Apr 24, 2011

No Fries With our Freedom

Larry deserves our thanks and praise:  he subbed in for Garth on short notice, put up an eclectic list of titles, and somehow convinced us to pick a novel that grossly exceeded our 500-page limit.  The real surprise is that, after plenty of good-natured grumbling, we appeared at Larry's and propelled Franzen's Freedom to our top five list.  But more on that in a moment.

In addition to dragging Jack back for an evening with the boys, Larry also deserves kudos for setting his table with his own version of Midwest comfort food.  His dry-rubbed ribs were falling-off-the-bone tender and nicely complemented by tossed potatoes and a green salad.  But the best was saved for last.  Larry made a homemade ice cream, a sheet of cookies, and then deftly assembled them into mouth-watering ice cream sandwiches, whose only drawback was their dainty size.  C'mon, Larry.  If you're going for Midwestern fare, then please say no to nouvelle cuisine portioning!

The Book
In Franzen's bestselling follow-up to The Corrections, the dysfunctional Berglund family in Freedom is presented as a crazy quilt of the aspirational upper-middle class.  A single family splinters (over the course of 568 pages) into competing strands of liberalism and neoconservatism, obsession and indifference, choice and passivity, deviance and desire, and more.  Much more.  In the end Franzen ties it up with a bow, but not before making his characters (and the reader) suffer a little.

As Larry noted at the outset, Freedom isn't sustained by an especially interesting plot, but rather (as we all agreed) by its characters.  They're engrossing, outrageous, unlikeable, sanctimonious, pathetic...and ultimately, to a one, unforgettable.  Their largely negative attributes would seem to be a prescription for disaster, and it was enough to make Doug and Stan express an ambivalence that was probably shared by others.

In the end, though, our fascination overcame our distaste and we gave Freedom a heady 7.9 rating.  Even Dean, our usually reliable critic of overstuffed prose, exclaimed how much he looked forward to reading every night.  And I, never objective in my assessment, agreed wholeheartedly.  Freedom was as compelling a love story as I've read in a long time. It's just not quite the love story we're all accustomed to reading.

Next Up
Our selection for next month was clouded by the controversy attending Garth's list of proposed books.  In an effort to tie all of his selections to the current debate over nuclear power, Garth chose three award-winning treatises, each addressing some aspect of nuclear power, and two exceeding our 500-page limit.  In Garth's absence we asked ourselves whether it's appropriate for one theme--especially a politically-charged topic like nuclear power--to dominate a list of titles.  In the end, we picked Voices of Chernobyl, in deference to Garth's wishes and out of curiosity over the subject matter.  But we agreed that, in the future and to ensure that we have a genuine choice of titles (by length, subject matter, and style), a slate of non-fiction titles should be accompanied by at least one novel.  And, if a 500-page tome is proposed, it should complement a list of conforming titles (i.e., be the 4th selection, with the other three all under 500 pages).

With Garth's Rule duly adopted, we'll all look ahead to next month when we can consider whether the current move towards "renewable nuclear" is a wise response to climate change and fossil fuel scarcity.  We'll also ask ourselves if the selection of our first book by a woman is a pardonable breach of MBC rules.


  1. ra sta mahnApril 25, 2011

    I am currently on page 325. it's really not getting much better. Sorry but I WANT to forget these characters, and I can't believe the book made top 5. Andrew, I detect more voting irregularities.

    But I do agree that Larry's cuisine was exceptionally acceptable and not the least bit anti-constitutional. haha

  2. You were there, Rastaman Stan, and so you know I do not lie. The rating was honestly come by, even though I did NOT revise your score upwards, as you might recall asking me to do, you revisionist historian. If extreme old age is addling your memory, I forgive you. Otherwise, time to set aside your impatience with novels longer than comic books and finish reading Freedom. Save it till you've turned the last page, homeboy!

  3. I wish I had been there for this "discussion", as there is both good and bad news in the crew's reaction to the book. Good news: y'all are finally appreciating, nay, accolading (how's that for a verb?) a book that, as Andrew points out, isn't about plot, it's just about twisted characters, with the usual dose of misogynism. Who needs a story when you have angst? Bad news: you don't explicitly recognize the faults of these characters, but in your post are extremely vague about their faults. Remember, it's just possible that someone besides us may read this stuff (we never did have Winfield by after he graciously offered to join us -- what up with that?).

    In any case, you need to explain -- are these people interesting yet repellant because they watch "American Idol" or because they drown puppies?

    It's time you were clear about our group pathology.

    I also note that you now hide the scores on the site, requiring an additional click to view. Some will claim this is due to the increasing number of books we've rated. I think it's to hide the shame of certain people who have foisted dense unreadable tomes upon us.

  4. Behold! The Terminator strikes again! As usual, his real name is withheld, but what a bold moniker he (Paul) uses when browbeating us for our craven voting, questionable book selections, poor character summaries, et cetera.

    I suggest the following to The Terminator: First, show up. Second, akin to my suggestion to Dan in his post of Apr 25, put your cards on the table and let us know where you stand on the issues you raise. Third, if you want to blame John for his dense unreadable tome by Damasio, then call him out by name. He is your brother-in-law, after all!

    Now, getting back to Rastaman Stan, let me remind you of that timeless comment you made while holding the Talking Stick: "Franzen is as verbose as I am." If you don't like the characters, then share your sentiments with The Terminator. But if, at p. 325, you are simply tiring of Franzen's lack of restraint, then imagine how we feel!

  5. How come I always get dragged into these rants? Do ya'll have any understanding how frail & sensitive I am?
    It seemed as though everyone enjoyed this novel.Though I do think it was well written, the story itself blows! I, personally, disliked it, the characters and the plot (if there was one). I recommend he reads more Penthouse Forum to improve his erotica writing skills. I could have read to the halfway point and gave it an appalling score but out of respect for my fellow bookman and to prevent me from gouging my eyes out, I chose the high road by returning the book prior to chapter "2004" and proceeded to my bar where I sucked down a manhattan and contemplated my turn at the bat while tossing darts. Cheers gentlemen and see you in a couple of weeks.

  6. Andrew:

    First, I readily admit that "The Terminator" is my online moniker (me being Paul). So? If the limit of my fantasy roleplay is to use this name on our forum, I'm sure it pales in comparison to whatever persona you may create and use online for whatever nefarious or adult purposes.

    Regarding your attempt at debate (I thought you were a lawyer?): First point -- I do show up frequently. Sadly could not make the last time, but think my attendance record is pretty good. Second point around putting my cards on the table: either this is an attempt at sarcasm, or you haven't noticed my opinion that misogynism is a critical shared attribute of this group. Third point -- I wasn't blaming John for the Damasio book. I've already done that so much that he won't hang with me anymore. I was referring to various other impenetrable books past and future.

    Hey, didn't Stan or someone suggest we could put on the list only books we've read? Would have prevented a couple clinkers.

  7. Paul...as noted in my email earlier this week, someone did actually finish "Self Comes to Mind". It just took a little longer than usual.
    To all...isn't this a book forum, not a pick on "fill in the blank" forum. It's the book man, it's the book.
    Andrew, one comment missing from your take was "where did the title come from?" In the round house discussion that followed dinner, and a lot of drinking, didn't we decide that the characters craved freedom only to find themselves alone and reaching back for the binds of the relationships that carried them through life. Much like our rants at one another disguise our greater desire to be part of the group.