2004 Program: “Nickel and Dimed” by Barbara Ehrenreich

Nickel and Dimed

About the Book

Millions of Americans work full-time, year-round, for poverty-level wages. Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them, inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that any job equals a better life. But how can anyone survive, let alone prosper, on six to seven dollars an hour? To find out, Ehrenreich moved from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, working as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing home aid and Wal-Mart salesperson. “Nickel and Dimed” reveals low-wage America in all its tenacity, anxiety and surprising generosity–a land of “big box” stores, fast food and a thousand desperate stratagems for survival. Acclaimed for its insight, humor and passion, “Nickel and Dimed” was on The New York Times bestseller list for nine weeks.

Barbara Ehrenreich

About the Author

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of 12 books, including the New York Times bestseller, “The Worst Years of Our Lives,” as well as “Blood Rites” and “Fear of Falling,” which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. A frequent contributor to Time, Harper’s Magazine, The New Republic, and The Nation, she lives near Key West, Florida.

2003 Program: “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

About the Book

To Kill a Mockingbird

The unforgettable novel of childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, “To Kill a Mockingbird” became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Putlizer prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.

Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, “To Kill a Mockingbird” takes readers to the roots of human behavior—to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos. Now with over 15 million copies in print and translated into forty languages, this regional story by a young Alabama woman claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.
–from To Kill A Mockingbird, Warner Books Edition

Set in the small Southern town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the Depression, "To Kill a Mockingbird" follows three years in the life of 8-year-old Scout Finch, her brother, Jem, and their father, Atticus–three years punctuated by the arrest and eventual trial of a young black man accused of raping a white woman. Though her story explores big themes, Harper Lee chooses to tell it through the eyes of a child. The result is a tough and tender novel of race, class, justice, and the pain of growing up.

Like the slow-moving occupants of her fictional town, Lee takes her time getting to the heart of her tale; we first meet the Finches the summer before Scout’s first year at school. She, her brother, and Dill Harris, a boy who spends the summers with his aunt in Maycomb, while away the hours reenacting scenes from Dracula and plotting ways to get a peek at the town bogeyman, Boo Radley. At first the circumstances surrounding the alleged rape of Mayella Ewell, the daughter of a drunk and violent white farmer, barely penetrate the children’s consciousness. Then Atticus is called on to defend the accused, Tom Robinson, and soon Scout and Jem find themselves caught up in events beyond their understanding. During the trial, the town exhibits its ugly side, but Lee offers plenty of counterbalance as well–in the struggle of an elderly woman to overcome her morphine habit before she dies; in the heroism of Atticus Finch, standing up for what he knows is right; and finally in Scout’s hard-won understanding that most people are essentially kind "when you really see them." By turns funny, wise, and heartbreaking, "To Kill a Mockingbird" is one classic that continues to speak to new generations, and deserves to be reread often.
–Alix Wilber (Amazon.com)

About the Author

Harper Lee

Harper Lee is an elusive figure. Since the publication of her first and only (known) novel, she has carefully guarded her privacy and does not give interviews. She was born Nelle Harper Lee on April 28, 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama. Her parents were Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Finch Lee, and she is the youngest of four children, including two sisters and a brother. She went to Huntingdon College and the University of Alabama, where she studied law. Though her father and older sister, Alice, were lawyers, Lee herself left law school before finishing her degree. In the 1950s she worked as an airline clerk in New York City, and in 1957 she submitted the manuscript of a novel to Lippincott. For the next several years she revised this manuscript, and in 1960 “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was named by President Lyndon Johnson to the National Council of Arts in 1966.

In 1959, she went with her childhood friend Truman Capote (on whom the character Dill Harris is said to be based) to Kansas as a research assistant for the book that would become In Cold Blood (1966). Capote dedicated the book partially to her, and invited Lee to what has become one of the most famous parties of the twentieth century — his glamorous Black and White ball in honor of Katherine Graham.

In 1962, the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird” was released. The screenplay was written by Horton Foote, and Gregory Peck went on to win a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus Finch. In a rare interview with Roy Newquist (published in Counterpoint, Rand McNally, 1964), Lee said “I have nothing but gratitude for the people who made the film…. I’m no judge, and the only film I’ve ever seen made was “Mockingbird,” but there seemed to be an aura of good feeling on the set.” She said that at first, though she liked Gregory Peck when she met him, she was unsure that he was right for the part. However, when she saw him in costume, she said “I knew everything was going to be all right because he was Atticus.”

Since it first appeared in 1960, “To Kill a Mockingbird” has never been out of print and is considered a classic all over the world. In recent years, Lee has split her time between New York and Monroeville, where she lives with her sister. Aside from her famous novel, Harper Lee has written only four essays for publication. Many speculate that she has written books under another name or that she has been working on her memoirs or other novels, but there is no confirmation of these rumors. However, it is hard to believe that Harper Lee has given up writing. In her interview with Newquist, she said “You know, many writers really don’t like to write…. I like to write. Sometimes I’m afraid that I like it too much because when I get into work I don’t want to leave it. As a result I’ll go for days and days without leaving the house or wherever I happen to be. I’ll go out long enough to get papers and pick up some food and that’s it. It’s strange, but instead of hating writing I love it too much.”

-from NoveList Book Discussion Guides/EBSCO Publishing © 2001

2002 Program: “Plainsong” by Kent Haruf

About The Book

Plainsong

“Plainsong” is a heartstrong story of family and romance, tribulation and tenacity, set on the High Plains east of Denver. In the small town of Holt, Colorado, a high school teacher is confronted with raising his two boys alone after their mother retreats first to the bedroom, then altogether. A teenage girl—her father long since disappeared, her mother unwilling to have her in the house—is pregnant and alone with nowhere to go. And out in the country, two brothers, elderly bachelors, work the family homestead, the only world they’ve ever known.

From these unsettled lives emerges a vision of life, and of the town and landscape that bind them together— their fates somehow overcoming the powerful circumstances of place and station, their confusion, curiosity, dignity and humor intact and resonant. As the milieu widens to embrace fully four generations, Kent Haruf displays an emotional and aesthetic authority to rival the past masters of a classic American tradition.

Utterly true to the rhythms and patterns of life, “Plainsong” is a novel to care about, believe in, and learn. –Random House

“Plainsong” was a finalist for the National Book Award, the New Yorker Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and the Book Sense Award. It won the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Association Award, the Salon.com Book Award, the Midlands Authors Award, the Alex Award from the American Library Association, and the Evil Companions Award from the Colorado Quarterly. It was selected as a Notable Book of the Year by both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, was a national bestseller, and has been translated into eight languages.

About the Author

Kent Haruf

Kent Haruf was born in Pueblo, CO in 1943. He received a B.A. degree from Nebraska Wesleyan University and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Turkey and has taught high school English in Wisconsin and Colorado and fiction writing at Nebraska Wesleyan and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

His most recent novel, PLAINSONG, is set on the high plains of Colorado and has been widely celebrated. It was a finalist for the National Book Award, the New Yorker Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and the Book Sense Award. It won the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Association Award, the Salon.com Book Award, the Midlands Authors Award, the Alex Award from the American Lbrary Association, and the Evil Companions Award from the Colorado Quarterly. It was selected as a Notable Book of the Year by both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, was a national bestseller, and has been translated into eight languages.

Haruf is the author of two earlier novels, The Tie That Binds, which received the Whiting Foundation Writers’ Award, and Were You Once Belonged, which received the Maria Thomas Award for Fiction. He is the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Grant, and his short fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories.

He is the father of three daughters and he and his wife Cathy live in Colorado.

A Conversation With Kent Haruf

From Random House

Why did you entitle this book “Plainsong”?
As the dictionary definition of "plainsong" indicates, I mean this to be a story about centuries-old matters and told in a plain unadorned manner. And of course I’m also having an obvious pun on the flat land of America, the high plains, so in the same sense it’s also a simple direct song about the plains and plain matters.

The landscape is as much a presence in this novel as the human characters. What are the most significant ways in which our physical surroundings shape our lives?
This is the familiar notion, that landscape and setting are like characters in fiction, and there’s a lot of non-sense written about it, and it’s become a kind of cliché to think this way. It is very important to me to get the place of a story right, to be true to the place. The stories that matter the most to me occur in places with real texture and dimension and not in anonymous suburbs. So all my stories occur in the part of the world that I love most, the high plains of Colorado. I grew up there and it is that place in the world that I have a holy response to. It is not pretty. But it is beautiful. You have to know how to look at it. It forces you to slow way down and look, really look. If a story is written well enough, it will be universal whether it’s written about Holt, Colorado or Frenchman’s Bend, Mississippi—-or that most provincial of places, New York City.

Many of the characters in this novel find themselves, at one time or another, in danger–either of sexual or physical assault or emotional abandonment. Why does this idea of being on the brink of danger keep recurring?
One reason is that a novel is a series of causes and effects, so there has to be a chain of events to drive the novel forward and you have to make succeeding events more compelling than the previous one so there’s an increasing tension and rising expectation in the story. Also, risk and danger are a part of life, and these people have to experience all these to make them seem real. Other years of their lives might not be so dramatic, but these years wouldn’t make as interesting a story. A novel is a crystallization of people’s lives–in this case, eight lives.

The relationship between the McPheron brothers and Victoria Roubideaux is so compelling. What was your inspiration for this unusual combination of two old bachelors and a young pregnant teen?
I don’t think of writing stories as somehow being an act of inspiration. Writing, in my experience, is more a matter of writing out of deep emotion and trying to focus on people and conditions that are significant. Stories come out of hurt and brooding about these hurts and pondering people and the conditions of their lives. And in the case of the McPherons and Victoria Roubideaux, I want to believe that it is possible for people to respond generously and affectionately to one another even in the strangest and most unusual of circumstances. In the current state of human affairs, the idea of family has to be expanded to include old men and pregnant teenage girls, who are initially strange to one another, who are not united by blood but by mutual good will.

When his wife moves out, Tom is left with the job of caring for his two young sons. When Victoria’s mother throws her out, she is taken in by the McPheron brothers. What made you want to explore the role that men (fathers and father figures) play in raising children and also explore this idea of mothers who in one way or another leave their children?
I had nothing doctrinaire in mind. I could also point out that Iva Stearns and Victoria Roubideaux (both mothers, both women) are the sole caregivers of their own children. Instead of polemics, I’m more interested in the opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth among these characters regardless of age, sex, or condition. For example, I’m interested in the way the McPheron brothers, at their age, will react to the opportunity of being fathers and grandfathers.

You have worked at a wide variety of jobs all across the country and even in Turkey with the Peace Corps. How has that helped you in your writing?
It’s very essential for somebody who is trying to write good fiction to know as much as he or she can know about all kinds of people and places. The variety of jobs I’ve had and the many places I’ve lived in have been useful to me as a writer, but I didn’t set out that way; all that experience was gained in the effort to support my family and myself while still trying to find enough time around the edges to learn my craft.

Writing by Kent Haruf

  • “The Tie That Binds,” Holt (New York City), 1984.
  • “Where You Once Belonged,” Summit Books (New York City), 1991.
  • “Plainsong,” Knopf (New York City), 1999.
  • “Eventide,” Knopf (New York City), 2004.

Also contributor of short stories to periodicals, including Puerto del Sol, Grand Street, Prairie Schooner, and Gettysburg Review. Stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, Houghton, 1987; and Where Past Meets Present, University of Colorado Press, 1994.