Body and Bread



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One of our members who works at a university chose this book that was written by one of her colleagues.  As an added bonus, the author was able to join us at our meeting.  The style and back story were not like anything else I can recall reading for book club or even on my own.

On a scale of 1 - 5:

Sex: 3.5
Religion:  3.5
Gruesome:  3
Suspense:  2
Morality:  4

Sex - It starts infrequently with more of a scientific fascination such as the implication that a man died while having carnal activities with his wife.  Then it moves into the forbidden curiosity of teenagers.  These curiosities escalate into Sarah going to school without undergarments and using anatomical terms with her gym partner.  Soon after she and two girls get topless in an abandoned train and attempt to have a ritual burning to give Sarah courage to have sex with a boy.   There are repeated implications of a sexual attraction between the narrator and her brother.  One use of "the F word".  One reference to fornication with livestock. 

Religion - Sarah and her family go to church every Sunday with her grandparents.  In spite of the traditional upbringing, her rebellious side comes out.  Like when she convinces two friends to skip school and they pick up two soldiers.  Then she was surprised when one of them cursed.  When Sarah asked innocent questions, one girl exclaims, "God, another virgin!" (p. 128)  Sarah compares crucifixion to Aztec rituals.  Blasphemy when Sarah reads Bible verses and substitutes names of Aztec goddesses while sitting topless and trespassing and drinking with two other girls.  Sarah spends some time in a cult-like environment.

Gruesome - There were lots of scientifically gruesome moments in the story, like the kids dissecting a fish on a river bank (p. 21) that Sarah reflects upon several times as she goes through life.  The kids sneak into a cadaver lab and the narrator describes body parts in formaldehyde jars.

Suspense - We are told early on that Sam commits suicide.  I found some mild suspense in trying to figure out how, why and when it would happen.

Morality - Several instances of sex outside of marriage.  Question of what are the rules of being good stewards of God's blessings.  After an explosion the police asked Sarah if she and the girls were "lesbos". 


This was not a "piece"ful book.  When you start, be prepared to read for a while and get fully into it.  I did not and throughout the book I felt slightly disconnected from the characters, like I could never quite keep all the brothers straight.  I'll never know if this was because I read in small chunks or not, but even as I got further in and would read ten or so pages at a time, I still had trouble placing all the characters. 

And speaking of chunks and pieces, the author leaves out the word "and".  It's a style choice.  I'm sure some brains work that way but mine doesn't so I find it a bit jarring and choppy.

The Prologue on its own is information overload.  It is full of Ancient gods and strange names and words every few lines.  It made me sweat a bit over how much I really needed to absorb to enjoy the story.  The actual story begins in Nugent, Texas in 1958.  (I'm told that Nugent is actually the name of the street where the author grew up.)  The opening characters are one girl, three brothers, two parents, two grandparents and a horse.   Within the first ten pages of story we start to see the young female narrator question the rules of life and the roles people held.

Even with frequent reflections on the past, including ancient cultural studies, I found parts of the story very timely in regards to Cornelia's need for a transplant.  Her parents work for themselves or part time so they have no insurance.  Currently there is a lot of angst about the pending governmental requirement for insurance so imagining people in such a situation is not too much of a stretch.  Personally I was drawn into the relationship with Terezie (Cornelia's mom) who was married to Sam before but has now moved on with her life.  She comes back to her former in-laws when help is needed for her child, even though the child is not related. 

In Chapter Two we start to understand that the narrator, Sarah, studies the Ancient Aztecs / Mayans and thus puts my unrest of the Prologue a little at ease.  It wasn't until Chapter 7 that I realized Sarah's last name was Pelton and therefore not Hispanic.

The book plods along for the first half and then takes a sharp turn and becomes full of young people's sexual curiosities.  It seems like a radical switch but is likely an accurate reflection of the switch that seems to suddenly flip when puberty hits.

And then towards the end of the book it seemed another switch was flipped and the book is suddenly wrapping up and secrets are outed but it all goes by so quick I felt like I missed the actual reveal and only caught it on the third to last page.  The book end with a lot of unanswered questions.  If you don't mind a maybe-maybe not answer and can live without a definite happily ever after, this could be an interesting book to polish off on a long weekend.  It was a good stretch out of my usual comfort zone without being too radical.

Discussion Questions

Kurt and Sarah argue because Kurt says there are things she doesn't know about Sam (p. 38).  Do you think this is true of all suicides?

Do you agree with Sam that we're all "just an accident.  ... A minute or a second laer, and you'd have been somebody else."?  (p. 48)

Sam was rebellious, prompting his father to say, "Even a dog learns after a while." (p. 62) 
Have you ever felt like this or known such a child?

Sam and his father were at odds.  It seemed that Sam saw a truth about his father that his other three siblings overlooked.  Is that possible?  If they were all raised together why was Sam the only one to see it?

Sam thinks that traditions are counter-truth, rote actions without cause.  "Nobody remembers how the thing got started but it's sure as hell sacred."  (p. 95)  How do you feel about traditions?  Do you have any that are "sacred" or are there some you've given up?

"How responsible is a parent for the adult child's decisions?" (p. 106)

When discussing her future, Sarah was surprised at how little her parents knew about her.  Have there been any times when your kids so surprised you that you felt like maybe you really didn't know them?

The book begins with a quote from Kafka's "Imperial Message".  How do you interpret the quote and how does it relate to this story?

Tlahzolteotl "both absolved sin and inspired it".  (p. 123)  How is that possible?

Is suffering an unavoidable part of being a Christian?  (p. 155)

Discuss St. Therese of Lisieux's quote, "To ecstasy, I prefer the monotony of daily toil."  (p. 159)

Discuss "Elijah's" idea on page 161, "If you bring forth what is within you what you bring forth will save you.  If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will you."  How can this idea relate to Sam?  To Sarah?

What do you think of the relationship between Mrs. Pelton and Mrs. Cervenka?  Was it rude that Mrs. Pelton asked for the seasoning information and then walked away?

Do you think Mrs. Cervenka should have danced with Sam or should he not have asked?  What do you think was really behind it?

What did Sam mean on the card, "Don't trust anyone who wants to forgive you."?  (p. 174)

Discuss what Saul quoted from Carl Jung on page 175, "The unconscious is not just evil by nature.  It's also the source of the highest good."

At what point did you realize why Cornelia was asking about Sam?  What were your thoughts on her idea? 

Were you surprised that 33 years later Sarah still didn't talk about it.  Sarah said, "I'm not the same person at 54, I'm still grieving,"  (p. 179)  Does that seem reasonable / plausible / rational to you?

From early in the book we know that Sam commits suicide, were you surprised that he was paralyzed when he did it?  Was the car accident actually a failed attempt?  What do you think was the final straw that pushed him over the edge?

Were you surprised about the secret about Sam that was revealed close to the end of the book?

Theme Ideas

On page 31 Hugh casually rubs Sarah's neck and she thinks, "For years, no one has done that."
ACTIVITY:  Give each other a neck/shoulder rub.  Pair up and trade after a set time or make a circle and rub the person in front of you.   

Serve - Kolaches:  prune, peach or poppy seed

Serve - Cucumber slices, like when Sam went to Cyril's house and saw Terezie slicing them.  (p. 70-71)

Serve - a form of octli or mescal (referenced approx. three times)

Serve - Roast Pork (with Caraway), fried sweet potatoes, tomato relish, squash bread and kolaches like at Sam and Terezie's wedding reception (p. 170)

Serve - giant cups of juice and apples like Cornelia had when she visited Sarah's office.

Serve - hamburgers, chocolate malts and champagne like Sarah, Sam and Terezie had to celebrate Terezie's job offer as a music teacher. (p. 181)

Serve - Tex-Mex:  basket of chips and bowl of guacamole, enchiladas, tortillas and Big Red like when the three went to dinner and discussed Clarence.  (for non-Texans, Mexican food and Big Red go together like salt and pepper)


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