Book clubs: the good, the bad, and the ugly

In a perfect world my book club reads fascinating contemporary works (but never the best sellers) with a few classics thrown in to make sure we’re well-rounded and culturally literate. Leaders rotate–everyone takes a turn–and prepare diligently: a review shared, a YouTube video discovered, an NPR interview served up. We are astute. Serious. Profound, even.

But in real life … not so much. (And this is one of those timea when reality trumps fantasy.)

The only book club I’ve been part of is one I was asked to organize several years ago for some teaching friends I work with. We set some ground rules (if you don’t read, you don’t share; everyone takes a turn leading; we agree on books together) and met once a month, give or take. We called ourselves Chicks on Books, maybe because it sounded snappy?! Here are the books we read over the year-and-a-half we were together:
+ Columbine by David Cullen
+ Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
+ Full Dark No Stars by Steven King
+ Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler
+ The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
+ Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhonda Jansen
The Immortal Life of Harriet Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Little Bee by Chris Cleave

book clubsHeavy on non-fiction, but that was fine by me–I need encouragement to read something other than fiction. The books sparked wonderful conversation, of course. As you can probably guess, teachers can talk about Columbine for days. Add a book to the mix and we’re set. And we deal almost daily with helicopter moms which are a subcategory of Tiger Mothers, after all. The author of Mennonite is a professor at a private college in our back yard, and so we were able to hear her speak at a local library branch. (Always, always go hear the author speak when you have the chance.) And more than a few of us had families who put the “fun” in dysfunctional (Not!) so between our own childhoods and those of our students, we had more than enough fuel to discuss The Glass Castle.

And like many book clubs, our was not averse to adding a little vino into the mix. Conversation was never an issue–in fact, we had to exercise self-discipline to ensure we talked about the book for at least forty-five minutes so we didn’t talk shop. Our tangents were wonderful, though. Just what I encourage my own students to be open to–reading isn’t about plot lines, conflict, and metaphor; it’s about letting a work touch our souls and inspire us.

So why was our little book club so short-lived? (I’ve heard of some book clubs that go on for decades …) I’m not sure. Some of it was family–half the members had young children. Some of it was plain ol’ time–during the school year we teachers find it difficult to do much more than eat, sleep, grade, repeat. When we first skipped a month, a couple members asked me, “When are we going to meet again?” And my reply would be, “Whenever someone organizes it!” I didn’t want to be the one to run the show and thought if the group was meaningful, someone would keep it going.

But after another missed month, the idea of planning book club again slowly fizzled out–kind of like a book whose pages we stop turning because it’s just not engaging. Or because it’s not what we expected? Or maybe we just got too busy and put it aside. Maybe I should be grateful that we got several chapters in.

And who knows? Maybe I’ll pick up the book club again someday and give it another go.

Thanks for reading! To return to the FICTION WRITERS BLOG HOP on Julie Valerie’s website, click here:


For every action … : Consequence (review)

Eric Fair
Henry Holt

I first heard writer Eric Fair on NPR’s Fresh Air  recounting his time in Iraq as a private consequence: a memoircontractor providing security at Abu Ghraib and later for the NSA in Bagdad. As an intelligence analyst his job was often to interrogate detainees and it’s clear from his experiences the cliches about war true–that war is hell, that there is never a good war.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on the conflict in the Middle East, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of Fair’s revelations. But Consequence: A Memoir is his story–one man’s perspective on Iraq and how he comes to terms with his actions.

The tours covered in the memoir weren’t his first forays into security. After high school, Fair served with the U.S.Army and studied Arabic in language school. After his tour, he worked as a police officer before a heart condition sidelined him. It was that inability to serve in law enforcement that drove Fair to seek out a private contracting firm so he could continue as a security officer in Iraq.

If we believe his account (and I have no reason to disbelieve him), our wars today are managed by both the military and private contractors. In Fair’s experience, the lines of command were often unclear and it was sometimes easy for military commanders to look the other way and let contractors do the dirty work. As an interrogator, Fair used sleep deprivation and forced standing as tactics–and he sees no line separating the terms enhanced interrogation and torture. And although he didn’t personally witness any of the publicized atrocities at Abu Ghraib, Fair was not the least bit surprised.

Fair lives in the shadow of what he experienced in Iraq. He fights his own personal demons now, accepting the anger, shame, and guilt as the consequence of his actions in Iraq.

It turns out there’s more than one way to be imprisoned.

The Wild Truth (review)

The Wild Truth
Carine McCandless

Like so many readers around the world, I was spellbound by Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild which told the story of Chris McCandless’s the wild truthjourney of self-discovery and untimely death in the Alaskan wilderness; Sean Penn’s film by the same name was a powerful cinematic version of Chris’s story. Each year several of my students choose to read the book for an end-of-the-year book talk and they struggle, as I did, with the question–was Chris’s experience worth the price he paid?

Today pilgrims travel to bus 142 in Alaska to pay homage to a young man whose life has, perhaps, grown to mythical proporations. There are websites dedicated to Chris’s memory and others debunking the mystery of his death. Krakauer himself has returned to the story of McCandless for both Outside Magazine and The New Yorker, as well as appearing on Oprah. 

A year ago I read that Chris’s sister Carine had written a book and my interest in his story was piqued again. Carine’s book The Wild Truth is a brutally honest telling of the family life he endured growing up. I almost put the book down after the first chapter as Carine revisited the house where she and Chris grew up and experienced what could only be called flashbacks of those days. For those who have experienced domestic violence or abuse, this might be a story that re-opens old wounds.

On the surface, life was picture perfect in the McCandless household. They had it all: a beautifully decorated home, a successful engineering business, nice cars, better clothes. The family’s photo graced the membership wall of the Methodist church they attended each Sunday. But in reality, Walt McCandless was a brutal authoritarian who abused his wife and children. Billie was by turns his greatest defender or his archenemy. They both drank too much. Walt was, for all intents and purposes, a bigamist who for a period of several years kept a house with his first wife Marcia and their six children, and only a few miles away, another house for his life with Billie, Chris, and Carine. The children from both relationships often visited and stayed over at the other home. Both Walt and Billie lied, manipulated the truth, and did everything in their power to invalidate their children’s understanding of their dysfunctional family life–even into adulthood.

What might make a younger child fearful and anxious often makes an adolescent or young adult rebel against or sever toxic relationships–which is exactly, Carine tells us, what Chris’s journey was meant to do. Although her heart was broken at the loss of her brother, Carine takes comfort in knowing Chris died happy and at peace–something that eluded him in life.

Much of the book is less about Chris than it is about Carine McCandless, who is herself a fascinating woman. While she relates her experience growing up with Chris, the book is largely focused on her own coming to terms with her parents’ behavior. It’s not a pretty story and there’s no fairy tale ending, at least in the traditional sense.

But Carine McCandless is a woman of indomitable spirit whose example gives hope to others that, in the end, a life of integrity and honesty will win out over deceit–and that maybe love really can conquer all.

The Beauty of What Remains (review)

The Beauty of What Remains (NetGalley)
Susan Johnson Hadler
She Writes Press

Writer Susan Johnson Hadler’s father died in WWII when she was only three months old.  Because he was killed in a mine explosion, there were no remains to inter and his wife was sent only his personal effects: socks, glasses, a sewing kit, a few snapshots, a bible, and $38.67.  Hadler’s mother remarried a few years later, and the three-year-old was folded into a new family that had, it seemed, no room for her father’s memory. But Hadler always wondered about him, in part because the welcome letter he had written when she was born was taped inside her baby book. Full of his love for her mother and hopes for her future, the letter was something at least–but not enough.

In her twenties, Hadler dared approach the subject of her dad. “What was he like?” she asked her mother. Put the past behind you, her mother implied–“You have everything you’ve ever needed.” The past is the past. Except for Hadler, it wasn’t.

And so when she’s nearly fifty, Hadler begins to unravel her father’s story. She gets a copy of her father’s war records, contacts some of the The Beauty of What Remainsmen he served with, attends a reunion of the 782nd tank battalion, and finally travels to Mechernich, Germany with her husband to put all the pieces together. They stand in the woods where he died and take in the countryside he saw in his last days and weeks.

David Johnson was a “fine gentleman, good officer.” He was “firm” with the men under his command. David Johnson was “lighthearted, carefree. Nothing bothered him.” Her father was “a quiet man. Kind. Respected.” A good man.

Even Hadley’s mother begins to open up a bit about their brief life together. How the couple was the first of their friends to marry, how their friends gathered at their apartment before leaving for the war, how angry she was at his death. But Hadley also heard love in her voice, the love that became her.

Hadley petitioned and received a memorial marker for her father in Arlington Cemetary, where the family gathered for a brief ceremony, and she wrote about her experiences in an article titled “Finding My Father” in the Washingtonian Magazine.  And with that, the family wagons circled around Hadley’s mother who felt as though her privacy had been violated.

Shuffling through all those family photos also led Hadley to finding her mother’s estranged sisters: Dorothy, a lively octogenarian who lived in Brooklyn, New York; and Elinor, sent away in her twenties to a mental hospital, and … well, you’ll just have to get a copy of The Beauty of What Remains to turn that page in Hadley’s family album.

I think what appealed to me most about this memoir was the author’s navigation of all things family. Navigating the waters of family secrets and wading through repressed memories, Hadley speaks her truth–painfully, cautiously, but always honestly.

The Beauty of What Remains is a beautiful story, compellingly told.

Destination: Little House In the Big Woods, Part I

I have long wanted to visit the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House sites scattered around the Midwest and decided this summer was the time to start with a quick trip to Pepin, Wisconsin—which also, coincidentally enough, is the closest to my West Michigan home.

One thing you should know about Little House Wayside, as the Little House In the Big Woods site is known, is that it’s in the middle of nowhere. Another thing you should know about this part of Wisconsin is that it’s Little House Waysidegorgeous. This post will be about the Laura connection, my next about Pepin.

I started planning my visit by reading parts of Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life. McClure tried out all things Wilder from the Little House books, like grinding her own wheat and mixing up sourdough starter and churning butter. She also traveled to a number of the Little House sites. In some ways, her trip to Pepin was much like mine—quick and thrown together at the last minute. But McClure traveled to Pepin on a dreary March day, and I visited in August. So while she noted bare trees, gray skies, and Lake Pepin iced over, I saw lush green everywhere, brilliant blue sky, and sailboats dotting the lake.

Little House WaysideAnd maybe because I read as much as I could about this Little House site before I visited, I wasn’t disappointed. I expected a reproduction cabin circa 1978. I expected the small, we-did-it-ourselves kind of museum. Laura, after all, was only five when she lived in the Big Woods, so she certainly didn’t leave a mark on Pepin, and the Ingalls family didn’t either.  I don’t think I was quite as  disillusioned disappointed as McClure seemed to be after her visit to Pepin.

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum might better be called an interpretive center. Its recent expansion includes four rooms: a model kitchen, a room filled with household items from the era, a school room, and a room that houses a play area for small children and a covered wagon. There’s also a bookstore with the requisite Christmas tree ornaments, calico bonnets, coloring books, and postcards. I toured the rooms in fairly short order (no kids begging for a Little House book; no little ones to drag away from the play kitchen!) and wasn’t disappointed. I purchased a book (what else?!) titled Becoming Becoming Laura Ingalls WilderLaura Ingalls Wilder about the writer Laura—only two chapters are devoted to her childhood and courting years. Most of the book is about the adult Laura and her writing career. Can’t wait to start reading.

The collection of artifacts is impressive for such a small place, but the only items having any personal connection to Laura are a quilt from her teacher in the Big Woods and a donated quilt that had once belonged to Wilder. The docent explained that the entire museum is pretty much the efforts of a local artist couple who does the collecting, displays, and signage—and their love of All Things Laura shows. I wondered, however, what the efforts of an enthusiastic historian from a nearby university might add to the museum. What a great Master’s project for a budding curator.

The Little House Wayside is seven miles out of town on Country Route CC. It’s a beautiful drive through the winding roads of Wisconsin farm country. The Big Woods have made way for corn and beans. While the roads aren’t canopied by old growth forest, plenty of woods are left so that if you squint out the farm fields, you can almost imagine the miles and miles of forest that was just being tamed in the mid-nineteenth century.

My biggest surprise were the hills. Known as the Driftless Area, this part of Wisconsin remained untouched by glaciers during the last ice age. The gorgeous landscape is one of rolling hills and rocky bluffs, which I don’t remember being mentioned at all in Little House In the Big Woods. Pa, remember, walked the seven miles to town (Pepin) to sell the furs he had collected trapping all winter and I’m guessing the hike was made quite a bit longer in order to go around those hills.

The cabin itself is surrounded by cornfields. Built in 1978 it is an unfurnished replica of the Little House: a main room, small store room, and the loft. When I read the Little House books, I always wanted to sleep in tPioneerhat loft—and when I saw it, I still thought the same! Even though far from the fire, I’m guessing that loft was pretty snug and warm with the heat rising to the top of the cabin.

One of my school’s-out-for-the-summer gifts to myself was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. The book, published by South Dakota Historical Society Press, is the definitive book for readers who enjoyed the Little House books as children and want to read what is basically Wilder’s first draft of those books.

The night before I visited the sites in Pepin, I read the chapter “Wisconsin, 1871-1874” from Pioneer Girl. Sitting in a cozy B & B, the sun was setting over the river which was just visible from my window. Trains rumbled by every so often. A sprinkler hit the side of the house in perfect swish swish rhythm. I had chocolate buttercream pie left over from dinner and a stack of books by my side … a perfect way to end a long day of travel and get ready for a day visiting the Little House Wayside.