Clubs

Exhibit 19.12

Out Stealing Horses

This book, in both best and worst senses, is exactly what I expected when I joined the company book club: a well-reviewed, inoffensive novel about some elderly Scandinavian (I was very specific about what I expected). I think I’ve written before about the politics of how books get picked in clubs like these–and I use club loosely here as it’s really down to myself and at most two other people–and the priority isn’t to come up with something thought provoking, it’s to come up with something that everyone can finish. That way we can get together, have lunch, and shrug our shoulders when it’s time to talk about the book. With rare exceptions, no one seems to love or hate anything so the conversations on the book never quite seem to go longer than six or seven minutes before everyone has moved on to discussing the quality of the restaurant’s fries.

It’s fun.

And so Out Stealing Horses counts as a success in that we all finished and the restaurant’s fries were pretty good.

To be honest, it was a bit of a struggle to finish to the point where I put it off so long I had to wake up early to read the last thirty pages of the book the morning before the book club lunch. It’s not a bad book and, for me, it’s not a particularly good book either, just a slow story of a senescent Norwegian widower who takes to a remote cabin near the Swedish border in order to more or less relive the life he had with his father as a boy in 1948. I’m trying to think of an American equivalent, and the closest I can get is a leaner, more past-focused Richard Ford, a deeply intimate story that values it’s realism to a point near inaction. Or maybe it’s just that first-person, present tense narration which usually sets off warning signs for me. It’s not that there aren’t books written that way which I enjoy, it’s just that there are so many memorable ones I didn’t.

There’s also the run-on sentences. My god, the run-on sentences. I certainly don’t care typically, but they’re not put to any particular poetry here. The following isn’t the most egregious example, just one I found on a page I flipped to:

‘We’ll soon see to that,’ he says, pulling out the choke on his saw, which is a Husqvarna and not a Jonsered, and that too is a relief in a comic sort of way, as if we were doing something we are not in fact allowed to do, but which is certainly really fun, and he pulls the cord once or twice and slams the choke back in and then gripping the cord firmly he lets the saw sink as he pulls and it starts up with a fine growl, and in a trice the branch is off and cut into four parts.

But Petterson–I might suggest dropping that extra ‘T,’ Per. It’s going to make it much harder for you to find souvenir shotglasses with your last name on them and we all know ‘Per’ is a lost cause, too–does accomplish something really great here, and it’s all about his efficiency and structure. He moves seamlessly between the present and memory and he parallels just enough to make his storytelling efficient but rarely gimmicky. A lot of ground gets covered in these 230 pages, and it’s hard to think of any other contemporary American books that get us so inside a character in such little time. Not to mention the setting, some of the ancillary characters, hell, even the occasional Nazi. Somehow he managed a book that is both a slog to read and remarkably tight in its construction. I really don’t know how he did it.

And so maybe it’s not so much like Richard Ford’s work at all but just the Norwegian equivalent of Zadie Smith’s lyrical Realism (which I wrote about here). Certainly there’s a pretense to beauty here, if not in the composition than in the imagery which is lush and wild no matter the time period. In any case, it’s the kind of simple beauty that begs you to ponder it, deep rivers and cloudy skies and the like. Perfectly acceptable, maybe even meaningful, if you want to give it the time.

But reading this morning–flipping pages like it was a history textbook the morning before a test–it all felt a perfunctory, just another man thinking about how what was once promising grew so quickly old.

Comment / Posted in Books, Clubs, Fiction

Exhibit 9.18

The Thirteenth Tale

This was another work book club pick and based on the early buzz around the water cooler (ed note: we don’t actually have a water cooler) it’s going over a lot better than The History of Love. That’s a shame because THoL has a bit more weight to it, but it’s hard to resist a gripping mystery, especially won with such reverence for the books it’s liberally borrowing from.

Apparently a lot of people felt this way as this book was huge. Or so I’m told. Despite being a Times #1 bestseller with favorable reviews, I’d never heard of the book when a coworker suggested it. There’s probably a lesson there about the sometimes arbitrary distinctions that separate commercial fiction from literary fiction. This book, like a lot of the books that get picked for book clubs just like mine, doesn’t straddle that line as much as it refuses to stake a claim. Its language isn’t the most artful but it’s mostly graceful and compelling. Its plot is a mystery with a strong gothic element, but it’s literary rather than sensational, purposefully following in the tradition of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre (nearly to a fault). Ultimately, it’s not a book I’ll find myself mulling over years later or returning to, but it’s a book that more than deserves its successes, literary or commercial.

To put it another way: there aren’t enough books that work this well to spend time worrying about its literary value. It does exactly what it means to do, even if it all it means to do is tell a good story.

There’s a place for that on my bookshelf.

Update: Odd. Two hours after I wrote this post I came across an essay by Michael Chabon defending entertainment in literature. He, as expected, says it better.

Comment / Posted in Books, Clubs, Fiction

Exhibit 7.20

The History of Love

I read Nicole Krauss’s book as part of my company’s book club, and while I get the feeling that some of the others didn’t enjoy it, I thought it was pretty great and the ideal book for a club of diverse readers like ours. It’s a quick, easy read that features a fair amount of pleasure in its language, plot, and message. Plus this book was everywhere a year or two ago, and reading it places you in conversation with millions of other book club readers across the country. Isn’t that what these things are all about?

Anyway, it’s one of those books that propels itself forward by hiding from the reader. If only the characters all wrote each other letters or Googled each other or had MySpace pages, none of this would really be necessary. But they don’t, and therefore the 24o pages of the book are mostly concerned with unravelling mysteries of distance.

Two main characters narrate the book. One, a Holocaust survivor originally from Poland, lives out his last few years with his friend Bruno in New York City while wondering how to meet the son who doesn’t know he exists. The other, a 14/15-year-old girl, deals with the death of her father by involving herself in the translation project of her mother. What ties these and a few other narrative threads together is a book called The History of Love which passes through each of these characters’ hands.

Various obstacles prevent any one character–or reader–from connecting the dots between them until, of course, the end. Mostly the obstacles are sad reminders of the fragmentation of diaspora but a few seem less than genuine, coincidences and choices made not by rational characters but by an author needing to buy more time. Still, it’s a really well constructed book full of stunning moments where the characters are capable of creating genuine heartbreak.

I probably wouldn’t have read it without the book club, but if I wanted to go eat Mexican food with them, I sort of had to. And I’m glad I did. Isn’t that what these things are all about?

Last thought: It’s remarkably unimportant to mention that Krauss’s husband is Jonathan Safran Foer, but I find it fascinating, and a little endearing, that this book shares so much with his two novels. Not just the plot elements–the Holocaust, a quirky old Man, children hunting for someone/thing around New York City–but how the books read and feel. If someone says, I want to read something like Everything is Illuminated, the obvious answer is The History of Love. And it has nothing to do with them being married. Or everything. Who knows.

Comment / Posted in Clubs, Fiction, Reading