By JOHN HARLOW | Editor-in-Chief
Book clubs, where the like-minded gather to discuss Jane Austen or “50 Shades of Grey,” have come a long way from their Victorian origins as “text publication societies” dedicated to learned debates of classic literature.
The traditional Chardonnay has helped, a lot. Sometimes attendees have even forgotten the title of the book they were discussing. Or that they were all supposed to have actually read it.
Movies have not helped by characterizing them as gossip sessions with an excuse.
The forthcoming “Book Club,” with Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen and Diane Keaton, all smart women who know their way between the hardback covers in real life, will probably not challenge that cliché.
Yet there is one book club that enjoys its books back in the ambiance where such events were born: in a coffee shop.
In this case, it’s the Eclectic Book Club that meets in Starbucks near the Village Green that, for 13 years, has proven that good writing matters, and daring to taste a new genre can pay off.
The Eclectic has been propelled by short-story prize winner and paralegal Palisadian Patrice Conlin, who retreated to a restroom in a San Francisco restaurant on Thursday, Dec. 28 (sure there is a story there?) to recall how it came to be eclectic.
“I had joined other book clubs but people could get so nasty, so personal. There was one where someone accused another person in an unpleasant way of not being worthy of this country, unpatriotic. Half the time would be taken up discussing in whose house the club would meet next, or sorting out the wine. Social stuff, fun in itself, but not about the books themselves.
“So, I felt we deserved something better.”
So, she decided to go back to the club’s caffeinated roots.
The next meeting, on Tuesday, Jan. 9, is at Starbucks in The Village.
In 2003 Conlin called her first book club to order, opening early with a sensational low-brow but culturally significant choice, Jackie Collin’s psychedelic pill-popping Broadway-to-Hollywood saga “Valley of the Dolls.”
It has sold 31 million copies, so there was a chance some Palisadians had read it. The most common word used to describe it was “racy.” It set a tone.
So, how do they decide the books?
“It’s the new member’s choice,” Conlin said, “which can always be interesting.”
So, if I turned up with, say, Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” a page-turner if there ever was one, especially in the original Gothic type, I could make people read it?
“People would have to want to read it, so, um, maybe not.”
People are busy and cheat: They realize they have left reading the book to the last minute, like every other high school assignment. Can they grab the Cliffs Notes off Amazon, or watch the movie?
“Of course, if they want to. Some movies are closer to the original than others: For a close adaption, I would recommend ‘The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit’ (a warning for workaholic Palisadians, filmed with Gregory Peck in 1956). Others, you might find yourself talking about two different experiences.”
She knows people are busy, which is why they rarely vote to read long Victorian novels (although they did enjoy “Anna Karenina”) and keep it under 400 pages, no matter the genre.
She learned the book industry’s lesson from Oprah’s Book Club: She boosted book sales for her favored texts, but not only did Oprah’s choices tend to be so long they depressed sales of other books, they also depressed sales of other books not on Oprah.
The Eclectic is on full display for the two current choices.
“The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story,” by thriller writer Douglas Preston, is based on a 2015 National Geographic expedition into the Mosquitia jungles of Honduras where generations of explorers have sought a massive Pre-Colombian edifice known as the “White City.”
They found remains of lost cities and also, less happily, evidence that a previous expedition run by a famed journalist was fake news—or merely just faked.
They may have found the white city, or at least one of them.
At a cost—the author returned with an incurable parasitical disease called mucocutaneous leishmaniasis, which is as much fun as it sounds.
By contrast, the second book under scrutiny by the Eclectic gang will be Samuel Shem’s “House of God”—a fiercely satirical account of an intern’s year at a Harvard medical school in the early 1970s.
It influenced the introduction of limits on junior doctor hours and the in-group vocabulary (to turf, or bounce a patient onto another department, losing temper with a “gomer” or “get out of my emergency room”) was not only picked up in every hospital in the land but has been referenced in later medical comedies such as “Scrubs.”
(The indifferent movie version is on YouTube, if you want to catch up quick: There, at least, the humor feels dated and broad.)
How will Conlin keep order over such rowdy books and their fans?
“There is always room for socialization, what movies we have seen and so on, but in the end, it’s the books that count. We all love reading, as I have done since I was a child (“The Secret Garden” and “Little Women” were early favorites) and we want to share that pleasure.”
For more information, contact Conlin at email@example.com.
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