Letter from America: A Book Club in Medford / Death Be Not Proud
By David Fedo
Given the widely-hyped pace of life these days in the United States, and the onslaught (a torrent, really) of entertainment options from a zillion TV channels in most homes, seemingly 24-hour news and almost nightly professional sports games and matches, to a variety of technological devices that give Americans access to a bewildering array of listening, speaking, sending and viewing choices we might surmise that "book clubs" would now be hopelessly out of date. And who in America reads books these days other than an educated elite, anyway?
Actually, you might be surprised to hear that adults (and even children) across the country are gathering together in increasing numbers both large and small, usually in public libraries and independent bookstores, to talk about the books they have chosen to read. This means that, for one night (children do it during the day) a week or, in my case, a month, people from all walks of life venture out of their living rooms to engage in discussions about books that have somehow sparked an interest and may indeed bring new light into their lives in the old-fashioned way. To the wonder of some, discussing books fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, even graphic novels now carry a certain social cachet.
I know that this is true because I am currently facilitating such a club at my hometown library, located in a midsized suburb called Medford just north of Boston. We are a small group, spread out on comfortable seats around a grand table in an upstairs room, and I have just completed our first session (on October 15) to begin our year of eight evenings that will bring us through May of 2015. The theme of the readings this year is Boston itself either books written by authors with a Boston connection, or works in which Boston figures as a setting or in a significant part of the plot, narrative, poems or essays.
And I'm not alone. There are four other concurrent book clubs for adults sponsored by my very active library, including a Great Books Club (Don Quixote is the featured work); the Tuesday Night Book Group, which is now in its 15th year; the Romance Book Club; and the Monthly Review of New Books Group. So I ask, who needs reality TV for recreation?
I started my group off, somewhat apprehensively, with a long novel by the formidable author Henry James (1843-1916). One of James' earliest works, but unlike most of his other works, The Bostonians (1886) addresses a political and social issue in this instance, feminism in late 19th-century America. James' extraordinarily dense prose can be prolix (the paragraphs sometimes feel endless) and even exasperatingly florid, but he is the master of exploring the interior lives (souls, really) of his characters. In the 540 pages of The Bostonians, James depicts the struggles of the Bostonian, Olive Chancellor, a wealthy Brahmin who seeks to promote the naive and young but inspirational Verena Tarrant (who has almost hypnotic, mesmerising powers on the podium) as the leading speechmaker in the suffragette movement. But more importantly, Olive wants to possess Verena for herself she is in love, but James doesn't show this explicitly.
As the late America film critic Roger Ebert wrote, after viewing the faithful l984 film adaptation of the novel, with the incomparable Vanessa Redgrave playing Olive:
Olive has a curious rival for Verena her Mississippi-born cousin, Basil Ransom, lately a Confederate veteran of America's horrific Civil War, who is now a failing lawyer in New York City. He wins Verena in the end, doggedly pursuing her in memorable scenes in Boston and on Cape Cod, although James doesn't foresee a happy ending. In The Bostonians, as in so many of James' novels (The Portrait of a Lady, Daisy Miller and The Golden Bowl), the heroines are served badly by both their men and the world at large. So much for the equality of the sexes at least as James saw it!
My group quickly grasped the essence of the book, with the readers women of mostly middle age, and some retirees eager to talk about Verena, Olive and Basil as though they were real people who actually walked the earth. And they seemed to agree that James' attitude towards 19th-century Boston was ambivalent: he both admired the history but despised the grittiness of a city that was still unsure of itself.
My other selections for the book club demonstrate, as you can see, a great diversity. In most cases, I have deliberately avoided choosing the "biggies" written by Bostonians, or famous books connected in some way to the city or surrounding cities and towns Hawthorne, Melville and Emerson, to name three 19th-century examples in favour of some lesser-known works.
In November, we turn to John P. Marquand's novel, The Late George Apley (1937), a fictional memoir of a blue-blooded WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) and graduate of Harvard College. Although Marquand's novel was a bestseller in its time and in 1938 was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the writer has mostly disappeared off the radar, as have Sinclair Lewis and John O'Hara, other popular novelists of mid-20th-century America. But I love The Late George Apley, which I find to be very moving.
December's selection will be Edwin O'Connor's powerful novel, The Last Hurrah (1956), based on the political life of the corrupt Boston politician, James Michael Curley; in O'Connor's book, he is named Frank Skeffington, who is running for another term as Mayor of the city. O'Connor (1918-1968), a journalist in Boston, also produced another novel, The Edge of Sadness, which won the coveted Pulitzer Prize.
In January 2015, we'll be reading Dorothy West's novel, The Living is Easy (1948). West (1907-1998) is a Boston African-American native who was later associated in New York with what was called the Harlem Renaissance. Her novel is about a Southern girl seeking a better life.
Malcolm X's famous The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), co-written with Alex Haley, is on the schedule for February. The fiery African-American Muslim minister (1925-1965) was assassinated in 1965; his autobiography is a sensational retelling of his tumultuous life.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1970), a crime novel by the journalist/lawyer/author George Higgins (1939-1999), is scheduled next, in March.
The April selection is the popular novel, Mystic River (2001), written by Dennis Lehane (1965-), a book that was made into an Academy Award-winning movie directed by Clint Eastwood. I should point out that the historic Mystic River flows out of the Lower Mystic Lake in Medford, not far from where I reside.
Finally, we read Paul Theroux's The Old Patagonian Express (1979). The Medford travel writer and novelist (1941-) also wrote the novel Saint Jack (1973), which was made into a movie in 1979 by director Peter Bogdanovich; both incurred the displeasure of the Singapore government.
There it is, a true potpourri. This should be fun.
Death seems too much with us these days the gruesome televised beheadings by ISIS, the ongoing and blood-spilling horrors in Syria and Iraq, and now the threat of the deadly Ebola virus, whose global reach as of this writing in late October is still unknown.
Thus I was startled recently to read, in the September 11, 2014 issue of the always fearless London Review of Books (LRB), a painful essay ('A Diagnosis') by longtime contributor Jenny Diski, which reports the very personal narrative of an affliction that is expected to take her life in an undetermined but "fairly imminent" future. This affliction is, of course, cancer, that "Emperor of All Maladies", to use the title of Siddhartha Mukherjee's astonishing 2010 book on the disease, which seems to have nearly overtaken heart disease as the greatest cause of death in some countries. She adds wanly: "I had been formally included into Cancer World."
Two weeks later (in the September 25 issue), perhaps to cheer up its readers, the LRB ran another curious essay by Amia Srinivasan of All Souls College, Oxford; it was called 'After the Meteor Strike', and was ostensibly a review of a book by Samuel H. Scheffler, titled Death and the Afterlife. Srinivasan's review includes a quote from the Greek philosopher Epicurus, as follows:
In some ways the pronouncement by Epicurus and annotation by Srinivasan remind me of the Christian solution to death, best articulated in the New Testament of the Bible (1 Corinthians 15: 55-56, King James Version):
And much, much later, John Donne (1572-1631), the metaphysical poet and Dean of London's St Paul Cathedral, wrote one of what would be a group of Holy Sonnets (published in 1633), which begins:
But how does this comfort Diski, brave as she might be, who may fear the "actual experience of being dead" or of the act of dying itself? "Dying is very much an event in life, and often a painful one," Srinivasan observes. It is likely not, as the American poet Emily Dickinson described it, being taken on a leisurely carriage ride to one's own grave by a well-mannered driver who just happens to be Death ("Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me"). In fact dying, despite the grace and elegance of Dickinson's great poem, may be an event of unmitigated terror.
According to Srinivasan, Scheffler's book balances the matter of our own certain extinction with something of far greater importance "the continued existence of the people [we] love, [and] the continued existence of the human species." Srinivasan, following Scheffler, adds that "This is the 'afterlife' of Scheffler's title: not the heavenly afterlife of religious imagining, but the earthly life of a collective human future." All well and good, but there may well be a number of earthly religions which would dispute this theory.
As for Diski, she is now in her late 60s and facing what so many apparently terminal cancer patients are facing. She writes:
We shall hope for the best.QLRS Vol. 13 No. 4 Oct 2014