Category Archives: bookblog

notes from the world’s smallest book group

WSBG reviews The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

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World’s Smallest Book Group thinks Sebastian Barry‘s writing is beautiful. We were all enraptured by the words and how they went together. We love it when that happens!41l299c-9hL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA240_SH20_OU01_

This is the story of a woman’s life told through the diaries of two people, one written by the woman herself as she reaches 100, having spent several decades in a mental institution.  Along the way, it reveals much about the story of Ireland and its civil war…especially the role of the very powerful and corrupt Catholic Church that seems to have a hand in everything. As we know, the church took very dim view of women.  Tragically, this woman paid a very high price for that.

It’s really a sort of mystery…a psychiatrist is trying to figure out what put Roseanne into the institution as he tries to figure out where she should go when it closes down. Near the end of the book, we were in for a bit of a shock.  Well, Joyce and I were. Reba and Darcy were savvy enough to figure out the surprise before it was revealed.  But I was gobsmacked! Wow!

Joyce and I dearly loved the book.  Reba and Darcy weren’t quite so taken with the story, but we all agreed about the beauty of the writing.

If you like reading about the long long reach of injustice, you will enjoy this book.  I think it’s critically important to read stories like this… because these things happened to women.  And still do.  May we never forget or look the other way. I very highly recommend it.

WSBG reviews The Cave by Jose Saramago

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Okay, I’ll just say it.  World’s Smallest Book Group LOVES Jose Saramago. And we totally LOVED this book!  What a master!! You should immediately go out and read it. I’m not kidding.  Right now. That’s okay, I’ll wait…41gRRkLUikL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA115_

Oh, you’re back?  So we were right, huh? I KNEW you would love it too…

So the book is about a man in his mid-60s who has been a potter all his life. He has a little pottery studio at his home in the countryside outside a large city.  The city has a number of zones (all fairly grim) but the center of it all is The Center.  I imagined it as a Mall of America kind of place… everything is artificial and controlled and ordered and big brother is watching every move everyone makes. The son in law is a security guard at the Center and when he gets a promotion to residential guard, the family can move to the Center.  Much of the book describes the evolving status of the family’s economic circumstances and their consequences. 

The characters are so  interesting and real. We so loved the old man and his daughter.  And the dog 🙂

And the writing. Ahhhhh, it is so beautiful and satsifying.  It draws you in ever so gently, then carries you up and down along the little waves that carry water along a river, now up, then down just a little, then tipping slightly to the left, enough to notice but not enough to throw you over, it’s best if you let yourself be carried, trust that the words will take you where you need to go…

Let me show you what I mean, I’m going to just open to a random page and copy one random sentence so you can see for yourself:

Cipriano Algor shrugged as if so say that he wasn’t interested and said again that he was going to have a wash, but he did not move, he did not take the step that would carry him out of the kitchen, a debate was going on inside his head between two potters, one was arguing that it was our duty to behave naturally under all circumstances, that if someone is kind enough to bring us a cake covered with an embroidered napkin, it is only right and proper to ask whom one should thank for this unexpected generosity, and if, in reply, we are told to guess, it would look most suspicious if we pretended not to hear, these little games played in families and in society are not of great importance, no one is going to draw hasty conclusions if we guess correctly, mainly because the number of people who might give us a cake is never going to be that large, indeed often there might be only one, that, at least, is what one of the potters was saying, but the other replied that he was not prepared to play the part of fall guy in some silly circus game of riddles, that is was precisely because he did know the name of the person who had brought the cake that he would not say it, and also because the worst thing about conclusions, at lest in some cases, is not that they might occasionally be hasty, but that they are precisely that, conclusions.

The family does in fact end up moving to the Center. It is truly a horrifying place.  Then there is a cave discovered, and it changes everything.  You’ll see.

Yes, the cave is a reference to Plato’s cave.  Made me wish I remembered my college Humanities class better, I wrote a paper about Plato’s cave.  There are also echoes of Kafka in the places in the story.  And props to the translator: Margaret Jull Costa.

I will leave it at that. Except for this: Jose Saramago is a masterful writer and thinker. He totally deserved that Nobel Prize for Literature.  This is the third Saramago book we’ve read in book group (also read All the Names and Blindness). After discussing The Cave, we decided that WSBG will read a Saramago book every year forevermore.

I can’t wait!

WSBG reviews Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

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This is a good book for a book group to read because it provides so much fodder for discussion.51crtfekp9l_sl500_aa240_

It’s about how what we think makes us happy really doesn’t. Mostly because humans are not very good at imagining the future when we rely on our own imaginations to do so. (Because we base our imagined future too much on what we feel in the present.)

We are, however, amazingly good at rationalizing, which means we can pretty much decide to be happy pretty much whenever we want to if only we understand ourselves better.

We also have an uncanny ability to remember dramatic events and generalize them so we believe them to be typical. (That’s why we are convinced we always pick the slowest moving line at the checkout stand.)

There are so many interesting things in this book, including some that are really useful, like helping you understand why you don’t order what you really want when you are dining with others and why we can’t think of the name of one song while another is playing.

We generally enjoyed reading the book, although we had a couple of quibbles. We got a little annoyed with the author’s unrelenting attempts at humor (what Darcy so accurately labeled his “preciousness”). And we think he made a mistake by asserting that humans are the only species that predict the future.

In that case, Reba wants to know why chimpanzees store up rocks to throw at humans?

When will humans learn? Every time they claim that some behavior (e.g., tool making, language) is unique to their species, somebody discovers an exception.

So I think I’ve finally got it:  Humans are the only species constantly searching for a unique trait that distinguishes them from all other species.

WSBG reviews Gob’s Grief by Chris Adrian

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So as I sat down to write the World’s Smallest Book Group’s most recent read, I suddenly realized I didn’t review last month’s book.  51sf0232t3l_bo2204203200_pisitb-sticker-arrow-clicktopright35-76_aa240_sh20_ou01_1

And I had a damn good reason. I have no idea what to say about it. Except that it was the weirdest, most bizarre, truly outlandish book I think we ever read.

The book was Gob’s Grief by Chris Adrian. It begins with an 11-year-old boy (Tomo) leaving home to join the Union Army as a bugler during the Civil War. And was killed in the first battle he encountered. Shot right through the eye.  When the twin brother (Gob) who backed out of the army-joining thing at the last minute hears of his brother’s death, he is overcome with grief and sets out on a mission to bring the civil war dead back to life.

Along the way we meet up with Walt Whitman (yes, that Walt Whitman) in an army hospital in Washington D.C. where he takes a rather ummmmm, shall we say, obsessive interest in a wounded young man. We also encounter women from the suffrage movement (including Tomo and Gob’s mother Victoria Woodhull) and get into abortion, time travel, time machine construction, Abe Lincoln, photography, medicine, free love, communism, and many other topics I can’t remember any longer.

And in the end, it turns out that it was actually….  oh, sorry, almost spoiled it.

If you like reading really bizarre books that refer to everything but in the end might mean nothing, this just might be the book for you.

The World’s Smallest Book Group is not among its fans. The book jacket blurbs were quite enthusiastic, though sometimes from rather obscure sources. We did agree with this one from The Economist however: “Remarkable…utterly different. A work unlike any that has come before it.”

Bringing WSBG into the 21st century

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Let it be said that not all the members of the World’s Smallest Book Group are as excited about the wonders of technology as this member is… witness this:  when I suggested we record our book ratings as comments on the book reviews on this blog, these were their responses:

Reba: I think I should just talk about my opinions and you take copious notes and post them on the blog.

Joyce: I prefer to make my notes on paper and store said paper in my closet.

Darcy: Total silence.

But I am not deterred!! I have a new plan: there’s a meme going around that just might lure them in… Please check back to see if I am successful.  Here’s the meme:

The BBC book reading list

The BBC believes most people will have read, on average, only 6 of the 100 books listed here. How do your reading habits stack up?

Instructions:
Look at the list and put an ‘x’ or a ‘*’, or otherwise highlight the ones you have read. Tag some people. 

(I put the ones I’ve read in bold)

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen 
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien 
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling 
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee 
6 The Bible –
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte 
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell 

9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens 
11 Little Women – Louisa May Alcott 
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller 

14 Complete Works of Shakespeare 
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier 
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien 

17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulk
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger 

19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger 
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald 

23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy 
25 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky 
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck 
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll 
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame 
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy 
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis 

34 Emma – Jane Austen 
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen 
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden 
40 Winnie the Pooh – A.A. Milne 
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell 

42 The Da Vinci Code –
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez 
44 A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery 
47 Far from the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood 
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding 
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan

51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel 
52 Dune – Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons 
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth

56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
60 Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez 
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck 
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov 
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
 
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas 
66 On the Road – Jack Kerouac

67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding 
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville 
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens 

72 Dracula – Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett 

74 Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses – James Joyce (half of it)
76 The Inferno – Dante 
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal – Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession – AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker 
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White 

88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom 
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad 
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery 
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole 

96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas 
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare 
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl 
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo 

I think my score is 76.5.  Of course I’ve lived a pretty long life and some of these are books I read a looooooooong looooooooong time ago, so please don’t ask me to take a quiz on their characters, themes, or plots.  Interesting to note that a number are books we read in WSBG! Some are my most favorite books of all time, like One Hundred Years of Solitude, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Confederacy of Dunces, etc. etc.

I am quite certain the book group’s other members will have considerably higher scores!  At least one of them might approach 100.

Readers who are not part of WSBG are welcome to participate too!

Go for it sisters!!

WSBG reviews Lying Awake by Mark Salzman

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41hzer4774l_ss500_This month we read Lying Awake by Mark Salzman, a rather short book about a nun (Sister John) living in a cloistered monastery who appears to have a direct line to the divine, but it turns out her rapturous visions and writing were a result of seizures.  She struggles with the decision to have surgery to eliminate the seizures and what it means that her spiritual awakening was not what it seemed to her (and others).

It was interesting to see how much was revealed about the nuns living there, without benefit of much conversation. Apparently, a few well spoken words will do (a lesson  that some members — well, one member — of the book group is trying to take to heart.)

The book is kind of a meditation on the meaning of religion and art in life. It’s also a nice glimpse into what it is like to live this kind of life, have this much silence and solitude. (Many aspects of that life appeal to those of us who are moving through our days at too frantic a pace!)

World’s Smallest Book Group is not known as a religious body. In fact, it might be hard to find this small a group with fewer actual religious leanings. So we decided to think about her “gift” as more of an artistic one. (Like imagining it was Dostoyevsky deciding whether or not to lose his writing, we were better able to relate.)  It was an interesting discussion along those lines.  

It also put some of us in mind of a research project Blaine did for his biology class senior year in high school.  He put this question out to the Internet:  “If we had the technology to eliminate disabilities from the population, would that be a good public policy?”

Howard Rheingold referred to Blaine’s paper in his column, “For Some, the Net is a Lifeline.”

It’s hard to find Blaine’s paper on the web now, but it is referred to in this article in Disability Studies Quarterly.

418kqq6qhjl_bo2204203200_pisitb-sticker-arrow-clicktopright35-76_aa240_sh20_ou01_We also talked about the notion that religion is a throwback to the bicameral mind, referring to Julian James’ book The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. If you want to read a book that will spark thinking and conversation, go there!

WSBG reviews In the Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron

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512irkfwgml_bo2204203200_pisitb-sticker-arrow-clicktopright35-76_aa240_sh20_ou01_1To be honest, World’s Smallest Book Group didn’t actually discuss the book we read all that much at our December meeting. Why talk about travel writing when most of our members had been travelling: Reba to Switzerland: Darcy to Switzerland, London, Italy, Greece, Slovenia, etc.: Joyce to Argentina.  Lots of wonderful travel talk.  Didn’t leave much time for the book.

Joyce liked it best because she had actually been to many of the places along the Silk Road described in the book. (She’s easily our most exotic traveller and all my distant travels have been with her!) The book is well written and has fascinating information, especially since he takes the “hard seat” approach to travel in Asia. Interesting juxapositions of yesterday and today in his encounters. But somehow it didn’t really grab us. 

Perhaps there’s been too much going on in the world of late for us to let ourselves be swept away this time. 

One personal note:  this is the first book group book I’ve read on my Kindle. Boy did I miss easy access to a good map. Found myself going to Google Earth to follow along.  Plea to Kindle designers/makers: please incorporate awesome map technology asap so I don’t have to read it at a computer.  Thanks.