Books People Are Talking About by Lynette

Lynette facilitates the book discussion group at the Helmerich Library. At each meeting they read books on a particular topic or books by the same author and share their opinions. Below is the newsletter she shared with her group after their February meeting.

For our February meeting we tackled one of the most complicated of all topics—issues of race and gender, particularly in regard to African-American women in America’s recent past. It was an interesting and intense discussion. The fireworks started with the Jan Karon novel HOME TO HOLLY SPRINGS , the book we disagreed about the most. This Karon title is a slight departure from the Mitford series for which she is famous, but is built around a Mitford character, the Episcopal priest, Father Tim. A mysterious letter asking for his help pulls him reluctantly home to Holly Springs, Mississippi. As with many delayed homecomings he is required to confront family issues that are painfully complex. Some of those issues involve his parents’ marriage-- his father’s harsh remoteness, his mother’s vulnerabilities, and the young, African-American household maid who was his childhood anchor and friend. She simply left one day. The young Tim never saw her again. I have never read another Karon novel and loved this one. It was particularly effective read aloud by Scott Sowers who captures the beauty and nuance of the language of the south. Other group members who are fans of Karon loved it, too—the characters, the descriptions of a small town with eccentric, decent, and deeply flawed people, and family situations that grow tangled on a tragic past. And yes, this novel has notes of grace and redemption at the end. Some in our esteemed group thought it was too predictable and contrived and did not enjoy it. There was even a comment about Harlequin paperbacks! And that’s why we have book discussions—to discuss!!

That led into a consideration of WENCH by Dolen Perkins-Valdez. Named to Library Journal’s best of 2010 list, this historical novel brings to life a strange and disturbing piece of American history. The Tarawa resort in Ohio was built to cater to those with enough money to escape the heat of the summer in luxury. Some of the elite clientele included white southern men and their slave mistresses. “Mistress,” of course, is too genteel a word to use when enslavement is part of the equation. Perkins-Valdez describes several of these relationships. Our readers considered it a very difficult topic, eye opening, well written and absorbing.

On topic, we considered the non-fiction book, THE HEMINGSES OF MONTICELLO . Thanks to the blizzard, one of our readers made it all the way through all 662 pages. History and law professor Annette Gordon-Reed, has written a thoroughly researched account of the family of Sally Hemings, who came to Jefferson’s Monticello with her brothers as the enslaved property of his wife Martha. Though Sally remains a mysterious figure, DNA testing and extensive research and oral histories, point to Jefferson as the father of her children. Their relationship refracts the lingering issues of slavery, race and gender in American culture. Gordon-Reed fleshes out Sally’s extended family, and deals with many of the ironies of the home life of the writer of the phrase, “All men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Maya Angelou’s memoir, I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS was praised by our readers as engrossing and dramatic. It qualifies as a modern classic. Angelou’s experience of racism and poverty, writ large and small in Stamps, Arkansas and St. Louis is heart breaking. The grandmother who raised her, and her own achievements in dance, theatre, and literature are equally powerful and inspiring. Angelou writes, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

Several related books were recommended: novels, THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett and SAVING CEECEE HONEYCUTT by Beth Hoffmann. Non-fiction: EXTRAORDINARY, ORDINARY PEOPLE: A Memoir of Family by Condoleezza Rice; and CARRY ME HOME by Diane McWhorter (the remarkably written account of civil rights history in Birmingham, Alabama, the hometown of Ms. Rice.)

ADDITIONAL NOTES from our February discussion:

· The article “Grady’s Gift,” by Howell Raines was published in the New York Times on 12.1.91. In this essay Mr. Raines reflects on his white family in Birmingham, AL during the years of civil rights struggle, and Grady, the young woman who “came to iron and clean and cook for $18 a week, and stayed for seven years,” and profoundly affected the person he became.

A final recommended title is CELIA A SLAVE: A True Story by Melton McLaurin. Set in Fulton, MO in the 1850’s it recounts the dramatic story of a woman who finally killed the man who had owned and abused her, and then stood trial for his murder.

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