“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

“The indiscriminate reading of novels is one of the most injurious habits to which a married woman can be subject.”

dept of speculation coverBooks on Tap read Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill at Champion Brewery on August 2. The novel, short on plot but long on introspection, follows a writer who hopes to be an “art monster” as she marries, has a daughter, teaches writing in college and negotiates her marriage after her husband’s infidelity. Told in short bursts, it has been likened to an x-ray, drawing on the author’s experimentation with poetry during a bout of writer’s block. It starts in close first person, switches to third person after the cheating is discovered and then back to first as the husband and wife reconcile.

We all liked this witty rumination on growing older, knowing oneself and making compromises. Two of us listened to the audiobook and missed all the formatting (and thought we had missed entire chapters!). We didn’t think that the characters were particularly sympathetic but the narrator’s emotions resonated. Her desire not to lose her identity and drive after childbirth and her questioning of priorities accurately reflects life in middle age. However, the point of view is so narrow, it only serves to confirm that you can never truly know what happens in another couple’s relationship. The book contains all aspects of a full life: family, career, loneliness, romance, anger. Its format also mirrors how we communicate now, inward-turning short bursts with (inaccurate?) quotations of famous people. While the ending wasn’t particularly happy, it was happier and happy enough.

More Information:
About the author
Interviews with the author
About the book

Books on Tap Information:

 

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