Thursday, June 21, 2012

Caryl decrees: Summer reading? Forget Oprah!

I am a big reader but not much of a joiner so I had never belonged to a book club until last year. I appreciate how book clubs--mostly women's-- have helped resuscitate the publishing industry and how Oprah's stamp of selection can turn a sleepy title into a best seller overnight. To my thinking, though, Oprah usually chooses books with the same narrative arc: pain, recovery, redemption. I prefer to pick my own reading material, and I have lots of friends and evening commitments so I did not see the point of adding another one with the purpose of discussing a book not of my choosing. Then my friend Carla told me that she had read in the New York Times that ritualized social interaction is a critical contributor to happiness in our second lives.

Carla's book shelf of Tribeca Book Club selections
The book club I joined last fall was really my repurposed mother’s group from 20 years ago. Most of the women who belonged to the club had  lived in Tribeca and our children had attended the same neighborhood pre-school in the early 90s. With daily drop offs, birthday parties and fundraisers, we got to know each other mostly through our offspring. Now that the kids were in college, or beyond, the mothers who started the book club were looking for a connection of a different kind: more intellectual, more social, more woman-centric than mother-based. In short, they were looking for a stimulating evening together as grown-ups.

Tribeca Book Club favorites: fiction (2), non-fiction (1)
Since the club began a couple of years ago, the group has read 41 books. If you are looking for some summer reading already road-tested by women like you, consider these. Among the fictional favorites: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann and The Eloquence of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. The non-fiction winner hands-down was The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. 

Satirical Sci-Fi vs Routine  Erotic: Can you guess what we picked?
The most disputed selection was Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, which was substituted half-heartedly when the club rejected Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. Most of my fellow club members didn't like this 21st century Love Story by Shteyngart but I  actually enjoyed the futuristic satire quite a bit.  I would never have picked up his book on my own but found it engaging nonetheless. One of the many benefits of a book club is that it takes you beyond your usual tastes. (Maybe we should have  tried Fifty Shades but would you really want to discuss it en masse?)

We range in age from mid-fifties to mid-sixties with 19 children--10 boys, 9 girls) among us and a scattering of grandchildren. We are married (6), divorced (1) and separated (1), and a couple of members, who joined after the core group came together, are single (2).  The current members include a lawyer, an investment banker, a  nursery school teacher, a nurse-turned-social marketer, an insurance executive, and the co-founder with her spouse of a company that sells beautiful household products that you probably use. The latter stayed home for a decade with her children but the other women except for brief breaks worked outside home.

Others of us have had direct contact with books in our professional lives. One was head of a publishing company that acquired among other titles the Harry Potter books (by the way, J.R.Rowling's first adult fiction The Casual Vacancy will be published in September), Babysitters Club and the early works by Suzanne Collins before she wrote Hunger Games.  Another member, a graphic artist who also does wood cuts, designed book covers including the cover of my daughter’s collection of poetry, and still another, an advertising vice president won the industry’s top awards for an ad campaign for 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher, a book about bullying. Of course, as a former magazine editor, I've published my share of writers and, now in my second life, I interview authors, such as Joan Didion, for Publishers Weekly. I’m about to interview Tom Wolfe about his upcoming book Back to Blood, the story of Cuba immigration in Miami. I like to think of my beat as literary legends.

Chocolate pie
Apple  pie
The format of the book club is simple: the person who picks the book hosts the evening and leads the discussion the first Tuesday of the month. (We take July and August off.) Regardless of what you may have heard about other clubs that exist mostly to drink wine and seldom to discuss the book, we do both—with enthusiasm. Following our spirited literary conversation, we move to the dining room table where the conversation is more free-ranging, from Mad Men (Do you still think Joan is a feminist after last season?) to The Mickey Mouse Club (Who but your peer group knows the words to the songs?) to national politics (How can we get more women in office?) Sometimes the dinner menu takes inspiration from the book. Once when we had read The Help by Kathryn Stockett --you guessed it if you read it--we had chocolate pie for dessert. And, apple pie was the final course the night we talked about the Steve Jobs' biography. That evening several members showed up in jeans and black turtle-necks in  homage to the recently deceased subject of the book. There were I-Pads too as there always are but as a rule most of us prefer to read the physical books.

Art imitates life or life imitates art
The book club reaches beyond discussing books. When the club was reading The Submission by Amy Waldman, a novel about a Muslim-architect who wins a design competition to build the memorial to 9/11 victims, the subject had special resonance.  The night the club met to discuss Submission, instead they walked to the recently-opened World Trade Center memorial Together they circled the pools that mark the former footprints of the buildings. Most of us had lived or still live within a few blocks of the site of the attack, and several of us--including me- could not return to our homes for a couple of weeks afterwards. All of us were traumatized, and none of us look at the new lower Manhattan skyline without remembering a more innocent time.

Another tragedy struck much closer to home. A woman who belonged to the club--a mother of two sons--was killed in a tragic car accident. (The driver of the other car was drunk.) At her service, the book club members, uniform in their little black dresses and their grief, stood together as their eulogies were read.  They recalled their friend and club member:  Her warmth, her smile, her striking profile, her verve, her effervescent energy, her quiet eloquence, her thoughtfulness, her generous spirit. "I think you can learn a lot about a person just by listening to them speak about books," said one member. "This is how I learned about Helene. She was a woman with a keen intellect, a wonderful sense of humor, an enthusiasm for life. . and a love for the printed word that was infectious."

I have said more than once that I read books to excavate the truth from our lives, to teach me how to exist in a world that confounds. But I have learned from my book club that those truths when shared with others, and considered and maybe reconsidered, make the examined (second) life well-worth living.  And, yes,  ritualized socialized interaction does indeed make for greater happiness.  

Edith: Where art thou?
Won't you join the club? Tell me if you have read any of the books on the list and what you liked about them. Or, if you want the complete Tribeca Book Club's reading list, just ask. It includes our September selection: The Innocents by Francesca Segal, a modern day retelling of Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence.


  1. Sounds like my own book club experience...and as an introvert, I agree: 'socialized interaction is critical.' Please, where do I find the Tribeca Books Club complete reading list?

    1. You wanted the list--and now it's up! Hope you find something you'll
      enjoy. I know you will.

  2. I was part of a book group years ago, but for various reasons, it wasn't a good fit for me. One big reason was that the books that I wanted to read were consistently voted down, and many of the books they did want to read seemed to have a similar theme and it just got boring.

    I have read a couple of books on your list. I loved "Elegance" for its characters (more than that I can't remember since it has been a while). And I am going to go out and get a copy of "The Innocents."

    You are right, I would get so much more out of my reading and would read stuff I wouldn't normally choose if I joined a book group. Maybe I should check out the one at our local bookstore.

    In the meantime, I would love to have an online discussion of "The Innocents" later this summer!

    1. Judith,

      So glad you stopped by. I have a feeling you and our book club would
      have compatible tastes. Check out the list, which I just posted and let me know. And, yes, let's have a virtual book club of two later this summer to discuss the Innocents. Should we reread Age of Innocence too? I find in my second life revisiting old favorites brings new riches but also I often can't remember what I've read recently, let alone long ago. Ha!

    2. Caryl, I have a feeling I would like your group too. I'll check out that list! I think we should read or reread Age of Innocence. If you have a Kindle, you can download it from Amazon for free.

  3. Any one reading this post will want to run out immediately and join a book group -- if not in one already -- Thank you for describing your experience so eloquently.

    1. Thank you, Anne. One of the best aspects of a book club is not only that
      you read new books but you make new friends.

  4. And one more thought, while we are talking books. I just finished Lilly Ledbetter's memoir, "Grace and Grit." She went from the factory floor to testify before Congress. Talk about having a second life!

    You can read my review of the book here:

    1. You worked as a welder in college! That is just one thing i learned from you
      insightful review of "Grace and Grit". And what a good reminder not to
      be complacent especially in this election year. If I may quote you from
      your review: "Those of us who view fairness and equality as a basic right must once again dust ourselves off, don our white hats, and pin the shame on those who deserve it."

    2. Caryl,

      Thanks so much for reading the review. Because WVFC is careful about its nonprofit status, I had to sanitize the last couple of paragraphs, taking out a couple of "R" words. It was a fascinating story and Ledbetter is a truly amazing woman.

  5. belonging to two book clubs, I have read books that I would have never ever ever read and reread books from my past with a whole new perspective. And hearing others' views who are thoughtful readers is always enlightening. I must admit I don't always approach the prospect of reading an "assigned" book at my age with enthusiasm, but in the end the conversation about the title is always worth the reading even if the book may not be as interesting as the conversation.

    1. I wonder if the dislike of reading an assigned book, as you put it, has anything to do with this stage of life. Have you noticed that these day we only want to do what we want to do! Doing things we are less inclined to do these days keeps us flexible. And, as you point out, there is often an unexpected pay-off.

  6. Hi Caryl: I'm tempted to fly to New York the first Tuesday of every month to join your club. I've resigned from 3 book clubs because half the women would't read the books. I took particular offense the month when only one woman read my suggested book, "Invisible Man" in its entirety. The rest said it was too dark, too painful. Well, wasn't that the point, to understand the particular pain that came with being a black man in America in the 1950's? Isn't this a landmark book in American fiction?

  7. Yes, fly to New York once a month. It's good for the brain--and even the
    soul. (Plus you have your own reasons.) As for your book club experience,
    you were right to be miffed. Shying away from painful experience is an early step on the death march. One key to a fruitful second life is only hangout with people who are fully engaged in life--or at least trying.
    See you the first Tuesday of September.

  8. Hi - I have stumbled upon this post and plan to return!! I too am in a book club, and what I like best is the eclectic selection of books, imposed by friends (or soon to be friends) that I would never pick up otherwise. I have read many of the books on your list...I absolutley love "A Moveable Feast" and eagerly picked up "The Paris Wife" when it came out.

    If I may suggest a book for you....try "The Lotus Eaters" by Tatjana Soli....thank you for writing such a terrifc blog!


  9. Judy,

    So glad that you wandered here. You sound like a reader--and I am going to pick
    up The Lotus Eaters. Remarkably, I am without a book at the moment, although
    I have been circling Swamplandia.

    Anyway, I hope we will see you back here. And, by the way, did you like "The Paris
    Wife"? I was disappointed but I loved "Loving Frank", which is sort of the same

  10. Hi - I did enjoy The Paris was light but it shed some light on Hadley Hemingway...I even made a visit to the hotel that Hemingway lived in, while working at the Toronto Star (now called the Clarion Hotel & Suites Selby). I am a bit of a Hemingway freak.

    Never read "Loving Frank" but will pick that up!!

  11. Wow, Judy Jane, I don't know how I missed your comment. Can you recommend any Hemingway books? Maryl
    and I are going to Toronto next month. We will have to check out the Clarion. Thanks for your comment.
    Please visit often.

  12. Hi - I love going to book launches and usually buy the book. I attend these, with equally enthusiastic friends, in Paris where I live. The American Library Paris and Smith's Bookshop as well as Shakespeare and Company hold book launches on an almost regular basis and I have found many titles that I would not normally pick up and found the books to be an exciting and enriching experience. They also make super birthday gifts. I have read most of the books recommended by you and it's good to know we are on the same page. Couldn't help that remark, it just came out.
    Hope to meet you in Paris,
    Swan - Now Living in France
    ps........Donal McCaan is one of my favourite authors. His writing is so eleoquent that even if you don't much care for the subject you can revel in the language. My favourite of his is "Let the World Spin". Both for the language and the content.

  13. I would like to have a complete list of your bookclub's book list.