“The more I read, the more I became afraid of wars.”

Books on Tap met Thursday, May 5 at Champion Brewing Company to discuss The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai. This is a beautiful, compelling family story of love, sacrifice, and incredible pain. The Vietnam War traumatizes, wounds, and kills members of this family, but the intricacies of war are kept off the page, and are only discussed between characters after conversations that swing between gentle coaxing and frustrated demands. Where Quế Mai really rests her focus is on the internal war existing inside one very strong woman – Trần Diệu Lan, a mother who is narrowly able to escape her home during the Vietnam Land Reform, her six children in tow – for a time. The decisions she must make for those children as they journey were a heavy crux of our discussion. Which character elicited the most sympathy as this young family scrambled to survive? What is the mark of a mother, and is that mark indelible, or not? As we read about Trần Diệu Lan, we were reminded of the theme of motherhood found within Beloved

We learned a lot from this book. Many shared stories of friends, and in one case, a beloved husband who later passed away from Agent Orange exposure, who served in Vietnam and came home reticent, not wanting to share those stories or experiences. Some of the book was brutal: we gritted our teeth through a gruesome decapitation in broad daylight in the middle of the road and trembled as we read through the opening scene of the book: 

“Attention citizens! Attention citizens! American bombers are approaching Hà Nội. Sixty kilometers away. Armed forces get ready to fight back.” The female voice becomes more urgent. The sirens are deafening.

Shelter after shelter is full. People dart in front of us like birds with broken wings, abandoning bicycles, carts, shoulder bags. A small girl stands alone, screaming for her parents.

“Attention citizens! Attention citizens! American bombers are approaching Hà Nội. Thirty kilometers away.”

Clumsy with fear, I trip and fall.

Our readers were appreciative of what Quế Mai gifted to us because she chose to write in English: voice to the trauma and PTSD that exists in Vietnam as a result of the war and associated societal upheaval. What does history look like when written from everyday people’s memories? In this case, it includes stunning Vietnamese proverbs that many readers recalled as some of the most poignant lines from the novel. 

In conclusion, our readers would recommend this book. It was well-written and interesting, deftly moving between two different time periods, keeping us on our toes and paying attention – simply a good book. As one reader noted, “if you want to write a good novel, make it as hard as hell to read!” 

Other Books Mentioned: 

Wild Swans: three daughters of China by Jung Chang         

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien 

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen 

A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain 

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway 

Books on Tap will meet again on Thursday, June 2 at 7 pm to discuss The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. Email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. Our remaining summer titles include: 

July 7: Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam

August 4: Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

“Vote, but don’t expect it save you. March, but don’t expect it to save you. Pray, but don’t expect it to save you.”

Books on Tap met on Thursday, April 7 at Champion Brewing Company to discuss My Monticello by Jocelyn Johnson. Johnson is a local teacher and writer, so we were all excited to dive into this fictional debut, which is a collection of short stories plus one novella, all revolving in some way around survival in the often difficult quest for belonging. 

Our main point of discussion came from the fact that these stories are set in Charlottesville or, more generally, Virginia. We discussed how we think Johnson might feel about Charlottesville, and because there is such a strong sense of place throughout the book, we were also able to share our own thoughts and feelings about Charlottesville, and how the book worked to shape our own mental chatter regarding our town. 

We enjoyed the short stories. The first, “Control Negro,” was the most interesting to discuss. The professor studying racism in real time, in the most personal means possible, spooked and freaked out some readers. His character was certainly complex and sparked debate about hope, cynicism, choices, and legacy. While I won’t spoil details here, his decision regarding his familial ties ultimately foreshadows important discussions on race, privilege, and family that take place in the titular novella, “My Monticello.” For readers who didn’t catch that mirroring in their first read, they may enjoy going back and rereading the collection with an eye particularly trained to the black male characters – their choices, secrets, interior lives, and how they move through the world. 

Family was huge in this book, both blood family and found family, which leads us to the novella, “My Monticello.” We had to discuss the ending, of course! Some readers took Johnson’s ending and then tacked on their own final scene – and we could all agree that we did sense what was implied to be coming. But just because we know what is likely around the corner does not mean the story had resolution. Was the story resolved? And if not – was that even a bad thing? Someone noted that an unresolved story leaves room for you, the reader, to take control. Unfortunately, some readers felt like there was nothing to resolve. The action – from the madness of the white militia to the love-triangle-forming lovemaking – largely takes place off the page. For some, a premise that held so much potential felt like little more than a house tour and an interesting dip into shattering “Monticello mystique.” 

We read and discussed this book in Charlottesville. The events of August 11-12, 2017 are featured in My Monticello as life-altering memories. Less emotionally charged, there are references to our streets, landmarks, and restaurants. As Charlottesville residents, we read this book with a particular lens; that lens might be deep, shallow, curved, or fragmented based on our lived experiences here and elsewhere. The next question is: what do we get from this book if we don’t live in Charlottesville? We need an outside perspective! If you can offer such a perspective, or relay that perspective from a family member or friend who doesn’t live here in Charlottesville, chat with us in the comments! 

Books on Tap will meet again on Thursday, May 5 at 7 pm to discuss The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai. Email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. Come prepared to share book titles you’d like to recommend we read as a group! 

“We are not free. But we are not alone.”

Jefferson-Madison Regional Library Same Page Community Read is a reading initiative that “provides opportunities for book groups, classrooms, and individuals to explore the themes of a single book by an author appearing at the Virginia Festival of the Book.” This year our title was We Are Not Free by Traci Chee, a historical fiction young adult (YA) novel written as a collected series of sixteen chapters, told from fourteen teenage points of view, as young Japanese-Americans’ lives are changed by the mass incarcerations of World War II. 

Book clubs all around our service area read and discussed the book. As always, some members enjoyed the book, while others did not. It should be safe to say that everyone learned something, either from the book or from the conversation. Far from simply a hodgepodge collection of vignettes, and far from a dry chronology of events, this novel takes readers into the themes of community and belonging, especially as interpersonal tensions reach their tightest, sharpest points – many readers identified the intracommunity fighting and severance associated with the loyalty questionnaire as the rawest, deepest exploration within the book. 

Chee’s choice to include so many character points of view worked for most readers, as even in cases of collective trauma, there is no one universal experience. Instead, reading this novel was like revolving through a kaleidoscope. With so many personalities, quirks of character, and family dynamics at play, this choice to fictionalize Chee’s actual family history and use a multitude of perspectives also surely helps the book appeal to teens – each chapter is a manageable, bite-size narrative, and teens (and adults!) have many opportunities to see themselves reflected on the page. Many found Chee’s characters to be realistic and we all had different characters that we loved, connected with, and pitied. 

Readers also shared thought-provoking facts that helped us deepen our understanding of the book. One reader shared that the rules of the detention centers actually contributed to juvenile delinquency, because the degradation that parents experienced as they were usurped in power by the centers’ hierarchies stripped them of the authority their children had once seen as absolute; families also lacked the privacy necessary for teaching, correcting, and disciplining their children. 

We were all especially interested in the afterword. It was significant and filled with depth. For many readers, the Japanese Incarceration during World War II was not adequately covered in school. Some had never heard of it at all, and others remembered it being sanitized and whitewashed to appear like a picnic in the park. The afterword described Chee’s family’s experience in detention centers, and included a poignant explanation of language usage. One reader had never thought of “internment,” which is the term most commonly heard, as a euphemism, and Chee’s afterword gave him appreciation for how others not only experience the world, but experience words. We all know words have power! But sometimes we forget that words strike each of us differently. 

While the harshest criticism we heard was that the book was “definitely YA,” we noted that could also be a compliment – Chee, after all, set out to write a book for young adults. But while the writing sometimes felt juvenile, the book is a timely and relevant read for people of all ages. One reader told us this book is now counted as one of her favorite books of all time. 

If you’re interested in joining a book club at your local library, go to https://www.jmrl.org/calendar.html and use the features on the left side of the screen to limit the program offerings to book clubs. If you’d like to hear Traci Chee be interviewed by a JMRL staff member, listen to our “we are not free” podcast episode: http://onthesamepage.blubrry.net/2022/03/03/s-5-ep-7-we-are-not-free/.

Other titles mentioned: 

Facing the Mountain by Daniel Brown 

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson 

No-no Boy by John Okada 

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende 

Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne and James Houston  

Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban 

We also have compiled this reading list of other titles related to We Are Not Free