Tuesday, November 12, 2013

November 2013 Bookers Minutes & Musings, The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Families are like belly buttons, everyone has one, each unique and your own.

A blustery north wind twirled fallen leaves into banks and early morning clouds blanketed a gray cast over the lake as Shirley Falls, Maine visited 314 Saint Andrews Drive, home of Daryl Daniels. Temperatures dropped, the threat of drizzle and frost on the pumpkin lingered, and our over-vigilant weather forecasters even hinted of an early snow for our neck of the woods. 21 Bookers bundled against the chill for our regular meeting to discuss this month’s selection, The Burgess Boys, by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Elizabeth Strout.

Congratulations to Jane and Gary Freer who welcomed their third grandson, Teague Harrison Freer, born five weeks early on Veteran’s Day, weighing a little under five pounds. Mama and baby are doing well and new father, Paul, is helping Kleenex stock soar. Bonnie Magee brought her dear friend, Helen Gabriel, to the meeting and we welcomed Chris Batt back to the group.

 Surprising everyone, producers from the hit television show, Who Wants To Marry A Mainer arrived to present two contestants to our group asking which one would you choose to meet you at the altar, Jim or Bob Burgess. Via Skype, the boys introduced themselves:

“My name is Bob Burgess. Nice to meet you all. Anyways, I’m a lawyer in the appellate division of Legal Aid in New York now, although my hometown is in the “whitest State in the country.” When I was four years old, I accidently killed my father. My therapist says I’ve got “masochistic tendencies because I feel a need to be punished for this childhood act of innocence.” My ex-wife says I look like a big St. Bernard dog and all my life I’ve been “weakened by kindness.” Oy, my brother thinks I’m a “cretinized bozo.” He calls me “slob-dog” and thinks I have my own brand of goofiness. I call him an asshole. He thinks I think like a child – “like things are supposed to make sense.”
“And Bob, how do you see yourself,” asked the monitor. I’m alone within my family, but I love them unconditionally…although it’s hard to understand why. I’m welcoming to all humanity except if there are “too many of them in one place.” I’ve got issues. I’m not real sure of myself. My brother is my hero – flaws and all. Even my twin sister agrees he’s the star of the family.”
I’m Jim Burgess. How are you? Lone Star women you say. I played golf with a “Dickwad doctor” from Texas. He acted as though he saved lives. He was a dermatologist! Clueless how death-row prisoners are inhumanely injected with “Texas tea” and didn’t even know what that was! Dr. Dickwad’s service called to say there was an emergency – guess someone’s pimple got infected. I’m somewhat of a celebrity. You might recognize me as I gained an acquittal for a high-profile client – the magnitude of O.J. Simpson’s not-guilty verdict. I served as President of my college’s student government and received a full scholarship to Harvard Law School. I work for a prestigious New York law firm, or did until I moved on to pursue what I really wanted to do with my life. My life coach babbles on about how I’m secretly in “love with destruction.” All I know is my brother drives me crazy – always wanting what I have, but not willing to work for any of it.”
“So Jim, what would others say about you?” That I commandingly fill the room. Successful, the breadwinner, the go to guy – the only one in my family that’s sane. And, in my own twisted way, I love my family, although they’re all crazy and would drive anyone to jump off a bridge.”
Pat Faherty led the review of Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel, The Burgess Boys, receiving a gold medal for stepping up to the plate time-and-time again to review a book. Remember, you too could have this honor! National Public Radio called this book a “big, floppy, shambling jumble sale of a novel; loving it because it feels like life – color it chaotic and savor the authenticity of imperfection.” Told through an omniscient “roving” narrator, Bob and Jim Burgess fled the familiarity of their hometown in an attempt to start anew – to escape from the accident that defined both – each taking their guilt and running from its consequences. They proved you can change locations, but unless you change what’s inside, it proves futile. As small children, the two boys and their sister were left alone in the family car parked at the top of the hill. The car rolled down the hill killing their father. Bob lived with the title of the “one who killed his father” and spent a lifetime atoning for this sin. Jim eventually “confesses” to Bob that he was the one behind the wheel and has spent his lifetime finding the right moment to fess up. As Pat said, this is not a Leave It To Beaver episode. The boys are called back home when their sister Susan’s son rolls a bloody frozen pig’s head through the door of a mosque during Ramadan. It’s within this scenario that Ms. Strout develops the relationship between the brothers and the rest of the family in which we see how individuals rise from the emotions of their decisions. She leads us into big-issue topics including racism, cultural differences, acceptance, second chances, and the politics of immigration – all with a backdrop of a host of flawed – yet ordinary – characters, all developed with a unique, but identifiable voice. Some expressed confusion about the prologue. Who was narrating and did the reader need to know this information in going forward with the story? It’s the long-standing prologue discussion and why it’s a controversial subject when writing and/or reading a book, complicated in this case by the all-knowing voice.

Part of our discussion centered on the differences between the brothers and when asked the question that the author herself posed, “Which brother would you marry?” our group wasn’t high on either candidate, but Bob came out the winner. We did talk about the choice resting on at what stage you were in your life – a young woman might be attracted to Jim’s “potential” but someone in the “been-there-bought-the-tee-shirt” stage might favor Bob’s good heartedness over the other perks. Either way, either choice might not warrant writing home to Mama about. We talked about the role reversal when Bob took charge and captured Jim from of his “post-Helen life” as a college teacher and how families rally around each other. Applause for Susan, who after a lifetime of self-degradation and low self-esteem, took a baby step toward a leap by joining a knitting group after realizing she had something to give others by giving of herself. None of us sympathized with Adrianna, although she survived heartache by pushing her agenda to the front of the line, a perfect match for Jim’s personality, the outcome a perfect conclusion to their relationship – a comeuppance if you will. We agreed Helen didn’t hesitate to open the door letting Jim back into her life. Hopefully, each embraced the mistakes of the past with mutual respect for the future. As always, we had moments of “true confession” and “personal stories” and how we must strive to be more inclusive but at the same time, preserve our way of life and our traditions – don’t take away mine and replace it with yours.

                                                             Book Talk
As a recap, the following is the rating system MN and I have assigned to OUR opinions of books we’ve read. Again, this is meant to be a guideline only.

5 Stars:                  Order Now. Expedited shipping worthy. Include in your will.
4 Stars:                  Borders on Little Bee
3 Stars:                  Beach Read
2 Stars:                  Borrow don’t buy
1 Star:                   Put your money back in the piggy bank

I’ve finished The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. MN gave it a 4+ rating. I’m less excited and rate it a (3+). Adding to my growing stack of “to-reads” is a Charlotte Barker recommendation, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, set in 1962 in an Italian coastal town – an innkeeper looks out over the water and spies a mysterious woman approaching him on a boat. Also from Donna Walter, The Unexpected Son by Shobhan Bantwal, is set in New Jersey, when one morning a letter arrives from India turning the protagonist’s comfortable world upside down – her illegitimate son, who she believed stillborn, is alive and in need of a bone marrow transplant. Still unfinished, but am loving it, is Don’t Let Me Go by Katherine Ryan Hyde about a former Broadway dancer and current agoraphobic who hasn’t set a foot outside his apartment in almost ten years and his neighbors including nine-year old Grace and her former addict mother. Strangely enough, MN and I both downloaded this one unbeknownst to the other. And, another Ta Da moment delivered by Beverly Dossett on behalf of her ten-year old granddaughter, Olivia, Wonder by R.J. Palacio. Its target audience is 9-12 year olds, grades 4-7, so it’s written appropriately to that level – August Pullman was born with a facial deformity and has been unable to attend regular school, until now, when he enters mainstream 5th grade. It’s a must read for parents and grandparents alike…not to mention is rated 5 stars on Amazon with over 2,500 reviews. MN, Bernie, Beverly, and I share the rating. Jean Alexander has agreed to review it for us in May.

MN has read Moonrise by Cassandra King and gives it (2). Between Sisters by Kristen Hannah is a good beach read (3) about two sisters by blood, strangers by choice who are working at finding a way back to each other. Don’t Let Me Go by Katherine Ryan Hyde (4+) The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty, which unfolds from the third person perspectives of three women. At first glance, their connection is peripheral, but the secret Jon-Paul is keeping for decades will change all of them. (3) and Wonder  - a wonderful (5)

Dallas Noir features 16 short stories all written by Dallas veterans, Kathleen Kent & Ben Fountain among the contributors. Ben Fountain writes The Realtor, about a lawyer enamored by a Swiss Avenue mansion and the woman who handles the transaction for him. Kathleen weaves dark-blue police humor into Coincidences Can Kill You. Noir fiction is unsettling and slightly creepy stories set in a particular city.

                                                            Movie Talk
Leslie sent a N.Y. Times review of the movie, The Book Thief, describing it as a shameless piece of Oscar-seeking Holocaust kitsch. The years-spanning film, which observes traumatic historical events through Liesel’s eyes, looks and tastes like a giant sugar cake whose saccharinity largely camouflages the horrors of the war. Like a caring dentist reassuring a frightened child, it purveys a message: “Don’t be afraid. I’ll try not hurt you, although you might feel a little pinch.” Ouch
Julianne Moore will play the lead in Lisa Genova’s Still Alice.

                                                            On the business side
The group agreed to move our January meeting a week early as MN will be out of town.  Thanks to everyone as The Snow Child is one of her favorites.

Those of you who were at the Bookers 10th Birthday party remember Pat Faherty’s poem, Dreams. She has been asked by several people to share it with us again, so here it is:

You have given us so many happy “dreams,” from being on a boat with a tiger, to sharing and seeing “Room.” We learned “The Plain Truth” about “The Potato Peel Pie” and the “Rules of Civility.” “The Help” you have demonstrated in the knowledge of books and the bond we have all made will be forever “Unbroken.” A “Little Bee” mentioned your love of “Roses,” so thank you JoDee and MN for all you have done! Dreams do come true!

             WHITE:         LIGHT READ
             PINK:            MODERATELY CHALLENGING
             RED:              CHALLENGING
December 10th:            Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
                                    Home of Jean Alexander
                                    Reviewer: Melba Holt
                                    Food Czar Bonnie Magee will coordinate
January 7th 2014        The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
Note earlier date         PINK
                                    Home of Beverly Dossett
                                    Reviewer: Melanie Prebis
February 11th:              The Fault In Our Stars by John Green
                                    Home of Patty Evans
                                    Reviewer: Patty Evans
March 11th:                  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
                                    Home of Marlene Ungarean
                                    Reviewer: Jean McSpadden
April 8th:                      Book TBA
                                    Home of Sandy Molander
May 13th:                     Wonder by R.J. Palacio regular meeting 10:00 AM
                                    Home of Charlotte Pechacek 
                                    Reviewer: Jean Alexander

Bob says to Jim:  “We’re a family – you have a wife that hates you, kids who are furious with you, a brother, and a sister who make you insane, and a nephew who used to be kind of a drip, but apparently is not so much of a drip now. – That’s called family.”

Don’t we all have some family baggage…some heavier than the other.
Happy Reading,

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