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My three book clubs: Zooming through fascinating April mix

  • Norma Klingsick’s three book clubs read “Assassination Vacation,” “Just Mercy” and “I Let You Go” in April. TNS

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Published: 5/22/2020 9:47:50 AM
Modified: 5/22/2020 9:47:37 AM

A book about presidential assassinations provided comic relief (really!), a true story induced sobering thoughts and a psychological thriller offered escape during a month when virtual book clubs became the new norm. Though not the same as seeing one another in person (bring your own snacks and adult beverage!), Zoom meetings meant much-needed social interaction – and sometimes technical assistance from our teens.

‘Assassination Vacation’ by Sarah Vowell

What I thought – I didn’t expect to like this book, a travelogue about Vowell’s pilgrimage to locations immortalized by the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield and William McKinley. But even though I’m not a history buff – I knew little about Garfield or McKinley before reading this – I was hooked once the author got past the politics. Published in 2005, the book is tied to then-current events and President George W. Bush. Not only is this an educational journey (Did you know Robert Todd Lincoln was present at all three of these assassinations, that President Lincoln was laughing when he was shot and that Charles Guiteau, Garfield’s killer, was involved in an upstate New York sex commune?), but it is also witty and sometimes hilarious. That’s not easy, considering the disturbing subject. Vowell’s enthusiasm for plaques, monuments and morbid mementos is infectious – but not as infectious as Garfield’s wound ... eww! Interesting side note: Vowell provides the voice of Violet Parr in the animated film The Incredibles.

At book club – I set up on my patio with a glass of wine on a sunny Tuesday afternoon while other members logged on from home offices, living rooms, bedrooms and a beach (thanks to Zoom’s virtual background feature). Most people enjoyed the book, though some admitted to skimming the political parts. Vowell has a way of digging up obscure facts (Did I mention the sex commune was called the Oneida Community, which eventually dissolved to become the silverware company?) but can get a little too detailed at times. “She went off on tangents,” one reader said. Vowell’s quirky personality made learning this not-so-well-known history fun, and someone suggested high school students should read it. But maybe skip the sex commune chapter, another said.

‘Just Mercy’ by Bryan Stevenson

What I thought – A true story recently made into a movie, many people are now aware of social justice lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s attempt to overturn a guilty verdict for Walter McMillian, a black man wrongfully accused and sentenced to death for the murder of a white teenage girl in Monroeville, Alabama. While the movie, starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, was powerful (I watched it after I finished the book), it offers just a slice of Stevenson’s tireless work with the Equal Justice Initiative. This is not an easy read, covering the subjects of race, poverty, child imprisonment, mass incarceration and the death penalty. Stevenson’s personal accounts about men, women and children, some mentally challenged, some wrongly convicted and almost all of them poor, opened my eyes and left me surprised and appalled.

At book club –You hear about people being falsely accused and being released after years in prison, but Stevenson’s documentation of the countless incidents of injustices against African Americans, mentally ill adults and juveniles charged as adults was revealing to many of my fellow readers. The lawyer’s account made some of us reconsider how we felt about capital punishment and also spurred thoughtful and enlightening conversations about racial inequities in the justice system and about how poverty too often is treated as a criminal offense. Stevenson writes: “When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.”

‘I Let You Go’ by Clare Mackintosh

What I thought – Because my other two book clubs made nonfiction choices for April, I was relieved when my third group chose a mystery crime novel. Jenna Gray, a woman desperate to escape her past and a tragic hit-and-run accident, flees to the Welsh countryside to hide out. Meanwhile, Detective Inspector Ray Stevens is tasked with finding the driver in that accident. The story developed quietly and slowly, becoming more puzzling and riveting. It is a hard book to describe without too many spoilers – but prepare for a major twist at the end of Part 1. The book was best when it followed Jenna’s storyline. There were a few unbelievable coincidences near the end, and the “bad guy” was a bit contrived, but overall it was an engrossing mystery.

At book club – A few persistent, needy cats and a member who has moved joined us from a sunny trailhead in Arizona when we met via Zoom on a rainy Monday evening. None of us saw the twist in Part 2 coming. Some of us even went back to listen to or read the first part, wondering what clues we had missed. Though not a flawless book – most did not think the unlikable detective’s part of the story added much – it was a book that kept us entertained. The ambiguous ending led some readers to expect a sequel (there won’t be), but we were all open to reading more books by Mackintosh. This novel, written in 2016, was the first for the British author, who spent 12 years in the police force.

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