The last 15 minutes of every Adult Reading Round Table Steering Committee meeting are reserved for reading recommendations offered by the committee members to each other. It’s a great way to learn what your colleagues are reading and what their reactions are to these books — and at the same time, pick up some ideas about books and authors you might want to try.
At our most recent meeting, I threw out the question, “Has anybody read A Visit from the Goon Squad yet?” and I might as well have hurled a bomb across the table. For sure, quite a few people in the room had read Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a group of unhappy characters who, over a period of years, are involved with each other as well as with sex, drugs, and rock and roll — and their responses to the book were fairly explosive.
I wondered what Egan was trying to accomplish with her tale, which is structured as a series of interconnected vignettes that in some ways could be viewed almost as a collection of short stories. I remarked on how this same structure was used in two other books I’d read recently, The Imperfectionists and Olive Kitteridge, and queried if anyone thought this technique was becoming a trend. Sensing my dissatisfaction with the book in terms of its being a fully developed novel, one member of the group defended it, saying she especially liked tales that featured unappealing characters — they didn’t put her off at all. But another person announced she’d read 50 pages of the book and couldn’t get into it, so she’d dropped it.
Someone else pointed out that all of Egan’s books are very different from each other — go back to her earlier works and you won’t get the same kind of story that she tells in Goon Squad. Another person said Egan writes well, but this book may appeal more to younger people who will be hooked by the bizarre scene she describes. Some members of our group had listened to the audio version of the book and offered a mixture of reviews — there was praise for the narrator, Roxana Ortega, as well as derision.
Finally, one member of the group spoke enthusiastically about the novel’s take on new technology, pointing out one chapter that almost totally focuses on the length of pauses in specific, well-known songs. She also liked the description of young people who text messages to each other while they are sitting in the same room — something she said she herself does a lot when she’s with her boyfriend.
So — what started out to be a brief comment had rapidly developed into a mini book discussion! As the meeting drew to a close, the committee members agreed that we’d hit on a title that could definitely be recommended to book discussion groups. Our own experience offered plenty of proof.