Friday, April 17, 2015

Ostensibly This Post is a Book Club Wrap-Up of "Dept. of Speculation" but it Wanders Off a Bit to Talk About Reading During and After College.

While there are many undergraduates who continue to read non-course books aggressively through their schooling, I was one of those people who slacked off during my college years. While I didn't start keeping track of my reading until graduating, I pretty much remember what I did make it through: Tales of the City, The Hotel New Hampshire, Is There No Place on Earth For Me? (a book that was oddly sent to our college radio station for review and later went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. In an aside to our rep, that would have made a great pick for the St. George's Day promotion that we're doing right now. Details to come in another blog, well, maybe.)

That said, my reading took off full speed once I moved to New York and started my job in publishing. Even with the required reading of the books I was touring, I had a commute that was between one and two hours each way my first year, depending on whether I was traveling during rush hour and how much luck I had with bus and train connections. That left a lot of time for reading. Generally I got a seat on the bus, and for the train ride, I was young and wiry and could read standing up, somehow grasping a pole or strap and still being able to concentrate on whatever book came my way. And I didn't have to check my status updates.

So that, combined with majors in math and Russian which didn't leave much room for the traditional fiction canon, is why my first introduction to modernism was with Renata Adler's Speedboat, which was recommended to me by one of my coworkers. I had picked up the Popular Library edition, back when even the most intense literary fiction would be reprinted in mass market editions, as if they really needed to be featured on the racks of newsstands, variety stores, and supermarkets to find their true market.

The reason I bring this up is that having just read and discussed Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation, my research led to several critics referencing Renata Adler in their reviews and profiles. Of course this fragmentary stream-of-consciousness voice is older that Adler's work. You can certainly look back to Virginia Woolf, and one of our attendees David, mentioned that he was reminded of one of his favorite books, Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.

In Offill's novel, her second following Last Things, a narrator is documenting her life through a series of what appear to be fragments from a journal. Everyday observations alternate with more personal autobiographical details such as the relationship with her husband, a former Midwesterner moonlights as a DJ, and the birth and early years of your daughter. The narrator herself has written a novel that has gotten some acclaim, but she's gotten stuck on writing her second novel.

What many of us found most interesting about Offill's novel is that despite is fragmentary, stream-of-consciousness style, the story was quite readable. If you've read books in this style, you find that you often have to reread passages several times to make sense of them, dominated as they are by language. Yes, Dept. of Speculation is plot-driven modernism.

Because I was helping with an event going on in the back of the store (Middle Grade Mania, if you must know), Boswellian Carly Lenz helped me out with facilitating the conversation. Cleverly, we had chosen a title that I knew Carly had loved.

Here's her rec from the hardcover edition: "Offill portrays the nuanced realities of marriage and human relations in a series of vignettes, the majority told in the first-person voice of the unnamed female protagonist. Similar to Valeria Luiselli's Faces in the Crowd, the fragmented narration allows the reader to experience changes in the protagonist's psyche, changes in the relationship she has with her husband, and changes in perspective: the story flows between the woman's stream of consciousness and a more distanced, macro telling of events. Charged with bits of humor, dialogue, and emotional insight, Dept. of Speculation offers a beautifully written account of love on both its good and bad days."

For the most part, the book club liked it. Muted enthusiasm, I'd say, with most folks being a little tentative about starting it but finding they liked it more than they expected. One attendee said it was like reading it was like someone's diary, with the reader putting it together like a puzzle. The book's shortness works well with the fragmentation; one reader thought it might have fallen apart if it had been longer.

Other interesting points:
--It reminded one reader of a piece of lace, intricately constructed, with plenty of holes
--Our Elizabeth Smart fan wasn't sure he liked some of the repetition
--Another reader questioned whether this was really structured prose or blank verse. That might account for the repetition. Knowing how difficult it is to publish poetry, I wonder what the author's original intention was.
--What about those bedbugs? Metaphor for the marital bed, perhaps?

So while I do not like when the crowd swings too dramatically one way or another, I thought this was a pretty middle-of-the-pack assessment. Enthusiasm, but muted. So I was fascinated to speak to two attendees who couldn't make the meeting, which should be noted, was on the night of the Wisconsin-Duke game. One attendee loved it and the other hated it. That would have made for a very different evening.

This is a great book club selection for a month when attendees are feeling stressed, as just about everyone was able to read Dept. of Speculation within two hours. Coming up Boswell is hosting Matthew Thomas, author of We are Not Ourselves, on Monday, June 8, 7 pm, and while I really wanted to get this into our in-store lit group rotation, there was not enough time between paperback release (June 2) and event. Jane and I will have the book on our next flier, suggesting it is a great book if you have a summer or winter break.

Up next, we tackle Phil Klay's Redeployment on Monday, May 4, 7 pm. And on Monday, June 1, 7 pm, we read Euphoria, by Lily King.

And thanks for your help, Carly!

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