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Thursday Night Book Club -- June, 2021

  Last Thursday, on a beautiful June evening, the Thursday Night Book Club gathered over Zoom to discuss  Three Junes  by Julia Glass. Three Junes opens as Paul McLeod, a Scottish newspaper publisher, travels through Greece with a tour group in June of 1989 and struggles to accept the death of his wife six months earlier. The reserved Paul looks back at his marriage and the barely discussed undercurrents of his family life – in particular his wife’s affair with a neighbor and the realization that his oldest son, Fenno, is gay. On the trip, Paul tentatively begins a flirtation with a young painter named Fern. In the second section of the novel, Paul's three sons gather at the family home in Scotland in June of 1995 for Paul’s funeral and reminisce about their parents and their childhood. This section is narrated by Fenno and includes a series of flashbacks to his life in New York in the second half of the 1980s and his close friendship with a caustic music critic named Mal who is d
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The 2021 Pulitzer Prize

Unlike the other book awards I discuss in these posts, there is no meaningful way to predict the winners of the Pulitzer Prize. The Pulitzer Prize is one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the United States, but the governing body that supervises the Prize releases neither a longlist nor a shortlist in any category. Instead, the yearlong process of choosing winners begins with the appointment of "jurors" in each of 22 different categories across the fields of journalism and letters, drama and music, who read each submitted entry in their category and make three recommendations to a Board comprised of 18 members, 17 of whom are voting. The Board chooses the winner in each category after evaluating all the finalists and the accompanying jury reports. Winners are decided by majority vote, but the Board is also allowed to vote "no prize" or, by a supermajority of 75%, to select an entry that has not been nominated by the jury. To make it even harder to guess the

Classics Book Club -- June, 2021

  If there were a competition to pick the most famous opening sentence of a classic novel, "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself" would be a serious contender. The Classics Book Club gathered over Zoom on Monday, June 7th to discuss that sentence and the rest of Virginia Woolf's 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway . Set over the course of a single day in the middle of June, 1923, the novel begins as Clarissa Dalloway leaves her home and walks around London, getting ready to host a party that evening. "In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June.” The lovely day reminds her of the summers she spent in the countryside when she was younger. She thinks about her decision to marry t

My 2021 Summer Reading List

  As all book lovers know, there is something magical about summer reading. And even though it's been decades since I last had half of June and all of July and August off from school, I still think of summer as a break from the rigorous grind of the academic year, filled with long, hot lazy days of little or nothing to do, with vacations, with time. Author Elisabeth Egan wrote a wonderful article recently about summer reading, describing herself as "an obsessive seeker of the spell that glues sticky flesh to a lounge chair" who "sprawled and read and sweated with abandon: on a towel or at a picnic table, on a deck or at a lake, usually outside but sometimes in a sunny room with a gurgling window unit as my soundtrack." That sounds just about right to me. To tap into this perfect combination of summer and books, a slew of "best books of summer" lists arrive reliably every year just before Memorial Day Weekend. As Ron Charles, the chief book critic at t

Thursday Night Book Club -- May, 2021

  Thursday, May 20th was World Bee Day, so it seems particularly appropriate that the Thursday Night Book Club gathered that evening over Zoom to discuss Sue Monk Kidd's debut novel The Secret Life of Bees . The Secret Life of Bees is set in South Carolina during the turbulent summer of 1964. As President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act into law in early July of that year, 14-year-old Lily and her "stand-in mother" Rosaleen have decided to leave their small home town. Rosaleen was badly beaten when she tried to register to vote, and Lily is fleeing her abusive father and the fuzzy memories of the afternoon ten years earlier when her mother was killed. Among the few items of her mother's that Lily owns is a photo of a black Virgin Mary with the words "Tiburon, S.C." on the back, so she and Rosaleen head there. "I could read her thoughts: If Jesus' mother is black, how come we only know about the white Mary? This would be like women finding out Je

Reading and Happiness

The CDC announcement last week that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks or practice social distancing, except in certain circumstances, feels to me like a milestone moment in the ongoing fight against COVID-19. To be sure, we are still in the midst of a pandemic, but nevertheless a shift is coming, and this has caused me to reflect on what the last 14 months has been like. While many people have tried hard to make lemonade out of pandemic lemons, myself included, and while it is true that some valuable and meaningful things have come out of the time we've spent masked and socially distanced, the pandemic has taken a huge toll, and I think it will be quite some time before we fully understand its scope and depth.  Just after the library closed its doors on March 13th, 2020, I wrote a blog post about "the overwhelming anxiety that the pandemic outbreak has caused." And in that post, I said that I planned to ease my anxiety by reading, because books are &qu

A Five-Foot Shelf of Books

Charles William Eliot was president of Harvard University for a whopping 40 years, retiring in 1909. Several years before he retired, Eliot made a speech to an audience of working men, during which he said that a five-foot shelf of books could provide "a good substitute for a liberal education in youth to anyone who would read them with devotion, even if he could spare but fifteen minutes a day for reading." In February of 1909, Eliot met with two editors from P.F. Collier Publishers, who asked him to choose the titles to fill up that five-foot shelf, promising to publish them as a series now known as the "Harvard Classics" if he did so. Eliot agreed and asked then Professor of English (and later president of Smith College) William Neilson to work with him on the project. The two men spent a year putting together the contents of the series. Eliot decided "what should be included, and what should be excluded," and Neilson compiled the introductions and note