“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.

“Camel trips, as I suspected all along, and as I was about to have confirmed, do not begin or end: they merely change form.”

Brown Baggers book club met in person at the Central Library on Thursday, July 15, from 12-1 pm to discuss Tracks by Robyn Davidson. The subtitle, “a woman’s solo trek across 1,700 miles of Australian outback,” is a little ironic hovering above an image of Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver — the actors chosen to play Robyn and Rick in the movie adaptation. No, the journey is not completely solo; but, it’s solo enough to include plenty of zingers from Davidson’s chatty, whizzing inner monologue. As one reader put it, “I think she’s nuts, but that’s just me.” 

Readers revealed that they found Davidson to be somewhat of an unreliable narrator; in her, we found quick, eccentric storytelling (and for a “solo trek” saga, plenty of nearly unbelievable sidekicks, enemies, and friends). While the book was said by our group to be vivid, reading it was like chasing a butterfly — darting from one thing to the next. We found the writing compelling, but some wanted Davidson to pick a lane, and we discussed how the book would have read differently had it come from a scientific/academic angle. One person noted the book was more like a slideshow than a movie (it would have been interesting to discuss how (or if) the movie smoothed over any choppiness from the book, but no one had seen the movie). Ultimately, some of the most memorable moments were the genre-bending, slightly wacko, purely human, diary-like snapshots: Davidson walking around naked in the desert, dissolving into angst over her relationship with National Geographic, or rounding up her long-suffering friends for what felt like another fool’s errand. The Kirkus review of the book puts it well: “An unusual work–not as travel or adventure but for the total, personal experience, met head on.”

Another cover image of Tracks is a photo of Robyn riding a camel, which again, is a little ironic, given that the gist of her trek was to walk alongside the camels, who were used to haul about 1,500 pounds of supplies. Camels, though, fascinated our readers. This was not a book about camels per se, but the little details were a chance for us novices to learn a lot about camel life. Their feisty, sometimes violent tendencies, their maternal instincts, and their habits of grazing and wandering all night were all named as fascinating new discoveries for the group. Australia, known for its invasive species, was also a bit of a character itself. We didn’t talk much about the landscape or dialect/jargon used, but those components certainly drove the book into territory of its own. We did discuss how the time period (1970s) also contributed greatly to the book, because it was a time when people questioned norms and the status quo. Anything was possible. 

Gender was also a point of discussion for us. Davidson was the first ever recipient of the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 1980, and for the 24 years that it was awarded, she was one of only two women to receive the award. Travel writing is known to be dominated by men, so it’s interesting to see here a book that fits the bill but also breaks the mold. As one reader noted, unlike many travelogues, in which male voices attempt to be supernatural survivalists, here we have Davidson “‘fessing up” about the ways in which she was helped. From friends who took her into a prop plane to search for lost camels, to an Aboriginal guide, Davidson’s trip was not perfectly executed or perfectly packaged. At the moment, it might have felt a little weird to read from a narrator who seemed to have self-esteem issues, was self-indulgent, and had a temper. We don’t expect that kind of emotional or mental rawness from a soaring travel adventure story. Reflecting back, it’s a gripping twist of storytelling, as the embodiment of Australian culture (macho, rugged Outback) was a woman. One reader described Robyn like this: “She was the type of character who would have done anything after being dared at a party.” It says a lot that Davidson, a real person, was so easily thought of as a “character” by our readers. Sometimes you read a true story, but the person’s journey is so different from your own, that it almost feels unreal. The truth really is stranger than fiction. 

Brown Baggers will meet to discuss Anne Patchett’s The Dutch House on Thursday, August 19, 12-1 pm, at the Central Library. Email kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. 

Books Mentioned:

Inside Tracks: Robyn Davidson’s Solo Journey Across the Outback by Rick Smolan

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert 

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides 

The River of Doubt by Candice Millard 

Movies Mentioned:

Rabbit Proof Fence (2003)

Tracks (2013)

Links:

‘The Camel Lady’ painting by Jean Inyalanka Burke – Warakurna history paintings at National Museum Australia

Nomadic cultures, journeys, and coming home: A conversation between Robyn Davidson and Dr. Mike Smith – National Museum Australia

Robyn Davidson reflects on 40 years since “Tracks” – Hilary Harper, Life Matters for ABC

Robyn Davidson is a nomad – interview by Anna Krien for DumboFeather

Excerpt from the Trailblazers: Australia’s 50 Greatest Explorers exhibition at the Australian Museum