Thursday, June 16, 2011

Virtual Book Club Time

One of the good things about being in a book club is that you end up reading books you wouldn’t necessarily read if it was your decision. Or you stick with books you might otherwise put down. The funny thing about this virtual book club experiment is that I chose all the books and I still felt some sort of obligation to read them. That’s me, I guess, the good student who must turn in my homework on time even though I’m the one who gave myself the assignment.

My favorite book of the bunch was The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett. I’ve read other books by this author (my favorite is Bel Canto) and I just like her style. From the first page I was hooked. The main character Sabine, who is the assistant from the title, finds out that the magician Parsifal (love those names, by the way) she’s known and loved for years has a secret past. Both characters are more than what they seem at the beginning. Parsifal (with his rough family life) and Sabine, because she is stronger and smarter and more important than she realized. She ends up being an integral part of Parsifal’s family—a catalyst in a way who holds them together much like Parsifal did. The ending was strange, though, and didn’t quite feel like the end. It seemed that Sabine had real feelings for Parsifal’s sister, that maybe they would be lovers. Maybe she’d pull the whole family out of Nebraska and change all their lives, but it ended without a real resolution. Maybe it was meant to read that way—with this sense that anything could happen next, they just had to want it and take it. Since I’m trying to feel hopeful lately, I’m going to assume that the best did happen for those characters and they’re out of cold Nebraska now and lounging somewhere by a pool in California sipping cocktails.

Reading the next two books On Beauty by Zadie Smith and Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins, took a little more work. I think I’ve become spoiled by all of my reading of young adult books. Books for kids get to the point faster; they introduce the characters and conflicts right away. They build toward something and you have a reason to turn the pages. Books for adults take their time. They assume you’re going to stick around while they digress for four pages with a description of a river or the intricacies of college faculty politics. Nothing wrong with this. I’m just not used to it anymore. If the writing is good, if the characters are interesting, I’ll follow along, hoping there’ll be a bigger payoff at the end. Sometimes there is. Other times, well….

On Beauty reminded me of a writing assignment I had once. You come up with a bunch of very different characters and you trap them in a broken down elevator and see what happens. If you set it up right, you’re going to get some great squirm-worthy conflict. The main character in On Beauty is this very liberal art history professor at a small college. He’s presented as kind of a pathetic guy, struggling in his interactions with his African American wife and wildly different kids. His main professional rival is another art history professor with the opposite political views. There’s instant conflict when that guy and his family move into town and everyone in our main character’s family ends up having some kind of relationship with the arrivals. All of the characters have good intentions but it’s just not quite clicking for them. You sympathize with them, though, and really want them to be better than they are. I think the author was trying to make a statement about how we have these deep interior lives and yet can’t help responding to each other superficially. Liked the book, in the end, but it did take a while to get going.

Evidence of Things Unseen was an interesting read for me because I kept coming upon notes scrawled in the margins. (Things like “Who Cares?” and “WHY????” and “UGH!!!” written by my son who had to read the book for a summer reading assignment last year and hated it. Here’s his summation of the book written in helpfully on the last page: “Evidence of Things Unseen: the story of two ordinary, not very likable people whose lives are, on the whole, not interesting and without conflict.”)

Okay, it’s true the book didn’t have much of a central conflict, but I did find the characters likable. This is one of those sweeping books that covers thirty or forty years and is set against the backdrop of a particular historical time, in this case, the beginning of the Atomic Age. The main characters Fos and Opal meet and fall in love after World War I and basically live out their lives together. Other characters come and go. Things happen to them. We get to learn about Knoxville between the wars and how the TVA displaced people to build dams and what it was like to live and work at Oak Ridge before we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Lots of beautiful writing and insights about people and life, but not much of a page turner. I don’t know how you can make a book like this a page turner.

Well, I take that back. I read a sweeping historical novel a few months ago that I couldn’t put down. That one, Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer, was about a family of Jewish Hungarian students in the 1930’s. It took a long time to develop the characters and setting too, but there’s an impending sense of doom hanging over everything—because we as readers know what’s going to happen soon to these poor souls. By the time it does, you’re so caught up in their lives and feeling like you really know them that you’re at the edge of your seat, flipping pages and praying everyone makes it through alive.

Well, there you have it. My take on three books I wouldn’t necessarily have picked up and made myself read without a reason. If anyone has a thought about any of these books, I’d love to chat more. One nice ending to this virtual book club experiment is that it got a few people in my town talking about starting a not-virtual one. We meet in August at the local cool wine bistro. Our first book is The Other Boleyn Girl.


  1. I read On Beauty. Warning: spoiler alerts.

    In general, I do not enjoy books told from many different characters' perspectives. However, in this book it helped to see how each member of the family gets focused on their own activity. Is this the way we all are? Were they always this way, or did they (the family unit) function at a different level before the marital trouble?

    It would seem that Howard and Zora are the most selfish, or narrowly focused. Is academia making them this way, or is it their very nature? This seems to be one question addressed in the book. Does academia isolate and so much talk and theories prevent anyone from ever talking about real things? Levi seems to live out this question as he becomes involved in the Haitian movement. Howard is proud of him for getting involved in a movement, Kiki says, without considering the consequences. And there are some consequences, though we only see those given by his mother. The court is alluded to, but we don't know enough to know what the case is about. Will Levi get in trouble? Will Kiki get what Carlene intended to give her?

    I had a hard time liking Howard, but he was so pathetic, it was hard not to feel sorry for him. After spending a liftetime ripping art apart, he eventually rips his own life apart. His betrayal of his family is multilayered, and hurts each one. He does not seem to get any pleasure from his escapades, only regret, so why does he allow it to happen? His inability to consider the real consequences seem to be his real downfall in all aspects of his life.

    It was a good novel, but there were so many subplots that did not get wrapped up in the end. It was some work to get through all the politics of academic life, and I kept wanting to read more about Kiki than any of the other characters.

  2. I thought Howard was pretty pathetic too. At the end it was interesting to me that he was looking at the painting and realized that the artist had loved the woman in the picture. His realization seems to refute his entire philosophy of art, which is that it is done for monetary or practical reasons. Maybe you're supposed to think that Howard finally understands his love for Kiki, but it's probably too late. I liked Kiki best too, and I want to assume that she inherits the painting in the end.