Thursday, June 7, 2018

Daughter of Fortune, by Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende is known for creating strong, smart, passionate, and occasionally eccentric female characters. In Daughter of Fortune, this includes Eliza and her adopted mother Rose, plus several bit players that make this story like none other of the California Gold Rush of 1849. And the men are no slouches either.

Baby Eliza shows up on in a soap crate at a wealthy family’s home in Valparaiso, Chili—with or without a mink blanket, depending on who’s telling the story—and Rose, who lives alone with her stodgy brother Jeremy, takes her in and raises her as her daughter. For 15 years Eliza is a model child, dressing like a beautiful and delicate doll and following Rose’s guidance on how to become a proper young lady. Womanhood, though, takes her for a wild ride, and she has a torrid affair with one of her uncle Jeremy’s lowly employees, the serious and romantic Joaquin. She gets pregnant, but Joaquin has already left to find his fortune in California. Eliza, of course, follows him as a ship’s stowaway and spends the next four years impersonating either a Chilean boy or a Chinese boy searching the High Sierras for her lover.  

Rose, a spinster at the age of 25, surreptitiously pens lusty stories that eventually also make their way to California to help miners get through the misery that greets them in the gold fields. As it turns out, Rose has her own secrets, mainly a love affair with one of the proteges of the Marquis de Sade, which gives her plenty of material for her books. Rose secretly wishes Eliza luck with her love affair with Joaquin because she herself was banished from England to Chili to save her reputation, and she’s quietly resentful.

Meanwhile Pauline de Santa Cruz, daughter of a wealthy landowner and wife of an entrepreneur, decides to buy a steamship, fit it with dried ice, and use it to transport fresh fruits and vegetables to the gold fields. She makes a fortune. 

We’re never clear about the fate of Joaquin—did he die in California early on, or did he become an outlaw? Jacob Todd, who we first meet in Chili when he pretends to be a missionary, ends up in California, changes his name and calls himself a journalist. He earns his living making up stories about Joaquin, so nobody actually knows what’s what. Even, possibly, Jacob.

Eliza’s friend Tao Chi’en is a Chinese doctor who saves her life aboard the ship and also earns the respect of the California community because of his medical wisdom. He helps Eliza maintain her secrecy and hides his own love for her, which, we’re sure, will eventually be requited. 

Rose’s other brother, the dashing sea captain, John, add mystery to the plot. Plus there’s the prostitutes who have learned to stay safe in a dangerous occupation and even more dangerous country and the Singsong girls who Tao Chi’en tries to save, earning a reputation as a reprobate because others think he’s using them in one awful way or another—and are fine with it.

The book is a primer on Chinese and Chilean culture and the horrors of the goldrush. We learn much about human nature while reading this book, in which nobody is entirely who we think they are. Except, possibly, boring Jeremy.    

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Our Recommendations for Next Books

Non Fiction
1984 by George Orwell
A Faith Journey for All by Jimmy Carter
All The President's Men by Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality by Donald Miller
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek by Annie Dillard
The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by 
This Fight Is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America's Middle Class, by Elizabeth Warren


An American Marriage by Tayari Jones 
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Glass Houses by Louise Penny
Island: The Complete Stories by Alistair MacLeod
Loving Frank by Nancy Horan (book set at WDM library)
The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin
The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith
The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (book set at URB library) 
The Map of True Places by Brunonia Barry
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
The Swimmer by Joakim Zander
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger  

Monday, June 4, 2018

My Antonia, by Willa Cather

We had one of our most engaged discussions ever while reading Willa Cather’s classic,  My Antonia. In the book’s epigraph, Cather quotes Virgil: “Optima dies…prima fugit,” which translates to “The best days are the first to flee.” The quote has two meanings. First, the book is a romantic look back at childhood and the happiness of the past. Second, the Virgil poem itself is about appreciating and living off the land.The book was first published 100 years ago and new editions continue to be marketed. More than 30 different versions, all with different covers, are available on Goodreads. Most BBB members had a different cover, some showing just the land, others showing Antonia, others combining the two, others using only type and graphics. 

Some topics of our chats:

  •How and why did Cather become such a successful writer at a time when other women were writing under pseudonyms? One reason: She found a home at McClure’smagazine, one of the most active muckraking publications, which gave her credibility as well as a platform.

•Did Cather choose to write the book from the point of view of Jim because having a man tell the story might have been more acceptable to male editors? Perhaps, but maybe she did it simply because she felt that was the best was to tell the story.

•Jim clearly loved Antonia, but their lives were defined too differently for the two to be together in that world at that time. To be a success, Jim had to leave the land and get more education, which pushed him farther away. To Antonia, however, success meant staying on the land.

•Some of the “hired girls” also found success away from Nebraska, where they could redefine themselves and live on their wits and talents without the social restrictions of the city-country divide of class and status.

•If Antonia’s father had decided to stay in the city after leaving his native Bohemia—settling in New York instead of Nebraska, for example—would he have had a fuller and longer life? Antonia’s mother, however, knew she could not fit in and moved the family far enough that her past could not follow them. Her husband paid the ultimate price and her kids had a life that was far more difficult than it needed to be.

•While Antonia’s life was hard and often harsh, she was one of the happiest characters in the book. She knew who she was and where she fit in, and she embraced her own truths.

Cather’s descriptions of people and the land are so rich that I reread several passages just for the pleasure of the words. This book has one of my favorite lines, which I remember every time we spend the day traveling through Nebraska on our way to Colorado. When Jim first encounters Nebraska as a child, he observes, “The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was, still, all day long, Nebraska.” Nevertheless, he clearly loved that land, as did Cather. —Pat Prijatel

Friday, April 27, 2018

TATTOOS ON THE HEART, by Gregory Boyle

In this uplifting and intimate memoir, Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle recounts his three decades of working with “homies” in the barrios of East Los Angeles, an area with an extreme concentration of murderous activity, including over 1,000 gangs with almost 90,000 members. I was by turns mesmerized, horrified, and enthralled as I read.

In each chapter, we benefit from Boyle’s hard-earned wisdom, inspired by his faith, serving alongside the gang members and loving them as Jesus intends us to love others (our neighbors), amply demonstrating the impact that unconditional love and compassion can have on lives. Father Greg, or G-Dog as he is called by the homies, saw the need for a rehabilitation center and started Homeboy Industries in 1986 to provide jobs, tattoo removal, job training and encouragement for members of rival enemy gangs. Their motto, printed on tee shirts is “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”

Homeboy Industries has grown to a $8.5 million headquarters, housing Homeboy Bakery, a beautiful Homegirl Café, a catering service, various craft industries, and a Homeboy Diner.  It currently employs about 300 former gang members, daily serving about 1,000 customers, and monthly provides 500 treatments for tattoo removal.

The book distills his experience working in the ghetto into a breathtaking series of stories which capture and convey the lessons he learned from kids who have struggled through challenging times and tried to turn around their lives. In each Chapter the reader benefits from Boyle’s wonderful, hard-earned wisdom. With an ear for dialogue, he deftly captures the expressive flavor and colorful language of the Spanglish patois spoken there.  That alone makes Tattoos of the Heart remarkable literature.

The individual stories he tells are woven into parables that will break your heart, as many are about young gang members who start to get on track, only to be randomly shot and killed. It’s difficult to keep a dry eye. Manny was a boy covered with tattoos caught in the crossfire of gang warfare and died on the emergency room operating table. He had enrolled in community college, but was cut down before he ever attended a class.  A nurse who was evidently disgusted by his tattoos, told another “Who would want this monster’s heart?” The other nurse reacted angrily, “How dare you call this kid a monster. He belonged to somebody.  Shame on you.”

Then there was Jason, a young crack dealer, the son of two addicts, who, after rejecting several of Boyle’s invitations, finally got a job with Homeboy Industries. He left his anger behind him, eventually had a home and family, and was looking forward to his daughter’s baptism and had bought her a new dress. But then he was gunned down in the streets.

Luis, also a drug dealer, came to Greg after his daughter was born. He was hired to work in the bakery.  He got a car, a home and a whole new life. One evening, while loading his car, he was shot and killed by some gang members who ventured into his neighborhood barrio.
There are other stories like those of Manny, Luis, and Jason, kids who Greg befriended, turned their lives around, looked to the future with hope, only to end up one more victim of the violence of the LA streets
But then there are other stories of some who turned their lives around. Bandit came to see Greg after being locked up for selling crack. Boyle got him a job in a warehouse, and Bandit got married and had three kids.  He told Greg he was proud of himself, showing people were wrong who called me a “Bueno para nada” (Good for nothing).

Boyle sees beyond these experiences and reminds us that we are all deserving of God’s love. These young people are not monsters, but scared kids who want a purpose in life. He challenges the reader to “stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.” This is a holy book about the power and impact of unconditional love and compassion.

Considering that he has buried more than 150 young people from gang-related violence, many of which he has known since childhood, and called them by the names their mothers used, the joyful tenor of the book remains an astounding literary and spiritual feat. Tattoos on the Heart, which reminds us that no life is less valuable than another, is destined to become a classic of contemporary spirituality. But, be careful -- reading it may change your thinking, and your ministry! —Ken Johnson

P.S. The book left a tattoo on my heart too.

Monday, April 16, 2018

A Gentleman in Moscow By Amor Towles

By the end of this novel, I admired the amount of information packed into this title. 

First, it places us in Moscow, a place somewhat mysterious to most of us, and immerses us in layers of Russian history from the end of the Czarist days, through the revolution, through the tenures of Lenin and Stalin, and into the infighting over the next period of leadership.  Towles recreates the period effectively through details of furniture, books, menus, and meetings. 

Second, the title draws our focus onto the gentleman, Count Alexander Rostov.  We grow to admire how he uses the more admirable traits of the old aristocracy to adapt to his lengthy house arrest in the fading glamor of the Hotel Metropol, which is richly developed as a setting.  We come to know its layout, décor, and personalities.  Rostov maintains possessions and habits when they conform to his higher goals; he avoids letting ideology prevent him from cultivating friendships among many levels of the hotel’s staff and guests.  His “gentleman’s” traits allow him to act as a mentor to two remarkable young girls.  Without his established character, some of these relationships might seem improbable.  But though these relationships, he seems remarkably to be engaged in society though physically limited to the hotel.

Of course there is action in the novel, but its languid pacing echoes the decades of Rostov’s arrest and suits his expansive and reflective nature.  He is allowed to express a philosophical digression from time to time.  We always suspect the house arrest must come to an end, but that ending is brilliantly tight and pulls together a number of crumbs that have been left along the reader’s path – some carefully constructed by Rostov and others provided by opportunity but cleverly exploited.  We are amazed how he contrives Sofia’s escape from Soviet Russia and his own escape from the Metropol, and we are left to speculate on his future.  A surprising number of details are left for us to surmise, but I’d like to think that we are urged to emulate the gentleman and not ask too many unimportant questions and instead focus on the important ones. Bill Smith

Friday, March 23, 2018

Suggested Novels to Read Next

I Thought You Were Dead by Pete Nelson
Hardcover, 264 pages
Published April 13th 2010 by Algonquin Books
For Paul Gustavson, a hack writer for the wildly popular For Morons series, life is a succession of obstacles, a minefield of mistakes to stumble through. His wife has left him, his father has suffered a debilitating stroke, his girlfriend is dating another man, he has impotency issues, and his overachieving brother has invested his parents' money in stocks that tanked. Still, Paul has his friends at Bay State bar, a steady line of cocktails, a new pair of running shoes, and Stella. Beautiful Stella. With long sleek legs, kind eyes, lustrous blond hair. Their relationship is the one true bright spot in his world. She offers him sage advice on virtually every topic. And she only wets herself every once in a while. 

Sky Bridge by Laura Pritchett 
Paperback, 232 pages
Published April 5th 2007 by Milkweed Editions
A supermarket clerk in a small dusty town, 22-year-old Libby is full of dreams but lacks the means to pursue them. When her younger sister Tess becomes pregnant, Libby convinces her not to have an abortion by promising to raise the child herself. But then Tess takes off after the baby is born and Libby finds that her new role puts her dreams that much further away. Her already haphazard life becomes ever more chaotic. The baby's father, a Christian rodeo rider, suddenly demands custody. Libby loses her job, her boyfriend abandons her, and her own mother harps on how stupid she was to make that promise to Tess. More than a story of a single mother overcoming obstacles, Sky Bridge is a painfully honest, complex novel that leaves readers with a fresh understanding of what it means to inhabit a world in which dreams die, and are sometimes reborn.
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt  
Paperback, 219 pages
Published April 25th 2006 by Yearling Books
Not only is Turner Buckminster the son of the new minister in a small Maine town, he is shunned for playing baseball differently than the local boys. Then he befriends smart and lively Lizzie Bright Griffin, a girl from Malaga Island, a poor community founded by former slaves. Lizzie shows Turner a new world along the Maine coast from digging clams to rowing a boat next to a whale. When the powerful town elders, including Turner s father, decide to drive the people off the island to set up a tourist business, Turner stands alone against them. He and Lizzie try to save her community, but there s a terrible price to pay for going against the tide."

My Antonia by Willa Cather
Paperback, 232 pages
Published February 20th 2000 by New Millennium Library (first published 1918)
 Through Jim Burden's endearing, smitten voice, we revisit the remarkable vicissitudes of immigrant life in the Nebraska heartland, with all its insistent bonds. Guiding the way are some of literature's most beguiling characters: the Russian brothers plagued by memories of a fateful sleigh ride, Antonia's desperately homesick father and self-indulgent mother, and the coy Lena Lingard. Holding the pastoral society's heart, of course, is the bewitching, free-spirited Antonia.

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende
Paperback, 432 pages
Published May 2nd 2006 by Harper Perennial (first published 1998)
Orphaned at birth, Eliza Sommers is raised in the British colony of Valparaíso, Chile, by the well-intentioned Victorian spinster Miss Rose and her more rigid brother Jeremy. Just as she meets and falls in love with the wildly inappropriate Joaquín Andieta, a lowly clerk who works for Jeremy, gold is discovered in the hills of northern California. By 1849, Chileans of every stripe have fallen prey to feverish dreams of wealth. Joaquín takes off for San Francisco to seek his fortune, and Eliza, pregnant with his child, decides to follow him.

As we follow her spirited heroine on a perilous journey north in the hold of a ship to the rough-and-tumble world of San Francisco and northern California, we enter a world whose newly arrived inhabitants are driven mad by gold fever. A society of single men and prostitutes among whom Eliza moves--with the help of her good friend and savior, the Chinese doctor Tao Chien--California opens the door to a new life of freedom and independence for the young Chilean. Her search for the elusive Joaquín gradually turns into another kind of journey that transforms her over time, and what began as a search for love ends up as the conquest of personal freedom.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You is the story of a Chinese-American family and how they try so hard to do well and do good. But first one thing goes wrong and then another and then another, and to protect themselves and each other, they amass secrets that can’t be sustained.

Lovely Lydia, with her silky black Asian hair and her beautiful blue Caucasian eyes is the heart of the story. And we know from the first sentence that Lydia is dead.

Lydia is dead because her grandmother was left without a man in a time and place where a woman was supposed to be a home ec teacher (or nurse or secretary) and have a man. Lydia is dead because her dad is Asian and feels like a misfit in 1977’s Ohio. Lydia is dead because her mother, rebelling against her mother, disappears from the family, leaving them in mortal terror for months.

Lydia is dead because, like most young children, she assumes she is the cause of the family’s misery. She has surely been bad, or at least lacking, and driven their mother away. And so she makes a deal: if her mom comes home, she (Lydia) will be perfect. She will say yes to everything asked of her.

When her mother returns, Lydia accepts the burden of being the perfect child to save the family. Her loving siblings (and the characters in this story really do love each other) know she is faking so many things, but don’t dare tell because they too feel Lydia is the glue that holds the family together with her Chinese hair and American eyes.

Near the end of the story, when too many pressures are building on Lydia (when she is failing not only physics but drivers ed, and she is terrified of her brother Nath’s going away to college), she is forced into an epiphany:

[S]he had been afraid so long, she had forgotten what it was like not to be – afraid that one day, her mother would disappear again, that her father would crumble, that their whole family would collapse once more. . . . Anything her mother wanted, she had promised. As long as she would stay. She had been so afraid.

She connects this fear with the time in childhood she almost drowned and her brother saved her.

His fingers caught hers and right then she had stopped being afraid.
Kick your legs. I’ve got you. Kick.
It had been the same ever since. Don’t let me sink, she had thought as she reached for his hand, and he had promised to not when he took it. This moment, Lydia thought. This is where it all went wrong.
It was not too late. There on the dock, Lydia made a new set of promises, this time to herself. She will begin again. She will tell her mother: enough. She will take down the posters and put away the books. If she fails physics, if she never becomes a doctor, it will be all right. . . . And Nath. She will tell him that it’s all right for him to leave. That she will be fine. . . . And as she made this last promise, Lydia understood what to do. How to start everything over again, from the beginning . . . What she must do to seal her promises . . . Gently she lowered herself into the rowboat and loosed the rope.

The ending is painful but truthful. Families are nurturing; families are damaging. And not everyone survives the damage.

But the ending is also hopeful. The family slowly, gently rebuilds itself without the keystone of Lydia. Years later, when Nath is in space he stares down at the silent blue marble of the earth and thinks of his sister, as he will at every important moment of his life. He doesn’t know this yet, but he senses it deep down at his core. So much will happen, he thinks, that I would want to tell you.

Ng writes with a distinctive technique of exaggerating characters and events – pushing out curves farther than they naturally go, chipping usually smooth edges, and sharpening points almost to invisibility.

For example: James, a slightly-built Chinese man, teaches a college course on the American cowboy. Marilyn, his student, kisses him on the first day of class and beds him not long after. Later, she abandons her family without a word. Lydia has chatty phone conversations with non-existent friends. Loving, insightful little Hanna is so inconsequential they sometimes forget to set a place for her at the dinner table.

These are extreme, stylized images. Like burrs that cling, they won’t be forgotten anytime soon. Ng walks a fine balance with this technique. The distortions have to be strong to claim a lasting hold in the reader’s mind, yet believable enough to be realistic. Otherwise, the reader won’t identify with the characters or care what happens to them.

The book’s cover anticipates this stylized realism. The title, Everything I Never Told You, is handwritten – seemingly with a dried-out brush dipped in ink, or with an iffy-nibbed pen. The writing suggests the person holding the brush or pen is determined to finally tell the true story, as ragged and uneven and tender and unique as it necessarily is. And that we’ll probably remember it.—Sharelle Moranville