Book clubs: the good, the bad, and the ugly

In a perfect world my book club reads fascinating contemporary works (but never the best sellers) with a few classics thrown in to make sure we’re well-rounded and culturally literate. Leaders rotate–everyone takes a turn–and prepare diligently: a review shared, a YouTube video discovered, an NPR interview served up. We are astute. Serious. Profound, even.

But in real life … not so much. (And this is one of those timea when reality trumps fantasy.)

The only book club I’ve been part of is one I was asked to organize several years ago for some teaching friends I work with. We set some ground rules (if you don’t read, you don’t share; everyone takes a turn leading; we agree on books together) and met once a month, give or take. We called ourselves Chicks on Books, maybe because it sounded snappy?! Here are the books we read over the year-and-a-half we were together:
+ Columbine by David Cullen
+ Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
+ Full Dark No Stars by Steven King
+ Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler
+ The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
+ Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhonda Jansen
The Immortal Life of Harriet Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Little Bee by Chris Cleave

book clubsHeavy on non-fiction, but that was fine by me–I need encouragement to read something other than fiction. The books sparked wonderful conversation, of course. As you can probably guess, teachers can talk about Columbine for days. Add a book to the mix and we’re set. And we deal almost daily with helicopter moms which are a subcategory of Tiger Mothers, after all. The author of Mennonite is a professor at a private college in our back yard, and so we were able to hear her speak at a local library branch. (Always, always go hear the author speak when you have the chance.) And more than a few of us had families who put the “fun” in dysfunctional (Not!) so between our own childhoods and those of our students, we had more than enough fuel to discuss The Glass Castle.

And like many book clubs, our was not averse to adding a little vino into the mix. Conversation was never an issue–in fact, we had to exercise self-discipline to ensure we talked about the book for at least forty-five minutes so we didn’t talk shop. Our tangents were wonderful, though. Just what I encourage my own students to be open to–reading isn’t about plot lines, conflict, and metaphor; it’s about letting a work touch our souls and inspire us.

So why was our little book club so short-lived? (I’ve heard of some book clubs that go on for decades …) I’m not sure. Some of it was family–half the members had young children. Some of it was plain ol’ time–during the school year we teachers find it difficult to do much more than eat, sleep, grade, repeat. When we first skipped a month, a couple members asked me, “When are we going to meet again?” And my reply would be, “Whenever someone organizes it!” I didn’t want to be the one to run the show and thought if the group was meaningful, someone would keep it going.

But after another missed month, the idea of planning book club again slowly fizzled out–kind of like a book whose pages we stop turning because it’s just not engaging. Or because it’s not what we expected? Or maybe we just got too busy and put it aside. Maybe I should be grateful that we got several chapters in.

And who knows? Maybe I’ll pick up the book club again someday and give it another go.

Thanks for reading! To return to the FICTION WRITERS BLOG HOP on Julie Valerie’s website, click here:


A week in the life …

polkaMy favorite place to walk in Our Fair City is an urban park set just outside of downtown–I think of it as a little Central Park, although I’ve never been. Riverside Park has winding paved paths curving around and through lagoons, wetlands, and a spectacular tree canopy. I watch the geese, roller bladers, bikers, and disc golfers as I walk, and truth be told I even caught a couple Pokemon here this week–but I wasn’t so fixed on my screen that I couldn’t notice this tiny treasure: a polka dot feather!
Our house is within city limits, but just. The area probably has more undeveloped land than other other part of the city–which is a blessing to those of us who enjoy city living with suburban style, but a curse when it comes to fighting off developers. Right behind our house are nine acres that the neighborhood association has fought to keep free of apartments. This week I took meeting notices and a site plan around to 24 neighbors who border the property and would be most affected by yet another proposed development. Three hours of chatting and hoping to get people bring questions and concerns to a meeting with the developer next week. Community organizing is what makes a good city great.

lalaSo there’s this nugget of sweet baby to snuggle. Her big brother calls her Lala, his version of ‘Alexis’. We don’t know her real well yet, since we just met a couple weeks ago, but I. am. in. love. That big brother keeps me busy on Grammy day. This week we went to the library–he played in the play kitchen while I chose 2 books for him to keep in his special library bag at my house. Not that he stops long enough to read, but a grandma can hope! We got out of the library without a tantrum (or, I should say, just a tiny one!) because the kind librarian came to my rescue, trading Jonas one of the kitchen toys for a sticker. Whew! Then it was back to my house for some time in the wading pool and lunch. Little man is a petite thing who couldn’t get enough macaroni and cheese for lunch–at one point he was scooping with his fork while he shoveled handfuls in between.

csa2I swear we have winter nine months of the year. Not really, but still. Our Great Lakes growing season is short and that makes CSA produce that much more of a treat. “Our” farmers Deane, Linda, and Tory of Chimney Creek Farm are the best local food ambassadors. Each year they host a spring open house where share holders can visit the woodlot pigs they raise (and we’ve eaten!), as well tour the hoop houses and fields. The fall brings a pumpkin share where everyone can pick out their own pumpkin. These farmers have gotten me to try turnips and kohrabi–and last week’s share allowed me to indulge my passion for pickled beets. This week’s bounty was summer at its peak: zucchini, green pepper, garlic, onion, cucumber, tomatoes, melon, plums, apricots. It’s like Christmas when I open my bags and spread out the goodies.

hall2And then there’s this. Yearbooks arrived and I met the driver to sign for delivery, and then stayed to begin to put my room back together again. *sigh* But as much as my heart sinks a bit each time I think about summer’s end, there is something energizing about starting out fresh again with a new batch of kids, clean cupboards, and a clear desk. Until the first week of September!

This is a book blog, right? So you must see what I’m reading: Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet by H. P. Woods. I’m about halfway and it’s an magrudersoriginal story which gets high marks in my book. Kitty finds herself stranded on Coney Island. Her brother dead, mother disappeared, Kitty herself kicked out of her hotel room for reasons unknown. She’s befriended by freaks from the amusement park shows: a giant, a man with no legs, a she-man, and a confidence man. The plague has broken out on the island and the police are rounding up victims and quarantining them. And of course because we humans fear the unusual, the freaks are to blame for the crisis. I love an unconventional storyline and getting lost in a turn-of-the-century freak show gives me a peek into a world I know nothing about.


A Good Marriage

A picture is worth a thousand words–and I freely admit choosing my books (at least in part) by their covers. Some publishers’ services like midwives by chris bohjalian stone
NetGalley even ask members to give book covers a thumbs up … or down. I’m drawn to book covers that don’t illustrate the book’s plot, but rather paint an impressionistic portrait of the book. So, for instance, the cover of Chris B
Midwives’ shows a distant farm veiled in a blizzard–not a laboring momma or midwife in sight, nor any hint of the tragedy that the blizzard causes. And Iain Pears’ Stone’s Fall is all shadowed silhouette of a woman, without a mention that the story is about a the rise and fall of a wealthy businessman. But in the case of both of these titles, the jacket copy was straightforward.

But what I find intriguing? maddening? is a cover that provides a beautiful visual impression, but still leaves the reader clueless after reading the book’s blurb. The Girls by Lori Lansens is a perfect example. The cover is sweet: four feminine feet dangling from a dock into a pond covered in water lillies. The back description tells us the book is about “Rose and Ruby, sisters destined to live inseparably but blessed with distinct sensibilities that enrich and complicate their shared experiences …” and that readers will “find it hard to resist falling under [the girls’] spell.” So maybe a coming-of-age story about sisters growing up in rural America, right?

Except I also hgirlsappened to know when I ordered the book that those girls were conjoined twins because I heard this review on NPR way back in 2006. I wonder still why the publisher wouldn’t at least allude to the girls’ condition on the book–either with cover art or back copy. And while the book isn’t in any way titillating, it is provocative. We come to admire Ruby and Rose’s spunk, but we also get a glimpse of their sex life and their death. It’s not for the faint of heart, and I wonder how many readers picked the book up … only to put it down after a hundred pages.

Cover art and story blurb are an odd couple–in order to entice readers into the book, their marriage must be balanced and nuanced, as well as forthright.

Just like all good marriages.

Thanks for reading! To return to the FICTION WRITERS BLOG HOP on Julie Valerie’s website, click here:

Fifty-something Shades of Gray

turning grayTrue confession: I’m a woman of a certain age and I don’t color my hair. For a few years back in my 40s, I did highlights, mainly because I felt so pampered at the salon. But I don’t do the all-over douse-it-out bit that so many women do when they see those kinky, silver strands springing up, deciding to color the gray into submission.

But several years ago I decided no more highlights. No low lights. No tempering or toning the gray. I don’t want to be that seventy-year-old blond or redhead or brunette. Because dyed–or should I use the more correct ‘color treated’?– hair just doesn’t compliment the certain softness and fan of wrinkles that come with passing years.

So what you see is what I am. Gray, to be sure. Growing older, of course.

But I am also far more real than I was when I was twenty. (Or thirty or forty, for that matter.) Real as in the Velveteen Rabbit Real. Just like velveteen rabbitthat fictional bunny who grew shabby from being loved, I’ve been worn a little around the edges, too. I’ve got patches from experiencing cancer and infertility and substance abuse and unemployment with my family. A few tatters from a divorce that sometimes turned nasty. I’m threadbare in spots from watching my children leave home and sometimes struggle. My tears have changed me, too, just like they did Velveteen Rabbit.

Those tatters also mean I’m resilient. No matter what, I’ll get back up after I’m knocked down. They mean I’m durable–throw a little life my way and I’ll still be there for you. Those worn edges mean I’m in it for the long haul. And while I might also have lost a bit of my shape, it doesn’t matter to the people who love me because “when you are Real shabbiness doesn’t matter.” I’m comfortable in my own skin because it’s, well, comfy! Hug me and I’m Velveteen Rabbit soft.

Now that’s not to say that women who color their gray aren’t. I’m just baffled as to why anyone would want to cover up the traces that mark them as sharp and experienced, that highlight their quick-wit and insight.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I don’t do au naturel, either. You’ll find no patchouli in my makeup drawer (it’s Dior, right now thank-you-very-much) and I love the close shave of a new razor. I’ve got a drawer full of jars and palettes, brushes and compacts, tonics and toners.

Embracing my gray doesn’t mean I don’t care, but rather that every day–week–year that’s passed has been precious. And I don’t want to lose sight of that.

So when I look in the mirror and see those silver streaks, I smile … because I have loved long and I becoming more Real every day.

Tag … you’re it!

I wrote about Not the Average Mama last month–Jessica’s blog is a must read, whether you’re a step or not. This week, Not the Average Mama is participating in a book tag via A Kinder Way. and I thought I’d join the fun. Consider yourself tagged and share the love!

What are you reading now?
I’m reading a digital reader’s copy titled A Hundred Thousand Worlds by by Bob Proehl, published just this week. It’s a romp through a Comic Con-like world, and it’s been fun to lose myself in a world that I know nothing about.

What’s the next one on your list?consequence
I’m torn–do I start another DRC for review or catch up on some hard copies I have on my shelf? I’ll probably start Eric Fair’s Consequence. I heard him on NPR this spring and his story is compelling.

Do you prefer a Real Book or a Reader?
It depends. Advanced reader copies are usually digital, so my Kindle has quite a queue. And then, of course, Amazon tempts me with Kindle deals. But a trade paperback book would probably always be my first choice–I’m just running out of places to put them.

Do you stop mid book if you don’t like it?
I used to never quit on a book. Now, I if get through about a quarter of the book and I’m not drawn to continue, I don’t. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Do you have to finish a chapter before setting the book down?

What’s the best series you’ve read?
I’m not really a series reader–though I read the Harry Potter series, of course. Even as a young reader, I didn’t go for the Nancy Drews that all my other friends were hooked on. I must admit, though, that I have a current obsession with Flavia De Luce mysteries.
What’s the first book you remember loving?
The Box Car Children–the first one. My second grade teacher Mrs. Zimmerman read it to us one chapter each afterno0n (unless we begged for one more and she gave in) and it was the first “chapter book” I had ever heard read aloud. I read it again myself a couple times as a child, and then to my own children twenty-some years later. I loved the chipped china cups Jessie found, and I can almost taste the potatoes she roasted in the fire. I’m still infatuated.

Ever been in a book club?
A few of my teaching colleagues and I had a book club for a couple years. I loved it because we talked about something other than school, and I got to see a different side of my co-workers. It kind of fizzled out, in part because of our busy lives, but I wonder. I think sometimes people start reading because it’s a good thing to do–kind of like taking vitamins–and that rubs off onto book clubs. I’m more of a I-must-talk-about-books-like-I-must-breathe type of gal.

Favorite book you read in school?
Now that I teach literature, it’s hard for me to remember what I loved as a student and what I love as a teacher! I didn’t like Fahrenheit 451 as a student, but I love teaching it. Same thing with Lord of the Flies. I think my favorite from high school is probably F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. Or maybe Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Or maybe …

Least favorite book you actually stuck with?

Recently, I’d have to say it was The Goldfinch. That book got so much press and I found nothing really redeeming about the main character. Same thing with Jonathon Franzen’s novels. I want to like them so that I, too, can be an oh-so-cool modern reader, but I find myself becoming frustrated by characters’ lack of moral insight. I’ll read a book with characters who are evil, but they’ve got to have some sort of realization, if not transformation. It’s the human story, after all.

What is the best book gift you’ve received?
When my husband and I were dating, I coveted a coffee table book about Ethiopia titled African Ark. It was extraordinarily expensive in those 1990 prices: $75. He surprised me with a copy for Christmas (or my birthday?)–I knew it was an over-the-top gift for his bookstore staff/college student budget, but he always spoiled me. 

What author would you like to have a cup of coffee with?
Ray Bradbury was such an incredibly vibrant man, so engaged with life and the creative process. I’d like to start an I’d Like To Be Like Ray campaign; he’s such an example of how aging can be a time a generative period of life. Here’s a video I show my students each flameyear–what’s not to like about a man who wants to get his cat in the shot?!

If you could visit a place in any book, where would it be?
Kenya, for sure. I read Izak Dinesan, Beryl Markham, and Elsbeth Huxley and wanted to live in their world more than any other. Of course I realize that colonial Kenya was an oppressive place for the indigenous peoples and the wildlife. I don’t condone colonialism in any way–but those authors wrote about the land, lifestyle, and people in such a Romantic way, I was hooked. Still am.

What character from a book would you love to meet?
Interestingly, I find myself drawn to characters from the classics more than contemporary titles. (Except, maybe, for that little Flavia I mentioned earlier!) So it would be a toss up between Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennett.

What is your favorite children’s book(s)?
I have so many, and most are favorites because I connect them to my own children–and since they now have children of their own, that means some of these titles are a bit dated. I hated the Berenstein Bears series (but my daughter loved them!). The kids also loved the Ruth Stiles Gannet’s Dragon books: My Father’s Dragon and Dragons of Blueland (Me, not so much.)
These are keepers:
Nicholas Bentley Stoningpot III
Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge
Blueberries for Sal
(when we go blueberry picking I still say, “Kerplink, kerplank, kerplunk”! and drive people crazy.)
any Tomie dePaola book
any Patricia Polacco book