“All were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be. It was the nature of things”

bardoThe Brown Baggers met on April 18 at the Central Library to discuss George Saunders’ novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.

The experimental novel takes place in 1862 shortly after the start of the Civil War. President Lincoln’s son, Willie, has died and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery where Lincoln visits several times to hold his son’s body. Narrated by snippets of (sometimes) real, historical sources and fictional characters both living and dead, Lincoln in the Bardo explores the president’s grief over the loss of his son and raises larger questions about death, the after-life, and the human condition.

The Brown Baggers were divided between those who loved the book and those who did not. Those who really enjoyed the novel thought it was “extraordinary” and were drawn to the unusual structure of the novel. On the other hand, those who did not like the book found the format to be off-putting. They felt the number of characters (over 150!) was overwhelming and distracting. Some suggested the ghosts in the cemetery may represent the seven deadly sins, but felt the minor ghosts’ stories detracted from the story.

Despite these differences in opinion, all agreed Saunders depicted Lincoln’s grief in a very raw and honest way. They were moved by the relationship between Lincoln and Willie and the portrayal of Lincoln as he is overcome with sorrow and guilt for his son’s death and the thousands of soldiers killed during the Civil War. Many also commented that the book, especially the concept of the “bardo,” raised difficult questions about mortality, whether suffering is part of the human condition, and what lies beyond death.

Books Mentioned:
Neil Gaiman
Ulysses by James Joyce

More Information:
About the author
Review from The New York Times Book Review
Interview with the author in Writer’s Digest

The Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, May 16 at noon to discuss Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach.

“A Cavalier Evaluation”

81xSb00BWtLBooks on Tap read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich at Champion Brewery on April 4. We chose this 2001 title because of Ehrenreich’s scheduled appearance at the 2019 Virginia Festival of the Book, although she ultimately had to cancel. Her experimental examination of the working poor in American drew mixed reviews but engendered lively conversation. We all agreed that it was a shallow experiment: Ehrenreich was only in each job a short time, rented a car and had no children to support. She also relied on her social safety net, calling her dermatologist when she developed a rash cleaning houses but not understanding that a co-worker could not access health care for a more serious problem. Ehrenreich seems to be writing to a narrow audience, an assumed reader who looks a lot like her. She has an insulated, condescending attitude, claiming  “the Latinos might be hogging all the crap jobs and substandard housing for themselves as they often do.” Instead, she lives and works in primarily white areas, even ignoring large Hmong and Somali populations when living in Minneapolis. Her recent tweet about Marie Kondo doesn’t give much hope for improvement.

Despite these flaws, the book does spotlight the structural inequities that create generational poverty. We discussed housing costs that can eat up 50% of a family budget, exacerbated by the global economic collapse of 2008 and the hollowing out of large cities by investors buying real estate and leaving apartments empty. Ehrenreich certainly demonstrates how difficult it is to access benefits while working and we discussed how Jim Crow and other racist laws criminalized poverty. The American Dream is dependant on the labor or the working poor and in this instance, the book served as a window, since none of this month’s participants qualified. Ehrenreich’s own isolation serves as a good reminder that America is divided by class and it can be hard to get out of your own bubble. To that end, much like the old Tavern on 29, JMRL is a place where “students, tourists, and townpeople meet,” for free, seven days a week.

More Information:
About the author
About the book
Other works

Recommended Reading :
A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby K. Payne
Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land
Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus by Douglas Rushkoff

Books on Tap Information:

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“Though we have both suffered misfortune, we are lucky to have spent our whole lives together”

snowflowerThe Brown Baggers read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by bestselling author Lisa See on March 14 as part of the Same Page community read. Since the book group had already read The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, they chose a different novel by the author to read.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan takes place in nineteenth-century China and follows the life of Lily and her laotong, or “old same,” a girl named Snow Flower. Lily and Snow Flower are brought together by a matchmaker as an emotional match- a match that is so strong that it even comes before their marriages.

As a young girl Lily craves love from her mother, but tradition at that time maintained that girls were worthless and her mother did not pay her much attention. But Lily’s aunt teaches her nu shu, a secret women’s writing that men could not understand. Nu shu allowed women to communicate and this is how Lily and Snow Flower stay in touch over the years.

The girls faced many challenges in their lives; they endured the dangerous practice of foot binding as girls, and later as adults they survived in the dangerous mountains during the Taiping Rebellion. Snow Flower and Lily loved each other for many decades, but there was a misunderstanding between them and Lily wrongly thought Snow Flower betrayed her. When Snow Flower became gravely sick, Lily realized that she was too late to make it up to Snow Flower, but Lily was able to help Show Flower’s granddaughter.

Overall, most of the Brown Baggers liked the book. Some found it fascinating, while others said it was depressing to read. One reader mentioned that the novel caused reflection, which is a sign of great writing. Some mentioned that See must have conducted a lot of research, since the story was very historically accurate, and the descriptions of the foot-binding process were very descriptive which made it hard to read.

Many readers mentioned that the women were so isolated from everything and how difficult that would have been. After having their feet bound, the women spent most of their time together in a small room. They were not really able to go outside and could only walk very short distances. Some readers thought the girls and women were too obedient, but strict obedience was expected of them. It would have been practically impossible to not follow what their parents, and later on their in-laws, told them to do.

Most readers said that they learned something about nineteenth-century China from the book and also wanted to know how big the fan was that the girls wrote on, since they wrote on it to each other for years.

Books Mentioned:
Hawaii by James Michener
Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

More Information:
About the author
Taiping rebellion
Review from BookPage
About foot binding (includes a picture of an unbound foot at the beginning of the article)

Lotus Shoes: 



The Central Library will be screening the film Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2011) on Thursday, March 28 at 7pm.

The Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, April 18 at noon to discuss Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.