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.