“Sometimes miracles do happen”

51DizOJ5d2L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Brown Baggers met on June 15 to discuss A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierly, a memoir about a young Indian boy who gets stuck on a train and transported away from his family at the age of five. Eventually he gets connected to an orphanage and is adopted by an Australian couple after no one could locate his parents or where he came from. The book has recently been made into acclaimed movie Lion.

Readers were surprised to learn this memoir was ghostwritten. Some questioned the veracity of the memories of a young child. Readers said a traumatic experience like Brierly’s would have made a strong enough impression to be remembered for life, but others wondered if a young child could actually remember details like what he had to eat for each meal 25 years later and if maybe he had assistance from his Indian family once they reconnected. Readers mentioned factual discrepancies with listed ages, which corresponds with the author’s own admission of being unreliable on timelines due to his hunger, exhaustion, and trauma. Many readers agreed that the early childhood facts being embellished didn’t concern them because they felt the story was emotionally true.

“What is truth?” Readers agreed that truth can be elusive and is something that might be searched for.

Readers were surprised to learn about some of the conditions in poor, rural India where Brierly was born. He was tasked with watching his toddler sister as a four year old which seems a lot of responsibility. He was also able to fend for himself for a few weeks in Kolkata when he arrives despite being so young. Just the magnitude of people, especially hungry and homeless children, was hard to imagine but it explained why adults in the story were reticent to assist young Brierly when he was lost on the streets. Readers figured being poor might have led to increased responsibility at a younger age.

Some readers thought there were problems with the narration of the book. They weren’t sure if it was a discrepancy between Brierly’s story and the ghostwriter, or Brierly’s more recent memories and adult voice versus the created version of his five-year-old-self. It didn’t stop anyone from finishing, but it did make it a little difficult for some readers to get into. It was also noted that Brierly’s telling is very unemotional, perhaps because of his traumatic experience and trouble connecting with people later on in life.

Readers talked about this being the best possible outcome for Brierly (or any adoptee) who goes seeking their birth family – a warm welcome, and family still where they were decades before. The happy ending is what made the story great and while Brierly encourages the search for adoptees (it’s why he wrote the book) it easily could’ve ended up much more disappointing.

Readers said the adoptive parents seemed to be great and do everything they could to make Brierly’s life comfortable and preserve his culture, although the seeking out of a “brown skinned child” could certainly be interpreted in a questionable way. Readers wondered if the hints at racism Brierly experienced might have been a little more damaging than he implies.

Readers who had seen the film agreed that it was good but the book was better. download

Interviews with Saroo Brierley
From NPR
From BBC
Interview with Sue Brierley
From the WSJ

Brown Baggers will meet again on July 20 at noon to discuss Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi.

“We’s lost all the bases of civilized culture around here.”

tenorBooks on Tap read Methland  by Nick Reding at  Champion Brewery on June 1. While most of us  had watched Breaking Bad, we were not ready for the bleakness of meth addiction reported by Reding. He uses the town of Oelwein, Iowa as the lens while describing how and why meth became such an attractive drug to white working class people in the Midwest. Reding weaves together Big Agriculture, immigration policy, deregulation, and the need to work long hours at physically demanding factory jobs to explain why a stimulant would spread like wildfire. The reporting on the macro level was interesting, but the personal stories of Oelwein residents are what propel this book. The gruesome recountings of meth lab explosions, Tom Arnold’s sister’s rise as an international drug-dealer and the sincere work of the local doctor in mayor to revitalize the town are what draws in readers. Stories of deep addiction are stressful to read, but Reding spends a lot of time with those in Oelwien who are either in recovery or trying to diversify the economy. There is a certain entrepreneurial logic for those dealing meth. The nearest large city is 200 miles away, so cooking meth is one of the only ways to make a living wage without moving.

We discussed ways in which the US could combat the meth epidemic, from drug courts (in Virginia, treatment isn’t mandated) to living wage legislation to affordable health insurance that covers drug treatment to legalization similar to Portugal’s. Some of us found this book hard to read because for years the meth epidemic was hidden in the supposedly safe “fly over” states and that we on the coasts have a limited sense of life in Middle America.

More Information:
About the author
About the book
Author reading
Reaction to the book

Recent  New Yorker article on opioid addiction in West Virginia
Father/Son memoirs about meth addiction and recovery
Drug-related HIV spike in Indiana

Books on Tap Information:

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“Pretty easy life. Nothing seems to have happened to him.”

Brown Baggers met on May 18 to discuss Old Filth, a novel by Jane Gardam. The novel is named for its main character, and Filth becomes his nickname after he attains great success as a lawyer in Asia (it stands for Failed In London, Try Hong Kong). The novel is told as his 81-year-old self looking back on his life and coming to terms with abandonment and abuse in his childhood.
After his mother dies in childbirth, his detached father sends him to be raised in the local Malay village, where Filth thrives. However, in the family tradition, Filth is torn from this comfortable set up and sent off to a foster family in Wales. This situation scars him for life and his reminisces throughout the books always lead back to what happened to him there.
Being left was Filth’s main story. Throughout the book we learn of his repeated losses of friends, other relatives, and love interests. As a character, Filth is a survivor. Although his methods of surviving led some readers to consider him an appalling man. We discussed whether there was a likable character in this book. As they had all experienced trauma early in their lives they developed personality quirks which made them detached and hard to warm to as readers.
Compounding the never-ending sense of loss in Filth’s life was WWII, which began when he was a young teen. This only added to his losses and deprivations. While his early experiences led to his ability to be a good litigator, it also wracked him with a lifelong sense of guilt of past wrongs and all legal decisions he meted out as judge.
After the loss of his wife, and his only friend, Filth decides to revisit family members and locations from his past to come to a better understanding of what happened and make peace with it.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
The Man in the Wooden Hat(#2) and Last Friends(#3) in this trilogy

Audio interview with the author from BBC4