Tuesday, June 5, 2012

How Did the Book Club Discussion Go of "Salvage the Bones"? I'm Only Guessing Here.

So you probably don’t want to hear that I spent so much time on Saturday reading Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones that I didn’t spend enough time prepping for my trip to New York and wound up misreading my flight time. And yes, I missed my flight. So now I’ve spent all Sunday on one standby flight after another and every flight has been oversold. The sad thing is that due to the nature of my standby, I am always the lowest priority and get bumped from every flight.

I’m not saying that I blame Salvage the Bones or anything, only that it an intense book that takes a lot of concentration. And the irony is not lost on me; I didn’t need to read this book for this month’s in-store lit group, because I’m supposed to not be in Milwaukee. But I might wind up in Milwaukee after all, if flights continue to sell out as they have. So now I’m prepared.

Ward’s novel (her second I think, after Where the Line Bleeds) is one that I’ve written up a lot without reading it. There was some sort of promotion when the book won the National Book Award, and of course I had to say a little something when I featured the book on our seasonal book club brochure. I knew it was about a poor family on the Gulf Coast, in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina.

Now I know more. Esch is a 15-year-old girl, a dreamer, obsessed with mythology. She has a brother Skeetah, who likes violent dog fights, but at the same time, is particularly maternal towards his own dog, China, whose pregnant with pups. There’s also Randall, the older brother, and Junior, the younger one, minor characters. Their mom is dead, and their dad is struggling. Oh, and Esch is secretly pregnant, through Randall’s friend Manny, who already has a girlfriend.

This is a novel about survival. Skeetah’s dog has just given birth, and these dogs are struggling. The family is struggling. Esch’s hormones are struggling too. And this is all leading up to a hurricane that we already know is going to have devastating consequences. Oh, and every dog fight is an act of survival too, and it should be noted that the fights are never for money.

The story’s a bit stylized in the language. I immediately thought of Tayari Jones’s Silver Sparrow, since I just read it, and it features the voice of an African American teenager. But the girls of Jones's novel have a more big city feel. And then I thought of Lark and Termite (and I should say, someone else gave me this idea), which is also about a brother and sister in the south—well, West Virginia, which is sort of more like Pennsylvania than Louisiana. But it’s poor, and Esch and Skeetah, which could have been a name for this novel, does recall Lark and Termite, doesn’t it? That two name title is always a good fallback--one of our shortlist titles for the August in-store lit group was Vaclev and Lena.

Once again, my biggest disappointment is with my lack of knowledge. While I can compare one novel to another, I am ill-equipped to analyze how the mythology, specifically Medea, was woven into the story. But in this Paris Review interview, she helps out a bit, explaining how Medea is part of Esch, China, and Hurricane Katrina itself.

I guess there was some controversy with the shortlist for this award, but apparently Victor La Valle does a good job defending their picks. And I guess the judges are expected to read all the submissions (really? all of them?) and not just say, who do we like who has gotten a lot of attention. I particularly enjoyed Ron Charles’s “eat crow” review in the Washington Post, where he discovered the joys of several of the finalists.

So of course I was not able to attend the book club meeting, but I heard that one regular really liked it, and grew quite fond of China, while another had trouble and was probably going to stay home. And the third? She finished but didn’t pass judgment.

So here are our next two discussion titles:
Monday, July 2, 7 pm:
The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt.
Revisionist western features two hired guns set amidst the California gold rush. Shortlisted for the Man Booker and winner of Canada's Giller Prize. We haven't done anything like this lately, and the group is always up for a challenge.

Monday, August 6, 7 pm:
The Buddha in the Atti[c, by Julie Otsuka.
It's summer and we're reading something short. This beautiful novel about Japanese mail order brides has been a regular staff pick at Boswell from Amie, and also won the Pen Faulkner prze.

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