Five* Reasons Why You Don’t Want Me in Your Book Club

There had to be a reason why I never joined a book club.

I never joined back in the day when Oprah Winfrey ruled the world, giving away cars and demanding that everyone prove their literacy by discussing her book club selections. And I didn’t join more recently, at the beginning of this year,  when Facebook founder Jesse Eisenberg Mark Zuckerberg, who has taken up Oprah’s mantle in his own attempt at world domination, announced his book club, A Year of Books. So, no, I didn’t rush out to read The End of Power, his club’s first selection (neither did anyone else. Zuckerberg’s book club isn’t going too well).

Instead, I preferred to host my own sort of book club, with a membership of one, reading non-fiction titles such as The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide under the Khmer Rouge and Games for Learning: Ten Minutes a Day to Help Your Child in School.

Yes, I actually did read both those titles, and they’re each equally horrifying, in their own way.

While I do read lots of non-fiction, I’ve always wanted to write fiction. Long time readers of this blog are well aware of my struggles through National Novel Writing Month, the annual 30-day death march challenge to produce a novel in the month of November. This past Nanowrimo, I managed to finish the humor-mystery I’d been working on for way too long. Or sort-of finished. At least, I finished it enough that I felt I could move on to something new.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading. Dissatisfied with how my own story ends (“It reads like Scooby Doo, Where Are You fan-fiction!” I complained to a friend), I started reading lots of novels in the mystery genre, some current, some classic, to see how they ended. I felt a whole lot better about my own story after I re-read Agatha Christie’s A Murder at the Vicarage. I swear,  you could practically hear Scooby Doo say “Ruh roh!” as Miss Marple fingered the murderer in that classic novel.

Fast forward to last week: While I was mostly reading and not doing much writing, I discovered the Wall Street Journal Book Club.

And I joined.

Let me explain why.

I joined because someone I admire a lot more than Oprah Winfrey or Jesse Eisenberg Mark Zuckerberg picked the club’s new selection: author Erik Larson chose Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Larson writes engrossing non-fiction that reads like fiction, and I’m a big fan of his work, particularly The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of the Beasts.

Despite reading lots of stories from the golden age of detective fiction, I’d never read The Maltese Falcon, not even during my most recent immersion in classic mysteries as I tried to figure out if my own manuscript was any good, or if I should burn it straight away. Although I’d never read any of Hammett’s work, I’d given the name “Dashiell” to a character in my story, so it really seemed as though the stars had aligned for me to finally join an actual book club and read The Maltese Falcon.

Besides, I needed a new excuse to put off writing.

So I took the plunge and signed up for the WSJ Book Club, and down loaded a copy of the novel.

And much of the book is teeth-grindingly sexist,  but in the end, I think it actually works because the character of Sam Spade is out for what he can get, from where ever he can get it, and he seems to treat the male characters in the book with the same disdain he treats the females.

I guess what I’m saying is that Sam Spade is an equal opportunity asshole, and I’m okay with that.

Anyway, The Maltese Falcon is absolutely great. I finished the book wishing I could write dialogue like this, from early in the book, when Spade decides to confront his client, Brigid O’Shaughnessy.

“That–that story I told you yesterday was all–a story,” she stammered, and looked up at him now with miserable frightened eyes.

“Oh, that,” Spade said lightly. “We didn’t exactly believe your story.”

“Then–?” Perplexity was added to the misery and fright in her eyes.

“We believed your two hundred dollars.”

“You mean–?” She seemed to not know what he meant.

“I mean that you paid us more than if you’d been telling the truth,” he explained blandly, “and enough more to make it all right.”

This bit is terrific in that it reveals so much about both characters: Spade is both blunt and sharp, while O’Shaughnessy is a clever liar–clever enough not to let on what she knows until she hears what he’s thinking.

My delight in the novel was spoiled (a bit) by the discussion that’s proceeded on Facebook, which was very much like the seventh circle of hell I’d always imagined a book club discussion would be. First, there were a bunch of comments from people who admitted they hadn’t read the book, or hadn’t read the book in a long while, or who had seen the movie but hadn’t read the book. And yet they all felt the need to share their thoughts. Then there was a stream of comments complaining about “spoilers” from remedial readers people who had not finished the book yet (and probably never would), but apparently found it necessary to join the discussion, anyway. The WSJ Book Club FB page at least gave them a place to register their Internet Complaint of the Day.

And they’ve given me something to complain about on my blog today.

For my part, here’s my insightful contribution to the discussion on Twitter.

Images in the post are taken directly from my Twitter feed. You can follow me on Twitter @WPKarenBrowne.

*Do you really need five reasons to keep me out of your book club? Do you even read this blog? Why on earth would you want someone like me in your book club? Frankly, I can’t help but believe you must be really desperate, because I’m the last person you should want. Okay, okay, I promised you five reasons, so here goes: For starters, I’d always forget to bring the refreshments when it was my turn. And I’d probably start a fistfight over whether Brigid O’Shaughnessy was really in love with Sam Spade or if she was just using him, like she had used all the other men in her life. And I’d shout stuff like, “Show me in the text where your opinion is supported! In the text!” I’d steal the roll of toilet paper from the bathroom, and complain, loudly, about the smell from the litter box. There, that’s five, I think.

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14 thoughts on “Five* Reasons Why You Don’t Want Me in Your Book Club

  1. Ellen Hawley says:

    I’m inclined to try reading books like The Maltese Falcon in their context. Sexism was a omnipresent as air, and although I don’t ignore it, like it, or (really) forgive it, I also don’t want it to put me off a book that I’d otherwise enjoy or learn something from. Ditto the racism of, say, Graham Greene in some of his books. I notice it, I wince, and I read around it as best I can. If I can get dispassionate enough, I can look from the inside at the operation of a world view I dislike.

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    • Karen says:

      I’m probably fan-girling a bit by interpreting Spade’s sexism as just another aspect of the character that makes him obnoxious? difficult? a jerk? but I’ll argue that in a story full of characters who are using each other, Spade’s objectification of women works.

      Of course, the very first scene, and another one near the end, are still almost (unintentionally) laugh out loud funny, and, to my 21st century eyes, almost read like parody.

      Spade and Archer’s reaction to Brigid O’Shaughnessy when they first meet her is not too different from what’s depicted here.

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    • Karen says:

      Oh, despite this post, I haven’t made too much of an effort to avoid book clubs, but I have always thought they might be a little bit like spending an afternoon with a bunch of tedious English lit majors, and I say that being a tedious English lit major myself. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. balletandboxing says:

    You should make a video recording of you yelling “Show me where it says that in the text! IN THE TEXT!” And upload it periodically in the Fbk comments of the book club. Preferably a propos to nothing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. rossmurray1 says:

    I love your Scooby-Doo self-criticism. Me, I’ve said to myself, “This sounds like Parks & Rec fan fiction!”
    Erik Larson writes a mean non-fiction. Isaac’s Storm is still my favourite.

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    • Karen says:

      Yeah, he has a new book about the sinking of the Lusitania, Dead Wake, which explains why he’s chatting on Facebook about the Maltese Falcon . . .

      And I think we’re probably our harshest critics (though I did get one response to my story: “This reads like a bad sit-com,” so perhaps that guy is the toughest critic) but I summoned the courage last night to open my manuscript (again) and wade in. I can’t tell if it’s salvageable or if I should just chuck it all.

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      • rossmurray1 says:

        That’s the thing, right? Revising is harder than writing, I find. I, apparently, have too many tangents away from the plot. But the tangents are my favourite parts! So do I heed the advise or stay true to my “vision” (haphazard plotting) and hope some publisher eventually shares it? Aaah, it’s all a crapshoot anyway. Good luck!

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        • Karen says:

          The other day, I read the excerpt you posted way back when and I like it a lot. I’d call it Northern Exposure fan-fic, though 😉 (do you know/remember that TV show?), not so much Parks & Rec, unless the Beaverly town council (or whatever) figures more prominently in the story than it did in that excerpt.

          But yeah, I would agree that you go off to make a joke–for no other reason than that’s what we do, we make jokes, right?–and the reader might get lost or confused or perhaps not even care, they’re trying to follow the story. These meanderings, I’ll call them rather than tangents, interfere with the story rather than enhance it. It’s a problem I have in my own work. In my own work, there’s a point where quirkiness becomes tedious and I’m struggling to find a balance.

          But I hear you. It’s an urge that’s irresistible to include these “meanderings” because *we* think they’re funny. Here’s an example from my work: “Even Leander Fitzhugh, who had not been seen out of doors since his homeschool high school graduation, showed up for the auditions to Love’s Secret Seduction.” Now, I should cut that bit, because Leander Fitzhugh is mentioned no where else in the entire story, but I think it’s funny, and I can’t bring myself to do it.

          Ah, kill your darlings, I guess.

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          • rossmurray1 says:

            I say keep it, if it fits in the context of a hoopla brouhaha, as in this person came, that person came, even Ftizhugh came! It adds to the magnitude. Maybe. I’d have to read more… Stephen Leacock used to do this stuff all the time.
            But yeah tough choices.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Michelle at The Green Study says:

    I’m so against any group that includes more than one person, that book clubs and their ilk have never appealed to me. And likely, I’d end up with 4 people like you yelling at me that my opinion is unsupported. Or people that use an Oprah’s book club reading guide. That’s when I’d start having it at my house and letting the litter boxes get…full.

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    • Karen says:

      I’m not a joiner either but there’s something about me that makes people to invite me to things. I think it’s because I’m a talker and people believe that if I’m there, well, at least I’ll talk, and not hide in the kitchen and just eat all the snacks. Anyway, I’ve become very adept at making excuses to get out of things . . .

      I actually do enjoy talking about books and, despite what I’ve written in this post, many good and interesting points have been made over on the WSJ Book Club FB page regarding the Maltese Falcon. And I wouldn’t have read the story if I had not run across the book club, so I’m glad for that, too.

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