Wednesday, January 26, 2011

And the Book Club Winners Are...

The 10 ladies in my book club collectively nominated 22 books for our reading list this year.  Here's what we voted in:

"White Teeth" by Zadie Smith

"Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women" by Rebecca Traister

"Room" by Emma Donoghue

"The Furnace of Affliction" by Jennifer Graber

"Number the Stars" by Lois Lowry

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot

I'm very excited about this list.  We have a mix of fiction and nonfiction, even a YA book (Lowry's).  We meet monthly, and on months where we don't read a book, we'll be discussing short articles or essays on topics that interest the group.  We'll also have a poetry night.  And we'll have two meetings that are purely social, one in the summer that includes our spouses and kids, and one in December that involves cookies and choosing the next year's books.

Our club was nearly defunct six months ago. No one was coming; no one was reading the books.  Time is always the problem for women with jobs and young children.  The key was finding the right mix for us, a mixture of genres to keep things interesting, a book every other month to give people a chance to read it. It's not about quantity.  It's about quality--the quality of the books and the quality of the time we get to spend discussing them. Read on!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

I'm a Writer. No explanations necessary.

I surprised myself last weekend. I met someone new who asked what I did, and I said, with no hesitation, "I'm a writer." She said "Wow!" and our conversation continued down other paths. Normally, there would be follow-up questions, such as: "Who do you write for? What do you write? Might I have read any of it? What kind of money do you make?" Maybe it was the immediacy and self-assured tone of my answer, "I'm a writer," that cut off these questions before they began. I kind of doubt it. I think I just got lucky.

Still, it made me think about past conversations I've had where I try to somehow justify what I do to, often, perfect strangers when no justification is needed. I'd ramble on about how I used to write short stories (some of them are published, dear reader!), how I got a graduate degree, how I'm *mostly* a stay-at-home mom right now who has also written a novel. Has it been published? Nope. Have I made any money? Nope. I used to make money writing--press releases, newsletters, things like that. I used to teach part-time. I used to be a PR person AND a writer or a teacher AND a writer. Somehow, that AND made it legitimate.  The AND relegated writing to hobby status.

But there's something that makes some people uncomfortable when I treat my non-paid writing as I would a paid job. When I say I am not available during such and such times because I have paid dearly for a sitter so I can finish this scene. When I hole up in a friend's vacant house for a weekend to have 48 uninterrupted hours to straighten out a plot. In other words, when I treat writing like a "job," even though it isn't one yet, if by "job," you expect a "paycheck."

Amazing things happen when I treat writing like my job. I get things done. I have written (and yes, rewritten, 6 times or so) my first novel and I'm excitedly plotting a second. I would love to be considered legitimate by everyone's standards, not just my own, but until then, excuse me, I'm late for work.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

What Makes the Perfect Book Club Pick?

I've recently taken over as secretary of my book club and am in the process of gathering recommendations for our 2011 reading list.  We'll have a meeting soon to vote on our picks, but the list will be small this year, only five books.  We'll supplement with interesting articles from the New Yorker, Atlantic, etc. for another five meeetings.  Two meetings will be purely social, one of which includes our families. The other involves lots of cookies and wine. (Who am I kidding? They all involve wine!)

Our club was on the edge of disbanding due to lack of interest and time, but we're back leaner and meaner.  Our make-up isn't so different from many other book clubs.  We're in our 30s and 40s. We have young children. We work as professors, doctors, business owners, artists.  We love to read.

But, five books?  This is what we decided we could reasonably manage--a book every other month, a few chapters on the nights the kids go to bed easily, and we manage not to fall asleep with them. With such a short reading list, it's important that we pick books that the majority will enjoy.

So, I've been thinking a lot about what books we've loved in the past.  The hands-down winner from last year was "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett.  What made it interesting? Well, certainly the relationship amongst the characters, but the larger issues of race and class gave us lots of fodder. I think that's really key. Books that have nothing else going on besides a dysfunctional family don't leave us much to discuss over a couple hours. The book has to give us something to chew on. It has to give us a mirror to hold up to our own lives. The best ones make us ask, if we were in such and such a situation, what would we do, and why?

I've seen some literary novels fall flat at our discussions because "nothing happens." With our reading time limited, it's not enough to just follow an interesting character along for 300 pages. We want to feel like we "got something out of it." What is that "something?" Perhaps just a few hours to think about an issue in a new way or an insight into another way of life, something.

As a debut novelist, it's hard for me not to internalize comments at my book club meetings. In a way, I'm equal parts participant and spy. I want to discuss literature with these smart, gracious women. I also want to know what draws them to a book. In the end, I will always write what I'm pulled, by gravitational forces unseen, to write, but I'd be naive to marginalize the influence of these women. 

I'm looking forward to a great year of book club and non-book club (I've got a stack a dozen high on my nightstand that I've happily started cracking) reading this year!