The Pop-up Book Club: Debriefing at the Safe House

Smokey Row in Pella

Our long-distance book club meets once a year, twice max, and we are not at all well-organized about choosing date and place. It is, we’ve decided, a “pop-up” group.  We’re rather like Smiley’s people, planning at the last minute to converge on a safe house for a top-secret debriefing.  Shall we go to Smokey Row in Pella?  Or beautiful Dubuque, where we can browse at the bookstore and walk by the Mississippi bluffs after the meeting?

Why don’t we just use Zoom?   Oh, no.  We don’t do that.  It’s not even human.  We meet in person, however inconvenient.

Sue, who lives in Mount Pleasant, writes on our email round-robin: “Rocky’s finally out of the basement and going to college. Can we meet in September?” (Rocky is her son.)

September is fine!  

And what book will we be reading?  Well, gosh, nobody has thought about that.   

We love to read for book club.  We read anything.  We’ve enjoyed Angela Thirkell’s August Folly, Turgenev’s Smoke, John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, and  Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton.

“I feel smarter at book club.  I remember being smarter…once,”  Sue says mournfully.

Our friend Janet’s theory:  “We unlock each other’s smartness, since we were together at the university.” 

If we’re so smart, how did we end up in Ankeny? That is our group’s ironic motto.  Ankeny is a bedroom community, consisting  entirely of strip malls and an Amazon warehouse.  Nobody we know lives there – but someone must live there – so it’s code for living nowhere, where most of us live.  

There have been a few suggestions for our September book selection. Janet would like to read a collection of poems by Ada Limón, the new Poet Laureate.  I am leaning toward Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, the story of Rochester’s mad wife, a  novel that is Rhys’s answer to Jane Eyre.  Sue is dying to read Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William!, longlisted for the Booker Prize.  In September,  Strout’s new book about Lucy and William, Lucy by the Sea, will be published.  

I’m so excited about book club!

I found an article at Bustle:  “50 Books to Read with Your Book Club.”   Let’s see, if we read one book a year for book club, we can’t get though 50 books !  Fifty years from now…  no, it’s not possible.

But you may enjoy looking at the Bustle list.  I’ve read some of these books, but none for book club.

What books have worked well for your book club?  Classics?  Contemporary lit?  Mysteries?  Sci-fi?  Poetry?  I’d love to know.

Call Him Cookie: When You Can’t Pronounce a Writer’s Name

This week, I received my second NYRB Classics Book Club selection.  The book club curator sends out a new book every month.  The subscriber does not choose the book.

I loved last month’s selection, The True History of of the first Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives, by Diane Johnson, a biography of George Meredith’s first wife. (My review is here.)    I have qualms about this new book,  because it is by one of the Dreaded Soviet writers. Although I love 19th-century Russian fiction, the  prose of Soviet writers often seems turgid and clunky. They wrote under ghastly conditions, hence the uneven quality of the writing–or that’s my theory.

The August selection is Unwitting Street, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. A Kirkus Review blurb refers to the short stories in this collection as “tales.” I do hate a tale.  Unless it’s “Gogolesque.”

We shall see if I get along with Mr. KriZZZZZZhisanosssssky. I call him Krisky. Sounds like a cookie.

I do have another book by Cookie, Memories of the Future.  I read about half of the stories.  If I want to be an NYRB groupie, I must adjust to Soviet writing,

N.B.  I did admire one Soviet novel, Sofia Petrovna by Lydia Chukovskaya, written in the late 1930s. You can read my review here.

The Book Club Goes Multicultural

“Oh, don’t give me that. I’m multicultural as hell,” I said crossly. “Just because I’m white doesn’t mean I have to subject myself to The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.”

Liz, a well-meaning member of our informal book club, felt we should acknowledge Black Lives Matter, i.e, what used to be called Black Power.   The Twelve Tribes of Hattie had been on her shelf for years.  Unfortunately, I assured her, this best-seller is poorly written and devoid of style.  Anything but that!

“You really can skip The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” our friend Janet suggested tactfully. “Perhaps we could read a classic.  Ann Petry or Ralph Ellison?”

We agreed to read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  And then we discussed multiculturalism. Does it mean race and ethnicity? Does it have to be about different cultures in the U.S.? What about the cultures of other nations? Does literature in translation count? French novels in French? African women’s novels?  Greek or Roman poetry in Greek and Latin? The Tale of Genji?

It’s a puzzle.

In my white neighborhood, quite a few white people have Black Lives Matter signs on their lawns. But a sign means nothing if they/we don’t get the vote out in November.  Should we join the Women’s League of Voters?

And let’s hope my book club can meet face-to-face again soon.  Zoom is not like being in the same room.  No wonder people have gone berserk and are racing around to bars and restaurants (hence spreading the virus). Please staay home.  Listen to Dr. Fauci!

By the way, I just read an excellent article at The New Yorker, “Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’ as a Parable of Our Time.”

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.

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