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Sunday, May 21, 2017

Recommending a Book – Not Always a Piece of Cake

Every once in a while I read and enjoy a book and admire its story and language and style without being able to come up with, easily, the logical and natural audience for it. “I think you might really love this book,” I want to say – but to whom do I say it? I imagine a potential reader questioning me further and what I might say in response.

Is the story set in Michigan?

Well, no, not this one. Southern Indiana, actually. Evansville, mostly, to be precise. You know, down on the Ohio River?

So what’s it about?

Always a tricky question when the book is a contemporary novel! Okay, there’s this guy, the book’s narrator, and the story moves back and forth in time from one part of his life to another. He grows up in Evansville, and he has kind of a wild, wasted youth, even though his father is a math professor, but eventually he gets a B.A. in philosophy, but even with a college degree the only job he can find for years is part-time work counting woodland songbirds for serious university ornithologists--.

So there’s a lot about songbirds? That’s one of the themes?

Well, yah, but it’s not all pretty stuff – you know, the beauty of nature. There’s a lot that’s gruesome or scary, sometimes downright revolting. But mixed in with the beautiful, you know? I mean, there’s shooting of songbirds, drunkenness, reckless driving, drug-dealing, assault--.

So what’s the appeal?

[My imaginary questioner has taken a dubious step backward, and I become somewhat more aggressively defending the book in response.]

Believe it or not, parts of the story are pretty funny, if you can get down off your high horse and refrain from judging the characters for every move they make. And they’re a pretty diverse cast. Maybe you’ve met people like some of them, may not, but they’re very American.

There’s an important coming-of-age aspect. There’s also an authentic Midwestern atmosphere and flavor, the evocation of what East and West Coast types refer to, disdainfully and dismissively, without the slightest awareness of how much their ignorance encompasses, as “flyover country.” The author, in his first-person narrator’s voice, expresses at times a typical young person’s impatience for and rejection of the people around him – in this case, his fellow Hoosiers – but years later he finds that Indiana calls to him like nowhere else in the U.S. No single demographic group or aspect of society escapes criticism, but neither is any completely condemned.

Maybe I need to offer a few passages:

Page 13:  Some people describe the sound of a tornado as akin to a freight train, which is like comparing a wolf to a beagle. I have sat with Lola and a brace of bear, directly beneath rolling trains on the Dogtown trestle bridge over the Ohio River: they’re rhythmic, clattering, dependable, and their sound, though loud, suggests a sort of restrained power. As I clutched my head between those poplar roots what I heard was purely chaotic, an unhinged and unpredictable malevolence, demon song; lightning struck twice nearby and I could not hear the thunderclaps because the whole chorus of hell overwhelmed them. 
Page 53: Wood thrushes were my best informants. Neighboring pairs sing to each other in a chain of call-and-response that occurs in every wood in the Midwest. If one pair fell silent I could place the intruder within fifty or sixty feet of a nest tree. A male indigo bunting will try desperately to get your attention if you stray near its nest—usually, in my experience, by leading you into the thorniest, muddiest, hottest smilax thicket nearby. Warblers are passionate about warbling and any reticence from them was a likely sign. 
Page 73: The reason they make you wear an orange jumpsuit is so you won’t talk back to the judge. When someone says you’re free to go, and you’re wearing handcuffs, you might be inclined to argue. But you’ve just spent the night on a hard narrow cot and you look ridiculous, so you don’t.  
Pages 96-97: Bowfishing, at least as practiced in Southern Indiana, combines hunting and angling while eliminating while eliminating the need for the skills of either. You sit in a rowboat firing arrows at large targets three and four feet away in three feet of water. It’s considered a good date in Jefferson....  
Page 124: Indianapolis is the twelfth-largest city in the United States, but it feels like the country’s largest suburb; it is all sprawl and you spend half of every day in your car. There is nowhere on earth I detest more.  
Page 197: Some people go ga-ga for an owl or an eagle—it’s my job to encourage that now. And it’s a good thing. But privately, I prefer a bird that doesn’t shit in its own nest. I had grown more bitter with every clump of severed tails I threw in the trash can. 
Page 203: Vermont has bears. I like bears. ... Vermont also has moose and mountains and other natural glories, all of which I enjoy. But they don’t—can’t—call my name the way Indiana woodland used to; the Ohio and Wabash rivers have a way with words that our local New England brook can’t match.... Vermont has famous fall foliage, too, but compared to Box County in October, Vermont is a painting Gauguin left out in the rain.

And still, entirely left out of this sampling are the people who pass through the narrator’s life, some briefly, some repeatedly, even constantly over the years -- Gerald, Lola, Shane, Warren, a Vietnam veteran encountered in the woods, an assortment of locals at a roadside diner – each one memorable and occupying a distinct place in the story. It’s worth taking the time to meet and get to know them!

Yes, this is a book worth reading. But really, is there any book that’s “for everyone”? I doubt it very much. Each must find its audience. Here I’ve done a preliminary introduction. Now it’s up to book and reader to come together in the private, intimate space we call reading.

Snapper, by Brian Kimberling
NY: Vintage Contemporaries, 2013
Paper, 210pp, $15


Carol Newman Cronin said...

Thanks for this, especially "the private, intimate space we call reading." Considering that every time I pick up the same book it reads differently, it's hard to know how we can connect our friends with books that will speak to them too.

I really enjoy your blog!

P. J. Grath said...

Carol, I'm gratified that my idea connected with at least one reader, so thanks for your comment. I see that you are also a blogger and have decided to go on, though blogging is no longer as "cool" as it once was. We're on the same page with that one, too. Bon courage!