Wednesday, October 6, 2010

How Did the Book Club Go? A Discussion of Kate Walbert's "A Short History of Women."

Walbert's current novel, A Short History of Women, uses the jumping off point of a woman's suffrage supporter starving herself to death in 1914 England. Her adventurous husband has disappeared in Ceylon and a love affair has gone badly. She leaves behind two children, separated. The novel follows her daughter, her niece, and her next two generations. There are life decisions, and there are reprecussions. An excellent choice for our October in-store book club, don't you think?

Caroline (as opposed to Carolyn) had suggested we read A Short History of Women, as she had loved the book and was anxious to reread it. It fell into my requirements--I hadn't read the book in hardcover, and felt bad about missing it. And I had actually read Walbert's first book of stories, Where She Went, many years ago, and continually felt bad that I never got to her novels. But as you know, I'm not likely of late to read too many books where we aren't hosting the event--that explains the current book, but I don't know what my excuse was for the previous two.

I read a lot of reviews and interviews to prepare for our discussion at the in-store lit group on Monday. Most were quite laudatory. I recalled a sort of backlash when Walbert was one of the gang of five, all women, all New Yorkers, who were nominated for the National Book Award. At the time, I was horrified that folks would write about this, but people get mad when nominees are all men, so why not? I've now read books by four of the nominated authors (not necessarily their nominated titles); I still have to read the only author with some local ties, Christine Schutt.

So what was this conversation going to be like, especially when two of our participants at last month's meeting were not happy with the sexism of Jonathan Tropper's This is Where I leave You? (My thoughts on this were that the problematic characters were not limited to the female gender--and that these flawed archetypes were part of the story's narrative, on purpose, and reflecting the protagonist's own stunted growth and flawed character. But I digress).

There was a lot of talk about character--we we liked, we we didn't. Was this a feminist novel, or an anti-feminist novel? Were the characters, in the end, happy? Was this novel in any way "wickedly funny", as Leigh Hager Cohen coined the book in her NYTBR review? While there were funny moments, it was hard to imagine this novel being classified as comic, but perhaps that's because we just read the Tropper.

In a lot of these discussions (and often when I'm reading on my own), I'll ponder why the book wasn't edited down. Why weren't 50 pages cut here? What's with this 100-page detour? But I have to say that my reading of Walbert's latest novel had the opposite reaction. I don't mind things left unsaid, missing parts, fill-in-the-gap plotlines. But....I needed more! And when I read that Walbert did cut the book down, perhaps by half, in sculpting it into its finished form, I had the desire to sift through her trash.

I don't think an author would want to sit through our book discussions. We quibble with everything--quibble, quibble, quibble! But in the end, our throughts on the book varied from like to love, and the discussion was terrific.

Our next two books, both at 7 PM:
Monday, November 1st: Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers
Monday, December 6th: A Long, Long Time Ago, and Essentially True, Brigid Pasulka.

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