Notes from the Book Group on August, 5, 2014

Recollections of the Meeting of the Bryn Mawr Book Group on Tuesday August 5, 2014

For Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger

Present: Roo Dane, host, Anne Ipsen, Dorianne Low, Sydney Owens, and Cornelia Robart

Anne Ipsen proud showed us her new book, Abigail’s Legacy, from Ibus Press. The cover alone, a beautiful riverscape, promises a lyrical entry into the Concord stories Anne has published previously.

“That guy can write!” Sydney brought us back to the magical world of fiction. The father of a northern Midwestern family is lifted into a tornado and sees God. The exasperated mother walks out on him and their children. The eldest, Davy, is an accomplished young huntsman. Swede (we never learn why she is called that) writes poetry in the rollicking style of Robert W. Service about a heroic outlaw who never gets caught. Reuben, our eyes in this story, is mystically brought back to life at his birth by his father, but suffers badly from asthma. This and his youth confine him to be the onlooker for much of the story. He is the only witness or recipient of the father’s miracles (such as walking off a platform onto thin air while talking with God). They live together simply and companionably, not seeming much to miss the mother.

The story really takes off when Swede is aggressed by two older boys at school. Frightened, she tells Davy, who promptly beats up the boys. They, renowned bullies whom even the sheriff is unwilling to correct, reciprocate. Eventually the bullies enter the house and Davy shoots them dead. His plea of self-defense reaches no judicial ears, and he escapes from jail and hides at home. It is discovered that he had in fact lured them into a deadly trap. “They deserved what they got,” he states unrepentantly.

The family want to help him, find him, and make the law respect him. An obnoxious salesman whom the father had tolerated and fed many a time left his RV to the family when he died. Davy uses it to escape the family homestead. He becomes the outlaw of Swede’s poems, meeting impassioned eccentrics, riding across the “badlands of snow.” The family leaves their home to find him.

They eventually arrive at the home of a strong and strong-willed woman who takes them in when they can plow through the snow no further. She is a marvelous character – as are they all, richly textured and believable, even when most unlikeable. But we really liked Reuben, the protagonist, and shared his agony in the throes of asthma attacks, described in scary detail and authenticated by sufferers in our group.

In this story the bad guys are not all bad, and the good guys may not be all good.  Discussion of the gun culture in hunting country and elsewhere, of women’s rights and anecdotes about the real Women’s Room at Harvard…

Some of us fretted at the disjunct of the title and the action, but were led to admit that the end did seem given over to acceptance of how life turned out.[1]

Next reading: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. Tuesday, September 23 at 6:30, Roo’s place. Hint – it’s not about art so much as furniture, and a lot besides…

[1] And what about that title? How undescriptive of the violent action of parts of  the book! It comes from an old hymn written by Horatio Spafford, a successful Chicago businessman who lost his son to disease, his property to fire, and then all his remaining children to shipwreck. Only the wife survived. He wrote this poem in 1876, en route to join her in England. It recalls the intense Christian beliefs prevalent then, that acceptance of Christ is the answer to every pain,

“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

August 25 2014 | Book group | Comments Off

Notes from the Book Group on July 15, 2014

Recollections of the Meeting of the Bryn Mawr Book Group on Tuesday July 15, 2014

for  The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Windows and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson.


Attended by Roo Dane (host), Dorianne Low, Dodie Rees, and Cornelia Robart.

“He is amoral!” said one reader of Allan Karlsson, protagonist of this picaresque story from Sweden. Maybe, maybe not. He is an appealing character who is surrounded by havoc and happenstance wherever he goes. Fleeing from irate criminals whose money-filled suitcase Allan has opportunistically stolen in his escape from the nursing home he has climbed out the window of, (you can breathe here) he encounters odd characters who get along with each other and create a sort of family, including Sonya, the unwittingly murderous elephant.

“He is a charmer,” everyone agreed, reviewing the scrapes that Allan gets into and out of in his laid-back, unflappable way. Gallons of vodka are consumed on his accidental travels from Sweden all around Europe including Spain (Civil War), Russia (Gulags), Korea (dangerous and hunger-stricken), China (where he is saved from execution by being recognized as the savior of the Chairman’s wife) and includes one memorable binge with Harry Truman prior to his assignment as a bomb expert to the Manhattan Project. Other figures from twentieth-century world events fall to this free-spirited rascal’s lies and help him get out of scrapes. The story seems composed of scraps of vignettes and anecdotes were tossed into a giant kaleidoscope and shaken, sometimes meeting and just as quickly reverting to the background.

Allan is very helpful and apparently endowed with the ability to see the good – and the potential- of everyone he meets, including the simpleton Herbert who helps him escape from the prison at Vladivostok: his very witless nature allows him to wander around camp much as he pleased without getting shot. The scene in which Allan and Herbert blow up a supply train in a chain of explosions reaching all the way to the city which is then demolished is laugh-out-loud entertaining. He makes friends easily due to his non-judgmental nature and his ability to master his temper, his tongue, and his tippling.

So is Allan amoral after all? He is loyal to his friends, unwilling to cause pain to anyone by his own hand (putting aside his hand in creating the atomic bomb), negotiates peaceful settlements to explosive situations (let’s ignore Vladivostok for the sake of this thesis). Is he not a Swede, and are not Swedes traditionally and famously neutral? As for his tendency to change political allegiance when it behooves him to stay alive, might this not be a commentary on the political folly of taking unmovable sides then switching, following the world-wide practice of rulers and politicians since time began?

Upcoming meetings:

Tuesday, August 5: Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger. An intensely religious man tries to save his family from vengeful bullies.

Tuesday, September 23: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. A long page-turner, it closes our summer.

August 05 2014 | Book group | Comments Off

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