“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:
About the author
Other works
Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

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“On what slender threads do life and fortune hang.”

penguin-count-monte-cristoBrown Baggers had a full house, or at least full Madison Room, at the discussion of the classic novel The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas on January 19. Written in 1844, Monte Cristo is a tale of revenge. Edmund Dantes, the main character, is wrongfully imprisoned for over a decade. Upon getting out and learning he has lost his love and his family, he recreates himself as the Count of Monte Cristo and seeks vengeance against those who caused his misfortunes.

Assuming new identities was a common occurrence in this book. In addition to the Count, many of the characters he is after also reappear under other names or with new titles. In the Count’s case, readers felt this also came with a personality change. This could be the result of his harrowing time in prison, or maybe just the persona he needed to complete his vengeful acts.  Once he completes those acts readers noted he again seems to make a personality change.
Revenge versus justice was a discussion point as well. Monte Cristo obviously felt he was meting out justice as he regularly states he is just doing God’s will. Or he may have felt they were one and the same. This speaks to Cristo’s sense of omnipotence.  Readers suggested it might have been from the seemingly unlimited wealth that was bestowed upon him. Alternately it could have stemmed from his near dying in prison, as well as his having nothing left to lose once he got free. Either way his story of “dying” as a way to get out of prison only to be “reborn” felt strongly reminiscent of the killing and resurrection of Jesus. This omnipotence also surfaced in his treatment of characters whom he cared for and was trying to help with his constant mantra for them to trust him despite his outlandish requests.
The lack of actual politics in a book that incorporates political story lines surrounding Napoleon’s return to power surprised readers. They felt this might have been a result of publishing for a general audience and not wanting to offend anyone’s sensibilities. It was remarked that the book seemed to be comprised of simpler, less flowery language making it perhaps easier to read for the masses. Although readers familiar with the original French version felt it was the result of translation . Regardless, it was agreed upon that Dumas thoroughly understood the segment of society that he writes about which is not surprising since they are events that occurred in or near his lifetime.

Many in attendance had read this title before but a few were new finishers of the 117 chapter tome. Everyone enjoyed the story if agreeing that it was highly implausible. Favorite features were Dumas’ generous details, sense of humor, and excellent dialog. It was also acknowledged that the story went slightly off course in the middle. Once the action picked up, though, the final few hundred pages really flew by.

More Information:
Author bio
Harvard Magazine article about how his father influenced the book
Mental Floss article with random trivia about the book
Gizmodo article on real life inspiration for the character of Abbé Faria
2005 French movie featuring Gérard Depardieu

Other titles that came up:
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Cousin Bette by Honoré de Balzac (we have the film)
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

 

Next meeting will be February 16, 2017 at noon. We will be discussing The English Passengers by Matthew Kneale.

“She murdered her entire family!”

5180ubrqqzlBooks on Tap read  We Have Always Lived in the Castle   by Shirley Jackson at  Champion Brewery on January 5. Starting at the ending, most attendees didn’t care for the novella. A few had read Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” but the majority had not read any of her works, especially her memoirs of raising her family. The revelation of the murderer at the end was not a surprise to half the readers and the other half agreed that it was obvious upon a re-read. A few readers were enthusiastic about the spooky tone while others failed to find a moral in the story. However, after learning more about Jackson’s own agoraphobia and ostracization, many readers appreciated the symbolism more.

And symbolism abounds. Taking her source material from a real-life crime in England, Jackson transposed the setting to her small-town Vermont and based the the sister protagonists on her own daughters’ characters. Indeed, the fictional sisters read like two sides of the same person. Child-like 18-year-old Mericat, her older sister Constance and their uncle Julian live isolated in a grand house outside of town. Dogged by rumors that Constance poisoned her parents, brother and Julian’s wife, the trio seldom receive visitors and Mericat is the only one to leave the grounds. Variously teased and shunned by the townsfolk, she resorts to  magical thinking and rituals to defend her property. Uncle Julian is supposedly working on a family history but repeatedly asks Constance if his memories are true. Along comes cousin Charles, whom the reader and Uncle Julian know is bad news, upending Mericats rituals and routines  and thawing Constance. Mericat’s reaction to Charles tightens the underlying tension until the house burns down (debatably Mericat’s fault) and the fire chief implicitly gives the gathered townspeople permission to ransack the once forbidden house. While the townspeople then react by bringing food and other gifts to the sisters, Mericat manifests their psychological barriers by enclosing them in the kitchen and blacking out the windows. The futility of their hiding and rituals is exposed by rain pouring into the kitchen and neighbors, formerly kept at bay, pouring onto the footpath along the house. One reader pointed out that this was Mericat’s use of the feminine power available to her, versus the masculine power of Charles. Another thought the towns’ reaction was analogous to society’s fear of young women’s potential and the impulse to cage them. We all discussed the fine line Mericat rode between insanity and eccentricity, the distancing her peculiarities forced on the narrative and  how much better the story would have been as a Young Adult movie franchise.

Finally, we wish founding member Emily best of luck in the new Vermont chapter of her life!

More Information:
About the author
Author biography
Other works
Joyce Carol Oates on Jackson in the New York Review of Books
Upcoming film adaptation
Previous stage adaptations

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