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Archive for the ‘My Book Club Books’ Category

Small Great Things

In My Book Club Books on May 15, 2017 at 1:52 am

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by Jodi Picoult

Book Description (Courtesy of Goodreads):

Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital with more than twenty years’ experience. During her shift, Ruth begins a routine checkup on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she’s been reassigned to another patient. The parents are white supremacists and don’t want Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, but the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Does she obey orders or does she intervene?

Ruth hesitates before performing CPR and, as a result, is charged with a serious crime. Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender, takes her case but gives unexpected advice: Kennedy insists that mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. Conflicted by Kennedy’s counsel, Ruth tries to keep life as normal as possible for her family—especially her teenage son—as the case becomes a media sensation. As the trial moves forward, Ruth and Kennedy must gain each other’s trust, and come to see that what they’ve been taught their whole lives about others—and themselves—might be wrong.

With incredible empathy, intelligence, and candor, Jodi Picoult tackles race, privilege, prejudice, justice, and compassion—and doesn’t offer easy answers. Small Great Things is a remarkable achievement from a writer at the top of her game.

My Thoughts:

This is just one of those books I could not put down, and I can’t stop thinking about. In the course of a very engaging story told from the perspectives of three characters, the author raises major issues about racism, our justice system, and how we treat minorities. While it is a book of fiction, it is also a book that makes you think. The author’s note at the end was unlike any I have ever read before and gives me a whole new appreciation of Jodi Picoult.

Book Club Discussion:

We actually started our discussion by talking about the ending. The author is Jodi Picoult, after all, and she is known for her unexpected endings. We all agreed we liked the book for many reasons, but one member thought the ending came too fast, seemed rushed, and was just too tidy. At least one of us felt that it just wasn’t realistic to expect Turk to have changed so drastically in that short of a time. It also didn’t seem completely realistic  to us that things would have ended so well for Ruth. We all agreed with these observations, but most of us still liked the ending. We wanted things to end well for Ruth, and it gave us a sense of hope that someone like Turk could change so drastically, even if it wasn’t completely realistic.

All in all, the story made us think more deeply about racism and if we were totally sure we were not at all prejudiced. Like Kennedy, we believed that we fit into that category of people who don’t see color, but then we discussed this further. One member clarified her thoughts about this by saying that of course, we see color. How could you not? The thing is not to dwell on it, not to see it as what defines the person,  and not to use it as the basis of how we relate to him/her.

The book definitely made us think about and acknowledge our prejudices. One member shared her experience of having accrued a lot of information about a woman, and then being surprised to find out she was African-American, not white. It made her stop and thing about why she had formed that opinion, what prejudices she indeed had. She outlined her thought process on figuring it out, and went on to say that we all have prejudices and need to be more self-aware in order to monitor how we think and react.

We went on to discuss the parts of the story that really stuck with us. One member brought up how enlightening it was to find out how white supremacists think and the brainwashing involved to multiply their numbers.  One member cited the part of the story when Ruth had Kennedy go shopping with her and what an eye-opening experience it was for Kennedy. One member noted the court scenes as being truly memorable. Another found it interesting how Kennedy had her associate help with the background check of the prospective jurors and observe how each juror reacted to things said in the course of the selection process. Another member cited the scene that starts on page 407 where Ruth states her true, unrestrained feelings. That was so powerful.

All in all, we liked the book. It provided an engaging story and was seriously thought provoking. One member stated that it was the best book she has read that examines racism.  Because it is fictionalized and brought in characters who displayed many of the stereotypes of both whites and blacks, it helps you look at and be open and honest about your own prejudices. A special thank you to author for including a very detailed and heartfelt Author’s Note at the end of the book.

Discussion Resources:

Reading Group Guide

Booking Mama Discussion

Book Club Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 Stars

Book Club Menu

An Appetizer Collection of Small Great Things

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Cheeses, crackers, olives, truffle salted macron almonds, crudités

Kennedy’s Dinner for Ruth

Caesar Salad and Garlic Bread

Lasagne

Cold Zabaglione with Berries

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A Gentleman in Moscow

In My Book Club Books on March 30, 2017 at 3:49 pm

The Literary Epicurean Book Club Selection

March 29, 2017

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 by Amor Towles

Book Description (Courtesy of Goodreads):

A Gentleman in Moscow immerses us in another elegantly drawn era with the story of Count Alexander Rostov. When, in 1922, he is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the count is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him a doorway into a much larger world of emotional discovery.

Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.

My Thoughts:

This book is destined to be one of those books that I take out once a year to re-read and savor for the quality of writing, the truly unique characters, and the finely told story of the Count. I am in awe of Mr. Towles’ writing style. I had to stop time and again to reread sentences and paragraphs, each vividly descriptive in the most unique way. I adored the main character and fully appreciated all the other characters sprinkled throughout the book. And the plot was just so darn clever and well thought out, incredibly engaging and completely unpredictable. All 462 pages went by in a blur. It was just that good!

Book Club Discussion:

I think we all weren’t too sure about this book when it was first suggested. After all, how interesting a story can you tell when the whole thing takes place in a hotel? Yet, when all was said and done, we all agreed this was just the best book, and we couldn’t stop raving about! It was one of those rare books that hit the trifecta of literary elements – outstanding writing, outstanding characters, and outstanding plot. It is our hope that Masterpiece Theater grab the rights to this book immediately and produce the quality series it so richly deserves. But I digress…

This book was full of memorable and unique characters, but the Count (The Gentleman in Moscow himself) is just the most amazing of them all. He was just so darn witty and charming that we all liked him right from the beginning. He had an interesting personality and an enviable attitude toward life, very nicely summed up in this quote: “… a man must master his circumstances or otherwise be mastered by them…”. He proceeded, as one member said, to make a nice lemonade of his life from the lemons he was given. Being sentenced to a life of confinement far from the comfort and wealth of his former life could definitely be defined as lemons. Yet, he wasn’t vindictive or distraught, he just adapted as best he could and got on with his life. He had so many layers, and they just kept unfolding as the story progressed. Those layers were showcased in the many interactions and relationships with other key characters. We learned early of his fine taste in wine and discriminating palate, which made for some interesting high points in the plot. The part involving the making and eating of the bouillabaisse, as well as all the parts that involved wine recommendations were particularly memorable.

The plot was very clever and well thought out. So many intriguing plot twists and turns.We appreciated the level of research that went into the planning of this book and how the different eras of the evolving Russian government were depicted through events happening at the hotel. The scene with Kruschev and the other dignitaries, how they came to be at the hotel, and how the seating at the table all played out was especially telling and memorable. Not everything was spelled out ( who was that willowy woman he met at the end?) and some times the plot was moved along by such phrases as “…ten years later…”. Nonetheless, it all made sense and those little discrepancies didn’t bother us at all.

Then there was the writing – so rich and delectable. We all kept sharing our favorite quotes and savored every word. He had the most incredible descriptions that just wowed us on practically every page.  Every so often, he added footnotes to the text which, as one member said, gave us the inside scoop so that we could better understand.

Our Book Club Rating: 5 STARS

Book Club Menu

White Russian

Small Plates

Russian Blini with Salmon, Sour Cream, and Chives

Zucchini Spread

Russian Dressing Dip with Crudite

Russian Cheese Spread

Olivier Salad

Dessert

Russian Cream

Various Russian Chocolates

A Daughter of the Samurai

In My Book Club Books on October 11, 2016 at 5:18 pm

The Literary Epicurean Book Club Selection

October 9, 2016

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by Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto

Book Description (Courtesy of Goodreads):

A Daughter of the Samurai tells the true story of a samurai’s daughter, brought up in the strict traditions of feudal Japan, who was sent to America to meet her future husband. An engrossing, haunting tale that gives us insight into an almost forgotten age.
Madam Sugimoto was born in Japan, not in the sunny southern part of the country which has given it the name of “The Land of Flowers,” but in the northern province of Echigo which is bleak and cold and so cut off from the rest of the country by mountains that in times past it had been considered fit only for political prisoners or exiles.

Her father was a Samurai, with high ideals of what was expected of a Samurai’s family. His hopes were concentrated in his son until the son refused to marry the girl for whom he was destined and ran off to America. After that all that was meant for him fell to the lot of the little wavy-haired Etsu who writes here so delightfully of the things that happened in their childhood days in far-away Japan.

My Thoughts:

I found this book absolutely fascinating and highly informative. Through the well chosen words of the author who was born into it, I got a glimpse of aristocratic life and traditions of nineteenth century Japan. While many of the customs mentioned are now outdated, they clearly show the foundation that influenced the Japanese people of today. The author’s later move to America and how she viewed our culture was equally interesting. Two parts that were especially memorable to me were her first experience with meat and first experience with gum, both told in great detail and both highly entertaining.

Book Club Discussion:

Considering most of us thought that this book might be on the dry side (which it wasn’t at all!), we had a very rich discussion and high praise for it.

It is a simple retelling of moments in the author’s life, both in Japan and then in the United States. She experienced not only the shifting of life in Japan in the early 20th Century, but also the transition of culture from Japan to the United States when she moved there with her husband. Her life in Japan with its many rituals and emphasis on holding emotions in check was quite a contrast to her life in America. We were quite taken by those chapters that detailed how she adapted. Though she started life with strict adherence to tradition and living somewhat in a well ordered, predictable bubble, she underwent tremendous change, which, most remarkably, did not seem accompanied by any inner turmoil.

We had detailed discussion about and appreciation for how different Japanese ways are in terms of how they act and think compared to Americans. None of us thought we would appreciate what we saw as the Japanese way of telling you how to live your life, but we have complete admiration for the Japanese qualities of attention to detail, their level of civility and graciousness, and their manners.

She had an interesting writing style in that she told her stories somewhat like a person looking in. Some parts confused us because she seemed to have skimmed over some important details (like when her husband died) and the reader had to do some inferring in order to catch it. All of us being teachers, we especially appreciated her chapters that revolved around her education and how her personality came out more, as well as the chapter that told about how important the education of her daughters was to her and how she had to subtly push that point with her family when she returned to Japan. We especially appreciated the last chapter and her last line: “The red barbarians and the children of the gods have not yet learned each other’s hearts; to them the secret is still unknown, but the ships are sailing-sailing—–” However, at least one member was very disappointed that there was no answer to her burning question about how the author became a professor.

All in all, we enjoyed this memoir that gave us a glimpse into the samurai era in Japan when warriors, wives, and children were required to follow a rigid code of ethics and behaviors, and we came away with a better understanding of the traditions and ways of Japan that permeate the culture today.

Book Club Rating: 4/5

Book Club Menu

Japanese Rice Crackers and Mochi

Miso Soup

Green Salad with Miso Dressing

California Sushi Rolls, Grilled Chicken, Beef, and Salmon, and Rice

Green Tea Ice Cream and Japanese Cookies

Dead Wake

In My Book Club Books, Non-Fiction Reads on May 16, 2016 at 3:30 am

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 by Erik Larson

Book Description (Courtesy of Goodreads):

On May 1, 1915, with WWI entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. The passengers were surprisingly at ease, even though Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “Greyhounds”—the fastest liner then in service—and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack.

Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger’s U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small—hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more—all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.

It is a story that many of us think we know but don’t, and Erik Larson tells it thrillingly, switching between hunter and hunted while painting a larger portrait of America at the height of the Progressive Era. Full of glamour and suspense, Dead Wake brings to life a cast of evocative characters, from famed Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat to pioneering female architect Theodate Pope to President Woodrow Wilson, a man lost to grief, dreading the widening war but also captivated by the prospect of new love.

Gripping and important, Dead Wake captures the sheer drama and emotional power of a disaster whose intimate details and true meaning have long been obscured by history.

My Thoughts:

I had basic knowledge of the Lusitania disaster, but this book gave me a much better understanding of the times and the circumstances, as well as clarifying some of the details that I had misconstrued. For some reason, I was under the impression that the sinking of the Lusitania  immediately  pulled the hesitant US into WW I. Actually, it was more like two years. That pretty much characterizes what I knew about World War I, which, quite frankly, wasn’t much. That was one of the reasons I was looking forward to reading this book. It was full of historical details, yet it was not dry and boring. Mr. Larson made it come alive with real people from all sides of the story. For a non-fiction book, it was amazingly engaging.

Book Club Discussion:

This is the third book by Erik Larson that our book club has read and discussed together. We never fail to be amazed by his ability to integrate the historical details into a well told story with significant information about the very real people who lived through it.

As with his other books, we were all impressed with the depth of the author’s research and attention to historical details. Most felt that the book started off slowly, but we all appreciated how masterfully he introduced the passengers and how he included so many critical details that most of us had not been previously aware of. Some of those details about the actual people was sometimes a lot to take in, and, on more than one occasion, brought us to tears.

One member commented on the organization of the book, with one chapter about what was happening on the passenger liner and the alternate chapter about what was happening on the submarine. It was extremely interesting to get the view from both sides, and it was absolutely fascinating to find out so much detail about life on those submarines.

One member noted that the author spent a lot of time on President Wilson’s love relationship. That opened up a discussion about his actions (or inactions) during this time period. President Wilson did not fare well in our discussion, and we all agreed that we came away thinking less of him. But what really shocked all of us was how much the English knew of the dangers to the Lusitania and how little they did to intervene at any point – including the rescue. Clearly they were intent on pushing America into the war. That led to a deep discussion on the impact that might have had on ending the war earlier and reducing the terrible loss of life.

All in all, a highly informative read. One member noted that this outstanding synthesis of the the author’s tremendous amount of research makes the price of the book an absolute bargain!

*The paperback version has a Readers Guide, a conversation with the the author, and an essay from the author about writing.

Book Club Rating: 4+/5 Stars

Book Club Menu

English Tea

An Assortment of Tea Sandwiches

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Cranberry Chicken Salad Sandwiches

Carrot Cake Tea Sandwiches

Black Forest Ham and Cheese Spirals

Nut Bread and Cream Cheese Sandwiches

Cheese and Onion Canapés

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Scones
Irish Current Scones

Strawberry Preserves, Clotted Cream and Lemon Curd

Assorted Sweets

Madelines
Lemon And Gingerbread

Brownie Bites

Served with Assorted Murchie’s Teas
Government Blend

 

The Boys in the Boat

In My Book Club Books on February 14, 2016 at 11:42 pm

The Literary Epicurean Book Club Selection

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 The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

Book Description (Courtesy of Goodreads):

For readers of Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit and Unbroken, the dramatic story of the American rowing team that stunned the world at Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics. Daniel James Brown’s robust book tells the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and their epic quest for an Olympic gold medal, a team that transformed the sport and grabbed the attention of millions of Americans. The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the boys defeated elite rivals first from eastern and British universities and finally the German crew rowing for Adolf Hitler in the Olympic games in Berlin, 1936.

The emotional heart of the story lies with one rower, Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not for glory, but to regain his shattered self-regard and to find a place he can call home. The crew is assembled by an enigmatic coach and mentored by a visionary, eccentric British boat builder, but it is their trust in each other that makes them a victorious team. They remind the country of what can be done when everyone quite literally pulls together—a perfect melding of commitment, determination, and optimism.

Drawing on the boys’ own diaries and journals, their photos and memories of a once-in-a-lifetime shared dream, The Boys in the Boat is an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times—the improbable, intimate story of nine working-class boys from the American west who, in the depths of the Great Depression, showed the world what true grit really meant. 

My Thoughts:

What a great book! From the opening interview to the epilogue, this is a brilliantly written, incredibly detailed and engaging account of nine ordinary men,their coaches, and the boat builder who did the extraordinary. Daniel James Brown did an amazing job telling the story of Joe Rantz and the others, as well as the times they lived in. I cannot believe that I was totally unaware of this piece of Olympic history, and I am so thankful to Mr. Brown for having brought it to light. Those “Boys in the Boat” deserved nothing less.

Book Club Discussion:

This story of the rowers from Washington who went on to win at the 1936 Olympics was a complete revelation to all of us. Not a one of us had heard of it before we read the book, and the book wouldn’t have been written in the first place if the author’s neighbor had not asked him to come meet her father who had read and enjoyed one of his earlier books. Her father was Joe Rantz, one of only two of the original crew who still alive at the time, and he had quite the story to share with Mr. Br0wn.

The book was based on Joe Rant’s interviews with the author, but the author dug deeper to help the reader get the most complete picture of this moment in history. All members expressed appreciation of the author’s substantial research that went into the writing of this book. Since his main interview was with Joe Rantz, that was certainly the predominant viewpoint, but there was also tremendous detail about all the other team members, the coach, and George Pocock, the man who built the boat. The author gave full measure to each and every person who contributed to the team effort. He also did an outstanding job capturing the essence of the Depression Era and the chilling details of the scope of the Nazi’s endeavors to deceive the world and how Hitler created the perfect facade that belied the terror of the Nazi government. We loved his writing style, where each chapter began with a powerful quote from George Pocock that contributed significantly to understanding, and the personal narratives of coachers and rowers that just flowed beautifully to tell their story. Members also expressed praise for the author’s masterful use of foreshadowing.

We all agreed that Joe definitely carried this book. His whole backstory, how he was basically abandoned by his father more than once and left to pretty much manage on his own from the age of 10 during the Depression era and how he got himself through college, is just an amazing story in and of itself. The whole rowing team experience and trip to the 1936 Olympics just added another whole incredible layer. The stories of the other rowers were also compelling, as was the focus on the coach, especially his understanding of the physical and psychological needs of his team and how he kept trying one combination of team members after another to find the perfect one.  That man was definitely ahead of his time.

We also appreciated the substantial focus on George Pocock, his supreme craftsmanship and attention to detail, and his incredible understanding of the rowers, especially how he contributed to their overall success. One member compared Pocock’s belief that every piece of wood plays a unique part in the final result when building a boat to the fact that each man in the rowing team brought unique qualities to make an exquisite team. Pocock understood that so well.

So many important messages were conveyed in this story about the value of hard work and best effort, perseverance, working together, and the power of forgiveness. We were in awe of how Joe was able to reconcile with father and his general attitude that he “…couldn’t carry that anger around.” We were equally in awe of how the rowers overcame their own adverse circumstances, how they worked hard – not just on the rowing team but also to get the money to complete their education and meet the challenges of the academics while honoring the enormous time commitment to the rowing team, and how committed they were to each other and being the best team member they could be in every sense of the word. We compared all of these behaviors to what we see with the current generation of students and athletes and their measure comparatively speaking. Needless to say, today’s generation of students and athletes did not compare well.

Book Club Rating: a solid 5/5 Stars – Just an absolutely well written, incredible story with rich characters and depth of theme. So inspiring on so many levels. Not surprisingly, we are all definitely interested in watching this event in the next Olympics!

Book Club Menu

Purple Rain Martini

German Potato Salad

Apple Pecan Feta Spinach Salad

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Hot Salmon Spread

Shrimp Tortellini Pesto Skewers

Crab Cakes

Tri Tips Lollipops

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Mudslide Ice Cream, a German Cookie, and  Rocky Mountain Chocolate Apple

In My Book Club Books on December 31, 2015 at 8:56 am

The Literary Epicurean Book Club Selection

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Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Book Description (Courtesy of Goodreads):

From Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo, a landmark work of narrative nonfiction that tells the dramatic and sometimes heartbreaking story of families striving toward a better life in one of the twenty-first century’s great, unequal cities.

In this brilliantly written, fast-paced book, based on three years of uncompromising reporting, a bewildering age of global change and inequality is made human.

Annawadi is a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, and as India starts to prosper, Annawadians are electric with hope. Abdul, a reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, sees “a fortune beyond counting“ in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Asha, a woman of formidable wit and deep scars from a childhood in rural poverty, has identified an alternate route to the middle class: political corruption. With a little luck, her sensitive, beautiful daughter — Annawadi’s “most-everything girl” — will soon become its first female college graduate. And even the poorest Annawadians, like Kalu, a fifteen-year-old scrap-metal thief, believe themselves inching closer to the good lives and good times they call “the full enjoy.”

But then Abdul the garbage sorter is falsely accused in a shocking tragedy; terror and a global recession rock the city; and suppressed tensions over religion, caste, sex, power and economic envy turn brutal. As the tenderest individual hopes intersect with the greatest global truths, the true contours of a competitive age are revealed. And so, too, are the imaginations and courage of the people of Annawadi.

With intelligence, humor, and deep insight into what connects human beings to one another in an era of tumultuous change, Behind the Beautiful Forevers carries the reader headlong into one of the twenty-first century’s hidden worlds, and into the lives of people impossible to forget.

Book Club Discussion:

We started our discussion with comments about how depressing this book was to read – the sad lives of the inhabitants of what has to be the worst of slums in the world surrounded by luxury hotels. Now there is a visual for the statistics that tell us 1/3 of the world’s poor live in India, a country with the highest growing economy in the world. This book put some names and faces to those people and showed us the abject poverty in which they lived. It also showed us the widespread corruption – at all levels – that only added to their misery. The added phrase to the title on the front cover states “Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.” Must say, we had a difficult time finding any hope in this book.

One member cited this paragraph on p 219 as a great analogy: :“Every country has its myths, and one that successful Indians liked to indulge was a romance of instability and adaptation—the idea that their country’s rapid rise derived in part from the chaotic unpredictability of daily life. In America and Europe, it was said, people know what is going to happen when they turn on the water tap or flick the light switch. In India, a land of few safe assumptions, chronic uncertainty was said to have helped produce a nation of quick-witted, creative problem-solvers.” That mention of “unpredictability of daily life” reminds us how truly lucky we are and makes us question all our petty complaints.

The real people cited in this book just break your heart. Manju tried to teach the neighborhood children, tried to be honorable, tried to do the right thing, but it was overwhelming because she had little choice when circumstances forced her to buy into the corruption. Then there was a similar situation with Abdul, arguably one of the hardest workers in Annawadi, rising with the sun and working long past sunset on his recycling business.He is falsely accused by his neighbor and his family got thrown into the corrupt legal system. Considering he was not educated, we were impressed that he had some amazing insights about the world he lived in. Such as this observation:  “The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage, Abdul now understood. Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.”

We questioned why there was no public outrage. There was serious outrage with the incident of the zebra horses (p. 235), but not at the condition of the people in the slums. Members made comparisons between this Indian slum and the feudal system, where the powers that be made sure that everyone had just enough so they wouldn’t rise up. This line on p.254 also helps explain: “In places where government priorities and market imperatives create a world so capricious that to help a neighbor is to risk your ability to feed your family, and sometimes even your own liberty, the idea of the mutually supportive poor community is demolished. The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets, and we who are poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.”

Our discussion noted that there were many points the author was trying to make, but this one on p. 237 was one of the key ones: “What was unfolding in Mumbai was unfolding elsewhere, tooIn the age of global market capitalism, hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived, which blunted a sense of common predicament. Poor people didn’t unite; they competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional. And this undercity strife created only the faintest ripple in the fabric of the society at large. The gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbleached  The poor took down one another, and the world’s great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.” 

The book was published in 2012, and, as we wrapped up our discussion, we are curious to know what (if anything) has changed and what has happened to some of those key people cited in this book.

Other Resources: Behind the Beautiful Forevers (includes discussion guide and Q&A with the author)

Interview with Katherine Boo

Book Club Rating: This was not an easy read, but it was eye-opening and thought provoking. For those reasons, we rated it 4/5 Stars

Book Club Menu

(Authentic Indian Food from Bombay Clay Pit in Brentwood, CA)

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Palak Pakoras and Samosa Vegetable

Nan

Lamb Curry

Chicken Tikka Masala

Indian Basmati Rice and Saffron Rice

Beautiful Ruins

In My Book Club Books on August 23, 2015 at 6:19 am

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by Jess Walter

Fiction/©2012

Book Description (Courtesy of Goodreads):

The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks out over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies an apparition: a tall, thin woman, a vision in white, approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, he soon learns, an American starlet, and she is dying.

And the story begins again today, half a world away, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio’s back lot—searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier.

What unfolds is a dazzling, yet deeply human, roller coaster of a novel, spanning fifty years and nearly as many lives. From the lavish set of Cleopatra to the shabby revelry of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Walter introduces us to the tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters: the starstruck Italian innkeeper and his long-lost love; the heroically preserved producer who once brought them together and his idealistic young assistant; the army veteran turned fledgling novelist and the rakish Richard Burton himself, whose appetites set the whole story in motion—along with the husbands and wives, lovers and dreamers, superstars and losers, who populate their world in the decades that follow.

Gloriously inventive, constantly surprising, Beautiful Ruins is a story of flawed yet fascinating people, navigating the rocky shores of their lives while clinging to their improbable dreams.

My Thoughts:

This should make for quite the book club discussion! I thought the writing was masterful and found myself stopping to reread many sentences throughout the book. I also appreciated the multi-faceted cast of main and secondary characters, all damaged in some way, and all, I think, trying to come to terms with their mistakes. While I liked some more than others, I was fascinated by them all and how the author connected them all with stories-within-a-story. It was that “stories-within-stories” itself that kept me truly engaged – that sweeping plot that covered two continents and spanned over fifty years (which the author described in the book’s epilogue as “a multi-generational, multi-genre, multi-point-of-view book about 1960s Italy, present-day Hollywood, World War II, and the Donner Party). I was intrigued with the author’s unique narrative style and devices with some chapters told in third person and some in first person, another chapter that was a screen play, another that was an excerpt from a book, and all jumping from one decade to another. Somehow it all worked, and it all tied together, producing a book layered with story upon story, each one helping to tell the other, all the while weaving in witty cultural commentary on such diverse topics as globalization, sexism and fame.I don’t think I have ever read anything like it. It is, in essence, a simple story, with no great villains or excitement. It’s pretty much just about love and about people, the choices we make and what happens after those choices are made. For all intents and purposes, it is a quick, easy read, but it has some amazing depth to it. All in all, a very worthwhile read.

My Rating: 4/5

My Favorite Quotes:

“Then she smiled, and in that instant, if such a thing were possible, Pasquale fell in love, and he would remain in love for the rest of his life–not so much with the woman, whom he didn’t even know, but with the moment.” (p. 8)

“For twenty minutes, Shane has been coaxing an outfit from this autumn leaf pile of discarded clothes: wrinkly polos, quirky secondhand Ts, faux Western button shirts, boot-cut jeans, skin jeans, torn jeans, slacks, khakis, and cords, none of it quite right for the too-talented-to-care nonchalance he imagines is appropriate for his first-ever hollywood pitch meeting.” (p. 19)

“Richard Burton had removed his sunglasses and given a wry smile. He was about Pasquale’s height, with thick sideburns, tousled brown hair, and a cleft chin. he had the sharpest features Pasquale had ever seen, as if his face had been sculpted in separate pieces and then assembled on-site.” (p173)

The Literary Epicurean Book Club Discussion

As I predicted, this book made for a very lively discussion. One member started by referring to one of the special sections that followed the story – “In the Time of Galley Slaves” which gave the author’s insight into the writing of the book. Truly a fascinating piece that should not be missed.

We went on to talk about the themes. One member commented that redemption was certainly one, with each character trying to redeem himself. Another added that Pasqual’s mother’s quote “Sometimes what we want to do and what we must do are not the same. Pasquo, the smaller the space between your desire and what is right, the happier you will be.” , as well as Michael Deane’s quote, “We want what we want—we love who we love.”  are wrapped up in it as well.

We all agreed the writing was very clever – the writing within the writing, how complicated the plot is with its two different plot lines and huge list of characters, as well as the jumping back and forth in time. We were hooked from the first sentence – an exceptional bit of writing in itself. One member commented that the author had tremendous insight and the ability to synthesize complex ideas (“..Perhaps it was the difference in age between the countries – America withs its expansive youth, building all those drive-in movies theaters and cowboy restaurants; Italians living in endless contraction in the artifacts of generations, in the bones of empires.”) We also appreciated how he tied up everything at the end, though at least one of us felt it was a bit rushed. Still, we liked knowing what happened to everyone.

Then there were the characters! It was interesting to note how our perceptions and feelings about Dee and Michael changed over the course of the book. None of us liked Michael at first (he was so diametrically opposed to Pasqual in terms of philosophy), but, as one member noted, we did appreciate his talent to read people. All of the characters were fictional, except for Richard Burton. One member felt that his appearance just didn’t work for her. As we explored that thought, one member brought up the point that since he was so well known that made the reader care more about Dee and her son. Then, of course, there was Dick Cavett’s comment that Richard Burton was “a beautiful ruin”.

We talked about the title, with its double meaning. It could refer to the village itself, as well as to the collection of characters, some more damaged than others. We talked about the name of the hotel (Adequate View) and the whole tennis court on the cliff bit. There were so many memorable parts

All in all, we very much enjoyed this book with its compelling plot and interesting characters. It was engaging and highly entertaining. We are hoping they make it into a movie…perhaps with Adrian Grenier as Pasqual suggests one member…

Unknown

Book Club Rating: 4+/5

Book Club Menu

Antipasto

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Secondo 

Beef and Cheese Manicotti

Dolce 

Cold Zabaglione with Strawberries

Resources:

Recommended by NPR

Author Interview

Should your book club read Beautiful Ruins?

Tosa Book Club Discussion Questions

Book Club Discussion Questions

All the Light We Cannot See

In My Book Club Books, My Favorites on June 13, 2015 at 3:57 am

The Literary Epicurean Book Club Selection June 13, 2015

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 by Anthony Doerr

2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Winner

(Also, a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award and the 2015 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction; winner of the Australian International Book Award; a #1 New York Times bestseller; the 2014 Book of the Year at Hudson Booksellers; the #2 book of 2014 at Amazon.com; a LibraryReads Favorite of Favorites; named one of the ten best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review; a best book of 2014 at Powell’s Books, Barnes & Noble, NPR’s Fresh Air, San Francisco Chronicle, The Week, Entertainment Weekly, the Daily Beast, Slate.com, Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, the Seattle Times, the Oregonian, the Guardian, and Kirkus)

Book Description (Courtesy of Goodreads): Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When Marie-Laure is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris, and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel. In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge. My Thoughts: What a great piece of historical fiction, brilliantly plotted and beautifully told.  I thought the plot was complex and unique, jumping back and forth as it told the two very different stories of the two children, one German and one French, and how they were caught in the horror of WW II . The author developed these protagonists, as well as other meaningful supportive characters, so well that I  deeply cared about what would happen to each of them. Not just Marie-Laure and Werner, but also Papa, Uncle Etienne, Frederick, and Jutta. The author did a masterful job developing them and thankfully didn’t leave too many threads hanging at the end. All the characters served a purpose in terms of giving the reader a little more insight into what people on both sides of the conflict were going through and how that influenced the choices they made. I thought I knew quite a bit about WW II, but there were still so many things throughout the book that I hadn’t considered or been aware of. The plot, the characters, and all the historical details were all exceedingly well presented, but the writing itself was, for me, just the best part about the book. Such incredible sensory details (“His voice is low and soft, a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers.”) and so many specific quotes that just resonated with me (“You know the greatest lesson of history? It’s that history is whatever the victors say it is. That’s the lesson. Whoever wins, that’s who decides the history. We act in our own self-interest. Of course we do. Name me a person or a nation who does not. The trick is figuring out where your interests are.” ) Beautifully written, utterly fascinating, and incredibly enlightening pretty much sums up my reaction to this book. This is just one of those books that is going to stay with me for awhile. My Rating: 5/5 Book Club Discussion: What a great time we had discussing this book! I think it was one of our longest and most in-depth discussions ever. We had decided on this book just before it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, so we started our discussion questioning what exactly made this book worthy of such a prestigious award. One member immediately brought up the excellent point about the degree of research that went into this story and how all the different parts managed to connect as it came to an end. We found the plot to be well thought out and thoroughly researched resulting in a very intense read that grabbed our complete attention from the very beginning. That definitely made it award worthy. Not that this book did not have its shortcomings, because there were a few. There were many side stories and assorted characters, and that caused a bit of confusion for each of us and left us with some unanswered questions at the end. None of us was really convinced that the whole story line about the search for the missing jewel even needed to be in there. However, one member noted that it may have been included just so there would continue to be discussion about it long after you finished the book. Authors do love doing that to the reader. Another minor issue was that not everyone was satisfied with the ending. At least two of our members didn’t expect that Werner would die at the end. That was all just so senseless, but, then again, so is war so that may been exactly the point. Also, when Werner’s sister Jutta went to see Marie-Laure after the war was over, at least one member was disappointed that she didn’t want to know more about her late brother. Jutta just wasn’t able to get past all the horrors she had suffered, and that was unfortunate. What was satisfying about the ending, however, was that it did give some closure to what happened to some of the characters after the war, how some were able to forgive and move on to useful lives, and some were not, such as Jutta, who didn’t seem able to forgive and unable to truly move on and reach her full potential. Overall, the tone at the end was one of hope which was desperately needed after the telling of such a sad story. Another discussion question brought us back to the two epigraphs at the opening of the book. I think we all quickly read them and moved on when we first started reading the book, but each of the two quotes now held incredible meaning as we reread them and discussed them after having completed the book. The Joseph Goebbels’ quote was especially significant about the role of the radio and how it helped Hitler and the Nazis gain power. From there we discussed the impact of the internet on our society, how overloaded we are with information and misinformation and superficial information. Then as now, we as a society really should pay more attention to what we take as truth… Moving on, our next question was whether the book reaffirmed or changed opinions we held. For some members, the book gave a better understanding of how WW I and the treaty set the German people up to put their trust in Adolf Hitler then subsequently become the aggressor in WW II. While we were all aware that propaganda was widespread and powerful, I don’t think any of us were aware of what was being done to the boys in the Hitler Youth Group training. That was absolutely chilling. This book impacted us each in a different way, and we believe we are coming away with a stronger intent of putting things in perspective, the best intentions of maintaining our integrity and values as best we can in even the most challenging situations, and being more compassionate of others and less judgmental taking into account that everyone comes with experiences that shape them. All in all, it was a story worth telling, and we loved reading and discussing it. Book Club Rating: 5/5 Resources: Similiar Books: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah Favorite Quotes Time Lapse WWII/Modern Photos of France Book Club Discussion Questions

All the Light We Cannot See Menu

Aperitif French Martini

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Appetizers Fig and walnut confit with goat cheese Herb garlic soft French style nut cheese

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Main Dishes

French Onion Soup

French Bean Salad

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Dessert Julia Child’s Reine de Saba avec Glacage au Chocolat Macaroons

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Wine Island Girls of Corsica Chardonnay Reserve De L’aube

After Dinner Tea Harny and Sons Fine Teas from Paris

Big Little Lies

In My Book Club Books on March 26, 2015 at 11:17 pm

Unknown

by Liane Moriarty

Adult Fiction/©2015/ 460 Pages

Publisher’s Synopsis (Courtesy of Goodreads):

Sometimes it’s the little lies that turn out to be the most lethal. . . . A murder… . . . a tragic accident… . . . or just parents behaving badly? What’s indisputable is that someone is dead. But who did what? Big Little Lies follows three women, each at a crossroads: Madeline is a force to be reckoned with. She’s funny and biting, passionate, she remembers everything and forgives no one. Her ex-husband and his yogi new wife have moved into her beloved beachside community, and their daughter is in the same kindergarten class as Madeline’s youngest (how is this possible?). And to top it all off, Madeline’s teenage daughter seems to be choosing Madeline’s ex-husband over her. (How. Is. This. Possible?). Celeste is the kind of beautiful woman who makes the world stop and stare. While she may seem a bit flustered at times, who wouldn’t be, with those rambunctious twin boys? Now that the boys are starting school, Celeste and her husband look set to become the king and queen of the school parent body. But royalty often comes at a price, and Celeste is grappling with how much more she is willing to pay. New to town, single mom Jane is so young that another mother mistakes her for the nanny. Jane is sad beyond her years and harbors secret doubts about her son. But why? While Madeline and Celeste soon take Jane under their wing, none of them realizes how the arrival of Jane and her inscrutable little boy will affect them all. Big Little Lies is a brilliant take on ex-husbands and second wives, mothers and daughters, schoolyard scandal, and the dangerous little lies we tell ourselves just to survive.

My Thoughts: At first glance, I thought this was going to be a fluffy read, but, as it turns out, it has real substance. The plot is very clever and well thought out. You know someone died, but you don’t know who or why. This definitely keeps you guessing all the way through. In addition to the mystery, there are key messages within the plot centering on the issue of bullying, as well as the politics of divorce, motherhood, and school. Each character serves a purpose, and there is quite the cast of characters. The most thorough character development, of course, was reserved for the main characters, who continued to evolve right up to the last chapter. However, even the lesser characters received a certain level of substance. All in all, an enjoyable, worthwhile read complete with an engaging plot and memorable characters, as well as many parts that will make you stop and think.

My Rating: 5/5 Stars

Literary Epicureans Book Club Discussion

This book was a hit with everyone. Our discussion centered around the interesting format with all its false foreshadowing leading to numerous wrong guesses. We were all impressed with how well thought out the plot was, complete with purposeful hints that were masterfully misdirecting. Not one of us figured out who the victim was until the moment it was revealed. And we couldn’t have been more satisfied with who it was. Being that all of us are involved with education, we thought the author was spot on with the incidents at the school, especially the ones involving helicopter parents and the staff efforts to deal with everything in general and the process of getting to the root of the bullying in particular.

We then went on to discuss the characters, how they evolved throughout the story, and which character we identified with most. We liked how the author slowly filled out and revealed each character as the story progressed. Our opinions and understanding of Madeline and Celeste deepened considerably over the course of the book, but it was Jane’s backstory, how it all came together and connected, as well as Bonnie’s backstory, that took us all by surprise. One member noted, and we all concurred, that Madeline, Celeste, and Jane made an unlikely but very cool trio, supportive and loyal to each other.

This discussion led into a deeper discussion about the moral dilemma of doing something that is wrong in order to do something right, specifically as it pertained to the characters in the book, but also as it pertains to our own personal belief systems.

As we wound up our lively discussion, one member commented about Madeline’s newly formed book group, The Erotic Fiction Book Club. We decided it was time to actually name ours. So the previously Unnamed Book Club is now officially The Literary Epicurean Book Club.

Book Club Rating: 5/5

Book Club Discussion Questions

Our “When Push Comes to Shove” Dinner Menu

Summer-Blush-004-copyright-Cheri-Loughlin

Pink Moscato Champagne and Raspberry Lemonade Cocktail

Assorted Cheeses with Crackers and Veggies with Hummus

Gourmet Pizzas (Vegetarian and Chicken Ranch)

Perfectly Simple Pizza Salad and Mixed Spring Fruit Salad

Chocolate Chip Toffee Cookies and Haagen Das Ice Cream

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The Miniaturist

In My Book Club Books on January 5, 2015 at 2:38 am

Unknown by Jessie Burton

Publisher’s Synopsis (Courtesy of Goodreads):

Set in seventeenth century Amsterdam-a city ruled by glittering wealth and oppressive religion-a masterful debut steeped in atmosphere and shimmering with mystery, in the tradition of Emma Donoghue, Sarah Waters, and Sarah Dunant.

“There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed…”

On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office-leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.But Nella’s world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist-an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways . . .

Johannes’ gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand-and fear-the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation . . . or the architect of their destruction?

Enchanting, beautiful, and exquisitely suspenseful, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth.

My Thoughts:

There is much to like in “The Miniaturist”. The writing was exquisite, and the plot was compelling. Life in the dollhouse mirrors life in the townhouse, and the townhouse, in turn, mirrors life in Amsterdam and the greater world. This book drew me in slowly, but once I got hooked, I could not put it down. The historical detail was interesting, but the supernatural intrigue and one plot twist after another kept my attention. There were many “I didn’t see that coming” moments for me in this book.

Book Club Discussion:

We started our discussion with comments about the picture of an actual miniature cabinet that appears at the beginning of the story. Our overall take on the book is that it is a well researched piece of historical fiction with fascinating magical details that helped pull the reader into the story. We recognized and  appreciated the vivid descriptions of the city, the landscape, the canals, and general life at that time. As we discussed the practices, customs, and expectations from that era to our current one, Carol posed the question how is it that we still have challenges with some of the ways of thinking. An unanswerable question, of course, but quite thought provoking. We further discussed the themes of human frailty and redemption and how that was evident in each of the main characters. We concluded our discussion with the still life pictures of the time, how they factored into the story, and whether or not we thought they made political statements related to money and class and the history of the times. All in all, we had a deep conversation about the book and agreed that we all enjoyed reading it.

My Rating: 4/5 Stars

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Book Club Menu
Featuring Dutch Specialties

Red Light Cocktail

Gouda Cheese, Nuts, and Dried Fruit
Shredded Brussels Sprouts Slaw
Pork Tenderloin with Brandy Soaked Raisins
Cinnamon Glazed Carrots

Fluffy Mashed Potatoes
Dutch Chocolate Chocolate Mousse

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