“All I’ve done is give you a book,” she said. “You have to have the courage to learn what’s inside it.”

Books on Tap met outside at Champion Brewing company on Thursday, July 7th to discuss Rocket Boys by (Va Tech graduate) Homer Hickam. This memoir, published in 1998, is the story of a boy with a dream to build rockets, which was inspired by the 1957 launch of Sputnik.  Set in Coalwood, WV, a mining company town, 14 year old Homer has the support of his mother and high school science teacher, but a more complicated relationship with his father, who hopes to see Homer follow in his footsteps and work in the mine.  Corralling a ragtag group of friends, including the class “nerd,” Homer forms The Big Creek Missile Academy.   With determination and the support of many in the town and materials/skilled help from the miners, they manage to master the science of rocketry; so much so that they win a national science competition.

The story was made into a 1999 film called October Sky, starring a 17 year old Jake Gyllenhaal as Homer (with Chris Cooper and Laura Dern in supporting roles). 

Our readers generally liked the poignancy of the story despite not necessarily liking the writing style. It took readers back to the “space race” when US schools ramped up the academic curriculum due to fear that the Russians were ahead of the US.  

We discussed the dysfunction of the Hickam family and the secrets and hopes/dreams the mother (including her secret stash of money) and Homer kept between them due to the personality and strong expectations of the father.  The town was “at war” over its disparate hopes for the futures of its children.

A timely read as recent headlines suggest the US is potentially beginning a new space race with China?

Other titles mentioned:

The Coalwood Way by Homer Hickam

Hidden Figures by Margot Shetterly

The Great Santini by Pat Conroy

South to America by Imani Perry

Upcoming titles:

August 4th: The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

September 1st: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

October 6th: Kindred by Octavia Butler 

“We are all much more connected, related, relied upon, and dependent on each other than we know or will ever be able to comprehend.”

On Thursday, June 2nd a group of  Books on Tap readers met at Champion Brewery (following a power outage) to discuss Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness.  Published in 2015 and a National Book Award Finalist, much of this non-fiction work takes place at the Great Ocean Tank of the New England Aquarium in Boston.  

Those who listened to the author read the audio version of the book really liked it. They enjoyed putting a voice to their image of the author and pointed out that she read with such expression that they could feel how passionately she felt about each amazing creature she encountered, especially the octopuses. Everyone agreed they learned new things about octopuses and other sea creatures over the course of the book. Everyone was astounded by the extraordinarily short lifespans they have. We found the book approachable and very readable.

Some readers felt the book was shallow. They thought that the author was hyper focused on the various places where she traveled to research, and thought that she concentrated on relaying only her personal experiences of said trips. They wished that she would have delved deeper into specific details about their research and they wished she had included more how and why information about the various scientists who supported her on the research trips. In this same vein, some attendees felt that they wanted to know more about the meaningful relationships between the main characters she volunteered with and their relationships between each other. There was also the opinion that there could have been more scientific facts presented about the various octopuses mentioned in the book. Some readers were distracted by the meandering side stories and wished the author had incorporated more details and connectivity to the people she volunteered with at the New England Aquarium.

Readers felt the author did not address the idea of the octopus soul. They found the title misleading. This was a disappointment and they felt let down at the end of the book. One topic to ponder is the thought that it is wonderful that the book highlighted the incredible intelligence of the octopus but some felt sad that the author did not question the morality of keeping them in captivity in small spaces, at times, for the education and for the entertainment of humans. Several readers appreciated the fact that the octopuses who are captured to mate in aquariums on the west coast can be successfully and safely be re-released into the wild near where they were captured in the first place.

It was a passionate and lively discussion and we all left with the feeling that all creatures of the land and the sea are important and deserve support and  protection. 

“There’s nothing more peculiar than an octopus.”

Other titles, movies, and lectures mentioned:

The Overstory by Richard Powers

Mozart’s Starling By Lyanda Lynn Haupt

Joe Speedboat by Tommy Wieringa

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

The Octopus Scientist: Exploring the mind of a mollusk– children’s non-fiction book by Montgomery We had this book on hand for readers to browse through the photographs of various octopuses.

The Hawk’s Way  (2022) by Sy Montgomery

My Octopus Teacher currently available to watch on Netflix

Sy Mongomery’s lecture about the octopus Octavia on YouTube

Upcoming titles:

July 7th   Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam

August 4th  Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

September 1st  The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

“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