Category Archives: AMBC books

Tomlinson Hill by Chris Tomlinson

18404319Tomlinson Hill by Chris Tomlinson recounts the history of the Tomlinson families of Tomlinson Hill, Texas – one a privileged white slave holding family, and the other family, the slaves that took the Tomlinson name. Tomlinson begins the book with the migration of the white Tomlinsons from Alabama to Falls County, Texas with their slaves walking the distance as the masters rode.

This book was tough going for me at the beginning – so many battles, so many acreages, so many names to process and keep straight.

I’m glad I stuck with Tomlinson Hill past the difficult battle passages. The parallel history of the two Tomlinson families is a compelling story of race, privilege, and bloody Texan history. Much of this history is painfully sad and grim, particularly the determined, evil way the whites were able to entrap the freed slaves into the virtual slavery of the sharecropping system. The North may have won the war, and passed the Emancipation Proclamation, but the Southern white landowners controlled the ballot boxes and ruled by intimidation and terror.

The final chapters detailing the author’s own experiences and LaDainian and LaVar Tomlinson’s experiences are superb. It took the black Tomlinson family 4 generations to get out of the racist manual labor system of Texas. Their experience was reflective of the African American experience in rural Texas. As white landowners mechanized farming, the former sharecroppers and farm workers were hard pressed to find work, and the “separate but equal” education system kept them in their place. Their white counterparts – even the relatively unsuccessful and uneducated – never faced the brutal poverty the black Tomlinsons did, even after declaring bankruptcy.

This book is an indictment of Texan culture, which unbelievably, never elected an African American to statewide office until 1990. 1990! Another fact that astounded me was the “rebranding” of Texas as a western state. My impressions of Texas as a cowboy Western state are the product of a conscious rebranding effort to avoid discussing the shameful slave holding past. Tomlinson dispels many of the myths we were fed as school children regarding the south. “They didn’t know better” and “they didn’t understand what they were doing” get quickly debunked with editorials published in Texas newspaper before the  Civil War.

The author, Chris Tomlinson, discusses his experiences as a child with government ordered desegregation of the school system. I found these chapters fascinating, as I attended schools in Wilmington, Delaware that were also ordered to desegregate by the landmark decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education. I saw so many of my peers packed off to private and parochial schools, compounding the desegregation issue and preventing meaningful integration with white flight and fears of the “not like me.”

My experiences were much the same as Tomlinson’s. Yes, there was a lot of upheaval in the local schools. Yes, there were different standards in different schools that compounded problems. But, there was sincere reaching out and healthy interaction that outweighed so much of the negative. My teacher that year was Ed Sherrill, an educator in the Wilmington public school system, and he was the first African American teacher I had ever had. He was tall, with a booming voice, was my homeroom teacher, taught social studies, and I loved him. Meaningful integration of our schools is the only way we are going to succeed as a society.

I do have a warning: the chapters dealing with the Ku Klux Klan are difficult.

I would recommend this quite scholarly work to readers interested in American history, particularly the history of racism in America. The history of the Tomlinson family is our American history, complete with triumphs and failure, kindnesses and injuries.

Leave a comment

Filed under AMBC books, Book Review, Non-Fiction

On Lists. And How Very French.

I confess to a list obsession. I make lists, I read lists, I check things off lists. The list I try very much to NOT get too obsessed with is Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. First published in 2006, the list – and book – was compiled by Peter Boxall, a professor of English at Sussex University. The original list was extremely Anglocentric, and has been revised twice, with adjustments to the list to include more world literature. This list is very easy to find – there’s a listology list,  a goodreads lists via listology where goodreads users can vote for their favorites, and even an app you can purchase from the iTunes store. And of course, there are blog posts to read, spreadsheets to download, and pinterest boards to follow.

I confess to another thing: I purchased the 1001 books app. And according to the app, if I really, truly, want to finish the list before I die (at a projected age of 81), I need to get cracking. In order to finish the list by my anticipated death, I need to read 3 of the 1001 books per month. No pressure.

2967752This month, I can check one book off the list: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. This French novel was first published in 2006, and the first English edition was released in 2008. The novel received a number of awards in France, and was well received internationally. The New York Times reviewed it very favorably in 2008. (read the review here.) I found a copy at my favorite used book sale, and it has been sitting on my shelf of “to read” books for almost a year. When it came my turn to choose a book for my Awesome book group, I seized the opportunity to check this one off the list.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog first struck me as being very, very French. Firstly, the main characters live rich internal lives without a lot of drama. Renee, the concierge of a Parisian apartment building, is a closet intellectual that hides her true self. Renee camouflages herself by blaring television programs and wafting the scent of boiled cabbage into the lobby of the building, while she enjoys tea and Tolstoy behind the door of her loge.

Paloma, the other main character, is a twelve year old genius, also hides her true self from her family and schoolmates. Paloma tells her story through her journal of Profound thoughts, and in the reader’s first encounter with Paloma, she reveals that she intends to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday.

The novel is told in alternating voices, Renee and Paloma taking turns with the story. The two characters make observations on class and culture, art and beauty, and skewer most of the world around them for their hypocrisy and stupidity. Their essays continue in this vein to the point where I started to get a bit bored, frankly. There’s only so much free standing philosophy I can read without becoming impatient.

Finally, Renee and Paloma meet. On page 244. Again, how French to have a lengthy narrative on parallel paths, finally connecting the two characters well into the action.  Finally, the reader starts to see the glimmerings of a plot. Connecting Paloma and Renee is the character of Ozu, an older Japanese gentleman who moves into the apartment building.

I loved the mutual admiration of French and Japanese culture in this novel. Renee enjoys Japanese film, Ozu obviously is enmeshed in French culture. Ozu is able to see past Renee’s self imposed peasant facade, and befriends her. He introduces Renee to Japanese cuisine, and more importantly, gives her permission to be herself, which is a lovely message.

I won’t reveal the ending here. I will just say that it was a surprise, and while disappointing in terms of character development, it resolved the plot.

I was very satisfied,  checking this novel off  the list in my 1001 Books app. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to read all 1001 before I die, but I’ll enjoy trying!

Leave a comment

Filed under AMBC books, Book Group, Book Review, Fiction, Uncategorized

Book Group Picks 2014


Next year’s books, beautifully wrapped.

I love my book groups. I’m proud to count myself a member of three – two face to face groups, and one online. I love the interaction with other readers, and I love the book choices that are often out of my comfort zone. Choosing books in a book group is also a fun part of the book group experience, and each of my book groups makes their picks differently.

My online group votes via Facebook poll for a book. The leader of the group selects the genre, and members of the group submit choices or vote on a book that another member suggested. It’s a very democratic and fun way to pick books. The only drawback to this method is that I find myself adding all the books in the poll to my reading list, not just the one chosen for the group read.


Unwrapping next year’s first book. And wine.

My Awesome Book Club is very lucky to have an Awesome Maven. Our Maven maintains a rotating list, letting each of the members know when it is their month to choose a book for the group. She does a terrific job keeping us straight, even when members swap months or change their minds about their book choice. This is also a very democratic method, and every member has a voice in the choices of the group. For the past few years, another member has created a lovely bookmark that lists all the books we read throughout the year. It’s a useful and creative souvenir of our year in books.

My PTA Refugees also uses the one member = one book approach, but the methodology is different. Each year, our December meeting is the designated annual book exchange. Each group member chooses, and purchases, a book they would like the group to read. We wrap our books in the most tantalizing way we can, hoping to entice another member. Some members adorn their wrapped books with little gifts for the receiver.


We all brought a dish to share, and this was dessert. Yes, it tasted as good as it looked – delicious.

Then we sit down with the wrapped books, and the evening’s host makes the first pick. Whoever wrapped the book that was chosen is the next person to pick, and so on, until all the books are unwrapped.  We read the books in order through the year.

In 2014, The PTA Refugees will be reading:

1.      The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
2.      A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
3.      In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
4.      Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
5.      Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight
6.      The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch
7.      The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
8.      Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Does your book group have an interesting way to choose books? 

Leave a comment

Filed under AMBC books, Book Group, PTA Refugees

The Dinner by Herman Koch


The Dinner by Herman Koch was the June selection for the AMBC (Awesome Members Book Club) and it was an amazing choice that sparked a terrific conversation. This novel was originally published in 2009 in the Netherlands, and the translation was released in February in the United States. Many reviews compare this novel to Gone Girl, and while it does have some similarities to the thriller by Gillian Flynn, Koch’s novel is much more subversive and satirical.

The Dinner is the story of a dinner, two couples at a fancy restaurant meeting to talk about their teenaged sons. The husbands of the couples are brothers with a long history of mistrust and resentment, and their sons have committed an atrocity that needs addressing.

Koch plots the book through the courses of the meal, from aperitif to appetizer, all the way through to after dinner espresso. The narrator, Paul, tells the story, piece by piece, revealing the disturbing and horrific details through flashbacks. Paul’s opening affability and talk of “happy families” deepens into something darker. The seeming ignorance of the wives is skewered. Serge’s popularity tries Paul’s impatience. Each flashback exposes another layer, and the reader understands that Paul is not the most reliable of narrators.

The contrast between the painstaking descriptions of artistically prepared, artisan sourced food with the brutality and morally reprehensible actions of the characters takes the novel to a level of satire that I have not experienced in a very long time. Paul takes a perverse delight in asking the restaurant manager the provenance of the grapes garnishing his plate. The manager describes the grapes to a level of ridiculous detail but is unaware of Paul’s scorn.  Similarly, Paul describes his own episodes of violence to the reader, evoking a response of horror and disgust from the reader that Paul would not understand.

As I read the novel, my opinions of the characters evolved to such a degree that by the end, the “bad” characters were the only ones with any redeeming qualities.

Koch satirizes many of the aspects of post modern life – the ridiculous obsession with food, the culture of celebrity, reality tv and YouTube sensations. And underneath it all lie the age old questions of nature vs. nurture and how far parents will go to protect their children. Moral bankruptcy is the final item on the bill at the end of The Dinner.

This is a fast read that will draw the reader in quickly, almost too quickly – but I think that’s Koch’s intent. He draws you into a satirical black comedy, and then suddenly the reader realizes they are in the middle of a psychological thriller. This is a fantastic read, and I highly recommend it. If you enjoy a good story, it’s here. If you want deeper questions about morality and responsibility, they’re here too. Have fun!





Leave a comment

Filed under AMBC books, Book Review, Fiction