At the Sunday Morning Book Club of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston, we finished our discussion of INCOGNITO by David Eagleman. I waxed and waned on this book quite a bit - probably more so on this book than any I have read recently. I found some chapters very enlightening and other chapters kind of "thin" possibly written mainly to entertain and achieve a bestseller status (which it did). But the final chapter did not disappoint and was the best part of the book.

I learned some minor details about things such as seizures of those with temporal lobe epilepsy which induce victims of this disease (or condition) to hear voices from an external presence such as God and often to be hyper-religious. It has been speculated by some neuro-scientists that Muhammad had such seizures as well as Joan of Arc.

I also learned not such minor details such as in David Eagleman's opinion, the Human Genome Project was a failure. He said that we HAD to complete it but that doesn't mean it achieved the expectations that many hoped for. Basically the Human Genome Project convinced many scientists (perhaps not all?) that the complexity of our DNA is to such a degree that finding solutions for diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and kidney disease has been moved out to a much further horizon in time.

And continuing on the subject of complexity, combined with the subject of reductionism which basically is a method of scientific inquiry where scientists spend lots of time in labs examining molecules, Eagleman indicated he thought we needed to totally re-think this method of inquiry - that it was doomed to failure - can't remember if he used these exact words but this was my conclusion based on what I read of his opinions. He was definitely pessimistic about successfully understanding human life if we didn't radically pursue other paths of investigation. Made a few of us in our discussion think of the often used term "paradigm shift".

He sums up this point near the end of the book by writing the following:

A meaningful theory of human biology cannot be reduced to chemistry and physics, but instead must be understood in its own vocabulary of evolution, competition, reward, desire, reputation, avarice, friendship, trust, hunger, and so on - in the same way that traffic flow will be understood not in the vocabulary of screws and spark plugs, but instead in terms of speed limits, rush hours, road rage, and people wanting to get home to their families as soon as possible when their workday is over.

Looking forward to our discussion next Sunday, July 15th when we will begin a new book titled THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by Will Durant. More information about our group can be found at

Twenty five of us from Houston Montrose Great Books crowded into the conference room on the first floor of the Houston Freed Montrose Library last Thursday, July 5th to discuss SENSE OF AN ENDING by Julian Barnes. Almost too many but can't deny there was lots of energy in the room. One had to be aggressive to get their points heard except when at the end of the discussion, we go around the room in a very civilized fashion and ask for input and final words from each attendee (it's okay to pass) in a "one at a time" mode.

David lead the group and I can't remember the question he started with. I DO remember that nearly everyone expressed great appreciation for the quality of writing. I also remember that though many thought the quality of writing was quite good, they thought the story didn't measure up. Most felt there was too much ambiguity causing frustration on the part of the reader who was enticed to solve several mysteries presented by the story but not given enough information to come to any solutions. Major themes included aging, memories, time, and corroboration by others of your own life and behaviour. The protagonist, Tony, passes from adolescence to old age (or late middle age) at 60.

The writing is so spectacular, in my opinion, it didn't bother me that the story had so many frustrating ambiguities. My summary at a high level would probably be "life is complicated". The protagonist is a fairly good "universal man" and is depicted in all his faults and his good traits. But one key element is having a poor memory about what really happened in his earlier years regarding a favorite friend named Adrian and a girlfriend named Victoria.

One particularly astute review from the web on had a great conclusion, in my opinion: "..past events are easier to understand from the historical perspective, the fact that one can see an event in its entirety, more objectively, and from various angles with the passage of time, which allows for a more accurate account of that event. In other words, it's hard to maintain a clear perspective on something while in the thick of things."

It just so happens that I am reading INCOGNITO by David Eagleman at this time also for another group. And one of the premises of INCOGNITO is that our consciousness (human consciousness) is notoriously unreliable. Because SENSE OF ENDING is a very recent book (won the Booker Prize for 2012), and because I have been reading about recent discoveries in neuroscience in so many prominent places such as the NYTimes, The Economist and The New Yorker, I'm wondering if the author of SENSE OF AN ENDING didn't have in mind when he wrote the book some of these recent studies about the poor reliability (and in fact just plain incorrect) memories that most of us apparently have according to the experts.

And I'll close this review with some quotes from the book which I found intriguing or humorous or insightful:

  • "..I would be hit by a sense of what I can only call pre-guilt: the expectation that she was going to say or do something that would make me feel properly guilty."
  • "..look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking back from that future point. Learning the new emotions that time brings."
  • "We end up belonging to the same category, that of the non-young."
  • "Do you know something I dread? Being an old person in a hospital and having nurses I've never met calling me Tony. ...Of course by the time this happens, over familarity from he nursing staff may be way down my list of anxieties; but even so."
  • "It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others."
  • "..nostalgia means the powerful recollection of strong emotions.."
  • "Sometimes I think that the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn't all it's cracked up to be."
  • "Some Englishman once said that marriage is a long dull meal with the pudding served first."

Looking forward to our next meeting on Thursday, August 2nd at 6pm at Houston Freed Montrose Library when we will be discussing THE CONFIDENCE MAN by Herman Melville. More details about upcoming discussions for our group can be found at

There were nineteen of us attending Montrose Great Books at Houston Freed Montrose Library last night (June 7, 2012) discussing A HOUSE FOR MR BISWAS. After some initial biographical info about the Nobel prize winning author V.S. Naipaul, and info about the history of Trinidad especially pertaining to indentured slavery, Jim who moderated the discussion began with a question asking what we thought about changes that Mr. Biswas made during the course of the story - whether he DID change and was it for better or for worse?

It didn't take long for several attendees to voice very negative opinions about the main character and about the culture of family dysfunction described in the book.

Among the numerous topics covered included

  • the likability of the character of Mr. Biswas - improved as story developed
  • the constant search for identity and independence by Mr. Biswas
  • the parenting by Mr. Biswas and the attitude toward his children - waivered
  • the marriage of Mr. Biswas and Shama (a member of the Tulsi family) and the position of women in the story
  • class and the caste system - how being Brahmin affected Mr. Biswas
  • the immaturity of Mr. Biswas initially as demonstrated by his rebelliousness even when others in his wife's family tried to help him
  • his attitude toward his children and how it changed
  • the poverty of Mr. Biswas and his family as well as his wife's family
  • how the roles of the children became more and more important as the story progressed
  • the loneliness of Mr. Biswas and the lack of interpersonal relationships in the story
  • the focus of Mr. Biswas on having his own house, whether he was buying a too expensive dolls house for his daughter or whether he was borrowing money for a house that was falling down and didn't even have a back door.
  • the ending was enigmatic with very little drama and reconciliation of money issues was left for his children to deal with.

I didn't actually count "votes" but as we went around the room at the end of the discussion as we always do giving everyone a chance to voice their final conclusions along with anything else they didn't have a chance to bring up earlier, I would estimate that about half the group indicated that they didn't like the story. Some disliked it so much that they said they didn't plan to read anything else by Naipaul. One person mentioned that the only reason she came to the discussion was to have the chance to say how much she disliked the book.

On the other hand, there were numerous attendees who liked it including me. Though once I learned that a large part of the story was autobiographical, I realized that this was the part I didn't like. When authors are telling someone's life story, they end up eliminating many opportunities to use metaphors and symbols expressing ideas, in my opinion.

There were others who generally enjoyed the book too and all thought the writing was very good. One attendee from Trinidad explained that Trinidad culture had changed considerably since the book was written in 1961. We discussed the fact that Trinidad gained independence from the British Empire in 1962 indicating that it was not a sovereign country during the story of Mr Biswas.

It was at this point where one attendee brought up the possibility that the Tulsi family might be a metaphor for the ruler(s) of the British Empire. Since I had read THE MYSTIC MASSEUR by Naipaul, I was struck by a familiar thought about the struggle for identity by non-native citizens of the British Empire that was a theme in THE MYSTIC MASSEUR as well. So I knew I would be spending part of today in investigating this connection with THE HOUSE FOR MR. BISWAS.

Since we spend so much time talking about the book during the meeting, we use time after the meeting next door at the Black Lab Restaurant to do our socializing. And it was here that I learned that others also planned to do some investigating. If this investigation is done before the meeting, it takes some of the fun out of the learning experience in my opinion (and also to some extent detracts from the Great Books principle that we can figure out the book on our own and don't need the experts - for the most part). But NEXT DAY investigations are great and in this case, I found web pages written by those who made this same connection with the political world and Mr. Biswas. See below.

For example:

  • from:
    "To Mr. Biswas, it is a typical joined family which functions on the same pattern as the British empire in West Indies. Hanuman House provides shelter to Mr. Biswas but wants total dilution of his identity in return."
  • from:
    "The novel, A house for Mr.Biswas is the West-Indian epic. The story of the West-Indies is also the story of Mr.Biswas and the Tulsi family. Historylessness, lack of definite cultural past, search for unity at cultural level, colonialism, multiculturalism, brokenness of land, fragmentation of minds are some of the dominant features which contribute to the West-Indian ethos."

Looking forward to our discussion next month on July 5th when we will discuss SENSE OF AN ENDING by Julian Barnes

Enjoyed the Montrose Great Books discussion last night (April 5th) at the Houston Freed Montrose Library where 21 of us discussed LOLITA by Vladimir Nabokov. Charles led our discussion which was great with no one blaming Lolita for anything (thank goodness).

Everyone loved the writing but most (if not all) agreed it was like viewing the Mona Lisa in a sewer. Big unanswered question - what was intent of the author? (Of course we don't believe what he says in the epilogue). Was he just enjoying thumbing his nose at the reader in contempt or laughing at us as he was forcing us to endure the putrid environment so we could enjoy the beautiful writing or was it autobiographical to some extent or what?

As usual, I always have more questions afterwards. Apologies that this is such a short entry (maybe some of you will be glad, LOL) but thought it was better to put something short here rather than nothing at all (especially since it has been so long since I've written here).

Next time on May 3, 2012, we will discuss selected essays from LETTERS FROM THE EARTH by Mark Twain. More details at /

The Houston Montrose Great Books discussion last night, Oct 6, 2011 at the Houston Freed Montrose Library was extremely enjoyable in my opinion though the book RABBIT, RUN by John Updike wasn't the most pleasant of reading experiences for me.

Jean was a very capable moderator of twenty-one (21) attendees whose opinions were all strong but widely divergent. FYI - Jean moderated because she was the one who originally submitted the title for our ballot. For those not aware, we vote every six months on books which generally are winners of major literary awards or whose authors are winners of major literary awards or whose authors are writers of traditional classics such as Tolstoy, Hemingway, etc..

In response to one of Jean's first questions, many attendees were very quick to voice the opinion that they thought Harry Angstrom, otherwise known as "Rabbit" and the main character was a narcisistic, immature, misogynistic, jack-ass. My contribution to this was the opinion that Harry was missing any self-awareness, consequently he was always making "messes" and didn't appear to understand how he might be responsible or how he might avoid making mistakes in the future.

One of the questions Jean asked the group was why Harry was given the nickame of "Rabbit" by the author. I thought one interesting observation that came later but was very pertinent was that Harry had many animal qualities, driven by hormones, fear, pleasure, and stimulation. He didn't seem to have much cerebral activity going on though nearly every one seemed to agree he was fairly smart. Everyone laughed when someone else commented that Harry seemed to procreate like a rabbit. One of his final acts in the book was the act of "running" from a woman whom he had gotten pregnant and who wasn't his wife and who had wanted to use contraception but Harry was opposed because he liked for things to "just happen".

Most agreed that the story was an accumulation of incredibly mundance observations and details, so mundane that it was very tedious and/or uncomfortable to read. All agreed that the author was great, brilliant, a genius or pick your adjective if it relates to a writer with great talent. But many though not all agreed that the style of writing was not appealing to those who enjoy efficient verbage which accomplishes the most vivid mental pictures with the least amount of words. This is pretty much opposite of how one would describe John Updike's style in this book.

The mundane details were astonishing in the first sex scene between Harry and Ruth. Though in general, the book seemed "dated" to me and not characteristic of a more modern style that I prefer, the details in this sex scene appeared to be more modern than not, and one attendee commented that this seemed to be amazing in how close it comes to being pornography without being pornography, a type of writing that seems much more common now than it was back in the 60's when this book was written.

Another aspect of Updike's style in this book which I mentioned in the discussion was the reference to body parts in almost every encounter Harry had with others, whether female or male, parent or child, sexual or not sexual - legs, thighs, mounds of flesh and lots of references to "faces", whether it was at times where Harry couldn't look at someone's "face" or whether he was petting someone's "face" or whether he noticed how angry their "facial" expression was. In one case he dreamed about "Janice's face" rather than dreamed about "Janice". These of course can be important details but why weren't the descriptions about someone being angry rather than their face being angry? We didn't have an answer for that question.

All of the characters were discussed either in depth or at last partially including Harry's high school coach Tothero, Harry's wife Janice, his parents and his prostitute girlfriend Ruth, the Episcopalian minister Eccles and his wife Lucy as well as Janice's parents and Harry's son, Nelson.

One final question I'll mention that was brought up in our discussion but which remained unanswered was the theme of religion. One of the characters was an Episcopalian minister who tried to be a mentor to Harry but was unsuccessful. What was Updike trying to accomplish with this character as well as with many other settings where a church was included or where discussions about Harry's belief or lack of belief in God were included at various stages in the story? Something to ponder about and research the web about which is what I like to do AFTER the discussion, not before. This is a particular rule I like to follow so I can remain ignorant about authoritative interpretations of a work until later after I have formed my own opinion.

Looking forward to our next discussion November 3rd at Houston Freed Montrose Library from 6pm to 8pm. Discussion will be followed by socializing at the Black Lab restaurant next door to the library (we don't normally do too much socializing during the discussion). The book next time will be HUNGER by Knut Hamsun. More info on our website at

Enjoyed the discussion of the Houston Central Market Book Club last night, August 8th, 2011. Alice M. lead eighteen attendees in a discussion of THE PLAGUE OF DOVES by Louise Erdrich. It is the story of a small community of Indians, Whites and mixed bloods who are tangled up in an unsolved murder in the early 20th century in North Dakota. It was fiction except for a couple of characters named Louis Riel and Holy Track.

Alice began with biographical information of the author and then proceeded to ask numerous open-ended questions of the group as the moderator is supposed to do. Most of us (except one) had never heard of the author. But all were impressed with the amazingly beautiful writing and the characterizations. The characters who grew up during the course of the story were particularly endearing - many in our group shared how they could relate to the innocence and also deviousness of Evelina, Joseph and Corwin as they navigated with difficulty through their childhood in a community where secrets and clannishness and bigotry were prevalent.

Also, appreciated by everyone was the humor portrayed by characters such as Mooshum, Evelina's grandfather who enjoyed irritating Father Cassidy, the Catholic priest who continued to promote regular Sunday mass attendance despite an unwilling audience.

The book also included more serious aspects such as abhorrent behavior by the leader of a religious cult who abused his wife and children. Also serious was the juvenile delinquency of a young man who is nearly imprisoned for robbery until Judge Coutts uses creativity in passing punishment requiring that the young man learn to play the violin from the old man, Shamengwa (brother of Mooshum). We all learned that the musical skill that developed so beautifully was a gift that the young man inherited from his forebears and which he almost missed the opportunity to develop had it not been for the wise Judge.

Evelina early in the story as she narrates the first part describes "romantic trials" that she learns about when she "listened to Mooshum not only from suspense but for instructions on how to behave when our moment of recognition or perhaps our romantic trial should arrive." After thinking about the story during and after the discussion, I've come to the conclusion that this statement summarizes the book best. I've become convinced that the fragmented nature of the stories are not fragmented if you consider it to be organized around "romantic trials" or pairs - such as Mooshum and Neve, Aunt Geraldine and Judge Coutts, Cordelia and Judge Coutts, Evelina and Corwin, Mooshum and Junesse, Marn and Billy, John Wildstrand and Maggie, John Wildstrand and Neve, Neve and Billy, Evelina and Nonette, Evelina and Sister Godzilla, etc. etc. - lots and lots more, too many to include here even if I remembered them all without looking back at the text.

But as we went around the room giving everyone a chance to give their final general opinion or mention something they hadn't had a chance to mention earlier, there was a majority who said that the quality of the writing was what they liked best about the book. Though it was definitely fragmented as many mentioned, the skill of the author linking all the characters together relating them to one incident in the past, the unsolved murder, was phenomenal. Definitely a great book in my opinion, one that if read again, I'm sure I would gain even more insight and pleasure.

Looking forward to next months discussion of ONE AMAZING THING by Chitra Divakaruni on September 12th by our Houston Central Market Book Club

FYI - Our September book was chosen as part of an annual Houston city-wide initiative to promote the reading of one book by everyone in the city. There will be other discussions around the city also. Check their website at for more details.

Sixteen attendees at the Montrose Great Books book club on June 2, 2011 gathered to discuss THE YACOUBIAN BUILDING . I was surprised to hear how well the book was received in the group. One of the attendees who had immigrated to the U.S. from Egypt in 1980 when she was fourteen years old and whose mother was still living in Cairo gave us some first hand knowledge of her experiences. Of most interest, I thought was her description of how women's dress had changed. In 1980, the city was very European and now when she recently visited last year before the uprisings, nearly every woman in the street wore a Burqa. Her mother who is quite elderly told her daughter how she had recently been harassed in the streets because she wasn't wearing a Burqa.

One of the themes of the book included the religion of Islam. One of the characters, Taha, wanted a job as a police officer but was turned down because his father had the job of doorkeeper, a job with no status. Though Egyptian laws prohibited rejections like this, because of corruption, Taha had no channel for justice. As a result, his bitterness drove him to protesting with students, and subsequently being tortured and ultimately becoming a terrorist. In a terrorist operation by a group he joins, he kills the man who tortured him.

The book was a "slice of life" as described by one attendee. Because it was intended to represent reality rather than using symbols and metaphors for its message or messages typical of a "roman a clef", there were many themes including Egyptian culture and history and customs, poverty, corruption, homosexuality and heterosexual sexual and romantic liasons, political unrest, family loyalty, and rights (or lack therof) of Egyptian Islamic women.

Though the story had some stereotypical characters and some Danielle Steele type story elements (i.e. a soap opera of wealth and poverty, idyllic romance and/or romance gone sour,etc.), I am still glad I read it. I enjoyed the originality of the context and location of the story which was the community of people, mostly Islamic, in Cairo, Egypt living in and on the roof of a building that exists there today. And also the quality of the writing was first rate. The author is quite a story-teller. I found this to be a bit of a "page turner" especially once you get into it and get accustomed to the foreign names (there are lots of them). The translation has won awards and may be part of the reason the quality is not lacking.

I especially recommend this if you're American and would like to visit a place that is probably foreign to how you live in your day to day life. Our group reads so many (though not all) American and British authors, I was glad of this chance to visit a place totally foreign to anything I have ever experienced.

Following the discussion, we elected new titles to be added to our existing reading list. New titles selected include:

  • RABBIT, RUN by John Upike
  • HUNGER by Knut Hamsun
  • WASHINGTON SQUARE by Henry James
  • FRANNY AND ZOOEY by J.D. Salinger

Looking forward to next months discussion of THE CYBERIAD by Stanislaw Lem on July 7 at 6pm at The Havens Center, 1827 W. Alabama, Houston, TX.

The Houston Central Market Book Club met six days ago (April 12, 2010) so I thought I'd better start writing soon or else I will totally forget the things I want to say about our discussion on ANNA KARENINA by Tolstoy. I probably will forget lots of things anyway but that hopefully will be a good thing and prevent me from writing such a long blog on the subject.

One thing I definitely haven't forgotten and probably won't is that Jackie was a great moderator for this discussion. Given the facts that the book was 800 plus pages long and that there were twenty attendees including three new members also increased the skill required for moderating the group but Jackie handled it very well.

One of the primary themes of discussion was of course Tolstoy's portrayal of Anna - was he sympathetic to her problems? what were her problems? how did they differ from the problems Vronsky, her lover encountered as a result of their affair? how did the way Anna dealt with her problems differ from how Levin dealt with being disappointed in love, at least at first?

Considering the stature of ANNA KARENINA as a masterpiece in world literature, much has been written about all of this and more on the web. Because ANNA KARENINA was an Oprah's Book Club selection several years ago, this means that those of us interested in reading what the world thought about the book had even more material to help in forming our opinions. But in our book club, which is affiliated with Great Books, we discourage bringing in outside sources, at least during the main part of our discussion. We try to arrive at our own conclusions without help from outside reviewers.

If any attendee has read the outside reviews, and of course I'm sure there were several who did, we ask that they present the ideas as their own and more importantly, be prepared to defend the ideas in their own words, not always an easy thing.

As I'm writing this, I haven't yet explored the web for literary opinions. I plan to do that but I wanted to finish this write-up first so I wouldn't be tempted to include ideas not covered in our discussion here. My first reaction to the discussion was my amazement that we had such a good turnout given that most of the attendees are people who work outside the home and some even with children at home. I was impressed that there was so much interest in reading literature of great quality and stature.

One of my questions and comments during the discussion was my observation that Tolstoy spends quite a bit of time at the beginning of the story introducing Stiva, who is Anna's brother. I was a bit impatient waiting for Anna to come on the scene. I wonder if this might have been one of Tolstoy's reasons for this technique, which causes the reader to endure the suspense before they can finally "see" Anna. One viewpoint from the group about this point explained that the verbage about Stiva and his wife Dolly was also necessary to set up the story as it depicts the happiness or unhappiness of the main characters or couples, i.e. Stiva and Dolly versus Anna and Vonsky versus Levin and Kitty.

We talked about the descriptions of the different forms of passion that can be applied to all the main characters in these relationships. Stiva had no self-control and felt no inclination to feel any guilt about his affairs or even to try to change despite how much it hurt his wife. Dolly was worn out and disappointed in dealing time after time with Stiva's affairs but remained tied to the marriage in the end because of her children. Levin, though tempted on a couple of occasions including once with Anna, because of his dedication to his work was able to keep from following Stiva's example. In fact, Levin seems not to understand Stiva's propensity for extravagant spending and womanizing. We all agreed that "Levin versus Stiva" was another metaphor for the "traditional versus liberal" and "Moscow versus Petersburg" and "country versus city" dichotomies.

We all seemed to agree that the inclusion of "women's issues" by Tolstoy was definitely present though we didn't come to any conclusion about to what extent the treatment by Tolstoy was similar to modern feminism. Given the time the book was written and the culture of Tolstoy's Russia, we thought it certainly was a sign of advanced thinking regarding the inclusion of intelligent, educated, aristocratic women being bored along with the depiction of a double standard leading to a difference in how Vronsky suffered from the affair versus how Anna suffered as a result.

An aspect to the same issue was that Anna, unlike Levin had no activity that could help her keep her mind on constructive activity. Her isolation from her friends in society was imposed on her because of her separation from her husband Alexei. Vronsky felt no such repercussions and was able to be part of political events and his hospital charity without any concern that he would be ostracized as Anna was in the scene where she ventured to the theatre with her Aunt. Though Tolstoy doesn't allow his description of Anna to be totally sympathetic because he paints her as blaming Vronsky unfairly for things that aren't his fault. He also shows her using her high degree of beauty and charm to dally cruelly with the feelings of Levin, no matter how brief. He paints her as a character deeply conflicted because of her basically having to choose between the love of her son versus the love of Vronsky.

We talked about the religious theme and how many of the characters whom the author depicted sympathetically chose to practice their religion differently. The main example of this was Levin and his wife Kitty. Levin who initially was an unbeliever but who was converted during the course of the story chose to practice in a way that was different from the more traditional religious practice of his young wife but from what we could tell, this wasn't necessarily a negative difference. Instead Tolstoy was using this as an example of how we are all different. The complex descriptions of the characters and especially their mental thoughts and the process by which they came to conclusions and decided to act or not act was exceptionally rich and a pleasure to read. As someone mentioned, Tolstoy even tells us what is going on inside the mind of Levin's dog when he is hunting and taking directions from Levin.

We discussed many other characters, themes, incidents and conclusions in the book. I am happy to report that in my opinion, we covered the major elements fairly well. From what I could tell, others agreed with my conclusion. I was pleasantly surprised that we could do such a good job and a satisfying one of talking about such a complex literary masterpiece within the 2 hour limit (minus a few minutes for conclusions as we go around the table the last time).

At the end of the discussion, we elected a new slate of titles for July thru December. I'll be posting those soon at Looking forward to our next discussion on May 10, 2010 of SURFACING by Margaret Atwood.

It was an interesting discussion as usual at the Houston Central Market Book Club on Monday, October 12, 2009. We discussed THE GOOD SOLDER by Ford Maddox Ford. As usually the case, I had a much better understanding of the book by the time we finished the discussion. Jackie led the discussion of ten attendees starting with a question about the first sentence of the book which is a famous one: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." She asked "what is the sad part?".

I thought the first responder in our group was very enlightening when she noted that this sentence used the word "heard" at the end of it indicating that the narrator of the story was distancing himself from the story when in fact, he was a very key participant and not just one on the periphery listening. This was one of the first indicators of the immense denial that the narrator suffered from.

Others in our group described him as a "pushover" and also as guilty of "lying by omission". The comment about "lying" led Jackie to ask us about the credibility of the narrator. Did we believe him? Was he telling us the truth? It was noted that at one point, the narrator whose name is Dowell tells us that Florence, his wife, was never out of his site and then shortly after that, he comments that in fact, yes, she definitely was out of his site, especially since she locked her bedroom door every evening, a bedroom that was not shared by both the narrator and his wife. What are we to think?

In response to this, we also talked about how the narrator changed his opinions numerous times from one extreme to another as he told the story. The key characters about whom his opinions changed were Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, a married couple whom the narrator classifies, numerous times as "good people". It was their dysfunctional marriage and the fact they were so mismatched that was also an example of the "saddest story" in my opinion. At times, the narrator loves them and other times, he hates them. It was at this point, I think that it became clear or clearer to me that the author was showing the "silent reader" how someone can psychologically change their mind based on events, change again and change once more. It happens. It was pointed out that this is actually a very realistic type of phenomenon. That people have both good and "dark sides" which is a theme that I greatly enjoy reading about whenever it comes up and it comes up very often in Great Books (uppercase "G" and "B").

And Edward Ashburnham definitely had a dark side. Initially, the report by the narrator is negative and in my opinion, it grows more positive and then with a diversion represented by a "vulgar" affair, becomes negative again with a final conclusion of being positive. (And maybe even more changes back and forth than what I've described here.) I don't want to provide any "spoilers", i.e. details that will impact the suspense that someone will experience not knowing how this ends so I won't continue further with events concerning Edwards mistakes or missteps or with events that were positive. But we are privy to quite a bit of information in this regard which basically constitutes most of the substance of the book.

Reading this, one might ask, what makes this story special since immoral characters or ambivalent ones are very commonplace in literature. We talked about one of the key aspects of the story being the way the author has the narrator ramble back and forth in time. It is somewhat confusing but I believe the author is simply letting us participate in the confusion the narrator experiences as he reflects on what has happened. We are viewing how the narrator arrives at an understanding about himself and the other characters. This is often something that happens in real life only after some "mulling over" or ruminating about details until things become clear. And oftentimes, the ruminating is not "linear" but instead consists of re-tracing occurrances trying to view them from different sides from the viewpoint of different people recognizing ones own lack of certainty along the way, something that the narrator does very often. This is the best part, I think - the part where the reader is privy to the psychological machinations of the narrator's mind, how it works at arriving at conclusions about himself and others after being in denial for so many years, at least twelve to be exact which was the number of years he was married to Florence. The author describes this psychological journey very well, in my opinion.

We covered details about the nine years that the narrator didn't remember really doing anything. One attendee suggested that he might be gay and I agreed this might be a possibility or at least thought that he was passive and effeminate because of his references to inadequacies in the realm of "sexual instincts". The narrator was married to Florence who didn't love him, and who was an invalid because of a heart condition or at least this is what we are led to believe in the first part. This caused the narrator to basically become her nursemaid, something that he did very well but he owns up to the fact that if he had a choice, this was not something he wanted to be.

Jackie led us back to her earlier question asking us again about "What kind of an unreliable narrator was he?" I spoke about his unreliability being due to the fact that he was not consciously aware of his real feelings and hence this ignorance impacted his reliabilty. How can you be credible about things you don't know or understand? Someone else mentioned that they couldn't imagine him not on some level understanding that his wife was deceiving him. I wonder if this isn't the weakest part of the story, that the author really stretched credulity in having us believe the narrator was deceived for so long. There were many in the group who nodded their heads at this point.

Other parts of the story we discussed included:

  • the character of his wife Florence. There was quite a bit to talk about here.
  • the character of Leonora, Edward's wife. There was even more to talk about here.
  • the theme of a woman's role being either a "madonna" or "whore" except for Leonora who started out as a "madonna" and ended up as a "whore" or worse (the way the narrator describes her) as a "normal person".
  • the predicament of women, especially Catholic women in not having Divorce as an option in a bad marriage
  • the theme of "good people" and how their appearances were very civilized but beneath their surface, very much less so. Someone in the group said she wouldn't mind living in the time the story covers (early 20th century) if she could have been one of the "good people" and everyone laughed.
  • the theme of being British versus being American which we concluded the author wrong on some of his points
  • what is meant by the term "sentimentalist" as the narrator described Edward
  • lesser female characters who were part of Edwards extra-marital life including the servant girl in the Kilsyte case, the mistress of the Duke, Mrs. Basil and Maisie and Nancy Rufford
  • Jimmy - who was a lesser male character without any dialog in the story but important in his participation in the deception of the narrator
  • the character of Nancy Rufford who was the ward of Leonora and definitely a female character falling in the category of being a "madonna"
  • the ways in which Leonora and Edward were different - regarding business and their idea of loyalty when it wasn't in their own self-interest
  • what happens to the characters in the end (which I don't want to explain here so those who haven't read this won't have the ending spoiled)
  • the theme of Catholicism which was mentioned many times (We didn't spend as much time talking about this as we probably should have.)
In going around the room at the end of the discussion when everyone has a chance to make final comments, I learned that many didn't like the book very much. But I will conclude my report here by saying that I loved the book. I may go so far as to say it is one of the top ten best books that I have ever read but I probably need to think about that a bit more. I make no claim that this report does justice to this classic. Hope anyone reading this takes time to read the book for themselves and enjoys it as much as I did.

A couple of the other attendees seemed to enjoy it as much as I did which I was glad about so I didn't feel so out of tune. Someone else had said to me they thought it was a soap opera which I don't disagree but I have never read (or seen) a soap opera with the complexity of characters described along with the complexity of the narrator's mental processes described so well and so realistically. And it was also pointed out in our discussion that there was some humor included along the way mostly in the form of British understatements. I hope to read more by this author. Books like this really contribute to my being grateful that I belong to this discussion group.

Besides the discussion, we also elected new books for our reading list. Check out our web page at to see the list. (Though it may take me a week or so to get the dates coordinated and posted so stay tuned. Haven't done this yet as of this writing.)

Looking forward to our next discussion of THE HEART OF THE MATTER by Graham Greene next time, November 9, 2009 at 7:00pm in the Community Room upstairs at Houston Central Market.

Why did the author write the novel LET THEIR EYES BE WATCHING GOD as a story that is told by the protagonist, Janie, to her best friend Phoeby? Why didn't the author just tell the story as it happened?

One reason offered by one of twelve attendees of the Montrose Great Books book club at our discussion last night on Thursday, October 1, 2009 at Houston Freed-Montrose Library was that since the story was about Janie finding her own voice, it was appropriate to have that happen as she told the story. Even in the courtroom scene at the end of the novel, her testimony and voice wasn't recorded in the book. It was pointed out that some of the revelations uncovered as the story unfolded might not have been uncovered during the novel if Janie hadn't of had the benefit of time and more maturity to discover later exactly what self-revelations she really experienced. Her journey in the novel "reframes her whole life" as someone said and this can best be understood with hindsight. This seems to support a very significant theme: that introspection and looking inward is a very good thing in order to find happiness and self-satisfaction and even more importantly to find yourself and your identity.

Some pointed out that there was more than one narrator or that Janie wasn't really the narrator. That there was an omniscient narrator even though at the beginning it is explained that Janie is telling the story to Phoeby. For example in Palm Beach after the storm when Tea Cake was "kidnapped" by two men with rifles and ordered to help dig graves for dead bodies. Janie wasn't there but the reader hears the details about the events along with Tea Cake's frustration about not being able to get back to Janie. No one felt this was confusing, just "poetic license" more or less.

One of the first topics to surface as a result of a contribution from an attendee and not as the answer to a question was the opinion voiced by one person that the book was an extremely derogatory portrayal of black culture. The discussion got very animated with nearly everyone in the room disagreeing except the person who voiced the opinion originally. What is rather amusing is that initially, I also disagreed and didn't think the portrayal was so negative but as we ended the discussion, I remembered my opinion that the portrayal of the black people at least at the end of the book during the trial WAS very negative. Funny how opinions and comments can come full circle with disagreement at first and then sometimes followed by agreement later. Discussions are always very dynamic and can be quite a learning experience, they are for me anyway. And as I've said numerous times here and at our meetings, there is no requirement that we all agree.

We talked about the symbol of the Pear Tree. On page 11, Janie remarks as she sits under a pear tree: "Oh to be a pear tree, any tree in bloom!" This would be much more desirable to her than as she goes on to say later, the "things" that her grandmother wants to offer her via a marriage to Logan Killicks, a very old and relatively prosperous landowner and widower.

Why was Janie so hostile to her grandmother about the marital arrangement? Couldn't she see that her grandmother loved her and wanted what was best for her? Some thought maybe it was because she felt like she was "sold to the highest bidder". Others thought she basically was in a loveless marriage and once she realized this, her desperation was understandable, especially given her young age.

The book, as everyone agreed, is a "coming of age" story and Janie's drive away from the "things" her grandmother wanted for her becomes stronger and stronger as time passes as reflected in passages such as on page 89 where she explains that she is "getting ready for her great journey to the horizons in search of people".

Some thought her statement on page 89, where she says "she hated her grandmother" (after she had time to think after her second marriage) was too strong, and not understandable. Others in our discussion reminded us of Janie's words: that her grandmother, Nanny, had taken the horizon and tied "it about her granddaughter's neck tight enough to choke her." "Horizon" is a strong theme and is brought up again in the end symbolizing freedom and independence and the search for ones identity plus the satisfaction of having found and strengthened ones identity with more opportunity always being just out of reach. Her grandmother had been an obstacle and almost prevented Janie from her self-discovery, something she valued more highly than anything. even her blood-relationship to her grandmother who had raised her because her own mother disappeared.

It was noted in our discussion that the fact that Janie didn't have children allowed her freedom that she otherwise wouldn't have had. Some thought no matter how much she loved Teacake, (the love of her life) she wouldn't have gone off with him had she had children to take care of. Also, if she had had children, she probably would have understood her grandmother better.

We moved on in the discussion to the subject of Jodie her second husband who everyone thought was very domineering. Despite this negative trait, most in our group didn't think of him as a bad guy. He was an exceptional leader for the town, though his pinnacle of success seemed to be when he had unequivocal power with no threat from anyone else. As someone in our discussion described him, he was a "big fish in a little pond" and seemed just fine with that and didn't seek other channels to try to improve himself or his town. In other words, his horizons were basically limited despite his initial ambitions when he first met Janie. He was of course flawed and for cultural reasons, perhaps reasons embedded in the black culture during this time (1937), his attitude toward women and how a marital relationship should be was seriously flawed also. It was commented that Janie might as well have been a slave. She was in yet another loveless marriage that as passages in the book explain, she didn't feel she had any other options. This low point basically showed that she still had a long way to go on her journey in finding herself.

I reported some biographical information at the beginning of the discussion regarding the fact that this book by Zora Neal Hurston was vilified by many in the black community including most famously by Richard Wright, author of NATIVE SON because there was no focus on rascism and on the anger of the black community. When we next talked about the theme of sexism in the book, most if not all thought that any anger in the tone of the book was focused more on the sexism as demonstrated by the black men in the little community of Eatonville, Florida where Jodie was mayor and where Janie was expected to be on a pedestal above the common black folk rather than on racism by whites.

We noted there were a few negative descriptions of white people, especially right after the storm but for the most part, most negativity was aimed at men. Even at the trial at the end of the book, the author is very generous with the white folks who side with Janie and not very generous with the black folks who unfairly turn out against Janie until all is finally forgiven. For me anyway, it became clear that the author was ahead of her time regarding the issue of sexism and that spokesmen for the black culture who were all male at the time held her accusations of sexism against her preventing them from being able to appreciate the quality of her writing.

Included at the beginning of the story were details about Janie's growing-up and about the fact that Janie's mother was half white. Janie's light and somewhat Caucasian features with straight hair contributed to Janie's isolation. As a result, she wasn't accepted so easily by blacks and of course not whites. She was accepted however by Mrs Turner, a black woman Janie met while traveling in Florida to the "muck" with her third husband, Teacake. Janie didn't welcome the friendship. Mrs. Turner was another example of the author being critical of her own race. Mrs. Turner felt herself better than most of the other blacks who unlike herself did not have Caucasian facial features and hence Mrs. Turner was a clear example of internalized racism.

This character was part of the broader picture that the author paints regarding the black community. That there are parts of this community that are dysfunctional, including sexism and their own brand of racism that contributes to the reader having a sense as described by one person in our group that we are getting a view of an anthropological study and I couldn't agree with him more. This best described what I liked best about the book, a view of the black community that I have never been shown before so eloquently. Many in our group found the story very upbeat and for some even "joyous". Just as there was negativity in this "anthropological study", there was also a lot of positive community connections in Eatonville as well as in the last part of the book that covers the time Janie spends in "the muck" with the "real love of her life" named Teacake whom she met after her second husband died.

We also talked about

  • the major theme about loneliness by women who are isolated in loveless marriages including talk about the other women in Eatonville and their lives
  • the style of the writing and whether it was similar to a Harlequin romance novel (most didn't think so but not all)
  • the use of colloquialisms and Black dialect
  • whether Janie was a risk-taker or more of an adventurer (the latter most agreed)
  • the physical violence Janie experienced at the hands of both Jodie and Teacake
  • the hurricane as a metaphor for what (some thought love as powerful as that between Teacake and Janie, others thought a God similar to that worshipped by native American Indians, i.e. nature)
  • what kind of religion did Janie follow? (several mentions of God in the book)
  • why the book was called THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD (one interesting comment, that titles sometimes are more for selling a book than for having meaning)
We ran out of time and didn't talk as much as we should have on the topics of:
  • the death of Janie's second husband, Jodie
  • Teacake and Janie's marriage, and
  • what kind of person Teacake was,
  • their experience working as field hands in the "muck" along with
  • the topic of the trial at the end of the book.
We continued discussion to some extent afterwards at The Black Labrador restaurant which is adjacent to the library where we meet but were unable to come to any conclusion about the significance of the author being so positive about the white people supporting Janie's position at the trial and negative about the black people who did not.

As we went around the circle as we usually do at the end of every discussion, inviting final comments and judgments, most of the attendees enjoyed the book. Not all of them "loved" the book, some liked it better after the discussion, some liked it better before the discussion and others found the book to be one of the best selections made by the Houston Books On the Bayou city wide reading initiative in recent history. Thanks to the Houston Public Library.

Looking forward to our discussion next month, Thursday, November 5th at 6pm at Houston Freed Montrose Library. The book we will discuss is HARDTIMES by Charles Dickens. See for more info.

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