“You can’t be infinitely open minded and effect change.”

whatwetalkaboutBooks on Tap read What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank  (other editions available) by Nathan Englander at Champion Brewery on March 1st. This is the first title in JMRL’s Same Page program, which invites Central Virginians to read the book and discuss its themes at events throughout March 2018. A collections of short stories, it plumbs themes of Jewish life, trust, questioning and anxiety while providing a healthy dose of humor. Our readers didn’t think the title was indicative of the stories inside, but each story was complete in itself, the sign of a great collection.

In the title story, two American women who had attended yeshiva together are reunited as adults. The narrator’s wife is living a largely secular life, while her friend is living in Israel as Orthodox. While partying, they debate who would hide them in a second Holocaust, pointing out that not only can they not trust all of their neighbors, but each other. While specifically about the Shoah, it points to a universal question of trust, relevant today in LGBTQ rights, Black Lives Matter and the resurgence of Nazis in America. We discussed how we hope that we would act heroically but very few do. As we age and have more responsibilities, these decisions become more fraught.

“Sister Hills”, set in an Israeli settlement, is a story of  spite & revenge played out over two generations. Englander uses the tree imagery to highlight the fragility of life. The misfortunes to befall the two focal families can be read as noble sacrifice and the price to pay for taking Palestinian (Arab) land. The characters draw multiple lines in the sand against neighbors and their own family members. The bitter ending, seen on high by strangers, looks like familial devotion while in fact stressing the limits of a legalistic reading of religion.

In comparison, “Free Fruit for Young Widows” has a more humane, nuanced look at revenge. As we learn more about  Egert (a man with that name is thanked in acknowledgements), we forgive his gruff attitude. His friend even makes a skillful argument for pre-emptive revenge, including killing a baby, giving context to the decisions of a child. From the very beginning of the story, when Egert kills soldiers eating with his friend because both sides are wearing the same French-supplied  uniforms, Englander stresses that you can’t tell who is bad on the surface.

“Peep Show” and “The Reader” were only briefly discussed. “The Reader” was a hopeful meditation on the reciprocal relationship between artist and viewer.  “Peep Show” succeeded as dream-like reverie, due to its specific details, ending with the re-named narrator proving to himself he is no longer Orthodox. It was the least well-received by our group.  

“Camp Sundown”, on the other hand, generated much discussion.  The distinct voices made each character real as opposed to the over-the-top murder plot. The elderly campers are obsessed with past wrongs while ignoring the dangerous current harm they are causing. One reader paired this strand of the story with the young director’s similarity to a politician to Israel/Palestine relations. Doley Falk, the camper accused of working in a concentration camp, is pleasingly ambiguous. If the rumor is true, why would he come to this Jewish camp? Was he made to work by the guards? Is the revenge justified?

“Everything I Know about My Family on my Mother’s Side” is both about immigration and the power of storytelling for forgiveness and redemption. The family knew they came from a town called Gubernia, but didn’t know that word just means “state” generically. The narrator doesn’t think he as a history, but his girlfriend persuades him that he may not know the details but he does retain a specific culture and set of expectations, which inform not just his actions but also those of his parents’ grandparents’ generations.

Finally, we discussed the stories in relationship to Charlottesville after 2017. Some took it as a call to arms in reaction to specific events, others as a reminder to be their brothers’ keepers. One reader left us with a quotation attributed to Helen Keller,“although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.”

Join us in April to discuss Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt and chose titles for the summer.

More Information:
Meet the author at Northside Library and the Festival of the Book (a Same Page partner)
Interview with the author
About the book
Other works  

Books on Tap Information:

Have a suggestion for future titles? Add them to this list.

Previous titles

“The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.”

IMG_5862Brown Baggers met on February 15 to discuss The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Originally published in 2016, this novel focuses on the escape story of enslaved woman named Cora as she travels north on her search for freedom. The Underground Railroad was well regarded by critics and selected for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. It won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Whitehead used a literal train as a device to move the story and characters from point to point on their journey. This threw off some readers who thought it would detract from the other historical details present in the book and some found it harder to read as a result. They also were chagrined at the state of education in America when they discovered the gullibility of acquaintances — thinking the train was real because it’s called an underground railroad. Others felt it freed the author up to have such horrific realistic details if the main focus was fantastical.

The horrific violence kept some readers from reading continuously. While the brutality made them take frequent breaks and spread out their reading they felt it was very realistic and was well written, just a tough subject. They recoiled from the depictions of strong hatred and spite towards African Americans and talked about the seeds of racism that lead to such behaviors.

Talking about racism brought the discussion forward to the present day, allowing reflections on the horrific events here in Charlottesville during August 2017. Readers felt like the book’s popularity is due to the need for a reminder of what has happened historically as well as what may still not be resolved. They discussed the concept of African Americans and freedom — how free they are or feel like they are. Readers were impressed by those willing to help people escaping slavery on the Underground Railroad despite the near constant threat of death.

The key to the book was relationships, readers felt — mainly those Cora has with Lovey, Royal, and Mabel. Also mentioned was Cora’s relationship with herself and her similarities and differences from the antagonist Ridgeway, doing whatever they have to to survive. Readers were astounded that she had such a strong sense of self despite not being her own person. This sense of self allowed her to care for and defend her plot of land and continue forward and northward despite many setbacks in her journey to freedom.

More Info:
Interview with author
Author bio
Pulitzer info
National Book award info

Other mentions:
Twelve Years a Slave book by Solomon Northrup (as well as the film)
Birth of a White Nation by Jacqueline Battalora
Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander
The Underground Railroad (the other) by Charles Blockson
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (about a real life slave who stay in an attic)

Brown Baggers will meet again on March 15 at noon to discuss the JMRL inaugural Same Page community read selection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander. For a free copy stop by the Reference Desk at the Central Library.

“I think the hope has always been that you see what you see, and you take us anyway, for who we are.”

blackwaterrisingBooks on Tap read Black Water Rising by Attica Locke at  Champion Brewery on February 1st. Set in Houston, Texas in 1981, the novel follows African American lawyer Jay Porter as his wife is due to deliver their first child and his practice teeters on bankruptcy. A chance encounter with a drowning white woman upends his hard-earned stability and forces him to confront his activist past and the corroding influence of the oil industry. The book at times feels overwritten, with too many plots and some silent characters like his wife Bernie. As with many first novels, it could have benefited from editing. Locke was partially inspired by her own life – her father was a student protester in the 1960s and ran for mayor in Houston, which has a recent history of electing diverse people. The incident on the barge was similar to one she witnessed as a child. The book is  not quite a thriller or mystery or suspense novel, but most definitely a David vs. Goliath story with a sympathetic main character. Despite the confusion over the many threads (60s radicalism, unions, environmental racism) it does land on a satisfying ending, setting up the sequel.

Jay is the heart and soul of the novel. He worked hard to put himself through college and law school, only to be jailed for his activism. He can’t shake the thought that he was set-up by the white women he was dating, who is now running for mayor. This uneasy relationship colors his interaction with the white woman he saves from drowning; she doesn’t trust him and he doesn’t trust her because of the color divide. Jay also faces pressure from within the local African American community. His friend Kwame doesn’t think Jay is black enough and his father-in-law pressures him to help the dockworkers. Jay lives under constant mental stress, sleeping with a gun under his pillow. While we weren’t all cheering for Jay at all times (like the titular character of Better Call Saul, he takes chances in order to make money to keep his practice a float), we did get caught up in the tension and rooted for  his survival.

We mulled over the differences between the book’s 1981 setting  vs 2018. The rampant indoor smoking is a thing of the past, but aspects of distrust between races and classes still ring true.

More Information:
Attica Locke will be at the Festival of the Book on March 23 and 24
Interview with the author
About the book
Other works  

Books on Tap Information:
In March we will read What We Talk about when We Talk about Anne Frank by Nathan Englander as part of JMRL’s Same Page. For a free copy of the book, please email Sarah at shamfeldt@jmrl.org

Future titles:

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