“Now that I am dead, I know everything.”

coverBooks on Tap read The Penelopiad  by Margaret Atwood at  Champion Brewery on July 6. Written as part of the Canongate Myth series, the novel is narrated by Penelope, who describes not only her life in Ithaca while Odysseus was away for 20 years, but also her childhood and existence in the afterlife. The universal reaction was that we all enjoyed this  humorous, satirical take. We had all read at least one other title by Atwood, but no one at the table had seen the adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu . Also, it turns out that while we had all read The Odyssey, our recall of its details was less than the average 10th-grader who had just studied it.

As we often do, we discussed the reliability of the narrator. Penelope cannot believe that Odysseus is still renowned because in her time he was a known liar. However, Penelope also outs herself as unreliable, especially in assigning blame for the murder of the 12 maids. Myths and other narratives can only approximate the truth, with various details forgotten or left out for political reasons. Penelope offers multiple reasons for why her father tried to drown her but chooses to believe the one that doesn’t paint him as a monster. Similarly, she discounts nasty gossip about Odysseus (he fought a one-eyed bouncer) in favor of more heroic stories (he out-witted a cyclops).She also dismisses his predicaments as beyond his control, whether the gods interfere or not.  Frankly, we didn’t think that Penelope cared all that much about Odysseus’ adventures. She married at 15, and while she enjoyed listening to his stories, she doesn’t seem to pine for him when Odysseus first leaves. She allows Eurycleia, Odysseus’ former nurse, to raise their son. However, as time goes on, she does build up power: improving farming, using the maids and other slaves as spies and managing her husband’s return.

Helen of Troy appears over and over again, both physically and as Penelope’s bête noire.  Penelope is jealous of Helen’s popularity (she bathes in the underworld, despite not having a body, and in part to thrill her equally-dead suitors) and is enraged at both Helen and the men she charms with her looks. Helen is both an enemy of smart women by using her sexuality against men and a threat; playing a zero sum game where the winner becomes queen and the losers are the thousands of people who die in the wars she induces. Helen shows little to no remorse for the deaths. Penelope, complicit in the deaths of her 12 loyal maids, struggles to explain away her guilt, but is both literally and metaphorically haunted by their deaths.  

These mental gymnastics, a reflection of her husband’s notorious slipperiness, are the legacy of Penelope’s mother, a nyad, who, in her limited interactions with her daughter, told Penelope to “be like water.” And she does adapt — to her father attempting to kill her, to icy relations in Ithaca, to her husband’s absence and return. These cycles continue in the afterlife. While Penelope choses to stay in the Asphodel Meadows, Odysseus reincarnates again and again.   

Few of us could remember the 12 hanged maids from the original poem. Through Penelope, counter to The Odyssey, the maids are heard. They form a chorus which interrupts Penelope’s narrative with various songs (sea shanty, love song, lament), a court trial and an anthropology lecture, each growing in sophistication.  It is this lecture that we talked about the most. We didn’t reach a consensus on its seriousness – did Atwood believe in these counter-interpretations? – but did agree that it grounded and expanded the maids’ plight.  One interpretation of the maids role in The Penelopiad is their quest for narrative justice. We agreed that despite Penelope’s concern for the women, they do not receive justice in the afterlife or in this book. Plus ça change.

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Books on Tap Information:

  • The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (August 3)  Other formats available.
  • The Sellout by Paul Beatty (September 7)  Other formats available.
  • House of Stone by Anthony Shadid (October 5)  Available in other formats and as a Book Kit
  • A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (November 2)  Other formats available.
  • Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermoût (December 7)  Other formats available.


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“Sometimes miracles do happen”

51DizOJ5d2L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Brown Baggers met on June 15 to discuss A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierly, a memoir about a young Indian boy who gets stuck on a train and transported away from his family at the age of five. Eventually he gets connected to an orphanage and is adopted by an Australian couple after no one could locate his parents or where he came from. The book has recently been made into acclaimed movie Lion.

Readers were surprised to learn this memoir was ghostwritten. Some questioned the veracity of the memories of a young child. Readers said a traumatic experience like Brierly’s would have made a strong enough impression to be remembered for life, but others wondered if a young child could actually remember details like what he had to eat for each meal 25 years later and if maybe he had assistance from his Indian family once they reconnected. Readers mentioned factual discrepancies with listed ages, which corresponds with the author’s own admission of being unreliable on timelines due to his hunger, exhaustion, and trauma. Many readers agreed that the early childhood facts being embellished didn’t concern them because they felt the story was emotionally true.

“What is truth?” Readers agreed that truth can be elusive and is something that might be searched for.

Readers were surprised to learn about some of the conditions in poor, rural India where Brierly was born. He was tasked with watching his toddler sister as a four year old which seems a lot of responsibility. He was also able to fend for himself for a few weeks in Kolkata when he arrives despite being so young. Just the magnitude of people, especially hungry and homeless children, was hard to imagine but it explained why adults in the story were reticent to assist young Brierly when he was lost on the streets. Readers figured being poor might have led to increased responsibility at a younger age.

Some readers thought there were problems with the narration of the book. They weren’t sure if it was a discrepancy between Brierly’s story and the ghostwriter, or Brierly’s more recent memories and adult voice versus the created version of his five-year-old-self. It didn’t stop anyone from finishing, but it did make it a little difficult for some readers to get into. It was also noted that Brierly’s telling is very unemotional, perhaps because of his traumatic experience and trouble connecting with people later on in life.

Readers talked about this being the best possible outcome for Brierly (or any adoptee) who goes seeking their birth family – a warm welcome, and family still where they were decades before. The happy ending is what made the story great and while Brierly encourages the search for adoptees (it’s why he wrote the book) it easily could’ve ended up much more disappointing.

Readers said the adoptive parents seemed to be great and do everything they could to make Brierly’s life comfortable and preserve his culture, although the seeking out of a “brown skinned child” could certainly be interpreted in a questionable way. Readers wondered if the hints at racism Brierly experienced might have been a little more damaging than he implies.

Readers who had seen the film agreed that it was good but the book was better. download

Interviews with Saroo Brierley
From NPR
From BBC
Interview with Sue Brierley
From the WSJ

Brown Baggers will meet again on July 20 at noon to discuss Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi.

“We’s lost all the bases of civilized culture around here.”

tenorBooks on Tap read Methland  by Nick Reding at  Champion Brewery on June 1. While most of us  had watched Breaking Bad, we were not ready for the bleakness of meth addiction reported by Reding. He uses the town of Oelwein, Iowa as the lens while describing how and why meth became such an attractive drug to white working class people in the Midwest. Reding weaves together Big Agriculture, immigration policy, deregulation, and the need to work long hours at physically demanding factory jobs to explain why a stimulant would spread like wildfire. The reporting on the macro level was interesting, but the personal stories of Oelwein residents are what propel this book. The gruesome recountings of meth lab explosions, Tom Arnold’s sister’s rise as an international drug-dealer and the sincere work of the local doctor in mayor to revitalize the town are what draws in readers. Stories of deep addiction are stressful to read, but Reding spends a lot of time with those in Oelwien who are either in recovery or trying to diversify the economy. There is a certain entrepreneurial logic for those dealing meth. The nearest large city is 200 miles away, so cooking meth is one of the only ways to make a living wage without moving.

We discussed ways in which the US could combat the meth epidemic, from drug courts (in Virginia, treatment isn’t mandated) to living wage legislation to affordable health insurance that covers drug treatment to legalization similar to Portugal’s. Some of us found this book hard to read because for years the meth epidemic was hidden in the supposedly safe “fly over” states and that we on the coasts have a limited sense of life in Middle America.

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Recent  New Yorker article on opioid addiction in West Virginia
Father/Son memoirs about meth addiction and recovery
Drug-related HIV spike in Indiana

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