by Caren Crane
So, a while back I blogged about joining this book club at work. I joined the book club for several reasons. First, I liked the lady who invited me (we are old friends from leading Girl Scouts). Second, it was a great way to "network" a bit and get to know people who work in departments with whom I rarely or never interface. Last - and certainly not least - I knew the group would give me a reason to read outside my genres of choice, romance and mystery. And no, it's not like The Jane Austen Book Club with hot guys and stuff. Although there are a couple of guys in the book club and we do, oddly, find aspects of many of the books reflected in our lives.
What I didn't realize was that I would like it. I mean, really and truly dig it. Hard. I haven't loved all the books. In fact, there have been a couple I haven't like a bit. However, I am definitely reading outside the circle of books I would choose for myself. I have read non-fiction - my least favorite thing EVAH - for this book club. With all that reading and digesting and discussing stuff I would never pick up on my own, it must be a good thing.
I've found, though, that I enjoy picking apart books with people who are, for the most part, not writers. Well, one group member is a writer, but she writes literary fiction, so we don't approach writing from the same world view at all. These intelligent, diverse people are readers and I love hearing what they enjoy or find hard to digest in a book. As you readers-who-are-not-also-writers know, because we say it all the time, writing kind of ruins that "gee golly" experience of just immersing yourself in a book and losing yourself in it. Except...I have. I've had the closest thing to a "gee golly" read that I've had in years recently and I wanted to share it with you.
It was Wally Lamb's The Hour I First Believed. Now, I read Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True and I thought they were brilliant, but that was before I was a writer. I was hesitant about this new book for a couple of reasons. First, my younger sister (whom I adore and whose taste in books I often share) thought it was incredibly depressing - even for Wally Lamb. Second, the book is 723 pages. Yep, 723. And that is NOT counting the Afterword, the Notes From the Author, and the Acknowledgments. Yes, friends, this puppy was a tome.
My sister happily passed it along to me months ago. I thought, since our book club discussion was in August(!), that I would have plenty of time to read it. Except I couldn't quite pick it up. I had a teetering TBR pile this summer and a little more reading time on my hands, with the school year activities on hiatus. Then came the RWA conference and another load of "must read" books. Wally's tome kept sitting there, gathering dust, on the dining room table. Until this week. This week, I picked it up and dutifully delved in, wary and skeptical. I was completely sucked in by page 7 and didn't come up for air that first night until long about page 117. It was just that good.
I am a slow reader, but Wally makes me keep turning pages and stay up lo-o-ong after my bedtime. I very much enjoyed Kirsty Gunn, Ann Patchett and Lisa See, as well as some other great authors whose books we have read and discussed. But Wally...I think Wally has won me over yet again and probably forever. Much as I adore and cherish every happy ending I read in romance and even mystery, I like the sidetrips into Wally's brand of family dysfunction, all-too-real marriage drama, mental illness, alcoholism, troubled childhood and trial-by-fire adolescence. He has a gift for illuminating human pain and for putting in words the ways we humans tear each other apart and knit it all back together.
I don't love Wally because he is an easy read. He isn't. His books pack a hard emotional wallop, which some find hard to take. Sometimes, I like my emotion the hard way. I love him because he shines a light on the darkest places in the human soul and shows that, no matter how bad things are, there is always a way back. And someone - usually the last person you would choose - can be there to lend you a hand, if you'll let them. I like to go to that dark place sometimes and, thanks to my book club, I have regularly scheduled times to do so. When I'm done with one of these beautifully-constructed odes to pain and reality, though, I usually need an extra helping of happy-ever-after to re-establish the balance in Caren world. Which is generally, after all, as happy a place as I can make it!
So, what do you read when you don't read romance? And why are you drawn to whatever "other" sorts of books call to you? Is romance a palate cleanser or the main course? I definitely use it to cleanse my literary palate, but I think the heavy stuff is merely an interesting side dish for this reader!