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Book Club Blowup

The website for the Kimberling Area Library doesn’t say a word about book clubs. I’ve been a patron since 1995 and only recently learned the library has ten book clubs.  After fifteen years, the library literary society apparently decided I could read.

I was surprised when my sister-in-law, Carolyn, and I were invited to join the library's oldest book club. It was established  decades before the library was built. My surprise wasn’t because I was picked, a good friend of mine is in the group, but because I somehow missed the existence of the book clubs in the first place.
Carolyn and I were excited to get the book list and start reading. She’s a recent San Francisco area transplant who missed her old book club. I didn’t know what I was missing but I was going to find out. The first season with the book club was short. We joined in February, 2010 and it ended in May. I don’t want to name names but the MacComber and Piccoult books received glowing reports and high scores from everyone but Carolyn and me.
We looked forward to the new season because it was the first time we would have input. We discussed book choices and compiled lists. We studied the hundreds of books the club had read over the past forty years. Patterns were identified: repeat authors, happy endings, romance, and easy-like-Sunday-morning reading. We vowed to avoid the patterns. Carolyn and I had a mantra: Our responsibility was to broaden the minds of these poor women.
Three days before the club’s annual book selection day, Carolyn typed a list of her selections and emailed them to members. She included a synopsis of each recommendation. I stuck to three choices because this ain’t San Francisco. I knew I’d have to pitch my choices and pitch them I did. I was ecstatic when the club voted for two of my recommendations and two of Carolyn’s: Rain Gods by James Lee Burke, Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi and The Killing Tree by Rachel Keener.
I expected a storm over Rain Gods at our November meeting.  There was some mild grumbling over the length; roughly 450 pages.
Ina (names have been changed to protect the ignorant) said, “The language. Such awful, filthy language! I never heard such language in my life.”

I frowned.  “You’ve never heard anyone say the F word? That’s amazing. Good thing you just read it then. ” I fought the urge to say Fuck out loud.
“Well,” Ina said. “It’s because I don’t associate with low lifes who say those kinds of words.”

I laughed. “I associate with caseworkers, deputy juvenile officers and judges. I hear the F bomb often and they’re hardly low lifes. I warned you guys about the content and language and you still picked the book.”
“That’s true,” Agnes said.  Agnes was no stranger to James Lee Burke.

When the time came to rate Rain Gods, Carolyn and I gave it an eight. I was pleased when five members gave it sixes and sevens. Ina gave it a four “because of the language.” The issues Burke touches upon in the book— torture, murder, addiction and human trafficking—are apparently acceptable as long as nobody swears.
I was relieved we made it through our November meeting and was looking forward to the group’s opinion of Too Much Happiness. Unfortunately, I had a mandatory Family Support Team meeting for my current advocacy case and missed the December book club meeting.

Carolyn and I were decorating sugar cookies with my grandchildren when she said, “Oh my God, I forgot to tell you about book club.”

“So what did they think?” I asked.

“They hated  it.”

What?” I practically screamed. “Why?”

“It’s hard for me to remember all the reasons,” Carolyn responded. “They just didn’t like it. Oh, I do remember Gina said it was confusing and didn’t make sense. She didn’t understand the stories were separate.”

“What does she think short stories are?” I took a deep breath and tried to calm down. Aiden was no longer frosting his cookie. Lilly was no longer sneaking bites of frosting and both of them were staring at me.
“I just can’t believe nobody liked it. Too Much Happiness won the Man Booker International Prize.”
Aiden went back to frosting his snowman. “Too Much Happiness sounds like a nice book, Nana.”

“Can I read it?” Lilly asked.

“When you’re older,” Carolyn answered. “Oh, they did like the last story because it’s true.”
I groaned. “I guess it didn’t get very high ratings.”

Carolyn shook her head. “No, it didn’t. I gave it an eight. The next highest was a five. And you better prepare yourself because Ina is going to call the library and tell them to ban the book.”

I gasped. My frosting knife clattered to the floor.

“What’s ban mean?” Aiden asked.

“It means to prohibit. To not allow someone to do something.” My back hurt. I turned to Carolyn, perplexed. “Why would Ina want to ban Too Much Happiness?  I can’t think of anything that offensive in the book.”

“Oh, there’s that one story…where the girl takes off her clothes…for the old man,” Carolyn said under her breath.
“For God’s sake…” I paused and looked at Aiden and Lilly. Little ears hear big.
I sighed. “Wenlock Edge. That’s the story. There is some voyeurism.” I waited for Aiden to say,” What’s voyeurism?” but fortunately he didn’t.

After Carolyn went home, my grandchildren were sleeping, and my anger reduced to simmering, I tried to understand Ina’s reaction. I re-read Wenlock Edge. Okay, it is a bit disconcerting. I couldn’t help but think, especially if you were used by a man or a victim of abuse.

My book club has been a learning experience which has nothing to do with books. We all need boundaries but to impose ones personal values and morals on other people crosses a societal boundary.  I felt Ina crossed this line by insisting our library ban this book. Surely they wouldn’t?
I’ll call the library tomorrow to make sure they still have Too Much Happiness.
But tonight I can’t help but wonder…do the formerly content book club members think I’m imposing my beliefs on them?
Am I?

4 Comment count
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You are...

...extending the realm of thought, not just reading.

Jules, your conversation and interjections by the grand-kids read like a fable - the good, the bad, the questions, the tentative answers and the final, "Am I?"

My book club has been a learning experience which has nothing to do with books. We all need boundaries but to impose ones personal values and morals on other people crosses a societal boundary.

So true. Because we come with different baggage.


PS: Hope you are feeling better and raring to stride forth...there is never "too much happiness".

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I am better physically, but frustrated with the pace and progress of my writing. 

My life has been a fable for decades, although I may be confusing fable with farce.

It was quite amusing when Lilly asked if she could read Too Much Happiness. She's only five but at least she wanted to read it.

I hope you are well, as well.



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Thinking About It

Hi Jules,

Lively and interesting read, this. I read another blog about passing judgement, so this was a good supplement.

What people read and how they judge the world and the art that speaks to it is such a huge subject for discussion. Your experience was frustrating, but it sure illustrates fear around loss of control. The Inas of the world are terrified of what's out there and don't want it creeping in while they stick their heads in the sand. Is there any solution to ignorance when it's based so strongly in fear?


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Fear Based


Your comments are thoughtful. Ignorance is potentially quite dangerous when it is rooted in fear like I believe "Ina's" is.

I feel it also comes from a need to control situations to keep one safe, which boils down to the same thing- fear. It's more difficult to find solutions, i.e., change fixed opinions when a person is older, but we have to keep trying. The best way to do that is lead by example.