“do you know what it’s like to live/someplace that loves you back?”

31IhYveEJTL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_The LGBTQ Book club met on May 29 at the Central Library to discuss Alex Gino’s George, a children’s book about a fourth-grade transgirl who names herself Melissa. Melissa’s dearest wish is to play Charlotte in her school’s production of Charlotte’s Web, but her teacher dismisses her because she presents as male. With help from her best friend and ally Kelly and the low-key support of the school principal, Melissa confides in her mother and brother. The novel ends with Melissa and Kelly enjoying an anonymous day at the zoo as two little girls.

Most of the readers who attended book club on the 29th don’t regularly read children’s literature so it took us a while to adjust to the vocabulary and pacing aimed at middle grader readers. Once we locked into the story, we did find the story accessible and Melissa’s family and friends familiar. We debated the term aspirational – Melissa’s journey is fairly easy as far as transitions go, could it be that Gino wished to showcase the possibility that transitioning doesn’t have to be a worse-case scenario, filled with rejection and violence? Did they write the transition story they wished they could have read as a child? The story normalizes transitioning and gives its intended audience of children the vocabulary to discuss trans identities, be it for themselves or like Melissa’s best friend Kelly, allies. As gentle as Melissa’s coming of age story is, the book does acknowledge that being trans is hard. Melissa’s mom is initially hesitant (she has her suspicions when she finds Melissa’s hidden purse full of images of women) but does explain her complex feelings. The ending is a soft landing and not as strong as the dénouement earlier in the book when Kelly shares clothes with Melissa, and through Kelly’s photographs show Melissa as subject and no longer object.

We discussed the title of the book. Gino has expressed regret at deadnaming Melissa so prominently, but some of our group found the pairing of a masculine name with feminine pronouns to be a compelling opening.

The novel is a great example of an own voices story. The audiobook is narrated by a transwoman actor. We thought it is useful for kids questioning their identities, the friends and families of those children and adults who want a glimpse into the mind of a trans girl.

More Information:
About the author
Interview with the author
About the book
Author’s Guide

Next meetings:

“Anna smelled the bay, its oily piers. Clusters of seagulls hopped at the shore like white rabbits.”

manhattanbeachThe Brown Baggers met on May 16 to discuss Jennifer Egan’s award-winning novel Manhattan Beach. The novel follows three intertwined characters- Anna Kerrigan, her father Eddie Kerrigan, and the gangster Dexter Styles. The book spans the end of the Great Depression through World War II. After working as a bagman for Styles, Anna’s father has disappeared and now, at 19, she has a job measuring small metal parts for the navy. However, after seeing a professional diver, she starts to train to become one. Because Anna is female, becoming a diver is very difficult and she faces a lot of discrimination.

On a night out with a friend, Anna meets Styles in one of his nightclubs and eventually through him, tries to find out what happened to her father. Styles has become a crime boss, owns several nightclubs, and married into New York Society. They become attracted to each other, and Anna becomes pregnant with his child. After Styles is murdered, Anna moves to California and with her aunt’s advice pretends to be a war widow. She later is reunited with her father.

The Brown Baggers had mixed reactions to this novel- some loved the book, while others did not care for it. Some mentioned that it was beautifully written, and that Egan really got into the minds of the characters. But others felt that the book was hard to figure out and that time shifting back and forth was disruptive to the story. All agreed that Egan did a lot of research for this novel.

A few people mentioned that the story line with Anna’s disabled sister, Lydia, was beautiful, and it really showed the love that people can have for one another. Others really liked Brianne, Anna’s aunt and thought she was an interesting character. And everyone liked the aspect of Anna working as a diver and women working outside of the home, (most of them) for the first time.

Books Mentioned:
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

More Information:
About the author
Review from The Kenyon Review
Women divers of the US Navy

The Brown Baggers will meet again at the Central Library on Thursday, June 20 at noon to discuss Thomas Mellon’s Fellow Travelers.

“Because a place can do many things against you, and if it’s your home or if it was your home at one time, you still love it.”

bookofunknownamericansBooks on Tap read The Book of Unknown Americans  by Cristina Henriquez at Champion Brewery on May 2. The novel is set in an apartment building in Delaware owned and occupied by Latinx migrants. It frequently switches narrators but the story focuses on the Riveras, a family that has moved to America to access school services for their teen daughter Mirabel who has suffered a brain injury, and the Toros, Panamanians who are now American citizens. Teenage Mayor Toro is drawn to Mirabel and Celia Rivera helps newly arrived Alma Rivera navigate life in small town Delaware. The teen protagonists and straightforward prose would appeal to teen readers. Henriquez is also a short story writer and the interstitial chapters narrated by secondary characters who live in the building read like short stories. The entire story was originally written from Mayor’s point of view and he and Alma really carry the novel.

The book is set during the global economic crisis of 2008 and written around 2012. We thought that the Riveras would have a harder time getting visas from Mexico today then they would have then. The neighbors all share their compelling reasons for migrating and we think they would be in even more danger now. While we were surprised that the characters migrated to Delaware, Henriquez does a good job of explaining why and how they landed there. We compared it to our local economy that visibly employs migrants in such businesses as food service, construction, wine and orchard agriculture.

The secondary neighbor’s chapters painted a complex picture of the Latinx community, highlighting commonalities and differences, brought to life by busybody neighbor Quisqueya. However, we would have liked to learn more about food culture and had more distinction in speech among the migrants and even more untranslated Spanish. The only character not to get his own chapter was Garrett, the white teenager who harasses the Riveras and is instrumental to the climax. We inferred that his home life was terrible but he remains as remote to us as he was to Alma.

The climax is an unexpected but not unearned surprise. The Riveras have already survived the tragedy of Mirabel’s accident and her father’s unemployment. This last disaster makes Alma’s decision to return to Mexico inevitable but turns the focus from migration to a universal reflection on guilt and forgiveness.

More Information:
About the author
About the book
Other works

Books on Tap Information:

  • July 4 No meeting

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