Book Club

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon, Lakeview Book Club Notes

          

Hello Everyone,

 What a great meeting about Telegraph Hill by Michael Chabon!

 There were 10 of us and our leader did a great job! She had done research on Michael Chabon and told us about his early life in Columbia, Maryland in an almost utopian middle class Black and White community. This background gave credence to his depicting a multiracial/multicultural world on Telegraph Avenue. One member told us that she knows Michael Chabon, because their children attended the same school. She said he is a really nice person. Other members have heard him speak at other venues and thought he seemed shy, almost childlike, but seemed really nice.

 Our discussion leader set the stage for us by finding a play list of 126 of the 128 musical mentions in the book. We sat down to the background music of sweet/funky jazz played on an Ipad. We were provided with a long list of Chabon’s awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. Our leader’s assessment of reviews was that Telegraph Avenue was critically acclaimed, but regular readers either loved it or hated it.

 Her first question of our members, who have lived in Oakland for a long time, was whether the depiction of Telegraph Avenue in the past actually was correct for the time. The group discussed how the Bay Area has changed demographically over the last 30ish years. One member pointed out that Oakland used to have a 50% Black population and now Oakland is 25% Black, 25% White, 25% Asian and 25% Hispanic/Other. In other words the Black population has gone down in the recent years. There was "Black Flight" to Atlanta and Antioch due to the difficult conditions here. Overall the members of the group, who were in Oakland in the past, thought Chabon's depiction was accurate.

 Discussions next were of the structure of the book, the character development and themes. We figured the themes were Shared Community, Fatherhood and Racism.

 People liked the relationship between Gwen and Aviva. Gwen and Aviva had the most stable relationship of the characters in the novel. The character Gwen questioned her relationship to the community she lived in. She wondered if she should be with her own community. She did, however, feel she was not supported by members of her own community. The book club members disagreed as to whether the two women were the main characters of the novel. One member pointed out that women are the foundation of every society. This might mean that if they were not the main characters of the book, they were the foundation, the stability, of the book.

 Members thought the description of childbirth was really accurate. As various times during the discussion a member mentioned a page number and read a passage she thought to be outstanding. The childbirth passage was one of these. One member said that WAS her childbirth experience. Members thought that the character, Gwen, was justified in telling off the racist doctor.

 Another passage that members liked was where Gwen talked about enduring life's difficulties, and there is no way that you can prevent those negative perceptions from being passed on to the next generations. We thought her comment on marriage being based on deception and lies to be profound. People are all flawed, but look for a unit to belong to.

 One member commented that it was passages like these that kept her reading, although she found it difficult to stay engaged throughout the novel. This member liked the second half the book best. Another liked the beginning better.

 The character, Luther, is a tragic person in the novel. He never reached his dreams, yet never gave up on those dreams, unlike most people who become disillusioned and, therefore, adjust their life views to be resigned to what life has given them.

 Regarding the style, the group discussed chapter 58, which has no period. Most people didn't care. One compared it to James Joyce. That person said that Oakland was to Michael Chabon as Dublin was to James Joyce (or vice versa). Another member strongly disagreed to a comparison of Chabon to James Joyce. That member said that Chabon was no James Joyce. She could read James Joyce all day and love it and she could not make it through Telegraph Avenue. She thought the endless "guy" details about records and comics and other such minutia was an insurmountable barrier to continuing with the book. Others agreed. Several couldn't finish the book. They thought that Chabon was "full of himself" and his choice of words. They thought he was intellectual, i.e. left brained, and unable to catch the reader emotionally the way that James Baldwin did for us in Another Country.

 One member didn't like the characters, couldn't keep them straight and generally got bogged down in the details. Other comments on style had to do with stream of consciousness passages and another chapter of 30-40 pages without a period in it. A comment was made about there being a "little pomposity," and another member immediately said, "A LOT." Members of the group who had trouble staying engaged, who are in their 50's, 60's and 70's, felt life was too short to push through this book. One mentioned that she might have liked it better if she read it in her 30's.

 Several mentioned that the reader couldn't tell what race the characters were. Some thought that was a good thing and others thought it was a problem. We all wondered what Black people would think of this book, in fact, would Black people even read this book?

 One comment was that Chabon was trying to write the Great American Novel. Many thought he did not succeed. One thought that maybe with the passage of time, this book would be considered as the Great American Novel. Someone asked what is considered The Great American Novel. Two suggestions came out, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick.

 Several comments on the use of jargon which they thought very accurate, such as the use of the words Shameless and Scand'lous. One comment was the beauty of the dedication of the book to Chabon's wife, referring to phonograph records, "from the drop of the needle to the innermost groove."

 Regarding the symbolism and plot devices one member pointed out the clever choices of Chabon such as the owner of the Blimp, who was as big as a blimp, that the book begins with a death and a birth and ends that way...that the theme is about the cycle of life which is set is a record store...where records are round.

 We discussed the locations cited in the book and commented that there really is a record store on one of the locations.

 So the consensus seemed to be just as predicted, Michael Chabon is a brilliant writer, who uses words and plot and style in ways others have not quite done. His insights are true and places in this novel shine beautifully, yet around half of the group, though understanding why people really like Chabon, or even this novel, could not expend the energy to stick with it. The clever writing wasn't enough. Those people wanted to connect with the characters emotionally and just were never able to do so.

 So often we agree overall as to the merits and general enjoyment of a book we have chosen, yet for this title we were almost equally divided, but loved to hear what our friends thought. This is a wonderful group!

 Thank you all for sharing.

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 (Any misinterpretation of anything found in my notes or memory is all mine. Please accept my apology if I misheard, misunderstood and/or misquoted any of you.)

 Happy Reading,

 Mary Farrell, Branch Manager, Lakeview Branch

 

 

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford is considered one of the best 100 best novels of all time. One reviewer called it the "finest French novel in the English language." This alludes to the complex plot, fascinating involvements and constant surprises. It recreates the difficult relations between two "perfect" Victorian couples who leisurely travel and stay at the finest European luxury gathering places.
 
While "weeding" our collection, I came across this title. I was unfamiliar with it, but the preface sounded fascinating. I thought I'd give it a try that weekend while I went up the coast to bask in the beauty of the ocean crashing on the cliffs. My weekend went totally differently than I had planned. I holed up in a bed and breakfast and read nonstop. I could not put this book down. Sometimes a classic is a classic for a reason! The story is timeless in many ways, but definitely of-and-in the Victorian upper class world.
 
Don't be misled by the title. It is not about war. This book was to be published right at the end of WWI and the publisher didn't want Ford's title, The Saddest Story Ever Told, because everyone was dealing with sadness of The Great War To End All Wars. The main character had been soldier, liked and respected by all, hence a "Good Soldier." The publisher thought the public would be more willing to pick up a book featuring such an attractive person. This was a wildly popular book when it first came out and is considered Ford's best work.
 
Ford was a fascinating character and friend of many major writers of the era, including Joseph Conrad. After you read this title you'll want more from Ford and his friends.
 
I recommended this as a title for our book club at Lakeview. Below is the update to our group after the meeting:
 
The seven of us who were there really liked the book. A couple mentioned that at times it was confusing, because the narrator would jump forward and back in time. This was something the author did intentionally and we agreed that it helped build the suspense and sense of danger around this gathering of mostly unlikable people with mostly useless lives, deceiving and mistreating and emotionally torturing each other. There was something for everyone :>
 
We briefly wondered at the hormone level of the husband who never consummated his marriage. We agreed we actually knew people like this and didn't really understand it. We could see why this book has stayed popular.
 
One member mentioned that Ford's other most popular novel, Parade's End, is now in serial form on HBO.  BBC did a mini-series of the Good Soldier, (I believe only two episodes) and it is available at Main. I watched it eagerly and found it very good, but by no means as stunning as the novel.
Oakland Public Library currently has three copies of this novel. If those copies are checked out, be sure to reserve a copy from our Link+ system. Link+ allows us to borrow books that Oakland Public Library may not have available. You just need your card number and pin number to place a hold. There are many, many copies available through Link+. Call Main or any Branch if you need help placing a Link+ hold. ,,,or call me. 510-238-7344 at Lakeview :>
 
Mary Farrell, Branch Manager, Lakeview
 

The Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love by David Talbot

Hello Everyone,

Ten of us were at Lakeview to discuss The Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love by David Talbot and all liked it!
 
We started out discussing the writing style of David Talbot. Three of us mentioned it was difficult to track at times and maybe more editing could have helped that. One pointed out that most of it was based on interviews Talbot had done with participants and observers of these events. The rest thought there was no problem with the writing at all and that the book was gripping and the details based on the extensive research filled gaps we didn't know we had in our own knowledge, which was based on news or books written right at the time. We all felt we understood San Francisco better and many shared their own experiences and knowledge which expanded on the book's information. Our personal stories included antiwar events, taking a coyote to schools to talk about protecting the wilderness and experimenting with new life styles. We thought the author cared about his topics. One noted a review which mentioned frustration that Talbot did not include women's history and its forward movement at the time. Another mentioned that the 60s were a sexist time and we all agreed. I thought he did focus on a few major female leaders who arose at that time and loved the details about those lives such as Dianne Feinstein.
Topics we discussed, from the many covered by Talbot, were the loss of the Fillmore District and the reduction of the Black population in San Francisco from around 30% to 17% (partially remembered numbers on my part). Others were the saving of neighborhoods with the rise of power of the people, with a special note of the quiet and strong uprising Asian communities. Other topics were free clinics, Zodiac and Zebra murders, the charisma and corrupt power of Jim Jones...how if he were stopped when people in charge began to understand his power, that a mayoral election might be overturned, the clash of conservative blue collar Irish and Italian Catholic with the new hippie movement, the magic of the early love and Flower Power times and their disintegration into crime and repression by the city, the Patty Hearst kidnapping and the power of the press, the stories of lawyer Hallinan and his activist wife, the rise of the gay population and the start of the aides epidemic, the Harvey Milk assassination and the candlelight march of hundreds of thousands of mourning citizens and the legacy of all these events.

We wondered, "Why San Francisco?" for all these major events? We kicked around some ideas and came up with that it started with the Gold Rush in 1849 when San Francisco created itself as a wild, free place where anything goes. We mentioned the feeling people get when leaving a conservative world elsewhere and arriving in San Francisco to the freedom to be different. We discussed the many gay people who were severed from the military during World War II and the Viet Nam war and stayed, creating new lives and a new culture.

We talked of the influence of Herb Caen and The 49ers Superbowl victory on the city. Out of the upheaval of that era has come gay marriage, medical marijuana, immigration sanctuary, universal health care, recycling and renewable energy.

If you haven't read it yet, I would say that this is one you might want to put on your list. Both people who lived in San Francisco or the Bay Area at that time and people who were in other parts of the country felt they understand San Francisco better and are glad they read this modern history.

 

Happy Reading!
 
Mary
 
Mary Farrell, Lakeview Branch Manager