So Big by Edna Ferber

So BigSo Big, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1925, provides an interesting contemporary look at early 20th century Chicago. A simple farming life on the outskirts, filled with hard manual labor but sparked with bits of beauty, is contrasted with the glittering high society of Chicago’s wealthy and its false values of money and leisure.

The story takes place in Chicago and the south suburbs (then rural) between the 1890s and early 1920s. It opens with a young Selina Peake, who lives with her widowed gambler father in various circumstances depending on his luck of late. When Selina is 19 her father dies, and she finds a job as a school teacher in a Dutch farming community on the south side (now Roseland). She marries a farmer there and raises a son. When her husband dies, she implements several of her old ideas that he had rejected, and turns the marginal farm into one that is well respected and very successful.

Selina sends her son Dirk to college. He abandons a career in architecture to follow the lead of a childhood friend who was born to wealth, and moves up in the world of finance until his life is centered around the superficial trappings of wealth and leisure. At the end of the story, Dirk has just come to realize that his mother is the truly successful one, for she has had the satisfaction of producing tangible, useful things, living without pretension and enjoying the beauty in what she has produced.

The Book Discussion Group liked this book. Although they believed that the book would not receive a Pulitzer Prize nowadays, they felt it was probably unusual in its day for its portrayal of a strong central female character. They especially enjoyed the description of old Chicago, written by a contemporary of that time. Several people thought the ending was too abrupt, however, and would have liked more resolution.

Reviewed by Nancy

Date of Discussion: March 4, 2015        Average: 4 Stars

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My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor

My Beloved WorldSonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic and the third woman to be named to the U.S. Supreme Court, was born and raised in the Bronx. Her parents were Puerto Rican and she grew up in a close Puerto Rican family environment. My Beloved World is Sotomayor’s inspiring, warm and surprisingly personal account of her childhood, and her adulthood up to the point of her first appointment to the bench.

It is a remarkable story. Her father was an alcoholic and died when she was 9, though he seemed to be the more loving parent. Her mother was hard-working but emotionally distant (though they are closer now), and served in the Women’s Army Corps, then worked as a telephone operator, and finally became a practical nurse. The family lived in housing projects infested with crime and drugs. But Sonia was the apple of her paternal grandmother’s eye and found stability and comfort with her. At age 7 Sonia was diagnosed with diabetes, and she realized very quickly that she would need to be responsible for administering her own shots. All of these circumstances made her a very self-reliant and driven little girl. She knew by age 10 that she wanted to go to college and become a lawyer, inspired by the Perry Mason program she saw on TV.

Sotomayor did well academically and was very active in high school, and she was admitted to Princeton University. From there she went on to law school at Yale, and chose to work as an assistant district attorney her first 5 years out of law school. This gave her courtroom experience much more quickly than if she had sought a job with a prestigious private firm, as most of her classmates did. Her career led to an appointment to a U.S. District Court in 1992. This is the point at which My Beloved World ends.

The Book Discussion Group was very enthusiastic about this book. They liked Sotomayor’s openness about her family and childhood, and her insightfulness in knowing to whom and to what experiences she could credit her successes. They admired her skills in listening carefully and observing before responding in any new situation. They felt that if Sotomayor were to walk into the room, they would already feel as though they knew her. Two members of the group found the writing to be unexceptional and felt that the narrative dragged in spots. But the group was unanimous that Sotomayor’s story was very compelling and they loved reading about her life.

Reviewed by Nancy

Date of Discussion: February 4, 2015      Average: 4.5 stars (out of 5)

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In the Sanctuary of Outcasts: A Memoir by Neil White

In the Sanctuary of OutcastsNeil White got himself into trouble by kiting checks to keep his publishing business going. He ended up in a minimum security prison in a remote location south of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. After he arrived there he discovered that the facility also housed a leper colony that had been there for nearly a century. During the year that he spent at Carville, he decided that he would write about it and he took notes on his interactions with other inmates and the leprosy patients. This memoir, published 16 years after his incarceration, is the result.

White tells us about the job he had working in the cafeteria, making it possible for him to get acquainted with several of the patients, with whom the inmates were not normally allowed to mingle. He shares many of the patients’ stories along with those of several inmates, so we read about lives of crime as well as lives torn apart when leprosy victims were taken away from their families. Some are heart-wrenching. There are also humorous stories about those who would escape for an occasional night on the town.

White tells us about his own crime, and describes the emotional pain of being separated from his wife and small children. Family visits were allowed, however, which he savored.

Most of the people at the Book Discussion had not ever heard of the leprosy colony at Carville, so it was interesting to learn about the facility and a little bit about leprosy (which can now be treated with medication). The group had mixed opinions on Neil White himself. Some thought that he was brave to publicly reveal his weaknesses and his struggles with guilt and how to rebuild his life. Others didn’t trust him, thought him arrogant, and doubted that he had truly changed. Readers’ scores ranged from 3 to 4.5 (out of 5), averaging just above a 3.

Reviewed by Nancy

Date of Discussion: December 3, 2014 Average: 3 stars

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Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

Claire of the Sea LightAward-winning author Edwidge Danticat is known for her stories of war-torn Haiti, her native country. This novel differs from her earlier novels in that the focus is not on historic events or the political situation in Haiti, but rather on the people and culture of one fictitious village by the sea. In an interview, Danticat said that she hoped this novel would make readers think about Haiti not just as a place of disaster, but also as a place of hope and of individuals just trying to live their lives. Readers in the Library’s Book Discussion Group felt that she accomplished that goal.

This novel-in-stories opens with Claire’s 7th birthday, and moves backwards through previous birthdays to introduce the town and several of its inhabitants as well as past events affecting present circumstances. Claire, the daughter of a widowed fisherman, runs off when she realizes her father is thinking of leaving her to a wealthy shop owner to raise, so that he can go look for a better job in another city. The rest of the stories delve further into the lives of several of the other villagers, including the wealthy and the poor, those educated and not, the young and the old, most of whom are struggling in one way or another, but not without hope. Although the stories describe interconnected events that occur at different times, all the stories eventually come back around to the same day, Claire’s birthday.

Members of the Discussion Group agreed that Danticat is a good writer, and some of her descriptions, particularly of the sea, were memorable. Members’ ratings ranged from 3 to 4.5 (out of 5). Those who liked it least did not feel engaged; those who liked it most thought that it gave a rare glimpse into the everyday lives and the culture of the people of Haiti, when most reports from there are more likely to describe the poverty and crime arising from natural disasters, politics, and a lack of basic resources.

Reviewed by Nancy

Date of Discussion: November 5, 2014 Average 3.5 Stars

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You’re All Just Jealous of My Jet Pack by Tom Gauld

YoureAllFun and easy read – cartoons by Tom Gauld.  If you like The Far Side Cartoons, you should enjoy this, too.

Review by Susan F.

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Unnatural Selections by Gary Larson

UnnaturalBeing a long time fan of The Far Side, I just couldn’t resist bringing home several of his collections from the graphic novel shelf.  Entertaining. Quirky. Smile inducing.  Not to mention an easy, quick read for a lazy summer day.

Review by Susan F.

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The Pre-History of the Far Side by Gary Larson

PrehistoryA must read for Far Side fans.  This was published in 1989 for the 10th anniversary of the Far Side cartoons.  Much more than a collection of cartoons, this contains the “backstory” of how Gary Larson’s career began, his creative process, an education in the cartoon publishing business, original sketches from which specific cartoons developed (along with Gary’s notes) and much more.  I especially liked the section of cartoons rejected by his publishers and then the collection of his personal favorites.  He even included the most controversial of his cartoons along with reader comments.  I found it hard to put this one down.

Review by Susan F.

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