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May 3, 2017

In attendance:  Liz Clarke, Vivian Krone, Janice Loschiavo, Lois Pagnozzi, Meta Pitrelli, Sharon Rome, Barbara Santillo, Tina Segali, Marilyn Sinisi, Joan Swensen.

Absent: Cathy Quinn.  Emeritus: Donna Sabetta, Jeri Stangl.images-1

Back at Joan’s after the winter hiatus, the group marveled at the rapid passage of time. All were disappointed about Cathy’s absence and wished her well. Barbara said she would try to set a date with Cathy for lunch, to which all would be welcome. While waiting for the pizza to arrive, the group reviewed a Memorial HS MEMO from May, 1967, in which Barbara appeared on the front page and Tina on the back. On page 2 was an article featuring Bob Catanzaro.

 

Book & Author: American Pastoral, by Philip Roth

Questions and Comments: 

  • Responding to the question of why she chose this novel, Lois explained that it had won a Pulitzer, was written by a NJ author whom we hadn’t read before, and that it had been recommended by Teri Cerullo during a luncheon.
  • Liz commented on how the book reflected our lives: the Newark riots, the war in Vietnam, Watergate, terrorist groups like the Weathermen.
  • Sharon agreed, and added that she could identify with the Swede because she wants everything to go smoothly, without any ripples. Lois and Liz added that they, too, felt they were similar in temperament to the Swede.
  • What about Jerry? Was he successful because he had become an important surgeon? Was he the resentful brother? He was more like the father, but he had the strength to get away from him.
  • Janice recommended the audiotape of the novel, commenting on the animated reading.
  • Some felt that sections of the book were confusing. Indeed some didn’t realize that Meredith does NOT come home at the end and that the father does NOT die, that this is merely the imagining of the Swede. Also not clearly understood was that the novel is the imagining of Nathan, the stand-in for Roth.
  • What was the point of the meal that the Swede invites Nathan to? He never makes it clear, and it is only at the reunion that the Nathan learns of Meredith.
  • Was Meredith’s later violent acts the result of a combination of factors (her father’s kiss, her own jealousy of her mother, her stuttering) or was she just wacky? The group seemed to feel that she was just wacky.
  • Could Meredith have stopped stuttering? Liz explained that everyone stutters when first learning to talk but that only 1% don’t get over this stuttering. Focusing helps. Stutterers don’t stutter when singing, for example, and Meredith didn’t stutter when she was making the bombs.
  • Do we have control over what happens to us or to our children? This question stimulated much discussion over the role of parents, and the causality between what the parents do (or do not do) and how the children turn out. On page 281, the Swede is thinking regarding his daughter, “…there is no connection. How we lived and what she did? Where she was raised and what she did? It’s as disconnected as everything else-it’s all of part of the same mess!…Causes, clear answers, who there is to blame. Reasons. But there are no reasons. She is obliged to be as she is. We all are. Reasons are in books…. It is not rational. It is chaos. It is chaos from start to finish.” The group’s thinking, however, was that the Swede never gave Merry boundaries, he didn’t want her to be angry with him. Even when she was young, she wasn’t disciplined. Liz commented that raising children is not as simple as A + B = perfect children.   Lois’ comment resonated: It’s difficult to be a parent. You try to do the best you can. Sometimes you fall short. Amen.
  • The question of Rita Cohen, her role in the terrorism, her relationship with Meredith (or lack of one), her interactions with the Swede, all were discussed without any clear-cut understanding of this character’s true nature.
  • Dawn was a more complex character than the initial description of a Miss American contestant. She may have had a plan for her life but it didn’t work out the way she thought it would.
  • What does American Pastoral mean? The book was a metaphor for the lost American dream. At the end of WWII, America was riding high, victorious over a despicable enemy, the hero soldiers home, working, buying homes, building families. It only took 25 years before it turned ugly. Gloves are a perfect symbol in the book.
  • Barbara commented that the dinner party at the end of the novel was like an Albee play where everything goes downhill.
  • Dawn and the Swede had a complete break after Meredith’s incident. She wanted to escape from where her life had taken her, thus the face lift, the affair, the new home.
  • What would you have said if the Swede had called you (as he called Jerry) after seeing Meredith again in Newark? Did Jerry and the Swede eventually become part of each other’s lives?
  • What do you think happens to Meredith? Was she ever sorry for what she did? She had mental issues. She was exhausted by her life.

The book was given a rating of 4.0.

Next Meeting: Wednesday, June 7, beginning at 5:00 p.m., at Joan’s house in Mahwah. Assignments include: Tina, wine and lottery tickets; Sharon, dessert; Lois and Liz, salads; Janice, cheese and crackers; Barbara, fruit salad; Vivian, small plates.

Next Book: selected by Meta, is Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf. Cathy will choose for July, Sharon for August.

Submitted by Tina Segali, May 7, 2017

Review of Our Souls at Night, from the NY Times:

Kent Haruf, who died in November at the age of 71, was best known for his justly praised novel “Plainsong” (1999). Haruf set all of his books in the fictional small town of Holt, Colo., integrating his bare-bones descriptions of the high plains so strikingly and crucially into his plots that setting is generally the first thing people mention about his work. But this emphasis can make Haruf sound parochial. In fact, his great subject was the struggle of decency against small-mindedness, and his rare gift was to make sheer decency a moving subject.

“Our Souls at Night,” his final novel, opens with an evening visit that Addie Moore pays to her longtime neighbor, Louis Waters. Both are widowed — Addie is 70, Louis about the same — and Addie makes the surprising proposal that they begin sleeping together, without sex, just to talk in the dark and provide the sleep-easing comfort of physical company. They don’t know each other all that well, but Addie has decided to ask at once for what she really wants. It’s an odd premise, but we get to watch these two, night by night, pass through phases of awkwardness, intimacy and alliance.

The town soon gossips, and Louis’s daughter complains, but why should they care? They narrate their pasts to each other — the death of a child, a serious affair. The first complication is the arrival of Addie’s 6-year-old grandson, sent while his parents work out a separation. Louis proves adept at tending to the shaken boy and even gets him a dog from the pound. Scenes of Louis watching over the child — during cookouts, town parades, trips into the backcountry — balance charm and a nicely spring-loaded tension.

As the town assumes Addie and Louis are already having sex, the reader is left to wonder: Will they ever? When they have to spend the night apart from each other’s embrace, we get this lovely bit of flirting (Haruf omits quotation marks):

“Sometimes you’re a pretty nice man.

“I suppose we’re going to have to stay like this, divided all night.

“I’ll think good thoughts across to you.

“Don’t make them too racy. It might disturb my rest.

“You never know.”

The scene in which these two finally do approach the great, uncertain experiment of intercourse has good moments, but suffers from sparse dialogue. No one wants to accuse a writer like Haruf of underwriting — it would be like complaining that Rothko didn’t use enough colors — but the unsaid might have been hinted at by access to characters’ thoughts. He uses both characters’ points of view throughout, but very temperately, respecting their privacy. The result is a kind of politeness that was absent from “Plainsong,” where (for instance) in one haunting scene two preteen boys peek through the window of an abandoned house as a high school girl is persuaded by her boyfriend to have sex with his friend.

Physical life is always before us in ­Haruf’s fiction. In “Eventide,” a rancher is battered by a bull; in “Benediction,” the main character faces a slow death by cancer. “Our Souls at Night” does not avoid this candor, but it goes lighter on its subjects; in the scenes between Addie and Louis I was sometimes reminded of the famous difficulty of writing about good people.Arcades

But enough about sex. The chief opposition this couple faces comes less from their own physical limits — they can cope, with good humor — than from the interference around them. A spoilsport, motivated by fear and greed, has his say. Addie has been adamant about not caring what the town thinks; early on, there’s a nicely wry moment in which the two of them have lunch at the town cafe, sitting at a central table and flaunting their ­alleged torrid romance. But an intensifying pressure later threatens what is closest to her.

Back story is crucial in the progress of this novel, and takes up a high percentage of pages. The recollections are most touching when the characters regret what they didn’t get right, as when Addie remembers the aftermath of her husband’s death and its effect on their son, Gene:

“But even now I can see it all clearly and feel that kind of otherworldliness, the sense of moving in a dream and making decisions that you didn’t know you had to make, or if you were sure of what you were saying. Gene was terribly upset by it. . . . It would have been better if we could have helped each other but that didn’t happen. I don’t think I tried too hard myself.”

Haruf’s plots tend to turn on gruff characters evincing tenderness, so a moment like this, when they fail to do so, becomes especially poignant.

In this last book, Haruf, a very loved author, seems occasionally to speak to his longtime audience directly, as when Louis offers a wry opinion of the real-life Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ theatrical productions of Haruf’s books: “He took the physical details from Holt . . . but it’s not this town. All that’s made up.”

This is a playful detail in a book that saves its saddest parts for the end. “Our Souls at Night” has less grit than “Eventide,” with its Dickensian views of the lives of the poor, or “Plainsong,” where favorite characters draw relentless spite; its tone is milder and more melancholy. But the novel runs, like his others, on the dogged insistence that simple elements carry depth, and readers will find much to be grateful for.

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