RETURN TO WORLD WAR II IN FRANCE: THE NIGHTINGALE, THE FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP’S NEXT SELECTION

After a scintillating discussion of The Feather Thief this past Saturday, raising questions about privilege and justice and obsessions, both those of the characters and the obsession of the book’s author, the Field Notes Book Group chose the book for October, 2018: The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah.

This long term bestselling book, a big favorite of book groups throughout the library system, follows the lives of two sisters, Viann and Isabelle, during World War II era France.  Viann, who had been living in Paris before the war, is sent to live with her sister and her sister’s daughter in the quiet French countryside when Isabelle’s husband is called up to fight at the front.  While the two sisters are very different in personality, they pull together in the crisis, only to discover that their new life during the occupation will test both of them, their sense of right and wrong, and their relationship with each other, in ways neither one of them could have dreamed of beforehand. A vivid portrait of the other side of World War II, with the kind of fully realized characters Kristin Hannah is known for.

Copies of the book will be available at the Circulation Desk this week.  Our next meeting will be on Saturday, October 20, from 11:00 to 12:30 in The Field Library Gallery, and, as usual, we can promise snacks and coffee and lively discussion, so come in and join us.  

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THE FEATHER THIEF: SEPTEMBER FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP SELECTION

After our stimulating discussion of the issues raised by August’s book, My Brilliant Friend, some members of the Field Notes Book Group actually wanted us to read the next three books in the series (something we’ve never done before), but instead we decided to go the nonfiction route this month and read The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, by Kirk Wallace Johnson.  Copies will be available at The Field Library circulation desk within the week.

The Feather Thief is the kind of true crime story* you would hardly believe if it were presented as fiction.  Edwin Rist, a 20 year old American flute player, sneaked into the British Natural History Museum in the dead of night and stole a number of priceless specimens of rare birds, including birds of paradise, some of which were irreplaceable.  That would be odd enough by itself (how often have you read about someone stealing natural history specimens, which are usually stuffed?), but then we discover he wanted the birds’ feathers to use to make flies for fly fishing. There are, apparently, people who collect flies made from rare and exotic feathers, not necessarily to fish with them, but just to collect, and those people are willing to pay serious money for those flies.  And why did Rist want that money? It turns out that a high quality flute, the kind he would need as a concert flautist, is extremely expensive, and he figured this was the best way for him to acquire such a thing.

The book is nonfiction, but reads like an exciting novel.  Come and pick up a copy at the circulation desk, and then join us on September 15, in the Field Library Gallery, from 11:00 to 12:30, for invigorating discussion and coffee and snacks.

*Yes, the book counts as a true crime book for the purposes of our Reading Challenge, for those of us who are participating in the challenge (and if you’re not, you should be!).

FAVORITE BOOKS FROM THE FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP

I’ve already written about the general rules I’ve used in choosing which books are good for a book group, based on my years of leading the Field Notes group here at the library.  Now I have the fun of sharing some of what I consider to be the best books we’ve read in the group. I am NOT saying that everybody in the group loved all these books; as I mentioned in the last book group post, you are never going to find a book that everybody loves, or even that everybody likes (by the same token, you’re unlikely to find one that everybody dislikes).  These are the ones I personally enjoyed most, which provoked some of the most interesting discussions among our people, and I hope they’ll give ideas to other book groups looking for good reads.

The first book I chose for the group is still one of my favorites, Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann.  This book won the National Book Award in 2009, and this is one instance where I feel the award was absolutely earned. The thread around which all the different stories in the book spin is the 1974 walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center by Philip Petit (though he’s not named here), but don’t for a minute think it’s all about his daring acrobatics.  No, this is a book about people, and it’s a book about New York City at a particular time, and McCann brilliantly brings both his characters and his setting to life, as the stories interweave and connect in unexpected ways. What could an Irish monk living among prostitutes have in common with an upper class woman who lost her son in Vietnam? What could both those characters have in common with a Bohemian young woman who’s involved in a hit and run accident that results in death?  Not all the storylines tear at your heart, but several of them do, and the deep sympathy McCann shows for all his characters, the skill with which he brings them together and then separates them, the clear love he has for New York City in all its flaws and dangers, makes this a magical book and a great spark for discussion.

Not all the books we’ve read are novels, and one of my favorites is a nonfiction book, H Is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald.  I’m not a fan of memoirs in general, and I think a memoir is a particularly difficult kind of book to pull off well, but MacDonald seemingly effortlessly combines a memoir of her grief over her father’s sudden death, her efforts to train a goshawk, Mabel (it’s a quirk that the most dangerous and fearsome raptors are often given the most non-threatening names — really, can you imagine being scared by someone named Mabel?), and a reflection on the life and work of T. H. White (author of one of my favorite childhood books, The Once and Future King, but also the author of The Goshawk, which is MacDonald’s focus here) into a seamless, beautifully written reflection on nature and grief and our role in the natural world.  There’s a lot about falconry, and a lot about her father’s life and death, but none of it seems excessive or unnecessary, and one of the things a good book group book can do is illuminate subjects you might not have paid attention to otherwise.

One of the books that surprised me was The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce. On the surface, it looked like the kind of feel-good book that would become a best-seller just because it’s about personal growth, a man discovering how to feel again, etc. And if you just read the description of the plot, that’s what it sounds like: Harold Fry is a middle-aged man stuck in a job that’s meaningless to him, in a marriage that has turned dull and possibly dead, when he finds out that Queenie Hennessey, a woman who once meant a great deal to him, is dying in a hospice hundreds of miles away.  Instead of mailing the note he wrote to her, he finds himself walking from his home to her hospice, calling the hospice along the way to tell her not to die until he gets there. It is a tale of transformation, but not at all the way you expect it to be, and Harold is not the only one transformed.  His road trip is really a pilgrimage, and he suffers not only the obvious strains of someone who hasn’t done any real exercise for years suddenly trying to walk the spine of England but the spiritual pains of facing his life and all the things he didn’t do that he should have done, for Queenie, but also for other people.  The ending is earned and unexpected at the same time, and it’s the characters who make the book wonderful. One thing I applaud the author for is the map she helpfully provided at the beginning of the book, for those of us who are not English and/or only have the vaguest idea of English geography, so we can keep track of where Harold is and where he’s going.  This was a poignant read, full of heart and soul.

And, speaking of soul, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal is an incredible read, its subtitle, Medicine and What Matters in the End a very accurate description of what the book is about.  Gawande is a surgeon, but also a terrific writer, vivid and clear, expert at choosing just the right anecdote to illustrate the points he’s making, and what points they are!  Basically he talks about aging and death, how we deal with them in our culture (spoiler: not well at all), how they are treated in other cultures, and how we might be able to do better, how some people and institutions are already doing better and what we could learn from them. He talks about his patients and his family (most poignantly about his father’s decline and death), and about his own experiences as a young doctor and a more experienced doctor who’s learned from his past mistakes.  It’s a short book, but there’s so much in it, not just information (though there’s plenty of that, and eye-opening information for the most part) but insights and ideas and questions.

One of the pleasures I’ve had as leader of the book group is the opportunity to push books that I love, and sometimes I’ve been able to persuade the group to read one of my personal favorites (which has its potential downsides; when I love a book, it’s hard for me to hear other people disparaging it, but that’s part of the job).  A book I have been recommending to people for years, which our group read just last year, is The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  What a fun book that is! Set in Barcelona in 1945, when the scars of the Spanish Civil War are still fresh and people are just beginning to recover from the war, the story centers around a book, or rather a series of books, and their mysterious author, and someone who is apparently trying to destroy all the copies of all the books this author ever wrote.  Our protagonist, Daniel, is a young man, the son of a bookseller, who has fallen in love with this particular author’s book and determines to find out who’s trying to eliminate the author’s work so completely. He is surrounded by a cast of amazing, vivid characters, villains and heroes and heroines, and his quest takes him through all levels of Barcelona’s society, through some wonderfully described settings, and through murder, madness and doomed love.  It is everything you could want from an adventure novel, and while I try not to be judgmental in general, I have to say that I would wonder about someone who could read this book and not enjoy it. Just getting the group to discuss the various characters will lead to a fun and scintillating discussion, before you even get into the plot and the history and the rest of the wonders of this book.

Obviously these aren’t all the good books we’ve read over the years, just the ones that stand out in my memory as having been great reads and having produced great discussions. Here’s to the years we’ve already spent reading and discussing (and sometimes arguing) about books, and the years and books ahead of us!

 

AUGUST 2018 FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP: MY BRILLIANT FRIEND

Having discovered this month that the group is not fond of Annie Dillard’s essays, at least not in the collected form (sort of a Greatest Hits version) found in The Abundance, the Field Notes Book Group has chosen a novel for our August selection, the international bestseller, My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante, which should inspire lots of interesting discussion when we meet again on August 18, at The Field Library Gallery from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

My Brilliant Friend, the first book in a four book series (and yes, the series is complete, an important factor as far as I’m concerned) that follows two girls, quiet and bookish Elena and fiery wild Lila, in their friendship starting in the 1950’s in a tough, poor neighborhood near Naples, Italy.  The first book, the one we’re reading, starts with the two girls as 10 year olds beginning their real friendship, but also developing the strains in the friendship, as Lila comes across to Elena as in every way smarter, more beautiful and more ambitious than Elena, but at the same time more limited by her family circumstances.  A very intimate, detailed portrait of two particular people and one particular time and place, My Brilliant Friend is a book people have raved about since it first appeared.

So come in to The Field Library and pick up a copy at the Circulation desk, and then join us on August 18 for lively discussion, coffee and donuts.

JULY FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP SELECTION: THE ABUNDANCE

After an involved and entertaining discussion of Jane Austen’s Persuasion this past Saturday, the Field Notes Book Group has selected its book for our meeting on July 21, 2018: The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New, by Annie Dillard.

This is a bit of a departure for the group.  We’ve read collections of short stories before, but never essays.  However, if you’re going to read essays, it’s a good idea to read essays written by a master of the form, and that’s definitely Annie Dillard.  These essays, as the subtitle indicates, are a mix of her older work and newer pieces, and serve as an excellent introduction to her work. A writer who can be fascinating about grains of sand, as well as more obvious subjects like polar exploration and religion and eclipses, is a writer well worth exploring.

Copies of the book will be available at The Field Library Circulation Desk this week.  Come in and pick one up, and then join us for coffee, snacks and scintillating discussion in The Field Library Gallery on July 21 from 11:00 to 12:30 p.m.

 

NEXT FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP SELECTION: JANE AUSTEN’S PERSUASION

Considering that the majority of the attendees at this month’s book group meeting did not like/enjoy the book of the month, My Absolute Darling (and that is a polite understatement), we nonetheless had a rousing discussion about what constitutes good writing, is it enough to be dealing with an important issue if the treatment is sensational, how much can an author manipulate his or her readers, what makes us think an author is male or female, and so forth.

However, wanting a break from the excitement (and annoyance) of our last book, we’ve chosen a tried and true classic for the next meeting, which will be from 11:00 to 12:30 on Saturday, June 16, in the Field Library Gallery: Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Copies will be available at the Circulation desk this week.

It’s long been my contention that two of the major romance novel plots originated with Jane Austen: the one where people meet and initially want nothing to do with each other but then gradually come to fall in love with each other, which is, of course, Pride and Prejudice, and also the one where two people were together once, broke up for some reason, and now get another chance to see if they can end up together, and that is the plot of Persuasion.

All of Jane Austen’s trademark sly wit is on display here, in her last finished book, and the classic humor of characters revealing more about themselves than they believe they’re doing, but Anne Elliott, the protagonist of Persuasion, is a different kind of heroine than Jane Austen fans might be expecting.  Neither as snarky and vivacious as Elizabeth Bennett nor as lively and overbearing as Emma Woodhouse, Anne is quiet, gentle, a keen observer and a passionate person. Unlike some of Austen’s other heroines, Anne doesn’t put her foot in her mouth or make rash decisions that cause her trouble later; her biggest mistake was turning down the proposal of naval captain Frederick Wentworth some years before, on the advice of her mother’s closest friend.  Now Captain Wentworth is back in the picture, seemingly determined to marry anyone but Anne, and Anne is forced to watch his flirtation with the younger women who live nearby, and keep her mouth shut about her own emotions.

This is one of my all-time favorite Jane Austen books, and one of my favorite books, period.  Enjoy the excellent writing, the delightful characters (in addition to Anne, there’s Mrs. Croft, the admiral’s wife, who is one of the most sensible people in the book, after Anne herself, and great fun to spend time with), and of course the happy ending (this is not a spoiler, trust me).  Join us for what promises to be a fun discussion, with our usual coffee and donuts as snacks.

SURVIVALISM FOR MAY, 2018: MY ABSOLUTE DARLING

After a vigorous and wide-ranging discussion of Lab Girl, our most recent book, the Field Notes Book Group has chosen the book we’re going to read and discuss for May: My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent.  Our next meeting will be on Saturday, May 19, in The Field Library Gallery, from 11:00 to 12:30, and as usual, there will be snacks (including but not limited to Dunkin Donuts Munchkins) and coffee available for our reading enthusiasts.

My Absolute Darling is a change of pace, a novel after the last three months of nonfiction. A book that placed on numerous best book of the year lists for last year (when it came out), My Absolute Darling is about Turtle, a 14 year old girl growing up in the woods of Northern California. Her mother is dead, and she’s being raised by her father, a man who’s both deeply disturbed and wildly charismatic.  He’s a survivalist, training her to keep away from other human beings and to survive in the event of a catastrophe which he expects to come at any moment. She’s living an expansive life in the wilderness, wandering for miles, familiar with every rock and tree and pond. But in middle school, she has as little contact with other people as she can manage, careful to keep anyone from getting close enough to penetrate her emotional shell. All that changes when she meets Jacob, a high school boy who’s everything she’s not, who tells jokes, lives in a house like a normal person, and looks at her as if she hung the moon.  Gradually Turtle begins to open up, to feel friendship and even a crush, and she looks at the world she’s been living in with new eyes, seeing its limitations, its unsustainable quality, and its dangers. Now she’s going to use the skills her father taught her for new purposes: to escape from him and the life he has in mind for her.

Come to the library and pick up a copy of My Absolute Darling, and then join us on May 19 (when, hopefully, spring will be in the air) from 11:00 to 12:30 in The Field Library Gallery for invigorating discussion and refreshments.

 

LAB GIRL: NEXT FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP SELECTION

After a fun, party atmosphere-d discussion of our March book, Furiously Happy, the Field Notes Book Group has chosen our book for April 21, our next meeting, and it’s Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren.  Copies of the book will be available starting this week (March 19 on) at The Field Library Circulation Desk, so come on in and pick up your copy, and then get ready to join us on April 21, from 11:00 to 12:30, at The Field Library Gallery.

Lab Girl is Jahren’s memoir of her life as a scientist, and it’s been given all kinds of recognitions: the National Book Critics Award for Autobiography, a New York Times Notable book, inclusion on the Best of the Year lists for the Washington Post, Time, NPR and others, as well as a finalist for the PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award.  

Hope is an excellent narrator, describing her development as a budding scientist from her earliest days helping her father in his college laboratory in a small town in Minnesota through her high powered career in various universities.  All along, she shares not only her stories of her own education, but of the people she works with, including Bill, her lab manager who’s both brilliant and (like so many scientists) a bit eccentric, and shares her enthusiasm and love for the world of plants, which surrounds us but which most of us don’t even really see at all, let alone understand.

It’s a fun read and a fascinating one, so come and join us in what will undoubtedly be another great discussion (with snacks!).

 

FEBRUARY BOOK GROUP BOOK: NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE

After a lively and interesting discussion about My Name is Lucy Barton this past Saturday, the Field Notes Book Group chose its next book for February 17, and it’s an excellent, heartbreaking and insightful nonfiction book, part memoir, part history: No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America by Ron Powers.

I’ve already written about this book (here), and I will warn you that it’s a sad and in some ways an infuriating book, sad in the true story of the author’s two schizophrenic sons and the effects of their mental illnesses (and the treatment of their illnesses) on their (and their parents’) lives, and infuriating in the depiction of how damaged our mental health system is and how it got to be that way. It’s a terrific read and will, I’m sure, lead to deep and fascinating discussions at our next meeting.

The books will be available at the Circulation Desk of the Field Library starting this week. Come in and get your copy, and then join us on Saturday, February 17, from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Field Library Gallery for coffee, goodies and rousing conversations about this enthralling book.

 

COMING TO THE FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP IN JANUARY, 2018: MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON

After a stimulating discussion about The Wicked Boy and Victorian crime, questions of sanity and morality (we really do have great discussions in this group!), the Field Notes Book Group chose the book for our January meeting: My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout.

A short and deceptively simple book by a Pulitzer Prize winning author, My Name Is Lucy Barton is narrated by Lucy, looking back on her experience when she was hospitalized for a long period and her estranged mother came to visit her for a period of days.  Neither Lucy nor her mother finds it easy to talk about the things that really matter, Lucy’s childhood and her mother’s life when Lucy and her siblings were growing up, so instead they circle around their truths, talking about other people Lucy knew in her childhood in a small rural community in Amgash, Illinois, and all the while other truths, about Lucy’s childhood, her marriage, her ambitions, and what estranged her from her family, lurk under the surface.  This well-written book is a fast read and yet the characters haunt you for some time after you finish reading it.

Come to the Field Library and pick up your copy of My Name is Lucy Barton, and then join us on January 20, 2018, at the Field Library Gallery from 11:00 to 12:30 for lively discussion and tasty refreshments.