Sunday, April 28, 2013

Book Club: Discussion of AEROGRAMMES by Tania James

Us ladies of Books & Booze book club met today to discuss Aerogrammes: and Other Stories by Tania James.  Our book club is composed of four members at the moment:  VP, who is an aspiring librarian at heart; AC, a publicist at Tor;  CT, a nurse by night and reader by day; and of course, me.  On this beautiful Sunday in NYC, we met at Cuba Restaurant by Washington Square Park for a boozy brunch.

VP was the primary organizer of this book club and thus, selected Aerogrammes as the book for April.  She had read it last year after attending an event at the Brooklyn Book Festival in 2012.  James made an appearance and read from her debut novel Atlas of Unknowns.  Aerogrammes is a collection of short stories.

This is an overview of our discussion:

The primary theme in Aerogrammes is loneliness - the different types of loneliness and how it is embodied in different ways.  The resonant quote of the entire book is:  "I learned certain truths at terrible speeds."  It is the case for every story.  Most importantly, it alludes to the different forms of loneliness that are discussed throughout the book.  Some of these include the need to be understood, how you want to be perceived,  and the way that one's loneliness can be based on someone else's loneliness.  It also attacks the artificiality of the phrase "to know someone".  Do we ever know someone except for what they project to us?

"Escape Key" (AC's favorite) was a cry for help of a lonely brother who had a lonely brother.  This story falls into the category of one's loneliness can be based on someone else's loneliness.  It also illustrates that some of a person's loneliness can be a draw back of the image they strive to create for his self.  Even though this story is about brothers, they both learn things about each other even a their adult ages.    It conveys that everyone is a different person in front of every other person.

"Ethnic Ken" (my favorite story) compares the materialistic values of American adolescents versus minority children.  An Indian girl struggles to keep her one and only friend, while spending all of her free time at home with her grandfather that suffers from dementia.  Her teacher organized a toy drive for Guatemalan children ("They don't have food and water but need toys?") and her mother forces her to give up an ethnic Ken doll her grandfather bought her.  Although she is ten years old, she loves to play with dolls and marbles with her grandfather.  This story also compares the simplicity of play and toys in other ethnic cultures and the complexity of pass times in America, such as video games and debutante balls.   Even though the main character still plays with dolls, we get a sense of maturity because she is aware of the issues at home and acts accordingly.

The last story "Married to a Ghost" is about a woman that marries a ghost.  This signifies the desperation some people are pushed to in order to find companionship.  Out of all the stories in the book, I felt that this one was most of place because it was magical realism versus the realistic fiction of all the other stories.  This story caused some argument between our group because we weren't sure if the groom was indeed a ghost or a man that was not present enough throughout the relationship.  VP compared it to the movie Ghost, in which Patrick Swayze comes back due to unresolved issues and his love for his wife.  In the case of this story, however, the ghost is still in love with his ex-wife and stalks her during the day.  CT brings up a good point that the ghost symbolizes the past and the main character (the new wife), needed to get past it and move on.    

Another recurring theme in this books is skin color in Indian culture.  Most of the characters are Indian.  "Light and Luminous" sheds light on the stigma of darker skin in India and portrays the ideal that light skin is more desirable and considered more beautiful.  James switches it up by telling "What to Do with Henry" from the view of a Caucasian character, very similar to the POV in Zadie Smith's NW.  AC found this interesting because when the topic of prejudice against persons with darker skin is brought up, we seldom think about how this relates to India.  As Americans, we normally refer slavery in U.S. history and the ways it affects American minority groups.  We don't give too much thought to race and color in India.  CT pointed out that this is ironic because of the Indian caste system, which is concrete example of superficial segregation.  She also mentions that Americans do not have a good insight to Indian culture.

Overall, VP thought the book was "ah-may-zing!" the first time she read it.  I thought it was quite depressing.  For the most part, CT felt that all the characters in this series of stories surrendered to their loneliness, which made them weak.  She found this annoying because they took the easy way out instead of sucking it up.  I will say that James is a very talented writer and makes a great use of symbolism.

I will post an official review to give you a better feeling of my experience reading Aerogrammes.


Aerogrammes: and Other Stories by Tania James

Hardcover, 180 pages
Published May 15th 2012 by Knopf
ISBN 0307268918
Edition language:  English

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