The Santiago de Compostela Book Club

As a 6th grader, I wouldn’t have considered myself a reader for pleasure. At eleven, I was more an outdoor kind of kid. One who preferred climbing trees and riding bikes than picking up a book for fun. But, it wouldn’t be long before I would combine my love of sitting in trees with my love of a well woven tale. And my Dad had everything to do with facilitating that pivot.

At the beginning of sixth grade we were told we needed to read eight books and write eight book reports by Spring break. This was assigned in September. March seemed a long way away. But then it was Christmas. And suddenly, it was just two days before the start of Spring break. A letter arrived at my house informing my parents that I had turned in just four book reports. 50% complete. An F (failing) grade by any standard. That’s when the yelling, pacing, finger pointing and accusations of laziness, flibertygibbishness, and a general lack of discipline started. It seemed that my entire future hung in the balance of these four 6th grade book reports. My Mom lost her cookies. By the time my Dad arrived home I was pretty sure I was going to die.

My Dad, as readers of this blog know, was not to be trifled with. On a good day. Never mind that, according to my Mother, I had committed the crime of the century. Physical pain was coming my way. I braced for it as my Mom met my Dad at the bottom of the stairs – laying out the charges like a good prosecutor. I knew it was a capital offense, and I was getting The Chair. OK. At the very least The Red Friend. The red ping pong paddle my Dad used to hit us with. But then, something happened and it was almost unimaginable.

My Dad looked tired. He laid down his coat and his keys. Then he told my Mom to ‘sit down and shut up.’ After sitting in his chair he beckoned me forward to confirm or deny the story my Mom was yelling at the top of her lungs just moments before. I told him it was true. I had not read all the books or written the book reports. He got quiet. This was a dangerous moment. My Mom tried to fill in the void with more yelling but he stopped her in her tracks. Taking a deep breath of someone who had a long day, he then spoke in a tone I had never heard before. Calm. Measured.

‘This is what we are going to do.’ He told me. ‘You’re going to go get a notebook and a pencil. I will tell you the story of four books from when I was your age. Books you can get in any library. You’re going to write the book reports sitting here with me while I tell you the stories. Then, during Spring break you will stay in your room reading until you have finished the books. As you complete each book I am going to quiz you. There are details you can’t know unless you read the book. Do you understand?’

I nodded. My Mom went to open her mouth in protest. My punishment wasn’t severe enough, apparently. But my Dad silenced her. He had rendered his verdict in 1978. There would be no questioning of his authority. It was his house, for god sake.

I did as he commanded before he changed his mind. And that is when I fell in love with reading. It was The Wizard of Oz by Frank Baume that did it. The book is very different from the movie. And I discovered that at age 11 while grounded to my room to read Spring break away. It turned out you can escape into books. Inhabit the characters and live in another world. If just for a bit. One of the best Spring breaks I ever had.

A Book Club Fraud

Decades later, when we lived in the Cascade mountains east of Seattle, I used to commute with my boss to the city. I would drive down the mountain to the first town on the east side and park my car. From there my boss used me to take the carpool (HOV) lane in heavy Puget Sound traffic across Mercer Island into downtown Seattle. I was happy to be her +1 so we could whiz by everyone. And it worked well, for a long time. We got a ton of work done on those drives. Sat in on calls or meetings via speaker phone. And generally got to work prepared for the day. The only time it didn’t work was if either of us ran later than late. But there were always taxis or buses to fill in the gap.

One later than usual evening on the way to drop me at my car so I could drive up the mountain, she suddenly remembered an appointment.

‘Shit! I have a book club meeting in 15 minutes. I’ve missed the last two and I promised I would make this one.’ Her wife was already there. ‘Do you have time? If I drop you off I’ll be late.’

‘Sure.’ I said. ‘What’s the book?’

It was one of the books by Khalid Hosseini. I don’t remember which of his books but it might have been The Kite Runner – set in Afghanistan. I hadn’t read it, but I didn’t plan on being an active participant in the meeting. Shrinking violet, that’s me!

‘You read the book?’ I asked.

She grimaced. ‘I skimmed the first three chapters.’ She was already in hot water with her wife.

We arrived a few moments late as the meeting convened. Everyone had their copy. I had snagged my bosses copy from the back seat and sat down as I was introduced to the crowd. That’s when it went sideways.

‘How did you like the book?’ The leader asked me. ‘What was the part that spoke to you the most.’

The closest I had ever been to this book was at that moment holding it in my hands. I hadn’t even read the inside jacket or the back. But I have spent a fair bit of time in the Middle East, and entwined in Middle Eastern culture, so I decided to wing it.

‘I loved it.’ Looking over at my boss, whose eyes narrowed, I turned back to the leader. ‘Sally, to me, one of the main characters is Afghanistan itself. And the cultural context in which these characters are trapped. They each have a societal role to play dictated by those mores and familial expectations. It would be easy to pretend that we are not like them. They are backward and we are not. But we are all prisoners of our own cultural game, and we play it, just as they do in the story.’

My bosses mouth hung open, she closed her eyes and shook her head. I was pretty sure I saw a smirk.

After the discussion ended we socialized over coffee and snacks. It turned out it was her church book club. So I’m probably going to Hell. But people came up to me wanting to talk some more about the book.

‘You had amazing insight into the subtext. I hadn’t really dug that deep. You gave me a new perspective.’

I nodded thoughtfully. ‘Maybe go back and read it again. You’ll get there.’

This, as my boss pulled me away. ‘Time to go.’

We got into the car and she hesitated before starting the engine. ‘What the fuck was that? You hadn’t even read the book!’

‘So. It’s not that difficult. There has to be a heavy cultural component. It’s set in Afghanistan. I’ve spent time in the Middle East. Misogyny. Patriarchy. Set in a desolate landscape. Plus, no one else here has been there. They just know the tropes they see on tv. It wasn’t that difficult to bullshit my way through that. Besides,’ I reminded her, ‘you hadn’t read the book. So it saved you from having to participate.’

She flashed me a cockeyed grin and shook her head. ‘Sometimes you scare the shit out of me.’

The Santiago de Compostela Book Club

This week Amazon delivered me two books. Sent by a friend in Santiago. The Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett. Required reading for living in, wishing you were living in, or just visiting Spain. And Driving Over Lemons by Chris Stewart. A hilarious first person account of living in Andalucía. My friend thinks I should publish a book based on this blog. I love both books. And it got me thinking. What if we started a book club? I reached out to all my friends in Santiago and received ‘I’m IN’, ‘Yes!’, Absolutely!’ So The Official Santiago de Compostela Book Club is, well, officially born. Another friend in Santiago has agreed to play hostess as I live in the boondocks.

I’m very excited about kicking this off. I think it will be so much fun selecting books and getting together at monthly meetings. Maybe we can even open it up broader, eventually, to include people from across the globe. An international book club infused with the spirit of peregrinos and Santiago de Compostela. We shall see how it goes. Who knows, perhaps we can invite authors to read from their work and participate in the discussions.

But I want to make one thing clear. My days of reading the book after the fact are over, and bullshitting my way through is done. I pledge to read every book and come ready with well-considered opinions and questions. A book club! I can’t think of something I’m looking forward to more. And I kind of think my Dad would be proud of his long-ago part in it.

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