“We’s lost all the bases of civilized culture around here.”

tenorBooks on Tap read Methland  by Nick Reding at  Champion Brewery on June 1. While most of us  had watched Breaking Bad, we were not ready for the bleakness of meth addiction reported by Reding. He uses the town of Oelwein, Iowa as the lens while describing how and why meth became such an attractive drug to white working class people in the Midwest. Reding weaves together Big Agriculture, immigration policy, deregulation, and the need to work long hours at physically demanding factory jobs to explain why a stimulant would spread like wildfire. The reporting on the macro level was interesting, but the personal stories of Oelwein residents are what propel this book. The gruesome recountings of meth lab explosions, Tom Arnold’s sister’s rise as an international drug-dealer and the sincere work of the local doctor in mayor to revitalize the town are what draws in readers. Stories of deep addiction are stressful to read, but Reding spends a lot of time with those in Oelwien who are either in recovery or trying to diversify the economy. There is a certain entrepreneurial logic for those dealing meth. The nearest large city is 200 miles away, so cooking meth is one of the only ways to make a living wage without moving.

We discussed ways in which the US could combat the meth epidemic, from drug courts (in Virginia, treatment isn’t mandated) to living wage legislation to affordable health insurance that covers drug treatment to legalization similar to Portugal’s. Some of us found this book hard to read because for years the meth epidemic was hidden in the supposedly safe “fly over” states and that we on the coasts have a limited sense of life in Middle America.

More Information:
About the author
About the book
Author reading
Reaction to the book

Recommendations
Recent  New Yorker article on opioid addiction in West Virginia
Father/Son memoirs about meth addiction and recovery
Drug-related HIV spike in Indiana

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“Vanishing into books, I felt held.”

famBooks on Tap read Family Life  by Akhil Sharma at  Champion Brewery on May 4.  This highly-autobiographical novel describes the aftermath of an elder son’s accident shortly after the family migrates from India to suburban New Jersey in the 1970s. Birju, the teenaged son, nearly drowns and remains in a vegetative state for decades. To cope, his mother seeks out religious healers while his father slips deeper into alcohol abuse. His younger brother Ajay, the narrator, focuses on his academic success and turns to writing as a way to both escape his current circumstances and to create order in his own world.

While none of us quite understood why this novel won multiple awards, we were intrigued by its structure. Some found it stilted, while others thought that it accurately reflected Ajay’s personality. Sharma, who took over 12 years to finish the book and produced 7,000 pages, ultimately removed extra sensory description, what he called the “sensorium issue,” partially influenced by his early obsession with Ernest Hemingway. The tightness of the prose in the 224 page novel propels the reader along in what is essentially a plot-less story. While the lives of all the family members are defined by Birju’s accident, the story explores the full range of human emotion, not just sadness, isolation and anger.

The family had high expectations for their lives in America and Birju had just been accepted into a prestigious exam high school when he was found at the bottom of a pool. While the family’s expectations of may have been met if Birju hadn’t gone swimming that day, the parents may have divorced and Ajay may not have pushed himself so hard academically. Instead, the family narrowly focuses on Birju’s immense physical needs, bringing him home after he’s neglected in a nursing home early on. Providing in-home care was seen as a means of control, a expression of love, a reflection of shame and a type of trust in the family unit by readers. It also allowed the mother to deny Birju’s brain damage by referring to him as “sleeping,” inviting other Indian migrants in to venerate him and to bring  in various religious healers. While religion is frequently referred to, we readers didn’t get a full sense of what that entailed. While the mother can be compared to a Catholic martyr, one reader pointed out that in a crisis you do what you must day after day to survive but you don’t see how it shapes your life until the years have passed. We compared the scene in which the family, still living in India, receives their plane tickets to America to the isolated life that is their reality in New Jersey.  The entire community celebrated their migration, with constant visits and well-wishes. After Birju’s accident, their visitors are holy men or parents who bring their children to see Birju as a warning. The family not only made a leap in space, but also in time, coming from rural India to suburban America. The family, like other immigrants mostly knew about the United States from American films, which over-promised a perfect life.

Both the accident and the isolation leave Ajay as the second best son, and he has no close adults to mentor him or offer respite. He tells lies to gain attention and escape reality. On Christmas, he complains that “this shouldn’t be his life” and that he at least deserves a pizza. However, the teasing way Ajay talks to his brother shows real affection.

The book ends with Ajay thinking “I got happier and happier . . . That’s when I knew I had a problem.”  Earlier in the novel, his father stares out the window at snowfall, saying  “I’m so happy.”  While we believe both men were happy at the time, we wonder if they don’t know how to deal with happiness. It seems that Ajay has never been happy before and may have survivor’s guilt. We think he can, now that he realizes he can and has created sense of self.

The author wanted to make a “useful” book, so we discussed bibliotherapy. Some members of our group shared that reading a specific book helped shed light on their personal issues. Some found that they had no use for a book upon first reading but found solace in it when they came back to it years later. At the library, we strive to put the right book in the hands of the right person  at the right time. Test us out with JMRL’s personalized recommendation service.  

More Information:
About the author
Other works

Interviews with the author:
Irish Times
The Guardian

Recommendations
Lion(film) – place a hold on JMRL’s copy or come see it at Central in June
Green Revolution in India
The Reivers by William Faulkner  

Similarities to Birju’s care can be seen in the Audrey Santo case.

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“In defending himself from death, he lost his grip on life.”

2475251Books on Tap read The Cellist of Sarajevo  by Steven Galloway at  Champion Brewery on April 6. The novel follows three characters as they make choices while living in Sarajevo while the city was under siege from April 1992 to February 1996 during the Bosnian War. The titular cellist and one of those main characters are based on real people. Vedran Smailovic did play for 22 days to publicly protest the bombing of 22 civilians in a breadline. However, The Cellist of Sarajevo angered him. Galloway was inspired to create the character Arrow after reading an 1992 AP article about a 20 year-old female sniper.   In the novel, Arrow tries to distance herself from the murders she commits, while preventing a sniper from the other side from killing the cellist while he plays for  22 days at the site of the bread line bombing. Elsewhere in the city, Kenan risks his life to traverse the city to gather water for his young family and his cantankerous neighbor.  Dragan, who has sent his wife and son to live a few hours away in Italy, still works at a bakery, but has to live with his sister because his apartment was destroyed by a bomb. While most of the novel revolves around the interior choices the characters make to maintain their humanity against the backdrop of the destruction of their civilized city, the physical risks they take on their journeys throughout the city maintain narrative tension.

To begin the conversation, we tried to remember what we knew about the Bosnian war and the limits the UN faced in guarding civilians. We also wondered if readers in Galloway’s native Canada would be more familiar with the history because Canadian troops and leaders were heavily involved in the UN Protection Force charged with peacekeeping in the area. Galloway intentionally does not provide the reader with extensive background information about the Siege or his characters in order to expose the survival conditions that existed in the city and the basic humanness of each person in the book.

The destroyed buildings and infrastructure and the murders that the main characters witness while on the streets of Sarajevo underpin the randomness of war and the seeming powerlessness of humans. However, we discussed the choices that each of them make to reaffirm their humanity. Dragan both chooses to see the city he remembers and its current bombed-out iteration. He chooses both to be annoyed by his brother-in-law and to risk his life to ensure that a stranger doesn’t die alone in the street. Kenan chooses to gather extra water for his elderly neighbor and not to go into the hills like his friend. Arrow chooses to kill the sniper trained on the cellist, despite her initial hesitation and also chooses not to kill the elderly man her new commander demands she shoot. That man clearly has ties to Arrow’s enemies in the hills but she knows that the killing has to stop with someone and she would rather die than continue to be a machine of death. Continue reading