“The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”

fahrenheit451coverBooks on Tap read Fahrenheit 451  by Justin Torres at Champion Brewery on June 7.  The group votes on the titles we read each period and this was our “classic” selection. Many of us had read it in high school or had watched the 1966 film adaptation (none of us has seen the newest HBO version) and recalled the basic outline: in the near future fireman Guy Montag burns books because they are dangerous, meets a young woman, rethinks society and his role in it and joins a band of outcasts determined to memorize and preserve literature as the government fakes his assassination. Throughout he is surrounded by citizens who use entertainment and drugs to numb themselves, making it easy for a political/military elite to wage a war that seems to destroy the cities in the end.

The group doesn’t read many sci-fi titles and this one was within our comfort zone. The wall-to-wall screens and omnipresent earbuds presaged today’s obsession with Facebook, Twitter, Virtual Reality and fandoms. The mechanical dog functions like today’s drones, complete with the paranoia of being singled out for constant monitoring and crime-fighting-through-DNA. Similarly, Montag’s wife Mildred is repeatedly overdosing and being brought back with little fanfare and with seemingly no harm. Not only was this a way for her to numb herself against the monotony of her life and to distract her and the rest of the population from the war, it also reminded 2018 readers of the current opioid epidemic.

We were most interested in Montag’s boss, Chief Beatty. He seems conflicted – he’s read and hidden books but daily burns them and those who hide them. It was unclear if he was currently reading books or had memorized some and was now just hoarding them as a display of power. Some of us posited that Beatty committed suicide by provoking Montag. We then considered Montag’s young friend, Clarisse. She is the one who exposes Montag to an alternative way of living, where people discuss ideas and sit on porches to meet with neighbors. Not only is she one of the few people to talk to Montag for any length of time, she is one of the few woman with a backstory.

Bradbury’s coda disappointed us. He claims that writers are splintering into ethnic, social and racial divisions but until recently sci-fi was notoriously non-diverse. It was hard to square this novel, a call to arms to preserve intellectual freedom, with his restrictive view of how writing should be presented.

What struck us most about the novel in 2018 was need for deep, sustained reading for pleasure as opposed to purpose. It is an antidote to our plugged in society, getting us out of our bubbles and exercising our attention spans. That led us to list the books that hooked us on reading as children and young adults:

Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Roald Dahl‘s works
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Cherry Ames series
Bobbsey Twins by Laura Lee Hope

More Information:
About the author and book
Other works

Adaptations:
Play
Short stories as origin
1966 Movie
2018 Movie

Read Alikes:
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
The Stand by Stephen King
A Gift Upon the Shore by M.K. Wren
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Mr. Burns, a Post-electric Play by Anne Washburn
This is America a music video by recording artist Childish Gambino

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“To give the dog a voice would be silly.”

cvr9781442434110_9781442434110_hrBooks on Tap read The Call of the Wild  (other editions available) by Jack London at  Champion Brewery on January 4. It was the perfect chilly night to discuss a book set in the Yukon. A short, spirited classic about the conversion of a pet dog into a wild, independent creature, it was either a re-read or vaguely familiar to all participants. In it, Buck, a large pet dog, is stolen and sold away from a California ranch to traders in Canada during the gold rush. Beaten into submission, he quickly adapts and then thrives as a sled dog. Eventually, he becomes fully feral and a legend in the woods. Inspired by London’s participation in the Klondike Gold Rush, the story was originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post and built on his earlier success with The Son of the Wolf.

The novel is told from Buck’s perspective, if not in his voice (see the title of this blog for a possible reason why). This choice by London intensifies Buck’s transition from pet to creature of the wild and cranks up the dramatic tension. For instance, we the reader understand why Manuel sells Buck from the ranch in California but come to understand later that Buck was more loved as a working animal with John Thornton on the trail than he ever was as a pampered pet. However, this style of narration did open up London to accusations of anthropomorphizing. Both Teddy Roosevelt and naturalist John Burroughs accused him of creating animals who were “men in fur.” London answered that The Call of the Wild and White Fang were instead “a protest against the ‘humanizing’ of animals,” and that they were motivated not by reasoning but by “instinct, sensation, and emotion, and by simple reasoning.”

According to one interpretation, the characters can be seen as political figures, a la Orwell’s Animal Farm. In that reading, the man in the red sweater is a stand-in for the USSR. It certainly succeeded as a non-political tale. None of the readers around the table were particularly struck by the political interpretation, we pick up on the influence of Darwin’s Origin of the Species (one of two books autodidact London took into the the Yukon, the other being Milton’s Paradise Lost). The brutal survival-of-the fittest ethos is vividly captured in scenes in which Buck fights both men and beasts making us wonder if the novel would be as heavily marketed to children if it were released today. Having read Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms in November, we compared the two self-consciously masculine writers. London won on all counts: description, emotion and heart. Continue reading

“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?

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