Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What Did the Book Club Think of Simon Van Booy's "The Illusion of Separateness?" and How Excited are They that He's Coming to Boswell on September 30, 7 pm?

This week was our annual "move the in-store lit group meeting out of the way of Labor Day" event.  After a number of years, the easiest way to accomplish this appears to be moving it to the last week in August, and as long as I don't schedule an event, the lit group can meet in the back of the store while the mystery group meets up front.

(The illustrations for this blog are the various international editions, which is always fun when a book gets a strong international publication. I am always interested in how each publisher represents the story--in a few cases, I kept the jackets a little larger to spot the details).

For the second month in a row, I selected a book that I'd already read, but the great thing about Simon Van Booy's The Illusion of Separarateness (well, one of the great things) is that I could actually find time to re-read the novel before we met. (Note: at right is the final jacket for the American edition. Is this Amanda? Harriet? I can't tell.)

The book starts with Martin, who helps out at an assisted living center. He's lived in California for many years, though he still has a trace of a French accent. His wife has died. His sister still runs his parents' French cafe. He's good with the residents, and he's curious about the new fellow, who has been brought in by a big-time Hollywood director. What he first notices is that the man is terribly disfigured. And then, making his way to the cookies, the man collapses and dies.

And then we jump back and see that man, Mr. Hugo, thirty years previous, and how a Nigerian woman befriends him, so that he can take care of her son while she works. And then an air force pilot shot down over Europe. And then a blind curator on Long Island. The story pivots on a fateful World War II scene, and the rest of their lives channel outwards, with several fates changed by a moment of kindness.

So what did the book club think? We've got four big fans on staff (and at least one more ex-bookseller who championed the book), so we know we like it. But does the book hold up to scrutiny? We had about 15 folks show up for Monday's book club meeting and I'd say about 2/3 loved it, while the other third liked it with caveats, and some had more caveats than other. (The British cover at right chose the Paris setting for the story. I guess it tries to capture the spiritual essence of the story. I think a previous cover focused on a World War II embrace. I  may have the order wrong).

One bone of contention was the style. Mr. Van Booy employs short,sentences, almost staccato, and the effect is rather poetic. Some people loved this style, but a few did not. D. wanted a different voice for each character, but it's my contention that there really only needs to be two voices, one for Amanada the blind curator, as she is telling her voice in the first person, and another for everyone else, as the story is all third-person omniscient narrator.

Then there's the length; C1 wanted the story to be filled out. It's my feeling that I'm not sure the writing style would have worked as well over 500 pages, or even 350, and one of the things I liked about the book was the white space, the details left unfilled in. (At left is the American hardcover jacket, rendered in what I think is Dutch. I like the jacket but I never quite knew what scene that was.)

C2 enjoyed the spiritual angle of the book and thought it was the one of the best endings of all time. She was reminded of Diane Arbus, but perhaps the inverse, where the artist saw the grotesque in the ordinary, Van Booy sees the humanity in the grotesque.

N, for all the coincidences in the story, found it plausible. She enjoyed the gentle nature of the story, and thought it was beautifully written.

J1 liked the book, and found it deceptively simple. She found the war scenes depressing, but unless you are writing propaganda, at least one side if not both sides of a war story are going to be pretty sad.

G1 loved the book. She saw herself in the characters, which of course is one of the nicest things you can say about a story. She was reminded of Tinkers. (the Italian and German covers are probably the most literal, focusing on the World War II story at the core).

S liked it, but had to make a chart to get some of the details straight. She's concurrently reading Dave Eggers' A Hologram for the King, and noted some similarities in the stories, mostly the World War II characters' escape through Europe on a bicycle, but also the presence of beagles, and a few others which I won't list here, as I didn't write them down.

From  G2: "The world needs this book." She also found herself wanting to ask Mr. Van Booy questions about how he went about writing the story.

C3 liked it, once she got into the staccato style. She found the Thich Nhat Hanh inscription at the beginning of the story telling, and came back to it several times during her reading.

J2 really enjoyed putting the puzzles together. She said she came at the book almost like a mystery reader. I'll have to ask Anne about that one. She was surprised when C3 had not made a connection at the end. (Yes: Outre-Atlantique is how the French translated The Illusion of Separateness. I had to read the copy to make sure. I am attracted to this cover. It definitely captures more of the spirit of the story rather than any details.)

I mentioned that I read the book a second time to prepare for the discussion, and several folks seconded that they reread the story, including L1. J1 wanted to read the book again, and J2 felt she had read the book again, as she wound up rereading many passages to find the connections. "Humming, I remember humming" is just one hint that really doesn't give away too much but will please thought who caught this moment.

L2 thought that Amelia was the strongest character, and was the glue that held the story together.

It's my feeling that this book is certainly accessible to the masses, and it strikes me as the kind of story that, with the right champion, cold be a huge bestseller. That said, I wondered how I'd feel about the book if I'd come to it as a phenomenon rather than our own private treat. Well, I can only hope that the book is such a huge success that I tired of it.(The Australians have a very similar cover to the Germans, but this very contemporary typeface--you see a lot of retailers using a variation--gives it a bit of whimsy, as opposed ot the more traditional gravitas of the German version. I am almost reminded of Life of Pi, which is actually not a terrible idea.)

D raised the issue of whether these were, in fact, connected stories, noting that Mr. Van Booy had several previous story collections out. It was my contention that unlike several other books of this sort, most of these chapters could not stand on their own. But could they be a story cycle, a la Alice Mattison or even Joan Silber? I tried to imagine reconstructing the novel with each character having a voice, and I'm not sure you could pull it off. Another thing to ask Mr. Van Booy.

In an unexpected detour, the conversation turned to Hemingway. Philosophically I thought the authors could not be more different, but several of the attendees noticed a similarity between the two authors' styles. I remembered someone else had made the Hemingway connection--it turned out to be an unattributed quote from a New Hampshire Public Radio reviewer who said "Van Booy writes like Hemingway but with more heart."There was some talk of which Hemingway books hold up best and so forth.

We also discussed Max Gendelman's book A Tale of Two Soldiers, which actually has at its core, a similarity to Mr. Van Booy's story. It's pretty well known that the pivot scene at the heart of the story is based on his wife's grandfather, Bert Knapp, who flew B-24 bombers in World War II. Having read both books, D confirmed that yes, there are similarities in the stories. And of course the amusing thing was that several us knew Gendelman's daughter, Nina Edelman, and of course had not before known about the connection. The Illusion of Separateness indeed!

Mr. Van Booy has written three philosophical nonfiction books--Why We Fight, Why Our Decisions Don't Matter, and Why We Need Love. You can see that influence in the story, which hinges in the concept of unknown connections. There was a lot of feeling that with the problems going on in the world now, The Illusion of Separateness is a book that a lot more people should be reading.  Maybe we'd act differently if we had that consciousness that the person I hurt could be someone connected to me.

Needless to say, I think The Illusion of Separateness makes a great book club discussion, especially for a month when folks are stressed for time, or when you're finding that the group is not reading the books. In particular, what a great book to read in November or December, when you're both feeling both time-crunched and also in need of some inspiration.

And of course your book club can have a nice night out by seeing Simon Van Booy when he visits Boswell on Tuesday, September 30, 7 pm. And before our event, I might just read the book a third time.

Upcoming discussions:
Monday, October 6, 7 pm: We dig into Jane Gardam's Old Filth.

Monday, November 3, 7 pm: The topic is Tish Aw's Five Star Billionaire.

Past discussion addendum: Daniel, why didn't you talk about the group's discussion of Hannah Kent's Burial Rites?

The problem was that we decided to keep our discussion in the face of a very large event with Deborah Harkness, who was at Boswell for The Book of Life. As a result, I wasn't really part of the discussion. The one interest dynamic I noticed was that while just about everyone loved the book, one person hated it. And I don't mean quibbles, I mean hated. And at one point he said something along the lines of, I'm not going to be happy until I convince all of you why this book was bad. It actually was pretty funny. And in the end, he was a failure, as the rest of the attendees were still huge fans of Burial Rites.

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