Sunday, October 21, 2007

What are you doing in my book?

I can still remember the moment when, as a child in elementary school, I heard another child talk about a book I'd just read. What? I thought, She knows those people, too? It was as if someone suddenly announced that they'd had the same dream I'd had.

From as far back as I can remember, I'd get so immersed in reading that I'd tune out all noise around me and I wouldn't hear my name being called. I was living with those characters. I entered their world, and they inhabited my mind. (It's no wonder that one of my all-time favorite movies is Woody Allen's "Purple Rose of Cairo," where movie characters step off the screen into Mia Farrow's life and she is allowed to enter into the fictional movie world.) So the thought that other people -- random people! -- knew those same characters and had entered that same world really shocked me. I felt invaded, somehow, and then, of course, rather foolish for reacting so proprietarily about fictional characters.

Perhaps that's why, to this day, I have a hard time talking about novels. I read them constantly, and I love reading with a deep passion. But talking about the novels I've read feels a bit like opening up private dreams, and verbally critiquing novels can feel a bit like betraying family members. I know, it's odd and not logical, especially since critical reading and analytical skills are key in my professional life. Give me any nonfiction and I can talk about it without hesitation and analyze it with sharp skill. But with fiction, I'm essentially non-critical. I enter the world the author has created, and I live in it until the end of the book. I don't think about it critically, really, unless I have a hard time staying engrossed... and then I admit to myself that the book isn't well written or the characters are wooden or the plot is pretty dumb. But generally speaking, give me a fictional world and I'll forgivingly jump right in. To be honest, I read to escape, not to think.

And those issues cause me to wonder how it is I've gotten myself into not just one, but TWO book clubs. The superficial explanations are easy. One group, my "no guilt" book club, is a group of moms who connected when our kids were in preschool together. We really like each other, and our day-to-day lives no longer allow us to see each other, so our monthly book club dinner is a chance to connect and catch up. We're really a women's-going-out-to-dinner group, with occasional references to books we've read. I love those get-togethers, and I love how we can go from talking about books to discussing which new wine releases are good to crying over someone's recent separation to giggling over a cute waiter and then gossiping about which PTO member showed up with some new plastic surgery. It's that sort of deep intellectual connection that keeps us all showing up for more.

The second club is a new thing. I live on a street in a suburban development where many of the houses are occupied by new families. My next door neighbor J. is new at staying at home with her 2 year old, and I think she's eager to generate some intellectual stimulation. She decided to organize a book club for the women on our street, so we'd get to know each other and have some smart conversations about books. The pressure to participate was, shall we say, not subtle. I agreed, finally, thinking that at least I'd get to know some of the neighbors I barely know.

We met last month at J.'s house to organize and talk about the first pick, which was Pat Conroy's The Great Santini. I hadn't even picked up the book from the library before I got a phone call from J. telling me not to bother reading it. Apparently various folks had agreed that they hated it, and they all wanted to watch the movie instead. A "Don't Read the Book but Watch the Movie Instead" book club? Well, I figured I'd see. So, when we met, Robert Duvall verbally abused his family on the tv screen in the background while we chit-chatted and ate lunch, and one neighbor lobbied to have our next book be "one of those mysteries with recipes in it." We could even make the recipes, she suggested, and compare results.

Ultimately, a third neighbor got the task of choosing this month's book and she chose Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. As I'd had this book on my shelf for a few months but hadn't yet gotten around to reading it, I was rather pleased. And I enjoyed the book enormously, even though it took an entirely different track than what I'd anticipated from reading the cover blurbs when I bought it. (It's the story of -- well, I can't even begin to describe it. Go read the description.)

And today is our next book club get together. Given that I have a hard time talking about novels to begin with, and that this book addresses gender confusion and hermaphrodite-ism and incest and family secrets and other pretty huge issues, and there was no movie for the non-readers to watch, AND there were no recipes in the book, I have no idea how this afternoon will go.

I'll show up with my book in hand and a bit of crocheting to keep my hands busy, because it's the neighborly thing to do. And I'm reminding myself that I'm not going to be bothered that other people lived in my little Middlesex world for a while, too.

I'm updating this to report on the book club meeting. The non-reading neighbor didn't come, begging off due to a family commitment. She is expected to come next time, though, so I will defer my assessment until then I guess. The six of us who came had a very active and interesting discussion of the novel, as it turned out. We vary in age, from about 60 down to 30, and it was interesting to see how age/generational experiences affected our views of the novel. And yes, I was able to express some views about recurring themes in the book without feeling as if I was betraying family confidences! So, it was a lovely afternoon, actually. The pick for next time hasn't been selected yet, but I'm encouraged as the choices are all interesting ones. And maybe Ms. Movie will end up deciding to drop the group altogether. I hope.


  1. Anonymous9:38 AM

    I don't know why, but I am getting such a kick out of this post. You are a good neighbor; I think I would have bowed out by now. Let us know how the discussion goes.

  2. "It was as if someone suddenly announced that they'd had the same dream I'd had."
    Right on! That's just how I feel.