November 2019: Women Talking, by Miriam Toews

Tuesday, November 5th, 2019 – discussion lead: Jan

From Goodreads: One evening, eight Mennonite women climb into a hay loft to conduct a secret meeting. For the past two years, each of these women, and more than a hundred other girls in their colony, has been repeatedly violated in the night by demons coming to punish them for their sins. Now that the women have learned they were in fact drugged and attacked by a group of men from their own community, they are determined to protect themselves and their daughters from future harm.

While the men of the colony are off in the city, attempting to raise enough money to bail out the rapists and bring them home, these women—all illiterate, without any knowledge of the world outside their community and unable even to speak the language of the country they live in—have very little time to make a choice: Should they stay in the only world they’ve ever known or should they dare to escape?

Based on real events and told through the “minutes” of the women’s all-female symposium, Toews’s masterful novel uses wry, politically engaged humor to relate this tale of women claiming their own power to decide.

The Guardian interiew with the author hereMiriam Toews: ‘I needed to write about these women. I could have been one of them’

About the author: 

From wikipedia: Miriam Toews (/ˈteɪvz/; born 1964) OM is a Canadian writer, best known for her novels A Complicated Kindness and All My Puny Sorrows. She has won a number of literary prizes including the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Writers’ Trust Engel/Findley Award for body of work. She is also a two-time finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and a two-time winner of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.

Toews had a leading role in the feature film Silent Light, written and directed by Mexican filmmaker, Carlos Reygadas and winner of the 2007 Cannes Jury Prize, an experience that informed her fifth novel, Irma Voth.

October 2019: Falling from Horses, by Molly Gloss

Tuesday, October 1st, 2019 – discussion lead: Anita

Gloss (The Hearts of Horses, 2007, etc.) presents moviemaking as anything but glamorous in this fictional memoir by an aging artist recalling his year as a movie extra/stuntman in 1938 Hollywood.

In a matter-of-fact, laconic, utterly authentic-sounding voice, narrator Bud Frazer describes the year he tried breaking into movies, as well as his childhood on a hardscrabble Oregon ranch and, to a lesser extent, the years after he left Hollywood to become an artist. Part of Bud’s charm is his own distrust of his memories, so readers forgive the old man (and by extension Gloss) for Bud’s tendency to ramble and repeat himself. Four years after his undemonstrative but loving family was rocked by his younger sister’s accidental death, barely 19-year-old Bud was working as an itinerant ranch hand in Oregon when he decided to head to Hollywood and become a movie cowboy. On the long bus ride south, he sat beside Lily Shaw, whose ambition was to write screenplays. Almost from the start, Bud makes it clear that while he and Lily would never be more than friends, their friendship was crucial to him while they were in Hollywood and has remained important long since their paths diverged. Lily began a slow rise from secretary to reader to writer while Bud’s first job at a barn supplying horses for low-budget films segued into work as a cowboy stuntman. The elder Bud looks back and second-guesses choices he made as a kid. But even as he drank and partied with a fast crowd, he continued attending movies with Lily once a week. While Lily persevered past her disillusionment to become a successful writer, Bud’s experiences on movie sets—the novel is brimming with instances of brutality to horses and their riders—made him realize Hollywood was not for him, and he moved on.

Don’t expect a neatly structured plot, but the acute sense of time and place, coupled with a cast of characters drawn with unsentimental but abiding affection, makes for a hypnotic read.

About the author: 

From Molly Gloss website: Molly Gloss is the author of several novels including The Jump-Off Creek, The Dazzle of Day, Wild Life, The Hearts of Horses and Falling From Horses, as well as the story collection Unforeseen. She writes both realistic fiction and science fiction, and her work has received, among other honors, a PEN West Fiction Prize, an Oregon Book Award, two Pacific Northwest Booksellers Awards, the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, and a Whiting Writers Award. A fourth-generation Oregonian, she lives in PortlandFrom Molly Gloss website:

September 2019: The Tubman Command, by Elizabeth Cobbs

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019 – discussion lead: Cheryll

Cobbs’ (The Hamilton Affair, 2016, etc.) third novel follows Harriet Tubman as she leads a crucial raid on behalf of the Union Army.

This novel veers away from what Tubman is primarily known for: engineering the Underground Railroad and smuggling, often single-handedly, fugitive slaves from the South to the North. Now, Tubman, aka Moses, is assisting Union troops hoping to turn the tide of the Civil War, which, as of May 1863, the North is losing. Up to now, there has been a hands-off policy toward civilian property, but it has dawned on the war office that Southern plantations constitute an unbroken supply chain for the “Secesh” resistance. A disastrous defeat in Charleston harbor has led certain officers, notably Col. Montgomery and Gen. Hunter, to espouse a new approach—crippling the slavery-based agrarian economy. Tubman and her small band of escaped slaves volunteer as scouts for a pivotal mission that forms the throughline of this novel: They are to guide U.S. gunboats, carrying 300 black soldiers, from their base on Port Royal Island to the South Carolina coast. On landing, Union forces intend to free hundreds of slaves and destroy the rice harvest. But to further this goal, the scouts must first determine the exact locations of underwater mines planted by the Rebels.

Under cover of night, Tubman twice sneaks behind enemy lines to a plantation to gain intel and alert the enslaved. Tubman’s world is vividly brought to life as we see her go about her daily routines: making gingerbread, befriending a cat, taking on humble duties in a military hospital. She is extolled by abolitionists in the North but still greeted with some suspicion on the part of the white Union military. Re-creating the speech patterns and culture of black and white characters alike, Cobbs strives for verisimilitude while avoiding caricature. Although Cobbs allows her heroine a brief love affair, her treatment of her protagonist is so reverential as to render Moses almost superhuman.

A stirring fictional tribute to an American icon.

About the author:

From Elizabeth Cobbs website: Award-winning historian Elizabeth Cobbs brings fresh, unexpected perspectives to our understanding of the past and present. Building upon worldwide research and extraordinary life experiences, Elizabeth writes best selling fiction and non-fiction that is both scholarly and witty. Her path-breaking books and articles reveal a world that is as intriguing and surprising as it is real.

Elizabeth earned her Ph.D. in American history at Stanford University. She now holds the Melbern Glasscock Chair at Texas A&M University and a Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Her books have won four literary prizes, two for American history and two for fiction. Elizabeth has been a Fulbright scholar in Ireland and a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. She has served on the Historical Advisory Committee of the U.S. State Department and on the jury for the Pulitzer Prize in History.

P.S. 9/6/19: The tuesday book discussion generated quite a few side-reading and site-thinking on the subject. Here are suggestions from the book-club members:

• Cheryll: Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, by by Sarah H. Bradford (free on Project Gutenberg – It turns out the original biography (Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman) written by Sarah Hopkins Bradford in 1869 is available from many sources for purchase. As I mentioned last night this was the first authorized biography about Harriet.

• Cheryll: Harriet, the Moses of Her People by Sarah H. Bradford (free on Project Gutenberg) – The flow of information in this second book was described as not being great making it a hard read. Apparently because if that the author wrote a second book titled “Harriet the Moses of Her People.” New information was added and it was writren in chronological order providing a clearer account of Harriet’s life. This book too is available for purchase at many locations and reasonably priced. I’ve decided to purchase the second book.

• Bev: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist – the real history of slavery and its impact on building the economic strength of the nation

• Carla: Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America by W. Caleb McDaniel – The book I referred to about a former slave- a woman named Henrietta Wood- sued her kidnapper and won a settlement in 1878. The book review made this book sound like a good read. It sounds like it has quite a bit about individual stories during reconstruction. It is probably too new to be in the library yet.

• Aleks: Alice Walker’s blog, different entries, this one is is titled: Raising A Memorial To The Confederate Soldier Who Did Not Want To Go To War

• Anita: Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, by Catherine Clinton, 2004. She has written several books about that time period, most about women like Woman’s World in the Old South, Women, War, and the Plantation Legend.

June 2019: Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity, by Katherine Boo

Tuesday, June 4, 2019 – discussion lead: Lynn

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity is a non-fiction book written by the Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo in 2012. It won the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize among many others. It has also been adapted into a play by David Hare in 2014, shown on National Theatre Live in 2015.

The book describes a present-day slum of Mumbai, India, named Annawadi, and located near the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. It follows the interconnected lives of several residents, including a young trash picker, a female “slumlord,” and a college student. The author is an American woman who often visited Mumbai with her husband, who was from the area and had a job in the city.

From The Guardian’s review by Amit Chaudhuri: […] For Katherine Boo, working on this intimate account of life in Annawadi was slow, uncertain and painful in a variety of ways. For this, her first book, Boo, a Pulitzer prize-winning staff writer on the New Yorker, spent much of her life between November 2007 and March 2011 in Annawadi, documenting events with “written notes, video recordings, audiotapes and photographs”. Since she doesn’t know any Indian languages, she had translators throughout, one of whom must have helped her understand the sort of rejoinder that Asha made to Robert, ex-slumlord and one of her tormentors. For middle-class people like me who grew up in Bombay, forays into slums were infrequent. One sensed the goings-on and exchanges inside them as one would a foreign world, without completely understanding what was being said, in spite of (unlike Boo) knowing the language.[…]

Good Reads’s (readers) reviews here.

About the author:

From Penguin Random House: […] Katherine Boo is the author of the National Book Award winner for Nonfiction, the 2013 PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award winner, and a 2013 Pulitzer finalist, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. In 2001, after many years spent exploring how people get out of poverty in the United States, she met Sunil Khilnani, an Indian writer and political historian. His country, which has one-third of the world’s poor and is also one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, became her country, too. Over time, moving between the U.S. and India, she came to feel that the style of reporting she practiced in America—a mix of intimate immersion and investigation—might have some value in India as well. From November 2007, when Boo first walked into Annawadi, until March 2011, when she completed her reporting, she documented the experiences of residents with written notes, video recordings, audiotapes, photographs, and thousands of public records. […]

May 2019: A Month in the Country, by J. L. Carr

Tuesday, May 7, 2019 – discussion lead: Bev

A Month in the Country is the fifth novel by J. L. Carr, first published in 1980 and nominated for the Booker Prize. The book won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1980.

The plot concerns Tom Birkin, a World War I veteran employed to uncover a mural in a village church that was thought to exist under coats of whitewash. At the same time another veteran is employed to look for a grave beyond the churchyard walls. Though Birkin is an unbeliever there is prevalent religious symbolism throughout the book, mainly dealing with judgment. The novel explores themes of England’s loss of spirituality after the war, and of happiness, melancholy, and nostalgia as Birkin recalls the summer uncovering the mural, when he healed from his wartime experiences and a broken marriage. In an essay for Open Letters Monthly, Ingrid Norton praised the novel’s subtlety:

The happiness depicted in A Month in the Country is wise and wary, aware of its temporality. When he arrives in Oxgodby, Birkin knows very well life is not all ease and intimacy, long summer days with “winter always loitering around the corner.” He has experienced emotional cruelty in his failed marriage. As a soldier, he witnessed death: destruction and unending mud.

But the edges are brighter for it. Birkin’s idyll in the country is brought into relief by what Birkin has gone through in the past and the disappointments that, it is implied, await him. Carr’s great art is to make it clear that joy is inseparable from the pain and oblivion which unmake it.

Many of the incidents in the novel are based on real events in Carr’s own life, and some of the characters are modelled on his own Methodist family.

About the author: 

From wikipedia: […]Joseph Lloyd Carr (20 May 1912 – 26 February 1994), who called himself “Jim” or even “James”, was an English novelist, publisher, teacher, and eccentric. […]

[…]In 1986 Carr was interviewed by Vogue magazine and, as a writer of dictionaries, was asked for a dictionary definition of himself. He answered: “James Lloyd Carr, a back-bedroom publisher of large maps and small books who, in old age, unexpectedly wrote six novels which, although highly thought of by a small band of literary supporters and by himself, were properly disregarded by the Literary World” […]

April 2019 – In Full Flight; one woman’s quest for atonement in Africa, by John Heminway

Tuesday, April 2, 2019 – discussion lead: Christine

As a member of the renowned Flying Doctors Service, Dr. Anne Spoerry treated hundreds of thousands of people across rural Kenya over the span of fifty years, earning herself the cherished nickname “Mama Daktari”—“Mother Doctor.” Yet few knew that what drove her from post-World War II Europe to Africa was a past marked by rebellion, submission, and personal decisions that earned her another nickname—this one sinister—while working as a “doctor” in a Nazi concentration camp.

In Full Flight explores the question of whether it is possible to rewrite one’s past by doing good in the present, and takes readers on an extraordinary journey into a dramatic life punctuated by both courage and weakness and driven by a powerful need to atone.

“There are no easy answers to glean from this tale of tragedy and atonement…Drawing on journals, long-buried files, and interviews with Spoerry and her friends, Heminway uncovers not only the doctor’s heroism and humanitarian efforts in Kenya but also the darker past that led to her emigration from Europe….[In Full Flight] is an important work that is sure to provoke discussion about wartime choices, moral courage, and whether it is possible to make amends.”
– Barrie Olmstead, Library Journal

About the author:

From the author’s website: John Heminway is a writer and filmmaker. Educated in New York, Switzerland, Massachusetts and at Princeton University, his award-winning body of work has focused on nature, science, history, biography, the American West and Africa.

Heminway’s filmmaking career at ABC Sports, Anglia Television, the Discovery Channel, PBS (WNET/Thirteen and WGBH), Disney and National Geographic Television, spans five decades and several hundred films. For PBS, he helped produce, write and direct “The Brain,” “The Mind” and the “Evolution” series, and has contributed to the Nature series. For four years he was the producer and the presenter/host of the PBS series, “Travels.” His many awards include two Emmys, two Peabodys and a DuPont Columbia Journalism award.

3/19 – The Guest Cat, by Takashi Hiraide

Tuesday, March 5, 2019 – discussion lead: aleks

A bestseller in France and winner of Japan’s Kiyama Shohei Literary Award, The Guest Cat, by the acclaimed poet Takashi Hiraide, is a subtly moving and exceptionally beautiful novel about the transient nature of life and idiosyncratic but deeply felt ways of living. A couple in their thirties live in a small rented cottage in a quiet part of Tokyo; they work at home, freelance copy-editing; they no longer have very much to say to one another.

But one day a cat invites itself into their small kitchen. It leaves, but the next day comes again, and then again and again. Soon they are buying treats for the cat and enjoying talks about the animal and all its little ways. Life suddenly seems to have more promise for the husband and wife — the days have more light and color. The novel brims with new small joys and many moments of staggering poetic beauty, but then something happens….

As Kenzaburo Oe has remarked, Takashi Hiraide’s work “really shines.” His poetry, which is remarkably cross-hatched with beauty, has been acclaimed here for “its seemingly endless string of shape-shifting objects and experiences, whose splintering effect is enacted via a unique combination of speed and minutiae.”

Nice review by Andrea (a girl who likes to read, a lot.) here…

About the author and the translator:

Takashi Hiraide was born in Moji, Kitakyushu in 1950. He has published numerous books of poetry as well as several books of genre-bending essays, including one on poetics and baseball. He currently lives in the west suburbs of Tokyo with a cat and his wife, the poet Michiyo Kawano.

Eric Selland (translator) lives in Tokyo. He is the author of The Condition of Music, Inventions, and Still Lifes.


P.S. 3/6/19.

While we were discussing ’The guest cat’ book in Carla’s home yesterday, a real guest cat let himself in and participated in the meeting – it went around than sat on Cheryll’s lap. (it’s a neighbor’s cat and it sometimes visits Carla). The killer was it looked exactly like Chibi on the book’s cover. Jan took the pic 🙂

2/19 – The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World, by Brian Doyle

Tuesday, February 5, 2019 – discussion lead: Liz

The New York Time writer, Jenny Davidson, titled her April 14, 2017 review “Robert 29939117johncarsonLouis Stevenson Never Wrote This Novel. So Brian Doyle Did It for Him.” She writes: […] The loose collection of stories that make up Brian Doyle’s new novel, “The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World,” offers an affectionate homage to the tale-telling prowess of the great Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson. Framed by an author’s preface and a factual afterword, the book is anchored in a real episode in Stevenson’s life, the stay of some months in San Francisco that culminated in his marriage to the newly divorced Fanny Osbourne. […]

The young Robert Louis Stevenson, living in a boarding house in San Francisco while waiting for his beloved’s divorce from her feckless husband, dreamed of writing a soaring novel about his landlady’s adventurous and globe-trotting husband—but he never got around to it. And very soon thereafter he was married, headed home to Scotland, and on his way to becoming the most famous novelist in the world, after writing such classics as Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Kidnapped.

About the author:

BRIAN DOYLE (1956-2017) was the longtime editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author of numerous books of essays, fiction, poems, and nonfiction, among them the novels Mink River, The Plover, Martin Marten, and Chicago. Honors for his work include the American Academy of Arts & Letters Award in Literature. He lived in Portland, Oregon. This was his last book.

1/19 – Silk, by Alessandro Baricco

Tuesday, January 8, 2019 – discussion lead: Karen

220px-Alessandro_baricco_silk_pbSilk (Italian: Seta) is a 1996 novel by the Italian writer Alessandro Baricco. It was translated into English in 1997 by Guido Waldman. A new English translation by Ann Goldstein was published in 2006.

The novel tells the story of a French silkworm merchant-turned-smuggler named Hervé Joncour in 19th century France who travels to Japan for his town’s supply of silkworms after a disease wipes out their African supply. His first trip to Japan takes place in the Bakumatsu period, when Japan was still largely closed to foreigners. During his stay in Japan, he becomes obsessed with the concubine of a local baron. His trade in Japan and his personal relationship with the concubine are both strained by the internal political turmoil and growing anti-Western sentiment in Japan that followed the arrival of Matthew C. Perry in Endo Bay.

In NPR review of the book, Ru Freeman, who read Guido Waldman’s translation, writes: […] Baricco’s language is exquisitely phrased. It was easy to accompany Joncour on his difficult travels, and luxuriate in the sensuousness that awaits at the end of his journey. As I read, I could see exotic birds trapped in an aviary as a gift to a beloved, and the heady luxury of his host’s house. Above all, I could feel the intoxicating chemistry between two lovers who hold each other in plain sight of the world, though their bodies remain forever separate. A glance takes the place of a kiss. A cup of tea sipped from the same place on its rim stands in for an embrace. […]

Karen, who originally read the same translation and recommended the book based on it, brought both renditions to the meeting, but the rest of us read the only version that Seattle Public Library  carries – Ann Goldstein’s translation.  Many in the group reported stumbling through it and hard to relate, and  we spent most of the hour comparing the translations and discussing the difficulties of coveying both the language and the meaning from the original literary work to the translated one. After reading both translations Ruth summarized her experience as follows: Kudos to you and Karen without whom I would not have read the second (first?) translation of Silk, which was a revelation to me after my floundering through the awkwardness of the Goldstein version. I thoroughly enjoyed it and found in it beauty and authenticity, whereas the other struck me as hollow, false and ‘dead’.

About the author:

Alessandro Baricco born January 25, 1958 in Turin, Piedmont, is an Italian writer, director and performer. His novels have been translated into a wide number of languages. He currently lives in Rome with his wife and two sons.

The list of his work  translated to English (with links to reviews) is at Publisher’s Weekly.

Alessandro Baricco is the man behind Save the Story, a new initiative to create a library of favourite stories from around the world, retold for today’s children by some of the best contemporary writers […].  The beautifully illustrated stories span cultures – from Ancient Greece to 19th-century Russia – time and genres, from comedy and romance to mythology and the realist novel, and they have inspired all manner of artists for many generations.

11/18 – The Leaving Year, by Pam McGaffin

The author once was a member of the 18th Avenue Book Group.

Tuesday, Novemeber 6,  2018 – discussion lead:  Ruth
From goodreads (click on this link to read reviews): A coming-of-age YA novel about the daughter of a Pacific Northwest fisherman, whose presumed drowning in 1967 has her searching for answers, including whether or not he’s really dead.

leaving-year3b-820x1267As the Summer of Love comes to an end, 15-year-old Ida Petrovich waits for a father who never comes home. While commercial fishing in Alaska, he is lost at sea, but with no body and no wreckage, Ida and her mother are forced to accept a “presumed” death that tests their already strained relationship. While still in shock over the loss of her father, Ida overhears an adult conversation that shatters everything she thought she knew about him. This prompts her to set out on a search for the truth that takes her from her Washington State hometown to Southeast Alaska, where she works at a salmon cannery, develops love for a Filipino classmate, and befriends a Native Alaskan girl. In this wild, rugged place, she also begins to understand the physical and emotional bonds that took her father north and why he kept them secret—a journey of discovery that ultimately brings her family together and helps them heal. Insightful and heartfelt, The Leaving Year is a tale of love and loyalty, family and friendship, and the stories we tell ourselves in our search for meaning. […]

Seattle Book Review – Interview with Writer of The Leaving Year, Pam McGaffin: […] I wrote this story by the seat of my pants (as opposed to plotting or outlining it). So everything about it evolved. But I knew early on that there would be a mystery and that Ida would go to Alaska. I thought it would be more realistic – and interesting – if her journey of discovery didn’t go the way she anticipated. I remember thinking about Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz and how she didn’t fully appreciate the value of her adventure until it was over. […]

About the author:

Read about Pam McGaffin  on the author’s website: [..] So, at age 51, after a long career in journalism and public-relations, she quit her day job and went to work. After seven years, countless rewrites, and a seat-of-her-pants course in modern publishing, she is proud to have released her debut novel, The Leaving Year, with SparkPress Aug. 14, 2018.[…]