I want to join my friends Thelma and Louise’s conversation about book club books. Thelma recently said The Help, assigned by her local ladies book club, was one of those books written by white women about black women. She found it strange that people need a novel to tell them about race relations in the South in the 1960s… but if they do, this is a nice novel for it.
Louise recently joined a breakfast book club and a retired ladies book club. She read the same Wall Street Journal article that I did, stating the vast majority of people who read have given up reading serious books. She said, “As the WSJ analyzed it, even people who make time to read are mostly fried from work and family responsibilities, so all they want is something that will distract them with as little thought as possible.” She was not so kind in her assessment of the clubs’ selections, referring to them as dreck.
It all depends upon the book club you find, I think, as to whether the selections are ‘dreck’. The local Science Fiction Book Club has been meeting for over ten years now. The attendance was pretty steady at about 10 or 12, with an enrollment of 15 or 20. But lately the club has doubled in size, is about to outgrow the Barnes and Noble meeting space, and is beginning to have grandiose thoughts. By that I mean the newer and younger members are talking about recruitment (!) and literary conferences with guest authors (!!!). The screamers (!) are mine. I know, I know, they are exclamation marks, but a hundred years ago Lord Peter Wimsey referred to them as screamers, during his tenure at an ad agency in Murder Will Advertise and I like the word. I am reacting to the activism of the new, younger members. I’ve worked on numerous literary conventions of the Science Fictional nature, and am too old to be that ambitious. I’ll stand on the sidelines and cheer them on!
You are not talking about this kind of club, I know. And I know from experience that the books the SF group choose are much more interesting and challenging and provide much more meat for discussion than the books you’re bemoaning. For instance, I learned all about’ steam punk’ from reading Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker. It’s science fiction set in the industrial age, when steam was the main power, and when everyday dress lent itself to beautiful costuming. Steam punk is big these days and I am glad that I know what’s going on. Its adherents provide many photo ops at cons. I’ve read one, and don’t need to read any more steam punk. The younger readers love each new book. George R.R. Martin’s Thrones series is a wonderfully intricate fantasy set in a medieval society. I am re-reading the first book, Game of Thrones and the fifth book, A Dance with Dragons, is being published in July of this year. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins was another SF selection, reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, only on a bigger scale.
My first question at my other book club, the library ladies book club, was “who chooses these books?” It was not a very politic thing to say, as the young female librarian in charge was doing her very best. She tried to accommodate everyone. She asked each member to hand in a list of at least ten of her favorite books and authors, so that she could see what kind of books we liked. We could even include, she hesitantly suggested, classic books. “What do you mean by Classic,” I asked? “Dickens? Tolstoy?” “Oh,” she replied, “…maybe something by Jane Austen.”
She took the lists of our favorite mysteries and romances, and combined with her lists of ‘starred reviews’ from places like the Library Journal and came up with a list of 15 or so for us to vote on for the next six months’ books. As both Thelma and Louise had pointed out, books that had been made into movies were favorites. Two of the books I had on my list were Julie/Julia by Julie Powell about how she came to cook every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking and My Life in France by Julia Child about her young married life and how she came to choose cooking as a vocation. Well, they had loved Meryl Streep in the movie and chose Julie/Julia. The rest of the books that made June’s list for us to choose from were as Thelma and Louise described.
Well, wouldn’t you believe it, when the next meeting rolled around, all the ladies hated Julie/Julia. They uniformly hated it. Nobody liked it but me. Julie Powell was from Queens, and was living in Brooklyn, and she spoke and wrote (she was keeping a blog) like a native New Yorker, not like a small town, church going, Southern lady. And by this I mean that she used the F-word in every sentence, sometimes two or three times. Many of the book club ladies said they put the book down, they could not finish it, and they did not like Julie. Other, hardier specimens didn’t like Julie not only because she was profane but because she was rude about the people she talked on the phone to on her job. Her job was a low level government job, answering calls from people calling in with ideas for a memorial at Ground Zero. She had to be polite to everyone, no matter how stupid or crazy they or their ideas were. She had to listen to everyone who had lost someone in 9/11, their grief, their rage, and their rambling suggestions. When she got home, she related her frustration to her long-suffering husband, telling him of all the crazy, stupid and utterly insane things she had to listen to all day. She cooked at night to blot out the darkness of her days. The Book Club Ladies were not sympathetic. No one had read the companion book from which the movie Julie/Julia arose, Julia Child’s wonderful My Life in France.
We read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larson and everyone loved it, as I did, and read the other two books in the trilogy. This book was full of violence, torture, rape, homosexuality, danger, and wrenching suspense. The original title in Sweden was Men Who Hate Women. And they couldn’t handle the F-word from Julie Powell!
June never asked for our suggestions again. She gives us lists to choose from. The main prerequisite is that there are enough copies available in the library system for us. Another seems to be that the book be by a new author, preferably local, and a first book. They must have good reviews in the Library Journal. They must not offend anyone. They must raise our social consciousness.
Some of the books we have been assigned are: The Sweet By and By by Todd Johnson; The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett; Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford; Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman; The Double Comfort Safari Club by Alexander McCall; Brooklyn by Colm Toibin; and of course The Help by Kathryn Stockett.
Of the lot, Hotel on the Corner was the best received by my friend Rebecca and me, mostly because it was far away from the Deep South, about the internment of Japanese citizens on the West Coast during WWII, and because Rebecca had recently been there on vacation and had taken pictures of the Panama Hotel (on the corner of Bitter and Sweet), inside and out. It is now a museum, and has on display some of the items left there for safekeeping by displaced families. We felt we learned something about the life and times of another people.
Another I liked was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It was in a far away place and time and brought home the privations of wartime in the Occupied Channel Isles. Brooklyn was a romanticized view of coming to America. I never finished The Sweet By and By.
Rebecca and I missed the last meeting, she because she had a church thing, and me because I was tired and just forgot. It was held at the Irondale Cafe. Yes, the very one featured in Fried Green Tomatoes. And, yes, the book assigned that month was Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe.
Yes, Thelma and Louise, I feel your pain. Inspire me! Make me think! Give me new ideas! Assign Biographies!
I continue to go to this club meeting so I will not to stay home and stagnate. The library meeting room is just large enough for us to sit at tables arranged in a square. I can hear all but the most soft-spoken. There are refreshments beforehand, but no socialization after the meetings. If Rebecca is there, we two go out for a light supper.
While I really like the books and the people of the SF book club, I haven’t gone lately. It is loud and raucous, hard to get a word in edgewise, and even more difficult to process fast enough to know what everyone is saying. They go out to eat afterwards at someplace even louder, with silver and china clanking, and eat heavy food. I cannot hear a word there. Regretfully, I have to face up to the fact that I have aged out of this kind of get-together.