“What was this book about?”

JacketBooks on Tap read The Ten Thousand Things  by Maria Dermoût at Champion Brewery on December 8. None of us had read of it before, but a few of had seen it mentioned in Wild by Cheryl Strayed. The book takes its title from a Tang Dynasty poem and for the astute reader sets the theme: all of life is connected and repetitive. One very observant reader caught on to the fact that it is technically a frame novel, starting and ending with commemorations of the dead.

Written by a woman born in Java to a Dutch family that had been in the area for four generations, the novel is both European and Indonesian with strong influences from local folklore, Buddhism and natural philosophy. It is likely set on Ambon Island in the Maluku archipelago of Indonesia (formerly the Spice Islands), where Dermoût lived and where her son was born. She details the natural beauty of the area, describing the Small Garden-cum-plantation where generations of the Dutch Kleyntjes family has lived, the seashells, the flora and the landscape. This close observation draws on the work of naturalist Georg Eberhard Rumphius who worked on Ambon and the area’s animism and Buddhism. It also lends a magical realism flavor and makes the book timeless and out of time.

What there is of a plot centers around Felicia, the granddaughter of the Small Garden owner. Told by her grandmother to have courage, she leaves with her weak father and rich mother for Europe, has a disastrous marriage and returns alone to the Small Garden with her young son. Grandmother and granddaughter work closely to raise money using the products of the plantation and selling them in the town on the main part of the island. Felicia’s son grows up, joins the army (against the grandmother’s wishes) and is killed in service, a death Felicia brands a murder. It’s murder that connects the other plots, and it is these victims who join Felicia at the commemorations at the start and finish of the book. At the climax, Felicia truly listens to her son (although he is dead) and for the first time has empathy for the murderers and their victims. She only glimpses this universal balance with the perspective of age but does seem to be newly committed to it.

So what were we drawn to in this unusual novel? The atmospheric descriptions made us want to visit the island. Its tight focus also seems accurate for remote island life. The duality running throughout the book kept it interesting: it isn’t clear if all the murder victims were in fact murdered, if the traveling bibi cursed the family, if Raden had more than a filial relationship to his step-mother, if the Commissioner had a wife, if the three girls are the same as the ones in the nightlight or if Pauline killed the sailor (and if so, the right one). This duality was also see more subtly in such things as Felicia’s name (her grandmother thought it a jinx and Felicia certainly had sorrow in her life) and the black mussel sauce and the white mussel sauce the grandmother is known for.

The novel is strongly matrilineal, with the women controlling the action even in chapters focused on men. Raden cannot continue in school because his step-mother refuses to sell her jewelry to fund him, the women in the Commissioner’s household may have murdered him but definitely close ranks after his death and Constance and Pauline are at the heart of the household supposedly run by the official and Moses. Raden was of particular interest as a Indonesian student working for a European professor. Before starting the book some of us were worried that this 1955 book set in Indonesia written by a white woman would be contain ugly racism. However, Dermoût gives voice to all characters and upended our expectations. While not perfect, it is an intriguing look at a time and place we hadn’t read much about and ends on a realistically hopeful note.

More Information:
About the author
About the book
Ambon Island map
Naturalist Georg Eberhard  Rumphius
River of Doubt by Candice Millard (similarities to Professor)
Speaking of islands, information about the USVI’s hurricane recovery needs

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“Edison gets the audience. Westinghouse gets the excellence. Tesla gets the ideas.”

lastdaysofnightThe Brown Bagger’s discussed Academy-Award winning author Graham Moore’s second novel, The Last Days of Night on November 16. The historical-fiction centered on the light bulb rivalry between inventors George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison. Of course Nikola Tesla had a role in this war of currents, but the novel followed Westinghouse’s young lawyer, Paul Cravath, and his quest to win an impossible lawsuit against Thomas Edison.

Both Westinghouse and Edison wanted their current to provide electricity to America- Edison tried to discredit Westinghouse’s Alternating Current by saying it was dangerous, so that he could supply America with his Direct Current. However, it was proven that A/C current was safer than D/C current. The story itself followed the actual war of currents, in a more compressed time frame. The characters in the story were well-developed- Edison was portrayed as a man who was only interested in name recognition, which he achieved, even at the loss of the company he started. Westinghouse was depicted in a kinder manner, and as someone who wanted to make the best products possible. And, Tesla was portrayed as an eccentric genius who just wanted to invent and did not care about money.

Paul Cravath was fresh out of law school when he took this case, and while he was smart, he was inexperienced and made some mistakes. However, by taking Westinghouse as a client he was introduced to the more glamorous side of New York and meets Agnes Huntington, an opera singer with a mysterious past. Cravath had to take continually bigger risks throughout the lawsuit but doing so meant that he would change as a person, and possibly lose those that he cared about.

The Brown Baggers overwhelmingly loved this novel! Many felt that the book provided a great background on the history of light bulbs and the nuances of patents. The quotes at the beginning of each chapter made the content even more relevant for today’s world and most agreed that the writing was very descriptive- almost as if it were a screenplay. There was a lot of legalese in the book, but not so much that it was hard to follow. Many felt that the novel was both emotional and fascinating- it was a page turner!

Reviews of the novel:
New York Times Book Review
Washington Post

Interview with the author:
NPR

Books mentioned during the discussion:
The Riverkeepers by John Cronin and Robert F. Kennedy
Thomas A. Edison, Young Inventor by Sue Guthridge

The Brown Baggers will meet again on December 21 at 12pm to select titles for the next 12 months- bring a treat to share and participate in the *book swap (new this year) if you want!

*Book swap- bring a book or two to trade- any leftover books will be donated to the Friends of the Library Booksale.

“There isn’t always an explanation for everything.”

61h05xx7u-lBooks on Tap read A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway  at Champion Brewery on November 2. Ostensibly a novel about an American ambulance driver and English nurse who fall in love at the Italian Front during World War I, it was quickly recognized as “one of the few great war stories in American literature.” The plight of the main character, Lieutenant Frederic Henry, closely mirrors the author’s experience in Italy during the war. They both drove ambulances, served briefly (Frederic seems to fight for two days within the book), suffered severe knee injuries in a mortar attack which left the men around them dead and received Italian war medals. They then both fell in love with a nurse while recovering in Milan, but in Hemingway’s case the affection was not shared.

Not all participants had read Hemingway previously and those who had didn’t recall all the details of this book. The first thing we discussed was the tone of the novel. Like Hemingway’s other works, it is terse but in this case it is not evocative. Two of us listened to the audiobook, where the repetition wasn’t as noticeable and the rhythms of the conversations tended toward the lyrical. The realism of the book is overshadowed by the drippy dialog between Frederic and nurse Catherine (we wondered if the author was capable of writing a female character) and the lack of urgency in the interpersonal relationship. However, the scenes of the retreat and river escape aligned with our pre-conceptions of Hemingway’s style and conveyed his message about war. Some readers compared these scenes to The Revenant book and movie and An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.

There is room for ambiguity in the realistic description of war. No one seems to care about the cause of the conflict and the Italians differ in opinion on tactics and leadership. The unceasing rain, while historically accurate, also emphasizes the long slog characteristic of this war and the ultimate interiority of the main characters, cloistered in hotels and hospitals. Catherine claims that the war will never end and their unborn child will become a general. Frederic and an Italian priest contemplate the end, saying “It is in defeat that we become Christian. . . I don’t mean technically Christian. I mean like our Lord. . . We are all gentler now because we are beaten.” Through unimaginable bloodshed, we earn acceptance and humility.

Mysteries abound in this novel. Why was Frederic in Italy before the war? Was he really studying architecture? Where did they find the money to stay in Switzerland for months? Why were they estranged from both families? Perhaps the biggest mystery is Catherine. Does she truly love Frederic or is this a relationship of convenience, swept up in the war. How could a women who worked a dangerous, arduous job, an atheist who lived independently from her family be as clingy and afraid of upsetting her partner as Catherine was? Her obsession with thinness made us wonder if Hemingway or Frederic were the misogynist.

The ending was so abrupt that some audiobook listeners weren’t sure that the novel had ended. However, another reader pointed out that the ending is fitting – this self-absorbed couple doesn’t have a future and may not have been in love. One astute reader shared her favorite alternate ending, available in some paperback editions: “When I woke the sun was coming in the open window and I smelled the spring morning after the rain and there was a moment, probably it was only a second, before I began to realize what it was that had happened. And then I knew that it was all gone now and that it would not be that way any more.”

More Information:
About the author
About the book
Battle of Caporetto map and more on the Italian Front.
Other works
WWI reading list
Confidential to Will: Is this it?

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