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The Other by David Guterson
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The Other (2008)

by David Guterson

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Showing 1-5 of 29 (next | show all)
'that loner who lived in the woods for seven years and who bequeathed me $440,000,000', 21 January 2015

This review is from: The Other (Hardcover)
I got increasingly wrapped up in this novel: narrated by Neil Countryman, an English teacher of working class origin, whose life has followed fairly ordinary lines - marriage, children, an aim to write his own book. But Neil's life has another side - his friend since his teens, wealthy John William Barry. As John William moves from just being 'unusual' to dropping out entirely, living a bleak life of a hermit in the deepest, harshest forests of Washington State, Neil pays regular visits, bringing supplies and books, playing chess and discussing the belief of the former in Gnosticism... And compelled by an earlier 'blood oath' never to reveal his friend's whereabouts....
Vivid descriptions of nature and survival; the desperately touching account of John William (mad or wise? Driven to such extreme behaviour by parental failings?) For me the final message was that each man must forge his own path: despite Neil's efforts on his friend's behalf, he had to live his own life most of the time, leaving John William to go his own way.
Unique and extremely readable. ( )
  starbox | Jan 20, 2015 |
There are some books you read and pass on to others to enjoy. There are others you read and they become credit for the used bookstore and further purchases. And then, there are those rare few that you keep forever because they strike a chord with you. This is one of those books for me.

I originally bought this book because I have read everything else he has written. I haven't always liked his books but they have a certain feel of silence and calm that I like. Guterson is also an author from the Pacific Northwest and my original reason for purchasing this book was for a book club in which I once participated.

It took me three years to pick this book back up because I associated it with...well, just a lot of negative things that were going on when I started to read it. Spiritual reasons made me pick it back up. The timing was right on.

The story is simple. Two guys meet in high school at a cross country track meet and become friends and hiking companions in the Olympic Mountains. After high school, Neil goes to college and takes the traditional path participating in what John William calls "Hamburger World" while John William wanders, eventually settling in a cave on the Hoh River and becomes an ascetic of sorts.

The story is also not simple. There is a deep unconditional love between these two friends. Neil worries for John William and is constantly hauling things up to his cave through difficult terrain and all weather. Each time he asks John William to come back down with him but each time John William declines.Neil learns things: about simplicity, spirituality, the natural world and our connection to it. Neil worries that John William is mad. He isn't. This does not stop Neil questioning in ways overt and subtle and trying to understand John William. He goes so far as to help John William disappear. Neil comes from a blue collar family and has nothing but himself to give and he gives generously in this way to John William.

John William, while chiding Neil for his choices, does not try to stop him making those choices. He understands that Neil is also seeking but has stopped looking finding his joy in the everyday - college, marriage, children and the "Hamburger World." He understands that some people are able to sink into their lives and settle without addressing "the big questions". Through his asceticism, he knows that he will never stop looking and seeking answers to the big questions and that for him to understand, this is the only way. To fulfill his love for Neil, he gives him starter cash (an unasked for surprise) from his trust fund so that Neil may embark on his life. John William's family are old money Seattle.

One day, Neil returns to John William's camp to find him face down in his fire, dead. John William by this time has spent years up in his cave. Neil undertakes the ultimate task of unconditional love by preparing his friends body (crudely using nature's tools) and placing him in his cave to continue his existence undisturbed. Many years later, John William's body is found and in his (JW) last act of unconditional love and friendship for Neil, he leaves him a very wealthy man.

Each time Neil goes to the cave with supplies, he spends time with his friend. There are many conversations, the reading of poetry, discussions of Basho zen, work in the natural world and conversations. There are also silences filled simply. Sometimes each is absorbed in his own thoughts, sometimes they eat, sometimes they soak in a natural spa they created from a spring, sometimes they read and sometimes they just sit and watch the natural beauty and wonder of the area. It is in the stillness that a friendship transcends the mundane world and you can sit in silence with grace and have the whole universe speak between you in that silence. This is the rarest and most sought after of friendships.

Neil feels guilt for many reasons and the final chapter of the book is a meditation on how the first years of our lives shape us and in many ways shape the experiences we choose to have and the way we see the world. This is a subtle message that is actually woven through the entire book but is crystallized in the final chapter. The tears of man.

If the contemplative life does not move you, then you probably will not enjoy this book. Sometimes there is a lot of detail that on the surface seems redundant and may annoy the reader who prefers to "get on with the story". If you want to sit in the stillness of friendship and unconditional love, then I recommend this book. ( )
  ozzieslim | Dec 28, 2014 |
My sister recommended this book to me. She knows me fairly well and so when I read the back cover, I could immediately see why she thought I'd like it. The title also held a certain appeal, as it held suggestions of a favored theme.

This was the first book by David Guterson that I've read. As someone who haunts thrift stores and used bookstores, of course I knew his name well. In these places, Guterson's novel Snow Falling on Cedars is the bibliographic equivalent of a Mantovani or Herb Alpert vinyl record. In short, ubiquitous. I avoided it for the same reason I avoid the Alpert records: in my experience, nothing produced and subsequently discarded on such grand scale is that interesting.

When my sister first told me about the book, I looked Guterson up online and came across the controversial graduation speech he gave at his high school alma mater in 2013. He was heckled during the speech, which The Seattle Times described as "unorthodox, with frequent references to death and a gloomy tone." Some mild interest stirred within me as I read through the speech, which I found overly didactic and a bit condescending, albeit not without its truth.

The book ended up being about what I expected: nothing earth-shattering or particularly deep, but certainly readable, if not a bit bloated with excessive detail. Guterson employs fairly mundane literary techniques of jumping between present and past, though most of the crisscrossing plot is told as recollection. This lends a passivity to the action, a flaw which, ironically, Guterson's narrator mentions in the text as an early critique of his own writing. (One wonders if that was intentional or merely a Freudian slip.) It's the kind of prose that doesn't challenge readers, but rather comfortably leads them along by their noses. We don't need to worry, for we're in the capable hands of the Author, who will not fail to bring us to some sort of resolution. Despite Guterson's skills in descriptive prose, though, none of the characters feel fully formed, and as a result, none are appealing enough to elicit much sympathy. They felt less like individuals and more like types employed to make a point.

And what is Guterson saying with this novel. At one point near the end, his narrator states, "I'm a hypocrite, of course, and I live with that, but I live." Is this Guterson's critique of today's (chiefly developed) world citizens? That we all (should?) know better but we go on living in the same destructive ways anyway, because to remove ourselves completely from society would lead to certain death, like it did for his character John William? Or perhaps Guterson is merely critiquing himself in this regard.

I could go even further in deconstructing possibilities for interpretation. For example, maybe the two characters are intended as two halves of the same person, representing the inner struggle that the "enlightened" members of society endure every day of their privileged lives. This would align nicely with the title, which implies the "shadow" theme, the dark side inside all of us that resists conforming to the status quo. But no, I don't think a "national bestseller" (as the cover so boldly announces at the top) would stray into such murky territory as that.

All in all, it's not a bad book, especially for a "national bestseller." Perhaps it will give some readers pause for thought, although about what I'm still not certain. In some ways, the book can be seen as a legitimization of the bicycle-commuting, composting, small house-owning liberal lifestyle. That this way of living is "enough" for a world now in such a steep environmental decline that it's too far gone to save. On the other hand, the book could be read as a satire of this lifestyle, and John William's death as a tragedy symbolizing the hopelessness of trying to reverse the damage to the planet by riding bikes to work and recycling plastic bottles. Regardless of its point(s), though, the book could have made them in a more compelling way. ( )
  S.D. | Dec 7, 2014 |
bookshelves: currently-reading, published-2007, autumn-2013, e-book, abandoned, adventure, doo-lally, north-americas, next
Read from November 06 to 07, 2013



To A.S.C., A.V.S., and D.W.B.

Quote: Je est un autre. —Rimbaud

Opening: I attended Roosevelt (the Teddies, Teds, or Roughriders), a public high school in North Seattle, while my friend John William Barry was a student at Lakeside, our city’s version of an East Coast private academy like Phillips Exeter or Deerfield. Besides slumping at my desk all day and getting high in Cowen Park at lunch, I also ran the 880—today called the eight-hundred-meter or the half-mile— for the RHS track team.

All aboard the good ship Dilemma...

Sorry folks, this one is just not my cup of tea. Better things beckon

4* Snow Falling on Cedars
DNF The Other
2 ( )
  mimal | Jan 1, 2014 |
I tried to read this book but it was really hard to get into it. I made it to the 2nd or 3rd chapter, I think. I liked his other book, East of the Mountains, it was much more interesting. ( )
  floridakayakgirl | Dec 1, 2012 |
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Je est un autre.

  -- Rimbaud
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To A.S.C, A.V.S, and D.W.B.
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I attended Roosevelt (the Teddies, Teds, or Roughriders), a public high school in North Seattle, while my friend John William Barry was a student at Lakeside, our city's version of an East Coast private academy like Phillips Exeter or Deerfield.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0307263150, Hardcover)

Amazon Best of the Month, June 2008: When John William Barry and Neil Countryman meet at a high school track meet in the early 1970s, they are two sides of the same coin: John is a trust fund baby and student of a prestigious private school while Neil is solidly working class, but they share an affinity for the outdoors and apprehension over impending changes in their lives. After an unintentionally challenging week lost in the wilds of the North Cascades, John is compelled to an ascetic path: life in a remote river valley in the Olympic Peninsula rainforest, where he chips a shelter from a granite wall and immerses himself in the esoterica of Gnostic dualism --a philosophy that holds that the material world is illusional and destructive. Neil meanwhile chooses a traditional path as a father and school teacher, despite his troubled friend's exhortations to eschew "hamburger world" and find truth in a simpler, stripped-down existence. Nothing is that simple, of course, and The Other compellingly explores the compromises we make to balance meaning and security in our lives through the choices (and their subsequent consequences) of these two men. --Jon Foro

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:40:24 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

When two boys--John William Barry and Neil Countryman-- meet in 1972 at age sixteen, they're brought together by what they have in common: a fierce intensity and a love of the outdoors that takes them, together and often, into Washington's remote backcountry, where they must rely on their wits--and each other--to survive. Soon after graduating from college, Neil sets out on a path that will lead him toward a life as a devoted schoolteacher and family man. But John Willliam makes a radically different choice, dropping out of college and moving deep into the woods, convinced that it is the only way to live without hypocrisy. When John enlists Neil to help him disappear completely, Neil finds himself drawn into a web of secrets and often agonizing responsibility, deceit, and tragedy--one that will finally break open with a wholly unexpected, life-altering revelation.--From publisher description.… (more)

» see all 5 descriptions

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