“Who controls the past controls the future”

1984_coverIt was a lively and boisterous discussion when the Brown Baggers met on Thursday, September 21 to discuss George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984.

1984 has been a frequently challenged book and ranks as high as #5 for the most challenged books of all time- it has been challenged and banned in many US schools. During the Cold War, a teacher in Minnesota was fired for refusing to remove 1984 from his reading list. In 1981 it was challenged in Jackson County, Florida for being pro-communism.

1984 follows Winston Smith through his increasing distrust of Big Brother in the country of Oceania. Oceania has a highly structured class system consisting of the Inner Party, the Outer Party, and the Proles. The Inner Party made up the smallest portion of the population and held the power. Winston belonged to the Outer Party where he worked for the government rewriting history and was under constant surveillance, as were all the members of the Outer Party. Winston had grown tired of his life and Big Brother and wanted to join the revolutionary brotherhood to help bring down the government. And, he thought he found a like-minded person in a higher up from the Inner Party, but soon learns that he can’t trust anyone and that going against Big Brother has the harshest of consequences.

Some readers enjoyed the dystopian novel while others had a hard time getting into and finishing the novel. Many of the Brown Baggers had read the novel in high school and noted that rereading it now didn’t hold the same amount of interest that it used to. Several readers mentioned that the themes in the book- censorship, power structure, control of information- weren’t anything new.

Most agreed that the issue of language in the novel held great importance, for if you control language then you can control thought. However, one problem with language is that everyone has different ideas of what words mean, even when hearing something at the same time. Others mentioned that words can limit meanings and also be the “ultimate weapon.”

Overall, readers felt that Winston tried to be a heroic figure in the sense that he wants to topple Big Brother, but in the end he loses the struggle. Some thought that the novel was a warning about the loss of humanity.

Reviews and articles:
By Isaac Asimov
By the New York Times
Biography of George Orwell
Orwell versus Huxley

Read alikes and authors mentioned:
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Sinclair Lewis
The Giver by Lois Lowry
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Red Rising by Pierce Brown

The Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, October 19 at noon to discuss A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman.

“Extraordinary things are always hiding in places people never think to look.”


The Brown Baggers book group met on Thursday, August 17 to discuss My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult.

Published in 2004, the story centers around a teenager, Kate, who suffers from leukemia and her younger sister, Anna, who was conceived as a perfect genetic match to Kate. Having been required by her parents to participate in ever more serious medical treatments to save her sister, Anna finally sues her parents for medical emancipation when she is told she next must donate a kidney.

Most readers thought Anna was a very realistic and well developed character. They noted how her struggle to win her freedom from medical procedures she did not agree to was constantly at odds with her hesitation to harm her sister by doing refusing. This constant vacillation was very indicative of her young age, readers felt, and contributed to her authenticity.

Readers felt other characters in the book were not as well developed. While they understood the mother’s struggle, and thought her single-minded-ness and need to fix everything seemed accurate, she came off as a bit of a martyr. There were mixed feelings about the brother. While readers all agreed his behaviors were believable in response to being more or less overlooked during the medical and legal drama of the sisters they debated whether or not he would have reformed so quickly and completely. The father was a more unrealistic character, readers felt, since you don’t see his struggles the same way as the rest of the family. This may have been due to his tendency to avoid confrontation but it made him seem flat. The Campbell and Julia story line was deemed entirely unnecessary by readers.

The story has several narrators. This led a few readers to speculate about the ending before it was revealed due to who had a voice and who didn’t. While they didn’t object to multiple narrators, some readers felt the styling of the text was unnecessarily flowery (italics, different fonts, poorly tied in quotes). Mostly, though, readers felt Picoult handled the reveal at the end very well.

Readers complained that Picoult had some factual inaccuracies which made them disbelieve or struggle to get into the rest of the book. The inclusion of vast amounts of medical terminology related to Kate’s condition made it hard to enjoy the story for some readers. They also did not appreciate the perfectly tied up in a bow ending.

Reactions to the book were mixed – some readers enjoyed the ethical quandaries that were posed and others thought there were too many story lines and that the writing was a little formulaic. Overall, readers agreed that while the book is over-plotted and maybe not as substantial as they’d like, it is definitely worth reading.

Similar reads:
Family Life by Akhil Sharma (featuring a medically overshadowed sibling)
Corridors of the Night by Anne Perry (featuring a medical mystery and court case)
You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott (featuring a family focused on one child, an elite gymnast)

More information:
New York Times Magazine article about Jodi Picoult
Bio of the author
Other books by Picoult
Article about a similar situation involving the Ayala Sisters that may have provided inspiration

Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, September 21 at noon to discuss 1984 by George Orwell.

“I left Iran, but Iran did not leave me.”

reading lolitaBrown Baggers met on July 20 at Central to discuss Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. Published in 2003, this book chronicles the author’s experience as a secular professional woman living in Iran after the Islamic revolution in Tehran in 1979. She became increasingly marginalized at her job as a university professor and as a woman in Iran. When she finally couldn’t teach anymore she began an in-home class for her a group of her female students which inspired the title. Among other titles, this group read and discussed Nabokov’s classic Lolita.

Readers definitely felt the title was strategic. Lolita is a notably risqué book and Iran a notably conservative country. The suggestion of mixing the two may have piqued more interest than, as one reader observed, a title such as Reading The Great Gatsby in Tehran might have.

Readers enjoyed Nafisi’s compassion for her students, designing this one final class for them even while they could no longer work at or attend the university. That she worked to keep in touch with these women over many years and stay up-to-date on their lives proved her dedication, which readers admired.

The women in Nafisi’s group also engaged in small subversive acts to help them deal with the oppressiveness of the regime. This included leaving wisps of hair outside their veils and wearing gloves which hid forbidden nail polish. Readers felt the girls engaged in these small acts of rebellion because they couldn’t engage in larger regime changing measures.

Largely this book discussed how fiction, especially Western fiction, helped these women focus on possibilities outside the limits of their restrictions and hope for more — even if it was an idealized version of the West which they were reading about.


A panel from Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi


Similar Titles
Persepolis and Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi
Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer
The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloane

More Information
Interview with the author
Video of the author:

List of books referenced in this book
Other titles by Nafisi

Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, August 17 at noon to discuss My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult.