I’ll soon be writing up my reflections on my 2020 reading year. In the meantime, I’ve solicited guest posts from friends and fellow book lovers about their own literary highlights. I’m always looking for new contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.
The eighth post is by Bonnie Nickol, on behalf of her long-running Little Rock book club. An artist, political activist, and founder of the Single Parent Scholarship Fund of Pulaski County, AR, Bonnie was a Clinton delegate to the ’92 convention and served in the first Clinton administration. She is a wife, mother of two, and grandmother of 4.
Our 50+ years book club, the Julie Herman Tuesday Morning Book Club (JHTMBC) seems to have read it all. We would met on Tuesday mornings, once a month, but not in the summer. The school calendar defined the club’s year because we were “stay-at-home” mothers, all of us, during the 1970’s. Our husbands earned and we maintained the Southern-voiced norm: wives belonged at home.
With no Starbucks or other venues where we could gather, these very young women with our first babies at home rotated as hostesses to offset our sometimes uncomfortable isolation. It wasn’t a European coffee shop, but it provided what we needed: new friends who read, replenished intellectual needs. We solved many local, parenting and world problems. The club was our own salon.
We read it all, every theme ever explored in fiction and nonfiction through narratives of the past and present. What did we refuse to read for discussion? We “ran off” one member who urged us to read Classics! We told her that JHTMBC was not a university. We missed her brain, but refused her professorial standards.
For the past year we’ve met together, distanced, as covid forced these proud septuagenarians to Zoom. We had already switched our evenings of sharing the comforts of wine, cheese, cake and decaf to afternoons still light enriched, when driving after dark became a passenger’s nightmare.
Discussion leaders bring the group together with challenging ideas posed by (now) mostly unfamiliar authors; the more difficult challenge is choosing a book we’ve not read.
Three recent choices are reviewed below, one by Nan Selz, one by Marge Schueck, and one by myself.
Nan chose Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry (2019):
This slim book about two old men waiting for someone in a ferry terminal manages to combine humor and melancholy. Barry’s language conveys a sense of place that, in a very few words, tells the reader just how each setting looks, smells, and feels, whether dingy ferry waiting room or dodgy waterfront bar. Barry’s characters are brought to life through their dialogue, written in Irish brogue, and their life stories which unwind as flashbacks throughout the book.
Barry’s talent is to combine opposites with ease. The book is set in both the present and the past. The prose is both lyrical and, at times, obscene. The plot includes themes of love and betrayal, innocence and guilt, brutality and tenderness, hope and despair. But it is the language which most enchants the reader, so much so that it is almost impossible to write about this book without a quote or two:
• Describing the ferry terminal itself, “Oh, and this is as awful a place as you could muster—you’d want the eyes sideways in your head.”
• Describing the main characters, “There is old weather on their faces, on the hard lines of their jaws, on their chaotic mouths. But they retain—just about—a rakish air.”
If you love language, you are sure to love Night Boat to Tangier.
Marge chose The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein (2008):
Garth Stein has given us a gift. His The Art of Racing in the Rain will warm your heart and touch your soul. You will learn, you will laugh, and oh yes you will cry.
The narrator is a dog named Enzo who believes he will be reincarnated as a person… complete with opposable thumbs and a tongue that isn’t “a horribly ineffective tool for …making clever and complicated polysyllabic sounds that can be linked together to form sentences.” He is a loyal loving protector to the Swift family as they face heartbreaking challenges.
Denny Swift is a semi-professional race car driver trying to juggle his passion for the sport with his obligations to his family. His racing serves as an apt metaphor for life. He tells aspiring young racers “the car goes where the eyes go”, and through it all his eyes never look behind.
The book ends somewhat predictably in a beautiful scene that ties up all the loose ends in a neat little package. Just the way I like my endings!
I chose Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl (1998):
During the early months of covid shutdowns, I saw a Zoom program featuring Ruth Reichl as she discussed Jewish cooking and recipes. I knew some of her professional background, but I was unaware of her humor and her struggles to survive a family that could be a psychiatric model of dysfunction.
Tender at the Bone, Reichl’s 7th book, which I expected to be nothing more than a collection of recipes bound together by vignettes of her life, is the autobiography of a lonely child living in a household ruled by her bipolar mother and ignored by her emotionally absent and complicit father.
Food was always an important factor in her life as she learned to guide dinner guests away from concoctions her mother served—dishes that often sent them to the hospital with food poisoning. Cooking became her strength, it taught her flexibility and a path to love as the housekeeper/cook brought Ruth into the kitchen to help prepare meals. Mrs. Peavey “proved her mettle the day she tripped coming through the kitchen door, dropping the beef Wellington two feet from where my mother stood waiting to serve it. ‘I’ll just go and get the other one, Mrs. Reichl’… “One minute later Mrs. Peavey reappeared, bearing a new beef Wellington…”
When Mrs. Peavey resigned, she left Ruth with three pieces of advice”: “The first is not to let other people tell you how to live your life.” She continued, “The second is that you have to look after yourself.” When Ruth asked for the third, Mrs Peavey reminded Ruth, “Don’t forget the extra pastry when you make beef Wellington.”
As a preteen, Ruth’s mother sent her to “Mars”—to boarding school in Paris where Reichl (who spoke no French) was miserable. “For as long as she lived my mother asked, at least once a year, ‘Aren’t you glad you speak French?…Total immersion is the only way to learn a language’…”
Beatrice, a derisive and dismissive schoolmate, soon became a friendly conspirator and invited Ruth for a weekend visit to the chateau that was home to these regal friends of Charles de Gaulle. Beatrice’s father was so delighted by Ruth’s unique love of French specialties, he began to spend time discussing gourmet foods with her though he had rarely had conversations with his daughter. Beatrice loved his newfound attention and with Ruth’s help baked him a lemon soufflé (recipe included). She admitted to Ruth she thought it was his favorite gift from her. Ruth “thought about her mother’s moods and poisonous messes” and returned to Paris for three more years.
Reichl’s pairings of recipes and stories detail her triumphs and her release from her mother’s illness. An adult friend says, “Nobody knows why some of us get better and others don’t.” Throughout her life cooking was Reichl’s strength, a way to bring her success, caring and warmth, close friendships and love. Reichl writes, “I thought of my mother. And then, suddenly, she seemed very far away.”
She was praised and admired as she moved from the little girl cooking for family and friends, growing to sous chef to chef, organic foodie to secret restaurant critic for the New York Times. Her writing pulled me into her life just as her descriptions of meals and the plated delicacies are so good the reader will read to the conclusion, starving for a taste and the smell of sweet aromas.
JHTMBC members are fewer now. This band of women—most of whom would otherwise not have met—miss the voices and reactions of those who have moved or died.
One loss we can’t bring back is Julie Herman; she and her young family moved within a year of her gathering the initial group. Even in today’s world of digital knowledge, we have never been able to locate her. Perhaps Julie started dozens more book clubs in other towns where other aging women are still reading and discussing and solving problems older than themselves. I like to think so, anyway.