“Some Men Are Attracted To That”

51k4tgddlulBooks on Tap read Silver Sparrow  by Tayari Jones at  Champion Brewery on March 1 as part of the NEA Big Read. Due to a high turnout and a crowded room (both good problems to have), we divided into three groups for discussion so that we could hear each other. Most of us agreed that Jones told a good story with moments of beautiful writing, but that we wouldn’t have read this book if not for the NEA Big Read.

I can’t improve on this synopsis from the NEA Big Read website:

Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta during the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s families—the public one and the secret one. When Witherspoon’s daughters from each family meet, they form a friendship, but only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode when secrets are revealed and illusions shattered. As Jones explores the backstories of her rich and flawed characters, she also reveals the joy, and the destruction, they brought to each other’s lives.

Dana, the “secret” sister, knows far more about the situation than Chaurisse, the “legitimate” sister who has been kept in the dark. Without a shared history, can they truly call themselves sisters? People in the group with experience thought they could have developed a relationship as adults, but that’s not how the novel unspools. The favoritism that each felt the other received from the adults in their lives (and the examples they set) proved insurmountable.  Ironically, it seems Dana, whose fate was determined by Chaurisse’s casts-offs, was made stronger by her father’s cruel insistence on independence and the web of her relationships instead of reliance on a nuclear family. Interestingly, many of us thought the portions of the book that Dana narrated were more compelling than those in Chaurisse’s voice.

Their shared father James impregnated Laverne, his first wife, when she was 14 and he was approximately 19. He and his foster brother Raleigh were left to raise themselves. Laverne moves in and the trio reach adulthood as a tight unit. James decides to become a chauffeur, taking money from both of them, thus ending Raleigh’s dreams of becoming a photographer and Laverne’s formal education. This selfishness crops up again and again (both mothers and daughters wait on him hand and foot), although it could be defended as a reflection of the seriousness with which James takes his responsibility to all the members of his families. It also protects James’ self-image.

James, Raleigh and Laverne are all abandoned by parents. James, Laverne and Chaurisse are the first nuclear family in generations. Their jump to middle-class Atlanta, with access to education and security, is something to be defended fiercely, regardless of James and Laverne’s feelings about each other personally (frankly, James is not a physically attractive specimen).  However, no one can escape him, and perhaps the male influence on these largely matrilineal families. Gwen and Raleigh’s abandonments stand out. Raleigh looks so white that he scares black people – including his own mother. Gwen is disowned by her father after leaving her first husband, proving that she can  leave a relationship.

The secret cracks when Gwen and Dana visit Laverne’s beauty shop. We discussed why they would have done this and if Dana ever made a conscious decision to befriend Chaurisse. Did they want to change the unfair dynamic and thought this was they way they could do it with the power available to them?

Jones portrays her hometown of Atlanta, the City Too Busy to Hate,  almost entirely peopled by African Americans. James and Laverne’s customers, the girls friends, Gwen’s neighbors depict the diversity of experience that is often ignored in outsiders’ depictions. The Civil Rights movement is obliquely referenced, which seems fitting for a novel that focuses so tightly on one extended family’s experience over a short amount of time.

More Information:
Learn more about the NEA Big Read and JMRL’s programs
About the author
Other works
Secret children in the news: Strom Thurmond, Charles Kuralt, John Edwards

Books on Tap Information:

We will be choosing titles for the summer at the April 6 meeting. Add suggestions you have to this list.

Previous titles

“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

Books on Tap Information:

Help us choose upcoming titles by adding to this list.

Previous titles

“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

Books on Tap Information:

Help us choose upcoming titles by adding to this list.

Previous titles