“To be confined, hemmed in, to have nothing to do, was unbearable.”

cvr9780671447540_9780671447540_hrThe Brown Baggers book club met on Thursday, April 20th to discuss Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough. This biography of Theodore Roosevelt encompassed his early years, including his family background and history, through his phase as a cowboy driving cattle in the west. The book described how the president “came to be.” The book only briefly touched on Roosevelt’s political ambitions and foray into politics, since Roosevelt had not really entered politics at this stage in his life.

Mornings on Horseback was rich with detail, which some readers really enjoyed while others thought this caused the book to be a little dry. For example, the author describes how Teddy Roosevelt suffered from asthma as a child and throughout early adulthood. McCullough provided a very in-depth analysis of the potential causes of his asthma and the treatment for it at that time, as well as how the family dealt with the chronic illness and how it affected different members of the family. When and how often Roosevelt had an asthma attack was also noted. Some readers thought this level of detail detracted from the story.

Readers were delighted to gain insight into Roosevelt’s early life. Some found it curious that both Teddy Roosevelt and his older sister had difficulty seeing clearly as children, but it took their parents many years to learn that they both needed glasses. It was also fascinating to read about the family’s vacations, which would last over a year and were quite lavish. Roosevelt’s years at Harvard are also documented. Roosevelt spent a considerable amount of money while at Harvard, about $2,400 on clothes and club dues in two years, “a sum the average American family could have lived on for six years” during that time period.

The author explained how depressed Roosevelt was after the death of his first wife, Alice- this is when Roosevelt spent several years in the Badlands on a cattle ranch. It seemed as if Roosevelt could not cope with the passing of his wife, so he left his sister in charge of his newborn so he could become a cowboy. Some readers were appalled that Roosevelt left his child in the care of his sister, other readers thought his way of dealing with the death of his wife was to leave everything behind and go out west.

Another point that was brought up was that Roosevelt protected and conserved forests, landmarks, and wildlife during his presidency, but killed so many animals himself. He was a hunter and sportsman since he was a child and by his own accounts killed hundreds of birds on hunting trips as well as bears, deer, bison, and tigers.

Some readers mentioned that they would have liked to know more about how the servants lived and more about their roles in the household. Although the Roosevelts had servants and traveled with them, there was little mention of them in this biography.

Overall, most readers enjoyed learning about Roosevelt’s early life and his family history. Mornings on Horseback described Roosevelt as a man who was always doing something, as he hated to be bored. The biography gave an extensive look at Roosevelt’s life before he became president and the events that helped mold who he became.

Reviews of the book:
From The New York Times 
From Kirkus Reviews

Interviews with the author:
Archive of Studs Terkel interview
The Paris Review

Similar Reads:
Island of Vice by Richard Zachs
The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

Next month the Brown Baggers will meet on Thursday, May 18th at 12pm and will be discussing Old Filth by Jane Gardam.

“Some things were inevitable. You’d have to be a fool to think otherwise.”

51k4tgddlulBrown Baggers met on March 16 to discuss Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones, JMRL’s 11th NEA Big Read book selection. Silver Sparrow follows the story of teen daughters of one man, but two separate women.  One teen daughter knows there are two families, but the other does not.

Readers discussed a variety of themes and characters in the book.

The main take away was that this story seemed to hit on the universality of family problems. While the family in the center of the novel is black, readers felt that their race wasn’t really the point and that the author endeavored to keep it as neutral an element as possible. Instead Jones set a family drama in  a neighborhood familiar to her which happens to be a primarily black neighborhood in Atlanta.

Readers went on to discuss what the notion of family meant in the story. They noted that non-blood related “brothers” James and Raleigh seemed to have a stronger familial bond than blood-related sisters Dana and Chaurisse.

Some readers thought James was neither good nor bad, because as humans we all make poor choices. But others felt he was definitely bad due to the discord he sowed with Dana and Gwen, although they sometimes realized this only later in the story. Some felt he was not as vibrant a character as any of the women. Readers suggested his fatal flaw was the lying it took to maintain his bigamist lifestyle. His value of family bonds and loyalty led him to make the decision he did at the end.

Speaking of women and their vibrancy, we talked about whether the girls confidence or lack thereof was a result of how their father treated them or having to share him. Readers felt more that the behaviors and attitudes modeled by the mothers were what ultimately had the strongest impression on the girls. Gwen being self sufficient, independent, and confident in her looks and abilities made Dana behave similarly, whereas Laverne being unsure of herself and condemning  of her own looks impressed similar behaviors on Chaurisse. Overall readers enjoyed the mother-daughter relationships.

One reader said it best when addressing the bigamy, “Sometimes you don’t do the most sensible things.” While readers enjoyed both stories, in the end they only felt sad for all the characters because no one ends up happy as a result of their decisions.

Mentions
Steel Magnolias play and film
Hair Story book
Good Hair film

Additional Information
Author bio
NEA Big Read website

Brown Baggers will meet again on April 20 to discuss Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough.

“I tried to divine which day the world became theirs.”

english_passengersThe Brown Baggers Book group read English Passengers by Matthew Kneale and met on February 16 to discuss it. There were mixed reviews among the book club members.

English Passengers was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction, won the 2000 Whitbread Book of the Year Award, the Australian Miles Franklin Award, and France’s Relay Prix d’Evasion.

This book is a historical novel set during the age of British colonialism and is told by about 20 different narrators. The story spans decades and follows two timelines, 30 years apart. In one storyline, a Manx captain and his band of rum smugglers have a difficult time off-loading their merchandise and end up becoming a passenger ship in order to pay fines imposed on them by British customs officials. Their passengers included a reverend who believed the Garden of Eden is located in Tasmania, a botanist, and a doctor who had sketchy views about the different races of men.

The book also followed the storyline of Peevay, a Tasmanian Aborigine, who was half-aborigine and half-white. The beginning of Peevay’s story was the time period when the British invaded Tasmania and started to decimate the Aboriginal population. The reader learns through Peevay what atrocities the Aborigines experienced at the hands of the British settlers. The two stories and timelines meet up when the Manx ship finally makes it to Tasmania.

Peevay was a favorite character of the book group. Book club members noted that Peevay’s narration had the best language and descriptions of events and really engaged the reader. Other members also enjoyed reading the captain’s storyline and how he managed his interesting passengers.

Other Information
About the author:
http://www.matthewkneale.net/

Reviews of the book:
From the New York Times
From BookPage
From Publisher’s Weekly

Similar Reads:
Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Morality Play by Barry Unsworth
Quarantine by Jim Crace

More Information about the history of Australia:
From the Australian Government
About British convicts who were sent to Australia
About Indigenous Australians

Join the Brown Baggers next month on Thursday, March 16 at noon for Silver Sparrow, the NEA Big Read 2017 selection.