“If we could talk to animals, goes the song.”

Books on Tap met virtually on Thursday, June 3 at 7 pm to discuss The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. A book written in second person (addressed to “you”) is rare enough, but Nunez adds an additional deviating factor by choosing to leave every human character unnamed. Our only named character, Apollo, is a huge Great Dane, who comes to live with the unpredictable and unreliable narrator after her friend of many years (Apollo’s master) unexpectedly commits suicide. 

It’s a novel that doesn’t read like a novel in many ways, because of the wandering discourse about “other things.” The novel does not plod through telling us “what happened” or chronologically transcribe character “action” or “plot.” Of course all of these phrases are being put in quotation marks because in the world of a novel, what isn’t plot, and what exactly is “other”? The interludes on dogs in heat, sex workers, and womanizing provided shock value; the discussions on the writing life and the seedy underbelly of status-obsessed writerly ambition provided bite and gristle (and aren’t these ingredients for an engrossing read?). It may be true that a majority of this book is words, sentences, and paragraphs that do not detail our narrator’s day-to-day life, but the conversational tone and fuzzy edges surrounding the “story” prompted one reader to say, as we were unraveling what the book is about, that the book is about storytelling, and all its roundabouts, and all its conflating visions, coincidences, and more. There is a story to tell, but you don’t tell that story, you tell another story. And isn’t that so often true in life, that we have something to say, but just can’t say it? 

The book, to many, was about writing. Many found the narrator’s voice on this subject to come across as pompous or showy: “look at me and all these books and authors I’m quoting!” Others rolled their eyes at the self-pitying tone: “oh, writing is such a challenge, but somehow I overcome!” On the other hand, we had readers who found the book, and especially the writerly quips and references, to be compelling and fun. We wondered if such a scorching assault on the writing life would discourage or otherwise dispirit any of our readers if they aspired to be writers themselves, but none of our members felt that way. We acknowledged that for every book that has a doomsday feel about writing, there is a hopeful book about writing (On Writing by Stephen King and Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck were two examples mentioned). 

And somehow, the book is also about a dog. Mysteriously we simultaneously had more than enough information on the dog, but also wanted more of the dog. We discussed the size of the dog and how it impacted the entire atmosphere of the narrative; we dissected how the giant animal could have dominated the narrator, but yet the relationship between them appeared to be the first relationship of true equality the narrator had ever experienced. 

Because the book was like a treasure chest of curiosities (in turn funny, depressing, witty, snarling, truthful, deceptive, and more), we each seemed to focus on different aspects of what we found on the page. One reader was reading the book for the second time, and was interested to discover that what she honed in on this second time around was so different from her first reading. Some of us were drawn into the taunting question, “does something bad happen to the dog?” while others were fixated on the drama surrounding her landlord and impending eviction. Some meditated on each literary reference and took the time to cross-check quotes, drawing out more meaning that way. Others picked up every detail about the life of our narrator as a writer, and still others found the relationship with Apollo to be most memorable. It was in this fashion that we came to grips with the ending: half believing it was a remarkable twist that changed the entire book, and half believing it was just another layer of imagination stitched into a highly inventive book. 

Books on Tap will meet again virtually on Thursday, July 1 at 7 pm to discuss The Library Book by Susan Orlean. Please email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details on how to participate from your computer or phone.

Other books mentioned:

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

On Writing by Stephen King

“The boys could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place.”

Brown Baggers book group met virtually on Thursday, May 20 at noon to discuss The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. The group was introduced to Whitehead’s style, which bounces between realism and fantasy, through The Underground Railroad in February 2018. This latest novel was more grounded in reality, without speculative or fantastic elements. Yet one reader commented that by focusing on power and control, Whitehead was once again writing about slavery — “writing about slavery without writing about slavery.” Here we have more layers of racism to explore: caste and segregation, “subtle” racism, “gloves off” racism. 

While Colson said he did not want to write another “heavy book” after The Underground Railroad, he could not avoid telling this story. It is based on an actual reform school that finally closed, after 100+ years of operation, in 2011. Readers will find brutality, reminiscent of The Underground Railroad, in The Nickel Boys — some laid bare on the page and difficult to swallow, and some left unsaid, but not unknown.

Elwood, Jack, and other Nickel Boys were not only subject to corporal punishment, hard labor, a poor education, and sexual assault, but also the psychological agony of living a false life at the Academy. The idea of falsehood was so compelling, readers remarked that it stood out as a central idea. There are people who are not able to live as their true selves. Instead they must preserve their true self (somewhere deep inside) through the ever-elusive protective goal of “fitting in with society.” A question that readers might ponder is this: what kind of life can be lived if that life requires deceit? Who in our own society are we burdening with the self-preserving obligation of deceit?

Elwood and Jack, described by Whitehead as, “two different parts of my personality,” are certainly nuanced, complicated further by their grim circumstances at the Academy, which some readers argue create allowances for behaviors/morality. Some characters, like Griff, sparked debate between members: was Griff a good guy with integrity and his own compass? A bully? Both? Some argued Griff was as good as he could be, given his situation. Others argued he had less self-control and was instead driven by mental limitations. We discussed who was a “good guy” and who was a “bad guy” and found it easier to pinpoint multiple villains: not only individual people, but also institutions. 

Power was a central theme of our discussion. Members noted: if you give someone overwhelming power, there is going to be abuse. It’s inevitable, because we live in a racist, prejudiced society. We were honing in on the degradation of the human conscience; that little voice that says, “you’re better than them. Those people are throwaways. They deserve it.” Without accountability, regulation, and checks and balances, shocking slips ensue. Some of the abuses we found in The Nickel Boys reminded us of the treatment of the Appalachia people from Go Down The Mountain, as in both novels, a powerful group took away the inherent power of human dignity from another group. 

One interesting thread of conversation we tackled as a group was how Whitehead treated women in this novel. The quick answer is that writers are sometimes penned in, given the subjects they choose to pursue — this was a reform school for boys, so the female experience wasn’t going to “fit.” But the more complicated question is: were women characterized “poorly” in this novel? For example, in a stereotypical fashion? As art teachers, wives, maids, and beneficiaries? As predictable, and predictably helpless, figures? 

Last, the ending. While there is nothing otherworldly in this book, the end was enough to upend all of our readers. It will not be spoiled here, but perhaps the following reactions will entice others into picking up the novel: 

Readers described the end of the novel as shocking. No one saw it coming, although one savvy reader did note one single clue that helped tip her off just the slightest. Another reader confessed reading the end three times, finally taking the third time around to really scour the pages at a snail’s pace, just to make sure her eyes were not deceiving her! We did have readers who understood the end logistically, but didn’t buy into the effect. For some, the way Whitehead chose to end the novel did not provide greater insight into the characters’ inner lives, plights, or quests, and instead they were left with doubts. In a way, this upended everything they’d previously known about a character, and forced them to rework a supposed understanding to accommodate a last minute puzzle. Others simply found it different, but in an interesting way. If you’ve read The Nickel Boys, what did you think about the ending? Will you share your thoughts in the comments below, without spoiling the ending for others? 

The Brown Baggers will meet again virtually on Thursday, June 17 at noon to discuss Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. Please email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details on how to participate from your computer or phone.

Books Mentioned:

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Films Mentioned:

Deadly Secrets: The Lost Children of Dozier (2016) – streaming on PBS

Links:

CBS Sunday Morning interview with Colson Whitehead on The Nickel Boys

Roxane Gay’s Book Club: How Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys” Is Not Green Book

NY Times: In ‘The Nickel Boys,’ Colson Whitehead Depicts a Real-Life House of Horrors

NPR: Florida’s Dozier School for Boys:  A True Horror Story

Wikipedia: Florida School for Boys

The Famuan: Survivor shares haunting tales from notorious Dozier school

Noor: The Black Boys of Dozier (photo essay) by Nina Berman

The Economist: How housing descrimination and white flight segregated America

City Journal: The Truth About White Flight

Chicago Tribune: Gentrification isn’t America’s urban scourge. Poverty is.

Public Source: New white flight and urban displacement: Study looks beyond gentrification  in Pittsburgh region

Atlanta Black Star: Gentrification: Reversal of Historic White Flight Is Creating a New Black Flight

The Atlantic: Chicago’s Awful Divide by Alana Semuels

“I won’t tell you what kind of man your daddy was. I’ll let my story do that and you be the judge.”

Brown Baggers book group met virtually on Thursday, April 15 at noon to discuss Go Down the Mountain by Meredith Battle. The novel promises to be a coming of age and love story, a story of family dysfunction and loss, and also the story of community: Virginia families displaced by the government as land is siphoned to create a National Park. Many of us have been intrigued by the chimneys scattered throughout Shenandoah National Park; these are the stately scars, all that remain of the countless houses taken and burned. Some of us have seen the resettlement house offerings in Madison county, still standing. The novel is close enough to home that we were eager to get started, and as we read, all of us enjoyed the local references littered throughout the narrative. And yet having the book set in our backyard was not enough to win us over. A majority of readers found this book disappointing, melodramatic, surface level, and at times, amateurish. 

That being said, we were disappointed for the best reason: we wanted to know more, and Battle’s story did not dredge deeply enough into the historical content promised to us as readers. We were not satisfied with the innumerable plot points meant to excite and shock us; we wanted to know more intimately about the experience of displacement, or the economic or social gains the state and nation had to gain from creating the park. We were fascinated by the Virginia Colony for the Feebleminded — just as we were intrigued by the snake charming, children begging in burlap, a state-abducted infant, shoot-outs and human-destroying dogs, and the love triangle to boot. There was plenty of intrigue here — but sadly, not enough deep-diving to quench our thirst for understanding, or our curiosity to know these characters on a human level.

While the sentimental among us enjoyed the loose structure of the novel — a mother writing to her daughter to finally reveal “the truth” of her lineage — we also agreed this strategy would have been more affecting if the daughter was old enough to find the box of letters herself. We could then get to know her as a character and witness the story twofold: as it happened to our narrator, and then how her daughter processed it. Not only would this have focused the story and brought more richness to the characters, as they thought about and interacted with one another, but it also would have introduced a generational element to the story, which many of our readers enjoyed recently in Red At The Bone

In the end, some of the Brown Baggers learned for the first time about the reality of families being forced off of their own land so that Shenandoah could be created. Some were not familiar at all with the devastating reality of being stripped of not only your land, but also your livelihood. Some were also introduced to the evil of eugenics and forced sterilization. We all agreed that this book — while not our favorite — is now driving us to pursue more information. As we continue to read as a group, a recurring comment is, “I never knew….” Month after month, we are unearthing truths that have always existed, but that are new to us. Whether we’ve contributed to the writing of history, or just ingested the often unilateral narrative, our reading is nudging us to find another version. Another version, and another, and another. We thank Battle for her story, full of twists, turns, and to her credit, one surprise after another. We also thank her for sparking us to read and learn more. 

The Brown Baggers will meet again virtually on Thursday, May 20 at noon to discuss The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Please email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details on how to participate from your computer or phone.

Books Mentioned:

Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia by Steven Stoll

“Answer At Once”: Letters of Mountain Families in Shenandoah National Park, 1934-1938 ed. Katrina Powell

The Anguish of Displacement: The Politics of Literacy in the Letters of Mountain Families in Shenandoah National Park by Katrina Powell

Writing Appalachia: An Anthology by Tess Lloyd 

Contrasted to books by Lee Smith

Links:

The Displaced People of Shenandoah National Park: a ArcGIS Story Map (sponsored by Greene Co. VA) – included history, photos, video, and modern interpretations

Oral Histories of the CCC in Shenandoah – collected by the NPS

Living In Virginia: The Iris Still Blooms (YouTube) – part of a video series by VA Public Media, this section covers the displacement

Shenandoah National Park Oral History Collection (solid state held at JMU) – part of an archival collection which includes oral history from folks living in the mountains before the creation of the park (materials accessible online)

Monument to Families Displaced by Shenandoah National Park Unveiled – Daily Progress

Blue Ridge Heritage Project Monument – Homepage (NPS)

Shenandoah Secrets: Pork, Propaganda, and the Creation of a COOL National Park – Lisa Provence, The Hook

Shenandoah National Park History and Culture – National Park Service

Shenandoah National Park: From Idea to Reality – National Park Service