Guterson: Modern Day Hemingway?

I just finished The Other, by David Guterson (author of Snow Falling on Cedars.) Is this the most underrated novel of the year, or did I just miss the reviews? I loved everything about this book: the social commentary; the pitch perfect narrator voice; the risks of the mysterious, yet believable, storyline; the literary, cultural and geographic references. This is truly a modern day classic.

the other

Let me back up. This is the story of two friends, John William Barry and Neil Countryman, who meet as competitors at a highschool track meet in the 70s and connect through a love of wilderness and outings exploring Washington state’s remote backcountry. According to the back of the book, this is a “coming-of-age novel that presents two powerfully different visions of what it means to live a good life and the compromises that come with fulfillment.”

As I was reading it, I kept thinking of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Strong male perspective. Female characters in the wings. Constant inner turmoil battling everyone else’s expectations. Hermetic brooding. The cave. Survival. Compromise.

Early on in the novel, it’s all about getting high and getting lost:

“We kept spinning our map around and rereading its contours, but so what? There was no way to make its symbols correspond to the world. Always this pattern – the three of us huddled over our map and deliberating on emptiness, then coming up empty. Was there something, somewhere, we could anchor to?”

The novel goes far beyond boyhood games in the woods. It’s exploration on a much deeper level – exploring ourselves, our families, the world around us.

While I’m certainly not a backcountry expert, I love the wild realm of the outdoors: the peace, beauty and connection it offers over a cushy, material life. As Neil says, “…there was a residue of this lonely and acute perception of the organized social world as a pathetic illusion…” This pull of contrasting environments and philosophies serves as the foundation for The Other – the storyline and setting are current and relevant, yet the questions that surface are timeless.

This is not a book for a casual reader, but I’ve already recommended it to a handful of people- surprisingly, all men -who I know will appreciate it.

(As I was writing this review, Simon & Garfunkel’s Homeward Bound came on the radio. Like pairing the right wine with your meal, this is perfect soundtrack for this book… )


Book Whisperer

I’m getting a kick out of a friend’s new nickname for me: the Book Whisperer. Not only do I love reading, but maybe even moreso, I love matching people with their perfect book. Since I haven’t been working at the bookshop lately, I’m getting my fix as a personal shopper for books.

Cesar Milan and his clan, from the NYT

Cesar Milan & his clan (credit: NYT)

Last Tuesday morning, when I sat down to check email, one really caught my attention. The subject line was “Help!” It was  my friend Julie asking if it was OK to borrow the next in the Twilight series or if that was too decadent. I had told her it was addictive, and while somewhat trashy, impossible to put down. (Confession: I read them all back to back this winter, unable to read anything else in my pile until I devoured those!) So of course I supported her habit and dropped off the final three in the series.

Whether I’m a book whisperer, or as Julie now likes to call me, a dealer providing the emergency stash (“if yo’ure not home, I’ll leave them on your back steps in a plastic bag…” ), my goal remains the same: finding readers their perfect book.


Anyone need recommendations?

Drop me a comment with some of your favorites, and I’ll recommend others to add to your list!

At the risk of sounding like a J.Crew or Pottery Barn catalogue, here are a few recent lists…

The Mona

  • The Spirit Catches You & You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman
  • Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem
  • Little Bee, Chris Cleave
  • Story of a Marriage, Andrew Sean Greer
  • Into the Beautiful North, Luis Urrea

The Julie

  • Loving Frank, Nancy Horan
  • Maynard & Jennica, Rudolph Delson
  • Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld
  • Twilight series, Stephenie Meyer

The Richard*

  • The River of Doubt, Candace Millard
  • Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson
  • Manhunt, James Swanson
  • Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson

*Some excellent reads that he’s recommended for me: Personal History, Katharine Graham; The Housekeeper & The Professor, Yoko Ogawa

Brilliant Fiction by Kate Walbert

Thanks to a recommendation from Roxanne Coady, owner of R.J. Julia and reader extraordinaire, I’ve just finished A Short History of Women, by Kate Walbert. What a smart, beautiful book! Like a velvety chocolate dessert that you just want to devour, but choose to savor, this is a novel best appreciated in slow bites.Short History of Women

It follows five generations of women, starting in late-19th century England, and meandering – amidst historical rewinds – to current day New York.  The wonder of this novel is Walbert’s ability to subtly weave a common thread – one of desires and anxieties, questions and  decisions – that bonds the women across shifting decades and unique voices.

But Walbert doesn’t succeed only in the storytelling; the beauty is in her perfectly chosen words, her scrumptious sentences:

“I take [the note] and step into the livery, sitting back against the broad, hard seat, resting, and as the driver pulls away from the crowds on the piers the notion that I have come so far alone settles like a black crow on my shoulder and squawks.”

…settles like a black crow on my shoulder and squawks.” Is there not a better description of the intrusion of gut-wrenching loneliness? I cannot stop thinking about this passage.

I wouldn’t call this a light read – there is just too much to absorb for it to be a throwaway beach book. Plus, it can be tricky tracking the different women and dates (but the Table of Contents and Lineage tree upfront do help the reader navigate that!)

This is a must-read for lovers of serious,  smart fiction, and one I can’t wait to pass along to my fabulous women friends!