Welcome to Camp ToB 2019, the summer reading program from the Tournament of Books! All summer long, we’re reading six works of fiction from 2019—two books per month, two weeks per book—that you chose by popular vote. Each week we read half of one novel, then meet here on Wednesdays, joined in the booth by a member of the Commentariat—our Activity Leaders, in Camp parlance—to discuss our progress through each book. At the end of each month you decide which of the two books we just read advances to our end-of-summer championship, where you make the ultimate call on which of our three finalists wins an automatic berth in the 2020 Tournament of Books.
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Rosecrans Baldwin: Rise and shine, campers! At some point we’ll get tired of making camp references, but we’re a long way from there yet. Today we’re finishing up Elizabeth McCracken’s Bowlaway. Anyone who hasn’t read the book yet, prepare for spoilers.
For today’s chat, we’re passing the talking stick to this week’s Activity Leader, Cathy Love. Cathy, welcome to the campfire!
Cathy Love: Hi all. I’m originally from Louisville, Ky., and currently reside in Portland, Ore. I work as an executive assistant for a scientist at a local university. I spend my days playing an elaborate game of Tetris with my boss’s calendar. I do most of my reading during my commute on public transit and before bed with Peak TV, and crafting for my Etsy shop in between. My favorite genre is literary fiction, with science fiction a close second, but I’ll read almost any genre, fiction or non. My favorite author is Ursula LeGuin. And I’ve been following the ToB since 2015 when it was introduced to me by my book club’s leader.
Rosecrans: Since we’re focusing on the second half of Bowlaway, give us an idea of your feelings when you were around halfway through. Were you invested and excited? Or gritting your teeth and eager to be done?
Cathy: I wasn’t exactly invested and excited but I remained curious at the halfway point. I was still hoping it would come back around to Bertha because I was so invested in her from the beginning and I wanted to know more about Bertha throughout. As much as Bertha certainly casts a shadow over the events of the entire novel, I was disappointed that there wasn’t more about her specifically. Entering into the second half, I was intrigued by Margaret’s story, and it kept me invested, even as she wasn’t nearly as interesting as Bertha.
Rosecrans: I completely agree, and think others are going to say the same. For those who haven’t read along, the Margaret character is sort of the hero of the book’s second half—a former housemaid of Bertha’s who eventually runs the bowling alley after marrying Bertha’s maybe-long-lost son.
Out of curiosity, what did you know about Bowlaway going into this?
Cathy: I had heard very little aside from general buzz about the title itself. I hadn’t read or heard of McCracken previously. I took a cursory look at reviews on Goodreads and saw the term “twee” a lot, which was not a turnoff for me, though I was hoping it would be fun, weird twee.
Rosecrans: Kim and I (and the Commentariat) talked a lot about the twee factor last week, but just to catch up here—how was the twee for you? Fun and weird? Excessive and sentimental?
Cathy: Mostly the twee was fun-weird. I don’t generally shy away from twee, I love the Decemberists and Wes Anderson movies. At times it was a bit much, to the point that the sentences felt unnecessarily over-stuffed or didn’t really fit the story. In a few instances, it felt like creative phrases/analogies/metaphors were being shoehorned in. But those times were rare enough that once I finished, I didn’t feel like it seriously dampened the impact of the book.
On the other hand, I definitely didn’t feel like it was excessively sentimental. On the contrary, many times I wished for a bit more sentimentality. Partially I think that was on purpose, characters specifically dampened their sentiments to make their lives a bit easier. But I wanted to see some women’s emotions over having to leave the alley due to Nahum’s decree [for a period, women are banned from bowling —ed.], or I wanted Minna to express some feelings about her family and her reasons for not wanting the bowling alley.
Rosecrans: I know what you mean. For a novel that could seem excessively peculiar, or just exquisite and filigreed and very fine in its surfaces, in terms of locales and circumstances and events—and also very clever and persuasive in how those things were described and made meaningful—the actual relationships often came across to me as restrained. Especially in the second half, I was struggling to care for almost anybody who wasn’t part of Margaret’s interior life, and even that got dull. As a quick aside, how are you as a bowler?
Cathy: I am an awful bowler. One of the things I enjoyed about the book is the joy that substandard or even awful bowlers derived from the activity. I’m the kind of person who can have fun doing an activity but remain terrible at it, which I think is a rare “skill.”
Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken
From the day she is discovered unconscious in a cemetery at the turn of the 20th century—nothing but a bowling ball, a candlepin, and 15 pounds of gold on her person—Bertha Truitt is an enigma to everyone, and her mysterious origin scandalizes and intrigues the locals. But when Bertha dies in a freak accident, her past resurfaces in the form of a heretofore-unheard-of son. Soon it becomes clear that Bertha’s defining spirit and her obfuscations live on, affecting future generations through inheritance battles, murky paternities, and hidden wills. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)
Book description excerpted from publisher’s summary and edited for length.
Rosecrans: Oh man, that’s me and almost all of the things I do for fun. What did you think of a bowling lane throughout the book as a place where women work and play? Adjust their expectations of themselves, or make space for each other?
Cathy: I’m bound to love any non-traditionally female space that women carve out for themselves. I don’t see bowling as a hard masculine activity, but of course we see through the course of the novel that women’s presence in the alleys is controversial during the timeline of the book. I loved how Bertha just charges ahead as if it’s not at all unusual for a woman to run a bowling alley or make bowling her primary interest. And in turn I loved how the women who encounter Bertha are influenced by her and inspired by her. This is one of the main reasons why I remained so disappointed to lose Bertha (and LuEtta Mood) after the first part of the novel.
Rosecrans: Right. And then we get Margaret.
Cathy: I always wanted Margaret to break free in the way that Bertha did. But she still has the bowling alley and she derives some independence and satisfaction from running it. Throughout, I love that we see multiple women discovering themselves and breaking free of (some) traditional female roles through their work and play in the alley.
Rosecrans: And if we just focus on Margaret a second longer…
Cathy: Margaret is one of the only characters in the novel that I felt got a deeper characterization. Even if we followed her through other characters, I felt like we were still following Margaret for the majority of the second half of the book.
Rosecrans: Right, except, annoyingly (in my opinion) a lot of the second half also focuses on her sons, Arch and Roy. Hanging out with them, I guess I enjoyed it for a sense of something new, but I didn’t care much about their lives.
Cathy: I wasn’t very invested in Arch and Roy. I found them both dull. On the other hand, I was invested in Margaret and Cracker. [Betty “Cracker” Graham becomes the first woman to set pins at the alley and marries Arch, despite an earlier fling with Roy. —ed.]
For me, the switch between characters was one of the most difficult issues. From the beginning, with Bertha, I would have rather have followed each character more fully rather than switch randomly between them. In the context of the switches themselves, I did enjoy the somewhat random method of which characters the novel followed. It was interesting to note in each chapter when an unexpected character was being followed. Overall I don’t have a lasting impression of Arch and Roy, though.
Rosecrans: I found the switches difficult too, mostly because in a book so concerned about legacy, about things inherited or rejected from previous generations, it became difficult to sense or feel what was being passed down to whom. Especially when random visiting ghostbusters get in the way. I mean, I enjoyed Joe Wear’s reappearance for reappearance’s sake; I wrote a note toward the end that I liked things getting tied up to help me map the sprawl. But that felt more like pattern recognition than something deeper.
Cathy: I felt the same. On a sentence level this was a fascinating read, though sometimes it felt like the story was working in service of the sentences and not the other way around. From the beginning I wanted a novel that was more about Bertha, and by the end I wanted a novel that was more about Joe. So I guess overall I wanted a Joe and Bertha novel. It was clear that the link between them was deep and interesting, yet we never got a full examination of it. As for the passage on page 368 (“Genealogy says that things happen in chronological order…”), I was almost annoyed by what I felt was an “explainer.” I think the novel should speak for itself and not need that explicit “teaching moment.”
Overall, I didn’t have a problem getting through it, and I didn’t dislike it per se, but I felt like all the parts didn’t come together and I was left unsatisfied.
Rosecrans: For me, this book was a night at the carnival. Inside the gate, it’s full of families, sideshow acts, a couple thrills, a really pungent atmosphere, and too much cotton candy—a pleasurable experience overall, and I don’t regret the ticket price, but now my teeth hurt.
Last question: Did this book change how you think about anything? Genealogy? Great molasses moments in history?
Cathy: I will say that it made me want to go bowling. For a bit I wished I was in Portland, Maine, where I could likely access candlepin alleys, instead of Portland, Ore.—but I can probably satisfy myself with ten-pin. Honestly the ruminations on genealogy weren’t earth-shattering for me, I think the idea that inheritance doesn’t always go in a straight line is fairly obvious. It’s not uninteresting, in the way it plays out in the novel, but it didn’t really change my thinking. I might recommend it to someone who’s into quirk and good sentences as a bit of fun.
Rosecrans: Thank you, Cathy! Commentariat, jump into the discussion below and let us know how the novel finished for you, then meet us back here next week for the start to our second book of the summer, Daisy Jones & the Six. Otherwise, the archery range should reopen by tomorrow, and it’s fried chicken tonight in the dining hall. Thank you for joining us at Camp ToB!
The Camp ToB 2019 Calendar
- June 5: Bowlaway through page 172
- June 12: Bowlaway to the end
- June 19: Daisy Jones & the Six through page 151 (finish “The Numbers Tour” section)
- June 26: Daisy Jones & the Six to the end
- July 3: VACATION
- July 10: Lost Children Archive through page 186 (finish part 1, or chapter 11 on audio)
- July 17: Lost Children Archive to the end
- July 24: Trust Exercise through page 131 (finish part 1, or chapter 5 on audio)
- July 31: Trust Exercise to the end
- Aug. 7: American Spy through page 141 (finish chapter 12)
- Aug. 14: American Spy to the end
- Aug. 21: Black Leopard, Red Wolf through page 243 (finish chapter 2)
- Aug. 28: Black Leopard, Red Wolf to the end
- Sept. 4: Announce summer champion