“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

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“I tried to divine which day the world became theirs.”

english_passengersThe Brown Baggers Book group read English Passengers by Matthew Kneale and met on February 16 to discuss it. There were mixed reviews among the book club members.

English Passengers was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction, won the 2000 Whitbread Book of the Year Award, the Australian Miles Franklin Award, and France’s Relay Prix d’Evasion.

This book is a historical novel set during the age of British colonialism and is told by about 20 different narrators. The story spans decades and follows two timelines, 30 years apart. In one storyline, a Manx captain and his band of rum smugglers have a difficult time off-loading their merchandise and end up becoming a passenger ship in order to pay fines imposed on them by British customs officials. Their passengers included a reverend who believed the Garden of Eden is located in Tasmania, a botanist, and a doctor who had sketchy views about the different races of men.

The book also followed the storyline of Peevay, a Tasmanian Aborigine, who was half-aborigine and half-white. The beginning of Peevay’s story was the time period when the British invaded Tasmania and started to decimate the Aboriginal population. The reader learns through Peevay what atrocities the Aborigines experienced at the hands of the British settlers. The two stories and timelines meet up when the Manx ship finally makes it to Tasmania.

Peevay was a favorite character of the book group. Book club members noted that Peevay’s narration had the best language and descriptions of events and really engaged the reader. Other members also enjoyed reading the captain’s storyline and how he managed his interesting passengers.

Other Information
About the author:
http://www.matthewkneale.net/

Reviews of the book:
From the New York Times
From BookPage
From Publisher’s Weekly

Similar Reads:
Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Morality Play by Barry Unsworth
Quarantine by Jim Crace

More Information about the history of Australia:
From the Australian Government
About British convicts who were sent to Australia
About Indigenous Australians

Join the Brown Baggers next month on Thursday, March 16 at noon for Silver Sparrow, the NEA Big Read 2017 selection.

“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

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