Book Group





Thursday, December 6


7:30 p.m. in Guice Library




I, Claudius  by Robert Graves

Our classic selection for this fall was first published in 1934.  I, Claudius is told in an informal manner with much humor.  And, while fiction, the novel is built on scholarly research and historical accuracy about a pivotal period in the history of the Roman empire.  It may have a cast of characters nearly as large as “Game of Thrones” − we will provide a line-up card!



Join the St. John’s Book Group as we discuss this and other good reads this year.  Questions about Book Club?  Contact Ginny Miller




Join us!






Recent Reads



“Forty Autumns: A Family’s Story of Courage & Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall”  by Nina Willner

From the Library Journal  description:  “A former American military intelligence officer traces the experiences of five women in her family who were separated by the Iron Curtain for more than 40 years and who endured terrifying Communist rule before being reunited after the fall of the Berlin Wall.”





“A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles

This “modern fiction” book for discussion is the 2016 novel A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles. In the opinion of some in the group who have read it, this book is utterly delightful. It’s a tale − and that is the best word − of a Russian nobleman who is under house arrest in a Moscow hotel following the Russian Revolution. It takes place in a historical period, but it’s not really historical fiction, but rather a fantasy of sorts, with many engaging characters. It’s a quick and fun read.





“Middlemarch” by George Eliot

Described as a “realist classic of 19th-century literature,” Middlemarch weaves together disparate stories of several English villagers into an epic narrative.  Author Virginia Woolf called it “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”  (Ms. Woolf left us before she could explain further.)  There will be much to discuss!




“The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789″ by Joseph J. Ellis

From Kirkus Review:  Ellis reminds us that the 1776 resolution declaring independence described 13 ‘free and independent states.’ Adopting the Constitution in 1789 created the United States, but no mobs rampaged in its favor. In fact, writes the author, the ‘vast majority of citizens had no interest in American nationhood, indeed regarded the very idea of national government as irrelevant to their love lives.’ ”  Four key founding fathers − George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay each brought their individual talents, beliefs and reputations together to bring into existence the United States of America and it’s constitution.  Well researched and written.  Unexpectedly, a page-turner.




A Trio of Young Adult  novels by Madeleine L’Engle:


A Wrinkle in Time (Newbery Medal Winner)

This engaging story of the adventures in space and time of Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin O’Keefe (athlete, student, and one of the most popular boys in high school). They are in search of Meg’s father, a scientist who disappeared while engaged in secret work for the government on the tesseract* problem.  [*A tesseract is a wrinkle in time.]

A Wind in the Door

This is the second book in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time Quintet. When Charles Wallace falls ill, Meg, Calvin, and their teacher, Mr. Jenkins, must travel inside C.W. to make him well, and save the universe from the evil Echthros.


A Swiftly Tilting Planet

in book four in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time Quintet, the Murry and O’Keefe Families enlist the help of the unicorn, Gaudior, to save the world from imminent nuclear war. Fifteen-year-old Charles Wallace and the unicorn undertake a perilous journey through time in a desperate attempt to stop the destruction of the world by the mad dictator Madog Branzillo.




A Trio of Classic Mysteries combine for our March 2018 selection:


The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett

This classic is one of the first of the “hard-boiled” tales (as distinct from the drawing-room mysteries of the old school).  In fact, The Glass Key is so hard-boiled that it would cracka sidewalk if you dropped it − dealing with politics and corruption as much as with murder.

The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

Phillip Marlowe is the “hard-boiled” detective appears in all the Chandler novels.  This novel is simply the story of a colorful detective solving a mystery.  It’s great fun for the reader.

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

This British classic is entirely a brain exercise − the detective never leaves his hospital bed.  In preparation for this novel, you might wish to brush up on your knowledge of English history, especially the War of the Roses!




Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Subtitled “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” is a memoir by J.D. Vance about the Appalachian values of his upbringing and their relation to the social problems of his hometown.  The New York Times Book Review of this Top Ten bestseller refers to the book as “a tough love analysis of the poor who back Trump.”  According to the review, Vance offers a compassionate and discerning analysis of the “white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion.”



Runaway by Alice Munro

This collection of short stories by Alice Munro is an excellent introduction to her highly regarded fiction.  Winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, Alice Munro has been often been read and appreciated more in other countries than in her native United States.



Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

After learning “How “Proust Can Change Your Life” last month (see the list below), we  plunged into the first volume of Proust’s magnum opus, “Swann’s Way.”



How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

This non-fiction book bridges the self-help and literary biography genres.  Here’s a review by Jack on Goodreads:

“Everyone needs to read something by Alain de Botton. His witty insights cover encyclopedic range and blend hilarity and intensity quite nicely. 

This offering is partial self-help, partial literary biography (of French author Marcel Proust). Botton presents tongue-in-cheek nuggets of wisdom to advise readers on how to handle, deal or avoid various situations, ultimately tying it together with the life and writings of Proust. I like Proust as a writer though I haven’t read much of him. I’m much more enamored by those he’s influenced. But after reading this book, I want to pull Remembrance of Things Past, vol. 1 off my shelf for a good looooooooooooooong read.”



The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katherine Bivald

“Sweet” and “quirky” are two words used to describe Bivald’s debut novel.  Sara Lindqvist arrives in the small town of Broken Wheel, Iowa, from her home in Sweden, anticipating a relaxing holiday with her pen pal Amy Harris.  Instead, she learns that Amy has just died.  Local residents insist that Sara stay in Amy’s house and refuse to let her pay for anything.  She discovers Amy’s extensive stash of books and puts here bookseller skills to work by opening a store on the town’s one-block-long main street and sharing the books with the community.  This act is a catalyst for bringing the town together, sparking a renaissance of sorts in Broken Wheel.  Delightful characters and plenty of references to popular books keep the pages turning.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

Published in 1929, William Faulkner’s challenging classic, is considered a masterpiece by many.  The book chronicles the decline of the Compson family – Southern aristocrats struggling to deal with the unraveling of their family and the loss of fortune.  At the heart of the novel is the Compson daughter, “Caddy.”  The story spanning a 30-year period is recounted in four sections by each of Caddy’s three brothers, the final section focuses on a long-time domestic servant.  Each of the brothers is obsessed with Caddy in different ways.  Great material for a lively discussion!



Dead Wake by Erik Larson

The book is a telling of the story of the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania by the Germans in 1915, a horrifying event that turned American public opinion against the Germans and may have been a factor in the eventual entry of the U.S. into World War I combat.

The New York Times review of the book lays out the basic outlines of the narrative:

“Few tales in history are more haunting, more tangled with investigatory mazes or more fraught with toxic secrets than that of the final voyage of the Lusitania, one of the colossal tragedies of maritime history. It’s the other Titanic, the story of a mighty ship sunk not by the grandeur of nature but by the grimness of man. “The Lusitania sank in just 18 minutes. Nearly 1,200 people, including 128 Americans, died with it. The casualties included the millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt, the Broadway impresario Charles Frohman and the noted art collector Hugh Lane, who was thought to be carrying sealed lead tubes containing paintings by Rembrandt and Monet.”



Broken Verses by Kamila Shamsie

“What a hauntingly beautiful book with an unexpected ending. The daughter of a Pakistani refugee has grieved her mother’s disappearance as well as the government-ordered murder of her mother’s lover, a beloved poet. The daughter unexpectedly received a letter written in the code that her mother and poet used to communicate when the Poet had to go in exile. She begins searching in hope that perhaps the Poet and her mother are still living.”



The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham


“Larry Darrell is a young American in search of the absolute. The progress of his spiritual odyssey involves him with some of Maugham’s most brilliant characters – his fiancée Isabel whose choice between love and wealth have lifelong repercussions, and Elliott Templeton, her uncle, a classic expatriate American snob.  Maugham himself wanders in and out of the story, to observe his characters struggling with their fates.”




Love that Boy: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, & My Son Taught Me About A Parent’s Expectations  by Ron Fournier

From a review by Stephen Gray Wallace, MSEd, President & Director, Center for Adolescent Research & Education:

“Ron Fournier has done a masterful job capturing the troubles and triumphs of parenting. That we – as parents and caring adults – too often superimpose our own needs and aspirations on the children we love is an important theme in this must read new book. It is a moving tale of fatherhood and of coming to terms with a more enlightened definition of perfect.”  



The Straight Man by Richard Russo


As is typical of Russo’s work, this is a character-driven novel.  The story line is based on themes common in academic situations with overtones of mid-life crisis.  The main character is Hank Devereaux, the middle-aged, acting chairman of a college English department.  In the course of a week’s time, Hank’s world delightfully unravels.  Permission to laugh out loud!



The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde


This selection is filled with humor and other overtones.  The way it is described by one reviewer:

It’s a spy thriller.  No wait – it’s science fiction.  No, wait  - it’s literary criticism.  No, wait – it’s art history.  No, wait – it’s historical-political commentary.  No, wait – it’s romantic comedy.  No, wait – it’s an epic war drama.  No, wait – it’s – oh, look!  Japanese tourists!



Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson


From a Goodreads review:

A powerful true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to fix our broken system of justice—from one of the most brilliant and influential lawyers of our time.  Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.



The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah


This story follows two sisters during World War II and their hardships and struggle to survive.  Set during the Nazi occupation of France, it explores what it meant for the wives, widows and daughters left behind when their men were swept away by war.



Daisy Miller  and  Washington Square by Henry James


For those of you (and your friends) who like to read literary classics, the May selections have you in mind!  We will be reading two classics by American writer Henry James.  Both books are short and readily available in public libraries as well as e-book versions available for free (or a nominal $0.99) from numerous online sources.



FDR and the Jews by Richard Breitman & Allan J. Lichtman


This selection is a non-fiction account which, in part deals with another refugee crisis (as opposed to the current one), dating back to the first half of the 20th century.  From Amazon’s summary:

“Nearly seventy-fives after World War II, a contentious debate lingers over whether Franklin Delano Roosevelt turned his back on the Jews of Hitler’s Europe. Defenders claim that FDR saved millions of potential victims by defeating Nazi Germany. Others revile him as morally indifferent and indict him for keeping America’s gates closed to Jewish refugees and failing to bomb Auschwitz’s gas chambers.”  Read along with us and decide.



The King of Kings County by local author Whitney Terrell


The 368-page book tells a fictionalized version of the development of Johnson County, Kansas.  A “Goodreads” review states:

“Whitney Terrell’s ‘The King of Kings County’ sticks to ribs like a Plaza III porterhouse and potatoes dinner. The story doesn’t dazzle. Nothing much happens: a son struggles with his father’s foibles, with a love above his class, and with the evolution of a city from centric to suburban sprawl propelled by subtle racism. It’s the story’s seasoning, the way Terrell tells his story that provides nourishment far beyond the tale itself.”



Venice: A New History by Thomas F. Madden


From the Booklist review:

“Madden paints a vivid portrait of “a city without land, an empire without borders.” His engaging work enters a sparse historiography that includes Roger Crowley’s City of Fortune (2012) and John Julius Norwich’s enduring A History of Venice (1982) and separates itself by offering a readable overview backed by solid research.  Readers will come away from Madden’s Venice with newfound respect for one of the great jewels of Western civilization.”



The Invention of Wings  by Sue Monk Kidd


From the flyleaf: “Inspired in part by the historic figure of Sarah Grimke, Kidd goes beyond the record to flesh out the rich interior lives of all her characters, both real and invented … “

“Sue Monk Kidd’s sweeping new novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday in 1803, when she is given ownership of ten-year-old Handful, who is to be her handmaid … (and) follows their remarkable journeys … as both strive for lives of their own … “



Being Mortal  by Atul Gawande


From the flyleaf:  “In his bestselling books, Atul Gawande, a practicing surgeon, has fearlessly revealed the struggles of his profession. Now he examines it ultimate limitations and failures … as life draws to a close. He follows a hospice nurse on her rounds, a geriatrician in his clinic, and reformers turning nursing homes upside down.”



Anna Karenina  by Leo Tolstoy


Some people say Anna Karenina is the single greatest novel ever written, which makes about as much sense as trying to determine the world’s greatest color.  But there is no doubt that Anna Karenina, generally considered Tolstoy’s best novel, is definitely one ripping great read.  Anna, miserable in her loveless marriage, does the barely thinkable and succumbs to her desires for the dashing Vronsky.  Nineteenth century Czarist Russian society didn’t take kindly to that sort of thing.



The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East  by Sandy TolanL


The title of this book refers to a tree in the backyard of a home in Ramala, Israel.  Readers experience the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts firsthand through the parallel personal histories of the two main characters – both refugees seeking a home.

The home is currently owned by Dalia, a Jewish woman whose family of Holocaust survivors emigrated from Bulgaria. But before Israel gained its independence in 1948, the house was owned by the Palestinian family of Bashir, who meets Dalia when he returns to see his family home after the Six-Day War of 1967.  Dalia struggles with her Israeli identity; Bashir struggles with decades in Israeli prisons for suspected terrorist activities.  (Summarized from the review in Publishers Weekly.)



The Geography of Bliss  by  Eric Weiner


The concept is intriguing—where is bliss to be found, is there one group of people that have bliss nailed, can I put Bliss on my bucket list as a place to visit?  Here is a description from an Amazon reviewer:

Intelligent and witty, Geography of Bliss takes the reader to unfamiliar places to meet strangely familiar people. That’s because the essence of what makes us happy (or unhappy) is basically the same everywhere, alloyed only by our culture and circumstances. It’s a book that will make you think and laugh on the same page. And, it might just make you happy.



The Sandcastle Girls  by  Chris Bohjalian
This sweeping story of war and love will introduce us to a topic many may not know about: Armenian genocide that took place during World War I.  In this fictionalized account,  an adventure-seeking young woman, with only a recent college degree and a crash course in nursing, travels to Syria just as the Great War is spreading across Europe. As part of a Boston-based relief group, Elizabeth delivers food and medical aid to refugees of the genocide.  Thus begins the engaging story, interwoven with the story of a contemporary New York-based novelist let to embark on a journey back through her family’s Armenian history.



The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl  by  Timothy Egan
Prior to some of the great natural disasters of our generation, like Hurricane Katrina, the Dust Bowl devastated parts of the U.S. and caused mass migrations out of the Southern Plains to more habitable regions of the country.

This book provides background on causes of the Dust Bowl and its effects on people. If you like history, including individual human histories, you will find this book compelling.


Life after Life  by  Kate Atkinson
Those who have read the book say it is a wild ride, but a pleasant one.

Here are comments from a New York Times book review:

“‘Life After Life’ makes the reader acutely conscious of an author’s power: how much the novelist can do. Kill a character, bring her back. Start a world war or prevent one. Bomb London, destroy Berlin. Write a scene from one point of view, then rewrite it from another. Try it this way, then that. Make your character perish in a bombed-out building during the blitz, then make her part of the rescue team …”  Hmmmm.



Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth  by  Reza Aslan
From an Amazon interview with the author, he describes his intent in writing the book.

“We cannot truly understand Jesus’ words and deeds if we separate them from the religious and political context of his time. Regardless of whether you think of Jesus as a prophet, a teacher, or God incarnate, it is important to remember that he did not live in a vacuum. Whatever else Jesus was, he was, without question, a man of his time … The key to understanding who Jesus was and what Jesus meant lies in understanding the times in which he lived.”




Breakfast with Buddha  by  Roland Merulla
From a Publishers Weekly review:

“Merullo, author of the Revere Beach series and Golfing with God, delivers a comic but winningly spiritual road-trip novel.”

Central character Otto Ringling is a food book editor, married with children. When their parents die, his sister Cecillia surprises him by announcing she plans to give her half of the family farm to her guru to establish a retreat. Then she convinces Otto to take Guru Volvo Rinpoche to North Dakota – thus begins a surprising road trip from the east coast through the small towns of the midwest.



The Great War & Modern Memory  by  Paul Fussell


This non-fiction book examines the effect of WW I on English literature and how English literature prior to WW I colored the viewpoints of writers’ accounts of the war.

Fussell’s book won the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named one of the 20th Century’s 100 Best Non-Fiction Books by the Modern Library.



Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet  by  Jamie Ford


In the opening pages of Jamie Ford’s debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Henry Lee comes upon a crowd gathered outside the Panama Hotel, once the gateway to Seattle’s Japantown. It has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made an incredible discovery: the belongings of Japanese families, left when they were rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II. As Henry looks on, the owner opens a Japanese parasol. This simple act takes old Henry Lee back to the 1940s, at the height of the war when … Henry meets Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese American student.

Forty years later, Henry Lee is certain that the parasol belonged to Keiko. 



Five Days at Memorial  by  Sheri Fink


This non-fiction book is about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans. It sounds like a riveting description of what took place at the hospital as well as controversial moral and ethical questions raised by actions of hospital personnel.

Read the New York Times review at:



The Storyteller  by  Jody Picoult


Best-seller Picoult takes on a heavy subject in her latest outing: the Holocaust. At 25, Sage Singer is scarred, both physically and mentally, by the car accident that took her mother’s life. A baker who works at night in a New Hampshire shop run by a former nun, Sage shuns almost all human contact, save for her coworkers and her funeral-director boyfriend, Adam, who is married to another woman. Sage ventures out of her comfort zone to befriend Josef Weber, an elderly retired teacher, who throws her world into chaos when he tells her that he’s a former SS officer and asks her to help him end his life.




Destiny of the Republic  by  Candice Millard


James Garfield rose from poverty to President of the United States. He was shot by an assassin four months after his inauguration. “Destiny of the Republic” is the story of the drama gripping the nation, intertwined with details of Garfield’s medical condition & treatment leading to his death.




Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese


Cutting for Stone is a novel written by Ethiopian-born medical doctor and author Abraham Verghese. It is a saga of twin brothers, orphaned by their mother’s death at their births and forsaken by their father.


The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe


From the publisher’s notes:  “The inspiring story of a son and his dying mother who form a “book club” that brings them together as her life comes to a close.  We hear their passion for reading and their love for each other in their intimate and searching discussions.”


Their book list and commentary are interesting by themselves, and the story is quite positive.


The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery


Renee is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building, home to members of the great and the good.  Several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her, and decides to end her life on her thirteenth birthday. But unknown to them both, the sudden death of one of their privileged neighbors will dramatically alter their lives forever.



Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand


Unbroken is a biography of Louis Zamparini, an Olympic athlete who served in the U.S. Army Air Force in World War II and shot down over the Pacific. His story of survival is remarkable and inspirational.



Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple


This book was featured in the Kansas City STAR for it “FYI Book Club” in March. From Publisher’s Weekly:  “In her second novel, Semple pieces together a modern-day comic caper full of heart and ingenuity … a compelling composit of a woman’s life … and the way she’s viewed by the many people who share it.”



Suite Francaise by Irene Namirovsky


When Irene Nemirovsky began working on Suite Francaise, she was already a highly successful writer living in Paris, But she was also a Jew, and in 1942 she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, were she died. For 64 years this novel remained hidden and unknown.

Beginning in Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation in 1940, Suite Francaise tells the remarkable story of men and women thrown together in circumstances beyond their control. As Parisians flee the city, human folly surfaces in every imaginable way: a wealthy mother searches for sweets in a town without food; a couple is terrified at the thought of losing their jobs, even as their world begins to fall apart. The stories move on to a provincial village now occupied by German soldiers, where the locals must learn to coexist with the enemy – in their town, their homes, even in their hearts.



Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

This best seller is non-fiction and of general interest about human behavior. From Webster’s Dictionary, an outlier is “any person or thing that lies away from the main body or expected place.” Gladwell looks at exceptional people to determine how they excelled in their area. (Don’t we always want to find they key to excellence and success?” His conclusions may surprise you. They are certainly interesting and worth considering by anyone who wants to be a positive influence in the lives of children, grandchildren, or anyone. Gladwell also looks for explanations to other situations and outcomes that appear to be outside the norm. Fascinating!

The public libraries have print and audio copies of the book.