“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

“Not all differences lead to disability. Some lead to exceptionality.”

Books on Tap met virtually on Thursday, February 4 to discuss Switched On by John Elder Robison. We began by sharing some fun, quirky moments from the book that strayed from the central narrative but were memorable nonetheless. We were all delighted to remember the passage in which we learned that Gene Simmons dated Diana Ross (who knew?). Not the kind of facts we expected to glean from this book, but as we quickly discovered, Robison is a Renaissance man, and rock and roll is just one area well within his wheelhouse. 

This memoir follows Robison’s journey as an adult participating in an experimental new brain therapy, TMS, to “understand and then address the issues at the heart of autism.” John had lived his entire life with one of the characteristic signs of autism: difficulty understanding other people’s emotions. Suddenly, emotions were inescapable — in other people and in himself. 

We were a mixed bag in how we enjoyed the book. Some liked the book, others hated it, and still others found some parts interesting and other parts hard to get through. One critique was that the book was filled with anecdotal stories and didn’t generate any new thinking about autism. Of course we had to remember that the book is a memoir and orient our expectations accordingly. The writing style is technical at times, almost hyper-focused, which is reminiscent of Robison’s gifts that allow him to be fully immersed in certain experiences: seeing sound waves, or into the inner workings of machines, for instance. 

If you were John Robison, newly diagnosed with autism, with the opportunity to participate in the study involving TMS therapy and a potential “awakening of emotions,” would you? This was one of the core questions we discussed as a group, which also led to discussion about involving minors, and what sort of support we believed should have been in place for Robison and others as they navigated potentially personality-altering experiences. The undertaking affected Robison’s relationships with family, friends, customers, and even people featured in his memories, and we all agreed that counseling and more robust social support would have been beneficial to Robison. Weighing the pros and cons would be tough to do, especially in an experimental setting, when the pros and cons aren’t even definitive. The book, in this way, created more questions than answers — food for thought. 

We also landed on the word “fix” that Robison used throughout the book. Do autistic people need “fixing”? Is it cruel, or even dangerous, to drive society toward a mythical “neurotypical”? Times are also changing…autism is understood so much more today, but questions still remain, and as understanding grows, the questions do, too. Questions about early interventions, misdiagnoses, and more. We don’t have all the answers, and neither does Robison, but we have our individual stories to share. There’s a saying that goes, “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Reading and sharing stories is how we can know more and support more people while honoring individual differences. 

Other suggested titles: 

My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor

A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass

The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang 

Funny, You Don’t Look Autistic by Michael McCreary

Explore more: 

NPR Interview Featuring Robison and Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone (from the TMS study)

Robison featured on PBS NewsHour

UVA Researchers Using Grant to Develop New Test for Autism 

Perspective Piece on Pandemic Mask-Wearing and Autism

National Library of Medicine Reading Club: Disability Health (lots of great links and resources here about ASD, development, and disabilities)

JMRL was able to acquire new copies of Switched On in paperback format thanks to funding from the NNLM Reading Club. Books on Tap will meet again on March 4 via Zoom. For the link, please contact Krista Farrell (kfarrell@jmrl.org).  We’ll be reading Red at the Bone, written by JMRL’s 2021 Same Page author Jacqueline Woodson (jmrl.org/samepage).

March 4 : Red at the Bone by Jacquline Woodson

April 1 (no foolin’) :  Elevation by Stephen King

“Parents always want to manage the narrative instead of letting kids write their own.”

The Central Library Brown Baggers book group met virtually on January 21 to discuss The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger. 

The Gifted School follows a group of longtime friends and their respective families: imperfect husbands, quirky kids, and one big elephant in the room — there’s a new, incredibly selective gifted school in town — who will be accepted, and who will be left behind? Admission into the school takes on more heft as each woman begins to associate admission with her own worth and value as a parent and person. These ambitious (obsessive) parents are willing to sacrifice anything: marriage, career, friendship, or more, to get ahead. 

The first half of the meeting was spent discussing the book; many members had lively tales to tell about their own experiences with children or grandchildren going through gifted programs or magnet/charter schools, teaching at gifted primary schools or elite universities, and living in communities that felt eerily similar to the fictional Crystal, Colorado. The balance of drama and familiarity had the group agreeing that the book was indeed “compulsively readable.” That being said, there were complaints about length, and questions about what really drove the novel through its nearly 500 pages. In addition, while there were dozens of characters, the world created still felt small and insular — and not always in a good way. 

Bruce Holsinger himself (a Charlottesville resident and UVA professor) was able to join the group for the second half of its meeting, and shared great insights into his research and writing process, personal connection to the plot and characters, and what’s coming next. We discovered that Bruce’s parents were both teachers, and his kids grew up in Charlottesville schools, identified as “gifted.” Bruce himself is a “recovering psycho soccer dad” (his editor forced him to cut 10-15 pages of pure soccer writing) — but unlike his character Beck, he never blew up on the field. When living in Colorado, his kids were not yet in school, but that did not shield his family from the “high pressure parenting culture,” which he said gave him a lot of fodder for The Gifted School, a book he actually began sketching out and pondering many years before writing the first two books he published, both historical thrillers set in medieval England. It turned out to be perfect timing; The Gifted School was ultimately published right before the college admissions scandals that made headlines in 2019, and according to Bruce, contributed to his own book’s buzz and success. 

Nearly 30 Brown Baggers completed a digital poll after the December “potluck” meeting, and the group’s next round of book selections was determined. The new schedule was announced:

Brown Baggers selections June 2021 – May 2022

June 2021 – Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

July – Tracks: A Woman’s Solo Trek Across 1,700 Miles of Australian Outback by Robyn Davidson

August – The Dutch House by Anne Patchett

September – A Perfect Spy by John le Carre

October – The Yellow House by Sarah Broom

November – My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

December – No book (selection meeting & potluck hopefully!)

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January 2022 – The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

February – The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

March – Same Page title (community read)

April – The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home by Denise Kiernan

May – Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Brown Baggers will meet again virtually on Thursday, February 18 at noon to discuss Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.  Please email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details on how to participate from your computer or phone.

Additional Links:

As relates to Charlottesville City Schools and equity issues

Holsinger’s conversation with reader of audiobook version

Potential TV series