DECEMBER GRACE NOTES
On the necessity of book clubs in plague time —
Back in the beforetime, when people could sit around a table face to face, maskless and carefree, Mac’s Backs book club would meet once a month at Hunan, a Chinese restaurant a few doors down from the store. Over tea. wine, and egg rolls, we’d carry on lively discussions of the literary fiction pick of the month. When things shut down, we took a month or two to rethink how to keep the club going. As with the rest of the world, we hit on Zoom as the most effective means of maintaining the club. Over the course of the last few months, we have lost a few members to Zoom fatigue, but gained a few who were not previously able to come to the meetings in person, due to proximity, scheduling conflicts, or physical challenges.
There are things that have remained the same with this adaptation - wine, tea, lively conversation with diverse viewpoints and fresh angles on the book at hand. A few things have changed - dogs and cats wandering through the discussion (I love this!); the ability to snoop into people’s houses, peek at their bookshelves, admire their window treatments; the ability to join from pretty much anywhere, including while driving (This has actually happened with our book club!)
As the pandemic wears on, we are all worn out, and worse, many of us feel isolated. Here’s where book clubs can be a lifesaver. While nothing compares to being in a cozy space with real live humans around you, having the monthly meeting to look forward to can be a hedge against feelings of isolation, depression, and despair. It can be a way for us all to check in on one another, and make sure we’re all doing as OK as we can be under these trying circumstances. As winter closes in on us, staying connected becomes even more important.
And, as always, book clubs are a great way to expand one’s reading horizons, to discover a book or an author that you hadn’t heard of before, hadn’t read, or have been meaning to read. Reading a book for discussion requires a different focus than just reading to pass the time. It requires deeper, more critical thinking, making notes or highlighting passages. The rewards of the discussion come when someone has an insight on the book that you hadn’t thought of - when a lightbulb goes off because of a comment made. Everyone in the group brings their own life experience to the text, thus everyone experiences the book in a different way. I find that some of the best discussions are when not everyone is in agreement about the merits of the month’s book.
That said, concentration during the pandemic has been a challenge for many people. We have heard more than a few times that 2020 has been a terrible year for mental focus. My own TBR has ebbed and flowed from week to week, month to month as the pandemic drags on. There are times when all I want to do is curl up and read, and other times when just one more game of computer solitaire is all my brain can handle. (My new pandemic addiction - podcasts! Curse them!) While we need to treat ourselves (and others) gently during this time, pushing oneself to read is not energy wasted. Getting past the reading hump in preparation for a book club meeting gives one a feeling of accomplishment, of time well-spent. Knowing that people will genuinely miss you if you’re not on the Zoom call can make you feel less alone. Book clubs can bind us together (pardon the pun) in unexpected ways. Join the discussion!
Mac’s Backs Book Club recently discussed The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa. Kafka meets Murakami meets Bradbury in this elegiac story of loss, yearning, and, yes, memory. On a small, unnamed island, things are vanishing, along with people’s memories of them. Our narrator, a writer, fights to hold on to her past, in defiance of the terrifying Memory Police. The importance of stories and art as a means of preserving not just culture, but existence itself is examined in this sad, elegantly written novel.
There are several book clubs that meet regularly at Mac's. All are free and open to all. If you are interested in joining or for more information email email@example.com to get connected to the Book Club coordinator. Click the links for information on upcoming meetings.
Mac's Backs Book Club reads literary fiction and occasional nonfiction and meets the third Wednesday of every month at 7pm. https://www.macsbacks.com/event/macs-backs-book-club-discusses-interior-...
Femme Book Club meets about every month and a half. Check our calendar for 2021 dates https://www.macsbacks.com/event/macs-backs-femme-book-club-discusses-par...
Science Fiction Book Club meets the Third Thursday each month at 7 p.m. https://www.macsbacks.com/event/macs-backs-sci-fi-book-club-discusses-fi...
Murder Between the Pages, sponsored by the Heights Library, meets on the 2nd Tuesday each month at 7 p.m to discuss true crime literature. https://www.macsbacks.com/event/true-crime-book-club-discusses-killer-ac...
Cleveland Rights Readers meet every other month on various Mondays to discuss fiction and nonfiction dealing with human rights. Check the calendar for dates. https://www.macsbacks.com/event/cleveland-rights-readers-discuss-henna-a...
Here are some of Mac’s Backs Book Club’s favorite picks from the last few years -
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
American expats in 1950’s Paris navigate the complications of relationships and shifting morality.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Beatty uses the darkest of satire in this hilarious commentary on race in America.
Milkman by Anna Burns
In Northern Ireland in the 1970’s, our unnamed narrator finds herself in a dangerous and uncertain relationship with a dissident known as the Milkman. Political tension combined with dark humor makes this a page-turner.
Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion
Didion savagely dissects the ennui of life in America in the 1960’s in her arch, detached style.
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
Told from the afterlife, Marcus Conway reflects on his life, his relationships, and his complicity in a tragedy. Poetic and haunting.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl, yearns for blue eyes. Her yearning for what she perceives as beauty leads to her destruction. This debut novel won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970.
There There by Tommy Orange
Multiple viewpoints swirl around each other in this astounding debut novel. The lives of twelve characters, all on their way to a pow-wow in Oakland, collide in unexpected ways.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Saunders’ dreamlike imagining of Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to communicate with his dead son has become a book club staple.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Shelley’s classic is a rare, fierce female voice in the 19th century literary canon.
Stoner by John Williams
Subtle and nuanced, this is the story of a farm boy who rises in the halls of academe, developing complicated relationships along the way. Stoner has been called the closest thing to the Great American Novel.
Coming in February -
Infinite Country by Patricia Engel
Infinite Country is a miracle of literary economy, a tightly woven basket of a book. A Colombian family is ripped apart by the vagaries of immigration law after fleeing violence in Bogota. Mauro, the father, is deported after overstaying his visa in the U.S. His wife Elena stays in New York and raises their two older children on her own. The youngest daughter, Talia, living in Colombia, gets into trouble with the law after an impulsive yet justified act of violence. With each member of the family pulling at the tenuous threads that bind them, the tension builds to heart-in-your-throat heights. Clocking in at just over 200 pages, it’s a breathless read, leading to a satisfying exhale at the end.
Poems of the month -
The Book is the House
THE BOOK IS THE HOUSE where the bodies are buried
the book is the catacombs where the corpses enumerate
the book is the joy is the place where the copses unfold happy, fragrant, & shining
the book is the meat sliding inside the bear and the bear inside its blanketing fur
the book is the joy was lost on the horizon
as hours flooded in
the trees kissed across the distances, & the sun
its pages the lake
therefore lung-ed as any animal I leaf
the wide pages flammable with life
An Old Story
We were made to understand it would be
Terrible. Every small want, every niggling urge,
Every hate swollen to a kind of epic wind.
Livid, the land, and ravaged, like a rageful
Dream. The worst in us having taken over
And broken the rest utterly down.
A long age
Passed. When at last we knew how little
Would survive us—how little we had mended
Or built that was not now lost—something
Large and old awoke. And then our singing
Brought on a different manner of weather.
Then animals long believed gone crept down
From trees. We took new stock of one another.
We wept to be reminded of such color.
~Tracy K. Smith
Here is a selection from Margaret Atwood’s new book of poetry, Dearly (Ecco, 2020)
The Tin Woodman Gets a Massage
On the flannel sheet
in the pose of a dead man’s float,
face down. The hands descend,
ignore the skin,
the xylophone of spine,
evade the blobs and lobes,
head for deep tissue,
go for the little hinges
that creak like tiny frogs—
twang the catgut strings
of the tight bruised tendons.
How rusted shut I am,
how locked, how oxidized.
Old baked-beans can,
Tin Woodman left in the rain.
Movement equals pain.
Who was it used to complain
he didn’t have a brain?
Some straw-man cloth boy.
Me, it’s the heart:
that’s the part lacking.
I used to want one:
a dainty cushion of red silk
dangling from a blood ribbon,
fit for sticking pins in.
But I’ve changed my mind.