“To be confined, hemmed in, to have nothing to do, was unbearable.”

cvr9780671447540_9780671447540_hrThe Brown Baggers book club met on Thursday, April 20th to discuss Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough. This biography of Theodore Roosevelt encompassed his early years, including his family background and history, through his phase as a cowboy driving cattle in the west. The book described how the president “came to be.” The book only briefly touched on Roosevelt’s political ambitions and foray into politics, since Roosevelt had not really entered politics at this stage in his life.

Mornings on Horseback was rich with detail, which some readers really enjoyed while others thought this caused the book to be a little dry. For example, the author describes how Teddy Roosevelt suffered from asthma as a child and throughout early adulthood. McCullough provided a very in-depth analysis of the potential causes of his asthma and the treatment for it at that time, as well as how the family dealt with the chronic illness and how it affected different members of the family. When and how often Roosevelt had an asthma attack was also noted. Some readers thought this level of detail detracted from the story.

Readers were delighted to gain insight into Roosevelt’s early life. Some found it curious that both Teddy Roosevelt and his older sister had difficulty seeing clearly as children, but it took their parents many years to learn that they both needed glasses. It was also fascinating to read about the family’s vacations, which would last over a year and were quite lavish. Roosevelt’s years at Harvard are also documented. Roosevelt spent a considerable amount of money while at Harvard, about $2,400 on clothes and club dues in two years, “a sum the average American family could have lived on for six years” during that time period.

The author explained how depressed Roosevelt was after the death of his first wife, Alice- this is when Roosevelt spent several years in the Badlands on a cattle ranch. It seemed as if Roosevelt could not cope with the passing of his wife, so he left his sister in charge of his newborn so he could become a cowboy. Some readers were appalled that Roosevelt left his child in the care of his sister, other readers thought his way of dealing with the death of his wife was to leave everything behind and go out west.

Another point that was brought up was that Roosevelt protected and conserved forests, landmarks, and wildlife during his presidency, but killed so many animals himself. He was a hunter and sportsman since he was a child and by his own accounts killed hundreds of birds on hunting trips as well as bears, deer, bison, and tigers.

Some readers mentioned that they would have liked to know more about how the servants lived and more about their roles in the household. Although the Roosevelts had servants and traveled with them, there was little mention of them in this biography.

Overall, most readers enjoyed learning about Roosevelt’s early life and his family history. Mornings on Horseback described Roosevelt as a man who was always doing something, as he hated to be bored. The biography gave an extensive look at Roosevelt’s life before he became president and the events that helped mold who he became.

Reviews of the book:
From The New York Times 
From Kirkus Reviews

Interviews with the author:
Archive of Studs Terkel interview
The Paris Review

Similar Reads:
Island of Vice by Richard Zachs
The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

Next month the Brown Baggers will meet on Thursday, May 18th at 12pm and will be discussing Old Filth by Jane Gardam.

“In defending himself from death, he lost his grip on life.”

2475251Books on Tap read The Cellist of Sarajevo  by Steven Galloway at  Champion Brewery on April 6. The novel follows three characters as they make choices while living in Sarajevo while the city was under siege from April 1992 to February 1996 during the Bosnian War. The titular cellist and one of those main characters are based on real people. Vedran Smailovic did play for 22 days to publicly protest the bombing of 22 civilians in a breadline. However, The Cellist of Sarajevo angered him. Galloway was inspired to create the character Arrow after reading an 1992 AP article about a 20 year-old female sniper.   In the novel, Arrow tries to distance herself from the murders she commits, while preventing a sniper from the other side from killing the cellist while he plays for  22 days at the site of the bread line bombing. Elsewhere in the city, Kenan risks his life to traverse the city to gather water for his young family and his cantankerous neighbor.  Dragan, who has sent his wife and son to live a few hours away in Italy, still works at a bakery, but has to live with his sister because his apartment was destroyed by a bomb. While most of the novel revolves around the interior choices the characters make to maintain their humanity against the backdrop of the destruction of their civilized city, the physical risks they take on their journeys throughout the city maintain narrative tension.

To begin the conversation, we tried to remember what we knew about the Bosnian war and the limits the UN faced in guarding civilians. We also wondered if readers in Galloway’s native Canada would be more familiar with the history because Canadian troops and leaders were heavily involved in the UN Protection Force charged with peacekeeping in the area. Galloway intentionally does not provide the reader with extensive background information about the Siege or his characters in order to expose the survival conditions that existed in the city and the basic humanness of each person in the book.

The destroyed buildings and infrastructure and the murders that the main characters witness while on the streets of Sarajevo underpin the randomness of war and the seeming powerlessness of humans. However, we discussed the choices that each of them make to reaffirm their humanity. Dragan both chooses to see the city he remembers and its current bombed-out iteration. He chooses both to be annoyed by his brother-in-law and to risk his life to ensure that a stranger doesn’t die alone in the street. Kenan chooses to gather extra water for his elderly neighbor and not to go into the hills like his friend. Arrow chooses to kill the sniper trained on the cellist, despite her initial hesitation and also chooses not to kill the elderly man her new commander demands she shoot. That man clearly has ties to Arrow’s enemies in the hills but she knows that the killing has to stop with someone and she would rather die than continue to be a machine of death. Continue reading

“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.

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