“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.

“A Cavalier Evaluation”

81xSb00BWtLBooks on Tap read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich at Champion Brewery on April 4. We chose this 2001 title because of Ehrenreich’s scheduled appearance at the 2019 Virginia Festival of the Book, although she ultimately had to cancel. Her experimental examination of the working poor in American drew mixed reviews but engendered lively conversation. We all agreed that it was a shallow experiment: Ehrenreich was only in each job a short time, rented a car and had no children to support. She also relied on her social safety net, calling her dermatologist when she developed a rash cleaning houses but not understanding that a co-worker could not access health care for a more serious problem. Ehrenreich seems to be writing to a narrow audience, an assumed reader who looks a lot like her. She has an insulated, condescending attitude, claiming  “the Latinos might be hogging all the crap jobs and substandard housing for themselves as they often do.” Instead, she lives and works in primarily white areas, even ignoring large Hmong and Somali populations when living in Minneapolis. Her recent tweet about Marie Kondo doesn’t give much hope for improvement.

Despite these flaws, the book does spotlight the structural inequities that create generational poverty. We discussed housing costs that can eat up 50% of a family budget, exacerbated by the global economic collapse of 2008 and the hollowing out of large cities by investors buying real estate and leaving apartments empty. Ehrenreich certainly demonstrates how difficult it is to access benefits while working and we discussed how Jim Crow and other racist laws criminalized poverty. The American Dream is dependant on the labor or the working poor and in this instance, the book served as a window, since none of this month’s participants qualified. Ehrenreich’s own isolation serves as a good reminder that America is divided by class and it can be hard to get out of your own bubble. To that end, much like the old Tavern on 29, JMRL is a place where “students, tourists, and townpeople meet,” for free, seven days a week.

More Information:
About the author
About the book
Other works

Recommended Reading :
A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby K. Payne
Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land
Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus by Douglas Rushkoff

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“We realize that we are as ourselves unlimited and our experiences valid. It is for the rest of the world to recognize this, if they choose.”

color purpleThe LGBTQ Book club met on February 26 to discuss Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning epistolary novel The Color Purple . The group was a mix of people who had read it years ago and those who were had always meant to read it. All of us were surprised, though, either by forgetting characters and sections or by not knowing what to expect.

We all loved Celie’s growth from a smart teenager being sexually abused by her father, then a young stepmother, being transformed by her relationship with the charismatic Shug and finally into a forgiving elder surrounded by her family. Walker writes beautiful descriptions of faith and includes thought-provoking metaphors like Celie’s pants but we struggled to care as much about the many secondary characters like Nettie, Mister and Harpo. The time period and location were vague, but maybe that vagueness makes the story universal and reflects the personal nature of Celie’s letters, which wouldn’t organically announce dates and world events. While Celie does forgive many of the men who wronged her and her loved ones, we couldn’t pinpoint the character development that would have earned her forgiveness. In contrast, Shug never asked for forgiveness, because she was always clear with people that she wasn’t going to change to meet their expectations. She wanted what she wanted and it was their fault if they chose to ignore her very clear boundaries.  Unfortunately, the ending landed flat for us, but Walker’s skills kept the characters alive for us long after we finished.


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