Book Clubs I’ve Had a Few

The last book I reviewed was Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, which was the selection chosen by my latest book group attempt. See, I’m a book club enthusiast, and not only do I love reading books, I love analyzing, arguing, and generally shooting the shit about them. Like a lot. I don’t really remember being in a formal book club as a kid, but I do remember how fun it was to be reading the same books as my friends and talking about them. Back in the ‘70s, there were limited entertainment options, so we did this old-timey thing called reading books. As a kid, my friends and I all fell in love with Laura Ingalls Wilder, and some of us more ambitious readers got turned on to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne series, as well. Later, half my class got their period and read Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, and then later on we tried weed and got scared shitless by Go Ask Alice. So I guess in some way I was socialized as a youngster to read and talk books with my friends, and I really really enjoyed it, even more so today. I’ve tried a few book clubs over the past couple decades, some more successful than others, and as long as I’m reading books, I’ll keep trying to find someone to talk to me about them. Below, is the history of my book group struggle.

The Food Club

The group was started by my close friend who wanted to hook up with a guy and was trying to figure out a way to get to know him, so she started the club. He showed up for the first meeting and never came back, but they did date for three years, so I guess it was a success? Anyway, this was the closest to my ideal book group. The make-up was co-ed, there were consistently ten people in attendance, and there was a diverse, if not particularly ambitious, selection of books, such as Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. My favorite part of the club though was that each person had a chance at hosting and paired the food to the book selection, so we had full-on meals based on the book. Think southern food for Cold Mountain and high tea for Northanger Abbey. Mmmm. I forgot how this club ended, but some of us wanted to continue, so a handful of us grabbed a couple more people and started another group. It didn’t last long, and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deer Slayer killed it.

French Chic

In the early 2000s, I joined this French Chic online group, which was comprised of a bunch of women who sought to emulate French practices in their life. It mostly had to do with clothing and food, but they also had an online book club, which I tried for one selection. Of course the book had to be written by a French author, and so I ended up reading Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola. Loved the book but found the online discussion a bit unwieldy. We also did the book in sections and had to be careful to not give spoilers. Maybe I just missed the food. Either way, that was the only book I read with the Frenchy group.

raquin

The Irish

I have a book journal that says I was in a book group in 2003, but I have no memory of it whatsoever. I’m only calling it the Irish group as I’m married to an Irishman who says depression is an Irish characteristic like pale skin. In reviewing my journal, well, it doesn’t sound like a very chipper group: The Jungle, The Bell Jar, Animal Farm, Brave New World.

I think I started listing the books I read sometime in the '80s.
I think I started listing the books I read sometime in the ’80s.

Smarty-Pants Group

My Taekwondo friend joined a book group via her running buddy and got me into his book club. A bit of an intimidating group as they were all Harvard graduates — only my friend and I were from a non-Ivy league background. Regardless, we held our own. This group was quite small, about five people, and conversation stalled at times. A good selection of books, but not the most dynamic personalities or maybe it was just a weird mix of people (I’m including myself in the weirdness). Either way, I was only in it for a few months.

pygmy

False Start Group

I was all gung-ho to finally start my own book group. We read three books together, and even though it was small, conversation was fluid. But then…well, then I started grad school. Buh-bye, book group and the rest of my life.

Le Book Group

I wanted a fancy name for my book club. So in January 2014, I started my last book club. I had been out of grad school for a few years, and I so badly missed discussing what I and others were reading. I was able to gather a mix of men and women, and friends from different areas of my life, like former co-workers, grad school classmates, running buddies, and my regular social circle. I enjoyed the book choices of fiction and non-fiction, and the discussions very much, but, well, the downfall was that I was the solo host, and it got to be a pain trying to coordinate schedules, get RSVPs, and host. I got a little burned out, so I put it on hold at the beginning of the year. I’ll most likely re-visit in the fall since, well, my last book group attempt was a bit of a fail.

flannery
We ate cornbread while we discussed the book.

Ladies Drinking Club With A Book Problem!

That’s the actual name of this meet-up group. Even though I don’t drink, this was a robust group in my neighborhood that read a lot of books and, best of all, already had a steady rotation of hosts! Aaahh, to just be a guest. Lovely. I wasn’t particularly enticed by the book selections, as I’m not really a chick lit fan, but I was able to find a couple that I thought would be fun to read: Wild and Yes Please. Well, if you’ve read my book reviews, you know that I couldn’t get past chapter two of Wild, so I passed on that meeting, but I did finish Amy Poehler’s book and showed up excited to meet new peeps to chat books with. They were a super welcoming group, and I was pleasantly surprised by the make-up of the group. There were a couple in the legal profession, a few in the arts, a software engineer, and a person in the cruise industry to name a few. The book discussion was lively and yay! another person didn’t care for Yes Please either. So that was the first hour. Then the first half of the book group name started taking hold, the wine bottles were getting emptied, and the discussion was getting a little less coherent and definitely veering off into other places, which, well, I want to talk about the book or other books, dammit! I cut out early, but they were still going strong on…I don’t know, I kind of zoned out. Probably not going back.

While this last foray into book clubs was ultimately a fail, I still love and am hopeful that I’ll be back in one. Besides the discussions, my favorite thing is when I’m pushed to read a book that I normally wouldn’t read, and I end up LOVING it. I’m bent towards non-fiction, so I defer to my fellow book club members to steer me into the fiction waters. Here are my favorite “Never Woulda Picked That to Read But So Glad I Did” selections.

Game of Thrones – Obviously this was before HBO made Khaleesi a household name. This book was chosen in the Harvard Smarty Pants Club. This guy picked it, and he described it as a political Dungeons and Dragons. Uh, WTF?! Dude, I couldn’t put it down, and ended up reading the next one. Get it together, George R.R. Martin, and finish the series before you succumb to diabetes!

Confederacy of Dunces – Reading about a depressed obese dude did not sound appealing, but my friend, who I trust wholeheartedly when it comes to books, swore up and down it was fantastic. She was right.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – I first heard about this book from the Smarty Pants Group, but we never read it. We ended up reading it in my False Start Group, and the group was definitely split on whether they liked it. This was one of those books that I did not enjoy for the first half as I just couldn’t connect with Junot Diaz’s rhythm, but then something clicked, and I relaxed and got into it, and OMG, I fucking loved it. I only kept reading because it was for the book group, and I chose it, and I wasn’t going to come unprepared. So thank you book club.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. ‘Nuff said.

Aaah, just writing this has me wishing for someone to talk to about whatever book I choose next, but I’m hopeful that sometime soon I’ll have another opportunity to say something like “Weren’t you disappointed there wasn’t more done with the cannibalism scene?” (City of Lights) or “Who thought you could end up hating a kid whose mom was murdered? Only Ellroy could make it so easy” (My Dark Places). For sure, in the not-too-distant future, I’ll be talking about a book set in Canada and eating a Tim Horton’s donut! Reading and discussing is in my DNA, so if you’re up for it and in the 818, hit me up!

Revoke My Woman Card aka I Didn’t Love Amy Poehler’s Book

Before you break up with me, let me be clear: I like Amy Poehler. I just wasn’t thrilled with her book. Worse, if I’m totally honest – and this pains me – I found that I liked her a little less after reading it. Sorry. I really am. It’s not you; it’s me.

I’ve done two book reviews here, and lest you think I’m a book snob, I am not. I’m in the middle of, and very much digging, Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians. I devoured Hunger Games. I’ve also enjoyed previous memoirs by funny women: Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns). Poehler’s Yes Please was not up to par with Fey’s or Kaling’s offerings.

Amy-1

Poehler didn’t want to write the book. I’m not speculating – she has an entire preface dedicated to how difficult it was for her to write a book. She mentions it throughout the book. At one point I thought it might be a running gag (I guess it still could be), but it’s evident in her tone and the sheer laziness of her writing. Yes, laziness. Disjointed thoughts, huge empty blank spaces, gimicky things like pages filled with one sentence life advice platitudes. There are self-empowerment section titles that came across as corny afterhoughts: “Say Whatever you Want,” “Do Whatever you Like,” “Be Whoever You Are.” At one point, she has Seth Meyers write a chapter, which is interesting on the one hand to get his perspective; on the other, write your own damn book. There is no cohesive thread, and the chapters read not even like essays, but more like blog posts or a BuzzFeed list (see chapter on her Parks and Rec castmates.)

Lists and categories. C'mon Amy, you can do better.
Lists and categories. C’mon Amy, you can do better.

She also divulges little about her life that couldn’t be discovered from an in-depth Rolling Stone interview. This is where I found the biggest difference between Poehler’s and Kaling’s and Fey’s books. The latter two writers revealed some vulnerability, and I could connect with them on some “Celebrities, they’re just like us!” level. Now it’s not Amy’s fault that she was born to the head cheerleader and captain of the football team, or that she’s always been a cute, petite, blonde, popular, and had boyfriends, but the one thing – the ONE thing – that could have exposed any struggle, she didn’t want to talk about. She simply refused to talk about her divorce. Now, I get not wanting to go into any messy divorce details, but she didn’t even go into her courtship with Will Arnett, her husband of ten years and the father of her two children; meanwhile, ex-boyfriend Matt Besser is featured quite a bit. There are certainly ways of discussing the heartache of your marriage dissolving without giving a blow-by-blow account. Was it a surprise? Were you in therapy? Something other than fake book titles for the divorce book you would write. Amy held us at arm’s length, for sure.

Amy Poehler is funny, at times this book was funny, but ultimately, it was relatively shallow, and left me feeling like she thought she was doing me a favor for writing it. No thanks. If you weren’t that into it, and you weren’t going to tell me something real, then don’t write a G-D memoir.

Disappointed.

Book Review: Why I Couldn’t Make It Through Three Chapters of Wild

With marathon training picking up again, I decided to put my book group on hold. It was becoming a bit too much to be the organizer and host, but I really dig chopping it up about books, so I joined an all-female Meetup book group near my home. I was totally looking forward to attending my first meeting later this month and discussing Wild by Cheryl Strayed.

 Y'all lied to me, New York Times.
Y’all lied to me, New York Times.

Even though I probably wouldn’t have picked up Wild myself, the story interested me, and I like reading some of that type of genre. Meaning, I like running books and enjoyed Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. I certainly didn’t expect a literary masterpiece…but holy hell.

In three “I” words: indulgent, improbable, insufferable.

Here is my review of the first two chapters and one paragraph, because seriously, Unfinishable!

First of all, Strayed is terribly unlikeable. I’ve read that some women view her as a heroine, someone who dug deep to find herself and her untapped strength, blah blah blah. I found her wholly enchanted by her own Specialness. Yes, there are some unique circumstances that she was raised in, like living in a log cabin for a few of her childhood years. However, the first two chapters of her navel-gazing seemed self-serving, like a prelude to her explanation for her bad behavior. Look at my weird upbringing! She eventually gets to the real cause, though, for her serial infidelity: her mother died of cancer. Excuse me!?! Many people have lost a loved one to cancer, and they don’t screw the cook at the restaurant they’re working at while they’re married. Grr.

This is why I cheated on my husband - Exhibit A.
This is why I cheated on my husband – Exhibit A.

Even with Strayed being an unsympathetic character, I was willing to plod on. Hoping if at least she remained unlikeable, the story would be good enough to carry me through to the end. Then I got to these four sentences.

finalstraw
The final straw.

See, there were indications of this shit writing earlier, but this? This sent me over the edge. The fucking petal metaphor. Really? No…really?

I would have said it was a waste of one hour, but my friend noted that sometimes it takes us reading the bad to appreciate the good, and she’s right. I had pretty much liked everything I’d read recently and wondered if not hosting my book group had caused me to lose my critical eye and left me with a lack of discernment. But no. So I guess “Thank you, Cheryl Strayed”? I know this review sounds harsh, especially as I realize many people found her story inspiring; however, I’m not nearly half as critical as this blogger who has devoted an entire blog to Wild entitled “I Hate Cheryl Strayed.” Each entry breaks down a chapter from the book, and not only critiques the writing, but the improbability of Strayed’s claims — even down to how heavy her backpack really was.

Anyway, I thought about finishing Wild as a hate read, but as noted in this post, there are like twenty-something other books I want to read this year, so I will be moving on. I also toyed with the idea of showing up to the book club meeting anyway, but perhaps my group debut should be less hostile. I really am trying to make more women friends, after all.

I’d love to end this review with a cutting pun using “Wild” and “Strayed,” but I just want to put this wildermess behind me. (Ha!)

P.S. My friend called the movie “hateful,” so I’ll be passing on that too.