“Moby-Dick of the tea world”

25150798Books on Tap read The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane  by Lisa See at Champion Brewery on March 7. Throughout the month of March, JMRL encourages everyone to read this title and then meet the author at our free event at Northside library on March 20th at 6pm as part of the Same Page.  

See frequently writes on Chinese-American themes, having spent much of her youth in L.A.’s Chinatown with paternal relatives. In this novel, she traces a young Akah women growing up in a rural tea growing region of China near the Thai border in the 1980s. Li-yan is raised according to traditional Akah customs, shadowing her mother the midwife. The local teacher singles her out for education in the nearest city, where her life is upended by her boyfriend. She gives birth to a daughter who is put in an orphanage and ultimately raised in California by a white couple. Li-yan packs a lot of living into her first 27 years while the daughter explores the clues (dark skin, a uniquely decorated tea cake) that hint at her biological parents. Li-yan and that daughter, Haley, work to find each other by the end of the novel.

The majority of our book club members liked the book. See packs in tons of information about the tea industry and the Akha people which we enjoyed as a window into lives we would not normally read about. Some readers thought that she could have done a better job weaving those details into the story instead of dropping in blocks of exposition. We were surprised to encounter the matrilineal and sex-positive Akah traditions. Coincidences abound but most of us thought they were within the bounds of reason. The ending wasn’t a surprise, and while a happy ending is satisfying, we speculated on the type of relationship Li-yan and Hayley would maintain back in California.

If this story inspires you to look into your own family history, check out JMRL’s online genealogy resources or set up an appointment to digitize your personal VHS tapes, slides, photos, negatives and cassette tapes.

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“I had Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi, the four of us sharing the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn, as though it was a bag of stones we passed among ourselves saying, Here. Help me carry this.”

27213163Books on Tap read Another Brooklyn  by Jacqueline Woodson at  Champion Brewery on February 7. Woodson, the current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and previous Young People’s Poet Laureate and National Book Award winner, is best known for her works for children and teens, often in verse. This novel is only one of two that she has written for adults. It follows August as she moves from Tennessee to Brooklyn with her father and brother, making friends with three girls and navigating black girlhood and New York in the 1970s. It too is written in verse, which struck one reader as genius to fit this complex story in in a concise, moving package. The format allows Woodson to be indirect, especially when addressing suicide, childhood sexual abuse and religion. Those of us who listened to the audiobook didn’t notice the format as much as those who read the print edition. One reader wondered if the dialog was italicized to emphasize that it was only reported to us through August’s memory.

We first discussed the title: what are these other Brooklyns? August and her brother are confined to their apartment when they first move in, and can only observed life on the street below. During the novel, she reflects on the Brooklyn she remembers and the one that her brother still lives in. There’s also the Brooklyns that become home to immigrants from all over the world.

Woodson herself grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness and August’s father introduces Nation of Islam to the family. August appreciates the order that the women of the Nation bring to the apartment but it is her brother who embraces the tenets and uses it to organize his life. August, in reaction to her mother’s suicide and the silence around it, becomes an anthropologist who studies death practices around the world. Despite their differences, the siblings remain realistically respectful as adults.

August’s mother’s death is itself a ghost in the novel. As a child she tells herself and her brother that their mother will return any moment. Her father tells her she knows what is in the urn in the house but never declares it is her mother’s ashes. As a teenager, she loses her voice. We disagreed if this was a literal lack of voice but either way, she begins to see a therapist. This is around the same time that her friend Gigi commits suicide, about which August feels guilt for not being a closer friend. We agreed that these events inspired August to study anthropology.

The book is specifically about black girlhood, but can be used as a lens to look at girlhood universally. The four girls describe their friendship as a forcefield against harassment and danger. Together, they say things to men and boys that we could never say as individuals. They protect and soothe each other and share joyous experiences. Despite her mother’s warning against female friendship, it is the thing that made August’s Brooklyn what it was. Gigi’s suicide, Sylvia’s teen pregnancy and Angela’s mother’s murder break the quartet apart. Years later as an adult August sees Sylvia on the subway but chooses to get off before they can speak. We were divided on the lasting strength of childhood friendships in our own lives, but it’s clear that these relationships were formative (and not often seen in fiction).

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Read Alikes:
Kwame Alexander
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Mislaid by Nell Zink
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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“Sometimes, you will feel as if you have rowed right off the planet and are now rowing among the stars.”

200px-theboysintheboatBooks on Tap read The Boys in the Boat by Daniel Brown at  Champion Brewery on January 3. This non-fiction choice follows the University of Washington crew team in the run-up to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. These nine working-class amateurs not only had to beat the elite East Coast Ivy League teams, they then had to face the semi-professional and naval European teams. While the book is rich in detail and we meet many characters, the heart of the story is Joe Rantz, who joins the team as a mistrustful, essentially homeless teenager. We follow along during the cold, grueling training mornings, the back-breaking summer jobs Joe takes on to earn enough money to stay in school and the exhilarating race days. The close cooperation Joe and his family provided the author enhances the depth of the story without sacrificing accuracy (at least through Joe’s eyes). Joe’s story line also kept us from being bogged down in the arcane rowing details and the many incidental historical figures introduced.

And what historical figures! Some readers were captivated by this turning point in history, from the depths of the Great Depression to the run-up to World War II. We were struck by the lengths the Nazis went to clear areas of Berlin and to advance their standing on the world stage via propaganda while hiding their genocidal intentions. The teammates certainly didn’t know the full extent of the atrocities and in fact coxswain Bobby Moch may not have found out that his family was Jewish had his father not revealed it to him on the eve of Bobby’s trip to Berlin.  In an interesting side note, the rowers present at our discussion agreed that it takes a particular personality to be a successful coxswain and that these bold men often go on to coach.

We also discussed the ongoing clearances that happen in Olympic hosts cities and that hosting does not usually produce long-term benefits for the host city. We wondered if the Olympics are not as popular as they were decades ago because of doping scandals, boycotts, more access to all sports online and increased professional participation but we agreed that we still get sucked in every two years.

The author sets the team up as underdogs and while they weren’t as highly regarded or supported as their competition, they did have advantages. They had access to George Pocock, a premier boatbuilder and rowing devotee. Their coaches were committed to sending a boat to the Olympics and tinkered with the lineup for years. Rowing was a national sport at the time and the city of Seattle pinned their hopes on the team. Ultimately, as rowers in our group pointed out, it comes down to the day of the race and having luck and balance on your side.  The balance was most evident with Joe, a boy who was all but abandoned as a ten year old who had to learn to trust his teammates and find the ineffable swing that would make them champions.

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Movie update
The Summer Olympics were cancelled during World War II. In 1948 the so-called Austerity Olympics were held in London (the US won the men’s eights once again).

Read Alikes:
The Amateurs by David Halberstam
In the Garden of Beasts and The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Native American Son: The Life and and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe by Kate Buford
Seabiscuit: an American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand
Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan
Note by Note: the Making of Steinway L1037
Rudy
Jesse Owens film at Northside Library, February 26

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