“Why feel bad about what you couldn’t change? Why not embrace it?”

On Thursday, April 1, JMRL’s Books on Tap discussed on Zoom Stephen King’s 2018 novel Elevation. Just 146 pages, this was a surprising change from the “typical” King book. 

Set in small town Maine, the main character, Scott, is mysteriously losing weight at a rapid rate, but yet looks the same and his clothes still fit.  He also is experiencing more energy and athletic ability as the pull of gravity lessens day by day.  He shares his physical changes with his retired doctor friend, but is resolved to let the situation run its course.  A subplot of the story is the town’s treatment of a married lesbian couple (Scott’s neighbors) who run a local restaurant. Initially Scott and the neighbor couple have a contentious relationship, but Scott resolves to win their friendship and help the town overcome its bigotry.  Suspense builds over the span of a few months, as Scott realizes that his weight will drop to zero; at which point he’ll “run out of weight.” With his small circle of friends, he plans his exit strategy. 

Two attendees recommended listening to the book, read by King, and the audio version includes a bonus short story “Laurie” that is not in the physical edition of the book.  For a few members, this was the first Stephen King book they had ever read.  We were fortunate to have two avid Stephen King fans who could provide more context on his huge catalog of works and make recommendations for those wanting to try some more of his titles.

Some attendees felt King over-simplified stereotypes, that the novella was plot driven, and that the characters were not fully developed. Yet other readers thought the characters evolved significantly in a short period of time.

Themes include: love your neighbor as yourself; it’s never too late to change; what matters most?; and, what do you fight for when you realize your mortality/time is limited?

Other books/films mentioned:

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Stand By Me (DVD) Stephen King film adaptation

Thinner by Richard Bachman (Stephen King)

Up! (DVD) Disney/Pixar

Under the Dome: A Novel by Stephen King 

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King

Playing for Pizza by John Grisham

Books on Tap will meet again on Thursday, May 6 at 7 pm on Zoom to discuss News of the World by Paulette Jiles. For the link to participate, please contact Krista Farrell (kfarrell@jmrl.org). 

Our upcoming titles: 

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez – June 3      

The Library Book by Susan Orlean – July 1    

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry – August 5    

“Man, you know how it goes. One day chicken. Next day bone.”

This month, two Central library book groups met virtually to discuss Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson, our JMRL Same Page author of 2021. Books on Tap met March 4, and Brown Baggers met March 11. This post examines some of the similarities and differences of those conversations, as well as information and revelations from the author. JMRL was fortunate enough to host Jacqueline Woodson for a Same Page discussion event on March 16. 

Red at the Bone immerses readers into the minds and bodies of a large cast of characters that span three generations. Woodson brings memory, history, and generational trauma and inheritance to life through her rich, poetic language. Readers can expect a nonlinear, layered narrative told through a collage of senses, presented in a taut, spare work. Plot-wise, Woodson writes with honesty, heartbreak, and immediacy about her characters (teenage Melody, her mom Iris and dad Aubrey, her grandparents Sabe, Po Boy, and CathyMarie) as they face sex, pregnancy, parenthood, education, poverty, wealth, and racial trauma and healing. Both our book groups noted that, though the work is fiction, they learned a lot from the book, especially about the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. Both groups were struck by the similarities between the Tulsa Massacre, which destroyed 35 square blocks of businesses known at the time as “Black Wall Street” and the razing of Charlottesville’s Vinegar Hill neighborhood. 

Books on Tap spent time discussing the title, identifying moments in the book when it was mentioned explicitly or alluded to. To be “red at the bone” may mean the person or situation is not quite complete — still in progress — like the bits of chicken close to the bone, that don’t quite get cooked. The words “red” and “bone” in close proximity made others think of emotional rawness and vulnerability, a person’s core truth and essence. One reader pointed out that the book deals with race and class, and how people are different, but also similar; when we get beneath our own skin, we’re all “red at the bone.” 

Brown Baggers focused on characters, especially Iris. Many identified her as the “main character” as she was the natural link between the generations (Sabe’s daughter, Melody’s mother). Some felt they’d had enough of Iris, but others wanted more of her, as she was one of the more complex characters of the story. Readers found the issue of Iris’ maternal nature (or lack thereof) worthy of discussion. Like other threads, Iris going to college was a gray matter — was she abandoning her daughter, or advancing herself? Woodson says, wholeheartedly, that Iris was not abandoning her daughter; she has the resources to make other decisions. 

In her discussion of Iris, Jacqueline said this: “You may not like her but you will never forget her. I couldn’t come to any of my characters with judgement, including Iris.” In fact, there is some Iris in all of us, namely, the hunger we see in her. We all have that hunger, and we either bottle it up, which may come back to haunt us as we inadvertently pass it on to our children, or we go out and, essentially, satiate that hunger. Woodson continued by saying: it’s time to look at our own dreams, what societal norms are at play, and how we’re responding. In reflecting, it seems that “hunger” may be an underlying feeling woven throughout the work (connect back to the title discussions, for example, which came largely from a discussion of food and appetite). Two chapters before the close of the book, we read Melody’s account of the day she was born: “And I remember when they finally placed me at her breast, how I latched on so tight and hard, there was fear in her eyes. How absolutely hungry I was once. For her. For her. For her.” (p.186). 

Moving out from Iris, readers considered Iris’ parents, Melody’s grandparents. Books on Tap questioned if it was right of Iris’ parents to support her, and even fight for her ability to be so separate from her daughter? We realized Iris’ parents didn’t push her to be maternal, they gave her an “out” — whether that be good, bad, or negligible. The Brown Baggers considered how Iris created expectations for Melody in her absence. As Melody was raised by her father and grandparents, we wondered if the expectation to be different — to not get pregnant — would result in Melody feeling pressure to not repeat history, or in resentment toward Iris. Once again, Woodson was having the same discussion. When an audience question came in asking if Melody was a “surrogate” for Iris (i.e. a do-over, as the Brown Baggers questioned/theorized), Woodson said no, Melody was her own person, not a stand-in for Iris, or anyone else. That being said, Melody is participating in the narrative, which is heavily saturated with ideas of legacy and inheritance, interconnectedness of family members, and tradition. Melody’s story — both her uniqueness and the way in which she carries the stories of others — continues the family line. Jacqueline also noted that in this novel, she was interested in shifting the idea of what family actually “is.” Jacqueline questioned: what is a broken home? and then noted, I’ve never seen a broken home; Woodson is challenging the assumption that single parent households and non-nuclear family structures are “broken.” 

Clearly, Red at the Bone offered plenty of fodder for discussion, from its energy, to its structure and format, to the characters, and the sweeping, consequential time period covered. 

Books on Tap will meet again virtually on Thursday, April 1 at 7 pm to discuss Elevation by Stephen King. The Brown Baggers will meet again virtually on Thursday, April 15 at noon to discuss Go Down the Mountain by Meredith Battle. Please email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details on how to participate from your computer or phone.

Books Mentioned:

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Urban Renewal and the End of Black Culture in Charlottesville, Virginia: An Oral History of Vinegar Hill by James Robert Saunders and Renae Nadine Shackelford

Movies Mentioned: 

That World is Gone: Race and Displacement in a Southern Virginia Town (2010)

Links:

1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Digital Exhibit

Oklahoma News 4 – Search for victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre expected to continue this summer

Zinn Project – May 31, 1921: Tulsa Massacre

“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