Thursday, June 20, 2013

Idlewild Round-Up

After what's seemed like a long, unintentional hiatus, I've actually made it to book club the past couple of months! The Friday night meetings are sometimes killer, as we often go away for the weekends, but I'm hoping that this summer will be low-key enough that I'm able to keep going. I always love reading the books in the summer when I don't have to think about anything else!

Our May selection was Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. The summary and introduction hyped this up as a hilarious, witty novel, but wasn't all that to me. The story follows Jim, a lecturer of medieval history at an English university. He's not really a grump, but he doesn't have a shred of optimism in him either. He's cynical and sardonic, almost in a pleasant way—which is where the comedy is supposed to come in. Jim feels like he's living in a world of crazy people, both inside and outside of academia.

Lucky Jim doesn't have much of a plot; rather, it chronicles Jim's encounters to make a sort of satirical statement on English society, particularly academia, in the 1950s. And that must be why it's lauded as such a hilariously trenchant novel; it was to the society in which it was written. For me now, it just sort of existed. We didn't have a ton to say about this one; everyone sort of enjoyed it but also didn't get a ton out of it. The characters were enjoyable, and at points it was a total entertaining farce (especially in the last third of the book). Amis didn't treat any of his women particularly well, either. I think I would enjoy this more on a second reading, as I would for any of Elaine Dundy's works, but I doubt I'll ever get to it.

Our June pick was a collection of short stories: The Polish Boxer by Eduardo Halfon. We have never done short stories as a book club and thought it would be an interesting experience. Well, it turns out, calling this a "short story collection" is pretty deceptive. So the publisher calls it that, but really, this is more a series of vignettes focusing on the same characters. It takes you a couple stories to realize that you're reading about the same people, but as you get further in the book, the "stories" feel more like chapters as the running thread becomes more dominant. The overarching plot involves a Guatemalan literature professor, Eduardo, and his encounters with different characters—a brilliant student who suddenly leaves school, verbose Mark Twain scholars at a lit conference, a Serbian classical pianist who favors his gypsy heritage over classical upbringing, and, tying it all together, Eduardo's own Polish grandfather with a story of how it made it out of Auschwitz alive.

In most of the stories, you learn more about these characters than the narrator that ties them all together. In the end, you still feel like you don't know much about Eduardo; he's sort of lost, himself, and he keeps chasing after something or someone because that's what he does—it becomes his own sort of obsessive treasure hunt. And though you don't know much about it, ultimately Eduardo is the one this book is about, as he explores his own identity and history. I feel like the author was trying to do something really poetic and subtle and sort of self-indulgent that maybe a lot of people could think they identify with. Maybe it went over my head or maybe I just didn't appreciate it, but ultimately, it was just okay.

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