Archive for May, 2007

The Known World by Edward Jones

Monday, May 21st, 2007

In April 2007 a group in Edgewood discussed The Known World by Edward Jones. This book has won multiple prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The ideas in it are complex, of moral weight and intellectual and emotional power, yet subtly expressed through a story that draws you in and then unfolds in a book that is difficult to put down; though sometimes you just have to take a breather!

The book begins with a crisis which precipitates many changes in the “known world,” the circumscribed world of an antebellum slave plantation. The crisis is the death of the plantation owner and the upheaval that this creates for his “property” – including his slaves – and his family. The interesting thing is that Henry Townsend, the property owner, was once a slave himself.

This is a book that takes a commitment of time, as it is so dense and complex. There is a large cast of characters, and the minutiae of the life they lead is woven in fascinating detail into the story. The characters, their relationships and motivations, are so convincing and compelling that the reader becomes emotionally involved in their fates.

The time-line of the plot is not straightforward but moves from the present and Henry’s death, to the past, and then back to the future. The past reveals how a former slave became a slave-owner. The future is revealed rather like a prophecy. It is this prefiguring, together with the simple, measured, factual narrative, that at times gives the book an almost Biblical character.

The book delivers without ever being heavy-handed a decided indictment of a society that depended on slavery. Subtly revealing the motives of the characters through their actions, the author inexorably builds up a picture of how slavery really ruined every part of society.

It is difficult to make suggestions for book discussion points without giving away the pleasures of the book to people who have not read it. I believe this book will appeal to readers who enjoy complex characterization and like to see characters develop. Edward Jones’ characters are complicated: the good ones do bad things and the bad ones do good things. Enjoy coming to understand what drives them. See if you agree with me that Edward Jones’ depiction of people and society in the era of slavery is remarkably free of stereotypes.
This book will certainly appeal to lovers of historical fiction, especially historical fiction that shows a depth of research into the period. For me, the book helped me understand more how such an inhumane institution as slavery could persist, especially after it ceased to benefit anybody. Look for occasions where Jones shows how slavery affected both white and black in the most insidious ways.

The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch

Tuesday, May 15th, 2007

Valerie Ryan at wrote this about The Highest Tide: “This absolutely luminous first novel has all the earmarks of a classic. The Highest Tide is destined to be read, re-read, and to remain on bookshelves for the enjoyment of generations to come.”

Find this book in our catalog.

The Darlington book group chose this for their discussion title in January 2007. I’m hoping that one of the group will comment on how the discussion went, as I can imagine that it sparked all sorts of side discussions on humankind’s relationship with the natural world.

13-year-old Miles O’Malley is a naturalist and worshipper of Rachel Carson. One summer he obtains a licence to collect marine specimens for money from the mud flats of Skookumchuck Bay, at the South end of Puget Sound where he lives. One night he goes out in his kayak, coming eye to eye with, instead of his usual collectibles, a giant squid! In the book initially no one can credit Miles’ discovery because no giant squids live in the Puget Sound and when humans have seen them elsewhere they have always been dead.

I wonder if the Darlington book group thrilled when they were reading this in January 2007, with the knowledge that in the real world only the previous December a giant squid had indeed been seen alive and had been captured on film? On December 22 this news article appeared on National Geographic News:

“December 22, 2006—Like pulling a shadow from the darkness, researchers in Japan have captured and filmed a live giant squid—likely for the first time—shedding new light on the famously elusive creatures. Tsunemi Kubodera, a scientist with Japan’s National Science Museum, caught the 24-foot (7-meter) animal earlier this month near the island of Chichijima, some 600 miles (960 kilometers) southeast of Tokyo.”

For pictures of the squid, see

In The Highest Tide the discovery of the live giant squid is confirmed by Professor Kramer, a biologist and Miles’ friend, and then the unwelcome attention from scientists, camera crews and a local cult begins.

For Miles this was a bewildering summer. As the narrator he says, “People usually take decades to sort out their view of the universe, if they bother to sort at all. I did my sorting during one freakish summer in which I was ambushed by science, fame and suggestions of the divine.”

Miles has a lot to cope with as he sorts his place out in the adult world. His parents are considering divorce, his elderly best friend, Florence is dying of a degenerative disease, his sex-obsessed buddy makes fun of his science knowledge, and he himself has a desperate crush on the 18-year-old girl next door, which humiliates him further. Tension builds as the date approaches of a predicted record high tide.

Here are some things you might consider when reading this book:

The coming of the high tide is obviously very important in the book. Do you think there is any symbolic significance to it, and if so, what is it?

The beauty and the complexity of nature informs the whole book. A reviewer at PW wrote, “The fertile strangeness of marine tidal life becomes a subtly executed metaphor for the bewilderments of adolescence .” Would you agree? Why else is nature important?

Author Jim Lynch’s deep knowledge of and sense of wonder at the natural world gives him an ability to tell a story “that glows on every page”(Valerie Ryan). Would you agree? for instance, one early morning Miles says, “…the water was so clear I could see coon-stripe shrimp … and the bottomless bed of white clam shells … Those shells, as unique and timeless as bones, helped me realize that we all die young, that in the life of the earth, we are houseflies, here for one flash of light.”

As Miles says when a reporter asks him why he thinks that the giant squid has turned up in Puget Sound, “Maybe the earth is trying to tell us something.” Do you think the earth is meant to be telling us something in this book? Some reviewers have written that Jim Lynch was maybe trying to cram too much into a small book. What do you think?

The Art of Mending by Elizabeth Berg

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

In October 2006 the Jarrettsville book group, Novel Ideas read and discussed The Art of Mending by Elizabeth Berg.

This is what Publishers Weekly said about the plot:

“Bestselling novelist Berg (Talk Before Sleep; Open House ) explores memory, love and forgiveness in her flawed but moving 12th novel. At her annual family reunion, Laura Bartone, a 50-something “quilt artist,” is forced to confront the secrets that have long haunted her family. Her emotionally unstable sister, Caroline, tells Laura and their brother, Steve, that their mother abused her as a child. As Laura and Steve-whose own childhoods were reasonably happy-struggle to make sense of Caroline’s accusations and wonder how they could’ve been oblivious to or complicit in what happened, their father dies.”

Families and the complicated dynamics between their different members make wonderful subjects for literary fiction. In a novel some sort of conflict or crisis is necessary to drive the plot and to illustrate the universal dilemmas of life. Most families have conflict big or small built right into them! Though the fictional family conflicts in novels may be more extreme than we experience ourselves, many readers empathise with the characters and enjoy finding out how they resolve their dilemmas and crises. These kinds of books have lots of food for thought and make ideal book group titles. As the reviewer says, “Berg has written a nuanced account of a family’s implosion, with enough ambiguity and drama to give book clubs-the book’s likely audience-”plenty to discuss and to keep any reader intrigued, right up to the fittingly redemptive ending.”

I would be very interested to know what participants in the discussion last October thought about the siblings’ differing remembrances of their childhood. What could have caused that disconnect, and have you ever in your own life experienced a similar difference of perception? Is this difference of perception believable in the book?

Did book group members agree that the ending was “fittingly redemptive?” Please add your comments: they might help someone else decide to read the book.

For people who haven’t read the book yet, here are some things you might consider when you do:

Do you think the piecing of the dark and light parts of the quilt works as a metaphor for the building of a shared family memory?

Do you agree with reviewers that Berg’s insights are “penetrating” and that her characters are “carefully made real?”

If you would like to share insights and ideas on books with a group in real time, why not attend a meeting of the Novel Ideas Group?

The Group meets the fourth Monday of each month at the Jarrettsville Library from
10:30 am to Noon. For more information please contact the Jarrettsville Library at
(410) 692-7887. The moderator is Douglas Hess.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield – a book you can’t put down!

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.

One of our book group moderators sent in this review by e-mail. This is what he said:

“This engrossing tale is a paean to the classic Gothic novel in the mold of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Woman in White. It is an atmospheric tale of reclusive geniuses with riveting stories to tell, eccentric families with secrets to hide, haunted houses, and murder. Ms. Satterfield manages to pull us in bit by bit, until we realize we can’t put the book down. Her descriptions are lush, her characters fascinating and unique, and her mastery of a presumed-dead genre dead-on.

Alan Z.”

I couln’t agree with Alan more: I couldn’t put the book down either! For my own review of this book, and a couple of other comments, see this Blog and the posting for February 1, 2007.

Thinking about The Thirteenth Tale and how much I enjoyed it, I realised that I am repeatedly drawn to Gothic tales of eccentric characters with mysteries to solve or secrets to hide. I have just finished The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard, in which a retired New York City detective is hired by the Commandant of West Point in 1830 to solve the particularly gruesome murder of a cadet in the grounds of the academy. Gus Landor, the detective seeks the help of an eccentric cadet, none other than Edgar Allan Poe. Nothing in this book is without significance, including the reference to the Pale Blue Eye in the title. The book will appeal to readers who enjoy codes and puzzles and to readers of mysteries with literary allusions. People who liked the multiple layers of secrets in The Thirteenth Tale will enjoy The Pale Blue Eye. In both books the story is told by a narrator, and both involve family secrets, hauntings, grisly murder and a unique and somewhat bizarre setting.

If you can think of another similar title that you could recommend, please leave a comment!