The Writers’ Book Club
A writer is a reader moved to emulation
-SAUL BELLOW, attributed, The Hidden Writer
If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time or the tools to write
--STEPHEN KING, On Writing
How does the Writers’ Book Club differ from other book clubs? For starters, the group doesn’t so much discuss the book as dissect it. Members want to discover what it is about the writing itself that makes the book work or, in some cases, not work. Also, we consider how we can “borrow” the author’s techniques for our own writing. Disagreements abound and are always part of the fun, as is the food. For example, we downed grilled cheese sandwiches during our discussion of In the Deep Midwinter, in which the characters indulge in 1950s comfort food.
Scroll down for more on books we will be reading and write-ups of discussion of books we read last year. Photos by Tom Hoyer
Books We Will Be Reading
January 10 Amor Towles. Rules of Civility. This is a smart gorgeous first novel that can teach us many things--I am intrigued by the first person account in a woman's voice( though the novel is written by a man) but what I find especially beautiful and worth learning is how Towles incorporates research into this story so seamlessly that you are almost unaware of it. Set in New York during Prohibition, this is a book that establishes a specific world and time so vividly that you really feel as if you are there. I think both fiction and memoir writers can benefit from understanding how to do this--how to create realistic by gone world as background and context for the smaller personal story. The story iswonderful too--kind of Great Gatsbyish, and I've recommended it to men and woman alike who absolutely love it. Maribeth Fischer and Ethan Joella.
February Paul Auster. Winter Journal. Interesting memoir technique, use of the second person. Recommended by Ginny Daly.
March Katherine Anne Porter. Pale Horse, Pale Rider. A seventy page novella. The protagonist is a newspaper columnist who deals with the deadly influenza of 1917-18 which sickens her as well and the influence of the war and her lover, who is about to be shipped overseas. Beautifully written descriptions, well-crafted and insightful about the meaning of life and death. Recommended by Kit Zak.
April Penelope Fitzgerald. Offshore. A short sadly comic book written in lean prose about a group of eccentric barge dwellers living along London's Battersea Reach, circa 1961. Fitzgerald quickly offers concrete detail to establish both character and scene in a 180 page novel that leaves the reader contemplating his own life decisions and security. Booker Prize nominee. Recommended by Linda Blumner.
May Flannery O'Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find. generally acknowledged as one of the greatest American short story collections. short, startling sentences; writing combines tragedy and comedy, or as one Amazon reviewer said, “Ten weird, surprising, tense, comical, and often unforgettable stories” Recommended by Joanne Sinsheimer and Sarah Barnett.
June Michael Ondaatje. The Cat's Table. A coming of age novel with a flamboyant cast of characters; interesting use of flash forward an flashback. “Some events take a lifetime to reveal their damage and influence.” Recommended by Sarah Barnett.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
...All agreed the main characters were not entirely likeable. But, while some of us found the Wheelers whiny and selfish with few redeeming qualities, others felt sympathy for their dreary childhoods and the fact that they seemed trapped in a hopeless situation. ...As writers, we admired Yates’ skill in writing long sections of believable dialogue and his evocative descriptions of characters and settings. We learn a lot about Millie Campbell, for example, from this description of her room: “It was a room that might have been dreamed by a little girl alone with her dolls and obsessed with the notion of making things nice for them…” And who could forget this take on her husband, Shep? “He was halfway across the living room before he realized that he had four sons.”
Every Last One by Anna Quindlen
Despite the slow 200-page beginning, almost everyone (even Paulie D.) gave a nod of approval to the book. Only Ceil Payne and Linda Blumner had reservations, Ceil saying that it didn’t work for her because “there was no emotion, nothing that grabbed me,” Linda observing that, for her, life depicted in the book was just “too perfect.”
Jan Peebly felt that the tone of the book was intimate, giving her the feeling of chatting woman to woman “almost like I was her friend and I was listening.” Tom Hoyer was struck by the fact that the family had problems no one was addressing. Noting that much of the book was about people staying on the surface, he said it was fascinating that “all these well meaning people were trying so hard and getting it wrong.” And Gail Comorat felt that the author did a good job of presenting the different voices of the characters. While some questioned the slow beginning, finding it too long, too much of a slog, for this author, the detail gave life to the characters and made her mourn their deaths.
Asking, “What is it that makes us get attached to fictional characters?” Maribeth Fischer said she was motivated to read the book because “the author broke all the rules. She did everything I’ve been telling my novel class not to do, yet I couldn’t stop turning the pages.”
The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx
The readers of The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx (1993) deemed many of the descriptions in the book inspired: “Everything in the house tatted and doilied . . . designs of lace waves and floe ice, whelk shells and sea wrack, the curve of lobster feelers, the round knot of cod-eye, the bristled commas of shrimp and fissured sea caves, white snow on black rock, pinwheeled gulls, the slant of silver rain. . . . On a shelf a 1961 Ontario phone book.”
Some people objected to the heavy concentration of weird names: Billy Pretty, Wavey Prowse, Nutbeem, Diddy Shovel, Adonis Collard. And a few wondered if it was really necessary to have everyone’s face described so roughly: “scowling Beethoven” or “nose wrinkled like a snarling dog.” Hair, too, comes in for rough treatment: “hair the color of sewage foam.” Proulx’s fragments struck several readers as a powerful part of her style. Sometimes, a series of fragments. One after another. Building up suspense. Calling us all to look. Wonder . . . The characters came in for less discussion than the language, although there was (sometimes) grudging admiration for them....Could Petal have been so attractive, yet so vulgar and cruel? How could Quoyle continue to love her even after she sold their daughters? The characters often vilified each other and destroyed their cars or trailers or boats, yet the vibes in the readers’ conversation suggested that at some level they must have found them endearing. A few, though, were put off by the people, insisting that there were never people like that. We did touch on the art of exaggeration in fiction but without coming to any conclusion about its use. A few things we all enjoyed: Quoyle always caring for his daughters. Wavey’s strength to fight for her son’s education and that of others with handicaps. Dennis and Beety always looking out for folks, Alvin Yark insisting on the best craftsmanship he knows. ...We ended almost abruptly, as if the bell had rung (which I think it had) calling out our favorite sentences. Obviously we had followed Maribeth’s direction to bring our favorites. The last one of the book caught our attention: “And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”
The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, by Ann Packer
Reviews were mixed for this novel about Carrie Bell, 23, torn between loyalty to her boyfriend and longing for another kind of life. Her decision is complicated by her boyfriend, Mike’s diving accident, which has left him a paraplegic. The first section of the novel is set in Madison, Wisconsin, and some of us found this section too long, perhaps reflecting the slow pace and boredom that can be part of a living in a small town. Several members praised the author’s writing style and the way she handled movement between past time and present time. Much of the discussion focused on Carrie’s final decision to return to Madison and to Mike after a time in New York, where she starts a new life and discovers a different self. This led us to the most difficult question of all: are we reviewing the book the author wrote, or are we reviewing the book we wanted her to write?
The Best Day the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon by Donald Hall
It was the best book. It was the worst book. Well, not exactly in those superlative terms. But the debate was spirited over poet Donald Hall’s book at February’s gathering. Reactions ranged from eye-rolling boredom to strong emotional connection. The memoir traces the 23-year marriage of Hall and poet Jane Kenyon, their move to Hall’s family farm in rural New Hampshire and their daily routines. It describes in unsparing terms Jane’s leukemia from diagnosis until her death 15 months later at the age of 47. Although the conversation at times strayed from the book review, Maribeth Fischer brought the group back: was the book an effective memoir and what could we learn from it as writers? she asked. Most agreed that Hall’s technique of alternating chapters (interspersing illness with health) was a plus, and diluted a too-intense focus on Kenyon’s illness and pending death. All seemed to agree that Hall wrote the book as catharsis for his debilitating grief. Whether he was able to transcend that grief and create a book of quality and readability remained debatable.
Martin Dressler by Steven Millhauser
Martin Dressler, the book, was almost as controversial as Martin Dressler, the “American dreamer,” who is the subject of Steven Millhauser’s novel. We began by noting that Martin’s process of implementing his “dream” is much the same as the writer’s process of envisioning a story and then building it word by word. But Martin is a dreamer who takes his visions beyond fantasy and into nightmare. We don’t understand what drove him, but we both admire and condemn the results. Martin’s aspiration to build a world you never have to leave is both enchanting and terrifying. Marjorie Weber compares Dressler to Rockefeller; Tom Hoyer compares his fantastic creations to Disney’s Epcot. Carl Thompson says the book is a fable. Linda Blumner finds the writing “tedious” and wonders about Martin’s dysfunctional relationships with women. We all agree that the description of Martin’s ultimate construction, “The Grand Cosmos,” seems interminable, but then Maribeth Fischer points out that Millhauser’s writing mirrors his theme. The description is deliberately overwhelming, so that the reader will feel what the hotel guests feel. And again, we are reminded that the purpose of the Writers’ Book Club is to focus more on what we can learn from the writing than on whether we like or dislike a particular book.
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
Sorry to disappoint any technical writers out there, but RBWG hasn’t decided to analyze farm equipment, not even in Ukrainian. We settled in Sharon Hoover’s cozy living room and discussed the novel, which most of us liked. ...We discussed how Lewycka weaves the family’s tragic past with the frequent humor of the present dilemma. The author is able to entertain by mixing internal and external dialogue and by developing a cast of colorful characters and voices. In contrast to her “louder” characters, Lewycka softly describes a character present in memory only by listing what she kept in her pantry and by listing the vegetables and flowers she grew in her garden. There was discussion of the father: was he sympathetic character? a hypocrite? a doddering old fool who lives in his mind? Ceil Payne found him an endearing character and liked the author’s focus on family relationships. Although his actions are often bizarre, the father does write a scholarly history of tractors in his native Ukrainian. Linda Blumner suggested that the tractor is symbolic of advances in technology. Maribeth Fischer was initially positive about the book and used examples of character, setting, and dialogue as models for her novel class. The stopping point for her was the repetition of conflict. There was agreement that the middle dragged a bit, but most kept reading on. ....”
Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin
Sonny’s Blues, a short story by James Baldwin published in the late 1950”s, was the June selection, and everyone seemed to appreciate the author’s ability to mingle the themes of the racism and the power of shared music to transform pain. The central conflict pits the narrator/older brother, who believes one can avoid suffering, against younger brother Sonny, who accepts suffering and prefers to live a life he chooses, even if it isn’t safe. We discussed how the imagery highlights various themes. We noted three particular images: the trap (of poverty and racism), the use of ice and the use of darkness. We discussed the flashback scene of childhood with the old people talking in veiled terms about how hard their lives were in the presence of the children.... Though there were long chunks of exposition, several people, especially Marjorie Weber, commented on the beauty of the exposition and Maribeth Fischer noted that she used the story’s dialogue in her classes for training writers because it is poignant and direct. Others commented on the use of repetition, cadences resembling biblical oratory, and the use of a messenger. Tom Hoyer pointed out the ending is reminiscent of Joyce’s use of epiphany as the narrator has an awakening and begins to have empathy for the pain of others. This is a long prose passage but is very evocative.
I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman
Not everyone disliked this book, just mostly everyone. What we liked: it was an interesting story that kept most of us reading until the end. What we didn’t like: the two-dimensional characters who seemed like stand-ins for real people (e.g. sulky teen-age daughter), and the fact that even though the issues (death penalty, kidnapping, rape) were real and important, it was hard to care about the characters involved. One member, who will be nameless, actually read a different Lippman book by mistake. We were halfway through the discussion before she realized the error. What does that tell you about Lippman’s writing?
Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris
We had gathered to discuss Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris, a three part story told in the voices of three generations of Native American women. The stories overlap in certain places, so we get some scenes from differing points of view. HRH (Maribeth Fischer) made us all promise to re-read these parts so we can be better little writers.
It was probably the liveliest discussion ever, with many different opinions on the storytellers. Ethan Joella, who teaches the book, had so many interesting points that I ventured from my place behind a chair until venomous looks drove me back into hiding. Many in the crowd found the main characters unlikable, but most agreed that the writing was excellent.
A fine conversation fueled by fine wine, food and fresh ocean breezes. I took my leave inspired to learn more of Native American culture. I resolved to start by adopting some native clothing, for I feel I would look rather dashing in a loincloth.
In the Deep Midwinter by Robert Clark
Book club members who lived through the 1950s found this novel an accurate recreation of the time—the before dinner cocktails, the smoking, the pressure to conform to pre-defined roles. Those too young to have lived through this era got an eye-opening view of the constricted lives led by the characters, particularly women, in the days before the birth control pill and legal abortion. Members who gathered at Sarah Barnett’s home for the November meeting found various problems with Clark’s writing. Marjorie Weber didn’t believe in the characters. Carl Thompson found the writing “overblown,” noting awkward similes and overuse of metaphor. Still, Linda Blumner thought the issues raised in the book, particularly the illegal abortion a main character undergoes, should resonate with readers today. Maribeth Fischer summed it up by saying that the book made for a better discussion than a read.