrendingly beautiful, so full of life and heartache. It is so full of humanity.. of the human experience. It describes feelings, emotions, nuances of relationships so well. You experience the pushes and pulls of family, town and the world on the individuals in these stories. Amgash is a small poor town in rural Illinois. There are not many opportunities for upward mobility if one ends up living in town. Those who escape lead vastly different lives, but their pasts continue to haunt them.

Each story is intense in it’s own right. Each tells of a realization of self or family that is immensely important and a turning point in that person or family’s life. Some of these stories had me sobbing, they were that emotional and real. They are all deeply affecting stories, each and every one. They were so compelling that I would not want to stop reading at night. Despite wanting to keep moving ahead, I could have read the same sentence over and over and extracted more meaning from it each time. Each sentence was so loaded and powerful.

But, really what is most special about the book is the message or maybe the many messages. This book tells us that loving imperfectly is ok. Loving imperfectly can be lovely. It tells us that no one is alone, there are always others with shared similar experiences. It demonstrates how a simple small act of compassion can have such a huge impact and effect on the lives of others. It teaches us that feeling pain is actually a gift, for were we not to feel pain, that would be the real tragedy. This novel is about reconnecting with the past and making amends before death. It is about recognizing heroes and heroines, masked in normal everyday clothing. And of course, Elizabeth Strout does all this so eloquently and lovingly. This is a must read.. definitely my favorite book this year!

 

Elizabeth Strout’s website

Review by Heller McAlpin for NPR

Review by Anthony Domestico in the Boston Globe

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What is the meaning of the title?
  2. Discuss the relationship of this book to ‘My Name is Lucy Barton.’ Do you think this book was a necessary counterpart?  Is this book worthy of standing alone, aside from reading ‘My Name is Lucy Barton’?
  3. Was there a particular character in these stories you most enjoyed or related to?  Who and why?
  4. Discuss the effects of extreme poverty and abuse on various characters in this novel?  How was Pete affected? Lucy?
  5. Discuss Lucy Barton’s father?  How did his past affect the way he treated his children?  How are Pet and his father similar?
  6. Discuss the secret Tommy keeps from his wife after the fire.  What happens when Tommy shares this secret with his wife?
  7. Discuss the theme of sexual inability or lack of sexual desire as relates to childhood experiences.  (Pete, Patty, Siggy)
  8. Discuss the pain that Charlie and Siggy share.  Do you think this is what attracts Patty to each of them?
  9. Discuss Linda Nicely’s complicity in Jay’s escapades.  Why is she complicit?  Why does she stay with him?
  10. Discuss the effect of compassion on someone who is not expecting it:  Patty towards Lila Lane and Karen-Lucie towards Linda Nicely.
  11. Discuss the “Hit-Thumb Theory” (the spaciousness of calm before the crash and crush of real pain) and how it relates to this novel.
  12. Compare and contrast Mary Mumford’s life in Italy as and aging woman to what it would have been in Amgash.  What is it that causes Angelina to finally recognize the heroine in her mother?
  13. Dotty owns a B&B and gets to know the guests in different ways.  Why does she feel used by Shelby and her husband yet endeared to Charlie?
  14. Annie feels a closeness with and upon understanding her father better.  Explain this.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  272

Published:  June 28th, 2016

Awards:  Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Memoir and Autobiography;  New York Times #1 Bestseller; Named by The Times as “One of six books to help understand Trump’s win”

Format:  E-book

 

This is a memoir from the point of view of a “hillbilly”  growing up in the Rust Belt of America.  He is an anomaly of sorts in that he was able to escape the circumstances of  his past and become such a success story.  His mother was an addict and abusive.  He, as a child, was a victim of her abuse.  She had a rotation of husbands and boyfriends continuously entering and leaving their lives.  Despite this, he was able to move on.  After high school, he joined the marines and served in Iraq.  Then, he went on to Ohio State and Yale Law School.  His story drew me in right away.  He tells his story through this lens:  “…for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.”

He tells his own life story alongside statistics and study data of the area, its people and culture at large.  I found this a fascinating read from a voice in a corner of the world we do not often hear from.  It provides certain insights and offers plenty of discussion points.  It is incredible that he had the resilience of character combined with the alignment of certain factors that gave him the will and drive to succeed as he did.  He comes across with great humility attributing his success to these factors that did align in the right way for him.  He could have just as easily, perhaps more easily fallen into a life of addiction and poverty.

Mamaw is a crucial supporter for J.D. Vance and a relentless voice encouraging him to be more, to think bigger for himself.  Mamaw and Papaw had moved to Ohio for factory jobs from southeastern Kentucky alongside so many others.  There is a reference to Dwight Yokam’s song “Reading, Rightin’, Rt. 23” and how relatable this was to Mamaw as well as much of Appalachia at that time.  When J.D.’s mother and aunt were growing up, Papaw was an alcoholic and the relationship between the parents was stormy, even violent at times.  Mamaw eventually kicked Papaw out and becomes a guiding force and bright light for J.D. as well as for many other of her grandchildren and great grandchildren, even though this stability was not provided for her own children. Papaw serves as her sidekick, still living in his separate house, sober now.

There is a fair amount of discussion within the book about how Appalachia and the South went from firmly Democratic to firmly Republican in less than a generation.   According to this book, there was a perceived unfairness to unemployment checks, whereby those not working would seem to actually have more luxuries, like cell phones, than those who were working hard.  Also, in the realm of housing, people could live in Section 8 housing with help from the government and be neighbors to others who are paying their full share.  Obama was apparantly unpalatable to the hillbilly people because he was so educated and spoke so differently from them.  They did not feel they could relate to him.  Oh, and maybe there was some racism involved too (but this point was strangely mentioned almost as an afterthought.)  This is a class of people, strongly united in their identity, but left feeling hopeless and disenfranchised with the loss of industry where they were previously employed.

This culture of blue collar worker with their tight knit community has higher than average levels of drug and alcohol dependence, divorce, and poverty.  The children of this community are less likely to go on to college.  The men are more likely not to work.  Those that do go off to college are unlikely to come back to their home towns.  Thus, there occurs a  phenomenon referred to as “brain drain.”  This cycle is self perpetuating and reinforcing.  It is “a culture of social decay” as J.D. Vance puts it.  There is also a “learned helplessness, ” in other words, a feeling that there is nothing these people can do to change their own circumstances.

Politically, this book is very interesting.  J.D. Vance blames the hillbilly culture for their own situation.  He believes in hard work and personal responsibility despite hardships.  His views are very conservative.

J.D. Vance is a venture capitalist in Ohio hoping to give back to the community he came from.  I will be very interested in seeing how he does give back, especially after painting such a bleak outlook for the potentiality of a solution to the problems faced by these people.  He does say that the one thing he’d most like to change about the white working class is “the feeling that our choices don’t matter.”  With his law background, it will be interesting to see if he decides to jump into politics at some point.  He certainly seems interested in public policy, although skeptical of the magic bandaid.  This is an interesting, thought provoking book providing insight into a region, a class of people, as well as a pivotal period in history.

J.D. & Mamaw                               J.D. Vance

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Do you feel that you learned more about the culture of Appalacia through this novel?  Do you feel it was accurately portrayed?  Why might some people in Appalacia take issue with this novel?
  2. Discuss the guiding forces in J.D. Vance’s life that allowed him to succeed.  Discuss the role of the military in shaping his perspective and work ethic.
  3. Discuss the psychological effects of J.D.’s background on his current personal life.
  4. Why is social capital important?  How does this change for the author through his life?
  5. How would you describe J.D. Vance’s political views?  If he were a politician, who policy changes would he lobby for?
  6. Explain this “learned helplessness” that J.D. Vance talks about.
  7. Why would Donald Trump as a presidential candidate appeal to this group of people?  What do you think they hope from him?
  8. Discuss Vance’s feeling of dislocation upon graduating from Yale. How does he come to terms with them or does he?
  9. Towards the end of the book, Vance asks himself, “How much is Mom’s life her own fault?  Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?”  What are your thoughts?
  10. Do you think this book would have received so much attention had it not been an election year?  … had Trump not been a candidate?
  11. What does this book say about the American Dream?  Where and for whom is this dream alive?  Where has it died?
  12. Did you feel that that J.D. Vance was blaming the victim as many of his critics have complained?

 

 

Review by Jennifer Senior in the NY Times

Review by Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker

Discussion Questions by LitLovers

Ron Dreher’s interview with J.D. Vance in The American Conservative

 

 

 

Maybe in Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  342

Published:  July 7, 2015

Format:  Audible

 

 

 

 

Light, fluffy, easy to listen to audible book.  This is a story about a young woman at a critical transition point in her life and how a small decision can lead to two different outcomes in her life.  She is in her late twenties, has just ended a relationship with a married man, is pregnant unbeknownst to her, and has just moved back to Los Angeles from the east coast.  It is the ‘Sliding Doors’ concept of following the characters past this one decision through two alternate realities.  Comparing the two realities, some things turn out differently, others the same.  In fact there are some parts that are repeated verbatim from one chapter to the next adding an element of redundancy.

There are serious life events and crises that occur within this novel, however, I did not feel like I really got to know the characters well.   Hannah, the main character, wears a high bun and loves cinnamon rolls.  These two descriptors seem to be who and what Hannah is, as they are repeated so often.  Despite the potentiality of depth given the crises that occur, it remained superficial.  The characters were G rated, lacking edginess or darkness to round them out or create intrigue for me.  Even the cheaters who hurt the main characters seem to be easily forgiven and possibly even understood by Hannah and her best friend, Gabby.

Gabby is more to Hannah than even Hannah’s family is, as Hannah’s family ran off to London while Hannah was still in high school to support Hannah’s younger sister’s dancing career.  Hannah lived with Gabby and her parents for the rest of high school.  The friendship between Gabby and Hannah is great.  It is supportive and understanding, lacking drama (in a good way).  Gabby is very concerned with wording.  She wants those around her to be politically correct and not be image conscious, to understand what really matters.   This is the part of Gabby that is especially emphasized throughout the novel.  It also contrasted sharply with Hannah repeatedly referring to herself as fat when she was pregnant.  I have to say that drove me crazy.

In all, I think the concept was wonderful, however the execution was lacking.  If you feel like a super easy, no need to think much, beach read, then maybe pick this one up.  Otherwise, I’d recommend skipping it.  

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Do you think that there are decisions you make that affect the rest of your life?  How often are these decisions made?  How about other people’s decisions affecting your life?
  2. Was there a life path that you preferred for Hannah?  Did one of these resonate with you more than the other?
  3. Hannah says “Believing in fate is like believing in cruise control.”  What is the message within the book of fate versus free will?
  4. Why does Gabby feel the need to be so politically correct and make sure that those around her are as well?
  5. Hannah and Gabby have a conversation about soul mates.  Do you believe that there is one person everyone is destined to be with or are there multiple someones that would be good?  What do you think the author believes?
  6. Hannah feels estranged from her parents and sister as they moved to London while she was still in high school and she stayed behind to live with Gabby’s family.  How does her relationship with her family evolve in each of the realities?
  7. Discuss the role that cinnamon rolls play in this novel.

 

Review by Aestas Book Blog

Lit Lovers Discussion Questions