“If we could talk to animals, goes the song.”

Books on Tap met virtually on Thursday, June 3 at 7 pm to discuss The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. A book written in second person (addressed to “you”) is rare enough, but Nunez adds an additional deviating factor by choosing to leave every human character unnamed. Our only named character, Apollo, is a huge Great Dane, who comes to live with the unpredictable and unreliable narrator after her friend of many years (Apollo’s master) unexpectedly commits suicide. 

It’s a novel that doesn’t read like a novel in many ways, because of the wandering discourse about “other things.” The novel does not plod through telling us “what happened” or chronologically transcribe character “action” or “plot.” Of course all of these phrases are being put in quotation marks because in the world of a novel, what isn’t plot, and what exactly is “other”? The interludes on dogs in heat, sex workers, and womanizing provided shock value; the discussions on the writing life and the seedy underbelly of status-obsessed writerly ambition provided bite and gristle (and aren’t these ingredients for an engrossing read?). It may be true that a majority of this book is words, sentences, and paragraphs that do not detail our narrator’s day-to-day life, but the conversational tone and fuzzy edges surrounding the “story” prompted one reader to say, as we were unraveling what the book is about, that the book is about storytelling, and all its roundabouts, and all its conflating visions, coincidences, and more. There is a story to tell, but you don’t tell that story, you tell another story. And isn’t that so often true in life, that we have something to say, but just can’t say it? 

The book, to many, was about writing. Many found the narrator’s voice on this subject to come across as pompous or showy: “look at me and all these books and authors I’m quoting!” Others rolled their eyes at the self-pitying tone: “oh, writing is such a challenge, but somehow I overcome!” On the other hand, we had readers who found the book, and especially the writerly quips and references, to be compelling and fun. We wondered if such a scorching assault on the writing life would discourage or otherwise dispirit any of our readers if they aspired to be writers themselves, but none of our members felt that way. We acknowledged that for every book that has a doomsday feel about writing, there is a hopeful book about writing (On Writing by Stephen King and Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck were two examples mentioned). 

And somehow, the book is also about a dog. Mysteriously we simultaneously had more than enough information on the dog, but also wanted more of the dog. We discussed the size of the dog and how it impacted the entire atmosphere of the narrative; we dissected how the giant animal could have dominated the narrator, but yet the relationship between them appeared to be the first relationship of true equality the narrator had ever experienced. 

Because the book was like a treasure chest of curiosities (in turn funny, depressing, witty, snarling, truthful, deceptive, and more), we each seemed to focus on different aspects of what we found on the page. One reader was reading the book for the second time, and was interested to discover that what she honed in on this second time around was so different from her first reading. Some of us were drawn into the taunting question, “does something bad happen to the dog?” while others were fixated on the drama surrounding her landlord and impending eviction. Some meditated on each literary reference and took the time to cross-check quotes, drawing out more meaning that way. Others picked up every detail about the life of our narrator as a writer, and still others found the relationship with Apollo to be most memorable. It was in this fashion that we came to grips with the ending: half believing it was a remarkable twist that changed the entire book, and half believing it was just another layer of imagination stitched into a highly inventive book. 

Books on Tap will meet again virtually on Thursday, July 1 at 7 pm to discuss The Library Book by Susan Orlean. Please email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details on how to participate from your computer or phone.

Other books mentioned:

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

On Writing by Stephen King

“The boys could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place.”

Brown Baggers book group met virtually on Thursday, May 20 at noon to discuss The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. The group was introduced to Whitehead’s style, which bounces between realism and fantasy, through The Underground Railroad in February 2018. This latest novel was more grounded in reality, without speculative or fantastic elements. Yet one reader commented that by focusing on power and control, Whitehead was once again writing about slavery — “writing about slavery without writing about slavery.” Here we have more layers of racism to explore: caste and segregation, “subtle” racism, “gloves off” racism. 

While Colson said he did not want to write another “heavy book” after The Underground Railroad, he could not avoid telling this story. It is based on an actual reform school that finally closed, after 100+ years of operation, in 2011. Readers will find brutality, reminiscent of The Underground Railroad, in The Nickel Boys — some laid bare on the page and difficult to swallow, and some left unsaid, but not unknown.

Elwood, Jack, and other Nickel Boys were not only subject to corporal punishment, hard labor, a poor education, and sexual assault, but also the psychological agony of living a false life at the Academy. The idea of falsehood was so compelling, readers remarked that it stood out as a central idea. There are people who are not able to live as their true selves. Instead they must preserve their true self (somewhere deep inside) through the ever-elusive protective goal of “fitting in with society.” A question that readers might ponder is this: what kind of life can be lived if that life requires deceit? Who in our own society are we burdening with the self-preserving obligation of deceit?

Elwood and Jack, described by Whitehead as, “two different parts of my personality,” are certainly nuanced, complicated further by their grim circumstances at the Academy, which some readers argue create allowances for behaviors/morality. Some characters, like Griff, sparked debate between members: was Griff a good guy with integrity and his own compass? A bully? Both? Some argued Griff was as good as he could be, given his situation. Others argued he had less self-control and was instead driven by mental limitations. We discussed who was a “good guy” and who was a “bad guy” and found it easier to pinpoint multiple villains: not only individual people, but also institutions. 

Power was a central theme of our discussion. Members noted: if you give someone overwhelming power, there is going to be abuse. It’s inevitable, because we live in a racist, prejudiced society. We were honing in on the degradation of the human conscience; that little voice that says, “you’re better than them. Those people are throwaways. They deserve it.” Without accountability, regulation, and checks and balances, shocking slips ensue. Some of the abuses we found in The Nickel Boys reminded us of the treatment of the Appalachia people from Go Down The Mountain, as in both novels, a powerful group took away the inherent power of human dignity from another group. 

One interesting thread of conversation we tackled as a group was how Whitehead treated women in this novel. The quick answer is that writers are sometimes penned in, given the subjects they choose to pursue — this was a reform school for boys, so the female experience wasn’t going to “fit.” But the more complicated question is: were women characterized “poorly” in this novel? For example, in a stereotypical fashion? As art teachers, wives, maids, and beneficiaries? As predictable, and predictably helpless, figures? 

Last, the ending. While there is nothing otherworldly in this book, the end was enough to upend all of our readers. It will not be spoiled here, but perhaps the following reactions will entice others into picking up the novel: 

Readers described the end of the novel as shocking. No one saw it coming, although one savvy reader did note one single clue that helped tip her off just the slightest. Another reader confessed reading the end three times, finally taking the third time around to really scour the pages at a snail’s pace, just to make sure her eyes were not deceiving her! We did have readers who understood the end logistically, but didn’t buy into the effect. For some, the way Whitehead chose to end the novel did not provide greater insight into the characters’ inner lives, plights, or quests, and instead they were left with doubts. In a way, this upended everything they’d previously known about a character, and forced them to rework a supposed understanding to accommodate a last minute puzzle. Others simply found it different, but in an interesting way. If you’ve read The Nickel Boys, what did you think about the ending? Will you share your thoughts in the comments below, without spoiling the ending for others? 

The Brown Baggers will meet again virtually on Thursday, June 17 at noon to discuss Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. Please email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details on how to participate from your computer or phone.

Books Mentioned:

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Films Mentioned:

Deadly Secrets: The Lost Children of Dozier (2016) – streaming on PBS

Links:

CBS Sunday Morning interview with Colson Whitehead on The Nickel Boys

Roxane Gay’s Book Club: How Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys” Is Not Green Book

NY Times: In ‘The Nickel Boys,’ Colson Whitehead Depicts a Real-Life House of Horrors

NPR: Florida’s Dozier School for Boys:  A True Horror Story

Wikipedia: Florida School for Boys

The Famuan: Survivor shares haunting tales from notorious Dozier school

Noor: The Black Boys of Dozier (photo essay) by Nina Berman

The Economist: How housing descrimination and white flight segregated America

City Journal: The Truth About White Flight

Chicago Tribune: Gentrification isn’t America’s urban scourge. Poverty is.

Public Source: New white flight and urban displacement: Study looks beyond gentrification  in Pittsburgh region

Atlanta Black Star: Gentrification: Reversal of Historic White Flight Is Creating a New Black Flight

The Atlantic: Chicago’s Awful Divide by Alana Semuels

“… 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.