2010 Book Reviews

Each December our book group members talk about books they’ve read during the year.  It’s a nice change of pace and takes away any anxieties about getting your reading done at a busy time of year.  Best of all, we always have a great discussion and pick up lots of good reading tips for the coming year.

This year I wasn’t able to attend our December meeting, but Jean took great notes and I’ve copied them below.  Following them are my comments on selected books I read during 2010.  Happy reading!

Favorite Books Read in 2010

Janet:

“Winter World” by Bernd Heinrich _ Naturalist writes about nature in his backyard and beyond in laymen’s terms.

“War” by Sebastian Junger _Soldiers’ view of Afghanistan, by the author of “The Perfect Storm.”

“Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese _ Ethiopian twin boys grow up, with one becoming a surgeon in this novel that reflects the author’s life story.

Cathy:

Inspector Wexford series by Ruth Rendell _ mysteries with a psychological twist.

Series by Angela Thirkell _ Writer penned a novel a year about the English gentry.

Series by Lindsey Davis _ Mysteries set in ancient Rome.

“Farewell My Lovely” by Raymond Chandler _ Classic hard-boiled detective story.

“King Solomon’s Mines” by H. Rider Haggard _ Adventure story with interesting twists.

“The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch _ Final thoughts of a professor who died young.

“Days of Grace” by Arthur Ashe _ Memoir about his tennis and AIDS struggle.

“My Left Foot” by Christy Brown _ Irish writer overcomes severe disabilities.

Jean:

“Girl in Translation” by Jean Kwok _ Novel about a Chinese-American girl adapting to U.S. culture.

“Nothing to Envy” by Barbara Demick _ Journalist looks at closed society of North Korea by telling the stories of six who fled oppression and starvation in their country.

“Let’s Take the Long Way Home” by Gail Caldwell _Two women writers develop a friendship while walking their dogs in this memoir.

“Life List” by Olivia Gentile _True account of a birdwatcher who traveled the world to find exotic and rare birds, neglecting her family and at times jeopardizing her safety.

“Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen _ Story of a family’s unraveling is also a sharp-eyed satire on modern society.

Marilyn:

“The Help” by Kathryn Stockett _ Novel traces lives of black maids and the white women who employ them in 1960s Jackson, Miss.

“The Senator’s Wife” By Sue Miller _ Novel about the troubled marriage of a politician.

“Loving Frank” by Nancy Horan _ Fictionalized account of scandalous affair between Frank Lloyd Wright and a married woman.

“Remarkable Creatures” Tracy Chevalier _ Another history as fiction about two women who discovered fossils.

“Bonk” by Mary Roach _ Amusing study of sex research.

“Neither Here Nor There” by Bill Bryson _ Humor writer returns to European spots he toured as a backpacking college student.

Juleigh:

“Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” by Helen Simonson _ English and Afghani culture clash.

“The Sharing Knife” by Lois McMaster Bujold _ Fantasy/science fiction series looks at conflicts between farmers and lake walkers

“The Old Plantation” by Susan Shames _ CW art historian’s research that discovered the painter of a well-known work depicting dancing slaves.

Connie:

“Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and 2 sequels by Stieg Larsson _ Swedish journalist and troubled computer whiz team up to solve crimes.

“Push” by Sapphire _ Black teenager suffers sexual abuse in coming-of-age story that became the movie “Precious.”

“White Oleander” by Janet Fitch _ Novel about a girl’s struggles while her mother is in prison.

“Same Kind of Different as Me” by Ron Hall and Denver Moore _ Inspiring true story of two very different men whose lives intersect.

“Blindness” by Jose Saramago _ Fantasy tale about a society where everyone is going blind.

Lois:

“Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins _ Fantasy trilogy takes a futuristic look at U.S. society.

“Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman _ Brit discovers underground London in this fantasy.

“Marcello in the Real World” by Francisco Stork _ Teen copes with Asberger’s.

Mystery series by Leslie Meier

“The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff and Other Stories by Joseph Epstein _ Short stories about Jewish men.

“Bringing Nature Home” by Doug Tellemy _Importance of saving our natural world.

Sarah:

“Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert _ Memoir of travels to Italy, India and Bali.

Linda:

Play Their Hearts Out (Dohrmann) – a Sports Illustrated reporter following a youth basketball team and its coach around for 8 years.  About sports in our society, so it also is about what it’s like to be an African-American male in this country, and the role of adults in the lives of youngsters.

World Without Us (Weisman) – this is a non-fiction book about what the planet would be like if all the humans suddenly disappeared.  The author goes to places where it’s happened (such as the Demilitarized Zone in Korea) and goes to places that humans have had an impact (such as the ocean depths) and explores what would happen to man-made structures, the environment, animals, etc.  Certainly a very unique book.

Lying With the Enemy (Binding) – I wouldn’t have picked this up, but saw that the setting is Guernsey during WWII!  It’s a mystery about the death of a young woman on the island.  The story is told from multiple viewpoints, which I’m not sure worked for me, but it presents a much different picture of the occupation than the “Guernsey Literary ….” did.

 

I have to comment on two of Tory’s titles.  I have been trying to read Stewart O’Nan’s books, since I enjoyed “The Good Wife” and “Last Night the Lobster” and I haven’t liked any of them.

I’ve been surprised how many people have liked and recommended “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”.  I found the book extremely violent and unpleasant, and have avoided the others and the movie.  Even my mother recommended the book!

Tory’s 2010 Books in Review

Some books I liked –

Josh Bazell   Beat the Reaper Fast-paced book about a young man who gets mixed up with the Mafia, enters the witness protection program and has a new life as a doctor.  Written by an intern (when did he have the time?).  Strong language and some gore.

Stieg Larsson   The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (audiobook) Yes, it’s as enthralling as it’s said to be.  A good story about a Swedish journalist and a complicated young woman who team up to solve a mystery.  Violence to women is a theme.  Well read.

Neville Shute   On the Beach. A classic end-of-the world tale in Neville’s signature, restrained style.  I’d love to talk about this book in juxtraposition to The Road.

A pair to compare and contrast –

Zadie Smith  White Teeth I picked this book off the library shelf because I noticed the author’s unusual name (“Zadie” means “Grandpa” in Yiddish).  It turned out to be a Whitbread 1st prize winner and a winner in my esteem, too.  The story centers on the lives of a family of Bangladeshi immigrants in London and addresses issues of faith, extremism, science vs. religion.  At times humorous and serious, at 450 pages it was a bit long but didn’t flag.

Kurt Vonnegut  Cat’s Cradle (audiobook – not a great reader but a great book)  Take this book about science gone bad and compare it with the portrayal of man’s use of science for good and evil and the role of religion in society in White Teeth. They have similar themes but were written in different generations.   It was serendipitous to read them back-to-back.

Disappointments –

Stewart O’Nan   A World Away I’ve enjoyed his other books, this one not so much.  Story of family distrust; takes place in small coastal town in New England and WWII San Diego.

David Wroblewski The Story of Edgar Sawtelle I kept waiting for it to improve.  Main character is a mute boy whose family breeds special dogs.  Theme is dogs are better than people.

Elizabeth Gilbert  Eat, Pray, Love. I recommend you spend your time eating, praying, and loving rather than reading this book.

Not sure how to rate this but memorable –

John Kennedy O’Toole A Confederacy of Dunces (audiobook – Barrett Whitener, good reader).  Set in New Orleans.  Main character is very unusual and memorable, not necessarily likable.  Peoples’ lives intersect in odd and surprising ways.  Quirky and sometimes humorous.  Published after author’s death.

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Listening versus Reading

I enjoy listening to audiobooks when I drive to and from work.  My commute is only 20 – 30 minutes, but once I started listening to books on tape (now books on CD) I found myself looking forward to the drive.  It allows me to “read” more books than I otherwise would, and some readers really add a lot to the story.  So I’m a fan of audio books.

But, is it acceptable to listen to a book group book rather than read the book?  To my knowledge no one in my group has objected to listening.  Drawbacks are that it’s tough to go back and reread  portions that you didn’t fully understand, or check on an earlier section to find a fact, or to mark a passage you really liked.  So, that can make preparing for the discussion more difficult particularly if you are the leader.

Another drawback, but one not related to group discussions, is that sometimes you get an objectionable reader…someone who is difficult to understand or whose voice grates on your nerves.  When that happens I give up and look for a hard copy!

I’ve enjoyed several audiobooks read by the author.  It makes me feel more in touch with the author.  Bill Bryson (The Thunderbolt Kid), Haven Kimmel  (She Got Up Off the Couch), and Barak Obama (Dreams of my Father) stand out.  On the other hand I was disappointed in Cokie Roberts’ Founding Mothers.  She spoke too fast for me to follow easily.

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What Makes a Good Book for Discussion?

What makes a good discussion book?  Is it different than a good read?  I think there’s a difference.

In our book group, the leader has the responsibility to do some research and share it at the meeting.  There’s no established criteria for research.  It can be extensive or it can be basic if the leader doesn’t have the time or is stressed out by other activities.  We usually find out about the author (other work, age, family status, where he or she lives, personal information that may relate to the book) and how the book was received (criticism, awards).

Often we get into other topics that can  be as interesting as the book itself.  The time period and historical background can be fascinating as can the setting.  Not uncommonly the leader brings a stack of  books from the library and passes them around so that we can see pictures of the places where the book takes place, or of some important feature mentioned  in the book.  (Juvenile literature is a rich source for illustrations and photos.)

When we recently read Julie and Julia, Jean, the leader, brought a video of a Julia Child show from her television  series which ran  while we had our pre-meeting coffee-and-cookies.  As a bonus, Sarah, the host, made a fabulous chocolate mousse from her copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. We all had stories to share and our lively discussion  interwove our personal experiences and views as it explored the characters, change in women’s roles over time, writing style, etc.

So here I offer for you to comment on and add to, some characteristics of a book that make it a good one for discussion, using examples from the books our group has read during the past year.  It –

Is thought provoking (The Road)

Provides incite into a little-known group or topic (The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down)

Has historical interest (Passing)

Holds an iconic place in our culture (Gone with the Wind, Peter Pan)

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Welcome to the Williamsburg Book Groups Blog

I’ve been a member of a wonderful book club whose members live in Williamsburg, Virginia (and surrounding counties) for nine years.  We have lively discussions each month about a variety of books, and have developed a comfortable set of processes.  I thought it would be fun to share ideas with people in other book groups, hence the new blog.  In addition to talking about books (which is always fun) and how they rate for discussion, the blog will also give us an opportunity to share our experiences about what seems to work for our groups, or not work so well.  Or maybe we even have a few stories of our own to share (like the time when our Leader called in sick and …)

Our book group has no name.  I’d love to hear about names that other groups have – or do you refer to yourselves as “My Book Group” like we do?

Some of the basic “rules” we have in our group are:

1.  The Book shouldn’t be longer than about 300 pages, so everyone has time  to read it.  We frequently have exceptions, like last January’s discussion of Gone With the Wind.  We tolerate them but it wouldn’t be cool to have long books all the time.  Too many of us have day jobs or other pesky time-consuming commitments.

2.  The Book  must be out in paperback and preferably there are multiple copies available from the public library.  Some of our members really don’t want to buy a book, ever.  Sometimes we use “Gab Bags” from the Library, which are very convenient.

3.  The Book can be fiction or non-fiction.  We’ve had a wide range of books selected but we stay away from short stories – just too difficult to discuss in a group.  I  am continually surprised by our members’ selections and it gets me reading books I ordinarily would not pick up.  (Our selection last month was Peter  Pan – I never  would have thought to read it, and it made for an interesting discussion.)

It’s a bit strange to be writing to no one in particular, and I don’t know if anyone will even read this or pick up on this idea.  But I guess we’ll see!  More to come in the future.  I hope to hear from you fellow book group members.   -Tory

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