Monday, September 29, 2008

Ze World's Larzhayst Book Cloob

My attempt at an exotic accent. Yeah, yeah, I'll never make it at the U.N.

So a couple of different book events dawned at the same time this past month. Oprah, the fairy godmother of literary marketing, announced her latest book club pick, and the San Francisco Public Library announced their latest selection for the program "One City One Book" that is held City-wide every year.

In case you don't know my thoughts on the Oprah picks from the blog I used to hold over at Yahoo, I'll provide a quick recap. I used to read Oprah's Book Club selections religiously. Every time a new one would come out I would go find it and follow along on the website. Her books had the tendency to be gruesome and depressing until the last pages, where the protagonist would do a pirouette and find themselves learning a lesson inexplicable to the other characters but somehow completely relatable to the rest of us. Some of the books did this well and would have been considered to be great literature regardless in my book ("She's Come Undone," "Anna Karenina"), and others seemed to follow a psychiatric formula and left me drained.

Then two events happened that curbed my love of Oprah Lit 101--the selection of Jonathan Franzen for "The Corrections" and the roasting of James Frey for "A Million Little Pieces." I loved both books and Oprah did too, to start with, until Franzen wouldn't put up with the hipe and Frey wanted the hipe too much to tell the truth. Since then my extent of Oprah Lit 101 has been to glance through the Reading Room section of her magazine (where a vast majority of the books are not her selections but the selections of her staff, not to mention the feature each month on a different celebrity's picks for books), which, coincidentally, is also my main reason for checking the NY Times every day.

This year, however, I've got my toes wet again...I listened to the complete interview series regarding Tolle's "A New Earth" (I haven't read the book yet, but I've got issues with self-help, so sue me) and am intrigued by the latest selection of "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle." Lucky me, it was downloadable to the Kindle. So it's in there. We'll see.

The "One City, One Book" selection has a more bland history for me--but still holds my interest. In the last couple of years, riding public transit, I would spot advertisements for books--yes, BOOKS--in the above-window sign holders on the Muni buses, and they told tales of a "city-wide book club," which of course intrigued me. To unite a whole City with fiction--how fantastic! Still, I saw no one reading the books until after the events seemed to have passed, and I was confused as to how this worked. Was the book club formulated to gather people around the water cooler, or was it simply a way to feel a part of something in an alienating and reclusive foggy city? So I found the book on the Kindle shortly after release and decided to download it and find out for myself.

I have started the "One City" book selection, "West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story." It's simple and good, like comfort food. It also re-opens my eyes. For my first years and to this day in the Great Bay Area, folks slid into an easy categorization of me for being from the Midwest (one person thought Missouri and Ohio were neighboring states and thought that they had the same mindset, which sort of made my 12 years in Missouri a moot point), and some people even called me "Amish" for being from there, even though I was better at internet information gathering than they were. Before opening this book, my impressions of Afghan culture were limited to stock pictures from "Charlie Wilson's War" and old tape of Dan Rather trying to blend in to report on the Russian onslaught. I had read "The Kite-Runner" and still thought them backwards. Then I opened this book and discovered how devoted they were (pre-Taliban, mind you) to education, more importantly WESTERN education, and evolving their culture to elevate themselves. Granted, the writer came from good lines, ancestrally, but it still speaks to the desire for global knowledge possessed by these people, just as my craving for global knowledge has led me out of the Midwest and into a land that I often don't understand very well.

I will be back to reveal more on these books as I move through them...


Something else that a book club provides is a sense of deadline, like a college class. Perhaps I have no one to discuss the books with, but I feel a sense of accomplishment just in trying to reach out through them. Others have read these books, at least one person apiece. I may not get to speak to those people, but I can take calm in some sort of connection. For the girl who in grade school and high school and the student union in college used to curl up in the corner with a fat tome and lose herself from the world, this is a strange opportunity.

An opportunity, though, nonetheless.

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