I read a lot. Always have. This has been largely a solitary activity. Outside of an educational setting, I have seldom discussed books with anyone other than the spouse or a friend who shared similar knowledge and interests. Recently, however, I have participated in several book groups. I don’t always find the discussions thought-provoking. Only occasionally has the discussion given me a new or deeper insight into the book.
Part of the reason for this is that often one book reminds me of another. My thoughts are diverted by that juxtaposition, and I would like to explore it. But, of course, in a book group neither can I expect that others will have read what I have nor can I assume that they would be interested in the comparisons. (Often the spouse and I have read the same book, and we do discuss how one book affects our appreciation of another.) And consequently, from my standpoint, the book group discussion is often wanting.
For example, recently as I was reading Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, I had thoughts about Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague by Margaret O’Farrell, which I had read only a few weeks before. The novels are quite different. Hamnet is about William Shakespeare’s family, and O’Farrell, with her many striking images, creates a believable sixteenth century England. Gyasi’s novel is set in today’s world and gives us the portrait of a sort of woman who would not have existed in Shakespeare’s day. However, a plague—one ancient, one modern and continuing–is at the heart of each book, but neither author dives deeply into the nature of the plague. Instead, what the books share is a profound sense of grief. In each novel, that grief does not bring people together, as it might, but separates one person from another. Is that inevitable when a young person is lost? Transcendent Kingdom and O’Farrell’s novel are greatly different books, but each made me think about the nature of grief, whether it is shared more when the elderly die, and could it ever be transcended. Was that just my own quirkiness, or would I benefit by having the books discussed together?
Hamnet, by the way, also had me thinking about another book. Shakespeare’s wife, who is not named Anne Hathaway in O’Farrell’s novel, has the touch of the magical or mystical about her and is closely identified with the woods. That character, who exudes a self-assured strength, reminded me of the wife/mother in a much different book, Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Follett’s character, too, captures a magical and mystical element grounded in her strength drawn from a forest. The spouse would add Green Mansions to this list, since Rema in that novel has some of the same preternatural qualities bequeathed by living in the wild.
When I read a novel, I naturally think about other books I have read by the same author. Thus, in reading Phil Klay’s Missionaries, I thought about Redeployment. As with too much of my reading, I did not recall the details about that earlier prize-winner, I remember only that I found it exceptional. So did others, since it won America’s foremost literary award, the National Book Award. Missionaries, while worthy, did not strike me as outstanding as Klay’s debut work. That was because while I was reading about the militias and the cartels of Colombia with their atrocities and bloody revenges, I thought about The Cartel by Don Winslow, a novel about the Mexican drug gangs and their atrocities and revenges, which I read a few years ago. Winslow’s book amazed me. It also revolted me, but it impelled me to keep turning the pages, so I concluded that it had to be good. When I read Missionaries, I felt that I had already read much of it in Winslow’s book. Winslow gets labeled as a mystery and crime writer, a label that generally prevents an author from being thrown in the literary camp, but I wondered, if the two books were read side by side, whether Missionaries would be considered “better,” “more artistic,” “more literary” than The Cartel.
I just finished reading The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett, which has been on the top of the bestsellers list for quite a while. Even so, I don’t tend to categorize it as a “bestseller.” To my mind that category is given to a “brand name author,” that is, somebody who publishes frequently with the book almost always making the bestseller list. The author’s name is nearly as recognizable as a highly advertised soap or soda. The name-brand-author’s book is usually a mystery, thriller, romance, or more recently something with a fantasy element and is often referred to by the author’s name. For example, I am reading an Agatha Christie, a John Sandford, or a Lee Child. I am not denigrating these books. It takes a rare talent to write them, and I enjoy many of them.
Bennett’s book, however, does not neatly fall into a genre and is more “literary” than many of these bestsellers. It brought to my mind Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, published a few years ago, another bestseller considered more literary than many and that does not fall into one of the usual genres. I have been trying to figure out why one book triggered thoughts of the other. It is perhaps because in both a community becomes a character in the book; the stories concern generations of a family; and family secrets drive the narrative. In addition, they are good and quick reads. Yet in reading each of them I felt if I was reading something that did more than just pass the time but was somehow worthwhile or deeper or more insightful than others on the Sunday bestseller lists. Would others think the two could be usefully discussed together?
(concluded March 1)