“Sometimes it is better to imagine a past than remember it.”

houseBooks on Tap read House of Stone  by Anthony Shadid at  Champion Brewery on October 5. A memoir about the months he spent restoring his family home in Marjayoun in southern Lebanon, the book was published shortly after he died from an asthma attack while reporting near the Syrian border. A memoir differs from an autobiography in that it typically focuses on a signal aspect of the writer’s life, such as sailing around the world or kicking an addiction. Or as Gore Vidal wrote,“a memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.” Oddly, Shadid at times hides himself in the story, not delving into the pain of the separation from his first wife and daughter and only alluding to the other duties he has during this time frame. On the other hand, he is a writer, so he will write to process these feelings and the book as a whole reflects his reporting: chronological and fact-driven.

Shadid intercuts the struggles he has hiring tradesmen, buying supplies and understanding his neighbors with family history, tracing how the grand house was built, declined and rebuilt. He admires the great-grandfather who financed and built the house, the great-grandmother who maintained it as a widow and the grandmother who was born there but came to America to save the ensuing generations, who include doctors, lawyers and award-winning reporters.

The negotiations about the house provide humor as nearly every request explodes into a fight. This instant anger may be born of trauma, from the 1975 civil war to the Israeli occupation to Rafik Hariri’s assassination. It is also a useful rage, giving one the upper hand in negotiations. One of our readers noted that Americans need to know about this tendency if they are ever to help negotiate peace in the area.

While most people liked the book, those that didn’t agreed that it could have used a map and photographs. However, Shadid does define the Levant and the way of life practiced there until the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Some of us struggled with the transitions between the family history and the modern-day restoration, but one astute reader among us noted that this structure mirrors the history of the house itself. As the family story progresses, the house goes from good to bad while during Shadid’s personal story the house goes from bad to good.

And what a family story. Over four generations, Shadid illustrates the pull of the area: the beauty of landscape, the interconnected lives of the residents, the limited options presented by the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the ensuing civil wars and the general  instability of life near the Israeli and Syrian borders. Again and again he returns to his family’s position in the town and the intermarriages which make him known to the residents before he even officially moves in. One book club member was struck that despite the bombing, occupation and ruin the house faces, everyone knows who the abandoned structure belongs to. Which turns out to be many people. Shadid is warned time and again by family in America and people in Marjayoun that he should under no circumstances rebuild the home because too many descendants have a claim on it and could cause trouble just after Shadid pours money into the project. Despite this foreshadowing, nothing comes of the warnings. Just the opposite happens, at the end of the book Shadid brings his second wife and their son to the house, declaring that no matter where they live, “this is home now.”

Our book club members recounted their own tales of the pull of the family place, from Switzerland to Lebanon itself. One woman generously shared her own experience of marrying into a Lebanese family in Kansas, who were drawn to the area in the 1920s when it was open territory with little infrastructure. Peddlers back in Lebanon, that serviced the new settlements, later opening grocery and furniture stores. Much like Shadid, her American-born son now feels more comfortable in Lebanon. Another club member reported similar chain migration in his area of West Virginia.

We also discussed the current state of migration to the US and the fact that, because of travel bans and xenophobia, Shadid’s family couldn’t do today what they did in the early 20th century, meaning that many of them would have died young and poor. Central Library recently screened the documentary Eight Borders, Eight Days which follows migrants from nearby Syria as they try to get to Europe in 2015. Shadid’s great-grandfather lived as an Ottoman gentleman, something that only a few Marjayoun residents are still able to do and are noted for it. While Shadid frequently alludes to the glory days of the empire,  everything collapses (as one member pointed out) and certainly other parts of the empire suffered.

Finally, we discussed the imagined past mentioned in the blog post title. As we struggle with preserving, contextualizing and assimilating history in Charlottesville, we have to acknowledge that because history is all too often remembered from a single perspective it is indeed imagined more than remembered.  

Next month we will be reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms as part of JMRL’s WWI centenary programs.  To get a free copy of the book to keep, please email Sarah at shamfeldt @  jmrl . org.  We’ll also be choosing books for spring 2018, so bring your suggestions!

More Information:
About the author
About the book
New York Times Obituary
Shadid’s guided tour of the house
Cemento tile making
Lebanon timeline
House of Stone book club kit
Shadid’s previous book Night Draws Near
Articles by Shadid

Books on Tap Information:

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“I’ve whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.”

selloutA small group joined Books on Tap on a beautiful, September 7, at  Champion Brewery to try to “untangle” Paul Beatty’s award-winning 2015 novel, The Sellout.

The plot centers on a Californian African American, an urban farmer home-schooled by his single father, alternately referred to as “Me” or “Bonbon”.  He contemplates how he has ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court over his efforts to reinstitute segregation and put his hometown of Dickens back on the map.  Oh, and he’s also the reluctant owner of a single slave, Hominy, a former child actor in the television series The Little Rascals.  

Going into it, we thought this would be a challenging novel to discuss. It seems to say that one can use racism to make people less racist.  And it questions how much or how little progress has been made on race relations in a supposed post-racial America.  

Some readers were put-off by the language. There were continual references to American Black culture, stereotypes and sometimes over the top, non-stop comedic innuendos that some readers might not “get”. Many reviewers and critics have characterized the novel as “satire”, but we discussed whether we thought the author really intended it as such.  Other readers appreciated the rich, dense sentences but admitted that it made the book a complex read. Readers felt there was some general wackiness and a few subplots that might have distracted from the book’s main storyline. 

There are many L.A.-area neighborhood references and fans of The Little Rascals might find some of the related trivia interesting.

Our discussion perhaps inevitably turned to current events and race relations in Charlottesville due to the author’s prescient wording on page 234.   Describing different ethnic groups at a “Hood Day” celebration, the main character says of a certain group “..it was hard to tell if they were from Dickens. Like Nazis at a Ku Klux Klan rally, they were comfortable ideologically but not in in terms of corporate culture.”

In the final pages, the protagonist reflecting on his own silence after a white couple is basically chased out of a black comedy club (p. 287), says that “Silence can be either protest or consent, but most times it’s fear.”  

More Information:
About the author
About the book
Other titles

Related Reading
The Known World by Edward P. Jones
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Waking Up White by Debbie Irving

Awards
2016 National Book Critics Circle Award (Fiction), winner for The Sellout
2016 Man Booker Prize winner for The Sellout
2017 International Dublin Literary Award long-list for The Sellout

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“Extraordinary things are always hiding in places people never think to look.”

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The Brown Baggers book group met on Thursday, August 17 to discuss My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult.

Published in 2004, the story centers around a teenager, Kate, who suffers from leukemia and her younger sister, Anna, who was conceived as a perfect genetic match to Kate. Having been required by her parents to participate in ever more serious medical treatments to save her sister, Anna finally sues her parents for medical emancipation when she is told she next must donate a kidney.

Most readers thought Anna was a very realistic and well developed character. They noted how her struggle to win her freedom from medical procedures she did not agree to was constantly at odds with her hesitation to harm her sister by doing refusing. This constant vacillation was very indicative of her young age, readers felt, and contributed to her authenticity.

Readers felt other characters in the book were not as well developed. While they understood the mother’s struggle, and thought her single-minded-ness and need to fix everything seemed accurate, she came off as a bit of a martyr. There were mixed feelings about the brother. While readers all agreed his behaviors were believable in response to being more or less overlooked during the medical and legal drama of the sisters they debated whether or not he would have reformed so quickly and completely. The father was a more unrealistic character, readers felt, since you don’t see his struggles the same way as the rest of the family. This may have been due to his tendency to avoid confrontation but it made him seem flat. The Campbell and Julia story line was deemed entirely unnecessary by readers.

The story has several narrators. This led a few readers to speculate about the ending before it was revealed due to who had a voice and who didn’t. While they didn’t object to multiple narrators, some readers felt the styling of the text was unnecessarily flowery (italics, different fonts, poorly tied in quotes). Mostly, though, readers felt Picoult handled the reveal at the end very well.

Readers complained that Picoult had some factual inaccuracies which made them disbelieve or struggle to get into the rest of the book. The inclusion of vast amounts of medical terminology related to Kate’s condition made it hard to enjoy the story for some readers. They also did not appreciate the perfectly tied up in a bow ending.

Reactions to the book were mixed – some readers enjoyed the ethical quandaries that were posed and others thought there were too many story lines and that the writing was a little formulaic. Overall, readers agreed that while the book is over-plotted and maybe not as substantial as they’d like, it is definitely worth reading.

Similar reads:
Family Life by Akhil Sharma (featuring a medically overshadowed sibling)
Corridors of the Night by Anne Perry (featuring a medical mystery and court case)
You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott (featuring a family focused on one child, an elite gymnast)

More information:
New York Times Magazine article about Jodi Picoult
Bio of the author
Other books by Picoult
Article about a similar situation involving the Ayala Sisters that may have provided inspiration

Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, September 21 at noon to discuss 1984 by George Orwell.