Books on Tap met on Thursday, April 7 at Champion Brewing Company to discuss My Monticello by Jocelyn Johnson. Johnson is a local teacher and writer, so we were all excited to dive into this fictional debut, which is a collection of short stories plus one novella, all revolving in some way around survival in the often difficult quest for belonging.
Our main point of discussion came from the fact that these stories are set in Charlottesville or, more generally, Virginia. We discussed how we think Johnson might feel about Charlottesville, and because there is such a strong sense of place throughout the book, we were also able to share our own thoughts and feelings about Charlottesville, and how the book worked to shape our own mental chatter regarding our town.
We enjoyed the short stories. The first, “Control Negro,” was the most interesting to discuss. The professor studying racism in real time, in the most personal means possible, spooked and freaked out some readers. His character was certainly complex and sparked debate about hope, cynicism, choices, and legacy. While I won’t spoil details here, his decision regarding his familial ties ultimately foreshadows important discussions on race, privilege, and family that take place in the titular novella, “My Monticello.” For readers who didn’t catch that mirroring in their first read, they may enjoy going back and rereading the collection with an eye particularly trained to the black male characters – their choices, secrets, interior lives, and how they move through the world.
Family was huge in this book, both blood family and found family, which leads us to the novella, “My Monticello.” We had to discuss the ending, of course! Some readers took Johnson’s ending and then tacked on their own final scene – and we could all agree that we did sense what was implied to be coming. But just because we know what is likely around the corner does not mean the story had resolution. Was the story resolved? And if not – was that even a bad thing? Someone noted that an unresolved story leaves room for you, the reader, to take control. Unfortunately, some readers felt like there was nothing to resolve. The action – from the madness of the white militia to the love-triangle-forming lovemaking – largely takes place off the page. For some, a premise that held so much potential felt like little more than a house tour and an interesting dip into shattering “Monticello mystique.”
We read and discussed this book in Charlottesville. The events of August 11-12, 2017 are featured in My Monticello as life-altering memories. Less emotionally charged, there are references to our streets, landmarks, and restaurants. As Charlottesville residents, we read this book with a particular lens; that lens might be deep, shallow, curved, or fragmented based on our lived experiences here and elsewhere. The next question is: what do we get from this book if we don’t live in Charlottesville? We need an outside perspective! If you can offer such a perspective, or relay that perspective from a family member or friend who doesn’t live here in Charlottesville, chat with us in the comments!
Books on Tap will meet again on Thursday, May 5 at 7 pm to discuss The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai. Email Krista at email@example.com for more information. Come prepared to share book titles you’d like to recommend we read as a group!