“Hunting makes you animal, but the death of an animal makes you human.”

hisforhawkBrown Baggers met at Central on October 18 to discuss the memoir H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. Published in 2014, H is for Hawk is part hawk training manual and part dissection of grief. A lifetime falconer, Macdonald decides to try training a much more difficult, larger, and stronger goshawk after her father suddenly dies. She reflects on her modern day experience through the lens of author T. H. White, who recounted his attempt in the book The Goshawk.

Readers really enjoyed Macdonald’s writing style. They found it beautiful and evocative, admiring how she seemed to meditate on each subject and the expert way she wove all of them together. Those who had listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author, founding it equally compelling.

One of the most interesting parts of the book, readers found, was Macdonald’s examination of the feral in humans and the humanity in animals. The hawk she trained, Mabel, led her to a wild place deep in her grief but also led her back to her human self in the end. Readers who had no interest in birding, falconry, or hawks found themselves enthralled by the story despite its naturalist themes – a testament to her skill as a writer.

Some felt the process of training hawks was too violent and controlling, especially when hawks no longer serve a purpose of acquiring food for their handlers. Readers discussed whether it was necessary for the author to exert control over another animal to feel in control herself, after the loss of her father.

The sheer social isolation of the author was also discussed, as was the varying depth and experience of grief depending on the individual. While the prose makes it seem like she was completely without social contact while raising the hawk, she does have family, friends, and a professional and falconry community that kept her tethered while she grieved.

Brown Baggers will meet again on November 15 at noon to discuss The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom.

Other titles mentioned:
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
The Once and Future King by T. H. White (and other works)

More information:
Interview with author
Second interview
Author bio
PBS documentary (which Central is showing on 10/25 at 7pm)
National Geographic article about falconry in the U.A.E.
Information on falconry

“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”

handmaids taleThe Brown Baggers gathered on September 20 to discuss The Handmaid’s Tale by award-winning author Margaret Atwood just in time for Banned Books Week. According to the American Library Association, The Handmaid’s Tale has been one of the “100 Most Frequently Challenged Books” since 1990.

The novel is told by Offred- her real name is unknown. She is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian state that has replaced the United States of America. In this future there are dangerously low reproduction rates, so Handmaids are assigned to bear children for elite couples that can’t conceive. Offred’s freedom, and the freedom of all women, is completely restricted- women aren’t allowed to have jobs, own property, or have money. Offred tells the story of her life, sometimes through flashbacks.

The Brown Baggers loved this dystopian novel- and also hated it. The group was divided on the book- some thought it was thought-provoking and really enjoyed how the messages in the book were portrayed. But others found it difficult to read and even upsetting.

Some readers mentioned that the caste system in Gilead was similar to other caste systems (past and present) around the world. Colors were referenced throughout the novel, and readers quickly picked up on the meanings of colors that the women in the book were forced to wear. Some also mentioned that there was a lot of reporting and spying on neighbors depicted in the novel and thought this was very reminiscent of Nazi Germany.

Most Brown Baggers agreed that they like the character Moira- who was Offred’s best friend and had a fiery, strong personality, and it was sad that we did not find out her fate. Other readers did not like the ending of the book because it was so ambiguous, but some didn’t mind this. Overall, most felt that the book was interesting and made for a great discussion!

The Brown Baggers will discuss H is for Hawk on October 18 at 12pm.

More Information:
Article about Atwood from the New Yorker
Review from the Washington Post (from 1986)

Titles mentioned:
Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
Children of Men by P.D. James
Pure by Linda Kay Kline
1984 by George Orwell
Educated by Tara Westover

“No coincidence, no story.”

teagirlThe Brown Baggers met on August 16 to discuss Lisa See’s The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane.

The story takes place in the mountains of China. Li-yan, a young girl of the Akha ethnic minority group, lives with her family picking tea leaves and following the customs of her culture. Li-yan is smart and is able to continue her schooling beyond what is typical for someone in her village. When a stranger visits the village in a jeep, the first automobile any of them had seen, Li-yan acts as a translator and begins to understand that there is a world far beyond her own and that she doesn’t have to stay in her village forever.

In Li-yan’s teenage years she falls in love with a young man who is not considered an appropriate match by her mother, but Li-yan bears his child, then takes the baby to an orphanage in the city, leaving the infant with a special tea cake. Li-yan eventually makes a life for herself outside of her small village, through owning a tea shop that sells pu-erh tea, but she never forgets the child she gave up.

Almost all of the Brown Baggers loved this book! They thought the story was interesting and loved learning more about the Akha people and about how tea is grown and processed. Some noted that although the novel had many characters, it was a plot-driven novel, rather than character-driven, which made the story move quickly.

Some readers mentioned that they thought there were too many details about tea. Although the book centered around the unique tea culture, there was a lot of information about the price of different tea leaves and this seemed to distract from the plot of the story. But others mentioned how much research the author must have completed around the topic.

Many readers felt that it was interesting to learn about the superstitions of the Akha culture and how they were different (and similar) to superstitions from other parts of the world. The Akha had the saying “no coincidence, no story,” but some Brown Baggers pointed out that there were many, many coincidences in the book. Also, most felt that the ending was too contrived, but they still enjoyed it. Others felt like the ambiguous ending was disappointing, but in an interview, the author said that she purposefully wrote the ending this way.

The Brown Baggers will meet again on September 20th at 12pm and will be discussing The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

More Information:
Article about Pu-erh tea
About the Akha People

Reviews of the Book:
From Kirkus Reviews
From the Washington Post
From the Los Angeles Review of Books

Books and Authors Mentioned:
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
China Dolls by Lisa See
Pearl S. Buck