Friday, September 14, 2012

Three Weeks in December - Book Discussion Season Opener!

Yesterday I had the opportunity to perform one of my favorite "duties" as a librarian - opening our book discussion season. With fourteen attendees I believe we set a record for September and I'm sure that it was the choice of the outstanding novel Three Weeks in December which I shared with you here last year. This novel by Audrey Schulman impressed me even more through its second reading and my group was unanimous in its praise for the simplicity and beauty of the writing as well as for the in-depth character studies of the two main protagonists.

An anomaly in backwoods Maine in 1899, Jeremy is an engineer, struggling with his sexual identity and the extreme loneliness that comes from an inability to be one's true self. An assignment to Kenya to oversee the Indian laborers who are building the railroad through the savanna to Lake Victoria, becomes the catalyst for Jeremy to examine his desires and frustrations. He not only falls in love with Africa but also with his African hunter/guide, Otombe. Author Schulman writes of unrequited love and desire so poignantly that it causes one's heart to constrict.

One hundred years later, for the same three week period, we join a bi-racial woman, a scientist from Maine, who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, a form of Autism which is manifested by asocial behavior, an inability to interact with others gracefully because of an aversion to physical touch, eye contact, colors, sounds, distractions of any kind. Max Tombay has a huge advantage though, a mother whose love and gumption have prepared her for a world in which she'll always be a tough fit.

Sent to Africa by a pharmaceutical company to locate a vine being ingested by the Rwandan silverbacks, Max feels more at home than anywhere else she's ever been. In love, like Jeremy, with Africa and with the gorillas, Max discovers that what may be a disability in Maine is an asset in the jungle. Like Max, the gorillas eschew eye contact and physical touch as they forage for food, thus accepting her quiet presence among them.

Themes for discussion abound as Schulman deftly, as I said in my review for LJ last year, teaches without preaching. We talked of colonization and how it can harm as much as help. Racism was a huge issue in the book as the Indian railroad workers were considered expendable, not given drugs for the malaria that killed 20 or 30 a day.
We spoke of big-pharma and its approach to research that may result in new drugs to save the world while destroying the habitat where they are found. We addressed the horror of the drug addled child soldiers who, in the novel, threaten the security of the gorilla research facility. Are these kids, so easily brainwashed, handed a rifle, and rewarded for killing, the reason only the young are asked to go to war?

Other reviewers and I, too, saw contrasts between this book and Ann Patchet's State of Wonder which we discussed here at the library last year. I personally think that Schulman's novel is by far the more sophisticated of the two but, as a lesser known novelist, she will not get the publicity and respect that she's due. So, my erudite readers, go out and grab a copy. You'll be glad you did!


Lisa May said...

You certainly make me want to go out & grab a copy. Today is library day, so I'll see if I can find it.

Sallyb said...

Hi Lisa, I went to your blog and saw the expression "do you find it easy to get drunk on words." I knew we were kindred spirits.
I love that you have a "library day." Thanks for reading!

Lisa May said...

Some weeks I have two library days :) We're lucky enough to have both a county & a city system, so I can usually find a book in one or the other, or through their ILL programs.

I'm really enjoying your posts.