Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A Book Club List (1995 – 2017)

In September 1995, I started a Book Club at my church. I didn’t know I was starting a book club; I thought I’d volunteered to lead a six-week discussion of Sue Bender’s Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish. We met during the Sunday morning education hour at Flossmoor Community Church in Flossmoor, Illinois. Once we finished studying Plain and Simple, several of us wanted more so we decided to meet monthly to read a book with a spiritual twist. We then decided to meet regularly so we chose books to study together on the other Sundays during the school year when our children and youth met. We enjoyed each other’s company and soon found ourselves teaching and supporting one another. Over the years others joined us and we grew and became known as the Discovery Forum.

The group almost didn’t begin because my mother died four days before the first meeting so I couldn't attend. When I returned the following week, everyone nurtured me in my grief. It seemed appropriate that we started that week as I had begun creating the lists that have become my annual book lists as annotated suggestions for my mother and her friends to use to find books for Mom to read when she underwent chemotherapy treatments. 

Last month a member of our church’s governing board asked if we might be able to share a list of the books that our group had read in the last year or two on the church website to help people looking for summer reading. Because I love making lists, I had a master file dating back to 1995 with titles and the themes that guided us in choosing them, so the church posted it here.

When selecting our titles Frederick Buechner’s words often guided us. “A religious book may not have any religion as such in it at all, but to read it is in some measure to experience firsthand what a religion book can only tell about. A religion book is a canvas. A religious book is a transparency. With a religious book it is less what we see in it than what we see through it that matters. John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany would be an example. Huckleberry Finn would be another. [1]
Our favorite novels over the years include The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry, The Known World by Edward P. Jones, Mr. Ives’ Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos, Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama and Wonder by R. J. Palacio. In nonfiction, our group loved Here If You Need Me by Kate Braestrup and everything by Barbara Brown Taylor. Our four-week, One-Book-One-Church discussion of Debby Irving’s Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race in February had over fifty participants with more reading the book on their own. Our small group break-out sessions helped us learn about ourselves and those who grew up with different experiences.

If you’d like to start a group like ours, we hope this list will provide assistance. If you want to join our discussions, we meet on Sundays at 11 a.m. and are on hiatus until late October. Check the church website to see when we’re meeting and what we’re reading.

[1] Beyond Words by Frederick Buechner

Monday, May 8, 2017

Books for Mother's Day 2017

Most mothers and grandmothers don’t want more stuff they need to dust or store. There are certainly exceptions, but the ones I know prefer books, flowers, and time with their children or grandchildren at a restaurant or event. If you’re looking for the perfect book to make your mother happy, you should be able to find one in this collection of titles. Take this list to your favorite independent bookstore and see which title you think is best for your special mother or grandmother. Links to complete reviews of the titles previously reviewed on this site are included in the book’s title.
One Good Mama Bone by Bren McLain
A book about a woman who grew up hearing that she didn’t have one good mama bone in her is particularly appropriate for the day. When Sarah’s neighbor and best friend kills herself just after giving birth to a son, Sarah raises the child as her own. Not knowing how to be a mother, she learns from Mama Red, a cow raising a baby calf. When Sarah’s husband, who was also the boy’s father, dies, she comes up with an ingenious scheme to save their farm. This 1950s era Southern gem is simply a fine story with heft. It touched me with its grown up similarities to Charlotte’s Web. GS/GPR/PP, BC

The Mothers by Brit Bennett
The Mothers inhabits the lives of three 17-year-olds in a small, African-American, California community. Nadia is grieving after her mother’s suicide. Best friend Aubrey suffers from abuse and boyfriend Luke’s accident cost him his football career. “The Mothers,” the church ladies of Luke’s father’s church, narrate and shape their stories like an interfering Greek chorus. Exquisite writing sets this apart. If your mother or grandmother loves great writing, buy her The Mothers. G, BC

Beartown by Fredrik Backman
Beartown is a wondrous tale of family, friendship, love, and hope packed with unique characters.  If your mother loves hockey she’ll adore Beartown. If she hates sports, she’ll still love Beartown.  I loved Backman’s A Man Called Ove, but Beartown is a stronger book. It’s more nuanced, yet it has the heart and humor that was the best of Ove. The tragedy at the heart of the novel is compelling because the novel’s characters take root in the reader’s heart. The setting in an isolated Swedish village adds to the intrigue and the narrator’s aphorisms add to the tale. Your mother will think you’re even more brilliant than she imagined when you give her this gem. GPR/SF, BC

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is a sentimental novel that will charm your mother, make her laugh, and brighten her worst day. This quintessentially British tale is a perfect Mother’s Day gift as it explores a father’s relationship with his children after their mother’s death when he examines their mother’s life before she met him. If your mother likes to listen to novels, buy this in audio as the very British rendition is pure delight. D/GPR/RT, BC

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
Difficult Women is a collection of gut-wrenching short stories. “Florida” tells the story of several people in a gated community. “La Negra Blanca” illustrates racial and sexual power and intimidation. “North Country” features an African-American woman engineering professor who takes a two-year position at Michigan Tech where everyone assumes she’s from Detroit. These raw tales make us uncomfortable so we pay attention as her language holds us in its thrall. Her words made me gasp. “My husband’s family is religious. . . Their God is angry and unkind because they made him in their image.” This profane, raw book of stories contains some of the most astute sentences I’ve ever read. Buy this one for the mother who likes to think.  G/S/T

The History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund  

The History of Wolves is such an exquisitely honed symphony of sentences that it almost defies belief that it’s a debut novel. Weaving an eerily gothic tale, the book follows teenage Linda who lives with her parents in a rundown former commune on a remote Minnesota lake. When the Gardner family moves in across the lake, Linda is drawn to the mother as she babysits for four-year-old Paul. Watching Linda’s observations is addictive in this character-driven gem. The climax adds a touch of a suspense thriller with its surprising twist. There are no Hallmark card mothers in this novel. G, BC

The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak  
The Impossible Fortress is pure escape, a delightful trip to the 1980s where a group of fourteen-year-olds’ antics will make you smile. Will is a geek, a kid who loves writing code. He and his buddies plan to break into a stationery store, take copies of the current Playboy issue featuring Vanna White, leave payment, and then sell color copies of Vanna to their friends who, like them, can’t buy the magazine because they’re too young. When Will cases the store, he meets Mary, the owner’s daughter, who knows more about programming than he does. Together they create a computer game for a contest, but problems arise.  If you recall BASIC and 80s tunes, this is a must. Give your mother a trip down memory lane with this one. D/GPR

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is an elegantly penned, feel-good ode to the power of walking in helping us make connections with ourselves, others, and our surroundings. Inspired by the life of poet and ad writer, Margaret Fishback, the highest-paid female copywriter in the world in the 1930s, it offers a view of the world seen by professional women in the twentieth century. An evocative tale that’s worth reading if just for prose like this. “Among the many unsurprising facts of life that, when taken in aggregate, ultimately spell out the doom of our species, is this: People who command respect are never as widely known as people who command attention.” Rooney’s prose earns our respect. This is a perfect gift for mothers of all ages. GPR/SN, BC

‘Round Midnight by Laura McBride
Round Midnight ‘s Las Vegas setting focuses on four women of different ages, ethnic backgrounds, and socioeconomic statuses who sacrifice and make decisions based on love and fear. Masterful pacing, a tension-filled climax, and the credible ending make it a sure-fire winner. The idea of motherhood looms large in this novel as the women sacrifice for their children. GPR, BCaa

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso
The Woman Next Door explores the rivalry between two South African women. Hortensia, an 85-year-old, successful black designer originally from Barbados whose husband is dying, detests Marion. Marion, an 81-year-old, successful white architect left penniless after her husband’s recent death, has never liked Hortensia. “It was known that the two women shared hedge and hatred and they pruned both with a vim that belied their ages.” Will a catastrophe that throws them together break down the barriers between them? This novel is enlightening, entertaining, honest, wry, and hope-filled. Reading it embeds you in Cape Town as you watch two acerbic women recall their lives. This novel is an intriguing look at motherhood that mothers who like ideas will enjoy. GPR/SN, BC