Twenty years ago, I called up a bunch of people I knew and asked them if they wanted to like maybe read some books together and then meet over a drink and talk.  About the book.  To my surprise, a whole lot of them said, “Sure! That sounds like fun!”  Thirteen came for the first meeting and then, over the course of the year, I watched as they dropped like flies with one excuse after the next.  Like…

“I realize now that I only enjoy reading while lying on the beach…It’s not the group, it’s me…I guess I just don’t have that much to say about the book…any book.”

There are now only four of us left, all original members from that first night.  Fay joined a couple years later and hung in with us until 2014.  That year we read the Spy Who Came in from the Cold in her memory.  God, she loved le Carré and had been trying to get us to read him for years, which we must all acknowledge was no easy task.  No pitch ever is.  But I’m betting that Fay had a good last laugh over that one.

To mark our 20th anniversary, we talked about doing something extra special besides the usual yearend “festivities”.  Not that there is anything wrong with those traditions; they have evolved over two decades.  I dare you to find another book group anywhere that makes an annual bookmarker with the title of all the books they’ve read for the year.  I really think this year’s bookmark should have a special 20th anniversary emblem on it like Oprah put on her book picks.  Remember how Oprah had a book club?  Yeah.  I think it only lasted fifteen years.  (Sorry, for shading ya there, O.)  Sabrina’s trivia game about all the books we’ve read is always a hoot, mostly to see how little Kerri remembers of any of the stories.  And the celebrations are not complete without the final BIG VOTE, in fact, probably the high light of the evening, for the “best and worst of” read of the year. 

In the early days, we made things like hand painted pottery and tee-shirts for the winner.  But our creative juices—and energy levels—eventually tapered out into a Chapters gift card.   Hmm.  But I guess even that has somehow gone to the wayside.  At least, we still have Shakespeare who gets to go home with whoever has recommended the worst book of the year.  Ah, Shakespeare…At first glance he may appear as merely a silly plush toy skunk mounted on a stand who is holding a gold trophy cup in one hand and in the other a miniature home-made copy of Uncle John’s Supremely Satisfying Bathroom Reader.  The engraving on the plaque says it all: “Shakespeare Presents the Annual Smelly Book Award”.  He’s really sort of our mascot now. 

Every so often, someone will raise the question of whether we should seek out a few new members.  But we haven’t taken on a new member since 2002.  She lasted a couple years but couldn’t hack it.  Something about how we hardly ever chose her books and that she wasn’t really enjoying our reads.  Pff!  Perhaps she should have put a little bit more effort into her pitch.  I admit that pitching a book in book group can be a tad stressful what with all the heckling and booing and side-bar comments that usual erupt. For example…

“Oh, you can’t be serious…Please, not another one of your Canadian authors…Is that in paperback yet or just hardcover?…Sounds like you pulled that one out of your hat five minutes before you got here.” 

As we all know, pitching a book to book group is not for the faint of heart.  We then vote on the recommendations through secret ballot because…well, seriously…having one person decide what book group should read is like allowing a four-year old to decide how you should dress for the office.  Sure, the child may have a remarkably developed fashion sense, but do you really want to take that chance? 

I’m not sure that our playful banter is to everyone’s taste so it’s probably just as well.  But apart from that, we are a delightful bunch.  So gracious…witty.  Well-informed.  We gab about loads of stuff that has nothing to do with books, such as, family, our jobs, politics, movies, travel, and especially about our most current Netflix binge.  But when it’s time to talk about the book…well, that’s when the gloves come off.  

Surprisingly, despite our rigorous democratic process, some stinkers do get pass us.  One novel in particular was so bad…remember how we formulated a detailed plan to ship all our hardcover copies back to the publisher with a very strongly worded letter, demanding how they could conscionably publish such trash and had the editor even read a book before that one?  And then, there was that time when I managed to pass off Death In the Afternoon as a memoir when it so was not and simply turned out to be a pedantic tome on how to slaughter bulls in a ring and call it art. Naturally, that year, I took home Shakespeare.   

And then, there have been moments that have tested our very core.  For two tumultuous years, Sabina somehow managed to bully…I mean inspire us to read two books at a time: one a classic and the other a more modern novel or memoir.  This ordeal lead to my public confession in a Globe and Mail essay that I was simply a “wannabe classics reader”.   And there is one book…the book whose title we all agreed would never be uttered aloud again.  So forgive me…Mercy Among the Children.  Yes, the book that threatened to divide book group forever that not even Fay’s delicious cherry squares could dispel the bitter taste of our discussion that night in her charming living room.  In one corner, Barb and Sabrina rolled their eyes and called it “too earnest” while Kerri and I choked back tears in defending a novel that had evoked heart wrenching sobs that pooled on those very pages as we read.  So, for the sake of everything we held dear, we agreed to forgive…if not forget.

But when there is a book that we ALL agree on, I swear it’s just like in those constipation commercials where the clouds part and you hear angels sing:  A moment that defies words, a moment of profound, collective enlightenment.  To Kill A Mockingbird, Lolita, Never Let Me Go, A Fine Balance, The Grapes of Wrath, Their Eyes Were Watching God, A Tale of Two Cities…just to name a very few. 

So, about our celebration…sure, undoubtedly, a trip to Paris to visit all those wonderful writerly haunts would have been cool.  But that was outside our collective budgets.  Mine at least.  We tossed around the idea of a privately prepared dinner with a chef at one of our homes.  Wine pairing and all!  Oh, remember how for years we all used to take turns hosting at home?  On a school night, no less?  And that time we invited R “the author” to join our discussion? As I recall, he was very flattered by the invitation and impressed with our book group whose virtues I extolled in a rather lengthy—perhaps a little over the top—letter to him.  Did I really say that Barb was a voracious reader?  Well, she is.  Was he threatened by that?  We’ll never truly know why he cancelled on us last minute.  But I suppose the idea of spending the evening with a group of intelligent, captivating women…drinking wine…might be a little unnerving for some men.  It’s the sort of thing that could go…well…so many different ways.  Pity for him.

Instead, here we are.  Downtown at a chichi hotel that was once owned by the man who is now President of the United States to discuss our last book pick of 2018—the memoir of Michelle Obama.  Pretty ironic, huh? 

Pretty damn awesome, I say.  But I’m not surprised.  Because that’s how we roll in book group.

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