“I never understood why people thought my color, any color, needed fixing.”

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On June 18th, the Central Library Brown Baggers book group met virtually to discuss
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson.  

The Brown Baggers took time to bid a fond farewell to librarian Katie Gorrell, as this was her last meeting as a facilitator as she moves on to other things back in her home state of Pennsylvania.

A work of historical fiction, the book tells the story of the WPA Pack Horse Library Project through the experiences of Mary Cussy Carter, one of the last of  the Blue People of Kentucky and a packhorse librarian. Because of her blue skin, Mary suffered discrimination from the community just as her African American friend (and co-librarian) Queenie did.  The local doctor convinces Mary to subject herself to hospitalization and testing to “cure” her of her blue skin.

Most readers were not aware of the Blue People of Kentucky.  Originally from France, these descendants of the Fugate family had a hereditary condition called methemoglobinemia  that caused their skin to have a bluish tint. This led to discussion of how skin color and other outward-presenting markers can form identity just as much as invisible things can, and how removing appearance is a form of erasing identity.

When the group chose and scheduled this title, we of course had no idea that it would be so timely with the Black Lives Matter protests and ongoing current coverage of the history of racial disparities in the US.

Several Brown Baggers expressed surprise at the violence of some scenes of the book, and the threats of attack or mistreatment against the main character. There was much conversation around the tone of the book, with some praising the happy ending, and others condemning it as unrealistic when compared to the rest of the book. Some readers also found the “love interest” element wrapped up a little too early.

 A story of poverty, prejudice and isolation, as well as the power of literature. In the end, most of the Brown Baggers agreed it was a good read, and the overuse of expository writing actually helped keep their interest, as the setting of the book is one not often seen on the page.

The Brown Baggers will meet again virtually on July 16th to discuss Dispatches from Pluto by Richard Grant. Please email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details on how to participate from your computer or phone.

Books mentioned :

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

Links:

Horse-Riding Librarians Were the Great Depressions Bookmobiles – from Smithsonian

University of Kentucky’s Packhorse Librarian Presentation (great photos!)

Interview with Kim Michelle Richardson from LA Public Library

The Brown Baggers will meet again virtually on July 16th to discuss Dispatches from Pluto by Richard Grant. Please email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details on how to participate from your computer or phone.

“My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”

educatedThe Brown Baggers gathered virtually on May 21 to discuss Tara Westover’s bestselling memoir, Educated. Westover describes her childhood growing up in the Idaho mountains as the youngest of seven in a survivalist family. Her charismatic but mentally unstable father mistrusts the government and Western medicine and Tara’s mother is a midwife with no formal training and healer who uses natural remedies to combat even the most severe injuries. Several of their children, including Tara, don’t have birth certificates, and while some of her older brothers and sisters attended school for brief periods of time, Tara never stepped foot into a classroom. While technically homeschooled, Tara writes that instead of learning mathematics or world history, she spent her days helping her mother prepare herbal remedies or performing dangerous work in her father’s junkyard.

When one of Tara’s older brothers leaves for college, she begins to recognize there is a world beyond the foothills of her mountain and soon longs for her own escape. She teaches herself enough to pass the ACT and secure admission to Brigham Young University with a scholarship. In fact, Tara is so bright she goes on to study at Cambridge and Harvard, eventually obtaining a PhD in History at Cambridge. However, as Tara’s education expands, she struggles to reconcile her family’s beliefs with the knowledge she has gained. As a result, her family ties begin to fray and ultimately reach a breaking point.

The Brown Baggers found Tara’s story fascinating but also upsetting. Her writing was, as one described it, cinematic and visually gripping. They were amazed that someone who grew up in such a harsh and controlling environment could not only escape, but excel academically, though some questioned her own mental stability as evidenced by her erratic behavior later in her memoir. One member pointed out that Tara’s story highlights the importance of having a mentor. At BYU and Cambridge, Tara’s professors recognized her talents when she didn’t think she was capable and gave her the support she needed when she found herself overwhelmed and alone. While most of Tara’s education, especially in her teenage years, was a solitary endeavor and devoted to learning from books, her mentors taught Tara something about her own self. 

The book raised a lot of questions about objectivity and truth, particularly in regards to memory. While some of the stories seemed too outlandish to be true, Westover acknowledges that her family members may remember events differently. Rather than take a dogmatic approach to truth, Westover openly acknowledges in the footnotes where accounts have differed. A lot of us could relate to having different recollections from, say, a sibling about something that happened decades ago and many of the Brown Baggers admired her commitment to objectivity. 

The Brown Baggers will meet again virtually on June 18 to discuss The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson. Please email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details on how to participate from your computer or phone.

Books Mentioned:

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

The Liars Club by Mary Karr

Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

Links:

PBS NewsHour:Tara Westover, author of “Educated,” sings a Mormon hymn

“At that moment, for the first time ever, I felt I’d become a part in the machine of society. I’ve been reborn, I thought.”

convenience store womanThe Brown Baggers met virtually on April 16th to discuss Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. A short but strange novel, Convenience Store Woman follows a thirty-something woman named Keiko Furukura who works at, you guessed it, a convenience store. Keiko’s family and friends believe she is stuck in a dead-end job, and because she hasn’t married yet, she must be terribly lonely. They wonder aloud, sometimes even to her face, why she doesn’t strive for more in life beyond her menial job. For Keiko, however, the store is her sanctuary. In the “real world,” Keiko is a misfit who struggles to communicate with those around her–a few members wondered if her inability to relate to and communicate with other humans was a sign of autism–but as a convenience store worker she can hide her eccentricities. Staff must wear uniforms without any jewelry, watches, or other accessories to identify them as individuals, and they are given “scripts” for interacting with customers. When her job is jeopardized, Keiko discovers she has no purpose in society outside of her convenience store.

Murata’s novel is short but packs a punch with its oddball characters and social commentary. Although Keiko is an oddball,  she isn’t necessarily a lovable oddball or innocent victim of her circumstances, as the Brown Baggers discussed. Some of her inner thoughts were disturbing, sometimes violent, and made her difficult to relate to or sympathize as a reader. She was, however, a lot more likable than her misogynistic coworker Shiraha who also struggles to fit in with society. 

Convenience Store Woman critiques modern Japanese culture, specifically post-capitalism Japan where marriage rates are falling and young men are hiding away in their parents’ homes playing video games. Some interpreted the novel as a warning against finding one’s identity in work above all else. In the novel, Keiko finds solace in the store because she is seen as “normal” for the first time. But is it better to be a cog in the machine of society or to embrace one’s uniqueness and stand out in the crowd? Many Brown Baggers pointed out these philosophical questions were raised in another book club title also written by a Japanese author,  Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes

Murata is an award-winning Japanese novelist who has published at least ten novels. Convenience Store Woman is the first of her novels to be translated into English and the Brown Baggers are eager to see her other works translated in the future.

The Brown Baggers will meet again virtually on June 18 to discuss Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. Email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details on how to participate via computer or phone.

Books Mentioned:

Ruth Ozeki

Kobo Abe – The Woman in the Dunes

 

Other Links:

Loitering in 7-11 with Convenience Store Woman Author Sayaka Murata

Sayaka Murata: ‘My parents don’t want to read my books’

For Japanese Novelist Sayaka Murata, Odd Is the New Normal

Catapult | A Cure to Feeling Like You Need to Be Cured: Talking to Sayaka Murata in Tokyo | Aja Gabel

“Normal”—What?: In Conversation with Sayaka Murata. Author of ‘Convenience Store Woman’ in Toronto