“The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.”

IMG_5862Brown Baggers met on February 15 to discuss The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Originally published in 2016, this novel focuses on the escape story of enslaved woman named Cora as she travels north on her search for freedom. The Underground Railroad was well regarded by critics and selected for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. It won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Whitehead used a literal train as a device to move the story and characters from point to point on their journey. This threw off some readers who thought it would detract from the other historical details present in the book and some found it harder to read as a result. They also were chagrined at the state of education in America when they discovered the gullibility of acquaintances — thinking the train was real because it’s called an underground railroad. Others felt it freed the author up to have such horrific realistic details if the main focus was fantastical.

The horrific violence kept some readers from reading continuously. While the brutality made them take frequent breaks and spread out their reading they felt it was very realistic and was well written, just a tough subject. They recoiled from the depictions of strong hatred and spite towards African Americans and talked about the seeds of racism that lead to such behaviors.

Talking about racism brought the discussion forward to the present day, allowing reflections on the horrific events here in Charlottesville during August 2017. Readers felt like the book’s popularity is due to the need for a reminder of what has happened historically as well as what may still not be resolved. They discussed the concept of African Americans and freedom — how free they are or feel like they are. Readers were impressed by those willing to help people escaping slavery on the Underground Railroad despite the near constant threat of death.

The key to the book was relationships, readers felt — mainly those Cora has with Lovey, Royal, and Mabel. Also mentioned was Cora’s relationship with herself and her similarities and differences from the antagonist Ridgeway, doing whatever they have to to survive. Readers were astounded that she had such a strong sense of self despite not being her own person. This sense of self allowed her to care for and defend her plot of land and continue forward and northward despite many setbacks in her journey to freedom.

More Info:
Interview with author
Author bio
Pulitzer info
National Book award info

Other mentions:
Twelve Years a Slave book by Solomon Northrup (as well as the film)
Birth of a White Nation by Jacqueline Battalora
Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander
The Underground Railroad (the other) by Charles Blockson
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (about a real life slave who stay in an attic)

Brown Baggers will meet again on March 15 at noon to discuss the JMRL inaugural Same Page community read selection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander. For a free copy stop by the Reference Desk at the Central Library.

“Beauty resides entirely in the crumbling city walls”

istanbul-orhan-pamukThe Brown Baggers met on January 18 to discuss Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk is a highly successful and influential Turkish author, who has won many awards over his illustrious career including the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature, given for his body of work. This book is a work of nonfiction about his home city, primarily focusing on the decades when he was growing up — the 1960s and 70s.

Many readers found Pamuk’s writing beautiful but still struggled to make it through the book saying it was tedious and grueling. They were discouraged by the melancholy and destruction themes Pamuk talks about. Although some readers felt these were descriptions of the people, especially the upper class as they lost their wealth, and not the place. Those readers that had visited the city felt a strong disconnect from the vibrant locale they remember seeing and the crumbling, dour place Pamuk describes. Some felt this may be just a difference in time period — with Pamuk describing his childhood in the 60s, and travelers visiting after the year 2000 when revitalization and development have completely reconstructed the city. They also speculated that the inclusion of only black and white photos in the book added to the gray feelings. Even so they enjoyed the photos, often described them as beautiful, and loved the glimpse into another life and country which they provided.

Readers who are personally acquainted with Turkish individuals commented on how they do seem reserved, which could be perceived as sadness or melancholy.

Many readers found it interesting that Pamuk lived in his family’s building his whole life. Some also questioned his ability to remember so much detail from his young life, but noted that he had a lot of help hearing stories, so it made sense even if what he was sharing were not his own personal memories.  

Despite the pervasive heaviness of the text, readers unfamiliar with Turkey were glad to gain insight into a completely different culture, and learn more about its history and the ongoing struggle to bridge the Europe-Asia divide.

Readers struggled to categorize the text. The library has it in the travel section, as it is very focused on a specific location and wandering about that place. The book suggests it should be in the history of Turkey section. And some argued that the place for it was in Biography with other memoirs. Obviously it has elements of all three kinds of writing, but a single identifying one was not recognized or agreed upon.

In the end readers agreed Pamuk must hold dear his home city since he continues to reside there, despite having lived abroad previously and obviously having the means to relocate should he desire.   

Other information:

Titles mentioned:
Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak
Palace Walk by Najīb Maḥfūẓ (about Egypt)

Reviews of Instanbul:
From the Telegraph
From the New York Times

PBS special on the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul
The popular song

Pamuk interview with the New York times:

His other works in JMRL’s collection.

Brown Baggers will meet again on February 15 at noon to discuss The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

Brown Bagger’s Book Selections

booksinlibrary_142020193The Brown Baggers met on December 21 to select books for the upcoming months (and eat tasty snacks). Many new and classic titles were suggested by members, but after only one round of voting there were some clear winners. Upcoming titles that the group will read include both fiction and nonfiction books.

Here are the upcoming titles for June 2018 through June 2019:

I was Told to Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet
The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
Friends Divided by Gordon S. Wood
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon

If you’re interested in joining the Brown Baggers Book Group, you’re welcome to come to the Central Library on the third Thursday of the month from 12-1pm and participate in our lively discussion. You can call 434.979.7151 ext. 4 for more information or send an email. Also, check out JMRL’s wiki for the book club picks from previous years.

The Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, January 18 at 12pm to discuss Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk.