The Zen (or Non-Zen) of Book Groups: Ann Packer’s The Children’s Crusade and Carolyn See’s The Handyman

book group women Study-GroupI walk into a meeting.

Not AA, not NA, nothing exciting.

It is the first meeting of a book group for fifty-plus women, or, as I call it, the Post-Menopausal Grrrls.

I’m expecting to find a cadre of wild white-haired bibliophiles, the female equivalent of  the quixotic dreamers in my  SF/fantasy book group.  The SFers are endearingly knowledgeable about eBay deals on first editions of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination and engineering problems in The Martian.  I always enjoy the unexpectedness of their dialogues.

Who will the fifty-plus-ers be?

Book groups in my city tend to be small.  And so I am not surprised to see there are only six women.  No one with white (bike) helmet hair (like mine); all are professionally dyed and coiffed. The kind leader, who gives me a nametag,  tells me there’s coffee in the urn.  I tell her I love coffee, but only fresh-ground from whole beans.

How I’d love to be a member of this group.  But it’s not what I expected.  These pleasant women are all grandmothers, poring over pictures of grandchildren on their phones.   Even after menopause, they can’t stop talking about reproduction.

ann packer the-childrens-crusade-9781476710457_hrFinally we discuss Ann Packer’s The Children’s Crusade, a classic “bad mother” novel.

In this brilliant novel about five decades in the lives of the Blair family, Packer asks questions about the American family: is the “bad mother” responsible for all her children’s woes? Is she even necessary when her husband, a saintly pediatrician, is the perfect parent?  The women at the group are no-holds-barred angry about the artist Penny Blair’s withdrawal from her family.  Having seen many styles of parenting, some much worse than Penny’s, I suggest that Bill, who responds to every crisis with caring questions and psychoanalytical language, is also part of the problem.  But censure of Penny is the order of the day.

Some book groups have it, some don’t.  This particular group responds emotionally to parts but not the book as a whole.   The SFers would have  a more interesting take on it.

At the end of the meeting, I recommend Carolyn See.  Has anybody read her? (My SF group likes her novel Golden Days.)

Carolyn See the handyman 17850Carolyn See, the American novelist, memoirist, and critic, is one of my favorite authors.  She writes with uncanny clarity,  interweaving brilliant insights about modern American life with graceful descriptions of the quotidian.  I recently reread  The Handyman, the story of an artist who finds his vision while working as a handyman.

See cleverly frames the story with a Guggenheim application in 2027 by an art historian, Peter Lauce, who wants to study the early and intermediate period of Robert Hampton’s art.  Then it segues from the application to  the events of the summer of 1996, when Hampton abandons his plan to live in Paris for a year and turns around and flies home to L.A..

Robert wonders gloomily, Does an artist have to live in Paris?  Can art be made in L.A.?  He thinks of Anthony Hernandez and Carlos Almaraz.

He posts his handyman flyers.  Desperate people hire him to bring order to their lives. He cleans the houses of depressed housewives,  arranges help for a young man from Ohio trying to care for his lover dying of AIDS, clears out a beautiful widow’s husband’s belongings and becomes her friend (and more), and paints the cement around a rich family’s swimming pool cerulean blue. Suddenly he notices a toddler  curled up on the bottom of the pool with his thumb in his mouth.   He saves the drowning child’s life, and is forever bonded with Angela, Tod’s mother. She is a simple, charming, honest woman, living on a different plane from her abusive rich husband.  Her philosophy of life is  immediate and mellow.

She tells Robert,

“I’ve never had any ambition.  I just want, like what we have today.  Like…that time in the day when nothing’s happening.  As if it were three in the afternoon, on a weekday. Or four. Everything’s in order. You don’t have to start dinner for a couple of hours.  And you’re out in the backyard. Or on the porch.”

Don’t we all live for those mellow hours?  She influences Robert more than he realizes as they become friends.  No wonder he falls in love with her.

Love makes art!  (I think.) Or something like that!

The Off Your Meds Book Group

BookGroupIf a person with a background in literature leads a book group, it is usually fine.  If an amateur runs it, it is often terrible.

I’ve been to all kinds of book groups:  the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I used to run a book group for people with chronic illnesses.  I called it the Off Your Meds book group.  Friends of friends of friends got the word out and quietly recruited people.  Everybody in the group was ill with something, cancer, leukemia, heart disease, depression, bipolar disorder, HIV.  Most wanted to be off their meds, because the pills made them sick–some drugs were actually poisonous–and they wished for God’s sake they could use herbal remedies instead.  (Depending on how sick they were, sometimes that worked.)

I’m a lifetime reader, former teacher and book reviewer, and I can put together a discussion very quickly, and I must say this was a brilliant idea for a book group.  (I sent the list of books to somebody in Syracuse : I wonder if she ever did anything with it.)  We read a lot of obscure literary fiction and memoirs.  “Where do you find these books?”  said a woman who fell in love with Jonis Agee’s Resurrection.

I found books in bookstores, in the days when we still had bookstores.   If you have the time to browse, even at chain bookstores, you can still find some stunning new books.

And I loved the people in my book group.  They were of all backgrounds, rich and poor, all very smart, all very tolerant of each other’s frailties.  Book group only lasted an hour, and afterwards we went out for pastry.  There were usually ten of us, and though we didn’t have much in common, it was nice to get together every couple of months.  “I’ve been nauseous for a month now on this f—–g pill,” or “I’ve gained 50 pounds on X,” “This pill ruined my liver,” or “It does nothing for me.  But it’s even worse without.”

People came even when they were sick.  One woman’s mother brought her when she was very ill with bipolar disorder. She talked very fast, and though she didn’t make much sense, I think she had read the book:  she had been put on some very strong meds, and should have been in the hospital, but they don’t keep people in the hospital very long (which is fine if you have a mother, as she did, but maybe not so fine if you live alone on disability, as others did).

“I was damned if I was going to miss book group because of this f—-ing disease,” she told me later.

And I think it was damned fine she came to the group, I really do.

When I moved, I didn’t found a new Off Your Meds book group.  You only do that once in your life.

I agreed to lead a Midwestern book group at Borders, but I changed my mind.  I didn’t want to lead; I wanted to participate.

Some book groups are good, some are bad.

I attended a Great Books group, and it was the worst I ever attended

Most of you probably know about Great Books.

In 1947,  Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard, two University of Chicago professors, founded the Great Books program to teach the classics to adults.

Things get a little crazy when you attend public book groups.

Imagine going to a discussion of Plato’s The Crito where the leader declares Socrates was “backwards” and thank God we have progressed.

I have a master’s in classics, and once read the Crito in Greek.  If I’d known what the leader was like, I would have prepared a mini-lecture and whipped the group into shape.  Only one other person in the group appreciated Plato.  She said they never liked the books, but they were “nice people.”

I didn’t exactly see “nice” people there.  I saw a bunch of people who needed a strong leader so the Crito would make sense to them.

I have a history with the Great Books groups.  (So does my husband.)  Many years ago, when I was ten or eleven, I was kicked out of the Junior Books Group.  Well, the entire group was canceled, because the leaders were so angry at us.  The selections were too young for us:  Andersen’s Fairy Tales, Just So Stories, Treasure Island…   My best friend and I cut Junior Great Books regularly (it was held on Saturdays) and read the Betsy-Tacy books instead (real Midwestern classics) or Jane Eyre.

And then the leaders canceled the group because none of us had read Treasure Island.  Not a one!  And all of us were readers.

My husband also signed up for Junior Great Books in his hometown, and had a similar experience.  He didn’t read the books, either.  He wanted to be out playing baseball.  At the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, where we often see boxes of Great Books selections, we always laugh.  Most of the books are made up of excerpts.  As former teachers, neither of us approves of this approach.

Private book groups are really the best.  Then you’re with your friends, or at least with people who know how to read.

But I recently attended a public book group discussion of Pride and Prejudice at a local bookstore. Fifteen women showed up, which was certainly encouraging.

I expected the women to like Jane Austen, but they were oddly critical.  “We’ve progressed so much since Jane Austen’s day,” they told one another.


And one very nice woman had it mixed up with Jane Eyre.  She kept wanting to know if we had read Jane Eyre.

Charlotte Bronte didn’t like Jane Austen.

I’m always open to trying a new book group, though.  I belonged to a great science fiction group, but the leader moved away, and the group fell apart.  (Sound familiar?  Yes.)

And I simply can’t attend any classics book group anymore, because I f—–g know more about those ancient boys than the leaders do.

One of these days I’ll find another great book group, though.  Maybe at the tiny indie…

Book Groups, Best 100 Novels, GoodReads, & Yahoo Groups

In “Parks and Recreation,” a man chains himself to a pipe in Leslie’s office. After he lends “Twilight” to Tom, they (with Donna) form an impromptu book group.

BOOK GROUPS.  My cousin the librarian and I sit in the back yard.

We had Creamsicles for lunch.

She would prefer one of my tomatoes-on-pasta dishes.

I wasn’t up for it.

She is supposed to be in an office (with the cataloguers) reading Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. She is reading it on her iPad here.

Telegraph Avenue Michael ChabonShe found out at 9 a.m. that she must substitute for the woman who leads the book group tonight.

She doesn’t have time to read the book.

It was my favorite book last year, but it is long.

“You could lead it,” she says.

I read it last December and don’t have time to prepare.

“But you could come to the group with me!”

I know that they would love it.  It would be very cute.  The librarian and her cousin!  She could be charming and chat (she is charming and  loquacious) and I could do all the work.

I am actually feeling sick today.

So, instead, I am researching Chabon for her and taking notes on reviews of Telegraph Avenue.

“What page are you on?” I ask.

“50.  Can I have another Creamsicle?”

So here’s my plan for the book group (and God help me, I might have to go along, though I’m unwell):

  • Offer everyone Darjeeling tea (which I will provide for her in a big thermos, because I have much Darjeeling).
  • Briefly introduce the book and summarize a couple of reviews.  (I will write the introduction.)
  • Show pictures of Michael Chabon on the iPad.  Pass it around.  According to Wikipedia, he turned down an opportunity to be named one of People’s 50 Most Beautiful People after The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was published.  He is indeed good-looking.
  • Mention his wife, who is also a writer, Ayelet Waldman.

That will take 10 minutes, what with the chat of the group members.


  • Explain that your style of leading a book group is to remain neutral.  You will ask questions and they will answer.
  • Read questions from the back of paperback.

Tada!  What could be easier?

100 Best Novels.  In 2003, Robert McCrum of The Observer made a list of The Greatest Novels of All Time.  It is still popular, he says.   Now he is making another list, only with novels in English, in collaboration with The Guardian.  One book will be introduced at a time over 100 weeks.

He is starting with Pilgrim’s Progress, which Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth in Little Women liked.  (I couldn’t care less about it, though.)

But I very much like his selection of Jane Austen:  Emma, my favorite book.

He writes:

Inevitably, this list reflects educational, national and social influences. Some Scottish readers may say that we have not given enough space to the great northern tradition.Irish readers will argue about Flann O’Brien (aka Myles na gCopaleen). In or out? Wait and see. Further afield, in the English-speaking world,some Australian readers may feel short-changed. All we can say in response is that this list was compiled for a British newspaper, based in London, in 2013.

There will be debate.

Goodreads’ New Standards for Posts.  I have joined a group at Goodreads, which is good for discussions (though I haven’t had time). One problem:  first-time authors leave posts promoting their books rather than chatting about the assigned book.

As far as I know, Goodreads does not delete these posts.

Kara Erickson, Director of Customer Care, announced that they will delete reviews about author behavior at readings or elsewhere.

We have had a policy of removing reviews that were created primarily to talk about author behavior from the community book page. Once removed, these reviews would remain on the member’s profile. Starting today, we will now delete these entirely from the site. We will also delete shelves and lists of books on Goodreads that are focused on author behavior.

Is this censorship?

I once helped run a book group at Book Central (now defunct) on AOL.  It was a wonderful place to post about books, but we deleted attacks on fellow members (usually from strangers), racial slurs, gender slurs, and general hate talk.

I don’t remember deleting posts about authors, though some were negative.

Should such posts be deleted?

What do you think?

Yahoo Groups changes.  At Under the Sign of Sylvia 2, Ellen Moody has posted a fascinating piece, “The Debasement of Yahoo Groups.”

Book Groups and Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower

I’ve belonged to many old-fashioned “real-life” book groups.  I used to lead a book group.  That was my favorite, of course.

book groupBut the popularity of book groups seems to be waning here in my Midwestern city.  The membership of one of my book groups has completely turned around in 10 years.  It is now a kind of lonely group, where older women chat about grandchildren (a stage of life I will never reach, because I didn’t “breed”) and the men talk about their odd hobbies, collecting The Smiths memorabilia or Civil War junk.  If only the women and men would get together…but I think the men are all gay.

The genre book groups I used to attend were more interesting, but have buckled with the closing of Borders. Believe me, mystery and science fiction fans know far more about their genres than the average literary fiction reader knows about contemporary literature.

The interactions at online book groups these days are often more intelligent than those in real-life book groups. Some group members write amazing essays on Trollope, Zola, Clyde Edgerton, Sandra Cisneros, or whomever they are reading.

The history of online groups goes back to the ’80s. When I got online in the late 1990s, AOL hosted dozens of book groups at a site called Book Central, where readers posted on “boards” about what they were reading and the books scheduled for monthly discussions.   One year many of us attended The Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, and it was delightful to meet online friends.   We also heard  Jill McCorkle, Susan Choi, Kaye Gibbons, Lee Smith, Madison Smartt Bell, Daniel Wallace,  and Elizabeth Spencer.

Eventually AOL closed down Book Central.  Many of us left AOL.  And I have to admit, we drifted apart.

And so I joined Yahoo book groups, which are conducted in email instead.  Many of these groups are terrific, but participation has waned over the years here, too.  I haven’t received an email from the Dorothy Sayers group since August 12.  I used to receive 70 or 80 a day.

Bloggers sponsor group reads, but that never works out well for me.  You sign up… you read the book… you blog about it… you go back to the original blog and post a link to your blog in the comments…  it’s kind of like an ad…  maybe two or three people come to your blog… and it doesn’t seem to be much of a discussion.  I am accidentally doing the “Virago All the Time” group read, because I have posted about a Virago, Mary Hocking’s Good Daughters.   I loved Good Daughters, but it’s a family saga, not literature.  I can’t commit to reading books by publisher!  (But don’t be upset with me, Virago fans:  I feel this way about NYRB and Persephones, too.  Some are good; some are crap.:))

A few days ago I announced I would spend less time reading traditional book review publications online like The New York Times Book Review.  With the death of my mother, I realized I don’t want to spend too much time online. I am going mainly to internet-only book sites now.

And guess what?  It works.  I am spending less time online.

But there are no untraditional book sites.  The internet is probably owned by Amazon and Google.

Goodreads (owned by Amazon), Shelfari (owned by Abebooks, owned by Amazon) and LibraryThing (40% owned by Amazon) are the natural places for online book groups now.  Goodreads looks by far the best for book discussions–in fact, it reminds me of the old AOL boards–and you can also set up individual pages about the books you read.  I also find it adorable that Goodreads hosts a 2013 Reading Challenge.  So far, 406,244 participants have posted the number of books they want to read this year.

All right, I’m not into things like that.  But I may join a book group discussion.

Let me know about your “traditional” online book groups, or any “untraditional”  book publications.

200px-ParableOfTheSower(1stEd) Octavia ButlerScience Fiction.  I just finished Octavia E. Butler’s very well-written, if uneven, novel Parable of the Sower.  Butler is an African-American science fiction writer (1947-2006), winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards and the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship.

Parable of the Sower, which I found shelved in the literature section of a bookstore, is a dystopian novel abouta future where (barely) middle-class and working-class people in the U.S. live behind walls, where they struggle to make enough money to buy water, where cities are trashed, and where pyromaniacs take a drug that makes watching fires feel like sex.

The narrator, Lauren, a Baptist minister’s daughter, has hyperempathy, a condition where she feels the pain that she witnesses.  When she bicycles with her family and neighbors to church in their small city in California, she tries not to look at people who are crippled or ill.

…most of the street poor–squatters, winos, junkies, homeless people in general–are dangerous.  They’re desperate or crazy or both.  That’s enough to make anyone dangerous.

Worse for me, they often have things wrong with them.  They cut off each other’s ears, arms, legs…. They carry untreated diseases and festering wounds.  They have no money to spend on water to wash with so even the unwounded have sores.

Lauren loves her father, but she does not believe in his religion.  She has made up her own belief system, Earthseed. She teaches that God is neither good nor bad, God does not care about people, God is change, and you can shape change, i.e., God.  Lauren wants to form an Earthseed community:  the goal will be eventually to travel to a planet where people can live.

Lauren foresees that the neighborhood walls will be destroyed.  But her father explains that you cannot give people too much terrifying information:  it is better to offer classes in self-defense and plant identification than say they will need it. Her father disappears a few days before the neighborhood is burned and looted.  Lauren is the only survivor of her family,

And then it becomes the usual dystopian fiction:  she and two survivors from the neighborhood travel north, hoping to find work.  On the road they make new friends and allies, camp in dangerous places, shoot pyromaniacs, and strip dead bodies of money and clothes. Much of it is quite gruesome.

I have read enough dystopian fiction to last a lifetime, but this is good as that kind of thing goes.  Fans of Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games will undoubtedly enjoy this.   There is a sequel, Sower of the Talents. Perhaps I won’t read the sequel, but I will read more Butler.