Round Rock New Neighbors Book Discussion

The advantages of being two-faced

The second day after Christmas–time for two annual post-Yule pursuits: eating cookies and confronting my holiday hypocrisy.  I have no qualms about scooping up epic post-season markdowns mere hours after The Day, yet I choose to be deeply offended by the sight of a discarded tree consigned to the curb after the same brief interval.   

So much for graceful transitions.  Faced with returning to work and gearing up for a new year after a long festive weekend, we’d do well to consider Janus’ approach.  According to Oxford Dictionaries Online, Janus (namesake for the month ahead) figured in Roman mythology as the guardian of doorways and gates and is typically shown with two faces, one looking forward and one backward. 

And I’ve just encountered two authors who neatly represent Janus’ visual field: William Dean Howells and James Hornfischer

Amid last week’s Christmas lore and holiday staff picks, I rediscovered Howell’s story, “Christmas Every Day“.  The library has a print copy, but you can read it online.  Not only will Howells’ droll tale likely echo your own views (about ending celebrations while they are still celebrative),  it samples an American literary legend whose significance would be difficult to exaggerate. 

Though Howell’s language can sound a bit dated, he was ahead of his time in terms of style, editorial influence, and fostering rising talents.  His short story “Editha”, also accessible in print and online, is one of my favorites and vividly conveys the timeless consequences of romanticizing war.

Janus would appreciate this pairing:  Howells’ forward-looking fiction of past eras and James Hornfischer’s contemporary nonfiction looking backward to history.  Naval historian and literary agent Hornfischer has published The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour;  Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR’s Legendary Lost Cruiser and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors; and Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal.

Not only has Mr. Hornfischer appeared on the The History Channel and C-SPAN’s Book TV and other venues, he’ll be live and in person at the January 16, 2012 discussion meeting for the Round Rock New Neighbors book group (check out their blog).

You don’t have to be a new resident to attend this lively group, which convenes on the third Monday of each month at 1:00 P.M. at the La Frontera Barnes & Noble.  You aren’t required to possess a prior attendance record to enjoy Mr. Hornfischer’s appearance.  Group members have been invited to read any or all of Hornfischer’s titles–all available at Barnes & Noble– in order to gain maximum benefit from this exciting author event, but come anyway if you haven’t finished (or even started) your reading yet. 

Those cookies won’t last through 2011, but 2012 evidently has treats in store.

Mr. Reliable he isn’t

After I’ve invested time reading a book for group discussion, the conversation had better include more than just plot.   That’s why the La Frontera Barnes & Noble literary bunch (Round Rock New Neighbors) merits regular attendance.

Our latest meet centered on Jim Thompson’s now-classic crime novels.  Amid all the noir-ish activity, suspense, and gore, one topic highlighted the session for me–the unreliable narrator.  This point of view can infuse more impact than any deed the character perpetrates.

The realization that this narrator can’t be trusted–because he/she is biased, error-prone, ignorant, fronting an agenda (or some devilish mixture of these) sets up just the sort of challenge that lovers of character-driven fiction relish.

Take Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (which, by the way, you should read before you see the film, if only to determine whether it’s really the movie for you.  Obviously, the story is still haunting me).   In Killer, your vantage point consists solely of the reporting and perceptions of Lou Ford, a small-town sheriff with big-time psychopathological issues.  On the one hand, Lou holds back no detail, however incriminating.  On the other hand, the mere fact that he appears to savor this blow-by-blow (literally) commentary calls his veracity into question.  He’s authentic, but is he truthful?  He’s certainly unforgettable.

All this is not to suggest that reliable narrators are less than engrossing.  I just finished Karin Muller’s Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa.  Muller is a sympathetic, trustworthy reporter, and not just because Japanland is non-fiction.   The author’s self-confessed cultural missteps unwrap social complexities to thwart the sincerest of intentions.  As Muller soldiered on, collecting documentary footage and delving into hidden realms of Japanese culture, I was both empowered by her emotional stamina and entertained by her wry observations. 

Japanland invites comparison to Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling Eat, Pray, Love, but I preferred Japanland.   If you’re intrigued, come to one of the library’s adult book club sessions on August 3 and share your thoughts.  You’ll also want to check out the library’s copy of the Japanland DVD.  You’re too late for this role, Julia Roberts!  

Don’t cry for me, Athelhampton

I still own a copy of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.  I didn’t burn mine–unlike a number of Victorian readers who vehemently disapproved of it back in 1896.  Jude still incites controversy, as proven by today’s Round Rock New Neighbors book discussion (at the La Frontera Barnes & Noble).

A couple of attendees found themselves unable to finish despite their best efforts.  “Oppressive grimness” was, I believe, the cause: the story offers ample evidence to support that claim.  Veteran Hardy readers come to expect this tone.  Either you decide that you’re not up to the inevitable intensely dramatic consequence at this point in your day/week/life, or (if you’re a fan like me) you ramp up the page-turning velocity in order to confront it sooner rather than later.  It won’t be pretty, but it’ll be memorable.

As happens in successful groups, disagreement fostered a spirited dialogue today.  Those who wished that just about any other title had been chosen this month still ventured thought-provoking questions about, for example, the author’s intent, degree of autobiographical influence, and the strictures of society.

Hardy’s response to the virulent criticism of his day may not surprise you.  Numerous sources state that he announced it had cured him of the habit of novel writing.  Jude the Obscure was his last novel; he concentrated on poetry thereafter.  I’d worked up some righteous indignation on the author’s behalf, then consulted a few of the library’s literature commentaries.  As it happens, poetry had always been Hardy’s first love; he was no stranger to rejection and likely knew what to he was up against; he also realized that poetry offered greater scope to express “unconventional” views without inspiring protest.

It’s difficult to pity an author who was frequently acclaimed and who achieved financial success in his lifetime.  Hardy enjoyed the friendship of luminaries and earned one of Britain’s highest honors:  his ashes are interred in the Poets Corner of Westminster Abbey.  Except for his heart, that is; it was buried in the Stinsford parish churchyard.  However, many argue that such is not the case.  Allegedly, the housekeeper placed the vessel containing the heart on the kitchen table, and a cat ran off with it.

What, then, would be buried under the monument?  Guessed one member of the group:  the cat.

Good news: no recalls for reading acceleration

I’m living on the edge these days.  And I’m not referring to the 2009 Toyota that awaits me in the library parking lot.  The book bag on the front seat bulging with selections from five different reading discussions–that’s what triggers my panic attacks.


  • Yesterday, for example, I showed up right on time for the 1:00 Baca Center book discussion on George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, hoping that the pages of the book weren’t somehow smoking from the laserlike intensity that propelled me through the final thirty pages during my 12:00 lunch hour. That was a close one.

  • Another group I attend chose Rembrandt’s Jews for their meeting later this month; it’s more of a challenge for interlibrary loan than I’d expected. My husband and I both need that copy, so the book’s last-minute arrival will likely instigate a marital share/read/who-has-it-now routine rivaling anything ever scripted on I Love Lucy.

  • Thanks to some speedy readers ahead of me in the queue for Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, my turn came up several days in advance of next week’s Round Rock New Neighbors group meeting at Barnes and Noble. I’ll return the favor and check the volume back in promptly.

  • A library colleague and I challenge each other to read work-related nonfiction titles, and we’re finishing up Paco Underhill’s Call of the Mall and Why We Buy before our discussion date next week.

  • I’m familiar with W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe (it inspired the movie Field of Dreams) but need to re-enjoy it before the library’s adult book club discussion on March 2.

To complicate matters, I’m compelled to indulge in non-discussion books, probably to sustain the illusion of being in control.  Though currently engrossed in Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves, I had reluctantly bypassed it for several weeks in favor of assigned reading.  Swan Thieves is wonderful, and I regret not giving in and picking it up sooner.  Here’s just one reason why: the book is an ARC (Advance Reading Copy) intended to be perused and remarked upon prior to publication. 

What sort of infraction does one commit by reading an ARC when the final version is now available?  Will be a citation be involved, or does a subtle shift in the space-time continuum occur?  I’m reminded of Steven Wright’s announcement that “I put instant coffee in a microwave oven and nearly went back in time.”

Drinking Coffee with the Stars

Having moved back to Texas and to Round Rock in 2005, I don’t qualify as a newcomer.  Still, I only recently managed to discover the Round Rock New Neighbors book group.

Yesterday’s wonderful discussion featuring guest author Amanda Eyre Ward prompted me to get the word out: you, too, new resident or not, can get in on this prime reading/discussion opportunity.

RRNN began as a private newcomers group meeting in members’ homes but is now open to the public.  The current venue–Barnes & Noble at La Frontera–is easy to locate.  B&N public relations manager Frank Campbell hosts the event and even provides fresh Starbucks coffee and straight-from-the-oven cookies.  Sessions start at 1:00 on the third Monday of each month (but November will be an exception; check out upcoming events on the RRNN blog:

Novelist (Sleep Toward Heaven, Forgive Me, How to Be Lost) and short story writer (Love Stories in This Town) Ward was a definite hit yesterday.  With her warm and chatty responses, the Q&A exchange shifted into conversational mode, touching a variety of topics related to the writer’s life and books.  Among other items, Ward divulged that her office is actually her son’s closet (which displays her Violet Crown Book Award); that those who create children’s books must possess special word crafting skills akin to poetry; and that at a young age she read both Nancy Drew books and John Updike!

RRNN doesn’t promise visits from critically acclaimed authors every month, but the discussions are first-rate.  And you never know who might drop in….