“Camel trips, as I suspected all along, and as I was about to have confirmed, do not begin or end: they merely change form.”

Brown Baggers book club met in person at the Central Library on Thursday, July 15, from 12-1 pm to discuss Tracks by Robyn Davidson. The subtitle, “a woman’s solo trek across 1,700 miles of Australian outback,” is a little ironic hovering above an image of Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver — the actors chosen to play Robyn and Rick in the movie adaptation. No, the journey is not completely solo; but, it’s solo enough to include plenty of zingers from Davidson’s chatty, whizzing inner monologue. As one reader put it, “I think she’s nuts, but that’s just me.” 

Readers revealed that they found Davidson to be somewhat of an unreliable narrator; in her, we found quick, eccentric storytelling (and for a “solo trek” saga, plenty of nearly unbelievable sidekicks, enemies, and friends). While the book was said by our group to be vivid, reading it was like chasing a butterfly — darting from one thing to the next. We found the writing compelling, but some wanted Davidson to pick a lane, and we discussed how the book would have read differently had it come from a scientific/academic angle. One person noted the book was more like a slideshow than a movie (it would have been interesting to discuss how (or if) the movie smoothed over any choppiness from the book, but no one had seen the movie). Ultimately, some of the most memorable moments were the genre-bending, slightly wacko, purely human, diary-like snapshots: Davidson walking around naked in the desert, dissolving into angst over her relationship with National Geographic, or rounding up her long-suffering friends for what felt like another fool’s errand. The Kirkus review of the book puts it well: “An unusual work–not as travel or adventure but for the total, personal experience, met head on.”

Another cover image of Tracks is a photo of Robyn riding a camel, which again, is a little ironic, given that the gist of her trek was to walk alongside the camels, who were used to haul about 1,500 pounds of supplies. Camels, though, fascinated our readers. This was not a book about camels per se, but the little details were a chance for us novices to learn a lot about camel life. Their feisty, sometimes violent tendencies, their maternal instincts, and their habits of grazing and wandering all night were all named as fascinating new discoveries for the group. Australia, known for its invasive species, was also a bit of a character itself. We didn’t talk much about the landscape or dialect/jargon used, but those components certainly drove the book into territory of its own. We did discuss how the time period (1970s) also contributed greatly to the book, because it was a time when people questioned norms and the status quo. Anything was possible. 

Gender was also a point of discussion for us. Davidson was the first ever recipient of the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 1980, and for the 24 years that it was awarded, she was one of only two women to receive the award. Travel writing is known to be dominated by men, so it’s interesting to see here a book that fits the bill but also breaks the mold. As one reader noted, unlike many travelogues, in which male voices attempt to be supernatural survivalists, here we have Davidson “‘fessing up” about the ways in which she was helped. From friends who took her into a prop plane to search for lost camels, to an Aboriginal guide, Davidson’s trip was not perfectly executed or perfectly packaged. At the moment, it might have felt a little weird to read from a narrator who seemed to have self-esteem issues, was self-indulgent, and had a temper. We don’t expect that kind of emotional or mental rawness from a soaring travel adventure story. Reflecting back, it’s a gripping twist of storytelling, as the embodiment of Australian culture (macho, rugged Outback) was a woman. One reader described Robyn like this: “She was the type of character who would have done anything after being dared at a party.” It says a lot that Davidson, a real person, was so easily thought of as a “character” by our readers. Sometimes you read a true story, but the person’s journey is so different from your own, that it almost feels unreal. The truth really is stranger than fiction. 

Brown Baggers will meet to discuss Anne Patchett’s The Dutch House on Thursday, August 19, 12-1 pm, at the Central Library. Email kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. 

Books Mentioned:

Inside Tracks: Robyn Davidson’s Solo Journey Across the Outback by Rick Smolan

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert 

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides 

The River of Doubt by Candice Millard 

Movies Mentioned:

Rabbit Proof Fence (2003)

Tracks (2013)

Links:

‘The Camel Lady’ painting by Jean Inyalanka Burke – Warakurna history paintings at National Museum Australia

Nomadic cultures, journeys, and coming home: A conversation between Robyn Davidson and Dr. Mike Smith – National Museum Australia

Robyn Davidson reflects on 40 years since “Tracks” – Hilary Harper, Life Matters for ABC

Robyn Davidson is a nomad – interview by Anna Krien for DumboFeather

Excerpt from the Trailblazers: Australia’s 50 Greatest Explorers exhibition at the Australian Museum

“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)

“… he was drawn back into the stream of being because there was once again a life in his hands. Things mattered.”

Books on Tap met virtually on May 6th to discuss News of the World by Paulette Jiles. 

Set in post Civil War Texas, Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd travels from town to town bringing the news from around the world to citizens who are eager, and willing to pay, to listen. In a town near Indian territory, Capt. Kidd becomes bound by duty to return 10 year old Johanna to her biological relatives.  Johanna had been captured and held captive for 4 years by Kiowa Indians after her parents were murdered. Joanna is a rebellious child and the Capt. works hard to re-civilize her and teach her how to speak English. As they journey across Texas, the Captain and Johanna build trust and understanding. They become close and depend on each other throughout the many perils they encounter on their journey.

While often our readers think books could be shortened, in this case folks wanted a longer story with more depth. One reader felt that the re-civilization of little Joanna happened unrealistically and too quickly. In one chapter she can’t speak one word of English and in the next she’s beginning to put together simple sentences. 

There was some discussion of the morality and ethical issues of the novel. Is the biological family always the best for a child?  Not necessarily, we agreed. One of our readers thought the story could have provided more insight on the effect the two cultures had on the child’s re-entry back into white society. 

A reader who had seen the film version of the book, released over the holiday season, shared with us that the film was different from the book in good ways.

Other books mentioned:

True Grit by Charles Portis

Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles

Interview with “News of the World” filmmaker on NPR

News of the World (2020 film version)

Books on Tap will meet again on Thursday, June 3 at 7 pm on Zoom to discuss The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. 

For the link to participate, please contact Krista Farrell (kfarrell@jmrl.org). 

Our upcoming titles: 

The Library Book by Susan Orlean – July 1    

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry – August 5

In July we need to select books to read for the fall, so begin thinking about titles you would like to have the group read.