“Anna smelled the bay, its oily piers. Clusters of seagulls hopped at the shore like white rabbits.”

manhattanbeachThe Brown Baggers met on May 16 to discuss Jennifer Egan’s award-winning novel Manhattan Beach. The novel follows three intertwined characters- Anna Kerrigan, her father Eddie Kerrigan, and the gangster Dexter Styles. The book spans the end of the Great Depression through World War II. After working as a bagman for Styles, Anna’s father has disappeared and now, at 19, she has a job measuring small metal parts for the navy. However, after seeing a professional diver, she starts to train to become one. Because Anna is female, becoming a diver is very difficult and she faces a lot of discrimination.

On a night out with a friend, Anna meets Styles in one of his nightclubs and eventually through him, tries to find out what happened to her father. Styles has become a crime boss, owns several nightclubs, and married into New York Society. They become attracted to each other, and Anna becomes pregnant with his child. After Styles is murdered, Anna moves to California and with her aunt’s advice pretends to be a war widow. She later is reunited with her father.

The Brown Baggers had mixed reactions to this novel- some loved the book, while others did not care for it. Some mentioned that it was beautifully written, and that Egan really got into the minds of the characters. But others felt that the book was hard to figure out and that time shifting back and forth was disruptive to the story. All agreed that Egan did a lot of research for this novel.

A few people mentioned that the story line with Anna’s disabled sister, Lydia, was beautiful, and it really showed the love that people can have for one another. Others really liked Brianne, Anna’s aunt and thought she was an interesting character. And everyone liked the aspect of Anna working as a diver and women working outside of the home, (most of them) for the first time.

Books Mentioned:
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

More Information:
About the author
Review from The Kenyon Review
Women divers of the US Navy

The Brown Baggers will meet again at the Central Library on Thursday, June 20 at noon to discuss Thomas Mellon’s Fellow Travelers.

“Because a place can do many things against you, and if it’s your home or if it was your home at one time, you still love it.”

bookofunknownamericansBooks on Tap read The Book of Unknown Americans  by Cristina Henriquez at Champion Brewery on May 2. The novel is set in an apartment building in Delaware owned and occupied by Latinx migrants. It frequently switches narrators but the story focuses on the Riveras, a family that has moved to America to access school services for their teen daughter Mirabel who has suffered a brain injury, and the Toros, Panamanians who are now American citizens. Teenage Mayor Toro is drawn to Mirabel and Celia Rivera helps newly arrived Alma Rivera navigate life in small town Delaware. The teen protagonists and straightforward prose would appeal to teen readers. Henriquez is also a short story writer and the interstitial chapters narrated by secondary characters who live in the building read like short stories. The entire story was originally written from Mayor’s point of view and he and Alma really carry the novel.

The book is set during the global economic crisis of 2008 and written around 2012. We thought that the Riveras would have a harder time getting visas from Mexico today then they would have then. The neighbors all share their compelling reasons for migrating and we think they would be in even more danger now. While we were surprised that the characters migrated to Delaware, Henriquez does a good job of explaining why and how they landed there. We compared it to our local economy that visibly employs migrants in such businesses as food service, construction, wine and orchard agriculture.

The secondary neighbor’s chapters painted a complex picture of the Latinx community, highlighting commonalities and differences, brought to life by busybody neighbor Quisqueya. However, we would have liked to learn more about food culture and had more distinction in speech among the migrants and even more untranslated Spanish. The only character not to get his own chapter was Garrett, the white teenager who harasses the Riveras and is instrumental to the climax. We inferred that his home life was terrible but he remains as remote to us as he was to Alma.

The climax is an unexpected but not unearned surprise. The Riveras have already survived the tragedy of Mirabel’s accident and her father’s unemployment. This last disaster makes Alma’s decision to return to Mexico inevitable but turns the focus from migration to a universal reflection on guilt and forgiveness.

More Information:
About the author
About the book
Other works

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“do you know what it’s like to live/someplace that loves you back?”

The LGBTQ Book club met on April 30 at the Central Library to discuss Danez Smith’s poetry collection, the 2017 National Book Award finalist Don’t Call Us Dead. It was our first foray into poetry as a group, in honor of National Poetry in April (and a feature of this year’s #NPRPoetryMonth). Smith identifies as Black, Queer and HIV postive (Pos), uses the pronoun they and is a member of the Dark Noise collective. danezsmith

We decided to focus on the first poem in the book, “summer, somewhere,” which “imagines a utopic afterlife for victims of racism and police brutality.”  The men and boys who have been killed by racist violence in America now exist in a perpetual, free, summer, where they “earned this paradise/by a death we didn’t deserve.” In that same interview, Smith says they found the writing of the poem cathartic and the chance to “build this world and imagine this alternate ending, to imagine something past what we call an ending.” Book club members all agreed that they were not regular poetry readers. Some don’t like the abstractness of poetry while others find line breaks distracting interruptions. Perhaps because of those preferences and that none of us share Smith’s identities, we probably missed many of their illusions. The poem is distinctly grounded in the Black, male experience (“I am sure there are other heres/somewhere for every kind”) but one reader was disappointed that he didn’t get an emotional connection to the experience of a Black, gay man. Some were put off by vulgarity. However, we all were able to find phrases that resonated and stuck with us.

We talked briefly about the other poems in the book, which was originally two manuscripts, one about “Smith’s personal identity and sexuality . . . the other focused on violence and brutality against black bodies.” There were instances of humor in  “dinosaur in the hood,” for example. More generally, we thought about the poems featured on the local bus service and the local poetry scene. There doesn’t seem to be an ongoing spoken poetry series anymore, but JMRL does host the annual Poetry on the Steps event as part of the Poem in Your Pocket celebration.

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About the author
Interview with the author
About the poem
Recommended during discussion

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Posted in LGBTQ Book Club