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Literary Events

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Historic but Obscure Killings Decimate Wealthiest Americans During the Early Twentieth Century

The primary interest of this book was in the horrendous crimes against the Osage. The newly established FBI seemed to be starting slowly and to be having “growing pains.” After the beginning explored in this book, it seems the FBI barely survived and only later became the powerful and important government law enforcement agency it has been over the past 60+ years.

Our discussion was about Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann. As Pam, who nominated and presented the book said, it was not so much a book to “enjoy” as one to learn from. Few of us had been aware of this ugly episode in history. Some of our discussion attempted to answer the question why we had so little background about this and why this hasn’t traditionally been included in school curriculums.

“Flower moon” in the title refers to the many flowers that bloom in Osage territory annually in April and are squeezed out and die after larger flowers take all the rain and block the light in May each year. Linda H. noted that the flowers symbolize what will happen to the Osage tribe during the time covered, and Ken said that the flowers bloom, die, and return to the earth. We talked about the deaths/murders that occurred while the mineral rights were legally passing to the next of kin among the oil-rich Osage.

Morna said that she had liked the pictures in the book. Pam said she had listened to an audiobook first and only later saw the photos and was impressed by them. Other readers agreed that they appreciated the photos. A picture is worth a lot of words, and the photos did clarify the history and somewhat reduce what was left to the imagination when reading the book. The book was a history, which ignited the imagination; as there were real people who the reader could imagine knowing beyond the photos that appeared of some, and there were horrible crimes and worries and stresses that the reader couldn’t help imagining.

We learned about the criminal acts and mind of Bill Hale, who Ken suggested would today be termed a sociopath. We talked about the crimes and the solving of the mystery as to who was committing the murders. Dennis praised the author for doing a lot of research among many pages of records. The story had to be put together from the many notes that had been taken, often perfunctorily. The high quality and detail of the research and presentation reminded Morna of Eric Larson’s books, which our Book Club has enjoyed and respected.

We also saw rampant corruption among government officials. Cindy T. felt that the most important message of the book was how corrupt the government can be. We were saddened to think about the effects of corruption among the historic American government. Today’s preponderance of poverty among Native Americans stems from the government discriminating against the Native Americans at every turn, from the infecting of blankets with smallpox in the 1800s, which Joyce said couldn’t be traced longer, to the assigning of native Americans to reservations on acreage that was among the least fertile and desirable and contained the fewest natural resources in the country. The oil fortunes of the Osage were an anomaly, certainly not planned by the government officials. Cindy V. said that when she visited an Indian reservation, she saw shocking poverty.

We debated whether Ernest Burkhardt was at all redeemable. Pam thought he showed some remorse, and Claudia agreed that it showed when he finally told the truth on the witness stand. Ken thought he purposely arranged to conserve Molly’s life, when he was privy to Hale’s arranging the deaths of her close relatives. There were detailed notes that helped Tom White to be the hero of the story and put together the clues to solve the mystery and prove the guilt of the perpetrator (traitor). The author also presented further interviews of descendants of the Osage alive at the time he was writing the book, bringing the story somewhat up to date. J. Edgar Hoover barely scraped by as one of the heroes of the book, mainly by his administrative ability in keeping the “bureau” functioning and hiring some good men during this complex first case. 

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Cannibals Book

When I sent emails about it, which turned out to be a lot of times, I called it “The Cannibals Book,” but our discussion book for May 2018 was really called The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific, by J. Maarten Troost. The book elucidated some sexual habits and attitudes among the natives of the islands of Kiribati and the city/atoll called Tarawa, and briefly mentioned some historic cannibalism; but most of the book narrated the adventures of a couple who lived and worked there for 2 years in the late 1990s.

Morna, who nominated and presented the book, brought some photos of the main city where the couple lived. She described the photos as “…both beautiful and terribly disgusting.” This seems a good summary of what the couple found on the island. If you want to see tropical paradise photos, search online; and, likewise, you can see photos online of the overcrowding and proliferation of trashlike junk on the islands.

Morna thought the author found a lot of humor in his time on the islands, and she expected our group to experience a lot of chuckling as we read. Some of us did: (1) The author’s first swim in the beautiful turquoise ocean, when he encountered the native habit of using the ocean as a toilet, (2) the almost constant blasting of the song, “La Macarena” by many natives until the author played Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” very loudly, thus silencing the playing of “La Macarena,” (3) the inability to change the responsible party’s name on the electricity bill for the house the couple was using, because “Mary,” whose name the bill was filed under, had left and could not ask in person for her name to be taken off the billing; and more.

Some of us were overcome by the problems of government apathy and mismanagement; overcrowding; drought; and advantages taken by individuals visiting the islands, those living on the islands, and other neighboring islands’ governments; such as when shipments of supplies arrived mistakenly at the wrong countries and were absorbed, thus causing shortages in Tarawa. These readers found pathos rather than amusement in the mishaps represented in the book. I found the episodes amusing but only with the distance I had from the situation. Had I been there, I would NOT have been amused.

Thanks to everyone who sent messages about the discussion. Your notes very helpful in creating this blog post, even though I didn’t specify many individual comments.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Big Little Lies – Not a Parenting Handbook

There were big and little lies throughout Big Little Lies: Competitive barbs among the mothers, parents helping children too much with assignments, Amabella keeping secret the identity of her kindergarten torturer. Perry’s beating of his wife, Celeste, might seem to vie for biggest with his using his cousin’s name when he met, bullied and impregnated Jane. But the biggest lie was the refusal to tell the truth, by every witness to the inadvertent murder at the end of the story. If this book had been written recently, I would have guessed that at least one of the author’s goals was to demonstrate collusion. It seems such a good example of something that has been on everyone’s mind lately! But, the book was written in 2014, so it is free of that potential political influence.

Most of those at our meeting seemed to have enjoyed reading the book. Thanks to Joyce Z. for giving us the opportunity to read and discuss it! We raised questions: Was Madeleine always looking for a fight? Morna said Madeleine’s character trait was more that she didn’t back down from a fight than that she was looking for one. Was Celeste in love with her husband, Perry? Linda said Celeste was a victim type, which could explain why she stayed with Perry. Did we admire any of the characters? The only name that was mentioned here was, perhaps Tom.

We talked about the helicopter parenting in the book and how it related to our experiences. When she was a parent in rural Texas, Joyce Z. did not see anything like the parent community from the book. Heather saw helicopter parenting, not when she was parenting but when she was a teacher, which would have been closer temporally to the trend described in the book in 2014.

We talked about wealth and beauty. Both were noticeably influential and even powerful in Big Little Lies. Joyce Z. had noticed that looks were important in the book, and Flo joked that all Jane needed was a haircut to change her place in the society. Ken felt that Celeste’s beauty had robbed her of the chance to be valued for herself.

Choices was another topic we noted from the book. The children in the book seemed to be given too many choices and too much power.

Make no mistake - Big Little Lies is not a handbook for parents!

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Author Sue Monk Kidd Earns Her Wings

Everybody liked reading The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd. The most common criticism was that the story dragged a little in the middle; it got too detailed among the descriptions of the abolitionist arguments and speeches, as well as the feminist and suffrage rights that were combined with anti-oppression rights.

At the beginning of the discussion, there were general opinions about the book and its interface with the social norms, including the following comments: 
Linda: The Quaker church was pro-abolition but at the same time conservative and sexist.
Flo: Oppressive and sexist attitudes were common; they reflected the time.
Marcia: Nurses and teachers weren’t allowed to be married, because women's main function was to marry, have children and take care of them.

As is often the case, our discussion strayed from the events in the story to the ideas generated by these events and their impact and expression in modern society. Here are some examples: 
Dennis:  Growing up in the south, the customs and ideas that were central to the book were still in force but were more rudimentary. Whereas the rare early liberal-to-radical arguments said that oppression of anybody was oppression of everybody; it wasn’t until later that popular movements were against all oppression. Dennis pointed out that there was a lot of disagreement among abolitionists about other kinds of oppression, such as that of women.
Heather: She was raised to be a wife and mother, rather than encouraged to choose a career. Raised in Charleston, Heather has found that this attitude is still popular there, and the feeling that Blacks should be slaves is rarely spoken but still there. Heather noted that generations pass attitudes forward.
Dennis: People are still kept on farms to work; their positions as laborers and not landowners have been carried on and inherited.
Marcia: Nurses’ shifts are mandatory, leaving not much choice to those who wish to work.
Linda: In Appalachia, poverty brings the lives of Blacks and Whites together in similarity and shared difficulty in escaping the essentially oppressive lifestyles they are born into.
Carla: You’d think older generations would die out and prejudices would go away, but she has heard children express prejudices that were surprising and obviously learned from older family members.
Ken: The Ku Klux Klan is still active, leading a lot of racism, and is a vibrant organization in Texas.

A box of quotes and discussion questions gleaned from various web sites for discussions of this book had been passed around the room, and the following were some of the questions and answers:
Morna chose the question as to what it might have been like to have received your own slave at the age of 10. Morna said she would have liked the idea!
Flo said it was unusual for Sarah to not want her own slave, and that Sarah was ahead of her time.

Joyce M. picked the question as to why Sarah wouldn’t marry. She said that with Sarah’s views about slavery and rights for women, Sarah would have felt that she was enslaved by a husband.

Joanne drew the question asking why the book’s title was apt. Joanne had thought the title was perfect, referring to the new ideas about women’s rights as an “invention of wings.”
Joanne noted that Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 and that her life overlapped with those of the Grimke sisters. She wondered whether Harriet Beecher Stowe was influenced by the Grimkes’ publications. The group decided that we thought that these women probably knew of each other, as all had achieved some notoriety.

Marcia mentioned that slaves used quilts with stories sewed on them, with trees etc indicating directions to safe houses during Underground Railroad times.
Marcia read the question that asked which character in the book was the most “free.” She thought it was probably Sky, because Sky’s job was outdoors, tending the garden.

Carla drew a question about punishments of slaves and the brutality of the Work House. She said she was surprised at the intensity of physical treatment of the slaves, especially because the slaves were valuable workers and could work best when undamaged.
Ken suggested that one reason for steep punishments was to keep the slaves strictly in line, partly because actions of slaves at one house in the community would be known at others. If slaves got away with rebellion or freedoms at one house, another slave owner might decide to interfere.

Joyce M’s question from the box asked what cunning ways the slaves disobeyed. She listed the hoarding of red thread, Charlotte’s stealing the fabric, and hiding money. She also said that teaching Handful to read was a way that Sarah rebelled.

Another important aspect of the book that our discussion brought up is the basic conflict between truth and hyperbole involved in historical fiction. Some members expressed frustration with not knowing what details were true and to what extent, and others were more comfortable with interpretation of how the story fits into history. 
Flo thought the Grimke sisters were super bold and that Sarah was ahead of her time in preferring to function without a slave.
Carla thought that much about the abolitionist movement could be fictitious.
Joyce M. mentioned that the abolitionist writings have been published. Joyce also said that having begun the book not knowing that some of it was fiction, and then having read the detailed author’s note at the end saying that much of the book was fiction; she was sorry to have read it and would have preferred all history or all fiction. She thought Sarah’s excess of progressive ideas might have been fictitious.
Dennis said that he prefers to read a book without reading a detailed preface first, so that the book stands on its own.
Linda said it made sense that Sarah grew into the character by reading a lot of books.
Peggy thought that Sarah’s being traumatized at a young age by seeing a slave beaten went a long way in explaining Sarah’s later ideas about slavery.
Carla thought the book’s being based on history was interesting, even though some was fiction.

Sue Monk Kidd wrote a complex and impressive book! Oprah Winfrey interviewed the author on a Super Soul Sunday interview. To watch, click here.

To see a story told in the Gullah dialect, click here.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

A Literal Summary of Our Discussion of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Marcia – The parents made me angry.

Linda – Kids like that are very difficult. Stressful, especially on the parents’ marriage.

Ken – The author did well because you could feel the parental anger. (Ken worked with autistic kids. One had high IQ, so they made him the wizard in Wizard of Oz production.)

Lydia – Most British people don’t curse as much as in the book. The level of education of neighbors etc in the book was evidently low.

Cindy T. At the Zach Theater production, the lead was hearing-impaired, and there was lots of cursing (not necessarily related to the hearing impairment).

Linda – The author captured the boy’s voice; the reader was able to get into his head. The colors and Christopher’s interpreting them as indicating a bad or good day is typical of autism.  Autism is a spectrum, people can have just 1 or 2 aspects.

Judy – Christopher chose behaviors that gave him comfort.

Joanne – 1% of kids are different.

Kathy – Recommends The Good Dr.

The Good Doctor is a very popular show on TV is about a doctor who has autism. There was an episode recently about a teenaged patient who had autism; in this case, they used an actor who really did have autism. On the show, the patient’s parents did not want the autistic doctor to operate on their son, thus showing a parental lack of trust of autistic persons.

Joanne – The book reminded her of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a book by Jonathan Safran Foer.

Lydia –Christopher’s dad killed the dog because of his anger that Christopher’s mother was dating the man who owned the dog.

Ken – Christopher’s father was drinking Scotch, and Christopher approached and saw that his Dad was sad and asked whether it was because of the dog’s death. Father said, “You could say that.”

Cindy T. – These kids can be difficult.

Ken – Christopher’s theology is a little weird – he thought people might want to keep living and don’t like the idea of others moving into their homes and putting their stuff into the trash.

Joyce Z. noted that communities have various ways to deal with autistic kids. This set off a tangent about autistic kids and various laws involved with community/state support, and group homes.

Cindy T – The play at Zach Theater was in some parts word-for-word from the book.

Joanne – Someone was reading Christopher’s words on the stage.

Carla – Christopher’s school catered to the lowest level.

Linda – Mentioned she was reminded of the Doc Martin show on TV; that doctor also had no filters in expressing his feelings and thoughts.

Joanne – Many scientists have Asperger’s. Christopher would fit in. Temple Grandin works with large animals and has opened our eyes to what’s inside these people.

Joyce M. asked us to consider what might be likely for the future of a kid like Christopher.

Pam – The way Christopher was portrayed, he could do OK in a university. Challenges in young life prepared him.

Joyce – He had internalized some of the helping ideas he had received from his teachers, including some ways to control one’s environment. Sees promise of him being functional.
Ken expressed concern about when Christopher would have meltdowns as he grew older, as these seemed somewhat inevitable.

Joanne – He got to London, thus indicating a lot of coping and succeeding.

Marcia – He hit the police officer. This kind of behavior could get him tazered and/or arrested.

Joyce M. – A child’s acting out gets moderated with age. There is hope for Christopher.

Pam – In childhood, Christopher had a lot of heartache. Pam didn’t think that it was realistic that the mother who left for 2 years would come back. Christopher’s life didn’t seem secure.  His parents weren’t going to be dependable.

Joanne – The parents might have had some redemption if Christopher’s mother had moved back in with her husband.

Marcia – It would be very difficult for an autistic kid to experience the way his father lied about his mother’s running off with the neighbor, leading Christopher to believe his mother had died.

Lydia – Christopher’s mother showed her lack of understanding of Christopher’s needs when she took him to overwhelming place to buy some clothes for him. A small store with few customers and few choices of clothing would have been much more comfortable for Christopher.

Linda – Parents of disabled kids often get into groups together. Literate parents read a lot and use every bit of information and resources they can.

Claudia – It seemed the author had researched autistic personalities well. Christopher could be a composite of various autistic problems and behaviors the author read about.

Joanne – The author said he didn’t do research.

Carla – People who have Asperger’s and work with computers have been successful during the recent generation(s) during the recent high-tech time. These people have had more children than they might have during a less computer-saturated time, and there have been more of kids born with spectrum disorders.

Joyce – Some tech industry hiring Asperger’s people to work, not as charity but because they are good at that kind of work.

Joanne – Christopher’s teacher was important, perhaps moreso than his parents.
Christopher might regress when he is on his own without that teacher and similar support.

Joyce mentioned an article about 8-year old who screamed constantly on an airplane.

Marcia – How much of syndrome is caused by bad parenting?

Joyce M. – You can create a badly behaved kid by genetics or parenting. Many think vaccinations cause autism. If the disorders are across a spectrum, maybe there are different causes for different aspects.

Carla and Marcia both said and agreed that everyone has some autistic characteristics and behaviors. It might be so slight that you don't notice it until you realize that you have some idiosyncrasy that, even though it doesn't make you fully autistic or wouldn't be diagnosed that way, it is on the autism spectrum.

Marcia – Causes could be allergies, gluten etc.

There was some discussion of the math problem that was described in detail in the book.

Claudia – This was my second reading of the book. I found long descriptions of thought processes a little boring but had enjoyed all of the book a lot originally.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Beef Bourguignon Recipe

The Beef Bourguignon:
3-4 tblsps olive oil
Just enough all-purpose flour to coat the meat
10oz bacon lardons (can't remember where I found those, possibly HEB.  If I hadn't found them, I would have used bacon, cut into small pieces.)
3lb 5oz chuck steak, cut into bite-sized cubes
3 cups red wine (full-bodied)
2 garlic cloves, finely minced, or dried, can use more if you like garlic
2 tblsps tomato paste
1 cup strong beef stock
2 medium carrots, sliced
1 bouquet garni, or any herbs you have, I tossed in about 3 tblsps dried herb seasoning
Salt & pepper

14oz button mushrooms
3-4 shallots or 2 onions
4 tblsps butter 
I bunch flat parsley

Fry the bacon lardons and put aside.  Add salt & pepper to the flour and coat the meat in it, either on a big plate or by shaking meat & flour in a gallon plastic bag.  Heat the olive oil and fry the flour-coated meat in it, in several batches, adding more oil if necessary.

Put the meat and the lardons into a crockpot/casserole, scraping the frying pan for any stuck bits.  Stir in the red wine, a third at a time, then add the garlic, tomato paste, beef stock, carrots, herbs and a few grinds/1 tsp of black pepper.  In a crockpot put setting on 'high', until you see liquid is boiling then change to 'low' for about 3 hours.  In a casserole, cook at 325° for 3 hours.

Meanwhile, chop the shallots/onions and fry in the butter and add the mushrooms, frying until browned.  Taste the meat, give it another 1/2 hr if necssary.  15 minutes before the end of cooking time, stir in the shallots/onions and mushrooms.  Stir well, add salt & pepper if necessary, sprinkle with flat parsley before serving.

Thanks to Lydia for giving us this recipe!

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Mozart in the Jungle Combines Social and Financial History

Mozart in the Jungle, by Blair Tindall, was autobiographical as well as factual. Although some of us had watched the Amazon video serialization of the book, we found that the show was very different from the book. Morna and I both said we were looking for the show’s story when we were reading the book. the main character in the show is a conductor, and there is no such main character in the book; Carla suggested that this character in the show was a composite of numerous conductors and/or other powerful musicians who were in the book.

The author indicates that her personal sex life began in high school, with first one relationship and then another, both with men in who were older than she and in more powerful positions in the musical world they inhabited. Both men took advantage of her in ways that today would be called abusive. One of the men was a teacher almost three times her age. The author tells of numerous short relationships with numerous men over the years. She matured into relationships with men who helped her find musical gigs.

The narrative went back and forth between the author’s personal memories and factual presentations of financial needs of orchestras and how orchestras changed and evolved over the second half of the 20th century, mostly in the United States and mostly due to the financial situation. We discussed the increasing costs and resulting decreasing numbers of orchestras and performances. There was a lot of focus in the book about patrons of the arts.  Marcia read aloud a section saying people should support the arts. Cindy T. gave an example about someone she knows who plays an annual flute concert; Cindy said there is a preponderance of aged people in the audience. She said her daughter had worked to develop an opera and the whole thing fell through, along with her daughter’s job.

Morna was impressed by Tindall’s explanation of how much baggage went along with the orchestra when they travelled, with the string basses and large brass instruments and all the other instruments requiring special packaging and moving. These costs are tremendous every trip. Cindy V. said Shen Yun, a currently successful traveling show of Chinese dance, has elaborate costumes and brings an entire orchestra with them. Dennis noted that lately the operas have been using a virtual chorus projected on the back curtain. Cindy said that Shen Yun did this, too, instead of transporting the whole chorus everywhere.

We also discussed the status of the arts and the change in opinion wherein the study of music used to be correlated with success but now is not seen this way. The arts are costly and are not being appreciated as much as the artists deserve. The author of the book changed occupations, going to journalism school, where she was encouraged to write this memoir, and evolving into writing a music column for the New York Times. Though it was published in 2005, Mozart in the Jungle continues to have a role in analyzing the history of orchestra and in discussing the arts as an endangered part of culture.