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Review: The Other by David Guterson

Last night I went to book group again and the evening went much better than our April meet.  Firstly, since I hadn’t chosen the book, I didn’t feel under any pressure for it to be a “good” choice.  Secondly, the choice of The Other was, some members of the group said quite cerebral, rather than a gripping thriller, which meant that I didn’t feel shy coming forth with loads of ideas.

Having said that some of us found it difficult to get through, our “chooser” for the evening, Michael, introduced the book by describing the way he had been gripped by the extensive detail with which the outdoor life in Washington State was recreated, and by the compelling warnings about the state of modern day America.

The Other is about two young men from different schools and walks of life, who meet at an athletics event.  One of them, John William Barry, is the privileged heir to a fortune and one, the narrator Neil Countryman, is from a blue collar background.  The two teens get up to teen type things, including hiking around in the mountains, learning to fend for themselves and experiencing outdoor brushes with disaster.  As they grow up, Neil goes through the mechanics of a conventional life, while John William retreats more and more into an outdoor life as a hermit, renouncing material wealth.  He does a bit of hunter-gathering, but in the bleak and unyielding landscape, it is the visits from Neil, and the provisions he brings, that keep John William alive.  Neil represents “hamburger world”,  as John William puts it, while John William is aspiring to a purer, unmaterialistic,  ecologically negligible form of living.

Someone said they were shadowed throughout reading it by the thought “It’s the same book!”, referring to the many thematic similarities between The Other and my choice of last month, The Sense of an Ending: male friendship between a brilliant character and a pedestrian one, coming of age, the lack of emotion.

We discussed many things about it and, similarly to Sense of Ending, this was sparked by the different possible readings of the book.  It was variously interpreted as a plea to ecological responsibility, a homage to the wilderness, a call to the reader to make a conscious choice about life, and a question of what is sanity when you think that the world itself is insane?

I found, regarding the question of John William’s sanity and ability to look after himself, that the book had certain similarities to Leaving Las Vegas.  When I watched it with my husband, I said, “Why doesn’t she do something to help him?”  And my husband said, “Because that’s not what he wants.  Because she cares for him, she lets him have what he wants.”

I didn’t understand that at the time, but I do now.

I also found it very thought provoking when someone said that they felt John William exhibited signs of arrested development due to the difficulties he had suffered in childhood.  They put his inability to empathise and his self-centredness down to his having missed out on vital parts of the childhood experience, leaving him unable to move on.  On the way home in the car, I talked about this with Luke, who I was dropping off.  We both felt that we had suffered from being “stuck” at various stages in childhood.  For me, this manifested itself in a constant need for approval, a need to find standards and measure myself up to them.  And selfishly, this came ahead of what other people close to me needed, as I was determined to make their needs fit in with mine.

Luke said he thought how lucky people were who had had an upbringing that made them feel secure.  Although we can never say that a particular upbringing is any guarantee of an outcome, I agreed wholeheartedly in that I would like to know how that feels, mostly out of curiosity, although from time to time I do feel rather envious of those people.  It’s just a bit harder when you have to work it out for yourself.

Talking about the drive home, I did think that if I had had to wait for the bus, and especially if it were winter, that would be rather a drab end to an evening.  So maybe I am not ready to give my car up if I move to town.  Also, the larger family house that I had been planning to view got bought!  It only went on the market in March, the rush for houses in Lewes is just crazy…

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12 Comments

  1. Sounds like a great discussion (and I’m glad the meeting went well for you). I’d love to be a fly-on-the-wall in your book group. I’m assuming it’s made up mostly of people your age? What would interest me is, how would a discussion of the same book, in my lively, discursive book-group, compare to your discussion?

    My group is mostly retired people in their 60’s, a few in their 70’s, and just two of us babies (who are only 50-something). I don’t think the issue of psychological development and the effects of childhood on the characters has ever come up. It’s simply fascinating, how our age, education, life experience and cultural milieu effect our reading and processing of a story, as well as the things we grapple with.

    I, too, would like to know what it’s like to feel secure. But I’ve come to believe “security” is mostly an illusion which can be shattered, unpredictably by so many forces. I know you know that I’m not pessimistic…

    I know more than a few psychologists who believe that those who have “secure” childhoods are generally not very well-equipped to deal with the inevitable stresses of adulthood.

    I’m going to look for this book–it’s definitely a theme I’m interested in (I often dream of escaping to the wilderness in an even more profound way than I already have done). Perhaps I’ll even recommend it to my book group.

    Thanks for this!

    P.S. Our next adventure after New Hampshire led us to search of a car-free life, which is only possible in an urban environment. It’s a huge pain in the neck. But I think public transit in Europe is much better than it is here.

    • I’m the baby of the group too (as often happens because of the way the timeline of my life turned out).  Mainly people either side of fifty, but still my contemporaries in terms of where we are with child rearing etc.  That’s so fascinating to learn of the different ways in which people even approach the question of discussing what’s in a book.  Similar to my blog, I like the way in book group that we use the issues presented as a springboard to discuss how we feel about them in real life, and that we all understand that the characters are not real people 🙂

      I think one of the worst things parents can do is overpraise their children – making them believe they are perfect and invincible, and then when they come out into the real world, leaving them unable to reconcile the world’s perception of them with their own, leading ironically again to insecurity.  I think one of the best things is to be able to give children a sense that they deserve to have the best, but also let them know that they have to define what the best is to themselves, and be the ones to reach for it.  Not that I have any ideas of the best way to do that – we can all have ideals but real life often falls short.

      Today I was driving around with my daughter and she suddenly said, “I think we should buy that house!” about the one that we went to see, and we both got quite excited about the things we could do in the town.  If we do move, it might be sensible for us to go car free most of the time but still retain one of emergencies.

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      • Things are getting exciting!!

        I highly recommend retaining a car for emergencies and the occasional times when it’s unreasonable or counterproductive, or unsafe to take public transit. We’re in the process of deciding which kind of car we want to get for that purpose.

        We fell into this almost by accident. We decided to sell our gas-guzzler SUV and get something more efficient, then found ourselves not really needing a vehicle, and decided to see how long we could go without one. We’re both rather competitive, and tend to rise to a challenge and never want to admit defeat.

        And yes, we usually fall short of our ideals. But having them causes us to achieve more/better than if we didn’t have them at all. Still, I haven’t found it easy to accept imperfection…

      • There’s a community car in Lewes, like a sort of car club that you pay into and book it out when you need it. I’d have to investigate if this is a long ter scheme rather than an experiment. If I had a car in town, I’d have to park it out of town, which is a bit crazy. I’d have to see how it works out, but I will take your advice on board.

      • We’re dealing with a community car thing… it works pretty well, as long as the community members all have an equal sense of community/responsibility.

  2. I have been meaning to read David Guterson for the longest time (you will have heard me say this before, no doubt!) so I was very intrigued to hear how your book group got on. I’m really glad you enjoyed it more. My husband is adamant that the first encounter with any new society is a weird experience, and that it just has to be got through. My book group is all women in their 30s and 40s – I joined knowing only one of them – and they are all scientists, which I find sort of odd and intriguing. For the most part the group splits into two halves when it comes to responses, and we can put the dividing line down at Fifty Shades – half of us think it’s an abomination, the other half were gagging to read it. It makes choosing books always a bit of a gamble!

    • Oooh, I would love to get together with women scientists and see what they made of books.  

      I think your husband has a good outlook – maybe I put myself under too much pressure to be a certain way (or not to be a certain way) when I meet new people, especially new people en masse!  It’s another interesting internal dynamic, making the transition from strangers to friends.  

      I did feel with this Guterson book as if I needed someone to teach me all about it and that I was missing a log.  Like when I was in sixth form and we were sent away to read To The Lighthouse.  We were a clever group and all ended up with As and Bs, but almost all of us were flummoxed and needed someone to practically map the book out to us.  You can be an intrepid reader and researcher, but sometimes you actually need to be taught all the things together in one place.

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  3. Wow, I am going through this right now…trying to develop a sense of security within myself and a strong core for the first time. Those questions about how childhood impact us into adulthood fascinate me. I agree with your comment above about over-praising children and giving them a false sense of security. I was recently at a school event and saw one of my son’s classmates simply fall apart about everything – for coming in last in a race, for getting his shirt muddied, etc. etc. I don’t know what is going on there.

    It sounds like an interesting book.

    • I find the strange thing is sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether a child has been praised too much or given too little attention, as the symptoms can be quite similar. I guess what those parental behaviours have in common is that they do not help the child develop realistic expectations of themselves and a realistic view of themselves as others might see them. Therefore they are always at odds with the world and insecure.

      Good luck with the strong core, if anyone can do it, you can.

  4. I don’t know why this did not pop up on my reader! I tracked you down. what a lovely post, Denise. Firstly, you make me want to read the book (as always), by adding depth and dimension (probably more than the author even thought to do,) And secondly, how you bring in your own experiences and talk on the blog about them

    I guess that is a blog. A biographical log. Blog. But so few of us tell so much. It’s so nice!

    One more thing, at the risk of being too lengthy: I think it was Carrie Fisher who said, that the most interesting women are daughters of “complicated” mothers! She was referring to Debbie Reynolds, her mom. I like to flatter myself with this one! 🙂

    • Ha ha!  What a great quote from Carrie Fisher.  It’s made me think of myself in a different way!

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