Sunday, November 6, 2011

I've Infiltrated The Book Club

Have I told you this? A couple of years ago, Pretty Neighbor and I got the idea that we would join our neighborhood book club. Every monthly newsletter contained an announcement of that month's book and the date of the meeting. It didn't say the time or the place, just gave a couple of phone numbers to call. So I called. And Pretty Neighbor called. We left messages. One of the phone numbers had been disconnected. During this time, we were busy reading The Poisonwood Bible to get ready for book club night, at which we would shine with our book-discussion skills and make lots of new bookish friends. But nobody got back to us, so we didn't go.

Then the next month we did it all again. The calling, the messaging. I don't remember what the book was that month. Finally, we were like, "Those bitches are not very neighborly!" Then we laughed and forgot about it. I figured that it was actually a closed group that for some reason, kept announcing itself in the newsletter. Whatevs. It's not like I need another intellectual outlet anyway, I just heard they had snacks.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when I was sitting in a tennis tournament committee meeting. My neighbor and tennis buddy, T, mentioned that she had to get ready for book club that night. We were all about to begin our committee business, but I was like, "Hold up. You're in our neighborhood book club? By what magical means did you gain entry into that enchanted salon? Because PN and I couldn't guess the secret word. Is it because I only have one PhD?" Halfway through my outburst, T was nodding her head and rolling her eyes. She said, "I'll tell you about it later." And I was like, "Oh so this committee meeting is not the proper place for me to air my private, unrelated grievances? And I'm saying this out loud right now? OKAY."

Later T told me that the book club is presided over by two Methuselan souls who, as she put it, are "not tech-savvy," and who have been cutting and pasting the same announcement into the newsletter for years, never noticing that the blurb doesn't contain all the vital information about the meeting. They also "don't like change,"  but are sweet as pie, she swore. These dear old girls are not phone savvy enough to return calls, as well, I suppose. But T begged me to give it another try, because she's trying to bring the average age of the participants down somewhere into the double-digits. A couple of days later, Pretty Neighbor and I were copied on an email introducing us to the book club distribution list. I wrote back enthusiastically that I was glad to meet them and that I was ready to discuss the ever lovin' shit out of some books.

I did not say it that way.

But I am ready to discuss the shit out of some books. Except that I just started the November book, Hotel on  The Corner of Bitter And Sweet. And it is going to be an uphill climb. Has anyone read this? I've read the first fifty pages. I sigh. It is one of those books that thinks the reader needs to be told directly how the characters are feeling at all times. For example, our main character Henry has just found out that a boarded-up hotel in Seattle contains the belongings of dozens of Japanese families who were sent to internment camps. Now these long-hidden things are being brought to light. Henry is also sad because his wife died some months before, so it is a rough time. The narrator says:
The more Henry thought about the shabby old knickknacks, the forgotten treasures, the more he wondered if his own broken heart might be found in there, hidden among the unclaimed possessions of another time. Boarded up in the basement of a condemned hotel. Lost, but never forgotten.
AARGH. His heart is broken, see? And it's not like a thing like a knickknack but he's wondering in metaphor, see? AAAAAAAHHHHH.

(I die.)

This kind of book, I find, does not trust its reader to be left alone for one minute, and is forever getting up in our grill to make sure we're on the right track. This is known, in literary criticism, as "writing the shit into it."

I should simmer down and give this book the benefit of the doubt. And I will finish it so that I get an A+ in book club. But I wonder if I could suggest we all reread Snow Falling on Cedars instead for a better treatment of this material?

Either way, I will come back and tell you all about our first gathering. You see, I have never been in a book club. I have a sense that it is different from a grad seminar, so this will be fun.

I'm also about to start reading the new Jeffrey Eugenides book with my friend David, and Elle and I have both read the Pioneer Woman book (yes) and we need to discuss the shit out of that.

Are y'all in book clubs? My mother-in-law is in three! I think Jenni is in one but they mostly drink. Or maybe that was just an actual wine club. Gimme the scoops on what y'all are reading.

All my love,


Aimee said...

I was in two book clubs, which both fell apart, and now I'm in a new one.

You know what? All three were/are excuses to get together and drink (either wine or coffee, depending on the group and venue) and excuses to find time to read.

Ha, like I need another reason to ignore the messy house and impending dinner time to devote to my books!

I usually read the books, ready to discuss, but I'm no literary mind, so I was nervous the first time. Until I found the discussion (in Book Club #1) often consisted of:

I liked it. What did you think? I didn't like such-and-such character, did you?

That kind of literary analysis I can keep up with. ;)

I have my first Book Club #3 meeting in a couple of weeks. Can't wait to see how that one goes!

This is the most disjointed comment ever.

Amy said...

"Henry turned to walk home, and as he did, the sky turned black with thick, heavy clouds. As the rain began to pour, Henry thought, "Wow, it's so interesting that it would rain right now when I am feeling such sad feelings. It is like the skies are crying along with me. One might assume that I am also crying, but you can't tell cause the rain is also running down my cheeks." Like that?

Why aren't WE reading and discussing books together? Is it because I only have a bachelor's degree??

You are so funny. I'm glad you finally are in--I eagerly await your report. I've always wanted to be in a fer real book club!! I think I'm gonna start one. But books are so gol dang expensive here--it's like, do I wanna pay $25 each month for a book I may not like?

Becky said...

I'm LOLing.

This is going to be one of those times where the comments are way better than the post.

Aimee, good to know. I think I can keep up with that literary analysis too. And I can drink both wine and coffee!

Emily said...

I just started that Jeffrey Eugenides book myself. I'd love to join a book club, but I know I'd just eat everything and drink wine and agree with everybody else, so I just do all those things by myself because it's easier. And I can do it in my comfy clothes and pet my cat too.
Actually, I did join a book club for one meeting a few years ago. Just the titles of the books they were planning on reading caused me to fall asleep, so I never went back.

Jessica Gottlieb said...

My book club is reading that too.

I'm ready to get a button that says "I belong to a book club".

It's so awful. I'm concurrently reading the Marriage Pact and just finished the Secret Daughter.

When it was my turn to pick I suggested Joyce Carol Oates and then later David Sedaris. No one kicked me out, but they did ask me to pick "books that don't suck."

Beth said...

I was in a book club once. We read some good stuff, some good non-fiction, too, like Under the Banner of Heaven and Devil in the White City. But it was a different thing, this book club conversation: when discussing The Lovely Bones the terrifying hush that crept over the group when I started in on the mom being trapped by gender norms and... blobbity bloo, it was not what these ladies wanted to hear. The horror.

I'm reading Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter right now, and it's floating my boat. Next I want to read that new "History of the World in 100 Objects" book, but gosh darn if the E-BOOK isn't 30 bucks!!!

melondonkey said...

Maybe they are reluctant to accept you into the club because they are intimidated by the PhD. It'd be like Sharapova joining your tennis league. Except that talking about books isn't a competitive sport...or is it?

Also, why does your brother not blog anymore? Now that he's killed Osama Bin Laden and his baby is coming out of that newborn range, it seems he is running out of excuses.

melondonkey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
melondonkey said...

Also, in an NPR interview, one of the writers for the show "The League" likened fantasy football to a modern day book club. I thought it was an interesting comparison because I think the prevalence of fantasy football leagues really is much higher and somewhere near the level of where we would want or imagine book clubs to be.

Another also...can you give me three book recommendations? I've got a month-long vacation coming up and will need to kill some time. Modern and best-sellery but also deep and good. I was thinking of starting with The Secret History.

Elizabeth said...

The best book club I was ever in was in New York City, and it was three men and me. We were in our late twenties, the men were pretentious and wanted to read a lot of Thomas Pynchon et al, but the discussions were incredibly lively and never strayed into gossip. I loved being in that group. I don't think I would ever have read the books otherwise!

Michele R said...

Something tells me that you are not going to like the titles that these elderly ones select.
I have not been in one and a few years searched for one to no avail.
Hey--wait a minute--weren't you supposed to start one???!?

Common Household Mom said...

I am not in a book club. But I would like to be in a Refined Carbohydrates club.

Justine said...

OMG, it was like you wrote this for me (even though you have no idea who I am). We moved to Boston earlier this year, and I decided to join a book club to meet like-minded folks. Until the first club was reading this "Hotel" book, and I had the same experience as you when I tried to read it. I didn't have your determination so gave it up.

You'll never guess what the 2nd club I found was reading. Yup. It must be on some "great books for clubs" list out there in the Interwebs.

But I will report that the third time evidently is the charm, as I'm in the process of joining a newly formed group reading a non-fiction book that sounds more promising, "Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex," by the author of "Stiff." I recommend that one too.

Oh, and like you I am also currently reading PW's book, and "Nurture Shock," which is like the Freakonomics for parenting. Very interesting.

My Kids' Mom said...

I just finished The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W Durrow and am now into Michael Dorris' Cloud Chamber. I can't stop reading but I also can't stop feeling like I'm reading about generation after generation of bad marriages. Maybe it will improve.

I sort of want to be in a book club. I just don't know if I'd have time to read anything else on my own. Why don't you start an online/blog book club? You could could start by each member pouring herself a drink and getting a snack.

puncturedbicycle said...

I'd have to choose between the neighbourhood book group and my singing group. I don't think my liver could take both. Those are some hard-drinkin ladies.

Anonymous said...

I read it and REALLY disliked it. Mostly because I felt the author was trying to bash me over the head with MEANING. You know, trying to be so deep that it ended up really poetry slam overdramatic.

Amy said...

After high recommendations, I totally dumped Hotel and am thrilled 'yond measure to have you, in possession of a relevant PhD, echo my sense of an uphill slog. It was a library book. It had to go back. Done.

I was grateful it never made it past its many mentions for Next Book, since I hold myself to the standard of ALWAYS finishing the club book, because in my club, composed of lovely members, we always have at least two who have nowhere close to finished the book and it makes me a wee bit crazy.

One woman has yet - in a year and some - to finish ANY selection and I've got a bet with myself that she never will. She's real nice though and always compliments others on their comments.

Another woman won't read anything with disturbing subject matter re: children. Another attends faithfully, but will only offer comment if questioned directly.

Truly, my group is great blog fodder and I could easily write an entire post, maybe two or three, except several members drop by occasionally... and the truth can seem so snarky sometimes, y'know? So instead, I write the longest comment ev-ah, and thank you for the forum!

Jenni said...

Well, my original book club did turn into a wine club (that still meets) because not enough people read the book.

My new book club is more bookish, although now that I'm a member we do also drink. Moderately.

This month we are reading my selection, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

I cannot wait to hear how this book club goes. I hope you wear a hat.

Allison said...

I have wondered for some time now; in what subject did you take the doctorate?

Hootie said...

"I hope you wear a hat." Jenni, you're priceless.

I joined a book club when I used to teach high school... it was all middle-aged ladies reading Oprah's Inner Child of the Month club selections. And me.

Actually, there were no defining parameters for the books chosen... the only rule was that everyone agreed to give each book an honest attempt. Which resulted in my reading "She's Come Undone." And then, I picked some innocuous Garrison Keillor novel, and IT KILLED THE CLUB. They canceled that month's meeting because NO ONE EVEN ATTEMPTED MY BOOK.

Now, obviously, they did this to kick me out of their club. But I was not obnoxious or anything! I just wanted to be in a book club! I didn't have kids, Brenda was working full time... I had lots of time to enjoy books! And those bitties kicked me out. They had no idea... I could have picked Finnegans Wake and probably literally killed them.

So now I am in the Houston Wells book club, population 1. Science fiction, stand up comedy, and whatever's free on the Kindle. We only meet late at night, and there is always beer.

Veronica said...

I read that book in a haze of newborn staying-up-all-night, and it didn't at the time strike me as being as terrible as you describe, though now that I think back on it, it totally was. I just needed things explained to me, because in that phase I was like, "I want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but the peanut butter is in a jar, not on the bread. How will I make this happen?" And then I would fall asleep before I had a chance to figure out how to spread the peanut butter on the bread.

I am in a book club, but we mostly drink wine and gossip, and then high-five ourselves if we manage to get in five minutes of "did you like it?" style conversation about the book. It is in no way reminiscent of grad school seminar discussions, but I still like it for what it is. My favorite is when we read non-fiction -- we read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks recently.

Shauna said...

Stiff- very clever non-fiction about cadavers!! Loved it!

Shauna said...

I just read Stiff. It is a nonfiction book about cadavers. Very clever writing (almost channels Bill Bryson, but it is a girl). Loved it, however I had to skip half of one chapter so I wouldn't throw up. It can be a tad graphic. I totally LOLed!! Also, if anyone reads it, I read the plane crash chapter ON A PLANE! I do like to live dangerously. heh.

Beth said...

I highly recommend "Spook," also by Mary Roach. That one is about ghosts and whether there's evidence for an afterlife.

Kate said...

I want to be in Jessica's book club because I love David Sedaris! One member in my club picked it and everyone hated it except for me and the host. Book clubs are quite interesting little microcosms of the neighborhood. can't wait to hear about yours. I tend to try to finish all the books, but I have punted before. I like the strategy of complimenting comments that Amy mentioned when one has been a slacker.

Nina said...

I think it will be quite different to a grad seminar! I'm not sure I'd want to join a book club because, similarly, I'm afraid it might be not very much like A-level English Lit was. My teachers for that were so great, they made it feel like a good safe space to discuss books, which otherwise are very private, don't you find? Right now I'm reading 'If on a winter's night a traveller' by Italo Calvino (*or am I??*). Please read some Tove Jansson if you haven't before - 'The Summer Book' is a good place to start, or 'Fair Play'. I've also recently-ish enjoyed 'Under The Net' by Iris Murdoch, and a book of short stories by Elizabeth Berridge. (Incidentally, I do play Fantasy Football [soccer]...)

Becky said...

Wow, this Hotel book has a bad rep! So hilarious that it's a widespread book club choice. I saw Pretty Neighbor this morning and told her what y'all were saying, and she was not stoked. I said I would read the whole thing, but I don't know. We're burning daylight in this life, you know. And there are many other things to read.

Seems like a lot of difficulties arise from being in a book group that's just not on your wavelength.My phd is in literature, Allison. And Beth, so funny, it is hard to turn off that way of talking about books! In fact, I remember once in a grad seminar that a girl said Joe Gargery in Great Expectations reminded her of her grandpa. And we did not react but later we thought it was hilarious. We were (are?) snots. Yet I think that comment is more the mode in book club?

I too want to go back in time and join Elizabeth's NY book club. I like the idea of all the non-fiction selections too.

Amy M, I wish you could find a way to blog some of your book club experiences!

Hootie, I love you even more hearing this story. You read She's Come Undone? And they didn't return the respect? Those old ladies didn't know what they had in you! You should have picked Finnegan's Wake and then followed it up with Le Voyeur for a one-two punch.

Lots of good recs here! Nina, I am going to follow up on Tove Jansson. Justine, I agree about Nurture Shock. Really interesting. We were totally persuaded by the chapter on the inverse power of praise.

Melon! I dunno why that guy isn't blogging. But I think the baby is not quite so out of the newborn stage as to be trouble-free. And then there is the whole world to keep safe for democracy. If you are going on vacay, do read Secret History if you haven't. You might find it a little "college-y" but it's fun. Then read The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, and Serena by Ron Rash. Those are the vacation books that come to mind for me.

laura said...

I have book club related PTSD from a book club experience twenty years ago. One of the members prefaced almost every comment with: "When I was at Yale. . ." Because somehow everything we read, including a terrible biography of Marilyn Monroe could be related to her comparative literature degree. Then there was the subtextual competition for who would breast feed the longest and was the "crunchiest mommy" (I lost both of those contests, big time) It was a long time ago, I don't miss it. In fact, me and my bestie Ms. A still twitch about our Book Club Issues.

While on vacation last month I read a pile of erotic bodice rippers and when I was tired of that genre I read Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy. If you liked The Unbearable Lightness Of Being or The English Patient you will like this novel. It was beautifully written.

I'm looking forward to The Marriage Pact. Is it good?

Can we turn your blog into a book club forum? Or perhaps a twelve step program?

AlGalMom said...

I've never been part of a book club. I'm not sure why, I love to read and talk about books.

Currently I'm working my way through Joan Aiken's Wolves of Willoughby Chase Chronicles. (in general I tend to read juvenile fiction, since my kids are too young to leave alone in the library's children's room, and too rowdy to drag along to the adult side of the building) I really enjoy Aiken, but she tends to wrap plot elements up abruptly. In the book I finished today, the characters had been wondering where an old crown had been hidden (wondering, but not yet searching for) and suddenly someone basically said "oh, here it is! Fancy that!" it is almost painful to run into that, like "what? Oh, um, okay, I guess...if that's the way you want it to go..I would have come along for another 100 pages, but, whatever.". (please excuse any strangeness in this comment, as I have typed it on my iPad and may not have found all of the autocorrect mistakes)

Anonymous said...

I would be afraid of a book club, Becky, because I think there could be a high ratio of incidents where people might say homage when they mean oeuvre. I shouldn't have to take all that day after day.

etheljr said...

I just started The Marriage Plot too and am liking it. I thought of you when I started it as it is full of obscure literary references that...well, I'm not admitting anything. My book club is reading The Submission for December and last month read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Actually book club is all about the wine. No boxes.