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June — Florida

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We had 17 ladies at the Ladies Book Club on Thursday, June 6th. We were there to discuss Florida by Lauren Groff. We stopped by the book-share table to see if there was a book we'd like to read or to drop off some books. As we came in, Joyce Tisovec asked us to form tables of four because she was going to do something a little different for our discussion. Each table would talk about two chapters in the book, and she handed out papers and pens. We then chatted with each other until everyone arrived and Peg Tabor started the meeting.

Peg started by announcing a new sign-in sheet. Instead of writing our names each month, all we have to do is mark an X next to our name on the list of members for each month we are in attendance. She then asked Joyce how much club members have donated to our Books for Children fund. She said that as of last month, we've donated $361 and reminded us that we wouldn't be meeting in July, so we might want to contribute a little more this month, and some folks did. Peg continued by listing the authors she had lined up for December's meeting, and now that Nancy Lopez is open again, she'd heard that there might be a possible price issue. Someone said it was very expensive, but someone else said that they have a lunch menu that is more reasonable. Peg said she would check on that and get back to us. For the August meeting, we'll be reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (see other Books We'll Be Reading in 2019). It's not an easy read because of the subject matter, but it is a good book.

With that, Peg turned the meeting over to this month's discussion leader. Joyce started with a disclaimer that she did not recommend Florida, but she did vote for it and hadn't lead a discussion in awhile so volunteered when no one else did. She then provided some information about the author, Lauren Groff. Groff was born and raised in Cooperstown, New York, graduated from Amherst College, where she was a rower, then from the University of Wisconsin–Madison with a Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction. 

When a rower at Amherst, her coach shouted into his megaphone, "You can do anything — just do it slowly enough!" This became her motto. In 2008, after getting married, earning an MFA, turning thirty, and writing three unpublished novels, she saw her first glimmer of success with her debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton. In the years that followed, she worked slowly, writing short stories and publishing her second novel, Arcadia. Her third novel, Fates and Furies, is the one that brought her fame, but she maintains the slow and steady pace that brought her success.

The Monsters of Templeton, came out in early 2008, debuted on the New York Times bestseller list, and was well received by Stephen King, who read it before publication and wrote an early review in Entertainment Weekly. It was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for New Writers in 2008, and was named one of the Best Books of 2008 by Amazon.com and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her first collection of short stories, Delicate Edible Birds, was released in 2009. It featured stories that she had published in the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, Five Points, Ploughshares, and the anthologies Best New American Voices 2008, Pushcart Prize XXXII, and Best American Short Stories 2007, 2010 and 2014 editions. Arcadia, was released in 2012 and was a New York Times and Booksense bestseller, received favorable reviews from the New York Times Sunday Book Review, The Washington Post, and The Miami Herald. The novel was recognized as one of the Best Books of 2012 by The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Vogue, The Globe and Mail, Christian Science Monitor, and Kirkus Reviews. Fates and Furies, was released in September 2015 and was also a New York Times and Booksense bestseller, and was nominated for the 2015 National Book Award for Fiction, the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and was featured in numerous "Best of 2015" fiction lists, including the selection by Amazon.com as the Best Book of 2015. President Obama chose it as his favorite book of 2015. In 2017, she was named by Granta Magazine as one of the Best of Young American Novelists of her generation, and in 2018, she received a Guggenheim fellowship in Fiction. Florida is her fifth book and was released in June 2018, which was the winner of The Story Prize for short story collections published in 2018 and was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction.

An interviewer asked why she had chosen to live on the peninsula full of snakes and rains, marshes and forest? Groff said never wanted to be in Florida, but ended up here when her husband got a job in Apartments Management at UCF in Gainesville. Florida was written during the twelve years they were living there. Of Florida, Groff says, "I still wouldn’t choose Florida as my home state, but I’m glad it chose me."  Florida brings together eleven stories written over the course of the dozen years Groff lived in the state. "The fact that these are all Florida stories comes out of the fact that I feel ambivalent or unsettled about the place where I live," she said in an interview. The first stories were written before she had children — the earliest story in the collection is from 2007, and her eldest son was born in 2008. With the later stories, the characters tended to have children, which reflected her own changing vision of nature, when she suddenly had children whose future in a world that she couldn’t fully control.

Sue Laluk thought Groff is a really good writer and her writing is poetic, but it's hard. Joyce agreed, calling Groff's prose wonderful. Others thought so too, but they were ambivalent about the stories. Someone said they made her sad. Someone else called her main characters neurotic. Some didn't like the book/stories at all, and many said the book wasn't what they thought it would be. Joyce assigned two stories to each table and we would help her with the discussion. She also made a chart that briefly described each chapter, then allowed us time write key elements of the stories and talk about them.

The first story, "Ghosts and Empties," follows a mother who roams her neighborhood at night and sees her neighbors through their lit windows as though they’re in an aquarium. One member didn't get the point of the story at all. The main character walks and walks, trying to find a point to her life. She was a voyeur, detached, viewing people from the outside, almost like she was invisible. She thinks her neighbors are static and unchanging, but by the end she realizes that they aren't, like the fat boy on the treadmill who she realizes has gotten slim. Someone else added that it seemed like she walked to get away from the suffocation of home, recalling that when she came back inside, her husband commented that he didn't think she had walked off her frustration yet. She loved her family, but had a hard time. Again, the author's fantastic prose was mentioned.

In the second story, "At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners," was named after one of John Donne's "Holy Sonnets." They felt sorry for Jude, a mathematical prodigy whose father is obsessed with snakes, and thought he was a nut case, as well as his mother who was trapped in her marriage. They didn't blame her for leaving, but they were surprised or disappointed that she never came back for Jude, who was so unloved as a child that he was incapable of showing love even though he wanted to care about his wife and family. Sue thought that he had aspersers. Since the mentioned it, others thought that was probably right.

Next was "Dogs Go Woof," about two young girls who were abandoned on an island with a dog and had to take care of themselves. Those at that table recalled how the woman who brought them to the island warned them to avoid men before she left, and they did when a man came looking for them. Some thought that the girls might have been victims of sex trafficking. They were finally rescued by a young couple with a boat. The older sister didn't like that her younger sister got married to the first man who was nice to her and controlled her. They thought the older girl resented her sister's husband for controlling his wife so completely, and that she might have been hurt that her sister had picked the man over her after she'd done everything she could to take care of her younger sister. We thought it was interesting and understandable that the older sister became a lawyer.

"The Midnight Zone" featured a Florida panther as shown on the book's cover. The family was on a camping trip and the mother noticed that there were panther deterrents around the cabin and thought a panther was stalking them. There was an emergency and her husband was called back to work and she insisted that he go on and she would stay behind with the boys for the few days he would be gone. The mother has cancer and falls and suffers a concussion. Some of us wondered whether she recovered after her husband returned or whether she died as he arrives. We agreed that there were any number of interpretations of the story. The author's writing style was again characterized, that she was an extremely good prose maker.

In the fifth story, "Eyewall," a woman waits out a monster hurricane, reflecting on her life and the events and people in it. She should have left, but stays out of stubbornness. She's alone, drinking, having hallucinations, seeing dead loved ones in the house with her, her late husband scolding her for drinking his reserve wine, then her college boyfriend shows up, covered in mud. As the water rises, she retreats to the upstairs bathroom where she sees her dead father, then closes her eyes until everything stops. When she finally comes out, her house is destroyed, and she finds a lone chicken egg perfectly balanced on what's left of her porch. Some thought she was hallucinating because she was so drunk, and although the house was all she had left, there were a lot of ghosts like her husband who died with a younger woman, her father, her not nice ex-boyfriend.

"For the God of Love, for the Love of God" has a woman visiting friends in France who are bankrupt but living like they are rich. The story and the characters have secrets. Everyone has secrets. Those at the table thought the characters and situations were awkward and strange, and a couple of people didn't like the characters at all. And even in France, the story includes rainstorms and reminds us that nature is always in charge. Sue thought the main character was manic depressive. Peg injected that after reading Groff's writing, she wondered how she could be an English major. Others had similar thoughts.

In "Salvador," the protagonist is in Salvador, Brazil, for a month. She gets to go anywhere and do anything she wants for a month while her siblings care for their mother while she's gone. For the rest of the year, she does nothing but care for her mother. Her behavior when away from home is reckless and promiscuous, just the opposite of the way she behaves back home. She drinks heavily, picks up men and takes them to her room, and is observed by a shopkeeper across the street that she thinks is leering at her. A severe storm hits the city. She is warned to not go out, but she goes anyway, then can't get back to the hotel. The shopkeeper pulls her out of the storm and into his shop to wait it out. He was held up in his shop and drinking beer. Sue said that her behavior reminded her of the Amish, that allow their young people to go into the outside world, then return to their lives.

In the eighth story, "Flower Hunters," it is Halloween and instead of making Halloween costumes for her kids and buying candy, the mother has been reading the writings of William Bartram, an early Florida naturalist. She is filled with anxieties and fears about climate change and other environmental issues. Her best friend breaks up with her, and around that time a small sinkhole opens in her yard. She obsesses about it and fears it will get larger, while her husband is unconcerned. Then, she fears that her husband will grow tired of her, too. Her husband comes home, gets the kids ready and takes them trick or treating. Some of us felt she was seriously depressed and probably suffered from obsessive compulsive behavior.

"Above and Below" was the saddest and most tragic story for many of us. A young woman started at college, became a professor's assistant, loses funding, her job, her apartment, living out of her car, and then loses that too so she's totally homeless. She is taken in by another homeless woman with two kids, who shares her food, protects her, and tells her the rules of living in the commune-like community of homeless people. In return, she watches the women's children as she goes out to work and get some money. Then the woman never returns. She had been picked up for prostitution. The young woman tries to take care of the children, but she can't even take care of herself. Many of us lamented that she could have done something to help herself, but instead did nothing and things went downhill rapidly. Someone reminded us that it was hinted that she lost a child in childbirth, so she was probably severely depressed and couldn't do anything for months.

"Snake Stories" is about a couple that walks home after a New Year's Eve party because they are drunk. The husband trips over a battered girl who had been raped by her boyfriend. They wanted to get her to a hospital, but she didn't want an ambulance or the cops. They insisted on taking her home and she took them to a rundown house. They tried to help her, but she didn't want help. When they went back with the police, the house was abandoned. Someone ventured a guess that she might have been an illegal immigrant. Walk outside in Florida and a snake is watching you — snakes in mulch, snakes in scrub, snakes waiting in the grass when you leave the pool, etc. A man who was supposed to care for the environment but wanted to squash it instead, watching a heron eat a snake. The Trojans didn't heed the omen about the bird and snake in the Illiad, and suffered. Eve was blamed for all human sin. Every woman, every snake is fighting against the laws of nature and the human-made Eden that threatens to imprison or end them all.

The last story, "Yport," is about parenthood and a woman who takes her two children to France for a month to do research on Guy de Maupassant, the 19th century French author, visiting Paris, Normandy, Yport, the all-stone beaches, etc. She rents a townhouse in Yport, which used to be a fishing village. She drinks lots of wine, throwing the bottles out, then finding the bottles lined up outside her door in the morning. She thought the residents were keeping tabs on her drinking, but realizes when she's getting ready to leave that they were lined up for recycling. That struck some of us as funny. She used to be a fan of de Maupassant, but realizes that he was a despicable person and wonders why she was so enamored of him.

Joyce shared Groff's opinion of motherhood. "I absolutely despise the way that maternal sacrifice is held up as the be all and end all of women's experience. The fact that as soon as you have children you are expected to fade away into the background and to not enjoy your life and to give everything to your kids. This idea that children are the best thing that ever happens to you is so hurtful and wrong because it takes away from your humanity." Groff and her husband formed a contract before they had kids that outlined their different responsibilities. Although the terms and conditions have altered over the years, Groff says it has always been important to her to feel as though she has chosen her role rather than had it forced upon her. She follows a disciplined routine, writing for three or four hours in the morning (she avoids her children before they go to school) and reading in the afternoon.

In spite of the fact than many of us didn't like the stories, everyone admired the author's writing skill. Peg added that even though this might not have been a book we would have read on our own, it expanded our horizons... book club expands our horizons. We all could agree to that Joyce did an excellent job.

We won't be meeting on July 4th, so our next meeting will be in August, when we'll be discussing Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson Sunny Wilt will lead the discussion. To get a head start on your other reading, see Books for 2019 for what books will be discussed at each meeting. Just Mercy is an excellent read, but it may take you a bit more time to finish it because of the subject matter.

See you in August, and keep on reading....

Florida by Lauren Groff

A collection of stories spanning centuries in mercurial Florida. The stories examine the decisions and connections behind life-changing events for characters ranging from abandoned sisters to a conflicted family woman.

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