"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Our Souls at Night---book club discussion

Yesterday our book club met at my house to discuss Kent Haruf's last book, Our Souls at Night. Attendance at the meeting was way down, only four gals attended, but we had a spirited discussion over this short, gem of a book.

In summary:  Addie and Louis, both in their seventies with dead spouses and long-time friends, decide to spend their nights together for companionship and comfort. Nights are the worst for loneliness. They live in a small town and it doesn't take long for the gossips in town to start talking. Addie and Louis decided before they started the sleeping arrangement that they weren't going to sneak around and act guilty, so they ignore or tell off their detractors. Both of their grown children weigh in, as well, being unhappy that their parents are behaving in this manner. But both Addie and Louis find comfort in the new arrangement and are able, finally, to reveal parts of themselves which they have hidden or felt guilt about for years through their night talks. Part of the way through the summer, Addie's grandson, Jamie, comes to live with her. Louis helps her with the boy and they spend precious moments together with him. But the detractors do not let up and soon Addie can not stand the pressure. The book ends on a sad but possibly hopeful note.

About Kent Haruf: The author, made famous for his Plainsong Trilogy set in rural Colorado, received a terminal lung disease diagnosis before he embarked on writing Our Souls at Night. Instead of sitting around waiting to die, he went out to his writing shed and tried to write a short chapter every day. He liked to type with his eyes shut so he could imagine his characters and the setting better. He created a quiet, moving story with few words using this technique. Haruf didn't get published until he was in his forties. Up to that point he was a high school English teacher. He later went on to teach writing at the college level, helping other prospective writers with writing tips he learned along the way. He would tell them to not let the pilot-light of talent they have go out. Their talent needed to be tended every day, with persistence. Read this obituary to find out more about this author.

Discussion questions: It is possible to find book club discussion questions for almost all books today, but often the questions that are offered do not go very deep or generate thoughtful discussions. Here are the KnopfDoubleday discussion questions. We used many of their questions. In addition, we grappled with others of our own making.

  1. What did you like/dislike about the book? Everyone liked the book a lot and for different reasons. We discussed those reasons. One gal, whose husband died a few years ago, said she could really relate to the reasons that Addie and Louis got together and the awkwardness that accompanied the beginnings of their arrangement. Several of us talked about liking the way that Addie and Louis treated the boy, Jamie. Three scenes stuck out in our minds: camping, getting the dog, and teaching him to play catch. One gal did identify one thing about the book which bothered her---no quotations around the dialogue. But because the book was heavy on dialogue, it wasn't a big distraction.
  2. What were the themes of the book? We were able to identify lots of themes---the need for physical touch at every age; life in a small town; treatment of the elderly; family issues; issues related to grief and guilt. I felt that the last theme, grief and guilt, played into so many of the actions of our characters. As the relationship between Addie and Louis deepened they were able to shed some of their guilt for events that happened earlier in their lives, but then we saw their children come back and attempt to throw that guilt right back on them. Family dynamics, especially around finances, factored into our discussion heavily.
  3. Compare Kent Haruf's writing style to other authors. What did you think of his writing? None of us are big know-it-alls about literary styles and writing but we all appreciated the shortness of the book and the spare use of description. I thought that perhaps Haruf could be compared to Hemingway, who famously worked at being concise and spare in his writing. In his last interview, Haruf said, "I think I have written as close to bone as I could."
  4. Talk about the beginning and the ending of the book. How do they help the reader imagine the story 'before and after' the confines of the book? We noted that the first sentence started with the "And", which we've never noticed before in any books. Starting with "And" forces the reader to think about what happened before the print on the first page. What a very clever technique. None of us liked the ending. In fact, when my husband and I listened to the audiobook together, he rated the book as a 'two' due to the ending. None of us were as harsh as Don was about the ending, but we decided that the ending gave us something to think about. We could imagine where the story went from there. It gave our brains room to imagine several alternative endings, which, in my books anyway, is a good way to end a story.
  5. Kent Haruf was a high school teacher in his early life. He and his wife were friends in high school before marrying other people and having their families. When they got together late in life, one of their favorite things to do together was to talk in bed at night. How do these two things affect how you like the book? The author? Since we all worked at a high school (that is how we formed our book club, we all worked at the same high school), it was fun to think of Haruf as one of us. Though the story wasn't autobiographical, it was easy to read because Haruf put things he knew into the story. It was obvious that he loved his characters and cared what happened to them...so we did, too.
Books often improve in my estimation after a good, spirited discussion over them. This was the case with Our Souls at Night. Listening to others talk about what they liked about the book helped me to identify what I liked about it. That is the beauty of book clubs--- First, that one is forced to read a book they wouldn't have selected otherwise, and then, knowing that it will be discussed, it forces the reader to pay attention to details beyond the obvious.

Print: Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf, Knopf Publishing, 2015.
I listened to the Audiobook version, by Random House Audio, read by Mark Bramhall, who did a wonderful job with his old-west sounding voice.

Book Beginnings: 

"And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters. It was an evening in May just before full dark."

Comment: I think it is a very interesting literary technique to start a book with the word AND. It invites the reader to think about what might have happened before the stuff in the book happened.

(Book Beginnings is hosted every Friday by Rose City Reader. Join in the fun. Grab your current read and share the first line! Tell us what you think of the quote in the comments below!)



18 comments:

  1. I absolutely loved our discussion(and your delicious Tres Leches cake!); your post is full of wisdom and sensitivity. I too liked the book even better after our get together. It made me reflect on the poignancy of starting a new relationship. Thanks for all the background on and quotes from the author; they added a lot!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for your kind comment.

    We did have a good discussion and I gained some important insights from it.

    Plus, I agree. The cake was yummy but deadly! Too delicious. Too buttery.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Anne!

    i love your book club questions. I wish we had a book club where I am. I will have to look into it.

    What a great book beginning! Yes, it made me look twice, the way it started with 'and', which is not usually acceptable - especially quite so noticeably at the beginning of a book! Clever? :)

    Here is my book choice for this Friday: http://bit.ly/2w2KkmL

    Hope you have a relaxing reading weekend, Anne.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm in two book clubs and I cannot tell you how rewarding it is to discuss books which I may have struggled with or those I really enjoyed but wanted to talk about with someone. Both of my clubs are pretty focused on the books, however. I've heard of clubs that mostly just visit or eat and barely get to the book discussion. Be picky as you look around for a club. Or, hey, start one yourself. I'd be happy to give you some tips for a successful club. Let me know.

      Delete
  4. What a lovely book! And how great that these older people found companionship. I don't like that they got so much flack, but isn't that always the way? Thanks for sharing, and for visiting my blog.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We wondered if the flack came, in part, because in small towns people are in each other's business all the time. My husband, who grew up in a small twon, said it was that way in his hometown.

      Delete
  5. Wow, wow, wow. Our Souls At Nights sounds incredible, both the book and the story behind the book. Sounds like it has some important messages, too.

    Thank you for sharing this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It really was a little gem, and it improved once we knew how the author wrote it, as his last elegy.

      Delete
  6. You make a good point about books seeming to improve after a good discussion of them. I find that to be true too. I come away thinking a little differently about even the books I didn't necessarily like.

    I haven't read this one, but I would like to, especially after reading your discussion of it! I hadn't though of it before, you are right about the use of "and" as an opening to a book. It definitely pulls you in right away, especially in this case. Thanks for sharing, Anne!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, using AND as the opening word certainly was different, yet compelling.

      Delete
  7. I can completely understand wanting companionship in the house at night! It's easy to fill our days with work, friends, volunteering, etc, but at night is when, I think, most people feel lonely

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree. The relationship they formed was very sweet.

      Delete
  8. Hi Anne,

    So many of my close blogging circle of friends have read this one, that I can't believe how it fell off my radar and I missed out on what is already, but is set to definitely become, a future classic.

    Your thoughtful review and book club discussion is an amazing testament to such a short story, although the only thing which is bothering me a tad, are the small indicators you gave that the story doesn't have a conclusive ending - not a show stopper, but not my preferred outcome!

    I particularly liked your thinking behind the first sentence starting with the word 'AND'. Many moons ago when I was at school, that would have been a most heinous crime and along with beginning a new sentence with the word 'BUT', would have been sure to have seen my work book covered in the teacher's red pen at the very least!

    Thanks for sharing and have a great weekend :)

    Yvonne

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, I hope that you get to it some day. I just learned about this author and now want to go back and read his Plainsong Trilogy, or at least the first book of it.

      Delete
  9. This book sounds great! Thanks for sharing! :)

    ReplyDelete
  10. Sounds like a good read, especially if it sparked such lively discussion!

    ReplyDelete
  11. I've just recently joined a new book group & im looking forward to the discussions so much for exactly the reason you've stated.
    It's a bit like what blogging does too. By writing your thoughts down to publish, it helps bring together what you liked (or didn't)

    This was a wonderful read. Have you read Lily Tuck 's book I Married you for Happiness. I was reminded of it when I read IMYFH recently. Similar, but different; complementary perhaps.

    ReplyDelete

Your turn. Please comment below.