The Readers is a book club that meets on the third Tuesday of each month in the homes of our members or online using Zoom. Books are selected once a year by a vote of the members. We read fiction and nonfiction and tend to favor recent releases. Feel free to join us whether or not you have read this month’s book, since our discussions frequently wander to other topics. For our current book list, scroll down or go here. Should you want more information, contact David Morrow.
September Readers’ Report
The Lost City of the Monkey God
by Douglas Preston
A search for a lost city has long been a staple of adventure tales, and such stories continue to be popular today despite the shrinkage of wilderness areas such as jungles and rain forests. David Grann’s Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon was a bestseller in 2009 and later made into a movie. Douglas Preston was invited to join the expedition to find the Lost City of the Monkey God in 2012, and his book was published in 2017. It was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2017 and one of best books of the year by Amazon, the Boston Globe and National Geographic. Preston is the author of thirty-six books, both fiction and nonfiction, twenty-nine of which have been New York Times bestsellers, with several reaching the number 1 position. He has worked as an editor at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and taught nonfiction writing at Princeton University. In addition to books, Preston writes about archaeology and paleontology for the New Yorker, National Geographic, and Smithsonian.
The Lost City of the Monkey God tells the story of the discovery of a prehistoric city in an unexplored valley deep in the Honduran jungle. Legends of the city were heard by the first Spanish explorers in Central America in the 17th Century, and unsuccessful attempts to locate it were made in the 19th and 20th centuries, some by colorful characters who turned out to be con men. This expedition, however had something earlier efforts did not: Lidar, a highly advanced, classified technology that could map the terrain under the densest rainforest canopy. After an aerial Lidar survey revealed evidence of an undiscovered city in a valley ringed by steep mountains in the forbidding region known as Mosquitia, it took three years to organize a ground expedition to confirm the finding. Because the expedition was financed with the help of a documentary producer, some in the academic world accused it of being an “Indiana Jones” stunt and not serious archeology. The expedition did include an archeologist and other scientists as well as jungle warfare experts for security together with Honduran Army soldiers. They came in by helicopter and found nearly impenetrable jungle with dangerous fer-de-lance pit vipers, quick mud that nearly sucked one of the women under, insects of all kinds, jaguars, and torrential rains. Progress was slow but eventually they found evidence of earthen pyramids, plazas and structures all along the valley. A cache of stone carvings displayed the artistic skills of the lost civilization and their probable worship of various animal gods. Preston discusses the current theories about when and why the cities were abandoned and why additional excavation and study will be needed.
The documentary with the same title as the book was released in 2018 and makes for fascinating viewing. Although the hardships overcome by members of the expedition were notable, for many the worst was the illness that nearly half of the members brought home with them. Leishmaniasis is a parasitic disease transmitted to humans by sand flies. Left untreated, skin sores can leave permanent scarring and cause your face to rot away. Treatments can be painful and may not be completely successful.
The Readers enjoyed this book and gave it a rating of better than 4.5 out of 5. We learned much about Central America today and in Pre-Columbian times. We are certain that we will not be taking any trips to the jungles of eastern Honduras anytime soon.
Our next meeting of the Readers is on October 19th at 5 pm when we will discuss American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins.We will meet at the home of Bob Wrosch at 22801 Lakeshore Drive, St Clair Shores. Please RSVP to 313-310-8097.
August Reader’s Report
by Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett is one of America’s preeminent writers. She has written seven novels, three books of nonfiction, a collection of essays, and a children’s book. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Patchett has been the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships. Her books have been both New York Times Notable Books and New York Times bestsellers and have been translated into more than thirty languages. She lives in Nashville where she is a co-founder of Parnassus Books. Patchett has become a spokesperson for independent booksellers in the national media and has been named by Time magazine as one the 100 Most Influential People in the World.
Last year the Readers enjoyed her latest novel, The Dutch House (a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction), so much that this year we went back to her 2001 novel, Bel Canto. Bel Canto won both the Orange Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and has been adapted into both an opera and a movie starring Julianne Moore and Ken Watanabe. Although it was inspired by the Japanese embassy hostage crisis in Lima, Peru in 1996-97, it cannot be considered historical fiction. As with most of her novels, Patchett wanted to explore the relationships between a disparate cast of characters. In this case, she introduces us to Roxane Coss, a famous lyric soprano, and one of her fans, the head of a large Japanese company whose birthday in being celebrated in a lavish dinner party in a “God-forsaken Latin American country.” Under the impression that the Japanese company may build a plant there, the host country offers a large sum of money to Roxane to convince her to sing at the party to convince Mr. Hosokawa, the company’s president, to attend. When, after the final aria is sung, rebel guerillas burst in to take the country’s president hostage, they are disappointed to find that the president has stayed home to watch his favorite soap opera. Negotiations to free the hostages drag on for weeks, and Patchett portrays Stockholm Syndrome, as the hostages begin to identify with the terrorists, as well as the power of music to break down boundaries between people who do not speak the same language. As Janet Maslin wrote in the NY Times, “One of the delightful things about the way ”Bel Canto” unfolds is the way Ann Patchett uses the ordeal of entrapment to locate unexpected resources in her characters, like Roxane’s new leadership potential.” Mr. Hosokawa’s translator must translate for both terrorists and hostages, and he finds his language skills can lead to love. While the pace of the book is deliberate, it accelerates as the hostage situation is resolved.
Even the Readers who are not opera fans enjoyed this volume, and most gave it a rating of 5 stars. We loved the beautiful writing, appreciated the flashes of humor that illuminated a tense situation, and were moved by the connections made between the various captors and captives.
Our next meeting of the Readers is on September 21st at 5 pm when we will discuss The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston, an adventure bestseller that was also made into a movie. We will meet at the home of Joe Schneider at 76 Lochmoor Blvd, Grosse Pointe Shores. Please RSVP to 313-882-6156.
July Reader’s Report
The Tsarina’s Lost Treasure: Catherine the Great, a Golden Age Masterpiece, and a Legendary Shipwreck
by Gerald Easter and Mara Vorhees
The Tsarina’s Lost Treasure tells the true story of the loss of the Dutch merchant ship Vrouw Maria off the rocky Finnish coast in 1771. The ship was carrying cargo from Amsterdam to St Petersburg, including a dozen Dutch masterpiece paintings to Europe’s most voracious collector: Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. The book also tells the story of Gerrit Dou, a Dutch Golden Age painter who began as a student of Rembrandt and eventually surpassed his teacher in fame and wealth. The final part of the story is the nearly 230-year search for the wreck of the Vrouw Maria and the controversy over what to do with it after its discovery in 1999.
Gerald Easter is the chair of the Political Science Department at Boston College where he focuses on Eastern Europe and Russia. Mara Vorhees, daughter of Men’s Club member Roy Vorhees, is a graduate of University Liggett School and after attending Georgetown University became a travel writer for publications such as Lonely Planet. Their extensive research for The Tsarina’s Lost Treasure involved interviews and travel to numerous locales including Holland, Finland and Russia. Their volume is filled with art and maritime history, tales of the Court of Catherine the Great, and a description of wreck hunting and diving in the frigid Baltic Sea. It moves between the 17th Century when Dou painted in Leiden, Holland, the 18th Century, when Catherine the Great sought to upgrade Russian culture by acquiring works of art and attracting leading European thinkers to her Court, the 19th Century when Dou’s reputation peaked and then faded, the 20th Century when the famous wreck was finally found, into this century, when the debate about if and how the wreck should be salvaged continues.
The Readers found The Tsarina’s Lost Treasure a challenging but rewarding read, and we learned much from its pages. We were honored to have the authors attend our meeting by Zoom and patiently answer our many questions. We were convinced by their argument that Gerrit Dou may have been the leading artist of the Dutch Golden Age, despite falling out of favor in later years. We also agreed that the conservative approach to the wreck taken by Finnish cultural preservation officials may be depriving scholars and art lovers of an opportunity to better understand our shared history.
Our next meeting of the Readers is on August 17th at 5 pm when we will discuss Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, winner of both the Orange Prize for Fiction and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.We will meet at the home of Patrick Reid at 412 Lothrop Rd, Grosse Pointe Farms. Please RSVP to 313-938-6567.
June Reader’s Report
Lives Laid Away (August Snow # 2)
by Stephen Mack Jones
Lives Laid Away is the second in the August Snow series of crime novels by Stephen Mack Jones, a Michigan poet, playwright, and novelist. He has won the Nero Award, the Hammett Prize for Crime Fiction and a Kresge Arts in Detroit Literary Fellowship and was a Finalist for the Shamus Award and the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award. The first book in the series, titled August Snow was a Strand Magazine Critics Awards Best First Novel Nominee and a 2018 Michigan Notable Book. The third book in the series, Dead of Winter was recently released.
The character August Snow grew up in Detroit’s Mexicantown as the son of a Mexican mother and an African American father. Like his father, Snow became a Detroit cop, but not until he had served as a Marine sniper in Afghanistan. Snow was wrongfully discharged for investigating a corrupt Detroit mayor and police officers. After being awarded $12 million in his lawsuit against the city, Snow travelled overseas before returning to his family home in Detroit, finding it empty after the loss of both of his parents. In Lives Laid Away, he is busy buying and renovating houses on his block when he is asked to look into the death of a young woman who jumped from the Ambassador Bridge dressed as Marie Antoinette. He soon finds himself embroiled in a sex trafficking ring that preys on undocumented immigrants and may involve ICE.
Snow’s investigations take him to the colorful side of Detroit and its environs, including biker bars, various clubs and restaurants, a hip-hop recording studio and even the Port of Detroit.
As in his other books, Jones’ description of well- known restaurants, Mexican dishes and soul food could be a problem for hungry readers. August Snow leans on contacts with the Detroit Police and the FBI as well as both the Mexican American and African American communities for help in following the many clues that ultimately lead to the highest echelons of government.
Despite death threats and violent attacks, he attempts to protect his community.
The Readers enjoyed the snappy dialogue and the humor that Jones brings to a somewhat dark
tale. The local color and Detroit settings added to the appeal. We recommend this book as escapist summer reading, and we gave it a 4 out of 5-star rating.
Our next meeting of the Readers is on July 20th at 5 pm when we will discuss The Tsarina’s Lost Treasure: Catherine the Great, a Golden Age Masterpiece, and a Legendary Shipwreck by Gerald Easter and Mara Vorhees, Roy Vorhees’ daughter.
We will meet at the home of David Morrow at 244 McMillan (corner of Charlevoix), Grosse Pointe Farms. Please RSVP to 313-640-9756. Feel free to attend whether or not you have read the book, as our conversations frequently wander to other topics.
May Reader’s Report
The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency
by Chris Whipple
Chris Whipple is a filmmaker, producer, journalist, writer, and political pundit. He helped produce 60 Minutes for CBS and Primetime for ABC, and in 2013 got a call to partner in making a documentary on presidential chiefs of staff. It was a four-hour film that aired on the Discovery Channel, but Whipple felt it only scratched the surface. For the book version published 2017, he interviewed 17 former chiefs and many of their colleagues, including two presidents, and produced a group portrait of White House chiefs from Richard Nixon’s tenure to Barack Obama’s. He came back in 2018 and added a chapter about the first two chiefs for Donald Trump. In 2020, Whipple published The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future, a volume based on his Showtime documentary.
The Gatekeepers opens with a description of a fascinating meeting at the White House between Rahm Emanuel, who is about to take the reins as President Obama’s first chief of staff, and all but two of the living former chiefs of staff. Despite their differences in party and approach, they form a kind of club, and they are more than willing to pass on what they have learned.
According to Whipple, it was H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, who created the model for the modern White House chief. It involved the staff system, similar to the military. “Nothing goes to the president that is not completely staffed out first, for accuracy and form, …reviewed by competent staff concerned with that area…” Haldeman also warned about “end running,” going to the president without going through the chief. The first job of the chief of staff is to control access to the president. Some presidents such as Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter rejected this model and used a “spokes of the wheel” system where everyone reported directly to the president. In most cases, this approach had to be scrapped after it became clear that it wasn’t working.
All of the Readers enjoyed this book, and we gave it a 4.5 out of 5 stars. We thought it was well written and well researched, and surprisingly nonpartisan. We enjoyed the anecdotes arising out of successful and the less successful chiefs of staff. It was clear that each successful chief was willing to say no to the president he served. He was also willing to repress his ego and let the important decisions be made by the president, not the staff.
An important skill of any chief was his ability to keep the first lady happy. With the average tenure of a White House chief averaging less than two years, the book had a good number of people to keep track of. Some chiefs, like James Baker, served more than one president. Dick Cheney started out as deputy chief of staff for Gerald Ford and then moved up after Donald Rumsfeld moved on. Cheney went on to serve in the House, as Secretary of Defense for George H. W. Bush and then Vice President for George W Bush. The Readers discussed how our view of him changed over time, especially after 9/11.
Our next meeting of the Readers is on June 15th at 5 pm when we will discuss Lives Laid Away (August Snow #2) by Stephen Mack Jones, a novel by a Detroit author set in Detroit.
If you would like to attend but you have not gotten a Zoom invitation, please call David Morrow at 313-640-9756. Feel free to attend whether or not you have read the book, as our conversations frequently wander to other topics.
April Readers’ Report
The Nickel Boys
by Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead is a hot commodity in literary circles. Time magazine put him on their cover and called him “America’s Storyteller.” In 2020 he won his second Pulitzer Prize for The Nickel Boys (one of just 4 authors to win two), and collected the Library of Congress Award for American Fiction, the youngest to receive their lifetime achievement award. He has been featured on 60 Minutes, CBS Sunday Morning and Oprah, not to mention NPR and late-night TV interviews. He has won a National Book Award, a MacArthur Fellowship (“Genius Grant”), a Kirkus Prize, an Orwell Prize, and numerous other fellowships and awards, and has taught at ten universities. He has written seven novels and two non-fiction books and is a favorite of Barack Obama. In addition, Amazon Prime Video will premiere a 10-part adaptation of his Pulitzer-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, in May. Whitehead’s new crime novel, Harlem Shuffle, comes out in September.
The Nickel Boys is a well-researched work of historical fiction based on a Florida reform school. The Dozier School operated from 1899 to 2011 and gained a reputation for abuse, beatings, rapes, and torture of students by staff. After it closed, archeologists excavated dozens of bodies from the grounds. Rather than simply recounting the sordid history of the school, Whitehead created the character of Elwood Curtis, a bright high school student at a segregated school in Tallahassee who was hitchhiking to class at a local college with a stranger who turned out to be driving a stolen car. Elwood’s grandmother could not afford an attorney, and he was convicted of auto theft and sent to the Nickel Academy in 1963. There he met Turner, who unlike Elwood, had the cynical view that the system was always against them. Even after being sent to the so-called White House to be beaten with a wide leather strap with holes in it, Elwood tried to follow the rules. His belief in the teachings of Martin Luther King was severely tested. The author explores the relationship between the two boys and their fear and hatred of the mostly corrupt staff. Because they are bright, the boys are sent to work at the homes of school directors and townspeople, who not only benefited from the labor of boys such as Elwood, but also received food and supplies intended for the school. Despite their disgust, Elwood and Turner preferred helping in town to working on the school’s farm, printing plant, or brick factory.
The Readers gave the novel a rating of 4.5 stars. Although some felt the book was somewhat of a downer, we mostly enjoyed the writing and the humor sprinkled into an otherwise bleak story. We agreed that the choice to put the story into the form of a novel made it easier to swallow. We certainly didn’t anticipate the twist at the end. As the Washington Post reviewer wrote, the book “… shreds our easy confidence in the triumph of goodness and leaves in its place a hard and bitter truth about the ongoing American experiment.” We weren’t sure whether the fact that the Derek Chauvin verdict was announced during our discussion was hopeful or just ironic.
Our next meeting of the Readers is on May 18th at 5 pm when we will discuss The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency by Chris Whipple. If you would like to attend but you have not gotten a Zoom invitation, please call David Morrow at 313-640-9756. Feel free to attend whether or not you have read the book, as our conversations frequently wander to other topics.
March Readers’ Report
Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World
by Fareed Zakaria
Fareed Zakaria is a well-known journalist and best-selling author with a show on CNN and a column in the Washington Post. A graduate of Yale with a PhD from Harvard, Zakaria is known for his foreign policy expertise. Since 1997, he has written five books and edited another.
Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World was published in October of 2020 and was highly anticipated. It looks at the long-term economic, medical, and biological effects of the coronavirus. The New York Times said “…read ‘Ten Lessons.’ It is an intelligent, learned and judicious guide for a world already in the making.”
Rather than reviewing the controversies that made the headlines, Zakaria focuses on the broad lessons that we should take from the pandemic. For example, his analysis of countries that did well in controlling the coronavirus showed that it isn’t the quantity of government that matters, it is the quality. While some authoritarian regimes were effective in protecting their citizens, many democracies handled the pandemic effectively. As for the US, he writes, “For many decades, the world needed to learn from America. But now America needs to learn from the world. And what it most needs to learn about is government—not big or small but good government.” Another one of Zakaria’s lessons is that we should listen to the experts. In the US, asking citizens to follow expert advice can be resented by those who feel expert elites are holding all the power and are unable to connect with common people. So Zakaria also says the experts must listen to the people. The author discusses numerous other issues, such as the increasing importance of the digital economy and access to the internet, the acceleration of income inequality, and the dichotomy of the well-off being able to work from home during the pandemic while lower-wage employees take the risk of exposure to the virus without being compensated.
The Readers enjoyed Ten Lessons and all of us gave it 5 stars. Some of the Readers noted that they would never have chosen to read such a book on their own, but they are glad they did. Although numerous complex subjects are addressed, the discussion was always clear and usually convincing. Unlike many contemporary writers on current issues, Zakaria has no partisan ax to grind. His sources are acknowledged and highly qualified. We particularly enjoyed his discussion of globalization in the world economy and the importance of the competition between China and the US. After looking at the many changes wrought by COVID-19, Zakaria concludes “We could turn inward and embrace nationalism and self-interest, or we could view this global pandemic as a spur to global cooperation and action.”
Our next meeting of the Readers is on April 20th at 5 pm when we will discuss The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, the winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. If you would like to attend but you have not gotten a Zoom invitation, please call David Morrow at 313-640-9756. Feel free to attend whether or not you have read the book, as our conversations frequently wander to other topics.
February Readers’ Report
The Ninth Hour
by Alice McDermott
Since 1987, Alice McDermott has written eight novels, including The Ninth Hour in 2017, and numerous short stories and essays. Three of her novels were Pulitzer finalists, and Charming Billy won the 1998 National Book Award. Born in Brooklyn, she received a BA from the State University of New York at Oswego and an MA from the University of New Hampshire. She is currently the Richard A. Macksey Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University. The Ninth Hour was on numerous top ten novel lists for 2017, including those of The Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, and NPR. It was a Kirkus Prize Finalist and a nominee for the National Book Critics Circle Award, The AP called it a “haunting and vivid portrait of an Irish Catholic clan in early twentieth century America.”
Set in Irish Catholic Brooklyn, the book begins with the suicide of a young subway motorman, and the attempt by a senior nun to conceal the cause of death so as to permit burial in a Catholic cemetery. When she is unsuccessful, she obtains a job for Annie, the pregnant widow, in the basement laundry of the convent of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, Congregation of Mary Before the Cross. Although a fictional order, it represents the many orders that serviced Irish, Italian, and other immigrant communities in New York at the time. McDermott takes us inside the community, with characters that show us the many ways that the nuns used their faith and their nursing skills to serve their urban parishioners. She profiles a diverse set of sisters, including Sister Illuminata, who helps raise Annie’s daughter Sally on the floor of the laundry, Sister Jeanne, the young nun who befriends Sally and loves to work with children (“Every child delighted Sister Jeanne”), and Sister Lucy, the strong but cynical mentor to Sally (“Sister Lucy said, a woman’s life is a blood sacrifice. This was, she reminded Sally, Our inheritance from Eve.”) As the reviewer for The Guardian wrote, McDermott’s “new book unfolds without sentimentality or pity, but with a frankness of gaze that elevates her characters rather than diminishes them.”
The Readers agreed with the critics that lauded this novel. The New Yorker,for example, said “Its satisfactions lie not so much in its story as in its language, which is glorious.” We rated it at least 4.5 out of 5, and we enjoyed the convincing character profiles and the beauty of the writing. Our discussion included stories of experiences of some of us with nuns and Catholic schools.
Our next meeting of the Readers is on March 16th at 5 pm when we will discuss Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World by Fareed Zakaria, the CNN host and Washington Post columnist. If you would like to attend but you have not gotten a Zoom invitation, please call David Morrow at 313-640-9756.
January Readers’ Report
A Blaze of Glory
by Jeff Shaara
Jeff Shaara, author of A Blaze of Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Shiloh (Civil War: 1861-1865, Western Theatre), did not plan on becoming a writer. A graduate of Florida State University, he had a career as a dealer in rare coins and precious metals when his father, Michael Shaara, died in 1988. Michael had won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 1975 for his novel The Killer Angels, and it was adapted into the hit movie Gettysburg, released in 1993. Jeff was asked to administer his father’s estate and consider completing the Civil War trilogy his father had planned. Jeff’s first novel was Gods and Generals, the prequel to The Killer Angels, and it too became a bestseller and a movie. Jeff has now published sixteen works of historical fiction about America’s wars, all of which became best sellers. His latest about the Battle of Midway is due on June 1. Shaara has received the Boyd Award for Excellence in Military Fiction three times.
The Battle of Shiloh was fought in southwestern Tennessee on April 6 and 7, 1862, and was one of the major early engagements of the Civil War. After early disappointments in the East, the Union attempted to drive a wedge into the Confederacy in the West, meaning Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. After moving up the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers and capturing Forts Henry and Donelson, the Army of the Tennessee under U. S. Grant moved via the Tennessee River deep into Tennessee and was encamped principally at Pittsburg Landing. Their objective was a major rail junction in Corinth, Mississippi, defended by the Confederate Army of Mississippi under General Albert Sidney Johnston and P. G. T. Beauregard. Johnston decided to launch a surprise attack on Grant’s army before Grant could be reinforced by Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio. The Confederate attack went well on the first day until Johnston was killed and Beauregard decided his men were exhausted. After being reinforced overnight, Grant regained all the ground lost, resulting in a Union victory, but at a terrible cost.
The Readers enjoyed this novel and appreciated the author’s ability to bring history to life by creating dialogue and thoughts for the historical characters as well as a few fictional characters he used to illustrate the experience of the common soldier. He grounded these creations in extensive research of primary sources such as letters and journals. Almost all the Readers gave the book five stars despite its uncompromising descriptions of the horrors of Civil War combat.
Our next meeting of the Readers is on February 16th at 5 pm when we will discuss The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott, one of Time Magazine’s Top Ten books of 2017. We will probably be meeting online using Zoom. If you would like to attend but you have not gotten an email invitation, please call David Morrow at 313-640-9756.
December Readers’ Report
Genius & Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947
By Norman Lebrecht
“In a hundred-year period, a handful of men and women changed the way we see the world. Many of them are well-known — Marx, Freud, Proust, Einstein, Kafka. Others have vanished from collective memory despite their enduring importance in our daily lives. Without Karl Landsteiner, for instance, there would be no blood transfusions or major surgery. Without Paul Erlich, no chemotherapy. Without Seigfried Marcus, no motor car. Without Rosalind Franklin, genetic science would look very different. Without Fritz Haber, there would not be enough food to sustain life on earth.”
“What do these visionaries have in common? They all had a gift for thinking in wholly original, even earth-shattering ways. In 1847 the Jewish people made up less than 0.25 percent of the world’s population, and yet they saw what others could not. How? Why?”
The above two paragraphs were taken from the book’s cover flap; the answers given were not really that difficult to deduce, or to even question. The fact that they were all Jewish, in some way, explains the “how” and “why”. So much hardship, so much suffering, and so many needless deaths. A history of anti-Semitism, pogroms, forced migrations, and the Holocaust, of course, will help make you see yourself as an outsider, no matter how nationalistic you may try to be. Converting to Christianity, being an atheist, a capitalist, or a communist didn’t matter. Others would still see you as a “Jew.” We know it’s not racial. It’s not in your DNA. What then? You are always the outsider, and as such, you become free to observe, and think, and create in ever new ways. And over this 100-year period we observe so many wonderfully bold creators.
This author, Norman Lebrecht, is proud to be a Jew. It doesn’t matter to him if you are practicing, or not. In fact, most of his favorite Jews are non-believers. What makes this book such a worthwhile read was the author’s breathless enthusiasm in telling fascinating stories about people who really changed the way we live, think, and love.
Lebrecht is a British author, commentator and journalist best known for his books on the history of classical music, but he has also written novels. His chapters on Jewish composers from Mendelsohn, Alkan and Mahler in the 19th century to Gershwin, Schoenberg and Bernstein in the 20th, are among his most detailed. Although he admires most of his subjects, he does not whitewash them, and he has little good to say about some, including Freud.
The Readers had quite a good discussion about the many stories we didn’t know. Those of us who finished the book gave it a five out of five. Those who read half, or less, gave it a four, but said they were now looking forward to finishing it after listening to what we said was still to come.
Our next book is A Blaze of Glory (Civil War: 1861-1865, Western Theater #1) by James Shaara.
Join us for a Zoom meeting on January 19, 2021. Call Dave Morrow for an invitation.
Lives Laid Away (August Snow # 2)
October Readers’ Report
The Topeka School
by Ben Lerner
Ben Lerner considers himself first and foremost a poet. He has published three volumes of poetry since 2004, but he has also published three novels, including The Topeka School in 2019. Both his poetry and novels have received critical acclaim. The Topeka School won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was one of The New York Times top ten books of the year. Lerner has received a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation, as well as a Fulbright, a Guggenheim, and numerous other prizes, including as a finalist for the National Book Award, the PEN/Bingham Award, and others.
The Topeka School was acclaimed in The New York Times Book Review as “a high-water mark in recent American fiction” and called “the best book yet by the most talented writer of his generation” in The New York Times Magazine.
Like Adam Gordon, the protagonist in his novel, Lerner was born and raised in Topeka, Kansas and was a national champion in high school debate. Both of his parents were psychotherapists, his mother wrote a bestseller and appeared on Oprah, and his father made films and worked with troubled youth. Like Lerner, Adam writes poetry and becomes a college professor with two daughters. This sharing of biographical information between the author and the narrator is sometimes called “autofiction”, and by making the novel autobiographical attempts to make it true rather than invented. In addition to chapters narrated in the first person by Adam, there are chapters narrated by his father and mother that flesh out the family dynamic. But there are also italicized chapters narrated by Adam’s outcast classmate Darren. These chapters build toward a violent outburst that seems inevitable but also gives the novel some structure.
Lerner plays with time in his novel. He jumps from Adam’s senior year of high school in the 1990’s back to his youth and forward to the present, with stops to cover his parents and their history. In one of his mother’s chapters where she is telling Adam stories from his childhood, she says to him, “I bet you won’t put this in your novel,” before he does.
The book is short on dialogue but full of information on subjects from art to history, politics, psychology, debate, and more. This made it tough going for some of our Readers who questioned whether it was worth the effort. Others felt the rewards of the humor and the insights provided made up for the choppy narrative and the lack of a conventional plot. As a result, we rated this volume 3 out of 5 stars.
Our November meeting of the Readers is on the 17th at 5 pm when we will discuss Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947 by Norman Lebrecht.
Before then, on November 3rd at 5 pm, we will meet to choose our books for next year.
If you would like to attend either meeting but have not gotten an email Zoom invitation, please call David Morrow at 313-640-9756.
September Readers’ Report
Night Boat to Tangier
by Kevin Barry
Kevin Barry is an Irish writer born in Limerick in 1969. He has published three collections of short stories and three novels. He was the winner of the 2013 International Dublin Literary Award, the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize and was one of seven books by Irish authors nominated for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award, the world’s most valuable annual literary fiction prize for books published in English. His 2019 novel Night Boat to Tangier was longlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards Novel of the Year. The New York Times Book Review named it as one of the 10 Best Books of 2019, and other critics, including NPR, The Washington Post, PBS, and The New Yorker praised Barry’s writing. The Booker Prize Judges wrote “A rogue gem of a novel, Night Boat to Tangier is a work of crime fiction not quite like any other. The seedy underbelly of a Spanish port and a stony Irish town are the backdrop for a story of misdeeds, madness and loss that swells with poetry and pathos.”
The book opens in the ferry terminal of the Spanish port city of Algeciras, where boats leave to and from Tangier. Two aging Irish criminals, Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond, are waiting for Maurice’s daughter Dilly, who has been missing for three years. They have heard rumors that she will be passing through the terminal, but as the night goes on, the reader has the feeling that he is in the middle of Waiting for Godot. Maurice and Charlie pass out flyers and interrogate passers-by who look like they might know Dilly, and their questions sometimes become threats reinforced by the men’s seedy appearance. The author then moves the action through numerous flashbacks, filling in the backstory of the two men, who began selling pot to their young school mates in western Ireland and moved up from there. Ireland, London, and various cities in Spain are the settings for their drug deals, their romances, and their violent encounters as they make and lose a fortune.
As with many Irish writers that came before him, Barry’s lyrical prose can soar, but it can quickly go from the dreamlike to the hilarious. As the New York Times Book Review stated, “Maurice and Charlie aren’t just career criminals; they’re comedians, philosophers, poets, and social critics. Their conversation has rhythm and snap; it’s funny, lyrical, obscene, metaphysical, unflaggingly alive. . .”
The Readers were divided in our opinion of this volume. Although most admired Barry’s writing, some were less impressed with the slow pace of the book and the absence of character development or a cohesive plot. Some were irritated by the obscure Irish vocabulary and idioms and the pervasive profanity, and some found it difficult to sympathize with these amoral characters or care about their suffering. Most of us enjoyed the tense scene set in the Judas Iscariot All-Night Drinking Club in Cork when Maurice confronts Charlie about possible infidelity with his wife Cynthia. On average, we rated Night Boat to Tangier at just over 3 out of 5 stars.
Our next meeting of the Readers is on October 20th at 5 pm when we will discuss The Topeka School by Ben Lerner, a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and one of the New York Times Top 10 Books of the Year. We will probably be meeting online using Zoom. If you would like to attend but you have not gotten an email invitation, please call David Morrow at 313-640-9756.
August Readers’ Report
The Dutch House
By Ann Patchett
The readers group met via zoom on August 17 to discuss the August , The Dutch House, a work of fiction written by Ann Patchett.
Beautifully drawn characters and how they influenced their lives make the story hum (servants in the mansion, random people that took an interest in them and provided them direction in the absence of parents, a not-so-nice stepmother who cuts them off financially and unceremoniously threw them out of the threw them out of the mansion in their late adolescence).
The readers found the book easy to read and engaging. All were enthusiastic and rated the book 4.5 or 5.0 (on a scale of 1 to 5).
The next meeting of the readers will be on Tuesday September 15 at 5:00 using the Zoom app. The book for September is Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry.
If you wish to join the group for scintillating discussion, request the zoom link from Dave Morrow: firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Stephen Mack Jones
Stephen Mack Jones is a Michigan poet and playwright, and August Snow is his first novel. Jones, originally from Lansing, currently lives in Farmington Hills. Jones is a recipient of the prestigious Kresge Arts in Detroit Literary Fellowship as well as the Hammett Prize and the Nero Award. August Snow was well received by critics and readers, and a second book in the series, Lives Laid Away, was published in 2019. August Snow got the attention of Harvey Weinstein, who wanted to make it into a TV series, but we all know what happened to Harvey.
August Snow grew up in Detroit’s Mexicantown as the son of a Mexican mother and an African American father. Like his father, Snow became a Detroit cop, but not until he had served as a Marine sniper in Afghanistan. Snow was wrongfully discharged for investigating a corrupt Detroit mayor and police officers. After being awarded $12 million in his lawsuit against the City, Snow travelled overseas before returning to his family home in Detroit, finding it empty after the loss of both of his parents. He gets a call from a wealthy Grosse Pointe heiress whose husband’s murder had been investigated by him. She wants him to investigate her suspicions about her Detroit wealth-management firm, but the day after Snow declines the job, she is found dead in her mansion from an apparent suicide. Snow is persona non grata at the Detroit Police Department, so when they and GP police refuse to investigate the suspicious suicide, Snow decides to poke around himself. He is quickly in the middle of an international conspiracy involving money-laundering, murder and extortion.
The author depicts the decline and beginning rebirth of Mexicantown and other Detroit neighborhoods, and his hero emphasizes the importance of community. His description of well- known restaurants, Mexican dishes and soul food could be a problem for hungry readers. August Snow also knows his weapons, his martial arts, and his liquors, but his generosity and willingness to help the down-and-out makes him a strong force for good in his community.
The small gathering of Readers (less than 10) that gathered on St Patrick’s Day to discuss August Snow generally liked the book, giving it a 3.5 out of 5-star rating. We enjoyed the snappy dialogue, the pop culture references, the Detroit and Northern Michigan locales, and the interesting supporting characters August calls on for help. Some thought the Hollywood-like shootouts and action scenes were overdone, and others questioned the credibility of the plot, but we would recommend it to those that appreciate police procedurals or thrillers.
Our next meeting of the Readers is on April 21st at 5 pm when we will discuss Ordinary Grace by William Kent Kreuger, winner of the 2014 Edgar Award for best novel. We will meet online via Zoom. If you would like to join our meeting and you have not gotten an invitation, contact David Morrow at 313-640-9756.
The Survivor: A Novel Based on a True Holocaust Survivor
by Marcel Moring
Our February book, The Survivor: A Novel Based on a True Holocaust Survivor by Marcel Moring, tells the story of Dr. Felix Zandman (1928-2011), who lived in Grodno in north-eastern Poland at the beginning of World War II. Grodno had a population of about 50,000, of which about half were Jewish. The Nazi’s herded them into two ghettos, but in late 1942, they liquidated the ghettos and sent all the Jews to concentration camps. A few escaped the roundup, including Zandman, then 14, his uncle and a couple who were friends of his uncle. They fled into the woods, reaching a summer cabin owned by his Felix’s grandmother but occupied by her former maid and her family. She took them in, first in an external potato cellar and then helping them dig a shallow pit below a bedroom. The pit was only wide enough for the four of them to lay side by side in the dark. A tube was led outside to provide some air, and the floorboards above were covered by some blankets and the bed. Once a day, the maid brought some bread, water and sometimes a potato, removed the slop bucket, and replaced the floorboards. Amazingly, they were able to survive for 17 months before the Russians drove the Germans out of the area in 1944. Felix eventually emigrated to France, graduated from university and obtained a PhD in physics from the Sorbonne. He worked as an electronics researcher for several companies in France and the US before founding his own company in the US in 1962. Today, Vishay Intertechnology has more than 22,000 workers around the world and a market capitalization of $3 billion.
The book is written in a series of short chapters, alternating between Felix’s life before the escape and his life after the war. The time in the pit is grim, but the occupants talk quietly, change positions every two hours, and try not to be overwhelmed by despair. Felix’s time after the war, in contrast, is a story of business success and prosperity, but accompanied by nightmares and an unwillingness to talk about the war. He kept in touch with the maid, her husband and the five children who lived in the cabin while four Jews hid in the pit, knowing that if the Germans ever found them both the Jews and the Catholic family that sheltered them would be shot or hung immediately. Felix had to deal with his desire to avenge the other 40 members of his extended family that were exterminated, but eventually he chose love and forgiveness. Late in his life, he nominated the maid and her husband for a place on Israel’s Righteous Among the Nations list of non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis.
The Readers found the book easy to read and of enough interest to continue reading to the end. The book was so simply written that several of us thought it was a Young Adult volume. We rated it 3 stars out of five, and might recommend it to those readers, especially younger readers, with an interest in the Holocaust.
Our next meeting of the Readers is on March 17th at 5 pm when we will discuss August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones, a recipient of the prestigious Kresge Arts in Detroit Literary Fellowship. This crime novel is set in Detroit and Grosse Pointe and was called by the Wall Street Journal “[A] witty, mayhem-packed first novel.” We will meet at the home of Joe Schneider, 76 Lochmoor Blvd, Grosse Pointe Shores. RSVP to Joe at (313) 882-6156. .
The January Readers’ Report
by Don Winslow
New York Times bestselling author Don Winslow has written twenty-one novels since 1991, including The Border, The Force, The Kings of Cool, Savages, The Winter of Frankie Machine and the highly acclaimed epics The Power of the Dog and The Cartel. His novels have attracted the attention of filmmakers and actors such as Oliver Stone, Michael Mann, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio. Twentieth Century Fox has optioned The Force as well as The Cartel and The Power of the Dog. Two earlier books were also made into films. Winslow majored in African history at the University of Nebraska and earned a master’s degree in Military History. He has also written a non-fiction book and numerous stories and essays. Winslow is the recipient of the Raymond Chandler Award (Italy), the LA Times Book Prize, the Ian Fleming Silver Dagger (UK), The RBA Literary Prize (Spain) and many other prestigious awards.
Denny Malone, the main character in The Force, wants is to be a good cop. He is the “King of Manhattan North,” a highly decorated NYPD detective sergeant and the real leader of “Da Force.” Malone and his crew are the smartest, the toughest, the quickest, the bravest, and the baddest–an elite special unit given carte blanche to fight gangs, drugs, and guns. He’s done whatever it takes to serve and protect in a city built by ambition and corruption, where no one is clean. What only a few know is that Denny Malone himself is dirty: he and his partners have stolen millions of dollars in drugs and cash in the wake of the biggest heroin bust in the city’s history. Now Malone is caught in a trap and being squeezed by the feds, and he must walk the thin line between betraying his brothers and partners, the Job, his family, and the woman he loves, trying to survive, body and soul, while the city teeters on the brink of a racial conflagration that could destroy them all. Critics called it the great cop novel of our time, a haunting story of greed and violence, inequality and race, crime and injustice, retribution and redemption, a story that reveals the seemingly insurmountable tensions between the police and the diverse citizens they serve. Because of its sprawling descriptions of the various forces fighting over the New York City streets, some called it a “Godfather with cops” or “Game of Thrones with cops.” The New York Times says, “He paints a realistic tableau of police privilege, pragmatism, racial bluntness, street smarts, love of partners and loyalty to what they call the Job.” PBS and Publishers Weekly put it on their Best of 2017 lists.
Although The Readers admired Winslow’s writing—the fast-paced style, sharp, realistic dialogue, and the use of Malone’s inner thoughts as narration, we were less impressed than the critics. We gave the book an average rating of 3 out of 5 stars. We felt that the book was too long (479 pages) and depicted a world with widespread corruption, violence, drug use, and betrayal that was too depressing to immerse ourselves in. We found it made us uncomfortable to contemplate that this is really what it takes to be an elite police officer in a major city.
Our next meeting of the Readers on February 18th at 5 pm we will discuss The Survivor: A Novel Based on a True Holocaust Survivor by Marcel Moring. We will meet at the home of Jack Cobau, 830 Fairford Rd, Grosse Pointe Woods. RSVP to Jack at (313) 881-1467.