Take my camel, dear…..

by Leanne Ogasawara

Caltech libraryThere were not many things that drew me back to America, but the thought of joining a bookclub seemed like one potential perk of moving back. I am not sure if bookclubs exist to this extent in other countries, but in the US they are incredibly popular! More and more people I know had been joining, taking part and talking about their bookclubs… And, I became –slowly but surely–intrigued.

So, when the time came and I found myself back in Los Angeles, I started thinking about–and really started heavy-duty dreaming about– joining one. And not just any bookclub, but I was imagining a kind of glittering evening gathering, which could take place in various refined rooms filled with books and art. And obviously, there had to be alcohol. And definitely my bookclub needed men. Part of my fantasy involved a blurring of bookclub, cocktail party and supper club. I had visions of Turin-style appertivo; discussing Nietzsche over our campari; or a dinner inspired by the gourmand extraordinaire, Detective Mantalbano–featuring my famous caponata (in my fantasy, my caponata is legendary).

My longings finally reached a crisis point last November when I read a really charming post at aNewscafe about a ladies' monthly bookclub in Northern California. The post was about the bookclub's most recent read: A Gentleman in Moscow, about which I was also reading and imagining a dinner party of my own. In my fantasies, I would have prepared a lavish dinner beginning with (of course) champagne and blini and then moving on to the mouth-wateringly-described Latvian stew with Georgian wine of the novel. The author of the blog post, Hollyn Chase, seemed to have it all–a gorgeous dining room filled with books, a fabulous menu plan and best of all, great friends.

Hollyn described her bookclub like this:

My book club started in 1993. There used to be eleven of us, but Linda moved to Seattle. Now there are 10. What I’ve learned over the years is that how people react to books reveals their core character and quite a few of their secrets. After all these years, I can almost always predict who will like the book and who won’t and why. From an outsider’s perspective, we’re not very diverse. We’re all white woman of a certain age and privilege who have the luxury of being able to spend a bit of time reading novels and entertaining. But, we run the spectrum of deeply religious to atheist, very liberal to quite conservative. And there is almost a generation of difference in age from youngest to oldest. Each of us has been shaped over many years by many factors. We have seen our children grow—and some die—we have married, divorced and widowed. We have shared a lot; we understand each other. But we do not always agree.

This was last year, remember. She was therefore concerned about the then President-elect….who, she feared, would be the topic of the day (supplanting all discussion of the novel).

Reading her delightful post, I realized how old-fashioned bookclubs can be. In the old days, people broke bread and acted in "neighborly" ways with those whom they didn't always agree. Neighbors are neighbors–even if they aren't on the same page as you politically and otherwise. There is something great in this idea of friendship that moves beyond narrow requirements. I would say it has more of a chance element (like you can't choose your neighbors, your kids or your family…?) There are deal breakers, don't get me wrong, but I've always really felt it is important to break bread with people I do not see eye-to-eye with. And, there is the idea that family and friendships do "trump" politics and religion. Not long ago in these pages, I had written about my mom's gourmet club… those ladies have sat down to share meals for over thirty years –month in and month out; and like Hollyn's group, they range from Hillary to Bernie to Trump supporters; a rainbow of religions and backgrounds. And yet every month they sit down together. And more incredible, they can eat whatever is served–if there are dietary restrictions, no one makes a big deal. I overheard my mom's friends once remarking that they feel their own kids are incapable of this kind of flexibility (one kid is a vegan and the other has allergies and so on and so on…) Shared meals, they lament, are a thing of the past. Even within families, it is becoming harder and harder. A sense of play and flexibility, not to mention tolerance, seems to have disappeared from our world, where people take themselves more and more seriously.

Anyway, enough was enough, I thought. I need to join a bookclub.

Not knowing where to look, I checked out Caltech and discovered not one but two (as a "faculty spouse" I was already a member of the women's group first).

Okay, it didn't meet many of my "requirements." But beggars can't be choosers, right?

Rumer goddenFirst off, it was all women.

Fine, I thought.

But also no alcohol.

Challenging– but I was still up for it. But get this: it meets at 8am. OK, this was totally and completely crazy. 8am???? But, still I went forward! My strategy involved repeated cups of coffee starting two hours before I leave the house at 7:30 am and then a race out to campus hoping the cold morning hour will help revive me. And while there is food involved (breakfast), it is a restaurant situation at the Caltech Athenaeum, where each person can order what they like. (Also unfortunately, we don't meet in the library–pictured above– but in a small room next door).

I must say, all these issues above were nothing when faced with the real problem: I didn't get to choose the books! Yikes…. (This was turning out to be more challenging than I had imagined!)

I should have thought of this because I am incredibly picky about what I read. For example, I don't read a lot of American fiction. Much of what I read is history, philosophy or novels in translation. And what is worse, I quickly found myself in the strange position of complaining to the other ladies about how I dislike "women's fiction."….(Did I really say that??)

Here was our list:

  • November 14 Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gwande
  • December 12 Astonish Me, by Maggie Shipstead
  • January 9, 2017 This Life, by Karel Shoeman
  • February 13 Rise of the Rocket Girls: the Women Who Propelled Us From Missles to the Moon to Mars, by Nathalia Holt
  • March 13 The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough
  • April 10 Miller’s Valley, by Anna Quindlen
  • May 8 The History of Great Things, by Elizabeth Crane

I should say, all the books were recognizable great-sellers, many with New York Times reviews and no one could deny people love these books. So what went wrong? Well, I was bored to near death by Gwande, Holt and McCullough–but it was the novels by Shipstead, Quindlin and Crane that truly became my cross to bear. Reading these novels felt something like punishment (for a crime that must have been very bad indeed). Astonish Me in particular traumatized me–because the characters were such a perfect blend of unkindness and utter banality. A boring book filled with total narcissistic and petty jerks. One character more mediocre, petty and lowly than the next. But Miller's Valley and Great Things were also really challenging for me (those two in particular killed me because I had to put down this fabulous book called Galileo's Dream twice to catch up with the bookclub readings). As a woman, it felt like a form of betrayal to announce that I never read women authors but these books were not just written by women but they were for women (as all the reviews were overwhelming by women). I simply couldn't stand the over-focus on relationships in lieu of the world-creating novels of great ideas that I preferred. But it was, I suppose mainly that these novels reminded me of the romance novels I devoured when I was in my early teens (I was very precocious at 13 and luckily that stage only last a few years).

It all made me think of something I read in Tom Robbins' memoir, Tibetan Peach Pie, in which he also complained about the current state of American publishing. After all, he asks, “How many protagonists can one watch come painfully of age, how many bad marriages resolve or dissolve; and after a while who really gives a damn if the butler did it?” I was, in the end, saved by a French lady in the bookclub, who hated the books every bit as much as I did and would complain about what a bad mood they put her into and about how "banal" and "pathetic" the characters were. Phew! Totally agree. Anna Karenina was about a dysfunctional marriage, after all, but I think the individual stories about people are not the main focus, but rather are the hinge around which an entire world, religion, philosophy, great themes of humanity are explored. It is the narrowness of these “women’s” books, their lack of creativity, uplift, inspiration, unexpectedness, nobility, exploration, playfulness, etc.

Anyway, the good news is I love the group so much!! And this year I can have a part in choosing what we will read –and, and being mightily embarrassed by my pronouncement about "books for women," I certainly want to recommend one of my absolute favorite novels of all time, which happens to be by a woman–but definitely not for women only!

TrebizondHave any of you read Towers of Trebizond, by Rose Macaulay?

Friends with EM Forster and Virginia Woolf, Rose Macaulay's novel is counted by Anthony Burgess as one of the twenty top novels of the century and by Joanna Trollope as "the book of a lifetime". The 1956 novel is fabulous and funny; delightful and inspired!

It also has one of the most famous opening lines in modern literature:

'Take my camel, dear,' said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass."

A novel about love and the mysteries of faith, you could be forgiven for missing its main themes since the entire novel is mainly taken up with the details of the characters' Alice in Wonderland-like travels around Turkey on a camel. Yes, they travel by camel! Traveling about with Aunt Dot, who is there to convert the natives to female emancipation, and a priest (with the last name of Pigg), who is there to check up on the progress of his rivals Billy Graham and a gaggle of Seventh Day Adventists; the story takes a slight turn when the priest and Aunt Dot up and disappear across the Iron Curtain, leaving main character Laurie to ponder alone the problems of trying to be religious in the modern world (not to mention love and adultery). We are never even sure whether Laurie is male or female till the very end of the book–though we find out quite a lot about the camel as well as all manner of wonderful details of Trebizuntine (is that a word?) history along the way!

Oh, to be able to see the frescoes and painted dome ceilings of the basilicas of Trebizond ~~and the magical forests of Armenia, which she wrote about so beautifully….But suddenly, thanks to this wonderful lady writer (so nice to be reading female novelists!), I have it in my mind to try and see its westernmost edge. To travel along the southern banks of the Black Sea, wouldn't it be an adventure to head east toward Georgia to try and discover what is left of this vanished Greek-Byzantine-Ottoman civilization…..famed for its gravity-defying cliffside churches and Byzantine tunnels and fortresses. In the novel, the camel journey ends all the way in Jerusalem–Yes, all roads lead to Jerusalem….

It sounds like a real dream journey, doesn't it?


Picture above of another favorite lady writer, Rumer Godden (Has anyone read Black Narcissus?)

Favorite novel of 2015: Relic Master

Favorite Novel of 2016: Laurus

Favorite novel of 2017: Galileo's Dream

Other Favorite novel of 2017: Carrere's The Kingdom

More on communal activities: Heaven and Hell in Modena