— THURSDAY BOOK GROUP —
We meet the fourth Thursday of the month from 1:00-3:00 p.m. • Group Leader: Norma Blazer
This Boy’s Life: A Memoir
BY TOBIAS WOLFF
Review by Norma Blazer
The UMASC Thursday Book Group will meet at 1 PM on Zoom, Thursday, January 27, to discuss This Boy’s Life: A Memoir by Tobias Wolff. We first encounter Toby and his beautiful, but flakey, mother shortly after the boy’s 10th birthday and follow him through escapades that include theft, vandalism, fistfights, drinking, and poor grades to his expulsion from an elite boys’ school ten years later. This coming-of-age story, told with remarkable candor, is non-fiction that reads like a novel. In fact, critics have compared Wolff’s memoir to coming-of-age classics such as Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye. If you are not familiar with Tobias Wolff or what he is doing today, try reading his memoir first, as I did. Google him afterward for a nice surprise.
A NOVEL BY ELIZABETH STROUT
Review by Jane Paxton
I have a confession to make: I suggested: Oh William!: a novel by Elizabeth Strout to our Thursday Book Group before I had finished it. In my defense, I had previously read her novels Olive Kitteridge, My Name Is Lucy Barton and The Burgess Boys. Oh William! is a kind of sequel to My Name Is Lucy Barton. In addition, Oh William! received fulsome reviews from two of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett and Hilary Mantel.
William is Lucy’s ex-husband, and she has just lost her second husband. Even after all these years, Lucy and William still have a bond. He asks her to help investigate a family secret. Mysteries and secrets are irresistible to me. So far so good. I look forward to the discussion on February 24th on Zoom.
Consider joining us. We always have a variety of opinion that leads to lively discussions. Others’ choices have expanded my comfort zone. I now even (sometimes) look forward to nonfiction! The greater diversity of participants, the greater variety of genres and the more interesting our conversations. We still have places available in this senior college book club. Please join us.
The Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father
BY GEOFFREY WOLFF
On March 24 we will meet on Zoom to discuss The Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father by Geoffrey Wolff.
In January, we discussed This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff’s 1989 memoir describing the antics of Toby, a bad-acting kid, as he came of age under the loose tutelage of his loving but flakey mother in the 1950s. Maybe you have read the book or watched the movie on Netflix. In the movie, Robert De Niro plays Dwight, Toby’s unscrupulously manipulative stepfather—a portrayal guaranteed to make you squirm. If you have read This Boy’s Life, maybe you, like many of us, wondered if the presence or influence of Toby’s father or brother would have been a game-changer in his young life. His father, Duke, was a Yale graduate who had achieved success as an aeronautical engineer. Toby’s brother Geoffrey, who lived with Duke and his new wife in Connecticut, was already Princeton-bound.
Well, at just the right moment, book group member Peter Rosenberg discovered the older brother’s memoir, The Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Wolff (1979). I cannot wait to hear what the group has to say about this book on March 24. We learn that Geoffrey had to survive his own situation, which was the opposite of Toby’s. Toby’s challenges were “street” challenges. Geoffrey, on the other hand, lived in and out of elite privilege under the guidance of a brilliant and loving father, Duke.
The writing is meticulous and just the right challenge for brains reawakening, post-Covid. By the time I reached page 34, I had googled eleven words: shooting–stick, arsy-turvy (which I did not find), confidence man, Micawberism, alrightnik, threnodic, cadged, Triangle Club and Cottage Club, popinjay, and putatively. By then I might have tossed any other book, but not one of these was just a pretty word used for effect. Every word in this book is the perfect word, and every sentence has a purpose.
Both books are memoirs, and (spoiler alert!) both men are successful writers. The books complement one another. I would suggest you read This Boy’s Life first, if you can, even though Geoffrey Wolff wrote The Duke of Deception earlier. These are books I might not have selected, except for Book Group. Yet, they are two of the best books I have read in a long time.
The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story
BY DOUGLAS PRESTON
This book will meet your expectations if you enjoy adventure stories. It will keep you entertained, and you will learn some history, new technology, information on new tropical diseases, and more. It is a gripping tale of the years explorers spent looking for the Lost City of the Monkey God in the uninhabited, impenetrable jungle of the La Mosquitia rainforest of Honduras.
It is a true story narrated by Douglas Preston, which is his story. It includes history, archeology, space-age technology (LIDAR), legends of a lost civilization, the jungle, tropical rains, tropical diseases, medical mystery, insects, venomous snakes, jaguars, drug cartels, ancient curses, and suspense. Some say it is the most dangerous place on earth. Most native Hondurans know of the tales of the existence of this ancient Pre-Columbian city, but up until a few years ago, no one knew precisely where it is. The story gives some insight into the indigenous people and government of Honduras.
Doug Preston tells of the background of the many failed searches in the 19th and 20th centuries as explorers, adventurers, looters, prospectors, gold hunters all hoped to find The Lost City of the Monkey God. The site is also called the La Cuidad Blanca (The White City). Many were looking for gold or artifacts that could be sold on the black market. The area was also a haven for drug–smuggling cartels.
The Lost City of the Monkey God is in the La Mosquitia area of Honduras and was mapped in 2012 using LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging – a laser imaging technology) and GPR (ground penetrating RADAR). LIDAR with GPR can map the terrain under the densest jungle canopy; it can find the smallest space in the canopy to look through and penetrate the ground and put the information together in a topographic map with subterranean infrastructure.
A joint Honduran and American team made a ground expedition in 2015. The City of the Monkey God ruins were visited and documented by Doug Preston and his team of archeologists, anthropologists, filmmakers, a chronicler, guides, Honduran soldiers for protection, and others. They helicoptered into the site. The city was pristine, with nothing touched or looted. The people seemed to have vanished about 1000 years ago. Nothing was taken but photos and documentation of what is there. They reported that the rain forest site seemed very primeval. The explorers said the animals at the site seemed unafraid of humans and appeared never to have seen humans before. Their on-the-ground visit to the City of The Monkey God was a harrowing one. They had an encounter with the deadly Fer-de-lance snake. Several of the group contracted a mysterious disease that Douglas Preston still has today. These are just a few of the problems they encountered when on the ground. Several more expeditions were made by Doug Preston and his team in 2016 and 2017. The location of the site is not being revealed to protect it from looters.
When I read, it is great to learn something and be entertained. So, because I had read this book, I was already aware of the LIDAR technology when I visited UMaine. The University received a grant from the to research the following:The grant supports the design, engineering, and deployment of a fully-autonomous, ground-based glacier-monitoring system, also known as the Atlas System. The system integrates state-of-the art Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) laser technology, an innovative solar power system, and satellite communications to remotely scan glaciers in unprecedented detail. The LiDAR technology is a unique 3D imaging survey that uses a pulsed laser to illuminate a target and analyze the reflected light. Measurements from the Atlas System will yield insights into the physics behind dynamic changes in glacier topography, allowing scientists to better predict future rates of glacier loss and its associated sea level rise. The equipment is deployed on the Helheim glacier, Greenland’s largest and fastest-moving glacier.
Guests of the Sheik
BY ELIZABETH WARNOCK FERNEA
Review by Norma Blazer
The UMASC Thursday book group meets on Zoom at 1 PM the fourth Thursday each month. We still have room for two or three new members. If you think you might be interested in joining our group, please call the UMASC office at (207) 621-3551 and someone will reach out to answer any questions you have.
On May 26 we will be discussing Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. This book is the author’s account of two years beginning in 1957 when she and her husband lived in a small mud-brick hut in southern Iraq. The couple was newly married, and Robert Fernea was in Iraq to complete graduate studies in anthropology. They both struggled to understand the language, fit in, make friends, and conduct their lives without offending anyone. To make matters worse for Elizabeth, Robert was gone much of the time. Fortunately, the Shiite women took pity on their young guest who had no children, no mother for companionship, and—worst of all—no gold of her own (which they cautioned was a grave mistake). The village women welcomed her into their culture and, over time, shared what they knew about a woman’s role and her responsibilities.
The subtitle of this book is An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village. Ethnography is the study of a culture from the point of view of the subject of the study. Recent reviewers have criticized this book written in 1965 for its lack of relevance 60 years later. However, these Iraqi women are the mothers of our generation and the grandmothers of modern Iraqi women. Haven’t we all seen our mothers in the mirror? Haven’t we each heard our mother’s words in our own voice? I am looking forward to reading what the village women of El Nahra chose to share with the young American in 1957 and wondering, too, who the real student in the experience turned out to be–the doctoral candidate or his young bride.
Life is So Good
BY GEORGE DAWSON and RICHARD GLAUBMAN
Review by Dennis Kline
“Ever since I turned a hundred, life has been busy.” So said George Dawson, who lived most of his 102 years severely constrained by Jim Crow and denied any formal education. Finally, at age 98, he learned to read. His subsequent memoir covers the entire 20th century from his standpoint as a “colored” man. (Today we might say “American of African descent.”) Throughout his life George held firm to guidance from his Papa and was neither broken nor embittered by what he had to endure.
This book is an opportunity to learn from a “witness to the truth” who was rarely appreciated or understood during his younger years.
Some subjects in which George was knowledgeable include:
“misunderstandings” where shots are fired
how to pick a mule
finding a wife
how to react when shown disrespect
If you’re not 102, there may still be time. Welcome George Dawson into your mind and heart!
The Lions of Fifth Avenue
A NOVEL BY FIONA DAVIS
Review by Anne Sullivan
Looking for an enjoyable summer read and perhaps some new friends to discuss it with? Well, look no further! The Thursday book group will chat about The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis on Thursday, July 28.
Laura Lyons seems to lead a charmed life; in 1913, she lives in an apartment in the New York Library with her husband (the library superintendent) and their two children. But soon, she yearns for what she considers a more meaningful life as a journalist. So she enrolls in a graduate program for journalism at Columbia University. Unfortunately, this turns out to be a fatal mistake, and soon, her life begins to unravel. Her husband Jack is suspected of the crime when precious books disappear from the library. In addition, Laura faces discrimination at Columbia, where women are expected to cover only fluff topics. Despite a life full of the tragedy that ensues, Laura will go on to become the voice of the nascent feminist movement.
The book thefts are never solved in Laura’s lifetime, and in alternating chapters, we meet Sadie Donovan, who we later learn is Laura’s granddaughter. It’s 1993, and Sadie works for the New York Library. Unfortunately, she has problems of her own. Sadie has never recovered from a devastating divorce and is fearful of opening her heart again. But she loves her job in the Berg Collection, which houses rare books, pamphlets, and artifacts. Soon valuable books disappear from the collection, and eventually, Sadie herself is suspected of the thefts. To complicate matters, Sadie unwisely hides her relationship with the Lyons family from her superior. Finally, the library hires a private investigator, Nick, and the two become friends. The pair will work together to solve the mystery and uncover a possible connection between the two series of thefts.
If you like libraries, mysteries, and historical fiction, this may be the book for you!
A NOVEL BY FREDRIK BACKMAN
Review by Anne Sullivan
Let me say, first of all, that I loved this book.
But maybe, like a pack of cigarettes, it needs a warning. For those of you who, like my friend Barbara, are concrete sequential, this might not be your thing. In seventy-four brief chapters, we jump from the present-day lives of each character to key elements of their past, not necessarily in chronological order. And in between, we read the transcripts of interviews the police conducted with most of the characters, who are all doing their best to be annoying—for reasons that we will discover over the course of the novel. All of this is tied together by the comments of an omniscient narrator who guides us through the story. Daunting? Possibly.
All that said, in my view, this novel is well worth the effort. The narrator explains the premise: “This was how a bank robber failed to rob a bank but instead managed to spark a hostage drama.” The hapless bank robber had attempted to rob a cashless bank! Really?!?! The situation is absurd, but such banks apparently do exist in Sweden, where the story takes place. And I hasten to assure you that this novel offers many actual laugh-out-loud moments.
But the real reason to read this book is that if you, like my friend Doug, love novels that involve redemption, this might be the one for you. The narrator observes: “This story is about a lot of things, but mostly about idiots. So it needs saying from the outset that it’s always very easy to declare that other people are idiots, but only if you forget how idiotically difficult being human is.” So it turns out that the hostages are all in the right place at the right time. Time has stopped, so to speak, for a few hours, and the strangers listen to each other, providing crucial insight into their fellow hostages’ “idiot problems.”
And if you like mysteries, well, that’s still another facet of this story. So think about joining us on Zoom Thursday, August 25, to discuss this intriguing novel!
BY CHARLOTTE PERKINS GILMAN
Review by Norma Blazer
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, an American lecturer and well-known advocate for social reform, wrote Herland in 1915 and published the story in her magazine, The Forerunner. It wasn’t until 1979 and renewed interest in the women’s movement that the novel appeared as a book. In classic utopian structure, a group of outsiders discover a previously unknown land where everyone lives in peace and plenty. There is no crime, no war. There is no male domination, for Herland is a society composed entirely of women. Children occur miraculously and are treasured as the special gifts these women understand them to be. All teaching and everything else that is done in Herland is and has been continuously evaluated and improved with the goal of making the world a better place for these children.
Ms. Gilman uses the fantasy of an imaginary society to evoke questions about the society we live in and the values we perpetuate. This is a serious, reflective book, but there is a humorous component to the story as well. It is three male stereotypes from different points on the dominance scale who “discover” Herland— Jeff Margrave (born to be a poet but persuaded by his parents to become a doctor), Vandyck Jennings (a sociologist and the narrator), and T. O. Nicholson (an adventurer with lots of money).
An amazon.com reviewer remarked:
“At first, they think they found the Holy Grail—after all, they are MEN! Physically stronger and the only roosters in the hen house. What could these women do?
“Well, quite a lot, actually.”
This book was a reading selection in a Maine State Library program led by UMA Professor of English Lisa Botshon, who also teaches American Literature and women’s studies at UMA. Herland is considered a fair and balanced portrait of socially prescribed gender roles, and I found it extremely difficult to imagine this story was written a hundred years ago.
Bonus Book: In the sequel, With Her in Ourland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman brings a Herland woman to “Ourland,” circa 1916, to observe and to ponder the assumptions that have influenced our society and shaped our values. Both novels appear with Moving the Mountain in The Herland Trilogy. I am looking forward to the discussion of Herland on September 22 and, if you are interested in joining our group, we have room for three or four new members.
Gift from the Sea