Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
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!
The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes
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!
Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce
1. What do you make of Mr. Collins' advice to Emmeline: "Find out what you're good at, Miss Lake, and then get even better." (54) Did Emmy follow his advice?
2. Have you ever zoned out at an inopportune time? (Emmeline's interview with Mr. Collins, p.20)
3. Would you have answered the letters that Mrs. Bird designates as "unacceptable"?
4. Does the premise of a book make sense? That is, could a woman so keen on a career as a war correspondent truly find satisfaction dabbling in relationship advice? How does Emmy change or become more self-aware over the course of the book? (Is she just clueless -- about her relationship with Edmund, her argument with William, her right to reply to letters?)
5. What is the nature of the disagreement between Emmy and William and Bunty? How does the passage of time and our different culture color how we interpret the argument and outcome?
6. Which character did you fear for most during the Blitz? (Me: Thelma...and her kids...)
7. Is the nonchalant attitude of Londoners believable? ("Miss Lake, said Charles, "even if you do enjoy being a moving duck, it will make me feel better if Charles is with you. I should be most annoyed if you were blown up. I'll settle things here. Be careful..." / "Chivalry's all very well," I said through my scarf as we walked carefully along. "But if you get run over, it won't be any good for the war effort." p.104)
And if it's not believable, then does that spoil the big reveal of Emmy realizing they should be allowed to acknowledge their fear? ("I realised I didn't just feel sorry for this girl. I was proud of her. Enormously proud that she was brave enough to admit she was scared." p. 242)
8. Where did you cry? (For me, reading the series of letters from Emmy to Brunty, especially the one about William's memorial service, p. 231-2.)
9. What is Emmy's opinion of Mrs. Bird's Good Works? Also, did your sympathies for Mrs. Bird change over the course of the book?
10. How would you compare Emmy and Brunty's friendship to that of Emmy and Kathleen's?
11. Why is Emmy always saying (to William, to Bunty, to Kathleen), "you will let me explain, won't you, Kath?" (255), when they already know and disagree with the full explanation? What more ground does Emmy hope to gain?
12. What kind of punishment or reward does Emmy deserve in the end?
13. How was this book different from the story you expected to find?
So nice to see you last night to discuss Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce. We enjoyed escaping into this story, even though we found some key elements a little contrived. We will still be interested in checking out the continuing story when AJ Pearce finishes her second novel! This book also inspired us to share other WWII titles we have enjoyed or been challenged by recently, including:
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Maisy Dobbs mysteries by Jaqueline Winspear
Nothing is Forgotten by Peter Golden
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Going forward, I think we're all feeling the need to read some Black literature right now. Please join us in July and August to read The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, followed by Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires.
Hope to see you there!
1. What did you like / dislike?
2. Where did you laugh? ("Topaz said she had never been on the streets and rather regretted it, "because one must sink to the depths in order to rise to the heights," which is the kind of Topazism it requires much affection to tolerate." (8) and "...there were some reflections about life I wanted to record. (I never did record them -- and have now forgotten what they were.)" (138) and "I will pause and search my innermost soul... / I have searched it for a solid five minutes." (196))
3. What do you make of Cassandra's experiment to write in different places? (In the kitchen sink, the hen house, the stairs, in bed, the attic, the barn, the drawing room, Belmotte Tower, the gatehouse desk...)
4. What do you make of the structure of the book -- as a journal; written in three different journals -- the 6 penny book from the Vicar, the shilling book from Stephen, the 2 guinea book from Simon; using the device of shorthand speed writing as a way to get the story onto paper in a timely manner?
5. Cassandra compares her story to Pride and Prejudice. Did you?
6. What does the title mean?
7. Is Cassandra "consciously naive"? (64) Is she "the insidious type -- Jane Eyre with a touch of Becky Sharp. A thoroughly dangerous girl"? (111) How does she change over the course of the story?
8. What do you make of Rose and Cassandra surmising Neil's take on England? ("He thinks England's a joke, a funny sort of toy." (93)) What purpose does the comparison of America to England serve, regarding the Cottons or Mr. Mortmain's American lecture tour, or regarding the description of talkative Mrs. Cotton? ("I got used to the vitality of American women..." / "Do they all talk as much as that?" / "Amazing, their energy...capable of having three or four children, running a home, keeping abreast of art, literature and music -- superficially of course but, good lord, that's something -- and holding down a job into the bargain. Some of them get through two or three husbands as well, just to avoid stagnation....Quite a number of American men are remarkably silent." (100))
9. What do you make of Topaz? ("Her letter is exactly like her -- three quarters practical kindness and one quarter spoof." (194))
10. Do you believe Cassandra when she begins to doubt that she wants money -- preferring the shilling book for the 2 guinea book; questioning the money Rose spends on clothes; wishing for a simple meal before they had meat...? (194)
11. How does the separation of family members (with Stephen, Mortmain, and then Rose and Topaz going off to London) help the characters learn more about each other? Could the novel have progressed if they hadn't left the castle at all?
12. What gives? Simon kisses Cassandra after seducing her and doesn't explain himself? (221-3)
13. How does Miss Blossom enable Cassandra to see herself more clearly? (244,246) Why does she have to be "gone for ever"? (246) How does imagination play a role in Cassandra's development? ("Imagination itself can be a kind of willingness -- a pretense hat things are real, due to one's longing for them." (245)) If hope = faith + imagination, where does that leave Cassandra?
14. What do you make of the Vicar and Miss Marcy and how they open Cassandra's eyes to "by-pass[ing] the suffering that comes to more people -- he by his religion, she by her kindness to others"? (246)
15. How do we really know we've fallen in love with someone? Is it as complicated as Cassandra makes it out to be?
16. What kind of father makes his daughters sell all of their belongings -- including precious necklaces -- before he's motivated to get a job? Is Cassandra -- or the reader -- convinced that he couldn't have written before now, that "it just hasn't been possible"? (303)
17. Did anyone foresee Cassandra's plan to imprison her father? How fitting is it, symbolically?
18. What do you make of Thomas's character? ("I felt dreadful, but Thomas seemed quite unconcerned." (314))
19. What role does Cassandra's mother play -- in memory, in supporting father's writing, as a voice in Cassandra's head, as the travel clock in the gatehouse?
20. "He said he would come back." (343) Will he? How will it end? Why end the book like this? ("When I imagine changing places with [Rose] I get the feeling I do on finishing a novel with a brick-wall happy ending -- I mean the kind of ending when you never think any more about the characters...." (197))
And now: a little puzzle game of our own...
True or False:
1. "I never felt happier in my life... Perhaps it is because I have satisfied my creative urge." (11)
2. "Contemplation seems to be about the only luxury that costs nothing." (25)
3. "Nobel deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression." (38)
4. "What I'd really hate would be the settled feeling, with nothing but happiness to look forward to." (196)
5. "I wonder if there isn't a catch about having plenty of money? Does it eventually take the pleasure out of things?" (197)
6. "And then I wondered if I was a little bit drunk." (240)
7. "Watching sleeping people makes one feel more separate than ever from them." (318)
8. "...the interest so many people take in puzzles and problems -- which often starts in earliest childhood -- represents more than a mere desire for recreation; that it may even derive from man's eternal curiosity about his origin." (337)
9. "I only want to write. And there's no college for that except life." (339)
10. "Perhaps it would really be rather dull to be married and settled for life. Liar! It would be heaven." (342)
11. "Even a broken heart doesn't warrant a waste of good paper." (343)
Great to see you guys the other night to discuss I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. We were happily engrossed in Cassandra's bubble and didn't even pay attention to the fact that the story was set almost 100 years ago. We loved this timeless tale, even though we wished Cassandra might have ended up with Stephen! We also appreciated the similarly timeless English tendency to relate scenarios back to Austen.
We decided we were in the mood for another beautiful book that could transport us to another time and place. So...join us next month as we discuss Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce.
Hope to see you there!
Writers & Lovers by Lily King
Happy Passover and Easter to those celebrating! If you're looking for an Easter service, my family has been enjoying our church's services on YouTube.
I'm looking forward to "seeing" you this Wednesday to discuss Writers & Lovers by Lily King. Suggested discussion questions below. I think my favorite part is when Casey says during her teaching interview:
This resonates with me because this is what I'm trying to do with my blog most of the time -- to go beyond a book review to where I try to apply the author's ideas to our lives. Anyway...
Looking forward to our discussion!
1. What did you like / dislike?
2. Did the beginning remind you of Sweetbitter? Did the interspersed observations about life remind you of The Little Paris Bookshop?
3. In what ways do artists show their vulnerability? ("I stood against the railing while behind me people creaked into the old rocking chairs and passed out beers and raised their bottles to the filmmaker, who was giggling psychopathethically, the way you do when you've exposed yourself through art." p.29)
4. When did you start liking Casey? (For me, it was when she didn't get back with Luke.)
5. What do you make of Casey's observation that "success rests more easily on men"? (p.69) And how does her comment about authors' photos play into that? ("Why do men always want to look like that [menacing] in their author photos?...Whereas with women...they have to be pleasing." p.51) What of her other observations on the differences between men and women? ("Oscar is studying me. He's make decisions already. I can feel this. Between our call and today he talked himself out of me, and now he is coming back around. I squat there and think about how you get trained early on as a woman to perceive how others are perceiving you, at the great expense of what you yourself are feeling about them. Sometimes you mix the two up in a terrible tangle that's hard to unravel." p.130)
6. Is it possible to have a lover and write well? ("Did David write his book?" I ask. "He didn't even start it." She blows on her tea. "And I've written two hundred and sixty pages since he left." p.61; plus, when Casey was with Luke, she didn't write a thing) When is a lover a muse, and when is a lover an impediment / distraction?
7. What did you make of the commentary on money and responsibility in this book? (pointing out the middle school friend was supported by the men in her life; ignoring debt collectors; yet not embracing freedom of simplicity either -- p. 84-5: "It's the scent of freedom in here, Casey. You won't be able to smell it till you've lost it." / Actually I could smell it. It was the scent of black mold and gasoline that came in from the garage.")
8. What role does writing play in therapy? (Thinking of Casey's writing; her friend's 260 pages after her boyfriend moves out; and the writers' stories she shares on p.86-8 where sometimes they are forbidden to write -- by a family member, by a clinic for nervous disorders.)
9. What is the role of research in this novel -- on Casey's part (Cuba)? On Lily King's part (other writers / titles)?
10. What do you make of the geese? (p.4-5, p.92 -- "chinstraps pale blue" - like her mother's necklace?, p.171, p.189)
11. What is up with Adam, her landlord? Why keep writing about him when so many other characters come and go? (On a related note, that was a critique I had for the book -- since I am character-driven when reading a novel, I had a hard time knowing which characters to invest in with this read.)
12. What is this book about? (The back of the book says "grief". Are the car accident, doctors' visits extraneous information? What did you want less of?)
13. Was p.118-121 a little late to learn about her father and golf? Should we have gotten her story earlier?
14. Is this book a commentary on writing novels? On novels themselves? ("A novel is a long story with something wrong with it." p.138; "Kay Boyle said once that a good story is both an allegory and a slice of life. Most writers are good at one, not the other. But you are doing both so beautifully here." p.167; "Have you always been such an enthusiastic reader?" / "Not really. I liked reading, but I was picky about books. I think the enthusiasm came when I started writing. Then I understood how hard it is to re-create in words what you see and feel in your head. That's what I love about Bernhard in the book. He manages to simulate consciousness, and it's contagious because while you're reading it rubs off on you and your mind starts working like that for a while. I love that. That reverberation for me is what is most important about literature. Not themes or symbols or the rest of that crap they teach in high school." p. 270)
15. Were you rooting for Silas or Oscar or neither?
16. Why set this story in the 90s? To be more dramatic without cell phones??
17. Harvard Square...MFA...Walden Pond...Silas's apartment in North Cambridge!!!! Where there other local haunts you wanted to see Casey visit? :)
So nice to see you guys last night to discuss Writers & Lovers by Lily King. While we found it a fairly easy, compelling read, we appreciated the nuanced characters, especially Casey who drew us into her dreams and had us celebrating with her at the (fairytale) end.
Before we discussed the book though, I asked everyone what they were doing these days to help them feel normal.
My answers: packing kids' lunches the night before (to avoid being a short order cook all day long), reading before bed, and saying hi to my neighbors across the driveway.
You said: riding the Peloton, taking virtual exercise classes (kickboxing seemed particularly appropriate), running (with or without mask)... Hm...exercise seems to be a theme...
Still, it was hard to come up with those responses.
Today, as my kids and I gunned it out of Cambridge along Route 2 on our way to hike Purgatory Chasm in Sutton, Mass, we listened to the soundtrack from Dreamworks' 1998 production of The Prince of Egypt. "Purgatory" seemed like the right tone for today...this week...and was reflected in the music itself as the cast belted out:
"Elohim, Adonai, can you hear your people cry?
Help us now!
Listen now, and deliver us!"
Once we made it to the hike, I held my breath as my kids shimmied in and out of rock crevices too narrow for me to follow. I kept calling after them, Marco Polo style, trying to locate them in the jumble of granite as I skittered back over boulders to try to meet them on the other side of a rock wall. After an hour of this, three of my kids chose to climb out of the chasm a different way from the way we entered. The fourth refused to go that way. ("Too dangerous.") So I made a choice -- I climbed up the cliff with the three kids, saw that they knew to follow the yellow markers back to the parking lot (they hiked there first with Dan last Saturday), and sent them off on their own. Then I descended down to the fourth child, and together, he and I retraced our steps back out to the chasm's entrance.
On the drive home (refueled with pretzels and last year's Halloween candy), filled with the satisfaction of having done something hard, we listened to Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston belt out:
"There can be miracles
When you believe
Though hope is frail
Its hard to kill
Who knows what miracles
You can achieve
When you believe somehow you will
You will when you believe"
Dan started a new job today...after five months of uncertainty about whether there would be a next paycheck...and where it would come from. Those five months were preceded by my mom's chemotherapy, and followed by coronavirus. It's been almost of year of uncertainty in my family, and now, with the virus, it seems there is no end in sight. In this, I know I'm not alone. Some of you know people who are sick. Some of you are afraid of losing your mothers. I have a long and growing prayer list during this time. Please let me know if I can add you to it. While you may not think prayer is for you, I firmly believe that God answers prayers. I also believe that through the act of prayer, we strengthen our faith...and in doing so, find we can grasp more firmly to the hope that too often seems just out of reach.
And if that was all too much for you, please join us anyway next month when we discuss Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle. Our protagonist is a girl who tries to sneak time to write while isolated in a decrepit castle with weird family members. Hmm... Forgive me if I picked a book that I feel describes me too well right now.
Hope to see you there!
Maid by Stephanie Land
1. What did you like / dislike?
2. What did you make of the writer's tone and the points of reflection?
3. What did you make of the writer's childhood family life? How do you think it influenced her path into and through poverty?
4. What did you think of the writer's mother? Did your opinion change when you learned about the writer's grandmother?
5. What did you think of the writer as a mother herself? Did you judge her like the doctors (and some others) seemed to? What do you make of her admission after Mia's surgery that she "needed someone to hold my hand, be there for [her]. Sometimes mothers need to be mothered too." (139)
6. Was something about Jamie missing? A description of another side of him? A description of how he got partial custody rights and why he wanted them?
7. Were you satisfied by the ending?
8. Who is the intended audience?
9. What does the writer suggest about the lives of the people whose houses she cleans?
10. What did you think of the books structure -- having the chapters mostly centered on descriptions of houses she either lived in or cleaned? What is the through line?
11. At Wendy's house in chapter 13, the writer comments that she "admired her, as weird as it seemed, hoping [she'd] feel the same peace at the end of [her] life, calmly sorting piles instead of scrambling to make amends or cross experiences off of a list." (128) How does the writer's dream for creating the life she wants drive the story?
12. What did you want to know more (or less) about? (I wanted to know more about the relationships she had in her life -- she does date and talk to friends occasionally -- and less about the details of the lives of those whose houses she cleaned. I felt those parts took away from time she could have told me more of her story.)
13. Does she adequately talk about her family? Or does it leave you wanting more? Do you think she leaves them out for privacy reasons or because she didn't want to talk about them?
14. This is probably way out in left field, but did anyone wonder if the writer and Kurt were going to end up having an affair? (I'm so sorry to even hint at this; I just felt her descriptions of him showed a stronger interest than any interest she had in the men she dated.)
15. Skim milk doesn't actually have any added sugar. Where else did you want to help educate her?
16. Where did your heart break for people living in poverty?
17. Did you read the foreword by Barbara Ehrenreich before or after the text? How did it influence your reading of the story?
I hope this finds you all healthy and surviving the changes. It was so nice to see so many of you the other night on our Zoom call. Thank you again to Lilli for "hosting" us! You provided a wonderful oasis from the scary things that are happening around us right now. My emotions have been hitting in waves as I transition my life from real connections to virtual church service, Bible study, writing class, writing group, and book club. I felt immensely better after praying with my women's Bible study on Thursday night over Google Hangout. Then Dan and I watched Outbreak last night (#5 trending movie on Netflix right now), and I had unsettling dreams all night long.
What sucks right now:
-stir crazy kids (one who draws all over the couch with green sharpie and bites his brother)
-not being able to get my son's vision checked when I think he needs glasses
-my daughter's cancelled birthday party
-figuring out how to home school
-having my writing conference cancelled...and also, you mentioned:
-fears of food shortages
....bearing all of our kids disappointments....
What's good about right now:
-hiking with my kids* and also, you mentioned:
-talking on phone with friends and family
-less air and water pollution (while there aren't actually dolphins in the Venice canals, the water is clearer and fish have returned)
-less time spent getting to appointments, finding parking, etc.
-forced slow down
-chance to practice gratitude, trying to remember that we just need to have enough for today
-remembering that isolation shows we are cared about and is our way of caring for others; our reminder that we are all in this together
And we will keep reading as we are able!
We found Maid to be a readable, compelling memoir, if not the best writing we've ever seen. Our eyes were opened to what is it like to live on government assistance, and some of us will start paying our babysitters more because of reading this. We questioned whether this was really the most powerful and effective story Stephaine Land might have told. We wonder whether she will write about the men in her life at some point. We questioned whether she was the best person to represent maids as she didn't seem to feel like a true member of this group. We wanted more self-reflection from Land. We'll be curious to see what she chooses to write next!
We've had a request to pick a lighter read for April, given the state of the world. It seems I am not the only one bursting randomly into tears.
We're going to bump The Ministry of Utmost Happiness back, likely to June.
In the meantime, join us in April to read Lily King's Writers & Lovers.
Hope to see you on Zoom!
1. What did you like / dislike?
2. Did anyone else feel like they were reading a ghost story? ("Even in death the boys were trouble." 3) What constitutes a ghost story?
3. What did you make of the use of foreshadowing -- ominous or too heavy? ("On the day he was arrested, just before the deputy appeared, an advertisement for Fun Town came on the radio." 27..."Elwood was asleep when a different roar commenced. It came from outside...Forbidding and mechanical...torrential. A voice across the room said, "Somebody's going out for ice cream," and a few boys snickered." 54)
4. Was the album Martin Luther King at Zion Hill the key to Elwood's "undoing"...or was it the encyclopedia prank?
5. What do you make of the contradictions -- of what Elwood was attempting to understand about the world...and the assumptions he made? "Elwood asked his grandmother when Negroes were going to start staying at the Richmond, and she said it's one thing to tell someone to do what's right and another thing for them to do it." 18..."He'd kept his movement dreams so close that it never occurred to him that others in his school shared his need to stand up." 35..."One boy looked like a thirty-year-old man, but Elwood knew that was impossible since they let you out when you turned eighteen." 53
6. Were you surprised that Whitehead completely omitted the legal investigation, and a trial if there was one. We at least know he had a lawyer: "Elwood had gotten off lucky, his lawyer said. Stealing a car was a big-ticket offense for Nickel." (53)
7. Why give Elwood glasses? What could that represent?
8. What do you make of the cover art? Two shadows becoming one?
9. What did you think of the pacing in this book? (Part 1: pre-Nickel; Part 2: Nickel; Part 3: post-Nickel)
10. Does the narrator change at all? Or is part 2 from Turner's perspective?
11. When Turner balks at giving out his business card, is it because he doesn't want Nickel to follow him, or because he just remembered it doesn't have his real name on it? "He started for his wallet and his ACE MOVING business cards -- "Mr. Elwood Curtis, President"-- but thought better of it." (167)
12. Who was this book written for? What do we readers do with this new knowledge?
13. Is the ending "enough"? Do we need a stronger connection between Turner and Elwood and Harriet? "If he had been less tired he might have recognized the name from a story he heard once when he was young, about a boy who liked to read adventure stories in the kitchen, but it eluded him. He was hungry and they served all day, and that was enough." (210)
14. What's true? (Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, reported by Ben Montgomery in the Tampa Bay Times in 2014) The most recent article from Tampa Bay Times that comes up in the Google search begins like this:
"This story was initially published on April 19, 2009 with the headline “For Their Own Good." It was the first installment in what would become an award-winning series that resulted in the unearthing of dozens of previously unidentified graves. The Dozier school would close in 2011."
Check out this excerpt from 2015:
"Opened on Jan. 1, 1900, the reformatory on 1,200 acres just south of Marianna was meant to be a school, not a prison, and wards were students, not inmates. But that concept fell apapart in its earliest days. Farming on school property proved profitable. And soon, officials at the predominantly black school, under Milton's leadership, were asking the state for ways to make the children's sentences longer and to stiffen laws so more kids would be sent to Marianna."Having so few inmates makes the crop come in slow," one superintendent wrote in 1906.
Milton asked the governor to authorize that "incorrigible children be sent, without conviction, for an indefinite period, leaving the term to be fixed by the management."
The state complied and numbers shot up. So did the problems. In 1903, when the school held boys and girls, investigators found children as young as 6 locked "in irons, just as common criminals." Six years later, in 1909, investigators found no desks in the schoolhouse. The superintendent had been falsifying inventory and keeping kids past the age of 18, presumably for labor. Two years later, in 1911, they found kids crowded, hungry, sick, and another superintendent was beating them with a leather strap.
Three years later, in 1914, some eight boys and two staff members (there are conflicting reports) burned to death locked in a dormitory. A grand jury learned the superintendent was in town on a "pleasure bent" when the fire started. The superintendent lost his job.
The following year, 1915, the Tampa Times published a scathing exposé, quoting former inmates who said that girls and boys were raped by guards; that boys were forced to labor in fields owned by private parties; that incurable and filthy diseases had been contracted by inmates. In 1918, with a population around 220, at least 11 boys died from influenza and another exposé prompted calls for the state to close the school. The Tampa Tribune called it a "holocaust."
"How long will the intelligent and God-fearing people of Florida stand for a thing of this kind?"
Ninety-three more years."
It was so nice to see you last night to discuss The Nickel Boys. Thank you, Corinne, for the cocktails and the cozy fire!
This book was a challenging read, but people who made it through said they were glad to have read it, even if it wasn't the kind of thing you could "enjoy". When I talk about injustice with my kids -- slavery, the Civil Rights movement and the like -- I try to impress upon them that this isn't history of long ago but rather the current state of our country. Recent books like Just Mercy, Locking Up Our Own and The New Jim Crow make it clear that our country suffers from an ingrained culture of racism. The school that Whitehead depicts in The Nickel Boys didn't close until 2014, and during our discussion last night, we wondered how many other schools might still exist that operated in a similar fashion -- exploiting and abusing youth from came from broken families or who had committed petty crimes.
If you haven't finished it yet, push through, then ask yourself Jadyn's poignant question: Is the ending hopeful...or not?
For March, we are going to shift gears back to memoir and read Maid by Stephanie Land.
Then, if you want to get a head start, we will discuss The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. This is a longer read, so we want to give you a head start. Thank you to the mom who brought to our attention this book and the issue of oppression of Muslims in Kashmir.
If you have an issue close to your heart, let us know. We'd love to read about it. I apologize to those who are busy on Wednesdays that we need to schedule the next two months on Wednesdays.
Hope to see you there!
Old Baggage by Lissa Evans
Happy New Year to you! Ah yes...that time of year when we make new goals and want to move forward with them...if only we weren't held back by old baggage...
Let's debate the meaning of the title among other things as we gather to discuss Old Baggage by Lissa Evans, a novel loosely based around events leading to the UK's Equal Franchise Act of 1928 which gave women over 21 the right to vote, making women's voting rights the same as men. Stats say this increased the number of eligible voters by 15 million. Suggested discussion questions are below.
Drop us a line and let us know if we can hope to see you!
1. What did you like or dislike about this book?
2. If this book is "timely" as some reviews suggest, what do you make of Mattie's response to Jacko's nostalgia for their fight for suffrage? Is it in the past? What work is yet to be done? "I'm not in the business of nostalgia, Jacko. The lecture is supposed to be a clarion call to those who think that feminism is safely in the past. / "Well, isn't it? Aren't there other fish to fry?" (40)
3. What do you do when, after fighting for the right to vote, you realize you don't like any of the options? "Mattie hesitated, rather as she's hesitated in the polling booth in 1918, the ballot sheet before her, a pencil in her hand. The grand and glorious fight had shrunk to this: three choices on a scrap of paper, three parties who had consistently lied, prevaricated and backtracked on their promises to women, three potential governments who would make laws which she, Mattie Simpkin, would then be obliged to obey, under threat of further imprisonment. It was as if the sun had risen after an age-long night only to illuminate a landscape littered with traps." (43)
4. Have you ever sat down with an old comrade, someone you went to war together, only to find them now on a path you can't follow? "Which organization? / "The Empire Fasciti." / There was a sharp clink as The Flea set her cup down.... / "I shan't leave before my steak arrives," said Mattie, "but that's solely because I'm hungry." (45-6)
5. What do you make of the Flea's assumption of antisemitism, broadened to outsiders -- at the beginning and end of the book? "And whenever they talk about the "enemy", they always mean Jew -- "outside influences" means Jews, "Bolshevik" means Jews, "foreign" means Jews, "wealthy" means Jews." (49) "Almost every other house on the lane was sporting Balfour's card in their front window, and the Allard-Browns had a poster showing a respectable lady and gentleman being throttled in the coils of a giant snake labelled 'SOCIALISM' while a Jew, a woman in a tie and a girlish-looking man stood by and laughed. 'As usual,' said The Flea, 'the enemy consists of those who do not fit the mould.'" (284)
6. Could you be an Amazon? First, "name three great women of history." (56) Next, "name a personal ambition -- a career or an achievement that might currently seem to you no more than a daydream." (67) Then, aspire to "javelin throwing, archery and the use of the slingshot." (78) Finally, among other things I've left out, "think of an historical personage to whom we would like to have spoken and decide what we would have asked them." (168)
7. Had you already judged Mattie as being past her prime when Jacko accuses her of "dabbling"? ("The mimsy, ephemeral implication of dabble was almost unbearable; it was a word that walked hand in hand with trifle and dilly-dally, flirt, toy and tinker -- terms that could scarcely be uttered without an enervated sigh. And, of course, that accusation was untrue, completely untrue. Was it possible, though, that she had lost a degree of momentum...?" 50)
8. Why, for God's sake, nickname a woman "The Flea"? What does that mean -- for Mattie, for Florrie?
9. What do you think of the image Mattie paints of the traditional women's sphere? When she lists her reasons for refusing Pomeroy, she says, "And neither did she choose to share the reason that underpinned it all -- a kind of horror at the idea of standing still, of choosing a single existence, as if life were a sprint across quicksand and stasis meant a slow extinction. Long ago, as a child in a pinched and stifled century, she had seen her own mother gradually disappear." (85)
10. How much of this is factual? The Amazons and the Empire Youth League are fictional. Some background from Wikipedia:
"Women's Suffrage in the United Kingdom": Founded in 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was tightly controlled by the three Pankhursts, Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928), and her daughters Christabel Pankhurst (1880–1958) and Sylvia Pankhurst (1882–1960). It specialized in highly visible publicity campaigns such as large parades. This had the effect of energizing all dimensions of the suffrage movement. While there was a majority of support for suffrage in parliament, the ruling Liberal Party refused to allow a vote on the issue; the result of which was an escalation in the suffragette campaign. The WSPU, in contrast to its allies, embarked on a campaign of violence to publicize the issue, even to the detriment of its own aims."
11. Were you transported to 1928? I wondered only about the use of the word "treadmill" on p.140 "She walked fast...using the uphill path as if it were a treadmill." Still, Dictionary.com claims that the word treadmill dates from 1815-1825. Otherwise, I believe completely that Lissa Evans's writing sets us squarely in 1928.
12. What do you make of the plot device of giving Angus a lost daughter -- to both connect Mattie's past and present AND to give her a connection to Jacko's group? Brilliant? Or too neat?
13. What do you make of The Flea? Has she found satisfaction in her life? "And she loved Mattie. Living with her in simple friendship might be akin to dancing the Charleston when what you really ached for was a slow waltz -- but the music still played; it was, in its way, still a dance." (122) And at the end, "as she walked along the passage toward the kitchen, she could still feel herself being swung through a waltz, the world a bright blur, the music playing." (291)
14. How did you react to Mattie's transformation with Inez's arrival on the scene? Flea's observation: "There had been several occasions lately when she had witnessed Mattie missing a chance to educate or to quote or explain; her friend's focus seemed to have narrowed, as if previously she had scanned the horizon with the naked eye and was now using a telescope." (152) Do we each of us have an Achilles' heel?
15. What do you make of the contrast between Ida and Inez? Is the author commenting on the necessity of education across all social lines?
16. Do our memories change when we fix them to the page? When asked why she didn't finish her memoir, Mattie writes, "I found the task...counterproductive.' She could remember the precise moment that she had stopped writing. Angus, propped up on pillows, had slipped sideways, and she had risen to help him and had seen, revealed by his disarranged pyjama jacket, the burn on his shoulder incurred by a childhood accident. She had written about that accident just days before, her recollection of it both detailed and panoramic, but now, she realized, now, she could recall it only from the single angle of her prose; in a moment of horrid clarity, she saw that each memory she had pinned to the page had become fixed and lifeless, the colours already fading. She was narrowing her past to a series of sepia vignettes, her brothers as footnotes to her own life." (163)
17. Do we get any say in how we're remembered? Mattie brags about Mrs. Pankhurst early on, but on her deathbed, other ladies spew venom, "she betrayed us...joined the Tories. And opened a teashop. In France." (166)
18. "It is never too late to be who you might have been." (276) What do you make of this sentiment? How does it apply to Mattie?
19. What is this book about? Inspiring a new generation of women? Or about nurturing present day friendships over past obsessions? "Besides, she thought, as her torch beam slid through fallen leaves, besides, I have a close, true family of my own." (277)
20. What does the title mean?
21. Did you have a favorite quote? Mine: "Abused patience turns to fury." (297) I felt this described The Flea.
22. What do you make of the final image of Mattie and the boy using the summer house to follow the sun?
Thank you for joining us the other night to discuss Old Baggage by Lissa Evans. It was so nice to see so many of you -- and to meet some new faces! We had mixed reviews of this novel. Some enjoyed the quaint detour into the past whereas others found the pace too slow. Some enjoyed the complexity of the predominantly female characters whereas others felt there were too many flat or unnecessary minor characters that could have been cut with a little more editing. I liked it overall, especially what I interpreted to be an optimistic ending.
I apologize I mistakenly said that this was a prequel or sequel. I was misremembring this quote from the Guardian:
"Evans’s previous comic novel, Their Finest Hour and a Half, about the making of a wartime propaganda film about Dunkirk, was justifiably acclaimed and filmed as Their Finest. Set amid bombs and blitzes, it evoked a gripping sense of peril and a strong period feel. Old Baggage is less sweeping, a study of aftermath and let-down rather than wit and optimism, but no less affecting for that. The indomitable Mattie is a creation as amusing as she is blinkered and egotistic."
In her novel Crooked Heart, you can read more about Ida's son following Mattie's death! Ms. Evans's novels Their Finest Hour and a Half, Old Baggage, and Crooked Heart walk through time from WWI to WWII, touching on themes of education, feminism and women's suffrage.
As we shift gears to Black History Month, please join us next time at Corinne's for a housewarming party centered around her new living room fireplace where we will discuss The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Really looking forward to this!
Hope to see you there!
The Tipsy Mamas' Book Club is co-hosted by Corinne Foster and myself, though the spirit of our discussions is flavored by many readers.