“This story involves a young female journalist during World War II and a postmistress who comes across a bit of information she is supposed to deliver, but chooses to delay. We had a wonderful and engaging discussion about media then and the news of the war on the radio versus media now when we use Facebook, twitter, emails, and cell phones. We discussed how during the war, news came mainly from the radio, and we wondered if that news seemed more real and powerful than today’s news given today’s media over saturation.”
Paired with: “Our meal theme was centered around the 1940s and the war. Meat was a rare thing to have at a meal, and if you did have it, you raised it (such as chicken) chicken. We also had popular company foods such as a potato chip tuna casserole, Jello casserole, and open face finger sandwiches.”
Flicks, Fiction and Forays of Darien, Connecticut, recommend:
The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family Exodus From Old Cairo to the New World
by Lucette Lagnado (Ecco/Harper Row 2007), Memoir, 340 pages
“We loved learning about Jewish life in glamorous Cairo in the 1940s and the author’s true
tale of exodus to Paris and New York during the 1960s-80s. Lagnado, an investigative
reporter for The Wall Street Journal, researches and retells the fascinating stories of her
family’s fall from grace. Her adored father Leon — always impeccable in a crisp white suit, fluent in seven languages — could broker, gamble, flirt and cajole profit from any deal between the French, English and Arab leaders of Cairo. His charms enrapt Edith, the author’s conflicted mom — a shy elegant beauty of just twenty.
“Sweeping changes uproot their devout, privileged Jewish world as Hitler marches thru Europe and Africa. The tolerant, cultured society of King Farouk falls to General Nasser. When he wins control of the Suez Canal, Nasser ousts all British and French citizens from Cairo. How does a family prepare for a Queen Mary sailing with 26 suitcases — complete with heirloom wedding dresses, canned fruit and sardines, and jewels. Their 200 dollars won’t go far as they retrench to face the squalid Broadway Central Hotel in the Bowery. Amazing that the author and her brother eventually flourish in America.
“As we feasted upscale Cairo style, we delved into the drama of Jewish exile — from glamorous pre-war Cairo to the desert tents of a brand new Israel, to Paris, and then to the sweatshops of Delancey Street and drab Brooklyn rooms. We discussed our own stories of immigration, what we really know about the Jewish diaspora, how lucky the author was to return to her childhood mansion on Malaka Nazli in 2005 and find old friends of her parents, and how the rocky marriage between a ‘boulavardier’ dad and a shy demoralized mom affected the children.
“The author weaves a fascinating history with extreme personalities: a vivacious and elegant grandmother, a domineering mother-in-law, a confused younger brother sat smack in the middle of a divorce mediation strategically run by Rabbis and aunts determined to save a marriage. The charismatic, rich father of Cairo fame was reduced to selling knockoff ties in New York City, and the mother must turn down a great job at Grolier publishing because married Egyptian wives simply didn’t work. We all loved this book.”
Paired with: “Inspired by Zarifa’s feast described in the story, we served meatballs and sour cherries, stewed apricots (mesh-mesh) and plums with chevre and pistachios on pita. We also served Kushari (lentil, rice and pasta casserole), Egyptian pepper salad, and Omm Ali (literally Ali’s mother), a rich bread pudding made with flaky Rokak pastry, fruit and nuts. YUM!”
“Claude & Camille is the story of the young and struggling artist Claude Monet, and his even
younger wife Camille. Camille comes from a more well to do family than Claude, yet she is a
bit of a rebel and gives up the lifestyle she is accustomed to in order to be with Claude. Claude is determined to become an artist, even though he and Camille must live in poverty! His group of friends includes struggling artists (who were also as poor as he was) Renoir, Manet, Cezanne, Pissarro, Degas and Frederic Bazille. When the book begins, Claude is an old man, who has just discovered a letter from Camille’s sister written forty years earlier, saying he is responsible for Camille’s death. The story moves back and forth
between the old man’s struggle to remember, and the young man’s passionate relationship with Camille.
“We were amazed at the level of poverty Claude and his young wife and son had to live in, often leaving their home in the middle of the night so they wouldn’t be evicted without their possessions. We were also intrigued by how the artists relied on their ‘exhibitions’ in order to promote their works. They all seemed to JUST get by. We learned how the term ‘impressionist’ came to be, and enjoyed seeing Monet’s paintings, as Camille was often in his sketches. We felt the author piqued our curiosity as most of us looked up vocabulary (such as tisane) specific works, and also other artists and their sketches.”
Paired with: “A French feast, including mini quiches, Croque Monsieur, crepes, Laughing Cow cheese, brie with almonds and lavender honey, chocolate truffles, and Kir Royale cocktails (served in flutes as tall as the champagne bottle!). with a grande finale dessert for the end of the meeting — Coeur à la Crème. The heart-shaped mold of creamy goodness topped with fresh raspberries and a raspberry coulis – the perfect finale for the love story it represented.”
“Azim’s Bardo chronicles the murder of a teen by a teenage gang member. This
incident took place in our city, San Diego, so the story was familiar to all of us
because of the news coverage. A gang leader pushed the teen into murdering the
other teen. Often the ones committing these murders are kids who are not yet able
to understand the consequences they will face or the damage they will do.
“We were all intrigued by the idea of ‘restorative justice’ (the idea of facing the family of the victims and apologizing), which is put forth in the book: this allows forgiveness to take place and allows the person who committed the crime to grow and learn. Often prisoners are released less capable of living in society and more capable criminals. It prompted a controversial discussion in our group as to what the punishment should be for a crime as heinous as murdering another human being. The Tariq Khamisa Foundation, a nonprofit group that tries to eliminate violence in schools and mentors at-risk kids, is the result of the collaboration of the two families of the teens involved. How the families handled this pain together and the forgiveness that took place will appeal to everyone.”
‘Tween the Lines Book Club of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, recommends:
Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod by Gary Paulsen (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ,1994), Non-Fiction/Memoir, 256 pages
“Paulsen has written several children’s books, but he delves into his real life adventure
of running the Iditarod with humor and with such a sincere love for the adventure, which hooks you into the story and doesn’t let you go until the last word is read. We laughed at his missteps, were shocked at the lengths he went to achieve his goal and yet learned so much about the event that we never would have known or cared to learn without the whole package of his tale. You will love him and adore his dogs.
“Our club comprises men and women of all ages, abilities and interests. What will commonly appeal to one does not so much appeal to another. This book was unanimously liked. The women in our group could not figure out how his wife could so willingly support such a radical man and the men saw in him a man to be admired for following a dream, no matter the sacrifice. We all were impressed and a little concerned about the extremes that the racers and dogs must go to in order to race this event and discussed in detail what we would do to achieve a dream that was important and life-changing to us.”
Paired with: Playful Puppy Chow, Moose Jerky, Fruit Cake, Hush Puppies and home made Snowballs. It was a lot of fun!”
The Pre-Oprah Saturday Morning Book Club of Dallas, Texas, recommends:
My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira (Viking, 2010), Fiction, 384 pages
“The Civil War unfolds in realistic detail in this novel that draws the reader into the
life of a twenty-year-old midwife who dreams of becoming a surgeon. Blocked from
attending medical school or even apprenticing with a doctor, Mary Sutter leaves her
family in upstate New York to try to join the nursing corps in Washington, D.C. Former nurse Robin Oliveira took nine years to research and write this debut novel. Her thoroughness brings diverse characters to life, including real people of the period such as Abraham Lincoln, Dorothea Dix, General McClellan, and John Hay.
“With elements of romance, history, family conflict, and just good storytelling, the story walks the reader through frequently gruesome details of what doctors and nurses went through to save wounded soldiers. As a heroine, Mary is headstrong, stubborn and courageous. The depth of this book has been compared to Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and makes a good companion for anyone who enjoyed that book. Readers will enjoy getting to know Mary Sutter and seeing how she grows through the novel.
“We discussed whether Mary should have gone home to help with her sister’s delivery and whether women are still limited by prejudice in the medical profession.”
Las Mariposas of Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey, recommend:
The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon (Grand Central, 2011), Fiction, 352 pages
“Lynnie, a young developmentally disabled girl and Homan, an African American deaf man
who lived at an institution in Pennsylvania, escape one night and make their way to a widowed teacher’s home. After letting them in her house, the teacher discovered the girl had just given
birth. The young couple hid the infant in the women’s attic as the police converged on the house to return them to the institution. The man escaped and the girl was returned to the institution after whispering ‘HIDE’ to the widow. The remainder of the story spanned several decades until their lives re-converged at the end. The topic was not our typical book club fare as it dealt with mental illness in the 1960s – a time when families were embarrassed if they had a child that was not typical and many of them were sent to state run institutions at an early age.
“The author grew up with a sibling who was disabled during that time and thankfully, her parents did not follow that path. Her personal experience and research about exposes and reforms about the mental health institutions, added a lot to the storyline.
“Since a few of the members are special education teachers, and my daughter teaches children with multiple disabilities we were very interested in the topic, especially comparing ‘then with now’. We were trying to identify Lynnie’s disability because at the end she became a successful artist and was somewhat functional; our thoughts were that she was autistic which is more of a current day diagnosis. The author also based the novel on the exposes that occurred in New York at institutions such as Creedmoor and Willowbrook — one of the members grew up near Willowbrook and remembered the scandals that occurred in the late 70s and early 80s. We loved the fact that the author based Homan’s character on an real individual that spent his life in an institution – he was deaf and uneducated, so was misdiagnosed as developmentally disabled. We also liked the fact that she did include workers in the institution that truly cared for the patients as a balance to those who mistreated the patients.”
Mystery Reading Group of Framingham, Massachusetts, recommends:
Faithful Place by Tana French (Viking, 2010), Fiction/Mystery, 416 pages
“French’s series is unusual because rather than staying with a single main character, she
uses different officers within the murder squad as main characters. This story focuses on
yet another detective and brings him back to his very dysfunctional family when the suitcase (and eventually the body) of the young woman he was eloping with twenty years ago turns up in the basement of the abandoned house where he was to meet her. Faithful Place deals with family loyalties on several levels: cultural boundaries in that close community and honor on the job.
“Most members liked the story, but even those who didn’t got into very intense discussions on characters’ behavior. An author who can create such real characters and involve even disenchanted readers is very skilled – and the members all agreed on the high quality of her writing.”
Thursday Night Readers of Eugene, Oregon, recommend:
My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, A Daughter, A Journey Through the Thicket of Adolescenceby Lauren Kessler (Viking Adult, 2010), Nonfiction, 256 pages
“In this book, the author shadows her daughter, Lizzie, for about a year when Lizzie is in middle school. The author works hard to understand exactly what her daughter is experiencing while reflecting on her own teen years. Our club loved it. We discussed how our own lives are like Lauren’s (the author) and Lizzie’s and how things have changed since we were in middle school. We pondered whether Lauren had done the ‘right’ thing, and what other options she might have had in certain situations. And we asked ourselves: In what ways did this experience strengthen their relationship, and in what ways might it have harmed them?”
“We read The Great Gatsby partly because it’s a classic, and also because the author is ‘local’ (Fitzgerald grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota). We discussed the ‘innocent’ guy from Minnesota caught up in the new rich society of New York. We talked about his taking the blame for the death of the woman and Daisy’s indifference to her guilt. Weliked the book (of course), and thought it had a lot to say about that era and perhaps ours as well.”
“This book starts off with a man trying to commit suicide because his wife has died and he is lonely. The reader is upset about his dilemma but within a couple of pages you are relieved with the outcome. The book takes you on a rollercoaster ride of emotions from the beginning. He brings his wife back to life and of course you know things never work out as you wish. It was so believable because all of us had at least one person we wish we could bring back. By the end of the book we were writing down what actors we would want to play the characters. We agreed that Danny Devito would play the character Warhol – a little mean character. After the discussion one of our members emailed the author.”
“Some of us liked this book and some of us loved it, but we all found it very interesting. Set in post-Civil War America, One Thousand White Women is the story of an agreement between the leader of the Cheyenne Indians and President Grant. The Indians would exchange 1,000 horses for 1,000 white women. The goal was for the women to bear children for the Indians and acclimate the Indians to the white man’s culture. Although fiction, the story is based on a proposal made to President Grant by the Chief which never materialized. Jim Fergus takes this failed idea and writes a very interesting story about two worlds colliding in a primitive land.
“The coming together of two entirely different cultures presents many problems: the women are not accustomed to the violence displayed by the Indians, the foods of the two cultures are very different both in preparation and selection, and the Indians’ multiple wives had varying ranks in the family. But there is some merit to the arrangement also. Readers learn of a very different culture and develop respect for their spiritual beliefs and the closeness of the wives even though they share the same man. These ideas brought about lots of discussion. We felt that the author might have given the impression that the white women had acclimated to their culture a little too easily. We loved the way the women from both cultures showed their strength and determination.”
“Tales of the City is a delightful romp through 1970s San Francisco. Naive Mary Ann Singleton is someone we could all relate to. Bright eyed and not having too much direction, she moves to the city on a whim, not realizing quite what she is getting herself into or who she is bound to meet. Upon arrival she moves into 28 Barbary Lane and the neighborhood’s cast of characters quickly welcomes her into their fold (whether she wants them to or not!) We discussed the ways that San Francisco has changed and stayed the same. We also asked ourselves: Is this book timeless? Why don’t books appear in serial form in newspapers anymore? Readers will delight in the tragi-comic writing style as well as the interwoven characters as they read this San Francisco classic.”
“This book is a laugh-out-loud, cry-out-loud must read for anyone who has family members who have driven them to distraction. Judd Foxman, whose marriage has just fallen apart, is ordered by his mother to sit shiva (the week-long period of mourning for Jews) for his father – an atheist. So he finds himself in his childhood house with his mother, his older sister Wendy and her family, his older brother Paul and his wife, and his younger brother Phillip. Although the very different siblings have all gone their separate ways, the book explores their strong bonds of love and feelings of exasperation. The Foxman family is full of people who speak their minds, and our book group discussion was filled with stories about all the times we wished we had had the courage to really say what we were thinking. Amazon’s review said ‘Simultaneously hilarious and hopeful, This Is Where I Leave You is as much about a family’s reckoning as it is about one man’s attempt to get it together. The affectionate, warts-and-all portrayal of the Foxmans will have fans wishing for a sequel (and clamoring for all things Tropper).’ We agreed.”
“We paired Murder on the Orient Express with Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers.
The books were chosen because we learned that the two authors were contemporaries and there was a gentle rivalry between them. Most of us felt this was a good pairing
but favored Murder on the Orient Express.
“We discussed Agatha Christie’s use of newsworthy topics of the time period, such as Lindbergh’s baby kidnapping being the model for the book’s kidnapping. We were turned off by the put down of women and the derogatory comments in Strong Poison, such as ‘he’s Italian so he is hot tempered’ (not PC for today’s readers!) We preferred the outcome of the story Murder on the Orient Express over that of Strong Poison: not just one person was responsible – it was a group effort and each person had his or her own reason for wanting the victim dead. We played the 1974 movie version of Murder on the Orient Express directed by Sidney Lumet during the meeting.”
Paired with: “Our hostess treated the group to an amazing tour of European cuisine. For appetizers: From England, tea sandwiches, including English cucumber with mint cream cheese on sourdough and Scottish smoked salmon with chive cream cheese on pumpernickel. From Paris, pâté de campagne with water crackers and cornichons. From Milan, an antipasto platter with sweet and hot sopressata salami, marinated mozzarella balls on a bed of fresh basil leaves, marinated artichoke hearts and giardeniera. From Vincovci in Croatia, potato pancakes with Lesco (Hungarian relish). From Lausanne (Switzerland), Swiss cheese and white wine fondue with baguette cubes. From Stamboul (Turkey), dolmas (rice and herbs in grape leaves) with raita (yogurt dip). For dinner, a poulet en casserole (chicken thighs browned in bacon and stewed with potatoes, turnips and carrots), mushy peas and Yorkshire puddings. For dessert, traditional British trifle, Belgian chocolates and Turkish Delight.”
Buttery Books Book Club of D’Hanis, Texas, recommends:
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (originally published in 1943;
Harper Perennial, 1998), Fiction, 496 pages
“We include several classics throughout the year in our book club discussion and
we all loved this American classic. Everyone needs to read this novel at some point!
“Like the Tree of Heaven described in the book — a tree that managed to grow out of rubbish heaps and cement in the tenement districts, Francie Nolan is a young girl growing up poor in Brooklyn in the early 1900s determined to thrive and make a better life for herself. We discussed the significance of the little can nailed to the floor in the Nolans’ closet. We compared Francie’s self-sacrificing mother to her incompetent, but heart in the right place father. We especially loved the fishing story.
“We explored what made Francie so different from so many of the other children in her circumstances and the struggle of immigrants to integrate into American society. We were inspired by Francie’s love of reading and writing and her wonderful imagination that helped her through her tough childhood.
“We played Cheap Charlie’s ‘pick for your penny’ game (in the story, the candy store owner lets boy picks a prize bag for a penny). The majority of us ended up with a bag of candy, but one lucky winner received a copy of The Brooklyn Cookbook.”
Paired with: “The novel-inspired menu was a hit. Early in the novel, the Nolans had a nice dinner, a holiday pot roast. Instead of doing a traditional roast we opted for a beef stew recipe because it was easier to prepare and serve for a large group and was essentially the same idea as a roast. The pot roast was served with egg noodles which we also served.
“We served smashed berry pie because the Nolans would purchase the cheaper smashed pies from the baker, and bread pudding, which was also served in the novel. Jewish rye bread was served with the stew because Francie’s mother would specify buying this bread. For appetizers, a rustic American themed meat/cheese tray. For drinks, two Irish beers, and the infamous milk punch which the Nolans drank on New Year’s Eve! You can read more about our book club party here.”
“Several of the members of our book club were raised on farms in the Midwest
and so we related to this book as if it were our own biography. The family’s strict
and lenient ways were our own parents’ and grandparents’ code of ethics. We love a
book with cooking themes and this one was filled with recipes. Not that we need a recipe for skinning a rabbit or how to use the egg membrane, but the book did bring back memories of things our grandparents had to know how to do. Our parents lived through the Great Depression, and this book brought to life the struggles that our families went through on their small farms. I’m not sure the Great Depression was ever over for those Midwest small farm folks, but they endured it with joy and love for family, creatures, and our earth. We, and those Little Heathens, could not have had a better childhood!”
“Reading this book about our current and possibly future world, introduced us to the
possibility of a decaying and dying society and forced us to question our dependence on
technology and modern conveniences. We all considered how long we could live without
grocery stores, computers, utilities, cars, telephones, medicine, etc. – possibly a week!
It made us all feel vulnerable and ill prepared. Living in Alaska provided us with the comfort of knowing that we had resources for food, such as moose and fish, but the cold weather would be challenging. The resourcefulness of these young girls was amazing and encouraging, yet some in the group found the book depressing. Everyone agreed that it was very well written. There was a short segment in the book which some felt was unnecessary and contrary to the message. The specifics of the ‘Apocalypse’ were not revealed, nor an overall outcome provided, which some would have liked. It is classified as science fiction which is not the usual reading choice for our book club.”
“Away is a compelling story of courage, resiliency, and hope. It is a story that
reminds us of the redemptive power of love. We discussed the things the characters (especially Lillian, the main character) did to survive, despite their circumstances and how some of them changed or transformed their lives and some didn’t or were not able to. Lillian thought of herself as a lucky person which led to a discussion of the ways that she had been lucky from the time she reached New York City to the time she reached Alaska. We also considered whether it was her self-perception of luck, her courage combined with her intense desire to find her daughter, or the general circumstances surrounding the people she encountered, or a combination of all of these things that enabled her to make her journey.
“A mother’s love was another topic of interest spurred by the character’s statement ‘Not that she is mine. I am hers.’ The group found it interesting that the reader learns what happens to Sophie but Lillian never knows. We also examined ways in which love drove the plot and how sexuality and physical love were portrayed in the novel. We also talked about the chapter titles that were drawn from Yiddish lullabies, American folksongs, ballads, and hymns. Another topic was the author’s use of the third-person narrative which allows the story to jump forward and backward in time between parallel narratives.”
“On Beauty is a literary novel loaded with sharp observational humor—our club could
have discussed this book for another two hours. This is a family saga about two antagonistic Rembrandt scholars in a fictional Massachusetts college town. Howard
Belsey is a self-absorbed, working-class British white man married to an African-American woman, Kiki. They’ve been together for thirty years and have three very different teenagers. Howard has just admitted to having a one-night stand. He also doesn’t have tenure yet after working 10 years at Wellington College. Howard’s rival is Monty Kipps, a West Indian stuffed-shirt married to the generous Carlene, with a gorgeous daughter, Veronica, who broke the oldest Belsey child’s heart when he met her during a summer internship with her father. Kipps is now teaching alongside Belsey at Wellington College; not only that, the two families live a block apart. The book is crammed with multiple shades of love and lust, midlife and teen life crises. The dialogue is so well drawn from real life and you’ll find yourself easily experiencing all of Smith’s descriptions. Our discussion touched on class, race, political conflicts, and the theme of beauty. We also discussed why Kiki was our favorite character and how much did Howard’s father shape his personality.” (http://meetup.com/wonderlandbookclub)
“Our book club periodically chooses a classic read, and East of Eden was one of our favorites. It uses the biblical story of Cain and Abel to create a rich tale of two brothers in California during the time between the American Civil War and the end of World War I. From the wild brother Charles Trask to the kind brother Adam Trask to Adam’s utterly evil whoring wife Cathy Ames to his fascinating Cantonese cook Lee to the entire Hamilton clan, the book is a remarkable tapestry of characters, good and evil, and provocative twists and turns of events. We agreed with one reviewer who called East of Eden a novel ‘epic in history, geography, and morality.’”
Paired with: “After our discussion, we had to track down a bottle of ng ka py, a traditional Taiwanese liqueur consumed by Lee with his neighbor, Samuel Hamilton (who called it ‘the drink that tastes of good rotten apples’) during their amazing discussion of the Bible. Sipping ng ka py certainly sparked some interesting discussions of our own!”
“The Kitchen House tells the story of Lavinia, a young girl orphaned when her parents died
on the ship carrying them from Ireland to the United States. She was purchased by a plantation owner to work alongside his slaves; however, she was able to live and work in the kitchen house because of her white skin. Since she was only seven years old when she arrived at the house, she was ‘adopted’ by the slaves and became part of their family. Lavinia felt as if she belonged with her adopted family; however, because she was white she was treated very differently than the slaves. This division became more apparent as Lavinia got older; and she eventually was torn between her loyalty to her master’s family and her love for her adopted family.
“My group absolutely loved this book which we discussed for hours without our usual diversions. Not only was the story fascinating and filled with so much history, but the characters were also quite intriguing. There were a few examples of evil men in this novel and we enjoyed analyzing why these characters might have been driven to their deplorable behavior. In addition, we discussed the racial injustices of the time period as well as the true meaning of the word family. Each member of our group actually took away something different from this story.”
Paired with: “The author has included a recipe for Molasses Cake in the book, which would be a perfect, complementary dessert to make for your book club meeting.”