Tag Archives: Book club

Book Club Quandary

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I’ll go ahead and admit that I was focused on the carrot cake and not fully listening to Brenda. She talks often in our book club meetings, so I thought it was safe to tune out a bit and think instead about people who are into cake. Cake discussions invariably address moistness, sweetness, and cake-frosting ratio, and this particular carrot cake was scoring high on all counts. While there were no worries of me running to the Dutch bakery to buy more of it and blow my diet, I certainly was “in the moment” and savoring this generous slice of carbohydrates while Brenda relayed something of interest to the group.

There were 7 of us at the round table, a normal turnout for the monthly meeting of our 10-year old club. If you’ve ever seen the clever cocktail napkins with a drawing of a book and a bottle of wine, you likely have a sense of the ethos of our gatherings: a wine club that reads books. Most of our time is social; we are as likely to spend a couple of hours talking about vacations or grandkids as we are discussing the month’s book of choice. Nobody leads the discussion, there are no pre-arranged questions to keep us on topic, and the selection of next month’s book is as random as deciding on a title that someone stumbled upon recently in a Facebook post.

This club casualness explains why I was suprised when I tuned back in to the topic at hand at our last meeting. I looked up from my glob of cream cheese frosting and realized that Brenda had ventured into a monologue about how reading a book you might not like initially can be a character-building experience. She proclaimed that the whole point of a book club is to open one’s mind to titles which would not normally draw you in. “We learn from what we read,” she continued, “and unexpected worlds are to be found in a book that may not typcially be appealing.”

I shook off my sugar buzz and started paying closer attention to her speech. Without naming names, she seemed frustrated that someone would come to book club meetings and be dismissive of many of the featured works. I looked around the table and suddenly had the thought: she is talking about me!

It’s no secret in the group that I have little interest in many of the books everyone reads and reviews. I am not a huge fan of fiction, and am a snob about non-fiction, which leaves little else to consider. If I get overly stressed in my life, I find that I barely have the attention span for magazine articles, much less full stories. If I start a book and it doesn’t captivate me with wonderment in the first 3 chapters, I thoughtlessly abandon it right into my box of Goodwill donations. I rarely suggest titles at the meetings, and seldom chime in to book-related conversations. I don’t even participate with bringing food very often. In short, I am a sub-par member of the group, and up until now, it seemed to be ok. People still seemed to enjoy seeing me, periodically asking about something I was reading or doing in my life, and I believed that my lack of participation was a non-issue, at least until it occured to me over carrot cake that I might be a dark cloud in the otherwise jovial proceedings.

Suddenly, my philosophy of “life is short, read what you like” was called into question. Sure, I have read some books I would not have otherwise as a result of the club, and I have tossed in a few comments and suggestions here and there, but truly I am the only one in the club outside of my BFF (who rarely attends) with signficant detachment from the task at hand. I love to read as much as anyone else in the group, but I don’t read as often or as many genres as my club cohorts. I am only motivated to read things that inspire or delight or intrigue me. Anything else feels inauthentic, giving me flashbacks to my college years when I suffered through pages which failed to captivate my mind.

If I absolutely HAD to read the book in order to attend the meeting, or thought I would feel uncomfortable if I didn’t, I would have dropped out years ago, finding it all too obligatory and taxing. From the moment I realized that I was the subject of open criticism (I wanted to proclaim, “I’m right here!” as she was speaking), I’ve been contemplating stepping out of the club completely. If I am not adding value, perhaps I don’t need to be there, despite my affection for all of the members, Brenda included.

In the aftermath of this mental debate, I stumbled upon a book in the bookstore and immediately fell in love. This is the kind of immediate, visceral reaction I crave from a book, causing me to feel that all other books are just blind dates gone bad from which I need to escape through a bathroom window. The author of the book, Will Schwalbe, is astonishly articulate, with a keen intelligence and clean style. The topic of the book spoke to my book club quandry, and drew me in with the author’s charm and relatability. Titled Books for Living, it echoes Brenda’s passionate plea that an unexpected book can be life-changing, but it also addresses the dynamic, personal relationship we all have with the works we read. The opening of Schwalbe’s masterpiece engaged me with a description of a dream about not having anything to read on a plane, an intense fear that surpassed any other possible discomfort of the flight, and proceeds to explain books which have impacted his life in some way. I was indescribably happy to have discovered this literary jewel, and found myself walking along downtown streets reading the delicious pages without concern for anything else in the world.

In Books for Living, Schwalbe encourages us to bring books into our daily conversations, asking strangers and family members about what they like to read instead of always leaning on the mundane topics of work or weather. Books are a significant part of our lives, not just a source of knowledge or entertainment, and I know in my heart that this message is what Brenda was trying to convey while I sat feeling judged and confused. We all seek answers to big questions in our lives, and there is no greater source of comfort and insight than the millions of books which have been written by people with similar conundrums.

There is a notable amount of randomness with which we discover books, and a great deal of personalness to the questions we bring to each one. We’ve all found such gems in a casual stroll past a display table at the bookstore, a conversation with a stranger on a plane, or a book club conversation over carrot cake. The trick is to be open to the process and what works for you. I may be a little quicker to the draw on deciding whether or not a book speaks to me, or jump out the bathroom window if it feels like it’s not my thing, but I am as fervent as the next guy about seeking books which might be significant.

I’m not sure yet where I stand on my book club questions (the song “Should I Stay or Should I Go” comes to mind), but I’ll ruminate on it. Perhaps I will be so inspired by Books for Living that I will feel compelled to go so that I can share this treasure with my friends. Perhaps I will step up my game and read more uncomfortable genres. Or maybe I’ll take a hiatus for introspection about why I give up so easily. Either way, I’m sure Mr. Schwalbe will have some reliable advice, as important books often do.

 

 

 

My First (sorta) Book Review

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I am blessed to belong to an awesome book club that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It may well be the best club ever: not too big or small, not too casual or cerebral. Everything about it is just right. I often steal the line, “a wine club that likes to read”, because we enjoy our libations and fellowship as much or more than our book discussions. There is just one teensy problem with me and my club-I don’t like reading.

Don’t get me wrong; I used to love reading. But something oddly snapped off in the past couple of years. First it was fiction; I didn’t have any interest in novels. One of my club members Diane would say, “You know Angela, she only wants to read if she learns something,” which was true. But I also didn’t have the energy to follow a story. The difficulty came when I started losing interest in non-fiction. It may have been around the time of my Leadership Augusta Board Chair gig; perhaps I was too stressed or something. I could only muster enough attention for a blog or magazine article.

I might be back on track, however, thanks to one book: The Happiness Project. While I am still not entertaining any fiction titles, I did read this entire book-something I haven’t done in a long time. Sadly, I was unable to attend the book club meeting about it, so I decided to share my assessment via blog as a quasi-book review. It may be my first official book review, but with the disclaimer that since I talk so much about myself, it really doesn’t count.

The book is by Gretchen Rubin, who spends an entire year dedicated to the pursuit of her own happiness. The goal is as lofty and esoteric as it sounds. After much research, she tackles the project in a complicated way, which is probably why I can relate to the book. Like me, Ms. Rubin makes things way more difficult than they have to be, which might seem counter-productive to her purpose, but somehow she manages to pull it off.

A warning: if your brain operates like mine, you will not be able to read this book without taking notes. After the author started rattling off multiple lists, I knew I would have to do something to keep them straight: I counted 12 Commandments of Happiness, 12 Resolutions, and 22 Secrets of Adulthood.

So let’s tackle the first list: the commandments. The word itself seems a bit strict for a book on happiness, but that is easily overlooked. More difficult to forgive is the lack of editing, because there should have been seven instead of twelve commandments. “Lighten Up”, “No calculation”, “Enjoy the Process” and “Let it Go” are really all the same message. Likewise “Do it now”, “Do what ought to be done” and “Identify the Problem”.  Of her 12 commandments, the only ones that truly resonate with me include “Be Yourself”, “Enjoy the Process” and “Be Polite and Fair”.

The “Secrets of Adulthood” seemed random and mostly inconsequential, with such tips as “Bring a sweater” and “OTC meds are very effective”. The one I pulled away from this much-longer list: “What you do every day matters more than what you do once in awhile.” So true! It reminds me of another non-fiction book, The Power of Habit. The absolute best “Secret” was #17: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”. I wish she would have written the entire book on that one secret. It evokes a Jane Fonda quote from an Oprah interview: “The quest for perfection is toxic.”  I am convinced Ms. Fonda and Ms. Rubin are onto something.

Finally, we have the 12 Resolutions, which are tackled one per month within the given year, in the same way that name-memory game works. The life-changes she makes in January, she has to continue to do when she adds February’s resolutions, both of which must be maintained when March’s objectives are added to the mix, and so on. It seems like a daunting expectation of oneself, and certainly not an easy path to happiness. At this point, I am thinking the book should have been called the “Success Project” or the “Overacheiver Project”. I begin to get tired just from reading about everything she is making herself do.

Somehow I hang in there with her, though, I think because the quest is something that has been on my own mind lately. I certainly would give it a different flavor, but wanting to take ownership of one’s life experience is laudable, no matter the strategy. The only time I find myself skimming the book is when she includes feedback from others who have commented on her blog. I found it difficult to read on my Kindle and determine where her voice stopped and a random blogger’s voice began. I read blogs all the time; I certainly don’t want them excerpted into my first real book in over a year.

I decide that I like the book at 71% (something we never used to say before Kindles). This is the point where Ms. Rubin talks about St. Therese of Lisieux, who wrote a book called “Story of a Soul”. It is an autobiographical work from a nun who died young. In it, she speaks of another nun in the convent who got on her nerves something fierce. Everything this nun did just grated her, and you can picture someone in your own life who bothers you more than you want to admit. St. Therese managed these vexations by “treating the nun as if I loved her best of all.” She showered her nemesis with so much affection, that when St. Therese died, that nun bragged about how much happiness she had brought to the young girl. She went on and on about how she was the favorite, until a priest finally got annoyed and told her the truth.

If there is any “secret to adulthood” or path to happiness, surely it is in the core of this story. Can we find those people and occasions in life that are the most exasperating, and learn to embrace them? Can we seek out the pure joy in everything, or at least take Ms. Rubin’s advice and pretend to? Commandment #3 is “Act the Way You Want to Feel”, because eventually your mind will fall into believing whatever you are telling it. It’s like faking confidence until you become sure of yourself. Ms. Rubin quotes Herman Hesse: “Happiness is a how, not a what”, and I couldn’t agree more.

I think Ms. Rubin was channeling St. Therese when she sends a note to one of her book critics, thanking him for his helpful comments. He replies, in turn, with an acknowledgement of how impressed he was to hear from her. Apparently not many people send positive letters to people who write negatively about their work, and he admired the sentiment behind her gesture. She tells us that her first reaction of his review was to be angry, but because she was at the apex of her happiness undertaking, she knew she had to approach it differently. In doing so, she converts a downer review into a respectful exchange among peers.

If I had been able to attend my book club meeting, I would have told them I liked the book. I would have said that despite some organizational issues and the inclusion of the blog comments, I walked away with nuggets I can use. That is all I ask of a book, anyway. Life is short and time is precious, so if I am going to read, I would like to be better for it. (Diane is right about me.) Beyond the useful nuggets, though, the best thing about the Happiness Project is personal- it got me reading again.  My book club will be pleased.