“We’s lost all the bases of civilized culture around here.”

tenorBooks on Tap read Methland  by Nick Reding at  Champion Brewery on June 1. While most of us  had watched Breaking Bad, we were not ready for the bleakness of meth addiction reported by Reding. He uses the town of Oelwein, Iowa as the lens while describing how and why meth became such an attractive drug to white working class people in the Midwest. Reding weaves together Big Agriculture, immigration policy, deregulation, and the need to work long hours at physically demanding factory jobs to explain why a stimulant would spread like wildfire. The reporting on the macro level was interesting, but the personal stories of Oelwein residents are what propel this book. The gruesome recountings of meth lab explosions, Tom Arnold’s sister’s rise as an international drug-dealer and the sincere work of the local doctor in mayor to revitalize the town are what draws in readers. Stories of deep addiction are stressful to read, but Reding spends a lot of time with those in Oelwien who are either in recovery or trying to diversify the economy. There is a certain entrepreneurial logic for those dealing meth. The nearest large city is 200 miles away, so cooking meth is one of the only ways to make a living wage without moving.

We discussed ways in which the US could combat the meth epidemic, from drug courts (in Virginia, treatment isn’t mandated) to living wage legislation to affordable health insurance that covers drug treatment to legalization similar to Portugal’s. Some of us found this book hard to read because for years the meth epidemic was hidden in the supposedly safe “fly over” states and that we on the coasts have a limited sense of life in Middle America.

More Information:
About the author
About the book
Author reading
Reaction to the book

Recommendations
Recent  New Yorker article on opioid addiction in West Virginia
Father/Son memoirs about meth addiction and recovery
Drug-related HIV spike in Indiana

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“Pretty easy life. Nothing seems to have happened to him.”

Brown Baggers met on May 18 to discuss Old Filth, a novel by Jane Gardam. The novel is named for its main character, and Filth becomes his nickname after he attains great success as a lawyer in Asia (it stands for Failed In London, Try Hong Kong). The novel is told as his 81-year-old self looking back on his life and coming to terms with abandonment and abuse in his childhood.
After his mother dies in childbirth, his detached father sends him to be raised in the local Malay village, where Filth thrives. However, in the family tradition, Filth is torn from this comfortable set up and sent off to a foster family in Wales. This situation scars him for life and his reminisces throughout the books always lead back to what happened to him there.
Being left was Filth’s main story. Throughout the book we learn of his repeated losses of friends, other relatives, and love interests. As a character, Filth is a survivor. Although his methods of surviving led some readers to consider him an appalling man. We discussed whether there was a likable character in this book. As they had all experienced trauma early in their lives they developed personality quirks which made them detached and hard to warm to as readers.
Compounding the never-ending sense of loss in Filth’s life was WWII, which began when he was a young teen. This only added to his losses and deprivations. While his early experiences led to his ability to be a good litigator, it also wracked him with a lifelong sense of guilt of past wrongs and all legal decisions he meted out as judge.
After the loss of his wife, and his only friend, Filth decides to revisit family members and locations from his past to come to a better understanding of what happened and make peace with it.
Mentions:
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Links:
The Man in the Wooden Hat(#2) and Last Friends(#3) in this trilogy

Audio interview with the author from BBC4

“Vanishing into books, I felt held.”

famBooks on Tap read Family Life  by Akhil Sharma at  Champion Brewery on May 4.  This highly-autobiographical novel describes the aftermath of an elder son’s accident shortly after the family migrates from India to suburban New Jersey in the 1970s. Birju, the teenaged son, nearly drowns and remains in a vegetative state for decades. To cope, his mother seeks out religious healers while his father slips deeper into alcohol abuse. His younger brother Ajay, the narrator, focuses on his academic success and turns to writing as a way to both escape his current circumstances and to create order in his own world.

While none of us quite understood why this novel won multiple awards, we were intrigued by its structure. Some found it stilted, while others thought that it accurately reflected Ajay’s personality. Sharma, who took over 12 years to finish the book and produced 7,000 pages, ultimately removed extra sensory description, what he called the “sensorium issue,” partially influenced by his early obsession with Ernest Hemingway. The tightness of the prose in the 224 page novel propels the reader along in what is essentially a plot-less story. While the lives of all the family members are defined by Birju’s accident, the story explores the full range of human emotion, not just sadness, isolation and anger.

The family had high expectations for their lives in America and Birju had just been accepted into a prestigious exam high school when he was found at the bottom of a pool. While the family’s expectations of may have been met if Birju hadn’t gone swimming that day, the parents may have divorced and Ajay may not have pushed himself so hard academically. Instead, the family narrowly focuses on Birju’s immense physical needs, bringing him home after he’s neglected in a nursing home early on. Providing in-home care was seen as a means of control, a expression of love, a reflection of shame and a type of trust in the family unit by readers. It also allowed the mother to deny Birju’s brain damage by referring to him as “sleeping,” inviting other Indian migrants in to venerate him and to bring  in various religious healers. While religion is frequently referred to, we readers didn’t get a full sense of what that entailed. While the mother can be compared to a Catholic martyr, one reader pointed out that in a crisis you do what you must day after day to survive but you don’t see how it shapes your life until the years have passed. We compared the scene in which the family, still living in India, receives their plane tickets to America to the isolated life that is their reality in New Jersey.  The entire community celebrated their migration, with constant visits and well-wishes. After Birju’s accident, their visitors are holy men or parents who bring their children to see Birju as a warning. The family not only made a leap in space, but also in time, coming from rural India to suburban America. The family, like other immigrants mostly knew about the United States from American films, which over-promised a perfect life.

Both the accident and the isolation leave Ajay as the second best son, and he has no close adults to mentor him or offer respite. He tells lies to gain attention and escape reality. On Christmas, he complains that “this shouldn’t be his life” and that he at least deserves a pizza. However, the teasing way Ajay talks to his brother shows real affection.

The book ends with Ajay thinking “I got happier and happier . . . That’s when I knew I had a problem.”  Earlier in the novel, his father stares out the window at snowfall, saying  “I’m so happy.”  While we believe both men were happy at the time, we wonder if they don’t know how to deal with happiness. It seems that Ajay has never been happy before and may have survivor’s guilt. We think he can, now that he realizes he can and has created sense of self.

The author wanted to make a “useful” book, so we discussed bibliotherapy. Some members of our group shared that reading a specific book helped shed light on their personal issues. Some found that they had no use for a book upon first reading but found solace in it when they came back to it years later. At the library, we strive to put the right book in the hands of the right person  at the right time. Test us out with JMRL’s personalized recommendation service.  

More Information:
About the author
Other works

Interviews with the author:
Irish Times
The Guardian

Recommendations
Lion(film) – place a hold on JMRL’s copy or come see it at Central in June
Green Revolution in India
The Reivers by William Faulkner  

Similarities to Birju’s care can be seen in the Audrey Santo case.

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