“Was Meg self-centered or what?”

mislaidBooks on Tap read Mislaid  by Nell Zink at  Champion Brewery on February 1. In this novel about identity, a young lesbian enters an women’s college in Virginia, marries her male poetry professor with whom she has two children, only to flee with their younger child to pass as black in rural southern Virginia. The family is reunited when the children cross paths at the University of Virginia. Zink uses a satirical, HBO-inspired tone throughout, although one of our readers felt it only developed later in the story. We all agreed that she is a clever writer, although many of the readers missed her literary references. For instance, the specifics of the “theater of the absurd” flew over most of our heads, but the phrase resonates on its own. Frequently, Zink rewards the reader who explores these references. In one case, it led one book group member to Paul Bowles’ Sheltering Sky.  

Peggy, aka Meg, would be the focal point of any movie adaptation. Somehow while raising two small children and later hiding out, she becomes well read. However, she is a terrible playwright (perhaps Zink’s own self-critique). She also sees herself at various points as a failed lesbian and mother. She often doesn’t measure up to the people around her. Their success seems to lie in exploiting others; her success is in the lives she builds.

Her daughter Mireille, aka Karen, is mostly a boring cipher, although the two year discrepancy between her real birthdate and that of her assumed identity muddles perceptions. We decided that the coldness in the relationship with her mother was due to the independence both need to cultivate while in hiding. Her best friend Temple is the most sympathetic, believable character. His struggles as a young black man from an impoverished school system set him up as a foil for Meg’s son Byrdie whose main talent, by virtue of being  raised by his wealthy father’s family, is spending money well. The confidence of all three of the younger characters vary, but none of them is as pre-occupied with identity as their parents.

The group debated the believability of blonde, fair-skinned Meg and Karen passing for black. Would people naturally make that assumption or is Zink exaggerating for satirical effect? One reader wondered if Zink, who didn’t start publishing until her 50s, was inspired by former Spokane NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal . However, Meg and Karen aren’t alone for Lee is also always putting on an act.  We then discussed the fact that the book isn’t really about its much-hyped premise of passing for black, but about race, sexual orientation and class differences.

The ending is incited by a drug bust at the University of Virginia, inspired by the real-life Operation Equinox. Here the tone shifts, becoming, according to some critics, Shakespearean. However, we concurred that the dialogue at end was terrible. This kind of absurdist, antic satire deserves a more unorthodox ending.

Was the novel as a whole satisfying? It provides no firm answers on identity and the ending is too pat. Zink favors social commentary over storytelling, making the book more of an intellectual experiment. Many of the episodes can stand alone as short stories, but we readers never knew where story was heading. However, we all admired Zink’s cleverness.

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Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

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“She murdered her entire family!”

5180ubrqqzlBooks on Tap read  We Have Always Lived in the Castle   by Shirley Jackson at  Champion Brewery on January 5. Starting at the ending, most attendees didn’t care for the novella. A few had read Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” but the majority had not read any of her works, especially her memoirs of raising her family. The revelation of the murderer at the end was not a surprise to half the readers and the other half agreed that it was obvious upon a re-read. A few readers were enthusiastic about the spooky tone while others failed to find a moral in the story. However, after learning more about Jackson’s own agoraphobia and ostracization, many readers appreciated the symbolism more.

And symbolism abounds. Taking her source material from a real-life crime in England, Jackson transposed the setting to her small-town Vermont and based the the sister protagonists on her own daughters’ characters. Indeed, the fictional sisters read like two sides of the same person. Child-like 18-year-old Mericat, her older sister Constance and their uncle Julian live isolated in a grand house outside of town. Dogged by rumors that Constance poisoned her parents, brother and Julian’s wife, the trio seldom receive visitors and Mericat is the only one to leave the grounds. Variously teased and shunned by the townsfolk, she resorts to  magical thinking and rituals to defend her property. Uncle Julian is supposedly working on a family history but repeatedly asks Constance if his memories are true. Along comes cousin Charles, whom the reader and Uncle Julian know is bad news, upending Mericats rituals and routines  and thawing Constance. Mericat’s reaction to Charles tightens the underlying tension until the house burns down (debatably Mericat’s fault) and the fire chief implicitly gives the gathered townspeople permission to ransack the once forbidden house. While the townspeople then react by bringing food and other gifts to the sisters, Mericat manifests their psychological barriers by enclosing them in the kitchen and blacking out the windows. The futility of their hiding and rituals is exposed by rain pouring into the kitchen and neighbors, formerly kept at bay, pouring onto the footpath along the house. One reader pointed out that this was Mericat’s use of the feminine power available to her, versus the masculine power of Charles. Another thought the towns’ reaction was analogous to society’s fear of young women’s potential and the impulse to cage them. We all discussed the fine line Mericat rode between insanity and eccentricity, the distancing her peculiarities forced on the narrative and  how much better the story would have been as a Young Adult movie franchise.

Finally, we wish founding member Emily best of luck in the new Vermont chapter of her life!

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About the author
Author biography
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Joyce Carol Oates on Jackson in the New York Review of Books
Upcoming film adaptation
Previous stage adaptations

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“I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

xmasBooks on Tap read  “A Christmas Memory”  by Truman Capote at  Champion Brewery on December 1. The highly autobiographical short story was first published in Mademoiselle when Capote was 32. In it, the narrator recalls the excitement of preparing and distributing Christmas fruitcakes with an elderly relative when he was about six in Monroeville, Alabama (the setting of To Kill A Mockingbird, where Capote grew up with Harper Lee). Young Buddy and cognitively-impaired Sook form a bond in opposition to the other, “responsible” members of the family and only make the fruitcakes for their friends, strangers all. From the couple with the broken-down car to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, these friends form a chosen family, all of whom have shown more kindness to the pair than the family with whom they live. These friends see Buddy and Sook as capable. The two screw up their courage to ask intimidating bar owner Haha Jones to sell them a bottle of liquor. Touched by their vulnerability (or reluctant to count out the many pennies the pair earned by squashing files), Jones gives them the liquor in exchange for the promise of a fruitcake. While we never learn how the other recipients feel about their fruitcakes, we do know that Buddy and Sook are fiercely disappointed in all family gifts, except the kites they make for each other. They didn’t want prosaic underwear, they wanted the glamor of the Baptist windows and the rarity of satsumas (oranges, but translated as plums in a Japanese edition). Earlier, we read The Strange Library by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, who likes “A Christmas Memory” so much he translated it himself. At the end, the narrator describes the lasting effect his relationship with Sook had on him and the rootlessness her death caused him to feel. Many readers found the ending sad, but others thought it was the natural course of a full life and not tragic. All agreed that the ending saved the story from full-on sentimentality.

Everyone who came to the meeting (which was held shortly after the anniversary of Capote’s Black and White Ball) enjoyed the story. Most people had not read Capote’s other works, aside from In Cold Blood, but some looked forward to his appearances on Johnny Carson’s The Late Show and one actually saw Capote on Fire Island. Our readers responded to the evocative first-person storytelling that celebrated real life, despite the economic  hardships of the Great Depression and the ire of other members of the household. Buddy and Sook work hard for months to accumulate the funds they need to bake and mail the fruitcakes, each dime and piece of tin foil taking on outsized importance. We debated the sentimentality of the story, whether it romanticized a difficult time, but others were able to overlook that because of the beauty of the relationship between Buddy and Sook. We all agreed that short stories require a different talent to celebrate “a lifetime in 20 pages.”

More Information:
A Christmas Memory movie starring Geraldine Page, narrated by Truman Capote (partial)
A Christmas Memory starring Patty Duke
“A Christmas Memory” read by Truman Capote
Two short stories also featuring Buddy and Miss Sook
Truman Capote and Nanny Rumbley “Sook” photo
Author biography
Capote on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (minute 45.52)
Other works

Recommendations:
American movie adaptation of The Dinner by Herman Koch

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