Book Club Discussion: ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’ by Sherman Alexie

I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this book. I thought I had read it before and I couldn’t remember it. Usually, a book I like leaves some type of impression on me, but even rereading it for book club, I didn’t remember anything. However, I actually liked it this time around.

It’s a coming-of-age story about a teenage Native American boy who tries to break away from the life he lives on the Spokane Indian reservation. Junior aka Arnold has dreams of one day going off to do bigger and better things, but he knows that if he doesn’t leave the reservation, he is destined to follow in the footsteps of many before him. So he goes to Reardon High School, a school 45 minutes away, where he is the only Native American at the school. However, Junior quickly learns to navigate the dual life he now lives and is the better for it.

For me, I liked how the author brings to light the challenges Native Americans face and how they have been affected by alcohol, casinos and just living on a reservation in general. The fact that it is semi-autobiographical makes it all the more meaningful.

I also liked watching Junior grow through this book, especially while he is at Reardon. The author did a good job pointing out that although Junior is Native American, he is just like any other teenage boys who thinks about girls, sports, friends and just navigating his tumultuous teenage years.

I was one of the few in book club who did like the book. However, there was a pretty even split in terms of this book. Those who liked it thought it was an important work about Native American life and one of the few that were around. Those who didn’t like it, thought that they would have probably enjoyed it better if they were younger. Others didn’t like Junior and his attitude and couldn’t connect with the characters at all.

And then during the book club discussion, one of the organizers read up on the author and found out that he had been accused of sexual harassment in 2018. This created a whole new debate as to whether we could separate the works from the author. Some argued that since this was semi-autobiographical you couldn’t and some who liked the book before regretted doing so now that they knew about the authors’ actions. Others continue to defend the book, arguing it was still just as important because it was one of the few about Native American life that needed to be told.

Usually we would go on to dissect the book, but after this discovery, the discussion began to swing to other works that we were reading and recommendations for future reads. I was kind of disappointed because I thought there was so much to discuss in this book.

Book Club Discussion: ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

The Modern Library’s January discussion was “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey, a book I read a few years ago but didn’t quite remember it. I am glad that I got a chance to reread it because I think I actually enjoyed it even more. In fact, my review bumped to 5 stars.

If you are not familiar with this book, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is set in a psychiatric hospital ward, run by the infamous Nurse Ratched. She runs a tight ship and makes sure all the patients keep to a strict schedule. That is until the ward gets its newest patient, Randle McMurphy, who swaggers into the ward on his first day and pulls rank among the patients. Immediately, McMurphy defies Ratched’s rules and begins to be seen as a troublemaker by the nurse. It becomes a battle of wills as Ratched tries to keep reign over the ward and McMurphy tries to get the other patients on his side.

I thought that the setting of the book in a psychiatric ward was brilliant because it ultimately made the book a page turner. Not only it’s an unpredictable environment, but you throw McMurphy into the mix, and it’s anyone’s game. I found myself laughing aloud at some parts, because Kesey’s writing makes the reader feel they are right in on the action. I was particularly amused when McMurphy has an overnight party on the ward and those involved get drunk on smuggled alcohol and cough syrup. Hilarious.

Yet, even with its comic relief, Ken Kesey also brings to light some of the harsher truths about psychiatric hospitals and the stigma of society to conform. This book was written in the 60s when psychiatric hospitals were run a little more cruelly and this book provides a bit of reality of what patients went through. Kesey highlights how when people didn’t conform to what society dictated as ‘normal’, they were considered crazy. How to treat that condition differed pending on who was in charge of your care. In the case of Nurse Ratched, if you didn’t follow her rules, you could either being punished with electro-shock treatment or by a lobotomy.

Kesey uses McMurphy as the weapon to reveal these truths, particularly with his power struggle with the nurse. Yet, we don’t see all this through McMurphy’s eyes. Rather Kesey uses another character, Chief Bromden, a Native American patient who has been on the ward for 10 years as the narrator. It actually works with the plot as Bromden provides perspective on how things were pre-McMurphy and the changes that McMurphy causes during his stay.

You get to know everyone on the ward and slowly Kesey reveals why they are truly there. That even though they have been label “crazy” by society, they are anything but. Sure they have their quirks or challenges, but they are still humans who have emotions and needs that should not be ignored, simply because society says. Kesey also reveals what can happen if they don’t get what they need.

There were mixed reactions to the book. No one hated it but some were surprised by the amount of racism and misogyny described, which raised a discussion. There was some debate about Nurse Ratched, who is characterized as being firm and manly, running the ward like the army and how McMurphy goes about undermining that, even at one point revealing her as the female she is. There was some debate about whether McMurphy’s actions were warranted as well as whether Nurse Ratched was truly a villain. Were her punishments against the patients effective? How cruel is too cruel and at what cost?

The ending is particularly shocking but everyone thought it a fitting end to the battle between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy. I won’t say more than that except that the group agreed that this was a book that deserved to be recognized for what it was, at the time that it was written. This is definitely book club worthy as there are many topics to discuss.


Have you read “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? What did you think? Let’s discuss!

“84 Charing Cross Road” by Helene Hanff

This is such a charming and endearing book that I was quite sad that it had to end. I am so glad that this is a book club pick because I had never heard of it before and would have been missing out.

Helen Hanff is a writer in NYC in 1949 who begins a correspondence with a used book dealer in London seeking a list of books. A back and forth commences. As their correspondence continues through the years, the two begin to develop a friendship based on their love of books. They never meet and are separated by a whole ocean and yet, they are so familiar with each other.

I laughed at some parts and cried at others as the letters make those who are reading them feel that they are part of the company. I loved watching how Helens relationship with Frank grows beyond a book exchange and they begin to share their lives and it even extends to other employees in the book store.

I particularly loved the parts when Helen was outraged at something or when the book store was too slow in getting a book she longed for and she would blast them with a snarky letter, that was all in good fun.

“SLOTH. i could ROT over here before you’d send me anything to read. i oughta run straight down to brentano’s which i would if anything i wanted was in print…

what do you do with yourself all day, sit in the back of the store and read? why don’t you try selling a book to somebody?”

Helen Hanff, February 9, 1952

Every letter is unique. Some of Helen’s letters are well thought out and grammatically correct while others, such as the one above, lack capitalization and correct punctuation. Given that she is a writer, I would assume it goes to show how much she was in a rush to send off the letter at the time.

I liked how the letters revealed what is going on in the world at that time. The correspondence starts at the end of World War II, when Britain still has food rations and things are still hard to come by. There is another letter that signals the death of the King and then the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Then another shows how tourism begins to pick up in Britain by how busy the bookstore is.

I also liked knowing what books she was requesting and what books were popular at the book store. We have a few used book stores here in upstate NY and I now want to take a stroll through one and see what they have in stock. Better yet, maybe I should write them a letter and tell them to mail me a copy.

This book will make you long for the days of letter writing, something I actually enjoyed when I was younger. There is something to be said about sending a letter to someone through the postal service and waiting to hear back. For a while, I had a pen pal who lived in Oregon, on the opposite site of the United States, and I loved hearing from her. I also wrote back and forth to my uncle in Pennsylvania too. Why don’t we write letters anymore? We have email but but it’s not the same. More often than not, we just shoot off a reply to the person that contacted us.

If you want a quick nostalgic read that you can curl up with in an afternoon, then “84 Charing Cross Road” is the perfect book.


Have you read this book? What other charming books would you recommend? Let’s discuss!

‘Relish: My Life in the Kitchen’ by Lucy Knisley

Every year for November, the Society for Avid Readers Across the Hudson Book Club chooses a book that revolves around food. Sometimes they are really good and sometimes they are really bad. It’s always a mixed bag.

My initial thoughts when they selected “Relish” was that this book is going to be fun. That is purely going by the cover. I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover but I just couldn’t help it. Look at it.

Then I realized that it was a graphic novel and some of that excitement faded. I am not one to read graphic novels. I don’t know why but for some reason they just don’t appeal to me. Maybe the layout is too distracting for me, I don’t know. But I bit the bullet and guess what, I liked it.

I blew through it in an hour and I must say that it was fun. In the past we have read food books which were more about the industry or what you should or shouldn’t do when it comes to food or the types of food to eat. However this was just a personal experience with food, sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes just outright hilarious.

Knisley talks about her childhood in the kitchen with a mom who was a chef and how food played a huge role at each stage of her life. She talks about how the dinner menu was a bit different than what normal kids would eat – all high end food that you would normally be served at a restaurant. I mean if it was me, I might have starved, since I am picky eater, or, maybe, I would have learned to appreciate food at an early age like she did.

My favorite parts were when she was finally introduced to the world of processed food at a friend’s house and when she ate Mexican food in Mexico. I will say, there is something about eating food from another culture that is unforgettable. I still think about the food I ate in Spain.

If Knisley doesn’t make you hungry enough, at the end of each chapter she includes a recipe, which is a complete bonus. Not going to lie, some of the recipes I might even try, though some others are way too involved for me and I fear that I would just make a mess of things.

The fact that this was a graphic novel only served as a benefit and I actually enjoyed the imagery that accompanied the narrative. Perhaps I should give graphic novels more of a try.

I didn’t make it to book club for the discussion but I think I would have enjoyed it. I’m really interested to hear what everyone else thought. The organizer gave it 5 stars on Goodreads. I didn’t think it was that amazing but it was definitely 4 stars. But then again, to me five stars equals absolutely amazing, can’t stop thinking about it, everyone needs to read it.

Let’s just say, if you are looking for a light, fun read, this is definitely a good one. But make sure you have a snack nearby because your tummy might get hungry before you’re through.


Have you read “Relish”? What did you think? What other foodie books would you recommend? Let’s discuss!

‘The Library Book’ by Susan Orlean

I wasn’t able to make the book club discussion in October due to work but I felt like I should still write a review about this book, even if it is a few weeks late. Even more so because I am still thinking about it.

I wasn’t expecting to like this book. I was excited when it had first come out and then I saw that it was nonfiction. For some reason, I immediately thought it was going to be a snoozer. It didn’t help that I saw mixed reviews about it, some of which said that it was hard to get through.

Well yet again, book club wins. I swear I am more and more appreciative that I am in book club because I feel like every month I am saying that if it wasn’t because of book club I wouldn’t have read the book. I absolutely loved “The Library Book” and with Orlean’s descriptive writing style, I kept turning the pages for more.

“The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality, in the library we can live forever.”

-The Library Book

Through little snippets like the one above, Orlean shows her appreciation for libraries and what they stand for. While “The Library Book” focuses on the San Franscisco Library fire of 1986, Orlean weaves her personal experience with libraries into the narrative. She delves into its operations, not just at the checkout counter, but behind the scenes, from the process of bringing in new books to keeping track of the inventory to the process that goes into shipping books between branches as well as the myriad of other services a library has to offer.

More importantly, Orlean highlights how critical libraries are to the community and why the fire of 1986 was so devastating to the staff, the community and even the city. She even goes into the financial aspect of a library. While the local city does contribute to the funding of a library, it is a constant negotiation to get more funding to support the services they offer.

In each chapter, Orlean provides new information about the fire and its aftermath, the hunt for the guilty party and then when you begin to tire of the history lesson, she segways into either a story about going to a library when she was growing up or a generalization about the affect libraries have on the areas they reside. It leaves you with a newfound respect for the institution.

I will say after reading this book I definitely wanted to go out and support my local library.


Have you read “The Library Book”? What did you think? Let’s discuss!

Book Club Discussion: ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson

For years, I have been wanting to read this book but never got a chance to. I have, however, seen the movie, titled “The Haunting”, starring Catherine Zeta Jones, Liam Neesen and Lili Taylor as Eleanor. I normally do try to read the book before the movie but in this instance I didn’t even know it was a book until a few years ago.

Having seen the movie, I was excited to read it for book club, because usually it’s always better than the book. However, I must say, in this instance, I felt like I was missing a whole part of the plot. Where the book ends, the movie had added a whole other subplot, which seemed to tie up some of the loose questions that were left unanswered

It was one of the biggest criticisms from the other members in book club. They felt like Shirley Jackson would bring up a point in the story and when you were excited to see it where it would lead, she just kind of dropped it. Or she would bring in a random scene only to move on to the next without any reason.

There were mixed reactions about the book overall. Some were let down because they were expecting a good scare, while others argued that yes, it’s tame for modern standards, but for the time (1950s) this book was scary. Others, who don’t necessarily read horror , liked this book because of the psychological elements to it.

In short, a doctor, looking to analyze how paranormal activity can affect the psyche, invites two women to stay with him at, you guessed it, a haunted house. The soon to be heir of the house is also invited, basically to watch over things. And of course things begin to happen.

The two women – Theo and Eleanor – are invited because of their sensitive nature to unknown occurrences. The story focuses on Eleanor, a mousy quiet woman who lives with her sister and brother-in-law, who yearns for an adventure and accepts the invitation to stay at Hill House. Upon arriving at the house, she immediately becomes affected by the things around her and how the others treat her.

I will agree with the others that this book is definitely a psychological thriller and while it wasn’t scary, it did have enough suspense to keep me turning the pages. However, one of the biggest things that Shirley Jackson doesn’t quite answer is why Eleanor is more affected than the others. She leaves it open for interpretation, which actually made for a good discussion in book club. Was she simply just crazy? Or did the house have the same kind of influence on her that it did on the previous occupants? For a book that many were on the fence about, we discussed it for nearly 2 hours.

Despite my initial disappointment that it wasn’t like the movie or vice versa, once I looked at the book for what it was, I must say that it stands on its own and is definitely a good read.


Have you read “The Haunting of Hill House?” What did you think? What are some other good spooky reads you would recommend? Let’s discuss?

Book Club Discussion: ‘East of the Mountains’ by David Guterson

If you were faced with a terminal illness, what would you do? Would you go on living the life you have left, taking advantage of every minute, or would you want to end it, on your own terms?

For Ben Givens, the answer seems obvious. As a retired heart surgeon, he knows full well what his diagnosis of terminal colon cancer will entail. He wants to avoid it at all costs. So he plans one last hike with his two hunting dogs in the mountains. What he doesn’t expect is for anything to get in the way of his well thought-out plan.

When I started reading this book, I had no clue how it was going to turn out. We know right from the start what Ben’s plan is and there are only two ways it could end – he live or he dies. So now, as a reader, we have to go on this journey with Ben whether we like it or not.

As one book club member pointed out. “People make plans and God laughs.” Ben thinks he has it all figured out. He has planned an elaborate way to die and nothing is going to get in his way. That is until he goes on this journey and through the people he meets and the things that occur, he realizes that dying is easy, living is a struggle. We are faced with death around every corner of our lives. When we drive a car, we can get into an accident. When we are out hiking, we can’t get injured or run into dangerous animals. Those we love can die for no rhyme or reason. So the only thing we can do is accept that we are going to die at some point and continue to live our life until that time comes.

Many in book club, while they liked the book, thought the characters were thin and the dialogue was a little stilted. The biggest criticism was the over description of the places Ben was going that reminded them more of a travelogue than a fiction book. Others called it more episodic. There were great moments in the book but they were left hanging without any ties to each other.

I argue that the author didn’t care about the other characters or necessarily how they interacted. This whole book was Ben’s personal journey. He wanted to die and through these interactions, it made him question whether he was making the right decision. Ultimately I thought it was well done.

This is the second book I have read of Guterson and it is completely different from his first book, “Snow Falling on Cedars” since that book is a crime plot that highlights on the discrimination against Japanese in the United States after World War II and I absolutely loved it. Even though “East of the Mountains” isn’t my favorite, it has stayed with me.


Have you read “East of the Mountains”? What other books provide a reflection on life and death? Let’s discuss?

Book club discussion: “Disgrace” by J.M. Coetzee

I had never read anything by J.M. Coetzee before. I am not going to lie, I had never even heard the name Coetzee until book club members suggested this book to read. I knew it was going to be a good one by how many members recommended it. What I didn’t expect was how damn dark and depressing it would be. This book is not easy to read, and can definitely be a trigger.

Tonight when we met to discuss the book, the members who suggested reading the book apologized because they had forgotten how dark it was. Yet, despite that, everyone thought the book was well done.

According to the summary:

At fifty-two, Professor David Lurie is divorced, filled with desire, but lacking in passion. When an affair with a student leaves him jobless, shunned by friends, and ridiculed by his ex-wife, he retreats to his daughter Lucy’s smallholding. David’s visit becomes an extended stay as he attempts to find meaning in his one remaining relationship. Instead, an incident of unimaginable terror and violence forces father and daughter to confront their strained relationship and the equality complicated racial complexities of the new South Africa. 

If there is one thing to note about this book, is that despite it being written in 1999, many of the occurrences in this book were very much relevant today, especially the misogynistic qualities in David. He pretty much forces himself on a student because he thinks he has a right to.

“Because a woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone. It is part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it.” 

I kid you not, that was his reasoning. All I could think when I read that was, “Seriously?! WTF?! Ugh!” I was so disgusted. Many of the members agreed, calling him a “slimeball” and more. One member, who was reading this for the second time, said that she didn’t recall how disgusting he was but that given everything going on with the current #MeToo movement and the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, her views had shifted since first reading the book. It made his character all the more prevalent.

I thought it was pretty ironic that David pretty much forces the affair with the student at the beginning of the book and doesn’t think anything of it, but then later when his own daughter gets attacked, he is absolutely horrified. It is all the matter of perspective, I guess. David’s view shifts from the one doing it to the one observing it being done on someone he loves. Though I will say that his daughter’s attack is much worse. Just fair warning, if you plan to read the book.

What I and many members didn’t understand is why the women in this book were all passive. The student simply allows David to do what he wants to her without objecting and even encourages it at one point. It seems that she only reports him because she is forced to by her boyfriend and father. Then David’s daughter refuses to report the attack or leave the house, despite knowing that it could happen again. The females in the group said they would have left the first chance they got. Though I understand that Lucy didn’t want the men who did what they did to win, where is the line drawn in the sand?

The racial undertones of this books were subtle but startling. When Lucy finds herself in a precarious position later in the book, she agrees to marry her neighbor who is African. She knows that as a white, single, lesbian she is in danger of being attacked again, if not worse, all because she owns property that some would argue is not rightfully hers. By marrying her neighbor Petrus, who has two other wives, she has a form of protection. He can have her land as long she can continue to live where she lives. Some members thought this was her way trying to apologize for what white people had done, a form of reparations.

Many of us thought that the neighbor was the reason for the attack, not to be malicious but to get her to leave so he can own the land. At the beginning Petrus owns just the barn and a little plot that it sits on at the far end of Lucy’s property. But throughout the book, he begins to expand those boundaries. It’s almost as if he knows that there is nothing Lucy can do about it and so he patiently waits her out.

Disgrace, the title of this book, is fitting because it is portrayed throughout the book, from David’s disgrace from the university to his own daughter’s disgrace after the attack. Coetzee has a way of describing the human condition at its worst. You can understand each of the characters but at the same time all you want is to do away with them.

Our group spent nearly two hours discussing this book. There are so many layers that it is hard to write about them in one post and to be honest, I am still trying to wrap my head around everything. It’s only 200 pages but there is so much in it. It’s one of those books that you have to read multiple times to fully grasp what the author is trying to convey. But there is one line at the start of the book that really got my attention and I will end this post with it.

“The one who comes to teach learns the keenest of lessons, while those who come to learn, learn nothing.”

 

 

Book Club Discussion: ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll

For the month of June, the Society for Avid Readers Across the Hudson (SARAH) Book Club read Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Most of the group had read the book as a child so this was a reread for many, except for yours truly. I had never read the book but was quite familiar with the story, having grown up on the Disney movie and later watching the Tim Burton version.

If you don’t know the story, a young girl name Alice is sitting with her sister one day when she suddenly sees a white rabbit. While a rabbit isn’t extraordinary, the fact that this one can talk and seems to be watching the time on a pocketwatch has little Alice intrigued. She decides to follow the rabbit, and ends up down the rabbit hole. After falling for what seems like eternity, she ends up in Wonderland and there she is introduced to a myriad of characters including the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and of course the evil Queen of Hearts, who does nothing but scream “Off with your head!”

This is a simple, fun read, especially for a child. While I did enjoy it, I think I would have enjoyed it more if I was younger. The book itself is a bit surreal and nonsensical. Obviously when we get to the end, we understand why, but all the same, there were parts of the book where I couldn’t make heads or tales about what was going on or why. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way as many in the group said the same. Some even compared this book to feeling like they were on drugs. I guess it is a bit “trippy”, but I guess the best way to describe it can be summed up with the movies. The Disney version, which is obviously for kids, makes it exciting as we follow Alice on her adventures, while the Tim Burton movie is a bit unique to say the least. If you know Tim Burton’s movies, you know what I am talking about.

If you have seen the movies and are reading this book for the first time, you will think that the book has left out some characters or key elements that are in the movies. I came to find out that this is because the movies combine the book with it’s sequel, “Through the Looking Glass”, which I have obviously not read. Will I read it? That has yet to be determined.

The group also talked about how this book remain popular since it was first published in 1865 and how it continues to be referenced today in pop culture, from bands using it as inspiration in their music to popular English phrases such as “Mad as Hatter” or “Smiling like a Cheshire Cat”. The teacups at many amusements parks are inspired by this children’s classic and there is even a medical term called the Alice in Wonderland syndrome, where people perceives objects around them as smaller or larger than they are. This book has stood the test of time and should definitely be read at least once.


Have you read “Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland”? What did you think?

 

 

 

‘Regeneration’ by Pat Barker

I had never heard about Pat Barker until my book club recommended “Regeneration”, the first book of a trilogy, for our new reading list. At first I was skeptical. We had read two “war” books and I didn’t finish either of them. Yet, this book was different. It focused more on the horrors that soldier face while on the front as well as the psychological impacts as a result. I finished this book over two weeks ago, but it took me awhile to get my thoughts straight.

It starts with Siegfried Sassoon who writes a memo refusing to continue serving as an officer in World War I because he doesn’t believe in the cause behind it. Diagnosed as “shell shocked” He is sent to Craiglockart War Hospital where he becomes the patient of Dr. William Rivers. Rivers doesn’t think that there is anything mentally wrong with Sassoon, but fears that he is anti-war and will make trouble. However, Rivers agrees to treat Sassoon and is determined to send him back to service.

While at the hospital, we are introduced to Rivers’ other patients, all soldiers who suffer from PTSD as a result of war trauma. David Burns is a patient who is unable to eat after a bomb throws him headlong into the gut of a rotting soldier; Billy Prior suffers from mutism whenever he is forced to remember what happened in the war as well as asthma, which prevents him from returning; and Anderson, a prior surgeon, has a mental breakdown and can’t stand the sight of blood.

Through these characters, we see how trauma is different in each individual and the journey each takes to heal. Through Rivers’ treatment, each learns to deal with their trauma in different ways. At the same time, Rivers begins to see his patients in a new way and begins to think that Sassoon may have had a point about the war. He begins to question whether the sole purpose of his treatment is to send soldiers back and for what reason. This is highlighted when Rivers goes to study another doctor who uses electroshock treatment to cure a different case of mutism. Rivers, who suffers from a stutter, is horrified.

Through the book, Barker highlights other themes including sexuality, masculinity, identity and social structure. While Billy is dating a woman in town, there are subtle hints that Billy may be gay or bisexual, though it is never clearly resolved. Also, when Prior is given home service due to his asthma, he thinks he will be seen as a coward. Even Sassoon decides to return to the war because of his guilt of leaving the other men behind.

Barker has a way of making you connect with each of the characters  so that you feel that you know each of them personally. While I have never been to war and could not possibly understand what soldiers go through, I felt like I was there with each them. There is so much packed into this book that I was startled when I got to the end and sad that I had to leave them. I originally had no plans to read the other two books in this trilogy, but now I feel invested and want to see how these characters make out. I can’t wait to talk about this book next week in book club.