“Was Meg self-centered or what?”

mislaidBooks on Tap read Mislaid  by Nell Zink at  Champion Brewery on February 1. In this novel about identity, a young lesbian enters an women’s college in Virginia, marries her male poetry professor with whom she has two children, only to flee with their younger child to pass as black in rural southern Virginia. The family is reunited when the children cross paths at the University of Virginia. Zink uses a satirical, HBO-inspired tone throughout, although one of our readers felt it only developed later in the story. We all agreed that she is a clever writer, although many of the readers missed her literary references. For instance, the specifics of the “theater of the absurd” flew over most of our heads, but the phrase resonates on its own. Frequently, Zink rewards the reader who explores these references. In one case, it led one book group member to Paul Bowles’ Sheltering Sky.  

Peggy, aka Meg, would be the focal point of any movie adaptation. Somehow while raising two small children and later hiding out, she becomes well read. However, she is a terrible playwright (perhaps Zink’s own self-critique). She also sees herself at various points as a failed lesbian and mother. She often doesn’t measure up to the people around her. Their success seems to lie in exploiting others; her success is in the lives she builds.

Her daughter Mireille, aka Karen, is mostly a boring cipher, although the two year discrepancy between her real birthdate and that of her assumed identity muddles perceptions. We decided that the coldness in the relationship with her mother was due to the independence both need to cultivate while in hiding. Her best friend Temple is the most sympathetic, believable character. His struggles as a young black man from an impoverished school system set him up as a foil for Meg’s son Byrdie whose main talent, by virtue of being  raised by his wealthy father’s family, is spending money well. The confidence of all three of the younger characters vary, but none of them is as pre-occupied with identity as their parents.

The group debated the believability of blonde, fair-skinned Meg and Karen passing for black. Would people naturally make that assumption or is Zink exaggerating for satirical effect? One reader wondered if Zink, who didn’t start publishing until her 50s, was inspired by former Spokane NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal . However, Meg and Karen aren’t alone for Lee is also always putting on an act.  We then discussed the fact that the book isn’t really about its much-hyped premise of passing for black, but about race, sexual orientation and class differences.

The ending is incited by a drug bust at the University of Virginia, inspired by the real-life Operation Equinox. Here the tone shifts, becoming, according to some critics, Shakespearean. However, we concurred that the dialogue at end was terrible. This kind of absurdist, antic satire deserves a more unorthodox ending.

Was the novel as a whole satisfying? It provides no firm answers on identity and the ending is too pat. Zink favors social commentary over storytelling, making the book more of an intellectual experiment. Many of the episodes can stand alone as short stories, but we readers never knew where story was heading. However, we all admired Zink’s cleverness.

More Information:
About the author
Other works
Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Books on Tap Information:

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Just the Facts: Evaluating News Sources

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In this era of information overload it can be hard to tell what is a reliable source and what may be peddling fake news. You can do your best to evaluate statements and sources using these guidelines and independent review sites.

Step one: Know the definition

Fake news is any intentionally or unintentionally published hoaxes, propaganda, and misinformation which uses social media to drive web traffic and amplify the effect. Unlike news satire, fake news seeks to mislead, rather than entertain, readers for financial, political, or other gain. It can also include poorly or insufficiently researched stories and personal opinions presented as fact.

Step two: Ask evaluating questions

  • Who is the source?
    Well known news sources with long histories of publishing objective stories are more reliable than personal blogs that might be the first and only publication on the subject. Also look out for clever imitations of new site URLs when accessing information. (i.e. abcnews.com vs abcnews.com.co).
  • Why was this made?
    Look for sources that present facts instead of opinions and  which offer multiple perspectives instead of a single viewpoint.
  • Did you read more than the headline?
    Headlines are meant to grab attention, so read more of a piece before interpreting the headline as fact.
  • Who is the author?
    Make sure there is an author listed and check the author’s bio for awards and publication history. If details seem unfamiliar or suspicious, crosscheck the information elsewhere.
  • When was it published?
    Check the date to make sure that it is current and not something that happened months or even years ago.
  • Does it sound far-fetched?
    Crosscheck anything that sounds too good, or too terrible, to be true.

Step three: Learn more

Double check information at fact checking sites:
Politifact.com
Snopes.com
Factcheck.org

Other resources:
Take this News Literacy MOOC at Coursera
Consult this fake news sites list maintained by Snopes
Read this article full of fake news information from The Guardian

When in doubt, ask a librarian: 
You can reach library staff at JMRL by email at reference[at]jmrl.org or on our website through text or chat.

Brown Baggers’ Book Picks

openbook_218939077The Brown Baggers Book Group skipped their usual discussion in December and instead spent the hour deciding what titles the group will read in the upcoming months (and eating delicious snacks).

Many current and classic titles were suggested by members, but after several rounds of voting we had some clear winners. Upcoming titles that the group will read include both fiction and nonfiction books as well as some award winners.

Here are the upcoming titles for June 2017 through May 2018:

A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

1984 by George Orwell

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore

Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer

If you would like to join the Brown Baggers Book Group, you’re welcome to come to the Central Library on the third Thursday of the month from 12-1pm and participate in our lively discussion. You can call us at 434.979.7151 ext. 4 for more information or send us an email. Also, check out JMRL’s wiki for the books that weren’t picked this time as well as book club selections from previous years.