Friday, August 27, 2010

Yes, a Second Post on The Unnamed, Because 1) It's Almost in Paperback and 2) On my Book Club Selections and 3) We're Hosting Him on 9/26.

This week I did a presentation for an AAUW book club. Thank goodness for the American Association of University Women (see, I know what the acronym is for)—they are linchpin of book clubs all over the country. I think Schwartz helped provide books for at least three of them in the Milwaukee area.

It was an exciting day for me to test my skills at presenting my new collection of titles, with a few sleepers carried over (The Tortoise and the Hare, Yarn) and a few titles from spring that seemed perfect for this club (Let the Great World Spin, Brooklyn).

One of the things you quickly learn is that what’s good for one book club might not be good for another. This club likes a background material and a challenge. They didn’t might reading something fat, like The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, about which some groups will fuss. We discussed including Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, but an objection was raised that it might not work for them on this level. On the other hand, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (an easy read that nonetheless has a lot of meaty research available) was a big hit, but some of my other groups would scoff at that.

The big question is, how does the book club feel about books that might be divisive? What’s your feeling about a book you don’t like that nonetheless provides a good discussion? There are book clubs that are there to get the group to read outside their comfort zone, and book clubs that are there to get the group to read, period. And then there are book clubs where you don’t have to read, but that’s for another post.

I’ve been thinking about this as I discuss Joshua Ferris’ novel, The Unnamed, with groups, the story of a lawyer with a wife and daughter, pretty comfortable, in the midst of a case. Inexplicably, he finds himself wandering off, walking until he is beyond exhaustion. Physical or psychological, it seems to be a degenerative illness, and like any illness, it takes a terrible toll on his family.

Let’s just say this is not an easy book. It’s certainly not the playful but dark satire of Ferris’ first novel, Then We Came to the End, and yet, I see several connections with that novel, particularly in the way that work holds modern lives together and the loss of that work can lead to a terrible identity crisis.

Tod Goldberg, needless to say, a fan, called the book "accomplished and daring" and daring in this review in the Los Angeles Times.

In the Washington Post, Ron Charles called the book ultimately frustrating--I paraphrase, but you can read for yourself. Now this is not a compliment, but think of how much discussion this can create at a book club: “What exactly is it -- a medical thriller, a domestic drama, a murder mystery, a survivalist tale, a metaphysical fable?

And Juliet Lapidos makes the case as to why the two novels are ultimately tied together in her Slate article, posing that the two novels are ultimately about distraction.

So if you’re up for the challenge, consider The Unnamed, either for your book club discussion or just to read on your own. If you're tired of reading books that you can't remember ten mintues after you finish them, this is one that you're going to think about it for a while.
And I highly recommend it for book clubs--just make sure that the book is bookended by a selection that most of the attendees are likely to like.

We’re hosting Joshua Ferris with Patrick Somerville at Boswell on Saturday, September 25th, at 2 PM. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear that I have some things to say about Patrick Somerville’s The Cradle as well, which you can read on an earlier blog post.

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