“The reading and writing of fiction both requires and instills empathy.”

dearBooks on Tap read Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher for the July 5 discussion at Champion Brewery. Not only is it an epistolary novel, it is comprised solely of letters of recommendation from English professor Jason Fitger. Fitger, battling the college’s administration, construction crews, his colleagues, peers and students. Rarely are the letters positive and even more rarely are they effective. However, they are always funny.

Fitger had early success with a roman a clef about his time in high-pressure graduate writing program (The Group) but his later novels were met with poor sales and even poorer reviews. His ex-wife and girlfriend both work on campus and have aligned against him. The English department is a toxic hazard zone due to building construction and has next to no funding, meaning his one promising student may never finish his stunning revision of Bartleby the Scrivener set in a Las Vegas bordello. Against this backdrop of strife, Fitger emerges as a cynical, egotistical man who nonetheless defends the humanities and his best students with all the institutional power he has left.

We were surprised that the book, while gimmicky, was grounded and that Schumacher cleverly developed Fitger’s character and motivation. We all came up with a clear mental image of Fitger or his office and college. She also nailed the intra-department rivalries in academia. She also highlights the ways that liberal arts are losing funding and focus to STEM programs. Fitger defends a brilliant Slavic scholar who has lost his funding by asking “Where else can he go?”. While he rails against the ways that his college, and academia in general, doesn’t support the English department, he doesn’t offer quite enough support to the younger adjuncts who have to string together a career with multiple low-paying postings at multiple colleges.

The novel questions the role of mentorship. Fitger was the favorite of the charismatic leader of The Group and it was under his auspices that Fitger’s first novel was shaped and published. However, this favoritism and the way Fitger portrayed his fellow students in print alienated him from his peers. This alienation has consequences decades later. The women in the group refuse to support Fitger and the most talented member of their cohort cannot get published after retreating from writing due to personal tragedy. Fitger’s own mentorship of his students his suspect, as well. He’ll write almost any one a letter of recommendation, but often these are not actually helpful. Darren, the student he most wants to succeed, seems more like a reflection of Fitger himself.  Darren’s suicide was a plot point we agreed didn’t resonate. Due to its format, the book can only develop Fitger’s character, which meant that this cathartic moment fell flat.

Finally, we discussed aging. Fitger’s self-confidence seems to mask his feeling of failure. His later books were flops and we thought that he doesn’t have another one in him, which did make  his mentorship of Darren bittersweet. His love life doesn’t look like it can recover from its latest self-inflicted wound and has alienated many of his colleagues. In the end, it’s his tenured job and love of humanities that keeps him fighting the good fight via all those letters of recommendation.   

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“But when you’re inside it, the closet is vast.”

marriage of a thousand liesCentral Library launched the new LGBTQ Book club on June 26.with Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu.  This debut novel follows Lakshmi, a lesbian Sri Lankan-American married to her gay Indian-American college friend but caught up with her childhood best friend and first love, Nisha. Just as her complicated relationship with Nisha rekindles, Lakshmi’s front of a marriage is crumbling. In fact, her whole life is quietly changing. She’s lost her full time desk job and is a freelance illustrator. She’s left the home she and Kris share and has moved back with her mother to care for her dying grandmother. Turns out Nisha has a wide circle of local lesbian friends from her college rugby days, who embrace Lakshmi (Lucky) and in whom she sees another way of living. Throughout, she must contend with the secrets and accusations of betrayal within her family.

We agreed that we all liked the book, especially it’s specific lens of the Boston Sri Lankan community. This specificity didn’t prevent the story from feeling universal, however, and each of us recognized part of ourselves in it. We noticed that Kris almost disappears from the story, but Lucky’s mother, who has been shunned and worries about the same fate for her daughters, is a driving force.  The mother’s support is all one-way, with no adaptation. While we sympathized with her feeling stuck, we also wondered if her daughters would ever take her in the same way she did for her mother. Nisha’s support is also one-way, in her own direction. We wondered if she was a user because she was scared (the girls seemed in physical danger when first together as teens by Nisha’s parents) or because she was spoiled and didn’t have to think of anyone else.

Nisha does open up a new world to Lucky through her chosen rugby family. Through these women Lucky reconnects with the physical release of emotion she first discovered dancing with Nisha. We decided that in both dancing and rugby Lucky finds self-acceptance and an identity not controlled by her family. One of Lucky’s sisters conforms to parental pressure and the other one lives independently but with no familial contact. The women of the rugby house offer Lucky one blueprint for the next chapter of her life with her needs and wants at the forefront.  Ultimately, we felt hopeful for Lucky.

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“People who see themselves as victims sometimes don’t notice when they become oppressors.”

I was told to come aloneBrown Baggers met on June 21 at Central to discuss the memoir I Was Told To Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet. This book details Mekhennet’s experience growing up as a Moroccan-Turkish Muslim immigrant in Germany and her work interviewing high profile members of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other known terrorist groups.

Most readers found the book intriguing, while a few struggled with the journalistic feel. They wondered at the type of personality it would take to keep willingly entering dangerous, life-threatening situations to pursue answers. Most readers found Mekhennet very credible and objective and chalked her risk taking career behavior to being extremely driven.

Mekhennet is an award-winning journalist who has worked for the Washington Post and the New York Times. As a result, readers found it amusing how the powerful, dangerous men she went to interview insisted on asking about her relationship status. Readers also were impressed with both Mekhennet’s access to and respect received from her interview subjects. She describes this as a combination of shared culture, connections, or heritage (as a direct descendant of Muhammad).

The virulent hatred towards “the West” and America and the growing divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims were also discussed. Readers wondered, as does the author, how an individual ends up so radicalized, not just in the Muslim world but also here at home with the increasing organization of white supremacists and even Nazi groups in America.

Readers who made it to the end of the book found the ending truly heart-wrenching. The terror has always been close to Mekhennet, as some Al Qaeda cells originated in Germany, but increasingly it is her friends and family who are affected resulting in unexpected loss and grief. Again this felt very near to Charlottesville and the experiences of last August.

While it would’ve been nice for the author to wrap up this complicated foreign affairs subject matter with a nice bow and say sunnier days are ahead, she instead was very frank about the situation which is serious and perhaps worsening. She does end on a tiny, hopeful note that we are all more alike than not, and maybe we can begin to recognize that.

Other titles:
House of Stone by Anthony Shadid
Almighty by Dan Zak
The Eternal Nazi (book she wrote with colleague)
The Taliban Shuffle by Kim Barker

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Brown Baggers will meet again on July 19 at noon to discuss The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman.