2017 Book Club Recap
Coming to a library near you: Book Club! Each month, eight to ten adults read the same book and then gather to discuss their thoughts. With 12 months of 2017 Book Club activity in the books (pardon the pun), read on to find out what happens when people stop keeping their opinions to themselves, and start getting real...
Author: Wally Lamb
Setting: 1950s Brooklyn and a former Connecticut vaudeville theater in the 2000s.
Themes: Hollywood, women in Hollywood, nostalgia, ghosts?
Questions: Why did Lamb choose to use ghosts of Hollywood actresses as a storytelling tool? Does this male author write successfully about women?
Consensus: Ha! There is never a consensus! Some people enjoy the magical realism and others thought it unnecessary. Probably an overall 3 stars.
Highlight: One book club member remembered and sang the Rheingold Beer jingle from the 1950s.
Author: Bernice McFadden
Setting: Georgia, Harlem Renaissance, Harlem after WWII, Buchenwald Concentration Camp, France in WWII
Themes: race and “passing”, Holocaust, jazz, trauma,
Questions: In what way are stereotypes used? In what way are stereotypes broken?
Consensus: It was one person’s favorite book of the year in book club! We thought it was a tough read in terms of being emotional. It was an epic life story and a lot to digest but ultimately a “good book” (though that is a relative term).
Highlight: When someone made the connection to the Book of Job and we had to discuss whether Harlan was an Exceptionally Good Man or just average and whether it was bad luck, bad decisions, or just life’s course.
Author: Ali Smith
Setting: 1460s Italy, 1990s England
Themes: gender identity, art/artists, political activism
Questions: We see the women coming of age in a way that is atypical - specifically with female and platonic love -what do these relationships reveal about the characters? What was the significance of the eyes and the camera? Who is watching?
Consensus: We decided it would probably be best to read the present day first and the historical half after. It was a bit split about which half we liked best.
Highlight: The reveal at the end when we discovered that we all read the same part first!
Author: Paul Beatty
Setting: Downtown L.A.
Themes: race and segregation, black intellectualism,
Questions: What is a sellout? What is being sold out? Who is doing the selling out?
What is it about Paul Beatty's language that is so incendiary? Can you see how some would be offended and others not?
Consensus: Two people chose this as their favorite of 2017 book club. Two people found the book highly offensive! Satire can swing both ways.
Highlight: Just plain old disagreement. It was so important to have people of color at this particular meeting.
Author: Sarah Vowell
Setting: Hawaii - 1890s and present day
Themes: colonization, imperialism, Hawaiian culture
Questions: Are there any heroes in this story of the Hawaiian Islands? Any villains? Is the history of the Islands a tragic story...a redemptive one...or something else?
What makes non-fiction successful? Is a lack of bias necessary? Can humor and an informal tone be just as respected?
Consensus: We learned so much about Hawaiian history. Some liked Vowell’s informality but others wish she had remained more neutral.
Highlight: One book club member revealed her secret hobby of hula dancing!
Author: Amy Stewart
Setting: New Jersey, early 1900s
Themes: organized crime, policewomen, family
Questions: Considering the historical context, if the women did not fall into detective work how would their lives likely change in the coming years?
Consensus: Not as exciting as we hoped.
Highlight: When we learned about the sequels we thought we might try another because the sisters were interesting at least.
Title: A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories
Author: Lucia Berlin
Setting: Mostly California and Mexico in 1980s
Themes: working class, American Southwest, everyday life, strangers and loneliness, alcoholism
Questions: Does Berlin pass judgment on her characters? Are any of them villains? How does she make seemingly bad people likable? When writing autobiographically what is the author’s responsibility to the people in her life who become characters?
Consensus: Berlin takes the everyday and makes it wondrous and interesting. It was a cohesive anthology of short stories.
Highlight: Discussing other short story authors we like and one member’s devotion to those of Raymond Carver.
Author: Rose Tremain
Setting: Switzerland WWII and several decades after
Themes: war, marriage, male friendship, anti-semitism, music, self-mastery
Questions: What is the difference between neutrality and morality? How do we see this play out in the book?
Consensus: It was a very moving book and I think we were in agreement that, although it was sad, it was very well written.
Highlight: There were 16 people in attendance - half of which came for the first time!
Author: Margaret Atwood
Setting: near future, former United States
Themes: gender and power, literacy, dystopia, oppression
Questions: What were the methods of control and why did they work? What were the options for the revolutionaries?
Consensus: 2 people chose this as their favorite book of the 2017 book club! The book became relevant again with the TV series so some of us were re-reading after many years while others read it for the first time. It was agreed to be an important book.
Highlight: Comparing the book to the TV series and revelations we had while watching it.
Title: The Wonder
Setting: mid-19th C Ireland
Themes: religious fervor, miracles, children, fasting, sickness
Questions: What are the child’s reason for fasting? What are the various adults’ reasons to keep her fasting?
Consensus: Just OK. Not terribly exciting, a little predictable. We did enjoy learning about nursing practices in the mid-19th C though.
Highlight: Our discussion of the great hope that religion brings and the things that go very wrong when religion is used irresponsibly.
Title: Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers
Author: Deborah Heiligman
Setting: 1830s-1880s in Holland, London, Brussels, and France
Themes: mental illness, brotherhood, art/artists
Questions: How did Theo mold Vincent’s success, particularly as an art dealer?
What purpose does art serve in our lives? Does the tortured artist need that identity to succeed?
Consensus: 3 people chose this as their favorite book of the 2017 book club! We marveled at the author’s research and her ability to make it read like a novel, giving it appeal to teens and adults alike. Many of us were unaware of how important Theo was and loved hearing about the brothers’ relationship.
Highlight: Remembering or looking at Van Gogh’s art as the author gives it context. Many other famous artists are mentioned in the book since they were in Van Gogh's sphere of influence.
Title: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane
Author: Lisa See
Setting: Hillsides of China in 1980s, present day California
Themes: Identity, adoption, Chinese culture, tea, family, globablization
Questions: What was your reaction to Akha practices in the late 20th century and then how did you feel when these practices were abandoned? Compare the three different mother-daughter relationships.
Consensus: 1 person chose this as their favorite book of the 2017 book club! It was mostly agreed to be a good read. Some people found the coincidences to be too unbelievable and the description of tea harvesting to be a bore.
Highlight: We drank pu’er tea and ate sugar cookies!