OE Book Club started almost 4 years ago now. Over its course, we’ve read contemporary novels, classics, short story collections, and even collections of poetry. Discussions have ranged in temperament, the themes and ideas of a book volleyed across the groups own idiosyncratic makeup. It’s difficult, for a newcomer, to gauge the types of books we’ve read or the discussions we’ve had. So here’s a description of some of our favorites from three book club members and employees.
Submission by French Novelist Michel Houllebecq deals with the inordinate controversy of Islam and its place in the western world. Set mostly in Paris, the protagonist, a literature professor, glides through life with a casual, unaffected air that only a contented professional of the upper-middle class could affect. Eventually a Muslim political faction seizes majority control in France, and begins implementing systematic change. The novel skillfully deals with social, cultural, and political upheaval amidst the spread of non-confrontational liberalism, and how someone lacking religious or moral motivations interacts with it. I thought that the discussion during book club provided many differing opinions about religious insurgency and generally accepted codes of conduct in our country. Without disregarding the topic as futile or hyperbolic, we were all able to converse about something many of our political leaders discuss daily.
The Sheltering Sky
Paul Bowles’s first novel, The Sheltering Sky, is easily my favorite novel that I’ve been present for at OE Book Club. In short, the novel follows a rich and disillusioned couple, Port and Kit, from New York and their travels in North Africa. Over the course of the novel, Port and Kit both become unravelled through their interactions with the surroundings and their bizarre, fractured marriage. Paul Bowles writes pages of beautifully descriptive prose that transports the reader into the world of the hot and barren landscape. Places and images that appear in the text are so succinctly wrought and contextualized that I felt I was reading a travel narrative. Yet the characters are so ignorant of area and its inhabitants, that I couldn’t help but empathize with their disorientation. The ending is unanticipated and the lives of the characters are so stretched that the story isn’t something I’ll be forgetting anytime soon.
A Wild Sheep Chase
I am an unabashed fan of Haruki Murakami. I’ve read several of his novels over the last few years, each occupying a special position in my memory, each as unforgettable as the one before it. This novel, as Murakami puts it, marks the beginning of his writing career. A Wild Sheep Chase weaves a few usually discordant genres, into a bizarre, surreal story of a man possessed by the search for a sheep with a star shaped birthmark. Over the course of the novel, the unnamed narrator recounts the story of his itinerant friend, The Rat; his girlfriend and her supernatural set of ears; and a mysterious, shrouded man known as The Boss and his possible involvement with the sheep. In the end, the novel leaves the reader reeling and disconcerted - ultimately unsure of the progression or resolution. Yet, like so many other Murakami novels, the characters and the story still stand out to this day, fueling me to read more.
Go Set a Watchmen
To those who regularly attend our book club, this may come as a shock, but I don’t always read the book.
There have been some few occasions where I’ve shown up unprepared or uninspired and spent most of the evening searching someone else’s copy—or, more realistically, the bar—for something intelligent and relevant to say. It isn’t often, but it happens. Now, before you judge me, you should know that I know I’m wrong. I know I should read the book. I know I should come in with pages dog-eared and notes scribbled in the margins. And I know that there will come a time where I’ll have to attest to these transgressions and own up to my ignorance, laziness, or pretension.
The month I was supposed to read “Go Set a Watchman” was not that time.
That month, it wasn’t laziness or disinterest or any inherent flaw that lead me to skip out on Harper Lee’s “latest” novel. It was personal. It was ethical. And that book club was unlike any other because it was the one time that the book’s content had almost nothing to do with what was discussed. We asked big questions about the ethics of publishing a book that the author never wanted published. About publishing a book that is, really, not a book at all but an early brushstroke in Mockingbird’s rendering. We talked about Lee’s legacy and the publishing industry and the creative process. We wagged our fingers at each other and were united and divided and united again. We threw food across the room at each other and smashed plates against the walls – okay, that’s not true, but we were impassioned. We were all fighting for something. Some of us, for the rare opportunity to encounter again the work of a writer who’d opened our eyes to injustice and changed many of our lives. Others fought for something else— for restraint, for respect, for the hope that, maybe, one masterpiece is enough.
I don’t blame HarperCollins for publishing “Go Set a Watchman”. I blame them for not more clearly explaining to us what it was, for not respecting Lee at least that much. This book can be used as an incredibly powerful teaching tool to illustrate and examine the drafts and development of genius—unfortunately, I’m not sure that particular tagline sells 1.1 million copies in its first week.
That month, our book club peeked behind a curtain and saw the chugging, mechanical heart that keeps the publishing industry alive. We stared for a moment, then another. We raised our voices, we argued right or wrong, we got on our soapboxes. And then, not long after, we put them away. We paused and then we talked about “To Kill a Mockingbird”. We shared memories, remembered our favorite passages, characters. We nodded in agreement, we let crack small smiles. We talked about Harper Lee. No, not the name on the front of this new book, but the person we seemed to know so well from our middle school and high school classes. The woman we’d lose not six months later. The genius who’d endure.
The Cold Song
The Cold Song, by Linn Ullmann, was a fun book club on a few levels. This story is part mystery, greater part psychological family drama. It opens with the discovery of a body and then backtracks to describe the events leading to the murder. When the murderer is revealed and the mystery is solved, it’s almost unimportant. The greater story is the interaction of the characters, chiefly an unhappy, yet deeply loving family, and their nanny, the murder victim. This book was the first time we gave the club a pair of options—both modern, translated works—and allowed them to vote on the choice. We also read it at a time when the club had very few male members. When the one man in attendance that night spoke up at the end to relate how he felt sorry for the victim and her sad life, every woman turned on him immediately. We saw her as a heartless tramp—maybe she didn’t deserve death, but she didn’t deserve to be eulogized. In retrospect, it was the first demonstration of why it is important for our book club to have a little diversity in its members. We miss seeing a lot when everyone views it from the same eyes. When Tom spoke up, it gave us a different perspective on the story—even though we all agreed he was wrong.
A few months later, we read Dean Koontz’s The City. Koontz has written some beautiful books, but he is so prolific that many underestimate him as a writer. This happens more often than we literature snobs are willing to admit, and there’s something about seeing a book on the shelves of Wal-Mart or the grocery store that leads us to believe it can’t be that good. Dean Koontz proves this wrong. As with the best of Koontz’s works, The City is concerned with good and evil, and with the necessity for good to fight off evil at every opportunity. The characters are deeply personal and the musicality of Koontz’s writing makes it impossible to root against the good. This club ended well—a few had read Koontz years ago and had forgotten how good he is; many more had never read him and resolved to read more by him.
Till We Have Faces
Finally, I choose a book that we haven’t read yet, because it’s an important turning point for me as the book club moderator. Till We Have Faces is my favorite book ever. C.S. Lewis is a great author, but this book is often unknown to his readers. Lewis, a classical scholar, rewrites the myth of Cupid and Psyche into the tale of Psyche and her sister, Orual. The deep love of these sisters takes many paths throughout the story, and the ultimate truth of Psyche’s deep love and Orual’s jealous betrayal is haunting. Like Lewis’ other fictional works, the overtones are deeply philosophical and theological, and Till We Have Faces is a magnificent work. I have always sworn we would never read my favorite book in book club. I would have a hard time not arguing with those who may not like it, and I would judge them for their dislike. However, I have learned over time to trust the members of the club. They may not like the book (and, honestly, I will judge them a little), but our book club is thoughtful and has integrity. I know that they will read with open eyes and fair and questioning minds.