Thursday, October 8, 2009

On Reading "Driftless", which Nobody Guessed How Much I'd Like

In my experience, book clubs can choose their books in one of three ways:
a. The group votes on each selection
b. The group let's each member choose a title in some sort of order
c. The moderator chooses the book.

We have three in-store book clubs. Two groups choose using option a. When I tell folks that the group I run (first Monday of the month) chooses option c, I sometimes need to explain myself, even though there are certainly other clubs that use this method (like Oprah's!)

My explanation has two parts. One has to do with me whining and talking about how busy I am and how much I need to read, and how the only way I'm going to moderate this group is if I can choose the books.
And when I was at Schwartz, I occasionally tried to direct our in-store groups into coordinating selections with events, and I was almost always rebuffed. I want to sometimes coordinate our book club selection with an event (like this month's Driftless, or Elmer Gantry, which we're reading in February).

But there's another thing. It's my contention that I want my group to sometimes read outside our comfort zone. If books are chosen by groups, they sometimes fall into the trap of making things too comfortable. I'm not going to give examples, for fear of insulting someone. Heck, I do that enough elsewhere.

So I was pleasantly surprised to find that David Rhodes' Driftless was an almost classic Daniel book, filled with quirky characters, multiple intersecting plotlines, a straightforward but not drab storytelling style, and themes that touched to my core--place, identity, community, and the grayness of absolute judgment. I don't know what I was thinking. Perhaps there was too much focus on the rural setting, the militia, country music, making pies, Rhodes' backstory. When you take away the window dressing, Rhodes writes not too far from the territory of Michelle Huneven, that Blame and Jamesland author I have gone on about.

The structure of the story was clearly laid out somewhat in advance, and it's a concept that I didn't actually catch until towards the end. Some folks knew it going in and I'm sure that still made it a good read, but explaining the structure gives away what might be a twist to some readers, so at least here, I'm going to say little more. (I'm sure any number of traditional reviews gave it away in the first sentence). Let's just say it follows the life of July Montgomery, first written about in The Rock Island Line, many years later, as he's made peace with his life and settled down in the very small Words, Wisconsin. As it jumps between the dozen or so characters whose lives are profiled, you notice there is a bit of a continuing theme--there's a domino effect of grace, and how your good behavior really can affect someone else's life. There's also the continuing strand of how to make the best of a crappy childhood.

Sharon (who also liked Driftless) and I agreed that it usually took one of the plotlines to really pull you into the book. For Sharon, it was the sisters Violet (the older caretaker) and Olivia (younger and wheelchair bound), particularly when Olivia started rebelling. For me, it was the subplot about the farmers Graham and Cora, who discover that the farmer's coop (one of the folks involved is named Forehouse, hint) is not only abusing the farmers, but also stealing from the government. Really? A coop can sometimes be bad? I thought all coops were intrinsically better than other businesses. It was quite an education.

Kurt, who had also read the book for another book group, told us that we should all read Rock Island Line, Rhodes' earlier novel about July Montgomery. It really adds to the Driftless experience. Fortunately Milkweed has reissued this book, as well as The Easter House.

Not everyone in the group liked the book. Some members got bogged down in the story, and weren't thrilled with the writing style. Sadly, however, the folks who told me they didn't like the book also didn't show up for the meeting. It's fun to argue it out--as long as folks don't get too personal.

Three related items:

1. David Rhodes is appearing at Boswell Book Company on Friday, October 9th, at 7 PM. This is the first event of the Milwaukee Book Festival. Here's more info on the festival.

2. Our next meeting of the In-Store Lit group at Boswell is Monday, November 2nd, at 7 PM. We're reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun, a novel about Biafra's attempt to form an independent republic in Nigeria.

3. Just announced! Our December meeting on Monday, December 7th selection is The Hakawati, by Rabih Alameddine, a Lebanese novelist whose book has won amazing raves from both critics and booksellers. We should be selling this better, and I need an excuse to read it. What better reason can one have to pick a book?


Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel was awarded the Man Booker. We had one enthusiastic hold on the book before it released next week. Won't that customer be excited, getting a first printing?

Herta Mueller wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. Our I-Page database lists no books distributed in the United States. I'm glad they addressed that Eurocentricity problem this year.


Our Serpent's Tale Press Rep said...

Hi, Daniel,

Just FYI. Saw your blog post this morning and couldn't help myself. (Serpent's Tale published Mueller's first novel translated into English, The Passport) We'll let you know about the reprint as we learn it.


elizabeth said...

Can't wait to hear what you think about The Hakawati (since I've been trying to push it on you and anyone who will listen for over a year now)! - Elizabeth (at BookPeope)