Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What Did the in-Store Lit Book Club Think of Richard Ford's "Canada" This Past Monday?

The nice thing about preparing for a book club discussion in the internet age is that it is so much easier to do research. In the old days, I would have been completely at the mercy of publishers to find many of these reviews and interviews. Would I have gone to the library and used a periodical index, the way I did for my research papers in high school? Would I still be cutting up The New York Times Book Review and saving the articles in a box? No, I'd probably wing it.

And while finding reviews and interviews is now super easy, I can't for the life of me recall whether I've read Richard Ford before. In addition, I've learned from my former coworker John that I might have had dinner with Richard Ford at David Schwartz's house may years ago, perhaps in 1990. My first thought was "I had dinner with Richard Ford and didn't read his book? How rude!" and then I remembered how often that happens at conventions. Plus I was young.

As soon as we booked Richard Ford for a ticketed event at Boswell on Thursday, October 15, 7 pm, cosponsored by Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UWM's School of Continuing Education, I decided that we would pick a Ford book to read. The problem was that we couldn't read Let Me Be Frank with You, as it wouldn't be in paperback for a long enough period before our event. And I didn't want to read anything older than Canada, as that would not be published by Ecco, who was bringing him to Milwaukee. No, it had to be Canada.

And that was a good thing. Our friend Carol had been telling us for years how wonderful Canada was, and unlike the Bascombe novels, it was a stand-alone. It's the story of a teenage boy, Dell Parsons, whose life is interrupted when his parents Bev and Neeva fall on hard times and try to rob a bank. He's separated from his twin sister Berner, very different from him but still his only friend of any sort, when she runs away after their parents are apprehended. He's sent away to a small town in Saskatchewan, only to be placed in another precarious situation. Camped at a lodge for hunters, owned by the brother of a friend of his mom's, he's left alone with Charley Quarters, an eccentric Metis (French-Indian), only to be eventually pulled into the orbit of Arthur Remlinger, who has a secret past. And as you've guessed, things don't go well.

This was Richard Ford's 10th book over all; his first, A Piece of My Heart, appeared in 1976. And though people associate Ford with Mississippi, where he was born, and New Jersey, the home of Frank Bascombe, Ford has visited Great Falls, Montana before in his fiction. I've read that an early story is about a 15-year-old boy in Great Falls whose world is also upended, but this time by the revelation of his mother's affair.

Several critics noted a change in style for Ford on Canada. Dell Parson, the teenage protagonist of Canada, is a quiet introspective observer desperate for normality, very different from Frank Bascombe. To me, Canada seemed like an interesting blend of storytelling styles, Southern gothic and Western sweep.

And now, I must warn you there are spoilers ahead!

Ford does this interesting balancing act where a few key incidents happen with much waiting in between. There's a good amount of foreshadowing such that you know what's going to happen, and yet he keeps a prevailing tension throughout the story. You know what happens, and yet you can't stop reading. Several attendees of the book club took note of this, and one wondered what the book would have been like without it. He was convinced he'd like it more, but I wasn't sure.

For the most part, the in store lit group was quite enthusiastic about Canada. Juli was swept up in the sense of place, the desolation of the landscape, as was Linda. Gail loved the writing and would stop to admire sentences. Jo, who was hesitant at first, thought it was incredible. And while Joyce found it slow going at first, once Dell started having more contact with other people, her view changed. I found it interesting that we had a very different opinion from Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, who loved part one of the book but was disappointed with part two. The group as a whole preferred the Saskatchewan story.

Several of us, notably Albert, were particularly taken with part three, the coda, many years later, when Dell reveals what came of his life, and chronicles one last visit with his sister, who he's only seen a few times in the forty years since the core of the story. Several readers liked how part three brought parts one and two of the story together.

Here are some topics we had fun discussing:
--Dell's obsession with bees. The social structure he didn't have? The quest for normality?
--Dell seeing life through glass and mirrors, a motif that reflected his life action plan
--The odd dynamic of Dell's parents, Bev and Neeva. Why did Neeva commit the crime? Why didn't she leave?
--The philosophy of the novel--one mistake can change your life forever
--Dell's survival skills
--The exaggerated nature of several characters in the story, notably Charlie and Arthur
--Why exactly did Neeva leave Dell in the care of Mildred, who previously had very little presence in the story?

Albert and I had an interesting disagreement about Arthur Remlinger (amusingly misspelled as Reminger and Premlinger in two British newspaper reviews - it's nice to know they need proofreaders as much as I do, but why haven't they been fixed online yet?). Albert thought that Dell was supposed to see himself in Arthur, while I was more interested in the comparing the characters of Arthur and Bev.

International jackets shown are for the British, Italian, and German versions of Canada, and in one case, Kanada. I looked at several more and they all follow the same bleak formula. The British version is the only one with the Canadian maple leaf; the European jackets tended to implied bleak landscapes. I thought the Germans picked a better photo than the Italians.

It turned out to be a terrific discussion! And now it's your turn. Why not pick Canada or Let Me Be Frank with You, or even The Sportswriter or Independence Day (the first book to win both the Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner) for your book club and then come to our Richard Ford event on Thursday, October 15 and get more insight. Tickets are $16 and include Let Me Be Frank with You in paperback. There's a $10 gift card option, and if you're a member of Osher, you can register on their website for discounted attendance.

Our upcoming in-store lit group discussions, both at 7 pm:
--Monday, October 5: Helen Oyeyemi's Boy Snow Bird
--Monday, November 2: Brian Morton's Florence Gordon.

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