Monday, September 25, 2017

Book Club vs a Bad Book

My book club is happy for a lot of reasons, but what distinguishes us is we talk about the books. Yes, we learn what’s going on with our lives. Yes, we do things together. Yes, we eat food, drink wine, and share recipes. BUT we talk about the books, and we’ve been doing that for more than 20 years.

As soon as the book for the following month is decided upon, we used to race each other to reserve the book at the library. Over the years, that’s proven a problem: if we read the book too far in advance, we forget a lot of it by the time book club meets. (We’ve spent many book club evenings talking about “what’s-her-name” or “was-that-before-that-happened-or-after.”) Billy Collins, in his poem “Forgetfulness,” writes:
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of
So we have to time finishing the book so we’re still fresh with it when we meet. But that has its own problems: what if the book is long or tedious and we run out of time? What if everyone else has the library book and it’s not available? So we play this little dance of balancing memory against opportunity. The dance just gets trickier with time.

Over the years, there have been many books we’ve all loved: Bel Canto, Seabiscuit, A Gentleman in Moscow. There are books someone didn’t like while someone else loved it. Book club is the perfect place where discussion actually changes our opinions. There are books no one liked, but there were no books everyone hated.

Until The Echo Maker.
The Echo Maker was unanimously and universally hated. It was long, repetitive, and tedious. The characters were unreal, unsympathetic, and boring. Characters repeated themselves endlessly, so that finishing the book was torture. What may have been an interesting exploration of self and the perception of self was positively excruciating. Only the sand hill cranes came off well.
Am I not being clear enough about this?

Astonishingly, the discussion was terrific. It’s amazing how hating something really enhances the memory! We remembered every hated detail. We knew names, we knew characters, we knew every ludicrous, plodding plot iteration.

One of our more recent experiments was to come to book club with a sentence from the book that impressed us. Mary offered her sentence: Karin, the sister in the book, is thinking back to a time with a former lover:
“Two years ago that month, she’d lain with this man in the pouring rain, naked in the sloppy riverbanks, licking his armpits like a kitten.” (page 329)

Do you see what I mean? Who, who, who would ever find that plausible? What kind of woman licks muddy armpits during sex in the rain? Could you finish an entire book like this?

During the course of our energetic discussion lampooning of the book, I related another hairy armpit story. A friend of mine had worked summers at A&W Root Beer. There were big vats of root beer with some sort of stirring contraption at the bottom. When it became jammed, they had to use a special tool to realign it. The manager got fed up with jimmying it, rolled up his sleeve, and stuck his arm to the bottom of the vat. It was a hot summer day, and his armpits were sweaty. When he pulled his arm out, root beer dripped from his armpit hairs.

I told you, we talk about the book.


  1. Hi Barbara,
    Great article.
    I wonder how long the "A&W arm" image will flash in my mind. Surprisingly enough, no desire for a root beer right now~
    Happy Monday.

  2. I missed book club but hated the book too! Good to know I was in good company

    1. You were missed! You would have loved the mob attack on this book....

  3. Thanks so much. I LOLd.

    I too am part of a book club that focuses on the book. Our secret is to assign a reviewer for each book. You might think this means that no one else feels and obligation to read/work on the book, but the impact is exactly the opposite. Because SOMEONE has devoted considerable time and energy to preparing for a discussion of the book – just about everyone else does so as well.

  4. PS - we have "Gentleman in Moscow" as our October book. I did NOT love it. Especially hated the Hollywood ending for the Count, but throughout I found it a work of thought rather than feeling with the plot machinations too obvious - in part because I didn't care enough about the characters.

    1. Ooh, I loved every single character. How odd, but then I am a fan of bits of magic in my reading. The book was a fairy tale of sorts. I wonder what would have happened if you were at our book discussion?

  5. Damn, while you were stuck on armpits, I was reveling in the way he wove the idea of memory through the cranes, through the capgras syndrome, and the doctor who studied memory. Such an amazing book. It took me off into worlds I didn't know and mental states I'd never encountered.

    1. So you didn't feel that everyone was whining, ruminating excessively, and constantly repeating themselves??? I'm predisposed to love brain books -- especially brains that function "differently" -- but all that whining drove me nuts.

    2. I don't really remember whining - I was just blown away that someone's brain can cause him to think his sister is an imposter. And how Powers interwove the memories of the ancient storks, with the brother's memory, and other kinds of memory. I do really like your storks too.


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