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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Little Hell of Book Clubs

Picture this: several women gathered at a friend's home, drinking wine and eating snacks. Good conversation, lots of laughter. Then, someone says, "We'd better talk about the book." No one actually groans, but there is a shift in the room and the give and take atmosphere of a moment earlier transforms into an artificial encounter. I have a theory about this phenomenon, but before I begin to posit, let me share a little bit about my recent reading.

My last post centered on a book series I was reading featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. I love talking about books with others, particularly because I hear about good books I would not ordinarily have come across. Every Christmas, my sister Nancy gives me a stack of books she has enjoyed during the year and it is always one of my favorite gifts. This year the first in Louise Penny's Gamache series was among them, as well as Kindred  by Octavia Butler (one of the few African American  women known for science fiction) and Our Lady of the Forest by David Guterson.

In Kindred, Octavia Butler explores slavery using the device of time travel. Set in 1974, Dana, the novel's African American protagonist, is suddenly transported to early 19th Century Maryland just in time to save young Rufus, a plantation owner's son. No gratitude is expressed. She is considered a slave and appropriated by the plantation owner. Everything about her, from her jeans to the ability to read and write, is suspicious. Not surprisingly, Dana runs afoul of the repressive system and is subject to the whip. In a series of trips through time, she comes to understand that the boy Rufus is her own ancestor. Whenever his life is in danger, she finds herself transported to old Maryland. She only returns to the 20th Century when her own life is threatened, and often she returns broken and bleeding. For Dana (and for me) the biggest revelation is how easily she slips into behaving like a slave, watching her words, keeping her head down and her heart numb. Caring is just too dangerous.

I've just started Our Lady of the Forest, an account of a young homeless girl's visions of the Virgin Mary. Having been raised Catholic in the 50s and 60s, it's a subject that interests me. (I also have to confess that as a morbidly good child, my night-time fear was just such a visitation -- with Mary in the role of the boogieman. I remember saying my prayers and adding a petition that I not be visited by any holy spectres.)So far the book is fine, but I'm having difficulty relating to the young heroine who is definitely not as saintly as I was at a similar age. Even though the premise is interesting, this is not a book I would have chosen, primarily because the last book I read by Guterson, East of the Mountains, was such a disappointment.

Given my love for books, you might wonder why I am not in a book club, why, in fact, I hate them, and why I will make up and stick to any absurd excuse that pops into my head to avoid them. I've tried several and concluded that there are few social gatherings that promise so much and deliver so little. This is not the fault of the book or the club's members.

Above, I said I love talking about books, so what is it about a book club that sends me reeling toward the gin? Well, let's see: the discussion is not about books. It is about book. The discussion is often not a  real discussion, rather a painful re-enactment of a high school or college literature class. You have only to look at the book club discussion guide at the end of any current book (this is a recent phenomenon) and you'll immediately see the academic bent assumed even by the publisher. For example, the discussion guide at the back of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak asks: What is ironic about Liesel's obsession with stealing books? Discuss other uses of irony in the novel. Ack! That's not a real question. That's a school question. And if you recall discussions in literature classes, you'll remember the long silences, nodding heads, the studied comments of the one or two who actually participated. This happened both when I was a student and when I was a teacher. It's not that bad in a book club, but there is wine, after all.

My sister belongs to a book club that seems to work for her, and I can see why. Everyone in the club brings a different book, one that they have read recently, don't want back and would recommend. Each member says something about the book -- why it's interesting, what it meant to them personally, what it reminded them of, why it was challenging, how it's connected to daily life. It's personal and inviting, relaxed. Not only that, but every member hears about several books they might want to read, rather than one they everyone has already read.

That's what I did when I wrote about my recent reading at the beginning of this blog. I made a few comments about books, and it could be that one of you will want to read  one of them. I do realize that many of you probably love your book club, but I'd like to suggest that you try the approach that my sister's club does at least once -- and see how the conversation goes. You can bring any book you've enjoyed, and say what you want. If you're inclined to talk about irony, that's fine, but don't expect everyone to. I think you'll enjoy it.

Just one more thing -- how about trying this in schools? If kids weren't reading, bookstores wouldn't have young adult sections. Kids may not be reading what's assigned, but could it be that they aren't interested and find the discussions tedious. The truth is that many teachers allowed their students to choose their own reading material and share it with their classmates in the days before standardized tests became the point of reading. Nancie Atwell's groundbreaking book, In the Middle, describes what happened in her classroom when students partnered in their own literacy. That's another book I'd recommend. When I talk to teachers about this approach they always say, "How will I know the students have really read the book?" or "What if they have questions I can't answer?" Well, I give a 4-hour workshop on this which no one wants me to repeat here, but here are a couple of points:

You'll notice that I talked about books that not every one had read, and I don't think any of you suspected that I hadn't really read them. That's because I could talk about them. I had things to say that made sense. And if anyone had asked a question -- a real question, not a school question -- I could have responded: Why did you choose this book? What made you keep wanting to read? It reminds me of some other books I've read -- have you ever tried [author X]? These are questions students can answer, questions that will reveal a great deal about their understanding of text. Not only that, but they will hear about 20-some other books they might enjoy. Give it a chance and see what happens to discussion.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Love and the Reader-Self

Coat of Arms of the Sûreté du Quebec
I am a little behind in posting on both of my blogs this week because I am in love again. It's all there: the preoccupation, the what if, the setting aside of important tasks while I immerse myself in his world. I don't fall in love with fictional characters as often as I used to, but it happens, and then I live in a state of suspended reality until the book or, if I am lucky, the series has fluttered to a close.

This time, the object of my affectionate stalking is Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, head of the homicide department of the Sûreté du Québec, and thankfully the recurring character in a series of novels by Louise Penny. Gamache is intelligent, dignified, courteous and compassionate-- a rare combination for anyone, let alone a homicide inspector.  His character is well-layered, becoming more complex and compelling with each page of each book. Rather than developing the psychological calluses that plague the stereotypical "hard-boiled" detective, Gamache becomes more thoughtful in his approach to witnesses and suspects, more aware of how the world's gifts of love and beauty can become burdens that become motives.

This is not the first time I've fallen for a literary character. When most girls were angling for prom dates, I was falling for Fitzwilliam Darcy. I had seen the 1940 film version of Pride and Prejudice with Laurence Olivier, but I didn't fall in love with him. It was the book's Mr. Darcy who enchanted me to such an extent that I read the book seven times the year I was fourteen, and of course many times after. Like E.A. Robinson's "Richard Corey," I imagined him as. "A gentleman from sole to crown/Clean favored, and imperially slim..." Mr. Darcy formed my ideal for many years, and in life I found myself attracted to men who were emotionally distant, mistaking it for reserve.

As in life, however, you can't go home again. You can't re-read a book with the same "eyes hanging out" novelty as you did the first time. You know too much. There are no surprises in the re-read book. Even though the text on the page remains the same, you have changed, and filter all those fairy tales with jaded eyes.

And yet, I re-read books all the time, and I know I'll re-read the Gamache series. In fact, I've come to judge a book's quality based whether it can be re-read with any further enjoyment or insight. The Grand Sophy? Yes. John Carter on Mars? No. Re-reading is different, of course. I focus more on language and the subtleties I missed the first time and fourth. I even re-read Pride and Prejudice from time to time, especially this year as I write my sequel. I still find a thrill in the scene where Mr. Darcy shows emotion for the first time, when he discovers Elizabeth distraught over Lydia's elopement. His reserve breaks down: '"Good God! what is the matter?'' cried he, with more feeling than politeness..." Such a simple line with such great impact.

I wonder sometimes if my reader-self, she who enters a variety of worlds unafraid, isn't the real me, the one I've never achieved in real life. There's no one to perform for or conform with. It's all right to be surprised by the event I didn't see coming. I can absorb everything, move slowly or run. Dream and see the dream come true. At least she's there on command, though. And perhaps I can someday become the reader-self in the life that's still being written.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Gin soaked digressions (with a side of olives)

Some of my friends call me Sister Mary Martini. And they're right; I am religious about my martinis, a purist. My bar order: dry gin martini, up, olives on the side. By dry, I mean that, if the bartender wants to dab a little vermouth behind each ear, I don't mind. But that's as close as the vermouth bottle should come to the martini glass. I also want good gin, preferably Tanqueray 10. Some may prefer to drink martinis made with vodka if they like. It's up to them.

Gin. Or vodka.

Note: A martini does not contain crème de menthe. Or peach schnapps. Or melon liqueur or any other such component more traditionally found in the test kitchens of Godiva Chocolates, regardless of what upscale "martini bars" may list on their little dance-card-esque menus.

But I digress.

I was attracted to martinis early on. Like all good parents in the 1950s, mine drank martinis. (My father also prospected for uranium and brought it home, stored it under our beds and let us kids play with the Geiger counter. Tick. Tick. Tick. Ah! The 50s! Again, I digress.) With martinis came green olives, to which my siblings and I shared a dedicated addiction. Once a month or so, my parents used to take us all to the Belvedere, a supper club in our little town. On one occasion, the manager brought a big bowl of green olives to our table. Apparently some of us were going about and asking the other patrons if they planned on eating their olives. Not acceptable behavior. By the time I was in college, I could walk into any bar in Moscow, Idaho -- and there were a lot of them -- and the bartender would bring me a martini glass full of olives and a double shot of gin on the side. (The innocent olive, you understand, leads to the hard stuff.)

Gin Lane
 H.L. Mencken called the martini "the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet. And E.B. White called it "the elixir of quietude." Gin did not always have such elegant connotations, however. Take a look this Hogarth etching, titled "Gin Lane." (I love this picture. It looks like some of my parties, although I trust no children have come to harm here.)

Beer Street
"Gin Lane" depicts eager traders as they present a saw and cooking utensils (instruments of their livelihood)s to the pawnbroker, an old man gnaws a bone as a wistful dog looks on, buildings decay and fall on hapless pedestrians. Dear, dear! Bad gin! (Hogarth contrasts the evils of gin to the healthy benefits of beer in a companion piece, "Beer Street." Gin, after all, was a foreign import.)

The evils of gin are illustrated in this cautionary verse, origins unknown but undoubtedly of more recent creation than Hogarth's work:

One martini's my limit --
Two at the very most!
For with three I'm under the table--
And four I'm under the host!

Well, we are all forewarned!

Here's one of mine, likewise cautionary:

Martini Girl

by Mary Chase

Born on the cusp
Between vodka and gin
Her mom was an olive
Her dad was a Finn

Old Mom walked on toothpicks
Her dad – not at all
(seemed like fate they’d conspired
to conceived at all)

When she was a toddler
She staggered and reeled
As a girl her aroma
Got her pitched out of school

Her elegant figure
Made a hit with the guys
(til they looked into
those bold pimento eyes)

One night she rambled
The streets full of grief
She encountered some rough boys
-- they all sought relief

They left just enough
For the coroner’s art
(and when he was finished
they pickled her heart).
A little dark, perhaps, but I like it just the same. Let me know if you think I should switch to beer.

Thursday, February 2, 2012


In 1998, I traveled to Iceland to teach a short course in "writing with technology" at the university. The opportunity came about because my colleague, Donald Graves, couldn't make the trip and he asked me to fill in. That's the mundane reason for this sudden chance to go someplace new. But I was also at a strange place in my life, and traveling to Iceland took me into a stranger realm, beautiful and surreal. It was fitting.

Gulla -- a double for Liv Ullmann -- met me at Keflavík Airport and we drove into a moon-like terrain. Iceland is studded with volcanic rocks and lava formations, and it was easy to see in them the faces and shapes of trolls turned to stone when caught in the sunlight. Icelanders like their trolls and respect them. As with the elves, they maintain a quid pro quo relationship, returning good for good and avoiding the mischief that arises when this pact is ignored. When we arrived at the seaside apartment I'd been assigned, Gulla and I walked out to the shore at the edge of Faxaflói Bay and poured some gin on the rocks (I'd brought several bottle of liquor as gifts) as an introductory offering to ensure a trouble-free stay.

Galleries and gift shops boasted shelves of troll dolls, stuffed troll mamas with babies snapped to their pendulous breasts, elf maidens and Vikings. But no one in Iceland apologized for the seamless overlap of folk belief with daily life in the twentieth century. One night we had dinner with a science professor and his wife, and the subject of trolls and elves came up. The year before, a highway had been re-routed so as not to interfere with a rock dedicated to elves. The  professor smiled when he told the story, but he didn't laugh. "After all," he said, "it's best to be safe, especially with a highway." 

 Throughout my stay, I poured gin on the rocks every morning and nodded to the troll faces that blinked back at me until I looked again. Elves were more reticent. I didn't see them, but they were there, especially, I think, in the sudden green of of valleys and among the small herds of Icelandic ponies that rose up in the mists.

I taught my class, met students from all over Iceland and some who had traveled from Greenland. They all spoke English, but when they chatted among themselves I listened to their ancient language which, by design, allows no interlopers from other languages. It was beautiful to hear. Only one word sounded familiar: Bless. As words will do, it had passed from Old Icelandic to Old English and down to us. Bless. That is how Icelanders say goodbye, and every parting was sacred to my ear.

I said at the outset that this was a strange time in my life. A few years prior to this adventure, my sister Sue had been diagnosed with and died of Inflammatory Breast Cancer, an insidiously fast moving form of the disease, often misdiagnosed or ignored until too late. That year was my turn. Just before my trip, I discovered symptoms identical to my sister's: a painful lump under the arm and slight rash that, because of its similarity to orange peel, is called peau d'orange. My doctor wanted to do a lumpectomy immediately, but I couldn't bring myself to cancel my trip. I was supposed to  leave the next day. The odds of dying from this disease were good. Even if I didn't die, the treatment itself would be so rigorous, I wouldn't be able to travel for a long time. Adventure, whether it would be my last or merely the next, spoke to me and I listened. I decided to go, and scheduled surgery for the day I returned.

Standing on the shore of the North Atlantic against a backdrop of story, gin bottle in hand, the deep magic of the land and whatever or whoever peopled it seeped into me. I already knew that death was nothing but a crossing between realms, but I learned here that in life we cross into other domains as well--if we are open to the offerings of chance. I returned home more peaceful than I had left, despite the tumor that had doubled in size. I sunk under the anesthetic as into another world where adventure might reside. I came out the other end with battle scars like the Vikings of old Iceland, but nothing to be mourned.

So, whatever journeys lie ahead, let's embark. Cast out to sea and let the waves take us or the gulls lead us. Let's listen to stories and believe for a time what those we encounter believe. And when we turn our sails towards home, leave behind the word "bless."