“No coincidence, no story.”

teagirlThe Brown Baggers met on August 16 to discuss Lisa See’s The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane.

The story takes place in the mountains of China. Li-yan, a young girl of the Akha ethnic minority group, lives with her family picking tea leaves and following the customs of her culture. Li-yan is smart and is able to continue her schooling beyond what is typical for someone in her village. When a stranger visits the village in a jeep, the first automobile any of them had seen, Li-yan acts as a translator and begins to understand that there is a world far beyond her own and that she doesn’t have to stay in her village forever.

In Li-yan’s teenage years she falls in love with a young man who is not considered an appropriate match by her mother, but Li-yan bears his child, then takes the baby to an orphanage in the city, leaving the infant with a special tea cake. Li-yan eventually makes a life for herself outside of her small village, through owning a tea shop that sells pu-erh tea, but she never forgets the child she gave up.

Almost all of the Brown Baggers loved this book! They thought the story was interesting and loved learning more about the Akha people and about how tea is grown and processed. Some noted that although the novel had many characters, it was a plot-driven novel, rather than character-driven, which made the story move quickly.

Some readers mentioned that they thought there were too many details about tea. Although the book centered around the unique tea culture, there was a lot of information about the price of different tea leaves and this seemed to distract from the plot of the story. But others mentioned how much research the author must have completed around the topic.

Many readers felt that it was interesting to learn about the superstitions of the Akha culture and how they were different (and similar) to superstitions from other parts of the world. The Akha had the saying “no coincidence, no story,” but some Brown Baggers pointed out that there were many, many coincidences in the book. Also, most felt that the ending was too contrived, but they still enjoyed it. Others felt like the ambiguous ending was disappointing, but in an interview, the author said that she purposefully wrote the ending this way.

The Brown Baggers will meet again on September 20th at 12pm and will be discussing The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

More Information:
Article about Pu-erh tea
About the Akha People

Reviews of the Book:
From Kirkus Reviews
From the Washington Post
From the Los Angeles Review of Books

Books and Authors Mentioned:
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
China Dolls by Lisa See
Pearl S. Buck

“I don’t understand all the fuss. If any creature is in danger, you save it, human or animal.”

zookeeperswifeThe Brown Baggers met at Central on July 19th to discuss The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman. This is the true story of how the Zabinski family in Poland survived WWII, and helped save the lives of over 300 Jews by hiding them in the Warsaw Zoo. Ackerman read through the unpublished diary of Antonina Zabinski to uncover the story.

The Warsaw Zoo was modern for its time, with enclosures that aimed to mimic the animal’s natural habitats. Jan Zabinski was the director of the zoo, but his wife Antonina spent much of her time caring for the sick and orphaned animals. Most of the zoo’s animals and structures were destroyed in the bombings and siege of the city. The Germans closed the zoo when they occupied Poland, but they allowed the Zabinskis to live in the villa and to convert the zoo into a pig farm, then a fur farm.

The Zabinskis became active with the Polish underground resistance and secretly sheltered Jews in various parts of the zoo, as well as their own house, throughout the war. Antonina continued to care for animals, even allowing her young son to keep some as pets in the house throughout the war. Jan fought in the Warsaw uprising and was interred in a POW camp toward the end of the war. The Zabinski family survived the war and the zoo reopened in 1949, with Jan as the director.

The Brown Baggers liked the book. Many mentioned that they enjoyed the author’s writing style and how the book blended two stories – those of the animals of the zoo with the horrors of WWII. However, some did not find all of the naturalist details that were included necessary. They felt like it distracted from the plot line of the story and they would rather have learned more about the members of the resistance and their activities. Many also mentioned the parallels with how the Nazis treated the zoo animals and how they treated humans. While all of the details of the zoo may have been too much for some readers, others felt the animal stories lightened up the otherwise heavy subjects of the book. Continue reading

“We were allowed to be what we were, frightened and vengeful — little animals, clawing at what we needed.”

wetheanimalsBooks on Tap read We the Animals by Justin Torres at Champion Brewery on May 3. We sat outside to enjoy the beautiful weather and wrapped up our conversation before the band started playing. Opinion was split on this atmospheric coming of age story, shaded by violence, unpredictability and dysfunctional love. It centers on three young brothers, narrated by the youngest. Their very young parents, one white, one Puerto Rican, have relocated from Brooklyn to upstate and no other family in town is like theirs. The episodic chapters are filled with scenes of great love right alongside great violence, culminating in the narrator ruminating on both his birth and chosen families.

I have to admit that the notes I took are no longer in my possession, so what follows is more of an impression of the discussion than reportage. Some admired the lush writing, others appreciated that writing but were glad the book wasn’t any longer and still others were confused and are waiting for the movie to see what really happened. We debated the stresses of poverty and racism on families and the pull of parental love. The author drew on his family history for inspiration. The mental health crisis portrayed made us wonder what services were available in a rural town in the 90s. Overall, we were glad we had been introduced to this author, even if we weren’t clear on what actually happened in the book.  

More Information:
About the author
Interview with the author
About the book

Books on Tap Information:

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