“We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it.”

Brown Baggers book club met virtually on Thursday, August 19 to discuss The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. One of Patchett’s strengths is her ability to use setting creatively. Her settings push and pull characters, or they transcend into characters themselves. They are more than the where and when; the setting of each novel is as powerful as the plot, capable of influencing character behavior, affecting dialogue and tone, and shaping reader expectations, beliefs, and biases. Imagine reading Bel Canto, State of Wonder, The Magician’s Assistant, or even Truth and Beauty in another setting. These are not stories that could have happened just anywhere, and The Dutch House is no different. In this novel, the titular house (and buildings and architecture at large) takes on a new dimension — it is plot, setting, and character, all three — and also the passion, compulsion, addiction, and dysfunction that drives so much of the book.

As much as Patchett brings the house to life, the characters who live inside are the heart of the story. As one reader put it, “Ann Patchett tells the story of people. You don’t have to try to figure out what will happen, you just flow along.” Like a fairy tale, this book includes housekeepers and cooks, an absent mother, distant father, and evil stepmother, plus a pair of stepsisters. These are the spokes of life around Danny and Maeve, who, though seven years apart in age, align themselves to each other before all else. Together, they navigate what it means to be rich and also peculiar, and then poor, the vindictive blood in their hearts keeping them hotly alive. While their wounds may come from abandonment by their mother or dismissiveness by their stepmother, they park in front of the Dutch House and look at it, all the way through, and believe they are seeing clearly what they have lost. 

We talked about the house, and after making a long list of descriptors, we concluded that the house was like two sides of a coin: super light, almost crystalline, and super dark, shadowy and villainous. The novel is circular, with Danny following in his father’s footsteps, repeating history in both his successes and failures. There is a feeling of coming full circle as Maeve’s portrait, an imitation of the grand Dutch VanHoebeek portraits, finds new life in a newer generation. In the push and pull of competition between Danny and his stepsisters, readers feel as if they are watching certain actions around and around again. The circular nature of the story, layered over the house, light and dark, feels like night and day. Death and life. The house is as complicated as any human character in the book; it is beloved by some and hated by others, a source of secrets, and yet the only place in the world that feels truly known. It is a symbol of greed, but also innocence. It’s all jumbled together, like a snowball rolled down a hill, growing larger and larger.

We talked extensively about Elna and how we judged her. Some were baffled by her character, failing to see any love for Cyril, her husband, or her own children. When it came to her leaving the children, some cut her slack because the children were so cared for, even without her. Others had trouble forgiving her. Reflecting on our conversation of Elna, compared to our conversation of Andrea, it’s fascinating how when a mother leaves her family, we feel the need to discuss if she was right or wrong. We feel the need to form an opinion, and then also tease apart what the author’s opinion might be (for the record, we concluded that Patchett portrays Elna’s actions very objectively). We connected Elna’s storyline to Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler. 

But Andrea, who spends much more time on the page, and makes decisions that affect the children with more frequency, if not with more force, is not the object of our scrutiny. It would be really interesting to consider if any of Andrea’s decisions — perhaps what she did to Maeve involving the window seat, for example — might have come close to the effect Elna had on her children. Who’s to say that all of Andrea’s slights and wounds might not add up to Elna’s life changing decision? After all, in Maeve and Danny’s minds, Andrea is the evil stepmother. All we had to say about Andrea was that for one reader, she was the favorite character (a “love to hate” character). 

This is the only Ann Patchett novel written in first person, and we discussed the experience of relying on Danny, who declares himself early on, “asleep to the world.” We see the influence of parents in this story (good, bad, or indifferent) but we do not get inside their heads. This might have been frustrating at times, but clearly created the perfect balance of mystery and omission to keep us hooked as readers. 

While this novel was unanimously enjoyed (our hour-long discussion featured almost no complaints), almost every person in attendance had other Patchett novels they had loved, as well as Patchett novels they had hated. Some loved Run, others hated Run (and so on, with almost every book she’d written). It stands to reason — while Patchett’s signature as an author is consistent, each book has its own flavor. If you read an Ann Patchett book and you’re not sure about it, try another! You just may fall in love. You could also try the audiobook version of The Dutch House, which is not simply “read,” but rather “performed” by none other than Tom Hanks. Indeed, those who listened to the book on audio raved about it, saying that Hanks really disappears into the story. He truly becomes Danny. Sound off in the comments: what’s your favorite (and least favorite) Ann Patchett novel?  

Brown Baggers will meet to discuss A Perfect Spy by John Le Carré on Thursday, September 16. Please email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. 

Links:

‘Ann Patchett: “We’re so embarrassed by grief. It’s so strange”’ by Hannah Beckerman for The Guardian

Books Mentioned: 

Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler

The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett

Taft by Ann Patchett

The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Truth and Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett

Run by Ann Patchett

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

What Now? by Ann Patchett

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

“On the far side. What if it’s just…noise?”

Books on Tap met (in person!) at Champion Brewing Company on Thursday, August 5 to discuss Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry. 

The two main characters, Charlie and Maurice, partners in crime, have lived lives of violence, licentiousness, addiction, theft, and threat. They lived lives in which their “job” became their lifestyle, as often happens when the “job” exists in a dark underbelly of a world — when you turn to the illicit, it becomes harder and harder to separate work from play. This character-plot trope was our first source of discussion: many members didn’t like the characters themselves, or even the experience of reading, but once the book was finished, liked it more. The experience of reflecting on the book was, for many, more enjoyable than the book itself. This was also because of the dialogue, which, while humorous and broodingly dark, was colloquial (heavily Irish-dialect), and may have required a dictionary. Some readers absolutely loved the book, even comparing it to Hemingway, with its spare writing and its quietly gripping premise. We also compared this novel to Samuel Beckett, especially “Waiting for Godot.”

We discussed how the process of aging looked in this book, for Maurice and Charlie, but also for Dilly, the estranged daughter. Maurice and Charlie, two “aging Irishmen,” spend the present-tense portion of the novel sitting in a ferry terminal, waiting and hoping to see Dilly. The passiveness of simply waiting and hoping, the harsh reality of all they went through as criminals, and the prevalence of memory within the narrative, all combine to create a worn-weathered feeling for these two men. One member recalled questioning with a laugh, “since when is 50 old?!” and other members chimed in that the characters felt “spent”…much older than their chronological age. The interesting dynamic of premature aging had other members wondering what a sequel could look like for these two characters. What do you do when you’re fifty years old and you’ve already lived through enough hardship and danger for multiple lifetimes?  

As for Dilly, some exclaimed she was just a baby in all of this, while others argued she was a legal adult and a grown woman. She was on the cusp between adolescence and adulthood, a precarious age that can be interpreted in various ways, especially when the character has lived a life like Dilly’s: a complicated trajectory of danger and abandonment, as well as trauma and strength. This led us to discuss when we first really felt like adults. Pivotal moments such as escaping a childhood hometown, getting married, and having a baby were all cited as moments that kickstarted a transition into adulthood for us.

Along with aging came the concept of time. The entire novel takes place within 24 hours — a detail most of our readers completely missed. The immersive experiences of the memories had us feeling like we were occupying much more time than a single day. But one sharp reader noticed a line of dialogue, first appearing at the beginning of the novel, and then once more at the end, which served to sandwich the entire story: “would you say there’s any end in sight?” Barry surely picked this line intentionally, and while we didn’t get to discuss the potential significance of this line, I’d love to know: what do you think? Even if you haven’t read the book, what does it say to you about time and aging? Can you imagine being a drug dealer/smuggler, trying to find your own way in the world, or to make sense of it all? 

In the end, some found the trajectory a little depressing, and in a way, depressing for them as readers. It was almost like Barry was putting us through our own hardship in creating characters that were not inherently likable, that we then had to watch suffer — all without the balmy sense of goodness that comes with feeling sympathy for another person. Yet, another way of looking at these two, was through a lens not of sympathy, but of understanding, and empathy. While the novel is entertaining and brisk, it is also mournful, almost completely devoted to all that has been lost: love, youth, family. It is difficult to remain completely disconnected from a feeling so universal. 

Books on Tap will meet on Thursday, September 2, at 7 pm, to discuss The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. 

Upcoming Titles: 

September 2: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

October 7: Still Life by Louise Penny

November 4: Feed by M.T. Anderson 

December 2: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

“Niceness does not break with white solidarity and white silence. In fact, naming racism is often seen as not nice, triggering white fragility.”

The Wednesday Evening Book Group is an especially friendly, open environment for discussing a variety of classic and contemporary fiction and nonfiction. Typically hosted at Gordon Avenue, the group met virtually on Wednesday, July 14 at 7:30 pm to discuss White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. We jumped right into the discussion by sharing how we experienced white supremacy, at what moment we first recognized race, and the effect of meaningful cross-racial relationships. 

DiAngelo, having coined the term “white fragility” in 2011, has attempted to develop a vocabulary to explain why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Words and phrases such as “white solidarity” and “coded language” take intangible ideas, lived experiences, and subconscious layers, and help begin a dialogue. It’s exciting to read nonfiction by an author who is so unflinching. As readers, we simultaneously felt shocked and assuaged. For example, the “good/bad binary” chapter was so powerful, because DiAngelo’s insistence that racist actions are inevitable and shouldn’t indicate moral failure and doom, frees white people to admit, acknowledge, and challenge racist thoughts and actions without a complete character assasination. 

While we appreciated the helpful language and felt challenged by it, especially DiAngelo’s discussion on white supremacy, we hungered for more actionable ideas. A few members found DiAngelo’s societal critique almost too glaring, without enough room for hope, as she says we will never “overcome” the issue and will “always struggle.” A rebuttal to this opinion asked, do we ever expect to be perfectly free from anger, selfishness, or impatience? If not, why should we expect to be perfectly free from racism? Of course, it can be argued that anger is not a deadly epidemic in the way racism is. Still, DiAngelo writes, “…it is not humanly possible to be free of prejudice. Ideally, we would teach our children how to recognize and challenge prejudice, rather than deny it” (84). 

One topic covered was asking the question of “who is at the table?” when decisions are made throughout life: at school and at work, when medical concerns crop up, or when your town has a new city land use proposal (as ours does). The group discussed the difference between people in charge (usually white) deciding what is best for marginalized communities and those folks having their own agency, input, and power. A seat at the table. White Fragility then presses white people to bring awareness to their thoughts and actions at that proverbial table. In many ways, it is a form of mindfulness: what thoughts pop up when I see a person of color? What limiting beliefs are defaulting as truths, and how can they be challenged? (and so on) One reader modeled that important work by walking the group through her considerations in writing to the local paper about a topic of interest. She was able to vocalize the fear of being seen as a racist — which is huge! How often do we use the word racist in any proximity to ourselves (except to say “I’m not racist!”)? Another member shared how this book helped her rethink a time she and her questioning toddler were confronted with a large police presence. 

We must have internalized some of DiAngelo’s points about a willingness to be open to gentle correction about our own racist tendencies, because I noticed members posing questions to one another, confronting ideas, and even personal memories, to see if we might view our own narratives from a different perspective. Hearing one member recount a memory of her mother’s words, “I would like to, but the neighborhood isn’t ready” may have introduced discomfort into the meeting. Discomfort, though, builds our “stamina” for these important moments of feedback. We called upon DiAngelo’s image of a bird in a cage (taken from scholar Marilyn Frye) to support our dialogue and varied perspective-taking: when you’re so close to the cage, you don’t see the wire bars. It’s only when you take a step back that you notice the bird is trapped. 

We did not get to discuss any backlash the book has faced. Perhaps most prominent is the article “The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragility,” which argues DiAngelo is infantilizing people of color, making claims without sufficient evidence, and creating a lose-lose culture for blacks and white both (according to the author, DiAngelo’s vision of Black History Month sounds like a “slog” of a “gloomy, knit-browed Festivus of a holiday”). If readers are interested in learning more about DiAngelo, I personally got a lot of insight from reading her website, particularly her Accountability page

The Wednesday Evening Book Group, which meets the second Wednesday of every month at 7:30, will meet again on Wednesday, August 11, 7:30-8:30 pm, at the Gordon Avenue Library. They will be discussing March (books 1-3) by John Lewis. In September, the group will discuss The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan. Please email cthompson@jmrl.org for more information on visiting or joining the group. 

Further Reading

How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi; “Kendi’s concept of antiracism reenergizes and reshapes the conversation about racial justice in America–but even more fundamentally, points us toward liberating new ways of thinking about ourselves and each other.” 

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo; “Oluo answers the questions readers don’t dare ask, and explains the concepts that continue to elude everyday Americans.” 

Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad; “teaches readers how to dismantle the privilege within themselves so that they can stop (often unconsciously) inflicting damage on people of colour, and in turn, help other white people do better, too.”

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown; “from a powerful new voice on racial justice, an eye-opening account of growing up Black, Christian, and female in middle-class white America.”

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates; “pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son.” 

This Bridge Called My Back edited by Cherríe Moraga; “first published in 1981, composed of personal essays, criticism, interviews, testimonials, poetry, and visual art…deserves to be picked up by a new generation of radical women.”

Have you read an amazing book that changed or challenged the way you understand race? If so, we’d love to hear about it. Please let us know in the comments. You can also find more antiracist titles here.