Reader's Advisory

Shipping News by Annie Proulx, Notes from the Lakeview Book Club

First A Little About Annie Proulx:

She was born August 22, 1935 in Connecticut, Educated in history in Vermont and currently lives in Wyoming.

She won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for The Shipping News. She won PEN/Faulkner Award for her first novel, Postcards. She is the first woman to win the PEN/Faulkner Award!

A free spirit, she has divorced three times and has raised alone her three sons and one daughter. She lived many years in small towns in Vermont.

Most of her writing has been nonfiction. She has written both short and long nonfiction. Her controversial and critically acclaimed novella Brokeback Mountain was both a book and a film.

What we thought:

Like The Return of the Native, The Shipping News has “Nature” as a major character. Annie Proulx did a great amount of research, living many times in Newfoundland for months at a time. This showed in the exquisite details of the beauty of that stark, lonely, bleak and transcendent world. From the sparkling water shining as with diamonds at a glowing rainbow sunset, to slate gray, storm-tossed seas hiding its victims! Her knowledge of the details of boats, shipping, fishing and everything related to the ocean community enriched every part of her work.

Our group seemed to universally like or LOVE this book. Some had read it more than once and still really liked it the second time. The only negative comments were about the writing style, which sometimes had sentence fragments or long, run-on sentences. Others disagreed, thinking that these style “rule-breakers” enhanced the rhythm and texture of the narrative. Others didn’t even notice the unconventional style.

A few of us commented that, at first, the main character, Quoyle, his abused early life, his willingness to take abuse, his lack of confidence, made him very unsympathetic. A few wondered about reading on, but kept at it, then, it all changed!

Petal's violent death, his kidnapped very young daughters' close encounter with possible sex slavery, the joint suicide of his parents, the hostile rejection of his brother, and job loss, suddenly thrust our kind, loving, sweet-natured anti-hero into chaos with no future......that is, until his Aunt showed up for the funeral.

His Aunt's down-to-earth sense of reality and belief in redemption from adversity, led them to Newfoundland to try a new life in the harsh sea town, in the ancestral home which was filled with specters of Quoyle ancestors’ century long secrets.

What transpired there was amazing. While still afflicted with hardship, gradually all the characters transformed! The readers could barely see the changes as they occurred. We loved how Annie Proulx pitted each character's weakness, including the peripheral characters, against what that character hated or feared most. Quoyle wrote The Shipping News and he was afraid of water and hated boats. One man, abused as a child, wrote of the local sex crimes. An old bachelor wrote about home decorating and cleaning tips.

We loved the chapter headings from The Ashley Book of Knots. They were symbolic clues of the developments in the coming chapter. We loved the names! Each was such a unique Dickensian invention. Humor was evident throughout, but subtle. We would find ourselves chuckling over made-up newspaper headlines, then immediately pulled back into the plot.

One theme was sexual identity and sexual deviance. Our homegrown newspaper contained all the stories of incest and other sexual abuse they could find. The Aunt, a major character, whose actions saved them all, kept her same-sex relationships secret.

In fact, we loved all the characters, except maybe Petal, the evil wife of Quoyle, who was dispatched by the author early in the book. Without Petal, Quoyle would never have grown. This proves that all adversity, at least adversity in novels, is there for a reason. :>

All the characters were quirky, strong in their own way, honorable, likeable, solid and interesting. We tried to see if we could think of any other novel where all the characters were so engaging and strangely weird and wonderful! One member of our group mentioned Kent Haruf's Plainsong. We all agreed.

We loved the intensity of the dangerous and suspenseful scenes, such as the cheap speedboat capsizing and Guy Quoyle almost drowning, and also, the wind-storm blowing away the ancestral home. We even really liked the historical description of the pirate, inbred family of Quoyles pulling their enormous house across the frozen bay with the angry jeering villagers pursuing! What an image!

We loved the drunken "good-bye" party that destroyed one newspaperman’s trailer home and sank his hand crafted solid boat, which prevented him (temporarily) from leaving. He was loved THAT much!

We noted the themes of the changing economy and even global warming! This book was written long before global warming was widely discussed. Proulx talked of government changes that directly put people out of work, then started companies to rescue those out of work. Those new companies then immediately failed due to poor planning. In contrast the locals found ways to continue in smaller ways, helping each other and still satisfying their deep love of the sea. This was how the newspaper was started!

Bunny, Quoyle’s older daughter, was understandably emotionally disturbed after her trials. She was also "sensitive" to the strangeness of the past and the current mysterious events around her, (the white dog, the dream of the house flying away) yet she slowly and quietly evolved into a normal child. We loved that.

Quoyle's and Wave's transformation from passive, ungainly people into leaders in the community and into confident lovers was so gratifying to the reader. They both clung to loving memories of their deceased spouses only to reveal to each other later that both spouses were cheaters and abusers!

We talked about the scene at the end of the book where Quoyle, after achieving success in his community and acquiring the true love of his life, examines himself in a mirror after a shower. Approaching middle age, his stomach protruding, a loaf of a man, tall, heavy, with tree trunk legs, facial features grouped in the center of his face, thick red hair all over, Quoyle realized he was probably at his prime and he liked what he saw! It was a redemptive moment making the reader smile and almost bringing out happy tears.

We liked the end, which affirmed that winds called by magic knots can blow evil away, the dead can rise again and most importantly, true love can come gradually without obsession and pain.

Annie Proulx deserved her prizes for The Shipping News!

Lakeview Book Club Update: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Wow, what a Meeting! I think I counted nine of us there to discuss A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.

Where to begin? Our discussion leader sent out an email asking us to think before the meeting about:

  • The body of literary ciriticism characteriizes this book as an enduring American classic. Why?
  • Prose style. Can you describe, find examples, and compare to other genres or writers?
  • Are there character traits of this author that are brought to the fore in the writing?

As usual there were reports on the life of our author. Several members took extensive notes of passages that were memorable in their ideas or in the writing style...either in a positive or negative way.

Most of the group read the entire book. A few didn't finish it and one did not read it and did not plan to read it after we had discussed it.

Regarding liking it or not, a few didn't like it at all. (I had some reports through email by people who thought they couldn't make the meeting). Some really liked it, and most had ambivalent feelings about it. Most throught that the writing was dated...and not in a good way. Some examples included the way women were represented. Henry's love seemed to be a fantasy of what a man of the time wanted in a woman. In fact the women seemed unrealistic. Drinking seemed to be a major character in the novel. We commented that there are other classics from other eras and even that era whose writing style reflects the times and is still outstanding.

We learned that Hemingway was 19 when he lived some of this story and not much older when he wrote about it. In the biography update, we reviewed his many loves and marriages and noted that his first love, who dated from this time in WWI, dumped him for someone else. What revenge! He gets to kill her off in this novel after making her the perfect love interest. The dialog between the lovers seemed insipid, yet we all liked his Italian male friend and the conversations he had with the priest. Several members agreed that they could not identity with Katherine, that her conversation sounded pedantic, inane, obsessive, childish and immature. On the contrary, others pointed out that we may be judging by our standards and not the standards of the time, or by the view of such young love. How many of us are still with the person we loved at 19. Did our converstations sound silly back then? Did we ever say as Henry or Katherine said, "I would like to BE you." One member thought Hemingway liked women who were never around. One thought he liked a "Stepford wife" type of woman. We commented that Hemingway never showed sex and we thought that was probably due to the expectations of writing in that era. One comment was that we felt like we were in an old black and white movie.

The comment about being in an old black and white movie, brought out our memories of seeing Gary Cooper in the movie made in the early 30s, which brought us to tears by the great love. How did they make such a compelling movie from a book that left many of us cold.

We liked philosophical discussions which showed wisdom and depth. We liked his exposure of the insanity of war. We liked his descriptions of the lands of Italy. One member pointed out that the first chapter sets the whole tone for the book, pointing out that at the start of the winter came the rain and only 7,000 died in the army. The writing was lyrical and precise. Hemingway made the foreign view of war come alive for the reader. There were 3,500 Americans in the Italian army in WWI. Most of them were fighter pilots. We also mentioned the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s where many American men seeking glory and wanting to fight for a cause joined up.

The quote, "Nobody can leave everything behind and follow Christ," raised an interesting conversation about other cultures where wealthy older men become beggars or in the past Northwest Indians had Potlatches where a family gave all thier possession away (a little digression).

Some really liked the time in Switzerland as idyllic. One noted that Henry never paid the man who gave him the boat to escape to Switzerland.

There were quotes people found from Hemingway in his written interviews and television interviews in the later years. He comments on the influcence of the career of a journalist on a writer, helping the novelist master the "simple declarative sentence." The interviewer, George Plimpton, talked about Hemingway's creating the "one true sentence," making it "newer and truer," "making it alive."

We agreed that Hemingway was probably clinically depressed. "You die. They killed you. They gave you syphilis." True...that is the way it was in his reality. He drowned his sorrows in alcohol and also drank as male bonding. He is full of disillusionment and subtle with cynicism.

Hemingway is a minimalist. At times he forgets about punctuation and has stream of consciousness paragraphs. At the end he emphasizes the intensity, by simple repetition of, "Don't let her die, don't let her die, don't let her die," on and on. We thought it was interesting that Hemingway appears not to be religious, but here he was calling out to a god in whom he has no belief.

There was a lot of rain throught this novel...emplasizing the depressing world of WWI in Italy.

So, is it still a classic? We disagreed. Some thought, "Yes," because of the lyrical language, the realistic descriptions of the insanity of war and the strong philosophical conversations. Some thought that the people who like this as still a classic, were not separating the novel from what whe know about Hemingway...as in..."View this novel alone on its own merits." Some commented on the beauty of some of his later works, which indeed seemed works of genious, while this novel left the members bewildered. One literary reviewer has said that this novel is an "enduring American Classic," "layered with emotion."

If this novel was layered with emotion, then Hemingway and his character Henry seemed to "have a lid" on emotions. We thought, however, that men are trained to keep a lid on emotions and even more in past generations. Hemingway was a "man's man." Men looked up to him and women wanted him. We wondered if he had post-traumatic stress disorder. He had obviously seen and lived through horrors. We talked about the execution of retreating officers, who were following their orders to retreat, while the civil police, thought any officer retreating was a deserter. Henry narrowly escaped. Those were gripping scenes.

We talked more of writers who influenced him, quite a stellar group, members of The Lost Generation: Gerturde STein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and Sherwood Anderson.

There was not a strong consensus about this novel. Many like parts of it. Some thought it was still a classic. others thought it was too dated to merit recommending as a great classic...or at all.

As you can see, the converstion wandered, but was very enthusiastic and full of interesting observations. I would think this is a good book to recomment to someone investigating the writing style of Hemingway during his career. It was a memorable first book.

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As an addendum to this update: After I emailed this to our group, a member who has not been able to attend lately, emailed that after receiving this report on our meeting, he wanted to let us know how much he disagreed with our less than enthusiastic comments. He thought this was an outstanding book on WWI and the senselessness of war. He comparted it to other foreign language classics on the war, which also had a stream of consciousness style. He thought our negative comments about the love interest and its ups and downs were less than important compared to the other messges of the novel. He even stated that Hemingway was a very important writer, unlike John Steinbeck. (As a Steinbeck fan, I thought those were fighting words.) :>

Happy Reading!

Mary Farrell

Branch Manager, Lakeview Branch Library