The second rule of book club…

“Hey, did you finish that book I gave you?”

“…um. No, not yet.”

“That’s okay, I won’t spoil the ending for you. Are you enjoying it?”

“…um. No. Not really. I don’t think I’ll finish it.”

Ouch. It’s a trivial thing but I always feel bad when someone doesn’t like a book I gave them, especially if I thought that they were a dead-cert to click with it. First comes denial – “Are you sure you are reading the right book?” That’s usually followed by the urge to defend the book (“Have you read the bit with the zombie space monkey butlers? Like, really read it? Twice?”), followed by the sheepish realisation that I got my friend’s reading taste completely wrong and probably wasted several hours of their time and they’d like me to stop going on about it now, please.

I’ll admit to a touch of neurosis on this one but I think most people would agree that when you recommend something, you really hope that people will like it and it can be disappointing when they don’t. So choosing the next read for a book club meet is particularly fraught with difficulty. If you gift a book to a friend and they are not a fan, at least you only have to have that awkward conversation once and quickly. If you recommend completely the wrong book for your book club, you’ve not only forced ten people to sit through something they hated but now you have to talk about it. For about two hours. With snacks.

So, the second rule of book club has got to be that you need to pick a good book. But what makes a good book?

Clearly this – along with deciding the rules of a book club generally – is a contentious subject. People have plenty to say. Googling “book club rules” brings up 148,000,000 results (whereas Man Booker Prize brings up just 1,830,000 results). Adding “Oprah” to that search string gets you about 17,100,000 results, so it looks like one in eight people discussing book clubs on the internet is talking about Oprah’s take on it (and for every eight Oprah fans, there is one person discussing the Man Booker Prize).

With that many hits you’d imagine Oprah’s recommendations for book clubs would be pure reading gold.  Her picks from the last decade are:

I have to admit, I’m skeptical. There are two there – Pillars of the Earth and East of Eden – that I very much enjoyed (although Pillars is really just a soap opera in medieval cathedral form). There’s another few I would like to read. But there’s at least 3 that if someone gave me as book club read would have me setting the zombie space monkey butlers on them. I won’t name names for all the ones I find less than inspiring, other than saying the person who gave me Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now is still picking virtual poop from their hair. But what do you think? Are these the sort of books you want to read? What would be your ideal book club pick? Is this list a good one or would you rather read about the zombie space monkey butlers?

Cramming for book club

It’s Friday night and you know what that means – it’s book club night!

Well, book and wine club. As I discovered last time, the first rule of book club is that you are totally allowed to talk about book club, provided you bring some wine. So while I might not be donning a micro-mini and stilettos and painting the town red this Friday night, I can assure you there will be enough drinking, carousing and lively debate committed while wiggling a wine glass for emphasis to ensure we start the weekend in proper order.

I have actually done my homework too. I have to admit, I nearly faked reading this month’s pick, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. It’s not that I didn’t like the sound of it; I do like Atwood‘s writing and had read this book a few years ago. But when I went to find my copy in the labyrinthine depths of my amazingly over-stuffed book shelves I discovered, much to my annoyance, that it must have been lost in one of my moves. Well, that or my books have turned cannibal.

I figured I’d probably get away without reading it – I mean, in order to have it go missing from my shelves, I must have read it after I moved to Australia. So that means it has to have happened in the last six years and even my memory isn’t that useless. I figured I could just read a synopsis to refresh my memory a bit. No worries.

That illusion lasted until about page 30 or so of the 600+ page book. So, there’s sisters, Iris and Laura. Oh, one dead sister. Right, I think I remember that. And some newspaper articles about them. Hmm. Oh, a button factory, this seems kinda familiar. And a story in a story. And aliens. Wait, medieval aliens from Planet Zycron. Wait, medieval human aliens who use child slavery to make rugs and sacrifice mute girls to gods they don’t even believe in…

…I have no idea what the hell this book is about. Darn. I’m going to need to re-read the whole thing.

So, with just a day to go, I have been cramming. In a move a bit reminiscent of my college days (“the exam is on Wednesday? I’ll study Wednesday”) I have been snatching every moment I have spare to re-read. It’s a bit alarming that a book – a book that I remember enjoying – can slide so neatly and completed out of my head. It’s a little disheartening that my brain so readily gives up the entire plot of book that won the 2000 Booker Prize but hangs on with grim determination to the lyrics of The Chicken Song by Spitting Image. (Don’t click that, or as the song warns you, you’ll be humming it for weeks.)

Attempting to cram my brain with culture has been reasonably successful – I know the plot! Ish! – but a large part of me mourns the fact that I couldn’t get stuck into my copy of World War Z, which has been burning a hole in my ereader for 2 weeks now. I hope the rest of book club appreciate my last-minute efforts more than my lecturers did. At least with the book club I’m actually allowed to bribe them with wine if they don’t.

The first rule of book club is…

…bring a bottle of wine, apparently. I’m not sure what the rest of the rules are – this is my first ever book club – but everyone was very clear about the wine.

Despite a lifetime of loving books and reading books and obsessing about books and occasionally fresking people about by thrusting books at them shouting, “Take this! You must read it!” (and then calling them to check if they are), I have never been to a book club. I’m not sure how this has happened; I love talking about books and I love drinking booze, and apparently book clubs exist to combine the two, but somehow I have missed out. So when a mate recently suggested a book-club meet, I was eager to jump in. Many of the book clubs I have seen seem to exclusively deal with fiction so I was chuffed when I spotted a non-fiction book under the possible reads, and even more chuffed when people said the non-fiction one sounded ideal. (It’s nice to know I am not alone in my real-life read loving ways.)

The book we chose is Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which created no small amount of conversation and controversary on its release in 2011. This was at least partially fuelled by a Wall Street Journal publishing an exerpt from the book with the headline “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” which suffered, apparently, from the same problem as the book did – many readers completely missed what Chua claims is irony and self-deprecating humour implicit in the title and believed that Chua was bombastically advocating the superiority of a very strict and ethnically defined approach to parenting.

To be fair, it’s easy to see how this could happen; although Chua describes her book as a self-depreciating memoir, anecdotes such as the “Little White Donkey” one, where Chua describes how she got her  unwilling younger daughter to learn a very difficult piano piece by threatening no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for years, and the donation of her dollhouse to the Salvation Army don’t exactly evoke an image of a self-depreciating but loving Mum so much as  a harpy on the rampage. And Chua seems delighted to horrify her audience by emphasising the excesses of her approach and her opinion of other methods of raising children.

“Some might think that the American sports parent is an analog to the  Chinese mother. This is so wrong. Unlike your typical Western overscheduling soccer mom, the Chinese mother believes that (1)  schoolwork always comes first; (2) an A-minus is a bad grade; (3) your  children must be two years ahead of their classmates in math; (4) you  must never compliment your children in public; (5) if your child ever  disagrees with a teacher or coach, you must always take the side of the  teacher or coach; (6) the only activities your children should be  permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal; and  (7) that medal must be gold.”

Unlike the over-achieving and occasionally terrifying Chua I have just done the basics for tonight’s book club meet. I have read the Battle Hymn, and a little extra in the form of looking up a few reviews and interviews with Chua (I’m not sure if you get extra points for that, or if you get accused of cheating), and asked the organiser what else is required and will happen on the night. Wine drinking, apparently. Lots of it.

I’ve even ended up looking up the normal conventions for book clubs, finding this set of 6 rules from some bloke called Nick, who has declared himself “Official Book Club Rule Master of the Universe”. (My mental image of a book club Master of the Universe has a librarian in a He-Man style-outfit, somewhat like Conan the Librarian. I am not sure if this is what he was going for.) His rules are helpful in that they specify munchie types (chips are bad as they crunch, apparently, and accidentally picking a terrible book means you have to provide a good dessert or snack to make up for it!), unhelpful in that he suggests cleaning toilets more throughly and slightly worrying in that he is very clear that “what happens in Book Club STAYS in Book Club”.

…which begs the question, what is going to happen in book club? Do I need to be nervous? Should I have brought a mask in case we end up out burgling book-store or will we be reclining on cushions, dicussing literature, while nubile assistants peel grapes for us? Should I be expecting lively conversation or structured questions? Should I bring my beret, in order to look like a more serious reader? I can always dig my old reading glasses out – as they’re slightly the wrong prescription these days they give me a rather ferocious-looking squint and can be some help if I go for the Conan the Librarian look.

And, hey, if that doesn’t work, at least I know my bottle of wine is good.