Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How Did the Book Club Discussion Go? Jonathan Evison's West of Here is This Month's Selection.

Port Bonita circa 1890 is the one of the last frontiers of the continental United States. There are explorers mapping out the last dark patches of mystery, a Utopian settlement, two Indian communities, one of which has adopted the practices of the Shakers, and one visionary who wants to dam the Elwha River. There are women constricted by the expected roles of their gender, and a young half-Indian boy alienated from and misunderstood by both worlds. There are fractured couples, and folks giving up and going home. And there are a lot of colorful losers, hoping the frontier holds better prospects, stumbling through life and making bad decisions.

Jump about a hundred years and both nothing and everything has changed. Most of the industry has dried up, leaving one fish processing plant where several of the characters work. At least two ex cons come to town looking for life post-incarceration, watched over by an eccentric parole officer. There are women constricted by the expected roles of their gender, and a young half-Indian boy alienated from and misunderstood by both worlds. There are fractured couples, and folks giving up and going home. And there are a lot of colorful schmoes, stumbling through life and making bad decisions.

As we normally do in our book club discussion, the West of Here discussion starts with everyone going around the room and getting a couple minutes to say what they think. The major advantage of this is that everyone gets to talk, at least for a bit. The big issue is generally keeping everyone to a time limit, letting them know that they will be able to speak more later in the discussion. If someone is passionate one way or another, I occasionally have to remind them of that.

So one attendee loves the book, another is unhappy with it, and the rest of us are relatively positive, but interested to hear both sides, and are ready to argue it out. Everyone thought that Evison captured the Olympics well; there’s a great sense of place. We all agree that Evison took on an ambitious task, and it is hard to juggle so many characters in two parallel storylines. We were trying to match them up, but short of drawing some charts, the best listing I found was Marc Mohan’s listing in The Oregonian.

Notably, many of the most enthusiastic supporters of West of Here were retailers. Not only was the book the #1 Indie Next pick for the ABA, but it wound up on yearend best-of lists for Hudson News and Amazon. This Seattle based endorsement reflects back on what I was thinking about recently when I saw the sales pop for Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette? Seattle is a huge market, very literate, and they want to read about themselves.

The book was widely reviewed, with Carolyn Kellogg in the Los Angeles Times noting “The novel takes on an epic historical shape yet remains light-footed, partly because Evison keeps each chapter short and also due to a straightforwardness, a narrative certainty passed through the characters” but like many she was not crazy about the good-hearted prostitute. Sometimes playing against type becomes a cliché too. How does one write an original prostitute nowadays?

The group coalesces behind the idea of change. One of the things we found about the two stories was how despite their best efforts, people kept making the same mistakes. One attendee, who had just read Wild, noted that Timmon’s story was akin to Cheryl Strayed, going into the wilderness and coming back changed. We noted that a lot of the changes that happened were due to money, and not just the money for the dam in the 19th century, but the money offered to two characters (one in each century) to make something of their lives, and even though one of the characters didn’t take the money, just the idea spurred the change.

So I want to bring up the characterizations that one attendee had issues with. The Indians in many ways were not that different in motivations and character from the white people. Franklin the parole officer in contemporary Port Bonita is African American, but why, one person asked? And I thought that was sort of the point, to counter stereotypes and sort of humanize everyone. That said, there is the sage old Native person, so how’s that for type?

So my question was, are these characters reversing the past or repeating it? Was getting rid of the dam in the present day reversing the environmental damage, or just another attempt at progress and the spurring of growth? We all agreed that the contemporary storyline was a bit more hopeful, but that plays out to the idea that the historical narrative is more of a drama, and the present-day storyline hews more closely to a comedy.

Throughout the discussion, I kept trying to remember the book I read that had a similar historic/drama, contemporary/comic structure. And about a half hour after we concluded, it came to me. The book was Back to Wando Passo, by David Payne. Where’s his next book anyway?

Evison just wrote a nice essay for The Wall Street Journal about craft. He refers back to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which was interesting as we noted some comparisons to Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, particularly how the relatively straightforward historical narrative in both stories takes a turn for surreal.

And one of the interesting results of the conversation is that one attendee changed her vote from mixed positive to enthusiastic thumbs up.

Here are upcoming titles for Daniel’s lit group:
Monday, October 1, 7 pm: Please Look After Mom, by Kyung-Sook Shin,
Monday, November November 5, 7 pm: The Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles.

And don’t forget, we’re hosting Jonathan Evison on September 12, in conversation with West Bend writer Mark Krieger. And I’ll be writing more about Evison and his new novel, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving in another post.

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