Saturday, October 29, 2016

What Did the In-Store Lit Group Think? This catch-up session offers mini recaps of "She Weeps Each Time You're Born" and "Sister Carrie," plus what we're reading in November and December.

We've had an interesting run of discussions this fall. After reading Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer. It was my thought that we would follow this up with Amy Barry's She Weeps Each Time You're Born, making it a sort of unit on Vietnam. Based on what the group felt, I think it worked.

Each book looks at Vietnam experience (and note that the Vietnamese of course call it The American War) from their perspective, something we're not used to in the United States. But whereas Nguyen mostly covers the war and afterwards, Barry goes further back, perhaps chronicling the entire 20th century.

They are also such different books. The Sympathizer is one part immigrant narrative, one part Graham Greene spy story, and one part making-of-a-film story satire. She Weeps Each Time You're Born has much more of a poetic feel, playing with the Buddhist view of life and capturing many of the important moments in Vietnamese history.

My advice to folks reading She Weeps Each Time You're Born is to just go with the flow, especially since much of the story takes place on a boat.

We're not the only book club who grouped these two titles together. She Weeps Each Time You're Born is one of three suggestions of the Bored to Death Book Club to read after The Sympathizer.

For October, we teamed up with the Florentine Opera to read Sister Carrie, the novel published in 1900 by Theodore Dreiser. This was in conjunction with the Florentine world premiere on October 7. We wound up having one of our biggest turnouts of 33 people, with folks coming to hear UWM's Jason Puskar and Amanda Seligman talk about the book, as well as Kelly Schlicht from the Lorentine. Puskar and Seligman put the story in the contect of the time. While we each didn't have as much time to speak about the work, it turned out to be a very interesting evening.

The story features Caroline "Carrie" Meeber, who leaves her small town in Wisconsin to make it in Chicago. She stays with her sister while she looks for work, but finds herself being the object of admiration by two suitors, first a salesman named Charles Drouet who tells everyone they are married and sets her up in an apartment, and then George Hurstwood, a bar manager who convinces her to run off with him. They wind up in New York where after a number of years, her star rises in the theater world while Hurstwood's declines.

The book was groundbreaking for its time, being the portrait of a woman who is not punished for her what-might-be-called-by-some-at-the-time sins. And we had a spirited discussion on Carrie, how much she had a hand in what she accomplished, and the morality of the various characters. It's a novel where commerce seems to drive people's motivations, a philosophy that seems a bit ahead of its time.

One thing I learned from researching the book is that there are several different versions of Sister Carrie, with a series of edits followed by 1981 edition from the University of Pennsylvania Press that attempted to return the novel to the form that Dreiser first imagined. The Penguin Classic edition we featured was this new edit, while our alternate edition, the Signet Classic, was probably the Doubleday edition.

Next up, we'll be reading Ottessa Moshfegh's Eileen, on Monday, November 7, 7 pm. This novel, which won the PEN Hemingway award and was shortlisted for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Man Booker Prize, is about a woman with a crappy job at a prison and a just-as-crappy home life who falls under the sway of a new counselor. It's definitely in the psychological suspense camp, but ramped up to lit luminary level. And still Jean Zimmerman at NPR called it "dark, damaged, fun."

And then, to lighten things up, we'll be reading Hannah Rothschild's The Improbabilty of Love on Monday, December 5, 7 pm. It's been one of Jane's big picks, and seemed just the antidote to all the dark and somber tales that have twisted around us. Jennifer Senior wrote in The New York Times: "The book may on occasion be silly and over-the-top, even for a satire. But Ms. Rothschild writes with such exuberance and spins such a propulsive yarn that you happily accept these excesses as part of the package, the same way you happily accept the frippery of Elton John."

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