The More We Read Together, Together, Together

The Children Act, by Ian McEwan
The Children Act, by Ian McEwan

Reading: It’s the quintessential “hobby” to add a little pizazz to your bio. Somewhere along the line, it became de rigueur for companies (particularly of the hip start-up variety) to have their employees include whimsical and totally-unrelated-to-their-job tidbits in their bios in an effort, I suppose, to humanize and personalize the faces behind a (hopefully) profit-making enterprise. This is a completely unscientific and totally anecdotal conclusion, but I believe this to be the most common line in a professional bio: “Outside of work, Employee X can be found with a book in hand, enjoying [insert craft beer or designer coffee].” Now, to be fair, the beverage can sometimes be replaced with sporting hobbies (kayaking/climbing/skiing, most likely) or the ever-generic “travel,” but you know what the constant will be the majority of the time? Reading. “You like to read? Hey, I like to read too! I just knew I wanted to do business with this company!”

We're all a bunch of bookworms!
We’re all a bunch of bookworms!

So, we’re a society of “readers,” and contemporary culture has glommed on to this. Take a look at the success of Oprah’s Book Club, the brouhaha that Amazon caused when Kindle was first introduced, and the $15.05 billion in book sales in America in 2013. Notice, too, the number of book clubs in your community or circle of friends. If you’re a woman of any age with the luxury of just a tiny bit of post-workday leisure time, and you haven’t frequented at least one book club meeting, you may be an anomaly. (Why is the converse such an anomaly? I met some neighbors down the road recently and was pleasantly surprised that the husband was a part of a men’s book club.) I love book clubs and am ever grateful that my next-door neighbor invited me to join hers, as it is comprised of a bunch of smart women who choose thoughtful books as well as “supplemental” materials, such as interesting documentaries that we can find on Netflix. It is nothing like this:

But with a culture of book clubs, internet-based publishing, and the domination of large bookstore chains that put what they want us to read front and center, are we choosing what we’re reading based on the experience of reading something “together”? This notion of communal reading can be a great one; Dublin, for instance, hosts a “One City, One Book” initiative every year. But in the years that I’ve been a “reader,” I’ve learned that there are some books that are simply better-designed for group discussion than others, and that sometimes those selections fall flat when read with the intent of individual contemplation and enjoyment.

The Children Act, Ian McEwan’s latest (as well as—surprise!—my book club’s selection for next week), is the perfect book club book. Full of the type of moral and ethical dilemmas that require some mental and emotional gymnastics to unravel, McEwan’s thirteenth novel nonetheless provides an overly tidy look into the institutions of religion and marriage. High Court Judge Fiona Maye must simultaneously balance the potential implosion of her marriage as well as a People magazine-esque case wherein a just-underage Jehovah’s Witness refuses a blood transfusion to treat his leukemia on religious grounds as well as due to the implied pressure from his parents. McEwan deftly weaves these issues together with two rock-solid themes. Here, in lieu of a back-of-the-book discussion guide, are two points to consider at your book club meeting:

First, the concept of “need” arises as soon as the novel opens and Fiona’s husband Jack declares his intent to start an affair with a much-younger colleague: “I need [an affair]. I’m fifty-nine. This is my last shot.” McEwan further describes the man’s “unmet sexual needs.” And then, of course, the title of the book references a piece of 1989 legislation in the UK by the same name, and McEwan takes care to outline the many “needs” of a child: “On the whole, [Fiona] believed in the provisions of family law. In her optimistic moments, she took it as a significant marker in civilisation’s progress, to fix in the statutes the child’s needs above its parents.” Before she hears leukemia patient Adam Henry’s case, she presides over the case of divorced Jewish parents—the father more observant and conservative than the mother—and hears how the man “accused his wife of being unable to separate her own needs from the children’s. What she said they needed was whatever she wanted for herself.” And of course we have Adam, the almost-adult who needs a blood transfusion if he wants to live. The book is ripe for discussion about the idea of “necessity” and where the line falls on the “want versus need” continuum—and whether or not legislation can touch what one determines to be a “need.”

Second, the notion of motherhood colors the novel. McEwan delineates Fiona’s thought process in predictable form. “Yes, her childlessness was a fugue in itself, a flight – this was the habitual theme she was trying now to resist – a flight from her proper destiny. Her failure to become a woman, as her mother understood the term.” Is it any wonder that Fiona, therefore, is drawn to Adam’s case? The author seemingly takes a stereotypical notion and inserts it into interactions with the patient, while Fiona probes his relationship with his own parents. To remind readers that Fiona is not a mother but enjoys the younger generation, nieces and nephews of Jack and Fiona make random appearances throughout the book.

Between the discussion of needs and motherhood (and, if your book club would like to take it to the next level, how those two themes intersect), your book club meeting can be a fruitful one. But if you’re looking for some extra guidance, McEwan gives Adam this idea and therefore the perfect trifecta for book club discussion: “And if God, poetry and science all said the same thing, it had to be true, didn’t [Fiona] think?”

All this is not to say that The Children Act is trite. Rather, it touches upon the types of ideas that are appropriate for communal discussion—perhaps best deliberated over an aforementioned pint of craft beer or cup of designer coffee. It’s the sort of book that can bring out the best in readers when we blur the lines of personal and professional by sharing not only our life experiences but the details and facts about how we believe our world to work.

Yet that begs a tree-and-forest question: If a book is absolutely spectacular, but isn’t read with the intent to discuss with others, has it earned acclaim in our “reading” culture?

If a tree falls in the forest...
If a tree falls in the forest…

The ABCs of Changing the Topic

The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, by Jonas Jonasson
The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, by Jonas Jonasson

About two years ago, when the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) started making waves in America, there was one thing that scared the living daylights out of scores of folks: Socialism. And you know what was even scarier? A place that seemed to encapsulate everything that was wrong with the ACA: Sweden. It sent shivers up people’s spines and became a rallying cry for everything that was going to hell in a handbasket in the United States. #eeeeekpleasenotsweden had the potential to be the hashtag heard around the world. “Sweden” became a synonym for “Socialism” (never mind that, strictly speaking, Sweden is not a Socialist country) and some people’s obsession with the country nearly overshadowed the fact that some people just wanted to talk more about healthcare on a broader level without going into policy or making assertions about what works or what doesn’t.

Let’s call it the Art of Making Something Seem Like It’s About Something Else, or Missing the Point Entirely. In other words, “I’m not talking about A nor B (even though everyone else is discussing A and B)—I want to discuss something entirely different: C.”

Ya sure, ya betcha?

This all looks very sinister and dour...
Mamma Mia! This all looks very sinister and dour…

There seems to be something about Sweden because this C-level discussion is something that Swedish author Jonas Jonasson uses to perfection in his second book, The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden. Billed as the “uproariously funny” follow-up to the author’s debut, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window, this book does, in fact, read much like a comedy. Rarely does a book coax guffaws from me, but this one did. But I wonder if I sat down with Jonasson and said, “Hey, thanks for making me laugh!” if he would actually respond with “That wasn’t exactly my intent.”

Paging Rowan Atkinson…this book was made for you.

The “A topic” is that the book is a comical global romp in which Mr. Bean would feel right at home. On the surface, a man who gets bitten in half by a hippopotamus, an “illiterate” who has more brains than her bosses, and a boy who shares the same name as his twin brother find themselves in farcical situations. But taken with the facts and back stories behind them—the eaten man is a English missionary, the “illiterate” is a young girl from the slums of Soweto, and the twin has literally been hidden from the world and given his brother’s name as a means to do so—the reader realizes that there is a sick kind of humor in the absurdity of tragic circumstances.

Nombeko, born in Soweto in 1961, really is an “illiterate,” but it turns out that the joke is on everyone else because her brains surpass everyone she encounters. A latrine cleaner who volunteers herself for the vacant manager job, Nombeko is met with this response: “For God’s sake, I can’t very well have a twelve-year-old latrine manager, can I?” When she replies that she is, in fact, fourteen, her boss continues, “Have you started using drugs yet?…Are you pregnant?…Then I suppose you’ve got the job, if you can stay sober.” The quick-fire exchange between the two is so ridiculously satirical that when it dawns on the reader that it actually isn’t, a mixture of sadness over injustice and hope for the underdog arises.

Meanwhile, as Nombeko learns how to read and subsequently teaches herself higher-level math in addition to world history and current events (she figures she should have a sound idea as to why she lives in a shack), a set of twins is born to a Ingmar, a Swedish postal worker who has an unhealthy obsession with the Swedish monarchy, and his wife Henrietta. Ingmar’s desire for a child begins and ends with the notion that either he or his offspring will eradicate the monarchy. So when two children are unexpectedly born, he thanks his lucky stars that the midwife doesn’t get to their home in time and names the children Holger One and Holger Two and pretends to the world that the two boys are one in the same by allowing only one out at a time.

So, “A: Humor”—check.

But is The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden about “B: Geopolitical Commentary”? Yes, it’s about that too. In between 419 pages, Nombeko and Holger Two meet in Sweden all because of an atomic bomb. Jimmy Carter makes an appearance and two Chinese sisters are shipped to Sweden in a crate (along with a bomb). Outlandish? Yes. This is not an easy book to summarize. But in a way, a plot summary is secondary, for I think what Jonasson is partly trying to do here is take a look at what’s going on in our world from a faraway vantage point. How does a girl from Soweto end up in Sweden and alert the POTUS to nuclear weapons? Jonasson uses a knowledge of how our global systems work to create a plot that, in some strange realm, could maybe happen.

The late Nelson Mandela and former President Jimmy Carter both make appearances in Jonasson's book
The late Nelson Mandela and former President Jimmy Carter both make appearances in Jonasson’s book

But despite the absurd laughs and veiled statements about the state of our world, the book is poignant and bittersweet, and in my opinion, is really about “C: Humans’ Need to Be Known.” When Holger Two and Nombeko discover a fondness for each other, she realizes that “…in some ways, she existed just as little as he did. Naturally, a person who doesn’t exist does best with someone who also doesn’t exist.” Readers can rave about the author’s clever use of humor or rant about the state of our world reflected in Jonasson’s words, but I’d like to think that the book ultimately sheds light on the universal desire to connect with someone who really “sees” us.

If Jonasson’s ability to use two different methods (the A and the B) to illuminate a greater idea allows us to discuss something more than what’s presented to us, then perhaps we could, in fact, take a cue from Sweden, or at least one of its writers.

On being seen: A Swedish dala horse given to me by my mother-in-law after she heard me mention that they remind me of my grandparents.
On being seen: A Swedish dala horse given to me by my mother-in-law after she heard me mention that they remind me of my grandparents.