“The library is a whispering post.”

Books on Tap met virtually on Thursday, July 1 at 7 pm to discuss The Library Book by Susan Orlean. The Amazon book blurb hooks us in by describing a catastrophic fire and the lingering puzzle: “more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library — and if so, who?” But being the library geek I am, I’ll share a secret: take a peek at the call number, 027.4794. The 000 class is for “computer science, information, and general works”; the 020 division classifies “library and information sciences,” and the 027 section is for “general libraries.” Readers with this knowledge won’t be surprised when they find “the broader story of libraries and librarians” (Goodreads). I would have expected more investigative-style journalism if the call number had been 345 or 364!

In fact, “Orlean noted that its [The Library Book] design is actually very intentional. Rather than a chronological and subject-leading discussion of the fire, she instead sets up the book as a sort of library in which each chapter is a volume of its own. This allows the reader to learn a little bit about everything, just as they might by browsing titles on book spines in a library” (Book Riot). So how did our readers respond? We found Harry Peak to be the thread who kept popping up throughout the book. He kept us reading until the end, as there were swaths of the book that were more arduous; pages felt bogged down by seemingly endless statistics. There was just enough Harry for us as readers (we took Orlean’s bait and stayed on for the history, social commentary, quirks, and stories of local, everyday transcendence and transformation). 

In fact, Orleans provided plenty of space for additional characters of interest, and our group loved the larger than life personalities, especially the head librarians; we were surprised at the level of independence these figures had, given the library’s positioning as a public, bureaucratic, government-associated institution. But these librarians were like cowboys — romping through the wild west and pulling off dazzling stunts. Reading about the level of power and influence was almost dizzying, and certainly added hints of tension to the narrative — a bad director could have easily created a world of destruction and hurt. Would it happen in L.A.? What we did not find as endearing were the gimmicky card catalogue inserts at the start of each chapter. We found very little correlation between the item being catalogued and the content of the chapter; but, these artifacts did reiterate for us the immense variety of materials available. This was something we found (and enjoyed) throughout the book. We are all familiar with library books, but it was delightful to read about maps, musical scores, and restaurant menus, too. 

Most of all, our members were “amazed” (their word, not mine!) at the extent of a librarian’s job. At the crux of this amazement was the realization that librarians have to deal with so much (and so much of it arrives under our noses without any advance warning). The promise of change, uncertainty, and novelty is what drew many of us into this field, though. We enjoyed telling our own stories and reflecting with our club about how libraries, like grocery stores, are some of the best places to visit when travelling, as they are unfiltered, uncensored reflections of the community. Libraries treasure local history and information, are free and open to all members of the public, and their core values include access, democracy, diversity, intellectual freedom, and service (read more about the core values of librarianship, and find links to other amazing documents such as the Freedom to Read Statement the Library Bill of Rights, here). We have more work to do before we can say we truly reflect our service area, but we show up daily to put in that work. 

This love-fest would have been all the more fun in person. While our Zoom meetings have allowed us to share conversation with faraway friends, we are excited to reconvene at Champion Brewing Company for our next meeting (Thursday, August 5, 7 pm). We will be reading Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry. Please join us at Champion next month! Email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. 

“The language of love was the same as the language of medicine.”

Brown Baggers book group met virtually on Thursday, June 17 at noon to discuss Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. This book was nominated by multiple members and did not disappoint! 

Much of our discussion focused on style. This quote from “The Guardian” sums up the structure (a retelling of life and ancestry) well: the book is structured “as a surgeon might structure it: after the body has been cut open and explored everything is returned to its place and carefully sutured up.” One reader described a feeling of “comfort” knowing who would survive, thanks to the foreshadowing and the protagonist’s narrative relationship with the reader, but others wished for more surprise or suspense. Many felt the book was very organic as it developed rich character profiles and also managed to detail the colonial history of Ethiopia, medical advances around the world, and poverty and wealth. We felt Verghese did phenomenal work unwrapping these layers, and were largely impressed by his command of language. This is a book that, every fifty pages or so, strikes a careful reader into the compulsion to go grab a notebook and write that profound sentence down…

Cutting for Stone features medical procedures, oddities, illnesses, emergencies — and no fluff. Deep, scathing accounts, with plenty of blood, guts, and bodily fluids. Some readers were excited by the medical scenes, while others found them a slog. Along those lines, there was the complaint that the novel was clearly a novel (“novelized” as one person put it). Too much drama, too many crises. Odd, overly convenient connections, an overwhelming number of adventures. For one of our re-readers, the characters and writing were still compelling the second time through, but the “surroundings” of the novel were a bit much. At times, Verghese missed the sweet spot between realism and intrigue. 

We had to discuss the title, which works on numerous levels. One line in the Hippocratic Oath reads: “I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.” [kidney stones] We believe this novel participates in a larger discussion of medicine: balancing between the worlds of specialists and generalists. We found numerous examples of characters stepping “out of line” and “cutting for stone” in this manner. Ghosh, the general practitioner, must perform an intestinal “untwisting” procedure (the first surgical necessity after Stone, the surgeon, flees); this can be compared to Stone attempting to deliver the twin boys (as Hema, the trained obstetrician, was not available). One went well, one went horribly wrong. The title is at once a nod to the plea to not do what you are unqualified to do, and the description of characters, self-aggrandizing and pompous, doing exactly that. It is also a challenge to the traditional oath, in that it begs the question of who is truly a “specialist in this art.” For example, traditionally parents grow and learn — “specialize” — as their children are born into the world; being a participant in the creation of new life grants them the benefit of the doubt. In the case of chosen/adoptive families there is no blood-level authority to parent, and yet in this book, the adoptive parents are incredibly doting (so much so that some readers found it almost saccharine). “Cutting” also refers to the numerous surgeons found in the novel and “Stone” also refers to the last name shared by most of the characters. We imagine the men in the novel performing the surgical act for themselves — and also for one another. Interesting to read the novel in that light — to witness actions driven by the desire to do something for someone else. 

Speaking of doting families, readers noted that the characters’ ethnicity played a role in shaping the story. According to one reader, Indian culture is traditionally very dedicated to the children of the family. If the family in this story was not Indian, maybe the story would have been different. We also noted that the story is able to make reference to, manipulate, and contribute to, histories such as arranged marriages and sexual mutilation. We found the book to dance along the edge of traditional culture and modern globalization. 

The Brown Baggers will meet in person at Central library on Thursday, July 15 at noon to discuss Tracks by Robyn Davidson. Please email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details. 

Want read alikes? Try these:

Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

The House at the Edge of Night by Catherine Banner

The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu

Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss (about conjoined twins)

“If we could talk to animals, goes the song.”

Books on Tap met virtually on Thursday, June 3 at 7 pm to discuss The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. A book written in second person (addressed to “you”) is rare enough, but Nunez adds an additional deviating factor by choosing to leave every human character unnamed. Our only named character, Apollo, is a huge Great Dane, who comes to live with the unpredictable and unreliable narrator after her friend of many years (Apollo’s master) unexpectedly commits suicide. 

It’s a novel that doesn’t read like a novel in many ways, because of the wandering discourse about “other things.” The novel does not plod through telling us “what happened” or chronologically transcribe character “action” or “plot.” Of course all of these phrases are being put in quotation marks because in the world of a novel, what isn’t plot, and what exactly is “other”? The interludes on dogs in heat, sex workers, and womanizing provided shock value; the discussions on the writing life and the seedy underbelly of status-obsessed writerly ambition provided bite and gristle (and aren’t these ingredients for an engrossing read?). It may be true that a majority of this book is words, sentences, and paragraphs that do not detail our narrator’s day-to-day life, but the conversational tone and fuzzy edges surrounding the “story” prompted one reader to say, as we were unraveling what the book is about, that the book is about storytelling, and all its roundabouts, and all its conflating visions, coincidences, and more. There is a story to tell, but you don’t tell that story, you tell another story. And isn’t that so often true in life, that we have something to say, but just can’t say it? 

The book, to many, was about writing. Many found the narrator’s voice on this subject to come across as pompous or showy: “look at me and all these books and authors I’m quoting!” Others rolled their eyes at the self-pitying tone: “oh, writing is such a challenge, but somehow I overcome!” On the other hand, we had readers who found the book, and especially the writerly quips and references, to be compelling and fun. We wondered if such a scorching assault on the writing life would discourage or otherwise dispirit any of our readers if they aspired to be writers themselves, but none of our members felt that way. We acknowledged that for every book that has a doomsday feel about writing, there is a hopeful book about writing (On Writing by Stephen King and Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck were two examples mentioned). 

And somehow, the book is also about a dog. Mysteriously we simultaneously had more than enough information on the dog, but also wanted more of the dog. We discussed the size of the dog and how it impacted the entire atmosphere of the narrative; we dissected how the giant animal could have dominated the narrator, but yet the relationship between them appeared to be the first relationship of true equality the narrator had ever experienced. 

Because the book was like a treasure chest of curiosities (in turn funny, depressing, witty, snarling, truthful, deceptive, and more), we each seemed to focus on different aspects of what we found on the page. One reader was reading the book for the second time, and was interested to discover that what she honed in on this second time around was so different from her first reading. Some of us were drawn into the taunting question, “does something bad happen to the dog?” while others were fixated on the drama surrounding her landlord and impending eviction. Some meditated on each literary reference and took the time to cross-check quotes, drawing out more meaning that way. Others picked up every detail about the life of our narrator as a writer, and still others found the relationship with Apollo to be most memorable. It was in this fashion that we came to grips with the ending: half believing it was a remarkable twist that changed the entire book, and half believing it was just another layer of imagination stitched into a highly inventive book. 

Books on Tap will meet again virtually on Thursday, July 1 at 7 pm to discuss The Library Book by Susan Orlean. Please email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details on how to participate from your computer or phone.

Other books mentioned:

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

On Writing by Stephen King