July 2017 Red Wheelbarrow Book Club

Honoring the 4th of July our topic was America! Books that spoke to us of American life, American writers, American landscape, the swath and heartbreak of being American. To this subject we brought the prism of individual experience, and created a lively discussion that could have gone on for hours.

America is a vast Continent (to say nothing of Alaska and Hawaii) and several of us cited landscape books, Willa Cather’s DEATH COMES TO THE ARCHBISHOP, the work of Terry Tempest Williams, Bill Bryson’s WALK IN THE WOODS about the Appalachian Trail. PIANO TIDE, about a woman who goes to Alaska to escape her past, invokes that distant frontier. Though Walt Whitman, personally, never traveled beyond New York, New Jersey, or DC, to me his work evokes vast landscapes and the restless American spirit.

Bob, who is partial to the years between 1750 and 1850, spoke of books that explored frontiers (plural intended). Stephen Ambrose’s UNDAUNTED COURAGE about the Lewis and Clark expedition figured largely in his reading of America, as did Daniel Boone. He cited John Faragher’s biography of Daniel Boone, of whom it was said that if he could once see smoke rising from a neighbor’s chimney, he had to move on, move, out, move further west, a truly restless American spirit. Bob also cited Roderick Frazier Nash’s 1967 book WILDERNESS AND THE AMERICAN MIND, and another book of that vintage that chronicled the Native American’s conflict, Peter Farb’s MAN’S RISE TO CIVILIZATION AS SHOWN BY THE NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS FROM PRIMEVAL TIMES TO THE COMING OF THE INDUSTRIAL STATE. Whew! What a title.

Frances too, took her books from the point of view of groups marginalized in America, THE NEW JIM CROW by Michelle Alexander, and HILLBILLY ELEGY by J. D. Vance which she said she didn’t like as much, but still chronicled American experience. She also added the Carson McCullers’ classic novel, THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER.

Linda offered Sherman Alexie’s new memoir YOU DON’T HAVE TO SAY YOU LOVE ME a book “doubly compassionate” about his childhood on the Rez. Janey shared her enthusiasm for this book.

Several people chose books by outsiders to evoke a notion of America. Bill Bryson came up again with I’M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF. Pam brought an intriguing novel, AMERICANAH, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie by and about a Nigerian woman who came to America and then returned to her own country, an account of being black in America without the constraints or the burden of slavery.

A different kind of America, the proverbial American dream lies at the core of the book Jes chose. Stewart O’Nan’s recent novel WEST OF SUNSET is about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last years in Hollywood writing for the movies, a great writer at the end of his tether. His masterpiece, THE GREAT GATSBY was certainly one of my picks for July. In it, the self-improvement list that young Jay Gatz followed is cribbed almost word for word from another of my choices, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, the All-American story since 1790 and still lively and readable 225 years later. And finally, what discussion of America would be complete without the works of Mark Twain? His is the quintessential  American voice: wise-cracking, irreverent, confident.

In August the RWB Book Club will meet on August 6th, the first Sunday in the month.

The topic this month is personal: A book that influenced or changed or life. Come prepared to hear great stories.

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