Sunday, June 24, 2007

Chat Amongst Yourselves

Sherman Alexie's new novel, Flight, contains a reading group guide so thorough and meticulously written that you might think you could skip Alexie's own words and get the gist of his work with the guide. The reading group guide, 44 elaborate questions filled with quotations from the novel, even has its own author cited (actually, the credit says "prepared by"), Barbara Putnam. (Personally, I prefer to have my meals prepared and my books written.) It's like buying The Sound and the Fury with the Cliffs Notes bound in.

I must admit I have a love/hate relationship with these reading group guides. I can't tell you how many times a decent reading group conversation at the store has screeched to an abrupt halt because someone pulls out a question from the book's guide. It's usually something absurd: Do you think the narrator's love of cats influenced her decision to strangle her child in the sandbox? Or perhaps just a bit more subtle: The author mentions popular songs in several scenes. What do bands like U2 and The Police mean to the main character? What does music mean to you? I sigh loudly when these questions are brought into the conversation, feeling like I'm back in school with a mediocre English teacher. I really don't want to be back in a high school classroom. I really don't want to feel like the love of literature is being beaten out of me by a bored wannabe poet who is just trying to make it to summer break.
The few times I enjoy the guides are when I'm reading a book on my own and I'm left confused or uncertain about a character or a plot element. Sometimes ruminating on the questions in the back of the book brings me to a point of clarity that I couldn't have achieved if I had just put the book down and moved onto something else. Am I the only one who thinks reading group guides are much better without a group?

My biggest problem with reading group guides, and frankly, with reading groups themselves, is that style and form are almost never discussed. The questions are always about plot, motivation, setting and what the author's opinions might be. Those aren't very interesting topics for discussion.
Instead, I want to know why an author chose to tell a story in first person instead of third person. Can we trust the first-person narrator? If not, where are the hidden clues that make us doubt? I want to talk about why an author chooses certain words, and how that language creates a mood or a setting through its sparseness or volubility.

The best reading group guides, including some of HarperCollins' P.S. titles, contain interviews with the authors, or lists of further reading put together by the author. This was the case with Janis Hallowell's excellent and underrated novel, The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn. My favorite feature was Hallowell's list of recommended movies that are on the same theme as her book. Hallowell came in to speak to our store's reading group about her novel, and when we asked her about the reading group guide, she seemed a little embarrassed by the whole thing. We assured her it was great, and I can only hope that if the publishers are going to insist on including these guides, the authors will be involved in creating them. Somehow, this adds some humor and makes it feel less academic.

Back to Alexie's novel for a moment. I really loved this novel and enjoyed its quirkiness, its shifting time periods and the growth of the narrator, Zits. When I finished and saw that there was a reading guide, I was actually kind of excited. On the surface, this novel seems like a simple tale. An half-Indian boy living in various foster homes falls under the spell of an evil person, goes to a bank with a couple of guns and starts shooting. Just as he is shot dead on the scene, his consciousness is jettisoned out of his body and out of the present day, into an FBI agent in 1975. This time-travel-body-shifting continues, and he picks up a few lessons along the way, until he is reunited with his own body. It's a lark, like Vonnegutt's best work, and it makes you think differently about familiar moments in history.

But I knew that it couldn't be as straight-forward as it appears on the surface, so I turned to the reading group guide. It was a slog. I know that these are well-thought-out questions, but by the fifth one I needed a drink and by the tenth one all the joy I had from reading the book was seeping out of me. I had to stop. These were questions for teachers or professors to use in their classes. These were questions that deserved essays in response, not flippant, wine-soaked, book-club chatter.

Here's an example of one such question: "As in the Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, we are startled to read about people rummaging through Dumpsters for food just to survive, even in this land of great plenty. Zits says, 'I hate my country. There are so many rich people who don't share. . . . They're like spoiled little ten-year old bullies on the playground . . . if you try to get even one spin on the merry-go-round, the bullies beat the shit out of you' (page 26). Do you see any of this in your community?"

So what if I see people dumpster-diving in my community? That doesn't particularly help me to sympathize more with Zits. It certainly doesn't bring me any closer to understanding the depth of Alexie's work.

If Flight had to include a reading group guide, I wish Alexie would have done it himself. He is a funny and insightful person with a lot to say and many interesting opinions about American culture, history and politics. Ironically, this reading guide makes it seem like he's a dead white author, instead of a vibrantly living American Indian writer.

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