Jewish Journal

Book Group

by Teresa Strasser

Posted on Oct. 14, 1999 at 8:00 pm

Here's the scene I most remember when I think about moving here from San Francisco: I'm in my $385-a-month apartment, which is furnished only with a monolithic file cabinet I rescued from my uncle's garage and a day bed suited for a small child. The only light in the room is emanating from my funky, old computer, which I've set up on the floor because I have no desk.

I'm e-mailing for my life. That "You've got mail" sound is the only thing that soothes me, that tells me I haven't totally lost contact with the friends I've left behind.

It surprises me, but what I'm missing the most from the Bay Area is my book group. A message updates me on what they're reading, and I have the sinking feeling that I'll never be able to re-create that aspect of the life I once found so comforting.

Those were the smartest women I had ever met. There was a chef, a film professor, an ACLU spokeswoman, a grad student, a couple of writers and myself, who was working the lunch shift at a restaurant downtown and pretty much failing at that.

At my first meeting, I was petrified of saying something stupid so I kept quiet. The grad student actually began a sentence with, "You know, from a Laconic perspective..."

"What? You mean Harry Laconic Jr?" I asked. I wasn't really trying to be funny, but I got a huge laugh and solidified my place in the group as comic relief. I was no literary genius, but I was in.

The rules of that group were simple. We were all women, read only books written by female authors, rotated each month between fiction and nonfiction, and the host was expected to provide both wine and food.

As the youngest in the group, I looked to them for guidance and advice. Mostly, though, I tried to make them laugh, and, in doing so, I realized I could. The stories that got the best response were the ones I eventually compiled into a one-woman show at their urging. Every one of them came to see it.

But as I read my e-mail off that dusty screen, they seem so far away, and I am as lonely as I had ever been.

I vowed to start a book group here, but I had one little problem: I had no friends. After a few months of stalling, I sat down with my phone like a nervous telemarketer and dialed every women I had ever met, and a few I hadn't.

There was the woman I met on an airplane, also a writer and a sports fan. There was Angie, whom I sat next to at a press luncheon and pathetically asked for her number like a recent divorcée at a Parents Without Partners mixer. There were several women who had written me letters in response to a column I had written about having no friends. There was Susan, my boss at a temp job who had invited me to a yoga class once. There was an opera singer, some friend of a friend from home whose number I had written on a yellow Post-It.

I don't even know these women, I thought. They could all be lunatics. And what if they don't come?

They came. We read "A Room of One's Own," Pam Houston's "Cowboy's Are My Weakness," "The Nine Steps to Financial Freedom," after which we all started IRAs and stopped carelessly crumpling our bills into our wallets.

As in my first book group, the books became the backdrop, an excuse to get together one Sunday night a month with a roomful of other women and talk about our lives, from the petty to the serious.

I can't say my judgment was flawless. One of the women became emotionally unglued when we read "Prozac Nation" and proceeded to launch into a monologue about her history of mental illness. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but a book group isn't about group therapy. Sharing is good, over-sharing is deadly.

It's been more than a year since I got on the horn and called every woman I didn't know. Some people have left the group; some new people have joined. We all come from different backgrounds, religious, ethnic and otherwise, and vary in careers from a Pilates trainer, to a food writer, to a synagogue administrator.

Every time I walk out of there late on a Sunday night, I feel refreshed. And somehow it still amazes me that people come, that they look forward to it, that some idea I had in my head could actually be made manifest. Even if it's just a monthly book group, it is evidence to me that you can take who you are with you wherever you go.

At our most recent meeting, we discussed Iyanla Vanzant's "Yesterday, I Cried." In the book, the author asks herself a series of questions to get "clarity." We went around the room, and each answered those same questions: What is your greatest weakness? What is your greatest strength? What do you most regret?

When we got to the question, "What are you proudest of?" I made an overly demure face and in a high whispery voice said, "This book group." They laughed. But maybe they knew what I knew, that I wasn't trying to be funny.

Teresa Strasser writes her column on singles life every other week.

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