“So I wondered what was different about us-”

hillbilly elegyThe Brown Baggers met on April 19th and discussed J.D. Vance’s bestseller Hillbilly Elegy. Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir of Vance’s time growing up in Ohio and how Appalachia shaped his life.

The Brown Baggers had mixed feelings about the memoir. Many readers thought the book was depressing and hopeless, while others enjoyed the story and how Vance overcame poverty. However, all agreed that the story was interesting.

Most readers thought that the strongest characters in the book were the women in Vance’s life. Readers especially liked Vance’s grandmother, Mamaw, and how she raised Vance when his mother was not able to. Mamaw was extremely loyal to her family and she was the one who encouraged Vance to go to college and pursue higher education. Vance’s sister and aunt were also bright and capable women who helped Vance throughout his life.

Readers had a few criticisms of the book- mainly that some of Vance’s stories and claims seemed exaggerated and even far-fetched. Others found it odd that Vance had no trouble moving in various social circles and never seemed to struggle to fit in. Several readers also pointed out that Vance lumped all of the inhabitants of Appalachia into one group, when in actuality, the Appalachian population is diverse in terms of both race and economics. And, some thought that Vance might not be the best person to speak for an entire group. Some mentioned that Vance even seemed to resent his neighbors.

It was pointed out that Vance did not technically live in Appalachia, but rather a few counties over from the Appalachia border. However, the culture is what was important, not the where he actually lived, some readers noted.

There were some positive values of the Appalachian culture mentioned in Vance’s book- mainly Vance’s family, especially his grandmother and sister. These women were always there for Vance and helped him to succeed. There was also the support structure that enabled Vance to step out of poverty, along with a fierce loyalty to family, and love for the country.

Titles Mentioned:
Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah
What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
Gray Mountain by John Grisham
Ramp Hollow by Steven Stroll

More Information:
Review from the New York Times
Review from the Los Angeles Review of Books
Article from the Oxford University Press
Article from the Washington Post

The Brown Baggers will meet again on May 17 at 12pm to discuss The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu.

“More subtle than Kingsolver.”

ragnarokBooks on Tap read Ragnarok (other editions available) by A.S. Byatt at Champion Brewery on April 5. The book is part of the Canongate Myth Series, in which noted authors reinterpret myths in book-length format. Last fall the group read and enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s contribution, The Penelopiad, so we decided to try another one. A.S. Byatt chose Ragnarok, the Norse myth of a battle of the gods leading to the end of the world. She frames the story with that of the thin girl evacuated to the British countryside during World War II who comforts herself by reading and re-reading 19th century German collection of Norse myths. The destruction of the mythic world and  20th century Europe are compared in the final section, “Thoughts on Myths” with environmental degradation in the 21st century.

Unlike The Penelopiad which was a witty transformation of The Odyssey focusing on a minor character, Byatt’s Ragnarok is a straight-forward retelling within the frame story. Some of our readers found the writing, naming all plants and animals, lush, similar to The Ten Thousand Things. Others found it off-putting and hard to track.

Byatt questions the difference between myth and fairy tale but does not provide a clear answer. Our group was also unable to come up with a definitive answer, but did find this myth useful. Are we not as vainglorious as the gods? Is Loki’s chaos as natural state destined to bring about cyclical cataclysm, either war or environmental? Unlike modern interpretations of fairy tales, Byatt chose the pre-Christian ending, in which the world is destroyed but not re-born. However, there are glimpses of hope in her final section and in the fact that the thin girl’s father unexpectedly returns from war.

While this wasn’t the success that The Penelopiad was, the readers who joined us found it a worthwhile struggle and the first (and probably only) book by Byatt that we’ll read.

More Information:
About the author
Interview with the author about the book
Other works

Books on Tap Information:

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“What does that even mean?”

Englander, NathanThe Brown Baggers met on March 15 to talk about the Same Page title: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander. This collection of eight short stories focuses on various aspects of trust, Jewish identity and neighborliness.

The Brown Baggers were divided on if the first story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” was the best narrative in the collection. This story caused a lot of discussion- some said that the story was very thought provoking. They reflected on how they would personally answer the big question in the story and speculated on how others might answer it. Readers shared the opinion that people would answer the question differently, based on their own family’s personal situation. Others noted that they thought it was interesting how the couples in the story kept secrets from each other and how different the marriages of the couples were.

Several readers thought that “The Reader” was one of the best stories in the collection, and others enjoyed “Free Fruit for Young Widows” in which a father tells his son how a man may have saved his life in the army. But the tale becomes more detailed and complicated as the young boy hears it over again as he grows up. “How We Avenged the Blums” was a tale about how a few young boys learned to fight back against their antisemitic classmate by taking fighting lessons from a Russian janitor. Most found this tale to be both humorous and interesting.  

Many felt that “Peep Show” was a psychological tale and just did not enjoy reading it as much as some of the other stories. “Sister Hills” caused a lot of debate, mostly on how surprising the ending was and whether the neighbor turned out to be bitter or simply unable to let go.

Unfortunately, the Brown Baggers didn’t have time to discuss all of the stories. Several readers commented that they did not usually read short stories, but felt that Englander’s narratives were very complete and provided a rich narrative. Many also mentioned that though some of the stories were humorous, it was definitely a dark humor and did not appeal to everyone.

Titles mentioned:
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

More Information:
Meet the author at the Northside Library on March 22 and at the Festival of the Book
Op Ed from the New York Times by Nathan Englander
Interview with NPR
Review from the Jewish Book Council

The Brown Baggers will meet again on April 19 at 12pm and will be discussing Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.