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.
Readers meet to discuss “The Library Book.” Seated, from left, Jack Cobau and George Arsenault. Standing, David Morrow, Pat McKeever, Bob Wrosch, Patrick Reid and Frank Romano. (Not pictured because he was behind the camera, Chris Walsh.)
June Readers’ Report
The Library Book
by Susan Orlean
The Library Book, a book about libraries, was a surprising hit in 2018. It was named a Washington Post Top 10 Book of The Year, a New York Times Bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book of 2018, and a nominee for a LA Times Book Prize. Susan Orlean has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992. She is the author of seven books, including Rin Tin Tin, Saturday Night, and The Orchid Thief, which was made into the Academy Award–winning film Adaptation.
The book focuses on the Los Angeles Public Library, and in particular the catastrophic 1986 fire that destroyed or damaged more than 700,000 books and caused $22 million of damage to the Central Library. Orlean has provided an absorbing description of the fire and the arson investigation that followed, but she also includes the history of the library, some of the surprisingly interesting characters that have worked there, and how libraries try to remain relevant in a Kindle age.
One of the colorful characters in Orlean’s book is Harry Peak, an aspiring actor who was good looking, likable, and absolutely unable to tell the truth. When the police questioned him about starting the fire, he came up with at least seven alibis, each of them different. Orleans returns to this whodunit frequently, but it is not the main focus of the book.
Orlean took nearly six years to research and write The Library Book. She talked to current and retired library administrators, librarians, guards and other employees and spent many days at the LA Library, digging into what goes on behind the scenes to make the library work for its patrons. She found librarians to be much more interesting than she expected. As she usually does, she inserted herself into the book. She frequently writes in the first person, describing events in her own life, such as her vivid childhood memories of her neighborhood branch library in suburban Cleveland. Visits were an important time with her mother, who was suffering from dementia by the time The Library Book was finished.
The New York Times reviewer wrote “That sense of possibility animates her new book, which is a loving tribute not just to a place or an institution but to an idea…What makes The Library Book so enjoyable is the sense of discovery that propels it, the buoyancy when Orlean is surprised or moved by what she finds.” The Nation’s reviewer wrote “The Library Book, like the city in which it is set, does sprawl, but in the best possible way, touching on everything from the politics of book burning to the physics of combustion to the future of brick-and-mortar libraries in a digital world.”
The Readers enjoyed this book, awarding it 4 out of 5 stars. Some found the structure somewhat choppy, as the author moved from subject to subject, but we agreed that it was well written and edifying. Our discussion included recollections of favorite libraries, including Detroit’s Main Library. We would have liked to see more pictures of the LA Library, both before and after the fire and the six-year rebuilding, For those of you interested in seeing the building’s art and architecture, click here: https://www.lapl.org/branches/central-library/art-architecture
The Readers will not meet in July. Join us on August 20th when we will discuss Origin by Dan Brown. We will meet at the home of Bob Wrosch at 22801 Lakeshore Dr, St Clair Shores at 5 pm. RSVP to (313) 310-8097.
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May Readers’ Report
by Philip Roth
Philip Roth is a giant of American letters, with a career that spanned 50 years. From Goodbye Columbus in 1959 to Nemesis published in 2010, Roth wrote nearly 30 novels, numerous short stories, essays, and reviews, and two memoirs. Eight of his works were adapted for films, and as his New York Times 2018 obituary stated, “The Nobel Prize eluded Mr. Roth, but he won most of the other top honors: two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle awards, three PEN/Faulkner Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and the Man Booker International Prize.” If all of his honors and awards were listed here, there would be no room for a discussion of Everyman. Roth was frequently linked with his contemporaries, Saul Bellow and John Updike, but he outlived them and wrote more novels than either of them.
Everyman, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for 2007, is a shorter work from late in Roth’s career when his health was deteriorating. Like almost all of Roth’s novels, there is a significant amount of autobiography in this volume. His unnamed protagonist is a once successful advertising man from New Jersey who has three ex-wives, three children, and a brother, yet finds himself almost completely alone as he contemplates the end of his life. His faith does not provide solace because he is an atheist, having abandoned the Jewish religion that he was raised in. From the publisher’s readers guide: “Everyman is a vividly specific and heartrending account of one man’s long skirmish with mortality, and a much larger story about the facts of illness and dying that sooner or later must be faced by all. It is a testament to Roth’s seemingly inexhaustible creative powers that he invests this story of illness and death with all the vibrancy that has made him America’s most acclaimed novelist.”
We meet our protagonist first as he is being buried in a run-down Jewish cemetery near the New Jersey Turnpike. His daughter chose it for him because his parents were buried there, and she wanted him near those he loved in life. As a child, he and his older brother helped their father in his small jewelry store in Elizabeth named Everyman’s Jewelry Store. He enjoyed working with the used watches and helping the girls who worked at the store. As with most Roth heroes, it is his lust that drives him. As he looks back on his three divorces, he can see the pain they caused, but he attempts to justify himself to the reader by describing how desirable and exciting his younger mistresses were. In his eyes, he had no choice in the matter. He can’t understand why his two sons with his first wife have never forgiven him.
After his retirement, the man moves to a retirement community at the Jersey Shore near where his family used to vacation. He returns to painting, an activity he had set aside while working, and becomes good enough to teach a class to other residents. He makes few friends, and he is devastated when his favorite student commits suicide. Although he keeps in touch with his daughter, he withdraws from his brother whom he has idolized all his life because he envies his brother’s good health.
Roth’s prose is still compelling, and although some of his sentences seem to stretch out to paragraph-length, they remain clear and effective. Most of the Readers enjoyed Everyman, despite it being somewhat grim at times. Some of us identified with the protagonist’s many health issues and his feeling that “Old age isn’t a battle, it is a massacre.” We also felt sorry for the character because of his isolation and loneliness, but wondered why he seemed to accept it. We fondly remembered Dr. Fred White-house, our SMC member who suggested the book but passed away before he could discuss it with us. Our average rating was four out of five stars, and we would recommend it to those who enjoy novels of self-examination.
Join us at our next meeting when we will discuss The Library Book by Susan Orlean. We will meet on June 18th at 5 pm at the home of Jack Cobau, 830 Fairford Rd, Grosse Pointe Woods. RSVP to 313-881-1467.
April Readers’ Report
by Michael Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatje is a Sri Lanka-born Canadian poet, essayist, novelist, editor, and filmmaker. He is the recipient of multiple literary awards such as the Governor General’s Award, the Giller Prize, the Booker Prize, and the Prix Médicis étranger. In 2018 he was awarded the Golden Man Booker, a special prize awarded to the best of the previous 51 winning titles since its inception in 1969, for The English Patient.
Warlight, his eighth work of prose, is set in London and begins after the end of the war. The opening sentence reads “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminal.” The narrator is Nathaniel, then 14 but speaking from his perspective as an adult, a narrative technique that Ondaatje has used in previous works. Nathaniel and his older sister Rachel are put under the care of a man they nickname “The Moth.” He is shortly joined by a former boxer, the “Pimlico Darter,” and a variety of other Dickensian characters who show up in their parent’s house. Eventually, Rachel discovers her mother Rose’s carefully packed trunk in the basement, showing that her parent’s supposed trip to Singapore for business was a lie.
Although the children are supposed to be going to a boarding school, they hate the school, so the Moth gets them converted to day students, after which they seem to spend little time there. The Moth has a job supervising the staff of the Criterion Hotel, and he permits Nathaniel to work in menial jobs there instead of attending school. A girl he meets seduces Nathaniel, and since she won’t reveal her name, he calls her Agnes, after the street. Nicknames, atmospheric locations, watchers in the dark and strange characters all create an air of mystery. The children suspect that Rose is still in London and may be a spy.
Nathaniel starts working at night with the Darter, and they become close. They convey greyhounds and other contraband in the back of the Darter’s Morris, and then on a borrowed mussel boat on the Thames. When the dog tracks cracked down on doping, the Darter started importing unregistered dogs to confuse the odds at the local tracks. Nathaniel loves working on the water, and even brings Agnes along as they poke into some of the numerous canals and tributaries north of the Thames.
Following a surprising act of violence, Rose reappears, and Nathaniel is sent away to college, losing touch with his sister. In the second half of the book, the narrative tightens as Ondaatje explores the relationship between Rose and Nathaniel and Nathaniel’s attempt as an adult to uncover the secrets of her life. “I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth,” Nathaniel declares. Minor characters from earlier in the book move to the fore, and secrets are revealed. “We order our lives with barely held stories,” Nathaniel says near the end of the book. “As if we have been lost for generations in a confusing landscape, gathering what was invisible and unspoken.”
Warlight was well received by critics, and most of the Readers enjoyed Ondaatje’s luminous prose and imagery. Although not an easy read, it is rewarding. Ondaatje uses his extensive research to illuminate little-known aspects of the place and time, such as Waltham Abbey, where most of England’s gunpowder and other explosives were made, and the existence of continued fighting between partisans and others on the Continent after the war ended. “Wars don’t end,” he writes. “They never remain in the past.” Some of the Readers found the pace somewhat slow and the plotting sometimes confusing, but we gave it 4 stars out of 5, and we recommend it, especially to those who enjoyed Ondaatje’s earlier work.
Join us at our next meeting when we will discuss Everyman by Philip Roth. We will meet on May 21st at 5 pm at the home of Harry Thomalla, 771 Blaimoor Ct, Grosse Pointe Woods. RSVP to 313-882-7644.
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March Readers’ Report
Educated: A Memoir
by Tara Westover
Tara Westover’s memoir Educated was one of the most talked-about and critically acclaimed books of 2018. It has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 56 weeks and, as of this writing, is still at #2 in nonfiction. Critics loved it, and it was one of the New York Times’s 10 Best Books of 2018 as well as the Amazon Editors’ #1 pick for the Best Book of 2018. It was on the best books of the year list for dozens of publications, including Time, NPR, Newsday, Publishers Weekly and many more, and was recommended by Oprah, President Obama, and Bill Gates. It won the Goodreads Choice Award and was a finalist for several other literary awards. You can now add the SMC Readers to the list of people saying this book is worth your time.
Tara Westover was born in Idaho in 1986 to a father opposed to public education, so she never attended school. She spent her days working in her father’s junkyard or stewing herbs for her mother, a self-taught herbalist and midwife. She was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. After that first encounter with education, she pursued learning for a decade, graduating magna cum laude from Brigham Young University in 2008 and subsequently winning a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. She earned an MPhil from Trinity College, Cambridge in 2009, and in 2010 was a visiting fellow at Harvard University. She returned to Cambridge, where she was awarded a PhD in history in 2014.
Educated is Westover’s first book, yet it reads like the polished work of a veteran. The Readers found it hard to put down, particularly the first part describing her isolated childhood at the foot of a mountain in Idaho. Her father was a survivalist Mormon who had his own church. He permitted his first three children to enroll in public school, but by the time he was in his mid-twenties he had decided that school was “a ploy by the Government to lead children away from God.” He also didn’t permit his last four children to obtain birth certificates.
Tara was taught to read at home so she could read the Bible, the Book of Mormon and other Mormon texts, but everything else was ignored so the children could help with the family businesses. Any extra money the family earned went to stock up for the Apocalypse, which her father conflated with the Y2K scare. The Ruby Ridge standoff reinforced his paranoid belief that the Feds were coming for his family. Working in the family junkyard was hazardous, and Tara and her siblings were injured, sometimes seriously. They were treated by their mother with her herbal remedies rather than being seen by doctors or hospitals.
Because of her father’s pride, Tara was permitted to sing at a local community theater in town where her confidence grew. With help from an older brother who had managed to get into college, Tara taught herself math, science and history. She practiced the ACT test until she scored high enough to be admitted to BYU, where she excelled after a painful period of adjustment. Eventually she had to decide how to relate to her family that refused to acknowledge the violent abuse she suffered at the hands of an older brother.
Almost all the Readers gave Educated five stars and found it a compelling story of a woman overcoming immense obstacles, and an illustration of the strong bonds of family.
Join us at our next meeting when we will discuss Warlight by Michael Ondaatje. We will meet on April 16th at 5 pm at the home of Patrick Reid, 412 Lothrop Rd, Grosse Pointe Farms. RSVP to 313-938-6567.
February Readers’ Report
The Sun Also Rises
by Ernest Hemingway
The Sun Also Rises is one of the classic novels of American literature. It is found on The Great American Read list of the 100 most-loved books, coming in as number 65 in last year’s voting on PBS. It was Ernest Hemingway’s debut novel, published in 1926, but is widely considered his greatest work. Hemingway, of course, is viewed as one of America’s greatest and most influential writers. In 1954, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, having won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in the previous year.
The Sun Also Rises shows the trademark Hemingway writing style: spare, muscular, unadorned, heavy on dialogue but lacking complicated syntax, perhaps reflecting his earlier work as a journalist. The Nobel Committee cited “his mastery of the art of narrative…and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style.” Hemingway called his style the “iceberg theory,” the facts float on the surface, the supporting structure and symbolism operate out of sight.
The emphasis on style hides a lack of plot, and it sometimes seemed this story was more a travelogue than a novel. Hemingway writes in the first person. Jake Barnes, the narrator, is an American writer living in Paris and a thinly veiled version of Hemingway. Other expatriates join Jake and Lady Brett Ashley, a Brit who acquired a title through marriage. Jake and Brett are in love, but their relationship is doomed because a World War I injury has apparently rendered Jake impotent. Together with Mike, (Brett’s fiancé), Cohn, (Brett’s Jewish admirer), and Bill, (a visiting American writer), they party in Paris before travelling to Spain. In Paris, they move from bar to restaurant and on to another bar, drinking heavily and talking about their friends. Every street, bar, dance hall, and restaurant is named.
Jake and his friends are part of the “Lost Generation,” survivors of World War I but disillusioned, cynical, and bereft of values or long-term goals. By today’s standards, they were alcoholic, anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic, and sexist. Jake did some work for a newspaper, and the other men claimed to be writers, but clearly work was of little importance to them. Although Brett cared for Jake, she didn’t hesitate to sleep with other men whenever she pleased.
The Readers did not particularly enjoy The Sun Also Rises or its characters, but most of us were glad we made the effort to get through it. We kept looking for a plot to develop, but we had to settle for the colorful description of the running of the bulls in Pamplona and the bullfighting festival that followed. We liked the writing when Hemingway focused on descriptions of places and things, but we missed any trace of humor. (One exception: “A bottle of wine is good company.”) Our average rating was a 3 out of 5 stars.
Join us at our next meeting when we will discuss the much-heralded memoir Educated by Tara Westover on March 19th at 5 pm at the home of David Morrow, 244 McMillan Rd (corner of Charlevoix), Grosse Pointe Farms. RSVP to Dave at 313-640-9756.
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January Readers’ Report
The Hellfire Club
by Jake Tapper
Jake Tapper is the chief Washington correspondent for CNN as well as the host of weekday and Sunday news programs on the network. He has authored three works of nonfiction, including the best seller The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor, a critically acclaimed book about U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Tapper was raised in Philadelphia and received his degree from Dartmouth. Before moving to CNN, Tapper was the Senior White House Correspondent for ABC News and was honored with three Merriman Smith Memorial Awards for broadcast journalism. Tapper is also an experienced cartoonist, and his strip was published in Role Call from 1994 to 2003.
The Hellfire Club is Tapper’s first novel. The book debuted at Number 3 on the New York Times Best-Seller List for Hardcover Fiction and remained on the Best-Seller list for four weeks in 2018. The Associated Press called The Hellfire Club “insightful…well-written and worthwhile.” The novel is set in 1954 in Washington, D.C. It opens with freshman congressman Charlie Marder waking up in Rock Creek Park near a crashed Studebaker with a dead girl nearby and no clear memory of what happened. Through a series of flashbacks, Tapper tells us how Charlie got there. Charlie has been appointed to fill a vacancy in the House and arrives with the ethics of a Boy Scout. He is determined to restrict appropriations to a company that manufactured detective gas masks that killed a soldier in Charlie’s World War II platoon. His efforts endanger his seat on the Appropriations Committee, and as Charlie moves through the Washington of Joe McCarthy and Dwight Eisenhower, he finds his straight-arrow approach severely tested.
The book eventually becomes a thriller with a Hollywood action-movie ending, but along the way Tapper covers many historic events and people, the result of his four years of research. A few examples include the attack on the House of Representatives by Puerto Rican separatists, the McCarthy hearings and Roy Cohn, Estes Kefauver and his comic book hearings, the development of baby monitors, pesticides and photocopy machines, wild ponies on islands offshore of Maryland, and the growth of lobbyists and the military-industrial complex. We also encounter the Kennedys, LBJ, the Dulles brothers, Richard Nixon, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Margaret Chase Smith and many others. Many of the fictional characters are based on real people, as revealed by a quick look at the “Sources” section at the end of the book. Charlie’s experience at The Hellfire Club, an exclusive secret society where powerful men can engage in dissolute behavior, is based on actual clubs that existed in England and Ireland in the 18th century and may survive today.
Most of the Readers enjoyed the book and thought it was well written. Our average rating was about 3.5 out of 5. Most found the history and period details to be of interest, but some felt the weight of the various events and the backstories of so many characters slowed the pace of the story. Others found the plot to be somewhat contrived, and some were offended by the profanity in the dialogue of some of the politicians. If you read historical fiction and have an interest in the 1950’s, we think you might enjoy The Hellfire Club.
Join us on February 19th at 5 pm for our discussion of The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. We will meet at the home of Frank Romano, 40 River Lane, Grosse Pointe Woods. RSVP to (313) 881-4285.
December Readers’ Report
Annual Poetry Meeting
The Readers’ annual poetry meeting was held on December 18th at the home of George Arsenault. Nine of us brought several poems to read aloud and discuss. As usually happens, the wide-ranging discussion covered not only the poems themselves and the poets who wrote them but our experiences with poetry, poets, and the themes suggested by the poems.
The following poems, among others, were read and discussed:
Edgar A Guest—“Don’t Quit”
James Truslow Adams –-‘There is so much good in the worst of us”
Frances Thompson—“The Hound of Heaven” (excerpts)
John G Saxe—“The Blind Men and the Elephant”
William Butler Yeats—“Lake Isle of Innisfree”
Tracy K. Smith—“Everything That Ever Was”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—“A Psalm of Life”
Richard Armour—“The Ladies”
For those SMC members who have said that they would consider joining the Readers if we only chose some books that they wanted to read, here is your chance! We will hold our annual book selection meeting for 2019 at 10 am on January 10th at the home of Jack Cobau, 830 Fairford Road, Grosse Pointe Woods. Bring a short list of books you are interested in, tell us why we should read them, and then cast your vote. If history is any guide, multiple ballots will be required before finalizing our book list. RSVP to Jack at 313-885-1650 or 313-881-1467.
At our regular January meeting, we will discuss The Hellfire Club by Jake Tapper. The meeting will be held January 15th at the home of Chris Walsh, 10 Stratton Place, Grosse Pointe Shores, MI 48236 at 5 pm. RSVP to Chris at (313) 268-3708.
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