October 5, 2016 – Notes

 In attendance:

Liz Clarke, Vivian Krone, Janice Loschiavo, Lois Pagnozzi, Cathy Quinn, Sharon Rome, Barbara Santillo, Tina Segali, Marilyn Sinisi, Joan Swensen

Absent: Meta Pitrelli (in Florida).

Emeritus: Donna Sabetta, Jeri Stangl.

Book & Author: Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple

It seemed as if there was more hubbub and confusion than usual at the beginning of this meeting. For one, some of the men had come to have dinner with Charlie before he and Joan head back down to Florida for the winter. Members’ arrivals were delayed either by traffic or mix-up. Cathy had us use an app that told us which “spirit animal” we were. The results were: Lois, lion; Cathy, dragon; Sharon, dog; Tina, jellyfish; Marilyn, eagle; Barbara, wolf; Janice, elephant; Joan, rhinoceros; Vivian, wolf; Liz, turtle. To our consternation, however, your animal changes if you try it again. Lottery tickets were distributed (a quick check revealed we didn’t win the big one), plates were piled with food, chairs arranged, and the conversation was able to start at last.

Notes and comments:

  • We let the discussion be guided by the “questions and topics for discussion” at the end of the book, which turned out to be useful.
  • Most members initially had an issue with the structure of the novel. Though it’s written from Bee’s point of view, the inclusion of letters, emails, texts, etc. from many different characters took some time to get used to.
  • Was there a correlation between Bee’s physical trials and her intuitiveness? Did she have the charm of a child? The sentiment was yes to both. She was small for her age, not spoiled, was bright and had adult-like insights at times.
  • Bee thrived despite having crazy parents and at times had to play the role of a parent. Despite everything, she was loved deeply, and never gave up looking for her mother.
  • Even though her mother had issues with the school, Bee grew and flourished there.
  • In discussing whether Bernadette was always crazy or had just recently become unhinged, the group members were asked if they ever had a moment in their life when they questioned their own sanity.
  • After Bernadette moved from Los Angeles to Seattle, she felt like a complete outsider. The other mothers in her daughter’s school bullied her and acted like a group of mean girls. Bernadette couldn’t relate to them nor could she warm up to Seattle. She also in a certain way felt superior to them, which likely contributed to their less-than-warm feelings about her.
  • The question of feeling like an outsider was posed to the group. Several members related poignant anecdotes of when they felt like an outsider.
  • Audrey Griffin seems like a complete villain for much of the book, vindictive and intolerant of Bernadette and oblivious to the sins of her own son. Finally, though, she is able to feel remorse and acts generously to Bernadette.
  • A lively discussion developed about Bernadette and Elgie’s marriage, with many feeling that Elgie was an inattentive and self-involved husband. A remark was made about his being too involved with his hard drive (don’t ask!).
  • The group debated whether it’s inevitable for women to disappear into motherhood and marriage.

Most members enjoyed the book, despite a rocky beginning, and felt the discussion enhanced their understanding and appreciation of it. The book received a 3.0 rating.

Next Meeting: Wednesday, November 9, beginning at 5:00 p.m., at Vivian’s house in Fort Lee (hopefully no traffic problems!). Liz will bring dessert, Janice fruit, Cathy lottery tickets, Tina/Lois/Marilyn wine (what does that say about our priorities??).

The December 7 meeting (Pearl Harbor Day, as Cathy pointed out) will be at Tina’s in Oradell.

Next Book: selected by Barbara, is David Brooks’ The Road to Character. If you’d rather not plunk down hard cold cash for this book, and the library is out of it, you can download it for free from the following site:

The December reading, selected by Tina, is The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead.

Submitted by Tina Segali

October 9, 2016

NY Times’ review of The Road to Character

David Brooks’s gift — as he might put it in his swift, engaging way — is for making obscure but potent social studies research accessible and even startling, for seeing consistency as the hobgoblin of little minds and for ranging as widely across the private domain as the public. There aren’t many writers on politics who will study “emotional intelligence” as closely as they do polls, and fewer still extol failure as enthusiastically as they do success. Brooks’s flaws, as he tells us with typical cheerfulness and ease at the beginning of his new book, are that “I was born with a natural disposition toward shallowness” and “I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard” (the admission itself, of course, taking some of the edge off that “narcissistic”). He is, in short, a near-ideal public commentator (for this paper and for many other media outlets) because he is happy to sacrifice complexity and nuance in order to spin a hyper-readable, lucid, often richly detailed human story that sounds far less shrill and ad hominem than most of the polarizing rants of the day.

In “The Road to Character,” he wriggles out of pigeonholes even more dramatically by delivering what feels like a very broad-brush, old-style commencement speech on the virtues of suffering, self-abasement and, truth be terribly told, a sense of sin. The “comic sociologist” who took and dispensed such provocative entertainment in his first two books, “Bo­bos in Paradise” and “On Paradise Drive,” turning a Tom Wolfean eye on the shock of the new — bourgeois bohemians and the meaning of Trader Joe’s — is now working in deadly earnest to recover what he calls “an older moral ecology.” That term, rather typically, blends left and right, but the well-intentioned Sunday School-ism of Brooks’s homily may alienate many who follow the self-described “Greenwich Village conservative” as surely as his allusions to Nietzsche and Elizabeth Gilbert confound their opponents. In the age of the selfie, Brooks wishes to exhort us back to a semiclassical sense of self-restraint, self-erasure and self-suspicion.

The challenge every seasoned practitioner of 800-word columns faces in writing a 300-page book is how to structure his riffs so that he can sprint for the duration of a marathon. In “The Road to Character,” Brooks begins with a sweeping overview of the non-intersecting worlds of moral logic and economic logic, as he has it, dividing us into an “Adam I,” who seeks success in the world, and an “Adam II,” more deeply committed to character and an inner life. He then gives us 10 or so portraits of enduring “heroes of renunciation,” easing us into the theme with such Greatest Generation stalwarts as George Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower, before alighting on such global Hall of Fame worthies, granitic-seeming but riven with inner terrors and flaws, as St. Augustine, Samuel Johnson and George Eliot. Within each brief life, he inserts an extended encomium to some useful virtue, be it humility or sacrifice or, in one case, passionate love.

It’s a deliberately once-over-lightly way of proceeding, and professional philosophers and self-styled sophisticates will bail out before the second chapter. Seasoned Brooksians will note, with fondness, that many of the qualities the author locates in the Greeks or the Puritans seem to describe his own particular stance, as he refers to the Yankee combination of “social conservatism with political liberalism” or champions Eliot as a “meliorist,” part of a grand tradition of “moral realism.” Brooks’s all-American hopefulness is ever more shadowed by an Old World sense of limitation (in his last book, “The Social Animal,” one recalls, his historian alter ego, Harold, has his mind blown as a teenager by — of all things — Edith Hamilton’s “The Greek Way”). And Brooks’s ode to the moderate in “The Road to Character” might serve as a mani­festo for his own refusal to tack too far to the left or right. It’s the same mobility that allows him to find the perfect quote from the 19th-century art historian John Ruskin, one chapter before suggesting that the percentage of high school students with an A- average or better has increased by more than 80 percent in two generations.

At the same time, his mounting interest in the way things were shortchanges Brooks’s particular talent for deriving meaning from the way things are; the freshest parts of his book come from his data-collection of the trends and incongruities of right now. In 1950, we read — as we read in “The Social Animal,” with slightly different dates — 12 percent of high school students told the Gallup Organization they considered themselves very important; by 2005, the figure was 80 percent. In a recent survey of middle-school girls, nearly twice as many said they wanted to be personal assistant to a celebrity than president of Harvard — and the person they most wanted to dine with was Jennifer Lopez (followed by Jesus Christ and Paris Hilton). Only one of the 23 members of Eisenhower’s cabinet published a memoir, Brooks tells us, while 12 out of 30 in the Reagan administration did (and nearly all their books were advertisements for themselves).

Even as he groans under a sense of his own unworthiness, as if channeling the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Brooks writes at times like a watered-down version of the great, and compulsively aphoristic, mid-20th-­century Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel: “To nurture your Adam I career, it makes sense to cultivate your strengths. To nurture your Adam II moral core, it is necessary to confront your weaknesses.” Many of these ringing pronouncements are not exactly watertight: “Adam I aims for happiness,” we’re told, “but Adam II knows that happiness is insufficient.” This just after Brooks has told us that Adam I is in fact concerned with worldly success, and that Adam II is presumably after a deeper and less impermanent kind of happiness. Perhaps the best thing one can say about the book is that in each of its sentences lurks a whole volume for a thoughtful Adam II to tease out and refine.

A deeper problem is that all the eminences and ideals extolled are covered so hastily that a passage in Chapter 8 will, again and again, clash with one in Chapter 5. Hardly have we emerged from pages about the value of reason and self-­sacrifice than suddenly, out of nowhere, Brooks is serving up a (quite stirring) ­seven-page rhapsody to romantic love. Minutes after we’ve been introduced to the charms of Montaigne and his unceasing examination of his whims and preferences, we’re advised that the lust for self-expression is treacherous. The columnist’s grace is to avoid being predictable, but across the length of a book this can result in flagrant self-contradiction.

Yet every time I was growing tired of his either/or reductiveness, Brooks would disarm me with an unexpected fact or swerve. He begins his final chapter on today’s “Big Me” sensibility by contrasting Johnny Unitas, the crew-cut, scrupulously invisible former construction-gang worker whose Baltimore Colts made it to the Super Bowl in 1969, with his opposite number, white-shoed Broadway Joe Namath of the Jets. But where many of us would see this as a contest between the square gray ’50s and the Summer of Love, Brooks ­traces Namath’s swagger back to the relieved exhilaration of the years immediately after World War II. Besides, he notes, the cult of self-esteem did have the happy effect of encouraging women, minorities and the impoverished to see themselves in the context of possibility. For every blurred piety here (“We are all ultimately saved by grace”), there’s a sentence that shames everything around it (“Philosophy is likely to be a tension between competing half-truths”).

Brooks has always been a curiosity insofar as his regular columns often summon a depth, even a gravitas, that is less evident in his books. It’s as if he can be a sage on deadline, whereas, left more space in which to lose himself, he sounds like a professional speechmaker in a hurry. I happen to agree with a lot of what he says here, but I fear he will mostly persuade those who share his assumptions already. His prescriptions are less sharp than his diagnoses, and while I’m moved by the courage involved in writing with such sincerity, a part of me wishes that all the talk about struggle and self-­mortification had been rooted in something personal.

As it is, the author begins his book by saying it’s an attempt “to save my own soul,” then leaves his soul to tremble between the lines as he affirms uncertainty with the certainty of a recent convert. Two books ago, some readers may remember, he was confidently noting how calls to our “true inner self” leave no time for sleep and Augustine’s talk of original sin is “almost irrelevant” in blue-skied America. Yet those high-toned souls who turn away from his heartfelt sermon may be denying themselves real pleasure; for what Brooks’s solemn, often troubled, sometimes infuriating work reminds us is that there are few newspaper columnists who are more fun — and fruitful — to argue with. Putting the book down, I realized that it had never so excited me as when I was convinced that it was wrong.

NY Times’ review of The Underground Railroad


By Colson Whitehead

306 pp. Doubleday. $26.95.

Colson Whitehead’s novels are rebellious creatures: Each one of them goes to great lengths to break free of the last one, of its structure and language, of its areas of interest. At the same time, they all have one thing in common — the will to work within a recognizable tract of popular culture, taking advantage of conventions while subverting them for the novel’s own purposes. “The Intuitionist,” with its dystopian concerns and futuristic mood, gave way to the folkloric past of “John Henry Days”; “Zone One,” Whitehead’s contribution to the unquenchable American thirst for zombies, was his departure from “Sag Harbor,” with its coming-of-age feeling and concessions to nostalgia. His new novel, “The Underground Railroad,” is as different as can be from the zombie book. It touches on the historical novel and the slave story, but what it does with those genres is striking and imaginative. Like its predecessors, it is carefully built and stunningly daring; it is also, both in expected and unexpected ways, dense, substantial and important.

The central conceit of the novel is as simple as it is bold. The underground railroad is not, in Whitehead’s novel, the secret network of passageways and safe houses used by runaway slaves to reach the free North from their slaveholding states. Or rather it is that, but it is something else, too: You open a trap door in the safe house or find the entrance to a hidden cave, and you reach an actual railroad, with actual locomotives and boxcars and conductors, sometimes complete with benches on the platform. “Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel,” Whitehead writes, “pinned into the dirt by wooden crossties. The steel ran south and north presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus.” The trains pass at unpredictable times and go to unpredictable places, but that is obviously good enough for those wanting to flee the misery and violence of slavery: its sheer inhumanity, a word that in Whitehead’s unflinching explorations seems to fill up with new meanings.

Meet Cora, a young slave on a Georgia cotton plantation. Her mother ran away when Cora was a little girl, and that feeling of abandonment has haunted her ever since. When she is approached by another slave about the underground railroad, she hesitates; but then life, in the form of rape and humiliation, gives her the nudge she needs. (Whitehead does here as he will do several times in the book: He opens his eyes where the rest of us would rather look away. In this, “The Underground Railroad” is courageous but never gratuitous.) In order to ensure her escape, she kills a white man, and soon she is being pursued by a notorious slave catcher named Ridgeway, a man straight out of Cormac McCarthy, whose assistant wears a necklace made with human ears. What follows is Cora’s uncertain itinerary through hell. The novel uses the architecture of an episodic tale, each episode corresponding to a new stop in the journey — the two Carolinas, then Tennessee, then Indiana — each one introducing Cora to new incarnations of evil, or the evil brought out in everyone by the poisonous mechanics of slavery.

Colson Whitehead

In one of the towns, Cora realizes that an apparently well-meaning medical center is in fact an experiment in eugenics or even genocide; in North Carolina, the bodies of tortured and burned people, both blacks and the whites who help them, hang from the trees along something called the Freedom Trail. And we begin to notice, as readers, slight departures from historical fact, places where “The Underground Railroad” becomes something much more interesting than a historical novel. It doesn’t merely tell us about what happened; it also tells us what might have happened. Whitehead’s imagination, unconstrained by stubborn facts, takes the novel to new places in the narrative of slavery, or rather to places where it actually has something new to say. If the role of the novel, as Milan Kundera argues in a beautiful essay, is to say what only the novel can say, “The Underground Railroad” achieves the task by small shifts in perspective: It moves a couple of feet to one side, and suddenly there are strange skyscrapers on the ground of the American South and a railroad running under it, and the novel is taking us somewhere we have never been before.

One of the most eloquent passages of the novel — and one that illustrates the way Whitehead’s imagination goes about its business — takes place in the Museum of Natural Wonders, in South Carolina. It is a limestone building occupying an ­entire block; when Cora arrives and asks where she should begin cleaning, she discovers that is not what is expected of her. There is a section of the museum called Living History. Like a railroad, explains the curator, the museum allows its visitors to “see the rest of the country beyond their small experience.” Cora realizes her task is to go behind a glass and act her part in a depiction of the slave experience, all this while the visitors look intensely at her from the other side. One room is called “Scenes From Darkest Africa”; another is “Life on the Slave Ship.” While Cora plays her part (silently, dutifully) in the static scenes, she begins to question their accuracy. The curator, Whitehead writes, “did concede that spinning wheels were not often used outdoors,” but counters that “while authenticity was their watchword, the dimensions of the room forced certain concessions.” And later Cora reflects:

“No slave had ever keeled over dead at a spinning wheel or been butchered for a tangle. But nobody wanted to speak on the true disposition of the world. And no one wanted to hear it. Certainly not the white monsters on the other side of the exhibit at that very moment, pushing their greasy snouts against the window, sneering and hooting. Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.”

“The Underground Railroad” is also about the myriad ways in which black history has too often been stolen by white narrators. At a performance Cora sees from a distance, a slave is played by “a white man in burned cork, pink showing on his neck and wrists.” Remembering the passages on slavery contained in the Bible, Cora blames the people who wrote them down: “People always got things wrong,” she thinks, “on purpose as much as by accident.” Whitehead’s novel is constantly concerned with these matters of narrative authenticity and authority, and so too with the different versions of the past we carry with us. Throughout my reading, I was repeatedly reminded of a particular chapter from García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” to whose handling of time Whitehead seems to owe quite a bit. In that chapter, the infamous massacre of the banana plantation workers is denied by the official versions of history and soon forgotten. But one character knows what he saw — thousands of dead traveling toward the sea on a train — and goes around trying to find someone who will remember the story. He doesn’t: People always get things wrong. In a sense, “The Underground Railroad” is Whitehead’s own attempt at getting things right, not by telling us what we already know but by vindicating the powers of fiction to interpret the world. In its exploration of the foundational sins of America, it is a brave and necessary book.