“I had Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi, the four of us sharing the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn, as though it was a bag of stones we passed among ourselves saying, Here. Help me carry this.”

27213163Books on Tap read Another Brooklyn  by Jacqueline Woodson at  Champion Brewery on February 7. Woodson, the current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and previous Young People’s Poet Laureate and National Book Award winner, is best known for her works for children and teens, often in verse. This novel is only one of two that she has written for adults. It follows August as she moves from Tennessee to Brooklyn with her father and brother, making friends with three girls and navigating black girlhood and New York in the 1970s. It too is written in verse, which struck one reader as genius to fit this complex story in in a concise, moving package. The format allows Woodson to be indirect, especially when addressing suicide, childhood sexual abuse and religion. Those of us who listened to the audiobook didn’t notice the format as much as those who read the print edition. One reader wondered if the dialog was italicized to emphasize that it was only reported to us through August’s memory.

We first discussed the title: what are these other Brooklyns? August and her brother are confined to their apartment when they first move in, and can only observed life on the street below. During the novel, she reflects on the Brooklyn she remembers and the one that her brother still lives in. There’s also the Brooklyns that become home to immigrants from all over the world.

Woodson herself grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness and August’s father introduces Nation of Islam to the family. August appreciates the order that the women of the Nation bring to the apartment but it is her brother who embraces the tenets and uses it to organize his life. August, in reaction to her mother’s suicide and the silence around it, becomes an anthropologist who studies death practices around the world. Despite their differences, the siblings remain realistically respectful as adults.

August’s mother’s death is itself a ghost in the novel. As a child she tells herself and her brother that their mother will return any moment. Her father tells her she knows what is in the urn in the house but never declares it is her mother’s ashes. As a teenager, she loses her voice. We disagreed if this was a literal lack of voice but either way, she begins to see a therapist. This is around the same time that her friend Gigi commits suicide, about which August feels guilt for not being a closer friend. We agreed that these events inspired August to study anthropology.

The book is specifically about black girlhood, but can be used as a lens to look at girlhood universally. The four girls describe their friendship as a forcefield against harassment and danger. Together, they say things to men and boys that we could never say as individuals. They protect and soothe each other and share joyous experiences. Despite her mother’s warning against female friendship, it is the thing that made August’s Brooklyn what it was. Gigi’s suicide, Sylvia’s teen pregnancy and Angela’s mother’s murder break the quartet apart. Years later as an adult August sees Sylvia on the subway but chooses to get off before they can speak. We were divided on the lasting strength of childhood friendships in our own lives, but it’s clear that these relationships were formative (and not often seen in fiction).

More Information:
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Interviews with the author

Read Alikes:
Kwame Alexander
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Mislaid by Nell Zink
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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“Jefferson’s advice on how to win friends and influence people did not have much appeal for a pugnacious John Adams.”

friendsdividedIt was an interesting and thoughtful discussion when the Brown Baggers met on Thursday, January 17 to discuss Gordon S. Wood’s book Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Friends Divided delves into the complicated friendship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The dual biography examines the decades-long relationship between these two men who came from different upbringings and had contrasting personalities and political views. The book explores the falling out and then the reconciliation of the frenemies and how that helped shape our new nation.

Even though the book was lengthy, readers enjoyed learning about the two presidents. Some readers especially enjoyed the how the characters were described. More than one person mentioned that they learned a lot more about John Adams after reading the book- especially since many Brown Baggers grew up in Virginia and already knew the history and legacy of Thomas Jefferson.

Readers also discussed Abigail Adams and how she seemed to be ahead of her time, mainly by championing women’s rights and advising her husband, something that Martha Jefferson did not do. Some would have liked to have read more about the numerous letters written between Abigail and John Adams.

Most Brown Baggers liked Wood’s writing style, but felt that he became a bit repetitive, especially toward the end of the book, and readers would have appreciated a little more editing. Others said that the book was a little tedious to read, but upon reflection, benefited from reading about the similarities and differences between the men.

Brown Baggers also discussed how different Adams and Jefferson were politically- Adams favored a strong central government, while Jefferson was in favor of robust state rights. At the end of the discussion, one member wondered: how would Jefferson and Adams feel about today’s government, especially with the shutdown?

Books and Authors Mentioned
America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray
John Adams by David McCullough
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams, Margaret A. Hogan, editor (available at UVa)

Reviews, Articles, and Other Mentions
Interview with Gordon Wood on “Good Will Hunting”
Poggio A Caiano, Charlottesville’s Sister City
Kirkus Review
History of Currency in America
Adams Family Papers– includes full color digital images of the manuscripts and letters

The Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, February 21 at noon to discuss Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney.

“Sometimes, you will feel as if you have rowed right off the planet and are now rowing among the stars.”

200px-theboysintheboatBooks on Tap read The Boys in the Boat by Daniel Brown at  Champion Brewery on January 3. This non-fiction choice follows the University of Washington crew team in the run-up to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. These nine working-class amateurs not only had to beat the elite East Coast Ivy League teams, they then had to face the semi-professional and naval European teams. While the book is rich in detail and we meet many characters, the heart of the story is Joe Rantz, who joins the team as a mistrustful, essentially homeless teenager. We follow along during the cold, grueling training mornings, the back-breaking summer jobs Joe takes on to earn enough money to stay in school and the exhilarating race days. The close cooperation Joe and his family provided the author enhances the depth of the story without sacrificing accuracy (at least through Joe’s eyes). Joe’s story line also kept us from being bogged down in the arcane rowing details and the many incidental historical figures introduced.

And what historical figures! Some readers were captivated by this turning point in history, from the depths of the Great Depression to the run-up to World War II. We were struck by the lengths the Nazis went to clear areas of Berlin and to advance their standing on the world stage via propaganda while hiding their genocidal intentions. The teammates certainly didn’t know the full extent of the atrocities and in fact coxswain Bobby Moch may not have found out that his family was Jewish had his father not revealed it to him on the eve of Bobby’s trip to Berlin.  In an interesting side note, the rowers present at our discussion agreed that it takes a particular personality to be a successful coxswain and that these bold men often go on to coach.

We also discussed the ongoing clearances that happen in Olympic hosts cities and that hosting does not usually produce long-term benefits for the host city. We wondered if the Olympics are not as popular as they were decades ago because of doping scandals, boycotts, more access to all sports online and increased professional participation but we agreed that we still get sucked in every two years.

The author sets the team up as underdogs and while they weren’t as highly regarded or supported as their competition, they did have advantages. They had access to George Pocock, a premier boatbuilder and rowing devotee. Their coaches were committed to sending a boat to the Olympics and tinkered with the lineup for years. Rowing was a national sport at the time and the city of Seattle pinned their hopes on the team. Ultimately, as rowers in our group pointed out, it comes down to the day of the race and having luck and balance on your side.  The balance was most evident with Joe, a boy who was all but abandoned as a ten year old who had to learn to trust his teammates and find the ineffable swing that would make them champions.

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Movie update
The Summer Olympics were cancelled during World War II. In 1948 the so-called Austerity Olympics were held in London (the US won the men’s eights once again).

Read Alikes:
The Amateurs by David Halberstam
In the Garden of Beasts and The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Native American Son: The Life and and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe by Kate Buford
Seabiscuit: an American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand
Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan
Note by Note: the Making of Steinway L1037
Rudy
Jesse Owens film at Northside Library, February 26

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