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Genes Book Club - Etta and Otto reviews

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GenesBookClub

GenesBookClub Advisor Report 7 Jan 2015 14:53

Hi everyone,

To those of you who were selected to receive a free copy of Etta and Otto and Russell and James, we hope you enjoy reading it and would love to hear what you think.

Take a look these discussion questions, and post your views.

Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Etta’s sister Alma only appears in early scenes of the novel before she relocates to a convent and dies in childbirth, but her significance to Etta remains throughout. How do the fish skulls that Alma introduces to her act as a talisman for Etta? What might it mean that they continue to speak French to her “like Grandma” as the novel progresses?

2. Once James the coyote begins to speak and a dishwasher in a diner describes Etta as “maybe a witch or maybe a lady-Santa-Claus […] She was singing, I think. She was fine. She was magical”, Emma Hooper has already begun to immerse the reader in a world of magic realism. What other subtle magic do you see in the novel? What role do you think this stylistic choice plays in the narrative?

3. Otto and Russell first learn about the war abroad through radio interviews on pages, where they hear a story about imprisoned children and babies who float through the prison window because they are so light from malnourishment. Discuss the meaning of this story. Where else does storytelling or oral history factor into the novel?

4. Etta and Otto correspond by letter while Otto is fighting in the war and also while Etta is traveling to the sea. In what ways do letters at the beginning and the end of their relationship mirror one another? Why do you think Emma Hooper chose the epistolary form to convey many of the details in her novel?

5. When Russell finds Etta and tries to convince her to come home, she responds: “You’re not actually here to fetch me […] You’re here […] because it’s your turn, finally. It’s sad that you felt you needed my permission for that, but, oh well. Go, Russell, go do whatever, wherever. Go do it alone, and now, because you want to and you’re allowed to and you can”. What has Etta learned on her trek that prompts her to encourage Russell to travel? What meaning do you think Russell is seeking when he rides north in search of caribou?

6. Etta and Otto both become famous for endeavors they would rather pursue privately. What qualities do Etta’s pilgrimage to the sea and Otto’s papier-mâché projects share? What qualities distinguish them? What might these august achievements say about the nature of celebrity?

7. Russell does not return to his farm before the end of the novel, but Otto receives a final letter from him claiming that he “should be home” before autumn and he solicits directions to the airport. Do you think Russell will come back to reunite with Etta or Otto? How might his travels in the Northwest Territories have changed the way he interacts with them?

8. In one of his letters, Otto admits to Etta that he has “this idea that all these boys who have come to fill the places of the ones we’ve lost will fill their places exactly and be shot through or stabbed in the dark or blown up just like the last ones, exactly like them, one to one”. The vision betrays that death on the battlefield has disillusioned Otto. Do you think Emma Hooper is trying to make a statement about the nature of war? How has war impacted you or those close to you?

9. As Etta’s journey gains national media attention, one journalist named Bryony decides to travel alongside her. Do you think Bryony’s account of learning that her brother was incarcerated when she believed he was at university helps to explain that decision? Compare the loss of Bryony’s brother to Etta’s loss of her sister Alma.

10. When husband and wife sleep in the same bed, Etta tries to “sleep without any part of her touching any part of [Otto]” so that she will not have to relive his memories in her dreams. But Etta often dreams of the war on her travels, and her point of view seems to fully merge with Otto’s while lying in the hospital. How do you interpret the way that husband and wife share the same experience through dreams even when thousands of miles divide them?

11. In the final pages, Etta and Otto appear to rendezvous underwater when he goes to sleep at home and she arrives at the ocean in Halifax. What do you think Etta means when she reassures Otto that “it’s just a long loop”? Do you think either character dies following this tender farewell? Interpret the end of the novel.


Happy reading!

Book Club

Whizz

Whizz Report 21 Jan 2015 13:27

Grrrrr. So fed up I missed the deadline for this one.......... :-|

Morag

Morag Report 1 Feb 2015 16:33

I loved reading this book but I'm not sure that I understood all the symbolism. There are echoes of the competent feisty Miss Kinnick who leaves Her training class to make sure she is first to apply for the teaching job in the Etta who sets out for the sea. It is sad to see her diminished by the onset of dementia, but despite having to carry a piece of paper listing her own name and the names of her family she is still at 80-odd a resourceful woman. And very fit!!! It seems to me that James the talking coyote reinforces her descent into dementia and the blurring of her perceptions of reality and imagination. Does she see him as the spirit of Alma's baby since James was the name Alma chose for a boy?

The epistolary style allows the author to give information about feelings and events almost like a parallel narrative. The letters trace the development of the relationship between Etta and Otto from his halting attempts which she corrects to his more confident accounts of his journey to Europe and then the heavily censored reports from the war zone. She writes to him during her journey and he replies but keeps the letters for when she gets home.
Otto's experiences in the war have had a big effect on him but these are mentioned only in the letters; he does not discuss the war on his return. What he has endured distances Ottoman a little from Russell whose accident prevented him from joining up.Russell seems to be tied to the area by his love for Etta and it is only when Etta gives him permission that he can set off on a journey of his own.
I liked the notion of Otto sitting at home using up all the newspapers to create papier mâché animals but I have no idea what the significance is. I'll be interested to read other people's takes on this book.
I think that Otto dies at the end but the way it is told, it could just be one of Etta's fantasies. This book was quite an emotional read and I would definitely seek out Emma Hooper's next book.

Patricia

Patricia Report 2 Feb 2015 17:10

In the last two years I have read two other books in which old people leave home to walk very long distances. These were The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. The latter is not unlike Etta and Otto and Russell and James. All three have plots that are unrealistic and dreamlike. I found the last two enjoyable and thought provoking.
The three human characters in Etta and Otto and Russell and James are closely connected from early in their lives and in spite of Etta and Otto's happy marriage the feeling is that they all have things they wish they had done before it is too late. When Etta sets off on her long walk to the sea she is the catalyst for Otto making his sculptures and Russell going off to look for his deer.
I think James the coyote is Etta talking to herself and keeping herself company. He disappears when Bryony is there with Etta but comes back when she is alone again.
I think that Otto dies at the end and Etta and Russell will carry on with Russell continuing to look after Etta as he always has.
This kind of story about old people could be depressing but that is not how it comes across. The characters all seem to have come to terms with life in spite of everything.
My thanks to Penguin and Genes Book Club for an interesting read and a very attractive hardback - I love the cover design !

+++DetEcTive+++

+++DetEcTive+++ Report 4 Feb 2015 16:25

This is a strange format with many short chapters which jump back and forth in time.
Initially it was awkward trying to set it in a historical context: the early life is probably just before the 2nd WW, and the latter is contemporary.

Of the 3 human characters, only Otto has travelled outside of the Canadian Province of Saskatchewan and that was during his wartime service in Europe. It was his nightmares which appear to have been transmitted to Etta which set her off on her epic walk across the country. Her destination is the coastline from which all the lost young men departed.

Their good friend Russell sets off to find her, but follows his own dream of following the Deer. Otto stays at home and creates paper mache creatures. Otto is the anchor for them both. However, in my opinion, Otto dies when Etta finally reaches the Halifax shore line when they psychically link for the last time.

If anything, my take of this is book is that it is an expose of the effects of war on the combatants, and their families. The dust bowl description of their Province at the beginning of the book contrasts with the baptism and washing away of bad memories at the end.

A gentle read, but not a book I would have chosen for myself.

Jan

Jan Report 4 Feb 2015 21:38

I would have enjoyed this book more if there had been inverted commas, quotation marks, speech marks, whatever we call them these days. I found this so frustrating and indeed more difficult to read, that it put me off the plot in places. Why do this?
I was pleased that I read it as it wasn't the type of book that I'd usually read. So, thank you for the copy.

Kellie

Kellie Report 5 Feb 2015 10:59

Etta and Otto and Russell and James

Just like to say that I too loved the cover design. When I first glanced at the cover, I wondered why there were three baked beans floating across the deer, it was only on closer inspection that I noticed that the gaps between the legs were in fact bodies.

I wanted to read this book as I have worked with several dementia sufferers, and I was intrigued to see how this illness would come across in a story.

I loved how it weaved seamlessly between past and present, the story was gentle and simplistic, yet quirky, and I especially loved how the author told the story through the letters – it did indeed mirror the beginning and end of their relationship.

I’m pretty certain that Otto dies at the end, and his spirit comes to say goodbye to Etta.

Overall I found this book very easy to read, in fact I didn’t even notice the missing punctuation – this proves how well this author writes.

I will certainly be reading more of her work.
:-D <3

Unknown

Unknown Report 7 Feb 2015 02:17

I found this book difficult to get into, and I had to make a conscious effort to get it out every time. I usually can't wait to read a book, but not so with this one, although I found it quite interesting. It seemed stilted, but this was just like the characters, so I suppose the lack of punctuation was relevant. Not an author I'll look at again. :-(