“The indiscriminate reading of novels is one of the most injurious habits to which a married woman can be subject.”

dept of speculation coverBooks on Tap read Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill at Champion Brewery on August 2. The novel, short on plot but long on introspection, follows a writer who hopes to be an “art monster” as she marries, has a daughter, teaches writing in college and negotiates her marriage after her husband’s infidelity. Told in short bursts, it has been likened to an x-ray, drawing on the author’s experimentation with poetry during a bout of writer’s block. It starts in close first person, switches to third person after the cheating is discovered and then back to first as the husband and wife reconcile.

We all liked this witty rumination on growing older, knowing oneself and making compromises. Two of us listened to the audiobook and missed all the formatting (and thought we had missed entire chapters!). We didn’t think that the characters were particularly sympathetic but the narrator’s emotions resonated. Her desire not to lose her identity and drive after childbirth and her questioning of priorities accurately reflects life in middle age. However, the point of view is so narrow, it only serves to confirm that you can never truly know what happens in another couple’s relationship. The book contains all aspects of a full life: family, career, loneliness, romance, anger. Its format also mirrors how we communicate now, inward-turning short bursts with (inaccurate?) quotations of famous people. While the ending wasn’t particularly happy, it was happier and happy enough.

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“The reading and writing of fiction both requires and instills empathy.”

dearBooks on Tap read Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher for the July 5 discussion at Champion Brewery. Not only is it an epistolary novel, it is comprised solely of letters of recommendation from English professor Jason Fitger. Fitger, battling the college’s administration, construction crews, his colleagues, peers and students. Rarely are the letters positive and even more rarely are they effective. However, they are always funny.

Fitger had early success with a roman a clef about his time in high-pressure graduate writing program (The Group) but his later novels were met with poor sales and even poorer reviews. His ex-wife and girlfriend both work on campus and have aligned against him. The English department is a toxic hazard zone due to building construction and has next to no funding, meaning his one promising student may never finish his stunning revision of Bartleby the Scrivener set in a Las Vegas bordello. Against this backdrop of strife, Fitger emerges as a cynical, egotistical man who nonetheless defends the humanities and his best students with all the institutional power he has left.

We were surprised that the book, while gimmicky, was grounded and that Schumacher cleverly developed Fitger’s character and motivation. We all came up with a clear mental image of Fitger or his office and college. She also nailed the intra-department rivalries in academia. She also highlights the ways that liberal arts are losing funding and focus to STEM programs. Fitger defends a brilliant Slavic scholar who has lost his funding by asking “Where else can he go?”. While he rails against the ways that his college, and academia in general, doesn’t support the English department, he doesn’t offer quite enough support to the younger adjuncts who have to string together a career with multiple low-paying postings at multiple colleges.

The novel questions the role of mentorship. Fitger was the favorite of the charismatic leader of The Group and it was under his auspices that Fitger’s first novel was shaped and published. However, this favoritism and the way Fitger portrayed his fellow students in print alienated him from his peers. This alienation has consequences decades later. The women in the group refuse to support Fitger and the most talented member of their cohort cannot get published after retreating from writing due to personal tragedy. Fitger’s own mentorship of his students his suspect, as well. He’ll write almost any one a letter of recommendation, but often these are not actually helpful. Darren, the student he most wants to succeed, seems more like a reflection of Fitger himself.  Darren’s suicide was a plot point we agreed didn’t resonate. Due to its format, the book can only develop Fitger’s character, which meant that this cathartic moment fell flat.

Finally, we discussed aging. Fitger’s self-confidence seems to mask his feeling of failure. His later books were flops and we thought that he doesn’t have another one in him, which did make  his mentorship of Darren bittersweet. His love life doesn’t look like it can recover from its latest self-inflicted wound and has alienated many of his colleagues. In the end, it’s his tenured job and love of humanities that keeps him fighting the good fight via all those letters of recommendation.   

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“The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”

fahrenheit451coverBooks on Tap read Fahrenheit 451  by Justin Torres at Champion Brewery on June 7.  The group votes on the titles we read each period and this was our “classic” selection. Many of us had read it in high school or had watched the 1966 film adaptation (none of us has seen the newest HBO version) and recalled the basic outline: in the near future fireman Guy Montag burns books because they are dangerous, meets a young woman, rethinks society and his role in it and joins a band of outcasts determined to memorize and preserve literature as the government fakes his assassination. Throughout he is surrounded by citizens who use entertainment and drugs to numb themselves, making it easy for a political/military elite to wage a war that seems to destroy the cities in the end.

The group doesn’t read many sci-fi titles and this one was within our comfort zone. The wall-to-wall screens and omnipresent earbuds presaged today’s obsession with Facebook, Twitter, Virtual Reality and fandoms. The mechanical dog functions like today’s drones, complete with the paranoia of being singled out for constant monitoring and crime-fighting-through-DNA. Similarly, Montag’s wife Mildred is repeatedly overdosing and being brought back with little fanfare and with seemingly no harm. Not only was this a way for her to numb herself against the monotony of her life and to distract her and the rest of the population from the war, it also reminded 2018 readers of the current opioid epidemic.

We were most interested in Montag’s boss, Chief Beatty. He seems conflicted – he’s read and hidden books but daily burns them and those who hide them. It was unclear if he was currently reading books or had memorized some and was now just hoarding them as a display of power. Some of us posited that Beatty committed suicide by provoking Montag. We then considered Montag’s young friend, Clarisse. She is the one who exposes Montag to an alternative way of living, where people discuss ideas and sit on porches to meet with neighbors. Not only is she one of the few people to talk to Montag for any length of time, she is one of the few woman with a backstory.

Bradbury’s coda disappointed us. He claims that writers are splintering into ethnic, social and racial divisions but until recently sci-fi was notoriously non-diverse. It was hard to square this novel, a call to arms to preserve intellectual freedom, with his restrictive view of how writing should be presented.

What struck us most about the novel in 2018 was need for deep, sustained reading for pleasure as opposed to purpose. It is an antidote to our plugged in society, getting us out of our bubbles and exercising our attention spans. That led us to list the books that hooked us on reading as children and young adults:

Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Roald Dahl‘s works
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Cherry Ames series
Bobbsey Twins by Laura Lee Hope

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Read Alikes:
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
The Stand by Stephen King
A Gift Upon the Shore by M.K. Wren
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Mr. Burns, a Post-electric Play by Anne Washburn
This is America a music video by recording artist Childish Gambino

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