Monday, January 19, 2009

Lucy and Ethel Had a Meeting

They did.

Lucy drove to Ethel's house and kept her coat on the whole time because Ethel's house is under-insulated with ancient wavy-glass windows. And Ethel is cheap with the heat.

At the meeting there was a lot of chattering and laughing and exclaiming, but not much talking about Hannah Coulter. That's pretty typical. Lucy and Ethel often knit together and never make a stitch so it comes as no surprise to them that a meeting about a book should result in little to no conversation about said book.

Lucy and Ethel fly better by the seat of their pants.

Are you ready to fly with Lucy and Ethel?

Today, let's talk about first impressions. That's not so hard, is it?

Is Hannah Coulter what you expected? Are you motivated to keep reading or is it a struggle?

You can be honest here. The more honest, the better. And if you change your opinions as you go through the book, that's perfectly fine. Mine changed, I'll admit that right now. (When you have so many some are bound to be fickle.)

Second, we need, need, need to talk about the first chapter (or just the first page if you're brighter than most.)

What is up with the first chapter?

How many times did you have to read it before it made any ounce of sense to you?

Was it clear to you who was speaking on the first page? Just curious.

For me, there is a huge difference in clarity between Chapter One and Chapter Two. Given that it's the same narrator I'm trying to figure out why. I did go back and reread Chapter One after I had finished the book and it was like a fine dessert after a satisfying meal. Does this make Chapter One an ineffective introduction or a brilliant one?

Have you seen our marbles?

Lastly, we'd like to know how and to what degree you sympathize, or don't sympathize, with Hannah or any of the characters you've met so far.

Are they folks you relate to? Understand? Are there specific moments they experience that you recognize from your own life?

Please pick and choose from these questions and discuss what interests you. The comments are where the real content of this blog resides. Please feel free to check back and respond to what others are saying, ask questions and generally chime in. Our questions are coming from our own curiosity and I expect your comments will generate more questions. (I just used the same word multiple times in one paragraph when I could have chosen another. Why would I do that? Is that a literary device? Does that remind you of anyone? Don't answer...I'm getting ahead of myself.)

As you answer, please keep in mind we're trying to contain the discussion to Part One for this week. I will be reminding myself of that all day as I really want to talk about Virgie. If you hear me mention Virgie before we get to Part Three, please slap my hand.

What could I do? I couldn't dance. I couldn't sing. I could talk.
--Lucille Ball

I could talk all day about Virgie.

Virgie, Virgie, Virgie.


:) Lynn


  1. I am motivated to keep reading. I picked up on the first chapter right away... but must admit that I checked this book out of the library last year and didnt finish it.

    So, this is my second try.

    Back later...supposed to be *working*

  2. True confessions! Do you remember why you didn't finish it last year?

    (I'm not surprised at all that you had no trouble with the first chapter.)

    Please don't get fired for reading this little blog at work. I would never recover from that.

    You have a nice boss, though, right? ;)

  3. Argh! I don't have time to do anything more than say "Hooray" for the Hannah Coulter Book Club. I'll be back with lots of comments!

    So excited.

    Carol in Oregon

  4. Hannah Coulter was not what I expected because I had no expectations. I was motivated from the very first chapter but the first chapter I continually looked at the back for the characters and map of Port William. Which I don't enjoy doing. I noticed right off that Nathan was sixteen in 1940 and then I looked to the back and saw that Grandpa Dave died in 1938. I couldn't figure that out. Because here was Nathan carrying him in 1940. What was up with that? I thought it was Hannah's voice narrating from the very beginning. I didn't see any difference. I have never read any other novels by Wendell Berry. I know nothing about him. I am enjoying the book and I have to make myself stop reading it. I really enjoyed reading about the grandmother. To think that someone can so intentionally instill in their grandchild so many necessities of life. I only wish I could be so creative and industrious.

  5. It is definitely another time and generation. It is my mom's and her parent's generation. She has told me many stories of their hardships. And like Hannah, they never wanted for food because my grandparents had a big garden and my grandpa was a supervisor in the coal mines of Illinois. Even though they were poor in material things, my grandparents knew how to improvise and invent what they needed. My grandpa would take other's trash and make many items. He built me my first bicycle out of thrown away parts.

  6. Nothing really particular about Hannah Coulter kept me from getting into it. I think I checked out several of Berry's books from the library and persused them to get a feel for him as a writer. Several blogger friends were talking about him.

  7. Junebug! You are exactly right on the math...what IS up with that? I suppose it's possible that Wendell made a mistake or perhaps it's intentional and done to remind us this is an old woman talking who doesn't remember the exact year Grandpa Dave died but does remember the year Nathan was 16. In any case, Nathan would have been 14 the year his grandpa died, 1938.

    Velly interesting...

  8. Okay. I've only read the first two chapters but here is what I think.

    I went back and read the introduction after I had a feel for what was going on, so it made sense fairly quickly. But what I'm wondering is why Hannah starts the story of her life with a story from her husband's youth. I'm very intrigued by it, so in that sense it is an ingenius intro, imo.

    I agree with the previous comments about Grandmam. What a precious thing to have someone in your life like that, and it was neat to read how Hannah appreciated her so much.

    I sympathized with the father and his disappointing match with Ivy. Very sad.

    I hope to get the next 5 chapters read today

  9. I think my first impression has been one of wistfulness. Many of you have talked about it here in the comments already; your own family history and its meaning. I don't have a feel for mine, and this book causes me to be a bit wistful for knowledge of them. It also makes me feel wistful because of the wisdom and self-knowledge of Hannah and her grandmother, father and so many others. They may not have been perfect, but they knew what they were. And so did everyone else. Am i making sense?
    I sometimes steamroll through life, trampling the signs I should be heeding and loosing them forever. The characters in this book don't do that. Virgil.....

  10. I honestly thought this was going to be a scandalous book.

    I don't know why. (I will completely understand if you leave now and never come back.)

    It didn't take me very long to figure out that it was going to be far from scandalous. So my first impression was "hmmmm...not so rife with intrigue and scandal as I thought."

    But the connections I'm having to the characters are better than reading scandal. I remember having the exact same feeling as Hannah when she says "It was news to me that I wanted to live in Hargrave and get a job."

    This encapsulates exactly and completely most of my life. I've never been a planner, I've always just fallen into things and they've always seemed to work out.

    I love the line that follows: "All of a sudden I could feel myself taking form."

    That was my 20's, my 30's and now my 40's.

    More later...

  11. I had to make a conscious choice about my entry posture - as excited as I was - and am! - about reading this book, I can get really bogged down looking for what's so important in Important Books. [Like - the Secret Life of Bees. I did NOT understand what the big deal was with that book. It didn't do anything for me.] I didn't want to be similarly disappointed, so I endeavored to check my expectations at the door. I'm glad I did, because a clean palette has allowed me to really enjoy this book so far.

    Wistful is a good word for my impression, too. I loved Grandmam.. was reminded of my husband's dear Gram who died last summer at 98.. she raised him, and in many ways protected him in a wicked stepfather situation... And of course, she's ever dearer in hindsight.

    I wasn't bothered by the opening pages, even though I didn't have the first clue who it was referring to. Sometimes when a book begins, I have to make myself just keep going even if I can't keep track of the characters- like 'Steph, just keep reading and it will fall into place'. Better than than making a family tree [which I have been known to do.] I thought the first chapter was intriguing, entering us into the story at a point where it was already happening. Worked for me.

    So far, so good. In fact, better than that. Love it so far.

    Hope my book comes soon so I can read on past the Google Reader!! :)

    Back to knitting...

  12. I am enjoying the book at a leisurely pace. I feel like Hannah is speaking slowing so I read it slowly. It seems a crime to rush thru this for me as when I rush I miss the beautiful poetry of it.

    I did not understand the first chapter and it freaked me out a little.
    Lynn and I now refer to it as a Beloved moment.

    Do you remember the book Beloved. There is a famous chapter where no one knows what is going on or who is speaking...or anything...perhaps it is the fetus speaking...I don't know.

    Lynn tells me she felt this way about the whole book (Beloved)

    So when we get to a part of a book that makes no is a beloved moment.

    I have not gone back to read the first few pages yet.

    I will wait until I finish the book. Lynn says it really sings when read this way.

    I am very motivated to keep reading. I am caring more and more for Hannah as the pages go by.

    I like reading about how people make due with tight belts.
    It is inspiring to me and something that is unheard of in our culture.

    Do you know of anyone who sleeps in the living room and kitchen because that is where it is the warmest?

  13. Actually, Donna, if it weren't for electric blankets growing up, my brothers and I would have frozen. The only heat upstairs was a tiny gas stove in the bathroom. I was always glad to run to the bathroom in the morning and lock the door! Ha ha. I live amazingly warm now in my thermostat controlled house. So many luxuries...there was a time when we even had to haul water for months to our house in the country when I was about five. And go to an outdoor potty! Those times are not missed.

  14. Donna, I remember my father's story of how the boys' room was across the front porch. One of them would go put a pan of hot coals under the beds and then they would change into their nightclothes next to the fire in the main room and run as fast as they could across the front porch and jump into the barely heated beds. This would have been early 1930's, so a similar time frame to the book.

    It's a wonder those boys didn't burn the house down!

  15. Oh, I was destined to be the dissenting opinion. It is my lot in life. I love, love, love the first chapter. I remember reading it aloud to my husband and son and he FORCED me to stop at the end of the chapter so we could talk about it's profundities.

    Let's start with the title: "The Story Continuing". This is a frontal assault on modern, individualistic thinking. It's brilliance makes my lips numb.

    No one's story begins on the day of his or her birth. We are unavoidably connected to those who came before. In another Wendell Berry novel, a visitor asks a 47 yr old farmer how long he'd been on the land. The farmer replied: "We've been here 75 years."

    Hey, I don't know the mind of Wendell Berry, but that's what I *think* he's doing.

    If you can find it, I highly recommend the audio version of this book (after you've read the print). I took it with me on a solo, six hour drive and it was as if Hannah was sitting shotgun, telling me her story.

    I'm going to sit on my hands and be quiet. Someone else talk.

  16. *its* not it's. (banging my head against the wall)

  17. Yes! Carol, you hit the nail on the head! "No one's story begins on the day of his or her birth". That is the central prevailing message I took away from all Wendell's Port William novels, but especially from Hannah Coulter. I've been feeling much more a part of my own family history, my community, etc., since reading these books and grasping Wendell's ideas about family and community, yet I realize how the story was in progress when I entered! I've been able to put myself into the context of my immediate and extended family since thinking this way.

    I must admit perhaps reading this book was easier after reading the others in the series (ducking now for my previous assertion it shouldn't matter) because I didn't have any trouble with the first chapter. I did have to keep trying to sort out different characters throughout the series, though, because they pop up once and then not again for perhaps four or five books. For me, Hannah's storytelling in the book is a bit like listening to my 87 year old Dad. He jumps around from childhood stories, to WWII stories, to railroad stories, etc. In the past few years I've been blessed to spend lots of time with him and only through repeated listening am I able to put the stories in context and chronological order.

    I do relate to these characters as they remind me of older family members who lived similar lives in similar places. Reading this book was like being at a family reunion with long-gone relatives listening to their stories with much greater interest than I knew to have when they were living.

    The first chapter is a bit of foreshadowing, isn't it? Because Hannah mentions both her husbands and the fact the first one dies in the war. I'm never sure why authors use foreshadowing.

    I love this sentence in Chapter 2, after Hannah's mother dies: "And so I learned about grief, and about the absence and emptiness that for a long time make grief unforgettable."

    Sorry my comments are so long. Have I already said how much I love this book? I'm so grateful to Lucy and Ethel for starting this book club!

  18. Hello Everyone--I've been gone (from the computer) for nearly 24 hours--I haven't been ignoring you!

    I'm thrilled to come back and see such thoughtful comments. This would all be so much easier if you could just fly to WI and sit in my cold living room. I think I have enough blankets and quilts for everyone.

    I need to teach my boys now but will be back as soon as possible. I have some things to say. I want to chime in but need to keep this other train on its tracks or I'll be sorry.

    Carry on!

  19. Your comments and insight are all so appreciated! I'm really enjoying reading your thoughts.

    I think I made clear my thoughts about the first page... the first sentence... the very title of the chapter. But once I got past this, I've found it a very delightful story to fall into. Very easy to read.

    A few things that stood out to me:
    1) I adore Grandmam.

    2) In the short bit when Virgil returns home for 2 weeks, Wendell writes, "The days were separate and suspended, like plants hanging in pots." It struck me as odd at first, but as I thought about it I decided I love this analogy and it perfectly expresses the feeling of those days.

    3) Forgive me for dropping the intellectual value of this conversation a few notches... but was anybody else oddly uncomfortable with a male author describing the feeling of nursing a child? I think he does a good job of "being" Hannah... but this made me uncomfortable.

  20. Yes, Tammy. That jumped out at me as well. I kept thinking he should quit while he's ahead...but he took a risk. I'm waiting for the audio book from the library and am wondering if some of these moments when I hear Wendell instead of Hannah will correct themselves.

  21. First impressions - I was lost in chapter one. I couldn't tell who was talking. But I'll wait and re-read it later. And now I've forgotten what I was thinking. Note to self, write comment before reading all the other comments...

    Oh, I remember. Wendell Barry and I have such similar names (first and last - get rid of a few letters of his first name, add a couple to his last name and you have me!) I think if i decided to write a book under a nom de plume I would borrow his. I have never met Wendell before and know nothing of his thoughts on community (or sex? wasn't there a comment about that? steamy!)