Friday, June 17, 2011

A Reader's Journal

In Los Angeles we have a weather phenomenon known as "June Gloom."  Just when everyone craves  summer activities like going to the beach, outdoor dining, and getting out in our gardens, we have a month of drizzly, foggy weather.  It sometimes breaks at midday and becomes sunny, but not always.  And so the other day I found myself feeling more like I was in England than Los Angeles.  As I looked outside at my garden in the front of the house, I realized that the gray weather was actually quite beautiful and snapped the above photo.

As I reoriented myself to a more indoor kind of day, I found this book or journal in my study and began to flip through it. I was launched on a journey of literary nostalgia.

Several years ago I was in a book group that spun off of a class I had taken at UCLA on Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group.  We met at the home of the professor who lived in a charming duplex in Beverly Hills and she ran a kind of a salon in her living room with about 30 of her current and former students in attendance.  We always had  lively discussions and at the end she would serve home made desserts and coffee.  It was really special, and I have wonderful memories of those cozy evenings spent talking about books.  We read some amazing and quite challenging books.  I always took notes during the meetings.  Yesterday I pulled out this Reader's Journal that contained the notes from our discussions of these books, and it was really amazing to see what we read and also the content of what we discussed.

Here are some of the books we read.  Some were very much "of the time," the "it" books of that year, such as "The Girl with the Pearl Earring" by Tracy Chevalier;  most are still standouts that would be great choices for book groups.

"The Song of the Lark" by Willa Cather

This book is about a young girl of Swedish descent who lives in Colorado and is a talented pianist and singer.  Cather writes about the patrons and the mentors who help great artists succeed.  The book is a coming of age story as well as a novel of the education of an artist.  It deals with the immigrant experience and has a great character in the heroine, Tillie.  I loved this book.

"The Crimson Petal and the White" by Michael Faber

This book is a real page-turner  about a "fallen woman" in Victorian London.  The heroine, Sugar, yearns to escape to a better life and the book depicts her ascent through society.  This is a colorful book filled with unforgettable characters. Victorian England is evoked through incredible details and fascinating stories.  We had a great discussion.  And I just read that it is being made into a television series in England.

"The Captive & The Fugitive,"  Volume V of "In Search of Lost Time" by Marcel Proust

I do not think I ever would have read this without a book group and a facilitator.  It was not easy but I am so happy I read it.   I had always wanted to read Proust, and thought that I should.  After all,  the modernists were all influenced by him.  The books are so quotable, and Proust really was a writer's writer.  He is writing about the interior lives of these characters as they are functioning in society.  I would highly recommend reading this, you will be so proud of yourself!  

"The Volcano Lover" by Susan Sontag

One of the more challenging books we read, "The Volcano Lover" is about Admiral Nelson and Lord and Lady Hamilton. It is a thought-provoking book, a historical novel that reads more like history than literature.  The main characters are never named; they are the Cavalier, the Beauty and the Hero.  This allows the author to take off on many topics related to their stories:  art collecting, women versus men, the French revolution, heroism, and many others.  It is an intellectual book and there were many topics for discussion.

Some other highlights, good books that inspired great discussions:

"Snow" by Orhan Pamuk

"South of the Border, West of the Sun" by Haruki Murakami

"No Country for Old Men" by Cormac McCarthy

"Saturday" by Ian McEwan

"Trieste" by Jan Morris

"Homo Faber" by Max Frisch

"Half a Life" by V.S. Naipaul"

"Andorra" by Peter Cameron

"The Namesake" by Jhumpa Lahiri

"Possession" by A.S. Byatt


Did any of these books resonate with you?  I would love to know what your book group is reading or any books that you think would be good for a discussion.  "June Gloom" in Los Angeles can lead to all kinds of memories of good books!


  1. There are so many books on this list I haven't read and I love suggestions from friends...especially you!

    I'm hearing that The All of It, by Jeannette Haien is a real on my list. xo

  2. Thanks, Margo! I will check that one out. Did you notice "Trieste" by Jan Morris? That book was actually one that you recommended and I loved it. And of course it was so great to see Jan Morris at the Sun Valley Writers' Conference.

  3. You must read Bel Canto by Anne Patchett. Our group read it some years ago and it still resonates with me. Our group has been meeting for more than 23 years. We've had some interesting discussions over that time, mostly good reads, a few "duds", but, they still illicit lively conversation. We don't meet over the summer, but, select a longer read for those months. This year it is The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo, which I am not excited about, but, we'll see . . .

    All your books look to be interesting, and you can't go wrong with Willa Cather. We, too, read the Girl With the Pearl Earring and enjoyed it.

    Wonderful post.

  4. Thank you! We also read "Bel Canto" and had a great discussion about it. I enjoyed "The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo" and read that for my current book group and it was another great discussion. I am a fan of those books and I think you will be surprised at how engrossing they are. How wonderful that you have been in a book group for 23 years!

  5. Lifeonthecuff,
    Re my comment about "The All of It": That recommendation came from Anne Patchett. While promoting her new book last week, Patchett had copies of it available and said it was among her favorite books.

    Sunday, what is it about "Trieste" that makes it continue to resonate? So subtle,
    yet so magical. An eloquent reflection on growing old from our brilliant Jan Morris. So glad we shared that in SV. More to come!

  6. What a great post....I am an avid reader and have just had to drop out of a book group at a club we belonged to. Now I'm in search of another group of like minded souls.....all these reads sound wonderful.

    Currently, we are traveling through Calif and I can remember the June glooms as we used to spend a great amount of time in the San Diego area.



  7. The Crimson Petal and the White was on tv a couple of months ago in the UK. I watched it and loved it. Romola Garai played Sugar, she was excellent.
    I haven't read the book, so can't say how it compares, but I would recommend the tv series.

  8. That sounds like an absolutely delightful book group! I read The Song of the Lark earlier this year and adored it. I am more than a bit intimidated by Proust so it might take the encouragement of a book group of my own to get me to attempt him.

  9. What a beautiful shot you captured on your gray day. I am so far behind in reading that I don't even have anything current to recommend. I love so many books, but one of my favorites in recent years is Loving Frank, which I'm sure you've read. I've read other good reports about The Crimson Peal and the White and people have said that the British series was excellent. I hope they bring it here!!

  10. I'm in a black hole with books at the moment. Happens to me sometimes, after I've had a run of good reads. Just got "The Tiger's Wife" and hope I'll like it.
    I've tried Proust so many times, but would need to be in a book club, with a facilitator to help get me through it - would love to try again.

  11. Loved Snow, loved with all my heart Possession, and you're the first I know to write of The Crimson Petal and The White. A true page turner, for certain, and not one bit hampered by it's length as sometimes books more than 600 pages can become.