Saturday, March 27, 2010

Book Discussion: In The Garden of the North American Martyrs

I had the opportunity to participate in the Faith'n'Fiction Saturday round table hosted by My Friend Amy, below is part of the conversation that was had as we discussed the short story collection In The Garden Of The North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff.

Pete: ...there are quite a few of the shorts that left me feeling like I hadn't 'gone' anywhere. To my way of thinking, that's the point of a story, to take the reader with you somewhere.

Now, let me say also that I'm often wrong about such things. My first reaction to something like No Country for Old Men is similar. Sometimes endings have to work on me a bit before they sink in and satisfy (and sometimes dissatisfaction is the point, right?).

RC: I think it is interesting Pete mentioned No Country for Old Men, because I couldn't help but think about the story when I read "Hunters in the Snow." I could easily see the Coen brother's adapting this story into a feature film. Here you have this very dramatic hunting story that has some violent and shocking scenes and then instead of having a conventional denouement the story trickles into this very depressing resolution.

Stephen: It really would make a great Coen Brothers film. This line from Tub is pretty important, I think, and a good place to start a conversation about friendship, how it affects how we relate to each other and the consequences of our actions on those around us (see the ending of this story, for example), etc. "Frank, when you've got a friend it means you've always got someone on your side, no matter what. That's the way I feel about it, anyway."

Amy: I'm actually not terribly familiar with the Coen brothers (blasphemy?) I saw No Country for Old Men but don't remember being particularly thrilled by it. I found "Hunters in the Snow" frustrating for perhaps the same reason Kate didn't like these stories as a whole, I kept desperately wishing they'd get to the hospital!

On "Smokers"

Stephen: I think you make a good point, RC, that these stories require you to look deeper at what the author is saying when at first it seems nothing much is happening. Take "Smoking," for example. When I first read it, I didn't really like it. But the more I thought about it, I was struck with how well it explored the tensions of friendship, the temptation of only trying to make friends with those who we think will improve our social standing.

RC: I'm surprised Stephen's the only who mentioned "Smokers." The story of how the narrator forgoes friendship with someone who's on scholarship because he's trying to climb the social ladder, but then when this scholarship boy Eugene makes a key connection with a wealthy influential student he changes his tune, but the way Woolf tells this story it just makes you feel guilty for anytime you've ever tried to manipulate social situations for your own benefit. I thought it really was a fantastic story.

Simon: RC mentions 'Smokers' - I don't know if I'm the only British person here, but 'Smokers' felt the most American of Wolff's stories, to me. Perhaps it was all the slang the main character used (sorry, I don't have a copy of the book in front of me, or indeed RC's email which I've accidentally deleted) and the unusual set-up of sharing rooms. I suppose the themes were universal, as RC suggests, but it all felt at quite a distance from me - because it was so deeply embedded in American culture. A story like 'Maiden Voyage (is that right?)', though obviously also set in America, seemed to me to approach universal themes in a more accessible way for a Brit. I really enjoyed the ambiguity of that story, and the clash of the forthright and shy characters.

Kate: Simon – Interesting that you thought “Smokers” was very American and therefore distant for some audiences because that one stuck out in my mind for a different reason. With all the talk about prep school and getting expelled for smoking, it felt the most dated to me. Which made it feel distant for me too.

Read more from the other participant at these links:

The Quirky RedheadMy Friend AmyStrange CultureThe Fiddler's GunStuck-In-A-BookRebelling Against IndifferenceWordlily

The two primary stories referenced here can be found in their full form online


Amy said...

thanks again for your participation and for putting the link to stories up! Good thinking.

The Quirky Redhead said...

Glad to have participated in this discussion with you.

I guess this should be a warning to me. If No Country for Old Men is anything like Hunters in the Snow, I need to stay away from that movie. After I read Hunters in the Snow, I put the book down and didn't read any more for a month. There were other stories I liked better, just not that one.