Books People Are Talking About by Lynette

Lynette facilitiates the book discussion group at the Helmerich Library. At each meeting they read books on a particular topic or books by the same author and share their opinions. What follows is a recap of their April meeting.

Southern novelist, memoirist, and one is tempted to say, fabulist, Pat Conroy, was a worthy subject for our last book discussion before summer break. We had a wide ranging and sometimes impassioned conversation that mirrored his work! No one was un-opinionated. Several participants had read every single book Conroy has ever written. Others, after reading one, did not want to read another.

Among the Conroy fans (a substantial majority), favorite titles varied:

Many of the teachers had read his first major work, THE WATER IS WIDE during their own teaching careers. Written in 1971, Conroy recounts vividly (very little of his writing is NOT vivid) his year and some months teaching 5th – 8th grades on the very poor, very isolated Daufuskie Island (a.k.a Yamacraw Island in the book). Located in the Beaufort, South Carolina school district, the educational needs of the children of Yamacraw had been neglected forever. It made Conroy, a young, but not inexperienced teacher, righteously angry. This combined with his unconventional teaching “methods” endeared him to his students while infuriating his superiors. The theme of severe inequities between, and even within school systems resonates to this day. As always, Conroy leaves his readers with the eccentric characters, absurdities of life, and lush descriptions of the beauty of the Carolina coast woven into unforgettable scenes.

THE PRINCE OF TIDES was frustrating to some of our readers. Larger-than-life people and events pile up on one another, with some threads of plot or character dropped until the very end of the novel, or not picked up again at all. For several, credibility and authenticity were issues…..and perhaps better editing. But we all agreed that this author can write a gorgeous sentence. “I was born and raised on a Carolina sea island and I carried the sunshine of the low country, inked in dark gold, on my back and shoulders.” Several readers named BEACH MUSIC as their favorite Conroy novel, while his newest, SOUTH OF BROAD , not one of his best.

Beyond place, there are autobiographical elements in much of Conroy’s work. One of our readers noted the fascinating progression of wives and children listed on his dedication pages. (Cassandra, his current wife, is the author of THE SUNDAY WIFE and other contemporary novels.) Though THE GREAT SANTINI is a novel, Bull Meecham, the abusive title character, was a Marine fighter pilot just as Conroy’s abusive father was. We debated whether the unique stresses of military life were a factor in the dysfunctional families both real and imagined, and honestly disagreed about that. Those of us who had parents in the military experienced nothing remotely resembling the Meecham/Conroy family. We cannot speak with as much conviction on freshman life at the Citadel, the setting for LORDS OF DISCIPLINE . Conroy has said that scenes of horrific plebe (freshman) hazing came directly from his days at the Military College of South Carolina . One of our readers thought this novel was his most psychologically astute. Almost everyone noted the rawness in his work, but felt that it was a worthy price to pay to enter his semi-fictional world. Specially noted is one guaranteed fun book, THE PAT CONROY COOKBOOK: RECIPES FROM MY LIFE in which he interweaves the recipes and the stories in a delightful way—minus the darkness.

To whom should we compare Conroy? His acknowledged influences are Thomas Wolfe ( LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL ) and William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Definitely not Hemingway!

DRUM ROLL: After voting on our favorite topics and titles this last 9 months the winners are…….

 Favorite topic: Civil War historical fiction, particularly THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH

 Favorite title: SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN

 Honorable Mention:

o Pat Conroy

o the school classics THE OUTSIDERS and A SEPARATE PEACE

o Jumpha Lahiri’s work: INTERPRETER OF MALADIES , NAMESAKE , and UNACCUSTOMED EARTH

You can imagine we received a wonderful and eclectic list of suggested titles and topics for next year. Steinbeck was named by several, as well as biography. Prepare to see a mix of contemporary, classic, historical fiction and non-fiction!!

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