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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Woodsburner Ignites Discussion

On May 16th at 1:00 PM at Barnes & Noble, we discussedWoodsburner: A Novel, by John Pipkin, who lives in Austin. This novel won the Fiction First Novel Prize in 2009 and the Texas Institute of Letters award, plus outstanding reviews!

Before his move to Walden Pond in the mid-1800s, Henry David Thoreau accidentally started a forest fire. This historical novel creates a story of the impact of the fire on 4 fictitious characters living nearby at the time. The stories of each of the characters are told via separate chapters on each character. The chapters are intertwined, so that after reading about one character for a while, the reader is brought to another character who is undergoing a different adventure simultaneously with the first and other characters. The characters slowly become more and more intertwined.

We did a lot of thinking about the relationships between the characters and the relationship between these relationships and the way the chapters were organized. Two members had done some reading of several chapters about one character and then chapters about another, rather than reading the chapters in the order the author presented them. This didn't seem to hurt the story. Frank had talked with the author, inviting him to our discussion. Pipkin couldn't join us, but he did tell Frank some interesting facts about writing the book. One was that he used a spreadsheet to keep track of all the characters and everything that happened to them. This explained how he was able to keep the characters mostly separate but have them become involved with each other as the story progressed. No one found any errors in the sequencing.

Sandy presented the book by giving us a detailed summary to remind us of the main events and important aspects of each character. She fielded comments and questions, which often turned into topical discussions. When a discussion seemed to be dying down, she would fan the flames of a new discussion by continuing her summary.

The growing population in cities such as Concord in the 1800s had already caused enough changes (damage) to the environment that concerns had been aroused. Dennis mentioned that before the grand settling of America, it was said that squirrels could go from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River without touching the ground. This resounded with me, as lately for some reason I have been imagining our world when it was filled with animals and especially birds.

Some other topics we covered included Oddmund's dead tooth and his other teeth, which were unusually healthy. This reminded Frank that John Pipkin had also mentioned that even with all the research that has been done, movies and art tend to ignore or just get wrong the fact that teeth tended to be bad and ugly before the advent of modern dentistry. It is rare or missing in the media to see a guy who gets the girl have missing or rotten-looking teeth! Pipkin expressed this information in the story by mentioning that Thoreau had been losing teeth and coveted Oddmund's healthy teeth.

Phyllis suggested that Eliot was barely connected with the other characters and might be an extra, but we decided that the cards that Eliot introduced to Emma's husband played an important role in the demise of Emma's and his relationship. It was also amusing how Eliot realized that staging a fire every night at the end of his play might have drawbacks: destruction, smoke, ash, heat, etc. Eliot abandoned his play, and the sensationalist who owned the playhouse got away without getting what he deserved. Maybe they talked about it over coffee...

Several of us admitted to missing the false identity that Cyrus Woburn, Emma's husband, was using. He told Oddmund about it during the turtle episode, when he was drunk. I vividly remember the turtle episode! I happened to be buying a Koi for my pond this past weekend, and there were some cute turtles for sale, and I had a horrible flash on that chapter. So I guess maybe the turtle killing was so vivid that some readers tended to miss the confession Cyrus made. Cyrus had enough evidence of flawed character against him for the reader to cheer Emma's leaving him, even without remembering about his other wife! This filling in of the blanks during discussion is a nice reminder of the additions that our discussions make to our reading experience.

There were many points, themes, and historical facts in this book! The characters had all kinds of issues! Apparently research uncovered that Thoreau didn't write about the fire. even in hiw own journal, for 6 years. The author made a case for Thoreau trying to blame the fire on everything and everyone in his life except himself, even stretching to think to himself that if he had liked New York City and stayed there, the fire would not have occurred. Caleb covered the religion themes - most that can be imagined. Sexual orientation, effects of childhood trauma, women's rights, materialism, environmental issues...we decided that there was "something for everyone" in Woodsburner!

Among those who read the book, approximately half enjoyed reading it. Among those who did not "like" the book, critiques included wordiness and excessive inclusion of historical facts that detoured away from the interesting story. Those who did like the book were impressed with the quality of the prose. No right answer, but Woodsburner is good material for discussion!

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