“Life was like that…we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.”

Brown Baggers book club met virtually on Thursday, November 18 to discuss My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, which has now been adapted into a drama series on HBO. This is a book poised to surprise its readers. The cover depicts an idyllic wedding day scene, the coastline, two little girls, and a bride and groom, all perfect, bright, and scrubbed. Goodreads calls the book a “touching meditation on the nature of friendship.” Yet the nature of our discussion was quite different. Instead of bright blue skies and sweet scenes of lifelong friendship, we were drawn to discussing the mean, unforgiving, and score-keeping community, which was so insular, provincial, and entrenched in various backwards traditions. We also discussed the unlikable self-esteem issues Elena harbored, and gender roles and culture wars. About half our group enjoyed the book, and the other half did not. 

For those who enjoyed the book, it was not necessarily love at first sight. If you’ve ever read a book but did not realize that you enjoyed it until after it was finished and you’d had time to think about it, you may feel that way about My Brilliant Friend. Readers enjoyed the precarious, very unsettled setting: Italy emerging from the second world war. And while not pleasant, our group was drawn to Elena’s relationship with her friend Lila. It was intriguing, and to some, sickening, due to its all-consuming nature. Some readers described Elena as obsessed, and some wondered if there wasn’t something deeper than friendship lurking beneath the surface: infatuation, maybe attraction, or romantic love? 

We talked about escape. Elena and Lila live in a working-class, rough and tumble neighborhood in Naples, Italy in the 1950s. It’s a place where little girls grow up too soon, so having a way “out” was a priority for Lila even from a young age. While I won’t reveal Lila’s ultimate trajectory, it can be said that she never left Naples in the course of the book — but she still found a way out. “Out” in a nontraditional sense. Out of one life and into another. It’s interesting to consider what Lila ultimately valued and how those values shaped the way she constructed her day-to-day lived experience. 

Even those who did not like the book felt that the ending was an excellent cliffhanger. Check out the next book in the series, The Story of a New Name. It’s also very mysterious to not know who Elena Ferrante really is; the name is a pen name, and the author’s true identity is unknown. 

Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, December 16 at noon to suggest more titles for consideration. Our next book discussion will take place Thursday, January 20, when we will discuss The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. If the full-length book is too long, try the summary! Feel free to email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org with any comments or questions, or for more information about Brown Baggers. 

“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”

Books on Tap met at Champion Brewing Company on Thursday, November 4 to discuss Feed by M.T. Anderson. Feed is a young adult dystopian novel from 2002 within the “cyberpunk subgenre.” Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction; cyberpunk books include “countercultural antiheroes trapped in a dehumanized, high-tech future” (Britannica). Put another way, it is “high tech, low life.” It’s dark and gritty, but hey, there are flying cars (upcars) and air factories! Plus you can vacation on the moon, and a beefed-up version of the Internet (social media, mind-chatting, and most of all, online shopping) is literally implanted in your brain. Meet the feed.  

We talked about Titus, the main character, who qualifies as a “low life.” Some readers called him a “disappointing” character, noting his lack of empathy, immaturity, and inability to cope with challenging life situations. It was especially hard to read his romantic involvement with Violet, a feed-resisting rebel girl, who served as a foil for Titus. Our group noted that love as we experience it was not modeled for Titus; his society was broken in more ways than one. This problem could not be blamed simply on the feed. It wasn’t a single piece of technology that served as the antagonist; Anderson drops us into a whole new world, one in which parents buy new cars for grieving teens, expecting the shiny new thing to make everything better. These people are different from us (we hope), even beyond the feed, and that was uncomfortable and dizzying to read at times. 

In another way, we appreciated Titus as a literary device. What made the book so powerful was Anderson’s ability to both blame the feed and blame humanity separate from the feed. The human layers of this story — bad decisions, cowardice, a loose cannon teenager without support or guidance from trustworthy adults — hit you hard. The flaws and mistakes we read could eerily often be seen in our own homes, and that’s what gives the book urgency as well as intimacy with its readers. 

Who are we investing in in our own society? Feed prizes consumerism. In today’s culture, what do we prize? Productivity? Self-sufficiency? Individuality? Allegiance to a political party, cultural standard, or label? Similarly, we can ask what content fills our own feed. And who fills our feed. There is a time in the book when Titus essentially becomes Violet’s feed; the only information inputs she receives are from him. We’ve heard that we’re the average of the five people we spend the most time with — in fact, some research suggests the sphere of influence might be a lot larger. So take stock of not just your five most frequent friends, but all your friends and family, your work, neighbors, and community. 

These books often lead us to want to do something. We began talking about how we are worried for the next generation. We talked about technology like it’s unstoppable and unknowable, a force of its own. There are three things I’d say should come next, hopefully in balance with one another: 1) intentional mindfulness about our consumption habits, the power of corporations, and environmental decay — plus small steps of self-growth in these areas; 2) time to relax our minds about the future — as one group member said, “every generation worries about their children, but so far everyone has made it out okay”; and, 3) allow yourself to simply enjoy the book! Appreciate the crazy lingo and the super impressive creativity and thoughtfulness of sci-fi writers like Anderson, who can seemingly predict the future. If you want to read more cyberpunk, try the following titles: 

Neuromancer by William Gibson 

Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan (now also a TV show on Netflix)

Infomocracy by Malka Older

Moxyland by Lauren Beukes 

Want by Cindy Pon (technically YA) 

Books on Tap will meet on Thursday, December 2, at 7 pm, to discuss Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. 

“The Mythology of New Orleans…”

Brown Baggers Book Club met virtually on Thursday, October 21 to discuss The Yellow House by Sarah Broom, winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2019. 

Our group, as a whole, had trouble with the book. Many of our readers did not enjoy the book, did not finish it, or felt bogged down. Some said it did not resonate and felt boring. Others called it important and insightful but too long. A common complaint was the number of names bouncing around on the page (this list of characters by chapter might help). More specifically, readers commented on particular scenes or events that, in their minds, didn’t fit with the heart of the story: the author’s adventure in Burundi, for example. 

So why did this book win the award? Judges had this glowing praise for the book (National Book Foundation): 

“If Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House was simply an indictment of state sanctioned terror on the Gulf Coast, it would be a stunning literary achievement. Broom however shows us that such an account without breathtaking rendering of family and environment is, at best, brittle.  The Yellow House uses reportage, oral history, and astute political analysis to seep into the generational crevices, while reveling and revealing the choppy inheritances rooted in one family in the neighborhood of New Orleans East.”

One reader also shared this interview (Lit Hub) with Broom which helps to soften my own impatience for the slow meandering start, wading through seemingly unending exposition. We also have to recognize that, while this is a personal memoir, Ivory Mae stood out to our readers as a favorite presence on the page — for the dedication she maintained for each of her children, for her complexity, tenacity, and talent — and she would not have existed in such full form without the structure Broom chose to employ. As one reader said, the people live in the house, and the house lives in them. Like building a house, or visiting a house for the very first time — especially a house like this one, consumed with familial shame over the dilapidation — the story is at times tentative, and always methodical:

“I was thinking about the book as a sort of house, that needs a specific architecture. When you go to someone’s house, you don’t just bust in and end up in someone’s bedroom, right?”

Quite frankly, it’s easy to put this book down, because it’s a lot of work. It is not a page-turner; even the narrative surrounding Katrina was not the nail-biter experience it might have been (for example: the film The Impossible); instead, Broom focused on how Katrina changed everything — the physical landscape of the Earth and displacement — how the way they felt ignored by the government post-Katrina mirrored the way they felt ignored locally pre-Katrina, when their neighborhood succumbed to salvage yards, drugs, prostitution, and pollution. 

But the word “fascinating” was used in our discussion more than once, as were the words “extraordinary circumstances.” A handful of our readers have read and/or discussed this book multiple times, which speaks to the way it can be experienced over and over again, each time discovering new layers. The book also does something that is increasingly difficult to do in the world of storytelling. Broom actually writes novelty. Previously, there was very little information on New Orleans East; Broom is literally creating the literature here, filling in gaps, working in many roles: writer, storyteller, historian, cartographer, anthropologist, investigator, reporter. She writes about this on her website, calling it her “artist statement”

“My writing attempts to fill in the ‘blank spaces’ on the map, to redraw a map that includes those neighborhoods and streets and cities whose people are deemed not to matter, whose voices do not make it onto the official recording, those made to play supporting when they are, in fact, lead. My attention rests on those places that mapmakers often deem ‘too young for history.’”

Brown Baggers will meet to discuss My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante on Thursday, November 18. Please email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information and/or register here. Our annual book selection meeting will be held December 16; you can register here.

For Further Exploration: 

Mama Day by Gloria Naylor 

The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor 

Faubourg Tremé: the untold story of Black New Orleans

Treme (“set in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. A group of residents strive to rebuild their lives without losing sight of the music and cultural traditions that make them, and the city, so unique”)

This New Yorker article by Sarah Broom, titled “The Yellow House,” published in 2015