“We were allowed to be what we were, frightened and vengeful — little animals, clawing at what we needed.”

wetheanimalsBooks on Tap read We the Animals by Justin Torres at Champion Brewery on May 3. We sat outside to enjoy the beautiful weather and wrapped up our conversation before the band started playing. Opinion was split on this atmospheric coming of age story, shaded by violence, unpredictability and dysfunctional love. It centers on three young brothers, narrated by the youngest. Their very young parents, one white, one Puerto Rican, have relocated from Brooklyn to upstate and no other family in town is like theirs. The episodic chapters are filled with scenes of great love right alongside great violence, culminating in the narrator ruminating on both his birth and chosen families.

I have to admit that the notes I took are no longer in my possession, so what follows is more of an impression of the discussion than reportage. Some admired the lush writing, others appreciated that writing but were glad the book wasn’t any longer and still others were confused and are waiting for the movie to see what really happened. We debated the stresses of poverty and racism on families and the pull of parental love. The author drew on his family history for inspiration. The mental health crisis portrayed made us wonder what services were available in a rural town in the 90s. Overall, we were glad we had been introduced to this author, even if we weren’t clear on what actually happened in the book.  

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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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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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