“How can I explain to anyone that stories are like air to me/ I breathe them in and let them out over and over again.”

woodsonBooks on Tap read  Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir-in-verse, Brown Girl Dreaming ,  on March 5th at Champion Brewery as part of JMRL’s community-wide Same Page initiative. Many of our readers were surprised that the National Book Award winning title was aimed at upper elementary and middle schoolers. We were taken by the descriptive, lyrical writing, and Woodson’s keen observations. She gives the reader rich descriptions with the fewest words, allowing us to generate vivid images  of food, gardens, and the homes she shares with her family. Would a lyrical novel, written in verse, have been easier for Woodson to read as a kid? The book works for all age levels: older readers appreciate the references to events of the 60s and 70s while younger readers encounter them for the first or second time. Woodson alludes to some difficulty in school which made one of our readers ask if this book would have been easier for her to read as a child. 

Woodson begins life in Ohio where her parents live close to her father’s family. While still young, her mother moves the children to her parent’s home in South Carolina. The grandparents raise Woodson and her siblings while her mother is in New York City until they are reunited in Brooklyn. Woodson tries to locate home among these places, detailing the love and support from her maternal family, the Jehovah’s Witness church, the friends she makes in Brooklyn, the Black Panthers she meets and even her seldom seen paternal family, who are descended from the Woodsons of Monticello. Change is constant in her young life, but she generously takes the best part of each, in contrast to other memoirs we’ve read lately which are much more cruel to the author’s family. 

A few of us listened to the audio book, which is read by the author, whose accent reflects neither her South Carolina nor Brooklyn accents. It was interesting to hear the emphasis she put on her poems when read out loud. JMRL will  feature poems from Brown Girl Dreaming during Poem In Your Pocket day on April 23rd. 

More Information:

About the author 

About the book 

Interview with the author 

Other works 

Links mentioned: 

Cale School Poster

MiddleLost poetry

 Books on Tap Information:

  • Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (April 2)
  • There, There by Tommy Orange (May 7)
  • Clock Dance by Anne Tyler (June 4)

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“The most frightening thing in the world is to discover the abnormal in that which is closest to us.”

woman in the dunesThe Brown Baggers met on Thursday, February 20 to discuss Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes.

Considered one of the greatest Japanese novels of the twentieth century, The Woman in the Dunes is a surreal, existential exploration of the individual in a modern, post-WWII society. Abe’s protagonist, who remains unnamed until the end of the story, is an amateur entomologist exploring the seaside for new species of beetles. When he is invited to stay with one of the villagers for the night, he is led down a steep sand dune to find a woman living in a run-down house half-buried by sand. During the night, two shovels and a bucket are delivered from the top of the dune and the woman begins to dig the sand that has fallen into the pit. When a ladder does not appear the next day to carry the man out of the pit, he realizes he is imprisoned with this woman and they must shovel the sand every night or else die of dehydration. In this nightmarish allegory similar in tone to works by Abe’s idols Franz Kafka and Edgar Allen Poe, the man comes to terms with living in a world of “ceaseless and mindless labor.”

Abe leaves much of the story’s ending open to interpretation and the Brown Baggers had a lively debate over the allegory’s lessons. The main character, who we later learn is named Niki Junpei, is a self-involved person who believes he can outsmart his captors. However, his arrogance slowly abates when he accepts to work for the greater good rather than himself. The group also questioned whether or not Junpei connects with the community by the end of the novel. Is he content where he is at or will he attempt to escape again? Some believed that now that Junpei has a routine and thus a purpose, he is satisfied with his new life.

The group was also unsure what to make of the character who shares her home with Junpei and is referred to only as “the woman.” They were confused by her erratic behavior and felt that her portrayal as a second class citizen, although accurate for the time period in which the novel was written, reads as outdated and misogynistic to today’s audience. 

Despite the lingering questions, many of the Brown Baggers enjoyed this challenging book. The Woman in the Dunes continues to intrigue with its mysteries and forces readers to question the role of the individual in modern society.

Film version (English subtitles not available)

Also mentioned:

Jean-Paul Sarte – No Exit

David Guterson – Snow Falling on Cedars

The Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, March 12 to discuss Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming.

“I don’t believe that blood makes a family; kin is the circle you create, hands held tight.”

americanmarriageBooks on Tap read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones on February 7 at Champion Brewery. Celestial and Roy have been married a little over a year when Roy is falsely convicted of raping a woman while they are visiting his parents in Louisana. After his sentencing, Celestial returns to their home in Atlanta and they primarily communicate through letters. While Roy’s life is on hold in prison, Celestial realizes some of the dreams they had made as a couple while wrestling with her duty to her husband, her community and herself. 

The beautiful ambiguity at the heart of the novel extends to the title, which we first debated. What made this an American marriage? Was it the fact that Roy and Celestial came from different classes and parts of the country? Was it their ambition? The human emotions portrayed in the exchange of letters (the strongest part of the book) are universal. It’s also particularly American in that it was America’s racism and prison pipeline that convicted an innocent Roy and robbed the couple of the chance to set roots in their marriage before it was challenged. 

They both had parents with strong relationships, even if they started with complications. The parents, however, were allowed to develop those relationships over decades and to learn from their mistakes. Each set of parents also makes sacrifices for their children both before and after the accusation. In fact, Celestial is only able to see the truth of her relationship when compared to the depth of Roy’s parents’ devotion. 

Celestial feels pressure from herself, her mother-in-law and her community to stay with Roy. However, as Roy says, the situation would never be reversed because there is almost no way Celestial would be incarcerated in similar circumstances. Roy is attracted to Celestial’s independent thinking but he is stalled in prison as her creative profession takes off and her personal relationships evolve. Unlike Penelope, she cannot wait unchanged for her Odysseus. 

One of our astute readers described the novel’s theme as forgiveness through Biblical interpretation. Part Two is entitled “Prepare A Table for Me”  which, in the Bible, refers to men having enemies all around. This can be compared to Roy finding himself surrounded by enemies as he faces court and wrongful imprisonment. It also could be similar to situations many Black Americans find themselves facing in mostly white America’s criminal justice system. At the end of the novel, in the last chapter told through Andre’s voice, our reader pointed out that Jones pairs the word debts and the word trespasses. These two words, in their opinion, point to the need to forgive in order to be forgiven. It’s clear by the end of the novel that although neither Roy nor Andre nor Celestial have committed a crime, they all seek forgiveness and need to forgive each other in order to be whole.

The author gives the characters what the same criminal justice system took away: time. Once again through letters, we are able to see time’s healing powers. Neither of them are where they imagined they would be when they started out but neither are they in the crisis that fuels the novel. Those last chapters allow the reader to savor the timelessness of the emotional journey.

 

More Information:

About the author 

About the book 

Interview with the author 

Other works 

 Books on Tap Information:

  • Same Page Community Read: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (March 5)
  • Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (April 2)
  • There, There by Tommy Orange (May 7)
  • Clock Dance by Anne Tyler (June 4)

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