“The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”

fahrenheit451coverBooks on Tap read Fahrenheit 451  by Justin Torres at Champion Brewery on June 7.  The group votes on the titles we read each period and this was our “classic” selection. Many of us had read it in high school or had watched the 1966 film adaptation (none of us has seen the newest HBO version) and recalled the basic outline: in the near future fireman Guy Montag burns books because they are dangerous, meets a young woman, rethinks society and his role in it and joins a band of outcasts determined to memorize and preserve literature as the government fakes his assassination. Throughout he is surrounded by citizens who use entertainment and drugs to numb themselves, making it easy for a political/military elite to wage a war that seems to destroy the cities in the end.

The group doesn’t read many sci-fi titles and this one was within our comfort zone. The wall-to-wall screens and omnipresent earbuds presaged today’s obsession with Facebook, Twitter, Virtual Reality and fandoms. The mechanical dog functions like today’s drones, complete with the paranoia of being singled out for constant monitoring and crime-fighting-through-DNA. Similarly, Montag’s wife Mildred is repeatedly overdosing and being brought back with little fanfare and with seemingly no harm. Not only was this a way for her to numb herself against the monotony of her life and to distract her and the rest of the population from the war, it also reminded 2018 readers of the current opioid epidemic.

We were most interested in Montag’s boss, Chief Beatty. He seems conflicted – he’s read and hidden books but daily burns them and those who hide them. It was unclear if he was currently reading books or had memorized some and was now just hoarding them as a display of power. Some of us posited that Beatty committed suicide by provoking Montag. We then considered Montag’s young friend, Clarisse. She is the one who exposes Montag to an alternative way of living, where people discuss ideas and sit on porches to meet with neighbors. Not only is she one of the few people to talk to Montag for any length of time, she is one of the few woman with a backstory.

Bradbury’s coda disappointed us. He claims that writers are splintering into ethnic, social and racial divisions but until recently sci-fi was notoriously non-diverse. It was hard to square this novel, a call to arms to preserve intellectual freedom, with his restrictive view of how writing should be presented.

What struck us most about the novel in 2018 was need for deep, sustained reading for pleasure as opposed to purpose. It is an antidote to our plugged in society, getting us out of our bubbles and exercising our attention spans. That led us to list the books that hooked us on reading as children and young adults:

Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Roald Dahl‘s works
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Cherry Ames series
Bobbsey Twins by Laura Lee Hope

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Short stories as origin
1966 Movie
2018 Movie

Read Alikes:
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
The Stand by Stephen King
A Gift Upon the Shore by M.K. Wren
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Mr. Burns, a Post-electric Play by Anne Washburn
This is America a music video by recording artist Childish Gambino

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“More subtle than Kingsolver.”

ragnarokBooks on Tap read Ragnarok (other editions available) by A.S. Byatt at Champion Brewery on April 5. The book is part of the Canongate Myth Series, in which noted authors reinterpret myths in book-length format. Last fall the group read and enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s contribution, The Penelopiad, so we decided to try another one. A.S. Byatt chose Ragnarok, the Norse myth of a battle of the gods leading to the end of the world. She frames the story with that of the thin girl evacuated to the British countryside during World War II who comforts herself by reading and re-reading 19th century German collection of Norse myths. The destruction of the mythic world and  20th century Europe are compared in the final section, “Thoughts on Myths” with environmental degradation in the 21st century.

Unlike The Penelopiad which was a witty transformation of The Odyssey focusing on a minor character, Byatt’s Ragnarok is a straight-forward retelling within the frame story. Some of our readers found the writing, naming all plants and animals, lush, similar to The Ten Thousand Things. Others found it off-putting and hard to track.

Byatt questions the difference between myth and fairy tale but does not provide a clear answer. Our group was also unable to come up with a definitive answer, but did find this myth useful. Are we not as vainglorious as the gods? Is Loki’s chaos as natural state destined to bring about cyclical cataclysm, either war or environmental? Unlike modern interpretations of fairy tales, Byatt chose the pre-Christian ending, in which the world is destroyed but not re-born. However, there are glimpses of hope in her final section and in the fact that the thin girl’s father unexpectedly returns from war.

While this wasn’t the success that The Penelopiad was, the readers who joined us found it a worthwhile struggle and the first (and probably only) book by Byatt that we’ll read.

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“I think the hope has always been that you see what you see, and you take us anyway, for who we are.”

blackwaterrisingBooks on Tap read Black Water Rising by Attica Locke at  Champion Brewery on February 1st. Set in Houston, Texas in 1981, the novel follows African American lawyer Jay Porter as his wife is due to deliver their first child and his practice teeters on bankruptcy. A chance encounter with a drowning white woman upends his hard-earned stability and forces him to confront his activist past and the corroding influence of the oil industry. The book at times feels overwritten, with too many plots and some silent characters like his wife Bernie. As with many first novels, it could have benefited from editing. Locke was partially inspired by her own life – her father was a student protester in the 1960s and ran for mayor in Houston, which has a recent history of electing diverse people. The incident on the barge was similar to one she witnessed as a child. The book is  not quite a thriller or mystery or suspense novel, but most definitely a David vs. Goliath story with a sympathetic main character. Despite the confusion over the many threads (60s radicalism, unions, environmental racism) it does land on a satisfying ending, setting up the sequel.

Jay is the heart and soul of the novel. He worked hard to put himself through college and law school, only to be jailed for his activism. He can’t shake the thought that he was set-up by the white women he was dating, who is now running for mayor. This uneasy relationship colors his interaction with the white woman he saves from drowning; she doesn’t trust him and he doesn’t trust her because of the color divide. Jay also faces pressure from within the local African American community. His friend Kwame doesn’t think Jay is black enough and his father-in-law pressures him to help the dockworkers. Jay lives under constant mental stress, sleeping with a gun under his pillow. While we weren’t all cheering for Jay at all times (like the titular character of Better Call Saul, he takes chances in order to make money to keep his practice a float), we did get caught up in the tension and rooted for  his survival.

We mulled over the differences between the book’s 1981 setting  vs 2018. The rampant indoor smoking is a thing of the past, but aspects of distrust between races and classes still ring true.

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Attica Locke will be at the Festival of the Book on March 23 and 24
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Books on Tap Information:
In March we will read What We Talk about when We Talk about Anne Frank by Nathan Englander as part of JMRL’s Same Page. For a free copy of the book, please email Sarah at shamfeldt@jmrl.org

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