The Long-Distance Book Club: Our Picks of the Year

What, you may ask, is my favorite thing about the holidays?  It isn’t the banquets, it isn’t the presents, and it certainly isn’t the darkness.  Every December I diagnose myself with low-grade depression.  And so does everybody else I know. 

So it’s a good thing we have the long-distance book club.  We live in different towns, but we do try to get together once or twice a year.

This year we had a holiday meeting in central Iowa. Seven of us made it.  Pretty good.  We gossiped about our relatives’ bad behavior—why aren’t our Christmases like the ones in The Bishop’s Wife or A Christmas Carol?—and the latest news about old friends from college.  Fascinatingly, our friend Don, a doctor, “is living in a leaky geodesic dome, for God’s sake.”  And Melanie, who worked at the co-op,  just finished her Ph.D. at 50. She had to wait till the  mad professor who blocked her retired. 

After the gossip, we moved on to books. And instead of discussing a single book, we each talked about our own favorite books of the year.

How can I choose just one book,  I wondered.  Finally I picked Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Helbeck of Bannisdale, a neglected Victorian classics. Ward portrays a stormy relationship between Laura, an atheist who has recently lost her father, and Alan Bannisdale, a strict Catholic who has given most of his fortune to a Catholic orphanage.  The two are unsuited, but fall in love by proximity.  But can they have a successful interfaith marriage?  This brilliant, fascinating, complicated novel has been compared to Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, one of my favorite books.  

My friend Janet, a poet who lives in a small town near Iowa City, has been reading—surprise, surprise!—poetry.  “I stay up late reading Adrienne Rich’s Collected Poems.  They are a joy: the early poems are formal, then she becomes more experimental.   She digs deep emotionally, and is also very political.”

My cousin Megan, a librarian who boasts that she doesn’t like to read, belongs to our book club “for social reasons.” Her secret is that she does read most of the selections, and she slangily explains why she does not finish those she dislikes. 

“I have to say my favorite is an old book by Georgette Heyer, Venetia.  I love her comic romances.  They’re a bit like Jane Austen.  Venetia lives in the country and gives up the idea of marriage. Then Lord Damerel, a neighbor who’s a libertine, returns home and the witty repartee flies.”

Our friend Linda, home from the East coat for the holidays, was very taken with Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, the award-winning 1,000-page novel which is written from a housewife’s perspective, in one long sentence.  “The secret is to read the e-book so you don’t have to carry that heavy book around.  It’s very witty and accessible.  You can like Alison Pearson and still enjoy Lucy Ellmann.  It’s a surprisingly fast read.”

Sue, who describes herself as “a stressed-out administrative assistant who likes to read in the bathtub,” rediscovered Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street this year.  “My reward for going to college was this crappy administrative assistant job, but I still identify with Carol Kennicott, who left Minneapolis for a small town.  I wonder, What am I doing in Gopher Prairie?  Why don’t I live where there’s culture?”

Sue’s daughter Paula, a part-time server  and a full-time student at a community college,  says good books distract her from “wasted opportunities.”

“I wish I hadn’t gotten into drugs.  I’ll never get my brain back. I can’t do what I used to.”  But she is off drugs and on books now. Her favorite of the year is Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, which she read after watching the DVD of the movie starring William Hurt and Geena Davis   “I love the concept of the travel writer who hates to travel. The book is witty and poignant, quirky and never corny.”

Carla, a hospice nurse in Omaha, used to be our mortal enemy. Long ago in school she yanked my long hair (ouch!) when she passed me in the hall, and reduced Janet to tears by mocking a poem she wrote and read aloud in English class.   After many, many years, we ran into Carla at a party. She is kind and witty now.  A bit depressed, though.

“I’m divorced,  everyone in my family is dead, and I’ll never be in another relationship.

“It sounds morbid, but my favorite book this year was The Undying by Anne Boyer.  It’s a memoir about being diagnosed with breast cancer1.  It is poetic, but kind of raw.  It articulates the hell of cancer.”

On this solemn note, we dispersed to a department store, where we all bought flannel nightgowns with coupons.  And then the  book club dispersed. 

Deo volente, we’ll see one other again next Christmas.

Time, Time, Time: Read Less & Get a Life!

Time, time time, see what’s become of me
While I looked around for my possibilities.—“A Hazy Shade of Winter,” by Paul Simon

It is nearly the Winter Solstice–my favorite winter holiday.  I much prefer it to Christmas and New Year’s Eve.   

Tonight it is bitterly cold, though, with a thin layer of snow just fallen, lights blinking on the battery-operated tinsel tree, cats batting at ornaments, and the scent of jasmine tea wafting through the house.  So here I am on the couch, cozily scribbling about two tenses, the past and future as I wait for the future brighter days.  (The present rarely exists.  It’s much too shattering.)

 Here are my plans for the Winter Solstice:  Read less!  Do something!  Save the environment!  Act now!  

Or maybe I should do that the day after the Solstice.

Mins you, reading is my life.  It is action.  It expands our world, shapes who we are, and helps us survive the worst of times.  It  is also a drug: the best books lift us above the hysteria of the twenty-first century.  I especially love the Victorians, who take their ethical dilemmas seriously, and interweave morals with the action of the plot. I personally can shrug off the end of the world if I have a copy of Bleak House. I’m stocking up on Victorians for 2030, the year climate change becomes irreversible.  

As so often happens, I have read almost too much (150 books) this year, but I have also discarded tomes that started promisingly and then fizzled.  I have a dismaying pile of partially-read new books on the nightstand:  I gave up on most of these after one-third.  When I tell myself to read less, I want the time back I lost on those books.  

“Reading less” is a bizarre resolution, I know. I see a lot of:  “Read harder!” “Read faster!” “Do the Goodreads Challenge!” That is so darling, so peppy, so optimistic, and yet so wrong.  I have no team spirit.  Yet it does kill time making checklists, photographing book hauls, scribbling in Planners, reorganizing TBRs, and photographing cats sitting adorably beside piles of books (my cats are not photogenic).  And I consider those activities “reading less,” so I’m allowed to do them, even though I don’t join the team.

We who live at the end of the world don’t have much team spirit.  Icebergs melting, impeachment hearings, the rollback of women’s rights, defunding Planned Parenthood, building the wall, Facebook scandals… we are exhausted.  It is an angry age. Sometimes we wonder as we look around, What have humans contributed to the earth?  Well…  I’m not sure humans have done much.  They can’t work together for change.  It has been a chaotic year.   But then we can’t see the future.   Hope on, hope ever!  

Well, it is officially tomorrow (after midnight).  So I guess I’d better get ready to save the world.

And here is the video of Simon and Garfunkel singing “A Hazy Shade of Winter”