Our book club’s September/October selection was one I had already read. In fact, I’ve since read several other Liane Moriarty books since this one, and enjoyed them all.
This selection was probably the first book since our first (The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry) that everyone in the club enjoyed and mostly agreed on. We also had a newcomer to the club so our dynamic has now increased by another voice.
When all of us have a general consensus about a selection, our discussion often turns to what resonated with us personally about the story. This, to me, is one of the best parts of our meetings. It’s in these moments that our fellow readers become more than a woman that sits beside us once a month at a book discussion. She becomes a sister. And it is continued proof to me of the healing power and profoundness of art to bond people who might not have connected otherwise.
As far as the book itself, it, too, is about a sisterhood.
Big Little Lies is deceiving upon first glance. The member who selected it even introduced it as a “basic, white-girl book”. And certainly there are elements of that within it. But the subject matter is much deeper and complex.
You might have heard of Big Little Lies. HBO released it this year as a mini-series and it recently won several Emmy awards. I’m just starting to watch it, but I highly recommend reading the book first. I’m only one episode in and they’ve already made some major changes to the characters’ stories from what I can tell.
Those characters include:
Madeline: a mother with a side hustle and some blended family issues.
Celeste: former attorney, now SAHM. Gorgeous and wealthy.
Jane: single mom with a mysterious past. New in town, looking for a fresh start.
I love how these seemingly superficial characters are the vessels for a plot that goes places you don’t always see coming. I mean, if Stephen King says it’s a hell of a good book, you should probably listen. When someone who (1) can twist a story into something entirely spellbinding, and (2) is a master of creating rich, complex characters compliments another author’s story, I take note.
It’s very hard to write about a book like this without giving away spoilers and I just really don’t want to spoil it so let me just say that King’s compliments are well placed and this is a book that never leaves the reader bored. It’s a quick enough read for a vacation, yet complex enough to result in a discussion that lasted well over an hour.
As a mother, I related a lot to the story. Because the fears of these parents are real fears. Technology, and our inability to police it 24/7. How our choices, good and bad, affect our children.
It also evoked a lot of discussion among our group about just how much times have changed, just in the last decade or two, in terms of marriage, parenting, and the discussion of abuse starting to be less and less taboo.
I highly recommend Big Little Lies. If you’ve also read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments!
I love a good memoir. When I was a kid, our library had a fantastic children’s section. In fact, it occupied a whole floor of the building.
When I was about 7 or 8 years old, I got on this kicker of reading biographies. They were written for kids, mostly about historical people, but I devoured them.
I have loved to read since my mother taught me to do so when I was 4 years old. But I think it was there, in that little library in Oklahoma, that I fell in love with stories. The ones about real people who lived real lives.
And, I think it was also there that my world was forever changed by books.
When a child reads, even if they are stuck in one place for the entirety of their childhood, they understand that the world is so much bigger than whatever piece of earth they occupy.
In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance recalls his life experiences of growing up in the Rust Belt of America: his mother’s battle with drug addiction, the revolving door of men that came in and out of his life, the poverty, the ignorance of both his own culture and those who claim they can fix it with public policy.
There are heartbreaking aspects to this memoir across the majority of its pages. But, ultimately, it’s a story of triumph.
J.D. made it out of Ohio, and out of the cycle of his culture. He served in the Marines, graduated from Yale Law, and is happily married.
But he is an anomaly. His book explores why he was able to rise above his circumstances and others are not so fortunate.
I gleaned from the book 3 or 4 reasons for this.
First, J.D. had grandparents that were a stable, supportive fixture in his life and a sister that stood by him as well. He mentions this albeit shaky stability throughout the narrative, and the book itself is dedicated to his Mamaw and Papaw. Having at least one constant, stable adult in a child’s life can do so much to combat the damage inflicted upon it by others.
Secondly, education was emphasized and encouraged to J.D. by everyone closest to him.
Thirdly, dumb luck, or Divine intervention, whichever you prefer. He even mentions himself that had any single, positive thing he mentions in his story been absent, it might have ended altogether differently.
But, ultimately, it was his own choices that saved him; J.D.’s ability to decide he wanted a better life.
It started with the decision to join the military.
The military gave J.D. the order that had been missing in his life and, more or less, taught him about how to actually be an adult.
J.D. didn’t know the first thing about really being responsible with money, or the everyday things that one needs to do to have a disciplined, ambitious, and successful life.
Every time the drill instructor screamed at me and I stood proudly; every time I thought I’d fall behind during a run and kept up; every time I learned to do something I thought impossible, like climb the rope, I came a little closer to believing in myself. Psychologists call it “learned helplessness” when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life. From Middletown’s world of small expectations to the constant chaos of our home, life had taught me that I had no control. Mamaw and Papaw had saved me from succumbing entirely to that notion, and the Marine Corps broke new ground. If I had learned helplessness at home, the Marines were teaching me learned willfullness.
The willfullness J.D. learned in the Marine Corps seemed to be the launching pad for his future successes and his ability to mentally rise above where he came from in Hillbilly culture.
What’s interesting about J.D.’s story is not only that he rose above his childhood circumstances, but that he didn’t abandon his home in the process. Granted, he did put some distance between him and his family at times, but the majority of it was physical distance only. He maintained a close relationship with many of his relatives while actively breaking the cycle of that learned helplessness that surrounded him during his formative years.
He speaks of having to put more than physical distance between him and his mom at times. Not because of anger, but out of self-preservation. J.D.’s desperation for his mother to finally kick her addictions is all over the pages of his story. From his very early childhood to present day, he has tried, again and again, to help her and love her through it. And he talks about how much he loves her. But he also talks about learning where to draw lines for his own mental health. And that, I’m sure, was a very hard lesson to learn.
I get the feeling that J.D. has many strong opinions about what will and will not help the culture that he grew up in become a better environment. But he doesn’t speak to those opinions very specifically. In fact, many times he says he isn’t sure what the answers are, only what they are not.
Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us.
But what about those kids, those “at-risk” kids that come from the same situations, same cycle of poverty as J.D. who don’t have a stable grandparent? Who don’t learn to value education? Whose choices hinge upon just what they’ve seen and experienced, and not what they are encouraged to believe is possible, and not just possible, but possible for them?
The challenge I got from Hillbilly Elegy is understanding the role that any stable, successful adult can play in shaping the life of someone caught in the perpetual rotation that seems to go along with poverty and some degree of ignorance.
J.D. would tell you, I’m sure, that this is not an easy task.
Working class whites, especially in places like the Rust Belt, and in the south, have a lot of pride. Many individuals in these areas begin to see a divide in the culture of “haves” and “have nots” from an early age, and it is regurgitated from one generation to the next that the world can’t be trusted and is out to get them, deceive them, and warp them.
It can be next to impossible to help someone rise above their circumstances, when (1) they don’t see anything wrong with their circumstances and/or (2) they believe you are being condescending.
If I took any issue with this book, it was that J.D. did, in fact, come across with, what translated to me, as some thinly veiled condescension. I don’t believe it was necessarily intentional. I think it comes from exasperation and years of climbing out of the place that could have very well been his undoing as a human being.
Hillbilly Elegy is a really interesting story. One that provokes a lot of thought, as memoirs will do, about how our own lives are shaped.
I think back to those days in that library of my youth; reading my stack of books, and how, because of that, I’m writing this post now about a book that I just finished that captivated my attention. A story about a real person who overcame real problems.
Some things never change. Hillbilly Elegy proved that to me in many ways.
The questions are, what can change, what should change, and how can we be a society that encourages people to be the best versions of themselves that they can be?
Last week, I picked up a book that I’d never read by an author that died shortly after I was born. Although he was a well-known writer, I had never read any of his books. When I finished my selection, I couldn’t believe that it took me so long to discover him.
It’s very rare for me to be so mesmerized by an author after reading only one of their works, but it does happen.
The book was “In Cold Blood”. The author: Truman Capote.
This piece of non-fiction reads like a novel, but it is a true story and a chilling one from start to finish.
The murder of an entire family is not pleasant subject matter, but that is what this book is about. Capote, though he wasn’t from Holcomb, KS, and didn’t know the people involved until after the crime occurred, wrote this book and made it seem like he had been an eye witness to every perspective held within it.
I know that he undertook a tremendous amount of research to complete this story, and it shows. Though the crime itself was horrendous, the focus is not on the gruesome factors of it, which seems to often be the temptation of many writers. Capote, instead, made this book about people. The family that died. Their friends. The law enforcement officers who didn’t give up until the killers were captured. And, of course, the criminals themselves.
While the crime itself was definitely what made this story an unthinkable tragedy, so also did the lives of the criminals. Perry Smith, in particular, had a terrible upbringing. Of course, not everyone who experiences abuse as a child grows up to be a killer. That is a rare occurrence. But there is enough detail given about his life to make one wonder if his earlier days had been different, would he have grown up to be the same way.
Knowing what I know at the basic levels of nature vs. nurture, I saw that Smith most definitely had mental problems. Paranoid Schizophrenia, as he was believed to have, does not automatically make a person violent. But couple that with the abuse and neglect he endured as a child, and it becomes evident that multiple factors contributed to him becoming capable of murder. His accomplice also had suffered a traumatic brain injury, which, when brought into account along with other abnormalities, could explain a lot about the person he became.
The takeaway, psychologically, is what continues to fascinate me about human beings. We seem to be born with our own unique set of DNA, and then environmental factors, often those beyond our control, have a tremendous amount of impact on what type of person we become. This doesn’t excuse criminal behavior, but I think it’s worth trying to understand.
People who seemingly have no conscience are not “typical”. Understanding how and why it occurs is something that will always intrigue me.
Blood is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I don’t know what that says about my tastes, but subject-matter aside, the writing was nothing short of awe-inspiring. I’ve never read anything like it and came to understand why Capote was such a braggart about his skills: it’s not bragging, though, if you can do it, right?
Only a truly great writer can transport their reader to another time and place and make that reader feel like they were there.
Only a truly great writer can give the reader goosebumps without completely engulfing them in fear. Give just enough of the details without drowning the reader in unnecessary commentary.
Only a truly great writer can make you feel compassion for every character, even if their personalities and problems and behavior run the gamut from extreme to extreme.
I only picked up the book after watching the film about Capote a few weeks ago. I really don’t know if I’d have ever read it unless I had seen the movie about his life.
But I’m glad I did. My feelings about the book, but mostly the writing itself, has sat with me over this last week.
And that, to me, is the most important defining factor of a great author: if their work and skill with language leave me breathless, if they make me want to read more, if I just want to know more about them, if it inspires me to write more and write better – that is what separates good writers from great ones.
And Capote was, in this writer’s opinion, a literary genius.
Ove has not had an easy life.
He probably wouldn’t say that. Ove would probably say that his life had been fairly ordinary, and if people would just do the right thing more often, his life could have been easier. But people seem to have a way of disappointing him. Frustrating him. And he, alone, seems to have the singular gift of common sense in a mad world.
This book follows this curmudgeonly character through a very difficult period of his life. It weaves back and forth from his present to his past, giving the reader a clear picture of an often misunderstood man.
There is humor, and tragedy, and a range of strong emotions in between.
Ove has new neighbors, and much of the book is centered around his interactions with those neighbors, and the ones who have been around for a lifetime. And a cat. Because what better companion for a bitter soul than a cat?
Throughout the story we learn what makes Ove…..Ove. We learn about his simple, yet profound upbringing. Why he’s obsessed with Saabs. Why he has a love/hate relationship with so many people. His love for his wife, Sonja. His deepest wounds and his most glorious shining moments.
All of these paint a picture of a man that, though gruff on the exterior, has a heart that might surprise you.
In case it wasn’t obvious, I tried to be purposefully vague in my synopsis. I could tell you a lot more, but I hope that the brief description of the plot and the main character intrigue you enough to pick up this book for yourself. Because you should. I think, so far, it’s our best book club selection to date.
I’ll be honest though, I didn’t finish it before our book club meeting. I had a lot going on personally that made it very NOT conducive to reading, and especially not a book like this. While I hated I missed out on really diving into our discussion, I’m glad I waited until I was in a better frame of mind to finish it and fully appreciate the profoundness of some of the subject matter.
That’s the thing about this book: it’s really an easy read, but it has so many strong messages.
It also made me laugh out loud, a rare occurrence when I’m reading. I laugh when I read, but it’s always more of an internal chuckle. But there are places in this story that I couldn’t help but at least proclaim, “Ha!” when reading a statement or two.
I love the way the book was written. Each chapter a story unto itself. In that way, it was easy to lay down and pick back up.
The characters are just rich enough to not take away from the title character and give an overall picture of Ove’s life that is both complex and relatable.
I appreciate writing that can do difficult things. The transitions from past to present without feeling choppy and disjointed, the overlay of characters without becoming saturated and lost. The underlying plot that is ever-present, yet remains far enough away for the reader to appreciate what is happening in the story in that particular moment. These are not elements that are easy to achieve, and while I would say this is an “easy” read, the writing is anything but simple.
A Man Called Ove is, at its heart, a love story. And the kind of love story that is both beautiful and realistic. Ove and his wife experienced many ups and downs. But despite how different they were, their level of devotion to one another was inspirational and a testament to the fact that love, even when, and maybe especially when, we love those who appear difficult to love, the impact can be both lifelong and far-reaching.
There was a lot about marriage that resonated with me in this book as well. Perhaps nothing more than this quote by Ove’ s wife, Sonja:
Loving someone is like moving into a house,” Sonja used to say. “At first you fall in love with all the new things, amazed every morning that all this belongs to you, as if fearing that someone would suddenly come rushing in through the door to explain that a terrible mistake had been made, you weren’t actually supposed to live in a wonderful place like this. Then over the years the walls become weathered, the wood splinters here and there, and you start to love that house not so much because of all its perfection, but rather for its imperfections. You get to know all the nooks and crannies. How to avoid getting the key caught in the lock when it’s cold outside. Which of the floorboards flex slightly when one steps on them or exactly how to open the wardrobe doors without them creaking. These are the little secrets that make it your home.
I judge a good read by a lot of things, but one of my highest forms of praise would be whether or not I’d read it again. And for this one, I would. Just to soak up more of the profoundness of the story that I feel like I missed by reading it when I was so personally troubled by some things and also my disjointed consumption of the book, reading half and then coming back to it much later to finish it. It can be read that way, but it wasn’t meant to be read that way.
If you choose to read it, learn from my mistake and set other things aside and commit to finish this one over a shorter period of time. I think it will leave you quite moved.
Book Club Discussion
Y’all. I’ve slept since we last met. In fact, I’ve slept a lot. And I didn’t take notes at our meeting.
Honestly, our discussion was good, but everyone really seemed to like the book and there wasn’t a whole lot of debate about any one thing. I think the story definitely touched all of us in one way or another, and I wasn’t the only one who felt as though it was quite possibly our best selection thus far.
I promise to be a little more on top of things when we resume our meetings in August. I really won’t have a choice as our summer selection is an epic historical fiction novel that will require me to be much more organized when it comes time to write about it. In fact, I might post about it in segments.
In any case, I hope you have enjoyed my reviews of our selections so far, and wish you a delightful summer of good reading.
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline follows parallel stories of two orphans: Molly and Vivian.
Molly’s present day story is told alongside of Vivian’s, an Irish emigrant who came to the U.S. during the years before the Great Depression.
Molly loses her father to a car accident, her mother to drugs, and is placed in the foster system as a young child.
Vivian loses her family in an apartment fire in NYC and is placed on an orphan train with hundreds of other children and shipped off to the Midwest to find a permanent home.
Their stories converge in Maine in 2011 when Molly, a 17 year old wannabe juvenile delinquent, ends up serving community service hours by helping 90 year old Vivian with a personal project.
The book mainly focuses on Vivian’s journey and how her experience on the orphan train shaped the rest of her life. Molly’s story is sprinkled throughout and provides a contrast for the reader.
I’d give you more of a synopsis, but I’d give too much of the story away. A one dimensional overview seems appropriate anyway because, as a whole, I found this book to be a very shallow read. In places.
In the places where it is the most gut wrenching, I found myself wanting the author to go deeper. I wanted to know how the characters were feeling on more than a primal level and she never delivered. Or if she did, it was only in brief moments. Not enough to really make this book all that it could have, and really SHOULD have, been to do justice to the real life children who rode orphan trains and have also experienced abuse throughout the foster system.
Which brings me to another complaint: there was so much bad in the people represented as foster and adoptive parents.
I know both, in real life, and while I’m sure that there are those who are only in it for what they can get out of it, I don’t think that it’s fair to put such a blemish over the entire sectors of these parents as a whole. Which it felt like Kline did.
I try to be so careful when judging books. As a writer myself, I find that I am becoming increasingly critical of writing styles and that can hinder the reading of a book that I might otherwise have enjoyed just a few short years ago. Maybe my tastes are refining. Maybe I’m becoming a book snob.
There was just a lot lacking in the story, and I’ll address some of that now.
BOOK CLUB DISCUSSION
I was not alone in my overall opinions about Orphan Train. I think all of us were glad we read it, because it taught us all about a real life movement than most of us had never even heard of before.
We generally felt that so much could have been brought out about the real life orphan trains and that the modern day story about Molly sounded like something an editor suggested to bring “relevance” to the story. Make it more relatable to present day readers.
The book read almost as though Kline wrote Vivian’s story and then went back and added Molly’s. It felt…..disjointed.
Another complaint was that there was a scene of sexual assault in the book. And it was completely overlooked in terms of how it affected the victim, a major character. Granted, sexual assault is a topic that is swept under the rug all the time, but it felt like a missed opportunity to give readers further insight into the psyche of the character who experienced it.
One book club member said it felt like it was only used for some added drama, and she was tired of seeing it used in books and movies as a means for just giving some new type of suspense.
Orphan Train had not one loving mother figure character. And we all felt as though that was a terrible shame. After some reflection, none of the men really seemed all that great either. And the whole thing just ended up having a very cynical aftertaste for me.
But before you think we just all LOATHED this book, I want to say this: I don’t just judge a book by what it says directly (or doesn’t say, in this case) but also by whether or not it leads me to other lines of thought and reflection. And this book did that.
Vivian is 90 years old. The community service project that Molly helps her with is cleaning out Vivian’s attic. This is how she learns about Vivian’s experience on the orphan train.
Here is a quote from the book where Molly is frustrated because Vivian is reluctant to throw out any of her old stuff:
Maybe it doesn’t matter how much gets done. Maybe the value is in the process – in touching each item, in naming and identifying, in acknowledging the significance of a cardigan, a pair of children’s boots.
Knowing how my own 84 year old grandmother is about her “stuff” and what it was like to move 30+ years of it to my parent’s home when she moved in with them 2 years ago, I find that this story softened me a bit.
The things around us often represent some time in our lives that was significant, if only to us. Who am I to tell her what she should and shouldn’t keep?
Also, this quote reminds me of therapy. “Touching each item, naming and identifying….” Sometimes we have to do that to heal from past hurts. Put a name on them. Call it what it was, what it is. And then we can move on.
I found these thoughts to be profound. And I find that my love for peoples’ stories continue. Even when I feel like they could have been told better.
I tried to keep this as spoiler free as possible, but I had to roll the synopsis and discussion all into one post for this particular book and subsequent book club meeting. Please feel free to leave comments!
In a world where people are “hatched” not born, created in a lab and conditioned to belong to one of 5 castes: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, or Epsilon, individuality is a thing of an ancient past.
The process of creating the World State came about following a 9 year war which is mentioned only in reference, but it is understood to have been a time of great transformation and the story opens in London sometime in the advanced future, according to guesstimates from what I’ve seen around the year 2540.
In the hatchery, Alphas are designed to be the most intelligent and capable of those in the World State, with each succeeding caste destined to be lesser and lesser so. The Epsilons are actually injected with chemicals and deprived of oxygen to stunt their growth and development so they will be capable of nothing but the most basic of work.
Children continue to be conditioned throughout their growth, treated with electric shocks to make them dislike things like books and flowers, things of beauty. Sleep conditioning happens throughout the developmental years through a type of hypnosis until the children’s very way of thinking is utterly controlled by the World State.
The overall goal of the World State through the conditioning process is to strip away all types of strong emotions, the concept of family, monogamy, or human connectivity that is anything more than surface-level interaction.
The book follows the story of two main characters, Bernard Marx and Lenina Crowe: both Alphas.
Bernard and Lenina both have square-peg-in-a-round-hole tendencies. Bernard is physically subpar compared to his other Alpha male peers, and Lenina is often chastised by her peers for being too monogamous.
To break her cycle of monogamy, Lenina agrees to take a holiday from their native London to the deserts of New Mexico to accompany Bernard on an expedition into a “Savage” reservation.
It is here that they encounter John the Savage and his mother, Linda. Linda was born in the World State, conditioned to it, and lost from her companion on a journey (20 years prior) similar to Lenina’s. Linda had become pregnant (a grotesque and condemnable act in the World State) and ended up giving birth on the reservation and making her home there with her son.
Because of her conditioning, Linda has no real maternal instincts and poor John is left to his own devices. Still, she does teach him to read and even procures a very old copy of some Shakespeare writings for him.
John has been told all his life about the “other world” and is eager to go when Bernard decides to take him and Linda back with him and Lenina to London.
Linda cannot wait to return to the life she once knew, but for only one reason: soma. Soma is a drug that is given freely in the World State to keep people happy, satisfied, and de-stressed.
Bernard’s intentions are to exploit the novelty of this “Savage” for his own benefit, using him as a kind of side-show attraction to gain the things that he is unable to attain on his own in the World State such as recognition, admiration, and respect.
Lenina is very much attracted to John and John to Lenina, but John has high ideals of love, based upon his Shakespearian obsessions. Lenina, on the other hand, knows only what she has been conditioned to know, and that is that she exists for the pleasure of men, encouraged to give herself to as many as possible.
This book follows these characters throughout their individual journeys of unhappiness, which is attacked at all costs by the World State, because “a gram is better than a damn”, meaning that because they have soma at their every disposal, there is no need to ever be unhappy or unsatisfied.
The first few chapters of this book were very disturbing to me, mainly because of the imagery. Children who are encouraged to engage in “erotic play”, babies that are subjected to electrical shock when interest is shown in books, women who are told to give themselves to as many men as possible, the sleep-hypnosis……… all of it was downright freaky.
I honestly related to very few of the characters, but genuinely felt sorry for all of them in some way.
Bernard, who could never quite live up to what he was “designed” to be.
Lenina, who had the opportunity possibly to know real love, but was so deeply conditioned to be only a sexual being and therefore not capable of real human connection.
John, who had such high hopes of a “brave new world” where he might finally find others like himself, only to realize that he was as much of an outcast in it as he had been on the reservation.
Linda, who had the opportunity to be free and make a life of liberty for herself and her son, but only longed to be back in a drug-induced state where she didn’t have to feel anything.
Each of these characters, to me, had a heartbreaking story.
But most heartbreaking of all was the World State itself. A world where free thought and individualism were stomped out, where the concept of family and procreation were disgusting, and where being alone was considered a very bad idea and supremely discouraged by any and all means necessary.
Brave New World was a bit of a publishing disappointment when it first arrived on the scene in 1932, but has recently seen a resurgence of sales along with other novels of its kind, such as 1984 by George Orwell.
People seem to be relating more and more to the concepts described in these novels, and, truly, there were some eerie comparisons that could be made between the World State and the society that most of us call home.
Children CAN be created in a lab, the sexualization of our culture from a very young age, the discouragement to not think for ourselves and to reach for whatever suppresses our need to express feeling………..I see all of these things in our world today.
From my Psychology background, I know that conditioning is powerful. Really, I know that from my own childhood, raising my own daughter, and just observance of others. We can be taught a great number of things and belief systems, I think, if they are repeated to us and demonstrated to us, and reinforced one way or another.
We’d all like to think that we would not “fall” for that type of lifestyle, but in many ways, we all have. Every time we assume that something we read is true without digging deeper for facts, every time we reach for something that calms our nerves, and every time we choose apathy because it’s easy instead of caring because it’s difficult.
Overall, I would recommend this novel to certain people. I don’t think it’s a choice that everyone and anyone could and would appreciate. But there is certainly plenty of thought-provoking subject matter within it for those who dare to undertake reading it.
I’d like to re-read it at some point and take a little more time with my thoughts, as I was rushed to finish it this month. One of the last questions we discussed at our meeting was:
“Do you think there is an overall point Huxley was trying to make in this novel? If so, what is it?”
There were varying opinions by those in our book club. Mine is that knowledge and expression of thought and feeling is the ultimate power and the ultimate freedom.
Even those who were uneducated, like John, or educated and conditioned like another character I didn’t mention, seemed aware of the freedom that there is in being able to think for oneself and use language as a means of expression and art.
These beings were destined for a life of expectations, performance, and had soma to deal with anything resembling an emotion. It made them high when they were happy, gave them a boost when they were melancholy, and simply knocked them out if they just couldn’t deal with stressors. But they were not free.
Others in our club felt that Huxley wrote this book as a kind of warning of what the world could become, and to give people some food for thought about the price of safety, security, and peace.
OTHER DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
I have to stop here and give kudos to LaRue Cook, my friend and discussion facilitator for this selection. Brave New World was her pick and I expected nothing less than something really smart, interesting, and full of fantastic imagery. She came up with some really terrific discussion questions, such as:
Bernard and then John both resist soma in favor of their own “real” feelings. What do you think about the “right” to be unhappy?
I think everyone in the group pretty much agreed that we have the right to our own emotions. We all agreed that we did not like being chastised for or told not to either feel or express them. I thought a lot about the term “pursuit of happiness” as I read this novel, having a whole new appreciation for having that right in the world that I live in.
Lenina and Linda are two of the few women characters in the book. What do you think about how women are portrayed?
It was pretty much agreed that these women were pretty terrible people, but the discussion shifted to whether or not that was a personal bias of the author or whether there was some Freudian influence in his writing. I think how they were portrayed was pretty shallow, but they were conditioned to be that way, so I don’t necessarily think it was a flaw to portray them that way.
What is the most frightening thing about this society?
The pushing of “erotic play” on very young children was considered universally disturbing. The conditioning of the children to hate books personally broke my heart as I read it, dredging up images of my little girl, toddling across the floor as soon as she could walk, to bring me one book after another to read. Her love of reading has so shaped her and made her who she is – I honestly can’t imagine a world where that wouldn’t be possible. In this world, I couldn’t even BE a mother at all. I wouldn’t HAVE a mother, or a father or a sister…….the lack of family was something that really frightened me because I love mine so terribly much.
Aside from these things, the most frightening thing about the novel was the sheer weakening effect that the conditioning had on the citizens of the World State and how easily we can be manipulated when the freedom of individual thought and emotion is supressed.
What are your thoughts on how God and religion were used in the novel?
There were religious themes in the book, but it was a very bizarre mix and all the references were somewhat extreme and eccentric, such as the practices of the savages and of John. Again, perhaps these were reflections of the opinions of Huxley, but the discussion of religion that resulted from this question was interesting and very though provoking as there were people of all faiths in the room to participate.
This is not a book for the weak reader, and I have to admit I was a little intimidated by it especially when I found out that it was a favorite of some extremely intelligent individuals that I know.
But as I finished it, I saw the appeal, and how it has themes that can resonate with so many different people in many different ways.
I find it a little amusing that there are two men that both love this book. One extremely conservative, one who isn’t. And THAT, THAT my friends is why reading, why book clubs, why LITERATURE is so important. It connects us, it brings us together and helps us understand each other.
I’m sure the World State wouldn’t like that at all.
I’ll leave you with some of my favorite quotes from the book.
Words can be like X-rays, if you use them properly – they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.
…whenever the masses seized political power, then it was happiness rather than truth and beauty that mattered.
But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness I want sin…….I’m claiming the right to be unhappy. Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have to little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right thing live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind……I claim them all.
We have 9 ladies in Monday Night Page-Turners. One couldn’t make it last night due to having a sick child, but everyone else showed up and we ended up with a very diversified group of opinions.
I was really unsure if there would be any trepidation on behalf of these ladies to share their thoughts and opinions. Turns out, there isn’t. This group, I think, is going to be VERY honest and if last night proved anything to me it’s that books really do bring people together in a way like no other.
Here are some of the highlights of our discussion. *Spoilers ahead if you haven’t read the book.*
Of our 8 ladies present, all but one said that they liked A Storied Life, but nobody seemed to be “in love” with the selection. There was a general consensus that there was a lack of character development which would have been necessary to care more deeply about some of the individuals in the story, and their ultimate fate.
There was also an agreement that much of the last half of the book felt rushed and put together very quickly – as though the author had a deadline to finish and not a story.
Some of the discussion centered around these questions:
Why do you think the author chose to set the book on an island? How does the island setting reflect A.J.’s character?
A.J. is a grieving widower. He continues to live in the hometown of his deceased wife and only does so because of the business they built there together because he seems to have no love of the place. “No man is an island.” but A.J. certainly tries to be. He is socially awkward anyway, but he has a lack of empathy that makes it hard for anyone to really get close to him.
At one point, Maya speculates that perhaps “your whole life is determined by what store you get left in”. Is it the people or the place that makes the difference?
The consensus of most was that it is the people that make our lives. However, there were others, like myself, that believe it is both. I think I might have been very different if I grew up in different surroundings, though my personality might be the same.
Is a twist less satisfying if you know it’s coming?
Our answer was, essentially, if you know it’s coming, it’s not really a twist.
There were other questions discussed as well, and I just saw a whole slew I missed somehow that I didn’t ask. So I will post them on the Facebook page for further discussion.
I think that overall, this was a great book to break the ice for a new book club. It wasn’t heavy, with no real divisive elements. I look forward to seeing where we go now that we’ve hit the ground running and have a very different kind of selection to discuss next time.
I will leave you with some of my personal favorite quotes from A Storied Life….
Why is any one book different from any other book? They are different, A.J. decides, because they are. We have to look inside many. We have to believe. We agree to be disappointed sometimes so that we can be exhilarated every now and again.
Why do people do what they do? This is the hallmark of great writing.
And the longer I do this (bookselling, yes, of course, but also living if that isn’t too awfully sentimental), the more I believe that this is what the point of it all is. To connect, my dear little nerd. Only connect.
The words you can’t find, you borrow. We read to know we’re not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone. We are not alone.
We aren’t the things we collect, acquire, read. We are, for as long as we are here, only love. The things we loved. The people we loved. And these, I think these really do live on.
In the end, we are collected works.
Each chapter of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry begins with a literary review by A.J., a bookstore owner on tiny little Alice Island in New England.
A.J. is a crotchety fellow, but we soon learn why as aspects of his tragic past become revealed in the first few chapters. Early in the book he experiences the loss of a literary collector’s dream, and it seems as though this loss shakes him out of a fog in which he has been living. This setback is only a prelude to the new positive things that show up in A.J.’s life, things like love and friendship.
Throughout A Storied Life, we see A.J. transformed, both in the narrative and also in his literary reviews at the beginning of each chapter.
A.J. slowly begins to allow new people into his sacred spaces. This permission seems to enhance his love of books and accentuate it, creating a bittersweet tale of life, love, and literature.
The first page of this book threw me a little bit. I wasn’t quite sure what we were doing, but I caught on by the 3rd chapter and by the end of the book, those literary reviews at the beginning of each chapter told as much of the story as the actual chapter itself.
A.J.’s relationships with each of the characters is unique, and all of them have quirks that are both endearing and entertaining. The dialogue is one of the very best parts of this book, relatable especially to book lovers, but also to those whose eccentricities are the hallmarks of their close relationships. Inside jokes, sarcasm, yet fierce love – these appear to be the mortar that holds A.J.’s relationships together. Along with the books. Always the books.
I would give this book 4 stars out of 5. It’s an easy read, not a long book at all, and while there are some heavy elements, it never felt like a heavy read. When I’m rating a book, I do so not just based on whether I like it, but on whether or not the author succeeded in what I believe they intended to articulate and I think Zevin did a good job of that. The ending, though somewhat sad, I don’t believe was tragic. I love a book that allows me to continue the story in my own head and imagine the characters’ progression after the book itself is over. In that way, the reader is sort of allowed to write his or her own ending. Some people don’t like that, preferring to have everything wrapped up in a tidy little ending. I find that, in most of my favorite books, the larger elements of the story are resolved, but the characters continue in my mind and never feel “complete”. In that way, books imitate life. People are a work in progress, though our individual circumstances may ebb and flow.
I highly recommend A Storied Life, especially for a good vacation book or weekend read. I read it over 3 days, but could have finished it in a whole sitting if I’d had the time.
As I review our book club selections, I will leave you with a quote that stood out to me from the narrative. In A Storied Life, I highlighted many, but this was actually the first one that gave me pause:
“He had spent hours with the man over the last half dozen years. They had only ever discussed books but what, in this life, is more personal than books?”