“The truth was that lately, she had not had quite enough happening in her life.”

clockdanceBooks on Tap met virtually to discuss Clock Dance by Anne Tyler.  A dramatic change in tone from last month’s title, this story of an old women’s examination of her life during an unexpected trip to Baltimore to care for her son’s ex-girlfriend was pleasant, but few of the book club members could remember the details a few weeks after reading it. As a wise librarian once said, these books are like muffins – nothing wrong with them and pleasant while you consume them, but not something you’d rave about. 

So why did we like it? It was uplifting. The characters were vibrant and Tyler’s opening flashback grounds the main character Willa and her family and provides motivation for the decisions they make later in the book.  Willa marries two overbearing husbands, mirroring the go-along attitude of her father. Her mother’s volatility teaches Willa to be small to avoid attention and conflict. She has a learned helplessness, barely able to handle travel logistics for planes or cars. But Tyler’s writing is so clear, kind and funny that Willa isn’t pathetic. We in the book club were rooting for her to upend her life. However, after 200 pages, we get two ambiguous paragraphs about her decision to stay in her old life in Arizona or to move to Baltimore  to be with her new logical family who value her for herself and contributions and not for her looks or willingness to stay quiet. 

We discussed this book during the protests and uprisings in all 50 states in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmad Abrey and police violence more generally. Tyler sets this book in Roland Park, a neighborhood in Baltimore that, according to data from the last census (and borne out by recent estimates), is dramatically more white than the rest of the city.Residents of Baltimore as a whole are 63% Black, while only 7.6% of residents of Roland Park are. The Baltimore that Tyler writes about in this book is 99% white as far as we could tell. The book was a brief respite from the real world but didn’t help us to discuss the issues of race and inequity that are at the front of our minds this week. 

Books on Tap will meet again on July 2nd via Zoom. For information, please contact Krista Farrell (kfarrell at jmrl dot org).  We’ll be reading  Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. JMRL owns this book in print, CD, downloadable audiobook from RB Digital and downloadable book from Overdrive. Please contact Sarah Hamfeldt (shamfeldt at jmrl dot org) for help accessing these titles for curbside pickup or by download. 

More Information:

About the author 

About the book 

Interview with the author 

 

Next Meeting:

“The spider’s web is a home and a trap.”

there thereBooks on Tap met virtually to discuss There There by Tommy Orange. Using the perspective of twelve characters, Orange explores modern urban Indian life as they all converge at the Big Oakland Powwow. Together, their stories explore identity, generational trauma, expectations and survival. Specific life experiences are used to create a story that resonates universally. The title calls back to Radiohead’s song of the same title and Gertrude Stein’s quotation “there is no there there” in likely reference to Oakland, where she was raised. 

Orange confronts stereotypes of Indians and both dismantles them and examines their underlying basis. Orange uses his characters to prove that Indians don’t just belong to the past and that their stories extend past the history books. However, since he wrote the book for a Native audience, he refers to historical events that may be vivid for his intended reader but were unfamiliar to some of our readers.  He uses the example of the old television test pattern of an Indian man in a headdress to compare how the same image can be read differently. He likens it to a man targeted in a gun scope, constantly under threat. Some of our readers could barely remember the image from their youth and hadn’t given it any thought, reinforcing the idea that Indians are at best seen as historical stereotypes (a chief in a headdress) or are invisible, something to put on tv when everything else has been presented for the day. Locally, those threads converge in the Monacan tribe, just recently recognized federally, 400 years after whites came to Jamestown.  Orange does more delicate work with the stereotype of the drunk Indian. The characters are in the throes of addiction, in hard-won recovery, and harmed by addicts. We discussed how the author uses their stories to examine how generational trauma in the form of genocide and subjugation would make a population vulnerable  to all addiction not only to alcohol but to cocaine and opioids. We compared the uneven application of drug laws to whites and people of color in terms of cocaine and crack, opioids and alcohol. 

Non-Indian readers were expecting to learn of tribal traditions. Orange points out that continuing tradition is tricky. The young people in the novel frequently use the internet to explore their Indianness. Some don’t know their tribes because they aren’t in contact with their Indian parent. Others were adopted by white families. Still others are raised with and by Indians, but those caregivers chose to downplay their identity to shield their children from the racism that they themselves suffered while growing up. 

Story fills this void. We talked about the many ways that stories are used for survival. Dene is collecting stories from Oakland-area Indians, paying them to tell any story they want but almost always hearing painful stories. Jackie returns to AA meetings but is bored of the stories  repeated there. Orvil, Tony and Edgar quietly search the internet to learn about traditions that, had they been able to absorb them in a dominant culture that supported and celebrated them, would have insulated them from the identity cries they are in the  midst of.  As a book club member pointed out, we have an Own Voices author demonstrating the importance of stories told by and for a community. 

Everyone who attended found the novel moving and eye opening. We parted ways over the ending. Some found it frustrating, depressing and too violent while a few found hope in the ambiguity. The characters converge at the powwow, some reluctantly. A robbery turns violent and the chaos is rendered  realistically and arrestingly through multiple asynchronous viewpoints.  The scene is reminiscent of massacres mentioned earlier in the book and it isn’t at all clear who is still alive at the end. However, Orange is working on a sequel which many of us are eager to read. 

Books on Tap will meet again on June 4th via Zoom. For information, please contact Krista Farrell (kfarrell at jmrl dot org). 

More Information:

About the author 

About the book 

Upcoming sequel 

Interview with the author 

Similar Titles 

Sherman Alexie especially The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian and You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me

Here by Richard McGuire 

Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot 

 

Next Meeting:

  • Clock Dance by Anne Tyler (June 4)
  • Vote here  to choose titles for this summer’s virtual meetings. 

“Working in the hospital teaches you that there are only two kinds of people in the world: the sick and the not sick. If you are not sick, shut up and help.”

pasted image 0Books on Tap  held its first digital meeting on April 2nd via Google Meet. About a dozen readers joined us as we experimented with book club during social distancing. We discussed Hope Jahren’s memoir Lab Girl, an exploration of one woman’s life as a botanist and the struggles she has establishing and funding a scientific lab. Jahren is an accomplished scientist but also is able to explain complicated concepts to lay readers. She also is able to describe her mental health issues in an immediate and engaging way. 

Jahren alternates chapters about plant life with chapters about her own life, connecting the two as the book progresses. We noticed that the hyper focus that makes her at first an excellent lab tech and then an excellent scientist puts her at a disadvantage when dealing with people outside her orbit. Her greatest support is Bill, whom she first hires as an undergraduate lab assistant, and who then follows her around the world as she establishes her own labs. We discussed how this relationship didn’t always make sense to us and thought at times  it veered into codependency. Bill is the only person Jahren maintains a relationship with before she meets her husband. She rarely mentions her family after she leaves for college but dedicates the book to her mother. Was this Nordic reticence or was she estranged? 

Compared to her family relations, Jahren is an effusive science writer, creating an ode to learning by hand, as one book club member described it. We were encouraged by her final extortion to plant something while we’re in quarantine. Books on Tap will meet again on May 7th. For information about the physical or digital location, please contact Krista Farrell (kfarrell at jmrl dot org). 

More Information:

About the author 

About the book 

About Bill 

Interview with the author 

 Books on Tap Information:

  • There, There by Tommy Orange (May 7)
  • Clock Dance by Anne Tyler (June 4)

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