“A Cavalier Evaluation”

81xSb00BWtLBooks on Tap read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich at Champion Brewery on April 4. We chose this 2001 title because of Ehrenreich’s scheduled appearance at the 2019 Virginia Festival of the Book, although she ultimately had to cancel. Her experimental examination of the working poor in American drew mixed reviews but engendered lively conversation. We all agreed that it was a shallow experiment: Ehrenreich was only in each job a short time, rented a car and had no children to support. She also relied on her social safety net, calling her dermatologist when she developed a rash cleaning houses but not understanding that a co-worker could not access health care for a more serious problem. Ehrenreich seems to be writing to a narrow audience, an assumed reader who looks a lot like her. She has an insulated, condescending attitude, claiming  “the Latinos might be hogging all the crap jobs and substandard housing for themselves as they often do.” Instead, she lives and works in primarily white areas, even ignoring large Hmong and Somali populations when living in Minneapolis. Her recent tweet about Marie Kondo doesn’t give much hope for improvement.

Despite these flaws, the book does spotlight the structural inequities that create generational poverty. We discussed housing costs that can eat up 50% of a family budget, exacerbated by the global economic collapse of 2008 and the hollowing out of large cities by investors buying real estate and leaving apartments empty. Ehrenreich certainly demonstrates how difficult it is to access benefits while working and we discussed how Jim Crow and other racist laws criminalized poverty. The American Dream is dependant on the labor or the working poor and in this instance, the book served as a window, since none of this month’s participants qualified. Ehrenreich’s own isolation serves as a good reminder that America is divided by class and it can be hard to get out of your own bubble. To that end, much like the old Tavern on 29, JMRL is a place where “students, tourists, and townpeople meet,” for free, seven days a week.

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Recommended Reading :
A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby K. Payne
Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land
Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus by Douglas Rushkoff

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“Moby-Dick of the tea world”

25150798Books on Tap read The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane  by Lisa See at Champion Brewery on March 7. Throughout the month of March, JMRL encourages everyone to read this title and then meet the author at our free event at Northside library on March 20th at 6pm as part of the Same Page.  

See frequently writes on Chinese-American themes, having spent much of her youth in L.A.’s Chinatown with paternal relatives. In this novel, she traces a young Akah women growing up in a rural tea growing region of China near the Thai border in the 1980s. Li-yan is raised according to traditional Akah customs, shadowing her mother the midwife. The local teacher singles her out for education in the nearest city, where her life is upended by her boyfriend. She gives birth to a daughter who is put in an orphanage and ultimately raised in California by a white couple. Li-yan packs a lot of living into her first 27 years while the daughter explores the clues (dark skin, a uniquely decorated tea cake) that hint at her biological parents. Li-yan and that daughter, Haley, work to find each other by the end of the novel.

The majority of our book club members liked the book. See packs in tons of information about the tea industry and the Akha people which we enjoyed as a window into lives we would not normally read about. Some readers thought that she could have done a better job weaving those details into the story instead of dropping in blocks of exposition. We were surprised to encounter the matrilineal and sex-positive Akah traditions. Coincidences abound but most of us thought they were within the bounds of reason. The ending wasn’t a surprise, and while a happy ending is satisfying, we speculated on the type of relationship Li-yan and Hayley would maintain back in California.

If this story inspires you to look into your own family history, check out JMRL’s online genealogy resources or set up an appointment to digitize your personal VHS tapes, slides, photos, negatives and cassette tapes.

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“I had Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi, the four of us sharing the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn, as though it was a bag of stones we passed among ourselves saying, Here. Help me carry this.”

27213163Books on Tap read Another Brooklyn  by Jacqueline Woodson at  Champion Brewery on February 7. Woodson, the current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and previous Young People’s Poet Laureate and National Book Award winner, is best known for her works for children and teens, often in verse. This novel is only one of two that she has written for adults. It follows August as she moves from Tennessee to Brooklyn with her father and brother, making friends with three girls and navigating black girlhood and New York in the 1970s. It too is written in verse, which struck one reader as genius to fit this complex story in in a concise, moving package. The format allows Woodson to be indirect, especially when addressing suicide, childhood sexual abuse and religion. Those of us who listened to the audiobook didn’t notice the format as much as those who read the print edition. One reader wondered if the dialog was italicized to emphasize that it was only reported to us through August’s memory.

We first discussed the title: what are these other Brooklyns? August and her brother are confined to their apartment when they first move in, and can only observed life on the street below. During the novel, she reflects on the Brooklyn she remembers and the one that her brother still lives in. There’s also the Brooklyns that become home to immigrants from all over the world.

Woodson herself grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness and August’s father introduces Nation of Islam to the family. August appreciates the order that the women of the Nation bring to the apartment but it is her brother who embraces the tenets and uses it to organize his life. August, in reaction to her mother’s suicide and the silence around it, becomes an anthropologist who studies death practices around the world. Despite their differences, the siblings remain realistically respectful as adults.

August’s mother’s death is itself a ghost in the novel. As a child she tells herself and her brother that their mother will return any moment. Her father tells her she knows what is in the urn in the house but never declares it is her mother’s ashes. As a teenager, she loses her voice. We disagreed if this was a literal lack of voice but either way, she begins to see a therapist. This is around the same time that her friend Gigi commits suicide, about which August feels guilt for not being a closer friend. We agreed that these events inspired August to study anthropology.

The book is specifically about black girlhood, but can be used as a lens to look at girlhood universally. The four girls describe their friendship as a forcefield against harassment and danger. Together, they say things to men and boys that we could never say as individuals. They protect and soothe each other and share joyous experiences. Despite her mother’s warning against female friendship, it is the thing that made August’s Brooklyn what it was. Gigi’s suicide, Sylvia’s teen pregnancy and Angela’s mother’s murder break the quartet apart. Years later as an adult August sees Sylvia on the subway but chooses to get off before they can speak. We were divided on the lasting strength of childhood friendships in our own lives, but it’s clear that these relationships were formative (and not often seen in fiction).

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Read Alikes:
Kwame Alexander
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Mislaid by Nell Zink
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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