Readers, start your discussion!

The 49 writers book club is officially in session. Anyone can chime in, anytime this weekend, with thoughts, questions, and comments related to this quarter’s selection, Seth Kantner’s Ordinary Wolves. Character you loved? Hated? Passages or scenes you found especially moving? Head-scratchers? Reasons you’d recommend it to others, or not?

Don’t feel limited by my questions – they’re just a starting point. Take off and run with it. I’ll pop in every now and then, in between watching the ceremonial start of the Iditarod and entertaining some out of town guests. But no need to wait on me. This is your book group.

A few how-to’s on leaving comments: If you have a Google account, sign in. No account? No worries. Proceed by clicking the Comment button at the end of the post (as comments are added, a number will appear in front of it). Type your comment in the comment box. I highlight and right-click to copy as soon as I’m done. That way, if my comment mysteriously vanishes as it occasionally does (don’t you love technology?), I can go back to the comment box and with a right click, paste it back in. If you’re not signed in, you’ll have to type the captcha (the funny letters) and choose an identity. Name/URL is a good choice – you can pick a name and skip the optional URL box. Then publish your comment and make sure you see the message at the top saying your comment has been saved before you navigate away from the page.

Easy enough. We’re looking forward to hearing from you. And did I mention that if you comment your name gets tossed in the drawing for the free $50 gift certificate from Bear Tooth. Even if you don’t live in Anchorage, it’s worth a shot – great barter material.

23 thoughts on “Readers, start your discussion!”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Where do I begin? This book was in my TBR pile FOREVER — and the more I heard about it, the more worried I was about reading it. I didn’t want to be the dissenting voice. I figured people were allured by the subject — Alaska — and the easy romanticism of life in the Bush. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

    This is an astonishing book, not at all romantic or easy. I liked the subject, sure. (Bush life told by outsider “Cutuk,” who — in the book’s essential twist, is a white boy living a more Eskimo lifestyle than native villagers nearby). But what I loved was the writing. Kantner has a way of nailing so many descriptions, feelings, moments so accurately and precisely that he had me hooked — I was won over completely — drawn into his world and ready to follow him anywhere.

    As for characterizations — it would have been esay to make Cutuk whiny, more angry/resentful or one-sided. But there is tenderness for father, siblings, and friends in the Native village; there is a generosity of spirit, right alongside passages about domestic abuse, drug abuse, outright ignorance. There are also many lightly humorous phrases and passages.

    I’m frankly surprised that the negative depictions of village life didn’t attract more outrage; would be curious to hear if it did. In my mind, Kantner doesn’t spare anyone — I enjoyed his teasing of “native-worshipping” whites and eccentrics of all ethnic backgrounds. But even while he is painting with a very dark brush, Kantner manages to evoke beauty at every turn. And he raises lots of great questions about how we choose to live.

    Can’t wait to hear from others, after I get back from watching the tail-end of the Iditarod start.

  2. What do you think of the wolf scenes and metaphor? Some readers find them too harsh and graphic – a deal breaker for the rest of the novel.

  3. I got into the wolf scenes though they might have taken me away from the core story, maybe because as a kid growing up in Alaskan bush in many ways like Seth, I pretended to be a wolf, collected their body parts as amulets, and studied everything I could about them from biologists and hunters, and Seth’s wolves rang (howled) so true. Maybe the wolf parts were the core story – who knows?

  4. I did think that in many ways the wolf interludes were the core story, or a mirror of it; they were victims and yet survivors. And while they were tormented by outside forces, there were harsh aspects of their own “society.” Much to think about.

  5. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Well this is a pleasurable surprise — I didn't expect the wolf interchapters to come up. For me, they didn't add much, actually. I thought Kantner had already conveyed the wilderness, survivor and outsider metaphors, throughout the rest of the book. They were short, so they didn't significantly detract, but take them away and for me, the book is still the same. I'm very surprised to imagine that they bothered any readers. There was hunting, death, violence etc throughout the book — and the human characters fared no better than the animals!

    Lesley, any more you care to add about parallels between you and Kanter re: upbringing/ feeling of belonging or not belonging/ walking between two cultures?

    Also re: how most of us are really mutts, and walk between worlds: I think it's fitting we at 49 writers sent this book to Obama (way back when, last fall) because his memoir is also about the struggle to fit in, define himself, & choose between cultures.

    Anyone else: did your sympathy re: the igloo/camp lifestyle change throughout the book? I.e. did you feel differently about how Abe was raising his kids at the beginning vs. the end? Any other changes in perception about people and lifestyles?

  6. I was very impressed by the book.

    I thought he captured life in the Northwest Arctic perfectly. I lived in the region for quite a few years and I still have a love-hate relationship with it. It was beautiful, dysfunctional, spiritual, painful, exhilirating and humbling. I think Kantner captured much of that in Ordinary Wolves.

    It’s been about a year since I read the book, but what struck me is how beautifully Kantner developed Cutuk’s charachter and was able to move him into a relatively well-adjusted adult man who, despite living life as an outcast, was able to go home and find a place of comfort there. I didn’t expect that.

    I heard that Kantner had intended Cutuk’s sister to die from the snowmachine accident, but that an editor talked him out of it. I was very relieved and grateful to that editor, even though I know her death would have captured another reality of village life. There are too many senseless deaths from reckless behaviors such as Cutuk’s that day.

    The book has a surprising grace to it, despite the harshness of the physical environment and the social issues he takes on.

    Regarding the wolf chapters: Although I found them a bit distracting, I liked their inclusion because that kind of spiritual communion between man and nature is definitely also a part of life in the region. But I also found those chapters awkward. I’m not sure whether it’s because Kantner doesn’t feel comfortable with the subject so he was unable to do it justice, or if there is another reason he wasn’t able to integrate it better into the rest of the story.

  7. After dinner recently, two friends and I wandered through Title Wave. Somehow Ordinary Wolves came up and my friends couldn’t believe I hadn’t read it. There were none on the shelf, so someone working there found us one in the back. Rose bought it and gave it to me

    I was born in Anchorage, but lived and worked for several years in a village that maybe had 200 residents. I recognized the world Kantner was writing about.

    And I agree with Andromeda, the writing is amazing. Not at all self conscious, just vivid and above all true. Again and again I waited for the tension, the realness, to slip, but it didn’t. Somehow Kantner maintains that steadiness throughout the book.

    And more than that, he described a wildness we sometimes forget is, God willing, still out there. More than once I put the book down and just stared out my windows, wondering what dramas might be happening out there that I couldn’t see.

    To me, the wolf chapters were a gift. My friends told me about them that first night and how much they loved them. They were right, those interludes were astonishing. Such a break in the narrative of Cutuk, and yet seeming to always be there, in the background of all the human stories.

    To me, the wolves are the core of the book. Present, whether you’re reading about them or not.

  8. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Favorite passages, anyone?

    I loved the first pages, in which we so quickly come to understand that Cutuk is embarrassed to be white; his reverence for Enuk and dislike of himself (his nose, pale skin etc) is touching and universal. Really efficient and authentic storytelling.

    I laughed out loud at the Anchorage sections — it read like sci-fi, like an alien landing on another planet, as Cutuk makes his way through the airport (glass cases of stuffed animals) down highways (painted lines in the road, people ignoring him) and into a park where he sets a snare for "little lynxes" (housecats).

    More light humor: Cutuk skipping two grades not simply because he is advanced, but because his homeschool curriculum was stolen and put down the outhouse hole by Woodrow Washington.

    There are many great land & nature descriptions, of course. But where some writers become enchanted with their own lyricism, Kantner flattens, simplifies, uses contrast. He'll dwell on mouse turds, or have a person pissing outside, then stuffing their private parts into their pants — an effective balance for lovely descriptions.

    And here is an example of exemplary terseness, p. 9: "Once we had a mom. She wasn't coming back." How did Kantner attend writing programs and yet manage to avoid overcomplicating his writing?

    I guess more than all the good parts is the overall sum of the parts. I felt myself put off by the wilderness (as described) and village at first, then later attracted back to it — a wonderful circling effect — just as I was ambivalent about city life through Cutuk's eyes. At the end of the book, I wanted to see and experience more of Alaska, not less (thank goodness).

    Thanks for weighing in, Susan (hello there!) and Anonymous. To the latter, I agree you with about Iris. Glad she survived; I needed the positive outcomes for Jerry, Iris, and Abe, as a balance to darkness elsewhere in the story.

  9. “Ordinary Wolves” was not an ordinary read for me. I also had it on my “to-be-read” stack for a long time and parts were painful to read and know, but still there was a sense of beauty and compassion in the harshness. Kantner’s writing is quietly stunning. I feel like he shares an indirect glimpse of true understanding, like a brief peripheral look at an object. The moment is short, but so clear and sometimes sharper than a straight on gaze. Even though I live in tame SE Alaska, I read Kantner and swell with joy that Alaska is my home.

  10. Andromeda, not enough space or reader patience to give all the parallels in exterior and interior dimensions. Like Kantner, I was assimilated and this was encouraged by my parents. Your favorite scenes are mine and precisely evoke my childhood. I tried to flatten my too-sharp nose, was initiated by ice ball, and the big city was (still is) like sci-fi, I felt “like an alien landing on another planet”. The dad – and elder Enuk and many other characters – could have stepped out of my memories and current family album. Differences: I was a girl, and didn’t grow up in an ini (but wanted to, and played house in the ruins of one until I realized it was disrespectful – and it was haunted).

  11. I go to bed, get up, have a leisurely breakfast with friends, and return to all these great thoughts. I like this book club format.

    I, too, am glad Iris survived. To me she seemed the moral compass of the story, until Cutuk found his way.

    I’m fascinated by the fact that Lesley could relate to the nose-smashing and wanting to fit in. OW is a book about wildness, but also it’s about coming of age, and how the two undulate, moving together tna apart. Becoming comfortable, literally, in your own skin, which is what we learn from wildness if I pay attention.

    Perhaps that’s why one of the passages I marked is when Cutuk wishes the dentist could feel the other 364 days the moose had lived, beyond the one on which the dentist took his live and carved it up. “How it felt to survive birth in the willows while brown bears waited; winter stands beside his mother agains the wolves; survive years alone in wading deep snows, the willows buried, the tundra howling wind; survive the spring crust that dropped moose to their ribs while it supported big hungry bears; and the summer insanity of mosquitoes driving him to his eyeballs into the water. All for the cool sweet fall and the chance of mating. While this dentist slept o flannel, mated whever he felt a faint itch, bought bags of food at Safeway, and lived with a 99 percent assurance that his children would never be eaten. And planned his next adventure to kill an animal.”

    And the people. Anyone who’s lived in a village recognizes the truth of Takunak, right down to the Jafco catalog. And Crotch Spit. I wonder if Kantner had to fight with editors to keep that name. I wonder how all this seems to someone who has never spent time in a village. Does the truth of these people ring true, or does it seem too outrageous? I’m not advocating that Kantner should have developed them differently, but I’d loved to hear what others think.

    Jerry and Abe – did things end happily for them? What about the way Abe destroyed his paintings? As a father, in retrospect? And Jerry – did he ditch a part of who he was, cast it aside so he could go on? Or was it never part of him to begin with?

  12. This is actually from Amanda, not Tony. I can’t remember my google/blogger password.

    When I reviewed this book for the Anchorage Press, I had to do a ton of research about Alaska writing, and regionalism before I could declare him (as if what I say matters…) Alaska’s best (and perhaps first?) regional writer. I hope it’s not viewed as presumptuous to clog up this space, but I think what I wrote then might spur some conversation. Here’s some excerpts from the review:
    “Regionalism, to put it simply, is not just literature about a place, but literature of a place, arising organically out of it. It’s not so much about capturing a place, but capturing the spirit of a place, the way it forms identity and culture. It is about the way people are when they live among glaciers and mountains and bears, not about those things in and of themselves, or one writer’s awed reaction to them. It’s also the antithesis of much of the writing that comes out of Alaska: using the land as a first-person “experience,” a kind of literary resource extraction.
    Regionalism at its best introduces the world in all of its idiosyncrasies, glory and dysfunction, in the way that William Faulkner introduced the South and Mark Twain the Midwest. Regionalism is on the wane, due to a country that has become increasingly homogeneous. But the possibilities for a powerful, regional literature are myriad in Alaska, and largely untapped. Yet there is no place that really needs it, no state that needs a demystified introduction more so than Alaska.
    Seth Kantner’s Ordinary Wolves… is one of the most important, most beautifully realized writings ever to come out of this state. It captures the spirit of this place and is proof that regionalism is not dead, at least not in Alaska, and that we might have finally matured enough to spawn writers who can claim it…
    The best regional fiction, according to Mary Austin, who wrote about it in the 1930s, ‘Comes with time, time to live into the land and absorb it.’ Another critic added that it also takes ‘coming to terms’ with the land. For Alaskans to come to terms with the land, to accept it, seems to require something more than a celebration of it, as nonfiction writers like myself are apt to do. It also precludes continually waxing philosophic over what it means to be an Alaskan.
    Cutuk waxes a lot about what it means to be him. But I can’t recall a place in the book where he speaks about what it means to be an Alaskan. He can’t. He’s from here. He is this place. At long last, he has come out of this country.”

  13. It’s been a while since I read the book so I can’t name specific passages, but I was touched throughout by the “truth”/honesty of the story. It resonated with me as few others books about Alaska — and no other novels about our state — have. I don’t read much fiction because I have a hard enough time keeping up with my passion for nonfiction (and especially what fits into the “nature writing” genre); but my time with this book was time very well spent. To me, apparently like many others, it became an “instant classic” — though Seth would emphasize that like many “overnight sensations” this novel was long in the making. I would also suggest it is top-notch nature writing; certainly it fits what I would call the “literature of place.” And great literature at that. Happy to know that Andromeda finally read the book and appreciated its quality too. I also liked both Amanda’s provocative review and comments in this discussion. Finally, I too highly recommend Shopping for Porcupine. Seth may not like the essay form, but he’s darn good at it.

  14. I just wanted to add that this book group is a great idea and format. Thanks for letting us outsiders chime in. The passage Deb quoted about the moose and the dentist is so evocative, even taken apart from the rest of the book. A pleasure to read it again.

  15. I second the recommendation of Shopping for Porcupine. After being wowed by OW, I feared disappointment – but no worries, Kantner delivered with style, grace, and all the beauty and truth of his novel. If anything, knowing more of Seth’s own story enhanced the book for me.

    The discussion of regional literature is fascinating. Marjorie Cole’s Correcting the Landscape, which I just re-read, is another good example of Alaskan writing maturing into genuine regional literature.

  16. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    I’m enjoying everyone’s comments. Here’s a question, just for fun and to play devil’s advocate: Are we suggesting (via any of the comments) that a person has to be from — or USUALLY is from — a place to write about it effectively? Is the opposite sometimes true — that a complete outsider sometimes can see what insiders can’t?

    I spent a few years reading about the Spanish Civil War and Spain in general from 1898 on, and in my admittedly limited American opinion, the trauma of the war seemed to cast a long and confusing shadow over what actually transpired. The best book I read about the war was George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia — almost as if it took a Brit, with some distance, to comprehend the absurdity of factional politics and self-destruction. Now, maybe it’s just that I’M an outsider, and I needed an outsider (love those sardonic Brits) to explain it to me, and if I were Spanish, I’d think differently. But in any case, it did leave me with the impression that are some situations that an outsider sees more clearly — or at least with a different kind of clarity — than an insider.

    Kantner is both an outsider and insider — big advantage. But I think he’s also just an exceptional writer and observer. I think he could write about the Amazon and still notice and describe things others might overlook.

  17. I love this question about writing from the inside and the outside. The answer, I think, is both. Kantner said this beautifully when we asked about his amazing perception and recounting of details: “We lived on that hill. I was born on that hill. Most of our food walked to that hill, most of our furs; the fish swam by the hill in the river down below. I’ve spent a lot of time on that one small piece of the planet—that and traveling intensely.”

    I suppose that’s because good writing is both the parts and the sum of the parts. Insiders should know details best, but they may be the least likely to actually notice them. The sum is sometimes harder to see from within, but if you travel outside of your situation, even it’s only a structured mental exercise, you get it.

  18. In the distant past, I saw a cartoon of a caricatured Indian–breechcloth, single feather in his headband, stylized Southwest scenery of mesas and cactus–tending a signal smoke fire and sending up a few puny puffs. He is looking off into the distance, where another fire is sending up perfectly placed little thunderheads of smoke. The caption is his thought: "Damn! Wish I'd said that!" I suspect many Alaska writers had that feeling when they read Kantner's powerful novel; I certainly did. And from under my other hat at McRoy & Blackburn–Damn! Wish I'd published that!

    Must one be of a place to write well of it? Well, Edgar Rice Burroughs never visited Africa, Bram Stoker didn't set foot in Transylvania, and I suspect residents of both places justly sneered at the inaccuracies the authors perpetrated. The rest of the world just bought and enjoyed the books. And what about Chabon's utterly fictional Sitka as the setting for his Yiddish policemen? Sitkans may still be grumbling, but thousands of other readers are happy. Yep, that problem has many sides.

  19. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Good one, mentioning Chabon. I enjoyed Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and was too caught up in the larger story (politics of exile, Jewish identity, noir detective stuff) to worry about whether he was going to confuse a spruce with a pine.

  20. I don't believe you have to be a "native" or inhabitant to write well or insightfully about a place; in fact "outsider" perspectives can offer great insights into a place. I would point to John McPhee's Coming into the Country and Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams as two examples that come immediately to mind as great books about northern landscapes & lifestyles. I also seem to be among the very few Alaskans who liked Joe McGinniss's Going to Extremes. Robert Marshall (Arctic Wilderness and Arctic Village) is another example. There's room — and a need — I think for both sorts of perspectives. Amanda may disagree, but I think Alaska's nonfiction writers, from Richard Nelson, Sherry Simpson and Nancy Lord to John Haines, Kim Heacox, Nick Jans, Eva Saulitis, Seth Kantner, Marybeth Holleman, Dan O'Neill and others (I'm probably forgetting some excellent writers who deserve mention) are building a marvelous literature of place for Alaska. Just as "outsiders" will pick up on things that locals miss or have "blind spots" about, people who reside in a place for a long time and pay great attention can and often do provide remarkable insights into that place and its people while capturing its essence.

  21. Carla and Amanda both have me thinking – is the North the new South? (And no, I don’t mean politically.) Is there a critical mass, a weightiness of craft or tomes or both, that creates a shift in prepositions that matter: instead of literature ABOUT, you get literature FROM. How many authors would think of writing a book set in the South if they hadn’t at least had some exposure to the culture? Maybe that’s because a certain body of respected literary work eventually came from there, so the South now owns itself, in literary terms.

    Alaska could be next. Two Old Women may have been the flagship, the book from within that garnered national attention, with Epicenter in the enviable position mentioned by Carla, that of publisher-finder. Then Ordinary Wolves. And probably others I’m forgetting right now. Critical mass. Bring it on.

  22. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Literature FROM vs. literature about. I like that.

    And yes Bill — ye who waited so patiently for me to read Ordinary Wolves — I agree we have some great nonfiction writers here as well.

  23. Bill:

    I’m still thinking about the fiction/nonfiction question, and if nonfiction can be truly “regional” (in the way the term is used in literary circles). My sense is that it can’t, unless it’s character driven, but I don’t have a good argument for that right now.. will continue to ponder… I do want to say that I totally agree that we’ve got some of the best nonfiction writers in the country up here.

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