“What was this book about?”

JacketBooks on Tap read The Ten Thousand Things  by Maria Dermoût at Champion Brewery on December 8. None of us had read of it before, but a few of had seen it mentioned in Wild by Cheryl Strayed. The book takes its title from a Tang Dynasty poem and for the astute reader sets the theme: all of life is connected and repetitive. One very observant reader caught on to the fact that it is technically a frame novel, starting and ending with commemorations of the dead.

Written by a woman born in Java to a Dutch family that had been in the area for four generations, the novel is both European and Indonesian with strong influences from local folklore, Buddhism and natural philosophy. It is likely set on Ambon Island in the Maluku archipelago of Indonesia (formerly the Spice Islands), where Dermoût lived and where her son was born. She details the natural beauty of the area, describing the Small Garden-cum-plantation where generations of the Dutch Kleyntjes family has lived, the seashells, the flora and the landscape. This close observation draws on the work of naturalist Georg Eberhard Rumphius who worked on Ambon and the area’s animism and Buddhism. It also lends a magical realism flavor and makes the book timeless and out of time.

What there is of a plot centers around Felicia, the granddaughter of the Small Garden owner. Told by her grandmother to have courage, she leaves with her weak father and rich mother for Europe, has a disastrous marriage and returns alone to the Small Garden with her young son. Grandmother and granddaughter work closely to raise money using the products of the plantation and selling them in the town on the main part of the island. Felicia’s son grows up, joins the army (against the grandmother’s wishes) and is killed in service, a death Felicia brands a murder. It’s murder that connects the other plots, and it is these victims who join Felicia at the commemorations at the start and finish of the book. At the climax, Felicia truly listens to her son (although he is dead) and for the first time has empathy for the murderers and their victims. She only glimpses this universal balance with the perspective of age but does seem to be newly committed to it.

So what were we drawn to in this unusual novel? The atmospheric descriptions made us want to visit the island. Its tight focus also seems accurate for remote island life. The duality running throughout the book kept it interesting: it isn’t clear if all the murder victims were in fact murdered, if the traveling bibi cursed the family, if Raden had more than a filial relationship to his step-mother, if the Commissioner had a wife, if the three girls are the same as the ones in the nightlight or if Pauline killed the sailor (and if so, the right one). This duality was also see more subtly in such things as Felicia’s name (her grandmother thought it a jinx and Felicia certainly had sorrow in her life) and the black mussel sauce and the white mussel sauce the grandmother is known for.

The novel is strongly matrilineal, with the women controlling the action even in chapters focused on men. Raden cannot continue in school because his step-mother refuses to sell her jewelry to fund him, the women in the Commissioner’s household may have murdered him but definitely close ranks after his death and Constance and Pauline are at the heart of the household supposedly run by the official and Moses. Raden was of particular interest as a Indonesian student working for a European professor. Before starting the book some of us were worried that this 1955 book set in Indonesia written by a white woman would be contain ugly racism. However, Dermoût gives voice to all characters and upended our expectations. While not perfect, it is an intriguing look at a time and place we hadn’t read much about and ends on a realistically hopeful note.

More Information:
About the author
About the book
Ambon Island map
Naturalist Georg Eberhard  Rumphius
River of Doubt by Candice Millard (similarities to Professor)
Speaking of islands, information about the USVI’s hurricane recovery needs

Books on Tap Information:

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“There isn’t always an explanation for everything.”

61h05xx7u-lBooks on Tap read A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway  at Champion Brewery on November 2. Ostensibly a novel about an American ambulance driver and English nurse who fall in love at the Italian Front during World War I, it was quickly recognized as “one of the few great war stories in American literature.” The plight of the main character, Lieutenant Frederic Henry, closely mirrors the author’s experience in Italy during the war. They both drove ambulances, served briefly (Frederic seems to fight for two days within the book), suffered severe knee injuries in a mortar attack which left the men around them dead and received Italian war medals. They then both fell in love with a nurse while recovering in Milan, but in Hemingway’s case the affection was not shared.

Not all participants had read Hemingway previously and those who had didn’t recall all the details of this book. The first thing we discussed was the tone of the novel. Like Hemingway’s other works, it is terse but in this case it is not evocative. Two of us listened to the audiobook, where the repetition wasn’t as noticeable and the rhythms of the conversations tended toward the lyrical. The realism of the book is overshadowed by the drippy dialog between Frederic and nurse Catherine (we wondered if the author was capable of writing a female character) and the lack of urgency in the interpersonal relationship. However, the scenes of the retreat and river escape aligned with our pre-conceptions of Hemingway’s style and conveyed his message about war. Some readers compared these scenes to The Revenant book and movie and An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.

There is room for ambiguity in the realistic description of war. No one seems to care about the cause of the conflict and the Italians differ in opinion on tactics and leadership. The unceasing rain, while historically accurate, also emphasizes the long slog characteristic of this war and the ultimate interiority of the main characters, cloistered in hotels and hospitals. Catherine claims that the war will never end and their unborn child will become a general. Frederic and an Italian priest contemplate the end, saying “It is in defeat that we become Christian. . . I don’t mean technically Christian. I mean like our Lord. . . We are all gentler now because we are beaten.” Through unimaginable bloodshed, we earn acceptance and humility.

Mysteries abound in this novel. Why was Frederic in Italy before the war? Was he really studying architecture? Where did they find the money to stay in Switzerland for months? Why were they estranged from both families? Perhaps the biggest mystery is Catherine. Does she truly love Frederic or is this a relationship of convenience, swept up in the war. How could a women who worked a dangerous, arduous job, an atheist who lived independently from her family be as clingy and afraid of upsetting her partner as Catherine was? Her obsession with thinness made us wonder if Hemingway or Frederic were the misogynist.

The ending was so abrupt that some audiobook listeners weren’t sure that the novel had ended. However, another reader pointed out that the ending is fitting – this self-absorbed couple doesn’t have a future and may not have been in love. One astute reader shared her favorite alternate ending, available in some paperback editions: “When I woke the sun was coming in the open window and I smelled the spring morning after the rain and there was a moment, probably it was only a second, before I began to realize what it was that had happened. And then I knew that it was all gone now and that it would not be that way any more.”

More Information:
About the author
About the book
Battle of Caporetto map and more on the Italian Front.
Other works
WWI reading list
Confidential to Will: Is this it?

Books on Tap Information:

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Previous titles

“You only need one ray of light to chase all the shadows away.”

18774964Brown Baggers met on October 20 to discuss Fredrik Backman’s wildly popular debut novel A Man Called Ove. The book follows a recently widowed and retired 59-year-old man who is a bit of a curmudgeon while he figures out what to do next with his life. It has sold nearly three million copies worldwide.

Most readers enjoyed Ove and his adventures. While some felt the character was too curmudgeonly, most liked his bad attitude and after a discussion, decided he might fall somewhere on the autism spectrum and be a bit OCD.

Readers thought this book was poignant, and said it had them laughing and crying at the same time — a rare occurrence when reading a novel. 

They mused over Sonja’s motivations in marrying such a thorny character as Ove. Maybe she liked how odd he was. But most decided she needed to be needed as completely as Ove needed her. This was also reflected in the career she chose, as a teacher for difficult and special needs children.

The novel skips around in time, but it didn’t bother readers. They enjoyed how the author used this device to set up his big reveals and slowly unfurl Ove’s backstory.

Readers who had seen the movie adaptation felt it was remarkably well done and approved of the casting. News had recently been released that Tom Hanks would play Ove in the American adaptation, which stirred more discussion from the group.

More Information:
Author Bio
Interview with author
Other works by author
Swedish film adaptation

Other Titles Mentioned:
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce

Brown Baggers will meet next on Thursday, November 16th at noon to discuss Last Days of Night by Graham Moore. The following meeting will be on December 21st at noon to select books for the next 12 months. Join us for a holiday potluck and some lively voting.