“Why feel bad about what you couldn’t change? Why not embrace it?”

On Thursday, April 1, JMRL’s Books on Tap discussed on Zoom Stephen King’s 2018 novel Elevation. Just 146 pages, this was a surprising change from the “typical” King book. 

Set in small town Maine, the main character, Scott, is mysteriously losing weight at a rapid rate, but yet looks the same and his clothes still fit.  He also is experiencing more energy and athletic ability as the pull of gravity lessens day by day.  He shares his physical changes with his retired doctor friend, but is resolved to let the situation run its course.  A subplot of the story is the town’s treatment of a married lesbian couple (Scott’s neighbors) who run a local restaurant. Initially Scott and the neighbor couple have a contentious relationship, but Scott resolves to win their friendship and help the town overcome its bigotry.  Suspense builds over the span of a few months, as Scott realizes that his weight will drop to zero; at which point he’ll “run out of weight.” With his small circle of friends, he plans his exit strategy. 

Two attendees recommended listening to the book, read by King, and the audio version includes a bonus short story “Laurie” that is not in the physical edition of the book.  For a few members, this was the first Stephen King book they had ever read.  We were fortunate to have two avid Stephen King fans who could provide more context on his huge catalog of works and make recommendations for those wanting to try some more of his titles.

Some attendees felt King over-simplified stereotypes, that the novella was plot driven, and that the characters were not fully developed. Yet other readers thought the characters evolved significantly in a short period of time.

Themes include: love your neighbor as yourself; it’s never too late to change; what matters most?; and, what do you fight for when you realize your mortality/time is limited?

Other books/films mentioned:

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Stand By Me (DVD) Stephen King film adaptation

Thinner by Richard Bachman (Stephen King)

Up! (DVD) Disney/Pixar

Under the Dome: A Novel by Stephen King 

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King

Playing for Pizza by John Grisham

Books on Tap will meet again on Thursday, May 6 at 7 pm on Zoom to discuss News of the World by Paulette Jiles. For the link to participate, please contact Krista Farrell (kfarrell@jmrl.org). 

Our upcoming titles: 

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez – June 3      

The Library Book by Susan Orlean – July 1    

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry – August 5    

“Man, you know how it goes. One day chicken. Next day bone.”

This month, two Central library book groups met virtually to discuss Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson, our JMRL Same Page author of 2021. Books on Tap met March 4, and Brown Baggers met March 11. This post examines some of the similarities and differences of those conversations, as well as information and revelations from the author. JMRL was fortunate enough to host Jacqueline Woodson for a Same Page discussion event on March 16. 

Red at the Bone immerses readers into the minds and bodies of a large cast of characters that span three generations. Woodson brings memory, history, and generational trauma and inheritance to life through her rich, poetic language. Readers can expect a nonlinear, layered narrative told through a collage of senses, presented in a taut, spare work. Plot-wise, Woodson writes with honesty, heartbreak, and immediacy about her characters (teenage Melody, her mom Iris and dad Aubrey, her grandparents Sabe, Po Boy, and CathyMarie) as they face sex, pregnancy, parenthood, education, poverty, wealth, and racial trauma and healing. Both our book groups noted that, though the work is fiction, they learned a lot from the book, especially about the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. Both groups were struck by the similarities between the Tulsa Massacre, which destroyed 35 square blocks of businesses known at the time as “Black Wall Street” and the razing of Charlottesville’s Vinegar Hill neighborhood. 

Books on Tap spent time discussing the title, identifying moments in the book when it was mentioned explicitly or alluded to. To be “red at the bone” may mean the person or situation is not quite complete — still in progress — like the bits of chicken close to the bone, that don’t quite get cooked. The words “red” and “bone” in close proximity made others think of emotional rawness and vulnerability, a person’s core truth and essence. One reader pointed out that the book deals with race and class, and how people are different, but also similar; when we get beneath our own skin, we’re all “red at the bone.” 

Brown Baggers focused on characters, especially Iris. Many identified her as the “main character” as she was the natural link between the generations (Sabe’s daughter, Melody’s mother). Some felt they’d had enough of Iris, but others wanted more of her, as she was one of the more complex characters of the story. Readers found the issue of Iris’ maternal nature (or lack thereof) worthy of discussion. Like other threads, Iris going to college was a gray matter — was she abandoning her daughter, or advancing herself? Woodson says, wholeheartedly, that Iris was not abandoning her daughter; she has the resources to make other decisions. 

In her discussion of Iris, Jacqueline said this: “You may not like her but you will never forget her. I couldn’t come to any of my characters with judgement, including Iris.” In fact, there is some Iris in all of us, namely, the hunger we see in her. We all have that hunger, and we either bottle it up, which may come back to haunt us as we inadvertently pass it on to our children, or we go out and, essentially, satiate that hunger. Woodson continued by saying: it’s time to look at our own dreams, what societal norms are at play, and how we’re responding. In reflecting, it seems that “hunger” may be an underlying feeling woven throughout the work (connect back to the title discussions, for example, which came largely from a discussion of food and appetite). Two chapters before the close of the book, we read Melody’s account of the day she was born: “And I remember when they finally placed me at her breast, how I latched on so tight and hard, there was fear in her eyes. How absolutely hungry I was once. For her. For her. For her.” (p.186). 

Moving out from Iris, readers considered Iris’ parents, Melody’s grandparents. Books on Tap questioned if it was right of Iris’ parents to support her, and even fight for her ability to be so separate from her daughter? We realized Iris’ parents didn’t push her to be maternal, they gave her an “out” — whether that be good, bad, or negligible. The Brown Baggers considered how Iris created expectations for Melody in her absence. As Melody was raised by her father and grandparents, we wondered if the expectation to be different — to not get pregnant — would result in Melody feeling pressure to not repeat history, or in resentment toward Iris. Once again, Woodson was having the same discussion. When an audience question came in asking if Melody was a “surrogate” for Iris (i.e. a do-over, as the Brown Baggers questioned/theorized), Woodson said no, Melody was her own person, not a stand-in for Iris, or anyone else. That being said, Melody is participating in the narrative, which is heavily saturated with ideas of legacy and inheritance, interconnectedness of family members, and tradition. Melody’s story — both her uniqueness and the way in which she carries the stories of others — continues the family line. Jacqueline also noted that in this novel, she was interested in shifting the idea of what family actually “is.” Jacqueline questioned: what is a broken home? and then noted, I’ve never seen a broken home; Woodson is challenging the assumption that single parent households and non-nuclear family structures are “broken.” 

Clearly, Red at the Bone offered plenty of fodder for discussion, from its energy, to its structure and format, to the characters, and the sweeping, consequential time period covered. 

Books on Tap will meet again virtually on Thursday, April 1 at 7 pm to discuss Elevation by Stephen King. The Brown Baggers will meet again virtually on Thursday, April 15 at noon to discuss Go Down the Mountain by Meredith Battle. Please email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details on how to participate from your computer or phone.

Books Mentioned:

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Urban Renewal and the End of Black Culture in Charlottesville, Virginia: An Oral History of Vinegar Hill by James Robert Saunders and Renae Nadine Shackelford

Movies Mentioned: 

That World is Gone: Race and Displacement in a Southern Virginia Town (2010)

Links:

1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Digital Exhibit

Oklahoma News 4 – Search for victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre expected to continue this summer

Zinn Project – May 31, 1921: Tulsa Massacre

“Each of Us Is More Than the Worst Thing We’ve Ever Done.”

The Central Library Brown Baggers book group met virtually on February 18 to discuss Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Steveson. Our shared reading this month could not have been more timely: on Monday, February 22, Virginia officially become the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty. 

Just Mercy is a fast-paced informative memoir about Bryan’s intense, consequential career as he worked around the clock for the nonprofit organization he founded in 1989, the Equal Justice Initiative. It is also a compilation of numerous court cases and mishandlings of justice. Chapter after chapter, Bryan throws us straight into the deep end as we meet and quickly come to know men, women, and children who find themselves in desperate need of legal help; they have been victimized by the justice system due to their race, class, mental illness, or lack of support. The book is threaded together by one lengthy and high-profile murder case. Through the dual modes of storytelling, readers become acclimated to juggling dozens of high stakes cases, persevering for years on end for the cause of a single man, and Stevenson’s own beliefs about the power of compassion and mercy. 

When considering if we “liked” the book, we acknowledged the emotional difficulty in reading such a book about brokenness. Yet phrases like “hard to read” came as swiftly as “important to read” and “learned a lot.” We pondered the pairing of sadness and depression with hope and optimism. Few found this book to be a “depressing read,” because Stevenson was so active and engaged throughout the narrative. He was not always successful in his undertakings, but he continued to move forward and never quit working. Some readers described feeling overwhelmed (in an inspired sense) by Bryan Stevenson’s absolutely tireless work and his impressive rhetoric, reminiscent of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with religious and philosophical undertones. 

In discussing Just Mercy, a book that primarily dwells on the death penalty, we found it impossible to avoid confronting issues such as privatized, for-profit prison systems, mass incarceration, the lack of rehabilitation opportunities for convicts, and the disproportionate targeting and convicting of people of color. This book demanded to be felt fully and thought about. Many in our group faced personal reckonings with childhood experiences of ignorance. 

Bryan Stevenson is a unique individual: a bachelor who doesn’t plan to marry because he’s “busy doing other things” …how can we hold a candle to him? He is moving at the speed of light and actually changing the world — what can we do? Together we brainstormed options for those who want to make a difference but are also juggling family, work, and other responsibilities. 

  • Write letters and emails to government officials, agencies, and the like
  • Join committees and boards; get to know community resources and groups
  • Create initiatives within spaces you already frequent, like your book club! 
  • Education is where it all begins; never stop reading, and support educational institutions 

The Brown Baggers will meet again virtually on Thursday, March 11 at noon to discuss Red At the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson.* Please email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details on how to participate from your computer or phone.

*The Brown Baggers read Woodson’s book Brown Girl Dreaming for Same Page in March 2020, although the events were cancelled due to the pandemic. Woodson will be attending the Virginia Festival of the Book 2021, which is digital and open to all

Books Mentioned

The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town by John Grisham

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Just Mercy: Adapted for Young People by Bryan Stevenson

Films

Just Mercy (2020)

13th (2016)

For Life (2020)

Links

The Innocence Project at UVA