I’ve hosted a monthly Book Club for over 21 years in my home—one of the richest experiences in my life. It’s a vibrant group of 14 women whose ages range from the 30’s to the 80’s. Here you will find reviews on some of the standout books we’ve discussed. We read widely, so you’ll see all genres here. Check out my complete list at Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/727065
Jayber Crowe, by Wendell Barry
As a novelist, people often ask me about my favorite writers, and my answer always includes Wendell Berry. I am a true fan of the extraordinary writing of this poet, essayist and novelist, evidenced once more in this gratifying novel set in Berry's fictional Port William, Ky. This tender story, about the barber and church sexton of the small town in the late 30’s to the late 60’s, is not only about a person, but more so about a place and its people. Beautifully told, against the backdrop of the winding Kentucky River and its rolling hills, with compassion, rare insights and both humor and sadness, it brings you poignantly back to a more simple time, a rural way of life and its gentle rhythms.
After his parents’ death, Jayber is sent to an out-of-town orphanage at the age of 10, and returns 13 years later to the place of his birth and carves out a spare life for himself there. We are along for his gently journey, to see how a community shapes a man and how a man shapes a community, in times of war and peace, poverty and plenty, seasons of the year and seasons of the heart. Jayber’s unrequieted love for Mattie, another man’s wife, remains pure and bears the fruits of faith and serenity in his life.
We are privileged to be in on his observance of a town and a people on the brink of change, as the 20th century rolls on and threatens to obliterate an agricultural way of life in the wake of progress. Crow's life is symbolic of a century of upheaval, and Berry's tale sounds a challenge to contemporary notions of progress. We get to know and love, along with Jayber, a cast of truly memorable characters.
The writing can only be described as elegant, exquisitely reflective and fine-tuned, and resonates with the very heart of the land itself. There are so many beautiful passages that I could share, it’s hard to choose. The following will give you a taste of Wendell Barry’s skill at desciptions:
I came to feel a tenderness for them all. This was something new to me. It gave me a curious pleasure to touch them, to help them in and out of the chair, to shave their weather-toughened old faces. They had known hard use, nearly all of them. You could tell it by their hands, which were shaped by wear and often by the twists and swellings of arthritis. They had used their hands forgetfully, as hooks and pliers and hammers, and in every kind of weather. The backs of their hands showed a network of little scars where they had been cut, nicked, thornstuck, pinched, punctured, scraped, and burned. Their faces told that they had suffered things they did not talk about. Every one of them had a good knife in his pocket, sharp, the blades whetted narrow and concave, the horn of the handle worn smooth. The oldest ones spoke, like Uncle Othy, the old broad speech of the place; they said “ahrn” and “fahr” and “tard” for “iron” and “fire” and “tired”; they said “yorn” for “yours,” “cheer” for “chair,” “deesh” for “dish,” “dreen” for “drain,” “slide” for “sled,” and “juberous” for “dubious.” I loved to listen to them, for they spoke my native tongue. (127)
I highly recommend this book. It is a superb choice for a book club discussion.
A Thread of Grace, Mary Doria Russell
I was drawn to reread this book while doing research for my latest project, which is set in wartime Italy. This extraordinary historical novel is the kind of book that I found myself thinking about long after finishing the last page. It is the little-known story of a group of Italian citizens that sheltered more than 40,000 Jews from the horrors of the work camps and executions during the Italian resistance to the Germans in the last two years of WWII.
Three cultures mingle uneasily in Porto Sant' Andrea on the Ligurian coast of northwest Italy—the Italian Jews of the village, the Italian Catholics, and the occupying Germans invited by Mussolini. While there are several narrative threads, the book moves swiftly, and we come to know a cast of vibrant characters from the three cultures, set against meticulously researched historical detail. The intensity and intimacy of Russell's storytelling, her sharp character writing and fierce sense of humor bring fresh immediacy to this riveting wartime saga.
The book is extraordinary in that, unlike other dark novels about this era that leave one with a hopelessness, it reminds us that even in the worst of times, there are good people who willingly sacrifice themselves when they see the suffering around them. We witness with the characters both the heartbreaking journey they will make in their struggle for survival, and the grace extended to them by the Italian people, which crosses the boundaries of faith and ethnicity. An incredibly compelling read. I highly recommend it.