The Perfect Book Group Experience

Three people.  Three books.  Couple bottles of wine.  An indescribably sumptuous chorizo meatloaf with Manchego cheese.. A spirited and engaging discussion.  All this came together one night this past week and made for the perfect book group.

Our friend Evy joined Stacy and I in reading and discussing Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick and The Winter in Anna by Reed Kiram.  Three books.  One month.  All worth our while.

In Hillbilly Elegy we chatted about Vance’s exploration of the Rust Belt culture, white working-class Americans, social and class declines, and the critical role family and loyalty played in his life.  Mind you, by no means can I wax eloquent on the topic, but I can say I walked away with a much better understanding of that world than I did when I started.  Will this inspire me to learn more about it, to become more socially conscious? Perhaps, but if I am being fair, it is not likely.  I have a number of personal causes I contribute to financially and emotionally.  I am not prepared to take on another.


It took us about 20 minutes of discussion to cover all we needed to.  As good as it was to read, and interesting as it was to learn about, it did not really move any of us.  At the same time, we were glad we invested the time in reading it.  I am not sure if that makes the right amount of sense, but either way, it is no less true.

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper garnered a bit more energy to the group dialogue.

Our titled protagonist was as charming as the jewelry that hung from his now deceased wife’s bracelet.  The people he met, the adventures he went on, the discovery of this life lived before he and his wife met.  All of it made for a fun read.  Yes, predictable at times, but not unforgivably so.

There is something special about a story of someone in the autumn of their years that I love.  It could be the look back.  It could be that I see them just as flawed as any of us.  It could be because they were young once too, with their own plans and schemes all lined up for their life, and nothing went they way they expected it.  That always triggers a bit of a crooked smile in me when I read it.  But above all else I love how there is a deep and loving kindness in their hearts.  They may not have seen it all, but they’ve seen a great deal, and with that comes a peace and wisdom I find myself craving as a middle-aged man.

Yes.  I liked The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper … mostly because of Arthur himself. Such a dear man.

Then….it came.  The discussion that took us twice as long as any other.  Impassioned.  Frustrated.  Understanding.  Thoughtful.  Did I say frustrated?  Reed Karaim’s The Winter in Anna.

It’s the story of a woman, narrated by a man she knew and called friend. It opens with her death, a horrific and body shuddering suicide in a motel room and ends with a better understanding of why.  

It was dark.  I often thought of the writer at his computer or typewriter and imagined the depths of pain and darkness he slipped into in order to write something so tragically compelling.  I wondered how hard it must have been to climb out of that same darkness and resume a normal life when it was time for dinner and time to socialize with flesh and blood human beings in his presence.  Man, how do you flip that switch?  Or do you not and your family needs to cope and accept you as is?

I digress, but, I did love it.  I truly loved it.  It did what I want every piece of fiction to do when I read it.  Make me think it is non fiction.

Mr, Karaim nailed it for me.

Evy loved it too.  Much for the same reasons, I believe.

Stacy? Well, she repeatedly spoke of how beautiful the writing is, but how she loathed both Eric and Anna.  We agreed on our dislike of him as a young man but I felt he was likable as an adult.  She did not.  Anna drove her up a tree.  Her suicide was borderline unforgivable and aggravatingly selfish.  I cannot say too much because I don’t want to give anything away but suffice it to say what I heard was Stacy felt Anna lacked the courage she needed to do the right thing … and not choose to die.

I can understand where she is coming from.  I can.  

With your indulgence, I would like to help you understand where she is coming from, too.  Stace works with the elderly.  She has for (nearly) 19 years.  Most live with dementia.  This is a woman who fervently believes one’s life choice is their own.  She has told me a hundred times she is planning an escape route of her own if she becomes confused in her older age.  I totally get it.  Dementia and Alzheimer’s is such a destructive disease.  Stacy lives and works with it every day and has for nearly two decades.  Yes, I think she is a saint, but that’s not the point in this blog.  She is a woman who deeply understands and respects life.  She also believes it is our own to make the choices we feel is best.  If you are suffering and if you are dying or deteriorating, then the choice ought to be yours.  At least, that has always been my interpretation of her beliefs.

That was why, after reading and discussing the events of this book, that I was shocked – completely and utterly shocked – that she wasn’t nearly as forgiving of Anna as I thought she would be.

But this is why we read, isn’t it?  To be taken away? To be transported?  To give us a great story to discuss, debate and reflect on with those we connect closest with?

Yeah.  This was the perfect book group.  Such great stories.  Such compelling and heartfelt arguments.  Such a deep and fervent love of reading.  Such incredible women I surround myself with.

It’s OK to be a little envious.  Hell, if I weren’t already me, I would envy me too.  I am surrounded by really smart people with Stacy and Evy, and nothing could be more beautiful.

PS NOTE:   There is one major difference in the reading of The Winter in Anna I think is worth noting.  I read this believing the age difference between the two was eight years (Anna 29, Eric 21) while Stacy thought Anna was late 30’s early 40’s.  If I perceived the age gap that large, I would read it a little differently too.  Anna is still Anna and she owns a piece of my heart.  But my feeling(s) toward Eric likely would have changed and probably not for the better.  They would have mirrored Stacy’s more.

Next Month’s Books are:  Himself, Idaho and Lincoln in the Bardo



Arthur Pepper Stands on His Own

With his beloved Miriam 12 months removed from this life and on to the next, Arthur Pepper discovers a charm bracelet he has never seen before and thus his adventure begins.

I will admit as much as I enjoyed this book – and I did, very much – there were times I found it predictable,  I also found no harm or foul in that.  Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt and sometimes it has its place.  

I would, however, gently caution you with one thing…and this is NOT a spoiler.  When TheCuriousCharmsofArthurPepper-USAcover.jpgothers make comparisons to books like A Man Called Ove, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk or the heartbreakingly beautiful novella And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer, it is my opinion that they shouldn’t.  I will tell you they have two things in common, which are.  (1) It is a story of someone in the autumn of their years and (2) our protagonist is a beautiful human being.

But they are different.  Ove is not Harold, nor are Lillian and Grandpa anything alike.  Same goes for Arthur.  They are all their own people, with their own set of circumstances, with their own sense of humor and troubles and family.  Outside the two similarities I noted, I think that’s about it.  

My point?  The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper stands on its own.  The book’s author is Phaedra Patrick and this is her debut novel.

A small confession on my part, I have found after reading this I seem to be drawn to books about those who are in the twilight of their years.  Books like the ones I mentioned above always seem to occupy that same spot in my heart, and The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper was no exception.

The short story is this: A year after a man in his late 60s has buried his wife of 40 years he comes across a charm bracelet of hers he had never seen before.  One charm leads to the next in its own way, providing vague/eerie/cryptic clues to a life before Arthur and Miriam became Arthur and Miriam.

I loved Arthur immediately.  Then I found I loved  his spirit and break from the routine as I got to know him.   I warmed at his patience in listening to others regale him with stories of this woman he spent the better part of his life with; this woman he thought he knew. This woman, the love of his life, who lived a life he never knew.

That may have been my favorite part of the book, his emotional growth.  Watching him separate himself from whom he has always been.  He became inspired by the memory of his wife.  Even at times when he seemed hesitant in wanting to know her history, he pushed to learn it anyway.  I think that was hard for him.   When he made those decisions it was if his own personal feelings no longer mattered.   Knowing more of his beloved Miriam was what he wanted  There was love, deep love, that persuaded him to reach further, and dig deeper.  I admired that in him.  He might be a bit of a stronger man than I, if I am being truthful.

A Book Group Discussion question I found asked if I were bereaved after a long marriage would I devise strategies and routines just to get through the day?  I singled out this question because I wondered the same thing as I was reading the book.

The answer is an indisputable yes.  I have already spent nearly eight years with Stacy and I have never known happiness like this in my first 40 years of living.  Give me 40 years hence with this same woman, growing together in love, friendship and companionship at the same pace we have been going at, then yes, I would lock myself away in my house too.  Like Arthur, I too would behind curtains when someone knocks at the door.  

Arthur Pepper is a fine man.  The spirit and sense of adventure his Miriam lived with as a younger woman is akin to what I see Arthur doing today in his later years.  If he is blessed to get a few experiences of travelling and adventure of his own, then all the better.  At least this way, when called to meet his maker, Arthur and Miriam will have no shortage of new topics to discuss over tea.