“It is the only home I remember.”

kitchenhouseThe Brown Baggers met on November 15 to discuss The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom.

The story takes place in the late 1700s at Tall Oaks, a tobacco plantation in Virginia and spans several years. The book has two narrators, including Lavinia, an Irish immigrant and Belle, the plantation owner’s illegitimate black daughter. Lavinia, was a young child sailing to America with her family when her parents died en route. The captain of the ship, who is the owner of Tall Oaks, takes Lavinia to live on his plantation as an indentured servant. Lavinia stays with Belle in the kitchen house and Belle shows her how to cook and clean.

Lavinia becomes an adopted part of the slave family that works in the “big house” instead of the fields.  Here she is shown love and affection, but as she grows up Lavinia is torn between her adopted family and the captain’s family, who she also cares about. Belle faces multiple challenges throughout the story, including how her father does not tell his white family that Belle is his daughter.

The book focuses on the relationship between the slaves who work in the big house or kitchen house and the family who lives in the big house and owns the slaves. There were a few themes in the novel, including family, Women’s rights, and race relations particularly as related to the order of society and the plantation.

The Brown Baggers generally liked the novel. Some felt that the writing was more simplistic than last month’s selection, H is for Hawk,  but reviewers described Grissom’s writing as “prose-like.”

One issue that readers had, was that it felt like there were too many characters to keep straight, and having a chart listing characters in the front of the book would have been helpful. It was also noted that much of the book was historically accurate and well-researched.

A few Brown Baggers thought the plot was too contrived. And, many agreed that the last third of the book was the weakest- it seemed like the author needed to wrap things up and did so in a hurry.

The group also discussed Miss Martha and later Lavinia’s frequent use of opium/laudanum and how during that time in history it was a way to cope and sedate feelings of isolation and depression. The group also discussed slavery, particularly talking about how Belle didn’t want to leave to go up north and how the author was telling the story through her own lens of whiteness. Overall, even though nothing good happens throughout the story, it was still an interesting read.

About the Book:
From Kirkus Reviews
From Quill and Quire
Author’s follow up book/sequel: Glory Over Everything

Other Titles Mentioned:
The Price of a Child by Lorene Cary
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron

Join us on Thursday, December 20 at noon to vote on upcoming titles- be sure to bring a few titles to recommend.

“Message in the Closet”

pasted image 0Books on Tap read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood at  Champion Brewery on November 2. The book, originally published in 1985, is being read again both because of the current political climate and the Hulu television adaptation (many JMRL book clubs have read the book this year). The novel is based on the taped diary of Offred, a women living in the Republic of Gilead (one the United States), a monotheocracy where women are only valued for their reproductive potential. It is #37 on ALA’s frequently challenged list and #34 in PBS’ The Great American Read.

Book club members liked Atwood’s writing style, although the story itself was creepy. Those of us who have seen the movie or tv adaptations said their strong visual styling replaced their own mental images. We also thought that they story was believable; her Gilead was recognizably America. Why she never explains how the theocracy gains total power, Atwood has said repeatedly that none of the restrictions and oppressions in the book are invented. Everything that happens in Gilead happened on earth prior to 1986. The near-future setting allowed us to wonder what we would do in similar circumstances, and is clearly resonating with others today, like those have been dressing as handmaids at recent protests. While Atwood was writing about fundamentalism, evangelicals and environmental disasters specific to the mid 1980s, history repeats and keeps this story current.

Offred serves as a handmaid, a reproductive surrogate, for the Commander and his wife Serena Joy. While Offred had been an educated, caring woman before the establishment of Gilead, her current isolation dampens her personality. She once had friends, a child and a partner. Now, she only speaks with another handmaid on her weekly shopping trips and secretly both plays Scrabble with the Commander and meets with his chauffeur, Nick.

The isolation works to tamp down a small resistance movement. Communication is difficult. Ofglen, another handmaid, has to hide a message to Offred in a closet. The murdered bodies of resistors are displayed in public. Offred at first thought her husband could protect her from Gilead’s restrictions and then laid low in hopes of protecting her daughter. She seemed resigned at the hanging she witnesses, possibly due to Stockholm syndrome.

Rationalization was possible because Gilead’s policies didn’t touch anyone Offred knew at first. Then, women policed each other, saving themselves but reinforcing the patriarchy. While people must have believed in the religion at some point, it is now used as a weapon. Those not practicing face peer pressure and family alienation. The only way to integrate in the culture is to participate in the religion.

The epilogue revealed that the bulk of the story is taken from an incomplete set of of tapes of Offred’s oral history. It’s hard to judge if Offred is an unreliable narrator or if missing parts of the story are captured on the yet-to-be discovered tapes. Offred, whose true name is never known, is further sidelined from her own story by the male academics presenting a paper on her edited tapes. They care so little about her humanity that the reader is left wondering: did she escape?

More Information:
About the author
Interview with the author
About the book
Hulu series
1990 Movie
Gilead in the Bible

The Great American Read #1 is To Kill a Mockingbird. #100 is Dona Barbara.

Books on Tap Information:

Have a suggestion for future titles? Add them to this list.
Previous titles

Posted in Books on Tap

“Hunting makes you animal, but the death of an animal makes you human.”

hisforhawkBrown Baggers met at Central on October 18 to discuss the memoir H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. Published in 2014, H is for Hawk is part hawk training manual and part dissection of grief. A lifetime falconer, Macdonald decides to try training a much more difficult, larger, and stronger goshawk after her father suddenly dies. She reflects on her modern day experience through the lens of author T. H. White, who recounted his attempt in the book The Goshawk.

Readers really enjoyed Macdonald’s writing style. They found it beautiful and evocative, admiring how she seemed to meditate on each subject and the expert way she wove all of them together. Those who had listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author, founding it equally compelling.

One of the most interesting parts of the book, readers found, was Macdonald’s examination of the feral in humans and the humanity in animals. The hawk she trained, Mabel, led her to a wild place deep in her grief but also led her back to her human self in the end. Readers who had no interest in birding, falconry, or hawks found themselves enthralled by the story despite its naturalist themes – a testament to her skill as a writer.

Some felt the process of training hawks was too violent and controlling, especially when hawks no longer serve a purpose of acquiring food for their handlers. Readers discussed whether it was necessary for the author to exert control over another animal to feel in control herself, after the loss of her father.

The sheer social isolation of the author was also discussed, as was the varying depth and experience of grief depending on the individual. While the prose makes it seem like she was completely without social contact while raising the hawk, she does have family, friends, and a professional and falconry community that kept her tethered while she grieved.

Brown Baggers will meet again on November 15 at noon to discuss The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom.

Other titles mentioned:
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
The Once and Future King by T. H. White (and other works)

More information:
Interview with author
Second interview
Author bio
PBS documentary (which Central is showing on 10/25 at 7pm)
National Geographic article about falconry in the U.A.E.
Information on falconry