Book Group

2018 – This year’s book selections:

The 3 Books we’ve suggested for 2018 to the All Star 1 Book Group this year are all highly praised by critics and readers alike, include topics that are relevant to our current experience, and provide a good variety with something special for each of our readers’ tastes.   We’re giving you the list in advance because we think that each of them will hold your interest and possibly inspire your wanting to read more on each of the topics that they raise.

A GENTLEMAN FROM MOSCOW by Amor Towles.   This book is published by Random House, and suggested by Stafford Cohen. It spent more than 40 weeks on the NY Times best seller list and in addition won high praise as one of the best books of the year from The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, St. Louis Dispatch and National Public Radio.  Over a half million Amazon readers gave it a top rating of 4.7 out of 5 points.  The beautifully written plot immerses us in the fictitious life of 30 year old Count Alexander Rostov who, because of a poem he had published earlier, has been deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal and sentenced to “house arrest” at The Metropol, a lavish grand hotel located across from the Kremlin in an area near the Bolshoi Ballet, and the NKVD/KGB headquarters.  The Count, a considerably charming hero for all seasons who is an erudite, witty and indomitable man, discovers that his quarters will be in a tiny attic room with a single small window.  In the period from 1922 through the 1930s, he cleverly transforms his situation through an unexpected friendship with a pre-teen girl.  Over decades he interacts with vibrant characters from the hotel staff such as a temperamental chef and a bumbling maître d’, a willful actress, a shrewd Kremlinite, and a gregarious American ambassador, among others.  The absorbing adventurous existence that follows is at times frightening, at others delightful and full of surprises that will take your breath away.  I liked this book so much that I read it twice, and then went on to read Towles’ first book “The Rules of Civility”.  Towles’ writing style is so good that while you’re enjoying the plot and characters, you’re also absorbing a great deal of historical information about Stalin, Russian history, its gulag, literature, food, and politics.  You may find that you’re sorry for it to end.

SALVAGE THE BONES by Jesmyn Ward.  This book won the National Book Award in 2011 and  Ward, one of today’s most popular southern authors, recently received the MacArthur Genius Award.  She was raised by a mother who cleaned houses for the wealthy in rural Mississippi, and transports her readers to the fictional town of Bois Sauvage (Wild Woods) in that area.  Its poorer quarter is a place where a black man might be shot dead because of a bet gone awry, and authorities might agree to deem the incident a “hunting accident”.  Ignoring a No Trespassing sign might get you chased off a property at the barrel of a gun.  And being black and/or poor and white and unlucky could get you sent to prison.  The plot introduces us to a community and a poor black family where the mother has died, the oldest son Skeetah is trying to make money by breeding his beloved bulldog to have pups and use her to make money in dogfights to support the family.  The 14 year old daughter, Esch, is pregnant and reads mythology fantasizing and comparing herself ironically to being like Medea (since she must not have gotten to the end of that myth!).   Her condition is unknown to her father, who is trying to protect the house and his family from oncoming Hurricane Katrina.  His other sons are totally uninterested and spend their day by hanging out and following sports.  As the storm bears down, the father tries desperately to save his family and his property, when everything and everyone is suddenly completely overwhelmed by the storm.  The situation is desperate and the reader is pulled into the scene, realizing that this cannot end happily.  Ward’s writing is immediate, lyrical and haunting as she develops a situation that can’t be overcome.  One review states the writing is “prose that breathes hurricane weather in and out of every chapter”.  The timeliness of this book and the issue of inattention to natural disaster and global warming make this an unforgettable read.

MY BRILLIANT FRIEND by Elena Ferrante.  This book, suggested by Lois Williams, is the first in a series of 4 books set in Naples starting in the 50s and moving through decades that follow the lives lived by two young bright and close but competitive girls who are the lead characters, and their families.  Although we are assigning only the first of the series, the other books concerning the girls and the same characters are (in order) THE STORY OF A NEW NAME, THOSE WHO LEAVE AND THOSE WHO STAY, and THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD.   Be forewarned that they are deliciously addictive.  Once you have read the first of these “bold, gorgeous and relentless novels” (NYTimes quote) you will not be able to resist reaching eagerly for the next one.  Larry and I spent an entire vacation hungrily reading them all.   A quote from Entertainment Weekly describes “An intoxicatingly furious portrait of enmeshed friends Lila and Elena, bright and passionate girls from a raucous neighborhood in working class Naples.  Ferrante writes with such aggression and unnerving psychological insight about the messy complexity of female friendship that the real world can drop away when you’re reading her.”  You may be aware that Elena Ferrante is a pen name, and there is a worldwide curiosity to find out who she/he really is because so many of the books’ critical observations seem right on point.  The real hero of the book is the city of Naples and its class system (every book has diagrams and descriptions of the relevant characters), and the mafia, the church’s role, the Neapolitan customs, poverty, backwardness, sex, and isolation.  Each volume powerfully describes Naples as a golden, if flawed paradise where situations and the characters are often not what they appear to be—and each is a real and powerful shocker.  All 4 have been translated into dozens of languages and have been extremely popular throughout the entire world, where Ferrante has been called one of the most acclaimed and beloved writers internationally.  HBO has acquired the books and plans to produce them as a series.  Rather than quoting numerous critical statements about the greatness of this work, here are just a few comments from writers who our group has already read.  For example, Elizabeth Stout, who wrote Olive Kitteridge, says “It took my breath away.  If I were president of the world, I would make everyone read this book.  It is so honest and right and opens up the heart so much.”  Jhumpa Lahiri calls it “an unconditional masterpiece.  I read all 4 books in a state of immersion.  I was totally enthralled.”  Unexpectedly, Hillary Clinton (when did she have time to read?) reports, “It’s just hypnotic.  I could not stop reading it or thinking about it.”  There are similar quotes from critics in Britain, Australia, Spain and Italy and many other nations.  Again, although we won’t be discussing all 4 of these Neopolitan books (unless everyone wants to when we get together next July), we’re putting out this list early, so that you could have an opportunity to keep reading, and not stop at the end of the first book, where the girls move from childhood and teen lives into mature womanhood.

Each of the above 3 recommended books is terrific and we wish you happy reading until we meet again at Star in 2018.  Until then, we look forward to seeing you in July,

Elizabeth Yermack and   Bill Tibbs

2015 – This year’s book group selections:

BEING MORTAL by Atul Gawande. 2015, 263 pages, Wellcome Collection. This international bestseller has been described as “Gawande’s most powerful and moving book” and has a subtitle of “Illness, Medicine, and What Matters in the End”. It describes how people all over the globe live, age and die and how in the USA the emphasis on pushing the boundaries of survival further each year by advances in medical treatment has changed our emphasis away from leading a good life and having a peaceful ending, to increasing life spans at any cost. Rather than being depressing, this is “wise and courageous” and “deeply moving ,,,an essential and insightful book for our lives” according to critics. If you are mortal (and we don’t know anyone who isn’t!) you will benefit greatly by learning more about how to improve your life through its various stages and its end. Gawande points out “It is not death that the very old tell me they fear. It is what happens short of death–losing their hearing, their memory, their best friends, their way of life.” This book is full of real examples of emphasis on concentrating on living, rather than modes of dying.

 

THE SWERVE “How the World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt. 2011, 266 pages, Norton. This National Book Award winner is, according to Nobelist , Harold Varmus “Illuminating, entertaining, surprising and exciting.” This is a true account of how a “short, genial, cannily alert monk in his early thirties plucked a very old manuscript off a dusty shelf in a remote monastery, saw what he had discovered, and ordered it to be copied.” It was an ancient Roman poem by Lucretius that completely changed the cultural world of the 15th century from dark medieval views to the Renaissance realization that the universe functions without the aid of gods, that religious fear is damaging for human life, that pleasure and virtue are not opposites, but intertwined.” This is actually a true book of adventure that could have starred Harrison Ford or Sean Connery or our own Chair Keith Knox, who appeared on a PBS segment of Nova showing how such discoveries are still unlocking the past of Dr. Livingston writing about slave trading by tribes in 19th C Africa, and are still being made today. (Come to this year’s lectures). It covers many scenarios–Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD covering Pompeii with a snowfall of ash, while nearby Herculaneum was sealed like a tomb by lava. Imagine in the 20th century breaking through the stone there into a fairly intact house and finding “briquet logs” on a shelf. One of them drops on the floor and reveals writing inside it in ancient Greek. There are other discoveries that through time that have influenced Galileo. Freud, Darwin and Einstein and that can be traced indirectly back to the search for other manuscripts, and the spread of a new way of thinking by this formerly solitary monk. It’s history like you’ve never read it before.

 

BARKSKINS: A NOVEL by Annie Proulx. 2016, 736 pages, Scribner. From Annie Proulx—the Pulitzer Prize-­ and National Book Award-­winning author of “The Shipping News” and “Brokeback Mountain,” comes her masterwork: an epic, dazzling, violent, magnificently dramatic novel about the taking down of the world’s forests. In the late seventeenth century two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord, a “seigneur,” for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters—barkskins. René marries a Mi’kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures. Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business. Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years—their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand, under stunningly brutal conditions—the revenge of rivals, accidents, pestilence, Indian attacks, and cultural annihilation. Over and over again, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse. “Annie Proulx’s Barkskins is remarkable not just for its length, but for its scope and ambition.

 

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