2. Is Mallard a real town? (Founder Alphonse Decuir, 1848) Were there other towns populated by light-skinned blacks that weren't recognized by the state? "She rode a Greyhound all the way from a town that existed on no maps." (81) (Mallard wasn't a real town, but according to this article: "In this powerful, storied examination of the complexities of racial identity in the US, Bennett reaches back to literary ancestors who could never have dreamed of such mainstream success. It develops, elaborates and updates a theme explored by Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen in her 1929 novel Passing about a light-skinned coloured woman, a "tragic mulatto" who marries a white man and passes for white in a segregated America.") I did find this other article about a real town called East Jackson, Ohio, where many white-appearing residents identify as black.
3. What do you make of this: "Negroes always love our hometowns," [Sam] said. "Even though we're always from the worst places. Only white folks get the freedom to hate home." (21)
4. What did you appreciate about the storytelling? the braiding? the building on scenes? i.e. p.21-22: Desiree looking back many years later: "During training, she'd practiced reading her own fingerprints, those intricate designs that marked her as unique. Stella had a scar on her left index finger from when she'd cut herself with a knife, one of many ways that their fingerprints were different. / Sometimes who you were came down to the small things." (Did you think that scar was going to be important later, like I did? Like they might switch places or that Desiree might impersonate Stella at some point??)
5. What do you make of the barber's reflection (presumably as a representative opinion of the town)? "As far as he was concerned, both [girls] were a little crazy, Desiree perhaps the nuttiest of all. Playing white to get ahead was just good sense. But marrying a dark man? Carrying his blue black child? Desiree Vignes had courted the type of trouble that would never leave." (59) What do you make of this type of racism? What do you make of the stylistic choice and placement of these foreboding phrases?
6. Did the format (five parts, moving around in time) work for you? (1968, 1978, 1968, 1982, 1985/6)
7. What role do secrets and detectives and mystery play in the book? (Stella's secrets, Early's huntin', Jude's detective mysteries...)
8. Early remembers getting smacked at church for putting his finger in the holy water ahead of a man's wife. "Like I ruined it somehow. I thought my uncle was gonna stick up for me. I don't know why, I just thought. But he told the man sorry like I done somethin wrong." (71) In what ways do social norms help or harm us from teaching our kids about their own dignity?
9. According to Jude, "Gratitude only emphasized the depth of your lack, so she tried to hide it." (99) Do you agree? Isn't this the opposite of what we think gratitude does for us?
10. What were you feeling and thinking when you found out Reese was Therese just one page after "his hand cupped the back of [Jude's] knee"? (100) Was that deception? Or was Jude supposed to embrace someone regardless of physical features? Did it feel to anyone else like that tone of the book changed or that the story took a left-hand turn?
11. "Finally," she [Maman] said. "One good picture of you." / In all her school pictures she'd either looked too black or over-exposed, invisible except for the whites of her eyes and teeth. The camera, Reese told her once, worked like the human eye. Meaning, it was not created to notice her." (108) Anyone else read about how Kodak film was oriented toward white skin when it was first invented?
12. Here Jude reflects on a party she helped cater: "She couldn't imagine living like this -- hanging on a cliff, exposed by glass. But maybe the rich didn't feel a need to hide. Maybe wealth was the freedom to reveal yourself." (129) Is that true -- to reveal yourself -- or to show off?
13. How did the perspective shifts work? Was there someone you wanted to hear (more) from?
14. How did you react when Stella walked back into the story? "Fun's over," she said, and drained her martini in a gulp. / Then she set her empty glass on the bar and started toward the entrance, where a woman had just walked in. Mr. Hardison was helping her out of her fur coat, and when she turned, passing a hand through her dark hair, the bottle of wine shattered on the floor." (141)
15. Regarding how Stella thought Blake viewed her when she lied about her family who was long gone: "If he pitied her, he wouldn't be able to see her clearly. He would refract all of her lies through her mourning, mistake her reticence about her past for grief." (152) Could Stella have really thought this out so well, to consider the role of pity in shaping how Blake and the world viewed her? Is this believable?
16. How's that for a white fragility moment when Loretta says to Stella: "You think I want your guilt?" she said. "Your guilt can't do nothin for me, honey. You want to go feel good about feeling bad, you can go on and do it right across the street." (178)
17. What does this book have to say about feminism?
18. "But sometimes lying was an act of love. Stella had spent too long lying to tell the truth now, or maybe, there was nothing left to reveal. Maybe this was who she had become." (259) This reminds me of Alix in Such A Fun Age, clinging to her own truth. And yet, is that true? Is it ultimately okay to ignore the absolute truth? At this point in the book, how many of you were hoping for Stella to come clean?
19. How do these lines get down to the crux of what this book is about? "Would you still love me," [Kennedy] said, "if I weren't white?" / "No," [Frantz] said, tugging her closer. "Because then you wouldn't be you." (297)
20. At the end, after the funeral, what do Jude and Reese want to forget? "...they waded into the cold water, squealing, water inching up their thighs. This river, like all rivers, remembered its course. They floated under the leafy canopy of trees, begging to forget." (343)
So nice to see you last week. Thank you again to Abby for the fairy world setting, delicious treats, and warm hospitality.
We all found The Vanishing Half incredibly engrossing. I noted how I was sucked into the story on page one and kept reading as if mesmerized...until I reached part two and felt like the book took a left turn. I wanted to read about Desiree for about 200 more pages. Still, the rest of you said, hands down, that your favorite character was her daughter Jude, whom we admired for her steadfast acceptance of who she was in the midst of great antagonism and racism. A fascinating inquiry on what it means to be successful and how certain characters are able or unable to separate that from attaining whiteness, this book is definitely one to try if you haven't.
Still, once I confessed that I prefer books that focus on one character or one relationship and go deep into that, Abby had the perfect suggestion for me...which means all of you must read it too...and convene to discuss The Invisible Life of Addie Larue by V.E. Schwab later this summer.
But first -- a party, to toast being vaccinated, to toast the END of the most difficult and ridiculous school year ever, and to toast friendships that kept us going through it all.
Hope to see you there!
2. What does the title mean?
3. What do you make of the quote at the beginning of the book? ("We definitely wait for birthdays. Or even an ice cream. Like [my daughter] has to earn it. Yesterday we promised her an ice cream, but then she behaved horribly. And I said, "Then I'm sorry, ice cream is for girls who behave. And that's not you today. Maybe tomorrow.")
4. Did these characters seem real to you or did the descriptions feel forced? Did you feel like you knew the characters? And if you didn't know Alix, did you think that was intentional because she was trying to find herself?
5. Did Kelley have a black fetish? ("Kelley had a penchant for othering black culture that had started in high school and continued to develop in adulthood. He still didn't think that what he was doing was wrong." p.219) Was what he was doing wrong?
6. Did anyone else find it interesting that the author focuses on handwritten letters so much in a story where the characters could be more centered on texting and social media? What does this mean? (Letters like Alex's high school letters to Kelley, her letters for products, the thank you notes for Briar's birthday party, the hand-written card for Emira after the grocery store.)
7. Why does the author repeatedly point out that Emira doesn't use social media? Was Emira's detachment from technology believable? Would Emira's impressions of Alix and Kelley have been different if she had used social media?
8. Have you ever lied about a goldfirst death? How, if at all, do you wish you had handled it differently? ("And most importantly, why did Mrs. Chamberlain have to lie to Briar as if she couldn't handle the truth?" p.127)
9. Is Alix racist? --for how she treated Claudette? for being impressed with Emira's speech/word choices? for hiring a black sitter? for being proud that she had five African Americans at Thanksgiving dinner? for trying to help Emira take charge of her life? Why does Alix feel the need to take Emira under her wing? (p.261) Is that racism or classism?
10. Anyone notice that Emira is always crossing her legs? to type, to talk with Kelley, to take a picture with Santa, to confront Alix at the end? A comforting reflex?
11. Did the perspective shifts work in this book?
12. What do you make of Zara calling Tamra "Uncle Tom"? (p.267) (I'm getting your sh-t, and then I hear that woman ask if she'd done the right thing." Zara put aggressive air quotes over the right thing. "And then that Uncle Tom Tamra woman told her, 'one hundred percent,' and that this video is the best thing to ever happen to you.")
13. This story all started when a sitter was asked to take a child to a grocery store at 11pm. Alix says in her TV interview, "I think other parents understand...that the grocery store is typically an excellent place to kill time with a toddler." (p.282) Do you agree or disagree? Was this a Pemberton type place with a koi pond? How does this premise of a situation impact how you read the rest of the story?
14. At the end of the story, the author writes that "Emira would think of Mrs. Chamberlain many times on election night, and pray that she had enough room in her heart for both a devastating failure and her firstborn child." (p.304) Does this mean that Emira was hoping Clinton would lose?
15. What do you make of Emira's lack of ambition and lack of need to be connected online? How do those contrast with Alix's need for both?
16. Which characters did you want to learn more about in this book? (Peter Chamberlain? Emira's family?)
17. Did Alix remind anyone else of the girl in Bad Blood?
18. What did Emira have to wrestle with "deep into her thirties"? Do you believe Alix hired someone to "find herself"? ("Deep into her thirties, Emira would wrestle with what to take from her time at the Chamberlain house. Some days she carried the sweet relief that Briar would learn to become a self-sufficient person. And some days, Emira would carry the dread that if Briar ever struggled to find herself, she'd probably just hire someone to do it for her." p.305)
19. Did Alix like being a mom? What do you make of Emira's accusation before she left the Chamberlain house for the last time? ("Sooo...right now it's probably whatever 'cause she's only three?" she said. "But you gotta act like you like Briar once in a while. Before she like...really figures it out."..."I know I'm not a mom or whatever," Emira said, "But you gotta stop looking at her like you're just waiting for her to change, 'cause umm...It is what it is, you know? You're her mom." p.294-5)
Thanks so much for coming to discuss Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. Most of us found this a compelling read, and yet, if we had difficulty with it, it was often because we wished for rounder characters who demonstrated growth. We found Alix absolutely detestable...until some of us started to admit that we could identify with her to an extent...before her antics and thoughts turned extreme. Thank you for sharing vulnerably about parenting struggles or times when we may have operated from a position of racial and/or class privilege. We wondered if there should be something more attractive or ambitious about Emira, something to help us get to know her better, and yet, perhaps this only emphasizes the point that we may be more like Alix than we thought. Or maybe the author needed to work on her characters a little more! Anyway, thanks again for sharing.
Many of you have read our pick for next month, but the word is there is much to discuss. Please join us in May when we read The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.
Hope to see you there!
1. What did you like / dislike?
2. What do you make of the title? Who is searching? Trey (for Brendan)? Cal (for a new start)? Mart (for a sheep slayer)?
3. Why did Cal go to Ireland? Does his character work for you? Do you need to know his story earlier in the text?
4. Can a woman write a male cast? Does it work here?
5. What do you make of Cal's comment that "nineteen is the right age for a lot of things that can start misfiring inside someone's mind"? (172)
6. What do you think of learning of Cal's marriage through Donna intruding into Cal's thoughts?
7. What does it mean to be a morning person? "Cal has always liked mornings. He draws a distinction between this and being a morning person, which he isn't: it takes time, daylight and coffee to connect up his brain cells. He appreciates mornings not for their effect on him, but for themselves." (155)
8. What/who did you think was killing the sheep?
9. Was Cal running from something in his past? "His four best buddies were among the reasons he left Chicago; the depth and detail with which they knew him had come to feel unsafe..." (202) Later, the guys at the pub, while talking about his beard: "This fella thought you were on the run." (214)
10. What is the difference between manners, etiquette and morals? "Etiquette is the stuff you gotta do just 'cause that's how everyone does it...Manners is treating people with respect...Morals...is the stuff that doesn't change. The stuff you do no matter what other people do." (264-5)
11. What do you make of Cal's assertion that Ben never helped a guy in a wheelchair or that "everyone was always talking about talking, and the most moral person was the one who yelled at the most other people for doing the talking all wrong." (265)
12. How does the author allow current affairs / issues to seep into the story through Cal's past?
13. Why put questions of manners and morals in the book? What purpose do they serve?
14. Did you ever suspect Trey of any crime? How did your impression of Trey change over the course of the book?
15. What do the weather and terrain have to do with the pace and direction of the story / plot? "Cal doesn't like the stark contrasts in this terrain. They have the same feel as the weather, of an unpredictability deliberately calculated to keep you one step behind." (276)
16. What do the rooks represent?
17. In what ways are we influenced by our environment? "The morning has turned lavishly beautiful. The autumn sun gives the greens of the fields an impossible, mythic radiance and transforms the back roads into light-muddled paths where a goblin with a riddle, or a pretty maiden with a basket, could be waiting around every gorse-and-bramble bend. Cal is in no mood to appreciate any of it. He feels like this specific beauty is central to the illusion that lulled him into stupidity, turned him into the peasant gazing slack-jawed at his handful of gold coins til they melt into dead leaves in front of his eyes. If all this had happened in some depressing suburban clot of tract homes and ruler-measured lawns, he would have kept his wits about him." (368)
18. Cal is really hard on himself, kicking himself every time the others "outsmart" him. Did Cal really make any mistakes when trying to help Trey find answers?
19. How creepy is Mart? He just gets to walk away after burying Brendan and not telling his mother he's dead -- and after making Sheila beat Trey? Why does Cal conclude that marching Mart to the police "wouldn't be the slightest bit of use"? (419) Because no one could prove it?
20. According to Cal, morals are having your own code and sticking to it. Does that mean that Mart's actions are justified by his own personal code?
21. Which book did you find more disturbing, this or Disappearing Earth?
Good to see you last night to discuss Tana French's The Searcher. Some of us were pulled in by the scenery, and one mom could verify that the author did a great job nailing the cadence and dialect of the Irish characters' speech. Some of us felt it was slow to start, so I appreciated hearing about how that might have been intentional given various characters' tendencies to "play their cards close to the chest".
If you guys are in the mood for more of Tana French's mysteries, I wanted to pass along what one mom shared last night: Rather than tell each book of the Dublin Murder Squad series from the perspective of one detective, each subsequent book is told from the point of view of a particular character mentioned in previous books. I thought that was an interesting technique and one that would draw me into a group of people even deeper than only getting one viewpoint. One mom's favorite of those is The Likeness.
I'm not sure where we'll go next, so please feel free to write in with recommendations or suggestions.
Hope you all have a good weekend!
3. Is this story more character driven or themes driven and why?
4. How does the author use the forces of suspicion, doubt, insecurity and home to drive this narrative?
5. Is there a main relationship in this book? Or is it a constellation of female relationships?
6. Why are the girls and women repeatedly described as small or tiny?
7. Anyone ever been to Russia? Or read about native peoples in that part of the world?
8. Did this seem like present/modern day to you? Why or why not?
9. What did you make of the title?
10. Does Julia Phillips write short stories? These chapters seem like individual stories.
11. What was so risky about Ksyusha chasing Chander? Why is her chapter (December) twice as long as the others to that point?
12. Who "disappears"? Alyona, Sophia, Lilia, Masha, Gleb, Artyom, Malysh (dog)...
13. Yegor is in which chapters? First with Lada (New Year's), then with Nadia (p.152 described as "soft-bodied, sitting alone" and obsessing over Lilia, willing to drive long distances)....
14. What is the role of the volcano and its symbolism in this book? The researchers, Artyom's death, Nadia's heart: "her heart had been fragile, its chambers shifting as easily and dangerously as volcanic earth. Slava got in there before the ground hardened." (158)
Thanks for Zooming in to discuss Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips last week. We found it an engaging read, though a bit infuriating to see side story after side story of women getting the short end of the stick (and men getting off the hook). Ethnic tensions were also frustrating and saddening to take in...as we learned about the far-flung desolate place of Kamchatka. We wondered what the people of Kamchatka might think of the book...or what they have thought of the book if it made its way there. We recommend it if you haven't read it yet.
For February, we are going to meet in Ireland. I mean, we're going to follow Cal Hooper there in Tana French's The Searcher. I'm not the only one in the mood for a getaway, right?
Hope to see you there!
Anyway! I hope you can join us to chat and catch up and discuss the finer points of this...literature...on Thursday evening at 8:15!
1. What did you like / dislike?
2. Why do we selectively hear criticism of ourselves over praise? (I'm thinking of Chloe's reaction to Jeremy around page 110-114...and elsewhere.)
3. Did you feel like Chloe and Jeremy had chemistry?
4. Could you picture the town? (Or anything else?)
5. Did the opening at all remind you of Mattie in Old Baggage?
6. How did the perspective changes allow for the surprises in the plot? (Mr. Fong's identity; who knew Jeremy's identity...)
7. When did you wonder whether people suspected Jeremy's identity?
8. Is this rubbish or just a typical romance novel?
9. What was the last trashy novel you read?
10. Can we take the discussions of racism in this book seriously given the racy sections? Could we consider this a way to reach a different sort of audience with these concerns?
11. The author at times describes what dialect of Chinese the characters are speaking (and, given the detailed author's note, it seems this subject matters much to the author), but what form of English are they speaking? Some kind of blend of 19th century and modern day?
12. When did a "board clip" become a "clipboard"? (Wikipedia: "The earliest forms were patented in 1870-71 and referred to as board clips.")
13. What didn't the Duke do? Can someone help me with that nickname the town gives him?
14. Are there any real accounts of half-Chinese dukes? Or other non-white dukes? (Wikipedia's list of famous British Chinese people:
15. What was the Chinese presence in Britain in the late 1800s/early 1900s? (Wikipedia: "At the turn of the 20th century, the number of Chinese in Britain was small. Most were sailors who had deserted or been abandoned by their employers after landing in British ports. In the 1880s, some Chinese migrants had fled the US during the anti-Chinese campaign and settled in Britain, where they started up businesses based on their experience in America. There is little evidence to suggest that these "double migrants" had established close ties with Britain's other, longer-standing Chinese community. By the middle of the 20th century, the community was on the point of extinction, and would probably have lost its cultural distinctiveness if not for the arrival of tens of thousands of Hong Kong Chinese in the 1950s.")
16. Was the 2nd epilogue / the revenge necessary? What about Jeremy's point to name the sauce after something Chloe loves and to be free of her revenge? Isn't that the way she is supposed to live up to her name? Why writhe in it at the end?
I hope you are all enjoying the snow. My kids were a mess getting out the door to go sledding this morning, but Dan just texted some videos of them having a blast...so, guess it worked out.
In any case...I forgot to say the other night that I feel like we did Ms. Courtney Milan a service in reading her independently published The Duke Who Didn't. No, it isn't going to win any awards, but we were mildly entertained, mildly moved and only mildly scarred. She got readers and we got a laugh. So I think it was a win win all around. If you missed this one, there's still time to sign up for my paper copy on our book exchange spreadsheet (or email me separately)!
And don't worry, for January, we are going to read something truly spectacular and award-worthy. Please join us for Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. (Corinne picked it, but I think she's really on to something here! It's going to be great!!)
I hope you have a good winter break. May your children only scream outside of the house and give you a bit of rest.
At a time when the earth is going to sleep for winter and things feel a little dark in a few ways, I am finding this book uplifting and heartwarming. I hope it gives you a boost too.
Looking forward to seeing you next Thursday the 19th!
* * * *
I'm looking forward to our discussion of Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass. Join us on Zoom this Thursday at 8:15pm.
Last week, when I encouraged you to try at least a few chapters, I was at the point in the book where I was falling in love with the earth. Kimmerer details the gifts of the world so vividly that your heart can't help but overflow with gratitude. And so, by the time I got to chapters more explicitly explaining human actions that have thrown life out of balance, I found myself on a roller coaster of heartbreak. Kimmerer writes that "Anishinaabe elders like Stewart King remind us to always acknowledge the two faces -- the light and the dark side of life -- in order to understand ourselves," and she does this in her writing. (306) By the end of the book, I understood the book's structure to be intentional on the part of the author -- to draw you in so that you are moved to act when you hear about brokenness. I look forward to hearing how the roller coaster treated you...
As always, suggested discussion questions are below. This time, many of them are Kimmerer's own questions that she posits to the reader throughout the book.
Hope to see you there!
1. What did you like / dislike?
2. From Kimmerer's student survey: Rate your understanding of the negative interactions between humans and the environment. Rate your knowledge of positive interactions between people and land.
3. Kimmerer says that "in a way, [she] was raised by strawberries." (22) Is there a point in nature from your childhood that "gave [you your] sense of the world, [your] place in it?
4. What do you make of the "fundamental nature of gifts: [that] they move, and their value increases with their passage"? (27) How does this compare to "Western thinking, [where] private land is understood to be a "bundle of rights," [versus] in a gift economy [where] property has a "bundle of responsibilities" attached"? (28)
5. How do the "stories we choose to shape our behaviors have adaptive consequences"? (30)
6. What does Kimmerer say is left of her people? "The one thing that was not forgotten, that which could not be taken by history: the knowing that we belonged to the land, that we were the people who knew how to say thank you." (37)
7. What is the purpose of ceremony? ("That...is the power of ceremony: it marries the mundane to the sacred. The water turns to wine, the coffee to a prayer." (37) How could you apply Kimmerer's definition of "ceremony" to ceremonies you have witnessed or participated in during your own life? ("Ceremony focuses attention so that attention becomes intention. If you stand together and profess a thing before your community, it holds you accountable." 249)
8. "Why is the world so beautiful? It could so easily be otherwise: flowers could be ugly to us and still fulfill their own purpose. But they're not. It seemed like a good question to me." (41)
9. What is Kimmerer's purpose in presenting scientific and Indigenous teaching side by side for us to examine? ("Might science and traditional knowledge be purple and yellow to one another, might they be goldenrod and asters? We see the world more fully when we use both?" (46) Similarly, "what good is knowing, unless it is coupled with caring?" (345) ("Science can give us knowing, but caring comes from someplace else." 345)
10. What does reciprocity for the world's goodness look like? ("When I am in their presence, their beauty asks me for reciprocity, to be the complementary color, to make something beautiful in response." (47) Other ideas for how to restore the relationship between land and people? Kimmerer says "plant a garden" (126). I say be in a place where I can admire nature. Later, Kimmerer mentioned "political action, civic engagement." (174) Later, she mentions entering reciprocity "through gratitude, through ceremony, through land stewardship, science, art, and in everyday acts of practical reverence." (190) At the end of the book, she adds to this list the power of storytelling: "Language is our gift and our responsibility. I've come to think of writing as an act of reciprocity with the living land. Words to remember old stories, words to tell new ones, stories that bring science and spirit back together to nurture our becoming people made of corn." (347)
11. On language: What do you make of Kimmerer's observation that English is a noun-based language "versus Potawatomi which is verb-based? And based on whether an object is animate or inanimate" where inanimate is restricted mainly to things made by humans. Everything else is alive.
12. Regarding Kimmerer's 12 years of work to clear the pond and the last summer with a child at home, do you imagine you'll have a work or project that will define your child-rearing years? Could you imagine one that you would want to define them? (96)
13. What do you make of the spiraling changes of life that Paula Gunn Allen describes for women's roles -- as daughter, then self-reliant ("the necessary task of [learning] who you are in the world"), then as mother, then as mother to community and then to the earth? (96-7) Anyone else feel pressure when trying to picture "mothering the earth" in old age?
14. Kimmerer buys a kayak and heads to Labrador Pond when her youngest child goes to college. Will you "celebrate your freedom" or grieve your loss? What will that look like?
15. Kimmerer's cousin leaves her messages to help her in her sadness as an empty-nester, messages like "take comfort", "to find your new path" and "because they always come home" and "celebrate having time to write". What would the notes left for you say? (103-4)
16. Allegiance to Gratitude / Thanksgiving Address: Who would you greet and who would you thank if you were to create your own ceremony of Greeting and Thanks to the World? (107-117)
17. What does it mean to be a good leader? Kimmerer, quoting Freida Jacques at the Onondaga Nation School, says it means "'to have vision, and to be generous, to sacrifice on behalf of the people. Like the maple, leaders are the first to offer their gifts.' It reminds the whole community that leadership is rooted not in power and authority, but in service and wisdom." (112)
18. Do you agree or disagree: "You wouldn't harm what gives you love." (124)
19. Kimmerer says "the most important things each of us can know is our unique gift and how to use it in the world." (And she later says that language is humans' unique gift.) Does this message of individuality surprise you coming from a culture which stresses the group? How do you feel about this message? (134)
20. What do you make of John Pigeon's observation that "the work of being a human is finding balance, and making splints will not let you forget it" as Kimmerer is trying to learn basket weaving? (146)
21. How does this apply when speaking to children...or political opponents...or fill-in-the-blank: "To be heard, you must speak the language of the one you want to listen." (158)
22. Kimmerer writes: "Getting scientists to consider the validity of Indigenous knowledge is like swimming upstream in cold, cold water. They've been so conditioned to be skeptical of even the hardest of hard data that bending their minds toward theories that are verified without the expected graphs or equations is tough. Couple that with the unblinking assumption that science has cornered the market on truth and there's not much room for discussion." (160) Has science cornered the market on truth? In what circles? To what implications? (This makes me think of Mary Karr's assertion in "The Art of Memoir" that "The American religion--so far as there is one anymore--seems to be doubt. Whoever believes the least wins, because he’ll never be found wrong.” (88-89) While not exactly talking about the same thing, to me, the statements seem related.)
23. In the chapter Mishkos Kenomagwen: The Teachings of Grass, what do you make of how Kimmerer pairs traditional teaching with scientific investigation to weave a new, cross-cultural story? (156-166)
24. What more do you need in life besides "duct tape to hold things together and WD-40 to get them apart?" :) (167)
25. Laurie wrestled with whether her method of harvesting sweetgrass "really duplicated the traditional harvest." How do non-native people learn to show respect and honor for plants and the earth in general when they are "not qualified to speak to sweetgrass?" (160-1) Relatedly, "can Americans, as a nation of immigrants, learn to live here as if we were staying?...What happens when we truly become native to a place, when we finally make it a home? Where are the stories that lead the way?" (207)
26. True or False: "We get the government we deserve." (174) ("But the maples, our most generous of benefactors and most responsible of citizens, do not deserve our government. They deserve you and me speaking up on their behalf. To quote our town council woman, "Show up at the damn meeting." (174)
27. How are the guidelines of the Honorable Harvest similar to what we teach our kids about table manners and hospitality? (183)
Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.
Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
Never take the first. Never take the last.
Take only what you need.
Take only that which is given.
Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.
Give thanks for what you have been given.
Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.
28. Did you feel any pressure to change or any shame around your consumption habits? For me, I appreciated her comic relief when she writes, "I don't have much patience with food proselytizers who refuse all but organic, free-range, fair-trade gerbil milk." (196)
29. How would we approach our days differently if we arrived at them with empty hands? "[Nanabozho's] gratitude for their abilities grew and he came to understand that to carry a gift is also to carry a responsibility. The Creator gave Wood Thrush the gift of beautiful song, with the duty to sing the forest good-night. Late at night he was grateful that the stars were sparkling to guide his way. Breathing under water, flying to the ends of the earth and back, digging earthen dens, making medicines. Every being with a gift, every being with a responsibility. He considered his own empty hands. He had to rely on the world to take care of him" (211)
30. Would you sign up for her ethnobotany class and wade in the marsh to pick cattails? (223-240)
31. Can you really eat dirt? And what does that say about medical conditions like pica? ("There is nothing "dirty" about soil. This soft black humus is so sweet and clean you could eat it by the spoonful." 234)
32. What do you learn about successful partnerships...from lichens? Or from Franz and Dawn who plant 13,000 trees over 11 years? (And how ironic and sad that Franz Dolp was killed in a collision with a paper mill truck on his way home? 291)
33. What monsters does our society create, and how do they reflect the "collective fears and deepest values of our people?" (305) (As Kimmerer writes, "Born of our fears and our failings, Windigo is the name for that within us which cares more for its own survival than for anything else.")
34. How can we think of Windigo through the consumerist lens of today's society? ("a Windigo was a human whose selfishness has overpowered their self-control to the point that satisfaction is no longer possible." 306)
35. How can we have joy in creation in the midst of despair over its destruction? (Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift. 327) How do we act in the midst of "paralysing despair"? (328) What was hopeful in her message? ("The land knows what to do when we do not." 333)
It was so nice to see you on Thursday and check in on the pulse of our lives these days. Thank you so much to our reader who suggested Braiding Sweetgrass and to all of you for bringing your varied perspectives and your courage to contribute to sensitive conversation.
During this Thanksgiving Week, I am particularly remembering our discussion of Kimmerer's comparison of our nation's Pledge of Allegiance with the Onondaga Nation's Thanksgiving Address. If you get a chance this week, reread the chapter Allegiance to Gratitude. What a beautiful reminder of how our wounded world continues to sustain us despite our best efforts to destroy it! I appreciated the broader views of citizenship on the part of the Onondaga Nation, and thinking more about it raised further questions in my mind. Let me admit a little vulnerability here as I poke around topics for which I have incomplete knowledge. To my understanding, Indigenous peoples like the Onondaga lived independently from one another, at times warring between nations. I would like to learn what they teach about diversity of people groups. We know from Kimmerer's writing the high value they place on diversity in nature in general. I wonder how this translates to people groups.
Bear with me. Someone suggested recently to me that diversity is hard. And I have to say that I found relief in her startling words. Perhaps long ago we were content to live in our own tribes. And for sure, when a group of white men and their families founded the USA, they founded it for white men and their families. And while the Pledge of Allegiance has a dubious history, with revisions to its language that were compromises to reflect the desires of those (white men) in power, I will still say it -- not to perpetuate a lie, but rather to declare a hope that our nation of polarized and varied groups might still work toward unity, with liberty and justice for all. This is not to be "nationalistic" in a negative sense, but rather to work to make this home welcoming to all who still seek to build their lives here. To me, it's a declaration of resolve to stick it out, even when there are problems or people we would rather ignore. As Kimmerer writes about the light and dark sides of life, we can similarly acknowledge both in this simple 15 second Pledge.
But to return to the Earth. Like the daunting topic of racism, some of us felt equally paralyzed by the challenge in front of us to DO SOMETHING to help restore and appreciate the planet. Keep in mind that Kimmerer herself spent most of her adult life circling back to her roots and appreciation for the natural world. She wasn't born fully formed on this. (Here's a glance at where she is now -- thank you to one of our members for this article.) So, some potential baby steps:
-When We Were Alone by David A. Robertson (children's)
-Debbie Reese's website "American Indians in Children's Literature" (https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/) Thank you to one of our members for suggesting this website. In her words, this is "a great place to find books by and about Native Americans. There are reviews of a lot of books that detail what authors get right or wrong. This may be especially helpful for books like the Little House series; I know a lot of people like to read these because they tell a very "American" story, so it's useful to be able to add details about the Indigenous side of that story."
-Louise Erdrich's Birchbark House series as well as books for adults
-Books referring to boarding schools in Canada: Fatty Legs by Margaret-Olemaun Pokiak-Fenton and A Stranger at Home by Christy Jordan-Fenton (older kids)
-Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann (adult)
-Window shop at O'Neill Branch Library (A shout out to the librarians who are curating Native American stories for our youngest readers!)
2. Appreciate nature:
-Hike, thank the grain of rice, etc.
-Try the app PictureThis to identify plants, flowers and trees
-Plant a garden (cucumbers and tomatoes?)
-Learn about the wonders of science (We have a recommendation for the Cambridge program Science Club for Girls!)
3. Reduce waste:
-Try the app PaperKarma as a way to reduce the junk mail coming into your home and filling up your recycling bin
And with all of that said, we realize that it was a lot. So continue to bear with us as we take a break from the heaviness and escape in December with The Duke Who Didn't by Courtney Milan. Join us for discussion over Zoom!
Also, we typically have a book exchange for our December club. I would love to do something along those lines this year. I will be in touch about a box I will set up on my back porch with several of our books from this year (in case you want to try one that you didn't get a chance to read!) and maybe a few surprise titles. I would love to invite you to come and take a book and leave a book and participate in this exchange. Perhaps, at the risk of generating more waste, we could exchange them in ziploc bags so the books could be easily quarantined before transitioning to the next reader.
Until then, Happy Thanksgiving to you! Wishing you a safe and merry modified holiday season!
Transcendent Kingdom is a book that makes writers jealous. The complexity of the issues and the multi-layering and playing with time... It's all in there. I too was raised evangelical and went on to study neuroscience and have asked many of the same questions Gifty wrestles with in this text, and yet, wow, if I could only be so brilliant to churn out such a book! I hope you get a chance to try it. And if you didn't like it, please come and share why! Suggested discussion questions are below.
Hope to see you there!
1. What did you like / dislike?
2. What does the title mean? Also see question #20. ("Though I had done this millions of times, it still awed me to see a brain. To know that if I could only understand this little organ inside this one tiny mouse, that understanding still wouldn't speak to the full intricacy of the comparable organ inside my own head. And yet I had to try to understand, to extrapolate from that limited understanding in order to apply it to those of us who made up the species Homo sapiens, the most complex animal, the only animal who believed he had transcended his Kingdom, as one of my high school biology teachers used to say. That belief, that transcendence, was held within this organ itself. Infinite, unknowable, soulful, perhaps even magical. I had traded the Pentecostalism of my childhood for this new religion, this new quest, knowing that I would never fully know." p.20-21)
3. What do you make of Gifty? Her backstory is layered into the chapters. Did you need to know more upfront to know why this last experiment in grad school was the turning point for her? (See p.246 where she recalls that it was the mouse fight that unlocked her box of tears: "Like my mother, I had a locked box where I kept all my tears. My mother had only opened hers the day that Nana died and she had locked it again soon thereafter. A mouse fight had opened mine, but I was trying to close it back up again.") Or did you appreciate how her character unfolded over the course of the book?
4. What did you make of Gifty's mother? Why does she go to America? Why doesn't she go back to Ghana? (see p.243) Does she love her children? How does she show that love? ("We stared at ourselves in the mirror...until my mother's work alarm went off, the one that told her it was time to leave one job in order to get to the other. She finished putting her lipstick on, kissed her reflection in the mirror, and rushed off. I kept staring at myself after she left, kissing my own reflection back." p.23)
5. What is the meaning of image in this book -- regarding how Gifty looks at herself in the mirror as a young child, regarding the dreadlocks she gives herself in grad school... Does Gifty give herself dreadlocks in memory of the "dreadlocked man" from the market in Ghana, the one her Aunt Joyce said was crazy? Gifty opens the book with this story and returns to it over and over again. She comments on schizophrenia occasionally -- was the dreadlocked man supposed to have that?
6. What does it mean to be hungry? ("And if our story couldn't be a fairy tale, then I was willing to accept a tale like the kind I saw on television, back when the only images I ever saw of Africa were those of people stricken by warfare and famine. But there was no war in my mother's stories, and if there was hunger, it was of a different kind, the simple hunger of those who had been fed one thing but wanted another. A simple hunger, impossible to satisfy. I had a hunger too, and the stories my mother filled me with were never enough to provide me with the ammunition I felt I needed in order to battle Geoffrey, his slug of snot, my kindergarten teacher, and that seat in the very back." p.26)
7. How does Gyasi write so effortlessly about current social issues even though Gifty doesn't want to talk about issues like that? (i.e. portrayal of racism against the Chin Chin Man on p.27, or the heckler parent at Nana's soccer game...i.e. stigma of mental health: "I don't believe in mental illness." She claimed that it, along with everything else she disapproved of, was an invention of the West." p.35...i.e. crisis and stigma of opioid addiction...i.e. purpose of protests -- last one from Raymond, the guy she dated during her first year of grad school, p.42) (Gifty's thoughts: "What is the point of all this talk? What problems do we solve by identifying problems, circling them?" p.72)
8. Did you need more "action" in this book? Or did you like the balance of scene to narrative?
9. How does this fit into or serve the story that the only photo of the four of them is from Mr. Thomas's funeral? (p.56)
10. How does Gifty protect herself? ("I, too, have spent years creating my little moat of good deeds in an attempt to protect the castle of myself. I don't want to be dismissed the way that Nana was once dismissed." p.211)
11. Did Gifty's wish to be known as "a scientist, full stop" as opposed to a "woman in science, a black woman in science," resonate with you? Can you separate womanhood from career? (p.83)
12. What is Gifty saying by telling her group "Opioids are the opiates of the masses"? (p.88) And how does speaking up serve her? What do her subsequent thoughts show about her hope for her relationship with her mother? ("And, though I hadn't worked out how I felt about the Christianity of my childhood, I did know how I felt about my mother. Her devotion, her faith, they moved me. I was protective of her right to find comfort in whatever ways she saw fit. Didn't she deserve at least that much? We have to get through this life somehow." p.89; Central inquiry: Are we going to be okay?)
13. In what ways does Gifty live "in between" worlds -- scientist vs. Christian, American vs. Ghanian, and others? For example, with regard to how she feels toward the mice: "The collaboration that the mice and I have going in this lab is, if not holy, then at least sacrosanct. I have never, will never, tell anyone that I sometimes think this way, because I'm aware that the Christians in my life would find it blasphemous and the scientists would find it embarrassing, but the more I do this work the more I believe in a kind of holiness in our connection to everything on Earth. Holy is the mouse. Holy is the grain the mouse eats. Holy is the seed. Holy are we." (p.92)
14. How did your childhood or an event in your life influence your career path or other major life choice?
15. How did Gyasi weave so many threads together?! Will Gifty's relationship with her mother be okay? Will Gifty rediscover her faith in God? Will science give her any answers? Will time heal her shame? Will society and science ever find solutions for addiction and racism and xenophobia?
16. Was work Gifty's addiction? ("I took pleasure in my restraint, a sick pleasure that felt like a hangover, life surviving an avalanche only to lose your limbs to frostbite. That restraint, that control at any cost, made me horrible at a lot of things, but it made me brilliant at my work." AND "Whenever I shone blue light on the protein, it would glow green in the neuron that expressed it. The intensity of that green changed based on whether or not the neuron was firing or inactive. I never tired of this process, the holiness of it, of shining light and getting light in return. The first time I saw it happen, I wanted to call everyone in the building to gather round. In my lab, this sanctuary, something divine. Light is sweet and it pleases the eye to see the sun. / Now I've seen it so many times, my eyes have adjusted. I can't go back to that initial state of wonder, so I work, not to recapture it, but to break through it." p.240)
17. Did reading about how Han kept setting the thermostat too low in the lab remind you of Randy and Isabel in "The Necessary Changes Have Been Made" from Heads of the Colored People? And given such a beginning for a relationship, were you surprised to read of Han and Gifty getting together at the end? Did that relationship make sense or not? (I have to confess that I think I fell in love with him a bit when he tells Gifty, "Okay, but how are you at eating dinner?" p.240)
18. What it is about humans that we are the "only animal in the known world that is willing to try something new, fun, pointless, dangerous, thrilling, stupid, even if we might die in the trying"? (p.225)
19. What do you make of the ending? What do the candles represent?
20. How does Gifty's work with mice allow her to "transcend her kingdom"? "I've seen enough in a mouse to understand transcendence, holiness, redemption. In people, I've seen even more." (p.264) Also see p.92 reverie on the holiness of mice and p.252: "When I watched the limping mouse refuse the lever, I was reminded yet again of what it means to be reborn, made new, saved, which is just another way of saying, of needing those outstretched hands of your fellows and the grace of God. That saving grace, amazing grace, is a hand and a touch, a fiber-optic implant and a lever and a refusal, and how sweet, how sweet it is."
Thank you so much for coming to our birthday party and discussion last week. We decided that overall we really liked Yaa Gyasi's Transcendent Kingdom but realized that it's not the book we expected when we cracked the cover. The non-linear structure made us work to understand the narrative thread...in the same way that perhaps we ourselves actively try to make sense of our own memories.
Besides the book discussion, we also had fun looking over past titles, voting on our favorites, and thinking about which characters we would or would not want to be. Pachinko stood out in our memories as a fantastic read, and there were several of us who would change places with Rachel Chu from Crazy Rich Asians in a heartbeat.
We also took a look at who we have been reading. I have always given myself and our group snaps for branching out and reading different perspectives. I have tended to think that we are doing a good job with that. And we really have read some diverse literature. However, when we broke it down by author, I discovered that of the 36 books we have read, 23 were by white authors, 10 by Black authors, 2 by Asian authors and 1 by a Native American. We noticed that certain voices were completely missing -- Latinx and Indian, to name two.
While book club has always been a place to relax, socialize and share parenting stories and advice, from around the time we read Debby Irving's Waking Up White in 2017, it has been Corinne's and my hope that we can challenge ourselves to broaden our horizons, examine our prejudices and educate ourselves on histories that were missing from our upbringing. Still, at times, especially when I read books on racial reconciliation like Be the Bridge by LaTasha Morrison and Beyond Colorblind by Sarah Shin, I wonder: what's the point? Or, as Gifty from Transcendent Kingdom put it: "What is the point of all this talk? What problems do we solve by identifying problems, circling them?" p.72
LaTasha Morrison challenges her readers to leverage their spheres of influence to form bridges, to amplify marginalized voices. And I respond with: What influence? I am an unemployed stay at home mom with increasing agoraphobia and cut off from my community due to a pandemic. Then I hear Ms. Morrison say: No excuses.
Perhaps for someone like myself the only reparation I can offer is the sharing of stories. And if that education goes no further than this book club, then so be it for now. If you have any words or perspective of encouragement on this, I'm all ears.
In the meantime, let's continue to broaden our horizons and follow our interest at the same time. For November, let's read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I think this will appeal to the scientists in the group, as well as those interested in combating climate change, those who participate in farm shares, those who garden, and those who aspire to it even though they have the blackest thumbs in the world (like me...although perhaps I shouldn't use the term "black thumb" anymore to avoid being misunderstood or suggesting racial undertones). After I read the synopsis of this book, forgive me, but suddenly my head was filled with a soothing yet urgent message calling me to learn to paint with all the colors of the wind, and I was reminded of playing Disney Monopoly this past summer. Did you know that on the game board it costs hundreds of dollars to buy Cinderella's castle but only six dollars to purchase Pocahontas's riverbend? I suggested to my family that perhaps reparations needed to be made there. They retorted that developed land was worth more and besides, Pocahontas didn't believe you could own property anyway. I said that there must be a better answer than that. (I don't think my parents are racist; they like to argue for fun -- they are lawyers -- but still, you can see the discussion points.) I look forward to hearing Ms. Kimmerer's take on how we can learn from nature. This is a long book with many holds at the library, but it is available on Hoopla!
Hope to see you there!
2. Were these female change-makers for real, or is the author projecting current issues onto the past? (Issues like Margery's Cherokee heritage, Bennett's possible homosexuality, treatment of African-Americans, environmentalism, education of women, and even the idea of vulnerability - p.166)
3. Is Alice really as impulsive and lacking self-awareness as people say? Or is she just everyone's scapegoat? How does her ability to articulate her thoughts (to Van Cleve, to the Pastor) influence how you view her?
4. Who is the heroine of the story -- Margery or Alice -- and why?
5. What do you make of the title? Does this really encapsulate the story? (The Giver of Stars by Amy Lowell: "Hold your soul open for my welcoming. / Let the quiet of your spirit bathe me / With its clear and rippled coolness, / That, loose-limbed and weary, I find rest, / Outstretched upon your peace, as on a bed of ivory." (154)
6. What is the real history of the packhorse librarians? (Wikipedia: One WPA-funded project, the Pack Horse Library Project, mainly employed women to deliver books to rural areas in eastern Kentucky. Many of the women employed by the project were the sole breadwinners for their families.)
7. The back cover of the hardcover copy highlights the conversation between Alice and Margery where Alice confides that she feels trapped. Is "feeling trapped" or getting out of a trap (whether due to mining, classism, racism, sexism) the main theme of the book? And if so, what are we supposed to gather from the way the characters solve their problems?
8. What was up with how Annie treated Alice?
9. Alice learns to shoot a gun and is "no longer afraid", but was she ever afraid? What did her fear look like, and how did Alice change? (228)
11. There's a lot of talk about Bennett's mother in the beginning of the book, but that sort of trails off until the doll incident. What type of woman do you think Bennett's mother was really like? How do you think Van Cleve treated her?
12. Have any of your read Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver? The flood (p.246) reminded me of the ending of Kingsolver's book. There are a lot of similar issues between them -- the setting, environmentalism, women's rights... Did Moyes' book remind you of other titles?
13. Was Margery's decision to give up her daughter and give up on strategy for the trial in line with her character or not, and why?
14. Why did Alice apologize to Bennett in the store? (353)
15. At Margery's trial, why did the townsfolk insist on calling Clem McCullough "a good man who set out to do a good deed"? (370) Why did the prosecution not question the daughter's story that to us was so clearly invented?
16. Where did the men get off without a trial? (Clem McCullough should have been on trial for rape of his daughter and assault of Margery; Geoff Van Cleve for hitting Alice and for negligence and other offenses regarding his mine.)
17. What was up with Bennett?
18. Did Peggy deserve to be laughed at in the end? Or was this yet another example of women fighting each other and the men getting off without a trial? (Like how Annie sets herself against Alice.)
19. Aren't you curious about Married Love by Dr. Maria Stopes? It's available on Kindle. Amazon quotes Wikipedia in describing the text and its publishing history:
"Married Love or Love in Marriage is a book written by Dr. Marie Carmichael Stopes, first published in March 1918 by a small publisher, after many other larger publishers turned her down because of the content. It rapidly sold out, and was in its sixth printing within a fortnight.
The US Customs Service banned the book as obscene until April 6, 1931, when Judge John M. Woolsey overturned that decision. Woolsey is the same judge who in 1933 would lift the ban on James Joyce's "Ulysses", allowing for its publication and circulation in the United States of America.
It was the first book to note that women's sexual desire coincides with ovulation and the period right before menstruation. The book argued that marriage should be an equal relationship between partners. Although officially scorned in the UK, the book went through 19 editions and sales of almost 750,000 copies by 1931."
A huge thank you to Lilli for hosting us last night -- it was so good to see your silhouetted faces from across the radiant heat of the solo stove (we all highly recommend this portable product). What an incredible treat. (But just FYI, those cans of rose are apparently equivalent to 2.5 glasses of wine... I apologize if my comments got a little loud there -- I went to sleep with my head spinning!)
It'd be great to meet in person again next month if the weather holds, but I feel torn about that because it would also be good to see a larger group at our FOUR YEAR ANNIVERSARY of book club! We'll be in touch about location as the date approaches.
Our club began with a discussion of Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing, so In celebration of our upcoming birthday, let's discuss her brand new novel Transcendent Kingdom in October! This book choice will probably involve modest expense because there are zillions of holds at the library, but thank you to Lisa for the title suggestion!
Hope to see you there!
1. How do you critique a compilation of short stories?
2. Which story was your favorite / least favorite / the one you reacted to most strongly?
3. In "The Necessary Changes Have Been Made" who won the office lights battle -- Randy or Isabela? What did you make of Isabela telling her new officemate that she wanted the overheads off?
4. In "Belles Lettres" what happened off scene to make the moms friends in the end? Or...were they?
5. How did Fatima's story (in "Belles Lettres", "The Body's Defenses Against Itself" and "Fatima, the Biloquist: A Transformation Story") help carry the collection of stories? Does a collection need multiple stories of the same character?
6. In "The Subject of Consumption" the story seems to be about Mike though he is written a bit to the side of the scene. What do you make of his storyline and his decision to stick with Lisbeth in the end? (105)
7. Can microwaving a phone really cause an explosion? What is the author saying about social media and narcissism in this story?
8. Did anyone else feel really old reading these stories? Anyone afraid for our kids?
9. What do you make of Brian's character -- both in general and as fleshed out from the previous story ("This Todd") in "A Conversation About Bread"?
10. Are you alarmed by Alma's behavior in "Wash Clean the Bones" or is it understandable?
Great to see you guys last night. I love that we can continue discussing books and meeting together even if it's in a virtual format. For those who are itching to come back to club in person, we have a few ladies lined up and ready to host you in their backyards and on their back decks, so stay tuned. Next month, we will discuss The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes. We hope you enjoy this tale of women's friendship as they travel to deliver books to isolated communities.
Overall, we enjoyed reading Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires. While some of the characters were incredibly unlikable, we loved the connections between the stories, as well as the diversity of Black experiences in different places in life. We felt challenged and stretched and grateful for this chance to rethink what it means to be Black, and how being Black can mean many different things.
We also shared titles that we enjoyed reading recently. The Mamas' recommendations (for you and/or your kids) include:
Let Me Hear a Rhyme by Tiffany D. Jackson
Alegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson
Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera
The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo
The Mothers by Brit Bennett
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Betsy Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace
Ella All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey
1. What did you like / dislike?
2. What is freedom? And is it an option for anyone in this tale? Is there any hope in these "uttered words that felt like prophecy"? ("True freedom is a master too, you see -- one more dogged, more constant, than any ragged slave-driver...What you must now accept is that all of us are bound to something. Some will bind themselves to property in man and all that comes forthwith. And others shall bind themselves to justice. All must name a master to serve. All must choose...You are not a slave, Hiram Walker," said Corrine. "But by Gabriel's Ghost, you shall serve." (155; 157) Is this Corrine's way of saying that if you're not an anti-racist, then you're a racist?)
3. Who is Hiram? What is he? ("But there are so many miracles. As when I was told of a man who did not merely conduct but self-resurrected, who hoisted himself out of the ice, a man who, pursued by the hounds, felt a longing for home so fierce that he blinked and he was there." 269) (And just an aside, but Hiram is always noting when he washes and changes his clothes. Is there any symbolism in that?)
4. What do you make of the terms he uses to designate people -- the Tasked, the Quality, the low whites? Had you heard those terms before?
5. How were the stakes for women different from the stakes for me? ("...if you told me that Hank Powers cried for three hours when his daughter was born, I remembered..." 11) And what do you make of Sophia's question to Hiram regarding his intent towards her? ("I like you, I really do...But I will like you a heap less if your plan is for us to get to this Underground and for you to make yourself up as another Nathaniel. That ain't freedom to me, do you understand? Ain't no freedom for a woman in trading a white man for a colored...If that is your plan to shackle me there...then tell me now and allow me the decency of making my own choice here." 111-112)
6. Did your opinion of Sophia change (as Hiram's did) when you discovered she was pregnant when she ran with Hiram? Was the pregnancy a surprise to you, or did you know all along? ("I think of what it must mean to bring someone, a little girl perhaps, into all of this. And I know it's coming, someday. That it ain't even up to me. It's coming, Hiram, and I will watch as my daughter is taken in, as I was taken in, and..." 99; "I will bring no child into this..." 107; "It's coming, Hiram," you said. "And I will watch as my daughter is taken in, as I was taken in." None can say it was not said. And though I remember everything, I cannot say I always hear it. BUt I hear you now, and I hear much more." 350).
7. What do you make of Hiram's perspective of how the Quality pitted the low whites and the tasked against each other to keep both in their place? ("These men became rich off the flesh trade, but their names were of too recent vintage and their work of such ill repute that they could never rise above their designation. It was the strong association between the jail and the low whites who fed and served it that gave them the name Ryland's Hounds. We feared them and hated them, perhaps more than we feared and hated the Quality who held us, for all of us were low, we were all Tasked, and we should be in union and arrayed against the Quality, if only the low whites would wager their crumbs for a slice of the whole cake." 57) What would it mean for the low whites to "wager their crumbs"?
8. Did Georgie and Amber try to warn Hiram or not? ("Ain't nobody out, son, you hear? Ain't no out. All gotta serve. I like serving here more than at some other man's Lockless, I will grant you that, but I am serving, of that I can assure you." 60) And how does Georgie's insistence that Hiram go home, that his life is a good one, contrast with Hiram's statement that "there was no peace in slavery, for every day under the rule of another is a day of war." (130)
9. What was the Conduction, and why not explain it to Hiram and the reader at the beginning? Why the journey of discovery? Why does Harriet not tell Hiram? (Per Harriet, "The jump is done by the power of the story. It pulls from our particular histories, from all of our loves and all of our losses. All of that feeling is called up, and on the strength of our remembrances, we are moved." 278; "The summoning of a story, the water, and the object that made memory real as brick: that was Conduction." 358).
How is the Conduction similar or different from the idea of The Underground Railroad as depicted in the book of that title by Colson Whitehead?
10. What is a water dancer? His mother, his aunt and Sophia? Or part of the Conduction? ("Stay with me, friend," Harriet said. "No exertions needed. It's just like dancing. Stay with the sound, stay with the story and you will be fine." 271)
11. The prevailing image I hold of slavery in my mind is of laboreres being mistreated in the fields. Do you have a dominant image in your mind? What about Hiram's perspective on slavery was surprising or new? ("Walking down the back stairs, I knew that my father's statement could only be reconciled through the peculiar religion of Virginia -- Virginia, where it was held that a whole race would submit to chains; Virginia, where this same race held the math that molded iron and carved marble to exact proportion and were still called beasts; Virginia, where a man would profess his love for you one moment and sell you off the next. Oh, the curses my mind constructed for my fool of a father, for this country where men dress sin in pageantry and pomp, in cotillions and crinolines, where they hide its exercise, in the down there, in a basement of the mind, in these slave-stairs, which I now I descended, into the Warrens, into this secret city, which powered an empire so great that none dare speak its true name." 70)
I was surprised, as Hiram knew I would be, that train cars were integrated. ("It may be hard to believe now, in these dark days, but there was no "n-- car." Why would there be one? The Quality kept their Tasked ones close the way a lady keeps her clutch, closer even, for this was a time in our history when the most valuable thing a man could own, in all of America, was another man." 188)
12. Was there foul play in Maynard's death? How did they end up in the river that night?
13. What did you make of (Miss) Corrine? Did your opinion of her change? What do you make of Corrine's interpretation of women's role? ("And some of us have been down since the days of Rome. Some of us are born into society and told that knowledge is rightfully beyond us, and ornamental ignorance should be our whole aspiration." 166)
And why is Hiram always surprised to see Miss Corrine? Why is she so hard to figure out? What do you make of his assessment of her at the end? ("Corrine Quinn was among the most fanatical agents I ever encountered on the Underground. All of these fanatics were white. They took slavery as a personal insult or affront, a stain upon their name. They had seen women carried off to fancy, or watched as a father was stripped and beaten in front of his child, or seen whole families pinned like hogs into rail-cars, steam-boast, and jails. Slavery humiliated them, because it offended a basic sense of goodness that they believed themselves to possess. And when their cousins perpetrated the base practice, it served to remind them how easily they might do the same. They scorned their barbaric brethren, but they were brethren all the same. So their opposition was a kind of vanity, a hatred of slavery that far outranked any love of the slave. Corrine was no different, and it was why, relentless as she was against slavery, she could so casually condemn me to the hole, condemn Georgie Parks to death, and mock an outrage put upon Sophia." 370-1)
14. What did you make of the layers of deceit -- how Hiram couldn't even trust other tasking folks -- how they were divided against themselves? ("And then there were even darker tasks. To be their eyes and ears, their intelligence among the other tasking men, so that they, the masters, knew who smiled in their faces and scoffed behind their backs...The effect of all this was a kind of watchfulness among the tasking folks, in particular toward those you did not know." 104-5) This sadly reminds me of what poet and media activist Malkia Cyril explains in the film “13th” that white people aren’t the only ones to view Black men as criminals. It broke my heart as she said, “Let me be clear...Black people also believe this...and are terrified...of our own selves.”
15. In what ways does the author continue to raise the stakes for Hiram that continue to build the story? ("So I must go, for my world was disappearing, had always been disappearing -- Maynard called out from the Goose, Corrine from the mountains, and above all, Natchez." 116)
16. What do you make of Hiram turning the lens back on himself after the boy is sold from the jail and his mother is beaten? ("I did nothing. Understand that I saw all of this and I did nothing. I watched those men sell children and beat a mother to the ground, and I did nothing." 135)
17. What do you make of the tone and perspective of this book? How old did you imagine Hiram to be at the time of its telling? What "dark days" is he in "now"? ("It may be hard to believe now, in these dark days..." 188) (I found the tone reflective and regretful -- at least, that's how the audiobook read it -- slowly, thoughtfully, making me think that Hiram would be an old man at the end...)
18. Was it clear to you what Hiram's new job was? ("First you learn what they know, in the general. And then you learn them in the specific -- their words and their hand. Own the man's especial knowledge and you shall own the measure of the man. Then you might fashion the costume, Hiram, and make it yours to fit." 167) How did Hiram's memory help him on his journey? What else wasn't clear during his journey? Was it clear what they did to Georgie? (175)
19. What is the meaning of memory in this book? ("We forgot nothing, you and I...To forget is to truly slave. To forget is to die...To remember, friend...For memory is the chariot, and memory is the way, and memory is bridge from the curse of slavery to the boon of freedom." 271)
How does the author weigh the importance and risks of memory in highlighting Raymond White and his collection of records of runaway slaves? ("Reaching in, I found an assortment of paper, correspondences with fugitives...In the wrong hands, countless agents would be exposed." 223)
What is the price of remembering? ("There is a reason we forget. And those of us who remember, well, it is hard on us. It exhausts us. Even today, I could only do this with the aid of my brothers." Harriet to Hiram, 305).
How do we remember? ("I stopped here and watched, for though the moment was conjured up by me, I wanted to savor it, but when I tried, I saw them begin to fade from me, fade like mortal life and mortal memory, and I knew that I must keep telling the story." 395)
20. What was particularly hard to read? (For me, the story of Benjamin Rush saying that blacks were immune to a fever in Philadelphia (236), especially since recently I heard there was a rumor that blacks couldn't contract COVID, leading who knows how many to fail to take precautions.)
21. How succinctly does Hiram describe structural racism? ("I had never seen either Simpson. But I could not help but imagine the son here among the Northern Quality presenting himself as a man of society, a man of good breeding, reputable connections, and respectable business. But shut away in that foot-locker was his unwashed life -- the proof of a great crime, evidence of his membership in the dark society that underwrote this opulent home, which was, itself, built upon a sprawling grave, in the heart of this alleged slaveless city." 240)
22. Were you aware that the abolitionist movement had so many layers to it? Public meetings existed above the Underground (Raymond White) which existed above the work of people like Corrine Quinn?
23. What did you make of the Convention by the Canada border and the tents of people advocating for freedom for blacks, women, Native Americans, children... What conclusions does Hiram make? ("It occurred to me that an examination of the Task revealed not just those evils particular to Virginia, to my old world, but the great need for a new one entirely." 251)
24. Did Harriet have a vision of the Civil War? If so, what does that mean? ("And then the ash rose with the wind, until it formed itself into a whole company of black men in blue, black men with rifles upon their shoulders...In the eyes of this army assembled before me, I beheld the humiliation of slavery burning like fire...Below we saw the great range of our shackled country, its crops, rooted in flesh and watered with blood. And a song rose up among these men...as they stood in ranks, and the song was that old feeling put to hymn, and on my sign we fell down upon this sinful country, and our battle-cry was as mighty as a great river conducted through a high and narrow valley." 275)
25. Does Hiram make excuses for his father's behavior? ("He was as ill-prepared for repentance as Maynard was for mastery. His world -- the world of Virginia -- was built on a foundation of lies. To collapse them all right then and there, at his age, might well have killed him." 337).
26. What does Sophia mean at the end? ("We are what we always were...Underground." 403)
27. Why couldn't they find Hiram's mom? Would finding her have meant he wouldn't have had the powers of deep memory in order to Conduct Thena?
28. When is this going to be a movie? :)
So nice to see you guys last night. There was a lot to dig into with this book! Thank you for pointing out the SuperHero-like storyline -- and the fact that Ta-Nehisi Coates writes Black Panther for Marvel! We were drawn into this story by its suspense, so some of us were left wanting more at the ending. However, we also commented that the author spends more pages on the emotional violence of the culture than the physical violence, and so perhaps the separation of mother and child was the greatest violence the main character could know... We were fascinated by the idea of the Conduction and were surprised to hear that it is also featured in the 2019 movie "Harriet". Perhaps something to screen this weekend?
For next month, let's read Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires. I'm not sure where or when we'll be meeting...so stay tuned, and in the meantime, enjoy the book!
The Tipsy Mamas' Book Club is co-hosted by Corinne Foster and myself, though the spirit of our discussions is flavored by many readers.