Book Club Discussion: ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ by Zora Neale Hurston

I didn’t know what to think when I started reading this book. I knew that it had been on many must-read lists but I wasn’t exactly sure why. I wasn’t expecting it to affect me the way it did.

What I loved most about the book was the writing. It was so poetic and beautiful.

“She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight.”

“Their Eyes Were Watching God” is about a young woman’s journey to find happiness and ultimately her independence. It is interesting the comparison’s that Hurston makes between money and happiness. Janie is married twice well off. It is what her grandmother wanted for her so she could be “safe.” Janie marries into money and is consider higher in class among her people and yet she isn’t happy. Janie is bored and though her husbands love her, they mistreat her. So it is no surprise that when she finds someone that society considers “low class” that Janie find true happiness.

The book club agreed, calling it a journey of growth. They liked the power dynamics that were depicted throughout the book – between men and women, white and black, rich and poor. Some liked the sociological aspects of the novel. There are several individual communities described throughout the book and yet they all experience their own disadvantages and obstacles.

The other thing I loved about this book was the dialogue and vernacular that Hurston uses. She attempts to have the reader truly understand the dialogue by spelling it just as they would say it. Maybe because I love language, I loved it. This is where the rest of the book club disagreed. Many were critical of the dialogue. They thought it was overdone and took away from their reading experience.

Yet, despite this subjective view point, all thought it was well worth the read and some even plan to read other books by Hurston. As for me, I think I want a copy on my shelves.

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Book Club discussion: ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee

My reread of “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee was just as enjoyable as the last two times, the most recent was in 2019 and my views on the book are similar to what they were then, which are outlined in my review.

We read this book for the Modern Library Book Club and unlike my 2019 discussion for the SARAH Book Club where everyone liked the book, this time we got mixed reviews. It raised the question of whether “To Kill A Mockingbird” is dated for the current time and if Harper Lee tries to make race a sentimental issue.

Everyone thought that Harper Lee was a good writer, and for the people who loved the book, they thought it genius on how she was able to weave different subplots together, which ultimately made this a strong book. Like me, many thought that every character had a role to play, though it was split between Atticus and Scout on who the favorites were. Atticus, for none other than taking up a case he knows he can’t win and Scout for being the one to tell it like it is in her childlike way.

While Scout is technically an adult when she is telling this story, she is narrating it through how she viewed it as a child, which I think is so important in how the more serious issues in this book are portrayed.

One member who grew up in the 60s in the Midwest said he never heard of this book growing up. Having read it for the first time this year, he thought thought that the book was probably considered radical where he was from and was never publicized there. He was glad that he finally got the chance to read it and loved it.

For those who didn’t like the book, thought it was too sentimental. That the Black characters are held to a different standard, that they are completely innocent, or they are treated as children, which bothered them. Many had read “Go Set a Watchman” which portrays Atticus quite differently than in “To Kill A Mockingbird”, and wondered why Lee never wanted the manuscript published, whether she was trying to hide the truth. This where the debate came in.

Some argued that Harper Lee was writing for the time, and trying to show through Atticus, that despite his true feelings, the idea is to treat others the way they want to be treated. Others brought up the book “Caste” which they said would provide a whole new perspective on the topic.

Others argued that the book was inclusive, and beyond race, it showed that you could be different. Scout was different from the other girls she grew up with; Boo Radley, some thought, probably had some mental disability but he wasn’t treated any differently by the adults. Can I just say that I loved the part when Scout finally meets Radley? Her reaction is so unexpected.

Despite the debate, everyone thought that the book was good for what it was and everyone left still friends.


Have you read “To Kill A Mockingbird”? What did you think? Let’s discuss!

Review: ‘To the Lighthouse’ by Virginia Woolf

Where do I begin when it comes to this book? I am writing this right after having finished it. Maybe it’s not a good idea. I feel like I am adrift like the boat when the wind goes out of its sails and it just rocks with the waves. I am not sure what to think about this book. At some levels, I can see the hints of brilliance that people rave about when they discuss Woolf, and at the same time, I feel like I haven’t grasped it just yet, it’s just beyond my reach.

I think part of the problem is the style of writing, which is a mix of stream of consciousness, and the other is that it doesn’t have a linear plot. When we open this book we are met by Mrs. Ramsey with her husband and family of eight children at their vacation home with some friends. The first part of the book is about the day or two they are there and we go from character to character and get a glimpse into their minds, what they are thinking about themselves, about the other people around them and the events occurring. In this way, we get to know who everyone is. All the while, the underlying question is whether going to the lighthouse will be feasible due to the weather.

The second part is about time passing over the years. The house almost becomes a metaphor for the family, reflective of how time has changed the family dynamic as people die, marry, give birth and so on.

Then in the third and final part of the book, the family returns to the house some years later, quite altered, and they make plans to do what they didn’t get a chance to do so many year before.

I know that the lighthouse is supposed to be symbolic of something but I haven’t quite figured it out. Maybe I am completely overthinking this whole book and it really is as simple as it seems.

I think this is a book that you have to read several times to get the full meaning behind it. With each reread, you will uncover another little secret that was held from you before.

As for Woolf’s writing, once I got used to her style, I rather enjoyed reading it. There is no doubt that she has a way with words. You still can picture what is going on around you but you can’t quite put your finger on the underlying current, almost like Lily Briscoe trying to paint the picture of the family but can’t quite get the picture to become clear.

I gave this book three stars, aka a neutral rating, because right now I don’t know what to rate it. This can change as things become more clear to me.


Have you read “To the Lighthouse”? What did you think? Let’s discuss!

Review: ‘Madame Bovary’ by Gustave Flaubert

It’s not surprising that “Madame Bovary” caused an outrage when it first came out. Nor is it shocking that this book made the rounds and became a classic. Not only was it relevant then, but it remains relevant now.

If you are looking for a happy ending, this is not the book for you. Slowly, we watch Madame Bovary, a young Catholic girl who was raised in a convent, get married to the first man who ever pays her any attention. Call it naivete, youth, whatever, she quickly realizes that she has made a mistake. But being a good Christian wife, she attempts to live with that mistake by being the ultimate good housewife and do her “duty”. However, she becomes bored with her situation, and seeks to fulfill her more romanticized yearnings. She turns to adultery.

You would think that is where her debauchery ends, but no. Her character further declines from lying and deceitful to greedy and vain. She longs for the finer things in life and goes so far as to steal from her husband to get it, making flamboyant purchases, racking up IOUs and paying for her adulterous escapades. Or as we like to say in modern times, keeping up with the Joneses.

It is inevitable that this will all culminate to her ruin. How can it not?

Readers of the 1800s must have been shocked, damn near outraged, that Gustave Flaubert had the audacity to write about the insights of women. How dare he write about a woman who doesn’t love her husband. How dare he assume that bored housewives will inevitably cheat on their husbands. The outrage! The fact that the French government unsuccessfully tried Flaubert for obscenity is quite laughable.

Methinks thou dost protest too much.

Aren’t all stories somewhat based on truth? They were probably mad that someone actually had the chops to actually publicize what everyone already knew. They can no longer put on airs. Flaubert alludes to this as some of the villagers end up blackmailing Bovary to keep her secret. At least Flaubert wrote a fictional story about it, but it must struck a little too close to home for some.

I am pretty sure that this book made the rounds among the populace very quickly and for good reason. Moving away from the plot, Flaubert is known for his writing style, one that he perfected over a grueling number of years and pushed him to be known for ushering in the age of realism in literature.

Although this book was written in 1856, it is notably different from works of the same era. For one thing it was very easy to read as it lacked the dense language that often bog down similar books of the time. Flaubert focuses on telling the story in the most simplest of terms and in a way that everyone can understand. He doesn’t hold punches. And while he has the decorum not to go into intimate detail about Madame’s affairs, he doesn’t allow the reader to interpret it any other way. His descriptive writing doesn’t leave anything to the imagination and you can follow Bovary as if you were her accomplice.

If you didn’t know when this book was written, you would have thought it was written today. Which is why this book stands the test of time. Unfit marriages continue to happen today, and more often than not, the couple realizes they made a mistake and go on their separate ways. Unfortunately some of them don’t end before someone does something hurtful to the other. It is just sad that Bovary’s ending was a bit more tragic.

‘White Fang’ by Jack London

It’s been years since I watched the Disney movie with Ethan Hawke but though I can only remember random scenes from the movie, the book is much more raw. I couldn’t help comparing this book to “Frankenstein” as the theme of nature vs nurture quickly takes precedent and White Fang’s story unfolds.

The book is primarily about nature and what animals do to survive. The book opens up to two men and their sled team traveling through the wilderness to take their dead companion home. They are followed by a pack of hungry wolves and each night, one by one, the dogs on their sled team are picked off and even one of the men.

Then the narrative turns its attention to the pack and follows a she-wolf and her interactions with the pack until finally she has a litter of pups. Nature rears her cruel head once more as each pup succumbs to hunger until only one survives. That pup is later to be known as “White Fang” when he is captured by an Indian tribe. Here is where the story truly starts as we follow White Fang’s growth, as he learns to survive among the tribe and the other dogs, eventually becoming one of the fiercest dogs. He become vicious and a killer of other dogs because he knows it’s kill or be killed.

His demeanor is further shaped by his interactions with humans until one day, he is suddenly met with a kind hand. And it throws White Fang for a loop as he waits for the punishment that is surely going to come. I couldn’t help but be sad as this is the life that he has been dealt. But when he meets Scott, we are hopeful that White Fang can see that he doesn’t have to live in fear of being punished or where his next meal will come from or having to defend himself against another.

Jack London doesn’t hold back when it comes to describing the cruelty of nature and humans, so the parts about animal cruelty are especially hard to read. All the more reason why I think this book has stood the test of time. Animal cruelty has never gone away and it says something about how it shapes an animal’s demeanor and their interactions with other living things. But there is redemption in this book when White Fang meets Scott and he learns what a gentle hand means. Perhaps that is where you see the most growth in him. If there is one thing that Jack London shows us – whether dog, human or any animal, it’s that our experiences shape who we are and who we become.

I read this book in one sitting and while it is perhaps a young adult novel, I think you can read this at any age and get something out of it.

‘Shirley’ by Charlotte Bronte

I was first introduced to Charlotte Bronte in high school with “Jane Eyre”, one of my all-time favorite classics book, and one that I have read multiple times. I figured now was the time to try to read something else by Charlotte Bronte. Some of her books are on my reading list for The Classics Club and as luck would have it, “Shirley” got picked for the latest CC Spin and we had 9 weeks to read it. Easy enough.

So here we are, January 30th, and I am sorry to say that I have yet to finish it and I am even debating whether to set it aside for good. I’m so disappointed with this read and honestly, I am kind of bored with it at this point.

For one thing, the pacing of this book is sooo slow and while I understand some authors want to unfold story little by little, I feel that it takes forever to get to the character for which this book is named. Shirley is not introduced to the reader until halfway through. Rather it would seem that the main character is Caroline as we learn about all about her and she becomes front and center to the story. Even when Shirley is first introduced, the author narrates Caroline’s movements more.

While I know that this is the point in the book where things may pick up, I feel like I shouldn’t have to work so hard. I can’t relate to any of the characters and honestly feel like Caroline’s story line has gone flat. Basically, she is in love with Robert Moore and her woes as she tries to make him see her in the same way. Nothing new has happened in the last 50 or so pages. I want to keep reading but I am afraid to be disappointed if nothing changes.

This is becoming more of a rant than a review at this point, so I will leave it here. I am going to keep the book to the side and pick it up at random, with the hope of eventually finishing it. Perhaps I may surprise everyone in a few months with a new review. Or I may DNF it permanently. Whatever its fate, I am just glad that “Jane Eyre” was my first Charlotte Bronte read.


Have you read “Shirley”? Are there any other Charlotte Bronte books I should try? Let’s discuss?

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!

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: ‘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?

 

 

 

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson is pure fun

I tried reading this a few months ago but never finished it. Not that it wasn’t good but because I had a lot going on at the time, not to mention, countless other books I had to read before it. I didn’t want to read it piecemeal so I put it down with plans to pick it up again.

Then the Classics Club announced another spin and so I pulled out my list of classics, made a list of 20 and waited for the lucky number which happened to be #19 and on my list that was Treasure Island.

I knew from the first time I tried reading it that this book was going to be an engaging read. Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing style draws the reader in until they are part of the action. This time, the book caught me hook, line and sinker. I finished it over a few hours.

What makes this book so great is that the adventure starts right from the first chapter when the main character Jim Hawkins and his parents, who own the Admiral Benbow Inn, receive a mysterious guest, known as the Captain, who ends up staying at their inn with nothing but soiled clothing, a mysterious chest and a huge appetite for rum. When the Captain inevitably meets his demise, Jim Hawkins discovers a map that will lead him to Treasure Island. And so the adventure begins and continues on land and sea with a whole host of characters.

I thought I knew the story of Treasure Island just from what people had told me, but it is quite another story when you read it. I had no clue what to expect except that I felt that I was standing right beside Jim the whole time, from hiding in the apple barrel overhearing Long John Silver make his plans to steal the treasure, to Jim’s actions on the island to save his friends. There was nothing predictable about this book and I kept turning the pages with anxious excitement, wondering how Jim and his friends were going to get out of the danger they were in.

Robert Louis Stevenson is so descriptive that I could picture the island clearly. I could feel the heat of the sun and feel the salt from the sea. I could also picture each of the characters, especially Captain Flint with his scar and Long John Silver with his one leg as he hobbled through the forest trying to keep up with the rest of the crew. I think one of the most iconic scenes comes right at the beginning when the reader is introduced to the blind man named Pew. He doesn’t have a large role but Stevenson has set it up that the tapping of the blind man’s cane on the road outside is equivalent to the music cue in a movie to indicate a pivotal moment. It is enough to set the reader on edge and keep turning the pages to find out what is going to happen.

What was most surprising to me was that the book was first published in 1883. It doesn’t read like your typical classic that is usually bogged down with dense language. Even adventure stories like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea can be slow sometimes. However, Treasure Island is anything but slow and it is so easy to read. That is probably why it has stood the test of time. It is also why it is a great children’s classic. Not to mention it is full of adventure, secret maps, treasures, pirates, danger and just plain fun.


Have you read Treasure Island? What did you think? Let’s discuss!