Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ask the Ape: Family Drama Edition

It’s time for another edition of Ask the Ape. This week’s question comes from the comments after the last installment:

Dear Ape-
I reread A River Runs Through It this time every year. I plan to get this year's read in tomorrow on the airplane. I'm looking for an autobiographical read of similar nature... but not A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which is my favorite example of self-indulgence. Montana is not a prerequisite. Thoughtful exploration of why the people closest to us baffle us the most may be a great theme.

Man, A River Runs Through It is great. Not only is it stunningly beautiful as a book, but the film is equally satisfying. On to the question, though. Well, the Ape doesn’t read much autobiography—quite by design. But here are a few choices similar in tone and/or theme to A River Runs Through It that might fit the bill.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck
One of a handful of finalists for the Ape’s Favorite Novel Award. It’s a family history set between the Civil War and World War I, revolving around two generations of brothers. It does have an autobiographical element; one of the characters is based on Steinbeck’s maternal grandfather. It also has a killer ending; for our money more resonant, and much less squirm-inducing, than his famous ending to The  Grapes of Wrath. Initial reaction to the novel was tepid with many critics decrying Steinbeck's symbolism as heavy-handed, but in recent years East of Eden has matched, and perhaps even surpassed, The Grapes of Wrath on the Steinbeck depth chart. The Ape heartily approves of this development. 

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
You might think a novel about an old man’s reminiscences of the Norwegian logging industry could be a wee bit dry, but you’d be wrong. I have no way of evaluating the translation into English, but if the English version is any indication of Petterson’s ability, herring-boy has some serious game. It’s precisely the sparseness and melancholy of the narration that elevates the now overused Traumatic-Childhood-Event-Has-Haunted-Protagonist-His-Whole-Life formula into a beautiful and stunning portrait of loneliness and loss. Another one about brothers. Detect a theme here?

Beyond the Bedroom Wall by Larry Woiwode
Time for something a little obscure (and sadly out of print, though it looks like used copies are inexpensive).  Here we have another family saga centered around brothers, this time in small Midwestern towns, first in North Dakota and then in Illinois. Where East of Eden is sweeping and symbolic, Beyond the Bedroom Wall is subtle and specific; the central brothers here, the narrator and his older brother, seem more realistic than the iconic figures in East of Eden.  Woiwode is also a poet, and his attention to the quiet specific gives the novel a structure of feeling that is as rare as it is precious.

So there are three ideas. Beyond the Bedroom Wall and East of Eden are real commitments at over 500 pages each but have an epic quality. Out Stealing Horses probably best matches A River Runs Through It and is a much less demanding read. That said, these are all real winners.

Any other ideas for this one? Or maybe you have a question for the Ape? Let us know in the comments.


  1. Terrific post. I just added "Out Stealing Horses" to my TBR list. Thanks!

  2. (bowing head in shame) I haven't read any of those.

    YET. Can I add "yet" to avoid being pelted with things?

  3. Ape - thanks!

    It is likely time to reread East of Eden. It is one of my favorite all time books, just not a 2.5 hour read like A River Runs Through It.

    I've read Out Stealing Horses. It was part of a Christmas recommendation I always get. Pleasant, probably not something I would have picked on my own, but was time well spent. Based upon request queue at the library, many people wanted to read it.

    I added Beyond the Bedroom Wall to my to-read shelf. My local library has other novels by Woiwode, but not this one. I've submitted a request for acquisition.

    Since you don't focus on autobiographical, I would throw out for your readers that This House of Sky by Ivan Doig is one of my favorite autobiographical reads... absolutely beautiful!

  4. Janna-
    You won't be sorry. If you have the urge to try another Petterson when you're done with Out Stealing Horses, try To Siberia.

    MissV- Though, if you'd read them all, they wouldn't be terribly useful recommendations, no?

    Always wanted to read Doig, about time to get there I suppose. Be warned, Beyond the Bedroom Wall is pretty long. If your library has "Born Brothers," then that is a reasonable substitute. It is about the same pair of brothers.

  5. Ditto to the Petterson references, I adore his work.

    The first name that come up for me when I read this was Wallace Stegner...he has numerous titles and all seem to deal with the complexities mentioned, as well as beautiful depictions of the West. Angle of Repose is flawless.

    I just got a Doig arc this week, so I'm interested in reading it after reading the comments above.