Thursday, November 22, 2012

Catch Up Day--Finishing the Event Books I Started

One of the things Hans Weyandt of the glorious Micawbers Books of St. Paul said during his talk about Read This: Handpicked Favorites from America's Indie Bookstores has stuck with me. He noted that he only finishes a fraction of books that he starts. If his interest isn't held, if the author doesn't have something different to say, he moves on. There are so many books out there; why settle for ok? That's totally paraphrased, by the way, but I think I have the intent right.

Well, I haven't really been able to learn that lesson. I sometimes find myself slogging through books for weeks when any sane person would give up. I usually try to find something positive afterwards, but sometimes I can't really say anything at all. But even when I like the book, there's one reason where I'll still feel guilty about finishing it and that's when our event with the author already happened.

This tends to be a problem when I'm juggling a lot of tasks and haven't given myself enough reading time. I'll start the book thinking I have plenty of time, not just to finish it, but to also write a post about it, but time gets away from me. This happened with Pity the Billionaire, the most recent book by Thomas Frank where time was of the essence. Not only was the tour tied into the election, but the election results already gave the book a slightly different tenor, as the Republican resurgence of 2010 didn't hold as well in 2012. But in the end, you can talk up a book of political commentary pretty much as well whether or not you've read the book, right?

Novels are different though, especially ones by developing authors. And sometimes there are reasons to keep going. I was about halfway through Jonathan Odell's The Healing for our event last week. Anne and Jane were also reading it, with Jane offering me some encouragement about what a great book it was for book clubs. The novel is on our fall-winter book club picks list too, so we'll be continuing to feature the title over the next few months.

This is Odell's second published novel. One interesting sidenote about his first, The View from Delphi, is that at least one critic mistook him for an African American writer. But after reading the author bio, I'm not actually surprised. "Jonathan Odell was born and raised in Mississippi, growing up in the institutional segregation in a small town. At college he became an activist and sold The Ebony Pictorial History of Black America door to door in black neighborhoods across the South while the Klan tried to discourage him. He now resides in Minnesota."

The Healing is framed by a modern story of a young girl, Violet, who comes into the care of Gran Gran after her mother  dies from complications of a botched abortion. Gran Gran tells her the story of Polly Shine, the midwife who came into her life on the plantation where she lived. Granada become the house slave of Mistress Amanda after her own daughter died of cholera and was treated not unlike the Mistress's pet monkey. When Polly Shine was bought by the Master to heal the sick and help the slaves give birth, she singled out young Granada as the only person around with "the gift", only Granada didn't want to go. A battle of wills ensues, between Polly and Mistress Amanda, Master Ben, and Old Silas, the slave who oversees the African Americans on the plantation.

Honestly, it was really Odell's powerful talk that kept me reading. He discussed how the novel came to be in a spirited talk about being a white Southerner, albeit a gay liberal one who fled small-town Mississippi for Minnesota, who came to term with his own racism. The story came to be in a series of trips to the South, hearing the stories of midwives. And what would people say when they heard he wanted to write a novel? "Don't give us another To Kill a Mockingbird. We don't need another white hero helping a black victim."

And so he did not. Probably the closest thing to a sympathetic white character is Little Lord, the master's son, but it's hard to be too sympathetic with a character who pleads with Granada by offering "If we get to Momma, you don't never have to come back here. We can stay with her until we grow up and then you can be my slave and we can live wherever we want to." And at least at the time, that speech appears to tempt Granada. But she does eventually learn what freedom means.

Sometimes I feel like I should go to every author's event well in advance of our own. I would have learned that Mr. Odell has had some success outreaching to nursing groups, and of course we have several nursing schools in town. I might have felt more comfortable  I was a little cautious about outreaching to African American groups, as the author was white and only had one strong review from an African American writer, though it was a good one. Lalita Tademy, author of Cane River, noted that "Odell won me over with his fresh take on th connective power of story to heal body, mind, and community. Long after closing the novel's final pages, I'm still marveling about Polly Shine, a character I won't soon forget."

Now there was a part of me that found Ms. Shine a bit larger than life. She is hardly a warts-and-all kind of character, but I think the impact is supposed to be something of Biblical proportions. Does that help or hurt the book? And I'm not sure how I felt about the framing device, and wasn't exactly sure when it was set. A little research led me to the 1930s. But I have cautioned folks in the past not to put too much effort into the frame. It's what inside the picture that counts.

And of course, had I gotten to the end, I would have seen the thank you to Marly Russoff, one of my favorite agents. I should have known! In any case, I'm glad I finished The Healing, and I'm excited to recommend the novel to book clubs over the next few months. 

Here's Mr. Odell's essay on how he came to write the story.

And here's the publisher's reading group guide.

And finally, an interview with the author in Minnesota Monthly.

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