“Before the one percent, there was the four hundred…”

Brown Baggers met in person on Thursday, April 21 to discuss The Last Castle by Denise Kiernan. The book is a work of nonfiction about the Biltmore mansion located in Asheville, North Carolina – “the largest, grandest residence ever built in the United States.” Having recently read The Yellow House and The Dutch House, our group was ready to dive into more house-centric reading.

Similar to our other house stories, the palace takes on its own character. Our members’ initial reaction was a bit of shock, even disdain or disgust, at the opulence of the Biltmore and its people. Kiernan was critiqued within our group for writing extensively on the details about gowns and meals, but less substantially on most of the actual people living in the house. Others noted that the genealogy writing was tedious and there were far too many peripheral characters. The “name dropping” didn’t add to the story, similar to how including every single little bit of researched information didn’t contribute much, aside from legitimizing the subtitle: “the epic story…” Yes, this is an epic tale all right, and told in epic proportions. 

What we did enjoy was learning about the extensive planning needed to transform 125,000 acres of wilderness into a proper European-style estate, complete with its own chateau: the forestry, the landscape architecture. There is also the general intrigue that comes with reading a work of nonfiction. No matter how much you already know about a topic, there always seems to be more to learn. So while sometimes the facts and figures dragged, some stories were more captivating! One favorite example was the story of storing art at the Biltmore during WWII to ensure its safety during wartime. 

This was also a redemption story, with Edith at its center. We loved Edith, as she was the strong, forward-thinking woman, the one with all the brains, and the intelligent maneuvering to boot. In the end, Biltmore had a positive impact on Asheville, although it’s probably fairer and more accurate to say that Edith had a positive impact on Asheville. From promoting Asheville while traveling, to being a part of the wider community, and finding ways to stay true to her roots (she didn’t come from money). It was a happy ending to read about the good that came from the Biltmore, in the end.  

A few readers mentioned that the real treasure was reading this book before visiting the Biltmore. Perhaps a book club field trip is in order? Krista would be an amazing guide! 

Brown Baggers will meet to discuss Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez on Thursday, May 19. Please email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. 

Other books mentioned: 

Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe 

American Duchess: a novel of Consuelo Vanderbilt by Karen Harper 

A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Fowler 

The Gilded Age by Mark Twain An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew by Annejet van der Zijl

Brown Baggers Fiction/Nonfiction Pairings

The Brown Baggers book club is preparing for a new “season” of reading, which will begin in June! Each December we host a potluck party to celebrate a year of reading and to recommend and choose new titles for our next batch of books (June-May). We enjoy reading a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction, but in our most recent round of voting, the nonfiction titles were hedged out in favor of historical fiction. 

So we’re giving our members a bit of flexibility this upcoming year – if you find yourself at any point uninspired or uninterested in the fiction selection for the month, we encourage you to try a nonfiction companion title from the curated list we have below (or read fiction and nonfiction both, when you have extra time!). Come to book club prepared to share about the book you read; we believe we’ll have some really interesting dialogues as our fiction readers converse with our nonfiction readers. 

June: Passing by Nella Larsen

nonfiction options:  

A Chosen Exile: a history of Racial Passing in American Life by Allyson Hobbs

White Like Her: my family’s story of race and racial passing by Gail Lukasik

Black Lotus: a woman’s search for racial identity by Sil Lai Abrams

July: News of the World by Paulette Jiles

nonfiction options: 

The Way to Rainy Mountain by N. Scott Momaday 

Earth Keeper: reflections on the American Land by N. Scott Momaday

The Three-Cornered War: the Union, the Confederacy, and native peoples in the fight for the West by Megan Kate Nelson

Born of Lakes and Plains: mixed-descent peoples and the making of the American West by Anne Hyde

The Captured by Scott Zesch (we don’t own this book, but “Jiles wrote that much of her account of Johanna’s alienation is based on The Captured”)

August: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

nonfiction options: 

Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: an intimate history of domestic life in Bloomsbury by Alison Light 

Upstairs & Downstairs: the illustrated guide to the real world of Downton Abbey by Sarah Warwick 

September: The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey 

nonfiction option: 

The Sibling Effect by Jeffrey Kluger 

October: The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain 

nonfiction option: 

The Girl on the Velvet Swing: sex, murder, and madness at the dawn of the twentieth century by Simon Baatz 

November: The Paris Library by Janet Charles

nonfiction options: 

The Monuments Men: Allied heroes, Nazi thieves, and the greatest treasure hunt in history by Robert Edsel 

Americans in Paris: a literary anthology edited by Adam Gopnik 

Part of Our Lives: a people’s history of the American public library by Wayne Wiegand 

December: no book

January: The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

nonfiction options: 

Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country: traveling through the land of my ancestors by Louise Erdrich 

Rez Life: an Indian’s journey through reservation life by David Treuer 

Unworthy Republic: the dispossession of Native Americans and the road to Indian territory by Claudio Saunt 

Coyote Warrior: one man, three tribes, and the trial that forged a nation by Paul VanDevelder

February: My Monticello by Jocelyn Johnson 

nonfiction options: 

Documenting Hate: Charlottesville & New American Nazis (PBS documentary)

Beyond Charlottesville: taking a stand against white nationalism by Terry McAuliffe 

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello by Thomas Jefferson Foundation 

Black is the Body: stories from my grandmother’s time, my mother’s time, and mine by Emily Bernard 

The Fire This Time: a new generation speaks about race edited by Jesmyn Ward 

March: Same Page Community Read

April: Matrix by Lauren Groff

nonfiction options: 

Cathedrals and Abbeys of England and Wales: the building church, 600-1540 by Richard Morris 

Devon’s Torre Abbey: Faith, Politics, and Grand Designs by Michael Rhodes 

May: Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead 

nonfiction options: 

Black Silent Majority: the Rockefeller drug laws and the politics of punishment by Michael Fortner 

You might also enjoy a book about the Harlem Riot of 1964. Here are two options (unfortunately we don’t own either, but ILL is an option!): The Harlem Uprising by Christopher Hayes or In The Heat of Summer by Michael Flamm 

What great nonfiction books that would pair well with our fiction titles this year did we miss? Comment below to add your recommendations!

“Vote, but don’t expect it save you. March, but don’t expect it to save you. Pray, but don’t expect it to save you.”

Books on Tap met on Thursday, April 7 at Champion Brewing Company to discuss My Monticello by Jocelyn Johnson. Johnson is a local teacher and writer, so we were all excited to dive into this fictional debut, which is a collection of short stories plus one novella, all revolving in some way around survival in the often difficult quest for belonging. 

Our main point of discussion came from the fact that these stories are set in Charlottesville or, more generally, Virginia. We discussed how we think Johnson might feel about Charlottesville, and because there is such a strong sense of place throughout the book, we were also able to share our own thoughts and feelings about Charlottesville, and how the book worked to shape our own mental chatter regarding our town. 

We enjoyed the short stories. The first, “Control Negro,” was the most interesting to discuss. The professor studying racism in real time, in the most personal means possible, spooked and freaked out some readers. His character was certainly complex and sparked debate about hope, cynicism, choices, and legacy. While I won’t spoil details here, his decision regarding his familial ties ultimately foreshadows important discussions on race, privilege, and family that take place in the titular novella, “My Monticello.” For readers who didn’t catch that mirroring in their first read, they may enjoy going back and rereading the collection with an eye particularly trained to the black male characters – their choices, secrets, interior lives, and how they move through the world. 

Family was huge in this book, both blood family and found family, which leads us to the novella, “My Monticello.” We had to discuss the ending, of course! Some readers took Johnson’s ending and then tacked on their own final scene – and we could all agree that we did sense what was implied to be coming. But just because we know what is likely around the corner does not mean the story had resolution. Was the story resolved? And if not – was that even a bad thing? Someone noted that an unresolved story leaves room for you, the reader, to take control. Unfortunately, some readers felt like there was nothing to resolve. The action – from the madness of the white militia to the love-triangle-forming lovemaking – largely takes place off the page. For some, a premise that held so much potential felt like little more than a house tour and an interesting dip into shattering “Monticello mystique.” 

We read and discussed this book in Charlottesville. The events of August 11-12, 2017 are featured in My Monticello as life-altering memories. Less emotionally charged, there are references to our streets, landmarks, and restaurants. As Charlottesville residents, we read this book with a particular lens; that lens might be deep, shallow, curved, or fragmented based on our lived experiences here and elsewhere. The next question is: what do we get from this book if we don’t live in Charlottesville? We need an outside perspective! If you can offer such a perspective, or relay that perspective from a family member or friend who doesn’t live here in Charlottesville, chat with us in the comments! 

Books on Tap will meet again on Thursday, May 5 at 7 pm to discuss The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai. Email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. Come prepared to share book titles you’d like to recommend we read as a group!