Book-group report from the big read community

| 16 Feb 2015 | 03:30

The Goddard Riverside Community Center has received a National Endowment for the Arts grant for The Big Read, an effort to get the entire Upper West Side reading and talking about the same book at the same time. The novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, is by Upper West Side resident and MacArthur Award winner Dinaw Mengestu, and focuses on issues of concern to the community, including immigration, gentrification and the widening wealth gap. Book discussions and related arts events in the neighborhood are running through March.

The following is a report from the book discussion group that has been meeting at Rutgers Presbyterian Church on W. 73rd Street, from its pastor, Rev. Ondrej (Andrew) Stehlik:

We opened our book discussion with the question: “How does the book make you feel?”

About half of the participants felt the book was depressing and the other half saw it as realistic and a lovely story. Regardless of the emotional response, all agreed that we viewed the main character, Stephanos, as both tragic in respect to his past and present success, or rather lack of it, in business, while at the same time seeing him as a gentle spirit with an intense love of life. So is it tragic? Or joyful? Do you concentrate on his economic and business difficulties or his overwhelming love of life?

Another important theme of the evening was about measuring success. This book, one participant commented, is like the alternative to the great American novel where success is only measured by material success.

Everyone in the discussion commented on how beautifully the story is written and how the author’s use of language allows images to “stick in my head.” One woman told the group that she would sometimes read the passages aloud because of their beautiful poetic flair.

The conversation then veered to the politics of the book and there was lively discussion of capitalism, wealth and Marxist theory responsible for the main character’s tragic past, but also so useful for describing his and our predicament. Some commented that the book, based in Washington, DC, is very much like our own neighborhood’s issues with gentrification and the great divide of wealth.