“Pretty easy life. Nothing seems to have happened to him.”

Brown Baggers met on May 18 to discuss Old Filth, a novel by Jane Gardam. The novel is named for its main character, and Filth becomes his nickname after he attains great success as a lawyer in Asia (it stands for Failed In London, Try Hong Kong). The novel is told as his 81-year-old self looking back on his life and coming to terms with abandonment and abuse in his childhood.
After his mother dies in childbirth, his detached father sends him to be raised in the local Malay village, where Filth thrives. However, in the family tradition, Filth is torn from this comfortable set up and sent off to a foster family in Wales. This situation scars him for life and his reminisces throughout the books always lead back to what happened to him there.
Being left was Filth’s main story. Throughout the book we learn of his repeated losses of friends, other relatives, and love interests. As a character, Filth is a survivor. Although his methods of surviving led some readers to consider him an appalling man. We discussed whether there was a likable character in this book. As they had all experienced trauma early in their lives they developed personality quirks which made them detached and hard to warm to as readers.
Compounding the never-ending sense of loss in Filth’s life was WWII, which began when he was a young teen. This only added to his losses and deprivations. While his early experiences led to his ability to be a good litigator, it also wracked him with a lifelong sense of guilt of past wrongs and all legal decisions he meted out as judge.
After the loss of his wife, and his only friend, Filth decides to revisit family members and locations from his past to come to a better understanding of what happened and make peace with it.
Mentions:
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Links:
The Man in the Wooden Hat(#2) and Last Friends(#3) in this trilogy

Audio interview with the author from BBC4

“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