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Sunday, May 12, 2013

Gold Country Nonfiction Mini-Retreat Report

Yesterday, we had a glorious, warm spring day in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range at the very quiet Mercy Center Retreat.  We were hosted by the Auburn Great Books discussion group with Donna Reynolds providing a delightful, comical musical interlude and sing along of music from the pre WWII period right after lunch.  (Click on photos to enlarge.)
Group 1

Group 2
 In the morning we formed two groups to discuss Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts which mainly covers the period 1933-34 in Germany as Hitler’s Nazi party consolidates its power and control over the German state and its people.  There is plenty of politics here, in Germany and between various power hungry officials, and in the United States, Roosevelt’s administration, the State Department, and in the embassies.  The book relates the activities of William Dodd, newly appointed U. S. Ambassador to Germany, and his fun loving (to put it mildly, this is a family friendly publication) daughter, Martha.  Ambassador Dodd, a history professor by trade, is a misfit as an ambassador and is at odds with those in the Pretty Good Club of officials in the U. S. State Department from the beginning.  He and Martha initially look for some good to come from the Nazis, but they eventually realize (especially after the “Night of the Long Knives" slaughter) that their optimism was little more than hope which is not much of a strategy in opposing the rising evil of the Jew-hating Hitler and his henchmen.  Even after he accepts the judgment of the U. S. Consul Messersmith, who saw early on the danger of the Nazi’s brutal power grabbing, Dodd is unable to convince the State Department or Roosevelt to adopt a stronger, more deliberate stance opposing the Nazi regime.  He is eventually replaced by a more compliant member of the State Department who implements the attitude of appeasement desired by Washington while Dodd returns to the U. S. and engages, as a private citizen, in a strong campaign of lectures and appearances warning of the rising danger in Europe.

Martha Dodd
The side story of his daughter, Martha, and her series of illicit affairs (several going on simultaneously, she was an accomplished juggler sometimes playing one lover against another) with correspondents, writers, Nazi officials, French ambassadorial staff, a Russian spy, etc. is the story of a supposedly intelligent, talented (in more ways than one, she wants to be a writer) young woman with monumentally bad judgment.  After her disillusionment with the Nazis she travels to Russia and begins spying for the Soviets which she continues even after she returns to the U. S.  In our discussion of the book we thought there was not enough attention paid to the relationship and communication between Martha and her father, the ambassador, who seems to have been unaware of her sexual activities while living in the same house.  If you are interested, CLICK HERE for a film depicting 1930’s Berlin including a brief clip that featured Martha Dodd and her friend and likely one-time lover, Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl.  The clip is at 09:10 in the film just after the clip of Hitler and Himmler walking at an airfield.  Be sure to click on the opposing arrows symbol at the lower right of the film to view it full screen.

Discussing the film.

In the afternoon, we viewed the film Cabaret.  This is a must see if you haven’t already seen it.  It takes place in Berlin about the same time period as the history book we discussed in the morning.  It won several Academy Awards and there are several narratives within the film that we explored after the viewing.  Besides the story of the main characters there is the anti-Semitism, decadence, high-living, and the propaganda and brutality of the Nazi takeover of Germany as it took place in Berlin and the rest of the country, and some great music and dancing.  All in all, an excellent film.

One comment I heard from several people, and with which I fully agree, was that WWII was avoidable if only the Western Democracies had stood up to the autocrats and dictators that gathered power during the 1930’s.

Many thanks go to Auburn Great Books for their excellent choices of a book and a movie about one of the most important periods of the Twentieth Century that worked so well together and special thanks to Ginni Saunders and Paula Weinberger, our discussion leaders.  Ten of us got together for dinner in Old Town Auburn before heading home, a perfect ending to a great day!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Long Novel Weekend


August 24-25, 2013 at Vallombrosa Center in Menlo Park

The book:  Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Call me Ishmael.  I will be your guide and storyteller on this excursion to the far flung oceans of the world in search of the mighty leviathans of the sea.  We’ll assemble at the Spouter Inn in New Bedford and meet our friend Queequeg the harpooner, then on to Nantucket to sign on to the Pequod, the captain of that vessel, Ahab, bearing a striking resemblance to Gregory Peck.  But, enough for now, I am getting ahead of myself.

Save this weekend,  August 24-25, to discuss a truly Great Book.  We will have three two-hour discussions and Saturday evening we are fortunate to have Professor Samuel Otter of the University of California, Berkeley speak to us followed by a question and answer session.  Professor Otter’s research and teaching focus on nineteenth-century United States literature.  He is a specialist on Herman Melville’s writing.

If you missed last year’s Long Novel Weekend (Dickens’ David Copperfield) don’t make the same mistake this year.  Vallombrosa Center is a quiet, beautiful place with excellent facilities and food.  Join us for a great weekend and great discussions.

For more information and a registration form CLICK HERE.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Great Books Council of San Francisco Annual Meeting and Picnic


Sunday, June 9, 2013, 12 noon to 3 pm
Tilden Park's Padre Picnic Area

Ready for some Barbecue?  I am sure Chef Brent will be manning the grill.  Bring something you like to grill: sausage, fish, shrimp, beef, chicken, pork, veggies, garlic bread, or an ear of corn in the husk or wrapped in foil, delicious.  I like a chicken breast marinated in teriyaki sauce in a zip-lok sandwich bag.  In addition bring your own beverage, paper plate and utensils and a dish to share with four others.  We always have plenty of food so nobody goes hungry.
View of SF and Golden Gate from Grizzly Peak Blvd.  Click on photos to enlarge.
 It’s a good idea to bring a folding chair (to gather into groups for the book discussion), sunscreen and a sun hat.  Laura Bushman, our event coordinator, always manages to order a warm, sunny day with a cooling breeze to go along with the greenery and ambiance of the Padre Picnic area at Tilden Regional Park in the Berkeley hills.  CLICK HERE for an information sheet with directions to the picnic area.  CLICK HERE for a park map (Padre Picnic Area is slightly to the upper right of the center of the map).

After a short business meeting,  We will separate into smaller groups to discuss Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending.  A novel so compelling that it begs to be read in a single sitting.  The Sense of an Ending has the psychological and emotional depth and sophistication of Henry James at his best, and is a stunning new chapter in Julian Barnes' oeuvre.

This intense novel follows Tony Webster, a middle-aged man, as he contends with a past he never thought much about---until his closest childhood friends return with a vengeance:  one of them from the grave, another maddeningly present.  Tony thought he left this all behind as he built a life for himself, and his career has provided him with a secure retirement and an amicable relationship with his ex-wife and daughter, who now has a family of her own.  But when he is presented with a mysterious legacy, he is forced to revise his estimation of his own nature and place in the world.

“Elegant, playful, and remarkable.” —The New Yorker

“A page-turner, and when you finish you will return immediately to the beginning.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Dense with philosophical ideas. . . . It manages to create genuine suspense as a sort of psychological detective story.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"Brief, beautiful. . . . That fundamentally chilling question—Am I the person I think I am?—turns out to be a surprisingly suspenseful one. . . . As Barnes so elegantly and poignantly reveals, we are all unreliable narrators, redeemed not by the accuracy of our memories but by our willingness to question them." —The Boston Globe.

Join us for a fun time in the park and a book discussion.  If you have any questions contact Laura Bushman at