Books compete with Zorro costumes and a recipe for Bitsy Farnsworth’s Mystery Mocha Cake in this guide for reading groups. Guess what loses?
The Book Club Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to the Reading Group Experience. By Diana Loevy. Berkley, 335 pp., $ 14, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Looking for a way to revitalize your reading group? How about having members read Isabel Allende’s Zorro and dress up in black capes and masks?
Yes, it could lead to swordfights over the guacamole and bad Antonio Banderas imitations. But ideas like this abound The Book Club Companion, a loopy guide for reading groups that reads at times like the result of a collaboration between Martha Stewart and the author of No Bad Dogs. Unwilling to let books rise or fall on their literary merits, Diana Loevy rolls out recipes, etiquette rules, pet-care tips, decorating ideas, and fashion advice for book club members. If your group is too sedate for Zorro outfits, she also offers reading lists with descriptions of books that might have been written by their publicists.
Loevy lays out her theme early on when she says that, if you’re in a reading group, “Each book is a winner.” She shuns even the mildest criticism of books and authors. Elizabeth Berg, whose latest novel is written at a fourth-grade level, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word? “Book clubs love this prolific author,” Loevy says. Terry McMillan, who’s devolved into Danielle Steel with a sense of humor? “Everyone has a favorite McMillan,” Loevy says, presumably including those who haven’t read her. It’s an almost comical understatement to say that this gushing clashes with a complaint you hear frequently from book group members: You’re lucky if you love one in every five or six books and can finish most of the selections.
The opinions that Loevy expresses – for example, about the main ideas of a book – are often clueless. She does not appear to understand the difference between a topic, such as “faith” or “folk art,” and a theme. And you sometimes wonder if she has read a book or just watched the movie. Loevy describes Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s as a “party girl.” And while that’s true of the film, it’s a serious misrepresentation of Truman Capote’s novella, in which Holly is a call girl.
Loevy turns into a martinet when she writes about extras such as refreshments, decorations, and pet control. It is simply “too easy” to serve sushi when you’re reading Memoirs of a Geisha, she admonishes: “Concentrate on the unique dishes described in the novel such as the snack umeboshi ochazuke (rice and sour plums soaked in tea).” Consider “Diana Kennedy’s Guacamole” and “Bitsy Farnsworth’s Mystery Mocha Cake” for other events. As for pet control, Loevy devotes more than four pages to this essential topic and stops just short of suggesting that you shoot Fido with tranquilizing darts before your book group meets at your place.
All of this might be just amusing if there weren’t something sad about Loevy’s pandering. The Book Club Companion leaves the impression that the tiniest bit of criticism of a book would put off reading group members and that they never read just for the joy of it but need the ancillary pleasures of related recipes or floral centerpieces. Loevy sounds almost apologetic about her suggestion that you read Moby-Dick. “Don’t you be rolling your eyes,” she says, because this novel is “brimming with meaning.” And if you have trouble selling your group on such books, you might “sweeten the deal”: “If you know it will be a challenging book, offer to make something everyone will like. It’s funny how the maniacal laughter ceases after a slice of your famous chocolate raspberry torte.’ You could also promise to make your club cocktail. “You mean,” Loevy asks, “you don’t have one?”
Best line: Eight reading lists give the titles of books that clubs might have read in the decades from the 1920s through the 1990s. The 1920s list alone has such gems as Main Street, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and All Quiet on the Western Front.
Worst line: Loevy’s advice on how to persuade your group to read Flaubert: “Selling Madame Bovary to the club: A selection of the Wisteria Lane Book Club, at least one desperate housewife found it ‘inspirational.’” Now there’s an unbeatable endorsement for you. It’s ungrammatical, too.
Consider reading instead: Noel Perrin’s A Reader’s Delight or John Carey’s Pure Pleasure. A review of Carey’s book is archived in the “Essays and Reviews” category on this site.
Caveat lector: Loevy developed the reading groups program for Bookspan, part of the Bertelsmann conglomerate, which owns the publishers of many of the books she praises. The publisher of The Book Club Companion, Berkley, is an imprint of the Penguin Group, which published many of the other titles that she recommends.
Editor: Ginjer Buchanan
Published: August 2006
Furthermore: Critic Janet Maslin explored other aspects of the obtuseness of this guide in an entertaining review of this book in the New York Times on Sept. 4, 2006.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. Jan Harayda does not accept books, catalogs, press releases, or related materials from editors, publishers, agents or authors whose books may be reviewed on the site.