Sunday, June 08, 2014

Book Club: Transatlantic

Dateline: book club, June, 2014.  After several months of wobbly meetings in which book discussion was low, the streak was broken with an excellent meeting around a book that garnered mixed reviews from our membership: Colum McCann's TransAtlantic

Before we get into the questions, let's first cover my own pervasive ignorance.  Colum McCann is not (as I initially thought) Cormac McCarthy, so this book is nothing like The Road.  Nor is he (as I think though), Colson Whitehead, so this book is nothing like Zone One. It also isn't, as kept accidentally telling people, Transamerica, which is an excellent and completely unrelated movie starring Felicity Huffman as a MTF transsexual woman on a road trip.  Totally unrelated to any of these things.  So my expectations were--well, all over the map, which turned out to be the wrong map.

No, this is a book about...well, I'm not sure what it was about.  I can tell you what happens--two pilots fly from Canada to Ireland at the dawn of human flight, before the Great War.  Frederick Douglass visits Ireland to lecture on slavery and raise money for the cause of abolition.  A modern politician brokers peace in Ireland.  An Irish maid makes her way to America and starts a new life.  An American woman becomes a reporter, and her daughter a photographer, and they report on that trans-Atlantic flight we mentioned before.  A young man is killed in the Troubles, and later his mother mourns him. 

These stories are tied together by characters who move through their lives--the reporter's mother was the maid, and her great grandson, long after her death, was the murdered young man.  The photographer daughter meets the modern politician; the maid met Douglass.  You can't say they're not "tied together."

And there are other ties--you kind of want them to be themes, but they're really motifs.  You want the book to be about Ireland, about the character of the country, its politics, its division, it struggles, but really, it's just there.  There's a lot of telling, and there's even a decent amount of showing when it comes to the streets and the buildings and the bushes and...just, stuff.  But I can't say I felt shown anything about the people, where the anger comes from, why the fight is going on.  The strokes were all too broad.

Almost all of the women in this book had children out of wedlock--not all, but many.  Given the time periods covered, this wasn't a coincidence.  Motherhood?  A woman dividing her life between her personal goals and her parenting?  Losing a child?  I mean, all of these happen repeatedly, but I'm not sure if anything is being said about them here.

So--either this book succeeds only on the level of observing its immediately environs with pretty, pointed language, or I don't get it.  On to the questions!

1) Two of the stories focus on characters who are/were real people.  One of them, George Mitchell, is still alive; the other, Frederick Douglass, is a well known historical figure.  What do you think about how their stories were addressed?  Did you find them convincing?  Presumptuous? Authoritative?  Bonus points if you know enough about Douglass or Mitchell to see places that are particularly accurate or questionable.

2) As I said, there are plenty of motifs in the book; parenthood, the loss of a child, race, the Ireland-American connection.  But what do you think the theme of the book was?  What points was it trying to make?  Why did the author choose to tell these stories?  How was his point (whatever that was) strengthened by the connections between the characters?

3) What was up with that letter?  Did that seem overblown to you?  I mean, a letter from a random person TO a famous person can be very meaningful for the writer, but I don't think the addressee's importance necessarily makes the letter historical, do you?  Or was there something else there that I missed?

4) Many of the central characters in this book were women, and they were all directly descended from each other.  I'm kind of impressed to see that from a male author (which seems pretty condescending of me, but there you are), but I'm not completely sure how I feel about how this was done.  All three of the main male characters are Big, Important Men who do Big, Important Things, while the women are mostly living their low-key lives.  How do you feel about the handling of female characters in this book?  Do you think the men being Historical Figures vs. the women being Just Folks is deliberate?  Significant?

It's possible that if I'd understood the book better, I'd have more questions for you.  So I guess question 5 would be: what questions would you ask about this book?  Good questions are often better than answers in situations like this one.

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