“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:
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Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

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Hidden Figures: What to Read While You Wait

If you are on the holds list for Hidden Figures, don’t despair! We have plenty of other great (and available) books to tide you over.

If you are interested in women who advanced our knowledge of and experience with outer space, pick up one of these.

  • Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone
  • The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel
  • Rise of the Rocket Girls: Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt
  • Rocket Girl: The Story of Mary Sherman Morgan, America’s First Female Rocket Scientist by Mary Sherman Morgan
  • Women in Space: 23 Stories of First Flights, Scientific Missions, an Gravity-Breaking Adventures by Karen Bush Gibson

If you want to read stories about innovative women who are trailblazers in other sciences, law, medicine and more, try one of these books.

If you’d like more suggestions, remember you can always ask for us to create a custom list for you by filling out our What Do I Read Next? form.

Money Saving Tips

wastefreekitchen

Why not make this the year you finally get your finances in order? The library is here to help you save some cash with these guides, available from your local JMRL branch:

Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook: A Guide to Eating Well and Saving Money by Wasting Less Food by Dana Gunders – A handbook for reducing food waste includes checklists, recipes, strategies, and infographics that can help readers change their cooking habits.

 

Ecothrify: Cheaper, Greener Choices for a Happier, Healthier Life by Deborah Niemann – A must-read for anyone who has ever wanted to live a greener life but thought that it would be too expensive, time-consuming, or difficult, this handy, complete guide will show you how small changes can have a huge environmental impact and save you thousands of dollars, all while improving your quality of life.

Cheaper, Better, Faster: Over 2,000 Tips and Tricks to Save You Time and Money Every Day by Mary Hunt – Presents economical tips and advice to help save money and time on regular household activities, from deodorizing carpets to organizing playrooms, making Christmas decorations, and purchasing the best homeowner’s insurance.

Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World by Mark Ellwood – An investigation into bargain hunting traces the evolution of promotional pricing and sales, exploring the impact of negotiable pricing on markets, the machinations of price consultants, and the growing empowerment of consumers. Continue reading