Monday, April 26, 2010

Why Women Need Book Clubs

As a working mother, I have to pursue my literary pleasures with tunnel-vision passion and 007 stealth. I sneak reading time in the bathtub, at lunch, and before bed. I read books in line at the grocery store, and yes, even to sports practices, looking up between chapters to holler, “Good job, honey!” at my kids.
When we moved to a new town a few years ago, our youngest child was in third grade and I was invited to join a book club named “Mothers of Third Graders.” B-O-R-I-N-G, I thought. Why go to a book club, when I can stay home and read?
“You might learn something,” my husband pointed out. “You are, after all, a writer.”
Hmph. The only people who like crowds less than readers are writers, but he had a point. Maybe it was time to see what other people were reading. “I'll go,” I muttered, “but I won't promise to like it.”
I didn't, at first. This was a big, noisy book club made up of women whose children have known each other from the womb. I felt like an outcast. Plus, these women read best-selling commercial fiction like Twilight and anything by Jodi Picoult. What was there to discuss?
Plenty, it turned out – and a lot of the conversation was intense and intimate in surprising ways. We writers work in solitude, usually with nothing more than a dog to consult about plot twists, descriptions and character development. Joining a book group has taught me how writers can reach readers better – or leave them out in the cold. This particular group talked about the characters as if the characters, too, lived in our neighborhood: “Why did she marry him?” “If I had a kid like that, I'd put him in boarding school,” etc. They talked about plot, setting, and the occasional emotional resolution, but hardly ever about the thing writers ponder most: the sentences. Readers just want a good story, duh.
After we discuss the book – which might take five minutes or two hours – our conversations morph into an open forum about families, schools, work, sex, the economy, religion, politics, and every other topic that you can imagine included in the fabric of daily discourse. Even if these women hate a book, it's a springboard for discussion.
When my own book, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter: A Memoir, was published recently, I decided to contact book groups. I left my phone number at libraries, put the word out to friends, and added something to my web site so that book groups would know that I was available. I didn't expect much response. Again, I was surprised: book groups did contact me. I met with over a dozen last year, and discovered that being an author at a book group is like being an anthropologist, an American Idol contestant, and a lottery winner all rolled into one.
As a book club anthropologist, I observe each group's unique character and habitat. There are wino book groups and sober book groups. I see alpha moms and women too shy to speak until after the wine is poured. There are book groups with millionaires and groups where the women haven't attended college. Some have themes, like cooking foods from the book. Others have a strict classroom atmosphere, with members adhering only to discussion questions put out by the publisher.
Being an author at a book group discussion is also like being on American Idol: You never know whether the judges are going to praise your performance or say, like Randy, “That was pitchy, dawg. I just didn't get it.”
“It seems like a long way to drive,” my husband said the other night, as I headed off to a book group ninety miles from home. “Is it worth it?”
It is. Wherever I go, and whatever people think of my book, I learn about women's lives. Perhaps because my book is a memoir about a father who raises gerbils, women are amazingly open about their own eccentric parents, troubled childhoods, obsessive husbands or clever mothers. I always come away astounded and humbled by their stories.
In the end, meeting with people who have actually read your book is mostly like winning the lottery: I have never felt so lucky. These are hard times for writers and readers, with magazines folding, book publishers often springing only for name brand authors, and independent book stores dwindling. Authors spend hours each day writing, without knowing if anything we put on the page will ever be read. Book groups allow us to learn what moved our readers (or didn't). They inspire us, giving us hope that writing is a craft worth pursuing.
And, as a woman visiting women's book groups, it helps me feel part of a sisterhood, an extended network of women who work, think, parent, love, grieve, dream, believe, cry and laugh as they journey through their unique lives, support one other, and bring books to life.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Lessons from American Idol

Goodbye, sweet Tim Urban, you smiling greyhound of a Beatles-coiffed contestant. I'm sad to see you go.
Who knew that I would ever love American Idol? I'm a reader, not a TV watcher. But, last year, when I started watching Idol with my youngest child, I was immediately hooked. I love the made-for-TV stories about these people who claw themselves up out of poverty, foster homes, gangs, etc. to sing for their suppers. I'm even more intrigued by the cultural phenom of this public flogging that passes for judging. I mean, wow. These people keep getting knocked down only to jump back up again.
Yes, Teflon Tim, I mean you. You'd make a better actor than singer. (I can see you joining Glee this season as Rachel's boyfriend! You're way hotter than that big dumb cluck, Finn!) You don't have Mama Sox's pipes, Casey's rocker style, Aaron's skinny Sinatra charm, Lee's bar room gravel and bedroom eyes, Big Mike's showmanship, or Siobhan's range and butterfly costumes. But you do have something that I'll sorely miss: Staying power.
When the judges skewered your performances, you smiled and took it on the chin. You didn't break down. You didn't argue your case. You didn't whine. You didn't even come out and bitch slap Simon. You just came back for more. And we can all learn from that – especially if we're writers and artists.
I think all writers should watch Idol. We can relate to rejection. I once had an editor of a top magazine turn down one of my stories, saying that I was “too old to be called promising.” That was when I was 29! I have had editors write curt rejection notes for pieces I've slaved over for months, saying only, “This does not amuse,” or “We have too many stories on that topic.” Recently, a a book editor told me that my novel was a great read – she couldn't put it down! – but “it's not right for the current publishing climate.”
Watching Idol makes me realize how glad I am that we writers get rejected in the privacy of our own bedrooms, where we can weep and throw ourselves prostrate under our laptops without anyone watching. I can too easily believe that the preening Simon might say to me, “You don't know who you are as an artist!” Or Randy shaking his big bullet of a head and sighing, “I just didn't get it, dawg.” And what if I had to get up to read my last failed article or story just to prove, once more, why I got the fewest votes? Ouch!
The most important lesson of Idol is that the marketplace is fickle. I wasn't surprised when Lily got sent home this season. Sure, she has a great voice, but she has white hair, and who likes the ukelele? I wasn't shocked when Andrew and Paige got the boot ahead of Tim, either. They had better voices, but he has the looks and charm.
The Idol judges keep trying to pretend that “this is a singing competition,” but we all know differently. This TV show is really all about nailing what kind of pop star will turn on young, female viewers enough to get them to blow up their phones and buy iTunes with their parents' credit cards. Witness last year's debacle: Adam Lambert clearly has a better voice than Vanilla Allen, but Allen was way cute and mild, while Lambert was way gay and probably scared their hairbands off.
Last night, I comforted myself that Tim – like any Idol contestant who makes it into the top 10, or maybe even into the top 1,000 – probably has enough talent to carry on with his dream. I told myself that again today, when I got yet another rejection email.
And at least I don't have to read my piece aloud on TV, while Simon and Kara fake flirt as I pretend I don't care what they think.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Hanging with Hoda & Kathie Lee on The Today Show

The call from the Today Show came as I was buying a used car in a New Hampshire neighborhood thick with tattoo parlors and fireworks outlets. I had just left the seller's house – where an overweight pitt bull sniffed my legs as I was getting into my car – when Melanie, a lovely producer from Kathie Lee & Hoda's show, called my cell phone. Could I appear on their Friday morning show to talk about an essay I'd written for Ladies' Home Journal called “The Politeness Project?”

“Sure. I'd love to be on The Today Show,” I said, gunning my used Honda onto Route 1 by Wal-Mart.

TV producers don't kid around when they want to get someone on a set. Within hours, I had my travel arrangements, and the next day I arrived in New York City to find a car and driver waiting to whisk me off to a hotel. (Truthfully, I suspect that having a hotel room alone is enough of a lure for any working mom to say yes to pretty much anything.)

The next morning, I met Julie Bain, LHJ's health editor, in the Green Room. This meant traipsing past the flags and fans in Rockefeller Center and being escorted into the room by a series of security guards. Yes, I felt like Sandra Bullock!

The Green Room is surprisingly functional. It didn't feel all that different from the teacher's lounge of my son's elementary school, where I always volunteered to put together the newsletter. But the next room was much more fun: Julie and I were escorted into a long, brightly lit room with a row of chairs staffed by makeup artists and hair stylists with the tools of their trade strewn about the counters. Everyone is made up and blown out at once, kind of like that scene in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy and her cohorts arrive at the Emerald City and get combed out and shined up to see the Wizard.

Travis, the lovely man in a pink v-neck sweater who did my face (which took a lot longer to do than Julie's, I might add, since she's a New Yorker who already knows how to use makeup ), eased my nerves by chatting about his mom in Atlanta, where he has a house. He also suggested that I might want to invest in eye cream if I didn't want to look, well, quite so much like a tired working mom. Meanwhile, behind me, Kathie Lee was just hanging out in sweats, chatting with various people who kept stopping by, until she was ready to be zipped into her floral dress for the set.

Julie and I returned our transformed selves (me, blinking hard because it felt like I had a pound of makeup on each eye) to the Green Room. Then yet another handler led us onto the Today Show set, where Kathie Lee and Hoda were interviewing adorable Aussie Alex O'Loughlin, the male lead in Jennifer Lopez's new movie, The Back-Up Plan. Alex's fans were waving banners through the window behind him, but he kept his cool even as Kathie Lee asked him what he was looking for in a woman, and he admitted he could be interested in anyone from 18 to 60, which caused every single woman on set (and there were a lot of us, crammed in there with technicians wielding cameras and microphones and lots and lots of cords to trip on) to swoon a little.

Finally, it was our turn. Julie and I clambered over the cords and took our seats next to the stars. Who, it turns out, are actually warm, lovely women. The topic was how to disarm with charm, based on my essay, but those two need no lessons in that: Kathie Lee and Hoda have the ability to make everyone, even a working mom from northern Massachusetts, feel like they belong right where they are, and isn't that the point of politeness?

At one point, Kathie Lee even reached over to adjust the collar of my sweater during a commercial break. It really did feel like chatting with girlfriends, despite the teleprompters and cameras and, oh yes, those bright lights, and the thought that everyone could see us on TV and judge: Are we old/fat/thin/wearing the right shoes? (I had on a quickly-purchased $20 pair of heels and $14.99 slacks from Marshall's. I tried not to think about how much Kathie Lee and Hoda spent on clothes.)

And then it was over. I went home that afternoon. A car, courtesy of The Today Show, collected me from the hotel. This time, I slid into the back seat almost as if I belonged in a long black car with a driver at my disposal. Maybe I could get used to this life.

Then, as the driver and I chatted, I heard about how his father, still living in Haiti, was trapped and nearly died when his home collapsed on him during the earthquake.

“I'm so sorry,” I said.

“Me, too,” the driver said. Then he shrugged a little. “But that's life, is it not? It is one way this minute, and another way the next.”

That, I thought, was the truest thing anyone had said to me all day.

(See the Today Show segment here):

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Why I Don't Want to Live on Girl Island

Recently, I was having lunch with a group of women friends who only have daughters. They were bemoaning, as women at lunch love to do, the habits of their husbands. You know: the dirty clothes on the floor, the snoring, the need to own the remote. Oh yeah, and peeing into bushes because that's easier than asking directions to a gas station when you're on a road trip.
“I want to live on Girl Island,” my friend Carla said. “Sometimes I don't think I was meant to live with a man.”
I thought about this as we parted, and decided that, if I had to choose, it would definitely be Boy Island for me.
I have three sons and two daughters. Nothing against girls – I love my daughters and cherish every minute I spend with them – but the boys keep me sane. Throw kids together at a picnic, and the girls circle each other, wary as cats, while the boys pick the top dog in minutes and all play together. Girls on the school bus make each other cry with a word or a look, yet it might be weeks before you hear about it or even figure out exactly why your daughter was so upset. Boys? They're either really mad and throwing something, or so happy that they're yelling and singing in the shower.
Girls do art projects without getting glue and paint all over the furniture and each other. Girls will sit in the kitchen with you, sometimes, too, and let you know what their teacher wore that day and what their English papers are about. Meanwhile, the boys say school was “uh, okay” and just want to ride their bikes, or show you how cool it is to put cereal in the ice dispenser and then hold a glass of milk under it.
Most of all, boys like to puzzle over the wonders of the world. Last week I drove my 12 year-old son and his friends to the skateboard park. It was kind of like riding around with the editors of Ripley's Believe It Or Not: “Did you know that more people are killed by vending machines than by sharks every year?” “If everyone in China was chewing gum and spit it out at the same time, would there be enough gum to cover Rhode Island?” “Did the Egyptians invent glass?” “There are probably 1800 thunderstorms happening in the Earth's atmosphere right now, that we can't even see!”
At the skateboard park, the boys were out of the car almost before I had it in park, donning helmets and pads and zooming off to a place that probably wouldn't exist on Girl Island: a place where 360 is a verb and you can do ollies, grinds and slides while wearing brightly colored puffy sneakers. A place where Moms, alas, can only visit for a short time before they're banished.