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Build Your Own Book Group

Book-group-photoI should have seen it coming. Interest in my book group of over a quarter century had been gradually dwindling. The former minister’s wife moved to Rhode Island, the writer was taking a Tuesday night class, the endodontic office manager couldn’t commit, and the frequent flyer, well, just took off. Finishing the reading each month was encouraged if not required. Requests to refrain from giving away the ending, however, were almost always ignored.

Attendance waxed and waned over the years as new faces came and went, but we could usually count on a core group of eight. But when only two of us turned up in October, after a six-month hiatus, we were forced to read the writing on the wall.

Trying to determine how long we’d been convening, I recalled a particular incident. At one of our early meetings a thirsty member had inquired, “Where’s your booze?,” prompting the resident toddler to run and fetch his foul-weather footwear. He had apparently mistaken “booze” for “boots.” The kid turns 26 next week.

Book club wasn’t all about plot, dialogue, and denouement. The sweets and savories were also key ingredients, as was the wine. Some hosts stepped it up a notch and prepared special food that related to the reading. We talked about Isabel Allende’s “The Japanese Lover” while sampling made-from-scratch mango and green tea mochi. Lox and kugel accompanied our discussion of Kristin Hannah’s Nazi-era novel “The Nightingale.” And a gorgeous tarte tatin was the perfect complement to the posthumously published “Suite Francaise” by Irene Nemirovsky.

In the thematic culinary department I contributed precisely nil. I’m an appreciative eater if not much of an entertainer. More creative types might want to consult “The Book Club Cookbook” by Judy Gelman, containing “recipes and food from your book club’s favorite books and authors.”

Since most of us wouldn’t have seen each other since the previous meeting, naturally we’d have personal news to share. We were familiar with each other’s families, jobs, holidays, hospitalizations, and whose kids were struggling in school, going to prom, graduating, getting deployed, or getting engaged. There might have been a wee bit of gossip as well. If time allowed, we even talked about the book.

My youngest daughter, who called a day or so after the group’s demise, was sympathetic. As one of the original members, I’d been part of this book club her entire life. Belle told me how disappointed she was to have gone to only one meeting of a book group in Brooklyn before she moved away. The conversation eventually turned to what each of us was reading.

I had just finished Will Schwalbe’s moving memoir, “The End of Your Life Book Club”–for the second time. I’d meant to skim it just to refresh my memory but ended up rereading it cover to cover. In college I actually took a speed-reading course to train my eyes to jump from phrase to phrase. That practice ended abruptly with the final exam. When I read for pleasure I prefer not to rush. Perhaps the only advantage of this tortoise and hare approach is that I could usually recall most of the characters’ names at book group, having stayed up too late the night before reading every word.

Will Schwalbe—writer, editor, and devoted son—learns that his indomitable mother has been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. To help pass the time during her lengthy chemotherapy treatments, they talk about books. While living down the street from Julia Child, with her husband and three children, Mary Ann Schwalbe was director of admissions at Harvard. She subsequently devoted her life to helping refugee women and children and building libraries in Afghanistan. She was universally beloved.

Aside from wishing I’d had Mary Ann for a mother and Julia for a neighbor, I loved reading about all the books the author and his mom discussed. I felt like a fly on the wall, eavesdropping on their conversations about life, literature, love, loss, and anything and everything else. Many of the titles they talked about I had also read, and now want to read again. As for those I hadn’t, the list in the Appendix will provide a lifetime’s worth of recommended reading. I calculated that our book club read roughly the same number of books in twenty five years as Mary Ann and Will tackled in two.

But back to my conversation with Belle. If the Schwalbes could start their own book club, why couldn’t we? She sounded intrigued and suggested we include her sisters. Easier said than done since we live in multiple time zones, but it seemed a great way to connect. I was dubious about the logistics until my co-worker told me we could video conference using Google Chat.

I got the green light from three of the kids. The fourth, possibly preoccupied with a new romance, said she’d consider it.
Like the girls themselves, their tastes in reading are totally different. The oldest is a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut and Wally Lamb, the next in line leans toward the classics, while the youngest chooses books I might never pick up on my own. Then there’s Katie, who’s been slogging through Herman Wouk’s “War and Remembrance,” at my urging, for the better part of two years. It’s become a joke.

I realize the odds of five of us agreeing on a book, reading the book, and scheduling a time to discuss the book–factoring in the nine-hour time difference and the inevitable technical difficulties–are slim at best. But no one could have predicted our first book club would pass the quarter century mark, nor could Mary Ann and Will have anticipated being granted enough time after her diagnosis to share their thoughts on over 200 titles.

The verdict is in. We’ll begin our hopeful endeavor with “My Brilliant Friend,” book one of the four Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante. It’s not quite as ambitious as it sounds, since two of the girls have already read it and I’m halfway through, but still. To misquote the immortal words of Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca,” “this could be the beginning of a beautiful book group.”

April Cushing is the Head of Adult and Information Services at the Morril Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts.  Read her column in the November 10, 2016 issue of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.


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