“The truth was that lately, she had not had quite enough happening in her life.”

clockdanceBooks on Tap met virtually to discuss Clock Dance by Anne Tyler.  A dramatic change in tone from last month’s title, this story of an old women’s examination of her life during an unexpected trip to Baltimore to care for her son’s ex-girlfriend was pleasant, but few of the book club members could remember the details a few weeks after reading it. As a wise librarian once said, these books are like muffins – nothing wrong with them and pleasant while you consume them, but not something you’d rave about. 

So why did we like it? It was uplifting. The characters were vibrant and Tyler’s opening flashback grounds the main character Willa and her family and provides motivation for the decisions they make later in the book.  Willa marries two overbearing husbands, mirroring the go-along attitude of her father. Her mother’s volatility teaches Willa to be small to avoid attention and conflict. She has a learned helplessness, barely able to handle travel logistics for planes or cars. But Tyler’s writing is so clear, kind and funny that Willa isn’t pathetic. We in the book club were rooting for her to upend her life. However, after 200 pages, we get two ambiguous paragraphs about her decision to stay in her old life in Arizona or to move to Baltimore  to be with her new logical family who value her for herself and contributions and not for her looks or willingness to stay quiet. 

We discussed this book during the protests and uprisings in all 50 states in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmad Abrey and police violence more generally. Tyler sets this book in Roland Park, a neighborhood in Baltimore that, according to data from the last census (and borne out by recent estimates), is dramatically more white than the rest of the city.Residents of Baltimore as a whole are 63% Black, while only 7.6% of residents of Roland Park are. The Baltimore that Tyler writes about in this book is 99% white as far as we could tell. The book was a brief respite from the real world but didn’t help us to discuss the issues of race and inequity that are at the front of our minds this week. 

Books on Tap will meet again on July 2nd via Zoom. For information, please contact Krista Farrell (kfarrell at jmrl dot org).  We’ll be reading  Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. JMRL owns this book in print, CD, downloadable audiobook from RB Digital and downloadable book from Overdrive. Please contact Sarah Hamfeldt (shamfeldt at jmrl dot org) for help accessing these titles for curbside pickup or by download. 

More Information:

About the author 

About the book 

Interview with the author 

 

Next Meeting:

“My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”

educatedThe Brown Baggers gathered virtually on May 21 to discuss Tara Westover’s bestselling memoir, Educated. Westover describes her childhood growing up in the Idaho mountains as the youngest of seven in a survivalist family. Her charismatic but mentally unstable father mistrusts the government and Western medicine and Tara’s mother is a midwife with no formal training and healer who uses natural remedies to combat even the most severe injuries. Several of their children, including Tara, don’t have birth certificates, and while some of her older brothers and sisters attended school for brief periods of time, Tara never stepped foot into a classroom. While technically homeschooled, Tara writes that instead of learning mathematics or world history, she spent her days helping her mother prepare herbal remedies or performing dangerous work in her father’s junkyard.

When one of Tara’s older brothers leaves for college, she begins to recognize there is a world beyond the foothills of her mountain and soon longs for her own escape. She teaches herself enough to pass the ACT and secure admission to Brigham Young University with a scholarship. In fact, Tara is so bright she goes on to study at Cambridge and Harvard, eventually obtaining a PhD in History at Cambridge. However, as Tara’s education expands, she struggles to reconcile her family’s beliefs with the knowledge she has gained. As a result, her family ties begin to fray and ultimately reach a breaking point.

The Brown Baggers found Tara’s story fascinating but also upsetting. Her writing was, as one described it, cinematic and visually gripping. They were amazed that someone who grew up in such a harsh and controlling environment could not only escape, but excel academically, though some questioned her own mental stability as evidenced by her erratic behavior later in her memoir. One member pointed out that Tara’s story highlights the importance of having a mentor. At BYU and Cambridge, Tara’s professors recognized her talents when she didn’t think she was capable and gave her the support she needed when she found herself overwhelmed and alone. While most of Tara’s education, especially in her teenage years, was a solitary endeavor and devoted to learning from books, her mentors taught Tara something about her own self. 

The book raised a lot of questions about objectivity and truth, particularly in regards to memory. While some of the stories seemed too outlandish to be true, Westover acknowledges that her family members may remember events differently. Rather than take a dogmatic approach to truth, Westover openly acknowledges in the footnotes where accounts have differed. A lot of us could relate to having different recollections from, say, a sibling about something that happened decades ago and many of the Brown Baggers admired her commitment to objectivity. 

The Brown Baggers will meet again virtually on June 18 to discuss The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson. Please email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details on how to participate from your computer or phone.

Books Mentioned:

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

The Liars Club by Mary Karr

Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

Links:

PBS NewsHour:Tara Westover, author of “Educated,” sings a Mormon hymn

“At that moment, for the first time ever, I felt I’d become a part in the machine of society. I’ve been reborn, I thought.”

convenience store womanThe Brown Baggers met virtually on April 16th to discuss Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. A short but strange novel, Convenience Store Woman follows a thirty-something woman named Keiko Furukura who works at, you guessed it, a convenience store. Keiko’s family and friends believe she is stuck in a dead-end job, and because she hasn’t married yet, she must be terribly lonely. They wonder aloud, sometimes even to her face, why she doesn’t strive for more in life beyond her menial job. For Keiko, however, the store is her sanctuary. In the “real world,” Keiko is a misfit who struggles to communicate with those around her–a few members wondered if her inability to relate to and communicate with other humans was a sign of autism–but as a convenience store worker she can hide her eccentricities. Staff must wear uniforms without any jewelry, watches, or other accessories to identify them as individuals, and they are given “scripts” for interacting with customers. When her job is jeopardized, Keiko discovers she has no purpose in society outside of her convenience store.

Murata’s novel is short but packs a punch with its oddball characters and social commentary. Although Keiko is an oddball,  she isn’t necessarily a lovable oddball or innocent victim of her circumstances, as the Brown Baggers discussed. Some of her inner thoughts were disturbing, sometimes violent, and made her difficult to relate to or sympathize as a reader. She was, however, a lot more likable than her misogynistic coworker Shiraha who also struggles to fit in with society. 

Convenience Store Woman critiques modern Japanese culture, specifically post-capitalism Japan where marriage rates are falling and young men are hiding away in their parents’ homes playing video games. Some interpreted the novel as a warning against finding one’s identity in work above all else. In the novel, Keiko finds solace in the store because she is seen as “normal” for the first time. But is it better to be a cog in the machine of society or to embrace one’s uniqueness and stand out in the crowd? Many Brown Baggers pointed out these philosophical questions were raised in another book club title also written by a Japanese author,  Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes

Murata is an award-winning Japanese novelist who has published at least ten novels. Convenience Store Woman is the first of her novels to be translated into English and the Brown Baggers are eager to see her other works translated in the future.

The Brown Baggers will meet again virtually on June 18 to discuss Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. Email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details on how to participate via computer or phone.

Books Mentioned:

Ruth Ozeki

Kobo Abe – The Woman in the Dunes

 

Other Links:

Loitering in 7-11 with Convenience Store Woman Author Sayaka Murata

Sayaka Murata: ‘My parents don’t want to read my books’

For Japanese Novelist Sayaka Murata, Odd Is the New Normal

Catapult | A Cure to Feeling Like You Need to Be Cured: Talking to Sayaka Murata in Tokyo | Aja Gabel

“Normal”—What?: In Conversation with Sayaka Murata. Author of ‘Convenience Store Woman’ in Toronto