#ComfortBooks

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My apartment is one big To Be Read pile. There are very few books there that I have read before; when I finish reading a book I place it in a basket by the front door to be donated to the library.

Still, I do save some books. If I’m given a book as a gift, I keep that book. If the author has signed the book (either in front of me or I just happened to buy it that way), I keep that book.

And if I deeply loved the book, if it were to somehow make it to my list to read again someday to soothe me, then that book gets to stay, too. I don’t have a whole lot of time to re-read books, but when I do, here are the books I’ll sometimes pull out and read around in for comfort:

  • In the Distance, by Hernan Diaz:  I discovered this book last year in my book club, and the isolation that the primary character experiences created such a connection for me that I come back to it when I feel misunderstood.
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith: I read this book for years, through high school, college, and various moves whenever I felt emotionally off or physically under the weather as well.
  • Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen:  Like Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail, I find myself lost in the language and on pins and needles about the precarious nature of whether Lizzie and D’Arcy will get together. (On a related note, I have also been known to watch the cinematic versions of this book over and over again to soothe myself–both the Colin Firth version and the Keira Knightley versions.)
  • Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott:  Hey, my middle name (and pseudonym) is Jo, so what better place to pull my writing and reading strength from?
  • The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth Von Arnim:  This book is a timely comfort; I read it every April, as though airing out the linens in my soul.
  • Books on writing by writers: Some of my favorites here are Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, The Deer On a Bicycle by Patrick McManus, On Writing by Stephen King (it’s the only Stephen King I’ve ever read…don’t kill me), Draft No.4 by John McPhee, When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams, and Letters to a Young Artist by Anna Deavere Smith (even though I’m not that young anymore). These books remind me of the struggles ALL writers have and teach me as much technique and empathy as a novel does.
  • The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams: This book has been soothing me about being different and overly sensitive and about love for nearly 40 years. Without it I would be beyond jaded.

Writing up this list takes me to that safe place that these books create; I think it is time to crawl back into one of them for a little while.

 

 

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#WhosWho

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Last week I finished a memoir by Reyna Grande entitled A Dream Called Home. Grande is a naturalized U.S. citizen who journeyed as a child from Mexico to join her parents in Los Angeles, only to discover that her parents and her siblings weren’t too keen to have her there. A Dream Called Home picks up where the memoir of her childhood (The Distance Between Us) leaves off, when Grande finishes community college courses and leaves Los Angeles for her next university adventure at the University of California in Santa Cruz. Grande, who feels far from polished and lonely with no family support, journeys to find her “writing family” in both her remaining years in college and after she graduates and returns to Los Angeles to start her career as a writer.

I picked up Grande’s memoir in the bookstore recently because I could relate to her isolation; I’m not an immigrant in the traditional sense of the word, but I’ve always felt like an outsider (and a burden) in my own family. In the memoir Grande writes of how she finds her family in a world of writers; for years I have been trying to find a family of readers in the city of San Diego, and with the help of my therapist and my community of beloved book stores I finally grounded myself in that “reader family” last year. Now to find the writer family, which, when I thanked Reyna for her inspiring memoir on Twitter, she reminded me was still somewhere out there:

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*****

When I was a kid one my favorite books was a little-known novel of Beverly Cleary’s called Dear Mr. Henshaw. The book follows the story of the son of divorced parents who writes to his favorite author in hopes of connecting with him in Henshaw’s writing and taking that writing to save himself from his situation as a latchkey kid. I thrilled at the idea that writers could save their readers through the back and forth of letters; later, when I was in college, I wore out my VHS tape of the movie Shadowlands, where the fictionalized account of the romance between Joy Gresham and C.S. Lewis depicts more literary redemption.

That romanticized redemption served only as a foothold, though. I found out soon enough through my professors in college that many who love to read aspire to write, and many who aspire and actually succeed at writing for publication love to read. Beginning in college, when writers would have author events on campus, or after college when I would go to author events at bookstores and theaters, I found my question that I loved to ask every author and/or author panel:

What do you love to read?

I’m surprised how often authors are surprised by this question, but even though it surprises them it often delights them, too. They spill the beans, both in titles and authors and in relaxing a little…suddenly the room isn’t full of disciples beaming at a messiah but it is instead a room full of a family of readers. Authors have transformed for me as a group with that question as well; even though I am still star-struck about meeting someone who has written a book (even better, written it WELL), I feel like their readership of other authors makes them human, and as human as I am.

Twitter, for all of its dumpster fires, is still the best place for me to interact with authors, outside of the author events. Since I also write book reviews (and my book reviews are written to point out book strengths and not beat up on the traditional nit-picking aspects) I often reference the author and/or book in my review posts, and sometimes that creates dialogue. Other readers and reviewers that I follow on Twitter may recommend a book in a post, and I’ll read their recommendation and follow the author. Am I still asking the question on Twitter? Not so much…most of the authors have done interviews for the promotion of their books and I can get that information from those interviews (particularly The New York Times “By the Book” series or most Guardian interviews). But also in following their feeds I see which writers render them star-struck, and I read those writers, too, and suddenly I’m recognizing more and more writers on the book store or library shelves, and my reading family gets bigger.

Hopefully, someday, they will be my writing family, too.

#TimeTravel

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Make America Read Again, says the hats that are a take on The Hat Slogan. While a certain voter base looks to go back to a “happier” time, a certain reader base wants to go back in time for a different reason.

It’s not just readers, either. There are certain television shows, movies, music, and art that are problematic. (I almost put problematic in quotes, but they are problematic, so let’s stick with less nuance and more commitment.) I could list all of the literature and other art that we aren’t supposed to consume, but even in the list there is a distinct drawing of lines for some and not for others. You, as a reader, may read certain books that are considered problematic because you like the narrative, even if character depiction runs to nauseating; I love The Great Gatsby, but I hate what Daisy has to be for Fitzgerald to write it.  I love some of Hemingway’s stuff and hate other stuff of his…sometimes within the same book. I have more than once relished white wine and oysters with a fond memory of A Moveable Feast, but I don’t think Hadley really sounded like that.

When I first started to commute to Oakland from San Francisco I went back to the habit of reading…and I was one of the first people to indulge in a Kindle. Seat mates on trains and buses would ask me about the Kindle, but they never asked what I was reading. As a I was transitioning from San Francisco to San Diego there used to be an account on Tumblr and Twitter that would show pictures of people and what they read on mass transit, and even now there is an account on Instagram called Hot Dudes Reading that shows dreamy men and their transit tomes. Now I get the feeling that those subjects would be ostracized; someone sees them on transit as well and gets in their face, asking the reader if they are aware of what that book means to someone in Northwest Ohio or to women or to anyone over 40 or etc., etc., etc.

“Don’t you know what that book means?”

What if I had an idea what it meant and read it anyway to learn how to improve on it?

*****

I’m guilty of it, applying a sheen of my prejudices. Last month our book club pick was Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday. I wanted to like this book even before knowing much about the author; there are three main sections to the book, and I liked their narratives, but when I closed the book after reading the last page I was massively confused. The tease on the back cover stated that all three sections are tied together, and I completely missed how that was so. It must be good; I don’t get it, I could hear my mother say, so I blamed myself and decided to read some reviews: maybe they would tell me what I missed. The reviews told me more about academic writing than what I missed, and they also told me that Ms. Halliday used to date Philip Roth for a couple of years, and how the older gentleman in the first and last section were probably based on Roth, and how brilliant, and…

…Now it was worse because not only did I still not understand the connection between the three sections, but…

…Gulp…

I’m not a big fan of Philip Roth.

That statement in itself would get me shot on Twitter, because when he died not that long ago all I could think of was “Well, he had a good life.” Roth had the luxury to retire, for heaven’s sake. He was fortunate. And, yes, I read one of his books: The Human Stain. I’m guessing that anyone who loves Roth would insist that I should have picked out something else, and maybe my bad luck in picking out The Human Stain means that I need to read something else of his, let me recommend, etc. But I have no desire to read anything else by Roth.

And I held that relationship with Roth against Halliday.

Everything was redeemed when I got to book club, though, as it always ends up. We learned that the middle section was the supposition of Alice’s absent fellow juror, and that the middle section holds one paragraph of feminine rhetorical thinking in the mind of a straight, cis male character, so there ARE connections, but every reader in the room resented having to re-read the beginning or read reviews–any extra reading outside of the book on a straight run–in order to understand the arc.  I didn’t mention Roth; the room seemed full of Roth readers. I’m so glad that everyone picked up on something to explain the book, but I was annoyed that our collective mind had to solve it. I was annoyed that the book had to be solved.

Unlike the books of the prominently problematic (books like Hemingway’s or Fitzgerald’s), Halliday’s book was just published last year. The need we have to be revisionist of a book written in the 1920’s or 1930’s (or even the need to dispose of it) because our culture was different and overwhelmingly offensive in those days cannot apply to Halliday. I have no desire to sanitize any of them. Asymmetry is set nearly a century after the works of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but its shine too will fade and turn rough at the edges with time.

One can hope.

Meantime, I read them anyway, problematic or no, because I hope to read something like them but better someday. I hope we keep evolving. There’s a lot to hope…but you never know what the plot twist brings.

#BookBusiness

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All my life I have moved toward living in a community with bookstores. If I were to get picky, the bookstores would be independent, not this chain garbage, although I can’t tell you how many times Barnes & Noble and, back in the day, Borders, saved my life because I didn’t have the luxury of being picky.

When I was kid in Northwest Ohio it was the chain Waldenbooks at the Defiance Mall. We had an independent in neighboring Bryan, Ohio, but I don’t recall it having more selection than my mother did (my mother had amassed enough books over years to almost hold up the walls).

When I was in college it was Barnes & Noble and Borders in Springfield, Missouri, if it wasn’t the university bookstore or a library book sale.

My introduction to the You’ve-Got-Mail, truly independent with a heritage kind of bookstore, was in the Bay Area. Independent bookstores were part of my decision to leave Southwest Missouri; when I left most of the independents were Bible bookstores. When I visited the bookstores in the Bay Area I got to know each one like a personality: Alexander’s on Second Street in San Francisco would have African American literature, Stacey’s would have lots of writerly and readerly accessories in addition to books and journals, Green Apple would stash the books in the stair bannisters, City Lights would be all about the beats, the renegades. I loved them all, and still love them all. I remember a quest to bring in a copy of Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey to Green Apple, I remember getting a copy of Tales of the City at Alexander’s.  I remember the day Stacey’s closed, and I still have a tote bag from there.

San Diego, happily, also has a wonderful collection of bookstores. People who are from cities like New York and San Francisco can roll their eyes at the limited number of San Diego independents, but I am eternally grateful to them in any number. San Diego doesn’t like to set itself off as a readerly city (San Diego is mostly known as a brewery town), but when there are literary events the readers come out in a packed collective (would the noun here be “a chapter/book of readers”?). There are author events here, too; local authors come out en masse in August to meet readers at the two-day reader event sponsored by the Union-Tribune, visiting bookstore booths as well. In April the bookstores hold a Litcrawl, the bookstore equivalent of a pub-crawl all over the city (and San Diego is a sprawling city) for three days of book binging. And then there are the events that happen throughout the year by bookstore concoction and by author publication events: Warwicks has probably the largest number of author events, but authors also frequent South Park’s Book Catapult and North Park’s Verbatim (Verbatim is a big proponent of poetry and zine writers). The University of California San Diego bookstore has a cafe in the first floor, and The Library Shop has new books to buy if you don’t want to check them out on a deadline. Bluestocking Books in Hillcrest donates books to kids’ organizations and holds themed specials every month (with February they are discounting a small collection of titles on co-dependency), and LaPlaya Books in Point Loma (as well as the aforementioned Book Catapult) have book clubs that meet once a month.  Most of the stores send out emails of what’s new; Book Catapult also holds a once-a-month coffee session with the new suggestions on discount that day.

What’s the difference in a San Diego indie and a San Francisco indie? This could just be my personal experience; I’m so gun-shy of scaring people with my passion for reading that I try not to be a gushing groupie to the person behind the counter. My experience in San Francisco matched that fear; most of the booksellers I’ve met in San Francisco prefer to be left alone unless you’re desperate, with the exception of Green Apple, who I always enjoyed a conversational relationship with in the shop and on social media. But San Diego booksellers…my experience is that they will draw you out.  There’s not a time where I have walked into them without someone asking me if I needed help finding something; my standard response is that whatever I’m looking for usually finds me, and then the bookseller nods and laughs and realizes that I’m an avid reader without being scared by my passion. Some of them even ask about my reading habits and we are both at ease (Book Catapult knows I review books as a side gig, so we do a lot of talking shop in a safe space).  I’m not sure if in San Francisco the majority of booksellers know that they are in a literary town and therefore don’t encourage the groupie mindset (I’m reminded of the scene in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when Francie finally gets up the courage to ask for a book recommendation for the girl she used to be and confronts the librarian for not even looking up), but San Diego booksellers seem to relish any patron with a love of books who wants to talk.

San Diego, as a readership, seems to be grateful for the indie bookstore.

#FamilyMatter

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My mother used to take her crops to the local farmer’s market in the summer and early fall, beginning in 1985 and for the last time in 2001.  She took fresh cut floral bouquets, vegetables, and eggs.  We had an odd collection of any of these items; my mother loved flowers she wasn’t supposed to be able to raise in northwest Ohio, like birds of paradise, and she loved fruit she wasn’t supposed to be able to raise, like pineapple, and she loved chickens no one else had seen except maybe in zoos.  Her standard chicken was a Barred Rock, a chicken of medium size and black and white feathers, the zebra of the chicken world, and a chicken that by standard seemed to stay with a brown egg. She would occasionally get a collection of zanier birds if we had a good year, and those chickens were the Noah’s ark of the chicken world: two Bantys (itty bitty birds), two Brahmas (big Clydesdale chickens), Rhode Island Reds (flame-colored, by name), and, my favorite (even though as a rule I hated raising chickens) Ameraucanas and Auracanas, which possessed no combs and laid green and blue eggs. Of all of the weird breeds, the Auracanas would spend multiple seasons with us, so even if we had Barred Rocks the next year we would still have green eggs.  My brother and I were the only kids in school who grew up eating green eggs and ham.

At farmer’s market my mother would get the questions about the weird choices, but most of the questions were about the eggs, and particularly from kids.  “How come your eggs look so weird?” they’d ask.  They were used to the white eggs in the grocery store, not these brown and green oddballs.

“Because they taste better,” my mother said with a laugh. I stuck with that for the eggs, although her pineapple, when we finally got to taste it, tasted like wood (that’s what happens when you raise a pineapple in a greenhouse).

I wonder, now, if those weird choices are where I come from.

*****

I was an odd kid; I loved to read and write.  The read part wasn’t so odd, but the write part was; I would fill my Big Chief tablet, a newspaper-print paper with wide lines, with bad rhymes from about seven years old on.  A couple of birthdays in a row I received journals, the kind that are about the size of a deck of index cards, the kind that have a cartoon on the binding (Hello Kitty, Garfield), the kind that had a lock on the side.  They were cute but overly fancy; I put life events in them, but not the dumb poetry.  The dumb poetry stayed in cheap paper of Big Chief or in steno notepads (two poems to a page next to each other like a bride and groom line-up with that red divider down the middle). I didn’t get a choice on instrument; I had either Papermate or Bic pens, and I had to know what I wanted to write, because we didn’t have the money for buying me stuff all the time, you know.

Writing isn’t practical on a farm.  It also wasn’t practical in the school that I went to; there was an initial hope that I would play basketball because I was the tallest kid in my class until the fifth grade, and then the hope that I would go to Juilliard because my father was a huge fan of classical music and I took up the flute.  There was no mention of me writing as a grown-up.  People would ask what I wanted to do at that stage and I made my dad happy with a flute answer or told them I wanted to be a teacher.

Still, I scribbled. In my entire childhood and adolescence I think my father asked me about the writing once, and that wasn’t much of a question: “You realize you won’t make it as a writer until you’re dead,” he said.  “That’s what always happens.”

My brother didn’t care for reading much, so there was no mention of my writing from him. My mother loved the way I sang, so I think she was hoping I’d be a singer. My aunt had a dream once that I would dance ballet, but that was an overnight weird thing and not an aspiration of hers. My other aunt wrote children’s stories, so maybe that’s the lineage. My mother loved children’s literature, so I think Dr. Seuss may have got me going on the poetry, but does that cement things with so much competing input around me?

I’m saying this…if homework was done and my brother didn’t want to play a board game and the flute was practiced and I had four minutes to myself before we had to bring in some crop or do some chore, then I would pick up a pen.  Was it a nervous tic? Has it always been that? This writing thing is a bodily function for me, not just a fun hobby like collecting stamps…but is that function inherited from someone in my ancestry?

*****

Some clues:

  • My mother could have raised standard fruits and vegetables and flowers and chickens with white eggs. My mother could have cooked standard dishes with her standard crops. Instead my mother raised weird crops and then made odd, exotic dishes with them…and I’ll eat pretty much anything based on that creative upbringing;
  • My father loved to tell stories;
  • My father wrote his memoirs when I was in college. I don’t know if it was because I was going to college and writing in off time, but he took a few months and picked up an accounting ledger the size of a standard Moleskine and wrote his memoirs (I’ve read them);
  • When my mother died we found steno notebooks of her own in dresser drawers of my bedroom.

But…

  • My mother has only read my written work twice if you don’t count letters home. Once was a poem I wrote in high school, in which she gave me the best feedback I have ever received for learning to write coherently and avoid the fancy: “It must be good, because I don’t get it.” (I have strived to write for her ever since.) The second time was a Women’s History paper that I wrote for college, about a female community leader, and I chose my mother. She said that piece was too much about her but was accurate, and flattering; I was just grateful to finally hear her story instead my father’s stories that filled my childhood;
  • My father has only read one of my pieces (again, besides letters), and that was a piece he commissioned. We had a problem intersection next to our farm that had blind spots and caused car accidents on average of about once a month. He asked me to write to the county government to make the intersection a four-way stop. I wrote the letter. They made the corner a four-way stop. My father never read anything else I wrote;
  • To my knowledge, my brother and sister-in-law haven’t read my writing.

*****

In December I was downsized from my job in call center leadership, and since that day I have been submitting resumes and holding phone interviews for continuing work in call center leadership. I’ve been in call centers for 25 years now…about 20 years less than I have been writing.  When the call center applications and interviews are done for the day, then I find myself drifting into search terms on the job boards that don’t fit the practical, like finishing my grocery shopping and then strolling into Tiffany’s, “just looking.” Except I apply to those fanciful jobs, too, the ones I’m not “qualified” for, the ones that would make me happier than call center work, the ones that I have been hammering away at for nearly 40 years.

The writing ones.

I apply anyway.

I currently have an unpaid gig of writing book reviews, which is still great even if it’s unpaid.  Free books and then tell us what you think of these books, and I get to pick the books. I tell my family where the reviews are. I couldn’t tell you if they’ve read them, let alone if they can find them relatable or any good.

Late last week my brother texted me, asked me how the job search was going.  I talked about all of the call center interviews.

“How about finding something you like, that makes you happy?”

I stared at my phone. Okay.

I texted back about applying to writing gigs, too, even if I didn’t hear responses.  I joked that I occasionally played the lottery, too, and if that ever panned out I would get to write and/or teach all I wanted.

For a few minutes, while my phone screen was bubbling those three dots back and forth with him typing, I thought there might be that bridge, that belief that I belong in his gene pool, the connection that I wasn’t the odd duck in the family scribbling, that I was a good egg…

“You know,” he wrote back, “have you thought about food service? I know you like food, you like to cook…”

Never can tell, I wrote back, trying my best to keep my normal and sensible brother from feeling uncomfortable.

40 years of being the odd duck continues.

*****

I was thinking about my place in my family after that conversation (as I have during similar hits and misses), and then was thinking about my place again when I received my latest review book, the memoir by Dani Shapiro entitled Inheritance. I am a huge fan of Shapiro; my favorite book of hers is her writing memoir Still Writing, which is what she responds with when her non-writing/reading family and friends ask her what she’s up to.  Still writing.

Without giving away too much about her latest memoir I’ll just say this: Shapiro tells the story about taking a genetic test on Ancestry.com and finds out that her parents have some explaining to do…except they have both been dead for years. Shapiro writes about her self-doubt growing up, of trying to find herself in the mirror late at night in the bathroom by staring into her reflection, and getting all kinds of slack for years because she didn’t “look Jewish” in her Jewish family.  I can’t relate to the memoir in a physical sense; I look very much like my father, my mother, and my brother.

However, I very much relate to not being able to relate to the family I was born into.

The ties are so thread-thin, the odds of me being born a writer so incredibly small, and then the odds that writing would be beat out of me by environmental factors alone so incredibly high.  Why do I keep writing? Why do I love writing this much? Why did this acute passion miss everyone else in my gene pool so completely?

My father used to joke, “You were adopted…and then they brought you back.”

I took yesterday and read the Shapiro memoir, cover to cover, in one day. It was the best experience I had been lucky enough to be a part of in a while, just reading that book, forgetting all else, forgetting and yet forgiving my own isolation in the face of what I was dealt.  I do not feel cursed as a writer. It’s okay that I don’t feel cursed to love writing and books.

“You’re still you,” Shapiro says her reflection in the opening pages of her memoir.

Still me. Still writing.

 

#GrownUp

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My mother wanted children for a number of reasons, but one of the reasons that stuck with me was that she wanted someone with whom to share children’s books.  She hit jackpot with her firstborn (my brother didn’t really like books or literature of any kind until college), and I was reading before kindergarten.  Every year at Christmas I got a stack of children’s literature; and the public library was always my favorite place to visit. My mother got me started with the greats:

  • Little House books;
  • Shel Silverstein poetry;
  • Tasha Tudor illustrations;
  • Winnie the Pooh;
  • Maurice Sendak’s illustrated version of The Nutcracker;
  • Little Golden Books;
  • The Velveteen Rabbit.

There were others, sure.  And then on my father’s side there was the slapstick of childhood in Warner Brother’s cartoons (he preferred them to Disney, but Disney was okay by him too if the film had actors he liked, such as Phil Harris or Jimmy Durante).

I inherited all of this, in addition to a pretty deep attachment to LEGOs, Harry Potter, and the legends of comic books and graphic novels.  I like Pixar movies.  If I could still go to story hour and not make the room uncomfortable, I would.  I love coloring books.

There are two worlds of whirling dervish right now on social media: Marie Kondo’s broadcasts of decluttering lives, and Bill Maher proclaiming that comics are something everyone should have outgrown at the age of 17 and a half.  Marie believes in ridding our lives of anything that doesn’t “spark joy,” including–gasp–books, if that’s the case. Maher doesn’t care if the comic books spark joy, get rid of them anyway and grow up. Read the adult stuff, he insists, like Dickens or Melville, etc.

I have to admit a couple of things here.  First, I haven’t seen the Marie Kondo episodes on Netflix; I’m a neat freak already and I imagine Kondo would just bore me.  I do watch Maher’s show Real Time, but I watch it more for the same reason that I occasionally pick up a copy of O Magazine; I like the contributors more than the host.  I could do without Bill (or Oprah), but I’m pretty impassioned about his show; without it I wouldn’t be aware of some of the stuff that I think it’s important that I should be aware of.  Some of that awareness is despicable, but some of it isn’t.  Do I agree with Maher on his take on comic books? Nope. Do I agree with all of his contributors? Nope. Do I cringe when he puts some of these contributors on? Oh yes.

But whether it’s Kondo or Maher or someone else, I think the lighting of the hair on fire based on disagreement could be discarded unless it could be presented as discourse.  If I ever get around to watching Kondo for fun some rainy afternoon, then I’m not planning on losing my mind when she says ditch some books; that’s just the piece of the pie I don’t need to take, and then I can drop and move on.  When Bill launched into this anti-comic tirade last Friday night, I wasn’t happy (it seemed like an over-simplification, but so does the “spark joy” argument and all of the arguments against Kondo and Maher), but that’s just the piece I don’t take with me.

When did the internet turn into self-help?  There’s nothing wrong with self-help, either, but goodness, did the folks watching any self-proclaimed subject matter expert really think they should have that complete authority?

Maybe we learn something from everything, albeit not always the intended lesson of the teacher.  Kondo’s whirlwind taught me that, and she meant to teach us all how to be neater.  Maher’s whirlwind is reinforcing something in my learning; I have often thought my failures have hatched in not following the well-intentioned and/or unasked advice of others, when I should consider the various contributors.  Maher’s ranting about comics during his editorial bits teach me how important all voices are, including my own.

I don’t need to yell at Kondo to “Leave my books alone!” or yell at Maher to “Leave my children’s literature alone!” I just need to shrug and read my books, be them Melville (which I love) or Winnie the Pooh (which I still love), or watch Ant-Man (which is still the laugh I need).  Keep talking, Kondo and Maher.  Someone’s nodding in agreement somewhere, and you’re the validation they need…but I’m good on my own, finding validation elsewhere.

#BookClub

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Every day there’s a new article about how a degree in the fine arts will get you an overabundance of student debt and that’s it; there’s nothing lucrative about literature.  I don’t think solvency was the motivation or even any remote consideration when I entered college as a non-traditional student (read: older than everyone else in the class at 22 years old).  There were a combination of arguments:

  • If I was going to be broke anyway, why not study something that I loved?
  • My manager at the time was a little stunned that I loved books as much as I did and wasn’t in college;
  • Once the general education classes were out of the way, then I would get college credits to gush about other peoples’ writing for months.

In essence, my college years were one long sequence of book clubs.

*****

After the gen ed courses, I briefly double-majored in both literature and history.  Fiction and non-fiction, if you will. I took two classes in literature a semester and two classes in history.  I was already in love with literature when I entered college, but an excellent professor in history during my gen ed years convinced me that history was one of the best stories I could find, so I double-majored.  The two majors paired wonderfully together (read Moby Dick, and then study 19th century whaling to see how Melville got there), and my only hang-up was that writing about literature is a completely different animal than writing about history, unless you break the rules like David McCullough or Stephen Ambrose and have the audacity to tell a story.  Writing about literature was direct, like sipping on a sazerac in the back of a dive bar with a pack of Marlboros, but writing about history in a purely academic sense was a hard lesson in the passive voice, like backing into a glass of rose. I continually mixed up the two, and then there was a British history professor who claimed I had plagiarized Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier (I have never been a fan of Orwell, even before the damn class, and other professors didn’t think it was that close of a match even though they liked my writing, including the dean, so charges were dropped), so that was one too many straws, and history was dropped to a minor.  To this day, however, I still balance out a lot of fiction with non-fiction (preferably memoirs and biographies, but I read about history if the story is specific enough), and love to talk about all of it.

Sadly, you can’t go to college forever, and the course load decreased when I demoted history, so I graduated against my will in December of 2000.  I futzed around with exploring options into careers in literature or careers in the proximity of literature at the beginning of 2001, but life had other plans, and after a series of diversions I finally moved to what I considered to be a more literary city in San Francisco in 2004.  San Francisco had more bookstores than I had seen in whole states in the Midwest; at lunch I would flip a coin and, depending on the outcome, would visit either Alexander’s on Second Street or Stacey’s on Market, which were less than a block from each other.  I would occasionally chat books with these booksellers, but finding a chatty bookseller in San Francisco has rarely been my luck.  The bookstores in San Francisco are luxurious, “floors of books” and historical sites of Beat poets and quirky adhoc shelves made from planks, but most of the booksellers there seemed…sentenced.  Another starry-eyed former literature student stumbling around in a bohemian funk?  I could have gotten in line or paid subscriber dues.  Yes, the bookstores had author events, or the yearly book fair called Litquake would pop up a rash of author events or panels, and I leaped at tickets.  I had one line of questioning for every author and panel: What are you reading? What books inspired you to write the way you do? What is your favorite book?

*****

I tried traditional book clubs in San Francisco, but they usually defaulted to a combination of wine, appetizers, other book events, other authors, or personal stuff unrelated to the book.  I loved talking about and listening to others talk about books, so having to shut up and be good for the other topics was maddening.

There are several book club movies out there that remind me of this kind of experience.  The most recent is Book Club, which came out last year and has a stellar cast of Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Diane Keaton, Craig T. Nelson, Andy Garcia, and Don Johnson, just to name a few.  I like every actor in this film and love book clubs and I loathe this movie.  The only redeeming aspect of the film is the music and a flying sequence with Garcia and Keaton in the Grand Canyon…and neither one of those topics are related to the title.  Books are discussed for about seven minutes in this movie, and the overwhelming reference in the club is to the Fifty Shades of Grey series, a collection of books that isn’t struggling for promotion.

Back in the late aughts there was a movie called The Jane Austen Book Club, which wasn’t a much better script but talked about books a lot more more than Book Club.  I watched that movie again after Book Club as a palette-cleanser, and, because it’s January, thought I might be able to follow the calendar in The Jane Austen Book Club this year starting in February with Emma like the characters in the movie did.  Still a lot of wine and coffee in that movie, though.  Probably my favorite book club film was an adaptation of a book for a Netflix production called The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which addresses World War II as well as literary classics and struggles of writers. The members of that group had some questionable edibles (which factors in the plot in more ways than just the title) but the primary food is the stuff of reading, and I could watch that movie on a loop if needed.

*****

I went without a book club for some time after moving to Southern California.  One reason was that I briefly belonged to a writing group who wanted someone to organize their writing lives but did not want to write under the organization of what someone else had put together for them.  The writer’s group that I belonged to in the Bay Area would write in all kinds of places and locations; I had written with them in Oakland after work, at a cafe in Duboce Triangle on Sundays for a day-long marathon session with a lunch break, at the Richmond District Library in the basement conference room, at the Borderlands Cafe in the Mission, where there was purposely no wi-fi.  I tutored kids in writing, science, and math at 826 Valencia and wrote for their 826 Day festivities.  But reading…that fell off the radar early and generated a TBR pile in my apartment bedroom that would choke a fire.  I kept with writing and thought reading would come in later, when an earthquake killed the power or I ran out of ink.

In Southern California I knew people who read, but either didn’t like to talk about what they read or thought of reading as a non-social activity.  I didn’t know how to debate that; when I was in college I was alone a lot, but there was the social aspect of class.  Was it possible that one couldn’t have a book club without other aspects: a classroom forcing to read, a bottle of wine, a number count on Goodreads, a hashtag of Sunday sentences?  Social media has made online book clubs or book communities a sometimes mine field; if I were to pick up a short story by Woody Allen or quote from Garrison Keillor’s anthology Good Poems, do these choices unleash wrath or banishment?  Social media can be cruel and often is (I often find myself retreating into just Sunday sentences, but what happens when I want to find Hemingway there?), and a reader has to step carefully.

Do I wish I were part of more readers’ circles?  Sometimes. I have the added joy of reviewing books for an online publication, and when the authors reach out and connect over the reviews I have a few hours of feeling like a I have a book club to love words in, a safe space regardless. Most of my friends and family fulfill other curiosities for me, since their interests rarely involve books.  Just this past year, however, I stumbled on the greatest fortune: a book club in a book store here in San Diego.  The owner of the store selects a fiction book in paperback, discounts it for the month leading up to discussion, and one Thursday night a month a sizable crowd of us discuss the book.  The personalities and approaches to the book in that group are nearly stories of their own, and I’m back in class in the 90’s, arguing writers’ choices of POV, characterization, voice, setting, and special effects.

There’s no wine, no appetizers.  All the food is brain food. For one hour a month I sit in the room and socialize with a slim paperback in my hand, at the center of all of our thoughts.