“Standing in the doorway of the newspaper’s office, he watched the streetcar continue on its eastward way, and he knew that if he lived to be a hundred, he would never be more in love than he was now.”

fellow travelersThe Brown Baggers met on June 20 to discuss Thomas Mallon’s Fellow Travelers. The historical novel takes place in Washington, D.C. in the early 1950s when Communism and homosexuality were considered “enemies of all things American.” At the center of the red and lavender scare is Tim Laughlin, a young devout Catholic and staunch anti-Communist, and Hawkins Fuller, an older, sophisticated State Department official. The men engage in a secret affair as Senator Joseph McCarthy leads a crusade to root out Communist sympathizers and homosexuals in the federal government and Army.

Many of the Brown Baggers found the novel was a lot different from what they expected. They were familiar with the anti-Communism movement–some remember watching the McCarthy hearings on television–but they had no idea the federal government, even President Eisenhower himself through an executive order, persecuted gays in the federal government. Although gay people still face discrimination and prejudice today, the fact that they were once barred from federal employment demonstrates the impact of activism in past decades, such as Stonewall, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Some were overwhelmed by the staggering number of characters and names, while others were engrossed in the details. All agreed the novel taught them a lot about the time period and they were drawn to the love story at the heart of the novel. They were most sympathetic towards the character of Tim, who wrestled with an internal struggle between his Catholic faith and upbringing and the experience of his first love. Hawk, as his name suggests, preys on others and was an amoral and despicable character. For many, the most interesting character in the novel was Mary Johnson, Fuller’s co-worker, who was a revolutionary feminist figure for her time period. Overall the Brown Baggers thought the novel was an authentic portrait of human nature and appreciated the realistic ending that stayed true to the characters’ personalities.

Books Mentioned:

Advise and Consent by Allen Drury

More Information:

PBS Documentary, The Lavender Scare

Cincinnati Opera production of “Fellow Travelers”

Interview with Thomas Mallon

Interview with Thomas Mallon in George Washington Magazine

 

The Brown Baggers will meet again at the Central Library on Thursday, July 18 at noon to discuss Noah Trevor’s Born a Crime.

 

“Anna smelled the bay, its oily piers. Clusters of seagulls hopped at the shore like white rabbits.”

manhattanbeachThe Brown Baggers met on May 16 to discuss Jennifer Egan’s award-winning novel Manhattan Beach. The novel follows three intertwined characters- Anna Kerrigan, her father Eddie Kerrigan, and the gangster Dexter Styles. The book spans the end of the Great Depression through World War II. After working as a bagman for Styles, Anna’s father has disappeared and now, at 19, she has a job measuring small metal parts for the navy. However, after seeing a professional diver, she starts to train to become one. Because Anna is female, becoming a diver is very difficult and she faces a lot of discrimination.

On a night out with a friend, Anna meets Styles in one of his nightclubs and eventually through him, tries to find out what happened to her father. Styles has become a crime boss, owns several nightclubs, and married into New York Society. They become attracted to each other, and Anna becomes pregnant with his child. After Styles is murdered, Anna moves to California and with her aunt’s advice pretends to be a war widow. She later is reunited with her father.

The Brown Baggers had mixed reactions to this novel- some loved the book, while others did not care for it. Some mentioned that it was beautifully written, and that Egan really got into the minds of the characters. But others felt that the book was hard to figure out and that time shifting back and forth was disruptive to the story. All agreed that Egan did a lot of research for this novel.

A few people mentioned that the story line with Anna’s disabled sister, Lydia, was beautiful, and it really showed the love that people can have for one another. Others really liked Brianne, Anna’s aunt and thought she was an interesting character. And everyone liked the aspect of Anna working as a diver and women working outside of the home, (most of them) for the first time.

Books Mentioned:
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

More Information:
About the author
Review from The Kenyon Review
Women divers of the US Navy

The Brown Baggers will meet again at the Central Library on Thursday, June 20 at noon to discuss Thomas Mellon’s Fellow Travelers.

“All were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be. It was the nature of things”

bardoThe Brown Baggers met on April 18 at the Central Library to discuss George Saunders’ novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.

The experimental novel takes place in 1862 shortly after the start of the Civil War. President Lincoln’s son, Willie, has died and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery where Lincoln visits several times to hold his son’s body. Narrated by snippets of (sometimes) real, historical sources and fictional characters both living and dead, Lincoln in the Bardo explores the president’s grief over the loss of his son and raises larger questions about death, the after-life, and the human condition.

The Brown Baggers were divided between those who loved the book and those who did not. Those who really enjoyed the novel thought it was “extraordinary” and were drawn to the unusual structure of the novel. On the other hand, those who did not like the book found the format to be off-putting. They felt the number of characters (over 150!) was overwhelming and distracting. Some suggested the ghosts in the cemetery may represent the seven deadly sins, but felt the minor ghosts’ stories detracted from the story.

Despite these differences in opinion, all agreed Saunders depicted Lincoln’s grief in a very raw and honest way. They were moved by the relationship between Lincoln and Willie and the portrayal of Lincoln as he is overcome with sorrow and guilt for his son’s death and the thousands of soldiers killed during the Civil War. Many also commented that the book, especially the concept of the “bardo,” raised difficult questions about mortality, whether suffering is part of the human condition, and what lies beyond death.

Books Mentioned:
Neil Gaiman
Ulysses by James Joyce

More Information:
About the author
Review from The New York Times Book Review
Interview with the author in Writer’s Digest

The Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, May 16 at noon to discuss Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach.