Guest post: Felicity Harley on My two book clubs and why I love them

787When Felicity Harley was on Bequia recently we managed to get together a few times and talk about books and writing – of course! Felicity had mentioned that she enjoyed belonging to not just one book club but two, and that some members Skyped-in for their book discussions! Great idea, I thought, so I asked Felicity if she would explain how these two clubs worked. (Books, friendship, discussion, food, wine … what could be better? Readers, do you belong to an interesting book club that is different from the ordinary? Please tell us about your club in the comments below.)

My two book clubs and why I love them
by Felicity Harley

I am in two book clubs and I love them both. In the first, I am lucky enough to find myself in the company of a group of women, many of whom Skype in from all over the country and world, and who really enjoy discussing books in great detail. We also have a dynamic leader, Susan Hoffman Fishman, at whose home we always meet. She asks us to answer questions about the book we’ve most recently read, and also summarizes each meeting we have afterwards. In this club we read international books and choose them by consensus. Susan, an artist, writer and social activist prepares a list of potential books to which we all contributethen two or three times a year we pick six or seven books from it.

Over the next few months we’re reading the following:

Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli (Mexico)
“In part a portrait of the artist as a young woman, this deceptively modest-seeming, astonishingly inventive novel creates an extraordinary intimacy, a sensibility so alive it quietly takes over all your senses, quivering through your nerve endings, opening your eyes and heart. Youth, from unruly student years to early motherhood and a loving marriage–and then, in the book’s second half, wilder and something else altogether, the fearless, half-mad imagination of youth, I might as well call it–has rarely been so freshly, charmingly, and unforgettably portrayed. Valeria Luiselli is a masterful, entirely original writer.”

The Bone People by Keri Hulme (New Zealand)
In a tower on the New Zealand Sea lives Kerewin Holmes, part Maori, part European, an artist estranged from her art, a woman in exile from her family. One night her solitude is disrupted by a visitor—a speechless, mercurial boy named Simon, who tries to steal from her and then repays her with his most precious possession. As Kerewin succumbs to Simon’s feral charm, she also falls under the spell of his Maori foster father Joe, who rescued the boy from a shipwreck and now treats him with an unsettling mixture of tenderness and brutality. Out of this unorthodox trinity Keri Hulme has created what is at once a mystery, a love story, and an ambitious exploration of the zone where Maori and European New Zealand meet, clash, and sometimes merge.

The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (Columbia)
When Gabriel Santoro’s book is scathingly reviewed by his own father, a famous Bogotá rhetorician, Gabriel is devastated. Cataloguing the life of longtime family friend Sara Guterman, a Jewish German immigrant who escaped to Colombia during the 1930s, Gabriel’s book seemed an innocent attempt to preserve a piece of his country’s rapidly vanishing past. But as Gabriel pours over his research looking for clues to his father’s anger, he discovers a sinister secret locked in the pages. After his father’s death, and with the help of Sara Guterman and his father’s girlfriend, Angelina, Gabriel peels back layer after shocking layer of family history-from the streets of 1940s Bogotá to a stranger’s doorstep in 1990s Medellín-to reveal a hidden portrait of their past-dark, complex, and inescapable.

The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna (Finland)
A Finnish journalist and a photographer out on assignment one June evening suddenly hit a young hare on a country road. The photographer, ultimately unsympathetic, abandons his journalist companion Vatanen, who sets off to find the wounded hare. Vatanen develops a close bond with the hare and in their adventures together; they witness people’s avarice, inhumanness, hypocrisy, cruelty, participation in bureaucracy, and mere existence, rather than living, in the world. This last realization in particular is life altering for Vatanen: he quits his job, discards his hopeless marriage, sacrifices financial security, and sells his most prized possession (a boat). All this Vatanen replaces with a life of odd jobs and on-the-road experiences. This picaresque novel could simply depict a middle-age crisis, but it reaches beyond fantasy or fiction, becoming mythic in its universal themes. The story is inventive, satirical, and quite humorous. It is also refreshingly sentimental in the sense that Paasilinna reaffirms our connection with the animal world and our inherent need for happiness and freedom to maintain quality of life.

As an example of the detail we go into at our meetings here is the summary of our latest book, The Automobile Club of Egypt (**warning, spoilers here if you plan on reading this book):

“There was no examination of cars in our discussion last night of The Automobile Club of Egypt by Alaa Al Aswany (Egypt) but plenty of conversation on unequal power in cross cultural relationships and the demeaning and cruel impact of the British occupation on the servants (staff) who worked in the club and their families.

‘The novel begins with what we all agreed was a distracting and disjointed few chapters that briefly identified the inventors of the automobile and informed the reader that two of the characters in the book (Saleha and Kamel) would be telling their versions of this tale in their own words. Although the author does relate only their stories in the first person throughout the novel and the rest of the stories in the third person, we concluded that it was an unnecessary device that didn’t really add anything to the storytelling.

“We did agree, however, that Aswany’s depiction of how hard it was for most of those who lived under the oppression of British rule to sacrifice their sense of ‘security’ for the risky possibility of freedom was quite brilliantly done. Over and over, the staff of the club stated how they preferred stability and rules, even if those rules included beatings, to the chaos of the unknown. Some expressed the sentiment that “we need to be beaten” in order to function well and that the cruel Alku, the Egyptian representative of the British rule, was there to take care of them as a father takes care of his children. Alku’s overt belief in the white man as inherently superior and the servant as having ‘no value’ permeate the way in which the club operates. He says, “The enormous distance between the master and his servant reflects a universal truth as undeniable as the sunrise or the orbit of the moon.” And, the cross cultural relationships between Kamel and Mitzy, James Wright and Odette, Mahmoud and Rosa, Mahmoud and Dagmar and Saleha and Mitzy revealed what was ultimately possible and what was not under such conditions. Those who insisted on a measure of honor like Kamel and Saleha’s father, who expressed that he was not an animal, were brutally punished.

“Abdoun, Odette and other members of the secret organization fighting for the end of British rule, expressed quite eloquently what that rule represented: the ‘rape’ of Egypt, an ‘organized theft and that the British regarded the Egyptians openly as ‘dirty, stupid, filthy liars and thieves’.

“Just as the beginning of the novel was awkward, its abrupt ending also left us unsatisfied. Since the book was written so recently, we spent some time talking about its relevance to contemporary Egyptian politics and the author’s involvement in political activities there.”

In my second book club I am in the company of women who have been my friends for over 35 years. We rotate the meeting around our different houses and the host picks the books. We read a variety of eclectic fiction and non-fiction some of which I skim and some of which I read. The food is always excellent and amongst our group we have a chef who prepares the most delicious feasts for us.

I’m hosting in April and for my book I have picked Gloria Steinham’s autobiography. It’s a timely book especially with elections coming up this year and a potential first, well-qualified, female president of the US.

We’ve spent many a happy summer evening on our various decks sipping wonderful wine and eating chocolate brought by one of our members whose daughter lives in Turin. We love to discuss politics and since we’re mostly avid Democrats, it works.

Here are a couple of recipes to share from Melodie’s kitchen:

Pear and Cheese Crostini

16 3/8-inch-thick baguette-style French bread slices (I have the bakery department slice the baguette so I get perfect uniform slices)
8 ounces taleggio cheese, rind removed and sliced, or 4 ounces Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
1 small bosc pear, cored and very thinly sliced
2 tablespoons honey

Preheat broiler

Place bread slices on a baking sheet. Broil 4 to 5 inches from the heat for 30 to 60 seconds or till bread is toasted. Turn each bread slice, and top with a slice of cheese. Broil 30 to 60 seconds more or till cheese is bubbly and bread is toasted. Top each bread slice with a pear slice, and lightly drizzle with honey.

Serve immediately

Vegan Mushroom Crostini with Rosemary Lemon Cashew Cream

Felicity Harley is a published journalist, author and poet, as well as a human rights and social activist. She has been previously featured on Reading Recommendations.

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22 responses

  1. Hi Susan and Felicity, I promised I’d check back in after my first book club meeting on April 12th to tell you a bit about it. It was a wonderful experience.

    The book club is one small part of my church’s efforts to find more ways to engage people in the community. There were 11 people at the meeting, and that included both men and women. We were discussing my first novel, so I took a list of discussion questions I had made up for other book clubs several months ago.

    There was a lively discussion of those questions. Every person there contributed, and it was great to get viewpoints from different generations and different genders. After we had gone through some of my questions, there were other questions relating to issues in my book that touch on people’s relationships with each other and how we, as members of the church, would handle certain personalities in the story.

    At the end of the discussion, some of us threw out ideas for the next book, to be discussed the second Tuesday in May. I think that’s how it will go forward in terms of choosing books: by consensus. We settled on The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. I have already read the book, but I look forward to reading it again!

    Oh, and I took a bottle of Sweet Riesling and it was a hit! The other treats there were hummus, veggies, crackers, cheese, and a couple desserts.

    1. Thanks for reporting back, Amy! Sounds as though you have the beginning of a very good book club

      1. So glad to hear it all worked out well. Thought you’d enjoy the latest from ours on Faces in the Crowd which we didn’t really understand at all. This was written by the wonderful Sue Hoffman Fishman our moderator as if by one of the characters in the book, a dead tree in a pot.

        I followed your especially astute discussion last night of the the book that is, of course, mostly a murder mystery about me. Although you never specifically said so, it was that obscure poet, Gilberto Owen, who killed me and spent the rest of his life chasing ghosts and Faces in the Crowd out of pure guilt for his heinous crime. The narrator (whatever the hell her name is) rescued my corpse and religiously tried to revive me out of her own crazy obsession with Owen. But dead is dead. I appreciated her efforts and tried hard to tell so her by communicating spiritually with the Boy who, by the way, is quite precocious and has a promising career ahead of him as a medium. He called me Without but that’s not my name. Trees, of course, don’t have names – it’s not part of our culture. I was really disappointed that the author, Valerie Luiselli, spent so much of my biography, focusing on her own issues (motherhood, death, publishing, Ezra Pound, Z, etc.) and not enough on me. For instance, where did I come from? Mexico, New York? And what about that pot I ended up in? Why does the pot get so much attention? To me, these are crucial elements of my story that were totally ignored. And how about those side characters, Moby, Dakota and Parajote? Who cares about them? All they did was take baths and showers. I don’t get it – I’m the one in the dirt, not them! All in all, I’d say Ms. Luiselli should get her priorities straight and stick to the main story line – me! I liked your sincere efforts, though, to understand the narrative – it wasn’t easy.

  2. I used to belong to a book club and really enjoyed it. I have yet to find a new book club even though it’s been over two years since we’ve moved. After reading this post, I’m definitely inspired to begin searching. I miss the lively discussion about a good book! Thank you for an excellent guest post, Felicity.

    1. Many libraries organize and host book clubs.

    2. Good luck in your search

  3. I’ve never belonged to a book club, and I’m not sure why. Maybe because of all of those literature classes I took in college and grad school, all of that dissecting of plot and character development and motive until I wanted to stand up and scream: Enough! It was a damned good book, can’t we leave it at that?
    After your description, I think I would love belonging to a book club, if I could find one with the right vibe. I do belong to two writing groups and while we sometimes discuss books, it’s rarely in detail.
    P.S. Love that you included a vegan recipe–you go, Felicity!

    1. Perhaps there should be book clubs as part of writing groups, so that writers can dissect great books and learn by example, rather than simply critique each others’ writing. Just a thought, and I wonder if any writing groups do this already …

  4. Your two book clubs sound great and I’m going to keep your list of titles as they sound really interesting. I think I’d prefer the second one you talk about partly because the non-techie bit of me can’t quite visualise how the Skype part works. I know how Skype works but don’t know how it works with lots of people skyping.
    Wine and chocolate do go hand in hand with talking about books and I love the recipes.

    1. Thanks glad you enjoyed the recipe delicious!

  5. Two book clubs? I’m jealous. I can barely read a book a month these day.
    I used to belong to a club which lasted 10 years. We each came prepared at the first meeting with two or three titles. One of the members voted herself in as ‘secretary’ and spaced meetings about six weeks or so apart between September and end of June. We were six, therefore met that many times at alternating houses. Next to each date, each member chose when she would like to host. The book titles were tossed into a bowl and picked two for each get together. Genres were then arranged so that both for a particular month differed. If one was heavy reading, it was joined by a lighter one. The secretary sent out an email with all this information.
    This gave us time to scare down a used book instead of buying a new one, or if on the library wait list, read a particular book in time for the meeting. At first the second title was considered an alternate in case the reader didn’t enjoy the first choice. Soon we were reading both books. I kept a spreadsheet with all books read, a one or two sentence synopsis and a value up to five stars. It was a fantastic time.

    1. That sounds like a great way to organize a club’s meetings and reading list. Good way to get through twice as many books!

      1. It was a wonderful 10 years with lady friends. Did I mention great cheeses and outstanding wine? 😀

    2. Good for you we have records going back about ten years or more!

  6. Book clubs are great. Why read a book if you can’t discuss it with other readers? Doing it via Skype is a great idea too. A very good article Felicity. Thanks for posting it Susan.

    1. I love Skype as a means for keeping in contact with far-flung family and friends! Have been trying to work out an idea I had to hold Skype author visits. I know it’s been done before, but it would be great to hold something like this where readers could also Skype in and speak with the author. I need a techie!

  7. Wow. I’m jealous of your book clubs. I’m joining my first one at its inaugural meeting next month, and I’m very excited! I must confess I didn’t read the summary of The Automobile Club of Egypt because I’d love to read the book, and you’ve also given me several more titles to put on my TBR. Thank you to Felicity and Susan for a great post. And I can’t wait to try the Pear and Cheese Crostini!

    1. Please do report back after you’ve attended that first meeting, Amy, and tell us how your new club is to be organized.

    2. Enjoy your reads and your tummies!

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