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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Book Club

I dreamed of being in a book club for years. I toyed with the idea of starting one, but I know so few people, and of those few even fewer who are interested in reading one book every month, then spending an hour or two talking about it. And then two months ago the miracle happened: the community association where I live started a book club. But to my surprise, to my dismay -- I didn't imagine it possible -- I'm disappointed in it.

The first book we read was Runaway: Stories, by Alice Munro. I'm mad about Alice Munro. I love Munro's writing; I was so excited to have the chance to talk about her stories with other people that I volunteered to be discussion leader. I took notes as I read and re-read the stories. I day-dreamed about the fascinating, intriguing things I was going to find out about her writing when I talked about it with others. I hoped there would be people in the book club who didn't like Alice Munro. What great spirited conversations we could have then! I got goosebumps thinking about it. I wrote long discussion questions and e-mailed them to everyone a week in advance. I dug myself deeper and deeper into my fantasy, like a wagon into mud.

For, you see, most people in the book club were so irritated and bored with the Munro's book they couldn't finish it. (Bored? That made my heart sink. People who are bored by good writing scare me a little bit.) A woman with sharp blue eyes and a gold watch that, as she talked, kept slipping up and down her wrist said, "The people in these stories drove me crazy. They made so many stupid choices. I wanted to yell at them to go buy themselves a self-help book already and pull themselves together." Another woman jumped in, nodding vigorously, "You know what? I don't want to read unhappy stories about people who don't know what they're doing. I have enough problems in my life. When I read I want to escape." I couldn't get the discussion out of this rut of complaint and frustration. A lone voice chirped in from time to time to say that Munro's writing was, nevertheless, quite good. But still, the stories were too depressing. And the purpose of reading is not to get depressed but to have fun.

I sat there, mortified, trying very hard not to let my smile slip off my face. I had to be a moderator, after all; I had to accept that these reactions to Munro's stories were valid. And besides, a little voice, very weak and very deep inside my head, told me that hearing all this was useful. I had there all around me the typical American reader. I didn't think such a person existed. But there she was (yes, she, there are no men in the bookclub, a fact that I can't figure out an explanation for), in front of me, demanding to be entertained.

We read Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett, the second month. The book didn't move me; I resented that the writer used tricks and shocking turns of plot to keep the story going. My feelings towards the book were lukewarm. I wasn't surprised when at the next meeting I found out that most people loved it. When I brought up the problem of the implausible ending, someone said, "Well, it's a book after all. It doesn't have to make sense." My face flushed. "No," I said, "a book has to make sense. It has to make sense more than real life does." A woman from across the room asked another question. And the difficult moment passed. I have to be fair, though, and say that there were good moments too. A woman who wore a beautiful green silk sweater gave me a new way to think about the ending that made a little bit more sense of it. And a few women shared life stories -- and I'm a sucker for stories, especially when they are told by older women.

And another good thing is that the book club has forced me to think hard about the reasons why I read -- to be transported into different places and different people; to be moved and shaken up and troubled, pushed to think and feel past my comfort zone. But it's never, never solely in order to be entertained. I hunt around for what Harold Bloom calls "difficult pleasure." I find that I have too many opportunities in my everyday life to be complacent, to stagnate. And I read because I want to grow and to learn and to change. I thought, very naively, very stupidly, that other readers were the same. I didn't ask myself why Danielle Steele or John Grisham sold so many millions of books, what that said about most readers. It's hard to believe, but I didn't. Talk about being complacent.

We're reading The Birth of Venus, by Sarah Dunant next month, a historical novel set in the Renaissance about a girl who wants to become an artist but is not allowed to. I dread it a little bit; writing, bad or good, has an uncanny power over me. But I think of this as a baptism of fire. I will have found what it's like to read "light" books, how my system reacts to it. And when I have had enough, there's always the option of running away.

6 Comments:

Blogger * wallflower * said...

Hi -- Blogger randomly pointed me here, and I'm happy to find another avid reader.

May I say I think you are brave joining a book club. :^) I prefer (and I think I need) to be a solitary reader for several reasons (busy mother of 2 active teens tops my list).

Unfortunately, I agree with the majority of your book clubbers re: Alice Munro. Years ago I eagerly dove into her book of short stories that I had very selectively chosen through a mail-order book club. After about the 3rd story with no "real" ending, I couldn't bring myself to open the cover again. *grimace* But I do appreciate other readers' opinions, too, and I learn of viewpoints and details that I missed along my reading journey.

Well, sorry to have babbled so much -- just happy to see a non-shocking blog out there amongst the anger, pornography, and lousy spelling! lol

cheers -- wallflower, relatively new to blogging

April 07, 2006  
Blogger Green Whale said...

Thanks for coming b, wallflower -- and thanks to Blogger and its mysterious ways of connecting people.

About Alice Munro -- I think it's okay to dislike her; what I don't understand is being bored by her. I do appreciate your honesty in speaking about her.

Happy blogging!

April 07, 2006  
Blogger Rebel Girl said...

What I like about Munro is her willingess to resist closure and tidy endings - like life.

April 07, 2006  
Anonymous kameleon said...

one of the things i can immensely enjoy while reading is style - or how things are said, put to the paper. i can deal with a weak plot, as long as each sentence is an adventure to encounter. thats why i cannot read many bestsellers - and enjoy so much what you have to tell!

April 08, 2006  
Blogger Marigoldie said...

I am also a fan of Alice Munro, although most of what I've read has been New Yorker stories and "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage," which I adored. She is maybe like the director Robert Altman, interested in behavior over plot.

April 12, 2006  
Anonymous guile said...

runaway is got to be one of the best short story collections in the last decade.. i love ms munro's work :)..

April 19, 2006  

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