Third Tuesday of the month, 5:00 p.m., in the homes of its members. Co-Chairmen Jack Cobau (313-885-1650) and David Morrow (313-640-9756). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for a copy of our current book list or see below. All SMC members are welcome to join our discussion, whether or not you have read the book.
November Readers’ Report
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
by David Grann
David Grann is a bestselling author and an award-winning staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. Killers of the Flower Moon is the shocking story of the killing and swindling of the Osage tribe after they became rich as a result of oil found under their reservation in Oklahoma. It was a National Book Award Finalist, won several other literary prizes, and was Amazon’s choice for best nonfiction book of the year. It spent 41 weeks on the New Times bestseller list. The movie rights were reportedly sold for $5 million and Martin Scorsese is slated to direct. Grann is familiar with Hollywood, since his last book, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, was made into a well-received film released in 2016, and The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, a collection of his stories includes The Old Man and the Gun, which is now a major motion picture starring Robert Redford. Before joining The New Yorker in 2003, Grann was a senior editor at The New Republic, and the executive editor of the newspaper The Hill. He holds master’s degrees in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy as well as in creative writing from Boston University.
As the US expanded westward, the Osage Nation was forced from the Ohio River Valley and then later had to leave the land between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers where they were a dominant tribe, known for the height and ferocity of their warriors. When the Osage were again expelled from their reservation in Kansas in the 1870s, they deliberately bought land in Indian Territory that was thought to be worthless just so they would be left alone. They struggled to survive there, but near the end of the Nineteenth Century, it became apparent that the petroleum that was sleeping out of the ground might have some value. When the tribe negotiated an allotment treaty with the US Government in 1906, their lawyer insisted on retaining the mineral rights for the tribe as a whole, and as drilling revenue began coming in, each of the 2,000 or so Osage holding “headrights” prospered. Headrights represented a right to share in the proceeds of the oil but the headrights could not be sold, only passed through inheritance.
By the 1920s, the Osage were the richest people in the country. In 1923 alone, the tribe received more than $30 million (equivalent to $400 million today). They built large homes, drove fancy cars, and had white servants. This upset the whites, and Congress passed a law that required the Osage to have white “guardians” to handle their money. Soon after, the Osage started disappearing or dying at an alarming rate. Grann tells the story of one Osage woman who lost her mother and all three of her sisters. Her white husband was the nephew of William Hale, a successful business man referred to as the “King of the Osage Hills.” Hale’s influence and money protected him, and despite evidence of his involvement, state and local investigators could make no progress, with many investigators being bought off or killed. It wasn’t until the Bureau of Investigation, later known as the FBI, became involved that some of the crimes were solved and Hale sent to prison.
Grann tells the story much like a novel, and the Readers were swept along. All of us rated the book highly. The book was well-researched over a 5-year period, and Grann was able to shed light on a number of cold cases that had been ignored since the 20s. We were appalled at the racism and widespread corruption in white society that permitted a large number of murders to go unpunished. As Grann wrote, “What you begin to realize, the deeper you dig, is that this was not a crime about who did it as much as who didn’t do it – that there was a culture of killing taking place during this period and that there were scores if not hundreds of murders.”
Join us on December 18th at 5 pm for our annual poetry meeting. We will meet at the home of George Arsenault, 4002 Harbor Place Drive in St Clair Shores. RSVP to George at (586) 5639360 to RSVP and to find out how to enter Harbor Place.
October Readers’ Report
Lincoln in the Bardo
by George Saunders
Lincoln in the Bardo is George Saunders’ first novel, but he is not new to the New York literary scene, having published four volumes of short stories and novellas as well as children’s books and numerous magazine articles. Saunders has won the National Magazine Award for Fiction four times, the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story, The Story Prize, the Folio Prize, a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was a finalist for a National Book Award. In 2017, Lincoln in the Bardo won the Man Booker Prize as the best novel written in English and published in the UK. Saunders currently teaches at Syracuse University.
Saunders got the idea for Lincoln in the Bardo during a visit to Washington, D.C. years ago. A family member pointed out a crypt in Oak Hill Cemetery where Willie Lincoln, who died of typhoid fever in 1862 at the age of 11, had been temporarily interred. Newspaper accounts reported that Abraham Lincoln visited the crypt several times after the funeral to hold Willie’s body. Saunders wrote: “An image spontaneously leapt into my mind – a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà. I carried that image around for the next 20-odd years, too scared to try something that seemed so profound…” Saunders, who is a practicing Buddhist, used the Tibetan Buddhist concept of the bardo, the intermediate state between life, death, and rebirth, as the setting for his imaginative experimental work of historical fiction.
The ghosts that inhabit Oak Hill Cemetery are caught in the bardo and unable to move on to the next place. Most do not even know that they are dead. They usually take human form and dress and appear as they did when they died, but their appearance is changeable depending on what they are saying or doing and how long they have been in the bardo. Although the book has 166 characters and is as much a script as a novel, it is narrated by the spirits of three main characters: a printer who died before he could consummate his marriage to a younger woman, a gay man who committed suicide, and a minister who knows he is dead but not why he is not in Paradise. The three try to police the ghosts in the bardo, and a wild group they are, comprising a cross-section of 19th century American society.
Alternating with the description of the bardo, Saunders gives the reader the story of the Lincolns and their grief over their son, whose death occurred in the White House while his parents were hosting a party downstairs. Most of this narrative is done by quoting primary sources such as letters and newspaper accounts from the time, but in a novel twist, some of the sources and quotes were made up by Saunders. Lincoln was not popular in 1862 and Civil War casualties were mounting. Saunders sees Lincoln’s heartbreak over Willie leading to his determination to bring an early end to the war so fewer parents would have to grieve over their sons.
In the cemetery, our narrators try to convince Willie to move on and leave the bardo, but he wants to wait until his father returns. He has found that he can enter his father’s body and listen to some of his thoughts. Conflict ensues, leading to a resolution that some Readers found quite moving.
The Readers were split on Lincoln in the Bardo with some agreeing with the critics and finding the humor and poetry of the bardo mixed with the sad history to make for an inventive five-star book. Others gave up in the early going, while some of those that finished the book found it a hard slog and would award only one star. The long list of minor characters tested even those of us who loved the book,
Join us on November 20th at 5 pm for our discussion of Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann. This nonfiction work was chosen as Amazon’s Book of the Year for 2017 and was a National Book Award finalist. We will meet at the home of David Morrow, 244 McMillan Road (corner of Charlevoix), Grosse Pointe Farms. RSVP to (313) 640-9756.
September Readers’ Report
American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House
by Jon Meacham
Jon Meacham is one of America’s preeminent presidential historians and biographers. He is a contributing writer to The New York Times Book Review, a contributing editor to Time magazine, and a former Editor-in-Chief of Newsweek. He has published or edited eight books and won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. Meacham is currently a Visiting Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University.
American Lion has been described as the definitive biography of a larger-than-life president who defied norms, divided a nation, and changed Washington forever. In his prologue, Meacham cautions readers “This book is not a history of the Age of Jackson but a portrait of the man and of his complex relationships with the intimate circle that surrounded him as he transformed the presidency.”
Jackson grew up as a poor orphan in the Carolinas but relocated to Tennessee in 1788 and became a lawyer, a judge, a soldier, a politician, and a wealthy, slaveholding planter. He fought duels, made friends, and with his charismatic personality, inspired great loyalty. Meacham states: “By projecting personal strength, Jackson created a persona of power, and it was this aura, perhaps more than any particular gift of insight, judgment, or rhetoric, that propelled him forward throughout his life.” He became a national hero after leading the US victory over a larger British force at New Orleans in the War of 1812. Jackson was known for protecting his men, and they called him “Old Hickory.” He ran for President in 1824 and won a plurality but not a majority of the popular or electoral votes, thus sending the election to the House, who chose John Quincy Adams over the outsider from the frontier. Jackson’s supporters founded the Democratic Party, and he ran again in 1828, defeating Adams in a landslide.
When he began work on American Lion, Meacham knew that there were already two three-volume biographies of Jackson as well as numerous other books on his presidency. Meacham’s research turned up unpublished letters and papers from Jackson family and friends and he concentrated on those. The resulting description of Jackson’s time in the White House features the Petticoat Affair, a scandal tame by today’s standards. During the campaign, his opponent alleged that Jackson had married his wife Rachel before her divorce had been finalized. Tongues continued to wag after Jackson appointed John Eaton as Secretary of War. Rumors about the questionable character of Eaton’s wife Margaret and her abrasive personality led to her being ostracized by the other cabinet wives, led by the wife of John C Calhoun, Jackson’s Vice-President. What should have been a minor matter became a cause seized upon by Jackson’s opponents, becoming a national issue.
Meacham also discusses more substantive issues faced by Jackson, including the threat of nullification of federal laws and possible succession by South Carolina, Jackson’s objection to the Second Bank of the United States, and his backing of the forced removal of American Indian tribes and hostility toward the abolition of slavery. Jackson served two terms and became one of our best-known presidents. He expanded the power of the executive branch by expanding the use of the veto and appealing directly to the people to influence Congress. Although many of the Readers felt that too much of the book was devoted to the Petticoat Affair and Jackson’s influential “kitchen cabinet” of family and friends, most found the book well-researched, well-written. and interesting. We would recommend the volume to those who already have some familiarity with the Age of Jackson. We discussed comparisons to the current scene in Washington without reaching any conclusions.
Join us on October 16th at 5 pm for our discussion of Lincoln in the Bardo, the Man Booker Prize-winning novel by George Saunders. We will meet at the home of Fred Whitehouse, 1265 Blairmoor Ct, Grosse Pointe Woods. RSVP to (313) 884-1324.
July Readers’ Report
COLD COMFORT FARM, by Stella Gibbons
“Quite simply one of the funniest satirical novels of the last century” – Nancy Pearl, NPR’s MORNING EDITION, or the deliriously entertaining COLD COMFORT FARM is “very probably the funniest book ever written”, so says The Sunday Times, London, and the 100 best novels: #57 – Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1932) per The Guardian. The book even inspired Mellon family heiress Cordelia Scaife May to name her home “Cold Comfort,” and to name her philanthropic foundation Colcom Foundation.
Set primarily in Sussex, England, circa 1930s, Cold Comfort Farm is a parody of late eighteenth/early nineteenth century agricultural literature, such as novels by D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. The main character, Flora Poste, is reminiscent of Jane Austen and Bronte heroines in many regards. Orphaned and broke at nineteen, she decides to live with relatives she has never met on a farm in Sussex. She discovers the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm are in a bad state as the farm is supposedly cursed and tightly controlled by the matriarch, Aunt Ada Doom, who never leaves her room. There is a general sense of depression and gloom, the very farm appear-ing like “a beast about to spring.”
Abhorring messes similar to Jane Austen’s Emma, Flora takes on the challenge to tidy up Cold Comfort Farm and everyone on it. The Starkadders believe they must never leave the farm or Aunt Ada Doom will have one of her fits of madness, but Flora can see the madness as a little too convenient. This madness supposedly is the result of something Aunt Ada saw in the woodshed when she was a child. Flora tackles each family member individually, despite Aunt Ada’s distress: she changes her cousin Elfine from an artsy woodland sprite into a lady eligible for marriage to the wealthy man she loves; she helps her cousin Seth find a career in the talkies, his passion, through her Hollywood producer friend; she encourages religiously fanatic Uncle Amos to go on a preaching tour, getting him off the farm so her cousin Reuben can take it over as this is his greatest wish; and she sends her depressing Aunt Judith into therapy and off to explore European churches. Flora’s biggest problem is Aunt Ada Doom, but the farm will never really be tidy as long as she is brooding in her room. Flora spends a day with her, managing to convince her there is a lot more fun to be had for a lady of wealth than being cooped up in a bedroom. Aunt Ada agrees and flies off to Paris on Elfine’s wedding day. After all Flora’s meddling has come to fruition and the farm is tidied up, Flora seeks her own happy ending. Like a fairy tale, Charles, the man she loves, comes to pick her up in his airplane and they declare life-long love toward one another as they return to London.
There are a number of subplots that also take place. A writer staying in the nearest town, Mr. Mybug, develops a crush on Flora, but as he’s rather fat and she doesn’t care much for intellectuals, she does her best to avoid him. Fortunately, he meets one of the Starkadder women and marries her instead. The hired girl, Meriam, is another major subplot. She gets pregnant every spring when the “sukebind” blooms and has just had her fourth child by an unknown man. Flora teaches her about birth control which Meriam thinks is flying in the face of nature, but which her mother, Mrs. Beetle, condones. Meriam ends up marrying one of the farm-hands.
The novel is best enjoyed by understanding it as a parody on rural literature and character archetypes as the story builds on a conventional structure toward a satisfying ending.
Our group, which gave the book a 4.3 rating out of 5, and had a good time laughing throughout the entire discussion.
Join us on September 18th at 5 pm for our discussion of AMERICAN LION: ANDREW JACKSON in the WHITE HOUSE the Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction work by Jon Meacham. We will meet at the home of Joe Schneider, 76 Lochmoor Road, Grosse Pointe Shores. RSVP (313) 882-6156
Grosse Pointe Senior Men’s Club Readers 2018 Book List
Have questions or need directions or copies of the books? Call either:
David Morrow: 313-640-9756 or Jack Cobau: 313-885-1650