“The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.”

IMG_5862Brown Baggers met on February 15 to discuss The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Originally published in 2016, this novel focuses on the escape story of enslaved woman named Cora as she travels north on her search for freedom. The Underground Railroad was well regarded by critics and selected for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. It won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Whitehead used a literal train as a device to move the story and characters from point to point on their journey. This threw off some readers who thought it would detract from the other historical details present in the book and some found it harder to read as a result. They also were chagrined at the state of education in America when they discovered the gullibility of acquaintances — thinking the train was real because it’s called an underground railroad. Others felt it freed the author up to have such horrific realistic details if the main focus was fantastical.

The horrific violence kept some readers from reading continuously. While the brutality made them take frequent breaks and spread out their reading they felt it was very realistic and was well written, just a tough subject. They recoiled from the depictions of strong hatred and spite towards African Americans and talked about the seeds of racism that lead to such behaviors.

Talking about racism brought the discussion forward to the present day, allowing reflections on the horrific events here in Charlottesville during August 2017. Readers felt like the book’s popularity is due to the need for a reminder of what has happened historically as well as what may still not be resolved. They discussed the concept of African Americans and freedom — how free they are or feel like they are. Readers were impressed by those willing to help people escaping slavery on the Underground Railroad despite the near constant threat of death.

The key to the book was relationships, readers felt — mainly those Cora has with Lovey, Royal, and Mabel. Also mentioned was Cora’s relationship with herself and her similarities and differences from the antagonist Ridgeway, doing whatever they have to to survive. Readers were astounded that she had such a strong sense of self despite not being her own person. This sense of self allowed her to care for and defend her plot of land and continue forward and northward despite many setbacks in her journey to freedom.

More Info:
Interview with author
Author bio
Pulitzer info
National Book award info

Other mentions:
Twelve Years a Slave book by Solomon Northrup (as well as the film)
Birth of a White Nation by Jacqueline Battalora
Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander
The Underground Railroad (the other) by Charles Blockson
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (about a real life slave who stay in an attic)

Brown Baggers will meet again on March 15 at noon to discuss the JMRL inaugural Same Page community read selection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander. For a free copy stop by the Reference Desk at the Central Library.

“To give the dog a voice would be silly.”

cvr9781442434110_9781442434110_hrBooks on Tap read The Call of the Wild  (other editions available) by Jack London at  Champion Brewery on January 4. It was the perfect chilly night to discuss a book set in the Yukon. A short, spirited classic about the conversion of a pet dog into a wild, independent creature, it was either a re-read or vaguely familiar to all participants. In it, Buck, a large pet dog, is stolen and sold away from a California ranch to traders in Canada during the gold rush. Beaten into submission, he quickly adapts and then thrives as a sled dog. Eventually, he becomes fully feral and a legend in the woods. Inspired by London’s participation in the Klondike Gold Rush, the story was originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post and built on his earlier success with The Son of the Wolf.

The novel is told from Buck’s perspective, if not in his voice (see the title of this blog for a possible reason why). This choice by London intensifies Buck’s transition from pet to creature of the wild and cranks up the dramatic tension. For instance, we the reader understand why Manuel sells Buck from the ranch in California but come to understand later that Buck was more loved as a working animal with John Thornton on the trail than he ever was as a pampered pet. However, this style of narration did open up London to accusations of anthropomorphizing. Both Teddy Roosevelt and naturalist John Burroughs accused him of creating animals who were “men in fur.” London answered that The Call of the Wild and White Fang were instead “a protest against the ‘humanizing’ of animals,” and that they were motivated not by reasoning but by “instinct, sensation, and emotion, and by simple reasoning.”

According to one interpretation, the characters can be seen as political figures, a la Orwell’s Animal Farm. In that reading, the man in the red sweater is a stand-in for the USSR. It certainly succeeded as a non-political tale. None of the readers around the table were particularly struck by the political interpretation, we pick up on the influence of Darwin’s Origin of the Species (one of two books autodidact London took into the the Yukon, the other being Milton’s Paradise Lost). The brutal survival-of-the fittest ethos is vividly captured in scenes in which Buck fights both men and beasts making us wonder if the novel would be as heavily marketed to children if it were released today. Having read Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms in November, we compared the two self-consciously masculine writers. London won on all counts: description, emotion and heart. Continue reading

“There isn’t always an explanation for everything.”

61h05xx7u-lBooks on Tap read A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway  at Champion Brewery on November 2. Ostensibly a novel about an American ambulance driver and English nurse who fall in love at the Italian Front during World War I, it was quickly recognized as “one of the few great war stories in American literature.” The plight of the main character, Lieutenant Frederic Henry, closely mirrors the author’s experience in Italy during the war. They both drove ambulances, served briefly (Frederic seems to fight for two days within the book), suffered severe knee injuries in a mortar attack which left the men around them dead and received Italian war medals. They then both fell in love with a nurse while recovering in Milan, but in Hemingway’s case the affection was not shared.

Not all participants had read Hemingway previously and those who had didn’t recall all the details of this book. The first thing we discussed was the tone of the novel. Like Hemingway’s other works, it is terse but in this case it is not evocative. Two of us listened to the audiobook, where the repetition wasn’t as noticeable and the rhythms of the conversations tended toward the lyrical. The realism of the book is overshadowed by the drippy dialog between Frederic and nurse Catherine (we wondered if the author was capable of writing a female character) and the lack of urgency in the interpersonal relationship. However, the scenes of the retreat and river escape aligned with our pre-conceptions of Hemingway’s style and conveyed his message about war. Some readers compared these scenes to The Revenant book and movie and An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.

There is room for ambiguity in the realistic description of war. No one seems to care about the cause of the conflict and the Italians differ in opinion on tactics and leadership. The unceasing rain, while historically accurate, also emphasizes the long slog characteristic of this war and the ultimate interiority of the main characters, cloistered in hotels and hospitals. Catherine claims that the war will never end and their unborn child will become a general. Frederic and an Italian priest contemplate the end, saying “It is in defeat that we become Christian. . . I don’t mean technically Christian. I mean like our Lord. . . We are all gentler now because we are beaten.” Through unimaginable bloodshed, we earn acceptance and humility.

Mysteries abound in this novel. Why was Frederic in Italy before the war? Was he really studying architecture? Where did they find the money to stay in Switzerland for months? Why were they estranged from both families? Perhaps the biggest mystery is Catherine. Does she truly love Frederic or is this a relationship of convenience, swept up in the war. How could a women who worked a dangerous, arduous job, an atheist who lived independently from her family be as clingy and afraid of upsetting her partner as Catherine was? Her obsession with thinness made us wonder if Hemingway or Frederic were the misogynist.

The ending was so abrupt that some audiobook listeners weren’t sure that the novel had ended. However, another reader pointed out that the ending is fitting – this self-absorbed couple doesn’t have a future and may not have been in love. One astute reader shared her favorite alternate ending, available in some paperback editions: “When I woke the sun was coming in the open window and I smelled the spring morning after the rain and there was a moment, probably it was only a second, before I began to realize what it was that had happened. And then I knew that it was all gone now and that it would not be that way any more.”

More Information:
About the author
About the book
Battle of Caporetto map and more on the Italian Front.
Other works
WWI reading list
Confidential to Will: Is this it?

Books on Tap Information:

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