Book Club Spotlight — The Book Thieves

Some book clubs are very well organized. They have regularly scheduled meetings, choose a year’s worth of books at a time (sometimes according to a clever theme) , and assign a leader to every discussion.  That is not how my book club operates. We meet every six weeks or so, and the date is chosen via email poll. We don’t like to choose our books too far ahead, because who knows what terrific book we will all want to read six months from now?

9781594204784HThis year, I volunteered to serve as the secretary of our book club. (Or was I drafted? I can’t recall.) My performance has not been up to par, even by our book club’s relatively low standards. In fact, I neglected my duties so badly that one of our members seized control and organized our annual Christmas book swap. Because she is a very nice person, she did this in a kind and tactful way, sending me the following emails:

Email #1: Are we having a book exchange in December or did that get past us all? Just wanted to make sure I did not miss anything.

Email #2: Do you want me to send an email to the group and see if we could get an impromptu group together the week of the 10th? I am happy to work on that if you think that is fun.

I gratefully accepted the offer, and last week 12 of us gathered for our favorite book club tradition — the holiday book exchange, also known as book thievery. I know many other book club organize similar exchanges over the holidays, but I wonder if our club takes ours just a little more seriously. The element of thievery certainly adds to the drama (and the fun). One of our members is the self-appointed referee and makes sure that the “official” rules are followed.

Each member brings a wrapped book. It can be any book (hardcover or paperback) — a novel, biography, cookbook, or even a beautiful coffee table book. Once someone brought what was once euphemistically called a “marriage manual” — I’m told that book is still in the back of another member’s closet, waiting for the right opportunity to reappear. 51GHq5y52OL._SX200_Sometimes there are add-on items — an adorable Santa carrying a stack of books was very popular one year. Everyone takes a number (this year from 1 to 12), and #1 is the first to choose. #2 then can decide whether to choose another wrapped book or “steal” from #1 . . . and so on, up to #12, who has the final pick. I think this type of gift exchange is called a “Yankee swap”. Our group is very fond of stealing, and our referee has to enforce rules about the number of times a book can be stolen. One of our members spoke for all of us when she said:

The book exchange is definitely a highlight because I always find it interesting to see what books people choose to bring and what is the “hot” book/gift each year.  The stealing and maneuvering always makes me laugh!  I also like seeing the different iterations that turn up — magazines, book related gifts, and book/gift combos!

This year, we had a terrific selection of books to steal — I think the only thing they have in common is that they were all published in 2013:

  • The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt) — Two members brought copies, and both were repeatedly stolen.
  •  Wave (Sonali Deraniyagala) — Just named one of the 10 best books of the year by the New York Times.
  • Dog Songs (Mary Oliver) and Dog Shaming (Pascale Lemire)
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)
  • The Burgess Boys (Elizabeth Strout)
  • The Last First Day (Carrie Brown)
  • A Literary Christmas: An Anthology
  • Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist (Tim Federle) — I stole this one and I’m happy I did — Romeo and Julep, anyone?
  • This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Ann Patchett) — My contribution!
  • The Conquest of Everest (George Lowe)
  • Subscription to Vanity Fair — Creatively packaged in a wine bag.

Not only did everyone go home with a new book, we agreed on our next three book club selections. We are all anxious to read The Goldfinch — any book that’s received such extraordinary acclaim is a perfect choice for us. Several of our members have read Sutton by J.R. Moehringer, and thought our husbands would enjoy it as well — so that’s what we will read for our couples’ get-together in February. And we are th_a2948c4fc82083353093e0133d3393f1_1364311155_magicfields_HB__BOOK_COVERIMAGE_1_1looking forward to discussing Alice McDermott’s Someone, the quiet and lovely story of an “ordinary” woman examining her life.

Our book club has been meeting (and stealing) since 1993. I asked our members to share their favorite memories of the past 20 years:

  • The evening when a husband and wife reviewed (together) The Great Gatsby — everyone came dressed in 1920s attire. He had read the book 59 times and was a Gatsby fanatic/expert!
  • The contentious discussion of Atlas Shrugged; some of the most vociferous opinions were expressed by those who had not made their way through that very long book.
  • The time when a member brought her sick infant to a meeting; as she said, “nothing comes between me and my book club!”
  • The discussion of Into Thin Air that was interrupted when a member received a call that her house was on fire.
  • The very thorough review of The Shipping News, a book that some members weren’t enthusiastic about at first but grew to appreciate.
  • The couples’ discussion of E.L. Doctorow’s The March, complete with a Union table with a blue tablecloth and a Confederate table with a gray tablecloth.
  • The field trip we took to Oak Park to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio, after reading Loving Frank.

We are looking forward to the next 20 years of reading, friendship, and theft!

For information on Yankee swaps: www.giftypedia.com/Yankee_Swap Of course, you can make (and enforce) your own rules!

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10 Books to Read After the Holidays

IMG_1716Winter has definitely arrived in Chicago — it’s 15 degrees (without the wind chill) and snow is on the ground. There is nothing more appealing than curling up on a comfortable couch with a good book — and possibly a blanket and a cup of hot tea. A roaring fire would be nice too, but we are having a problem with our fireplace. The chimney doesn’t seem to be drawing properly; every time we light a fire, the house gets very smoky. So I’ve just called our local chimney cleaning service, called  (I am not kidding) Ashwipe Chimney Sweeps. Anyway, I’m not going to be able to squeeze in much reading time over the next couple of weeks. There are Christmas presents to buy and wrap, meals to plan and cook, parties to attend, kids coming home on vacation. The bookstore would probably like it if I showed up and worked. And did I mention that my daughter is getting married three days after Christmas?

One of the best things about working in a bookstore is the endless supply of ARCs (advance readers’ copies) that we have piled in our basement. I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but we actually keep them in the bathroom. The store isn’t very big, and that’s really the only place they fit. I also have a backlog of electronic ARCs on my IPad. I have ARCs for books that will come out in June — no sense reading those now, because chances are I won’t remember the books very well by the time they’re published. So I try to read books that are either just published or soon to be published. Sometimes something comes along that has to be read immediately, because it’s so compelling — it might be a book that a friend or colleague absolutely loved, or one that called my name and displaced the others on my stack. Then I forget all about publication dates and read what I want.

I have a pile of books I’m looking forward to reading in January and February. (Nine of them will be published during those months, and one — Book of Ages — is already out.) Any bets on how many I end up reading?

Nancy Horan's Loving Frank is one of my favorite works of biographical fiction. Her second novel is about another passionate love affair (Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny).

Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank is one of my favorite works of biographical fiction. Her second novel is about another passionate love affair (Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny).

Second novel by Chicago author Brigid Pasulka -- her first one was set in Poland; this one takes place in Italy.

Second novel by a wonderful Chicago author, Brigid Pasulka — her first one was set in Poland; this one takes place in Italy.

Debut novel by a Wisconsin author -- several colleagues have read this small-town story and loved it.

Debut novel by a Wisconsin author — several colleagues recently read this small-town story and loved it.

Book of Ages was a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction. I'm looking forward to reading about Jane Frankliln -- Benjamin Franklin's youngest sister and a brilliant person in her own right. (Also, a mother of 12!)

Book of Ages was a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction. I’m looking forward to reading about Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister — a brilliant writer and commentator in her own right, and the mother of 12.

F. Scott Fitzgerald called Tom and Daisy Buchanan "careless people". This book tells the surprising story behind The Great Gatsby.

F. Scott Fitzgerald called Tom and Daisy Buchanan “careless people”. This book tells the surprising true story behind The Great Gatsby.

Darker than The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Perfect is about a young boy whose view of the world is shattered.

I’m told that Perfect is darker than The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. It’s about a young boy whose view of the world is suddenly shattered.

Five  World War I Gold Star mothers travel to Europe to say final goodbyes to their sons.

Five World War I Gold Star mothers travel to Europe to say final goodbyes to their sons.

Diane Johnson explores her Midwestern roots in this memoir -- and she'll literally be returning to the Midwest as well; she visits Lake Forest in late January.

Diane Johnson explores her Midwestern roots in this memoir — and she’ll literally be returning to the Midwest as well; she visits Lake Forest in late January.

I adored Maggie Shipstead's first novel, Seating Arrangements. Her new novel is about the world of professional ballet.

I adored Maggie Shipstead’s first novel, Seating Arrangements. Her new novel is about the world of professional ballet.

A ghost story set in Vermont -- right up my alley. Chris Bohjalian liked it and I'm betting I will too.

A ghost story set in Vermont — right up my alley. Chris Bohjalian liked it and I’m betting I will too.

Those Amazing Ephron Sisters — Part I (Delia)

9780399166556HFour sisters, brought up in Hollywood by  famous screenwriter parents, all grow up to be successful writers. Sounds like a novel or movie script, doesn’t it? In fact, the youngest Ephron daughter, Amy, was named after the youngest March daughter in Little Women. In an Oprah magazine article, Hallie Ephron says:

As we got older, we grew comfortable in roles that met our parents’ expectations. Nora was the smart one. Delia, the comedian. I was the pretty, obedient one. And Amy was the adventurous mischief-maker. But in reality, we were more alike than we were different—all bossy and opinionated, witty and articulate, like our mother. At dinner, a three-course event that anchored every evening at 6:30 sharp, the competition for airtime was Darwinian.

This morning, I listened to Terry Gross interview Delia Ephron about her collection of autobiographical essays, Sister Mother Husband Dog. In the interview, Delia described the Ephron dinner table. Her father would shout, “That’s a great line — write it down!” whenever one of his daughters said anything clever or amusing. The four girls were groomed to be writers from an early age. Nora, the eldest, was an early success — “published when she was born”, according to Delia. The other three were relatively late bloomers. Delia published an essay, “How to Eat Like a Child”, in the New York Times when she was 32, and her writing career took off from there, including  over a dozen books and numerous plays and screenplays. Many of the scripts were co-written with Nora. Amy began writing in her late thirties, and Hallie got started when she was close to 50.

Delia covers a lot of territory in Sister Mother Husband Dog. The first essay, “Losing Nora”, made me cry . . . and made me deeply grateful for my own sister. (And it also made me grateful that I was fortunate enough to see Nora’s last play, Lucky Guy, last year on Broadway.) My favorite essay is called “Bakeries”, and of course, it’s about bakeries — but also about “having it all”. You’ll have to read the whole essay to see how Delia gracefully segues from bakeries to the concept of “having it all”, but here’s one of my favorite passages:

To me, having it all — if one wants to define it at all — is the magical time when what you want and what you have match up . . . It might be a fleeting moment — drinking a cup of coffee on a Sunday morning when the light is especially bright. It might also be a few undisturbed hours with a novel I’m in love with, a three-hour lunch with my best friend, reading Goodnight Moon to a child, watching a Nadal-Federer match.

Delia has a wicked sense of humor — honed, she says, at that Ephron family dinner table. She says, “That’s where I learned how to tell a story and that I was funny.” Her thoughts on her  wayward hair, the banks taking over her neighborhood,  Twitter/modern technology, the “name-jacking” of her website, and Anthony Weiner made me laugh out loud. Weiner, she tells us, “could not have it all”.

Sister Mother Husband Dog starts with an essay about Nora’s death and ends with “Collaboration”, about the scripts Nora and Delia worked on together.  I loved reading about their writing process and about the inner workings of the movie business. One of their most successful projects was the screenplay for You’ve Got Mail, one of my favorite movies. Delia says that screenplay was “an especially good collaboration”; they chose to set it in the world of books because “we both loved books, had grown up in a house were books were worshipped”.  When I finished reading “Collaboration”, I wanted MORE — more of Delia Ephron’s wisdom, insight, and humor.

In the Fresh Air interview, Terry asked Delia how Nora’s premature death affected Delia’s feelings about getting older, pointing out that one of Nora’s best-known works is her collection of essays about women and aging, I Feel Bad About My Neck. Delia’s poignant response was, “I do feel that I have to do everything quickly. I don’t want to waste a day”.

Read Hallie Ephron’s thoughts on growing up with three talented sisters here:  http://www.oprah.com/spirit/Nora-Ephrons-Mother-Hallie-Ephron-Essay/3#ixzz2n0AJevCV