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2016 Book Club books

I’m still participating in (and running) two book clubs.book-club

As always, we read some great books and some OK books.

So, what did we read?  Strong recommendations are in bold.

In one club, we read:

  1. The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer by Sydney Padua
    This was a fun read, and very interesting to a Silicon Valley book club, but I’m not sure if the appeal will generalize.  We were able to follow up with a book club trip to the Computer History Museum to see a working modern production of a Babbage Engine.
  2. God Help the Child by Toni Morrison
  3. The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma
    This book was unlike anything else I’ve read.  It was creepy, disturbing, and beautifully written.  It mixed ghosts and ballerinas and a maximum security Juvenile Detention Center.  It has depth and texture and ambiguity. It has amazing characters that are terrible and sympathetic at times, and sometimes simultaneously.  It has black and white and shifting shades of grey, and  led to a great book club discussion.
  4. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
  5. Digging to America by Anne Tyler
    A book with perspective on what it means to be a parent and what it means to be an American.  As character perspectives change, so do the reader’s view of the events in the story.
  6. Euphoria by Lily King
    An entirely unexpected view of the world of an anthropologist in the 1930s.
  7. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
    Quite literally a tale of life and death, or rather thoughts on life and death.  The writings of approaching death by someone who understdands it well from an intellectual perspective, but who has to learn about the more personal side.
  8. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  9. Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson
    An insightful and laugh out loud funny view of living with mental illness.
  10. The Railwayman’s Wife by Ashley Hay
    A beautifully written book on learning to live with loss, both as an individual and as a town.
  11. My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem
    An inspirational view of how to make a difference in society.  The timing of this, coming right after the election, made this discussion mean even more to our group.
  12. The Year We Turned Forty by Liz Fenton

And the other:

  1. Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta (Silicon Valley Reads)
  2. Sherwood Nation by Benjamin Parzybok (Silicon Valley Reads)
  3. Speak by Louisa Hall
    Overall, this book looks at what it means to be human, or to have a soul, or to really understand and empathize with what someone says. The different views range from a young woman traveling to America in 1663 (who has a closer bond to her dog than the people around her) to people dealing with modern (and the nest generation) of artificial intelligence.    The book gave us rich material for discussion. Based on the experience of my book club, it is of interest and accessible to people regardless of their level of interest in and understanding of technology.  It is one of my favorite books I read this year.
  4. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
    I wasn’t looking forward to reading this book, but in the end I was very glad I did.  It is an overview of various approaches to care for people approaching the end of their lives, and what helps, and what doesn’t.  As the title says, it is about what matters in the end.  I’d go as far as saying that most adults over age 40 or so should read it, to start thinking about the issues around life, death, aging, and terminal illness as they start to be inevitable in most families.
  5. The Precious One by Marisa de los Santos
    The strength of this book is in the characters, which I loved.
  6. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Zevin Gabrielle
    This is a fun choice for reading group discussion because of being a book about books and bookish people.
  7. The Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
  8. American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis
  9. Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family by Amy Ellis Nutt
    This is a book about an important current issue, told about a family who never expected to have to face the situation. I particularly liked the balance of their personal story and looks at the research into the science behind gender.  It was ver readable and relateable.
  10. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
    I didn’t know anything about the story of this sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in WWII.  The story is beautifully told from the perspective of seveal different characters, which lead to an understanding of how many different kinds of people were affected by the war and by this particular incident.
  11. The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan
    Another book about an aspect of WWII I (and my book club) knew nothing about going in.  This is in the US, the side of the Manhattan Project working with materials. I liked the balance between the personal, the historical and the scientific.  The book lead to great discussion about the time period, about living in a time of war, and about differences between now and then, as well as about the process of writing a book like this.
  12. Paradise Lodge by Nina Stibbe

In the end, there is only one of these 24 books that I don’t think was a good choice for book club discussion.  Even the ones I didn’t comment on generally lead to good conversation, whether we liked them, or just thought they were ok.

I was surprised at how much I liked many of the non-fiction books we read, and how good the discussion was on these.

Anyone have books to recommend for reading (and talking about) in 2017?

 

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2017 in Book Club, books, L, M

 

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Review: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

Cover: Lets Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson(With audiobook and book club discussion notes)

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this book. Not as much as I love the author’s blog, but close. What comes through both places is how wacky the author is, but also how many challenges (internal and external) she has to face.

Synopsis via Goodreads:

When Jenny Lawson was little, all she ever wanted was to fit in. That dream was cut short by her fantastically unbalanced father (a professional taxidermist who created dead-animal hand puppets) and a childhood of wearing winter shoes made out of used bread sacks. It did, however, open up an opportunity for Lawson to find the humor in the strange shame spiral that is her life, and we are all the better for it.

Lawson’s long-suffering husband and sweet daughter are the perfect comedic foils to her absurdities, and help her to uncover the surprising discovery that the most terribly human moments-the ones we want to pretend never happened-are the very same moments that make us the people we are today.

In talking to my book club about the book, I suspect that already knowing Jenny through her blog really helped me at the beginning of the book. I came in already invested in Jenny’s life, and I had some idea where this collection of odd anecdotes were taking me. I think I would have enjoyed them even if I didn’t, but I’ll never know for sure.

It really is when Jenny hits adulthood that the book hits its stride. I’d have to say that starts with the chapter on drugs. I have no personal experience to compare it to, but I felt like I was experiencing her very own reality.

From there, it was a bumpy but engrossing ride. I really liked the balance between the funny stories and those that showed the other dimensions of her character, the echos of the past she had left behind in the future she built for herself.  I like stories like her telling how she and her HR coworkers dealt with men who e-mail photos of a certain part of their anatomy.  I liked the look at how a person can keep going, even after completely breaking.

If swearing bothers you, avoid this book. If you aren’t sure about the humor, read a couple of her blog posts (http://thebloggess.com/). If they don’t appeal to you, give this book a miss. If they have you rolling with laughter, rush out to pick it up.

Audiobook Notes

Narrator: Jenny Lawson narrates the book herself, and it is hard to imagine it any other way.  She has an interesting voice, and brings her own personality to the reading.   She does have a very definite accent (Southern/Texan), and some interesting pronunciations, but for me, that just added to the charm.

Production: With the author as the narrator, all things are possible.  She makes minor changes (referring to “this audiobook” rather than “this book”, and works footnotes into her reading), she sings the chapter titles, and generally makes it into an almost conversational experience.  The downside is that you don’t get the photos, the proof that these things really did happen.  Luckily, the author has loaded them on-line.

Print vs. Audio? I loved Let’s Pretend This Never Happened in audio, and would strongly recommend this format for this book.

Book Club Notes

I’m the one that suggested this book for our group to discuss, even though I wasn’t sure everyone would enjoy it.  Still, I was expecting that most people would, and was quite surprised when pretty much no one had finished the book (although there were some reasons involving timing of the meeting that impacted that), and that pretty much everyone else had trouble with the first section of the reading, although several people found it improved for them once they got past the author’s childhood.

Out of the 5 of us at the meeting, one had barely started, two were less than halfway through, one was close to finishing, and I’d finished and even re-listened to parts of it.  This made discussion difficult, particularly since I think that the childhood sections are most interesting in how they influence her as an adult, and we simply didn’t have enough of us that had reached that point.

I still think this could be a good book club selection, but I can’t give any evidence to support that based on our meeting.

 
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Posted by on July 9, 2012 in Book Club, books, L, reviews

 

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Book Club Nominations

Once again, it’s time to pick book club books.

Here are the books we’re choosing from.  Have you discussed any of these with a reading group? How did it go?  Have you read any on your own?  Do you think it would support a discussion?

 

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2012 in Book Club, L

 

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Review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

With Book Club Notes
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Summary via Veronica Roth’s website:

In Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is—she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles to determine who her friends really are—and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating boy fits into the life she’s chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she’s kept hidden from everyone because she’s been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers a growing conflict that threatens to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves… or it might destroy her.

First and foremost, Divergent tells a darn good story! While reading it, I wasn’t worrying about potential weaknesses, I just wanted to keep going to see what happened next.

Divergent features a future society with a very rigorous structure. It’s an intriguing world, one that kept me thinking long after finishing the book.  I wanted to know how it came about, how it functioned, and where the books are going to take it.  That’s enough to set the book apart from the crowd, but not enough in and of itself to make the book compelling.

Luckily, the characters are enough.  Beatrice was a convincing as a teen needing to move from childhood to adulthood, a transition marked with a choice which cannot be undone. Beatrice chooses to break from her family to join another faction, one that demands courage above all else.

Relationships are key in Divergent, existing relationships and relationships that are formed in her new life. The characters (friends and otherwise) are an interesting bunch, each with their own approach, whether it be in Abnegation (her old faction) or Dauntless (her new one).

Watching her meet and evaluate the other teens looking to join this faction is full of information on Beatrice, the other newcomers, and what it means to be Dauntless.  Seeing Beatrice’s perception of her parents and their choices change as she learns more was a great way to watch Beatrice mature.

And then, there is the love interest.  He’s a worthy character, and the this aspect of the book is balanced well with everything else that is happening.

Midway into Divergent, Beatrice’s story becomes part of a much larger one, where her decisions will affect more than her own life.  The action picked up significantly at this point.  I’ll be interested to see where this goes in the next book,

I have two small caveats to my enjoyment of this book, things that I hesitate to label as flaws, at least at this time.

First, Divergent is unabashedly a YA book, written for that audience. Although it clearly made sense for the main character to be a teen, I’m not sure that’s true for some of the supporting characters, particularly those in leadership roles. More than that, as a not-so-young adult, I would have liked to see life from a different perspective, to see what it looked like from a more adult point of view. There were many aspects of the society, particularly of the logistics, that were invisible to the teen characters, where I would have liked to know more.

Related to that, there were clearly some holes in the world-building. As I said, the world is a highly intriguing one, and I’m not even sure I should mention this in a negative way. The gaps didn’t bother me at all while I was reading. It was only once I was done, and thinking over the book, that I started wondering more about why the society was structured the way it was. I actually came up with some very intriguing possibilities. If the author takes some of the clues she left and builds on them in future books, I’ll be more than satisfied with this aspect of the story.

Book Club Notes

I read Divergent for discussion with one of my book clubs, and I think it was a successful choice.  The club has a balance of people that read YA but not science fiction, those that read science fiction but not a lot of YA, those that don’t usually read either, and those of us that read from both of those genres, including where they overlap.

Everyone enjoyed the book.  Those with a background that includes more adult science fiction were bothered by the holes in the world-building, where it wasn’t an issue for others in the group.  I shared some of my speculation on why the holes may be deliberate, what I thought might be lurking behind them, but I’m not sure they were convinced.

We spent a good chunk of time on the factions– are they a complete set?  Are they sustainable?  Are the believable at all?  What were they like at the beginning, and how had they changed?  Which faction would you fall into?  Which would you like to be part of?

We also talked about violence in this book, and in YA fiction in general.  Added to some character chat, discussion of the author, and then of some material one club member found about how society is increasingly sorting itself, so that we only associate with those that are like us, and we had a very good discussion.

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2012 in Book Club, books, L, reviews

 

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Review: A Regular Guy by Mona Simpson (with book club notes)

A Regular GuyMy rating: 3 of 5 stars (A very low 3 stars, bordering on 2.5)

The problem for me is that I just didn’t get the point of this book.

A Regular Guy is the story of Tom Owens, who (with his good friend) successfully founded a very, very successful biotech company.

He now has more money that he knows what to do with– enough that he can afford not to think about money at all.  He’s dealing with the challenges of taking his high-tech company into its second major product–while it is being managed by someone else.

More than that, he’s taking on (or in some cases, trying to avoid) the challenges of his personal life, including relationships with multiple women and an unacknowledged 10 year old daughter.

The story is a fictionalized version of Steve Jobs life, written by his sister that he didn’t know about until he was an adult (it’s a complicated situation, as you might guess)

In A Regular Guy, the words themselves flowed well enough, and they didn’t get in the way of the story as I often fear in a literary novel. The story was coherent, and worked well enough in that sense.

I simply didn’t get insight into the life of Steve Jobs (or if I did, I just didn’t care), and the story didn’t have enough strength to stand alone.

This was true of the plot, but even more so of the characters. Tom Owens didn’t intrigue me as Steve Jobs, largely because I never saw the charisma the character was described as having, and would have needed to accomplish the things he did. Simply seen as a fictional character, he was both unbelievable and uninteresting, which is a pretty sad combination.

At the beginning of the book, I had some hope for Jane (Owens’ daughter) and her mother, Mary. Jane simply faded into the story (and that may have actually been the point– if so, I feel terrible for the real life model of Jane, and wonder what her relationship with her aunt the writer must be like.) Mary turned into a whiny caricature as the woman who sent her 10 year old daughter driving solo cross country to live with her father becomes resentful as that daughter chooses to spend time with her father.

The one character I found interesting was Noah, a scientist who chose to continue to follow his own path rather than work with Owens and his company. He was an intriguing secondary character, and I find it telling that I have no idea if he had a real life counterpart.

I admit, I was relieved that the rest of my book club had a similar reaction, whether they were all to familiar with the details of Jobs and his life, or relatively uninformed, at least about this chapter. Whatever the point was, it was well hidden.

Book Club Notes

We’d selected this book quite a few months back (we pick about 6 months of books at a time), but moved it up a month due to the timeliness of the tie to Steve Jobs’ death.

We actually live and meet quite near the Apple Campus in Cupertino, and have one ex-Apple employee, and at least one member has a spouse that worked there.  On the other hand, the only Apple product in my house was a gift that doesn’t get all that heavy of use.

I was really surprised that 4 of the 5 of us meeting hadn’t finished the book (which is only 384 pages, not a major chunkster).  I’m even more surprised that one of those was me (I finished after the meeting).  One member had a very good excuse (an eye injury, and the book wasn’t easily available as audio), the rest of us just found it difficult to make this book a priority.

As I mentioned above, we all had similar feelings about the book.  I did find it easier to finish reading after the meeting, perhaps because I gave up on finding a point and just made my way through!

 
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Posted by on November 10, 2011 in Book Club, books, L, reviews

 

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Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro (with book club notes)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dani Shapiro did an amazing job of capturing the middle-aged angst of a woman trying to figure out who she is, and that’s something I can really identify with.

For her, the search is manifested in looking for a religious and spiritual path. She isn’t comfortable with her father’s Orthodox Jewish history, but neither does she wish to leave Judaism entirely. She also looks into other traditions, finding mentors and gurus to guide her.

Ultimately, her journey was a solo one, even though the question of what she would teach her son was part of the reason she was searching. Her husband was not part of her journey, he was a surprisingly small portion of this book that went so deeply into the history of their marriage, the frighteningly serious illness of their son as a small baby, and their unsuccessful attempts to have another child.

Her parents play a larger role, but only in her looking back at her relationship with them. She seems a highly unreliable narrator when speaking of her dealing with her mother, but it is very clear this was a troubled relationship going back many years before her mother’s death.

The details of her journey have absolutely nothing in common with my path. Nonetheless, I identified strongly with her sense of searching, and with the loneliness of her journey. I don’t know that she has succeeded in her quest, but her movement along the way was inspirational to me.

Book Club Notes

I’m the one that suggested Devotion to the group, and we did vote it in, although it wasn’t a top vote getter.  Still, I was surprised that more than one person I expected to be intrigued by it admitted they’d dreaded reading it.

Luckily, the book won them over.  I think in the end, everyone appreciated the book, and there is only one person that may not have liked and enjoyed it.

We had a great discussion about her journey as compared to our own, about the parts of her story that the author chose to tell in this book, and about how her decisions did and didn’t make sense at times.  We all agreed we’d be interested in reading another book by her, possibly one of her novels.

I’d strongly recommend this book to book clubs of women of an age to be making this journey, who are willing to discuss their personal path a well as that taken in the book being discussed.  Other clubs may appreciate it as well.

I received this book for review from the publisher.  As soon as I heard about it, I knew I wanted to suggest it for my book club, so I delayed reading it until my group could do so as well.  Thank you, Harper Collins.

 
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Posted by on September 28, 2011 in Book Club, books, L, reviews

 

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Book Club Books Selected

For those interested in what other book clubs are reading, I thought I’d update you on what one of my clubs has selected:

  • July: I Think I Love You by Allison Pearson
  • Aug: Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro
  • Sept: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  • Oct: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • Nov: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson
  • Dec: Divergent by Veronica Roth
  • Jan: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Feb: Just Kids by Patti Smith
  • Mar: Swim Back to Me by Ann Packer

Has anyone discussed any of these with their book clubs?  How did it work out?

 
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Posted by on July 21, 2011 in Book Club, L

 

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