Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Of Books and Clubs and Book Clubs

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Am I the only one who starts to shake when someone utters the words book and club in close proximity? From the bottoms of my toes and the tips of my fingers and the top of my head, arrows of desire and revulsion, anxiety and ambivalence shoot inward toward my heart and brain. Books and clubs: each category alone generates powerful feelings; together, they nearly knock me over. That so many of my friends love their book clubs only makes it worse.

This could be a post-traumatic thing. I've only gone to one book club meeting, ever. I was in graduate school and my best friend invited me. I don't remember the book, but I do remember feeling distinctly coals-to-Newcastle. I was in the midst of a Ph.D. program in English, and all I did was read books, except when I was reading, thinking, talking, and writing about books. Nevertheless, the book club left me tongue-tied.
As a newcomer, I had no idea of the club's practices: did they talk about the plot? the characters? their emotional responses? I was pretty sure they wouldn't be interested in applying my new understanding of feminist and postmodern theory to their book, but deep in the throes of literary analysis, I could hardly imagine any other kind of book conversation. Add that the book club members were quite a bit older than me: moms with jobs and kids, busy adults with family rooms and station wagons, not grad students rattling around in cafes grading papers. Alienated from book and club, I never returned.

Though I'm no longer an academic, my life is still filled with books: I read them, write about them, teach them, stumble over piles of them when the lights are out. These days, a tad more mature, I can also talk about them in just about any context: casually with people who want me to recommend a good read, intensely with people who share my book passion, attentively with children enthralled by a new literary discovery.

But there's still something about the book club that makes me anxious. Who would my book club be? If they were casual readers, would I know and say too much? If they were serious readers, would I be overwhelmed by their rigor? And what if they didn't even talk about the book, as stereotype has it? Would I do the reading for naught and feel secretly enraged?

Compounding my anxiety about books and reading is my anxiety about clubs (and if you call it a group, the anxiety still holds). Clubs are all about inclusion and exclusion. A few years ago, Eva's best friend's mom and I considered starting a mother-daughter book club for about six minutes, before we realized it would be impossible to constitute without giving offense to some mother or daughter or both, and you don't want to give offense to the mothers and daughters of the second grade!

Groucho Marx may have said that he didn't want to belong to any club that would have him as a member (or something like that: Google turns up dozens of variations). I am more ambivalent. On the one hand, I have always yearned for the cohesive companionship of The Big Chill and Friends. On the other hand, when given that opportunity, I have run from it, terrified of losing my independence to stifling groupness. I hate equally the thought of excluding or being excluded, yet, frankly, I don't want to talk about anything, let alone books, with just anyone. I am a highfalutin snob and a terrified inner child. Did I mention that I have strong feelings about books and clubs?

All my book club issues flared when Eva came home from camp and announced that I had to read The Mother-Daughter Book Club. It was about four girls and their mothers reading Little Women! It took place in Concord, two towns from where we live! There was a bookish girl, a smart girl (can you imagine: separating the bookish girl and the smart girl into two girls?!), a fashion girl, and a sports girl. There was also, giving literary life to my fears, a mom who felt left out, though her daughter was the mean girl -- of course there had to be a mean girl. There was the requisite "which Little Woman are you?" scene. There was trauma and conflict and happy resolution. It was, in short, a lovely book for girls who love books, and perfectly apropos of Eva's newfound love for Little Women.

Such community, I thought, as I read the book. Such mothers who support their daughters and enjoy each other. Such daughters who learn to stretch themselves, singly and together, with the support of their mothers and the inspiration of a book. Such a lovely vision of the potential of the book club. And look at all my friends who love their book clubs! What if book clubs aren't a sentence to ambivalent anxiety, but a space of freedom and love framed by books? What kind of a curmudgeon am I? Maybe I just need to open my mind, get past that long ago evening -- for goodness sake, I'm now a mom with a station wagon -- and try a book club.

The only problem is that I can't, because the truth of the matter is that I've never been asked to join a book club. Maybe it's because of the coals-to-Newcastle thing: people assume that I don't need any more books in my life. Or maybe it's just because everyone hates me! Sure, I could start my own book club, but who would I include? And what would we read?

No, I don't think it's going to work. My book club issues and I are stuck together for good. I guess I'll just go read a book.

Despite my book club angst, people often ask me for book club recommendations, which I’ve come to see as a wonderful opportunity to spread the gospel of books I love. It thus gives me great pleasure to recommend – for book clubs or independent readers – new books by two of my dear friends. I’ve described Anna Solomon’s The Little Bride as the love child of Little House on the Prairie and Fiddler on the Roof as midwifed by Virginia Woolf, but that hardly does it justice. Minna Losk moves from Odessa to South Dakota as a Jewish mail order bride (yes, they really existed) and faces both the material hardship of life on the prairie in the 1880s and the emotional hardship of life as a woman with desires. Solomon’s way with languge beautifully conjures Minna’s experiences. Christina Shea spent her Peace Corps years in Hungary, near the Romanian border; two decades later, she has transmuted that time and place into Smuggled, a searing tale of Hungary in the second half of the twentieth century. When half-Jewish Eva Farkas’s parents sew her into a flour sack and smuggle her from Nazi-occupied Romania to her father’s sister in Hungary, her entire existence is transformed. Renamed Anca, she grows up with Communist Romania; eventually she must find her old self and country. Shea’s prose is sharp and her power of observation acute. Like The Little Bride, Smuggled conjoins historical and emotional realities to powerful effect.

Rebecca Steinitz has written for The New Republic, The Utne Reader, Salon, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, Hip Mama, Inside Higher Ed, Publisher’s Weekly, BookPage, and The Women’s Review of Books, among other places. She is a contributor to the anthologies It’s a Girl and Mama PhD and her book Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary will be published by Palgrave Macmillan later this year. In her previous life as an English professor, she taught nineteenth-century British literature, feminist theory, and writing. She now works as a writing coach in the Boston Public Schools. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters.

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I've shared your desire, revulsion, ambivalence, etc., and now I'm going to share this post with my book club. We're all mid-40s moms, each with two kids, who like to read but don't always have lots of time to do it. They're smart, funny, irreverent and often (delightfully) irrelevant and just profane enough for me. We eat Thai or Indian take-out and drink wine and talk books and kids, mostly. After all those years of angst, not being asked and not being sure if I wanted to be asked, a friend asked and we took the leap and started a book club. And now it's definitely one of the high points of my every-other-month.
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