Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Book Group: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

I’m the kind of geek who gets super excited when book group rolls around every six weeks or so. My book group is comprised of fun, smart people, each of whom shares a love of reading, books, and food. It really doesn’t get any better than that, does it?

We all met working in the same industry—publishing. we constitute former and current publisher’s reps, book buyers, and booksellers. Talk always turns to which books—aside from that evening’s title—we’re reading. Out of necessity or preference, most of us have multiple books going at once.

Usually, we each take turns hosting in our homes, but occasionally, for variety, we like to meet at restaurants. Food is a pretty important element of our gatherings. Everyone makes and serves great food. One of our members, Amy, resigned her position at the biggest U.S. publisher to launch an upscale catering company. Almost instantly successful and overbooked, she spoils us rotten with her wonderful food, even when it’s not her turn to host the group.

Last night the group met at Grand Café* to discuss Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Many of my friends have been pressing Alexie’s books on me for years, but this is the first one I have read. I loved it, and I’m kicking myself (with apologies to Caryl) for missing him at his recent Talking Volumes event.

This young adult novel chronicles the teenage journey of Arnold Spirit—known to his family and friends as Junior—as he leaves the Spokane Indian Reservation to attend school 22 miles away, in a white, farming community. Arnold, hydrocephalic at birth, is "poorer than dirt poor."
His life is beset by tragedies—many of them the result of alcoholism on the reservation—and the travails of being a teenager, attempting to navigate the world. Arnold's world happens to straddle two cultures.

A teacher, who sees great potential in Arnold, encourages him to attend school off the reservation. When he asks his parents’ permission to attend Rearden High, they say yes without missing a beat. While Arnold's parents support his decision, everyone else views him as a traitor (he's called an "apple," red on the outside, white on the inside). At Rearden, he befriends bookish Gordy, holds hands and attends a dance with Penelope, and plays on the basketball team.

Lest that sound too ideal, the story is peppered with the death and drinking that are a part of Arnold's reservation life. Arnold's self-imposed therapy is drawing cartoons (comic drawing supplied by the talented Ellen Forney), which is where he works out his anger, frustration, and sadness, but also where he can celebrate occasional triumphs.

I was really blown away by the power of Sherman Alexie's masterful writing. The San Francisco Chronicle agrees: "Alexie doesn't break character to educate uninitiated readers about the realities of American Indian life." So does the National Book foundation as this book has been nominated for an award in the young people's literature category.

This is a really moving story—at turns laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreaking—and, ultimately, uplifting because Arnold takes a chance and doesn't look back.

*A few words about the restaurant. Located in south Minneapolis, Grand Café resides in a beautiful, quiet space with whitewashed walls and hardwood floors, yet nothing coming out of the kitchen is understated. Wafer-thin cracker bread virtually melts in your mouth and serves as a pleasant alternative to the bread basket. I’ve eaten here a number of times (its previous carnation—Bakery on Grand—was a favorite for a while) and have always felt that the food had yet to reach its potential. Well, I think it’s getting very close. I’ll be thinking about the artichoke-romesco spread, as well as the butterscotch custard and the chocolate flourless cake with blackberries and crème anglaise, for some time to come.


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j said...

Thank you for your review of the Alexie book. I found it and the description of your book group very stimulating and enjoyable. Do you know of a book group that I might be able to join? I'm not in the "biz", but love books.
I'm 55, a musician, a traveler, a nature lover, a mother, and also a lover of food and cooking.