Book Group

My book group met this afternoon to discuss Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, and it turns out we did have some things to discuss, in spite of my suspicions that we’d all say we loved it and then not have anything further to add.  It turns out the other members of my book group didn’t all love it as much as I did.  Some felt that all the attention paid to animals was troubling given what was happening to the humans in the story, and others felt the narrative jumped around in awkward ways and wasn’t as developed in places as it could have been.  The conversation was interesting to me because while I liked the book a lot, what the others said did speak to some doubts that were flickering around in my mind as I read, particularly the point about structure and narration.  As we talked, I was able to think through more clearly what my responses really meant.

Ackerman is doing something complicated in the way she narrates the story.  She has a short explanation at the book’s beginning about how she uses her sources, but after that she disappears completely as a narrator until the very end.  So the book reads something like a novel with a distant third person narrator who only occasionally gives the reader a glimpse into what is happening in the mind of Antonina, the zookeeper’s wife.  Those glimpses come from Antonina’s journal, but it’s easy to forget as you’re reading along that Ackerman was working from sources, since she rarely discusses them in detail.  Some people in my group felt the book would have worked better if it were pushed further in the direction of a novel, with more about the inner lives of the characters.  And I was wondering if it might have worked better if Ackerman had put herself into the narrative more by discussing the sources and the research directly.

But as it is, I think the book captures an important quality.  Without the obvious guiding hand of a narrator, the kind of narrator who gives shape and meaning to the story, it feels jumbled and little chaotic, which is the right kind of feeling to capture, given the book’s subject matter.  Ackerman seems determined to let the story speak for itself and not to become too involved in telling the reader what to make of it.  There’s a lot of room to draw your own conclusions and respond in your own way.  Her largely exterior point of view with only little bits and pieces of interior feeling leaves room for you to imagine what the people were feeling on your own.  The narrator doesn’t fill in the blanks for you.  This strikes me as respectful of the reader, and it also leaves room for some mystery — because it is a kind of mystery, I think, how and why people did what they did when they were risking their lives to save others.

9 Comments

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9 responses to “Book Group

  1. This is what I like about book groups–getting an entirely different perspective on a book. It helps me think things through and refine my own ideas about a story or bring things into clearer focus. When I first heard about this book I didn’t actually realize it was NF and thought it was only a novel. It took me a while to figure out that she was writing about real people. I’m looking forward to reading this one! What’s your next book?

  2. I heard a fascinating interview with Ackerman on NPR when this book first came out and have been planning to read it ever since. I’m generally not wild about nonfiction authors getting into people’s inner lives unless they have journals of other hard evidence to go on, so it sounds like the direction she chose would suit me.

  3. Thank you for the book group update! I plan to read it this winter and possibly suggest it to my group in the spring.

  4. Glad book group went so well! Just when you think you’ve got everyone pegged and know how they will respond to a book, they go and surprise you :)

  5. Danielle — I’m glad you got a copy of the Ackerman book, and I hope you like it! Our next book is The Glass Castle by Jeanette Wall — another nonfiction one, and a book I’ve heard very good things about. I’m looking forward to it!

    Teresa — you’re right that getting into people’s minds in nonfiction is tricky and especially so when the story is as difficult as this one is. I think Ackerman made the right choice about how to approach it.

    JoAnn — I hope it goes well with your group if you do decide to read it together!

    Stefanie — you’re right! I shouldn’t assume I’ve gotten people and their reading habits figured out :)

  6. Loved Stefanie’s comment – I’d have said the same thing myself!

    I’m also interested though in the argument that the focus on the animals came at the expense of the human beings. I wondered whether the tale was supposed to be analogous in any way? Although I say this, speculating wildly, having not read the book myself.

  7. Seems like you have an awesome book group! I love it when people have a total different view of a book, because it pushes you to look in other directions than your usual comfort zone.

  8. verbivore

    I love looking at these kinds of narrative choices, it is fun to imagine how the book would have been different if she’d moved more decidedly toward a fictional construct or let her own voice stand out. Ackerman is a gifted writer, so I suspect she could have done either equally well.

  9. That’s what I love about a reading group – if you’ve got some doubts about a book or questions, but can’t quite put your finger on them hopefully someone in the group will give voice to them. I like the different perspectives and histories everyone brings to a book and cannot tell you how many times I may not have loved a book but after the discussion I may have actually changed my mind about it.

    Anyway, back to this book… I’m definitely curious about it and am adding it to that long list!

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