“In our finest hours, though, the soul of the country manifests itself in an inclination to open our arms rather than to clench our fists”

meacham.JPGThe Brown Baggers met Thursday, October 17 to discuss Jon Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. 

Prompted by his reaction to the Trump presidency and the violence that occurred here in Charlottesville in 2017, Meacham examines other critical moments in American history. A well-known presidential biographer, he charts the influence Lincoln, Roosevelt, Grant, Wilson, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson had during moments of crisis, from the military wars to the struggles to achieve rights for all Americans. He also profiles Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and John Lewis, suffragettes Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt, and Army-McCarthy hearings lawyer Joseph N. Welch. Meacham describes the way these men and women stood up to the prevailing sentiment to move our society closer to the ideals enumerated in our founding documents. 

Meacham notes that America has faced cycles of divisiveness, nationalism and racism before. His examples of anti-immigration, election interference and racial terror all have clear parallels to events in the news today. While honoring the pain individuals suffered, Meacham contends that each time, not only did leaders emerge, but individuals did what he encourages all Americans to do now: enter the arena (vote); resist tribalism, respect facts and find balance. This call to action ends the book on a cautiously hopeful note. 

Brown Baggers found the book approachable and clear and balanced. While we were familiar with most of the history highlighted, it deepened our understanding of each time period. It spurred us to talk about the current political divisiveness and dysfunction, the power of wealth redistribution and the shocking lack of agreement on facts. Meacham provides a framework for improvement, but doesn’t account for the fact that it is quicker to dismantle progress than it is to make improvements. The next generation of “angels” like the Parkland High School students and climate activists Greta Thunberg and Mari Copeny seem to affirm Meacham’s thesis that pitting hope against fear is the way to ensure justice. 

Mentioned:

Other Works

About the Author 

New York Times Review 

Fresh Air Interview

Meacham’s Time article on Charlottesville 

The Brown Baggers will discuss There There by Tommy Orange on Thursday, November 21 at noon in the Central Library and newcomers are always welcome.

“How do a million and a half people die with nobody knowing? You kill them in the middle of nowhere.”

sandcastle girlsThe Brown Baggers met Thursday, September 20 to discuss Chris Bohjalian’s historical fiction novel The Sandcastle Girls.

Bohjalian’s 15th and most personal novel is a sweeping story of love, loss, courage, and the immigrant experience set against the backdrop of the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923. Bohjalian weaves together two generations of the Petrosian family; there is Elizabeth Endicott, an American aid worker volunteering in Syria in 1915, who witnesses the atrocities of the Armenian Genocide, and her granddaughter, Laura Petrosian, a novelist living in present day suburban New York who uncovers the unspeakable tragedies her grandparents faced during World War I. 

In 1915 Elizabeth meets and falls in love with Armen, an Armenian engineer who has lost his wife and infant daughter at the hands of Turkish soldiers. Unable to stand by and watch his fellow countrymen die, Armen risks his own life to cross the desert and join the Allied forces in the Battle of Gallipoli. Elizabeth too refuses to be a bystander and forges her own path as she shelters refugees and negotiates with military officials. But it’s not until decades later through the narrative of Laura that the reader begins to understand how the atrocities of war stayed with Armen and Elizabeth for the rest of their lives.

Despite the difficult subject matter, the Brown Baggers appreciated the novel for expanding their knowledge about the Armenian Genocide, an event they knew little or nothing about. They felt Bohjalian realistically portrayed trauma, particularly through the refugee child Hatoun, and those who had immigrant parents could relate to how Armen and Elizabeth did not discuss their past with their children and grandchildren. Unlike some war stories, the diverse cast of characters in The Sandcastle Girls demonstrated there are good people on both sides of a war. 

Some plot twists and the romance at the center of the story between Elizabeth and Armen felt a bit contrived to some of the Brown Baggers. Others were a bit disappointed that the novel barely touched on the role of religion in the Armenian Genocide, but all were impressed by how Bohjalian, a male author, captured the voices of his two primary female characters. 

 

Mentioned:

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Midwives by Chris Bohjalian

An Interview with Chris Bohjalian

History of Armenia

Armenian Museum of America

Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial

Los Angeles Mural Commemorating Armenian Genocide

 

The Brown Baggers will discuss The Soul of America by Jon Meacham on Thursday, October 24 at noon in the Central Library and newcomers are always welcome.

“That was my fight: to continue to do little things for people around me, so no one would find fault in my demeanor and misattribute it to my religion.”

The Brown Baggers met on Thursday, August 15 to discuss Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut novel, A Place for Us.

place for usA Place for Us tells the story of a Muslim Indian American family and their close-knit community in California. The novel opens at the wedding of the oldest daughter, Hadia, where her estranged brother, Amar, also the youngest child and only son, has returned after a long absence. As Mirza goes back and forth in time and alternates points of view, the reader learns why Amar has been gone for so long and the ups and downs that led this family to gather at Hadia’s wedding.

The Brown Baggers had a generally positive reaction to the novel. One member remarked that it was the best fiction they had read in years. Others said they recognized their own family members in the characters and were emotionally moved when the point of view shifted towards the father. Some noted a few stylistic flaws in the novel that they attributed to the author’s young age and inexperience. One of the biggest criticisms was the novel’s unconventional structure. As Mirza weaves through the chronology of events and changes perspectives, the reader can get easily confused about dates and characters.

Despite these quirks, all were impressed by how Mirza captured the story of immigration, particularly how different generations of this Muslim American family assimilated. The parents hold fast to their faith and the old world. The children, on the other hand, feel more inclined to create their own identities and embrace the new world while still respecting their heritage. As a result, each family member relates to their faith and culture differently, thus revealing the power of community and the uniqueness of the immigrant story.

Mentioned:

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America by Beth Macy

Islamic Society of Central Virginia

The Brown Baggers will discuss The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian on Thursday, September 19 at noon in the Central Library and newcomers are always welcome.