- 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 email@example.com for a copy of our current book list or see below. All MC members are welcome to join our discussion, whether or not you have read the book.
Click for Mens Club Readers 2020 Book List
For Readers Reports archived from previous years click here
The February Readers’ Report
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.
December Readers’ Report
Annual Poetry Meeting
The Readers met on December 17th to read aloud and discuss a number of poems, some modern and some not. Among those poems read were:
William Butler Yeats–The Lake Isle of Innisfree, Adam’s Curse, and The Wild Swans at Coole
Samuel Taylor Coleridge–Kubla Khan
Edward Arlington Robinson–Miniver Cheevy
Edgar A Guest–Don’t You Just
John Keats–When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be
Henry Taylor–Riding Lesson
Billie Collins–The Best Cigarette, The Sandhill Cranes of Nebraska, Shoveling With the Buddha
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow–A Psalm of Life
On January 9 at 10 am, we will meet at the home of Jack Cobau at 830 Fairford Rd, Gross Pointe Woods to choose our books for next year. If you have ever felt that you would join our little book club if we ever chose books that you wanted to read, this is your chance. Show up with your list of books and convince us that we should read them. The books with the most votes will be selected. RSVP to Jack at 313-881-1467.
Join us on January 21 at 5 pm when we will discuss The Force by Don Winslow at the home of David Morrow, 244 McMillan Rd, Grosse Pointe Farms. RSVP to Dave at 313-640-9756
November Readers’ Report
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
by Jack Weatherford
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford is a New York Times bestselling biography of the great Mongol leader Genghis Khan. The book expands into a history of the Mongol Empire that dominated much of the world in the Thirteenth Century. Weatherford is a cultural anthropologist who taught anthropology at Macalester College in Minnesota starting in 1983, and becoming the DeWitt Wallace Professor, Emeritus, before retiring. He graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1967, with a B.A. in Political Science followed by a M.A. in Sociology in 1972. Although best known for this 2004 book, his other books include The History of Money, Indian Givers, and The Secret History of the Mongol Queens.
In the Twelfth Century, the nomadic tribes that were to become the Mongols lived in a corner of present-day Mongolia on harsh steppes where they herded horses, cows, and other animals and hunted other small animals. The boy who became Genghis Kahn was born as Temujin in 1162 and “grew up in a world of excessive tribal violence, including murder, kidnapping, and enslavement.” His father stole his mother from her first husband in a raid, and he was himself killed when Temujin was a boy. The tribe abandoned his surviving family of two wives and seven children, and they struggled to survive. This seemed to teach Temujin that he was in charge of his own fate, and he should rely on alliances of trusted associates rather than family. He became an excellent horseman and fighter as he grew and built a reputation as an effective leader. He married a woman who had been selected years earlier and tried to live a quiet life, but she was kidnapped in a raid. The alliance he built to seek vengeance and successfully recover her was the first of his conquests. By 1206, Temujin had united all of the Mongol tribes, and at a council of Mongol chiefs took the title Genghis Khan.
With the approval of a large tribal council in 1211, Genghis Khan crossed the Gobi Desert to the south and attacked a large Chinese clan that had demanded his obeisance. Although greatly outnumbered, the Mongols used proven techniques, such as inciting the peasants against their rulers, creating confusion and then instilling fear to break their enemy’s spirit, using the speed of their disciplined all-cavalry army to harass and surround enemy troops that came out of their city walls, driving frightened civilians into the cities to exhaust their supplies, and using captured civilians to help supply the army and operate the siege engines that destroyed any cities that refused to surrender. Genghis Khan demanded loyalty from his troops and in return Mongol troops were respected and not squandered. Similar tactics were used over and over as the Mongols moved west and south, capturing city after city in Asia and Europe, from Korea to the Balkans. Weatherford writes: “In twenty-five years, the Mongol army subjugated more lands and people than the Romans had conquered in four hundred years….Whether measured by the total number of people defeated, the sum of the countries annexed, or by the total area occupied, Genghis Khan conquered more than twice as much as any other man in history.” The author attempts to correct the common characterization of the Mongols as savage, barbaric people. He points out that Genghis Khan and most of his successors outlawed torture, tolerated numerous religions among the people they conquered, respected and utilized professionals among those people, promoted the rule of law, supported written languages and encouraged the printing of books, established a postal system, organized the towns along the Silk Road into history’s largest free-trade zone, introduced paper currency, created primary schools, and consolidated many small warring states into working confederations. One of Genghis Khan’s grandsons, Kublai Khan, completed the conquest of China and built the city now known as Beijing as his capital, including the Forbidden City for his Mongol court. Other descendants grew the empire for 150 years after the death of Genghis Khan in 1227.
Almost all of the Readers gave Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World five stars and felt it opened their eyes to a history they had been unaware of. Weatherford did years of research, including helping to decipher a secret history that had been lost for centuries. Despite being an academic, he has created an eminently readable and enlightening history.
Our next meeting of the Readers on December 21st at 5 pm will be our annual poetry meeting. Bring several poems to read aloud and discuss with the group. We will meet at the home of David Morrow, 244 McMillan Rd, Grosse Pointe Farms. RSVP to David at (313) 640-9756.
October Readers’ Report
by Molly Bloom
Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker is the 2014 memoir of Molly Bloom, and according to the publisher’s blurb, “the true story of ‘Hollywood’s poker princess’ who gambled everything, won big, then lost it all. Molly Bloom reveals how she built one of the most exclusive, high-stakes underground poker games in the world—an insider’s story of excess and danger, glamour and greed.” The author tells her version of the story, beginning in Loveland, Colorado, where she grew up in the 80’s trying to compete with her high-achieving brothers. She trained for years to make the Olympic skiing team, and at one time ranked third in Nor-Am Cup for women’s moguls skiers. Although she overcame scoliosis surgery at age 12, being told she would never ski again, she came back to make the US Ski Team. A horrific crash on her Olympic qualifying run ended her skiing career.
Molly graduated from the University of Colorado summa cum laude and planned to go to law school, a choice made for her by her demanding father. Instead, in 2004 she took a year off and moved to Los Angeles, where she took waitressing and other jobs before becoming an assistant to a crazy, bullying restaurateur and real estate developer, eventually earning his confidence. She called this her grad school in business and she learned fast. One day he told her he was starting a celebrity poker game and she was going to help. Not knowing anything about poker, she was amazed at who she saw in the room and how much they were willing to bet. Hollywood personalities, including Tobey McGuire, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon, sports stars such as Alex Rodriguez, Wall Street billionaires, hedge fund operators, musicians such as Nelly and the Olson Twins and others came and went from the game. Molly never played, but she learned the game and she learned how to run the game, keeping track of buy-ins that ranged from $10k to $250k, collecting from losers and paying the winners. She did not take anything out of the pot (known as a “rake”) and this kept the games legal. Rather, she and the dealers and girls she hired received generous tips from the players. Molly’s lifestyle improved.
As word of the game spread, Molly was able to take the game away from her former boss and move it to glamourous Hollywood hotel suites with lavish spreads, attractive servers and the best of everything. She dated a son of the family that owned the Dodgers and built a network of rich men who loved to gamble. In 2009 she moved to New York and organized games there. Her hectic schedule led to drug use, and she began to make mistakes, such as taking a rake to cover her exposure to losses from the huge stakes that were being gambled. Eventually, the Feds moved in and Molly’s Game was over.
The book has been made into a major motion picture with the same title starring Jessica Chastain and written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. The Readers were generally in agreement that the book was easy reading but unsatisfying. We were impressed with Molly’s accomplishments in rising from a small town in Colorado to the bright lights of LA and New York, but we couldn’t condone her life choices. Molly clearly needed the book money to cover legal fees and to begin to rebuild her life, and she made herself look as good as possible. The book’s repetitive descriptions of poker games and rich men addicted to gambling got old, and in the end we felt sorry for Molly and her shallow lifestyle. We rated the book 3 stars out of 5. Those of us who have seen the movie, however, rated it much higher, and we would recommend it if you have an interest in the story of Molly Bloom.
At our next meeting of the Readers on November 19th at 5 pm, we will be discussing Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford. We will meet at the home of Patrick Reid, 412 Lothrup Rd, Grosse Pointe Farms. RSVP to Patrick at (313) 938-6567.
September Readers’ Report
White Rose Black Forest
by Eoin Dempsey
If the number of books still being written about World War II is any indication, interest in the conflict continues to be high nearly 75 years after its ending. Eoin Dempsey’s White Rose Black Forest is a 2018 work of historical fiction about the White Rose, a small German resistance group among students at the University of Munich in 1942 and 1943. Eoin Dempsey was born and raised in Ireland, but now lives in Philadelphia. He has written two prior novels and has several more books in the works.
Although the actual White Rose, like a number of other German resistance groups, had a negligible impact on the Nazi war effort, its existence raises an interesting question for writers of fiction—what would you have done when faced with the horrors of the Nazi regime that mercilessly put down any trace of dissent. Dempsey’s novel opens with Franka Gerber trudging through heavy snow in the Black Forest of southwestern Germany, trying to decide on the best place to kill herself with her father’s revolver. Before she can carry out her plan, she stumbles across an injured airman in a Luftwaffe uniform with a parachute attached to him. Her training as a nurse kicks in and she decides to help him despite her hatred of the Nazis. Before long she discovers that he may not be who he appears to be. As she nurses him back to health, a complicated dance plays out between them as they each try to decide whether to trust the other.
Interspersed with this story, we get flashbacks to fill in the backstory of both characters, but concentrating on Franka and the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party in Germany. An important aspect of the growth of Nazism was the ideological indoctrination of German youth through such organizations as Hitler Youth. Many of the members of the White Rose were members of such groups in the 1930’s, but they became disillusioned as the war went on. The author describes the harsh tactics used by the Gestapo to eliminate any critics of the Nazi party. Most of the Readers have read enough World War II history to be familiar with this story, but at least the history is accurate. Eventually the characters open up to each other and we learn how Franka is connected to the White Rose and who the airman really is. The action heats up as they join forces in a mission that could change the war. At this point, the book is more thriller than historical fiction. It proceeds through an informant, a shooting, a clandestine meeting, air raids, a Gestapo chase, a love story, and more to a predictable ending.
The Readers were split on their judgement of this novel. Several would recommend it and rate it 4 stars out of 5, but the majority were more critical, and although they may have enjoyed the story, they found a number of flaws in its telling. Some found the plot barely credible and the writing uninspiring. We felt the book might be appropriate for those looking for a diverting summer read, or for young people not yet well versed in the rise of the Nazi party. Most of the Readers preferred some of our other WWII reads, such as All the Light We Cannot See, The Nightingale, or even Beneath A Scarlet Sky.
At our next meeting of the Readers on October 17th at 5 pm, we will be discussing Molly’s Game: The True Story of the 26-Year-Old Woman Behind the Most Exclusive, High-Stakes Underground Poker Game by Molly Bloom. The book has been made into a major motion picture starring Jessica Chastain. We will meet at the home of Bob Wrosch, 22801 Lakeshore Drive, St Clair Shores. RSVP to Bob at (313) 310-8097.
August Readers’ Report
Reported by Bob Wrosch
by Dan Brown
Dan Brown’s Origin is his fifth novel where the brilliant Harvard professor of symbology and religious iconography, Robert Langdon, is called upon to solve a series of problems that may change our world. As in the other novels, Professor Langdon travels to some of the most interesting places you can ever hope to see. In Origin, these sites are mainly in Spain. And as in all of Dan Brown’s works, the novel doesn’t shy away from the big questions, but rather rushes headlong into them. Here is the question: Can science make religion obsolete?
After a prologue, the novel begins at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, where Edmond Kirsch, a billionaire philanthropist, computer scientist, inventor, entrepreneur, and futurist, as well as a strident atheist, is planning to release his revolutionary discovery to the world via the internet. At this conference. Kirsch, once Langdon’s most gifted student, will be answering these two questions: Where did we come from, and where are we going? Naturally, Langdon would be invited to attend this event with many other world celebrities. And just as naturally (for a Dan Brown novel), after a one hundred page build up to this event, Kirsch would be assassinated, just seconds before the big reveal! (We will get his answers after four hundred, or so, more pages.)
Robert Langdon is embroiled once more in an intellectually challenging, life- threatening adventure involving murderous zealots, shadowy fringe organizations, paradigm-shifting secrets with implications for the future of humanity, symbols within puzzles, puzzles within symbols, and a female companion who is super smart and super hot! As we join him in this quest for justice and answers, we will learn of the wide-ranging talents of Winston Churchill, the elusive appeal of abstract art, the exciting peculiarities of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia cathedral, and the latest insane developments in the world of artificial intelligence.
Which brings us to Winston, both the protagonist and antagonist of this novel. He/it is Edmond Kirsch’s quantum computer AI assistant. Dan Brown spent four years writing this book. He prefers literature that is instructive and ideally, not wholly inventive. He once said, “ I feel like if I’m going to take the time reading, I better be learning.” Of his novels, he said, “This is the kind of fiction I would read, if I read fiction.” Wilson is a personified supercomputer with a British accent, who manages the plot of Origin by issuing instructions from an iPhone. Things get much more complicated when the iPhone is destroyed, but,… did I say he was a supercomputer?
I am not a supercomputer, so I enjoy side trips to research new words, places, and things I may be unfamiliar with, and Brown’s novels give me so much to explore. (e.g. I had never heard of Kirsch’s “sleek Kiton 50 suit and Barker ostrich shoes,” but my research found the suit in Naples (where it can run up to $100,000) and the shoes in the UK. Abiogenesis and Panspermic hypothesis will get you through the question, Where did we come from? And although Kirsch takes us 50 years into our evolutionary future, the answer to the question, Where are we going? is even easier to understand and accept.
All of the works of art and architecture mentioned in the book are real, including Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s home, Casa Mila, the Barcelona Supercomputer Center, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, The Palmarian Catholic Church, and The Valley of the Fallen.
Dan Brown’s travels take us all over the map intellectually and physically. Origin is a fun read, but not necessarily great literature. Of the eight Readers who attended our discussion, we split evenly– four 3s, and four 4s out of a possible 5 rating. We enjoyed discussing so many of the areas Dan Brown mentioned, but we were not overly impressed by his writing style or his character development. It probably would be better if we all had read his first novel, Angels and Demons, which introduced Professor Robert Langdon.
Or if we had seen the three movies directed by Ron Howard–The DaVinci Code, Angels and Demons, or Inferno, filmed in Rome, Paris, and Florence, respectively. If you are not an English Lit major, you will find much to like.
Will I read another Dan Brown novel? Possibly. But I will definitely look forward to seeing this novel as a movie!
At our next meeting on September 17 at 5 pm, the Readers will be discussing White Rose, Black Forest by Eoin Dempsey, a novel telling the story of the White Rose, the resistance group in Nazi Germany who silently fought for the rights of Germans who hated what Hitler was doing to their people and country. We will meet at the home of Chris Walsh, 10 Stratton Place, Grosse Pointe Shores, MI 48236 RSVP to Chris, (313) 268-3708
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.
Click for Senior Mens Club 2019 Book List v2
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.